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Countdown: NBA going techie?

Let me first apologize for not writing the Countdown last week. A bad bug did me in. More important, here are a number of ideas that will change the way you view basketball and other sports over the next decade.

"Avatar" technology.James Cameron's blockbuster was filmed with the help of motion-capture suits worn by actors. The facial expressions and movements of the actors were recorded and then converted digitally into animation. That is how the actress Zoe Saldana was transformed so convincingly as the character Neytiri, an animated blue alien 10 feet tall.

The NBA is hoping to apply similar technology to someday track every movement of its players during every game. "I'd like to have all of the information James Cameron was getting in 'Avatar,'" said Steve Hellmuth, the NBA's Executive Vice President of Operations and Technology.

Hellmuth isn't interested in capturing the facial expressions of LeBron James and Kobe Bryant. At least, not yet. But he would love to be able to track and analyze every movement of every player during every game by attaching sensors to the uniforms and shoes. "We can track the players as blobs on the court -- where they're going and what they're doing," said Hellmuth. "So I'll be able to figure out the positions of the shoulders, the feet."

Mavericks owner Mark Cuban believes the technology can help improve players' fundamentals: "From shooting form to how they get over a pick," he said. "If we can do release-point comparisons on a shot, like they do with baseball pitchers, we may be able to improve our shooting."

Another obvious application for this new data would be for video games. "It could be used for simulations," Hellmuth said. "It could be used for coaching staffs, fans, mobile applications and a definitive statistical representation of the game for analysis."

In other words, the league won't begin to understand all the opportunities until it actually has the data in hand. "All kinds of things can flow out of player tracking, and I can't tell you what fans are really going to latch on to, but I'm certain they will latch on," Hellmuth said. "For starters, when Kobe scored his 81 points [against the Raptors in January 2006], we could have used player tracking to tell you who was guarding him.

"I'm really bullish on this. We need to pick the right system, the right technology, stand it up and then develop applications around it. We're on the road to it, and it's valid, no question.

"Eventually, we'll have face recognition, and we'll keep layering technology to improve it. We may get it to where 'Avatar' is today."

Universal stats. Tracking the players' every movement could open up a new world of statistics. "We could use it to analyze 'contested shots,' which is one of the most important stats," Hellmuth said. "The key to that stat is the shooting percentage of the player who is being contested. If Andrei Kirilenko is contesting the shots and the opponent is shooting 20 percent, then you can say he is the best defender; but if someone else is contesting and the opponents are shooting 48 percent, then he's not being effective."

The problem with these kinds of stats is that basketball is a subjective sport. Just as referees can have trouble judging the difference between a block or a charge, so, too, do coaches argue over how to define the gray areas of a basketball game. "All coaches have a different definition of the contested shot," he said.

Without the benefit of player tracking, Hellmuth attempted to keep track of contested shots four years ago. "It was a great stat, but the coaches found it of limited interest," he said. "The coaches won't agree on these stats or agree to share them. I need a consensus opinion of what a deflected ball is, what a contested shot is, what constitutes changing a player's shot. These are all things the coaches keep track of. I have to figure out how to surface this stuff."

Here's how this issue applies to fans. The basketball world is filled with all kinds of intriguing statistical minutiae to which you hear stat-crunchers like Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and Rockets GM Daryl Morey referring. You know this information is out there, and sometimes you can find it online, other times you can't. And even when you can find these numbers, they raise more questions about their credibility, their relevance and what they really mean.

Different teams keep track of these numbers in different ways. The Rockets, for example, hire analysts to log every game in order to create their own database of statistical information.

Hellmuth appreciates the value the NBA could create by performing that type of analysis in a universal way that would be available to anyone who visited the NBA's web site. First he would need to develop a universal definition for each stat that would make it credible, so that coaches and teams would agree with his interpretation of a "contested shot" and, therefore, give credence to the NBA's numbers. Then he would need to hire a lot of people to compile the numbers by watching every moment of every game and compiling the data.

"I would have to spend money in the middle on loggers to do it," he said. "It's something I have to do, which is assess the value of doing it centrally."

Cuban questions whether motion capture can be used to compile statistics, but he is entirely behind the idea of a database maintained by the league. "This is big," said Cuban. "Right now, every stat-oriented team spends too much money charting games. If the league would capture straight-forward things like deflections, location of fouls, reason for a foul [and if it's inside the circle], the entire league will be smarter and at a lower cost to the teams."

"I would have to spend money in the middle on loggers to do it," Hellmuth said. "It's something I have to do, which is assess the value of doing it centrally."

Someday fans may have access to all of the ultimate insider's information that teams now study in secret. "You'd need to explain it to fans and bake it into their experience so fans can enjoy the game," Hellmuth said. "The one I love is pitch-speed in baseball, because that's something everybody understands when you watch a pitcher: If this guy is a fastball guy and he dips under 90 mph, that means bad things can happen and he's getting tired. Those are not the kinds of hard-and-true facts that are represented in the box score."

