Lights, Camera, Revolution
Old 03-19-2013, 10:59 AM   #1 (permalink)
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Really, really, interesting read. I don't even know what to include.

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ew technology and statistics will change the way we understand basketball, even if they also create friction between coaches and front-office personnel trying to integrate new concepts into on-court play. The most important innovation in the NBA in recent years is a camera-tracking system, known as SportVU, that records every movement on the floor and spits it back at its front-office keepers as a byzantine series of geometric coordinates. Fifteen NBA teams have purchased the cameras, which cost about $100,000 per year, from STATS LLC; turning those X-Y coordinates into useful data is the main challenge those teams face.1

Some teams are just starting with the cameras, while others that bought them right away are far ahead and asking very interesting questions. Those 15 teams have been very secretive in revealing how they've used the data, but one team that has made serious progress the Toronto Raptors opened up the black box in a series of meetings this month with Grantland.

The future of the NBA, at least in one place, looks like this:

That's Jason Kidd hitting a 3-pointer off a Carmelo Anthony pick-and-roll in the first quarter of Toronto's February 22 home win over the Knicks; the Knicks are in blue, passing the little yellow ball around, and the Toronto players are colored white. It looks simple, but the process of getting there took a bunch of people, including three Toronto front-office employees, more than a half-decade of work. In simple terms: The Raptors' analytics team wrote insanely complex code that turned all those X-Y coordinates from every second of every recorded game into playable video files. The code can recognize everything when a pick-and-roll occurred, where it occurred, whether the pick actually hit a defender, and the position of all 10 players on the floor as the play unfolded. The team also factored in the individual skill set of every NBA player, so the program understands that Chris Paul is much more dangerous from midrange than Rajon Rondo, and that Roy Hibbert is taller than Al Horford.2

That last bit the ability to recognize individual player skills is crucial for the juiciest bit of what the Raptors have accomplished: those clear circles that sort of follow the Toronto players around and have the same jersey numbers. Those are ghost players, and they are doing what Toronto's coaching staff and analytics team believe the players should have done on this play and on every other Toronto play the cameras have recorded.3 The system has factored in Toronto's actual scheme and the expected point value of every possession as play evolves.4 The team could use that expected value system to build an "ideal" NBA defense irrespective of the Toronto scheme, but doing so today would be pointless, since part of the team's job is to sell a sometimes skeptical coaching staff on the value of all these new numbers and computer programs, says Alex Rucker, the Raptors' director of analytics.

"You need that coaching perspective," Rucker says. "But we are still looking for where the rules are wrong areas where there are systemic things that are wrong with what we do on the court. But any system needs to comply with what the coaches want, and what the players can do."
Seriously, read the entire piece. I'm not a big statistical analysis type of guy when it comes to sports, but this is different.


The Toronto Raptors, SportVU cameras, and the NBA's analytical revolution - Grantland
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Old 03-19-2013, 12:45 PM   #2 (permalink)
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This is pretty cool.

However, it's seem like a bit of an insurmountable task to completely re-wire the brain of a player.
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Old 03-19-2013, 12:48 PM   #3 (permalink)
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I think what you need is really high IQ players. I think their example of using the Heat is a good one (as one following the ghost players).
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Old 03-19-2013, 12:49 PM   #4 (permalink)
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What a piece. Everyone really needs to read the whole thing. Gets into not only the advanced stat stuff the Raps are doing, but also the seeming current divide between management and the coaching staff. Oddly enough, it seems like Colangelo is really pushing the advanced stat stuff (yay!), but Casey and his staff are lukewarm to it.

Also, the article points out that JV should be playing more, so it's guaranteed to be good.
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Old 03-19-2013, 12:51 PM   #5 (permalink)
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Yeah, on Twitter Zach Lowe is downplaying the tension. Says he has a follow up piece to that comment/issue.

Again, you need to read the entire piece to appreciate how awesome it is.
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Old 03-19-2013, 12:53 PM   #6 (permalink)
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I was just about to post this. Lowe has put together some great articles recently. I really enjoy seeing the schemes through the SportsVU and where certain players should be and what they should be doing on a given possession.

The Hill/West pick and roll was the most interesting, as the play could have gone 3-5 different ways. But I think the best way to play that would have been Amir leaving Hill sooner as Lowe stated, once Hill was moving away from the basket(because the chances of a trap and steal are low there), where Amir then sprints back to Hibbert(JVs man), and JV rotates quickly to the perimeter to West to cut off the open shot, with Derozan lurking in the middle to cut off a potential lob to Hibbert once Amir is running back.

