Updated: 11:53 pm PT
You’re sitting at AT&T Park, eating your hot dog, staring in awe of Matt Cain during yet another masterful pitching performance. Unbeknownst to you, there are cameras perched atop towers tracking every ball hit to every defensive player at every single pitch.
That’s the advanced world of data gathering in professional sports.
The Sports Vision cameras at AT&T Park record 6,000 position points, allowing the San Francisco Giants to determine how efficient a player is. The data collected can show for example how quickly Andres Torres gets to a single hit to the gap or how Angel Pagan chases a similarly hit ball. Information that was unavailable 30 years ago can now be quickly evaluated by Giants executives at any point during the season.
While sabermetrics have revolutionized the way baseball executives think and evaluate players, basketball’s use of analytics is just crawling out of its infancy.
Of the 30 teams in the NBA, 23 of them make use of advanced metrics. And under a new ownership regime that values technology, the Kings will strive to lead the league in the field.
McDonald’s didn’t invent the hamburger or the concept of fast food. But in the late 1940s, Richard and Maurice McDonald took what White Castle was doing and did it better. Vivek Ranadivé is one of the most innovative men in the world when it comes to statistical analysis, and like what McDonald’s did for the quick service restaurant industry, Ranadivé will attempt to do for professional basketball.
It may come quicker than most teams would like and it is a blueprint that will be kept as a closely held secret.
“We’re going to view this as part of our secret sauce,” Ranadivé said last week at Sleep Train Arena. “So I don’t know that we’re going to share too much about it in the future.”
He won’t unveil the plan, but look hard enough and hints of it are already out there.
The STATS game
Most Sacramento Kings fans have been kept in the dark when it comes to advanced statistics simply because the Maloof family ruled more on emotion than rational thought. Money was also a factor, as state of the art cameras and tech geeks from Ivy League schools don’t come cheap. That is about to change.
Stats LLC was one of the first analytical companies to gain acceptance into professional basketball. Today, its model is used or one similar is used by teams throughout the league.
Out of area rebounding, effective field goal percentages, win share percentages and other key metrics have become the foundation for teams making decisions on trades, free agency and the draft.
For example, LeBron James‘ win share percentage was an astounding .322. Compare that to DeMarcus Cousins, who had just a .092 during the 2012-2013 season. You likely didn’t need that stat to tell you who provides more value to a team’s overall win total, but for players like Tyreke Evans (.105) versus Trevor Ariza of the Washington Wizards (.102), it may offer a better sense of how influential a player is to a team’s success. (The Wizards and Kings finished one game apart in total number of victories this season – 29 versus 28.)
Statistics can support or contradict a belief inside a front office. The reason they have become so prevalent is to help reduce the number of bad decisions and contracts and increase the number of better ones.
With all that information already available, there is about to be even more. And it will be found at the fingertips of every player.
Upgrades to the structure of a regulation basketball have been limited in the 120-plus years since the game’s invention. Sure, the Spaulding Infusion and it’s built-in micropump is a fairly innovative idea. But as computers have advanced in the past 20 years, the rock has seen few alterations.
That is about to end.
Adidas recently unveiled what they call the “Smart Ball” as part of its soccer line. The ball has sensors that detect trajectory, spin rate, contact point, and launch speed.
The technology allows those looking at the data to decide if a ball kicked hard is better than one with more spin or vice versa when scoring goals from a certain point on the field. If so, players can then practice for such kicks to increase the odds of scoring.
Those same sensors can easily be transferred to a basketball. When the technology becomes available, expect the Kings to use these new “Smart Balls” to teach players how soft to be around the rim or how hard to flick the wrist to increase one’s free throw percentage.
The ball becomes the newest data-gathering device, but putting the numbers to work on the court is the most critical step.
Quest to apply
“We’re with a group that is so technologically advanced and on the forefront of things, that I can’t help but think we’ll be one of those teams,” said new Kings general manager Pete D’Alessandro at his introductory press conference last Monday.
Three things need to happen to make data useful: capturing, sorting and application.
Collecting information has become the easiest as computers are able to store large amounts of data humans cannot simply remember.
In the “Two-Second Advantage”, written by Ranadivé and Kevin Maney, the pair point out that a computer “can’t really do the human-like thinking that involves recognizing patterns and drawing conclusions”, which is why machines are good at capturing data as well as sorting it.
