Facing the nearly floor-to-ceiling windows in their office, Rajiv Maheswaran and Yu-Han Chang can catch a glimpse of Staples Center.
To see the future of the
What resembles gibberish to anyone without a degree in computer science could help NBA teams find optimal ways to grab rebounds and defend pick and rolls through a proprietary software system developed by Maheswaran and Chang. The researchers from USC's Viterbi School of Engineering are the NBA's newest go-to guys, distilling the oceans of analytical data that will be available league-wide for the first time this season through motion-tracking cameras placed in every arena.
"You have to have a particular degree of creativity just to know what is possible," said Maheswaran, who has degrees in math, physics and electrical engineering. "It's 1,000 times more information than anyone had before."
As the cursor flitted across his laptop screen, Maheswaran displayed a dizzying array of visual tools that teams could use to tweak lineups and position players for favorable outcomes. One depicted a basketball court overlaid with shaded green squares, the darkest squares showing the most likely spots where a rebound would fall given the shot taken. Another showed players' success rates in pick-and-roll combinations.
Even the biggest proponents of advanced statistics concede that these insights are only one component of a team's decision-making, just like game film and traditional player evaluations.
But the system Maheswaran and Chang have licensed to the
"Did it make 100% of the difference, 50% of the difference, 20% of the difference?" asked Lacob, whose team uses a Palo Alto-based data processing company called MOCAP Analytics. "I don't know the answer. The most important thing is it did help us identify a problem and then eventually correct it."
Statistical analysis in the NBA has lagged roughly a decade behind its use in
Golden State, Dallas, Boston, San Antonio, Houston and Oklahoma City were the first NBA teams to use the motion-tracking cameras, developed by STATS LLC, starting with the 2010-11 season. Last season 15 teams used the system, with the
The NBA recently decided to pay for every team to have the system so that a complete data set would be available league-wide and selected information could be distributed to fans via
It all starts with six tiny computer-vision cameras strategically placed in the rafters of each NBA arena that record the movement of every player, referee and the ball 25 times a second. The data is electronically transmitted to STATS to be categorized into passes, dribbles, shots and rebounds, among other groups. "It has potential to unlock a lot of the secrets of our game," said Steve Hellmuth, the NBA's executive vice president of operations and technology.
Teams can access relatively simple information such as the number of passes into the post in 60 to 90 seconds while games are in progress. More complicated statistics are available postgame after the data is processed through sophisticated algorithms. Although many of the numbers will be available to all 30 teams, customized reports generated by specialized providers such as STATS and Second Spectrum can be viewed only by the teams requesting them.
Several teams, including the Clippers, have also hired employees to help sift through the information. "Every team is going to have their own formula that they will create that works for their team in scouting and everything," Clippers Coach
"You can't give players a boatload of information and expect them to implement it out on the floor; it just doesn't work that way," Rambis said. "[But] let's say that whenever your opponents take contested twos, their field-goal percentage is 25%, then you go, 'Hey, this is what we want these guys to be doing. These are factual numbers.'"
Players are conflicted about the value of data — such as which players prefer to shoot after only two dribbles.
Said Clippers point guard
There's also the geek-fatigue factor. Lakers center
"It got a little bit annoying,"
Including analytics related to injuries. The Lakers will be able to track
Analytics can also show teams what players do that's not reflected in the box score, information that could be used in contract negotiations.
Golden State coveted forward
"I think what you're going to find," said Brian Kopp, senior vice president of sports solutions for STATS, "is teams that say, 'This is the type of player we're looking for and I want to find the guy who's on a $5-million contract instead of a $15-million contract that gets to 90% of that output.' "
Maheswaran, 39, and Chang, 35, hope more teams leave the number crunching to them.
The duo has worked together since 2005, eventually forming the Computational Behavior Group at USC. They have completed projects for the Department of Defense and the National Science Foundation involving the movement of vehicles, geo-tagged social media and mobile devices. "It's great that we can transition from detecting enemy targets and tracking them to tracking our favorite players on the court," Chang said.
Maheswaran and Chang won best paper at the
The vibe in their downtown Los Angeles office can be more cheeky than geeky.
Programmers like to shatter the monotony of a coding shift by grabbing a volleyball and taking aim on a full-sized basketball goal that descends from the massive windows. This invariably leads to shouts of "Duck!" and "Look out!" when an errant shot threatens an unsuspecting co-worker's desk.
It's probably a good thing Maheswaran and Chang haven't compiled analytics for their employees.
Then again, it's still early in this game.