Summer Olympics: All About Basketball

All About Basketball

Basketball is the most American of sports. Invented in Massachusetts in 1891, it’s as American as Apple pie. So, what is it doing in the Olympics? Well, it’s been a long time since 1891, and since then basketball has become as French as a baguette, as Spanish as jamon, as Argentinian as steak, and as Lithuanian as Cepelinai.

How Does Basketball Work?

I’m going to skip the general nature of basketball, but if you want to brush up on that, here are some earlier posts I’ve written.

International basketball has always had slightly different rules than the ones American basketball fans are used to seeing in college basketball or the NBA or WNBA. Some of them are small and have little impact on the game but some are pretty big. Here are a few of the biggest ones:

  1. The three point line is closer to the basket than in the NBA. This has made concentrating on the three point shot a more common tactic in international basketball than the NBA over the years. However, just since the last Olympics game, the NBA has gone totally three-point crazy. So, things this time around will look much more the way NBA fans are accustomed to but even MORE of the three point shots will go in.
  2. Traveling (taking too many steps without bouncing the ball) actually gets called. Hooray!
  3. Games are a little shorter than in the NBA — 40 minutes instead of 48 — and players foul out after five fouls not six.
  4. Pure zone defenses are allowed, like in college. On the other hand, a player who is closely guarded and doesn’t move the ball for five seconds will lose possession by rule.
  5. Once the ball has hit the rim, anyone can go up and touch it at any time. In the NBA, the ball needs to leave an imaginary cylinder above the hoop before being touched. This will lead to some hellacious put-back-dunks off of misses.

Why do People Like Watching Basketball?

Basketball may have the most balletic athletic movements of any team sport. Watch how the players not only hang in the air, but adjust their bodies to whatever the defense is throwing at them. Sometimes that means changing hands in mid-air, sometimes it means bouncing off a defender’s body and throwing up a shot on the way to the ground, sometimes it means shifting from one side of the basket to the other. In any event, the body control of these athletes is beautiful. Basketball also has beautiful movement at the level of a team. When a team is hitting on all cylinders, there are five people moving in complete synch with one another.

Check out some highlights from the 2012 Olympics:

What are the different events?

Olympic basketball has a men’s and women’s competition.

How Dangerous is Basketball?

Ten giant humans launching themselves into the air? That seems pretty dangerous, and it is… at least to their ankles. As anyone who’s ever played basketball knows, the most common injury is a turned ankle. This can be self-inflicted, during a quick change of direction or landing from a leap, but it happens most severely when one player comes out of the air and lands on another player’s foot instead of the even surface of the floor. When that happens, eek! Other than ankles, basketball has all the dangers of a contact sport.

What’s the State of Gender Equality in Basketball?

Gender equality in the sport of basketball is very good. The rules are virtually the same. It’s the subject of equipment that gets people’s hackles up in one direction or the other. Although women use a slightly smaller ball, they play on the same height basketball hoop. This changes the look and tactics of the game significantly. Although a few women have dunked in competitive play (and more in practice, I’m sure,) it’s not a regular part of the women’s game. This is either actually a big why women’s basketball is so much less popular than men’s or a convenient excuse. In any event, the relative height of the rim to the average height of the players makes a big tactical difference and people aren’t sure of how to feel about that.

Links!

Bookmark the full Olympics schedule from NBC. Basketball is from Saturday, August 6 to Sunday, August 21.

Read more about basketball on the official Rio Olympics site.

Are sports trying to ruin Christmas?

Dear Sports Fan,

What’s up with the NFL football game on Christmas Eve and the five freaking NBA basketball games on Christmas Day? Are sports trying to ruin Christmas?

Thanks,
Bonnie


Dear Bonnie,

Sports leagues aren’t trying to ruin Christmas, but they are trying to profit off of them. At least, the National Basketball Association (NBA) is. There’s a simpler reason for why the National Football League (NFL) has a game on Christmas Eve. Christmas Eve is a Thursday this year, the NFL decided years ago to have games on Thursdays, and they’re not going to change their plans for anything, not even Christmas. The NFL’s general attitude seems to be that they are bigger than any other institution in the world, why would they worry about Christmas? As for the NBA, it’s worth a closer look at why they want to profit off of Christmas, what the model of success is, and how should we feel about it.

One of the biggest questions for most sports leagues is how to create or maintain interest during their long regular seasons. Each NBA team plays 82 games during the season; the National Hockey League (NHL) plays the same number. Major League Baseball (MLB) plays almost twice that number, a whopping 162! Football is too dangerous to play that much or that often. College football teams play from 10 to 12 games during their regular season and the NFL plays only 16. As a result, football doesn’t need to try quite as hard to sustain interest during their season. The other sports are not so lucky. Even the most die-hard fan feels a little lull of interest during the long middle of the regular season. So, leagues are always on the lookout for ways to create intrigue and interest during their season.

