Monitoring Employees? Big Data? The NBA Has You Beat
by Matthew Stollak on Thursday, September 5, 2013
Watching the number of keystrokes your data entry operator makes? Scouring Foursquare or Facebook place check-ins to see if employees are honestly missing work?
Well, the NBA is taking employee monitoring to a whole new level.
They are installing data-tracking cameras in all 29 arenas that will enable them to gather intriguing information.
If you are a referee, you will be monitored to see whether you are getting in position as well as making the right call:
one reason the league acted fast was to immediately enhance its ability to monitor referees — always a touchy subject. The cameras represent the most precise way to grade the three on-court officials based on how consistently and early they get into the league’s three set positions — called “lead,” “slot,” and “trail” — and whether they make appropriate calls from those positions based on their exact sight lines. This is the next stage in seeing which officials are the best, and thus deserving of high-stakes assignments, and in quantifying that in ways that are hard to dispute.
The league has already started using the cameras to check on the enforcement of defensive three-second violations out of concern that defensive players routinely break the rule by lingering in the lane too long. (The results of said studies are inconclusive so far, say several sources familiar with the inquiry.)
What about player performance? In "Airplane," when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (as Roger Murdock) was questioned on his effort, he said,
"LISTEN, KID! I've been hearing that crap ever since I was at UCLA. I'm out there busting my buns every night. Tell your old man to drag Walton and Lanier up and down the court for 48 minutes"
Now, with the installation of the data-tracking cameras, NBA teams can now measure work-related hustle:
Teams can pay up to $40,000 extra to purchase (among other goodies) software that helps track a player’s physical exertion. The in-game cameras represent one piece of that. They can tell you how fast a player runs, how often he accelerates on cuts, how often those accelerations end with him reaching top speed, and the height of a player’s release point on jump shots. Some players recovering from injury, including Ricky Rubio last season, have taken significant game time to get back to their previous speed and fitness baselines. And an injury to one star, Manu Ginobili early in the 2011-12 season, resulted in the other San Antonio starters exerting more physical effort with a standstill shooter (Danny Green) in Ginobili’s place.
The other pieces, and perhaps the most important ones in determining a player’s condition, come outside those 82 games and require the use of other forms of technology: sleep and heart-rate monitors, GPS devices and accelerometers players can wear during practice, and the careful tracking of weightlifting, diet, and other day-to-day stuff. Put all that data together, and you can get a fairly complete picture of a player’s condition, and of how indicators of his condition — running speed, jumping ability, etc. — change over the course of a season. “This is where you can start to measure fatigue,” says Brian Kopp, executive vice-president at STATS.
A revealing nugget: Teams really want the SportVU cameras to monitor their practices, Kopp says. That’s difficult, since most teams practice somewhere other than their game arenas. Some coaches and GMs might want the practice data simply to check on which players work hard, and which loaf.
But others will want it to change the very concept of practice. How much practice time do teams really need? And how taxing should those practices be? How should that change during the season? There are higher-ups around the league who are ready to radically rethink these things, provided the next-level data indicates they should.
And, think of the impact these measures can have on contract negotiations:
So imagine a player entering the final year of his rookie-scale contract and his agent beginning contract talks only to hear a team official open with something like, “Our camera data shows you really don’t hustle in the fourth quarter. Your running speed slows down. You just stand around instead of going for rebounds. These are some of the reasons we are offering you only $7 million per year.”
Wouldn’t that agent want to at least cross-check that data, to make sure it’s not B.S.? The players union has already started the fight for access to that data. “All we want is to make sure access is available,” says Ron Klempner, the union’s executive director. “If teams are forming impressions about players that players are not in position to defend, we want to make sure everyone is operating on an even scale.”
New technologies transforming how the NBA does business. Even Kareem Abdul-Jabbar should be impressed.