What is the triangle offense in basketball?

One of the great things about watching sports is that they are multi-layered entertainment. The most casual fan can turn on a game and immediately enjoy the beauty of watching incredibly fit people do insanely graceful things with their bodies. Someone who doesn’t know anything about a sport but loves competition will find it easy to get engaged in a close game. A moderate fan starts to learn some of the characters in the drama – the players and coaches whose personalities influence the outcome of the game and how fans feel about it. An intermediate fan will learn about the many technicalities of the game, from rules to basic tactics. A serious fan of a sport or team will become an expert in history, know the background and personalities of all the players, and has a deep intellectual and instinctual understanding of how the game works from tactics to rules to strategies. Each sport has its own ladder of learning, something which we try to unravel on Dear Sports Fan. No matter how long you’re involved with a sport, however, there always seems to be another layer of the onion to peel; something else that remains unknown – something else to learn. In basketball, the very pinnacle of understanding, the single thing which remains unknowable to virtually all fans and even most players and coaches is the triangle offense.

Although it’s much less obvious, basketball teams, like football teams, have distinct offensive plays and strategies which vary from team to team. Although most offenses share similar concepts, like the pick and roll, each one is its own unique animal. In this animal kingdom of offensive strategies, the triangle offense is the panther – complex, mysterious, and totally dominant. The most winning teams of the past 20+ years of basketball history, the Chicago Bulls of the 1990s (six championships) and the Los Angeles Lakers of the 2000s (five championships) have used the triangle offense. Despite all that notoriety, the offense has remained literally invisible to casual fans and totally inscrutable to virtually everyone else. Without being able to understand how it works, people have taken to debating its existence. Is the triangle offense really what drove those teams to their success or is it a “MacGuffin” — a meaningless sleight of hand created by Phil Jackson, coach of both teams, to distract competitors and commentators from whatever his true strategy was?

In a truly brilliant New York Times article, “The Obtuse Triangle,” Nicholas Dawidoff, set out to discover, once and for all, the essential nature of the triangle offense, the unorthodox thinker, Tex Winter, who created it, and the enigmatic coach, Phil Jackson, who used it to such success. Here are some of my favorite selections from the story, but you should read it all. It’s bright and accessible to even the most casual basketball fan.

Dawidoff discovers that, as opposed to other offenses that are an accumulation of set plays, the triangle offense is a philosophy of interpretation that must be shared by all five players on the court inorder to be effective:

Winter empowers his players to read the defense and make situational decisions within the flow of the game, so the tricky part is that everyone must recognize the same opportunity and choose the same response. In effect, Winter wants five basketball Peyton Mannings on the floor, scanning the defense, deciphering its intentions, flashing around the court in well-spaced concert, exploiting vulnerability.

Part of Dawidoff’s investigative process was reading a book Winter wrote and published which detailed the triangle offense for all to read. Offenses are usually tightly guarded secrets, but as you’ll see in a minute, Winter felt comfortable sharing his for one very good reason:

When a Baltimore Bullets scout named Jerry Krause visited Kansas State, Winter gave Krause his book to read. Krause complimented the book, and Winter mentioned that he had sent copies to his rival coaches in the Big 8 Conference.

“I said, ‘Why are you giving away your secrets?’ ” Krause said. “He said: ‘I’m not. It’ll only confuse them.’ ”

Triangle deniers often point out that Jackson’s championship teams had first Michael Jordan and then Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neill on them. That’s three of the top ten players in the past 40 years. A big part of the article grapples with this question. The eventual conclusion seems to be that while no offense can succeed without great players, great players also can’t succeed (at least as consistently and frequently as Jordan, O’Neill, and Bryant did) without a great system.

Jackson and Winter’s thinking was that if they built more offensive options around him, Jordan would have greater reserves of energy at the end of playoff games. They told Jordan that for 20 seconds, the team would stay in the offense. If no clear scoring opportunities emerged, then he should create one. Jordan was skeptical; he called the triangle “a white man’s offense.”

Jordan’s teammate Horace Grant describes the give-and-take between crediting the offense and the star players:

“It was a smooth operating machine. Baryshnikov in action! Picasso painting! A beautiful thing! Having Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen helped, too. Shot clock’s at four, it all breaks down, then Jordan time.”

Enjoy the whole article here.

Do you really always "play to win the game" in sports?

