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.

Is basketball the most selfish sport?

Dear Sports Fan,

What do you think of the NBA Finals this year? People seem to love watching LeBron James almost single-handedly beat the Golden State Warriors. They think it’s an incredible performance by James, and it is, but it also seems to confirm something I’ve not liked about basketball for a long time — that the individual is so much more important than the team. Basketball seems like an incredibly selfish sport. Is basketball the most selfish sport?


Dear Eduardo,

The skills and effort of a single person make more of a difference to whether their team wins in basketball than any other sport but that doesn’t mean that the sport is selfish. To answer your question, let’s examine why one player has a bigger impact on basketball than any other sport and then discuss whether that inevitably leads to selfishness. First though, we need to talk briefly about race.

Basketball has a complicated racial history in this country. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, the sport was dominated by Jewish players, mostly from New York City and other nearby cities. Our current professional league, the National Basketball Association, was created in 1946 and so it caught the tail end of the Jewish basketball dynasty. The first basket in NBA history was scored by New York Knick, Ossie Schectman. A documentary, The First Basket, was named after this hoop, and describes the Jewish influence on the sport and league. Throughout the 1950s, Jews were replaced by African-Americans and by the mid-60s, most teams had close to a 50/50 split. From there, the league drew a progressively larger percent of their players from African-American households until it reached its current status as the professional sports league with the highest percentage of African Americans. According to the Race and Ethnicity in the NBA Wikipedia page, the NBA in 2011 was 78% African American. The reason why all of this is important is that race and racial stereotypes color the way many people describe activities, including sports. For the past 50 years of professional basketball in this country, that has unfortunately meant that the default criticisms of basketball players have mimicked negative stereotypes of African-Americans. Basketball players have been accused of being lazy and on drugs and they’ve been called thugs and yes, selfish. Compare that to what was written about basketball during the Jewish dominated 1930s, “the game places a premium on an alert scheming mind, flashy trickiness, artful dodging and general smart-aleckness.” Lazy? Selfish? Scheming? Smart-aleckness? It’s clear that we have to guard against racial stereotypes when we talk about the nature of basketball. We’ll proceed carefully.

A single basketball player can have a bigger impact on their team than any player in any other major team sport. There’s a simple numerical reason for this. Basketball is played five on five. Soccer is 11 on 11, football 11 on 11, baseball is nine (or 10 if you’re playing with and count a designated hitter), and hockey is six on six. Furthermore, a basketball player is able to play a greater percentage of the game than in most other sports. Football players play only on offense or defense, and often not even for all of the plays in either phase. Baseball players are limited to hitting once in every nine at bats and starting pitchers only pitch once every five games. Hockey is so exhausting that players are only on the ice for 45 seconds to a minute at a time before substituting. Soccer is the only sport where more players play a higher percentage of the game, but with 11 on the field at a time, it’s harder for an individual to dominate like a LeBron James can in basketball. The last, and perhaps most meaningful reason why it seems like a single basketball player can have a bigger impact on her team than in any other sport is how deliberate and individual offense can be. Basketball teams can usually create a one on one matchup for an offensive player, called an iso (short for isolation) whenever they want. The Cavaliers often default to this approach with James. That’s simply not true in other team sports. Hockey and soccer are too fluid and chaotic to ever consistently transform their sport into a contest of individuals. Any offense in football is evidently reliant on teamwork. The center has to snap the ball to the quarterback. The offensive line needs to protect him. The quarterback needs a wide receiver to get open and to catch the ball. Each part obviously relies on the other. In basketball, it’s easier for a team to transform a team sport into a contest between their best player and the opponent’s best player.

