Sublime Athletics

Data visualization reshapes how players are evaluated and also how we see them

One of the most straightforward appeals of watching sports is the way a camera can vaunt a player’s heroics. During the 2001 NBA playoffs, which lasted eight weeks, the Los Angeles Lakers’ first and only loss was in game one of the finals against the Philadelphia 76ers. With 50 seconds on the clock in overtime, Sixers guard Allen Iverson took Tyronn Lue one-on-one toward the corner, right in front of the Lakers bench. There, Iverson made a crossover dribble to create space, stepped back, and hit a shot to give the 76ers a four-point lead, 103-99. As the shot lands, Lue turns and stumbles to the ground in front of Iverson. Iverson takes an emphatic step over him, gingerly looking down before stoically running down the court. The 76ers would hold on to win, 107-101.

Iverson’s step became a standalone clip that represents his mythos as a player. Those few seconds of gameplay are perennially satisfying, even independent of their playoff context. They offer a form of catharsis, in the image of a dominant individual player transcending the team coordination required in basketball. Obviously Iverson’s stat sheet that night had an impact, but what’s memorable about the clip is how it seems to showcase what sportscasters might call his “intangibles.” The angle at which Iverson’s step happened to be filmed elevated him above and beyond the circumstances of the game.

It is not self-evident that a camera automatically does players justice. Cameras can separate an athlete’s greatness from the competitive stakes of the sport itself

Still, it is not self-evident that a camera automatically does players justice. In 2013, SportVU player-tracking cameras were introduced to all stadiums with the hopes of grounding the on-court acrobatics in the field of statistical models. According to Stats LLC, the company that owns the SportVU technology, the cameras use “semi-automated pixel recognition” to track the “positional x,y,z data of all players, officials, and the ball.” This data can then be used to narrow down habits and patterns to predict and improve a player’s contribution. Though the NBA has never had more cameras, the challenge of visually conveying a player’s contribution to a game’s outcome remains complicated. Cameras can separate an athlete’s greatness from the competitive stakes of the sport itself.

Athletes don’t have much say in how they are filmed, yet they are constantly performing in a public arena with lights and cameras and an audience. In sports, there is no pretense of illusion that comes with this. It is often seen as unscripted, presented as is. No matter how much fans and announcers might cry unbelievable, the cameras appear to translate ineffable moments into objective outcomes.

Artists, however, have isolated images of athletes during games to surreal effect. Artists Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno cut together film from one 2005 soccer match, using only footage of French midfielder Zinedine Zidane. Through the condensation of the material captured in real time by 17 synchronized cameras, the viewer picks up on his tics, foot patterns, the sweat in the creases of his eyes when he smiles. (The film is aptly titled Zidane: A 21st-Century Portrait.) Paul Pfeiffer manipulated still and moving images to similar effects. His series Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse began with his digitally editing publicity photos of Marilyn Monroe to remove her from the frame. He repeated this manipulation with archival NBA photos, transforming images of eager players into bodies in anonymous jerseys frozen in animated wonder. A 1999 work, a video loop called Fragment of a Crucifixion (after Francis Bacon), shows basketball player Larry Johnson, his team name and number erased from his jersey, staggering in infinite celebration.

Before the 2016–17 NBA season, Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James started talking about “chasing the ghost” from Chicago. During the 2017 finals, commentators couldn’t get enough airtime comparing his career with that of Michael Jordan. I looked at their respective career stats: James is currently averaging a career 50 percent field goal rating, 0.3 higher than Jordan. However, Jordan averaged slightly more points per game and holds a consistently higher field-goal-attempt average. James has a higher career assist average and takes far more three-point shots. Jordan thrived as a midrange shooter; James finishes at the basket as well as any player in NBA history.

Digging through the statistics of one player’s season can quickly become complex. Sometimes complexity is beautiful. The search for clarity, for objectivity, brings a feeling of awe. If in sports, cameras can present the viewer with moments of catharsis, then analytics may express the inherent ingredients that go into those moments. Advanced statistics, like player tracking, challenge and change what a viewer might immediately experience. In 2014, ESPN introduced the “real plus-minus” stat, which like the “advanced plus-minus” statistic it’s derived from, accounts for how many points a player is responsible for while he is on the court, but also compensates for the influences of teammates, bringing out in the numbers constraints that can’t necessarily be seen.

Even if a viewer doesn’t know these stats, the players remain dynamic to watch. Their contributions during a game are obvious, even if you don’t keep your own box score, they show up in objective measures like fouls, free throws, three-point shots, blocked shots, steals, assists. But if you consider the disconnect between assists and field goal attempts between James and Jordan, aspects of their on-court personalities come into sharper focus. You can anticipate which player is likely to share the ball in the last minutes of a game. Likewise, one can intuit a player’s aggression based on technical fouls.

If in sports, cameras can present the viewer with moments of catharsis, then analytics may express the ingredients that go into those moments

The more we visualize data, the more complicated it becomes to assess a player’s value. In an article for Grantland, Kirk Goldsberry outlined a type of beguiling event he labeled the Kobe Pass or Kobe Assist. He noted that Kobe Bryant’s missed shots often led to offensive rebounds that either produced another offensive possession or an immediate two points on a put-back. At the time of Goldsberry’s article, Bryant’s gross close-range shooting, once you accounted for those put-backs, was effectively 73 percent.