3-D Video. "Scoreboards aren't going to have 3-D anytime soon," Hellmuth said. "[It's] not going to happen because glasses are required to watch 3-D. You can't put on glasses and watch the game too, it just doesn't work."

Hellmuth does, however, envision practical uses for 3-D video away from the arena floor. "What I can see is 3-D expansion to venues in the environs of the arena, or a convention-center space or meeting space across the way for teams that are sold-out, like the Lakers or Raptors or Mavericks," he said.

Instead of attending the game in person, you would watch it on 3-D in a club. "You would watch it in 3-D from a single camera, like you were sitting in a courtside seat," Hellmuth said. "You can replicate the courtside experience."

On top of the 3-D screen would be a second screen showing the televised version of the game with the variety of cameras and statistical information. "So you're at a club or some kind of building or space associated with the team," Hellmuth said, "and you've got the Jack Nicholson seat in 3-D and you're wearing your glasses sitting [virtually] courtside with your friends. And above that 3-D screen, almost like the scoreboard above the court in the arena, you have the game as it's being broadcast, with all of your replays and stats and announcements, and that 'scoreboard' is living inside your 3-D shot. We're going to try to pull this off and demonstrate it during the playoffs this year."

Hellmuth oversaw the successful 3-D broadcast of Game 2 of the 2007 NBA Finals that was shown at QuickenLoans Arena in Cleveland to 14,000 fans. Eventually he hopes to transport this technology to other countries. He says the league has been working with HP on rear-screen sets that use multiple projectors to blend images while enabling viewers to sit nearby the screen.

"We're thinking of 3-D in particular for China and other strong NBA fan bases like Turkey and Greece and Mexico, in order to bring the NBA experience to those fans," Hellmuth said. "It really is a transforming experience to have a seat at an NBA game near courtside. We can put them in that seat 3-D. If you watch in high-definition when LeBron is accelerating up court and making people look silly, he doesn't look as fast as he really is. But if you see him in person or in 3-D, you can see how explosive he really is, how he goes zero-to-60 as fast as anybody I've ever seen. And the same goes with NFL players. It's really remarkable."

Cuban anticipates a growth in 3-D among private viewers. "It will be seen far more often in homes for the NBA," he said. "Expect to see a bunch of games broadcast this coming season."

The death of the dry-erase board. Coaches still diagram plays in the huddle on a white board with an erasable marker. But the technology exists for them to use live video on the bench during games.

"This is a matter for the competition committee," Hellmuth said. "In other sports, as well, they don't allow video on the sideline. In the NFL, [players and coaches] have to look at the Polaroids. We have looked at it and discussed it, and it's something that needs to be discussed by the competition committee. But obviously this is something better than the dry-erase board. I use one of those when I coach my kids in grade school."

So why not institute sideline video for coaching staffs? "We were concerned it might set off an arms war courtside, so that the team with the best video wins, and for the wealthier teams that relay video courtside it gives them the advantage," Hellmuth said.

Every team already makes use of video in its locker rooms at halftime and before and after games. They log into a browser-based application maintained online by the NBA that provides video replays of any kind of play, as logged by NBA analysts. "A coach can log in and say, 'Give me all of Dirk [Nowitzki]'s shots with two minutes or less in the game when the [difference in] score is five or fewer points,'" Hellmuth said. "You can enter that and get every play."

The league has made the database available to broadcasters like HBO (which scoured it for highlights used in its recent documentary about Magic Johnson and Larry Bird) and sponsors like Nike, which was seeking highlights for 10 of its athletes. EA Sports uses it to model players for its video games.

A similar database is used to log every call made by referees to discern and correct habitual weaknesses in judgment (though easier said than done).

Live video on the sideline could be an addictive tool for coaches who would be trying to show a player proof that he wasn't blocking out or failing to rotate with urgency. But Cuban doubts its practical application in game situations.

"When I bought the Mavs [in 2000], we had still cameras installed at the top of the arena so our coaches could look at defenses and our spacing at any time," he said. "They didn't really use them because there really isn't enough time. We already use up all of halftime [studying] video cuts, but having better in-game capture of stats would be a bigger help. I think teams would even be willing to pay for an additional stat person at games."

Interactive media. All types of possibilities exist for cell phones to turn into interactive handheld televisions, in addition to all of their other uses. But Hellmuth, who believes the huge high-def screens in arenas are more than capable to handling such communal tasks, sees the league taking greater advantage of social networking through phones.

"I don't believe that pushing highlights to fans with video and stats on their phones is what it's all about," he said. "The idea is to push a message along the lines of, 'Who do you think the top scorer for the Knicks will be in the second quarter?' It's easy social gaming. Ten people in your section picked David Lee, and if you win you're go to win this redeemable coupon. Something like that where fans can interact on mobile device at the game. Connecting audiences via social networking and mobile apps is where this thing is going. All the numbers seem to say that.

