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Thursday, February 08, 2007

No, You Could Not Win a Game of Horse Against an NBA Player

People who don't watch a lot of NBA basketball often have some strange beliefs about the sport. On the one hand, they sometimes assert that nobody plays defense in the NBA; another, somewhat contradictory statement is that NBA players are merely good athletes who are not able to perform fundamental tasks such as shooting. The reality is that NBA defense is often suffocating; that, and the constant pressure of the 24 second shot clock, has a lot to do with NBA field goal percentages. How do I know that this is true? One, I have seen enough NBA games up close to understand the quickness and strength of NBA players and how these attributes are used on defense. Two, I have seen NBA players who are considered "non-shooters" warm up and effortlessly drain shots from all over the court.

You may have heard about Gilbert Arenas' recent $20,000 bet with teammate DeShawn Stevenson: Arenas said that he could make a higher percentage of one handed college three pointers than Stevenson could make of NBA three pointers shot with both hands. Arenas shot 73/100, while Stevenson made 68/96 shots (he quit when he could not catch Arenas). You can watch the video here: Arenas-Stevenson Showdown

The next time somebody tells you that NBA players can't shoot and/or don't play defense, please share this video. I'm not surprised at how well Arenas and Stevenson did and I know that other NBA players could do similarly well when shooting uncontested college or NBA three pointers. The fact is that if NBA players did not play defense the game scores would be something like 200-198.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:48 AM



At Thursday, February 08, 2007 10:35:00 AM, Blogger illest said...

True. Just like the 12th man on any bench can go to any local playground and dominant. Even though the NBA wasnt what it used to be it is still the NBA.

At Thursday, February 08, 2007 11:39:00 AM, Blogger Joe Grossberg said...

People who say there is no "d" in the NBA today need to watch some old videos ... people just standing around and letting everyone get off a barely-contested jump shot.

Really skinny, slow guys too.

George Gervin has nothing on Ray Allen. And Gervin's an Hall of Famer, but Allen can't make the all-star team.

At Thursday, February 08, 2007 3:35:00 PM, Blogger illest said...

Gervin is a way better scorer than Ray Allen. And all Ray Allen is a soft scorer. Gervin didnt play defense but he was better at what he did than Allen.

There is no "d" in the NBA but a lot of bad shooting. Every night is a 3 point contest

At Thursday, February 08, 2007 5:27:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

I love watching Ray Allen shoot--he's got the smoothest stroke in the game, kind of like Griffey's home run swing (when Griffey is healthy). Still, I'm taking George Gervin, easily, over Ray Allen. Allen shoots it better from deep--Gervin was not really much of a three point shooter--but Gervin was deadlier from mid range and was an excellent driver (he could finger roll...).

If you check out his stats, Gervin had some 100/100 seasons (steals/blocked shots) and his two point shooting percentage is off the charts, particularly for a guard. Gervin's offensive game was much more complete than Allen's and don't forget that he was 6-8 as well, with long arms, which enabled him to play forward or guard.

There has always been defense in the NBA. The difference now is tempo. The game is played at a slower pace (other than Phoenix, Washington and a couple other teams). Trust me, if there had been no defense then West, Baylor, Cousy and others would have shot much better percentages from the field than they did. Why do you think these guys shot about 80% from the free throw line and less than 50% from the field? One thing that has evolved is the use of double teams and traps. In the "old days" you pretty much guarded your man one on one. Wilt would get double teamed and of course Russell roamed around blocking everybody's shots but the trapping, rotating defenses that you see today were less prevalent (or non-existent) back in the day.

Players were indeed skinnier back then--and, looking at the NFL, track and field, cycling, MLB and so on, you have to wonder why that might be. I disagree that players were slower. Nate Archibald, Calvin Murphy, Archie Clark and many others were just as fast as today's speed merchants. Perhaps the bench players were slower but the stars have always been fast.

