IBM Watson, NBA Raptors Seek Data ‘Slam Dunk’
“With the [to be determined] pick in the first round of the 2016 NBA Draft, the Toronto Raptors—with the help of cognitive and analytics technology—select….” While it may not unfold that quickly, the professional basketball franchise announced this week it is partnering with IBM to use Watson cognitive computing and analytics as part of its talent evaluation process.
IBM (NYSE: IBM) said it teamed with the Raptors and Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment to develop a platform called IBM Sports Insights Central, or what IBM touts as the “fusion of design, strategy, technology and data.” The partnership also illustrates how statistics-driven sports like professional basketball, baseball and football are a natural fit for data analytics and, IBM hopes, cognitive computing.
As professional sports leagues pursue parity—that is, an even playing field giving each team a shot at making the playoffs—franchises are looking for any advantage they can get beyond traditional scouting, talent evaluation and the occasional diamond in the rough. (A prime example is Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors: Six NBA teams passed on one of the great shooters in league history before the Warriors selected Curry in the 2009 NBA draft.) Masai Ujiri, Raptors’ president and general manager, said the partnership with IBM would help automate a traditionally manual process while allowing the team “to evaluate our current roster and potential changes in ways that were not available before.”
IBM also promotes the sports insights platform as helping teams make split-second decisions about potential trades during hectic player drafts. The platform includes data on a team’s current roster along with all NBA players and professional prospects from the college ranks and overseas leagues. (Indeed, more NBA franchises are using their two draft picks allotted each season to select players outside of North America).
The first version of the sports platform combines IBM’s Watson cognitive computing technology built on the company’s BlueMix cloud development platform with other cloud services from IBM Research. Those tools include a “tradeoff” analytics package designed to assess possible roster combinations. IBM also claims its Watson sports platform can provide player “personality insights” using linguistics analytics “to understand player personality and social characteristics that align with the organizational culture.”
According to blog post by an IBM researcher, Raptors’ management and the coaching staff could use these insights “to select players who will form a cohesive unit. No prima donnas.”
Jon Lenchner, an IBM research scientist, added that the Raptors are using the first version of the Watson-based player evaluation platform. “We plan on offering the package of technologies to all sorts of sports teams around the world in the coming months,” he noted.
The platform also includes APIs used to scan the sports pages to help flesh out player profiles.
Major League Baseball pioneered the use of sports analytics to help small-market teams compete with deep-pocketed rivals like the New York Yankees. The NBA has been playing catch up, working with a statistics vendor that supplies a growing amount of player and game stats for Watson to sift through.
These stat services also videotape every NBA game from various angles to provide information on every offensive possession or defensive “stop.” That data is shared among the teams, and IBM is betting that “the winners in this competition are the teams that do the best job of mining the data.”
For early adopters like the Toronto Raptors, currently in first place in the NBA’s Atlantic Division, the analytics push could make the difference between simply qualifying for the playoffs and playing for an NBA title.
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