Adam Zerner

Things I don't understand about basketball

In Socratic Grilling, Scott Alexander tells the story of a teacher who is explaining to the class what germs are. They're these annoying little microscopic things that spread diseases. The class nods along and scribbles down some notes as the teacher explains. Well, everyone except for this one student. Let's call her Alice.

Alice keeps bugging the teacher with questions.

That doesn't make sense. What about A? What about B? What about C? What about D? What about E?

The teacher gets annoyed. So do her classmates. Why is Alice being such a smart alek? Why can't she just take her notes and let the teacher move on with the lesson?

Why? Well, because what the teacher said didn't make sense! That's why!

When something doesn't make sense you have to ask questions. That's the only way of actually understanding it. Sure, you may squeak by with a passable understanding without asking questions, but you won't develop a deep understanding.

Society usually gives a dirty look to people like Alice. And so, we've all sorta been trained to not ask such questions. But what's even more scary is that we've been trained to not even think of the questions in the first place. We don't even notice that we're confused.

In this post, I'm going to try to act like Alice. I'm going to try to notice all of the things that confuse me about basketball. In particular, the things that no one else realizes that they're confused about.

Practice vs games

Remember last summer when Ben Simmons was hitting threes in practice?

Ben Simmons Shooting Threes

I know, I was excited about it too! I wasn't expecting him to be the next Steph Curry, but I at least figured he'd be able to hit open threes in games. Enough to keep the defense somewhat honest.

Well, that didn't happen. How is it possible that he's able to hit them in practice but not in games?

One possibility is the defenders. The defense is stronger in NBA games than it is in pick up games over the summer. But that doesn't explain why he won't take wide open threes in NBA games. Also, there was footage of him hitting the threes in pick up games against NBA defenders playing pretty hard over the summer.

Another possibility is that playing in a real NBA game causes a lot of fatigue, and this fatigue is why he can't shoot as well as he did in practice. But that doesn't explain why he can't hit them in the first few minutes of real games before this fatigue sets in. Also, he seems to be in pretty great shape. He's able to make tons of explosive blocks and dunks late in games. It doesn't look like he's so tired that it'd significantly affect his shot. And if you look at other players, they don't get significantly worse at shooting as they become more fatigued later in the game, ie. in the fourth quarter vs the first. There are a lot of things pointing away from the idea that fatigue is the explanation.

The explanation that seems most plausible to me is that it's psychological. I remember hearing at some point about... I think it was Shaq... shooting like 80% from the free throw line in practice. Why would that be? They're free throws, so defense is removed from the equation. I can't imagine fatigue being enough to explain it. I'm sure if you looked at Shaq's free throw percentage in the first five minutes of games it wouldn't be much better than it is in the last five.

One possibility here is that in practice you're often taking 100 in a row and you develop a rhythm, whereas if you're playing in a game and it's been 20 minutes since your last foul shot, you'll be more rusty. I think that's a good point, but I don't think it's enough to take you from 50% to 80%. Nerves seem like they make more sense.

But nerves don't make sense to me either! We're talking about huge effects here. Shaq going from 50% to 80%. Ben Simmons going from being a non-shooter to hitting step backs against NBA defenders. Shaq and Simmons both seem like pretty confident guys. I can't imagine either of them being so nervous during games that it affects their shooting this drastically.

FT% → 3P%

I remember talking to a friend about a prospect before an upcoming NBA draft. I forget who the prospect was, but I thought there was a good chance they'd be a three point threat in the NBA. The guy shot threes pretty well in college. My friend responded:

No way. His FT% is only like 60%.

Free throw percentage? That seemed like a really weird response to me. I thought we were talking about three point shooting. Free throws are a completely different skill, right?

Sure, they're both shooting. They're not totally unrelated. If someone was a good free throw shooter but couldn't shoot threes, I could understand thinking "good FT% → good fundamentals/foundation as a shooter → potential to hit threes". But if someone is already hitting threes in college, I don't understand, who cares about their free throw shooting? Haven't they already demonstrated that they have the skill of three point shooting?

Aparently my friend was right though. Free throw percentage is a very strong predictor of three point shooting, and the stat nerds have all known about this for a while. It's old news to them.

I've since acknowledged that it's true, but I really don't understand why it's true.

Age and shooting

Continuing the shooting theme, I don't understand why older players get so much worse at shooting. I understand that physical decline → trouble generating clean looks, but what about open shots? Older players seem to get significantly worse at open shots too.

Maybe the issue is fatigue? But if that's the issue, I'd expect a big decline from 1st quarter to 4th quarter, and I don't see that happening.

Maybe it's a decline in physical strength? But if that were the issue, then how come so many weak guys could shoot so well in the first place? I haven't noticed any sort of trend with stronger players being better at shooting. If anything it's the opposite.

I guess something like this is possible. Maybe it's that when these players learned to shoot, they had B+ strength, so their muscle memory is tied to that B+ strength, and they can't apply the same muscle memory to C- strength. Whereas with weak players, they learned to shoot at C- strength, so they already have the muscle memory that is tied to C- strength. This explanation feels like a stretch though.