Sports are constructed universes that each have their own set of rules. One of the most attractive aspects about being a frequent visitor to a sports world is that it’s rules are so much clearer and more well defined than the rules of the real world. Each sport has a clear objective and every game that’s played has a winner and a loser. It’s no coincidence that virtually every sports arena has a large screen in it which shows the current score at all times. Unlike the other facets of most people’s lives — workplace dramas, romantic relationships, friendships, etc. — a sports fan always knows how their team is doing. Every game ends with a win or a loss. Every season ends with a championship or no championship. In a blurry, grey world, sports offers black and white contrasts. Fans, athletes, coaches, and general managers are free to pursue a single goal with an unwavering commitment rarely available or wise outside the realm of sports.

“You play to win the game.” If you were to watch ESPN 24 hours a day (not a real recommendation) you would probably hear this phrase at least four or five times a day. The phrase first assaulted the  sports Zeitgeist in 2002 when New York Jets head coach Herm Edwards said it in a post-game press conference.

The appeal of Edward’s rant is, at first glance, obvious. It’s a strident statement of the foundational truth about sports that we described above. Sports is objective. There is a winner and a loser and the goal is to be the winner. The second level of enjoyment for many people is in how dismissive and obnoxious Edwards is being towards the media member who somehow suggested that winning was not the ultimate purpose of sports. Bullying media members is, at this point in the United States, basically its own sport, and Edwards (who now works for ESPN himself,) is a champion at disdain. Forget those first two levels though, it’s the third level that we’re interested in today. The third level of interpretation reveals that this quote is complex. The thing about “playing to win the game,” is that it isn’t really true. Or at least, it’s a more paradoxical truth than it seems at first glance.

Today we’ll look at some of the ways in which teams don’t always choose to win games at all costs in two sports: NBA basketball and European club soccer.

NBA Basketball

Not trying to win or even trying not to win is one of the biggest topics in basketball right now. It’s seen as a crisis by many. There are two main ways in which teams subvert the single-minded goal of winning each game. The first is a strategy commonly known as tanking, where teams try to increase their chances of getting a high draft pick in an upcoming draft by losing as many games as possible in the current season. In an article on mathematical elimination, I described tanking as “a scourge to the sports world roughly equal to the flu in the normal world or sarcoidosis on House.” Tanking is trying not to win. The other focus of attention in the NBA is teams not trying to win an individual game by choosing not to play a player who is theoretically healthy enough to play that game. Unlike tanking, this tactic is used more by teams that believe themselves to be in championship contention.


More than any other team sport, basketball teams are only as good as their best player. If you start in 1980, and list out the NBA Championship winners by their best player, the names are almost all recognizable, even to non-sports fans: Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Magic, Julius Irving (Dr. J), Bird, Magic, Bird, Magic, Magic, Isaiah Thomas 2X, Michael Jordan 3x, Hakeem Olajuwan 2x, Jordan 3x, Tim Duncan, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant 3x, Duncan, the exception to the rule that is the 2004 Detroit Pistons, Duncan, Dwayne Wade, Duncan, Paul Pierce, Kobe 2x, Dirk Nowitzky, LeBron James 2x, Duncan. Only once in the past 35 years has a team without a super-star won the championship!

The clear lesson for teams is that if they don’t have a super-star, their chances of winning a championship are drastically reduced. By far the easiest way of getting a super-star on a team is to draft him, usually with one of the first picks of the NBA draft. There’s some chance involved, but at the end of every season, the team with the worst record has the best chance of getting the first pick, the second worst team, the second best chance and so on. If a team is going to be in the bottom third of the league, there’s a clear incentive to be as bad as possible.

Teams pursue this strategy in a number of ways, most of which don’t involve actually instructing their players not to score. By far the most common form of tanking is for general managers to manipulate the chances of their team winning by trading its best players. The goal is to have a set of players and coaches that all try their hardest to win but simply don’t have enough experience or talent to do it. The current Picasso of tanking is General Manager Sam Hinkie of the Philadelphia 76ers. Hinkie, who was recently profiled brilliantly by ESPN writer Pablo S. Torre, is taking this strategy farther than anyone has ever taken it before. He’s drafted injured players so that they cannot possibly cause the team to win the year after they are drafted. He’s drafted players from Europe and the rest of the world who will not actually come to the United States to play for the 76ers for several years. One of his first moves when he got the job was to trade away the 76ers best player, Jrue Holiday, and just a week ago, he traded two of their best players away again, mostly for future picks.

