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Sunday, August 19, 2007

How Does the FIBA Game Differ from the NBA Game?

It should be obvious at first glance to even the most casual observer that the FIBA brand of basketball is much different than the NBA game: the FIBA court features a trapezoidal lane, a much shorter three point shot (20'6" compared to the NBA's 23'9"), and a shorter game clock (40 minutes compared to the NBA's 48). Yes, these differences have existed for quite some time and did not make a bit of difference when Team USA sent the Dream Team to the Olympics in 1992--but the basketball world was completely different then; the idea that a 6-3 Canadian point guard would someday win two NBA MVPs, followed by a 7-foot German forward winning the MVP the next year, was beyond unimaginable. The talent gulf between the USA and the rest of the world was so great that rules differences and stylistic quirks did not matter but even at that time it should have been understood that this would not always be the case. After all, it was just four years earlier that a team of the best U.S. collegiate players failed to win the gold medal in the Olympics. Now that the NBA has a significant population of players who are not from the USA, the intimidation factor that used to mitigate against Team USA's lack of familiarity with the FIBA game is completely absent.

Charley Rosen just wrote an excellent article detailing the differences between the NBA game and the FIBA game. Here are my thoughts on some of his observations.

1) In FIBA play, the ball can be touched by any player as soon as it contacts the rim, while in the NBA the ball cannot be touched if it is above the cylinder. Rosen says that because NBA players are not instinctively used to playing this way they tend to not take advantage of the opportunity to deflect and/or rebound such balls. He is right about this but, unlike the lane or the three point line, this is not a rule that comes into play on every single possession. Given the overall athleticism of Team USA, this is one rules difference that could actually play to Team USA's advantage if the players are mindful enough in the heat of battle to take advantage of it.

2) Rosen points out two ways that the trapezoidal lane affects post play: (1) Post players must catch the ball further away from the hoop than they do in the NBA, necessitating extra dribbles to get to their sweet spots. Rosen says that this is why the FIBA game favors big men who can shoot quick turnaround jumpers, because otherwise there is more time for help defenders to arrive; (2) offensive rebounders have a better angle to the hoop after free throw attempts in the FIBA game than they do in the NBA.

I would add that it is overly simplistic for fans and writers to say that Team USA struggles at times in FIBA play because American players have gotten away from the fundamentals; the reality is that some of the "fundamentals" of FIBA play differ from those of NBA play and the post is one area that this is very evident. Think back to when Tim Duncan played for Team USA. He is perhaps the most fundamentally sound big man in the NBA, but he struggled in the post offensively and defensively, looked uncomfortable and hesitant and also sometimes got into foul trouble (see point four). After the 2004 Olympics, Duncan vowed that he would never again participate in FIBA play.

3) The 40 minute game allows less time for comebacks. Rosen also could have mentioned that it puts less of a premium on team depth.

4) Conspiracy theorists may not believe it, but Rosen says that FIBA referees "make three times as many" mistakes as NBA referees do. He is engaging in a bit of hyperbole here--but only a bit. FIBA officiating is not only bad it is inconsistent and hard to predict from play to play. Rosen notes that moving screens and hand checking are two violations that tend to be overlooked. Also, five fouls leads to disqualification instead of six and a technical foul counts as a personal foul.

5) Traditional NBA defensive strategy tends to backfire in FIBA play; NBA teams try to discourage penetration into the paint and force their opponents to shoot jump shots--but most of the good FIBA teams are built around excellent outside shooting. Rosen writes, "...because the internationals are such accurate 3-ballers and are generally not very creative finishers, Team USA's strategy in Las Vegas should be reversed. Pressure the perimeter, tag the outside shooters even when a ball-handler enters the lane, send only one potential shot-blocker to help, and drop a weak-side defender to discourage any interior passwork. Team USA's defensive rotations must avoid overpopulating the lane, and must also be under control whenever they close out 3-point shooters." As I have said on numerous occasions--most recently here--it is vitally important for Team USA to make a concerted effort to effectively defend the three point line; this is much more critical than Team USA shooting well from behind the arc, though of course it would be a nice bonus to do that, too.