Its fun reading breakdowns and seeing video on this type of thing. Watching the game you're always thinking about what should have been done, and then seeing it in this kind of format is really cool, especially with the ghosts showing where players should be.

He also talked about Miami being the only team that can mimic their ghosts, which doesnt surprise me. There is a way to beat Miamis defence, and the quick trapping defence especially on screen roll, but you need to have a talented big who can pass the ball and create off the dribble, and really good 3 point shooters who are also capable of making tough passes. You really have to work a lot harder, but if you can get the ball to the bigman who sets the pick in the middle after Bosh swarms the guard, you have a 4 on 3 and that's where having a good passing bigman like Noah or Lee kills the Heat. That or you swing it to the perimeter and keep making quick passes, and you're likely to end up with an open 3, and if you have good bigmen, you should be crashing the boards hard to take advantage of the inside like Memphis did to them and we did to them for a couple of quarters anyway, because after all of the rotating they do, they're almost always going to have one of their guards boxing out a bigman, or Lebron on a bigman, and thats another thing to take advantage of. I really think a really good passing team like the 2002 SAC Kings for example would shred the Miami defence, but unfortunately too many teams stagnate if their regular screen rolls dont create penetration, something that Miami always takes away from the oppositions PGs generally(except CP3 and Rondo who Miami have always had trouble with)
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Old 03-19-2013, 01:18 PM   #7 (permalink)
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Revolution....no.
Useful coaching and player development tool. Yes.
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Old 03-19-2013, 01:38 PM   #8 (permalink)
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Coaches hate that stuff, and they've often nailed Valanciunas to the bench in crunch time in favor of Aaron Gray a fundamentally sound player who lacks NBA athleticism.

The numbers in large part disagree with that tactic, at least as it relates to Valanciunas's defense. The Raptors' defense has been better with Valanciunas on the floor.
Wasn't this already obvious to everyone but Casey?
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Old 03-19-2013, 05:03 PM   #9 (permalink)
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I find this a little scary. And yet I can't really disagree. I see Lebron hit so many threes at the end of quarters, and I often think that maybe they should just have Lebron kill the shot clock every possession and then shoot the three. But it would stop being basketball in a way.

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For Rucker and his team, this is a question that gets at the value of particular shots, the impact of the shot clock, and how coaches teach players. "When you ask coaches what's better between a 28 percent 3-point shot and a 42 percent midrange shot, they'll say the 42 percent shot," Rucker says. "And that's objectively false. It's wrong. If LeBron James just jacked a 3 on every single possession, that'd be an exceptionally good offense. That's a conversation we've had with our coaching staff, and let's just say they don't support that approach."

The coaches aren't even close to being onboard with such a 3-happy philosophy yet. "To have guys who shoot 3s that can't break that 35 percent break-even point, you have to really evaluate that," Sterner says.

"You can shoot as many 3s as you'd like," Casey says, "but if you don't make them, that philosophy goes out the window. There's always going to be disagreements. Analytics might give you a number, but you can't live by that number."7

Casey is obviously right that DeRozan is a bad 3-point shooter. But the analytics team argues that even sub–35 percent 3-point shooters should jack more 3s,8 and that coaches should probably spend more time turning below-average 3-point shooters into something close to average ones.

"Player development and coaching are scarce resources," Rucker says. "You only have so much practice time. At a very basic level, a guy going from 25 percent to 30 percent from 3-point range is far more meaningful than a guy improving from 35 percent to 40 percent from midrange."
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Old 03-19-2013, 06:59 PM   #10 (permalink)
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I find this a little scary. And yet I can't really disagree. I see Lebron hit so many threes at the end of quarters, and I often think that maybe they should just have Lebron kill the shot clock every possession and then shoot the three. But it would stop being basketball in a way.
We saw this - 4 years ago in Cleveland.
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Old 03-20-2013, 12:16 AM   #11 (permalink)
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the thing with 3 point shooting is that they can shoot at 35 percent or more because they get open looks through attempts at getting inside the paint for a 2 pointer. if lebron ran up, jacked up a 3 every possession, his percentage wouldn't be at the 35 percent and so it wouldn't win them games
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Old 03-20-2013, 07:47 AM   #12 (permalink)
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the thing with 3 point shooting is that they can shoot at 35 percent or more because they get open looks through attempts at getting inside the paint for a 2 pointer. if lebron ran up, jacked up a 3 every possession, his percentage wouldn't be at the 35 percent and so it wouldn't win them games
And yet these guys are saying a 28 percent 3-point shot is superior, so he wouldn't necessarily need to be at 35 percent. And they could win games shooting an effective percentage below 50 percent.