It remains to be seen whether this strategy will work or whether it will be a complete disaster. It’s also unclear how much longer it will be possible. Tanking is odious enough to people in the sports world that the NBA is likely to make structural changes to how it decided its draft pick order to take away the incentive to tank.

Resting Players

Unlike tanking, where a team is eager to forgo winning games in one season for the potential of winning games in a future season, this tactic involves reducing a team’s chances of winning a game in order to increase the team’s chances of winning the championship that year. Increasingly, basketball coaches and executives are realizing that most players cannot play at peak effectiveness for an 82-game regular season and then a playoff run that could involve as many as 28 additional games.  Smart teams that hope to make it deep into the playoffs have adjusted to this knowledge by managing the number of minutes their players play during the regular season in the hopes of keeping them fresh for the playoffs. Often that means reducing a player’s normal time on the court per game from 35 minutes (out of 48) to 30 minutes over the course of the season. Other times, that might mean sitting a player for the entire second half of a game that is evidently going to be a blow-out win or loss by half-time. Even more blatant is the tactic of choosing not to have a player on the bench and available to play for a particular game.

Teams that choose to rest a player who isn’t seriously injured often choose one of the many small hurts that player is suffering from and use it as an excuse. A team might say, “Oh, So-and-So is out tonight because of a knee injury. They should be fine for the next game.” Usually the media knows this is nothing more than an excuse, but the gesture is enough to maintain the appearance that the team is optimizing to win every game. Some coaches, led by the example of San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, don’t even bother with the excuse. They simply list players as “DND – CD” which stands for “Did Not Dress – Coach’s Decision.” Popovich famously thumbed his nose at the practice of using half-true injury designations to excuse coaches’ decisions to rest players in 2012 when he listed Tim Duncan as “DND – Old” for a game.

Resting players is not as noxious of a strategy as tanking, probably because the teams that do it are more well-respected (because they win) and because the future gain is so much closer and more concrete than the gains that teams tank for. The largest criticism of resting players is itself problematic. People often criticize resting players because the one game Tim Duncan sits out may be the only time a fan sees his team play in person all season or ever. By choosing to sit a player, a team is intentionally lowering the entertainment value of the game for its fans without a commensurate lowering of the cost. That argument make sense but only if sports is primarily entertainment rather than competition — and if it’s entertainment, then that in and of itself threatens the principle of trying to win every game. Uh oh, logical black hole alert! Let’s move on to soccer.

European Club Soccer

The structure of European club soccer creates a few scenarios where not winning is enough of a draw that even the most obsessed coaches are tempted to instruct their teams NOT to play to win the game. This subversion of what seems to be an obvious truth about sports is one of the curious and interesting things about learning how another continent organizes its sports leagues. Here are three common times when soccer clubs in Europe may be intent on something else more than on winning.

Balancing priorities

In American sports, there’s only one primary goal: win a championship. In European soccer, club teams compete for several different championships during a year, often simultaneously. A team may be playing in one or more domestic tournaments against teams within their country, an international club tournament like the Champions League or Europa League, at the same time as playing their normal league schedule against teams in their own country in their own league. This sometimes leads to conflicts of interest. If a player has a slightly injured ankle, will the coach choose to play him in a league game on Saturday knowing that there’s a Champions League game on Wednesday? What if the coach senses that the whole team is weary? Would it be better to lose in a domestic cup early on to clear the calendar for more rest days and practices? Will the benefit of rest and practice mean the difference between fifth and third place in the domestic league? Is that worth it? Which competition does the team have a better chance of winning? Which competitions are more lucrative and prestigious to do well in?

In American sports, coaches and teams don’t need to balance priorities like this, but in European club soccer, it’s a regular part of life. I wonder what a European soccer fan would think of Herm Edwards’ saying “you play to win the game?” Would they think it was funny because it’s true, funny because it’s not true, or just inaccurate and confusing?

The logic of aggregate goals

Many of the competitions that European soccer clubs take part in are tournaments. These tournaments often have a group round-robin stage and a knock-out stage, just like the World Cup. Unlike the World Cup and most other tournaments we’re used to, instead of one game against each opponent, European soccer clubs play two — one at each team’s home stadium. The team that has scored the most goals at the end of the two games (called aggregate goals) wins the matchup. The rules about breaking ties vary from tournament to tournament but they often have something to do with which team scored more goals when they were playing in their opponent’s stadium. The result of this is that teams pretty frequently go into games with goals other than simply winning. An underdog playing on the road in the first half of the two game series (often confusingly called a “tie”) may think that their best bet is to play defensively and try to leave with a 0-0 tie. A team that goes into the second game down a goal or two knows they need to not only win but to win by two or three or four goals. Likewise, a team going into a second game with the lead in aggregate goals knows they can lose the second game and still win the two-game series. They are not playing to win the game, they’re playing to win or tie or lose by a small enough margin to still win the series. Put that in your remix and smoke it!

