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Sunday, October 11, 2020

To Shoot or to Pass: Is That Really the Question?

Game five of the 2020 NBA Finals was an instant classic. Miami's Jimmy Butler (35 points, 12 rebounds, 11 assists) and L.A.'s LeBron James (40 points, 13 rebounds, seven assists) staged a duel for the ages, and the outcome hung in the balance after James passed to Danny Green for a wide open top of the key three pointer--but Green missed, the Heat won, and now the inevitable question is being asked: should James have passed the ball to Green or should James have shot the ball with the game (and the series) on the line?

This is not a simple yes or no question. There are multiple layers of basketball strategy and sports psychology worth examining. James' shot/pass decision making has been questioned before. His critics argue that he is too passive and/or that he is afraid to take a potential game-winning shot, so he literally passes that responsibility to someone else. James' supporters point to "clutch" metrics that suggest that James is a highly efficient scorer in close, late game situations, and that he is more efficient in those situations than many of the players who his critics believe should be ranked ahead of James.

It is undeniable that James is an elite scorer, although he is often depicted as a "pass first" player. James is a great passer, but he is foremost a scorer who shoots the ball a lot. James ranks fourth in ABA/NBA history with 24,781 career regular season field goal attempts, and in 15 of his 17 seasons he ranked in the top 10 in field goal attempts, including 10 times in the top five, and five times as the second ranked player. James has averaged 19.6 field goal attempts per game during his regular season career, and 20.7 field goal attempts per game during his playoff career.

How do those per game numbers compare to the numbers posted by other great scorers? Consider a few examples.

Kobe Bryant averaged 19.5 FGA/game during the regular season and 20.5 FGA/game during the playoffs. George Gervin, who won four scoring titles and would never be described as a pass first player, averaged 19.4 FGA/game during the regular season and 20.4 FGA/game during the playoffs. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who ranks first on the regular season career scoring list, averaged 18.1 FGA/game during the regular season and 18.7 FGA/game during the playoffs.

The fact that James shoots the ball so often is one reason that his end of the game shot/pass decision making is and should be scrutinized. If you are shooting the ball a lot during most of the game then why are you passing the ball with the game on the line? That is a fair question to ask.

The difference that I observe between James compared to Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant is that when James drives--particularly late in the game--James seems to be trying to draw a double team so that he can pass. In contrast, Jordan and Bryant drove the ball to score and they only passed the ball if they failed to create a clear advantage for themselves. That subtle distinction is significant. Jordan and Bryant did not necessarily pass the ball just because a teammate was open; in some situations, they felt that they had more of an advantage elevating from certain spots on the floor over two defenders than a teammate had even if that teammate was open (a coach might say that the teammate was open for a reason; ESPN's Jay Williams terms this "He with us," meaning that the opposing team is so happy to see that player shoot because the opposing team feels that player is "with us" in the sense that he is likely to miss). 

The "right basketball play" on paper may not be the optimal play. That is a difference between James' mentality compared to the mentality of Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant.

From the standpoint of a basketball purist, you can argue that James' mindset is not wrong. He draws double teams, he passes on time and on target to his teammate, and his teammate is a professional basketball player who should be able to make a wide open shot. That all sounds good and looks good on paper. The deeper reality here is that an open top of the key shot for Danny Green may be a good shot but it may also not be the optimal shot for that player in that situation. If James' philosophy is to drive and pass, then the coaching staff should be considering who they would prefer to be taking the shot, and from what position on the court. Trailing by one point at that time, is the shot that the Lakers wanted a Danny Green three pointer from the top of the key? The corner three pointer is closer to the hoop, and most three point specialists now prefer that shot. Why not place Green in one corner, place another three point shooter in the other corner, place Anthony Davis on the baseline, and place another player on a wing, with James in the middle of the court? In that alignment, if the Heat double off of Green then James has an easy pass for a short corner three pointer.