Hellmuth said the NBA is currently working on enhancing its social networking, but they have yet to develop applications that link fans to arenas in the manner the league has hoped for.

While Cuban sees the value for fans in those networking apps, he doesn't think they necessarily work to the NBA's advantage. "We aren't going to push in-game social networking," he said. "Anything that has a fan at the game looking at a screen of any size in their hand means they can't clap and aren't participating in the game. I strongly believe that participation is of far greater value to the entertainment quotient than any handheld application."

He is, however, investing in what he calls "big-screen HDTV real estate" in the home.

"Via interactive TV, you won't need anything more than your remote control and we will be able to connect Mavs fans, integrate e-commerce of all kinds, and of course offer stats," Cuban said. "While multi-tasking is easy and popular, it really doesn't make sense to require a Mavs fan watching a game to make sure they have a phone or PC available to order tickets or merchandise while they are watching the game. I would rather program the blue button on the remote and create 'Blue Button Specials.' Press it and you can get deals on tickets or merchandise during a game. Or press the green button and get a chance to participate in competitions as simple as pick who gets fouled next, or will he hit the free throw while the player is on the line. I think interactive TV still has a long way to go, but we want to get ahead of the curve and it will have a far greater impact on the business of sports than people expect."

On to the rest of the Countdown ...

The MVP candidate is averaging 28.8 points for the Nuggets, the No. 2 seed in the West.

On being more than a scorer. "As far as me making guys better -- passing the ball, hitting the open man more -- I think I've been doing that for awhile. And we need that. Everybody on this team, everybody in the NBA knows I can score the basketball. But that's not [the only thing] I want to be known for."

For much of his seven-year career, Anthony has been labeled as a one-dimensional scorer. "I think any time you do something so well, it takes away [from] all the other assets. You score the ball well, people say you need to pass the ball more. It's a double-edged sword for me."

Anthony said he draws strength from the progression of Kobe Bryant, whose priorities were questioned before he led the Lakers to the championship last year. "He's one of my close friends. I always look at his situation to see what he's been through, and he's been through all of that. People say he's shooting the ball too much, he's not passing the ball, that he only can score the basketball. He deals with all that stuff, or he dealt with it."

On what he would have thought as a rookie if he could've seen video of the way he plays today. "I always was looking forward to getting better in different aspects of the game. I damn sure wasn't looking forward to seven years from then. It was four or five tough years for me to get where I'm at right now. But I'm just getting started -- that's how I look at it. Just getting going."

Anthony believes he plays in the elite tier alongside Bryant, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. "I think I've done that. I've proved to myself, I've proved to everybody out there in the world. You talk about top players in this league, if I'm not mentioned -- and I'm not saying that to just toot my horn -- but when you mention the top players in the NBA, something's wrong if my name doesn't get mentioned."

On how the Nuggets no longer can focus on winning shoot-out games. "Yeah, especially me. I got to forget that I'm a scorer on the team. I got to forget that. If it takes me to drop my scoring down to 12, 13, 14 points to win a basketball game or win a championship, then I'm willing to do that."

On George Karl. Anthony used to battle with his coach, who is receiving Anthony's support as Karl undergoes treatment for throat and neck cancer. "We're very sensitive to this situation. We support him, we're here with him. I don't think he really want us to be down and be thinking about it. We're here fighting it with him.

"Of course we don't want to hear anybody that's close to us go through a situation like that. He's our head coach. He's been here with me for six years, so we've had a chance to grow with each other. Me, personally, I never want to see nobody go through that."

Their relationship has matured, says Anthony. "He was [new] as far as coming to the team, I was young [when I came into the NBA]. So I was still trying to learn the game, I was still thinking I can do it this way, and he's thinking I can do it another way. And, yeah, we did bump heads at certain times. I had to swallow a lot of my pride and ego, or check it at the door and say, 'If I want this to work, I'm going to have to be the bigger man."

Other young players might have demanded a trade or a coaching change. "I didn't. Actually, I fought for George to stay here -- his contract extensions and all of that stuff. I fought for him to be here. So, despite all the stuff that we done been through in the past, he's still here, and I don't even think about [the past] anymore."

I see all the leading scorers, but a lot of them take a ton of shots to get their points. Who is the most efficient scorer in the NBA, meaning most points per shot?-- Alan, Makati City, Philippines

The player whomakes the most of each shot is Orlando's Dwight Howard, who is averaging 1.82 points per field goal attempts this season. No one else is close in this category, as Corey Maggette andNene Hilario are Nos. 2 and 3, respectively, with1.57 points per attempt from the floor. Among the league's 10 most efficient stars are Chauncey Billups (1.54 PPS), Gerald Wallace and Paul Pierce (1.5) and LeBron James and Carl Landry (1.48).