When a tie is better than a win

Even in the most twisted of aggregate goal logic, it’s still always better to win than tie or lose but there is one situation when a tie is preferable than a win. Some tournaments, England’s FA cup being the most famous example, are set up as single elimination tournaments but, instead of overtime, if the score is tied after 90 minutes, the teams pack their bags, go home, and schedule a second game to decide who advances and who is eliminated. The second game is played in the stadium of the team that didn’t host the first game. Since the FA Cup is an association cup, open to every team in English soccer, from the rich, famous Premier league teams all the way to tiny seventh tier virtually semi-professional teams that no one has heard of, this leads to an interesting point. When a tiny team plays in a giant’s stadium, they get an enormous financial benefit from exposure, television money, and ticket sales. The bigger and more famous their host opponent, the more money they make. So, it’s often financially better for a tiny host team to tie a giant visiting team so that they get an extra game to play against the giant in the giant’s home stadium. Oh, sure, they’d love to beat the giant and move on to the next round of the tournament, but if they did that without ever playing at the giant’s stadium, especially if their potential opponent next round is not as rich or famous, they’ll really be losing out on an enormous payday. Small teams in this type of tournament have an incentive to tie, not win, games they host against storied opponents.

How does the coin toss work in football?

Dear Sports Fan,

How does the coin toss work in football?


— — —

Hi Tod,

When I was a kid, I played a lot of soccer, and I was often the captain. The captain’s one job was to go to the center of the field before the start of the game and be a part of the coin toss. It was pretty simple: one team, I think the away team, called ‘heads’ or ‘tails’. Whoever won the coin toss could choose to select either whether they wanted the ball first in the first half or the second half OR they could choose which side of the field they wanted to start on. The other team got the choice which was left over. If you won the toss and took the ball, the other team got to choose which side they started on. If it was windy and you wanted to choose a side, they got to choose which half they started with the ball. Simple, right?

The NFL’s coin toss is a little complicated but it’s not so hard to understand. Take a deep breath and… here we go!

The coin toss helps facilitate a set of decisions that need to be made before the start of an NFL game and before the start of the second half. The decisions are as follows:

  • Who kicks the ball and who receives the ball?
  • Which side does each team play on. (The teams will switch sides between the first and second and the third and fourth quarters no matter what.)

Each time these decisions are made, one team gets first choice on one of them and the other team gets first choice on the other. So, if you choose who kicks and who receives, I get to choose which side I want to play on. To make things fair, one team will get to choose which decision to make first in each half.

The coin toss exists only to decide which team gets to choose which decision to make first in the first half versus the second half. The team that wins the coin toss gets to decide: do I want to choose first between kicking and having the side I want in the first half or the second? If they choose the first half, then they get to make that choice immediately. Would they like to kick or receive or would they rather leave that choice to their opponent in the first half and instead choose a side to start on. If the team that wins the coin toss decided they’d rather make that decision in the second half, that’s their right to decide. Choosing to choose in the second half is called “deferring.” Here’s a diagram that shows the set of choices the team that wins the coin toss has:


Coin Toss

For more information, the official NFL rulebook is succinct and logical on the subject of the coin toss but not very understandable. Instead, I suggest the Wikipedia entry on the subject.

One of the things that’s interesting to me how the coin toss works in football is that it reveals something about the history of the game. Given the rules, one team could get the ball to start the first and second halves, if they choose to receive in one half and their opponent would rather choose a side to start on in the other half. It’s not necessarily the case, like in my youth soccer experience, that one team starts with the ball in one half and one in the other. This reveals that having the ball wasn’t always seen as an advantage. Football is often said to be a “field position” game, which means that it’s more important where the ball is on the field than who has it. That’s not really true anymore because offenses are so proficient at moving (or matriculating, to use a football cliché) the ball down the field. Now, most teams really do want the ball. In the old days though, football games often went back and forth, with each team having the ball, getting a first down or two, and then punting. If you don’t expect to get several first downs each time you have the ball, then it’s more reasonable to want to start half with your opponent in possession of the ball but way down at their end.

