Stats How It Is… Or Is This The Beginning Of The End For Refs?


The New York Times had an interesting article today on the NBA’s new attempt last night during the Lakers/Orlando final game to improve statistical analysis.  For the first time they had 6 high-def cameras filming every single movement of the players, refs, and of course the ball, complete with real-time analysis.  For those who don’t know, real-time analysis is exactly what it sounds like: as they mention computers instantly know if a block was goal-tending without having to go back and visually review it (like us mere humans do in the slo-mo replays).  Although the article’s point seems to be that this will be incredibly useful to evaluate exactly how well basketball players perform on a more complex level, it seems to me that the most useful immediate impact could be a lessening of referees’ powers.

If we have the technology so that there can be an instant beep when there’s a goal-tending, does it make sense to even have a ref try to make the call using his/her own eyes?  It should be fairly simple to program a beep when the person with the ball has even a fraction of his shoe touch out-of-bounds.  When several people grab for a rebound, even on slo-mo I often can’t tell who touched it last and usually the refs make their calls based more on physics (meaning if one player goes up for a rebound while the person behind him reaches forward to try to get it, if it goes out it’s assumed that the person reaching forward hit it last).  I mean how fascinating would it be if computer-stuff could determine that Dwight Howard hit the ball, but .0007th of a second later it grazed off Pau Gasol’s fingertip?  It’s an impossibility for the human eye to ever discern it, but for a computer it’s easy as sweet hot apple pie.  With a scoop of vanilla on top.  And whipped cream. Mmm…

Where was I?  Oh yeah, and besides hi-def cameras being able to perceive more subtlety, they also can survey more than simple humanoids.  For instance, often refs call a foul or tech on a player, but they missed the previous moment, not realizing it was the other player who started it (whoa, that made me feel like I was back in second grade — “he started it!  He’s the one who should be punished, not me!”  Although truth is that SHOULD matter in bball, with either a foul being called on the instigator or at least a double-foul/tech).  Or what about those plays where someone’s arm is caught under the arm of another player?  In replays we can often tell that the second guy secretly clamped his arm down on the first guy and won’t let go just so he can get that call.  It should be easy to determine the force of someone’s arm and whether they were really attempting to escape or if they were actually pushing the other way to get a cheap call.  Similarly, everyone complains about players taking flops instead of playing genuine D.  It should be simple math to figure out if the velocity of that player’s fall is equivalent to the amount of force the opposing player’s body had.

The list can go on and on.  With charges, it’d be a snap to determine if the player got their in time and if their feet were set before the other guy lifted up off the floor.  We’d hear a buzz if the tiniest bit of a finger was touching the ball when we hit 24 seconds.  And similarly if the shot got off, we wouldn’t stiff have to hear the annoying buzz.  The thing with all this talk, it’s not like futuristic-mumbo-jumbo where we need to wait for this technology to be invented.  It’s here now.  These are simple, simple real-time analytics that perhaps were indeed evaluated during last night’s sample game.  Literally all that would be needed was to install those cameras and computers in each arena, and since the NBA was able to do it in Orlando when at most they had 2 weeks heads up, it can’t be that hard.  With all the complaints about the refs during this post-season (& granted much of it was about techs), the question honestly isn’t “when will this happen?” but “is there a reason to not do this immediately?”