As anyone who has both a passion for watching sports as well as drinking beer with friends can confirm, there comes the occasional time where you get into hypothetical conversations on what would improve the game of sports.
Each person seems to believe they are the atypical expert in the subject matter, offering up ideas that range from the fairly well thought out: we should cancel the football preseason; to the ridiculous: basketball would be so much better if they had trampolines (amazingly, this thought has come true).
Well recently when the NBA announced a partnership with SAP it got me to doing just this, hypothesizing about ways that analytic software could improve the game of basketball as we know it.
SAP and the NBA have already begun innovating, providing fans with up-to-date stats and in-depth analysis on the NBA website. And this is just the beginning – there are so many areas where innovation could potentially change the way the game as we know it is played.
We are seeing a general influx of technology in all of the sports we watch today and there is no reason to think that trend will not continue to increase. With that in mind, I’ve come up with three different ways in which technology could change the NBA as we know it today.
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1. Understanding Player Value
One of the biggest pieces of a general manager’s job is signing and acquiring talent, and one of the trickier parts of this comes when they must sign players to lengthy deals of four or five years.
Right now there is no good way of projecting what players will become three or four years down the line and it often leads to a paradox. Teams are paying the most money for older players who sit on the bench which leaves them without enough money to retain their younger talent who are playing the majority of the minutes.
If the team were to turn to a predictive analysis type tool they could a player’s performance and better understand exactly when players start to break down and under-perform.
A team could hypothetically take all of the NBA’s past player data and start identifying trends for age and performance; sorting through these massive amounts of records to sort it into divisions like position and game played.
They could then perform regression analysis on these data points to understand not only when players will begin to break down but specifically at what rate they will decline each year. By better understanding these trends, general managers can then correlate the specific player’s salaries with their projected output, ultimately fixing the paradox and leaving teams with room to pay their younger talent on the court.
2. Managing NBA Talent
The big data trend could also be used to manage the rapidly growing amount of talent that is being developed both overseas and in the NBA’s Developmental League. As the game of basketball becomes increasingly more global with the NBA now reaching into both Asia and Europe, the influx of talent is only going to increase over the years and the most successful general managers will be the ones that can harness this growth. Managers could have dashboards that would allow them to sort quickly from league to league and have watch lists of all the players they want to keep an eye on.
Along with overseas, the NBA announced this year that their Developmental League (referred to as the D-League) would now begin to be affiliated with specific teams. So teams like the Boston Celtics would now be able to utilize the talent from the Maine Red Claws (who comes up with these names?).
As the D-League continues to grow and the NBA becomes much more like baseball in the sense of having a minor and major league, it will become increasingly important for General Managers to have visibility not only into the performance of their own team but also the talent they have on their developmental team. Data mining tools will be extremely important to help them accurately assess players that they can’t always see in person.
While the first two areas have focused largely on the front office operations; perhaps the largest impact that technology could have is on the coaching side. For anyone who has ever watched a basketball game, you have no doubt seen the camera pan over to a huddle and watched as the coach draws up a play on his whiteboard. With the boom of tablet devices in the past two years, I have to think that the whiteboard days are numbered.
Already at Duke University, Coach Kryzweski has given each of his players and his coaching staff tablets this year in place of playbooks. While he is one of the first I’ve heard to do this, I am sure he will not be the last, and as this becomes a growing trend, the importance of mobile analytics will expand rapidly.
Coaches could use mobile apps to monitor players minutes much easier than they do now, having alerts set up to notify them when a player has reached his threshold. They could utilize real time statistics to understand the tendency of the opposing coaches play calling.
Image when it came down to the final two minutes the coach could go to his tablet and say with 73% certainty that the ball will go to their star player for a drive to the hoop based off all of their previous plays. Heat maps would allow coaches to understand exactly where they need to shift their defense; something no white board could ever tell them. Ultimately coaches would be able to react to information that they now typically review after the game or in the film room the next day- except they’d have it in real time as it happened.
Throughout the history of sports, technology has played a vital role in how the game is played. It seems undeniable that the next big adjustment will be the introduction of real time analytics and the use of mobile analytics on the sideline by the coaching and training staff .