Being selfish has to do with motivation, not action. Google’s dictionary defines selfish as “lacking consideration for others; concerned chiefly with one’s own personal profit or pleasure.” The best basketball player on a team may do more than everyone else, but if he does it with the team’s goal of winning in his mind; if she does it because she wants her team to win, then he or she cannot be said to be selfish. One reason why people might think of the best basketball player on a team as being selfish is because the roles on a basketball court are so amorphous. We don’t call a starting pitcher in baseball selfish for throwing more pitches than any of the relievers on the team. We don’t consider a quarterback in football to be selfish because he barely ever lets anyone else throw the ball. It’s only in soccer, hockey, and basketball, where the positions all kind of look the same that accusations of selfishness come up. We’ve also been considering the best player on the team. What about the fourth, fifth, and sixth best players? The ones that are out there primarily to rebound and set picks? Just by being in the NBA, it’s safe to assume they were the best player on their middle school, high school, and maybe even college teams. They once were the ones doing most of the scoring and now their primary goal is to support the best on their team. There are more of those players than there are stars and they clearly cannot be called selfish, given how they give themselves up for the team’s good. Of course, it is possible for a basketball player to be selfish. She can refuse to pass to her teammates. He can shoot almost every time he gets the ball. For what its worth, LeBron James does neither of those things. He’s an excellent and willing passer. James could easily be selfish if he wanted to though, he touches the ball on most of the Cavaliers’ plays. Selfish players have an easier time being selfish in basketball than in other sports but that doesn’t make basketball a selfish game. It just makes it one where it’s easier to tell when someone is being selfish.

Thanks for your question,
Ezra Fischer

Dear Sports Fan joins the real world: Meetup

Watching sports with someone who knows more or less than you can be a frustrating proposition.

If you’re the person who knows less about sports, you probably have a lot of questions. How many can you ask before the sports fan you’re watching with gets annoyed? When is the right time to ask? You don’t want to ruin the game for your companion by asking a simple question right at a suspenseful moment. Talking about simple questions, it can be difficult to learn when it seems like the answers to all your questions contain vocabulary words you’re not completely clear on. Words and concepts that are second nature to a sports fan, like offside, holding, second set, third and seven, or two and two, are not easy sailing if you don’t know what they mean. It often feels like a choice between pestering your companion incessantly or accepting that the sporting event can only be pleasant but indecipherable background noise.

Being the person who knows more about sports can also be tricky. Knowledge often comes from passion, so the person who knows more often wants to focus more on watching and less on talking. It can be legitimately difficult to explain the components of something you may have learned very gradually from an early age or from the altered perspective of being a participant.

It’s difficult to watch sports without understanding them but it’s impossible to learn without watching. It’s a Catch 22 of Hellermanian proportions — at least it was, until now. After four years of explaining sports online, Dear Sports Fan will be making its first foray into the real world. I’ve started a Meetup group called Dear Sports Fan Viewing Parties for people who want to watch sports with explicit permission to ask question and for sports fans who want to help create a supportive setting. Our first Meetup will be this Monday, June 8, at 7 p.m. to watch the U.S. Women’s National soccer team play its first game of the 2015 World Cup against Australia. We’ll be gathering at Orleans bar in Somerville near Davis Square. If you or anyone you know lives in the Boston area and would like to be a part of this experiment, let me know or sign up here.

Why can't sports teams learn what a concussion looks like?

The sports world is supposed to have made progress on understanding and dealing with brain injuries and concussions. Leagues have implemented concussion protocols that mandate specific forms of testing for brain injuries before players are allowed back into play. Coaches understand that when it comes to concussions, they can’t put pressure on doctors or players to speed things up. Even players, long the most resistant population to taking brain injuries seriously, are starting to understand that a brain injury should not be played through. I think the sports world really has made progress… and then something mind-numbingly stupid happens and I wonder if we’ve made any progress at all.

Last night, the Golden State Warriors qualified for the NBA Finals last night by beating the Houston Rockets 104-90 in Game Five of the Western Conference Championships. They won the series with relative ease, four games to one but they didn’t get through unscathed. In each of their last two games, one of their best players was forced to leave the game with a head injury. In Game Four, it was league Most Valuable Player, Steph Curry. In Game Five, it was his backcourt mate, Klay Thompson. Their injuries, and the way they were handled by team physicians, make me think that despite all of the progress the sports world has made on the concussion issue, we still don’t have even a basic understanding of what a concussion-causing injury looks like. Gah! Let’s break this down.

Steph Curry was injured when he was fooled on defense by a clever fake from Trevor Ariza. Ariza was ahead of Curry but knew that if he moved to lay the ball into the hoop, he’d be at danger of having his shot blocked by the athletic Curry. So, he faked as if he was about to shoot the ball but kept his feet on the ground. Curry fell for the fake and leapt into the air. Unfortunately, this meant that instead of meeting Ariza in midair, Curry’s jump took him up and almost over a grounded Ariza. As he passed the peak of his jump and started coming back down, his momentum and Ariza’s body acted as a pivot, twisting Curry backwards so that he hit the ground upside-down and head first.

