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Pictures at a Basketball Revolution

The Clippers and Second Spectrum just introduced Clippers CourtVision, a product that could revolutionize the way we watch and talk about the NBA. But what happens when every basketball question has an answer and all the magic tricks can be explained? Is it possible to know too much about the game we love?

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander dribbling the ball with math scribblings around him Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The more basketball information that is made widely available to fans, the smaller the gap between casual consumer and coach. What used to be the stuff of film rooms and closed-door meetings is now at our fingertips. And that development has been largely for the better: More people have a deeper understanding of basketball than ever before, which has changed how we talk about the sport.

It’s interesting to go back in time and think about how hotly debated NBA moments would have looked in today’s sports discourse. Take Game 1 of the 2006-07 Eastern Conference finals, between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Detroit Pistons. Pundits and fans lost it when LeBron James passed up a shot in the closing moments of the game, instead dishing to Donyell Marshall. LeBron said he was making the “winning play,” but that’s not what we thought we wanted out of our stars. We were still under the influence of Kobe Bryant and hero ball. And we argued about it. A lot.

What if there were a computer program that could settle the argument? What if there were something that didn’t change just the way we talked about basketball, it changed the way we thought about it? How would those changes affect the game?

Wednesday, the Los Angeles Clippers and the sports technology company Second Spectrum launched Clippers CourtVision. When talking about technology, it’s easy to get lost in keywords and hyperbole, but this could be a new way of watching basketball. CourtVision uses machine learning, data visualization, and augmented reality to enhance the broadcast. It offers a variety of different camera angles and audio commentary options. You can even watch the game with in-arena sound, which makes your couch feel like a seat in the lower bowl of Staples Center.

CourtVision can be used in several different modes—Player, Coach, and Mascot—which use live tracking stats, play charts, and graphics, respectively. It’s like mainlining an advanced statistics database, a playbook, and a video game with an actual sporting event. And it looks even cooler than it sounds.

“As much as I love doing demos of word processors, this is a little sexier,” Clippers owner Steve Ballmer said Wednesday to a small group of reporters at Staples Center before Los Angeles’s season opener. Second Spectrum CEO Rajiv Maheswaran joined Ballmer for the presentation.

CourtVision merges postgame analysis with in-game action. In Player mode, a color bar above the player changes as their effective field goal percentage goes up and down. So a 40 percent shooter from midrange will be red, but a 40 percent shooter from 3 will be green, because of the difference in shot value between each spot on the floor. The percentages will be rolling, Maheswaran said, so at the start of the 2018-19 season, for example, Tobias Harris’s numbers will be based only on last year until he accumulates enough data this season.

Forget Monday-morning quarterbacks; this could create the Wednesday-night analyst. Had CourtVision existed in 2007, we’d have known whether James made the “correct” decision. People might have still debated whether LeBron should’ve passed to Marshall, but, as Maheswaran told The Ringer, “It moves the conversation. It’ll be different: It would have been a way shorter debate or not have happened at all.”

Augmented graphics existed before CourtVision. The NFL has used yellow first-down markers for three decades, and MLB has featured strike zones for nearly as long. But those graphics focus on numbers such as speed, distance, and location. Second Spectrum is using computers to process information that is far more illustrative of performance. “What we wanted to do required a machine to understand the game like a coach or a human, then augment it,” Maheswaran said. “John Madden taught us a lot about football, and, because of the breaks in the game, he drew a lot on the screen. We want to bring the same thing to basketball.”

The goal is to “dump the brain of a coach” into the technology, Maheswaran said. Coach mode has visualizations of off-ball screens and pick-and-rolls, among other offensive actions, as well as how a team defended a pick-and-roll and whether a player is open based on their distance from a defender.

Mascot mode seems like it’s made for children, with thunderbolts striking after made 3-pointers or a dime dropping following an assist. It’s cute, and a bit gimmicky. But I can see the appeal for adult fans who want a unique, late-night viewing experience. It’s like watching a game with a Snapchat filter on.

CourtVision is still in the early stages of development; it’s currently only available on Fox Sports Prime Ticket, though other Fox regional sports networks can take steps toward using the technology if they choose, Ballmer said. There’s also currently a two-minute lag time between live action and CourtVision, which Maheswaran said Second Spectrum is working to cut down to tens of seconds.

Ballmer calls it Version 1. “There will be a Version 2,” Ballmer said, “and we’ll look back in five years and say, ‘Boy, that really was a Version 1. Things have really transformed.’” In late 2014, when Ballmer and Maheswaran first met about the technology, it was an automation of rectangles and icon art on a 2-D map. It’s come a long way already, and Maheswaran said they expect the technology to evolve during this season before a major update for the 2019-20 season. There’s room to grow.

Adam Silver and the NBA view the Clippers as a guinea pig. I asked Maheswaran whether this technology would be used by Second Spectrum’s national television partners, Turner Sports and ESPN, or the NBA by next season, and he said he would be “extremely surprised” if this is the only technology out there by the end of this season.

When asked for comment, NBA commissioner Adam Silver told me: “No one understands the intersection of sports media and technology better than Steve Ballmer, and every team will benefit from the pioneering work that he and Second Spectrum are doing to enhance the game experience. I look forward to seeing the results.”

