How do trades work in sports?

Dear Sports Fan,

I was watching Moneyball with my husband. We were curious how trading works in various sports. Can you explain the rules and how they are implemented. For example why do trades happen in the middle of the season for some sports, but not others?


Dear Sarah,

At it’s heart, Moneyball is a story about how careful analytical thought can provide an organization an advantage over its competitors. The team at the center of the story, the Oakland Athletics baseball team, exploited its competition mostly by making unexpectedly smart personnel decisions. In any sports league, teams have three main ways of acquiring players: by drafting players not yet in the league, by signing players who are free agents, and by trading for players. As you pointed out in your question, trades work a little differently in each major sports league in the United States. While an explanation of the exact rules in each league could easily give even the most long-winded Russian novelist a run for her money, I’ll try to lay out a few of the major differences in a few mercifully brief paragraphs below.

Hard Cap, Soft Cap, or No Cap?

One of the biggest factors affecting how players are traded in a sports league is the salary cap structure. A salary cap is a value, set before the season, against which the aggregated salaries of all the players on a team are compared to. In leagues with a hard salary cap, like the National Football League (NFL) and National Hockey League (NHL), teams are (with very, very few exceptions) not allowed to exceed this value. In leagues with a soft salary cap, like the National Basketball League (NBA) there are a host of ways that teams can exceed the value set by the salary cap. Depending on how a team manages to exceed it, they may be assigned a financial penalty but not one that hurts them on the court. Some leagues, primarily Major League Baseball (MLB), have no salary cap. In baseball, teams can pay their players as much or as little as they choose and the market will bear.

These rules have a deep impact on the trading culture of the leagues. Having a hard cap restricts the possible trades teams can make. Any potential trade that would put a team over the salary cap is a non-starter. Having no cap, like in the MLB, means that teams are free to trade players pretty much however they want. The in between world of the soft capped NBA is perhaps the most interesting. NBA trades are often more about finances than they are about basketball players. Because teams are constantly in the process of manipulating their payroll in order to position themselves best within the complicated world of soft-cap exceptions, you’ll often see basketball trades that, if you don’t understand the financial and cap implications of them, seem totally crazy. For instance, one team might seem to give a player to another team for virtually (and sometimes literally) nothing. Or a team might send a good player to a team for a player who has had a career ending injury. In those cases, what the team is getting back is not the injured player or nothing, but some element of financial flexibility.

To trade a draft pick or not?

In all four major U.S. sports leagues, there are entry drafts each year where teams get to take turns choosing players who aren’t in the league yet. In all but one, teams can and often do trade their right to choose in a future year’s draft to another team. The one league where that is (again, basically) not allowed is the MLB. Teams in the other three leagues often get themselves in trouble by mortgaging their future for their present by trading a lot of their future draft picks away. One entertaining aspect of trading draft picks is that the order during drafts is set (more or less) by how teams did in the previous season. The worse a team does, the more likely they are to have a high pick in the upcoming draft. If the team you root for has another team’s draft pick, it’s order is still set by how that team performs, so a good fan will root against that team all year to optimize the chance of its draft pick being a good one.

Do the players get a say?

This all seems fine and dandy until you stop and think about players and their families who can get uprooted at any moment and forced to move to another city. This is definitely part of the business of sports and most players don’t have much control over their careers in this way. There are a couple major exceptions. When a player negotiates his or her contract, they can negotiate a full or partial no-trade clause. A no-trade clause, sometimes abbreviated as a NTR means that a player does have some say over whether and where they get traded. A partial no-trade clause means a player has to maintain a list of some number of teams they would be willing to be traded to. A full no-trade clause means they have complete veto power over any trade. Usually only veteran or star players have the clout to negotiate these clauses into their contracts. In the MLB, players who have played for 10 years and have been with their current team for five consecutive years are automatically given no-trade clauses. This is called the 5/10 rule.

How does the sport itself affect trading?

The final major factor that goes into defining the trading culture of a league is how easy it is for players to switch teams mid-season. You mentioned in your question that some leagues don’t seem to have mid-season trades. That’s only partially true. All leagues allow for mid-season trades (at least before a trade deadline) but there is one league where they rarely ever happen. That league is the NFL. This is mostly because football is so complicated and so reliant on the close-to-perfect collaboration of lots of interconnected parts. It’s really difficult for a player from one team to move over to another team in the middle of the season, learn their plays and their terminology, and make a difference to the team’s fortunes that season. Compare that to the NBA where teams often run similar plays and the individual talent of one player (of the five on the court at one time compared to the 11 in football) can make an enormous and immediate impact. NFL trades are rare. NBA trades are quite common.

— — —

Like I said, trading is such a complicated business in sports that a post about how it works from league to league could easily morph into an unreadably long essay. I think this is a good stopping point for today. These four factors probably account for the majority of the trading differences within the four major U.S. sports leagues.

Thanks for reading and questioning,
Ezra Fischer

Should you watch NBA All-Star Weekend? What part?

All-Star games are not always a highlight of a sports season. In fact, they’re often so mundane that people wonder why sports leagues even bother to have All-Star games. The NBA All-Star weekend is sometimes an exception to that rule. It’s a star-studded, moderately action packed weekend of events that has controversially been dubbed “Black Thanksgiving” by David Aldridge in a CNN article which seems to have been removed from their archives. In the article, Aldridge quoted Todd Boyd, a professor of critical studies at USC as saying that “NBA All-Star weekend has turned into a celebration of African American culture.” Whether you’re black, red, yellow, brown, or white, a basketball fan or a non-sports fan, a fashionista or music fan, there’s probably something for you to enjoy this weekend. This guide should help you decide what parts of the weekend will be most or least interesting.