I have to wonder how much some of this shit came into play for Boston the other night. They had a few badly blown coverages with two guys leaving the screener or taking the screener. Were they trying to approximate their ghosts? And they resorted to the three through a lot of the fourth quarter, including the last possession. Ultimately communicating and developing on-court chemistry is still essential.
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Old 03-20-2013, 09:01 AM   #13 (permalink)
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the thing with 3 point shooting is that they can shoot at 35 percent or more because they get open looks through attempts at getting inside the paint for a 2 pointer. if lebron ran up, jacked up a 3 every possession, his percentage wouldn't be at the 35 percent and so it wouldn't win them games
if the "shoot a 3" every possession at the end of the buzzer were to work why both with letting Lebron shoot, why not just have jason kapono on your team and have him shoot it every possession, that obviously doesn't work because like you said ths % is there because of the open looks from running actually plays, and besides the opponent would be able to draw up a defensive scheme to negate that theory
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Old 03-20-2013, 09:46 AM   #14 (permalink)
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Fifteen NBA teams use SportsVU. The software that determines how the data is turned into a graphic representation of the way the game is played is proprietary, unique in each case.
Fourteen teams decided that sort of information is best kept to themselves. One team decided to pull back the curtain and let ESPN see Oz at work.
Included are a series of animated diagrams, provided by the Raptors, showing Toronto at work on defence. Players appear as a dot moving across the court. Alongside each is his “shadow.” The shadow Raptors move in what the program has decided was their optimal defensive posture. There isn’t much similarity between what the real players decided to do and what the computer thinks they ought to have done.
Three animations accompany the text. When told that on Tuesday afternoon, Raptors coach Dwane Casey reared back in surprise.
“What?” Casey said. “Not the actual thing?”
The actual thing.
Casey was left briefly speechless. It is difficult to credit that the people guarding the team vaults are also doing guided tours.
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As Lowe’s article makes clear, the neutral territory is thinning out. The Raptors braintrust unwisely moved the battleground right into the middle of their organization.
According to Casey, the players never see the SportsVU animations. They watch only game tape. Showing them the utopian vision of “ghost” basketball would be too confusing (and, based on the small sample obtained by Lowe, too embarrassing).
Instead, all those gigs of data are boiled down to “four or five stats” that players can plug into their games — such directives as shoot more from this or that position.
That sounds like a sensible team-wide approach. What isn’t sound is publicly trumpeting a needless sense of friction between the geeks and the jocks. This all smacks of pointless grandstanding and destructive over-sharing.
Casey cannot be cast as the dinosaur in this fight, if that’s what it really is. He comes out of Dallas, where Mark Cuban had the Mavs fitted up like NASA. Now he’s forced to deny any rift.
“The challenge is using (analytics) in the right way, where it’s not the only tool you’re using,” Casey said. “Everybody wants to get their point across. Analytical people want to say, ‘This is the tool to use.’ The scouts want to say, ‘My tool is important.’ The bottom line . . . is winning.”
It should be.
Unfortunately, Casey’s bosses appear too interested in being seen to be on the cutting edge, while undermining the reason why you go out there in the first place.

Why are the Raptors giving away their cutting-edge analytics? | Toronto Star
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Old 03-20-2013, 09:55 AM   #15 (permalink)
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if the "shoot a 3" every possession at the end of the buzzer were to work why both with letting Lebron shoot, why not just have jason kapono on your team and have him shoot it every possession, that obviously doesn't work because like you said ths % is there because of the open looks from running actually plays, and besides the opponent would be able to draw up a defensive scheme to negate that theory
But the article doesn't say they should shoot a 3 every possession. The example they give is that you can have, in theory, an acceptable offense just by taking threes even at a somewhat subpar shooting percentage. This is really an illustration of their real point - that late in the shot clock, a three is almost always better than driving the ball to create. There are too many variables late in the shot clock - time pressure and scrambling defense can generate bad shot attempts and turnovers, whereas the contested 3 still has a relatively high point expectation.

