The last decade has seen tremendous progress in understanding the offensive side of the floor, but defense—where players must constantly rotate and cover for each other—presents a much knottier problem. Oliver believes that technology is providing the raw data to solve it, but all those NBA stat gurus working in isolation against each other aren’t close to cracking the code.
Where is that raw data coming from? Cameras that weigh about a pound and can fit in the palm of your hand. They’re provided by STATS, the global information behemoth, as part of its SportVU program, and they currently hang in the rafters belonging to 15 different NBA franchises, six per arena. They record everything: How far and how fast a player runs during the game, how many dribbles he takes when he has the ball, where he shoots from, the arc of his shot, whom he’s passing to, whom he’s not passing to, the spots where he get his rebounds, the spots where others get his rebounds. It’s endless. For each second of game play, the SportVU cameras capture the location on the court of the ball and each player 25 times, according to Brian Kopp, a VP at STATS. “You have 1 million data records per game.”
STATS acquired SportVU in 2008 from an Israeli company that had originally designed it for soccer. This is the system’s third year in the NBA since being recalibrated for basketball. STATS charges teams from $75,000 to $100,000 per season for SportVU, and the program has grown in that time from four initial teams to now half the league. The result is one of the largest and richest data sets not just in sports, but in the world.
Kirk Goldsberry, a visiting scholar at the Harvard Center for Geographic Analysis who also uses spatial mapping to analyze the NBA for Grantland and on his blog, Court Vision, is one of the few civilians who’s been granted access to any of the SportVU data. He’s working with another Harvard professor, statistician Luke Bornn, and four Harvard and MIT Ph.D. students in a semester-long project to break some of it down. “We look at that data and we say this isn’t just good data, this is the best space-time data,” Goldsberry says. “It’s just an incredible amount of information, regardless of whether it’s about NBA or anything else … There’s very few people who have ever seen any data like this.”
Bo Ryan would love this (provided he had a math guy on staff).