Ironically, the league that has been most successful at creating a spike of interest int he middle of their season has been the league that needs it the least, the NFL. As we’ve covered in great length on this site, the NFL owns Thanksgiving. Since the 1950s, when the Detroit Lions became the most common host team for Thanksgiving games, and certainly since 1970 when the Dallas Cowboys joined them and the two teams basically monopolized all of the Thanksgiving hosting, NFL football has become part and parcel of how many Americans celebrate Thanksgiving. In the past seven years, the NHL has been wildly successful in replicating the NFL’s approach on New Year’s Day with its visually breathtaking outdoor Winter Classic Games. Hockey is a less popular sport, but “owning a holiday” has still proven to be a strong tactic. The Winter Classic games are watched by between three and five million people each year — around ten times more than other regular season hockey games, even the nationally televised ones.

Interest in unique sporting events can, at times, approach levels of interest that make them seem like holidays. The first two days of the men’s college basketball tournament, called March Madness, feel like a holiday, observed by office workers everywhere who develop fake colds or schedule elective surgery so they can watch, or just stream the games onto their work computers, slowing down the network for everyone. The NBA has already had some success with this, their All-Star Weekend is only half-jokingly called “Black Thanksgiving.” Still greater success, they hope, will be found by owning a real holiday rather than creating one of their own. That’s why, each Christmas, the NBA stacks as many games between their best and biggest teams as possible. This year, it’s five games in a row and the highlight is the first game between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers since they played in the finals last spring.

Now we get to the heart of your question — is the NBA right to do this? Does having so many (and so high-profile) basketball games televised on Christmas ruin the holiday? It doesn’t. Sure, it may ruin the holiday for players, coaches, and their families, but that’s a small segment of the population and one (since they are mostly very well compensated,) that most people don’t feel a ton of sympathy for. Aside from doctors, nurses, midwives, police, EMTs, fire fighters, and other essential workers, most of us have off on Christmas and if we don’t want our family celebrations sullied by sports on TV, we can either keep the TV off or change the channel.

Another segment of people who work on Christmas are people who work at Chinese restaurants and movie theaters too. Those are both traditional Christmas activities for people (stereotypically Jews.) That brings us to one point in favor of the NBA having games on Christmas: not everyone celebrates Christmas, and the NBA has a long history of inclusion. Back in the 1930s and 40s, professional basketball was mostly a Jewish endeavor. Even in the modern era of the NBA, three of the top ten scorers (Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neill, and the #1 scorer of all time, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) of all time have been Muslim. Of all the big American sports leagues, the NBA has the most international fan base. This includes a big contingent in China, a country with around a billion non-Christians.

For people who don’t celebrate Christmas and live in a predominantly celebrating country, like the United States, the holiday can be alienating. Having a football game to watch on Christmas Eve and more than 12 hours of basketball to watch on Christmas Day is a comforting thought. If you celebrate and the games get in your way, just remember — these teams will play roughly fifty times again this season before the playoffs start. There’s really no need to give too much attention to any one game in December, no matter what the NBA wants us to do.

Thanks for reading and Happy Holidays, however you celebrate,
Ezra Fischer

Why do once in a generation things happen so often in sports?

Dear Sports Fan,

My girlfriend convinced me to watch a Golden State Warriors game last night by saying that teams as good as them only come along once every twenty or thirty years. I watched the game. They were legitimately great but it seems like sports fans have something they need to watch for that reason pretty frequently. Why do once in a generation things happen so often in sports?

Thanks,
Cesar


Dear Cesar,

The Golden State Warriors are a magnificent basketball team. They won the championship last spring and, unlike many championship winning teams, have started this season strong. They’ve won their first 23 games. In doing so, they obliterated the previous record for consecutive wins to start a season, which two other teams had set at 15. They’re closing in on the Los Angeles Lakers record for wins in a row, (any time during the season,) which is 33 and has been since the 1971-72 season. Their start also has the folks over at Five Thirty Eight frantically modeling to see how likely it is that the Warriors match or beat the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls season record of 72 wins and 10 losses. The conclusion they come to is that the Warriors certainly can but will probably choose not to, since breaking that record is likely to be a harmful distraction from their true goal of winning another championship. The Warriors streak is so impressive, that the Harlem Globetrotters (who were once a very real, very formidable competitive basketball team but who now only play exhibition games against a team of stooges called the Washington Generals,) jokingly worried on Twitter about the safety of their own “record”:

