As a faculty member in the University of Southern California’s computer science department and a passionate sports fan, Rajiv Maheswaran decided a few years ago that he wanted to pursue his interest in fusing sports and digital analysis. There is no better breeding ground for such interests than the annual MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in early March in Boston.
Maheswaran, his mind open to ideas, attended the 2011 conference along with co-founder and Sudbury native Yu-Han Chang. They returned to Los Angeles with innovation in their sights. They combined on a work that was voted Best Research Paper at the 2012 Sloan Conference, and shortly thereafter formed the Los Angeles-based Second Spectrum, an analytics firm employed by several NBA teams, including the Celtics. Second Spectrum offers information on hundreds of plays, scenarios, and possibilities for teams seeking more concrete data to maximize their rosters and playing rotations.
For example, with a few pecks on his computer, Maheswaran, the company’s CEO, can digitally break down how Cleveland’s LeBron James works with a series of different lineups on pick-and-roll or side-out-of-bounds plays. Maheswaran has hired a full staff to compile all of this data, including 10 former MIT students. Five played men’s or women’s basketball at the school.
While Maheswaran did not want to reveal the number of teams employing his service, he did hint that several NBA playoff contenders are on the client list.
Ten years ago, basketball analytics were merely plus-minus figures, and a majority of old-school coaches scoffed at the notion that data, not basketball knowledge, could determine optimal lineups for various situations.
But the business of basketball analytics has grown exponentially, so much so that most NBA teams have at least one analytics staff member, and several teams use the information to determine lineups and play calls. For example, analytics researchers have determined that the worst shot possible is a long 2-pointer, not a 3-pointer.
The NBA has invested more money and workforce into analytics, allowing fans to research their website for players’ offensive ratings, defensive ratings, and impact estimate, things not available five years ago.
“We brought a machine understanding of the sport, where basically the machine could understand the game pretty close to a professional coach,” Maheswaran said. “For example, we’ve been able to find pattern-recognition algorithms, very highly accurately classifying not just every single pick-and-roll in a game but they can tell you if it’s the wing, middle, or step-up, did the guy take [the ball to the basket] or reject [the pick] or not, did the guy slip [the screen] or not, what type of defense did the defender play? Was there an off-ball screen? Was there a blow by? A drive? A kick out?
“Every word in basketball, our machine now knows. The useful thing about that now is a coach can say, ‘Who runs the most pick-and-rolls? Where do they run them? What kind of defense do teams play against them?’ and in one second get video for all situations. And if they don’t trust the numbers, they can watch the video and figure out exactly what happened. That is a capability no one has had before and it’s changed the way teams have strategized.”
Maheswaran said the computer watches the game “the way the coaches watch it” and then Second Spectrum hands that information to the coaches to determine how to interpret the data. Like baseball, where a manager may have a gut feeling that a righthanded reliever will retire a lefthanded batter, it is up to each organization whether to play the percentages or stick with intuition.
Analytics can also determine the chances of a player making a shot from anywhere on the court. The information seems limitless. “We have quantified what was previously unquantified,” Maheswaran said.
Maheswaran said his staff “trains a computer the way we train a child,” inputting hundreds of plays to ingest. The staff also inserts a bunch of shots, and factors about those shots, that the computer digests.
“It will learn this kind of shot goes in 42 percent of the time by an average player and 52 percent of the time with this player,” he said. “You can ask the computer questions about lineups. We have a lot of people on our staff who both know basketball and know computer science.”
Second Spectrum has an accessible website for their clients with software to use. Other teams use a video interface to interpret data.
“One of the things we have learned is you have to be ridiculously accurate in order to get an NBA coach to trust you,” Maheswaran said. “You are not going to be able to pass their smell test unless you’re very, very accurate.”
There is a constant stream of new information to interpret. There are no reports on current NBA rookies because they have yet to play in a preseason game. But once rookies such as the Celtics’ Terry Rozier and the Mavericks’ Justin Anderson begin running plays and developing patterns, they will become part of the system.
