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USA TODAY
Jon Swartz, @jswartz, USA TODAY

Chris Bosh is a 6-foot-11 basketball superstar who has won two NBA Championships with the Miami Heat and an Olympic gold medal in 2008. He's a nine-time All-Star with a silky smooth jump shot.

In other words, he's as accomplished as any baller this side of LeBron James and Kobe Bryant. Yet when he heard about a new player-efficiency software program in development at All-Star festivities earlier this month here, he sought out its maker, SAP, and asked for an instant demo.

"I'm open to using any tool that helps, especially since we live in the information age," says Bosh, who attended Georgia Tech for a year before going pro. "This is amazing stuff."

The pilot program that riveted Bosh, called SportVU, records every movement and action of a player during a 48-minute game. In all, 792,000 data points for the game's participants are plotted. With a few clicks, an athlete can be evaluated based on shooting, spacing on the court, speed, dribbling and other factors. A video component of each play is available in a small screen within the program.

The intersection of elite athletes and data parsing is becoming as common in sports as videotape review and pregame shoot arounds. Every major league is increasingly driven to find a sliver of an edge in training and in-game performance. "Tech comes in waves in the way it can transform an industry -- first it was banking, then retail, now sports," SAP Chief Marketing Officer Jonathan Becher says.

At the NBA All-Star Jam Session, SAP oversaw several basketball courts, where the skills and physical traits of participants were recorded and printed on cards, with profile photos. Cisco Systems, Samsung Electronics and Sprint also had displays.

SAP's spin is why shouldn't the very attributes that define the efficiency of an athlete be applied to non-sports ventures?

"Too often, companies look at the college and grade-point average of an applicant, without putting as much thought into their drive and how well they would work within the confines of a team," Becher says.

"It goes beyond stick-your-logo in stadium awareness," says Becher, a Duke graduate and hoops junkie. "We have to show customers what SAP technology can do for them."

SAP's full-court NBA press comes on the heels of its participation as a sponsor at Super Bowl Boulevard, the NFL-themed festival that ran through the heart of Manhattan.

"Our target audience is changing; we're no longer selling to C-level types," says Chris Burton, head of SAP global sponsorship. "With mobile growth, there is a huge focus on the consumerization of IT."

Sports data analysis has been, well, overanalyzed since Michael Lewis wrote the best-seller Moneyball on the 2000 season of the Oakland A's. Since then, seemingly every major professional team has sliced and diced data to gain a statistical edge.

With its use of YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, the SAP and the NBA have teamed on NBA.com/Stats, which offers fans instant and unlimited access to NBA stats and analysis, including every box score since the inaugural 1946-7 season.

Where it gets really interesting are advanced stats, based on shooting, rebounding, defensive efficiency and the success of player combinations on court at the same time. Data can be shared via Facebook, Google+ and Twitter.

Nonetheless, the danger of compromising athletic spontaneity with the overuse of data weighs on the mind of Philadelphia 76ers rookie guard Michael Carter-Williams, who weighs the pros and cons of studying data to improve his game. "It's pretty interesting, but I don't know how much difference it would make," he says. "Most players rely on instinct."

Goran Dragic of the Phoenix Suns is decidedly old school. "I never look at analysis," he says. "I go out and play as aggressively as possible. I haven't gotten a look at something yet that has changed my mind, but I am willing to."

Ultimately, data must be used judiciously, says Vivek Ranadive, principal owner of the Sacramento Kings and CEO of Tibco Software, a multibillion-dollar real-time computing company.

"Just because you give someone a word processor, that doesn't make them Shakespeare," says Ranadive, an advocate of big data who believes in predictive-analysis programs to assess talent. "But if you make available to them something that can improve their instincts, and be as smart as Magic Johnson, then you're on to something."

 

February 28, 2014

 

 
 

 

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