This stat has long been a favorite of the Sacramento Kings and team president Geoff Petrie, with the understanding that 1.2 points per attempt was excellent and 1.4 was at the high end. Fifteen players are averaging at least 1.4, and 80 are at 1.2 or better.

In a recent Sports Illustrated NBA players poll, there were players who said they felt LeBron James is overrated. I couldn't believe it, and neither could about 100 other basketball fans I asked. This guy is the best player I've ever seen, bar none. The only thing he hasn't done is win a championship and it isn't his fault he has been surrounded by Damon Jones, Larry Hughes, Drew Gooden, Donyell Marshall and others (Wally, you know who). It shows NBA players can hate and show bias with the best of them.-- Peter, Philadelphia

I agree with you, Peter. Two years ago I raised the question of whether James was underrated, considering how much he was accomplishing in the playoffs without starring talent around him. Three percent of the players polled by SI named LeBron as the league's most overrated player, but I'm guessing a lot of that feeling has to do with complaints that he benefits from so many calls at the end of the game. Defenders believe they won't receive a fair accounting against him in a close game. Perhaps they feel like he receives extra credit unfairly, since he hasn't even earned a championship yet.

But I'm with you. The guy is terrific in all areas. And as he has matured, he's learned to defend and make the hustle plays that separate championship teams from the rest. He was the most-hyped high-school player ever and he has managed to exceed expectations in the NBA. So how can he be overrated?

If Chris Bosh leaves, would it be ideal for the Raptors to get a true center with a real inside presence that they so sorely need? If so, which productive centers could the Raptors possibly get?-- Jamal, Vancouver, British Columbia

If Bosh leaves in a sign-and-trade, then the Raptors won't have much leverage to demand a top talent in return; if they demand too much, then Bosh can simply move instead to a team with cap space and leave Toronto with no compensation for his departure. The point here is that the Raptors won't be calling the shots if they can't retain Bosh.

That doesn't mean they can't come up with someone good. When Joe Johnson moved to Atlanta in a 2005 sign-and-trade, the Suns received Boris Diaw, who won the Most Improved Player award in his first year with Phoenix. When GrantHill signed with Orlando in 2000, the Pistons received Ben Wallace, who became a four-time Defensive Player of the Year and a star on their 2003-04 championship team.

It's impossible to predict anyone the Raptors might receive in a sign-and-trade for Bosh as it depends on where he wants to play next season. Who knows, he may yet remain with Toronto.

From Nuggets VP Mark Warkentien, a former assistant to Jerry Tarkanian at UNLV. "Let's say Duke gets to the Final Four, but I can't support them to win it because they beat us [in a 1991 semifinal upset of UNLV]. I like Syracuse to get there too because of Jim Boeheim -- he's 10 times better a coach than the public thinks he is, he has good players and he gets his stars in the right place. He basically plays six guys, which can be a good thing. The NCAA Tournament is like our playoffs: In the NBA you might play nine guys in the regular season, then you shorten your rotation to eight guys in the first round, seven guys in the next round and maybe you're basically down to six key guys after that. The NCAAs are the same: The further you go, the fewer you use. I think it helps him because he doesn't depend on that many guys to begin with, so they're used to the shorter rotations.

"My other two teams in the Final Four are Kentucky and Kansas, because they have the best players and their coaches know what they're doing. If it's a Kansas-Kentucky final, I always go with the best player.'' And this year, that player is Kentucky's John Wall.

From Pistons president Joe Dumars. "I'm going to pick teams that are typical Detroit Pistons teams. [To reach the Final Four], I like West Virginia, Oklahoma State, Kansas State and Texas A&M. I don't know if they can win it or not, but those are four nasty, tough, physical, hard-playing teams."

Dumars admits he doesn't have a good record of picking NCAA winners. "I don't do what you're supposed to do. I should pick Duke and Kansas and Kentucky. I should pick all of those teams. But I just pick teams that I like, teams that play our style. I don't know if those kinds of teams win in college or not."

His championship pick is West Virginia over Kansas State in the final. "I like West Virginia because they're tough, they're physical, they can defend and they've got guys who can make big shots, like Da'Sean Butler and those guys. They have enough to win it -- they just won the Big East tournament."

Michael Jordan. The more I think about this, the more I believe Jordan will succeed as owner of the Bobcats. Because he has invested so much of his own money in the team (he assumed about $150 million of debt in the deal), he will be fully engaged. That means he will deploy himself as the face of the franchise. He'll personally sell sponsorships, he'll speak to media, he'll personally recruit players. No franchise in the league -- not even the Cavaliers -- has a better asset than the Bobcats have in Michael Jordan. Now, he just has to put himself to the best possible use.

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