Rosen dismisses the importance of the familiarity factor but I disagree with him on this point. All of the other countries have national teams that have played together for years under FIBA rules; their players are familiar with each other and with the FIBA rules. Yes, Team USA's players have played against each other in NBA play--and in some cases in college--but they do not have the same collective experience as a group playing under FIBA rules. This is not to be lightly dismissed. Even in the NBA it can take a good team a season or two to jell into a contender, so it is asking a lot to put a team together after a whole NBA season has just concluded and expect it to have the same chemistry and familiarity that veteran FIBA teams do.

There are some minor things that Rosen did not mention that further indicate how different the FIBA game is--for instance, only coaches can call timeouts, not players.

One thing in Team USA's favor regarding next week's FIBA Americas tournament is that the level of competition will not be as high as it was in last year's FIBA World Championship. Rosen concludes, "Anything less than a gold medal, won in convincing fashion, will be a severe disappointment. But, at least against this subpar competition, there's no reason why Team USA shouldn't triumph." The FIBA Americas tournament should be a good tuneup for this group of Team USA players to get in the right mode to win the gold medal in next year's Olympics.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:56 PM



At Monday, August 20, 2007 1:38:00 AM, Blogger Matt Donato said...

Thank you so much for pointing out the similarity in out blog names. It was close, but I have since changed my title and domain name before I became too popular and readers began to associate me with you and your crybaby antics. Thanks for all your help. I was nearly doomed there.

At Monday, August 20, 2007 4:47:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I wish you the best of luck with your new website.


For those who are wondering what this is all about, a few days ago Matt started a blog called 20 Second Timeout (but with the 20 spelled out as "twenty" in the url). I posted a comment at Matt's site pointing out that I have been using this name for more than two years. If that is being a "crybaby" so be it but I think that it is certainly better to stake out one's own place in the blogosphere as opposed to using a name that is already well established. He responded to my comment both at his site and here.

At Monday, August 20, 2007 2:00:00 PM, Blogger Matt Donato said...

Thank you. From what I have been able to read of your site so far, it is a well written look at the NBA, and I have enjoyed every article I have read. It is good to find another fan of the game, since there are so few of us out there. Thank you for being able to joke back and forth as well. I am trying to establish my own name in the sports writing world as a college student before I have to go out and look for real work, and it is much better to have my own site and name out there. Best of luck to you and your site.

At Monday, August 20, 2007 4:45:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello, David, I've been reading your blog for about half a year now and love your in depth analysis. Just this time I'd like to notice one mistake: the shotclock in FIBA's games is not 30 seconds anymore, actually it's been good 4-5 years since the shotclock is 24 seconds so I was wondered to see such kind of mistake in your comments. Don't take this as an offence and keep up your blog running smoothly.

At Monday, August 20, 2007 5:10:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


You are of course correct; I have edited the post accordingly. Rosen had the erroneous information in his article but that is no excuse for me to reprint it without double checking.

At Thursday, August 23, 2007 10:49:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, I am late but I'd like to make a few comments (one I see it has already been made is that FIBA is using a 24 second clock now):

First of all, FIBA basketball is not so different from NBA basketball. There are a few quirks and differences to be sure, but nothing major and surely nothing that justifies full articles in fine print as Rosen's. The "ball on the rim" is a good example: yes, it is a difference and not two ways about it, but it is negligible. The final standing of Team US has never been determined by such trivialities and probably will never be.

Second, refs are a constant surprise for FIBA teams as well. FIBA employs some sort of "equal possibilities" program that has refs from minor countries in major competitions, due to political reasons (all countries have a vote to elect the chairman, so FIBA chairmen traditionally find it easier to pander to lesser nations). As refs cannot work in games involving "their" national teams, basketball powerhouses usually end up stuck with refs from places you only read about in National Geographic. Being baffled at referees and their decisions is a natural condition in FIBA competitions.


