What sports could be shortened?

Dear Sports Fan,

My wife is a sports fan. I love sitcoms. My hobby takes 30 minutes to watch. Hers takes three hours, whether it’s football, basketball, hockey, baseball, or soccer. How is this fair? What sports could be shortened without making them less fun for sports fans?

Thanks,
Sam


Dear Sam,

You have a point – sports games are much longer on average than other forms of entertainment. As a sports fan, I find it hard to commit to watching a two hour movie, but I think nothing of sitting down to watch a three hour football game… or more than one! On its face, this behavior doesn’t make much sense. Why commit to three or six hours when you won’t commit to two? Do I really like sports that much more than movies? Probably not – instead, the difference can be explained by the intermittent nature of sports. The average football game famously only has eleven minutes of action spread out over those three hours. This is an exaggeration, but there are lots of times during a three hour game when a sports fan can safely leave the couch to get a snack or a beer or check their email or… I’ve even been known to read a book while watching a game! That said, you may be on to something. Sports games are long. Can any sports be shortened without losing the essence of their appeal? Would any actually become more exciting by being shortened? Let’s play out the hypothetical of cutting each of the five most popular sports in half and see what happens.

Soccer

Soccer is 90 minutes of running around without much happening. It seems ripe for disruption through abbreviation. The problem is, because there is so little scoring, shortening the game would pose a serious problem. Think there are too many ties now in soccer? Wait until games are only 45 minutes. It’s not just the length. Many soccer games don’t really “open up” until the 60 to 70 minute mark. This is when players start getting tired enough to make mistakes that allow the other team to get some legitimate scoring opportunities. If we are going to shorten soccer, we would at least have to require players to tire themselves out before they begin; say, run a 10k before the game starts.

Verdict: Not a good candidate. Soccer requires a long time for one team to win as it is.

Ice Hockey

Ice hockey doesn’t have soccer’s issue with excitement. Hockey is so exhausting to play that players don’t stay on the ice for more than 45 seconds to a minute at a time anyway. While they are on, they go like gang-busters! A 30 minute hockey game would be just as exciting as a 60 minute one. There are two issues with cutting hockey in half. First, the necessity of rotating players makes hockey a uniquely team-oriented sport. Cut the time in half, and you would definitely be able to get away with having only 3/4 or even 1/2 the number of players, which would harm this aspect of the game. Second, and more conclusively, hockey is one of the most random sports because goals are scored in such a chaotic way. A lot of the time, even watching in slow motion on a high definition television doesn’t help the viewer figure out how the puck went into the goal. The average game in 2016 had 5.45 goals scored. Just enough for the weirdness of the game to even out and the better teams to win most of the time. Cut the game in half, and the better team might not win most of the time. The weirdness could easily overpower the statistical significance of the sport.

Verdict: Ice hockey is just too random to be any shorter than it already is and still have the better team win most of the time.

Baseball

Baseball seems like a great candidate for cutting in half. At its heart, it is a series of one on one interactions anyway. Pitcher faces batter, repeat. Because of this, baseball is the sporting culture obsessed most with statistics. Any change to the game which affects the ability to compare contemporary players to players in the past is fiercely resisted. If that could be overcome, the next obstacle to consider would be the endurance of starting pitchers. A lot of baseball games are decided only when one team’s starting pitcher gets tired enough to make a mistake and the other team is able to start hitting their pitches. Over the past decade, baseball teams have adjusted to patch this vulnerability by substituting relief pitchers in for their starting pitcher earlier and earlier – before he even gets tired. So, in a way, cutting the game in half might create a throw-back to an earlier era, when starting pitchers were expected to pitch complete games. Hmm!

Verdict: It would never happen because of the rabid baseball traditionalists, but if it did, they might find themselves oddly pleased.