In today’s NFL, teams that win the coin toss almost always defer their choice to the second half. The losing team almost always chooses to receive the kickoff in the first half and the winning team almost always chooses to receive the ball in the second half. This is because it’s a winning strategy. In fact, according to this Bloomberg article, teams that won the coin toss had a .530 winning percentage in 2013. The fact that this has become so formulaic is actually part of why it’s hard to understand how the coin toss works in football. It seems like the team that wins the coin toss by rule gets to receive the kickoff in the second half. It’s more complicated than that but now you know how it works.

Thanks for the question,
Ezra Fischer



What is "Having the Last Change" in Hockey?

Dear Sports Fan,

What does “having the last change” in hockey mean? Please tell me it has something to do with uniform color…


Dear Bob,

Hockey is one of a few sports that actually bakes into the rule book a couple of small advantages for the home team. Having the last change is one of those advantages and it means that the home team has more control over who on their team plays against particular players on the other team. Here’s how and when this happens and also a little bit of how a team might use this to its advantage.

Hockey is a completely exhausting game (this is one reason why it’s so exciting, as covered in our earlier post on why people like hockey) and the players can only play for about 45 seconds at a time. Hockey teams are therefore made up of about three to four times the number of players as can be on the ice at any time. Unlike football, there isn’t a break between plays, so when players have hit the end of their 45 second shift they skate to their bench and return to it to catch their breath while another player on their team launches themselves onto the ice to replace them. This process looks incredibly chaotic but is normally pretty controlled (and when it’s not, the team that has messed up their substitution often puts themselves at risk for having a goal scored on them). Periodically there will be a break in the play, usually because either the puck has been shot out of the rink, a goalie covers up the puck, a goal is scored, or a penalty is called. When this happens, both coaches have the opportunity to reflect for a second or two and then choose which players they want on the ice.

Coaches will do anything do gain an advantage, and as we will explain later, you can definitely get an advantage through clever player substitutions. As you would imagine, with no rule in place to legislate such things, both coaches would try to see who the other coach is going to put on the ice and then decide who they choose for their team. As exciting as this would be to watch, the NHL decided to control things with a rule that states:

82.1 Line Change – Following the stoppage of play, the visiting team shall promptly place a line-up on the ice ready for play and no substitution shall be made from that time until play has been resumed. The home team may then make any desired substitution, except in cases following an icing, which does not result in the delay of the game.

The home team will use this rule to their advantage by watching to see when the visiting team puts their best offensive players on the ice and then countering with either their best pair of defensive defense-men or their best unit of defensive “checking” forwards. Conversely some home teams will wait to see when their opponents put their best defensive players on the ice and then scuttle their offensive stars back onto the bench to patiently wait for the visiting team’s players to get tired. Of course a lot of the time a visiting coach will have a pretty good idea who the home coach wants to get on the ice. A lot of it is situational — for instance, if a team is down by a few goals and the puck is going to be dropped near their opponent’s goal, they are definitely going to want some of their better offensive players on the ice. So a visiting coach is pretty safe in putting his best defensive players on the ice — I mean what is the home team going to do? If a match-up is really important to a coach he may be willing to instruct his players to play just until their team gets the puck and then to quickly skate off to be replaced. THEN the other coach might tell his players to do the same. It all has the effect of turning a graceful hockey game into something that looks like this.

If this all sounds a little cowardly or over-complicated to you, you might be right. Home teams in the NHL do win more than away teams (55.7% of the time) but that’s actually not that much compared to the advantage of home teams in other sports like the NBA (60.5%) or even the NFL (57.3%) and neither of those sports have any rules that make life easier for the home team. I’m not sure why that is. Maybe some of the advantages that a home team gets are counter-acted by the simplicity of being the away team and knowing that they cannot dictate who plays against who. There are so many factors that go into the advantage a home team has (emotion, routine, intimidated refs, etc.) that it would be pretty hard to isolate this one… but I’m sure there’s a statistician out there working on it!

Ezra Fischer

What does being "on the ropes" mean? What about "rope-a-dope?"

Dear Sports Fan,

What does it mean for someone to be “on the ropes?” I heard it the other day during a hockey game but I think it’s a boxing term. While you’re at it, what is “rope-a-dope” and are they related?


