The 1992 Barcelona Olympics came after a period of political upheaval. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, coupled with the collapse of the Soviet Union shortly after, meant that for the first time in three decades no country boycotted the event. It was also an important event for Basketball. In the 1988 Olympics, Team USA were forced to field college athletes, and only managed to take home the bronze medal. While not a crushing defeat, the American public felt it unjust considering the wealth of talent it had in the NBA.
The disappointment surrounding the 1988 games put pressure on the NBA to allow its players to take part in the next Olympics. After initially being unenthusiastic, it agreed to let them go upon discovering that several major companies were interested in sponsoring the ‘Dream Team’. With the US team including Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippin and Magic Johnson - it defeated every team en route to the final by over 40 points, and beat Croatia convincingly in the Gold medal game.
Team USA’s grip on the Olympic Gold medal, however, is not as firm as it once was. And although the team has only failed to bring the top-prize home once, competition in the form of Spain, Argentina, Lithuania and Russia has made the event anything but a formality.
While the NBA remains the holy grail, a number of leagues in Europe have grown in prestige recently. And as the sport’s worldwide appeal grows, so too has the demand for technological advances. According to ‘The Atlantic’, the NBA has undergone a ‘major transformation in the past few years’ and that it’s something ‘indisputably linked to the NBA’s growing, but controversial, reliance on data to measure a team’s likelihood of winning—a phenomenon vaguely defined as analytics.’
An organic approach to team performance, or an ‘eye test’, used to be the norm. This approach would see coaches formulate tactics based on gut instinct. This emergence of analytics, however, has changed this. Now, coaches pore over data points, using them to create game plans, and to map the most effective route to victory.
The increased use of the three-pointer is an excellent example of data’s impact. In the 60s and 70s, the shot was considered ineffective, and seen as purely a way for players to show off. The shot now brings in as many points as free-throws, with coaches determining that the three-point threat creates new channels for attack, and forces defenders to make a decision about whether to stay with their man or help off the ball. If the tactic is deployed irregularly, it keeps the opponent guessing. Without analytics, it would be more difficult for coaches to implement this into their plays.
Research conducted by two Harvard Ph.D students also found that the defensive side of the game had been largely ignored up until recently. But with new tools now available to coaches, it’s now seen as an opportunity for improvement. Due to analytics, unsung heroes, like Channing Frye, are now getting their deserved plaudits for their defensive prowess, and are now some of the most sought after players in the NBA. According to the Atlantic: ‘Beyond giving rise to the three-pointer, analytics has also caused the casual fan to rethink and give long-overdue attention to the defensive side of the sport. Though people have always understood defense as important, it’s typically existed in the shadows of offense, which is easier to market and more exciting for the average viewer.’
It’s not just the professional game that’s been changed by technology. Through gamification, analytics is helping amateur coaches and players develop their training regimes. We interviewed Daveyon Ross - founder of wearable tech provider - ShotTracker - who says: ‘When you can play against your friends it’s a game changer, really’ and that ‘the process is very addictive and it drives usage - it’s like Xbox Live.’ Other devices - including SOLIDshot - have been equally influential. By analyzing each shot a player takes the moment it leaves their fingertips, it provides advice on how it can be improved next time.
The same murmurs of distrust - common in all data-heavy sports - continue to be heard. Many claim that over analysis erodes the power of initiative, and that individual brilliance can only be adversely affected. The unpredictability of the NBA has also been crucial to its success. If data makes the sport incredibly predictable, some fear that it will lose much of its charm.
Nonetheless, technology is going to play an important part in Basketball’s future. It will be a case of do or die for many of the NBA’s top sides, and that will change the face of the game even further.