James is not Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant. His first thought at the end of the game is usually not going to be to drive to score. Therefore, the coaching staff should take this into account, and position the other players accordingly. Maybe they did that, and maybe the Danny Green top of the key three pointer is the shot that they wanted--but, given the time, the score, and the other possibilities, that does not seem like the optimal shot.

Of course, the Lakers' hopes did not end after Green missed. Markieff Morris gathered the offensive rebound and then turned the ball over trying to throw a lob pass to Davis in the post. Morris is not a post feeder; the Lakers run no plays involving Morris getting the ball at the free throw line area and then throwing a lob pass into the post. This is why it is so important for each player to know his role, his skill set, his limitations, and score/time/game situation. The Lakers did not have a timeout, but Morris had three better options than the one he chose: (1) Shoot the ball and expect Davis (who had good position under the hoop) to get the rebound if the shot misses, (2) drive to the hoop for a potential game-winning layup (or free throws), or (3) do a quick handoff to a guard or to LeBron James curling off of Morris. Perhaps there was not enough time left for the third option unless Morris and a guard (or James) read the situation the same way instantly, but the first two options are higher percentage plays than what Morris did.

This analysis is not just about the outcome--James passing, Green missing, Morris committing a turnover--but rather about the thought process that should take place in crucial situations of a basketball game. No one makes the optimal decision every time, but if you repeatedly think about and practice crucial situations then when those situations arise you are more likely to make the optimal decision.

It is easy to say that the Bill Russell/Red Auerbach player/coach tandem was lucky to win 11 titles, or that the Michael Jordan/Phil Jackson player/coach tandem was lucky to win six titles, but luck had less to do with those two examples of sustained success than the ability to consistently make optimal decisions under pressure.

The 2020 NBA Finals--like every NBA Finals involving LeBron James--is being treated as a referendum on who is the greatest basketball player of all-time. ABC's pregame show before game five spent a segment talking about how James was about to join the elite group of players with four championships and four Finals MVPs. It is not crazy to include James in the conversation about who is the greatest basketball player of all-time, but it would be nice--if not realistic to expect--if such a conversation delved into the nuances that distinguish the candidates from each other. Bill Russell's teams won the championship almost every year of his career for over 20 years, from high school to college to the Olympics to 11 NBA titles in 13 seasons. He was the leader on every one of those teams, and he displayed a genius-level basketball mind that was finely tuned to making optimal decisions in crucial situations (which is not to say that he never made a mistake). Wilt Chamberlain remains the most dominant force in pro basketball history. His teams had trouble beating Russell's teams, but Chamberlain was the best player on two of the greatest single season teams ever (one of which beat Russell's Celtics to end the Celtics' championship streak at eight consecutive seasons). Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's sustained excellence--both as an individual player and as the key performer on championship teams--is remarkable, and he owned the single greatest shot in pro basketball history: the sky hook. Michael Jordan's Bulls learned difficult lessons in playoff battles versus the Celtics and Pistons, but once Jordan got a taste of the NBA Finals he dominated, winning six titles and six Finals MVPs in six appearances. Kobe Bryant was a dominant two way midsize player in Jordan's mold. Bryant was an All-NBA level performer for three consecutive championship teams before he even reached his prime years, and then he won back to back titles (plus back to back Finals MVPs) with a team whose second best player had been a one-time All-Star prior to joining forces with Bryant. 

There are other players who could be mentioned in this conversation as well but the point of this brief history lesson is that each of these players faced different challenges, had different skill sets, and displayed a different mentality. If it is even possible to select one player as the greatest then the answer is not going to be found by citing one statistic or by being caught up in the moment of what we just saw on TV; the 2020 championship does not mean more than the 1969 championship because it is happening right now in front of our eyes on HD TV while the 1969 championship survives only in grainy footage. 

Coach Bob Knight often said that in basketball the mental is to the physical as four is to one. How each great player thought the game and mentally executed under extreme duress is a timeless standard by which to measure--or attempt to measure--elite level basketball.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:12 PM



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