Beyond numbers, the Warriors are a wonderful collection of characters to root for. Their super star, Steph Curry, is barely big enough to make you look twice at him if he passed you on the street, and yet he’s as unstoppable a force as any the NBA has known. He is the best long-range shooter in NBA history and plays with a fluid, captivating style. He’s surrounded by teammates who benefit from and augment his skills. Klay Thompson, who pales in comparison to Curry, may also be one of the top 20 shooters in NBA history. Draymond Green was a popular college basketball player who most thought would not amount to much in the pros. Now he’s the new prototype for a power forward, one who can do a little bit of everything well enough to be extraordinarily effective. The next five best players on the team, Andrew Bogut, Harrison Barnes, Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livington, and Festus Ezeli all have their own talents and their own attractive stories. From a sports fan’s perspective, the Warriors really are a comet passing through space: rare and wondrous. To give you a sense of how much people want to see them, their presence as the away team playing against the Boston Celtics this Friday has launched tickets on the secondary market from starting at between $13 and $20 to starting between $150 and $200.

Your question wasn’t about whether the Warriors were amazing, it was about how rare they are. There’s a saying I love: “You’re one in a million… which means there’s a thousand people just like you in China.” One in a million seems like a giant rarity, but not when viewed against a country with a population of over a billion! The same thing is true about sports. Say the Warriors truly are a generational team. That would put them alongside the Chicago Bulls that set that 72-10 record in 1996. That’s awfully convenient, because it was 20 years ago, exactly the number most people use in estimating a generation. Go back farther, and most people point to the 1985 Celtics as another generationally good team. That’s only 10 years before the Bulls, but that’s okay, sometimes data falls randomly in clumps. No big deal. The thing is, sports fans follow many sports. Most fans follow at least three of the big four American professional leagues (NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL) pretty closely. Add a college sport or two, international competitions like the Olympics and World Cup, as well as a few individual sports like tennis, golf, boxing, or car racing. That’s close to 10 sports that a fan will follow. The chances of a generational event (one every 20 years) happening in a sport, if you follow 10 of them, is 50% in any given year.

Of course, when something this eventful happens in a sport a fan doesn’t follow closely, there’s a good chance that she’ll hear about it on Twitter, Facebook, Sports Center, from a podcast or a friend, etc. And anything so magnificent, so rare, as a generational sporting event is worth following, even from an unusual sport! There are also two or three close calls for every one truly generational event (the Carolina Panthers are 12-0 in the NFL right now… if they get to 16-0, they will be only the second team to ever do it. Earlier this year Serena Williams almost became the first person to win all four major tennis tournaments in a year – called the Grand Slam – since 1988). So, if you’re a sports fan who wants to see something with the potential to be truly remarkable, you’ve legitimately got a chance to watch one every couple of months at most.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

 

NBA Basketball in 2015 is not selfish

The 2015-2016 National Basketball Association (NBA) season started yesterday. This offers a great opportunity to write about the current state of the NBA and one of the most persistent myths about the league. If you talk to enough people about sports as often as I do, you get used to hearing people say they “don’t like the NBA because the play is (or the players are) too selfish.”

There are two ways of interpreting that comment: a cynical way and a way that gives the benefit of the doubt to the person making it. Let’s start by giving the benefit of the doubt to critics of the NBA. Viewed in the best possible light, the criticism of the NBA as selfish is based on a belief that there is less passing in the NBA than there should be or than there once was. In the eyes of these critics, NBA basketball is typified by a player dribbling the ball up the court, telling his teammates to get out of the way, trying to beat his defender one-on-one, and then shooting the ball. In basketball terms, this is called an “isolation” or “isolation basketball.”

The truth is, isolation basketball has been on the decline for the last twenty years of NBA history and is now almost universally recognized as a losing tactic. Kirk Goldsberry, Grantland’s chief basketball illustrator and an excellent writer as well, wrote an article recently that summarized the shift in tactics from isolation ball to today’s NBA and explaining its statistical underpinnings. It is a wonderful article – clear and even poetic – and it explains why isolation ball, particularly when it leads to two point shots that aren’t layups or dunks, has become a tactic used only by the most clueless organizations. He writes with the strength of quantitative evidence:

Last season, NBA players attempted just over 200,000 shots. Fifty-three percent of these shots qualify as assisted, while 47 percent qualify as unassisted.1 Overall, the league’s shooters converted 45 percent of their shots — the assisted tries went in 51 percent of the time, while the unassisted shots scored only 38 percent of the time.

and also gives compelling anecdotal support to the theory. He quotes San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich as saying of today’s basketball, “You move it or you die.” Popovich is the most well-respected modern coach. He is seen as a guru of team building and on-court tactics. When he says, “you move it or you die,” he’s arguing that winning basketball has its foundation in teamwork and passing; in trust and interdependency. Want hard evidence? Look at a team assists statistic from last year. The team with the highest assist ration, the Golden State Warriors, won 67 regular season games (out of 82, by far the most in the league) and the championship. The team with the second highest assist ratio, the Atlanta Hawks, won the second most games in the league and made it to the Eastern Conference Championships before losing.

