At All-Star weekend in Orlando, the NBA unveiled a new statistics database to a half-dozen media members and said they intended at some point in the near future to make it public. The database had lots of nuggets to which the public currently does not have access — easily sortable advanced statistics on scoring, defense, turnovers and rebounds for every five-man combination used in the league, so that you can find out how many points per 100 possessions, say, the Knicks scored and allowed with the lineup of Jeremy Lin/Landry Fields/Carmelo Anthony/Amar’e Stoudemire/Tyson Chander on the floor — and how the team’s rebounding rate, turnover numbers and free throw trends changed from their overall baseline when that group played.
You could find that on NBA.com’s public site now, but you couldn’t instantly sort that data and compare with every other New York lineup or other lineups around the league. Other stuff contained in this: “clutch” shooting data, for both teams and players, you can sort (with video) based on scoring margin and the number of minutes left in the game; data for how various two-, three- and four-man groups within teams perform; more specific shot location data for every player and team, and for a team’s opponents; sortable video of every shot in every NBA game, and the ability to instantly create video clip packages of specific shot types. In a minute or two of work, you could build a play list of every clutch shot Kevin Love attempted from the left baseline last season, or every foul he committed in the last two minutes of a close game.
It’s a powerful database that offers new tools and combines some data available at other sites into one mammoth place. It has been available over the last five months to some media, and really only had the technological power behind it to support 15 or 20 users at once, says Steve Hellmuth, executive vice-president for operations and technology for NBA Entertainment. By the middle of the next season — the All-Star break at the latest — the NBA hopes to give the general public access to that entire trove of data thanks to a partnership with the German-based tech company SAP announced on Wednesday. SAP will provide the technological oomph required for something like 12,000 or 15,000 fans to use the toy at once, Hellmuth says.
“We just couldn’t do that with our own database,” Hellmuth says. “But we wanted to give fans the chance to explore just the way you have.” The project, once finished, will include some social media and linkability features, so that fans can tweet or e-mail various statistical reports they’ve produced — a side-by-side lineup comparison, or a tidbit about how Courtney Lee and Rajon Rondo are meshing on the floor.
It’s a cool service for the NBA geekery, and it’s also a smart bit of business from the league — another way to generate traffic, and to take some traffic away from competing sites such as Basketball-Reference, 82games.com, BasketballValue and even the video subscription service Synergy Sports. There is room for all of those sites to thrive, and each of them offers key bits of data and video you can’t get anywhere else; the NBA, for instance, has no immediate plans to track specific play types, a practice that allows Synergy to produce statistics on Chris Paul’s shooting percentage out of pick-and-rolls or Kevin Martin’s efficiency when catching-and-shooting off screens. BasketballValue has lineup data and adjusted plus/minus status (a crucial tidbit), and Basketball-Reference, invaluable as always, recently unveiled a play-by-play database that allows users to sort shot attempts by time and score. And the NBA will still provide lots of data for teams to which the public will never have access. (Teams, of course, are generating their own data to which no one else has access).
But as someone who has used the league’s toy every day (far too often, really) since the All-Star break, I can tell you: It’s cool, and if you’ve got time, you can learn new things about basketball from the numbers and video there. Like any giant pile of information, it can also lead you down wrong paths, and to conclusions that at first appear relevant but don’t withstand a second or third question. Learning to ask those questions and check the data is a skill, and if writers and fans get better at it, our understanding of the game will grow. In the early stages, expect a bit more information overload — and a bit more traffic for NBA.com.