Second Spectrum’s goal is for everyone to watch sports this way. “There will be a day we look back and say, ‘I can’t believe we used to watch everything the same way at the same time,’” Maheswaran said. “This is the start of that. It’s like rolling off the first car or computer. It’ll get a lot better, but the first one that ships off the factory line is super exciting.”

Ballmer said one of the concerns raised by Clippers head coach Doc Rivers is whether fans will someday just be looking down at their phones—or up at the Jumbotron—instead of at the live action. Doc may have a point, but this is where the future of sports broadcasting is going, one way or the other. And it doesn’t stop with the NBA. Second Spectrum has had discussions about developing similar digital interactive experiences for the National Football League, Major League Baseball, and Major League Soccer, along with each sport’s top broadcasters, Maheswaran told The Ringer. He expects soccer to be the next focus, but that’ll depend on which league or broadcaster has the appetite to move forward.

Analytics have already changed the way basketball is played and how we watch it. Teams are shattering 3-point records, the pace is increasing, post-up play is dying off, and we’ve got pick-and-rolls coming out of our ears. It would be unfair to call the state of the game homogeneous, but the league feels like it’s moving collectively in a clear direction.

A decade ago, it would’ve been criminal for a player to pass to a corner 3 shooter instead of attempting a layup. But it’s become the norm today. Statistics tell us this is the right way to score the most points in the most efficient way possible. But when every question has an answer, it’s not as fun to ask in the first place. If there is a right choice to make in every basketball sequence, will that kill the magic of watching a team or player offer their own solution?

A similar type of revolution has already happened in baseball, and it hasn’t been a purely good thing. Sabermetrics have made player assessments and team philosophies less of a debate and more of a science. As teams’ analytics departments have grown, the product on the field has become more mechanical. Pitchers are throwing more balls out of the strike zone and hitters are taking more pitches, so plate appearances last longer (which has worked against MLB commissioner Rob Manfred’s mission to limit the length of games). Home runs and strikeouts are up, but so are walks and hit by pitches. Fewer balls are hit into play, which means exciting moments like a right fielder chasing down a line drive in the gap have become less common. Players also aren’t attempting to steal as many bases. Starters aren’t going as many innings. Teams are leaning on their bullpens more than ever. The sport has begun to feel more calculated, more automated. As Michael Baumann wrote, “Baseball has never looked quite like it does now, for better and for worse.”

In baseball, these collective tactical and philosophical shifts are tied to an idea called TTO, or three true outcomes: walks, strikeouts, and home runs. That sounds a lot like basketball’s version of free throws, layups, and 3-pointers. We casually call that Moreyball, because it’s a playing style popularized by the Houston Rockets. But maybe it’s time we echo baseball and call it TEO, or three efficient outcomes.

I love watching the Rockets play, but I’m in the minority. Morey has painted a unique picture in Houston, with a team that will likely shatter its own 3-point-shooting record this season. But as more and more teams begin to play that style of basketball, the new will become the norm.

Perhaps the NBA will enforce rules that curtail the shooting revolution, if it gets to a point where the product feels diluted. We aren’t there yet. Ratings are up. Money is flowing in. Franchise values are soaring. The NBA is more popular than ever. But technology like CourtVision could change the viewing experience in unexpected ways, just as analytics continues to change the game on the court. No one can predict where it’ll lead us. But baseball has shown that a smarter league isn’t always a better one.

Basketball is a more difficult sport to analyze than baseball because it involves 10 players moving all at once, compared with a momentary contest between a hitter and pitcher. Basketball analytics can’t inherently reach the level of baseball analytics. Context still matters. Whether it’s the case of LeBron’s end-of-game passes, or a regular-season swing pass by Lou Williams to Danilo Gallinari, the numbers you’ll see on the CourtVision screen are merely probabilities. It’s a tool that can better help us find the answers, but it’s not the answer. With CourtVision, and the Second Spectrum technologies that will soon reach a national scale, education will be vital to drive the conversation forward and avoid the meaningless and unhelpful old-school-versus-new-school rivalry.

Eventually, statistics will enter the mainstream, likely through the augmented-reality experience. Already, the terminology has started to pop up in everyday conversation and punditry. Maheswaran told me how he and his employees heard Doug Collins use “shot probability” on NBA Countdown following a meeting with Second Spectrum. “The language is out there,” Maheswaran said. “People are starting to use it.”

At one point during Wednesday’s presentation, Ballmer began hinting at bigger dreams: virtual-reality technology. Maheswaran interjected, saying they weren’t supposed to talk about it. But Ballmer did anyway. The Clippers owner described a future when a viewer could see the game the way individual players see it. When tracking cameras could understand which direction Patrick Beverley might be looking, and a program could make computations to project his view and put it on the screen. “That requires a lot more software, but it’s not something we think is 10 years out,” Ballmer said. “We think it’s something that we hope to have before our lease runs out at Staples Center [in 2024].” Analytics are transforming the NBA, and the viewing process is next. The future is coming fast. This is the beginning.

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