Even if the tactical shift in the NBA were in the opposite direction — toward isolation – it’s not altogether clear to me why that would be thought of as selfish. Selfishness has to do with intent. Tactics have to do with winning. If the tactic most likely to result in a victory involved giving the ball to a single player and asking him to do everything, then that would be the correct tactic. It would involve an incredible amount of unselfishness on the part of that player’s teammates, who would be asked to do the hard work of playing defense and setting picks, and on the part of the coach, who wouldn’t get very much acclaim for taking such a simple tactical approach. Maybe most of all, it would take unselfishness on the part of the player being asked to “carry the load” as they say in sports-lingo. Taking a majority of your team’s shots is exhausting. Carrying the ball up the court and taking every shot requires an almost super-human effort. This is close to what LeBron James was asked to do for part of last year’s playoffs because of injuries to his teammates and it clearly took a toll on him. He’s an incredible athlete, but even he had was visibly drained by the effort. Watching him force himself to keep handling the ball, keep driving to the hoop, and keep shooting when his body was telling him it would be easier to pass it up was a great lesson in unselfishness.

The last element of the question of selfishness in the NBA is the most delicate. In some ways, the criticism has nothing to do with tactics. The word selfish is a racially loaded word. I’ve written about this before. As basketball shifted from being a professional sport dominated by white and Jewish athletes to being one dominated by African-Americans, its default criticisms shifted as well. This is when basketball started being criticized as being selfish… and thuggish… and a whole bunch of other things that black people have been unfairly labeled as during the complicated and unfortunate racial history of our country.

It’s time to stop this. From now on, let’s all be more aggressive in our response to people who say they don’t like the NBA because it is selfish. They may not be racist — probably aren’t, in fact — but they are parroting a critique with a very bad history that isn’t at all, not even if you squint, supported by the actual evidence of what is going on in the NBA.

What is a hockey assist?

Dear Sports Fan,

I was playing basketball the other day and one of my teammates complimented me on a “nice hockey assist.” I know that an assist is the pass right before someone makes a shot. What is a hockey assist?

Thanks,
Conrad


Dear Conrad,

A hockey assist refers to a pass that led to a pass that led to a goal or basket. It’s called a hockey assist because hockey is the only one of the major sports to credit players for it in basic official statistics. A hockey player who passes the puck to a teammate who scores is given an assist. A hockey player who passes the puck to a teammate who passes the puck to a teammate who scores is also credited with an assist. To distinguish the two types of assists, the first one is called a primary assist and the other is called a secondary assist. What the hockey world calls a secondary assist, the rest of the world calls a “hockey assist.”

Every sport has a historical group of simple statistics which defined how casual fans and even insiders thought about players for a long time. Examining the statistics can also tell us something about the culture of the sport. In hockey, one of those basic statistics was points, calculated by adding all of that player’s goals and assists. This is perhaps simplest way to judge a player’s worth. In a player’s cumulative season or career point total, a secondary assist counts just as much as a primary one. From this, we can intuit that hockey values teamwork and spreads out credit for achievements more than most sports. This rings true considering some of hockey’s other traditions, like putting the name of every player from the championship team on the Stanley Cup, hockey’s ultimate trophy.

The hockey assist is not without its critics. In fact, a quick google search reveals people who call it a lie, pointless, and less sense than almost any other rule in sports. People need to chill out. The statistical revolution has come to every major sport and has completely revolutionized the way players are evaluated within teams. No team worth its salt is going to make player decisions on statistics as fundamental as assists or points. Furthermore, as people have become more savvy about looking for meaningful statistics in other sports, the hockey assist received some serious consideration. Here’s a great blog post by Kevin Yeung for SB Nation’s Memphis Grizzlies blog, Grizzly Bear Blues, in which he explores the hockey assist in a basketball context. It’s worth a read if you’re interested in learning more about the value of your basketball hockey assist!

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

The glass ceiling isn't breaking for female coaches but there is a crack

On August 5, 2014, the San Antonio Spurs became the first National Basketball Association (NBA) team to hire a woman as a full-time coach by hiring Becky Hammon as one of their assistant coaches. On July 27, 2015, the Arizona Cardinals, a National Football League (NFL) team made similar headlines by hiring Jenn Welter to their coaching staff. Just recently, the Oakland Athletics, a team in Major League Baseball (MLB) made their mark by hiring Justine Siegal to their coaching staff. You’d be forgiven for thinking that the glass ceiling preventing women entering professional coaching as equals is breaking all over the place — across the country and across many sports. Alas, it’s not true. The hiring of Welter and Siegal by the Cardinals and Athletics are vastly different acts than that of the Spurs in hiring Hammon. They’re not comparable in any way. If anything, these lesser hirings should show us just how radical, brave, and smart the Spurs are.

