Tom Haberstroh, ESPN (http://espn.go.com/nba/story/_/id/14763202/how-biometrics-turned-kawhi-leonard-star)
In 2011, when the Spurs lost to the eighth-seeded Grizzlies in the first round of the NBA playoffs, it seemed possible their epic run was finally ending. Like 29 other teams, they needed the next Tim Duncan, if such a thing existed. Unlike other teams, though, they had no evident way to get one. Their winning record earned them low draft picks, and a roster of cheap journeymen and untouchable older guys left them without high-grade trade assets.
Except: entering-his-prime George Hill. Yes, that George Hill, the point guard whom coach Gregg Popovich still raves about half a decade later. In a move few saw coming, Hill was shipped out on draft night for the Pacers’ first-round pick, 15th overall. Experts have learned to be cautious in criticizing the Spurs — so many of their moves pan out — but it was a genuine head-scratcher to trade a proven commodity for a roll of the dice.
Not five years later, somehow the Spurs are arguably better than ever, and that 15th pick — an unheralded prospect who struggled to average 16 points a game in the Mountain West Conference — is creeping into the MVP debate. Entering the second half, Kawhi Leonard owns the league’s fourth-best real plus-minus, ahead of LeBron James and Kevin Durant. His rise has been so rapid and unexpected that he earned a starting spot in the All-Star Game even as half the nation remains unsure how to pronounce his first name (all together now: kuh-WHY).
But Leonard’s success is far from a happy accident. It stems from a revolution in body analytics that is transforming the NBA, one human being at a time — and from a player whose mind and body size up perfectly for this new world.
MEASURING NBA PLAYERS has long been, at best, an inexact science.
Like, exactly how tall is Charles Barkley? Listed at 6-foot-6 his entire career, it’s revealed in the memoir I May Be Wrong but I Doubt It that he’s really been 6-4¾ all along. According to the NBA’s official guide, four-year player Mario Bennett withered from 6-9 to 6-6 in the 1998 offseason. It’s been said that Kevin Garnett insisted on being listed at 6-11 to avoid the paint-patrolling tasks that 7-footers are subjected to. So: 6-11 it was.
This imprecision extends to the box score, where it’s not hard to find home cooking at work. In his Motor City heyday, Ben Wallace somehow blocked a generous 653 shots in Detroit but just 458 on the road. More recently, Anthony Davis, in his first All-Star season, averaged 3.7 blocks at home and just 1.9 on the road. The Hornets averaged a whopping 5.0 more assists per game at home from 1994 through 2002.
Commissioner Adam Silver, czar of the uniquely technocratic NBA, is not wired for this kind of fuzzy math. When he took over for David Stern two years ago, he made a series of changes to sharpen the NBA’s measurements. For the 2013-14 season, the league partnered with Stats LLC and installed SportVU player-tracking cameras in every arena. Now player speed, distance traveled and acceleration can all be cataloged and chewed on by data-crazed NBA fans and teams. The cameras even track potential assists. (Sorry, Charlotte!) To help dig into the mountain of data, the league office hired Harvard graduate Jason Rosenfeld as director of basketball analytics in the summer of 2014. The following March, the league began its first systematic public assessment of referees, publishing “Last Two Minutes” officiating reports.
More quietly, in 2014 Silver hired a sports science institute called P3 Applied Sports Science to modernize the league’s draft combine. Beyond using tape measures, P3 puts players through a series of movements assessed by high-tech force plates embedded in the floor and cameras shooting from multiple angles, all feeding data into laptops. The founder, Dr. Marcus Elliott, says P3 asks not just how high do you jump but also how do you land and how high and how quickly can you jump a second time. The goal is to find patterns that predict injury. If a player lands on his right leg with disproportionately more force than his left, for example, that might be a signal of weakness in his left ankle. Even the smallest hitch in a player’s running pattern could, over time, create a chain reaction of physical breakdowns, a human butterfly effect.
So it is that the NBA has become primed to optimize a player with the right unique mix of physical attributes — the type of player who might have been overlooked just a few years ago.