Big Ten Wonk
Wednesday, January 17, 2007
The purpose of a pass is to get an open shot. (Repeat.)
Last Thursday I brought up for discussion the "long-standing Norman Dale-flavored presumption which holds that you should pass the ball X number of times before looking to shoot." Specifically:

Sometimes I wonder if the Norman Dale presumption is really just a stylistic preference masquerading as an iron law of basketball. I wonder--but I don't know. First I'd need answers to two questions, one ethical and one empirical.

The ethical question: Is it OK to take a three early in the clock if it meets all the other criteria for a "good" shot (you know, open look, ability "to step into your shot," shoulders square, etc.)?

The empirical question: What would the graph look like if we plotted 3FG pct. by number of seconds remaining on the shot clock? Would accuracy really steadily increase as shot-clock time remaining decreases? Or would something more random emerge?

About that ethical question
The alert readers responded! And, at first, there were many more takers for the first question than for the second (keeping in mind all the usual caveats here--the shot's being taken by a good shooter, it makes sense in the context of the game, etc.):

I think the old-school criticism of shot selection is based on aesthetics rather than any objective criteria. I personally love the ability of the Buckeyes, Gators and Tar Heels to shoot quickly yet effectively. The 99-93 game is far more entertaining to me than the interminable 50-possession games favored by Northwestern and (unfortunately) many other Big Ten teams. Obviously, others do not agree.
Jeff H.

No, Jeff, others do not....

The quick shot is objectively a selfish act. It uses up the possession for the offense and robs the shooter's teammates of the ability to contribute further on that possession, barring an offensive rebound. But after a series of good screens and passes, taking a shot is actually a selfless act that shows appreciation for the group effort--the point of everything the shooter's teammates did was to free up the shooter to take the shot. If Jamar Smith dribbles up court and immediately attempts a wide-open three, there's really no problem from a PPP standpoint. But if that action is perceived as selfish by his teammates, it could be detrimental to the team's effort.

I wonder whether any coach believes this.
Robin F.

Other alert readers chose to steer an it-depends middle course between Jeff and Robin:

The answer to your ethical question depends on what type of offensive options you have. If you're a POT that is most likely going to take a three anyway, then yes, shoot away. However, a team like Wisconsin might consider waiting, since after 15-20 seconds of movement and passing, they might find Alando Tucker cutting to the basket for a barely contested layup/short jumper. Surely, that's a higher percentage shot--not to mention that if the shooter's fouled there's a chance for a three-point play along with defense picking up a foul.

Ultimately, an uncontested three in the hands of a good shooter is a good option but it's not better than an uncontested layup or dunk in the hands of a reliable big man. That's why if the best three-point shooter in the league was standing wide open at the three-point line with his shoulders squared and his feet set, but suddenly saw Greg Oden wide open under the bucket for an easy dunk, every coach would want him to make the pass.

Mike D.

Excellent responses, even if they're seemingly divergent. And yet aren't we all agreeing here? What if a coach in effect told his players the following....

Men, the purpose of our offense is to get open shots, including open threes. Except for you, Gasaway, because you're not a good three-point shooter. Any attempted three by you will be regarded as an objectively selfish act and you'll be yanked immediately. But the rest of you have a green light. Now, one way to get an open shot is to work the ball, set screens, and hit the open man. But another way is to beat the D down the floor. In fact, that early shot may just be the best look you get for the next 35 seconds. So shoot it. Never mind what the announcers say about quick shots, ball reversal, Gene Hackman, and "Hoosiers." I'll deal with them after the game. The fact of the matter is: we're not passing the ball around to pass the time. We're doing it to get an open shot. When you see one, take it....

If I were a recruit that's pretty much what I'd want to hear.

And then the empirical question....
The responses here were less numerous but--zoinks!--the quality!

Alert reader Colin J. turned me on to this link from the good NBA-tracking folks at Employing a labor-hours-to-task ratio unseen since the days of Russian serfdom, the 82games brain trust has at their disposal an army of willing game-charters to track every pass in every possession in many NBA games (and every playoff game). With this level of data, it's practical to speak of the relationship between touches and points per possession:

"[W]e didn't detect an obvious trend of the points per possession getting better with more touches, although there are some very strong patterns in terms of foul drawing and turnovers both declining with more touches."

But while there appeared to be no relationship between the mere number of touches and offensive production, there did appear to be a correlation between offense and the speed of the touches: "the more touches per second the higher the points per possession (along with FG%)....So Ball Movement Advocates--here's your proof: the faster the ball is moving from one player to another, the better the results overall!"

And then the response that really took the prize came from alert reader Brian W. in Chicago. Calling upon play-by-play pages from the still-young Big Ten season, Brian quite sensibly took my question literally and charted a graph with 3FG pct. as one axis and time remaining on the shot clock as the other. Small sample size? You bet! Still, Brian's first shovel-full of dirt suggests that if we dug up the whole field we might find:

--Poor 3FG shooting at the very end of the shot-clock (skewed irretrievably by desperation heaves).

--A random-appearing line for 3FG pct. from about 30 down to 5 seconds remaining (and not the reliably upward-sloping line that might appear if making shots were simply a matter of making passes).

--And, most interesting, a higher level of 3FG accuracy very early? From 35 to 30 seconds remaining? Too early to tell but could be!

I'll put digging up the whole field down as an offseason to-do but if anyone wants to beat me to it, please, be my guest.

Meantime, remember this: situational and personnel variables notwithstanding, "good" and "quick" are not necessarily antithetical modifiers where the noun "shot" is concerned, though announcers and coaches may make sounds to the contrary quite often.

In today's less Wonk-ish venues....
Indiana beat Iowa 71-64 last night in Bloomington, a game nowhere near as close as the final would indicate--the Hoosiers led by 21 with a little more than eight minutes to play. D.J. White posted his second consecutive dub-dub (23-12), while Roderick Wilmont continued to shoot with a high level of frequency (14 FGAs) and a fair level of success (15 points, 3-of-8 on his threes). Adam Haluska scored 21 points on 16 shots and while Tyler Smith's 17 points weren't especially efficient (requiring as they did 17 shots), he did have six assists and a couple steals. In a contest that was remarkably even otherwise, IU shot and made threes (8-of-21) and the Hawkeyes did neither (2-of-10). (Box score.)

Hoops tonight!
Purdue plays Wisconsin in Madison.

Northwestern plays Ohio State in Columbus.

Penn State plays Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Illinois plays Minnesota in Minneapolis (ESPN2, 7ET).

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