For Maheswaran and Chang, who holds a PhD from MIT and an MS and BA from Harvard, helping teams determine the best method of success is a thrill. They are hardly computer geeks using the NBA as another program to master — they are true fans.
“We have a pickup basketball game, and a third of the people in the company show up,” Maheswaran said. “We go to games together. Everybody here loves what we do. We’re sports people who happened to be really good at computers.”
Class of 2012 hits major crossroads
Players entering their fourth season have until Oct. 31 to agree to long-term contract extensions, and that includes the Celtics’ Tyler Zeller, Jared Sullinger, and Perry Jones. Toronto’s Jonas Valanciunas agreed to a four-year, $64 million contract last week. He was part of the 2011 draft but spent his first season in his native Lithuania, making him eligible as if he were in the draft class of 2012.
Given the 2012 draft was considered mediocre at best, there doesn’t appear to be many players who will receive an extension. Here’s a list of key players who are eligible and whether they are likely to sign an extension or become a restricted free agent:
■ Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Charlotte — This could be a close one. Kidd-Gilchrist has developed into one of the league’s best young defenders but offensively his jumper is broken and he’s a work in progress. The Hornets are trying to establish themselves as a more consistent franchise and have already paid Kemba Walker. Kidd-Gilchrist’s first three years have been uneven at best. He’s a small forward who has taken 18 career 3-pointers. An extension is possible but nowhere near the maximum.
■ Bradley Beal, Washington — There is a very good chance the Wizards lock Beal down for the next five years. He has averaged 15.6 points per game in his career and just turned 22. The Wizards would be best served getting a deal done with Beal to lock up their backcourt, with John Wall, for several years. Next comes chasing down a certain free agent small forward next summer.
■ Harrison Barnes, Golden State — Everybody is getting paid in Golden State, why not Barnes? But the Warriors may wait to pay him because they gave former second-round pick Draymond Green $85 million. The Warriors may want to be patient with Barnes because they have to pay Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andrew Bogut, Andre Iguodala, and Green each at least $10 million per season the next two years.
■ Terrence Ross, Toronto — An extension doesn’t seem likely. The Raptors like Ross’s athleticism but he has been wildly inconsistent in his first three years and may come off the bench this season. Ross desperately needs a breakout-type season and then he could become an attractive restricted free agent next summer.
■ Andre Drummond, Detroit — He should be the Pistons’ first priority. Drummond was a question mark coming out of UConn but he proved to be a hard worker and more mature than expected. Drummond doesn’t only want to be a game-changing defensive player, he wants to become an offensive factor. If the Pistons are going to become a factor in the East, they have to lock up Drummond.
■ Meyers Leonard, Portland — Leonard was a potential cornerstone coming out of Illinois, but as with his career with the Illini, the light doesn’t always comes on for the 7-foot 1-inch center. He has posted moderate numbers in his first three years but with Robin Lopez gone to the Knicks, Leonard should get increased minutes this season and perhaps develop into a contributor. An extension isn’t likely.
■ John Henson, Milwaukee — Since the Bucks signed Greg Monroe to become their starting center, that says something about how the club feels about Henson, who has been a defensive presence but hasn’t developed into a bona fide contributor. If Milwaukee were to sign Henson, it would be to a modest deal. Henson needs to show more on the offensive side.
■ Maurice Harkless, Portland — It would be tough for the Trail Blazers to sign Harkless to an extension before he appears in a regular-season game for them, so they’ll probably wait. If Harkless proves to be a standout, he may become an attractive restricted free agent. There is a lot of incentive for Harkless to flourish after three forgettable years in Orlando.
■ Zeller, Boston — Zeller has created a nice role for himself with the Celtics. The team could agree to a modest extension for a center who averaged 10.2 points and 5.7 rebounds in just 21.1 minutes per game last season. The Celtics have been hesitant to make long-term investments to secure cap space, but this may be one they pursue.
■ Terrence Jones, Houston — Jones has turned into a steady power forward, although he missed most of last season with a nerve injury in his leg. He may never develop into an All-Star but he is a nice complement to James Harden and Dwight Howard. An extension would be a prudent decision by the Rockets.