Dear Morgan,

You’re right, they are both boxing terms although they get used in the context of other sports as well as just in normal conversation. We’ll define what they mean and how you can use them in this post.

They call boxing the sweet science for a reason: because despite the fact that it may look like two sweaty combatants flailing away at each other – or running away from each other – in reality boxers enter the ring with deliberate strategies and do their best to execute them.

Still at some point in a fight, one boxer may get the upper hand and land a few devastating punches, leaving his opponent senseless and barely able to stay on his feet, let alone defend himself. In such cases, a boxer has two choices to keep himself upright: leaning into and grabbing his opponent (known as “clinching”) or leaning back on the ropes surrounding the ring and using his gloves and arms to cover up as much of his body and head as possible. When a fighter does this, and his opponent pummels him endlessly in search of a knockout, the fighter covering up is said to be “on the ropes.”
But remember – they don’t call it the sweet science for nothing. A boxer who sees his opponent cowering and leaning on the ropes,  seemingly defeated and therefore posing no threat, may become overconfident – and in his quest to finish his opponent he may exhaust himself by throwing bunches of punches that don’t actually do damage.
Thus a particularly clever and gutsy boxer may pretend to be more injured than he is, encouraging his opponent to throw too many punches in a vain effort to knock him out – and then, turn the tables and go on the offensive when his opponent has punched himself out (ie, exhausted himself by throwing too many punches).
The most famous example of this strategy being put to use is known as the “rope-a-dope” – when Muhammad Ali lured an aggressive George Foreman into attacking relentlessly for the first seven rounds of the famed “Rumble in the Jungle” in 1974. Ali did this not only by seemingly letting Foreman dictate the action, but by taunting Foreman mercilessly. Foreman wore himself out and Ali seized the initiative and knocked his drained opponent out in the eighth round.
Today, the term “rope-a-dope” is just as likely to be used to blithely describe political or business strategy as it is to describe a fighter’s approach in the ring. But it’s worth remembering the original principle: being willing to absorb potentially devastating punishment with the knowledge, or hope, that you ultimately have the ability to outlast your opponent.
Thanks for the question,
Dean Russell Bell

What Does it Mean to Have a Foul to Give?

Dear Sports Fan,

I’ve been watching some basketball and towards the end of games the announcer will sometimes say that a team has a “foul to give.” What does that mean?


Dear Doug,

In the NBA each player can commit five fouls before getting kicked out of the game for good on the sixth. A team cannot get kicked out of a gave for fouling too many times (although Chuck Klosterman wrote a great story about a team winning with only three players left at the end of the game) but there are consequences for fouling a lot. We’ll get to what these consequences are in a second, but first we have to quickly define a few different types of fouls.

  1. An offensive foul is when someone whose team has the ball does something against the rules to a player whose team does not have the ball.
  2. A defensive foul is when someone whose team doesn’t have the ball does something illegal to someone whose team does have the ball.
  3. A shooting foul is a type of defensive foul that happens when someone does something illegal to a player who is in the act of shooting the basketball.
  4. A non-shooting foul is… well, you know, all the other defensive fouls that aren’t shooting ones.

Only defensive fouls count towards the team total. The count of team fouls resets to zero at the start of each quarter. On fouls one through five the player who is fouled will shoot two free-throws only if the foul was a shooting foul. After the fifth foul, from foul six until the end of the quarter, the player who is fouled shoots two free-throws for any defensive foul — no matter if they were shooting or not when fouled. This state of being for a team is called “the bonus.”

Okay — we finally have enough background to answer your question. Having a foul to give means that a team has not yet reached the fifth foul of the quarter. In other words — they can still foul the other team at least once before the other team is in the bonus and will shoot free throws when fouled. At the end of a game or quarter, having a foul to give is particularly useful because a defensive team can use it to disrupt the other team’s plans. If the offensive team has fifteen seconds left, they can set up a nice play to run but the team with a foul to give can wait until there are about three or four seconds left and then give that foul (i.e. foul the player with the ball.) Because the other team is not in the bonus, they will not shoot free-throws, they will just get the ball back and have to pass it in from out of bounds and try to run another play but this time with only a few seconds.

Thanks for the question,
Ezra Fischer


What Makes College Basketball Different?

Dear Sports Fan,

I’ve been watching March Madness and College Basketball looks really different from the NBA Basketball that my sister usually watches. Can you tell me what some of the differences are?


