Keep It Binary, Stupid

Basketball unfolds as a series of choices, one leading to the next. No matter how controlled or patterned a team attempts to be, the offensive scheme will inevitably break down requiring the attackers to improvise. 

Effective coaching exploits this reality by placing players in spots where their natural freelance abilities come to the fore and where the choices are binary – “either/or” situations where it is relatively easy for the offense to read the defense and act quickly.

Complicated offensive schemes that congest the floor, obscure the choices, and attempt to control too many variables reward the defense by creating uncertainty and indecisiveness. Too many moving parts complicate the reads, granting the defense time to react.

Conversely, offenses that create quick, binary decision-making are built around actions and maneuvers that shorten defensive reaction time. Effective offense reduces the number of choices by forcing defenders into “no-win” situations where a choice to respond in one way renders them vulnerable in another way. This makes it easier for offensive players to see or read the defense and seize the initiative quickly.

Basketball’s fourth law – Keep It Binary, Stupid – explores these principles.

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The New 3-Point Line is a Bust

When I finally tuned in there were less than ten minutes to play. 

9:35 to be exact. 

Kentucky’s Johnny Juzang had just knocked in a 3-pointer to increase the Wildcat’s meager lead to eight, 58-50. Twenty-four seconds later, Texas Tech missed a jumper, foreshadowing the utterly dreadful nine minutes of basketball that were about to unfold. 

Eventually, Kentucky pulled out a 76-74 victory in overtime but I never got that far. The final minutes of regulation play were enough for me. In all, 4 field goals, 10 turnovers, 10 fouls.

On average, over the course of nearly ten minutes of play, two top-20 teams, representing premier D-1 programs with access to the best recruits in the country, collectively generated one basket every two minutes and forty seconds of play. Yikes!

Ten seconds after a timeout at the 1:11 mark, the Wildcat’s Tyrese Maxey missed a quick jumper and was promptly criticized by ESPN’s Jimmy Dykes. “Not a good shot… you gotta run some offense.”

“Jimmy,” I shouted at the screen, “I’ve watched Kentucky ‘run offense’ for the last nine minutes and nothing good has happened.” 

When your offense produces one basket on seven shot attempts during the final quarter of play – that’s roughly a field goal attempt every 1 minute and 43 seconds – there’s not much benefit to “running some offense.” You might as well jack it up and hope that by increasing your attempts something eventually goes in. 

For their part, Texas Tech didn’t fare much better. During those final 9:35 they went 3 for 12 from the field, only catching Kentucky as regulation expired on the back of seven free throws. 

Look, I get it. 

Every team has an off night or stretches in a game when the wheels come off. And lots of time, the bad play becomes infectious, one team dragging its opponent into the mire. Last Saturday’s game between 15th ranked Kentucky and 18th ranked Texas Tech is neither indicative of their true prowess or representative of the state of college basketball this season… but it’s not far off, either.  

We began this season with coaches, commentators, and fans all asking the same question: how will college basketball’s new 3-point line affect the game? 

Will extending the line to the international distance of 22 feet, 1¾ inches curb the game’s growing emphasis on the 3-pointer, leading to greater variety in offensive style and strategy as the NCAA intends? Will shooting percentages at the longer distance remain sufficient to pull defenders even farther from the basket, opening the floor for more dribble drives and offensive maneuvers inside the arc? Will players who lack long-range proficiency rediscover the value of the post up and short range jumpers? 

With two-thirds of the season behind us we can reach some tentative conclusions.

Continue reading…

It’s All Relative

In the run-up to this season’s Final Four we were greeted by two interesting but unsurprising commentaries. Unsurprising because they merely confirmed what we already knew: that the number of 3-point attempts in college basketball continues to surge, and correspondingly, the number of dunks has followed suit. 

In his April 8th Sports Illustrated piece, citing data compiled by Ken Pomeroy, Andy Staples recounted the record number of treys attempted in the tournament. Back in 2014 and ‘15 the percent of three-point field goal attempts per tournament game hovered around 32% but rose to 35% in 2016, then cleared 38% last season. Through the first 64 games of this year’s tournament, Pomeroy found that the average percent of three-point attempts had grown to nearly 41%.

Hoop Vision’s Jordan Sperber chimed in with a nifty chart, illustrating the trend over a ten-year period.

And what does the dramatic uptick in three-point attempts have to do with the increasing number of dunks generated in this year’s tourney?

Josh Plano’s March 28, 2019 piece at FiveThirtyEight.com revealed that six of this year’s Sweet 16 entries had a dunk share, or percent of 2-point attempts, exceeding 10%. Four years ago, only one did. “This is less about a few dunk-crazed teams and more a reflection of the nationwide trend in college basketball,” reported Plano. On the eve of the Final Four, the season had produced 19,550 dunks, about 2,000 more than just five years ago.  

And the reasons?