Welter was hired by the Cardinals to be an “assistant coaching intern for training camp and the preseason to work with inside linebackers.” She was one of four people to work with the team’s linebackers – who are a group of around eight to 15 on teams of 53 to 90 people. Come the regular season, and Welter was gone, having served her time. Siegal is likely to have a similar experience with the Oakland As. She was hired as “a guest instructor with [the As] Instructional League team.” The Instructional League is a place for very young prospects and injured or over-the-hill veterans to play. Its season lasts only for September and October, and is separate from the core minor league system. In other words, she wasn’t hired to coach the major league Athletics nor any of their seven full-time minor league teams.

Hammon, on the other hand, is one of six full-time assistant coaches on the San Antonio Spurs bench. She has already spent a full season with the team and is entering her second year. During the summer, she was asked to head coach the Spurs Summer League team, an honor typically given to a team’s top assistant coach. She led that team to the Summer League title. As premature as this sounds, there are already speculative articles being written about Hammon’s prospects as a head coach. Given the Spurs well-established record of stability, my guess is that she’ll stay with the team for at least a few more years. The speculation isn’t unwarranted though. As you can see in this chart, four former assistant coaches under Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich and an additional three players who played for him have become head coaches in the league. If Hammon continues on the path she seems to be on, she will become a good candidate for a head coaching position.

The problem is – will anyone team have the guts to hire her? As sad as this sounds, my guess is that her only reasonable chance is to stay in San Antonio and aim to be hired as Popovich’s heir when he decides to retire. Other teams just don’t seem to be up to it. Don’t be fooled by the other high profile female hirings in sports. Any movement toward equality is a good one, but it’s important to understand that they have been small head-fakes toward equality, while the Spurs move was a full-on slam dunk.

For women's sports to thrive, look beyond the World Cup

So far, the women’s 2015 World Cup has been a great success. Sure, it’s had its sore spots: the cringe-inducing spectacle of people playing soccer on artificial turf that literally melts their cleats and burns their feet; the lackluster performance of the United States team so far; the mostly empty stadiums for some Round of 16 games; but overall, it’s been a great time for soccer and women’s sports in general. The games have been fast, exciting, and as a whole, quite competitive. There have been viewing parties all over the country, from bars and living rooms to town squares and outside city halls. Even President Obama got into the act, showing support for the U.S. team.

One way that you can tell that women’s sports has hit the jackpot of popular support with this World Cup is by noting how quickly and vociferously opponents of equality in sport get shouted down in the media. Early this week, Sports Illustrated’s Andy Benoit provided an example when he tweeted his belief that women’s sports in general are not worth watching. As you might expect, Benoit was roundly condemned for his tweet. He was mocked by former Saturday Night Live actors Amy Poehler and Seth Myers (who themselves were good-naturedly mocked by Fox Sports 1’s Jay Onrait and Dan O’Toole). His contention that women’s sports are not worth watching was debunked by innumerable columnists around the country, my favorite of which was Will Leitch in Sports on Earth who argued that anyone who thinks women’s sports are boring, are in fact, boring themselves:

People like Benoit toss out these justifications for not watching women’s sports out of some sort of faux sports purity, like he’s really just out to watch the pinnacle of athletic achievement every night, like anything less than the “best” and the “fastest” and the “strongest” is somehow a waste of one’s time. But this isn’t why we watch sports at all; we watch because every game we watch, we have a chance to see something we’ve never seen before. Dismissing that out of hand isn’t a way of demanding the highest quality performance every game (as if that’s something that could be done anyway); it’s a way of confirming your preexisting biases. It also devalues the actual athleticism on display, and the amount of work it required of everyone to get there.

Although the reaction against Benoit’s comment suggests that he was voicing a fringe, minority opinion, he was not. His attitude towards women’s sports is quite mainstream. Benoit simply made the mistake of speaking out against women’s sports during the World Cup, one of women’s sports two or three most popular events at a time when it’s never been more popular. If you think anything he said was new, you should watch this bitingly ironic video the Norwegian national team made before the World Cup began:

Negative attitudes like the ones the Norwegian team mocked in their video are all too common in the sports world and are relatively safe to voice during the 45 months out of every 48 when a World Cup or Olympics is not going on. This is bad for elite female athletes, it’s bad for people who love watching sports, it’s bad for girls who aspire to be athletes and their parents. I actually can’t think of anyone it is good for. It’s bad for everyone. Unfortunately, as popular as events like the World Cup and Olympics are, they can’t solve the problem because they only come around once every four years. To solve the gender inequalities in sports, a more consistent, permanent force is needed.

