Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


November 12, 2014

When Moneyball Meets 1984

ESPN's Pablo S. Torre examines the next frontier in NBA biometrics.

Justin Adler

With the recent proliferation of biometrics and advanced statistics in the NBA, data from the pre-2013 era may soon look as dated as watching grainy, black-and-white footage of George Mikan.

Pablo S. Torre
"The reality is that there would be incentives to obtain an athlete's sleep chart and leak details of it to the press."

Pablo S. Torre

ESPN's Pablo S. Torre recently outlined the surge of advanced stats in the NBA in his article, "New biometric tests invade the NBA," in which he and co-author Tom Haberstroh state that, "The literary specter haunting sports' burgeoning Information Age is no longer Michael Lewis and Moneyball but George Orwell and 1984."

Perhaps there's no better Orwellian example than a device known as "the patch"; a skin-adhesive, torso-mounted sensor that tracks everything from sleep habits, to skin temperatures. Players who consent to wearing the patch—in addition to routine blood testing—are enabling, for better or worse, their trainers to gain information that makes the NBA combine appear archaic in comparison.

In addition to the collection of an endless stream of biometrics, the NBA is perhaps more advanced than any other sport in its use of on-court-tracking technology.

"Before last season, all 30 arenas installed sets of six military-grade cameras, built by a firm called SportVU, to record the x- and y-coordinates of every person on the court at a rate of 25 times a second—a technology originally developed for missile defense in Israel," writes Torre.

While pivot tables may never replace NBA highlight reels, the immense amount of data collected from each game is certainly a growing factor in how NBA front offices shape their rosters.

In the following interview, edited for length and clarity, Torre explains the upcoming challenges for the NBA's collective bargaining agreement, players' apprehensions regarding the rise of advanced metrics, and ponders the eternal question "What Would JR Do?"

Gelf Magazine: Let's start with the good stuff, what's the most exciting biometrics-related theory you've heard? For instance, somewhere locked away in a white-walled room is there somebody poring through excel sheets, positing that JR Smith is underrated for his on-court intelligence?

Pablo S. Torre: "What would JR Smith do if his employer asked him to wear a patch on his body that tracked his sleeping habits, heart rate, body temperature and the angle of his torso 24 hours a day?" is a question that I often contemplated while working on this story. WWJRD is also just a great question to ask yourself, generally. But I did learn that a 25-year-old who sleeps four hours a night for one week theoretically has the testosterone levels of someone who's 36. Which makes JR only more fascinating. For various reasons.

Gelf Magazine: Is it possible to draw a line in regards to what is "too much" athlete testing and monitoring? How tough is it going to be to address this issue when NBA players and owners renegotiate the CBA?

Pablo S. Torre: The union ultimately informed us that this subject will be a priority when the CBA is discussed again, which looks like it'll be in 2017. And we're currently continuing our reporting on how, exactly, those conversations might unfold. If I were a union rep, though, the line I'd consider drawing would be the one already identified by Kings general manager Pete D'Alessandro, who told us, "We need to be able to have impact on these players in their private time." NBA players need to decide whether they want that very fundamental division between workplace and home to be semi-permeable. Maybe it's too late to rebuild that barrier, but it's a conversation worth having, even if only as a matter of principle.

Gelf Magazine: With the rapid evolution of technology and biometrics, after the new CBA is finalized, do you think there will be an issue regarding a new direction of monitoring or testing?

Pablo S. Torre: Absolutely. Most everything in the story, it's worth noting, developed in the last year or two. What happens when very smart people develop that implantable, all-in-one chip that can be inserted into an athlete's skin and feed continuous streams of biological data to a team? As Tyson Chandler put it when we asked him about that notion: "I'm not down with the alien stuff." We will have more alien stuff on the horizon, and—much in the same way that celebrities whose photos have been hacked aren't going to stop using smartphones—the degree to which it will seem alien at all will undoubtedly dampen over time.

Gelf Magazine: What's the fear level among athletes that their information will be leaked to the public in one way or another?

Pablo S. Torre: Players, as a population, haven't been thinking terribly deeply about these issues thus far. There has not yet been a biometric scandal or humiliation of note to force that conversation. But in the interviews we've done with athletes, there is an acknowledgment that they don't quite know where this data is going or how it's being used. The reality is that there would be incentives to obtain an athlete's sleep chart, for instance, or leak details to the press. The central question is how much you trust your employer to protect that information and leverage it only in your best interest.

Gelf Magazine: When you're reviewing the endless torrents of data, what's the most compelling or fascinating feature of advanced NBA metrics in your opinion?

Pablo S. Torre: I love the on-court metrics and am as eager to quantitatively understand and dissect defense as anyone. But the most fascinating stuff about the NBA analytics movement, if we want to call it that, becomes clearer when you zoom out. There is a larger story about what happens—good and bad—when you want to quantify everything about human existence.

Gelf Magazine: How cognizant are players of their shooting charts and other advanced metrics? Is there anyone player who you think utilizes these stats the best?

Pablo S. Torre: It wholly depends on the player, coach and front office. But it's safe to say that the answer is "increasingly." At this point, it's hard to consume basketball in any form and avoid advanced metrics—especially when your stock as an employee is rising or falling as a result of them. The answer to your second question was, until his retirement this year, Shane Battier. And it is both ironic and telling that Battier has thus far been the most thoughtful voice of skepticism when it comes to biometric testing.

Gelf Magazine: Do you see basketball ever surpassing baseball in terms of statistics-obsessed fans?

Pablo S. Torre: Yes, and we might already be there. I would wager that no sport has a more vibrant, internet-native population of fans than the NBA.

Gelf Magazine: If ESPN wanted you to wear a "patch" that would monitor all your vital stats, would you consent? Why or why not? (Note: John Skipper did not suggest this question.)

Pablo S. Torre: Absolutely not. I would have the testosterone levels of a 76-year-old.

Justin Adler

Justin Adler is a graduate of the University of Arizona. He blogs here.

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Article by Justin Adler

Justin Adler is a graduate of the University of Arizona. He blogs here.

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