It’s a bad fall, to be sure, but despite Curry’s head hitting the floor, it’s not one that screams concussion. Why? First, Curry knows what’s happening. He can’t stop himself from hitting the ground, but he’s aware that he’s falling. It may not seem like there’s time to do a lot in midair but remember that basketball players are world-class athletes who are used to making decisions and acting on them during a jump. Curry is remarkable even in the NBA population. He knows he’s falling, knows which way he’s going to land. He has time to brace himself for the fall, and he does it extremely well. He takes a tiny bit of the fall on his hand, arm, and wrist, but not enough to break any bones. That’s smart. He also rolls as much as possible, continuing the motion of the tumble so take pressure off his neck. Although we can’t see it, he surely tensed up his neck and shoulder muscles to support his head as he falls. Perhaps the most important thing is that his head doesn’t twist or rotate relative to his body as he hits the ground.

Curry was helped off the court a few minutes after this play. He went to his team’s locker room where he was monitored and tested for a concussion based on the NBA’s concussion protocol. After passing the tests, he returned to the game and has had no concussions symptoms since then. Watch the fall a few more times. It’s a good fall.

Now compare that to Klay Thompson’s injury from Game Five. This time, the injured player was playing offense. He was in the act of making a shot fake — just like the one that Trevor Ariza made when he unintentionally became part of Curry’s injury. Thompson lifts the ball as if he’s going to shoot it and as intended, he tricks an opponent (coincidentally ALSO Trevor Ariza) into trying to block the shot. Ariza takes a running leap from the side to get his hand in front of the shot. Instead of jumping himself, Thompson stays on the ground. This puts him in the path of the leaping Ariza, who’s knee gives Thompson a glancing blow to the side of the head as he passes him.

It looks like nothing, or at least something much less dramatic than Curry’s fall, but it’s much more dangerous. Thompson does not see it coming. Oh, sure, he knows that a defender has been fooled by his fake and has “bit” enough to jump, but he doesn’t specifically know that a knee is about to hit him in the head. As such, he has no way of bracing for the impact. The impact, when it comes, twists his neck and head, as they rotate in response to the knee.

Thompson was taken to the locker room where he had a cut to his ear attended to. After getting stitched up, he returned to the bench and was reportedly cleared to play. In fact, a sideline reporter at the game reported that he hadn’t taken any concussion tests because he didn’t need them. After the game, Thompson complained of concussion symptoms — according to Jesus Gomez of SB Nation, Thompson couldn’t drive home and threw up. In the aftermath of the game, some uncertainty about what tests he was given and whether he passed them has either been revealed by more detailed reporting or (cynically speaking) was generated by the team in a CYA maneuver. Kevin Draper actually amended his Deadspin article on Thompson by writing that “the post has been updated to better express the uncertainty over exactly what tests Thompson did or did not undergo.”

I’m less concerned with a single incident than with what it reveals. Despite hundreds of thousands of words written about the topic, hundreds of millions of dollars spent in settlements with retired players, and hundreds of thousands of dollars paid annually to keep neurologists of staff, sports teams still don’t seem to understand what a dangerous head injury looks like. The mechanics of a concussion are simple: rotational force is more dangerous than a straight ahead blow. When an athlete sees a collision before it happens and has time to prepare himself, he is less likely to suffer a concussion. It would be better to play on the safe side and have treated both of these injuries as potential concussions but to go through the protocol for the less dangerous one and potentially skip it for the more dangerous one is difficult to understand or accept. It’s time for sports teams to learn what a concussion looks like.

Why are there so many injuries in the NBA these days?

Dear Sports Fan,

Why are there so many injuries in the NBA these days?


