As number crunching and video splicing get smarter, is the British game keeping pace?


The new wave of technology and statistical analysis has created Basketball version 2.0 for both fans of the NBA and those inside its bubble.

‘What’s in a number?’ used to be a simplistic equation turned up in a basic box score or a small selection of linear performance indicators readily understand by anyone following the game.

These days, you probably require a Ph.D. in Advanced Mathematics to get your head round some of the analytics available – most, in the case of the NBA, fuelled by the tiny SportVU tracking cameras installed in the roofs of arenas across North America and an ever-expanding industry that has sprung up in the field of performance data.

Scouting, signing, coaching, efficiency: we’re still only scratching the surface of what might be understood in the Moneyball era and how the combination of plotting X-Y co-ordinates and the evaluation of impact on (and even off) the court can be sliced, diced and dissected to alter the way decisions are made.

It’s a new world order. Despite scepticism from the old school, few would dispute that the stats boffins have added a fascinating fourth dimension to the simple universe of two hoops, two teams and one ball.

Dallas have turned numbers into titles (NBAE)

Dallas have turned numbers into titles (NBAE)

But what kind of impact is this evolving craft making in the British Basketball League, where the only cameras are mounted on tripods and the numbers game still primitive by comparison?

Where each NBA team spends $100,000 annually on the SportVU system and data-driven front offices like the Dallas Mavericks and Houston Rockets have entire divisions dedicated to the pursuit of algorithmic perfection, some BBL coaches work on a staff of one.

“I do look on RealGM sometimes,” Glasgow Rocks player-coach Sterling Davis ruefully admits. “But you need the time or someone to really be studying those. I wish I had an assistant to do that, absolutely, just to focus on that part of preparation.

“But there are so many other things I have to make happen, between games and when games are coming up. I don’t have the capacity to study the numbers as much as I could even if I can see the benefits from them.”

Davis is not alone in lamenting the lack of resources available to scratch beyond the basic numbers, even with now providing an array of advanced statistical tools measuring player and team efficiency – on a pace-adjusted basis that provides a meaningful comparison over the four key factors of shooting, rebounding, turnovers and free-throw rate.

Some of them pose intriguing questions. Some give forthright answers. The stats, contrary to popular wisdom, do lie. Cheshire Phoenix’s Taylor King might be leading the BBL charts with 20.4 points per game. But is that worth more than Leicester Riders’ Rashad Hassan who contributes a league-best 0.7 points per minute?

Or even look at Nick Lewis who is fourth in points per minute, adjusted for pace, a trait that flags up the young Sheffield Sharks guard as much more prolific than you might assume at first glance – and might make you wonder why he so often sits behind the nominally-less efficient BJ Holmes.

Go on a team basis and no team gives up less points per game than Leeds Force. But throw in pace and – per 100 possessions – only Durham Wildcats and Surrey United rank worse defensively than the go-slow Force.

“Numbers might help us,” says Newcastle assistant Dave Forrester. “Hassan for example is shooting the ball more times per minute than anyone else in the league. He doesn’t get the reps that Demond Watt might get because they’re playing 35 minutes and Rashan’s playing 26.”

Different teams have varied emphasis. Much is down to the head coach. A lot is dependent on points of emphasis combined with a personal feel for the game.

“I look at free throw attempts, I look at fouls,” Cheshire’s John Coffino declares. “I look at field goal percentage,. It tells me what types of shots they’re taking. If they get to the free throw line a lot, that says you’re taking high percentage shots which is a dangerous team that puts pressure on the defence.

“If you’re making high percentage shots and your field goal percentage is high, it suggests your choices is better. And that factors into whether we’re going to be playing more interior or exterior defence.”

It’s one giant SWOT analysis, admits Leeds assistant and numbers guy Kevin McQuade, part of a four-pronged autopsy crew that includes Matt Newby, Bob Muir and Samit Nuruzade. “We take a look at who the main threats are from outside and see how that will relate to our defensive strategies.

“Because so much of our defence is about our switches. If you have a guy who is high on assists, we have to adjust to that because normally if they’re penetrating more, they’ll generate more assists that way. We’ll then have to adjust our coverage.

“Personally, I look a lot at rebounding stats. That’s the big one for us because we’ve a lot smaller than other teams. The first time we played Leicester after they got TrayVonn Wright, you could see what a thereat he was straight away in terms of offensive rebounding. So we need a strategy to limit that.

“We’ll look at the team rebounding per game but also rebounds per possession. (Opponents) maybe get an offensive board every three possessions – we could deal with that. If they’re getting one every one or 1.5 possessions, we need to change something.”


Of course, the statistics are only one half of the millennial coach’s toolkit. The other weapon is video: edited, mashed, picked apart and put back together again. And this season, the BBL has collectively bought access to Sportslounge (pictured above), a German-based storage and analysis system.

