HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — Every season, the NBA and its fans get smarter, and the league’s new deal with Stats LLC is a big step in the process. The deal puts Stats’ SportVU cameras in every NBA arena and makes the information they collect available to you via NBA.com, NBA TV and the NBA Game Time app.
So what kind of information is that?
The SportVU cameras track every player and the basketball 25 times a second. The data the cameras collect can tell how fast a player moves, how close he was defended on a shot, how many times he dribbled and a plethora of other fascinating nuggets.
Here are a few videos of SportVU in action …
1. Here’s the SportVU model overlaid on footage from one of the overhead cameras. And you’ll notice that it’s calculating the distance between Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant …
2. Here’s another overlay of Knicks’ possession, showing the changing shape of the Miami defense …
3. The third clip is just the simulation itself, again showing the distance between Durant and Leonard as Durant steals a Manu Ginobili pass and turns it into a layup for Russell Westbrook …
4. The final clip shows the same possession and the changing shape of the OKC defense …
These visualizations really just scratch the surface. What SportVU will do is add another layer of information to any NBA discussion that we, as writers and fans, want to have.
There are 15 teams that had SportVU data last season and some were able to make better use of it than others. The one real (and fascinating) example that we’re aware of is the Toronto Raptors’ ghost defenders, which Grantland.com’s Zach Lowe chronicled in March.
How useful that stuff is to a coach — and in making players better — is an interesting question, but there are some obvious and simple ways to translate the data into coaching. For instance, Mike Woodson could tell J.R. Smith that he shoots 41 percent from 3-point range off the catch, but just 21 percent off the dribble.
While teams are still figuring out what advantages they can get by mining the data, fans and analysts can just dig in and explore. We already have what we see with our eyes, what we find in the box scores and what we discover in advanced stats. Now we can add more context to everything.
A deeper look into dimes
If you’re discussing the best passers in the game, you can compare their assists per game, their assist percentage (the percentage of their teammates field goals they assisted on while on the floor), their assist rate (assists per 100 possessions used), and their assist/turnover ratio. You can also dig into how well their teammates shoot with them on and off the floor.
All that is great, but assists only account for shots that go in the basket. And there’s never been a way to quantify passes that lead to a missed shot, to free throws, or to an assist by a teammate (sometimes called a “hockey assist”). SportVU does that.
For example, in 27 games tracked by SportVU last season, Rajon Rondo had 37 “free throw assists,” which are passes that don’t lead to a made basket, but do lead to at least one made free throw. That’s an additional 1.4 dimes per game.
Tony Parker, meanwhile, had 96 “secondary assists” in 48 games tracked by SportVU. That means that twice a game, he made a pass that directly led to a teammate’s assist.
If you watch the Spurs, you know that happens a lot. Parker comes off a pick-and-roll, draws an extra defender, and kicks the ball out. San Antonio is maybe the best team in the league in passing up a good shot for a great one. Danny Green will pass up a contested look from the wing if Kawhi Leonard is wide open in the corner.
If you want to talk about how well a team moves the ball, you have the numbers to back you up. So who led the league in secondary assists per game last season? Kirk Hinrich, who had 47 of them (2.9 per game) in 16 games tracked by SportVU.
Some assists are better than others, of course. We can now tell how many of Rondo’s assists lead to wide-open layups and how many lead to contested, mid-range jumpers. And if you’re really focusing on quality of the pass, the result of the shot shouldn’t matter.
So you could just count how many open shots Rondo’s passes produce. Heck, you can come up with a assist grade by figuring out the average expected field goal percentage from all his assists and potential assists, taking into account where the shots were taken and whether or not they were contested.
Before, you had to break down the film to figure out how whether a shot was contested or not. Now, SportVU can tell you right away. And it can tell you who was the guy contesting the shot.
Putting a numbers on the ethereal
Defense is just as important as offense, but has always been the hardest thing to quantify. We know that the Celtics allowed 8.4 fewer points per 100 possessions when Kevin Garnett was on the floor than when he was on the bench last season. We know that Carmelo Anthony shot just 10-for-39 with Garnett on the floor. And from watching him over the years, we know that KG is an active and vocal defender who’s great at snuffing out pick-and-rolls.
Now, we can quantify how well KG does just that. Beginning this year, SportVU will track the two offensive players and two defenders involved in every pick-and-roll run in every game. And that should provide us with some fascinating data.
Want to talk about rebounding? SportVU will tell you how many rebounding chances a player had, how many of his rebounds were contested or uncontested, and how much distance he travels for his rebounds. Reggie Evans led the league in rebounding percentage (the percentage of available rebounds that he grabbed while he was on the floor), but teammate Brook Lopez (in 18 games tracked by SportVU) actually converted a greater percentage of his rebound chances (63 percent vs. 62 percent) where he was in the vicinity of the ball. Furthermore, 54 percent of Lopez’s rebounds were contested, while only 31 percent of Evans’ were. And Lopez traveled 6.4 feet per rebound, while Evans traveled just 4.3 feet.
SportVU will also add to discussions about usage and efficiency. Per NBA.com/stats, Anthony led the league in usage, but that just tells us how possessions ended. SportVU tells us that Anthony had the ball in his possession for only 3:28 (three minutes and 28 seconds) per game, while teammate Raymond Felton had it in his possession for 5:51 per contest.
We can find out who gets the most elbow touches (Greg Monroe at 10.2 per game last season) and post touches (Dwight Howard at 8.5 per game), as well as who makes the most of those touches by producing points for himself or his teammates.
No single stat or number exists that’s going to tell you all you need to know about a player. Everything must be taken in context and the more information you have, the better argument you can make. Well, SportVU is a lot of information.
All of the above is just the tip of the iceberg. If it can be tracked, it can be quantified.
Get ready to get smarter.