Be Less Than You Can Be

Brian Skinner’s presentation of his paper, “The price of anarchy in basketball,” at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference hits in two distinct ways:

  • One hand hand, Skinner’s proposal is so dreadfully counter-intuitive on a conceptual level that it could make a lot of NBA fans turn up their noses.
  • But on the other, that concept is such a deeply-seated part of sport as we know it, that any self-respecting follower of sports would be deemed foolish for turning a blind eye.

His work appropriately brings the contrast between macro and micro into broad daylight, but in a completely different way than many NBA fans are used to. The struggles to find balance on a basketball court typically occur in an effort to best determine the optimal method of achieving a common goal…assuming that there is a common goal. One guy may be playing for a contract, another just for the joy of scoring more than anyone else on the floor, one just because basketball is the only thing he’s ever been good at, and finally, there may actually be some players who want to win games. More realistically, their interests are some combination of those mentioned above, in the form of a veteran athlete drifting through the regular season almost out of habit, and shooting/scoring because that’s what he’s always done.

Somehow, someone has to take all of those intentions and all of the production, potential, and talent that comes along with it, and figure out the best possible way to win. It’s not an easy task, and the natural inclination is to break the incredibly complex, holistic game on the hardwood into its most basic components: Steve Nash is effective bringing the ball up the floor and running the offense, but Amar’e Stoudemire is probably not. Kobe Bryant is an excellent shooter, and D.J. Mbenga is not. Then, we can take all of these things, take into account all of the players on the floor and their relative strengths and weaknesses, and decide which conceivable outcome will give you the best possible chance of scoring points on a given possession. Our logic and reasoning processes tell us that choosing the option with the greatest probability for success is an easy call. Skinner tells us that your logic and reasoning could be completely off-base.

One example that Skinner highlighted is Ray Allen. Allen’s shot usage over the course of his career makes him an easy candidate; in Milwaukee and Seattle he was called upon to be The Man, but in Boston, he’s simply a man. He’s a shooter, a scorer and leader, and one of the three. He offers plenty on the court but in a completely different capacity, and with a markedly lower percentage of his team’s total shots. There is power in variety, and with the offensive options that have been available in Boston (in 2008, namely, though still today on a theoretical basis, if nothing more), Allen, a talented offensive player, actually benefits his team by not shooting. Not because his teammates are better shooters than he is on a per-possession basis necessarily, but because putting so much of the offensive production on one source creates myriad problems. Fatigue. Defensive attention. Heat checks. Skinner invokes Dean Oliver in stating that as usage goes up, a player’s offensive efficiency goes down, and that makes a ton of sense.

But at the same time, that creates a bit of a boggling result: a team’s best play is sometimes to have their best shooter not shoot. That conclusion naturally led Allen’s former teammate, Brent Barry, to pipe up from the audience and announce that he texted Ray the results of the study with a note to not shoot so much. I’m pretty sure Denzel Washington told him the same thing over ten years ago, though, so I wouldn’t expect some kind of drastic change.

It’s also interesting to note that such an idea is pretty much in direct conflict with the love of excess when it comes to sports. We want a player to one day hold up a piece of paper reading “101” in a locker room, to waltz into Madison Square Garden and drop 50, to average a triple-double for an entire season. America is a nation of decadence and sports are absolutely no exception. But the underlying mentality that drove guys like Michael Jordan or Larry Bird to greatness is, despite each player’s phenomenal success, not the best possible approach.

Think about that. It’s completely possible, supposing you buy Skinner’s basic argument, that Jordan and the Bulls underachieved. If they had achieved the perfect offensive balance — where Jordan may have stopped scoring well before the point which Skinner describes as something akin to the Nash equilibrium, in which a player’s likelihood of scoring is equivalent to that of his teammates scoring — the ’96 Bulls could very well have improved upon their 72-10 record. Or maybe that’s exactly what allowed that particular team (and all of Chicago’s championship teams, really) to excel compared to some of Jordan’s earlier campaigns.

When you think about it that way, it’s the same argument we’ve heard over and over again: Player X should shoot less for the benefit of the team. It’s disguised as “trusting their teammates” and, as Skinner noted, “keeping the defense honest,” but it’s probably as old as winning itself. Where this argument differs from others is the disregard of our micro-obsessed desire to dissect the game’s minutiae. We do possession breakdowns and pick apart the decision-making of every player on the court, but sometimes the view is so narrow that it obscures the bigger picture. Your best player getting a good shot isn’t always the best case scenario for an offense in the long-run…even if it’s LeBron James kicking it to an open Donyell Marshall in the corner.

But Skinner’s study, while deeply theoretical, lacking in obvious applications, and definitely limited and assuming in a lot of respects, represents a pretty interesting intersection that occurs at places like Sloan; new, innovative research confirms something that we already knew, but in such a way that offends even our modern sensibilities. That the Lakers could actually benefit from Kobe Bryant passing to Smush Parker? That the Nuggets could run a more efficient offense by having Chauncey Billups pass up a shot in favor of Joey Graham? It’s not always an easy fact to stomach, but the research shows, at least at a basic level, that those plays are so wrong that they’re right.

You can read Skinner’s paper in its entirety here.

Seth Carstens