Can AI Build a Championship NBA Team?

With the NBA season ending this week, full of controversy or not, we were particularly intrigued by this story today in Vice Motherboard about the Toronto Raptors using IBM’s Watson computer to play virtual forward while making their picks tonight in the annual league draft of college (and occasionally high school) players.

This will be the first time a NBA team has used IBM Artificial Intelligence to lead its draft strategy, following an agreement last February, when the Raptors’ parent company Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment announced they were partnering with IBM.

Turns out the IBM software used for NBA picks is based on how the corporation goes about decided upon its acquisitions. Sounds crazy, but according to the Motherboard piece “it’s surprisingly similar.”

Just like corporations, professional sports teams want to acquire talent that excels in their specific field. Otherwise, according to IBM scientist Jon Lenchner, who led the corporation’s Sports Insights Central division when the partnership with the Raptors was announced.

Basically, that means getting rid of players who don’t perform, and drafting ones who fit with your existing team or strengthen an area you’re going to focus on.

Motherboard has written about basketball and AI in the past, suggesting coaches could be replaced by number crunching computers as soon as they get good at watching video and analyzing play.

How will Watson fare in the draft? Chances are we won’t know for a few years. Because even if the AI proves no Sherlock when it comes to basketball, at least, in the words of Raptor’s general manager Masai Ujiri, “When the trades start going the other way [we can] blame IBM.”