NBA an early adopter when it comes to tech

Tech used to be short for “technical� in the NBA. These days, it means so much more.

MINNEAPOLIS – After spending a half-hour talking with Steve Hellmuth, my first thought was that I wished I could somehow jump into his brain.

The NBA's executive vice president of operations and technology, Hellmuth has a way of talking about basketball like it's something more than just a sport. I'm not exactly sure how he sees it – hence the need for that brain-jump – but I get the idea that to him, it's a laboratory, or maybe some kind of adolescent version of the perfect game that exists in his imagination.

Not perfect in terms of play or watchability, though maybe better. But perfect in the sense that the information is there, all of it, on a different scope than we could even imagine right now. Talk to Hellmuth about SportVU cameras ( which was my original intent, for this story), and you'll get a breathless race beyond just player tracking. He'll tell you about how he knows they're doing motion-capture in Hollywood without suits and that someday the technology is going to be a part of the NBA, though it'll be long after he's involved, he says. And then he sighs, and you've got to know he wishes it were tomorrow.

But Hellmuth has a point. "If you're going to do it, you want to have the best possible resource, right?" he asks. Right. And so maybe the NBA as "Avatar" isn't quite on the horizon just yet, but there are plenty of technology initiatives beyond just SportVU that are already integrated into the league or could be in the near future. In fact, there are so many ideas that it's almost silly to spend time pining for motion-capture when you have all this. 

A look at some of the technology initiatives that are already in the NBA or on the cusp of it:

YouTube: We'll start simple, with the league's partnership with the biggest Internet video-sharing site out there. Just last week, Dec. 10, the NBA reached its one-billionth YouTube video hit, making it the first professional sports league channel to do so. The NBA teamed up with YouTube in 2007, just two years into its inception, creating the first official channel of any major professional sport league, and it's been rolling since.

This year, the NBA added a new wrinkle to the YouTube partnership: D-League broadcasts. Beginning this season, YouTube is broadcasting almost every D-League game live (350 of 400). No pro sports league had ever used YouTube as its primary broadcaster before this, and for the D-League's potential audience, it's a brilliant idea. Few people are going to go out of their way to seek out D-League games or even complain that they can't watch them, but if they're as easy to view as opening a browser, people will tune in. Especially this year, when so many big-name draft picks have done D-League stints, it's a way for college fans to continue to keep tabs on their favorite players and for NBA die-hards to scout what could be coming soon to their team.

iPads: Right now, teams cannot use in-game video on tablets courtside, but they can use tablets to look up other information courtside. But eventually, it's easy to imagine that instead of drawing up plays, coaches will just whip up videos on their iPads. Or instead of critiquing a blown play verbally, they'll pull it up, pointing out the errors and driving the lessons home sooner than in a video session the next day.

For now, that's not an option, mostly because every team would need universal access to videos and the proper tech setup to get video courtside. If one team's video feed failed, its opponent's would have to be taken away to make it fair, and so on. It's more complicated than it initially sounds, but the league has to be careful not to give one team an unfair advantage.

That's not the only way tablets are going to come into play, though. In fact, they already have. Scouts already use them across the league, and soon much of one web-based scouting tool that many teams use will be integrated into an iPad app. Tablets are the notebooks of the future, allowing quicker synthesis of information, comparisons and even communication within team staffs.

A bit more on SportVU: As I wrote two weeks ago, teams with the camera systems want the thing to go league-wide, or at least for as many teams as possible to install the cameras. The more teams, the more shared data, the more each team can use the information to do more than simply analyze its own players.

When I spoke with Hellmuth, he acknowledged that the league has been involved with player tracking for years and likes the idea of incorporating it at a more comprehensive level. In fact, Hellmuth has been experimenting with player tracking since 2004, when the league rigged Conseco Fieldhouse (now Bankers Life Fieldhouse) in Indianapolis with a tracking system that was basically an early version of SportVU. The tracking was successful, they discovered, but at the time it was expensive to implement, and the costs of computing the information were also astronomical. 

That's why the initiative seemed to be tabled for so long, nearly five years, until SportVU emerged as a viable option, and now, as the Cavaliers become the 14th team to install the cameras, the number of franchises using SportVU is building toward the kind of critical mass that might someday push it into a league-wide venture.

Referees: Teams are cagey about how they're using this information, but right now, those with SportVU systems in place can track the movements not only of players and the ball but also of the referees on the court. This could potentially yield interesting information about what refs are doing when they call fouls, but it's understandable that teams don't want to disclose how or if they're using that information for fear of drawing the ire of the league.

Soccer: SportVU was first used to evaluate soccer games, and soccer has actually proven to be a good laboratory from which the NBA can draw and modify ideas. Because they're both energy-intensive, fast-paced sports, soccer and basketball can benefit from some of the same technologies, though with soccer, the decisions about substitutions and who's too tired to go on are much more costly; when a player is pulled in soccer, he's finished for good, but in the NBA, he can go back in at will barring foul trouble.

Manchester United was the first soccer team to develop a comprehensive system to tell coaches going into a match whether a player was "green" (good to go), "yellow" (middle of the road) or "red" (not good to go), Hellmuth said, and much of the technology in soccer piggybacks off that concept.

At the MLS All-Star Game in July, which pitted the league's best players against the Premier League's Chelsea F.C., the MLS tested another emerging technology: adidas' miCoach system, which places a small chip at the nape of players' necks in a compression jersey. The chip, or "data cell," is connected to electrodes and sensors that are woven into the compression jersey, and it relays information about players' speed, acceleration, position, heartbeat and the intensity of play to an iPad app. 

"That would be very private information that wouldn't be made public," Hellmuth said of the data. "You wouldn't want somebody saying, ‘Gee, your heart rate was really pounding when you were taking that free throw.' "

MLS announced last summer that it had purchased the miCoach systems to be used on a league-wide basis in 2013, and Hellmuth acknowledged that the NBA is looking into doing something similar. It's a ways off, though; the league is at the point where it's talking to adidas about partnering to use the system in the D-League, which Hellmuth says is the perfect laboratory for such initiatives.


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