Celebrity Game

Friday, February 13 at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN.

What is this?

It’s a basketball game played by a very strange mix of musicians, actors, general celebrities, retired NBA players, and current WNBA players. It’s… sometimes fun to watch. As opposed to the actual All-Star game, the people playing in this game usually do really want to win. They were chosen in part because they are competitive, entertaining, and at least kind of know how to play basketball.

Who plays in it?

The game has been dominated (no joke, dominated) over the past few years by Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. He’s missing this year, so I’m most excited to see the following three people play in the celebrity game:

  • Paralympic athlete and former high school basketball player Blake Leeper. Leeper was born with both knees missing below the knee and has been using prosthetics since he was nine years old.
  • Robert Pera, the owner of the Memphis Grizzlies. At 36, Pera is one of the world’s youngest billionaires. I think this is probably the first time an NBA owner has played during All-Star weekend.
  • Mo’ne Davis!!! That’s right! The first girl to record a win (and pitch a shut-out) in the Little League World Series is going to be on the court! My guess is that she’ll mop the floor with most of the players she faces. After all, at 13, she’s already on a high school varsity basketball team and has talked publicly of wanting to play in college for the University of Connecticut.

Watch this if…?

You like watching celebrities make fools of themselves trying desperately to win a basketball game while awkwardly trying to play it off as not mattering to them. That makes it sound less fun than it actually is. This game is often really enjoyable to watch. The only thing I don’t like about it is the inclusion of active WNBA players who seem unsure of whether or not to treat it like a real game or not.

Rising Stars Challenge

Friday, February 13 at 9 p.m. ET on TNT.

What is this?

A showcase for players in their first two years in the NBA. In past years, this has been organized as rookies vs. second-year players. This year it’s going to be USA players versus players from the rest of the world.

Who plays in it?

There are so many exciting young players in this game. The U.S. team features Shabazz Muhammed, Trey Burke, and Victor Oladipo. The World team is even more exciting, with players like Giannis Antetokounmpo from Greece, Gorgui Dieng from Senegal, Dante Exum from Australia, Nikola Mirotic from Montenegro, Dennis Schroder from Germany, and Andrew Wiggins from Canada. I expect the World team to kill the U.S. team.

Watch this if…?

Watch this if you like basketball! Seriously, I think this will be the best pure basketball game all weekend. Also, if you like youth and enthusiasm.

NBA Fashion Show

Saturday, February 14 at 6:30 p.m. ET on TNT.

What is this?

LeBron James is producing a fashion show with fellow NBA players as runway models. Each of the eight models will show one boardroom outfit, one game-attire outfit, and one for clubbing. Eight players will start and it seems like after each outfit, half the remaining players will be eliminated until only one wins.

Who plays in it?

I can’t find all eight names but at least James Harden, Klay Thompson, Chandler Parsons, DeMarcus Cousins and Zach LaVine will be taking part in this modeling competition.

Watch this if…?

You like fashion and/or comedy. With TNT producing this, you can bank on there being some comedic commentary from Charles Barkley and co. Jokes aside, this will probably be a legitimate fashion show — some of these players treat post-game interviews as fashion shows, so they will certainly be prepared for this.

All-Star Saturday Night

Saturday, February 14 at 8:30 p.m. ET on TNT.

What is this?

A basketball skills competition. The two main events are the three-point shooting competition and the slam dunk competition. In the three-point competition, players have one minute to make up to 25 shots from five points along the three-point arc. This is the most hotly contested competition every year but especially this year when the field of competitors is deep and unusually good. The slam dunk competition is more prestigious but less competitive, perhaps because it is judged qualitatively. Its other issue is that, unlike in the 1980s and 90s, the biggest NBA stars no longer compete in the dunk contest. The other two events of the night are a shooting competition with teams of three made up of an NBA player, a retired NBA player, and a WNBA player and an obstacle course competition.

Who plays in it?

This year, four players will be in the dunk contest: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Victor Oladipo, Zach LaVine, and Mason Plumlee. LaVine is the favorite to win but it’s hard to bet against a guy (Antetokounmpo) whose nickname is the Greek Freak. In the three-point contest, Kyle Korver and teammates Steph Curry and Klay Thompson are the three favorites but don’t sleep on James Harden, a legitimate MVP candidate this year.

Watch this if…?

You enjoy admiring people show off unrealistic physical skills.

D-League All-Star Game

Sunday, February 15 at 2:30 p.m. ET on NBA TV.

What is this?

The D-League is the NBA’s minor league. Players in this game will absolutely see this as a chance to audition in front of tons of NBA executives and scouts. Did I say earlier that something else would be the most competitive game of the weekend? I was wrong — this will be! There’s also a D-League version of the slam dunk contest at half-time.

Who plays in it?

The D-League is stocked with mostly former college players who haven’t caught on with an NBA team yet. This year’s most recognizable player will be Seth Curry who went to Duke and whose brother is NBA All-Star Steph Curry. Their father will also be a contestant as the retired NBA player in a shooting threesome. It’s a family affair!