The point laid out in the article is that the offense should be designed to generate those three point attempts, and the higher quality, obviously the better. But, from what I got from the article, since the cost of a turnover is higher than simply a lost possession (it also increases your opponents' scoring efficiency), running plays to try to get close to the basket doesn't have as big a benefit as it might seem, even if it does increase your scoring efficiency. I doubt the conclusions the analysis draws is that running plays is useless - I think it probably suggests that the type of plays you run should be modified - 3 point attempts should be the primary goal of an offense, and limiting turnovers should be a close second. If a defense is constantly running out at three point shooters, other opportunities inside will present themselves - ideally in low-turnover-risk ways.
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Old 03-20-2013, 09:56 AM   #16 (permalink)
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There is enough “creative tension” in many GM-coach relationships that an added level could be the one that causes and irrevocable split.

Now I’m not saying that’s the case in this situation at all but read that story closely and tell me if you truly think the front office and the coaching staff are completely and utterly on the same page. No way that any right-thinking person can come away with that feeling. It’s the elephant in the story.
Doug Smith's Sports Blog
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Old 03-20-2013, 12:44 PM   #17 (permalink)
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But the article doesn't say they should shoot a 3 every possession. The example they give is that you can have, in theory, an acceptable offense just by taking threes even at a somewhat subpar shooting percentage. This is really an illustration of their real point - that late in the shot clock, a three is almost always better than driving the ball to create. There are too many variables late in the shot clock - time pressure and scrambling defense can generate bad shot attempts and turnovers, whereas the contested 3 still has a relatively high point expectation.

The point laid out in the article is that the offense should be designed to generate those three point attempts, and the higher quality, obviously the better. But, from what I got from the article, since the cost of a turnover is higher than simply a lost possession (it also increases your opponents' scoring efficiency), running plays to try to get close to the basket doesn't have as big a benefit as it might seem, even if it does increase your scoring efficiency. I doubt the conclusions the analysis draws is that running plays is useless - I think it probably suggests that the type of plays you run should be modified - 3 point attempts should be the primary goal of an offense, and limiting turnovers should be a close second. If a defense is constantly running out at three point shooters, other opportunities inside will present themselves - ideally in low-turnover-risk ways.
I just wish I had read such an explanation. Even so, I think it turns the game into too much of a game of darts, which I would hope lead to some rule changes. But what you say here doesn't really jibe with this -

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If LeBron James just jacked a 3 on every single possession, that'd be an exceptionally good offense.
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Old 03-20-2013, 01:03 PM   #18 (permalink)
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meh. Im sure its exciting stuff. Toronto is NOT the team they need to use as an example, because it clearly aint working for them.
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Old 03-20-2013, 01:58 PM   #19 (permalink)
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meh. Im sure its exciting stuff. Toronto is NOT the team they need to use as an example, because it clearly aint working for them.
wrong, we have the info but our coaches don't use it because they don't trust it
obviously, they're doing such a great job that it justifies their approach

I can understand why coaches would feel very, very threatened by this. Most of them are paid ridiculous amounts of money for fairly limited skills. What if this new analytics approach combined with a scientific approach to learning different playing systems and other tips and tricks of the trade would be taught in school one day and you'd end up with highly successful coaches willing to work for 2-300k a year?
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Old 03-20-2013, 02:06 PM   #20 (permalink)
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And yet these guys are saying a 28 percent 3-point shot is superior, so he wouldn't necessarily need to be at 35 percent. And they could win games shooting an effective percentage below 50 percent.

I have to wonder how much some of this shit came into play for Boston the other night. They had a few badly blown coverages with two guys leaving the screener or taking the screener. Were they trying to approximate their ghosts? And they resorted to the three through a lot of the fourth quarter, including the last possession. Ultimately communicating and developing on-court chemistry is still essential.
hm, chemistry ... what exactly is that?


Bottom line is this, this system tells you that IF nba players were computers that know at every instant where everybody else is on the floor and are able to instantly calculate all sorts of scenarios and adapt on the fly, they would be playing like the ghosts.

I don't think anybody is seriously suggesting that such a thing is accomplishable.

ON the other hand, a system like this can tell you that if you position your guy half a feet close to the basket in certain common scenarios, you decrease the chances of scoring by x percent. Or that when having the ball in the tight spot with less than 5 seconds on the shot is more efficient to shoot a 3 than to try to pass because even a contested 3pt shot from a 30% shooter is better than a desperate attempt to manufacture a shot with 2 seconds on the clock.

In simpler words, a system like this can identify a lot of very common scenarios, that occur frequently in nba games, and that are fairly easy to learn (as rules of thumb basically). If things like this could gain you 3pts a game, it would transform a team like the Raptors into a team with first round advantage in the playoffs this season. So it's a pretty big deal if you ask me.

After all, if coaches are so good with their instincts, how come most are doing such a shitty job and you only have a handful of great coaches every decade. ?
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