It does not do teams a lot of good having pages of information that don’t tell you very much. With STATS LLC and other companies specializing in basketball analytics, the information is now a bit easier to sort into measurable metrics than it was a decade ago. Camera technology and accurate game statistics allow teams to pinpoint why shots were made or missed. Each team has a different way of gathering and studying such data, but the people themselves must do the work of deciphering what the sorted information means.
Which leads to the third and most crucial part: the application of this information.
Ranadivé’s software company TIBCO was birthed to help do just that. Based on its history, the company seems to be a perfect fit to take statistical analysis to the next level. The framework for what will become useful to the Kings will be borrowed from algorithms created to track potential terrorists from Homeland Security or processes used to improve customer satisfaction among health care providers.
Once that information is decipherable, it is up to the braintrust to hand over what is relevant to the coaching staff and general manager, utilizing the human aspect computers cannot yet do.
The Houston Rockets have one of the best systems in place to do just that. It allows general manager Daryl Morey and coach Kevin McHale to use information gathered to either support or debunk their instincts on free agents, draft prospects or trade targets.
It may look like basketball and sound like basketball to fans. But behind the curtain, the view will resemble a team of number-crunching statisticians looking at answers to equations, rather than skills of basketball players.
But data and feel is to be married together. Hence, the need to still hire traditional basketball minds like new assistant general manager Mike Bratz.
Applying to succeed
Practice is where players develop. Repetition enhances muscle memory, which in theory leads to better players. Providing a player with the correct information is a way to speed up the learning curve.
Being able to tell players when they fade away, they miss X number of shots is a tool nearly impossible to implement without proper data. The information can clarify reasons for misses, so that the player no longer does X but now does Y more often instead.
It is one thing to tell a player that he should not fade away. However, there is a greater impact when you can show how many baskets he misses when falling away from the rim compared to when shooting a set shot. As the Kings get that portion of their analytics department up and running, the next phase will be to focus gaining an even greater advantage in real time.
“Everyone’s got an analytics department, (but) there’s only a few people that are really using it the way I think it should be used,” D’Alessandro said.
Under Ranadivé, the Kings will try to use analytics better than any of the 29 other teams. But how can they set themselves apart?
When they don’t have hours or even days to review a problem or situation.
That time is during games.
It is gametime
The NFL is prime example of this. When Peyton Manning of the Denver Broncos throws an interception, he does not wonder how the defense was able to adjust or how cornerbacks were positioned. A printed color picture is handed to him as soon as he gets to the sideline detailing exactly what the quarterback wants to know. Manning is now able to adjust next time a player appears open in the set. But now he knows that his wide receiver is more or less covered and won’t throw that way again. That is a lower tech form of the application the Kings may soon introduce.
The information will come with the use of cameras, with the use of smart balls and advanced statistics to give coach Michael Malone the exact data he needs to decide which five players give his team the best chance to win.
That includes how to counter when the Los Angeles Lakers go with certain lineups or which five players are trending up during the game. It is like knowing what to do before it happens.
Imagine being able to stop a 10-2 run by the opponent moments before it occurs or predicting the moment Jimmer Fredette gets hot because the Lakers don’t defend the three well late in the third quarter when Pau Gasol is on the bench with three fouls. These are just examples, but this is what Ranadivé lives for. Being able to apply math to seemingly nonmathematical situations.
“There’s many ways to use analytics but we do believe that it will be our secret sauce, so we’re not going to be real open about it,” Ranadive said at D’Alessandro’s introductory press conference.
Though Ranadivé was less than willing to reveal what the Kings have planned, reading a few pages into his book and talking to those close to him reveals what lies ahead.
The team will take historical data over the season, month or week, blend it with current data and come up with possible solutions for coach Malone to make better decisions than the opposing head coach.
The goal is to give Malone a competitive advantage, or as Ranadivé puts it, a “two-second advantage” over the opponent.
The new Kings of the analytical NBA
It’s about wins. For Vivek Ranadivé, it is the challenge of coming up with new ways to increase the odds winning by using math and a team of executives who can execute.
Ranadive unveiled an NBA 3.0 plan to the Board of Governors on April 3rd that targeted expanding the game overseas to markets like India, but the software tycoon’s real trailblazing will come on the technological front.
The secret sauce McDonald’s claims for the Big Mac was not hard to figure out. It’s simply Thousand Island dressing. Yet the iconic fast food chain sold it better than any of its competitors for decades.
That is what Vivek will do with his own type of analytical “secret sauce”. Other teams may have come up with the first ingredients, but it will be the new Sacramento Kings that hope to lead in the new age of the NBA.