Looking for an edge: Teams trying to turn data into wins

Data is pored over by coaches and staff of the Orlando Magic on a regular basis. They’ll dissect how far a player runs during practice, how quickly that player accelerates and decelerates, how his performance changes as the workout goes along, biometric measurements like his heartbeat or when his workload is particularly heavy.

The charts and graphs are detailed and precise.

But how it’ll help the Magic win, that’s still an unknown.

Wearable technology — chips worn during practice to collect information that analysts churn into reports — has been around the NBA for the past several seasons. It’s not permitted on game nights, and anything specific about processes the 30 teams are using falls into the category of closely guarded secrets. And when it comes to coaches deciding what play to call in the final seconds with a game on the line, it doesn’t seem to have an impact quite yet.

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“It’s all very beneficial stuff,” Magic coach Steve Clifford said. “But I can only digest X amount of information. And it has to be the right amount of information.”

That’s one of the challenges that NBA teams are facing in this information age.

Everyone knows analytics can help in countless ways. But the question remains simple: How?

“You’ve got to take it and use it as best you can,” said New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry, who said he resisted using some data that he was presented several years ago when he coached in Phoenix — and wound up taking that Suns team to the Western Conference finals. “But at the end of the day, I think the instincts that you have as a coach become just as important, really.”

There are some consistencies in what’s being collected. Regardless of what hardware a team is using, everything basically tracks the same things: distance of movement, speed of movement, acceleration and deceleration, workload and heart rate. Teams work on their own, largely without NBA oversight except for some rules laid out in the Collective Bargaining Agreement.

It’s already been a boost in how teams monitor a player’s recovery from injury or surgery.

But some also have wondered if the data collection is too invasive, or could be used against a player — something that isn’t supposed to happen under league rule.

“It seems inherently geared to advantage the team,” University of Illinois law professor Michael LeRoy said in comments posted to his blog last year. “When it’s not linked to performance and not actually linked to injury, just correlation … it’s hard to see where that data can be used to the advantage of a player.”

The NBA has put together a list of what brands (like Catapult and STATSports ) and types of products that teams can use, much in the same way it approves knee braces and other accessories. Teams aren’t mandated to share the data they’re collecting from the wearables with the league, although that may change once devices are permitted to be used during games.

“Data collected through wearable devices has the potential to have a number of applications to improve player health — but it’s not a silver bullet,” said Dr. John DiFiori, the NBA’s medical director. “Information from wearables can add more detail on each player’s loading, which, together with a team’s overall toolkit, can help develop more individualized injury prevention programs, and assist teams in promoting safe return to play following an injury.”

There could be benefits to standardizing the data, but that seems a long way off — especially since teams are still figuring out how to best go forward individually. The league and the NBA Players Association are working on finalizing a validation program will be in place to ensure that devices are measuring what the manufacturers say they’re measuring, and that they do so accurately.

Atlanta rookie Kevin Huerter said in his short time as a pro, he’s learned a ton about his body that he didn’t even know because of what he’s gleaned off what his team has collected.

“At this level, they worry and care so much more about your body,” Huerter said. “The technology monitors how tough practices are and how tough you’re pushing yourself. It’s a longer season, everybody knows that. So I think a lot of it is making sure guys stay healthy and listening when guys are hurting a little bit one day.”

It might extend careers, help with injury management, maybe develop ways to avoid injuries.

But whether this data will ever be sharpened to the point of helping a team figure out how to overcome a five-point deficit with 28.2 seconds remaining, that’s anyone’s guess.

“Where the league is going, you’re looking for every edge,” Clifford said. “But as a coach, what you can’t do is you can’t stop watching the film. The data, talking to people, the numbers, all that, it’s all good information. But to have the clarity I think you need to make the right decisions, you better have watched enough film because that’s where you can see why, why, why it’s happening.”

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