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Technology is key to NBA’s future, commissioner says

NBA commissioner Adam Silver (left), with Boston Celtics co-owner Wyc Grousbeck (right), counts beefing up the league’s social media presence as a goal.

Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

NBA commissioner Adam Silver (left), with Boston Celtics co-owner Wyc Grousbeck (right), counts beefing up the league’s social media presence as a goal.

In his first week as commissioner of the National Basketball Association, Adam Silver made a West Coast trip to tour the site of a proposed arena for the Sacramento Kings — exactly the sort of thing a man in his position is expected to do. His next stop wasn’t Los Angeles, to visit the Lakers or Clippers, however; it was Silicon Valley, to pick the brains of technology executives who might be able to help the league innovate.

As the NBA seeks to grow its popularity worldwide, technology will be the key, Silver said Tuesday in an address to the Boston College Chief Executives’ Club of Boston at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. Only a small percentage of NBA fans will ever attend a live game, he noted. Even fewer have a chance to sit courtside.

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“One of my goals as commissioner is to use innovation and technology to capture that courtside experience,” Silver said.

The league’s plan to accomplish that aim includes increasing access to high-definition game video on mobile devices, where Silver predicted a majority of fans will watch in the future. He added that game broadcasts will feature more audio, as well, enabling viewers to hear what players and coaches are saying on the floor.

Beefing up the league’s social media presence is another strategy, Silver said, with the idea that such networks as Twitter can offer fans “the equivalent of cheering, yelling, and booing, just as if you were in the arena.”

On his trip to California after taking office last month, Silver met with Twitter chief executive Dick Costolo and Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg to brainstorm social media initiatives to boost the sport’s popularity. He did not share specific proposals but said after his speech that there were intangible benefits to his visits.

“It’s amazing just to feel the energy,” Silver said. “Being in the halls of those companies, you could feel this is an incredibly smart group of largely young people who have a view that they’re changing the world. And we want to be part of that.”

Within league walls, he said, big data analytics are beginning to help clubs quantify aspects of the game that are conventionally considered immeasurable. Blocked shots, for instance, are easy to count, but altered shots — field goal attempts that go off-course because of an opponent’s tight defense — are much harder to tally.

Beginning this season, every NBA arena is outfitted with six SportVU cameras made by STATS, a Chicago-based sports data firm. The cameras are placed in strategic locations and make it possible to see when the trajectory of a shot is altered because of a defender’s good play.

The cameras also enable tracking of “rebound chances” — instances in which a player is within 3.5 feet of a rebound. That extra layer of data allows statisticians to calculate how often a player gets himself in position to collect a missed shot, and how often he succeeds

Rather than keep such detailed information in-house, the NBA has been posting it online to promote crowdsourcing of meaningful statistics.

Among the first to use the data were a trio of Harvard University undergraduates, who analyzed 83,000 shots from last season (when the cameras were in only 15 arenas) to study the “hot hand” — an old sports theory that holds a player who has hit several buckets in a row is more likely than usual to make his next attempt. Statisticians have long been skeptical of the hot hand, arguing that streaks are bound to occur in any large sample but that one shot has no bearing on the next.

Yet the students, who have since graduated, concluded that a hot player’s shooting percentage does, in fact, go up slightly — by 1.2 to 2.4 points.

“Now that we have richer data, maybe there is something to the hot hand, and you do want to get the ball to the guy who’s made four shots in a row,” Silver said. “Part of what is so powerful about big data is you collect it, and then it starts to tell stories. We’re collecting all kinds of new statistical data, and we’re democratizing it. Have fun. See what you can figure out. Maybe you’ll be smarter than our teams.”

Callum Borchers can be reached at callum.borchers@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @callumborchers.
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