The last three NBA champions have all been open in their adoption of data analytics techniques. Last season’s final between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers saw two teams face off who have heavily incorporated data analysis into how they play the game, and there are now very few who are resistant to its domination. Except maybe Charles Barkley, who called it ‘crap’, and argued that proponents of analytics are ‘a bunch of guys who ain't never played the game [and] they never got the girls in high school.’ Which doesn’t seem like a wholly fair appraisal.
Using data analytics, coaches have been able to glean a number of insights around the most effective and efficient ways to play the game, such as where best to shoot from, how long a player should hold onto the ball, and which way an opponent is most likely to pass.
One of the most important areas that analytics is aiding is measuring every aspect of a player’s physique. Teams can examine every aspect of a player in the draft to weed out those who are likely to be injury prone, while players can use analytics to tweak aspects of their training and on-court style to help them reach their peak physical condition. This also enables players to carry on way past what would once have been considered their sell-by date.
Basketball players, perhaps more than any other sport, are physically unique specimens - tall, fast, strong, and capable of jumping ludicrous heights. Milwaukee Bucks’ 21 year old short forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, for example, is 6’11, 222b, with a wingspan of 7-foot-3. His achilles tendon, which runs from the back of the heel to the belly of the calf, is 13.5 inches - almost double the length of the average adult male’s. During the 2013-14 season, Commissioner Adam Silver, who has been one of analytics biggest champions, announced that the league was partnering with Stats LLC to instal SportVU player-tracking cameras in every arena, helping to measure player speed, distance traveled and acceleration. Perhaps more importantly, in 2014 Silver hired a sports science institute called P3 Applied Sports Science to modernize the league's draft combine.
P3 assesses players on how their bodies are affected by a number of movements using high-tech force plates embedded in the floor and cameras shooting from multiple angles. These feed data into laptops, which are then analyzed to pinpoint problems that could see players physically breakdown in the future, and steps can then be taken to overcome these. P3 founder, Dr. Marcus Elliott, says P3 asks not just how high do you jump but also how do you land and how high and how quickly can you jump a second time. So, for example, a player who lands on his right leg with disproportionately more force than his left may be doing so because of a weakness in his left ankle.
Such insights are already being utilized by major players like LeBron James, who has adapted his game at Cleveland in order to prolong his career. However, the human body is an incredibly complex thing, and anything could happen. As Ryan Podell, Sports Scientist at Portland Trail Blazers, notes: ‘The biggest challenge sports science practitioners face today, and will continue to struggle with, is the fact that the human body is dynamic in its truest essence. We are trying to identify key variables that influence performance and injury mechanisms within such a fluid subject, the human body. It's the equivalent of trying to determine what picture a 10,000 piece puzzle forms, while only have a limited number of pieces to look at.’