■ Andrew Nicholson, Orlando — He is flourishing for Team Canada but Nicholson hasn’t made the expected impact with the Magic and will likely be headed for restricted free agency. The issue for Nicholson is that Orlando has so much young depth that some players such as Harkless had their roles reduced. Nicholson played just 12 minutes per game last season.
■ Evan Fournier, Orlando — A trade from the Nuggets to the Magic briefly revived Fournier’s career but he soon saw his playing time dramatically reduced after suffering injuries. The Magic will likely wait on Fournier to develop under new coach Scott Skiles, making an extension unlikely.
■ Sullinger, Boston — His agent, David Falk, told the Globe in February that an extension wouldn’t be possible unless it was for the maximum — an estimated $85 million. That won’t happen, meaning Sullinger is headed for restricted free agency and that is probably better for both sides. Sullinger is determined to prove he can stay healthy and in shape.
■ Tony Wroten, Philadelphia — It’s impossible to determine what the 76ers will do with any of their young players. Wroten is coming off a knee injury and is a shoot-first guard who has been playing point in Philadelphia. It’s safe to say general manager Sam Hinkie waits on this decision. Wroten did average nearly 17 points in 30 games last season but it required nearly 15 shots per game.
■ Perry Jones, Boston – An extension won’t happen because Jones is still not a cinch to make the team. If Jones flourishes during his first season with the Celtics, he could be an attractive restricted free agent next summer and could earn a hefty raise. But Jones will have to play better than he has during the first three years of his career with the Thunder.
■ Festus Ezeli, Golden State — Like Barnes, Ezeli is eligible for a raise but because the Warriors are paying so many players big money, they are expected to wait until some contracts come off the books before investing in him. Also, the ex-Vanderbilt standout has to stay healthy and consistent. He played well during Golden State’s playoff run and needs to display more of his potential.
Crowder was diagnosed with a sprain. Crowder is back to participating in full workouts, and Celtics assistant coach Jamie Young traveled to Miami last week to conduct workouts with the freshly re-signed swingman, who agreed to a five-year deal in July. Celtics coach Brad Stevens has yet to project a starting lineup, but Crowder will definitely compete with Evan Turner at small forward . . . The Canadian national team is trying to claim a spot for the 2016 Rio Olympics and just announced its 13-man roster for an exhibition tournament in Puerto Rico. The tournament is a prelude to the FIBA Cup in Mexico City, which begins Aug. 31. The two finalists in the 10-team tournament will qualify for the Rio Olympics. For those looking for a basketball fix before training camp begins, this will be it. Team Canada includes Celtics forward Kelly Olynyk, former BC guard Olivier Hanlan, Rookie of the Year Andrew Wiggins, 76ers guard Nik Stauskas, Lakers center Robert Sacre, Mavericks forward Dwight Powell, Raptors guard Cory Joseph, and Magic forward Andrew Nicholson. Team Canada is expected to emerge as an Olympic medal competitor and Rio could be the breakout. The other teams competing in the FIBA Cup are Mexico, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico Venezuela, Uruguay, Panama, Argentina, and Brazil. Olynyk had said he wanted to play for Team Canada and skipped the Celtics’ summer league entries to participate. The Canadian team is led by former Raptors coach Jay Triano . . . While 76ers center Joel Embiid underwent another foot surgery that is expect to cost him a second season, team officials are even more concerned about his long-term health. Embiid was in Las Vegas for the 76ers’ summer league stint but was not healthy enough to play, leaving some in the organization to ponder why he was in Las Vegas. Embiid’s seriousness about rehabilitation and reaching his potential has been questioned by some, and it won’t likely be until next summer that the former third overall pick hits the court. Philadelphia is already rich with young big men with Everett product Nerlens Noel and former Duke standout Jahlil Okafor.
Success in China
China got another big name when former No. 1 overall pick Greg Oden signed a one-year, $1.2 million deal with the Jiangsu Dragons of the Chinese Basketball Association. A look at some former NBA players who just enjoyed a successful season in China: