A jump shot is better than a layup, Part 2

In Part 1 we traced basketball’s early history culminating in Hank Luisetti and Kenny Sailors’ historic appearances in New York’s Madison Square Garden where they challenged the orthodoxy of the day by shooting one-handed while airborne. In Part II, we’ll explore the evolution of shooting styles in greater detail and show how the modern jump shot transformed basketball in four key ways.

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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.

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… Consequences

In my last post we explored the law of unintended consequences – that strange phenomenon that often occurs when we take an established routine or “way of doing things” – cutting the grass, driving to work, drafting a memo, playing a game, virtually anything – and change the routine or rules or circumstances under which the activity takes place.

Sometimes the change produces the outcome we desire; in other instances, the opposite occurs, often because the participants shift their behavior in unexpected ways in response to the initial change in routine. The well-intended result in one area often ripples into an unintended consequence in another.

I promised to explore how the law of unintended consequences has played out in the world of college basketball. Here goes.

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By Request

During the last couple of weeks, in response to a series of posts on the decline of scoring in college basketball and my attempt to trace the reasons for this disturbing trend by probing Austin Carr’s record-setting performance in the early 1970’s, several readers have requested information on the Stack or Isolation Offense. Over the weekend I was flattered to hear from basketball aficionado, Herb Welling.

Coach Welling, as you may know, has been called the “minister of information” in coaching circles and has been featured several times in the media, most prominently in Grant Wahl’s 2008 Sports Illustrated article on the evolution of the Dribble Drive Motion offense.

Herb first became acquainted with betterthanalayup.com when researching the matching zone defense and discovered my piece on coach Gene Sullivan’s strategy. In recent days we’ve shared several emails and phone calls, discussing the origins of Sullivan’s equally interesting Stack offense.

I promised him that I would provide a deeper dive into the subject and am pleased to offer it now in a “quick and dirty,” Q & A format. In the future I’ll post a more comprehensive and polished essay.

In the meantime, I hope this initial piece proves helpful and prompts further questions and commentary.

Click here to read Stack Offense Q & A

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?