Goldsberry, now the vice president of strategic research with the San Antonio Spurs, developed shot trackers — 2-D images that showed where players thrived offensively and defensively on the court — to make such statistics legible. In these images, the court was outlined with color points added that range along a temperate spectrum, allowing for a human eye to recognize a player’s shooting habits at a glance.

The Toronto Raptors, early adopters of SportVU cameras, seized on that technology’s coaching potential, developing software that transformed accumulated SportsVU data into basic animations that play like a coach’s X’s-and-O’s whiteboard, accounting for players’ positions and re-creating possessions. That alone serves as a useful addition to watching game tapes, but the software takes tactics one step further, including a doppelgänger of each player that moves according to an algorithmic calculation of what a player optimally could have done based on their previous captured performances. It brings something like real plus-minus to life and uses it to trace out alternative histories. In a Grantland feature on analytics, Zach Lowe refers to this technology as the “ghost system.” Lowe quotes Toronto head coach Dwane Casey reacting to SportVU: “It’s a good backup for what your eyes see … But you can’t make all your decisions based on it, and it can’t measure heart, and chemistry, and personality.” Those subjective elements, which make sports more than just a stat sheet, are not only essential for coaching but also heighten the experience of sports as a viewer.

A player’s highlight reel often consists of spectacular dunks and dizzying ball-handling. The more uncanny a move looks, the more likely it is to replay on SportsCenter. Traditionally, sports analysts, players, and coaches have relied in their assessments on what amounts to an eye test: interpreting player potential through how good they look on the court. (Artist Andrew Kuo summarizes this sentiment with the term dribble bias.) The term mental toughness starts to get thrown around.

A prime example of a basketball player that passes the eye test, even thrives under its criteria, is former Cavs point guard Kyrie Irving. His field-goal percentage actually increases the more he dribbles. Here is a case where the human eye and SportVU cameras seem to see identical events. Irving’s strengths are his one-on-one scoring. In the 2016-17 season, he averaged 25 points a game and shot 40 percent from three-point range. His true shooting percentage, 58 percent, which includes three-pointers and free throws, puts him among the top 10 for the season at his position. What your eyes might not highlight if you watch Irving is that he’s infamously poor at passing, a traditional skill for a point guard. (Playing with LeBron James, an excellent passer, helped compensate for this deficiency.) The fact that Irving is so fun to watch highlights how the intangibles can blind us to player value with respect to the game. And yet, the intangibles are so damn exciting.

The photographer Eric Payson watched the entire 2001 NBA playoffs with a camera, taking thousands of photographs of the games on a projection TV. He and Mark Holborn then edited these photographs into the book Gladiators, published in 2004. Payson includes photographs of coaches, referees, and announcers, but the subjugated fighters of the book’s title are certainly the players on the floor. His photographs contain an expressionism that is missing from present-day methods of player tracking. A photograph of Baron Davis of the Charlotte Hornets is almost entirely black. His figure is present where the light picks up the sweat on his shoulders, the chiaroscuro lighting on his face is framed by the blackness of his headband.

Catharsis is what propels Payson’s images from screen-grabs to instances of tension and release. Dirk Nowitzki rises from the floor in protest. An image of Shaquille O’Neal hovers in mid-opacity as coach Gregg Popovich confronts a referee. Kevin Garnett grits his teeth as his image jitters across the television scan lines.

I’m a fan of Oakland teams, accustomed to heartbreak. During the 2000s I watched the rise and fall of the Oakland Athletics and their analytics-driven approach to team building in the “Moneyball” era. The last time I felt defeated by basketball was watching the Golden State Warriors lose in the 2016 NBA finals to the Cavaliers, after being up in the best-of-seven series three games to two. In Game 6, the Cavaliers were up, 99-87. Warriors point guard (and league MVP by unanimous vote) Stephen Curry lunged for a pass to LeBron James. He missed the attempted steal, and his momentum led him across James’s path. James stumbled with the ball, and a foul was called on Curry, his sixth. The Cleveland crowd cheered; everyone knew that Curry had just fouled out of the game with four minutes remaining. Curry spins and pulls out his notorious mouth guard and flings it in frustration, receiving a technical foul.

This was blatantly out of character. Ordinarily, Curry is known as a jolly player, dancing on the sideline, taking three-pointers with a cheeky turn back down the court, blindly anticipating the ball’s falling through the net. He brings his daughter Riley to press conferences and makes featured appearances on his wife Ayesha’s cooking show.

Fouls and fights are not calculated alongside true shooting percentages, but the patterns that players display in moments of anger shows how sports allow for glimpses at the limits of physical exhaustion. In the case of Curry’s technical foul, emotions overrode the rules of the game.

Without having seen Payson’s photographs, I wouldn’t have found Curry’s ejection intriguing. I still watch the clip to see how many steps he takes to get momentum on his mouth guard as he offers a challenge of bullshit.

While everybody watched Curry’s ejection, did the SportsVU cameras keep running? How did they react to his jerky movements and zigzag steps? I imagine his ghost software counterpart standing still in contemplation of the real No. 30s emotional footsteps.

Thuto Durkac-Somo is a cofounder of the zine Us Neither and a video editor in New York.