Dear Patricia,

One of the reasons why people love college basketball is exactly what you’ve identified — that it is very different from the NBA. The NBA for the most part, is dominated by a single strategy, the pick-and-roll. Critics of the professional game will say that teams just run eighteen variations on the pick and roll from different spots on the floor. I love the college offensive schemes:

  1. Dribble drive – a really quick guy beats his guy off the dribble, but he’s not talented enough to finish, so he kicks it out to someone whose defender is collapsing to contain the drive, except HE’S a 17 percent three point shooter, so he drives, draws more defense, kicks out, etc etc – until the whole offensive side of the court collapses in on itself like a dying star and it’s a mad scrum around the offensive glass (Memphis, Kentucky, kind of Syracuse and Michigan)
  2. Motion – pass around the perimeter, set half-ass, off-ball screens and hope that a defender gets confused, goes the wrong way and leaves someone open for a three-pointer or a back-cut; if the defense is disciplined enough not to make a mistake, wait til 5 seconds are left and pass to your one on one offensive threat and let him take a bad shot (Pitt)
  3. “I have an athletic big guy” – a team lucks into a really really tall/wide guy who’s athletic and can therefore dominate since that’s so rare in college ball, so they just give him the fucking ball (Kind of Miami/Indiana)
  4. Tom Izzo – run, throw the ball up on the glass, go get it and mug anyone who gets in your way (Michigan State)
  5. Wisconsin – motion + tall white coaches sons who can shoot with improbable range (Wisconsin)
  6. Flex – the only offense where success is measured not by the number of points scored but by the number of picks set in a given possession (Gonzaga)
  7. Coach K – one of the few offenses based solely on moral superiority/smugness (Duke)
  8. Zone attack – when facing the 2-3 zone, pass the ball around the perimeter repeatedly and have one player flash into the the “soft spot” (essentially at the foul line, behind the 2 and in front of the 3) – get him the ball, then watch him panic as the entire zone collapses on him and hope he makes the right pass (anyone playing Syracuse)
  9. Transition – RUN!!!!!!! (VCU)
  10. Three point – Whatever happens, shoot three pointers. Miss them, get long rebounds, shoot more three pointers. Pull up in transition, shoot them contested, shoot on the move…just keep shooting. Defender in your face? No worries – step back as far as you need to.

Enjoy the Final Four games tonight,
Dean Russell Bell

What's the Difference Between the Two Leagues in Baseball?

Dear Sports Fan,

Explain baseball to me. I might start paying attention. What do I need to know to do that? I hear there are differences between the leagues. If it matters, I care about the Tigers and the ways in which they play.



Dear Lisa,

I’ve got to start out by declaring that I’m not a baseball fan. In fact, I think baseball is pretty damn boring. And, although I live less than ten minutes away from the Mets’ home stadium, I don’t have a favorite team. So, I’m going to leave the explaining of baseball and why you should pay attention to my colleagues Dean Russell Bell and John DeFilippis who are Phillies and Yankees fans accordingly and much more passionate about baseball. They probably both hate the Tigers though, so good luck with that.

What I can help you with is the difference between the National League and the American League. Baseball is the only sport that I know of where a single league is split into two divisions that actually play with slightly different rules. Yes, this is really weird. Imagine what it would be like if big institutional investors got to play by different rules when buying stock than us normal people do. Oh wait.

The difference in rules between the National and American leagues is small but it has some interesting consequences. In the National League, the pitcher takes a turn hitting once every nine batters, just like everyone else on the team. In the American League, the pitcher is excused from hitting and his turn hitting is taken by a player who does nothing but hit. This player, called the designated hitter, just sits on the bench while his team is pitching and fielding.

Let us pause for a second to remark upon how completely absurd this is before we continue. Pitchers in the American League are paid millions of dollars a year and are considered top-flight professional athletes and yet they are not expected to take part in an elemental part of the game of baseball? Are they too fragile? Not skilled enough? I really don’t understand this at all? I know I only have one season of little league in my history, but it seemed to me like when we were young, the best athletes played pitcher. When did they forget how to hit? Babe Ruth, the famous slugger whose last World Series hit ever was a home run that he may or may not have called by pointing to the fence before he hit the ball way over it… started his career as a pitcher!

