Statistical Basketball- By STATS Director of Research Rebecca Goldin, Ph.D.

Big data might be finding all sorts of patterns, but for basketball fans, it’s a matter of what makes the ball go in the hoop. Systems developed to track missiles are now being used to track basketballs (and their players). SportUV Systems has cameras hanging from NBA arenas, and they are recording everyone’s every move. Basketball teams are starting to sign on to using the data collected to improve their games.

While it is standard to keep track of a basketball player’s shooting average, everyone knows that circumstance plays a huge role. Big data can bring in conditional probability. What is the shooting average of Kevin Durant when his has a defender 3 feet away? SportVU can tell you. And it can also tell you the likelihood he makes a shot given many other circumstantial pieces of information, like who passed him the ball and how many minutes he’s been playing.

The results are limited by a number of factors. The biggest is lack of data; without data on past performance, no future performance can be predicted. This why SportVU wants to increase its base – currently only 10 of the 30 MBA teams are inputting data. The second relates to something more philosophical: determinism versus random error.  While certainly these players have incredible skills, when matched up to each other, their statistical differences recorded as past behavior may only be part of the story. Small amounts of randomness could influence the game more than we know – and it simply cannot be predicted with all the data in the world.

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