Watch this if…?

You’re an NBA junkie who roots for a bad team. Think of it as scouting for your team!

NBA All-Star Game

Sunday, February 15 at 8:30 p.m. ET on TNT.

What is this?

This is the All-Star game itself. It’s usually a wide open offensive exhibition until half-way through the fourth quarter when players tighten the defense up a bit and actually try to win the game for bragging rights and for the extra $25,000 per person purse.

Who plays in it?

You can find the full rosters on Wikipedia. If these players were mixed up and then two teams created to be even, I think perhaps only one player from the Eastern team would crack the top ten. The Western team is so much better and deeper but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll win.

Watch this if…?

Watch this if you enjoy pomp, circumstance, alley-oops, and thunderous dunks. Watch it if you want to see the greatest NBA players of our day break a sweat playing something that vaguely resembles basketball.

How do free throws work in basketball?

Dear Sports Fan,

How do free throws work in basketball? It seems like usually a player gets two shots, but then sometimes it’s only one. Can you explain?


Dear Justin,

A free throw is one element of the penalty given to a player who commits a foul in basketball. The player who the foul has been committed on, if he or she is given a free throw, gets to shoot the ball from the free throw line without any interference from the defending team. The free throw line is fifteen feet away from the basket and, although it is a few feet long, most players shoot from the middle of it, so that they have a straight shot at the basket. Each made free throw is worth one point. Free throws are a valuable commodity because they are among the easiest shots in basketball. Towards the end of games, they become even more valuable to the team that’s behind because they are a way to score without any time elapsing. There are a bunch of different ways to earn a free throw. It’s technical but not incredibly complicated.

Any time a player is fouled while she is shooting (or in the overly technical jargon of sports, “in the act of shooting”) she is awarded the same number of free throws as points she would have scored if her shot had gone in. Usually this is two free throws, but if she was shooting from behind the three-point line when she was fouled, she would get to shoot three free throws. If, despite being fouled, the shot goes into the basket, the basket counts for two or three points (depending on where it was shot from) and the shooter is given a single free throw in recognition of having been fouled. This is called an “and one” and we wrote an entire (and somewhat entertaining, if I remember right) post about it. Fouling a three-point shot is never a good idea, because the expected value of a three-point shot is lower than three successive free throws. Figure that a good three-point shooter will make between 30% and 50% of their three-point shots. One way of looking at this percentage is to imagine that every time they shoot a three, you should expect their team to get between 1 and 1.5 points from that action. Most good shooters make around 80% of their free throws, so if they are given three of them, using the same logic, you should expect them to earn 2.4 points. Fouling a three-point shot that goes in is just about the worst thing you can possibly do, because it gives the other team the chance to earn four points in a single possession.

Depending on the situation, a player that is not shooting the ball when they get fouled may still get to shoot free throws. The most common reason for them to shoot free throws is if the fouling team has fouled too many times in that period of the game. In the NBA, teams are allowed four fouls per quarter before non-shooting fouls earn free throws. In college basketball, it’s a little more complicated. A team is allowed six fouls per half before the other team starts earning free throws. From foul seven to foul nine the player that has been fouled must make their first free throw in order to earn a second. This period is called the bonus or one-and-one. After the ninth foul in the half, any player who gets fouled earns two free throws, just like they would in the NBA after the fourth foul of the quarter. This is called the double bonus. The only other oddity about free throws is the one that is shot as the result of a technical foul. A technical foul is given for a violation of the rules that doesn’t involve physical play within the game. The two most common reasons for technical fouls are arguing, cursing, or otherwise antagonizing a ref and for staying under the basket on defense for more than three seconds without actively guarding an opposing player. When a technical foul is called on one team, the other team gets to choose any player on their team to shoot one free throw and then the game picks up wherever it left off.

As we mentioned in the opening, the clock stops while free throws are being shot. This leads to some tactics at the end of the game that are useful but often very unappealing to watch. If a team is down near the end of the game, they may choose to foul the other team, intentionally giving them free throws but stopping the clock. The idea is to trade free throws for time. Instead of letting the other team run 24 seconds in the NBA or 35 seconds in college basketball off the clock, the trailing team can foul almost immediately, stop the clock, and get the ball back after the free throws. If the team that’s up misses a few free throws and the trailing team can hit three pointers when they have the ball, they can sometimes catch up. When the alternative is certain defeat, even a long-shot strategy like this one is better. Sometimes teams will adopt this strategy earlier in the game if they feel they can take advantage of a player’s inability to hit free throws. Except for technical fouls, the player who gets fouled has to shoot the free throws, so fouling a particularly inept free throw shooter can be an advantage. The most famous example of this was when it was used against Shaquille O’Neill and it picked up the nickname, “Hack-a-Shaq.” Like how the suffix “-gate” is used generically for all scandals now, the prefix “hack-a-” is used for any version of this tactic now.

The last tactic teams use when they choose to give away free throws is actually adopted by teams that are winning in the last few seconds of a game. If a team is up by three points, they may choose to intentionally foul a player to give up two free throws with the knowledge that two points cannot hurt them. The risk of this is that if the player they try to foul can immediately jump up and shoot and convince the ref that they were in the act of shooting a three pointer, they could be given three free throws. In disastrous, doomsday scenarios, that player might also be able to make the three point shot, earning an extra free throw for a fourth point and the lead. That’s what happened to the Indiana Pacers against the New York Knicks in the 1999 playoffs:

So, yes, free throws can be given out in quantities of one, two, or three. There are lots of different rules that dictate when and how many are given but they are mostly understandable. Free throws are a good way of penalizing teams who foul but they lead to some tactics at the end of the game that are almost always (with some notable exceptions) ugly, boring, and unsuccessful.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

What is a corner three in basketball?

Dear Sports Fan,

What is a corner three in basketball? I hear announcers talking about it and I get that it’s some special kind of three point shot but I don’t know what makes it so special.



Dear Lora,

This is going to sound a little like a definition by repetition but a corner three is a three point shot in basketball taken from the corner of a basketball court. If you picture a basketball court, the three point line is the largest curve that arcs from the baseline on one side of the basket up towards the center of the court before curving back to the baseline on the other side of the basket. It is not one half of a circle, it’s a part of an ellipse. What this means is that the distance from any point on the three point line to the basket varies depending on its position. If you draw a line from the basket straight up the court, (perpendicular to the baseline), it will hit the three point line at its farthest from the basket. In the National Basketball Association (NBA), that distance is 23.75 feet. If you follow the baseline towards the corner of the court, you will hit the three point line at its closest to the basket. In the NBA, that distance is 22 feet. The corner three is the shortest shot a basketball player can take to earn their team three points if it goes in. Based just on this mundane 1.75 foot distinction, the corner three has become a cultural and tactical lodestone in the NBA.

The three point line was introduced to the NBA in 1979 and it had an instant impact on the game. Before the three point shot, basketball was dominated by big men like Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. If all shots were worth the same amount, why wouldn’t the game be dominated by the players who could make the closest shots most easily? For the first twenty five years of its existence the three point line gave a measure of equality to smaller players who could shoot three-point shots with some consistency but it didn’t materially change the nature of the game. The most dominant players in basketball were still giants like Hakeem Olajuwon and Shaquille O’Neill or guys half a foot shorter like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant who used their ferocious athleticism to drive to the hoop and convert lay-ups, dunks, or get fouled. Sure, championship teams often had a player or two who specialized in lurking at the three point line, ready to catch a pass and shoot a quick three pointer, and yes, these guys frequently preferred the shorter corner three to the longer threes on the court (and yes, they were stereotypically less athletic and white) but this was a side-show to the main attraction.

In the past five years, this has started to change, and all signs point to us being at the front edge of a basketball revolution sparked by the corner three. When Michael Lewis published his book, Moneyball, in 2003, he didn’t just popularize the statistical revolution in baseball, he also helped legitimize the use of statistics in other sports as well. Basketball has found more success in using statistics than football or hockey, perhaps because its relatively small number of players and high number of scores and scoring attempts create simpler and better data sets than other sports. The relatively clear conclusion of a statistical analysis of basketball shots tells teams that shots from very close to the basket and three point shots from the corner are by far the most effective and efficient tactics in the game. Teams and players have acted on this knowledge and by 2015 probably 26 or 27 of the 30 NBA teams use offenses designed to maximize the team’s chances of ending possessions with either a lay-up, dunk, or corner three. Today, it’s not just the stereotypical unathletic white guy who lurks in the corner and jacks three pointers, now it’s the best players in the league who do that.

No combination of team and player represent this new way of playing better than the Houston Rockets and James Harden. Kirk Goldsberry wrote a wonderful article about this for Grantland. If you want to learn more about how the corner three is changing basketball, I suggest you go read his article! Here’s a short excerpt that summarizes the emotional and perceptual issue that basketball fans over the age of 30 are having with watching this new style.

For those of us who grew up watching Bird, Magic, and Jordan, there’s an increasing dissonance between what we perceive to be dominant basketball and what actually is dominant basketball. Sometimes the two are aligned, but they seem to be increasingly divergent — and perhaps the most tragic analytical realization is that the league’s rapidly growing 3-point economy has inherently downgraded some of the sport’s most aesthetically beautiful skill sets.

Like everything in sports, the corner three is subject to change. Whether it’s a rule change or simply a strategic adjustment, something will come along that threatens the dominance of today’s ascendant basketball shot. Until that time though, watch out for the open player in the corner!

Thanks for the question,
Ezra Fischer

Sports are an escape

As a sports fan, I pretty frequently am asked why I spend so much time following sports. I find this question to be pretty difficult to answer. It’s such a complicated question for me, but like, “how’s it going?” I don’t think people who ask it are actually looking for a ten minute answer. One of the reasons is that the sports world provides a consistent source of humor and inspiration. On days like today when you awake to news of a dozen artists being killed by men with AK-47s, that facet of sports is a real comfort. Sports doesn’t help you escape the horrible things in the world but it does remind you that there’s a balance. Today I want to share a couple of elements of sports humor and inspiration that cheered me up. They’re not the funniest or the most inspirational things ever but they brought a smile to my face today. Hopefully with some explanation, they will to you too.