Tanya Wheeless, a former executive of the professional basketball teams, the Phoenix Mercury and Suns, wrote recently about the challenge of sustaining interest in women’s sports beyond the World Cup in Time magazine. She suggests that the critical variable in equalizing the opportunities and rewards provided by sports to women is investment:

What if the likes of Nike, Adidas, Coke, and Gatorade spent as much promoting female athletes as they did men? What if women’s leagues had the same marketing budget as men’s leagues? What if the National Women’s Soccer League got as much airtime in the U.S. as the English Premier League?

Naysayers will say all of that would happen if the interest were there. I say, increase promotion and the interest will follow. It’s the difference between having a market and creating one.

Wheeless could not be more right. The future of women’s sports must be bolstered by strong professional leagues. Professional leagues provide opportunities for athletes to get the training and experience they need to become world class. Without strong professional leagues, athletes are left making gut-wrenching decisions, like that of Noora Raty, perhaps the best women’s hockey goalie in the world, who retired at 24 for financial reasons, or Monica Quinteros, the 26 year-old Ecuadorian soccer player who left her job as a gym teacher to play in this year’s World Cup. You think they might have stuck with their sports if they could have made a living doing so? Yeah, so do I.

We don’t need to leave it to “Nike, Adidas, Coke, and Gatorade.” We can do something about this ourselves. We can contribute to equality and the success of women’s sports by becoming a fan of an existing women’s professional team. That’s exactly what I aim to do with the local professional women’s soccer team, the Boston Breakers. I’ve been to one game so far this year and it was a lot of fun. Held in a Harvard University complex convenient to most of the greater Boston area, Breakers games provide high-quality soccer in a thoroughly enjoyable atmosphere. I’m going again this Sunday when the Breakers take on the Western New York Flash at 5 p.m. Tickets are available and affordable. Join me!

There’s really no excuse to continue watching only male sports. There are successful women’s basketball and soccer leagues: the WNBA and NWSL, and later this year, a brand new professional women’s ice hockey league, the NWHL will begin. The WNBA is carried on television by the ESPN family of channels and you can buy streaming access to all the games for only $15. The NWSL goes a step further and puts all of its games on Youtube for free! If you’re reading this post now, you can watch those games. So join me, over the next year and more, in supporting women’s sports by putting our eyes and our wallets were our mouths are!

Why is 50% written .500 and said "five hundred" in sports?

Dear Sports Fan,

Here’s something I don’t get about sports. Why is 50% called “500” in sports? Is this some kind of metric system thing? Or is it for a purpose?

Thanks,
Emily


Dear Emily,

There are a variety of numbers in sports that are expressed as a number between zero and 1,000 when they more naturally might be thought of as a percentage. For example, a team that has won half its games and lost half its games is often said to be a “500 team” or playing “500 ball.” What this means is that they have won 50% of the games they’ve played. Likewise, a basketball player who scores on 38.9% of the three point shots she attempts may be said to be “shooting 389 from downtown.”

There’s nothing magical about these numbers, they’re just like percentages — a way of expressing the result from one number being divided by another. In the case of percentages, we take one number, divide it by another number, and then multiply the result by 100 and smack a percentage sign next to it. Thus one divided by two, which is .5 becomes 50%. The difference between a percentage and a sports number is that instead of multiplying by 100, sports numbers get multiplied by 1,000. At least when spoken out loud. A lot of times when you see a sports number like this written out, it will actually be written as “.500” even though no one would ever read it as “five tenths” instead of “five hundred” in a sports context.

If you always want to express a ratio to the hundredths place, it kind of makes sense to multiply by 1,000 instead of 100. It’s certainly easier to refer to something that happens three times every eight times it’s attempted as “three seventy five” than “point three seventy five” or even “thirty seven point five percent.” It’s not surprising that sports people feel that their numbers need this level of accuracy. People who live in and around sports often seem to be obsessed with accuracy to the point of over-precision. For example, players eligibly to be picked in the NBA draft tonight have their height measured down to the quarter inch with and without shoes! Commentators in many sports will often argue about whether it looks like something a player did took .25 seconds or .28 seconds. As if the commentators can actually judge a hundredth of a second difference from their perch at the top of the stadium! Because the difference between winning and losing in sports can sometimes be as slim as a fraction of an inch or a hundredth of a second it’s tempting to believe that all metrics in sports need to have that level of detail.