Learnability of shooting

I remember reading something in Ben Taylor's Top 40 series that stuck with me:

If Shaq could have made free throws, he’d be the greatest offensive player ever.

It makes sense. The guy missed a lot of free throws throughout his career. If he just improved his percentage a little bit, it would get multiplied by the large volume of misses and result in a lot more points.

But despite this, he never really got any better at free throw shooting throughout his career.

And he's not alone. There are a lot of guys we look at and just accept, "Oh, he can't shoot. He's just not a shooter."

But why? If you spend 15+ years playing basketball for a living, have all the time in the world to dedicate to your craft, and have access to the best coaches and training staff in the world, then why can't you learn to shoot? (Tim Ferris claims you can learn to shoot threes less than 48 hours!)

Could it be a lack of effort? Now that shooting is valued more highly we're seeing guys like Robin Lopez developing a three point shot. Hey, their careers depend on it. That points towards it being something that is learnable, and if guys like Shaq never learned it, maybe it really is just of a lack of effort.

On the other hand, I recall hearing that Shaq did actually spend a lot of time practicing his free throws. And like I talked about earlier, he actually did shoot well in practice. So maybe there are a lot of guys who have a psychologial roadblock that prevents them from developing a shot. Otherwise, I don't understand why people don't improve more at shooting over eg. a 10 year career.

Year-to-year improvement

Think about most improved player candidates. The 1%. They get way better from one year to the next.

Now think about guys who don't get much better from one year to the next. The 99%.

Why are there huge jumps some times, and tiny jumps most of the time?

The obvious explanation is work ethic, but that doesn't make sense to me.

Think about it. MIP candidates rarely continue to make such huge jumps every year. Usually it's one or two good years, and then they're back to the 99%. So what's happening here? Did they suddenly just lose their work ethic? That seems unlikely.

Sure, of course there will be some summers where you work harder and some summers where you work less hard, but to what extent? Remember, one summer they go from a C- to a B, and then it takes three years to go from a B to a B+. That's a huge difference in improvement, and differences in work ethic don't seem like they'd be large enough to explain it.

Could it be something other than work ethic? Well, playing in a different system or with different teammates matters, but there are plenty of examples of guys who make these huge jumps where the environment around them stays roughly the same. So even if a different environment explains a big improvement some times, we still have to explain what is going on in the other times.

Lack of post seals

The NBA has gotten much more switch-heavy than it's been in the past. This leads to a lot of situations where you have a C being guarded by a SG. And yet when this happens, the C rarely tries to exploit the mismatch. They usually try to clear out and let the perimeter player go to work.

This doesn't make sense to me. If you have a 7"0 250 pound center being guarded by a 6"5 200 pound SG, shouldn't the center be able to muscle his way to the hoop pretty easily?

Well, it's not that simple. First of all, a lot of centers these days are lighter, and if they catch it in the mid-post they have trouble backing down more bulky wings all the way to the rim (hence James Harden's notorious success as a post defender). Secondly, help defense is a thing. When you've got long, athletic NBA defenders helping out and clogging passing lanes, life isn't easy. Especially since most centers aren't the best passers.

But I don't think those issues are enough to explain it. In particular, why not try to duck in for a post seal? The defense often isn't expecting it. And without the ball in your hands, it's a lot easier for a less-skilled big man to muscle his way into position as opposed to posting up with the ball in your hands. From there, once you make the catch, with such a large height (and wingspan) advantage you should be able to just rise up and shoot.

But what about help defense? Well, it's harder for the help defense to react to off-ball threats like this, but if they do react, then you've won. Your threat to score warped the defense such that now someone else is open. That's all you can do. And since a guard is the one with the ball in his hands, they'll be better and finding the open man than you would be.

And what about all of the analytics that say how bad posting up is? Maybe that's the problem. When Al Jefferson is posting up against Tim Duncan, yeah, that's low efficiency. But that doesn't mean Brook Lopez posting up against CJ McCollum is also low efficiency. In fact, analytics loves paint scoring and free throws, and Lopez vs McCollum should generate a lot of that. Plus, it'd also generate a lot of kick out threes, which Coach Nick claims are the best type.

Lack of superteams

Since the Heatles, we've seen more and more superteams form, but I'm surprised that there aren't more of them.

Imagine you're a superstar. You can take a $120M contract to play for a bad team, or you can take a $60M contract and have a serious shot at winning a championship. Which do you choose?

Almost everyone chooses the former. But why? You've already made hundreds of millions of dollars from previous contracts and from shoe deals. When you already have $300M, what does an extra $60M actually buy you?

And think about how much work they've put in throughout their life. From the time they were children, they've totally dedicated their life to basketball. Wouldn't you want to cash in on all of that hard work and compete for a championship?

And it's not just superstars that this point applies to. Role players also are faced with the trade-off of money vs winning, just to a lesser extent. And everyone seems to choose the money. Well, except for the aging veterans who sacrifice a few million at the end of their careers to hop on the roster of a contender.

If you have any thoughts, I'd love to discuss them over email:

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