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Friday, February 26, 2021

Nuggets Fail Math and Common Sense

Basketball 101 question: Your team has the ball on a four on one fast break down by two points with less than six seconds remaining in the game. The correct play is:

A) All four players stand behind the three point line until one of them shoots a three pointer, because three points are worth more than two points.

B) The ballhandler drives to the hoop and either scores a layup or, if the lone defender stops him, passes the ball to a cutting teammate who scores a layup.

The Denver Nuggets faced this one question quiz versus the Washington Wizards on Thursday night. The Nuggets chose answer A, and they lost the game by two points. TNT's Charles Barkley said that if brains were dynamite then the Nuggets couldn't blow up a hat, which is a fitting description of that play; I am not sure why someone would want to use dynamite to blow up a hat, but I am sure that if brains were dynamite there was not a lot of explosive brain power displayed by those four Nuggets.

"Stat gurus" seem to think that they discovered a great hidden truth that three points are more than two points, and that shooting 40% from three point range is mathematically equivalent to shooting 60% from two point range. There is no doubt that the three point shot can be a lethal offensive weapon, particularly the corner three point shot where the three point line is closer to the hoop than in any other location. Why shoot a 22 foot two point shot from the top of the key when you can shoot a 22 foot three point shot from the corner?

However, the three point shot is not the secret to world peace, cold fusion, and quantum computing; it is not the correct answer to every question or problem. There are many situations when--based on time, score, and/or matchups--it makes much more sense to attempt a two point shot than it does to attempt a three point shot. 

Anyone can make a bad play. Anyone can miss a shot. You can go through old highlights and find bad plays and missed shots by some of the greatest players of all-time. The point is that Denver's bungled fast break is a microcosm of some of the flawed thinking that has become widespread in the modern NBA; those four players have been conditioned to believe that the three point shot is always the best shot no matter what, to the point that their minds are shut off from basic math and common sense. 

To a lesser degree, we see this kind of flawed thinking on a regular basis during NBA games. 

When making comparisons between today's NBA and the NBA from 20, 30, or 40 years ago, the most important factors are not measurable physical abilities or even skill set comparisons. Players who know how to play are going to consistently beat players who don't know how to play, unless the disparity in physical talent is so great that any mental advantage is nullified (and if you think that the physical talent today is far superior to the physical talent in the 1980s and 1990s then you need to watch highlights not only of Julius Erving and Michael Jordan but also players who had tremendous athletic ability even though they are not household names now).

The great teams from the past would have a field day right now. How many points do you think that the 1980s Showtime Lakers would score against small ball lineups featuring players who jack up three pointers and are unwilling or incapable of defending the paint? Yes, there are some great individual players today, and the top teams are worthy of respect, but the overall level of play--not the amount of highlights or athleticism, but the caliber of play--has regressed. I say that not based on overreacting to one play, but based on citing that play as an example of the kind of mindset that has taken over the league now, a mindset that purports to be analytical but is in fact rigid and not based on an understanding of basketball fundamentals. 

Was the three point shot underutilized at one time? Almost certainly. Players who can reliably shoot 35% or better from three point range should take advantage of that skill set, and the three point shot should never have been relegated to just being a last second shot when a team is trailing by three points; there is a place for the three point shot within the regular offense, and some of the teams that first realized that were quite successful, including the back to back champion Houston Rockets in the mid-1990s. 

However, the correction has become an over-correction, and blind adherence to purported analytics has led to questionable decision making not just on one play but throughout the course of many games.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:42 AM



At Monday, March 01, 2021 12:25:00 AM, Anonymous Clips2021 said...

Hi. Found your article interesting. As a fan who was lasped from basketball until last playoffs (before then the last time I watched regularly, Allen Iverson was still with the Sixers) I've noticed this with several teams including the LA Clippers. The loss that I saw against the Bucks was sad to witness. Seeing Paul George and Kawhi Leonard attempt three point shots that had no chance of going in instead of trying to go to the paint or pass to another player was mindboggling. It's painful to see brick after brick and I get that you can't expect to make a shot every time but at times it just seems foolish to try for contested 3s instead of going for 2 pointers. There were other issues that game but that is one that stood out to me. what do you think of situations like that?

At Monday, March 01, 2021 8:43:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I think that teams are shooting too many low percentage three point shots. In yesterday's game, the Clippers shot 14-44 from three point range and 36-53 from two point range. I understand that if they had shot more two pointers they may not have maintained that percentage, but in general teams are relying too much on the three point shot. As I have explained in many articles, the three point shot is a high variance shot: a player can easily go 6-9 one night and 1-9 the next night. That would be considered a good overall three point percentage (7-18, .389). You may not win the night that you shoot 6-9--particularly if you play poor defense--but you will have trouble winning the night that you shoot 1-9 because that is a lot of empty possessions to overcome. Anyone who has watched the Houston Rockets in the playoffs for the past several years should understand the risks involved in such a high variance offensive approach.


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