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Detailing the NBA's stat-tracking process with Neema Djavadzadeh

Detailing the NBA's stat-tracking process with Neema Djavadzadeh

The NBA sphere, in many respects, drives its conversations with numbers. They can range from the simple eye-popping box score to the intricate advanced data that power decisions and add context about the evolution of the game.

However, we often lose sight of just how those statistics get noted and validated. As evidenced by this weekend's buzzing Jaren Jackson Jr. Reddit conspiracy, most fans and even insiders don't fully grasp how complicated the league's record-keeping process can be. The NBA is far removed from the days of one-person, hand-tracked stacking; technology and checks and balances help keep the league on top of its array of tracked data points.

Neema Djavadzadeh spent the 2021-22 season working as a stats auditor for the NBA and G League. He worked over 400 G League contests and approximately 20-30 NBA games as part of the gameday statskeeping crew. The G League's process is a bit more straightforward, but it still requires a team of auditors.

"With the G League, it involved watching game film and making sure stats were correct," Djavadzadeh told Basketball News. "We had an audit-review system that involved one person on the team auditing the stats, and then another reviewing the audits and making changes accordingly. Then, someone higher up would comb through all the edits to make final confirmation. In total, it was six people working on this for the G League."

At the highest level, the tracking process has several layers. Here's how Djavadzadeh describes the repetition of recording stats throughout an NBA game:

  1. A play/tracked event occurs on the court.
  2. A courtside "caller" alerts a "primary" person who inputs basic stats.
  3. The primary logs a basic stat, while a "secondary" notes descriptive characteristics, such as location on the floor.
  4. One or two "tertiaries" then watch a slightly delayed recording of the play to confirm or correct the stats entered.
  5. After that, a crew in the league's Seacaucus, NJ, headquarters double-checks and corrects stats. They can discuss corrections with the courtside team. If both teams agree on a correction, it is made, and if they disagree, no change is made at first. Either way, those communications are logged and then again checked by a "Kirk" (another auditor). 

"Everything is basically confirmed 4-5 times," Djavadzadeh said. "The Kirks are also normally watching the game on their own and following along with the stats, but they have multiple game responsibilities, versus the auditor having one. There’s normally about two people per game, so on a big night there was about 30 in the [league] office, or on a slow night, about 6-7. There's also technical support from Genius Sport in house as well, in case anything goes wrong courtside or in the office."

So how much can one statskeeper influence a single stat? Djavadzadeh says barely. 

"Maybe straightforward plays like a field-goal attempt and rebound," he said. "I’d normally watch those at max three times, normally to just confirm shot location or play descriptor. Most plays are combed over at least 3-4 times if it’s not just a shot and rebound."

Technology also plays a huge role in providing accurate perspective on a play, particularly at the NBA level. The league has player-tracking capabilities and 12 camera angles for any given event, whereas the G League just uses one angle. Auditors can also look at a check-box system that confirms which stats have and have not yet been locked in. 

With that being said, there is still room for interpretation. Djavadzadeh said that in his experience, recording blocks and steals specifically at the G League level was a challenge with one camera angle. 

"It was kind of a universal thing of, 'Well, we don’t have the tech to make it perfect right now, but we can spend the time and effort to make it as close as possible,'" he explained.

Different challenges arise in the NBA, where assists are actually more subjective than in the G League. The G League has a strict rule on assists: A scorer must use two or fewer dribbles, and three or fewer seconds between catch and shot attempt, to qualify as receiving an assist. That guideline does not exist in the NBA.

"I’d get into one or two arguments a game with courtside starters over assists, but eventually you realize some crews just see them a little differently," Djavadzadeh said. 

"Steals are a bit tough too with the NBA, but once you understand the variety of steals it becomes easier," he added. "Like, saving a ball from going out of bounds and a controlled pass back in bounds is technically a steal. A tipped pass that your teammate recovers is a steal for the person who tips it. If another offensive player tries to control the ball after it’s been tipped, then whoever recovers the ball after the second offensive player touched it gets the steal. Little rules like that. Each possession is different, so there’s some interpretation that has to happen, but for the most part, six-plus people are agreeing on the outcome of an event."

Where can the NBA improve its process? Djavadzadeh believes the league could better utilize its tracking abilities to more accurately portray shot location data by automating that part of a process versus relying on human judgement. While such automation is harder to achieve with most box-score stats, he says, shot location tracking tech already exists and is more plain to understand.

One of the key "motives" in the alleged Jackson blocks conspiracy was the idea that statskeepers who have a financial stake in the game could help make themselves some money by rigging the numbers. To Djavadzadeh — who does support legal and federally-regulated sports betting — that's just an unrealistic take.

"The NBA’s no-gambling rules are extremely strict, and knowing sports politics, something like that isn’t something you can come back from," he said. "Any kind of conspiracy that statskeepers have money on it or something is crazy, because that’s their career in hand.

"I don’t think there’s an issue with gambling... I think, if anything, it puts an emphasis on getting things more accurate because there’s so much money at stake. And also, if you’re bad at your job, you’ll get fired in an industry like this, and nobody wants to get fired."

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