In any event, this little rule difference has some interesting downstream effects on strategy and tactics. Baseball is not an incredibly high scoring game. Combined scores average fewer than ten runs. Adding a very good hitter and subtracting a usually bad one, as the American League Designated Hitter rule does, creates a small but real increase in the average score of American League teams. Mostly what it does is make it less likely for American League teams to win 2-0. So, they tend to build their entire line-ups based on this fact. They concentrate on finding bigger, stronger, slower guys who can hit home-runs. The fact that they can play these guys in a game without needing them to run around and try to catch the ball helps too! The National League teams, on the other hand, feel like they might be able to win with fewer runs, so they tend towards smaller, faster players who can steal bases, bunt, and play excellent defense.

The tactical effect of the DH rule comes into play when switching pitchers in the National League. Most pitchers these days don’t play the whole game. At some point the starting pitcher will come out of the game and a relief pitcher will come in. Often several relief pitchers will finish the game out. The last of these pitchers, a guy who specializes in pitching the last inning of games is called the closer. Sometimes the team will just sub one pitcher in for the next, but more often, the team will take the opportunity of removing their pitcher to sneak a good hitter into the lineup for a single at bat.

It works like this. A pitcher pitches an inning and in the next half of an inning, his turn to hit comes up in the batting order. The manager replaces him with a good hitter. The hitter hits or… more likely fails. When it’s this team’s turn to pitch again, the pitcher is officially this good hitter. Which would not be good… but, they have the opportunity to substitute again and they take out the hitter and replace him with a relief pitcher. Voila! They’ve switched pitchers AND bought themselves an extra good batter in the nine man rotation.

It gets much more complicated but in my opinion not that much less boring 😉 Hopefully one of my colleagues will take on the challenge of explaining to you and me why baseball is really, really, not boring after all.

Until then,
Ezra Fischer 

How is Cycling a Team Sport?

Dear Sports Fan,

How is cycling a team sport? I remember bicycling alone a lot as a kid and it never seemed to hurt me…



Dear Paul,

Bicycling is definitely something that you can do alone, but cycling — particularly races like the Tour de France — are absolutely team competitions. The Tour de France is the most prestigious and most televised cycling competition. It is three weeks long and usually begins in early July. The riders will cover more than 2,200 miles in daily races called stages. It’s insane! The race usually follows a basic pattern. The first week or so stays mostly in the flatlands and is (in my mind, at least) pretty boring. Then the race hits some serious mountains and it gets much more exciting. This is normally where the overall winner of the tour will emerge. It’s also much more interesting strategically and from a soap opera stand-point.

Teams compete for a number of different things. There is a stage winner every day and winning even just one stage is quite prestigious for the rider and his team. Within each stage there are a certain number of points assigned to each mountain and each sprint (somewhat arbitrary spots on flat areas.) Riders earn points for going over the top of a mountain or across the sprint spot first, second, or third, etc. The number of points and number of riders that earn points varies based on the severity of the mountain or the importance of the sprint. The leader of the sprint competition is indicated by a green jersey and the leader of the climbing competition (called the King of the Mountains) wears a white and red polka dotted jersey. The leader of the race as a whole, defined simply as the rider who has finished all the stages in the least combined time, wears the famed yellow jersey. All of these things are prestigious and financially rewarding for the riders and teams that win them.

As far as I can tell, strategy in cycling is based on a single scientific fact: it’s much, much easier to ride when you are drafting on (riding right behind) another rider. So there you go, it all comes down to that. What teams do is organize themselves around their strongest rider. To win a stage what they try to do is exhaust all the other teams by riding at the front faster than anyone else can. The riders on the team who are NOT their strongest rider take turns at the front, riding full out until they simply cannot do it anymore. These guys are called domestiques which is French for servants and if you see the look on their faces as they work at the front of the pack for their team leader, you’ll understand why. At some point it’s up to the team leader (who is supposed to be the strongest rider after all) to take advantage of the fact that he’s been coddled by his team all day and all tour and accelerate (usually up a mountain) faster than anyone else can. The whole three week tour is often won by less than five or ten minutes, so a single good run up a mountain can often win the whole thing.

The soap opera of the race comes from the fact that unlike most other sports, the winning team is usually defined not by skill or tactics but by the capacity to endure pain.[1] The Stanley Cup playoffs are a little bit like this, when players regularly suit up for games with injuries that would leave the rest of us in a hospital, but the Tour de France is a unique spectacle of endurance, strength, speed, and just a pinch of lunacy.

Thanks for your question,
Ezra Fischer

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Yes, or by who has the best drugs… but really, except for Lance Armstrong who must have had Stephen Hawking as his pharmacist, I tend to think the drugs even themselves out.