 

In defense of the sports way of expressing percentages, its historic source is a number that reasonably should be expressed to the tenth of a percent: batting average in baseball. Batting average is a player or team’s number of hits divided by their number of at bats. It’s not the best metric in baseball, in fact it’s a reasonably misleading one, but it does have a very long history. For many years, it was considered a key statistic in measuring how good a player was doing against to his current competition and for making historical comparisons. Baseball is obsessed with statistics because it creates them so nicely. Its long, 162 game season virtually guarantees that any measure one can imagine will have a statistically significant sample over the course of a year. With 30 teams and well over a dozen position players on each team, not even to mention the 120+ history of professional baseball, if you really want to know how a player’s batting average compares to his peers, you do need to take that number to the third decimal point. It would be far less interesting to say that Manny Machado and Adrian Gonzalez have the same batting average of 30% than to say that Machado is 18th in the league, with a .304 (pronounced “three oh four”) batting average and Gonzalez is 30th with a .296. Eight tenths of a percent may not seem like much, but over the course of a season (162 games times roughly 3.5 at bats per game) that’s a difference of four or five hits.

 

Of course, the source of the habit doesn’t matter so much if it is misapplied. Team records are the clearest form of misapplication. The problem with using this kind of number to express a team’s record is that aside from the most obvious numbers like .333, .666, and any of .000, .100, .200, and so on, these figures are very hard for us to translate into numbers in our heads. Quick — tell me how many wins and losses a team whose record is .527 has. According to the current MLB baseball standings, the answer is 39 wins and 35 losses, like the Toronto Blue Jays have. Although these numbers are convenient for creating a standings table (because they allow an easy comparison of teams who have played different numbers of games) they probably should not be displayed. In terms of figuring out how well your team is doing, the order of the teams in the standings and the games back metric are far, far better.

Regardless of how reasonable or unreasonable the sports percentage expression is, it’s deeply engrained in sports culture and seems to be here to stay. It’s easy to wonder though, if this small form of numerical manipulation makes it easier for sports people to mangle numbers in much sillier ways, like the habit of asking players to “give 110%.” That’s a story for another day.

Thanks for your question,
Ezra

What's so enjoyable about the NBA draft?

Dear Sports Fan,

The NBA draft is tonight, which means half of my friends will be glued to the television and the other half will be glued to their phones, getting constant updates and reading Twitter. I have to say, I enjoy basketball as much as the next guy but I don’t get the whole draft obsession. What’s so enjoyable about the NBA draft?

Thanks,
Josh


Dear Josh,

Sports fans come in many different flavors. Some people love a particular team but won’t watch a game between two other teams. Some people will watch any game but don’t really want to be bothered with having a favorite team. Some people care only about the on-the-court tactics. Some people love to watch beautiful bodies in motion. Some people follow a sport for the celebrity lives of its players. Somewhere in that mess of flavors, is a variety of fan who loves the draft. Here are some of the characteristics of that type of fan:

  • Love of the unknown – This is a key characteristic for most varieties of sports fan. Sports, after all, are one of the few types of entertainment (literally reality TV) where anything can happen at any moment. Still, during a game, the possibilities are limited by the players involved. LeBron James is unlikely to forget how to pass the ball. The New York Knicks aren’t going to miraculously become the best team in the league in an instant. Deron Williams isn’t going to dunk over Marc Gasol. During the draft, everything is possible, anything can happen, and it often does. Trades between teams involving picks and players happen frequently during the draft, as well as surprise player selections. Despite all the research, no one really knows how good each of the players eligible to be picked is going to be, so any pick could be the one that launches a team to the promised land of NBA greatness.
  • Hope springing eternal – For the type of fan whose primary focus is the fortunes of a single team, the draft offers the promise of success in the upcoming year. The pinnacle of this excitement comes when a favorite team has a high pick – one of the first five – or has stockpiled several reasonably high picks. The draft is set up so that generally teams who did worse last year have the best draft picks in this year’s draft. That optimizes the excitement of the draft for this type of fan.
  • Enjoys the setup more than the conclusion – For some fans, and I count myself in this category, enjoying the NBA draft is an extension of how they feel about all types of activities. Some people just like the setup more than the conclusion. I find examples of this all over my life. When watching movies or reading books, I gravitate towards beginnings over endings. For example, I love the first half of the famous movie, the Seven Samurai, with its long recruitment sections when each samurai is individually introduced, more than the final half when all the fighting happens. I love the first two thirds of the Usual Suspects for the same reason. It’s the same way with books. How about video games? I’ll start a dozen games without finishing any of them. Movies? Half the time, I spend more time browsing titles than actually watching them. Sometimes that’s all I do! The draft is all the setup with none of that pesky playing of games to get in the way of my enjoyment.

