Four lessons about deadlines from basketball

We all work on deadlines. Whether you’re a student working on homework, an office worker constructing a spreadsheet for his boss, a musician learning music for a show, or a writer hustling to get a piece complete in time for her editors to do their thing before publication, we all have deadlines. Even outside the realm of work, deadlines are a constant: better clean your room before Dad gets home, vacuum the living room before your friends come over, use the last of those sprouts before they start getting slimy. To a surprisingly large degree, how we manage deadlines determines how successful we are at work and at home, in our jobs and in our relationships and with ourselves. Basketball may seem like an unlikely source of wisdom but in many ways, it’s a sport that’s all about deadlines. Dig an inch deep into the foundation of basketball and you’ll find plenty of lessons about deadlines. Here are some of them.

Deadlines are real

Basketball has hard deadlines. Shoot the ball in 24 (or 35 in college) seconds. Inbound the ball in five seconds. Get the ball over half-court in eight seconds (1o in college). If a basketball team fails to do any of these things in the time allotted, they lose the ball and the other team gets it. There’s no extension, no extra credit for effort. These are simple, objective, hard deadlines with no forgiveness. Basketball players face these deadlines fifty to a hundred times a game and almost always beat them. In an average NBA game, each team will have the ball around a hundred times and only once in those two hundred possessions will either team miss the shot clock deadline.

If you want to be good on deadline, work on a lot of them

There’s nothing more exciting in basketball than a buzzer beater. A buzzer beater, as we explained in a recent post, is a shot that leaves a player’s hand before time runs out on a shot or game clock but goes into the basket afterwards. It’s generally a shot that ties or wins a game at the last possible moment. Making a buzzer beater is a triumph of calm under pressure and an acute understanding of exactly how much time is left before the clock runs out. Basketball players are freakishly good at doing this. Whether it’s 18.4 seconds, 8.4 seconds, or .4 seconds basketball players seem preternatural in their ability to beat deadlines. Of course, we know they’re not really super-human, they simply practice. Every day, every game, every possession, every time they play basketball, they do so with those hard deadlines we described in the last section. If you want to be ready to impress when time is tightest and your task is extremely important, prepare yourself by setting and beating deadlines every day.

Optimize each piece of work

In basketball, it’s not hard to beat the clock. You can usually dribble the ball over half court and then just chuck it at the basket. Simple, no fuss, and you’ve made your deadline! The problem is that despite beating the deadline, you probably won’t win the game this way because making a shot from so far out is difficult. Everything a basketball team does on offense is designed to create the easiest shot to make in the time allotted. Each player who catches the ball does a simple calculation in their head which we can translate to something like this:

If I shoot now, I have a x% chance of making the shot. If I pass or dribble, I might be able to increase that chance by y%. By taking the time to do that, I’m increasing my team’s chance of missing its deadline and therefore losing the ball from a% to b%. What should I do?

Basketball players approach their task by looking to optimize their chances of success. If they’ve got lots of time, they spend it working on increasing the quality of their shot. If they’re running out of time, they don’t panic or get down on themselves or whine, they simply take a lower quality shot and do their best to make it succeed anyway.

How often do you truly optimize when you’re working on a task? Do you think about quality or just about getting it done? Do you give yourself a chance to do your best possible work in the time you have?

Put deadlines in context

Of course, if you’re a basketball fan, or a student of sports history, you may be thinking, “what about seven seconds or less?” Seven Seconds or Less was a strategy popularized by Mike D’Antoni, coach of the Phoenix Suns and immortalized in Jack McCallum’s book. D’Antoni and the Suns believed that they could win by shooting the ball in the first seven seconds of the shot clock. This seems to go against the idea of optimizing for quality on each task that we suggested in the last section. It does, but not in an incompatible way. What the Suns realized was that deadlines are not isolated phenomena. Each deadline and each task happens in the context of other tasks and deadlines. The Suns thought about their goal (win a championship) and how they could best apply their resources to meeting that goal. They decided they would be best served by resolutely sacrificing quality for quantity. By playing at a faster pace than any other team had before, the Suns revolutionized the way teams think about playing basketball.

