Walk up to an ATM, and you’re on camera. Walk into a convenience store, and you’re on camera. Walk onto an NBA court during game time, and you’re not only on camera but every movement you make – or don’t make – will be tracked, sifted, analyzed.
“There’s no way to hide anything,” Grizzlies swingman Quincy Pondexter said.
At its core, that’s what the advanced statistics movement is about – seeing and learning everything possible. Finding out to what degree each player is doing his job and if a team is getting proper on-court return for its financial investment.
At its core, the advanced statistics movement is about seeing and learning everything possible about a player. It helps a team find out to what degree each player is doing his job and if a team is getting proper on-court return for its financial investment in that player.
“We’re movable assets,” said Toronto forward Austin Daye, who was part of the Grizzlies’ three-team trade in January that also sent Rudy Gay and his bloated contract to the Raptors.
Last season, about half the league’s teams – the Grizzlies were not one of them – had cameras installed in the rafters of their arenas for player tracking. This season, the NBA entered into a multiyear agreement with STATS’ SportVU player tracking technology that uses six cameras and STATS’ proprietary software in every NBA arena to “calibrate and measure the movements of all players and the ball on the court,” according to the NBA.
Steve Hellmuth, NBA executive vice president of operations and technology, says the data coming from the cameras is “just another layer of information.” But the layers are going ever-deeper. Between relatively new – advanced – statistics being used to measure players’ performance alongside traditional stats such as points, rebounds and assists per game, teams also tap into Synergy Sports, a technology company that combines statistical data with video to offer helpful information on shots taken, pick-and-rolls, etc.
John Hollinger, Grizzlies vice president of basketball operations, says the player tracking is delivering a “torrent of information.”
Hellmuth offers Los Angeles Clippers point guard Chris Paul as an example of how that information might be used. Paul, arguably, the league’s best point guard, became the only player other than Magic Johnson to record 10-plus points and 10-plus assists through the first 11 games in a season.
Player tracking more precisely shows how crucial Paul is to the Clippers’ offense. In the category of “passes per game” Paul led with 79.9. In “points created by assist per game,” he was first with 28.6. His “touches per game” averaged a league-leading 103.9; Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley was tied for fifth at 87.2.
However, there also was this surprise: Paul’s 5.0 drives to the basket per game ranked 39th. Denver’s Ty Lawson led with 11.6; Conley was tied for 20th at 6.7.
Another player tracking category, speed/distance, measures the distance covered, per 48 minutes, and the speed of all movements: sprinting, jogging, walking, standing – forward and backward. It’s difficult to know what to make of this stat because through games of Nov. 17, three players covered 3.9 miles per 48 minutes and they all played for the San Antonio Spurs: little-used players Nando De Colo and Cory Joseph, and rotation player Patty Mills.
“I do think it’s cool when they tell you how much you done ran and all like that,” said Toronto Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan. “But you can’t let cameras or whatever depict what kind of player you are or what you can do on a given night.”
The Memphis Grizzlies are part of a growing trend of professional sports franchises that are using advanced statistics to measure a player’s worth.
Golden State Warriors coach Mark Jackson played point guard in the NBA for 17 years. There was no “player tracking” then and the stats, like the players themselves, were more old-school. Successful coaches, Jackson says, “always used data to tell a story. But the way we’re building it up today almost makes it seem like the coaches of yesterday, or the coaches of last year, didn’t use this information.
“You pick and choose,” Jackson said. “Some of it actually is very useful. But some of it makes no sense.”
One of the more intriguing categories tracks the number of times a player is within 3.5 feet of a rebound and what percentage of the time the player makes good on the rebound opportunity. A subset category is “contested rebounds per game.” Through 11 games, Clippers big man DeAndre Jordan led at 6.0 and Memphis power forward Zach Randolph was tied for 13th at 4.3.
Conley says he has learned from some advanced stats – “I didn’t know I shot a low percentage in a certain area” – but he also trusts his own ability to “scout” in the moment.
“At the end of the day, this is a read-and-react game,” Conley said. “You can know all you want about a guy – he goes right on you 100 percent of the time, and then he’ll go left on you that one time.”
Said the Grizzlies’ Mike Miller: “The longer (the advanced stats) are around, the more you’ll probably trust it. It’s what they always say, numbers don’t lie, right?”
The new Grizzlies ownership and management team – controlling owner Robert J. Pera and team CEO Jason Levien – brought in Hollinger and are dedicated to using advanced stats for the greater good. First-year head coach Dave Joerger clearly embraces the new metrics more than his predecessor Lionel Hollins did and favors the stats that track player combinations.
“To me, that’s very interesting – who plays well together,” Joerger said.
What the Grizzlies, or other teams, are gleaning from all this new information is difficult to quantify to any certainty.
“Teams are very close-lipped and proprietary with what they’re doing with statistics,” the NBA’s Hellmuth said.
Hollinger has researched the aging curve for players by position: “It was a little different than I thought. I don’t want to give away the answers to the test, but it surprised me a little bit.”
Hellmuth is excited about what player tracking will reveal, but at this point he’s not willing to say it will be full of surprises.
“It’s too early to say if it’s a myth-buster,” he said. “But I’d be happy to have that conversation with you at the All-Star break.”