Football

Why not football? Football is facing a looming crisis anyway. The brutality of the sport and our new understanding of traumatic brain injuries has already forced a number of changes and promises to force many more, or perhaps end the sport entirely. I’ve thought and written a lot about this issue and my conclusion was that NFL football rosters should be reduced from 53 to 20. This would reduce the specialization of football players that allows for 350+ pound men and 180 pound men who run 20+ miles an hour to coexist on the same field. It would also make it impossible for players to “give 110%” on every play. Slow everyone down, encourage everyone to have bodies optimized for endurance over speed and strength, and maybe players will have the split second they need to avoid calamitous collisions. Cutting the game in half is exactly the opposite of this! It would make every play more important and encourage everyone to play even harder on every play. No way!

Verdict: Not a good idea for players’ long term or short term health.

Basketball

Like football, basketball is played harder than ever these days. If you look at film from the 1980s and compare it to now, it’s radically different. Players in the 1980s were not expected to cover nearly as much ground as they do today. The dominance of the three point shot today means that players need to play high intensity defense in parts of the court that they used to simply allow an opponent to dribble in without being contested. This difference showed up in the playoffs last year, when teams built around a single great player, like James Harden on the Houston Rockets or Russell Westbrook on the Oklahoma City Thunder, fell apart in the fourth quarter when their star got too tired to play effectively. This could be an argument against shortening the game — teams should have to be built in a more balanced way, not around a single player. Basketball is already the sport that is affected most by a single player. One player out of five on the court is more impactful than one out of eleven in soccer, eleven (plus eleven, plus special teamers in football), or one out of nine in baseball. (Hockey has only six on the ice at a time, but because they can only play for a minute or so before they need a rest, the impact of a single player is proportionally smaller.) Basketball is the most star-oriented sport but its length, combined with the way it’s now played is getting in the way of the best players being able to play their best when it matters the most.

Verdict: Let’s do it!

Thanks for your question,
Ezra Fischer

Race and Basketball in the New York Times

Race and basketball in America are inextricably linked. Of the four (or five) major sports leagues in the United States, the NBA is the most predominantly black league. This past weekend was the NBA All-Star game, a festivity that two of my favorite NBA writers, David Aldridge and Michael Wilbon, got in trouble for calling “Black Thanksgiving” several years ago. (Side note, the quoted comments from fans in that article from look eerily like Trump-era attacks on CNN). By any measure, one of the most famous movies about basketball is about a white con-man who plays off racial assumptions to scam people in two-on-two basketball games. Entitled White Men Can’t Jump, this movie provided the inspiration for the headline of a recent article in the New York Times Sunday Review about race and basketball that was so misguided it pulled me out of my grad school hiatus from writing this blog.

The article, “Even When White Men Can Jump…” is written by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, an economist and author. In it, he presents an interesting analysis he worked on, determining the percent breakdown of NBA player fanbases by race based on Facebook data. The data show two things: that fans tend to root for players of their own race and that black players of similar ability to white, hispanic, or asian players tend to be more popular.

This is a clever investigation and we are indebted to Stephens-Davidowitz for performing it. Unfortunately, in two places, his racial analysis leaves a lot unsaid, to the point of being misleading. Early in the article, Stephens-Davidowitz attempts to explain the historical context of his experiment:

This is a long-debated question. For years, owners were accused of padding their benches with white players to increase a team’s fan base. The implicit assumption: If you are white, you will have more fans.

While it is certainly true that “owners were accused of padding their benches with white players,” the implicit assumption is too generous to basketball fans of the 1970s and 80s, the era most associated with this tactic. The assumption was not that individual white players were more popular, it was that fans would not stand for teams made up completely of black players. To simply say that owners padded their teams with white players because they were more popular makes it sound like a marginal consideration; that teams could increase their popularity a little by hiring white players. In reality, teams worried that fans would completely stop watching unless they hired a quota of white players regardless of skill. This is a much more harsh interpretation that assumes widespread racism. In support of this claim, look to a 1979 Sports Illustrated article, “There’s an Ill Wind Blowing For the NBA” or “‘Too Black’: Race in the “Dark Ages” of the NationalBasketball Association” in the 2010 edition of The International Journal of Sport and Society. It’s also important to think about where this issue of the 1970s and 80s came from. During the 1950s the rules, written and unwritten around race in basketball were much harsher. According to David Kamp in his GQ article, “Only the Ball was Brown,” in the NBA there was an “unofficial quota on blacks in the late ’50s, allowing no more than two or three per team.” In college basketball, things were worse with institutions agreeing to “gentlemen’s rules” prohibiting the recruitment of black athletes. As with most things in college sports, fans and their rabid, rich counterparts called boosters, played a big role in enforcing these unwritten rules.