The New York Times Trolls the New York Knicks

You wouldn’t expect irreverence from the Grey Lady, but yesterday, the New York Times took a shot at New York’s primary professional basketball team, the New York Knicks, it this short piece. The background of this piece is that the Knicks have lost almost all their games so far this season — 32 losses out of 37 games — and that was before they traded two of their best five players earlier this week to the Cleveland Cavaliers. In return, the Knicks got… basically no one who will help them win this year. Trades like this are a common peculiarity of the NBA, which has a relatively hard salary cap and therefore teams are frequently willing to make trades to benefit their financial situation even if it hurts their basketball situation. After the trade, the New York Times had this to say:

We feel it’s only merciful to give our Knicks beat writer, Scott Cacciola, a break from such woeful basketball. He deserves to see the game played at a higher level. For the next month or so, we would like to point him to some good, quality basketball, wherever it might exist. Any suggestions? Maybe there’s another N.B.A. team that warrants his attention, or perhaps a high school or a college squad. For that matter, maybe you know of a strong coed team at your local Y that Scott should write about. Tell us where to send him.

Coach suggests a reasonable strategy. Hilarity ensues.

Last night, the Detroit Pistons played the San Antonio Spurs in just one of the 2,460 NBA regular season games. It was a totally ordinary game, interesting perhaps to Pistons and Spurs fans as well as NBA junkies but what happened at the very end of the game transformed it into must-see TV; into an event; a happening. The situation was this: with less than a second left, the Pistons went ahead by 1 point. The Spurs were able to take a time-out so that they could talk about what to do once they threw the ball into play from the sideline just over the halfway line into the Piston’s half of the court. The game clock was set to 0.1 seconds. Two rules dictate what can happen here: first, the clock does not start until a player on the court touches the pass that’s thrown in; second, a tenth of a second is officially not enough time to catch the ball and shoot it, so the only thing the Spurs could try to do was to tip the ball into the basket; more a volleyball move than a basketball one. The Pistons coach, a man named Stan van Gundy who famously bears a slight resemblance to an infamous 1980s era porn star (this is already getting funny, right?) quickly recognized the situation and began to instruct his team to simply create a human wall around the basket and keep the opposing team on the outside. The exact phrase he used to convey this idea, which was caught and broadcast live on television, was equal parts profane and hysterical in its simplicity.

Mike Prada broke the whole thing down with game analysis, diagrams, screenshots, memes, and close reading for SB Nation. Give it a look!

NHL stars try their hand at sledge hockey

Okay, so this one is tainted slightly by its commercial association with Gatorade, but you know what… if a brand wants to spend money to inspire people, I’m okay with that. In an idea that was surely ripped from Guinness’ moving commercial last year that showed a group of friends playing basketball in wheelchairs so they could compete on an even playing field with the one of their group who actually needed a wheelchair, Gatorade arranged for a handful of NHL players to play in a sledge hockey game. Sledge hockey is the ice hockey equivalent of playing in a wheelchair. Players play from a seated position on a sled with a single blade running down the middle. They have two short sticks which are used for propulsion around the rink as well as stick-handling, passing, and shooting. The best part of this video for me is seeing the sledge hockey players skate circles around the NHL players as they try to adjust to playing without their legs. Still, by the end of the game, it looks like the NHL stars had picked up some tricks.

Watch videos of game highlights, the day from the perspective of the sledge players, and the NHL players.


What is a pick and roll in basketball?

Dear Sports Fan,

What is a pick and roll in basketball? I hear about it all the time when I watch NBA games but I don’t think that I understand it 100%. Can you help?


Dear Rosie,

The pick and roll is a two-person basketball play which seeks to create a little room between one of the offensive players and the defensive player who is guarding them. The pick and roll is one of the foundational tactics in basketball. Understand it once and you’ll begin to see it and variations of it all over the place. Or, at least, you’ll see it a lot in basketball games. Maybe once in a while at the grocery store or in the subway too. The principles of the pick and roll are the same principles that underly a lot of other tactical decisions in basketball, so understanding the pick and roll will help you make sense out of basketball in general. Let’s get down to business. We’ll start with the principles that underly the pick and roll.

Principle 1: It’s very hard to get away from a defender in basketball. Basketball courts are not that big and, at least in high-quality leagues like the NBA, WNBA, FIBA, and college basketball, opponents are of relative equality in terms of athletic ability. Sometimes, if there’s a scramble on one end of the court and the defense gets the ball and is able to quickly transition to offense, you will see players running on offense free of a defender, but most of the time, defensive players are never more than a step from an offensive player.

Principle 2: It’s hard to score if a defender is close by. This is true at all levels of basketball. In my own rec-league basketball experience, I get almost totally paralyzed trying to shoot if a defender is near me. Even professionals find it much more difficult to score with a defender close to them. Even if the defender doesn’t block the shot, they will likely be able to “alter” the shot (force you to shoot at an angle you’re not comfortable with) by “contesting it” by sticking their hand in your face or near the natural release point of your shot as you’re shooting.

One natural conclusion from these two principles is that any tactic that creates even a little bit of separation between an offensive player and her defender is a valuable one. The pick and roll does this through creating an obstacle on the court that defenders have to run around. The play involves two attackers and two defenders. One attacker has the ball and one does not. The offensive player without the ball stands still (basketball rules prohibit intentionally getting in someone’s way unless you’re standing still.) The player with the ball dribbles quickly towards the player who has transformed into an obstacle and passes very, very close to him or her, on the side farthest from the basket they are trying to score on. This is the first half of the play. The player on offense without the ball has just executed a pick by standing still and allowing the ball-handler to run around him. Before we move on to the second half, let’s examine what this first half has done.