Take a step back and think about your goals. Are you better served by cramming forty hours of studying in over the weekend or settling for fifteen plus some relaxation and sleep? If you knock this report out in two hours instead of the eight you could spend on it, what else can you complete in the other six hours? How do you know when good is good enough or when it has to be close to perfect? Dole out your time and effort to tasks based on their contribution to your end goal not on how much time you are given to complete each task. Don’t let the deadlines drive you, take control.

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Surely there are more lessons about deadlines to be found in basketball and other sports but I told myself I’d publish this by 2:30 and it’s 2:24 now, so I’ll stop writing now and hit publish. Hope you enjoyed reading this. Let me know what you think in the comments section below.

What's the lesson of the greatest NBA shot ever?

Yesterday I was listening to the most recent episode of Bill Simmons’ BS Report podcast. This was a multi-part episode with Simmons interviewing a number of NBA figures, including Miami Heat starter Chris Bosh. Bosh was a member of the so-called Big Three in Miami along with LeBron James and Dwayne Wade, who went to four straight NBA Finals and won two. Bosh and Simmons were discussing a pivotal moment in the Heat’s 2012-13 Championship run – a last second, game tying three point shot by Ray Allen. Simmons and Bosh, sports writer and player alike were marveling at Ray Allen’s obsession with practice. Allen, they said, was perhaps the only person in the NBA who had actually practiced, over and over again, the precise footwork and body positioning required for that exact situation.

Before we get to what they said about it, let’s set the scene quickly for those of you who don’t know the moment they’re talking about. The NBA Finals is a best four out of seven game series. The San Antonio Spurs were up three games to two entering into the sixth game. After three quarters, the Spurs led 75-65. A ten point lead is not insurmountable, but it’s not easily dismissed either. The pressure had to have been enormous on the Heat. They were at home, in Miami, knowing that if they lost this game, they would lose the series and their season would be over. With nineteen seconds left, the Spurs were clinging onto a three point lead but Miami had the ball. Their best player, LeBron James, took a three point shot to tie the game but it hit the rim and did not go in. Chris Bosh, the subject of Simmons’ interview, was in the right spot and grabbed the rebound. As he caught the ball, his teammate Ray Allen who was also trying to get the rebound, was in virtually the same spot on the floor as him, in the paint, right near the basket. As Allen sees Bosh catch the ball, he quickly takes four or five running steps backwards, without turning his body from Bosh. Bosh passes Allen the ball. Allen Catches as he is running backwards, stops right in the three feet or so of room between the three-point line and the out-of-bounds line, and without touching either, he shoots the ball and makes a three point shot to tie the game. It’s an amazing play. Watch it here:

Now back to the BS Report. Here’s how the conversation went:

Chris Bosh: You never know when you’re gonna shoot a back-pedal three in the corner.

Bill Simmons: I really think it was the greatest shot ever because I think he’s the only person who would ever practice the footwork it took to go backwards and not go out of bounds. I don’t even know who else would have thought to practice that.

Bosh: That showed me that you should work on everything because you never know when you’re gonna have to use it or when you’re gonna have to go in your bag and say hey I’ve practiced this a million times and to have the body recognition and the muscle memory to actually do it.

With all respect to Simmons and Bosh, who together know a hundred times more about basketball than I do, I think their conclusion is just slightly off. What they believe they’ve learned from this is that, really, you should practice everything, just in case you need it. That’s simply not practical. You and I don’t have time to practice everything we be called on to do. As a writer, I could practice writing haiku, sonnets, long-form narrative pieces, interviews, criticism, novels, short-stories, plays, and skip codes, but I don’t have time to do that, nor would I get very good at any of it if I practiced all of it.

Ray Allen did something more clever than practice everything. He considered his own strengths as a basketball player and his role within the team and then did a better job than most at figuring out what might be required. Once he figured out what that set of activities was, he practiced them with a discipline and regularity unknown to most. That practice helped him not just in making the shot but also in identifying what he had in his repertoire that would fit the situation. The fact that he identified how he could help his team in this particular situation (run backwards to the corner so that if Bosh passes me the ball, I can shoot a shot I know I can make) is just as necessary and remarkable as the fact that he made it.

The lesson of perhaps the greatest shot in NBA history is this: identify what you might be called upon to do; practice those behaviors obsessively so that you can identify and execute at the perfect moment.