At Thursday, August 23, 2007 10:59:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Finally, I think that Rosen dismisses with a flip of the hand the main difference between FIBA and NBA games: space vs movement.

The 3-sec defensive rule and the tantric illegal defense rules before it are just a written testimony of the greatest difference of them all. In FIBA, control of space and position is paramount. Players, specially inside players, have to plat themselves inside and stake out their claim regarding defense and rebounding. The NBA game is so fast and athletic that players use horizontal and vertical speed as main tools, and are not concerned with space as such but with space that can be covered. In the NBA, space is open space a player can slide into. In FIBA, space is divided into vital and nonvital, and vital space becomes a stronghold. And remember that when contact occurs, refs favour defenders if they have "planted" themselves in the area.

Although FIBA national teams use plenty of top notch shooters, the old adage of "live by the jumpshot die by the jumpshot" remains true. Perimeter players are still expected to drive and dish or score, and post players to move inside for teams to have a chance.

That is why Pau Gasol is probably the most decisive FIBA player in the world right now, while he is just a minor star in the NBA.

At Thursday, August 23, 2007 3:28:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


The shot clock thing was a silly mistake on my part but was also not the central pillar of my argument.

I noted that the goaltending rule is a minor variation but I disagree with you that the two games are pretty similar overall. They are different in several significant ways--court dimensions and style of play are not to be taken lightly. That is why Olympic champion Argentina and FIBA World Champion Spain would struggle mightily if they played in the NBA for an entire season.

The other FIBA teams are more used to the different rules, different court dimensions and to the vagaries of FIBA officiating, particularly the way that hand checking and pick and roll plays are called.

I don't think that your contentions about space/movement contradict my point about the NBA and FIBA games being different. In fact, one of the consequences of what you mentioned is that more charges than blocks are called in FIBA play (as you put it, "when contact occurs, refs favour defenders if they have "planted" themselves in the area."), which favors the less athletic teams from other countries.

At Thursday, August 23, 2007 5:15:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I should have differentiated better, I am afraid I made general comments on points raised by Rosen or by you without making proper attribution.

I still think FIBA basketball is not substantially diffeent. National teams would probably be unable to compete in the NBA at a high level because of the intrinsically different competition: playing a dozen games in two weeks is very different from playing 82 games in six months or so.

As a matter of fact, national teams usually play differently from FIBA club teams because of this same difference. You don't have the time to prepare convoluted tactics in national teams, and staff management is very different (players will accept a secondary role in the national team that they would reject in their "normal" teams).

On officiating, at most FIBA players are used at playing through thick and thin. Even Euroleague officiating is notoriously different from national league officiating, and international competitions even moreso.

I still think that court dimensions, officiating and minor regulation differences are not the issue. The issue remains spacing and movement, but it is also a secondary issue: Nowitzki has spent the bulk of his career in the NBA but he still flourishes in FIBA international competitions, and so do many other foreign NBA players; Team USA has never played like any NBA team I can think of. I think that the real, main problems of Team USA are its very nature plus the fact that international competition has stepped up.

No more and no less.

At Thursday, August 23, 2007 5:47:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


The talent level of the other FIBA teams has increased exponentially in the past 15 years and that has made the technical differences between the FIBA game and the NBA game more relevant; these things did not matter in 1992 because the Dream Team was vastly superior to all of its opponents--quirky court dimensions, a shorter three point line and odd officiating do not matter when one team is much, much more talented. The talent gap has narrowed tremendously now; the other FIBA teams are more athletic than they used to be and their players are superior in general to their predecessors. That makes the differences between the two styles of play more relevant.

The one and done aspect of FIBA play is also significant, because it favors the underdog compared to a seven game series format. Again, this did not matter much when Team USA was vastly superior to the competition.


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