The first half of the pick and roll puts the defender who is marking the player with the ball in quite a pickle. If he follows the player with the ball around the obstacle of the player setting the pick, this motion will likely put him a step behind the player with the ball instead of a step ahead, with his body between the player with the ball and the basket he is defending. This is called going “over” the pick. If she chooses to go “under” the pick, this means that instead of chasing the player with the ball, she’s sliding to the other side of the pick and hopes to catch up to the player with the ball on the other side. This is risky because in that second it takes to regain coverage of the player with the ball, the ball-handler may be able to shoot or pass the ball or change direction or pace and drive to the basket unopposed. The last option is for the defenders to switch which player they are guarding. The defender following the ball-handler takes the player setting the pick while the defender on the player setting the pick slides off of that assignment and onto guarding the ball-handler as they come around the pick. The potential downside of this is that usually the picking player is a bigger player than the one handling the ball and therefore has a bigger defender. Switching often gives the offense a mismatch (or two, really) with a bigger, slower player guarding a small, fast one and a smaller player trying to match the physicality of a bigger player.

Now that you understand the plight a good pick puts a basketball defense in, we can move on to the second half of the pick and roll, the roll. As the ball-handler goes around the player setting the pick, the player setting the pick turns and runs towards the basket. That’s the roll. This serves to turn up the pressure on the defense even farther and opens up an easy option to score for the offense. The rolling motion forces a defender to go with the picking player, who, until recently was just a static obstacle. That way, regardless of what the defense does, but particularly if the defense switches, there’s a good chance that the player who just set the pick will be open for a pass that leads him towards the basket for an easy layout.

If you want to see how these options work in real, three dimension life, this instructional video filmed by the 1980s Boston Celtics is an awesome way to learn:

Finally, why is it called a pick and roll? According to the Online Etymology Dictionary this use of the word pick could come from its meaning of “a blow with a pointed instrument.” In basketball terms, the pointed instrument is the player setting the pick and the blow is the easy basket that often follows. As for the roll? Well, that’s the motion of the player who sets a pick and then rolls their body towards the basket.

Ezra Fischer


How does NBA TV fan night work?

While I was recording yesterday’s sports forecast podcast (say that ten times fast) I remarked that, opposed to the NHL’s national television schedulers, who chose a bummer of a game between the San Jose Sharks and the Buffalo Sabres, the NBA schedulers had gotten it exactly right by choosing the game between the Sacramento Kings and New Orleans Pelicans. What a difference, I though, that the NBA somehow managed to figure out before the season that this would be a close game between two exciting young teams. And between two teams without much pedigree also. Man, those NBA schedulers are smart. I watched about ten minutes of the game last night and while I enjoyed the action, something was nagging me, tugging at the back of my mind. What was this addition to the NBA TV scoreboard graphic at the bottom of the screen? Why did it say “Fan Night” in big, bold letters? What about this made it more of a night for fans than any other night on NBA TV. So, I looked it up.

NBA TV Fan Night works like this. Each week, fans can vote on which game they want to see next week. The NBA provides three choices and the one that gets the most votes by Saturday of the previous week, is shown nationally on NBA TV that Tuesday. Yesterday’s game between the Pelicans and Kings beat out two other games: the New York Knicks at the Milwaukee Bucks and the Los Angeles Lakers at the Atlanta Hawks. This week, the race is between these three games: the Atlanta Hawks at Washington Wizards, the Golden State Warriors at the Miami Heat, and the Detroit Pistons at the Milwaukee Bucks. Right now the voting stands at 84% for the game between the Warriors and Heat, 10% for the Hawks and the Wizards, and only 6% for the Bucks and the Knicks.

This, for a few reasons, is pretty cool. First of all, I love the idea of allowing fans to control which games get nationally televised. After all, why shouldn’t the fans have a say? For big-time national television channels like ESPN, TNT, Fox, CBS, NBC, CBS, etc. they are always showing games televised with their own team of announcers, camera people, and producers. For them, it makes sense that you’d need to plan ahead for logistical reasons. But NBA TV, like similar networks for other leagues, often simply carries regional televised games on a national platform. It’s awesome that the NBA decided to let fans choose which games to see, at least one night a week. It’s also smart — the alternative is that more people will cut the cable cord and go full-time to watching games on the internet through services like NBA League Pass, NHL Game Center, etc. The leagues benefit from these sales but television is still far more lucrative. NBA TV Fan Night is also really great for two non-commercial reasons. One, I love seeing how the voting is going for next week. What a fun little game-without-the-game! Fans of the Hawks, Wizards, Bucks, and Kings should feel a little depressed that so few unaffiliated fans want to see their games. It’s kind of a diss, isn’t it? And fans of the Pelicans, Kings, Warriors, and Heat should feel great that people are catching on to how much fun their teams are to watch. I also particularly find it interesting, at least for these two weeks, how closely my instincts about what games would be interested are shared by the majority. What does that mean? Are we all a product of the sports-media hive mind? Or do we just know good basketball?

I’m going to keep my eye on this for the next few weeks and see if there are any close races or interesting conclusions to be drawn.