Dear Adam,

It does seem like every time you turn your head, another high profile basketball player goes down with an injury, doesn’t it? Just in this year’s playoffs, we’ve seen significant injuries to Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving, Kyle Korver, Chris Paul, Demarre Carroll, Dwight Howard, Paul Milsap, John Wall, and Mike Conley Jr. Just yesterday, the New York Times ran an article by Scott Cacciola entitled, As N.B.A. Playoff Injuries Pile Up, Team’s Are in Survival Mode. Before I launch into an answer, I’d like to stipulate that I don’t really know why there are more injuries. I’m not sure anyone does — at least, I can’t find anything definitive out there. There seems to be a consensus growing that the NBA would be a safer place for its players if it would shorten its regular season from 82 games to a number in the 60s or 70s. Implicit in that suggestion is the idea that what’s causing increased injury rates is the total number of minutes that players play each year. This belief is shared by coaches like San Antonio Spurs coach, Gregg Popovich, who carefully limit their best players’ playing time, even if it means holding them out of entire games.

Within every sport is long-running war between offense and defense. The battles in this metaphorical war are played out on fields and courts and rinks but they are fought not just by players but through rules, tactics, and strategies. In basketball, the war has long been slanted towards the offense but defense has slowly been pulling itself back into contention over the past twenty five years. As Bill Simmons points out in a column of his which addresses this question, the average number of points per game has fallen from 108 in 1998 to 98 in 2013. This rise in the effectiveness of defense has happened despite rule changes throughout the 1990s and 2000s that were intended to “open up the game”. How has it happened? The short answer is that a combination of technology and new analytic approaches to thinking about basketball have led coaches to invent more effective defensive tactics and demand consistent execution and effort from their players. As scoring has gotten harder, offenses have had to respond by becoming faster and more innovative on offense; using picks and other tactics to generate open shots. If you were to visualize the change the arms race between offense and defense has wrought on basketball from a bird’s eye view, you’d see that it’s made basketball faster and more chaotic with players banging into each other at higher rates and velocities. Basketball seems to have become a more dangerous sport.

If this is true, than limiting the number of minutes a basketball player plays in a given game or the number of games they play per year is very much the wrong thing to do. It may be effective in the short term — and San Antonio’s success with their minute-limiting strategy suggests that it is and has inspired many copycat teams — but it’s bad for the sport. Limiting players will only result in fewer injuries if they continue to play the way they have before, just for fewer minutes. This is not a given in the world of competitive sports, where winning is everything. For historic perspective, look at what happened to ice hockey in the 1920s and 30s as it transitioned from a game where the best players played all or a majority of the game to one where it was normal to play only a third of the game. Hockey players simply used their extra energy to go faster and harder. Nowadays hockey players rocket off their benches, play 45 seconds to a minute at a time, and hockey has become one of the most dangerous sports out there. In my series of articles on brain injuries and the NFL I argued that this same phenomenon is responsible for the danger in football. Too many substitutions and too little actual game-play has made football into a series of high intensity and high danger bursts of activity. It’s difficult to imagine how to make football safer at this point (I recommend reducing its roster size from 53 to 20) but it’s easy to see how basketball could become more dangerous in the same way. A vicious cycle that could take the sport there has already begun. Defense gets better, so offenses have to try harder and get trickier. This makes the sport more taxing and dangerous for its players. As a result, players play less. This allows them to play even harder, which makes it more dangerous, which players play less, which…

The future is a scary place but it doesn’t need to be that way. If NBA owners, coaches, players, and fans resist the urge to change too much, too fast, an equilibrium will probably naturally occur.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

Appreciating styles in basketball: Memphis vs. Golden State

There are a few mathematical ways of comparing the complexity of board games. One method, called Game Tree Size, tries to quantify complexity by counting the total number of possible games that could be played. If you use at this method, Stratego shows itself to be the most complex game, perhaps because players can set up their pieces to start the game in many different ways. A couple positions below Stratego comes Go, the 4,000 year-old Chinese game, and then much lower down, Chess. As you would expect, the simplest games measured is Tic-tac-toe. Board games are not fun in direct proportion to their complexity — you’re not going to hear me say that Stratego is a better game than Chess just because it’s more complex — but it is an important factor. It’s good to feel like it’s possible to get better at a game, even to master it, without being forced into a single strategic direction. If a game is simple enough to have a clear winning strategy, then once you figure it out, it soon loses its appeal.

