Israeli Company Uses Missile Software to Track Movement on Basketball Court

The technology in SportVU allows basketball players to analyze their movements at 25 frames a second. But the Israeli-developed software was designed not to bust myths or boost metrics. It was meant to track missiles.

Elad Zeevi
Elad Zeevi
Elad Zeevi
Elad Zeevi

Thanks to technology recent introduced to the NBA, Chris Bosh now knows he's not as bad a rebounder as he thinks he is. What he may not know, however, is that he has Israeli missile-tracking efforts to thank for his salvaged reputation.

In recent months, Bosh has taken a lot of flak over his prolonged dry spell in missed rebounds. He admitted that the criticism was justified. In an interview given in late January to Tom D’Angelo of the Palm Beach Post he stated "I'm my own toughest critic. I realize I have to do better."

His coach Erik Spoelstra and his teammates rushed to his defense. But his best rejoinder came from six 3-D cameras hanging from the ceiling of the American Airlines Arena in Miami. They dangle in 14 other NBA arenas as well, following players’ every move, 25 times a second. The system, called SportVU, offered the sort of proof that the best verbal excuse can't provide. It served up data that laid waste to accepted ideas about Bosh's ability and, in turn, restored his reputation.

It’s true that Bosh takes an average of only 7.4 rebounds per game, but there is now statistical data to explain the circumstances leading to this number. The champion team’s defense strategy involves more pressure and fast-breaks, leaving Bosh outside the paint. However, when he is about 1.07 meters away from a rebound, he will take it 74.6% of the time. This is a higher average than the team’s leading rebounder, Udonis Haslem, who tends to hover under the basket.

In an era in which teams look for any slim advantage over their rivals, every scrap of information is useful. Analyzing the fine points can be an infinite task. The system can detect the number of passes by Chris Paul, determine whom he should pass to, and how many of his passes result in assists. It can also measure the distance covered by Tim Duncan’s aging legs – and at what speed.

“When I got the concept, I realized that this system would become mainstream in the NBA," says a manager at the Minnesota Timberwolves, one of the first teams to acquire SportVU. “This is a war over information, and this is the future battlefield.”

The system was developed for a different battlefield, one that is much more real: its original intent was to track missiles. SportVU was developed in Israel by Miki Tamir, and sold in 2008 to STATS, an American company that provides statistical services to sports clubs.

"The system, and its ability to track individual players, was developed in Israel," says Hanoch Rahimi, manager of development at SportVU. The company has 20 employees in its offices in Hod Hasharon, operating under the umbrella of STATS. “The system originally tracked soccer players, but was adapted for basketball.

Teams in the U.S. now place great emphasis on statistical analysis, employing large teams of analysts. Until now, they had less to work with, but with the new system they can make amazingly detailed analyses."

SportVU is now wildly popular, with half of NBA teams using it. Negotiations are currently underway to supply the system to college teams and those on the Euroleague, as well.

The information gleaned from the system can significantly alter the style of the game. For example, at Boston they started analysing offensive tactics in which Rajon Rondo kept the ball for more than five seconds in one position. At Minnesota they noticed a great improvement in Nikola Pekovic’s scoring when teammate Ricky Rubio was on the court, so they now try to keep the Montenegrin and Spaniard on the court at the same time as much as possible.

The system allows for the extraction of immense information. One manager estimated that his team utilized only 5-10% of its capabilities. But every team can focus on different aspects. At 25 frames a second, the system offers a huge advantage to the teams that utilize it, and it goes beyond events on the court. The system can also dispel myths, refuting the notion that Bosh’s rebound performance was slipping, or that Monta Ellis was unstoppable. Players become more exposed, for better or for worse. This can affect their trading prospects as well as their next contract.

“The data is very important,” says Rahimi. “If a player takes 15 rebounds, this may look good. But what if he was supposed to catch 30? On the other hand, a player taking six out of seven possible rebounds is very impressive.”

West Team's James Harden of the Houston Rockets shoots as East Team's LeBron James, left, and Chris Bosh of the Miami Heat defend.Credit: AP

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