Noonball Metrics

I love basketball. I like a lot of sports, including baseball, but there is just something about basketball, which I have been playing the vast majority of my life and have played, refereed, and coached that draws me back to it. I even once came to a philosophy concerning how I approach academia and my dissertation while ironing out an issue with my shot while shooting free throws one morning. One a little more spiritually minded might say the reverse is true now that I am a better shooter than at any other point in my life. I digress, but this is something that points to a great thing about basketball. In baseball you really need two people in order to even play catch. You need more for batting practice, and even more for a game. In basketball, one person with a ball can dribble around. With a hoop s/he can work on shooting. With two there is one on one, four is two on two, six is three on three. At four on four makes for a full-court game.

For the last few years, I have been playing in a competitive pickup game three days a week, from 11 until people have to leave–sometimes going as late as 2. We start once we have ten (provided we expect ten to show), on a first-come basis. People come in and out of the group, but there has been a consistent fifteen or twenty guys who reliably play. The game is 1s and 2s to 16, and the winners get to stay on to play the next team, with guys waiting on the sideline having first dibs on forming the new team. There are certainly shenanigans that take place in this game in terms of schoolyard tricks, people who either do not or can not play defense, and showboating, and it will sometimes devolve into shouting matches or people just lost on the court. However, I like the game because it is frequently of a high quality, running some semblance of an offense that varies between a fast-break secondary break, motion, and high screen and roll, with players who generally like to pass and work together, at least as much as can be expected without a coach. When it is all working it can be quite fun to see guys (who will admit when they arrive that they spent an hour that morning watching Golden State highlights) try make a pass they saw Steph Curry make.

Grantland ran an interesting story last year that talked about pickup basketball and the three pointer, in which it made the case that playing by 1s and 2s makes the deep ball worth significantly more than almost any other shot. Basically, players using that scoring system should basically only ever shoot deep or shoot layups because any shot in-between is statistically worth so much less. This is true in the game I play in, too, and there is always a sizing up period for new players to determine if their jump shot needs to be respected. The next step for the metrics would be to chart steals, turnovers, and rebounds (or, really, offensive rebounds given up), though these stats probably have a less-universal applicability.

The game I play in is very competitive. Some might say too competitive, since most days there is at least one shouting match about whether someone pushed someone else (they did, this is pickup), or who touched the ball last, or whether there was a travel. We even have had a few confrontations about moving screens, to which at least we can say there are enough screens to have this happen. But what has been interesting is to watch how the defenses develop.

Since there is actually some offense rather than just one on one play, the defenses have to keep up. Just like with offense, this works better when the teams are made up of players who know each other and who communicate and are therefore able to switch or trap opposing players, as well as knowing which shooters you can’t leave open. There is plenty of sloppy play on any given day and plenty of players who could be coached up, but just like with players willing to run a team offense, it is nice to see players play a team defense.

In short, I like this game a lot.

I’ll conclude, though, with my five NBA players I’d most enjoy see playing pickup basketball of the type I like–that is defenders who try and will put their bodies on the line, but aren’t going to block most shots, everyone can shoot threes, and are willing passers with a willingness to throw absurd passes. I considered either Karl-Anthony Townes or Anthony Davis for my fifth spot on the grounds that either would feast with the other players passing to them, but eventually decided against them because they didn’t fit my “shoot all the threes, block no shots” vision for pickup. My five are Manu Ginobili, Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and Boris Diaw.

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