The era of begging DVDs off coaching buddies is over. It is now obligatory for each home team to upload videos of their games within 48 hours at the latest, giving everyone (almost) instant access to what their competition is up to – allowing coaching staffs to create clips which can, in turn, be given over to players as specific points of learning, with tags created to show who was involved at what time.

“You can really lock in on personnel from the other team,” asserts Leicester’s Rob Paternostro. “We always try to anyway. But it’s not a scavenger hunt now to find the tapes. We have them all. It breaks it right down.”

Into defensive misses and wins, or specific offensive gains and losses, underlining the successes and failures of both an opponent and of your own team.

“It’s also always good to break down what teams do well when they win as opposed to what doesn’t go well when they lose,” says Forrester who goes through a lot of the footage with both Fab Flournoy and Eagles’ video analyst Ian MacLeod. “Because you want to know their best pattern: who shoots well, how often do they get to the line? Who can bait you into fouls? Who do the guys need to stay disciplined on?

“It’s fairly basic, unfortunately. But that’s time and resource. And you have to be careful about doing too much. We use Sportslounge to break down tape and give the guys clips. They can watch their plays as they develop on their iPads. The skill is picking out the relevant ones.”

Ultimately, Forrester acknowledges, it’s about the film backing up the numbers and vice versa. And any information passed onto the players is distilled rather than dumped en masse. “There’s no point in giving them everything. But we want to know how teams are scoring. It’s not about pure stats, it’s about how many touches they’re getting per minute, who’s likely to shoot the ball, who’s likely to pass it. And it gives you a heads-up on the pace they play at.

“You can see that on the video. But the stats back that up and augment it. The numbers fit in with what the guys see and it reinforces it. We want to set up our defence in way that gives them problems they weren’t expecting to have to solve.”

There is, Coffino argues, a place for old fashioned scouting, for trusting what the eye can see and what the mind determines. The American’s philosophy is to watch every opponent in person three teams as quickly as possible and then determine what they do best.

“And then you try to take that away from them,” he underlines. “That’s not really statistical. But there are a lot of teams that rely on the three-point shot and I feel if we can make them uncomfortable there, maybe holding them to one shot, teams like London or Manchester or Durham.”

But the movement for advancement continues, even if the BBL’s own technology has been caught out on the fast break. Paternostro has already stolen a march on his rivals by plugging into some of the collegiate scouting systems in a bid to sign unpolished gems for Leicester.

The Riders are also thought to be the only British team to have invested in additional analytical tools by employing Krossover, a New York-based service that provides “sports intelligence” and focuses on breaking down video into a variety of above-the-rim factors including deflections, setups, fast breaks and drives left and right.

It saves time, Paternostro claims, with he and assistant Mark Jarram able to concentrate on teaching and planning rather than poring over tape. “The guys can go away after the game and watch very play they made, every rebound, every shot attempt they had,” he reveals. “So it’s not just a great tool for the coaches but also the players. There’s no hiding any more. You make a mistake you can go see it so it’s been wonderful.

“It’s similar to RealGM, all the advanced stats, pace of play etc. that we monitor. For us it’s been great. And as the season’s gone on, we’ve got more comfortable with it. It’s helped us win games, no doubt.”

What it can’t do, as he declared after Leicester’s recent Trophy final defeat, is “do anything about a 26-footer that goes in.” But, he adds, “If you look at the way Newcastle score the ball, we saw certain areas where we thought we could stop them better because of Krossover.”

Knowledge is power. Few BBL teams are managing to incorporate all of the insights – yet – into their in-game strategies, although it’s no surprise that Newcastle and Leeds – with two staffs who are good at tweaks and tinkering – expend effort in looking outside the box (score).

“(Bob Muir) will look at how successful we’re doing in offensive and defensive transitions,” Leeds’ McQuade confirms. “He’ll look at how they’ll either get scores or get to the line – and we can look at that for adjustments at half-time.”

This, inevitably, is only the start. Where the NBA goes, the rest – funds permitting – will follow. The revolution has begun, more with a whisper than a bang, but quietly behind the scenes, the data mining is exerting an influence which will only grow in the season’s ahead.

As more information comes on stream, bet that it will be scooped up and digested rather than buried by a delete button.

“I’d like everything – I’d also like 36 hours in a day to go through it,” Forrester smiles. “It would be nice to have pictorial representations of where the guys are on court.

“We don’t have time to go through every shot taken and shot made. But BBL teams tend to get into a rhythm. By February or March, you don’t see a lot different, and that includes us. It’s just about getting better about what you do.”

One byte at a time.

Outside shots

Rob Paternostro praises Leicester Riders young guns

Paul Sturgess wants to put himself back in the picture for Cheshire Phoenix

BBL Insider appears every Tuesday on MVP

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