“We’re seeing more dunks,” ESPN analyst Jay Bilas told The New York Times, “because there are more spectacular athletes out there.” More significantly, though, Bilas cited the symbiotic relationship between 3-pointers and dunks. 

The rise of the three as a strategic weapon has created an either-or game: you shoot the three or drive to the rim for a high percentage layup or dunk. You avoid all other lower percentage 2-point attempts. Throw in the long-range accuracy of a Carson Edwards or Kyle Guy and the crazy athleticism of players like Zion Williamson and Ja Morant, and you end up with lots of threes and dunks. 

Again, interesting but not really surprising. 

While the three-pointer has greatly influenced offensive schemes and strategy, I sometimes wonder if the media echo chamber has overly dramatized its importance, imbuing it with near magical qualities when its actual benefits are, in many ways, quite relative.

Continue reading…

Rise & Fire

If you’re shopping for a terrific last minute Christmas gift for your favorite basketball junkie (perhaps yourself?), look no further than Shawn Fury’s Rise and Fire, The Origins, Science, and Evolution of the Jump Shot – and How It Transformed Basketball Forever.

It’s a wonderful addition to any basketball fan’s bookcase.

As the book jacket reveals, Rise and Fire traces the history of how the jump shot revolutionized the game, “shedding light on all corners of the basketball world, from NBA arenas to the playgrounds of New York City and the barns of Indiana. Award-winning journalist, Shawn Fury, obsesses over the jump shot, explores its fundamentals, puzzles over it complexities, marvels at its simplicity, and honors some of basketball’s greatest moments.”

Fury’s exploration of the jump shot has special significance for readers of betterthanalayup.com.

When I launched the site in 2014 I outlined ten immutable laws or principles that define the nature of basketball and govern its play. These laws are fundamental to understanding, coaching, and playing basketball. Once mastered they form a prism through which one can “see” the game, appreciate its simplicity, and master its subtleties. At the center of the ten is the all-important Fifth Law: A jump shot is better than a layup. For me it’s the cornerstone on which modern basketball theory rests and why I named my site betterthanalayup.

Pick up a copy of Shawn Fury’s book. You’ll like it.

Revisiting the High Ball Screen

Several years ago I went on a rant about the high ball screen – an offensive scheme featuring one or more bigs near the top of the circle trying to free a dribbler for a long jumper or drive down the lane.

For a full-blown critique you can revisit my original post but basically I find it congests the court, takes too long too unfold, and seldom results in a basket.

A short time later I discovered a fantastic piece posted by another basketball blogger, Scott Ginn, over at betterbasketball.com. In a satirical piece entitled Dear High Ball Screen, Let’s Just Be Friends, Ginn questions the effectiveness of the maneuver and supports his claim with an interesting statistical analysis of the 2012 NCAA championship game between Kansas and Kentucky. Here’s what he discovered.

• Total number of High Ball Screens (HBS) attempted: 39

• Total number of direct baskets: 4

• Total number of indirect baskets: 2

• Total number of non-related baskets on a HBS possession: 2

In short, according to Ginn the HBS created six baskets the entire game. It was successful (directly and indirectly) only 15% of the time.

I was intrigued by Ginn’s analysis and decided to go a step further. I charted the 2014 and 2015 Final Fours, six games involving six schools – Kentucky, Wisconsin, Duke, Florida, Connecticut, and Michigan State – using Ginn’s statistical categories and adding a few of my own.

• High Ball Screen followed by another HBS: No FGA

• High Ball Screen followed by a turnover: No FGA

• High Ball Screen followed by a foul: No FGA

• Direct Baskets: a score by either the ball handler receiving the screen or the screener (rolling, popping, etc.) after setting the screen.

• Indirect Baskets: a score by any player as a result of the screen, but not directly related to it. This happens when the screen creates turmoil in the defense and a score results. Or, if the ball handler uses the screen, then pitches for a shot. Or, even if the screener gets the pass and finds an open shooter once help arrives.

•Non-Related Baskets: those scores on any possession where a HBS was used, but had nothing to do with the score. For example, a HBS is set, the defense stops it, the offense resets (calls a play, runs a motion, etc.), and scores. That basket had nothing to do with the HBS except that it occurred on the same possession.

And the results?

high-ball-screen-analysis

In six games at the highest level of competition the high ball screen produced direct and indirect field goals only 17% of the time – not significantly different than what Ginn discovered. That’s a lot of work to generate 35 field goals in 240 minutes of competition.

I’m reminded of an old basketball adage: Don’t drive into a loaded defense. The high ball screen does exactly that. With the screener comes a second defender and because the maneuver occurs so far from the basket the defense can load up with additional defenders from the help side. Unless you have a Steve Nash or Steph Curry on your squad, complimented by a big man who can move and shoot, you’re likely to generate lots of dribbling and not much scoring.