This is one of the reasons why sports are so much fun to play and follow — they are virtually infinite in their complexity. I can’t imagine how you’d even begin to calculate the complexity of a sport like basketball. Not only are there ten players on the court at a time, free to move anywhere in a large three-dimensional space, but each of them is an actual person, with her own abilities to see, move, shoot, or pass. That’s one reason why it was somewhat disconcerting to watch the NBA regular season this year. It seemed like teams had “solved” basketball and found a truly ideal way to play. Not ideal from an aesthetic point of view, but from a winning one. The formula, epitomized by the Houston Rockets, seemed to be, shoot nothing but three-pointers (ideally from the corner) and layups. During the playoffs this year, it’s been wonderful to see that there are still different ways of winning, that basketball has not (and probably never will) been solved. No playoff matchup exemplifies this better than the series between the Memphis Grizzlies and the Golden State Warriors.

The series between the Grizzlies and the Warriors is currently tied at two games apiece. These teams have beautifully contrasting styles that are easy to see and appreciate. Put simply, the Warriors play based on the idea that three points is more than two while the Grizzlies principle is that scoring is easier when you’re closer to the basket. The great thing is that both of these theories are correct! Both teams have an almost ideal fit between their best players and the way they play. The Grizzlies are the more physical team, the Warriors the more balletic. The Warriors best players are Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. Curry is 6’3″ and 185 lbs and Thompson is 6’7″ and 205 lbs. Both can shoot almost inhumanly well. The Grizzlies best players are Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. Gasol is 7’1″ and 265 lbs. Randolph is 6’9″ and 260 lbs. Both are among the best in the world at bullying their way close to the basket and then scoring from within the forest of arms trying to block them.

You can probably see the difference in styles just by watching these teams play but here are some numerical ways of showing it. During the regular season this year, Memphis scored the most points of any NBA team from the paint (close to the basket). To be fair, Golden State was also pretty good at this. Golden State was second in number of three pointers made, Memphis was second to last. Another excellent way of distinguishing the teams is by looking at shot charts that show where and how well teams or players shoot. I put together a few to look at using a great tool built by Austin Clemons. The first two show the Grizzlies and Warriors as a whole, the second two, just the star players already mentioned. Notice how many more of the Grizzlies shots come from in close and how many more of the Warriors shots come from beyond the three point arc. These differences become more dramatic when just looking at the star players.

Perhaps the most poetic way of understanding the difference between the two teams is by letting Grantland writer and narrative basketball poet, Brian Phillips help us understand. Phillips recently wrote articles about both teams. In his article on the Golden State Warriors, The Rise of Steph Curry, Phillips describes the subtle genius of Golden State’s most prolific and prototypical scorer:

He [Curry] just kept hitting shots, in his own little bubble of imperturbable cool. He had a gift for finding the little cracks, the little aerial wormholes only players with a certain kind of daredevil vision are ever able to see. He’d run off a screen, curl to the top of the key, catch the ball, pivot: swish, over a skyline of outstretched arms. Plant in the corner, catch the ball, flick a tiny hip-fake: swish, as his defender went rocketing past him… Curry exists on the plane where the impossible and the rational coincide — disarmingly natural. Smooth, even.

When writing about the Grizzlies, Phillips choses to focus, not on either of the Grizzlies big men, Gasol or Randolph, but instead on Tony Allen, a defensive specialist who has become an internet sensation during these playoffs. Allen, whose nickname is “The Grindfather” inspired Phillips to write The Grindfather’s House: Welcome to Tony Allen’s Playoffs. Here’s an excerpt:

Watching Tony Allen in 2015 is impossible not to enjoy. He’s like a combination of a professional wrestler, an elite superhero sidekick, and the dad from Finding Nemo… What Tony Allen does? It does not look fun. Murderous man-to-man defense, hyper-vigilant awareness of passing lanes, a willingness to chase your man from one end of the floor to the other, the tenacity to grind for 48 minutes against the other team’s best player … none of this looks remotely enjoyable.

Now that you’re armed with an understanding of how these two teams try to solve the game of basketball in entirely different but equally successful ways, see if you can witness it yourself in one of their next games. They’ll play each other on Wednesday, May 13, at 10:30 p.m. ET on TNT and Friday, May 15, 9:30 p.m. ET on ESPN. If neither team wins both of those games, a deciding Game Seven will be needed on Sunday, May 17 at a time to be determined. Enjoy!

How do basketball games start? What's a jump ball?

Dear Sports Fan,

How do basketball games start? I know there’s a jump ball to begin but I don’t really understand how it works and what it decides.


