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As anyone who has both a passion for watching sports as well as drinking beer with friends can confirm, there comes the occasional time where you get into hypothetical conversations on what would improve the game of sports. Each person seems to believe they are the atypical expert in the subject matter, offering up ideas that range from the fairly well thought out: we should cancel the football preseason, to the ridiculous: basketball would be so much better if they had trampolines (amazingly this thought has come true:  http://www.slamball.net/)

Well recently when the NBA announced a partnership with SAP my first thought as an avid fan of both was: “How cool is this?!” but it eventually got me to the aforementioned hypothesizing about ways that SAP Analytics could improve the game of basketball as we know it. Now to be clear, the deal with SAP and the NBA centers around improving the fan experience with SAP analytics which I see as a new and exciting venture for both companies. I have no insider knowledge of the deal and my understanding of it extends no further than this press release:http://www.sap.com/corporate-en/press.epx?PressID=19356. But as both an avid fan of the NBA and an SAP BI solution engineer, it got me to thinking about other areas in which the marriage of Analytics and basketball could benefit the game we know and love. Because good things always come in threes – I whittled it down to three different ideas in which the infusion of technology and the use of analytics could begin to give specific teams a significant leg up in the coming years.

1.       Understanding Players Worth

One of the biggest pieces of a general manager’s job is signing and acquiring talent, and one of the trickier parts of this comes when they must sign players to lengthy deals of four or five years. Right now there is no great way of projecting what players will become three or four years down the line and it often leads to a paradox where teams are paying the most money for older players who sit on their bench which leaves them with not enough money to retain their younger talent who are playing the majority of the minutes.

But with SAP Predictive Analysis, teams could begin to start projecting player’s performances and better understand exactly when players would start to break down and under perform. A team could hypothetically take all of the NBA’s past player data and by utilizing HANA’s in memory capabilities, sort through these massive amounts of records to sort it into divisions like position and game played. They could then perform regression analysis on these data points to understand not only when players will begin to break down but specifically at what rate they will decline each year. By better understanding this, general managers can then correlate the specific player’s salaries with their projected output, ultimately fixing the paradox and leaving teams with room to continuously pay their younger talent that is on the floor. 

2.       Managing Talent

The use of in-memory technology could also be used to manage the rapidly growing amount of talent that is being developed both overseas and within the NBA’s Developmental league. As the game of basketball becomes increasingly more global with the NBA now reaching into both Asia and Europe, the influx of talent is only going to increase over the years and the most successful general managers will be the ones that can harness this growth. With the use of HANA they can see player stats in real time and use SAP Dashboards to quickly sort from league to league and keep updated on players they are watching.

Along with overseas, the NBA announced this year that their Developmental League (referred to as the D-League) would now begin to be affiliated with specific teams. So teams like the Boston Celtics would now be able to utilize the talent from the Maine Red Claws (who comes up with these names?). As the D-League continues to grow and the NBA becomes much more like baseball in the sense of having a minor and major league, it will become increasingly important for general managers to have visibility not only into the performance of their own team but also the talent they have on their developmental team. Various analytical tools like Explorer will be extremely important to help them accurately assess players that they can’t always see in person.

3.       Coaching

While the first two areas have focused largely on the front office operations; perhaps the largest impact that SAP Analytics could have is on the coaching side. For anyone who has ever watched a basketball game, you have no doubt seen the camera pan over to a huddle and watched as the coach draws up a play on his whiteboard. With the boom of tablet devices in the past two years, I have to think that the whiteboard days are numbered. Already at Duke University, Coach Kryzweski has given each of his players and his coaching staff Ipads this year in place of playbooks. While he is one of the first I’ve heard I am sure he will not be the last, and as this becomes a growing trend, the importance of Mobile Analytics will expand rapidly.

Coaches could use SAP Mobile BI to monitor players minutes much easier than they do now, having alerts set up to notify them when a player has reached his threshold. They could utilize real time statistics to understand the tendency of the opposing coaches play calling. When it came down to the final two minutes the coach could go to his Ipad and say for example that with 73% certainty that the ball will go to their star player for a drive to the hoop based off all of their previous plays. By using third party heat maps that can integrate with SAP software, coaches can understand exactly where they need to shift their defense; something no white board could ever tell them. Ultimately coaches would be able to react to information that they now typically review after the game or in the film room the next day- except they’d have it in real time as it happened.

Throughout the history of sports, technology has played a vital role in how the game is played. It seems almost undeniable that the next big adjustment will be the introduction of real time analytics and the use of mobile analytics on the sideline by the coaching and training staff and it seems that SAP is well positioned to assist in this transition.

What do you think?  Agree? Disagree? Other possible ways that you see SAP Analytics can be used within basketball and all sports?  Let me know.

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