True technological breakthroughs are rare in sports. What’s more, when they do occur, they tend not to burst through the tape at the finish – but are rather dragged, often against popular will, across the finish line.
Whether it’s the mid-century arrival of lighter, form-fitting shoes in track and field, the gradual adoption of metal tennis rackets in the 1970s or the current development of athletic wearables, technological movements take time and a fair amount of trial, error and revision before a new phenomenon is molded into its best version.
For sports analytics, the moment has arrived. To be clear, we aren’t talking about sports metrics, which have existed in some form at least since Bill James began scribbling about baseball during his downtime as a graveyard shift security guard, and which achieved official pop culture ubiquity with the Moneyball explosion. For the purpose of clarity, we can think of metrics as the notable numbers to be tracked in sports, while analytics are the tech-based means we use to measure those numbers.
And while baseball led the way in metrics, we have yet to learn which sport will become the standard-bearer for analytics. The Premier League may be on the cusp of helping soccer plant its flag, but the NBA’s growing interest in player performance tracking ultimately may lead to the field of sports analytics getting its heaviest nudge into the mainstream from basketball.
If you’re a regular SportsCenter viewer, you’ve no doubt seen early versions of player tracking in NBA highlights, with Steph Curry skittering around the court followed by a brightly colored trail that marks his movement and a tally of his total ground covered. It’s heady stuff, and fans are growing more infatuated with this sort of data by the day.
But this tech has even more potential value to the NBA, other leagues and franchises, and the performance evaluators who work for them. Just as advanced metrics opened the door to a more nuanced and detailed grasp of sports, analytics can elevate our collective understanding of performance to the next level. For organizations that invest hundreds of millions in player contracts, the ability to consistently and accurately determine metrics such as performance efficiency, fatigue levels and injury risk with tracking tech is no longer a luxury for the best or smartest clubs – it is business-critical for all.
The algorithms for understanding performance metrics are in place. In the NBA, statistics such as PER and usage rate are examples of how certain basic elements of performance are already being parsed. Previous limitations around collecting useful data, however, have, to a great extent, held player personnel evaluation in place. Modern sports analytics have the power to launch them into the future.
LiDAR technology, for example, has been used for many years in mapping and other large-scale range detection efforts by NASA and the U.S. military. Now fully realized for application in the context of sports performance, LiDAR can be a literal game changer for NBA clubs. “Light detection and ranging” uses pulsed lasers to remotely track even the subtlest movements, rivaling the accuracy and level of detail of the league’s previous player-tracking tech and adding new layers of value.
RF, GPS and other older tech often requires clunky wearable sensors, can be subject to signal issues in certain locations and tends to be unwieldy in travel situations. These drawbacks are somewhat less of a concern in the NFL, where games are played once a week, in outdoor stadiums, and in which player equipment may be adaptable enough for outfitting with sensors. In the NBA, all those limitations are a dealbreaker.
LiDAR technology, however, has an answer for each. Designed for ease, consistency and mobility, the system can be moved from arena to arena, or from games to practice settings, by NBA teams that may travel to a new city three and sometimes even four times a week. Players wearing nothing more than a tank top, shorts and sneakers need not be encumbered by a wearable. Meanwhile, the granular detail and reliability of LiDAR’s tracking results are, in a word, unprecedented in sports performance study.
Will this new technological breakthrough be staged on the floors of NBA arenas across North America? There’s no reason it can’t be. The portability, reliability and precision of laser-based performance tracking allows for more comprehensive and accurate player evaluation, providing basketball’s decision makers with the sharpest tools to collect the data to be plugged into those algorithms waiting at the keystrokes of their fingertips.