How NBA Data Analytics is Changing the Sport

Basketball teams in the NBA are looking to technology like analytics software and wearable devices to track player movement, optimize physical health, and boost training and game-day performance.

By Chris Hayhurst, Contributor

The next time the Boston Celtics take the court, how they fare will, in large part, depend on the play of young stars like Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. But their success will also hinge on someone working behind the scenes: the team’s chief technology officer, Jay Wessland.

Like every other National Basketball Association (NBA) franchise, the Celtics have, in recent years, embraced an array of new technologies they believe can propel them to victory. Wessland heads the department that makes those systems operational. It’s his job to turn them into tools the team can use.

“What we’re ultimately trying to do is get data and video into the hands of the players…We push it out in the middle of the night so it’s magically there on their tablet when they wake up in the morning.”

—Jay Wessland, CTO, Boston Celtics

“What we’re ultimately trying to do,” he explains, “is get data and video into the hands of the players. We want to impart some knowledge on them so they know what to do when they’re guarding somebody, or they know how to exploit the person who’s guarding them.”

In the Celtics’ case, Wessland says, they rely on analytics software, as well as staff mathematicians and programmers, to do “deep analyses” of raw statistical data the NBA provides to every team in the league. Those findings are married to game-time video, which Celtics video coordinators edit to highlight key plays. Finally, it’s all packaged into bite-sized pieces delivered electronically to individual players. “We push it out in the middle of the night so it’s magically there on their tablet when they wake up in the morning,” he explains. While a player eats breakfast—or even before they’re out of bed—“they can easily have a look at what the last game told us and they can get a sense of what they need to learn for the game ahead.”

Tech for the Win

According to the NBA stats-reference site NBAstuffer, all 30 teams in the league now have analytics departments (compared to 2008, when there were only five), and the league’s headquarters has a Basketball Strategy & Analytics group, as well. Among the organization’s latest tech-focused initiatives: the NBA Analytics Hackathon, an annual event first held in 2016 where statisticians, developers, and others “build tools to solve important and challenging” basketball-related problems and compete for a meal out with NBA commissioner Adam Silver. In 2018, one Hackathon winner focused on optimal ticket pricing; a second-place finisher tailored their solution toward determining the causes of player performance decline.

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Silver, in fact, told an audience in 2017 (at a conference on analytics at the Wharton School of Business) that “analytics are part and parcel of virtually everything we do now.” Even three years ago, the league and its teams were using analytics and other technologies for everything from player scouting to game planning. Players now sport wearable devices during practices, for example, to track their movements and quantify their physical health. And some, in an effort to optimize rest—which is reportedly hard to come by in the NBA—have turned to monitoring their sleep with polysomnographs or using electroencephalogram machines to learn to relax after evening games.

It’s during actual games, of course, that the technologies deployed around the NBA are supposed to have their biggest impact. When a player logs a great night’s sleep thanks to neurofeedback technology or knows to push his opponent to the left when he shoots off the dribble, that should lead to better outcomes on the court, stronger individual performance, and more wins for the team.

Two league clubs, in particular, have proven especially adept at leveraging technology to improve results: the Houston Rockets and the Golden State Warriors.

The Houston Rockets have leaned on analytics since the 2012-13 season. With James Harden leading the way, the team has made an art of quantifying shot options to determine how to run its offense in any given situation.

Similarly, the Golden State Warriors, after a multi-year stretch with a relatively poor record, managed to turn its fortune around when it teamed with an analytics company to process the data received from the arena’s player-tracking cameras. One of the biggest lessons: The more the Warriors’ top guard Stephen Curry launched three-point shots from all over the court, the more likely the team was to win its games. The Warriors won NBA championships in 2015, 2017, and 2018, before faltering—spectacularly—in the coronavirus-halted 2019-20 season, when they had the worst record in the league.

The Celtics, meanwhile, were still in the hunt for a title as the league returned in late July. (The NBA announced that players would be asked to wear “smart rings” on their fingers to track respiratory function and other vitals that might indicate possible infection with COVID-19.)

According to Wessland, as play continues into September, the Celtics are ready for the competition. The team’s players have been training—individually—almost since the day the league shut down, meeting with coaches via videoconference and following carefully structured workouts delivered to their personal devices.

It certainly wasn’t the same as going head-to-head on a full-size practice court in a state-of-the-art facility, Wessland notes, but thanks to technology, it was the next best thing.