Bob Ryan's book: Scribe

What? You think it’s too early to start shopping for Christmas? I agree with you but it’s not what some of my local stores think because they’re already gearing up for the rush. I say, skip the stores and buy the sports fan in your life the new autobiographical book, Scribe: My Life in Sports, by Bob Ryan. Bob Ryan is one of the best known and most respected sports writers in the country. He started as an intern at the Boston Globe in 1968 and retired from full-time work there in 2012 after 44 years as a beat writer and columnist. He is a Boston sports writer, through and through — never bothering to adopt the feigned objective neutrality of many journalists in sports. When asked about that in a recent interview by Ryan Glasspiegel of The Big Lead, Ryan said:

I don’t see why anybody would ever have a problem with it. If you’re not a sports fan, why are you in the business? To me, I don’t quite understand people who aren’t true sports fans who are involved in this business.

It’s not that hard. You internally root. You don’t sit there and externally root — you internally care. And you do your job. It’s just not that hard. You see a game, the team wins or loses, you go talk to people, and if somebody stinks you say so. If it’s a good story, you’re positive. I just don’t understand what the inherent conflict is.

I haven’t read Scribe yet — it just came out — but I’ve enjoyed reading Ryan over the years as well as seeing him on TV as a panelist on the Sports Reporters, Around the Horn, and as a substitute host on Pardon the Interruption. He’s one of my favorite guests on the Tony Kornheiser radio show. Ryan is the most enthusiastic and knowledgeable sports personality out there. The Boston Globe review of Scribe noted that writing autobiographically, Ryan “offers a bonus: a reflective humor that can only come from years of working at a job you love.” I believe it!

It’s been quite enjoyable to have the publication of Ryan’s book as an excuse for a real Ryan love-fest in sports media. My favorite article about Ryan was Bryan Curtishomage in Grantland. His reverential tone serves to lift your own appreciation of Ryan as a writer and person. One of the effective tools he uses is including quotes about Ryan from athletes. For those of you who don’t follow sports that closely, athletes generally consider journalists to be a form of life somewhere between the mosquito and the raccoon. Bob Ryan is an exception:

The players followed Ryan, too. “He was an artist,” said guard Paul Westphal. “You could actually learn something about basketball, even as a player, by reading Bob’s articles.”

“I remember Bob coming up to me one day and asking if I wanted to have a beer after practice. I said, ‘Sure.’ We were just talking, and then Bob starts describing what we were doing on the court. He knew all our plays. He knew when people came off the bench. I was a rookie, remember. I started thinking, Do all the reporters know everything we’re doing out there?”

Scribe: My Life in Sports is available in hardcover and kindle now. It would make a great Christmas present for the sports fans in your life… and apparently, it’s time to think about that sort of thing!

News Clippings: Sunday, October 12

One of my favorite parts of writing Dear Sports Fan is reading other great writers cover sports in a way that’s accessible and compelling for the whole spectrum from super-fans to lay people. Here are selections from some of the articles this week that inspired me.

This article profiles former NBA player Keyon Dooling and his life long struggle to come to terms with and recover from being abused as a child. It’s a fascinating and eventually uplifting piece that reminds us that no matter how big, strong, and fearless athletes look when they’re on stage, they are real people with their own struggles.

Keyon Dooling’s Secret

By Jordan Ritter Conn for Grantland

Now, when Dooling looks back on those years, he sees how he tried to cope with the trauma of his past. He sees himself in fourth grade, sneaking to his father’s liquor cabinet, pouring himself strong drinks and sipping them until the world was gone. He sees himself in middle school, smoking weed with friends, letting the drug ease the anxiety he’d felt since that afternoon. He sees himself at that same age, flirting with girls and then taking them home. The more girls he slept with, he thought, the more he proved that he was no longer that little boy.

Basketball helped. On the court, he could assert his dominance. With the ball in his hands, he never felt like a victim. He loved the power his talent gave him, the confidence that grew from knowing that almost every kid in his school and his neighborhood could only dream of doing what he could do on a hardwood floor. The first time he dunked — as a freshman, in a game — he felt invincible. As he grew older, the memory of that afternoon faded, but the coping strategies remained.

This past week, I reblogged a piece about how baseball fans need to decide — do they want a clean game or an exciting game. This triggered a back and forth with a baseball fan and friend of Dear Sports Fan who sent me this well-written piece as a rebuttal. I have to admit, after reading this defense of the pace of baseball, I question how much of my attitudes towards the sport are the product of hearing other people’s cliched criticism. 

What Pace of Game Problem?

By Russell Carleton for Fox Sports

Allowing for the fact that some of the rule changes would spawn some workarounds, you might save 20 minutes off the average game. All it would cost you is the clock-less-ness of baseball, the idea of free substitution, and a small piece of the integrity of the game. In other words, baseball would become a different game and for not much benefit.

What I find interesting is that baseball seems to have a pace of game problem because everyone says that it does… Maybe it’s just time that baseball recognized that there are people out there who enjoy a slower game and stopped trying to be all things to all people… Baseball should simply embrace the fact that it is a slower game and market itself accordingly. It’s a feature, not a bug. There’s no pace of game problem because there’s nothing morally superior about playing rushed games that take two and a half hours instead of three, no matter what United States culture tries to say.

This essay grapples with the difficulty of producing accurate statistics comparing NFL players to… well, to who, exactly? That’s part of the problem. With all of the scary statistics flying around about the health effects of playing professional football, it’s very hard to know what is real and what isn’t. I hope someone can take the work of this charmingly skeptical article and do the hard work to produce more reasonable and accurate scientific studies. There’s undeniably something scary happening to some percent of pro football players. Let’s figure it out.

NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives.

By Daniel Engber for Slate

For every 770 men who play the sport on a professional level, we can expect one extra death from ALS. (Extra deaths from Alzheimer’s are even more unusual.)

Any extra death is cause for grave concern, but if you look at other, much more common deadly conditions, the change in risk goes the other way. The same dataset suggests that for every 770 football retirees, we should expect 13 fewer deaths from cardiovascular disease and 14 fewer from cancer. So while it’s true that Alzheimer’s and ALS rates among NFL athletes could reasonably be described as “through the roof,” the number of players’ lives saved from heart disease and cancer exceeds the number of lives lost to those diseases by 2,150 percent.

But the methods used to find these stats raise a familiar and important question: Should football players really be compared to average men their age, of any race or body size or income level? How much does the choice of analysis affect its outcome?

So is it better to control for income or race, or should studies strive for both? And what about body size?

These may sound like simple questions, but they’re exceedingly difficult to answer. To some extent, the best approach depends on how you think about the NFL, and what point you’d like to make.

This charming story about the financial plight of the Haiti and Trinidad and Tobago women’s national soccer teams reminds us that not all athletes have financial support on NFL levels. Sometimes it takes a desperate tweet and a kind opponent to get things started so that the Clinton foundation can finish things up!

Haiti pledges money to Trinidad and Tobago soccer

By Kurt Voigt and Anne M. Peterson for the Associated Press

Upon getting word that the Trinidad and Tobago women’s national soccer team might not even have enough money for lunch, Haiti’s team took a look at its fundraising for World Cup qualifying — an account totaling a little over $1,300 — and decided to turn it over to the competition.

Why is the start of a season in sports so exciting?

Dear Sports Fan,

Sports seasons are so long — how can anyone get excited at the very start? It’s going to be at least six months until the playoffs in most sports.


— — —

Dear Jan,

The start of a season is exciting for many reasons and only a few of them have to do with making the playoffs. You’re absolutely right about how long sports seasons are. Take the National Hockey League (NHL) which is starting tonight. The NHL regular season is 82 games. It starts in early October and ends in mid-April. That’s a long, long time and a lot of games! The National Basketball Association plays the same number of games. Baseball plays 162 or roughly twice the number. Football is the outlier here with relatively short seasons — 16 games in the National Football League and around 12 for college teams. Setting football aside, the first few games for a baseball, basketball, or hockey team don’t actually mean very much in terms of their eventual record and qualification for the playoffs. A fan’s excitement for and enjoyment of the start of the season can’t be measured in wins and losses but it can be described. Let’s give it a shot.

Saying hello to old friends and meeting new ones

Part of following a team is getting to know the players on the team. The players on your favorite team or even their biggest rivals[1]  become like characters on a long-running sit-com. You learn their quirks. You cheer with them when they celebrate and you share their anger and frustration when the team is down. You track their various injury rehabilitations with bated breath. You might even wear a shirt with their name on the back. Players on your favorite team feel like an extension of your social circle in a weird way. The start of a season in sports is a little like the start of a season of a television show you really like or a new book in a series you love. You can’t wait to drop back in on their lives to see how they’re doing, if they’ve grown a funny beard, lost weight, gained weight, changed in any way. As a Penguins fan, I look forward to dropping back in on Sidney Crosby’s life just as much as I look forward to seeing what’s up with Lady Mary as a Downton Abbey fan.

Teams never stay the same from one season to a next. Players are traded, retire, or become free agents and move to another team. The first games of the season are your first chance to meet the new guys or gals on the team you follow. Some of them are players you know from other teams in the league. This can be great if you’ve always grudgingly respected their play. It can be challenging if you’ve always (sports) hated them and now you have to find a way to root for them. Rookies or players who have moved up from the minor leagues are always exciting to meet because their potential is unknown and therefore theoretically limitless.

Returning to ritual

Watching sports is also an important part of many fan’s social lives. Whether you go to games in person, watch them in a bar, or at home, watch them alone, with a partner, or with friends, watching and rooting can be a big part of a sport’s fans life. The start of the season means a return to social settings that you haven’t had access to during the offseason. It’s like the end of summer when you were a kid and all your friends got home from summer camp or the end of a long sustained period of craziness at work that allows you to rest, relax, and actually meet a friend for a drink instead of just heading home to rest up for the next day.

I have friends that I know I’m going to hear from ten times more during a particular sports season than I would otherwise. It’s great!

Getting a feel for your team

The first few games of a hockey, basketball, or baseball season may not have much of a statistical effect on their outcome for the year but that doesn’t mean fans don’t watch them attentively to get a feel for how their team might do. If you root for a team that just won a championship, you’re looking for evidence of the lethargy that often infects teams after they win. If you’re like most of us and you root for a team that did well but didn’t win the championship last year, you’re looking to see if the team has improved or taken a step back. How has a new coach affected the team’s play? How well are new players integrated into the team? Which players have improved? Which have lost a step? If you root for one of the worst teams in the league last year, the first few games may be your only time of true hope during the year.

Truthfully, the first few games probably can’t shed too much light on what the season will hold for your team, but that won’t stop fans from trying!

Enjoy the start of the season,
Ezra Fischer

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. note the outpouring of sincere love from Red Sox fans for the departing Derek Jeter