If the history of race and basketball is more pernicious than Stephens-Davidowitz makes it out to be, so is its present. Stephens-Davidowitz finishes his article with the rosy conclusion that the racial slant to NBA fandom is a refreshing change from the opposite tilt toward white privilege found in the rest of society. I’m all for rosy interpretations, especially in this political era, but it seems like a disservice not to also mention the quite well known trap of black popularity when confined to particular areas. In every fan who contests that “white men can’t jump” or play basketball as well as black athletes, there’s an overtone which states, “basketball (and music and acting) are all black people can be successful at.” Disproportionate adulation in one area can just as easily be seen as enforcing white privilege as lacking it.

Stephens-Davidowitz has produced rich data about race and the NBA but it needs more analysis from a cultural and historical angle.

What should I watch at the Olympics on Sat, Aug 6?

The Olympics are here! The Olympics are here!

Now, what should I watch? It’s a universal question with a personal answer. I can’t tell you for sure what you’ll enjoy the most, but I can tell you what I think the best, most interesting events of the day are going to be. Listen to the podcast and follow along with the abridged schedule below. If you want to see a full schedule, check out today’s schedule and tomorrow’s schedule on Dear Sports Fan. If you’re on a phone, this Google Sheets link is your best bet.

 

Let me know if you enjoy what you see and hear and please, if you have a question as you’re watching, email dearsportsfan@gmail.com and I will reply!

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.

Happy New Year 2016 from Dear Sports Fan

Happy New Year!!

2015 was a wonderful year in sports and a great year for Dear Sports Fan! Thank you for being a part of this experiment with me. I feel lucky to have been able to share so much of what I was thinking about with you during the past year. Here are some of the highlights of the year. Read to the bottom for a special treat for 2016.

In February, right before the Super Bowl, I published a series of heartfelt and deeply researched articles on the topic of brain injuries in football… and also what the top ten dirtiest sounding football phrases actually mean. In March, the madness of the NCAA basketball tournaments inspired me to share four business lessons one can learn from the sport and also four ways to fill out a tournament bracket if that’s more your speed.

In May and June, I came down with a bad case of World Cup fever and wrote dozens of articles about the 2015 World Cup. My non-gendered profiles of each of the women on the U.S. Women’s National Team were popular, which I was proud of, even if some of the most common search terms for them was “is [insert player name, most frequently Megan Klingenberg] married?” I fleshed out Dear Sports Fan’s coverage of soccer in general and shaped the articles into three email courses which are still available today: Soccer 101, Soccer 201 – Positions and Logistics, and Soccer 202 – Culture. A personal high point was my trip to Montreal to watch the USA vs. Germany semifinal match.

After I moved to the Boston area in the spring, I decided to take Dear Sports Fan into the real world by starting a Meetup group. We’ve had a great time at our viewing parties, watching sports in an environment friendly to questions and welcoming to people who approach sports from all angles.

Throughout the year, I kept an eye out for moments when sports and the larger culture intersect. This has taken serious forms, like when shared my disgust with the drafting of Jameis Winston, and silly forms, like before the Kentucky Derby when I mined the world of musical theater for horse racing and betting tips, As always, the heart of the website has been a desire to make it easier for sports fans and non-fans to co-exist. With the NFL playoffs coming, it’s worth revisiting my thoughts on how a household can survive the football season without going crazy.

As one year comes to a close, another is just beginning. As a token of my appreciation for all the support I received during 2015, here is a New Year’s guide to the top 16 sporting events of 2016!

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.