AP Basketball Writer
LAS VEGAS — Diving for loose balls, getting a hand in passing lanes for a deflection, being close enough to contest a shot, or sacrificing the body and taking a charge.
For years, they’ve been called intangibles.
The NBA is about to try to make them tangible.
All 67 games in the NBA Summer League at Las Vegas will have so-called “hustle stats” officially tracked, a nod to the league’s evolving reliance on analytics and all the things besides scoring that help decide the outcome of games. A trained crew will chart 2-pointers contested, 3-pointers contested, deflections, loose balls recovered and charges taken.
Those numbers will all go into a formula to determine which players hustled most in any given game.
“I think we’re all just scratching the surface,” said Kiki Vandeweghe, the NBA’s senior vice president for basketball operations. “We don’t know where the analytics is going to take us. The more data you have, the longer we do this, the better idea we’ll have of the direction. It’s really interesting because a lot of the basketball decisions are data-driven. The analytics are now affecting the way the game is played.”
Much like referees using headsets to talk with one another — and in some cases, the NBA’s office in Secaucus, New Jersey — in games this summer, the hustle-stat-tracking project is in its infancy and likely wouldn’t be added to the regular-season repertoire until at least the 2016-17 season.
But while teams use summer league to find a hidden gem or two, the league itself uses it as a laboratory of sorts to see how the game can get better for all involved.
Hence, the tinkering with refs and stats.
“You’ve got to look at everything,” said Joe Borgia, the NBA’s senior vice president for replay and referee operations. “We’re always trying to look at things that possibly could help us.”
Teams have been charting hustle numbers for years. Many will want a certain number of deflections per game, for example. But for the most part, fans haven’t been able to have access to that info.
Players briefed on the general idea say its time has come.
“It wins games. Hustle wins games,” Miami forward Udonis Haslem said. “Whether you want to keep a stat for it or whether you want to say it’s not a big deal, it wins games. We’re not going out there and just running like a chicken with your head cut off. That’s two different things. I’d say 95 percent of the time, when we win the hustle areas, dominate the loose balls, dominate rebounds, dominate steals, those categories, we win the game. It’s a fact.”
Adding them to the box score, or at least getting the nitty-gritty-type numbers out there more openly, might serve as motivation to players as well.
“When you can put numbers and stats on things, it gives a player a reason why we’re telling them to do certain things,” said Minnesota assistant coach Ryan Saunders, the Timberwolves’ summer league coach. “So to have physical data and reasons for those kinds of plays is definitely a positive for us as coaches.”
Vandeweghe stressed that the idea is a long way from becoming part of the everyday NBA. A team of stats people was trained specifically to monitor hustle in Las Vegas, and then feedback will be needed from teams to see if any of it was actually helpful.
So, too, is the headset idea that referees are playing with this summer.
It’s not new. Borgia said that Darell Garretson, a longtime referee and officials supervisor until the late 1990s, experimented with headsets during summer play in the 1980s.
Technology is obviously way more advanced now, and the equipment referees are using this summer is hardly noticeable.
“The one major drawback, which I’m sure could be fixed with the technology we have out there, is it’s kind of having swimmer’s ear,” said NBA referee Brent Barnaky. “And you can’t really hear out of one ear. You really need your senses as a referee. You need to be able to hear.”
There are other challenges. So far, they’ve been used in relatively quiet gyms. How would they work in a loud arena during a playoff game? Will officials in Secaucus be able to stay in constant contact, and will teams want that to happen? Will custom equipment be needed? All that and more is still guesswork, and those are some of the things the NBA will assess before going forward.
“We look at the game as a whole,” Borgia said. “We hear from everybody. The rules of the game per se haven’t changed, but a lot of the interpretations have changed. We’re always — always — monitoring the game.”
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