It’s also possible that your friends are college basketball fans in addition to being NBA fans. In that case, they have a vested interest in the draft because they already know the characters. One thing that almost every brand of sports fan likes to do is to think about who is better and who is best. The NBA draft is a form of ranking college (and international) basketball players from best to worst. Since that’s something college (and international) fans already do in their spare time, it’s fun for them to see if their instincts are similar to the collective wisdom of 30 NBA teams.

Thanks for your question,
Ezra Fischer

What is the triangle offense in basketball?

One of the great things about watching sports is that they are multi-layered entertainment. The most casual fan can turn on a game and immediately enjoy the beauty of watching incredibly fit people do insanely graceful things with their bodies. Someone who doesn’t know anything about a sport but loves competition will find it easy to get engaged in a close game. A moderate fan starts to learn some of the characters in the drama – the players and coaches whose personalities influence the outcome of the game and how fans feel about it. An intermediate fan will learn about the many technicalities of the game, from rules to basic tactics. A serious fan of a sport or team will become an expert in history, know the background and personalities of all the players, and has a deep intellectual and instinctual understanding of how the game works from tactics to rules to strategies. Each sport has its own ladder of learning, something which we try to unravel on Dear Sports Fan. No matter how long you’re involved with a sport, however, there always seems to be another layer of the onion to peel; something else that remains unknown – something else to learn. In basketball, the very pinnacle of understanding, the single thing which remains unknowable to virtually all fans and even most players and coaches is the triangle offense.

Although it’s much less obvious, basketball teams, like football teams, have distinct offensive plays and strategies which vary from team to team. Although most offenses share similar concepts, like the pick and roll, each one is its own unique animal. In this animal kingdom of offensive strategies, the triangle offense is the panther – complex, mysterious, and totally dominant. The most winning teams of the past 20+ years of basketball history, the Chicago Bulls of the 1990s (six championships) and the Los Angeles Lakers of the 2000s (five championships) have used the triangle offense. Despite all that notoriety, the offense has remained literally invisible to casual fans and totally inscrutable to virtually everyone else. Without being able to understand how it works, people have taken to debating its existence. Is the triangle offense really what drove those teams to their success or is it a “MacGuffin” — a meaningless sleight of hand created by Phil Jackson, coach of both teams, to distract competitors and commentators from whatever his true strategy was?

In a truly brilliant New York Times article, “The Obtuse Triangle,” Nicholas Dawidoff, set out to discover, once and for all, the essential nature of the triangle offense, the unorthodox thinker, Tex Winter, who created it, and the enigmatic coach, Phil Jackson, who used it to such success. Here are some of my favorite selections from the story, but you should read it all. It’s bright and accessible to even the most casual basketball fan.

Dawidoff discovers that, as opposed to other offenses that are an accumulation of set plays, the triangle offense is a philosophy of interpretation that must be shared by all five players on the court inorder to be effective:

Winter empowers his players to read the defense and make situational decisions within the flow of the game, so the tricky part is that everyone must recognize the same opportunity and choose the same response. In effect, Winter wants five basketball Peyton Mannings on the floor, scanning the defense, deciphering its intentions, flashing around the court in well-spaced concert, exploiting vulnerability.

Part of Dawidoff’s investigative process was reading a book Winter wrote and published which detailed the triangle offense for all to read. Offenses are usually tightly guarded secrets, but as you’ll see in a minute, Winter felt comfortable sharing his for one very good reason:

When a Baltimore Bullets scout named Jerry Krause visited Kansas State, Winter gave Krause his book to read. Krause complimented the book, and Winter mentioned that he had sent copies to his rival coaches in the Big 8 Conference.

“I said, ‘Why are you giving away your secrets?’ ” Krause said. “He said: ‘I’m not. It’ll only confuse them.’ ”

Triangle deniers often point out that Jackson’s championship teams had first Michael Jordan and then Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neill on them. That’s three of the top ten players in the past 40 years. A big part of the article grapples with this question. The eventual conclusion seems to be that while no offense can succeed without great players, great players also can’t succeed (at least as consistently and frequently as Jordan, O’Neill, and Bryant did) without a great system.

Jackson and Winter’s thinking was that if they built more offensive options around him, Jordan would have greater reserves of energy at the end of playoff games. They told Jordan that for 20 seconds, the team would stay in the offense. If no clear scoring opportunities emerged, then he should create one. Jordan was skeptical; he called the triangle “a white man’s offense.”

Jordan’s teammate Horace Grant describes the give-and-take between crediting the offense and the star players:

“It was a smooth operating machine. Baryshnikov in action! Picasso painting! A beautiful thing! Having Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen helped, too. Shot clock’s at four, it all breaks down, then Jordan time.”

Enjoy the whole article here.