At Friday, February 09, 2007 12:23:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

I think one reason people may think that no one played defense in the old days is due to the lack of 3-point shooting during that time.

Often times in older games, you'll see a player on offense with the ball around the 3-point line (or, before it was invented, where the 3-point line would have been) without being pressured much by the defense. This makes it seem like no one was playing D, but the truth is that this had to do with the fact that no one shot from that range during those days.

What baffles me is why the field goal percentage was in the 40s during the 60s and most of the 70s and then, in the late 70s and into the 80s, it jumped up into the 50s.

At Saturday, February 10, 2007 4:51:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

You make an excellent observation, because without the benefit of an extra point defenses definitely were designed to encourage players to launch shots from the 20-foot range and beyond. I think that the changes in field goal percentage have to do with tempo (fast breaking teams get a lot of layups and high percentage shots) and shot selection. Also, the increased use of the three point shot has lowered overall field goal percentage. Since that shot is worth an extra point it is silly and misleading to combine the two percentages, but the NBA insists on doing this. If you look at points per shot then the field goal percentages of today do not seem as bad as they do on the surface. On the other hand, as I've mentioned in the ongoing Gilbert Arenas discussion here, I don't think that shooting a high number of threes--particularly when the point guard is doing the launching--is a recipe for playoff success even if the player in question is making a decent percentage. That shot is too streaky, it does not put pressure on the other team to defend the whole court for 24 seconds and it does not lead to getting into the bonus and getting the other team in foul trouble. At lower levels--college, high school, YMCA--a team that has two or three deadeye three point shooters can be hard to beat but I've yet to see that approach lead to an NBA title.

At Saturday, February 10, 2007 7:11:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

I agree with you that slower tempo and the popularity of the 3-pointer has caused the field goal percentage to decline from what it was in the 80s (in the 50s or close to it) to what it has been recently (the mid 40s).

However, I'm not sure this explains the difference between the percentages in the 60s/early 70s and the percentages in the late 70s/80s.

For instance, the Celtics always played at a fast pace, yet basically everyone on their team shot in the low 40s or high 30s. In fact, the only major player who consistently shot above 50% from the field during the 1960s was Wilt Chamberlain.

By contrast, in the 80s, even with the 3-point shot (though it wasn't used much), basically every decent player shot above 50% from the field.

Why is this?

Were defenses more sophisticated in the 60s? I find that hard to believe.

Did the presence of premier shot-blockers like Russell, Chamberlain and Thurmond force players to take more bad shots in the 60s?

Did players lack the discipline to take good shots? I've read that, since Russell controlled the boards, the other Celtics felt free to chuck up anything.

Or maybe the players of the 60s were poorer shooters or better defenders than in the 80s? I don't buy this, but who knows.

At Sunday, February 11, 2007 5:51:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

I think that the farther back you go the more that the playing conditions may have had something to do with shooting percentages. The scheduling was more brutal back then--more back to back games and the traveling was done by train or cramped commercial jets, not spacious charters. Also, the arenas themselves were not like the current ones in terms of lighting, shooting background, etc. I don't want to sound like I am making excuses for the old school players, because I have wondered the same thing that you are asking. I also think that players and coaches were less stat conscious then than we are now. Oscar Robertson did not think about averaging a triple double; the term was not even used until Magic came along. Oscar just played his game, which happened to involve scoring, rebounding and passing. I think that fans, players and media back then looked at total points more than they looked at shooting percentages. So if a superstar player scored a lot and his team was somewhat successful I don't think that too many people were looking at his numbers and saying that he should be shooting 48% instead of 43%. If you think about it, that basically amounts to going 12-25 instead of 11 (10.75 to be exact)-25. If you are not stat conscious, you might launch a half court shot to beat the halftime buzzer. Look at the three point percentages in the early 80s. Most players only shot threes as full court heaves or in desperation if their team was down three with time running out; consequently, the three point percentages for many players back then are really poor.


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