Early Season Musings

One month down, four to go, and time for me to start blogging again.

Since early October we’ve been treated to a litany of articles previewing the 2014-15 season. Virtually all of them speculate on who will ultimately emerge as the best team and the top players. I’d like to go in a different direction, probing trends in strategy and philosophy, and as indicated in the tag line for this blog, “challenging basketball’s conventional wisdom.”

In no particular order here’s what I hope to explore as the season unfolds:

• Basketball’s talking heads frequently cite the importance of “making the extra pass.” But how many passes are actually required to produce a quality shot? Is an offensive scheme that produces quality shots after multiple passes inherently more effective than one that generates such shots more quickly with fewer passes? Do the odds of a turnover climb as the number of passes and length of possession increase? Are fewer passes indicative of “poor coaching” or an “undisciplined team”?

• Will players finally adjust to the new hand checking rules and commit to playing defense with their feet? Will the so-called “traditionalists” who spent the better part of last season griping about the rule changes finally admit that mugging one’s opponent was never actually part of the game’s origins and that “taking the charge” — while often gutsy — is not really a “basketball” skill? Will the intended “freedom of movement” actually take effect, leading to more baskets, fewer trips to the charity stripe, and a more esthetically pleasing game? 

• Will John Calipari’s platoon system bear fruit? How will it change and morph as season progresses? Will it unfold in a series of five man waves or other kinds of combinations? How will the loss of Alex Poythress affect the scheme? What will happen when a game is on the line?

• Bill James, the legendary amateur baseball statistician and father of “sabermetrics,” defined his work as “the search for objective knowledge about baseball.” The analytic revolution he inspired has now found a place in virtually every sport including basketball. Coaches and roundball aficionados are uncovering fascinating trends and patterns through data mining and analytics. But what are the limits? At what point does the sheer volume of data dwarf its practical application? How do you “see through” or “around” the data points to the actual game? Unintentionally, does an emphasis on data mask the simplicity of the game and complicate the strategic coaching choices? Teams and particular styles of play may emerge as statistically “efficient” but are they necessarily “effective”?

• Is blocking out necessary for effective rebounding? Traditionalists insist on its importance, but John Wooden didn’t think so and neither does Bill Bradley. Who’s right?

• Is the midrange jump shot dead and buried or waiting to be re-discovered? What conclusions emerge when we map the effectiveness of shooting across the full spectrum of distinct spots between the 3-point line and the rim instead of collapsing all of those spots into one statistical area loosely defined as the “midrange”? What happens when we apply Sandy Weil’s optical tracking analysis of shooting, measuring not only where a particular shot takes place but how it occurs? What might happen if players were re-schooled in the traditional mid and short range jumper, the pull-up, and the bank shot, and if offensive schemes catered to creating such shots? Can we create a whole new generation of shooters – able to shoot from a variety of spots, especially in traffic? Would pace and scoring actually climb and the quality of the game improve?

• On the eve of last season’s NCAA Championship t.v. analyst Kenny Smith picked Connecticut to defeat Kentucky in the big game arguing that he favored “basketball players” over “athletes.” How do you select players to build a team? What criteria do you use?

• Football coaches use various offensive formations and alignments to create “mismatches in space” and ways to outnumber the defense at the point of attack. Is it possible for basketball coaches to do the same? Even in an era of no huddle, hurry-up offense, football games come to a required stop as each successive play is whistled dead and the teams re-align for the next snap, but basketball is a game of continuous action with the teams seesawing back and forth between offense and defense often without any stops. So is football-style “formationing” actually possible in a basketball game?

• Coaches try to control two fundamental elements that make up many team competitions — time and space. What is the relationship between these two elements in basketball? How does that relationship affect the game’s affect strategic and tactical choices?

• Last year John Calipari once again took a team to the Final Four. Is he a master tactician, a great recruiter, a bandit, or all of the above? In an era of AAU, one-and-done, and frequent transfers does he represent the worst in collegiate basketball or is he actually the most honest coach in the business?

• In early October ESPN’s Eamonn Brennan asked “Is Scoring Stuck?” Then, several weeks ago statistical guru Ken Pomeroy chimed in, speculating that we are about to experience the slowest season in history of college basketball. If the early season trends hold, Pomeroy believes that “possessions per 40-minutes” are likely to fall to 65.0, leading to the lowest scoring season since 1952. Ironically, implementation of the three-pointer and shot clock in the mid-1980s, coupled with their subsequent refinement and the recent “freedom of movement” rule changes, were intended to open the floor and reverse the downward slide. Yet scoring and pace remain stuck or once again in decline. Why? Will reducing the shot clock further, lengthening the three-point line, and widening the lane – changes now being discussed – finally correct the problem or does the real culprit lie elsewhere?