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.

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's so enjoyable about the NBA draft?

Dear Sports Fan,

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

Thanks,
Josh


Dear Josh,

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

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

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

Thanks for your question,
Ezra Fischer

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.

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.

Thanks,
Drew


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

What are bench points in basketball?

Dear Sports Fan,

What are bench points in basketball? Sounds like they earn points for quietly sitting on the bench?

Thanks,
Amshula


Dear Amshula,

Bench scoring is a statistic that expresses the number of points scored in a basketball game by players who did not start the game. As with any statistic, the questions we want to answer to understand it are: how is it calculated, what is it meant to express, how well does it express it, and what can we learn about the sport, in this case basketball, from the statistics existence.

In basketball, as in other sports, when the game starts, only some of the players on each team are on the court. Others sit on the bench at the start of the game, prepared to play, but not playing yet. These players may be called substitutes or bench players. During the course of the game, they may play or they may not — it’s entirely up to the coach who makes his decision based on an understanding of his players’ strengths and how the game is going. Any points these substitute or bench players score will be added together to create the cumulative statistic of bench points.

Bench points is meant to express the relative strength of a team’s substitutes. This is an important thing to try to measure, even in basketball where the strength of individual players is so influential to the game’s outcome. Unfortunately bench scoring only does a moderately good job of expressing this. Part of the problem is that pure scoring is not as important as scoring more than the other team. A team’s bench may score 40 points but if they allow 60 points while they are doing it, that’s not very good. Another troubling element is that the statistic doesn’t necessarily compare apples to apples. There are no rules about how much a coach needs to play his starters or his substitutes. For some teams, the starters might play virtually the whole game. On other teams, the substitutes may play close to half the game. Comparing the bench points between a team whose starters play the whole time and a team whose starters only play a little more than half is patently unfair. Although it may seem ideal to have the best five players start each game, on some teams that is not possible or not desired. A team may have two very good players who play identical positions. Bringing one of those players off the bench might be better than trying to play two incompatible players. Some teams may tactically prefer to have their third best scoring option play as a substitute so that there’s never a time when all three of their best scorers are resting simultaneously. That’s the case with the current Boston Celtics who bring two of their best offensive players, Isaiah Thomas and Kelly Olynyk of the bench.

The existence of the bench points statistic gives us a glimpse into one of the most important debates in basketball. Is winning in basketball about having the best player or the best team? For proponents of the best player approach, bench points would be an almost meaningless statistic. Who cares which team’s sixth through tenth best players score more than the others, these folks might think, what matters is whether my top dog is better than yours. People who believe that basketball games are inevitably decided by which group of players plays better together might point to bench points as a helpful way of expressing which team is deeper and more playing more collectively.

Keep watching and questioning,
Ezra Fischer

 

NBA Playoff Companion, April 18, 2015

The playoffs are a wonderful time in sports but they can be hard to follow, even for the most die-hard fan of a playoff team. They’re virtually impossible for a non-fan or casual observer! No matter who you are, Dear Sports Fan’s Playoff Companion can help. Sign up to get text updates each day for your favorite team or teams or just for the team or teams you feel you need to know about in order to be able to have a decent conversation with your wife, husband, son, daughter, parent, colleague, or friend.

Toronto Raptors vs. Washington Wizards — Game 1, 12:30 p.m. ET on ESPN — Series is 0-0

Toronto Raptors fans – We’ve got the best home-court advantage in the league. Time to use it.
Toronto Raptors interested parties – After five years without playoffs, Raptors fans went nuts last year when their team made it. This year should be no different.

Washington Wizards fans – Time to wipe the slate clean. Ignore the last few weeks/months of terrible play. This team can flip the switch, right?
Washington Wizards interested parties – The Wizards started the year off playing great and have steadily looked worse and worse. Fans will be hoping they can return to their winning ways.

Golden State Warriors vs. New Orleans Pelicans — Game 1, 3:30 p.m. ET on ABC — Series is 0-0

Golden State Warriors fans – Time to get back in gear after a coupe weeks of meaningless games.
Golden State Warriors interested parties – After an incredible year in which the Warriors won the most games in the league by far, the slate is wiped clean for the start of the playoffs.

New Orleans Pelicans fans – We can’t match up with their guards but they can’t match up with our Brow. Let’s steal game one.
New Orleans Pelicans interested parties – Virtually any scenario that leads to the unlikely upset of the Warriors begins with a win today.

Chicago Bulls vs. Milwaukee Bucks — Game 1, 7 p.m. ET on ESPN — Series is 0-0

Chicago Bulls fans – Forget about all the injuries and struggles this year. The team is healthy today and that’s all that matters.
Chicago Bulls interested parties – If you had told a Bulls fan before the year that they would enter the playoffs healthy facing Milwaukee, they would have taken it. Although the season has been a struggle with lots of injuries, the team got where it was trying to go.

Milwaukee Bucks fans – We’re the best kept secret in the league. And that secret is about to be broken over the backs of the Bulls.
Milwaukee Bucks interested parties – The Bucks are underdogs in this series but they’re a dangerous type of underdog — young, gifted, and athletic.

Houston Rockets vs. Dallas Mavericks — Game 1, 9:30 p.m. ET on ESPN — Series is 0-0

Houston Rockets fans – There’s really no reason to be worried about the Mavs, so why do I have a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach?
Houston Rockets interested parties – Rockets fans should be confident, but there’s always something about playing a veteran team that’s had success like the Mavs had to make you uneasy.

Dallas Mavericks fans – The first game will tell us a lot. If Rondo can slow down Harden, then all his nonsense might have been worth it.
Dallas Mavericks interested parties – The Mavericks gambled mid-season by trading for Rajon Rondo. So far it hasn’t seemed like a good trade but the playoffs will be the true test.