Dear Drew,

Every college and NBA basketball game begins with a jump ball. During a jump ball, two players stand on either side of a referee who then throws the ball up between them. Once the ball has reached the highest part of its arc, it is then free to be touched. Both players attempt to tip the ball to one of their teammates who are set up around the jump ball in a circle with alternating players on each team. Once the ball is tipped, it’s a free-for all. Whichever team gets the ball, gets the ball.

Basketball games in the NBA and WNBA start with a jump ball. There isn’t a jump ball at the start of each quarter, instead the initial jump ball is used to determine who gets the ball to start each of the other three quarters. The team that loses the initial jump ball gets the first possession of the second and third quarters. The team that gains possession of the jump ball to start the game also starts with the ball in the fourth quarter. I’ve never seen a study which tried to figure out whether it was actually better to win the jump ball and get the ball in the first and fourth or lose it and get it in the second and third. My guess is that it’s insignificant because of the high number of possessions overall (around 200) in each game.

The jump ball is not a unique feature of sports. It is a little bit like a face off in hockey or lacrosse, although in both those games the ball/puck is either dropped down onto the ground or begins on the ground. In all three sports, the goal is to start play with both sides having an even (or close to even. In hockey the home team gets a small advantage) chance of gaining possession of the ball. In lacrosse there are face offs at the start of the game, at halftime, and after every goal. In hockey, face offs are quite common, and are used whenever play needs to be restarted after a whistle.In basketball, jump balls are much more rare. In many games, the jump balled used to start the game, sometimes called an opening tip, will be the only jump ball during the game. In the NBA and WNBA, jump balls can happen during the game if there is a “tie-up” when two players from opposing teams seem to simultaneously have possession of the ball. When that happens, the referee stops play and those two players compete in a jump ball to see who can get the ball. This is better than allowing the game to dissolve into a wrestling match but it does sometimes result in some pretty funny looking jump balls between players of very different heights.

The jump ball hasn’t always been rare. Before the 1930s, it was used just like a hockey face off is, to restart play after almost every stoppage. Think about how often that must have been in as high scoring a sport as basketball! This was before the shot clock had been implemented, so basketball wasn’t as high scoring as it was today, but there still must have been a lot of jump balls. Winning jump balls would have been an important skill to have because a team that was good at it could have gotten possession of the ball, scored, and then gotten possession right back again. Today, the jump ball is archaic and almost extinct. It’s not used in college basketball or international basketball except to start the game. If there is a tie-up during a game in college or internationally, one team will get the ball and then the next time it happens the other team will. This is called alternating possession. Although equally fair, there’s something more pleasing to me about the jump ball. I hope it doesn’t disappear completely.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

Aside from footballs, what else can be customized in sports?

Dear Sports Fan,

Okay, so… what with the whole Deflategate thing popping up again, I understand that in football each team is allowed to customize their balls within certain parameters, and the Patriots probably went too far. Honestly though, I was surprised that football teams could customize their balls at all. What else in sports is customizable?


Dear Charlie,

I too was surprised when I first learned that NFL teams were allowed to customize the balls that they play offense with in each game. It seems unusual to give a team leeway over such an important piece of equipment. The ball is not customizable in any other sport that I’m aware of. Not in soccer, basketball, lacrosse, field hockey, volleyball, rugby, or even kickball. Perhaps it’s because in football, the ball is only used by one team at a time. Each team gets a turn playing offense with the ball while the other plays defense without it. When there’s a change of possession, there’s a whistle and the balls can be swapped in or out. Baseball is somewhat similar, although the ball is used somewhat equally by the defense (pitcher) and offense (batter.) It’s not surprising then that despite rules against any customization of the ball in baseball, it’s the one sport I know of where players (usually pitchers) are semi-frequently caught for trying to customize the ball to their liking. Pitchers won’t deflate the ball (it’s not inflated, so good luck deflating it) but they do try to scuff it up, spit on it, or rub sticky stuff onto it. That said, what you asked about were the elements of sports equipment that can be customized. Here’s a quick list off the top of my head of important elements of the five major sports that can be customized.

Soccer: Not much. But then again, there’s not much equipment in soccer at all, that’s one of its attractions. A player’s cleats can be custom-made although the materials used as well as the sharpness (they can’t be sharp) and the height (they can’t be stilts) are controlled.

