Magazine article Insight on the News

Coaches Are Turning on Laptops to Fine-Tune Game Strategies

Magazine article Insight on the News

Coaches Are Turning on Laptops to Fine-Tune Game Strategies

Article excerpt

Businesses have used data programs to give them an edge on their competition. Now basketball teams are crunching numbers in an effort to win games. Indeed, algorithms are like a 'digital sixth man.'

The Orlando Magic dropped its first two National Basketball Association playoff games this past spring to the Miami Heat, in part because guards Penny Hardaway and Brian Shaw delivered lackluster performances. Trying to salvage the series, assistant coach Tom Sterner turned to his "digital sixth man": a data-mining computer program that helps him match his players against the opposition.

Searching through game statistics, Sterner discerned that when starters Hardaway and Shaw were on the floor, the team was down by as many as 17 points. When backup guard Darrell Armstrong replaced Shaw, the team had a 14-point advantage.

So for the next two games, the coaches dramatically increased Armstrong's playing time and Orlando evened the series. "It was an astounding thing," Sterner tells Insight. "One of the key parts of a coach's job is match-up analysis. Technology like data mining can really help with that."

Data mining and data warehousing -- the multibillion-dollar industry thE stretches from mainframes to laptops -- has had a huge impact on business. Vendors such as SAS Institute Inc., IBM Corp. and Data General Corp. have used algorithms, neural networks and other modeling tools to help corporate clients manage operations, target prospects and plan promotions. Now they're helping coaches set strategy on and off the court.

"The technology is still pretty new, and it only recently evolved from R&D [research and development] to real, practical business use," says Kay Hammer, president of Evolutionary Technologies International, a data-warehousing firm in Austin, Texas.

When Chicago Bulls superstar Michael Jordan retires after this season, as expected, the talent level in the league roughly will be even and many NBA coaches say the digital sixth man will determine the next league champion. "The application is worth at least a basket a game," says Bob Salmi, assistant coach of the Dallas Mavericks, another team that uses the technology. "And all of these games are close."

IBM, an official sponsor of the NBA, has championed data mining in the league. Researchers at the corporation's Thomas J. Watson Research Center teamed with Sterner and Salmi to develop a sports program that worked like a business application: extracting meaningful information from large amounts of data. …

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