Knicks statisticians showcase their gadgets

Information technology is keeping pace with all the frantic action happening on the court in the National Basketball Association (NBA).

In a game where play is fast and furious, the league is leveraging an array of technologies, including portable touch-screen computing, wireless sensing and quick-reacting statisticians to following the bouncing ball as its being played in 30 NBA arenas.

It’s all about accurately accounting for all the numbers as points scored, rebounds, assists and fouls are continually logged as it all happens.

It’s creating a veritable mountain of statistical information that’s being used by coaches, league officials and teams to assess player and team performance. The statistics are also offered up to fans that can’t seem to get enough of the number crunching action.

The intent is to bring all the flavour and nuance of the game, beyond what the naked eye might see happening on the court. Technology is introducing things like the “Lenovo Stat” – what’s described as a “team-oriented” plus/minus statistic that tracks point differentials when a player or combinations of players are on and off the court during in the game. The statistic, named for the notebook PC manufacturer that provides the portable hardware used by the NBA, assesses what impact these performances have on the team as a whole, identifying the best individuals through five player combinations for each game, and over the course of an entire season.

“Technology is now the language of our business, like numbers are to finance,” said Steve Hellmuth, the executive vice-president of operations and technology for NBA Entertainment. “We’re always looking at the latest way to integrate new products. We’re editing more customized packages because different people in different regions want to see different players and content.”

Hellmuth’s latter point is a reflection of the truly international flavour of the NBA these days. The league now features players who from all over the world – France, Spain, Italy, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and even China. In looking to market the game to a diverse audience of international fans, the league uses technology to record and highlight specific players, many of whom hail from these aforementioned regions. Those highlights might be packaged for distribution and play in those regional places. IT plays a major part in actually capturing, editing, packaging and distributing this tailored content throughout the world.

Lenovo touch screen tablet PCs are being used by league statisticians to record more than 650,000 statistical events per season that feed in real time to, the league’s 30 team Web sites, NBA TV and thousands of media around the world. NBA referees use PCS to review video of their calls at halftime, post-game and while traveling between games. Team coaches use the information to plan strategy and assess player performance in specific game situations.

During a recent showcase of this IT-enabled statistical gathering process at a press conference in New York City in early November, the NBA’s New York Knicks statisticians gave a demonstration of this hardware and software engine. They showed how it’s possible to follow the action through a combination of “spotters” calling the action to a statistician who inputs and records it via a graphical user interface and touchpad technology into a networked notebook PC where the information is processed.

IT is also helping to ensure greater accuracy in game play. In New York, game officials use something called a Precision Pack that’s strapped onto game referees and allows them to start and stop the game clock by merely blowing a whistle. The whistle tone itself sends a wireless radio signal to an automated game close, precisely stopping and starting timed play. The hope in the future is to create an automatic scoring system that logs points as the ball clears the basketball net.

An automated statistical system, powered by Lenovo hardware and tracked by courtside officials, logs the movement of players as they enter and exit the court. The data compiled shows what players were on the court during scoring plays at various points in the game. Essentially it helps coaches determine which combination of players performs best at any given point in a game. This helps coaches determine what combination of players play best together at various points in a game.

“The system is meant to keep up with all the action,” said Hellmuth. “The error rates are extremely low.”

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