Basketball: Again, not much here. A players shoes can be customized and if he’s famous enough, they will be to great profit for him or her and a shoe company. There was a fad a while back of players wearing full-length tights on their legs but the league put an end to that, not because it necessarily gave anyone an advantage, but because (I think) they thought it made their players look silly.

Football: Beyond the ball, there are a few things football players customize. Their helmets are remarkably unregulated — mostly because regulation by the NFL would theoretically further their liability for brain injuries incurred under their auspices. Face masks may be customized but cannot include tinted visors unless players ask for and are granted a medical waiver. The number of bars and their location is also regulated and some of the more crazy Hannibal Lector looking masks you’ve seen in past years are being outlawed. (Which is good, because their weight is likely contributing to concussions among the players who wear them.)

Baseball: Major League baseball players are allowed to customize their bats and gloves but within pretty tight regulations. Bats have a maximum diameter (2.61 in) and length (42 in) and must be made of a solid piece of wood. Players have been caught corking their bats (hollowing them out and replacing the center of the wood with cork to make them lighter and theoretically better) and punished before. Gloves have a complicated set of rules, but basically they have maximum dimensions (catchers and first basemen have separate limits from all other fielders) and have to have individual fingers, not a webbing.

Hockey: Now we’re talking. Virtually every piece of equipment in hockey, except for the puck and the goals, are customizable within limits. Goalies wear armor from head to toe that is carefully regulated but thoroughly customized. For other players, the most important thing is the stick. Players can and do customize the length of the stick and the curve of the stick’s blade. The maximum stick length, of 63 inches, can be extended by special waiver for players over 6’6″. The longest stick, is 65 inches long, and used by 6’9″ Zdeno Chara. The blades can be curved however a player wants them to be but at no point can the curve be deeper than 3/4 of an inch. This is a rule that’s broken with great regularity and almost never called even though at any point a coach or player can challenge another player’s stick and have the referees check to see if it is legal. If it’s not, a two-minute penalty is assessed and one team gets a power play. The most famous (or infamous) stick challenge came in the finals of the 1993 Stanley Cup. It’s interesting that, as opposed to the current kerflufle in football, no one really blamed the stick violator, Marty McSoreley, or his team, the Los Angeles Kings for cheating in this way. In fact, if either team was seen as guilty, it was the Montreal Canadiens for calling it out.

Generally, it seems as if the more equipment a sport has and the more its use is isolated to one player or one team, the more customization is permitted. Anything that can be customized is regulated but breaking these regulations is often seen as a normal part of the sport — perhaps worthy of punishment but not of scorn.

Thanks for asking about customization,
Ezra Fischer

What is a good foul?

Dear Sports Fan,

Here’s something I’ve been wondering about. Sometimes while watching a game on TV, usually basketball or hockey, I hear the announcer say something like “that was a good foul.” What does that mean? Is it a moral judgement? A stylistic one? What is a good foul?

Just wondering,

Dear Ronnie,

I love the idea of a foul being morally good. And while I’d love to invent scenarios where that is the case, the most common usage of the phrase “good foul” refers to a foul being good in a tactical sense. Tactically speaking, a foul is considered good if it benefits the team committing it by either increasing the likelihood of their scoring or more likely decreases the likelihood of the other team scoring.

Here are some examples of common good fouls from different sports:

  • In basketball, any foul that prevents a player who is close to the basket from making a dunk or a layup is thought to be a good foul because the team that has committed the foul trades a close to 100% chance of giving up two points for giving up two free throws. With the league average free throw percentage right around 75%, this clearly a good trade. One danger of trying to commit this type of good foul is that if the foul doesn’t actually keep the player from making that easy dunk or layup, they could be given the two points plus a single extra free throw. This is called an “and one” and a foul that results in this is always a bad foul.
  • In soccer, there are two similar but slightly different types of good fouls. There is a subtle, non-dramatic foul that stops a team which looks like it is about to generate a scoring chance in its tracks. There is also an obvious foul once a team has a clear and extremely threatening scoring chance. The first type is generally not penalized with a card, or if it is, it’s a yellow card, but the latter almost always is. Even if the player committing the second type of good foul gets a red card, and their team is forced to play a player down for the rest of the game, the foul is still generally thought of as good if it prevented a goal. That’s how important goals are in the low-scoring sport of soccer. These intentional good fouls are sometimes called “professional fouls” in soccer.
  • Good fouls in hockey are similar to soccer, with one additional category. In hockey, a violent foul that doesn’t affect a scoring chance may sometimes be called a good foul for reasons of morale. Hockey teams are often thought to run on emotion, maybe even a little bit more than other sports, and a player can stir up their team by roughing it up or even fighting with a player from another team. This type of emotional effort is retroactively judged to be good if it works, but if the player’s team doesn’t react or if the opposition scores on the resulting power play, it may be thought of as a bad foul.

