In one game against the Boston Celtics in February, the Thunder's Russell Westbrook dribbled the ball 645 times. In another game in March, Kevin Durant ran 3.34 miles during a double overtime game against the Timberwolves.
These are the kinds of detailed NBA statistics that people may soon see and analyze as more teams start using the company STATS' advanced tracking system known as SportVu, a system developed in Israel using technology originally for tracking missiles. The Thunder is one of 10 NBA teams currently using it; the NBA is considering whether and how to implement it leaguewide in the future.
The SportVu system uses six cameras placed high in the rafters in an arena during a game to track every movement on the court for every minute of the game — that of the ball, players and referees. The cameras see the court as a grid, so when a moving dot on the grid is identified as, say, Serge Ibaka, the cameras can track his movement from point to point. The ball becomes another coordinate on this grid that intersects with the players' dots. The movements are then turned into raw data.
“The world of player tracking for me is the ultimate stat system,” said Steve Hellmuth, executive vice president of operations and technology for the NBA, in an interview outside Chesapeake Arena during Game 2 of the NBA Finals. “It enters the NBA into the world of big data.”
Hellmuth and Brian Kopp, STATS' vice president of strategy and development, are enthusiastic about this technology's future possibilities.
Hellmuth has a 16-year history of helping the NBA develop and fine-tune its current stat system, which in part involves a combination of manual data and video to track players.
Kopp said he wants to see teams use the tracking data to apply it to improve players' speed, performance, energy and training. STATS is also talking to big media companies about how they can apply the data, too.
“Our goal with this is not just ‘hey, this is really cool, super-analytical stuff,'” said Kopp, whose STATS company is owned by The Associated Press and News Corp. “We're not just building a system to spit out data, but we certainly want it to be data that teams find useful. ... We can provide analysis for them as well.”
Kopp said soccer teams in Europe already have deployed the system to track things like their players' distance and speed.
The amount of data available with the system can be mind-boggling.
Teams “are starting to learn what to do with the data,” Hellmuth said.
In basketball, teams can use the SportVu optical tracking system to determine speed of players' accelerations and decelerations, how many times each player touched the ball and how many minutes each player had possession. The system can tell coaches what happens on the court when the ball is in the air — who blocks and who rebounds, as well as things like who passes the ball to the person who made the assist that led to a basket, Hellmuth said.
The Miami Heat, which defeated the Thunder for the NBA championship Thursday night, is not one of the 10 teams using the system, but during the Western Conference Finals, the Thunder and the San Antonio Spurs shared data since they both had the cameras in place in their respective arenas, Kopp said.
Hellmuth doesn't know how the Thunder applies the tracking data — “they're pretty sophisticated,” he said, but he sees a use for it beyond the teams: He thinks it will enhance the media's coverage of the games and be a way for fans who love using statistics to analyze the games.
“We're also interested in using these statistics to explain the games to fans better,” Hellmuth said.
Kopp hopes that 15 to 20 teams will have the SportVu cameras installed in their rafters next season.
“It's been an interesting couple of years. ... The more you dig, the more you can find,” Kopp said.