The concept of a good foul in sports is an interesting one because it reveals that the rules in sports are not actually rules. They’re more like guidelines. The existence of set penalties in every sport — free kicks and yellow or red cards in soccer, foul shots in basketball, power plays in hockey — proves that these rules are expected to be broken. Rules in sports generally aren’t drawn on moral or ethical lines. No one gets mad at a player who takes a good foul in basketball and gives the other team two free throws. When you see athletes get mad, it’s usually because they feel that some unwritten rule has been broken — that a player has taken a good foul but done it in an unnecessarily violent way. As a character from one of my favorite P.G. Wodehouse books, Monty Bodkin in Heavy Weather says frequently, “There are wheels within wheels.”

Thanks for your question,
Ezra Fischer

What does it mean to be a two possession game?

Dear Sports Fan,

I was watching a playoff basketball game last night and I heard the announcers talking about the game becoming a “two possession” game if someone made a free throw. It was clearly important but I’m not sure what it means. Is it about how much time is left? Or the score? What does it mean to be a two possession game? And why is it important?


Dear Maria,

A two possession game is a game in which one team is winning by enough points that the team that is trailing cannot catch up with a single score. The term is usually used in basketball and football, two games where scoring can be done in different increments. The number of possessions needed to tie the game is a simple mathematical equation based on how scoring works in each sport.

In football, the highest number of points that a team can score at a time is eight which they could achieve by scoring a touchdown followed by a two point conversion. A football game is said to be a “one possession” game if the team leading is leading by eight or fewer points. In basketball, the most points a team can score in one trip down the court is actually four points (a player is fouled while shooting a three point shot but still makes the basket; they are given the three points and get one chance at the free throw line to add a single point to their total) but this is so rare and so easy to prevent (just don’t foul a player taking a three point shot) that it’s generally discarded from the conversation. Instead, in basketball, a single possession game is generally thought of as one in which the team trailing is losing by three points or fewer. If you want more information (and a handy chart) on how scoring works across different sports, check out our post on the topic here. A two possession game in basketball is one in which a team is trailing by three to six points. Down by seven points? That’s a three possession game. 10, 11, or 12 would be a four possession game. Football follows the same pattern by eights. A zero to eight point deficit is a one possession game, nine to 16 is a two possession game, 17-24 is a three possession game, and so on.

The importance of whether a game is a one, two, or three possession game is tactical. While you were wrong in thinking that the term was based on the amount of time left, you were on to something. People usually talk about how many possessions apart the teams are only close to the end of the game, and end of game tactics are very much about the combination of score and time. A trailing team’s players, coaches, and fans are constantly doing a mental calculation: “how far behind are we and how much time do we have left to catch up?” One very useful short-hand to that mental math is to express both sides of the equation in terms of possessions — “how many possessions do we need to tie the game and how many possessions might there be time for?”

The end of basketball games is often defined by one team intentionally fouling the other. This topic is worth a blog post of its own, but the short story for why they do this is that a foul stops the clock. While fouling will give the other team an easy opportunity to get up to two points by successfully shooting free throws, it also extends the game by creating time for more possessions with the ball, during which the trailing team could score two or three points. What you probably saw was a player from the team that had the lead shooting a free throw that was intentionally given up by the trailing team. If that player had missed, the trailing team could have taken the ball and tied the game on that possession, whit a single shot. If the player made the free throw, it would have pushed the difference between the teams from three to four points, and meant that the trailing team would have needed to get the ball, score, and then either stop the other team from scoring or intentionally foul again, before having a chance to tie the game. The difference between a one possession game and a two possession game is a big deal.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer