A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

Kobe Theory and the Drowned Plant

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Somewhere in Los Angeles, a rumor starts. The disgruntled star everyone is talking about getting traded, Carmelo Anthony, they say he’s coming to the Lakers for Andrew Bynum.

I don’t take the rumor seriously at all, but in a town where Pau Gasol can materialize out of thin air, I never say never.

Enter Plaschke

Of course the fans are for it. Melo is candy to them. Bigger star, and a guy who does what they value – score. They’ll trade for him without a second thought for how he’ll fit with the team. I don’t think much about it, until I see an article from LA Times institution Bill Plaschke, a writer I’ve enjoyed for a long time. He’s for the trade. I’m reading along muttering to myself until I see this part and my jaw drops to the floor:

The Lakers are near the top of the league in rebounding but are only 15th in the league in field goal percentage in the fourth quarter of games they trail. Kobe needs help closing, and Anthony gives him that help. The Lakers’ offense needs a second option outside, and Anthony can take that shot. The Lakers don’t shoot as well as their biggest rivals, and Anthony would fix that.

To say I disagree with this reasoning is an understatement, and yet I completely understand how he reached this conclusion.

Kobe’s good in the clutch, the Lakers as a whole aren’t good in the clutch, it must be that the rest of the team is bad in the clutch.

Kobe’s active in the clutch, the rest of the Lakers look passive. We need more players to be active, so why not acquire someone known for being active?

And of course, the goal of the game is to put the ball in the basket, and in the clutch it seems like scorers are the only ones making things happen, so if we aren’t doing that particularly well, well, we must need more scorers.

The amateur gardener waters his plant to death

I previously and pretentiously wrote an article on what I dubbed “Kobe Theory”. The full article is here, but to give the briefest possible summary:

Human beings are bad at gauging probability, and so everyone, even the greatest experts in a given field, needs to use statistics to gauge the likelihood of success in a particular situation or they run a great risk in having their strategy be so flawed that all their expertise is nullified.

What we see with Plaschke here is how the initial flawed assumption described in Kobe Theory can escalate into something worse when paired with some logical reasoning.

The amateur gardener with the naive understanding that it’s good to water plants can get into a vicious cycle. He overwaters the plant, and then when he sees the damaged caused, applies more of the only prescription he knows. Eventually, the plant is dead, drowned by too much of a what could have been a good thing when used in proper balance.

Plaschke’s starting from an assumption that the play of Kobe is good, there problem must be elsewhere on the Lakers, and thus the solution is more of Kobe-style play. He’s also concluded that Kobe’s doing all the Kobe-ing he can, so we’ve got to find someone else like him. It never occurs to him that one player being so active might make the other players more passive, and of course he never gets into exactly how two players known for taking hard shots rather than passing to teammates would make use of each other.

He ain’t the only one

Really though, the unique sin Plaschke committed here was simply to commit his thinking to paper. The trap he’s falling into, I think the whole league falls into to some degree. It’s fitting to associate this with Kobe Bryant, but the entire league let’s their stars handle the ball way more when the game is on the line than at other times.

For perspective consider Wilt Chamberlain, the man known for scoring more than anyone else in history. At his peak, the man averaged 39 FGA per 48 minutes of play. However, this came at a time when there were far more possessions in a game. ElGee over at Back Picks gave an estimate that Chamberlain played at a peak pace of around 130 possessions per game. The average pace for teams this season 8s 92.1 possessions per game. If we were to then extrapolate Wilt’s game down to the number of possessions today, we’d expect him to take around 27.7 FGA per 48 minutes.

Kobe Bryant this season is shooting 34.7 FGA per 48 minutes of clutch play to lead the league, and there are 10 other guys in the league shooting more in the clutch than Wilt’s 27.7 FGA figure including Michael Beasley and DeMarcus Cousins.

Is there really anyone who can justify that when defenses are at their best, you want an offensive strategy that involves giving deference to Beasley as if he were Wilt Chamberlain?

I’d say it gets worse than that though. One of the justifications used to defend the star-dominant scoring strategies teams use in the clutch, is that the defenses are so amp’ed up, they disrupt an attempt at a more fluid offense. (This is, of course, also a handy point to make when defending why offenses are so inept generally in the clutch.) However, as we’ve talked about before, contrary to common understanding, Wilt’s teams were not particularly good on offense when he scored liked this. He didn’t play on a truly great offensive team until Alex Hannum arrived in Philly and pushed for a more balanced offense. The super-predictable Wilt scoring offenses were actually pretty easy for defenses to prepare for and cope with.

So let’s all get this straight: In the Wilt scenario, even the non-amp’ed up defenses of non-clutch time, were able to put a kink into predictable offenses – and yet, the story goes, today it’s the less predictable more fluid offenses that clutch defenses are most able to stop? Seriously?

Some causes

I’ll leave you with a few general causes that I think lead smart basketball people down this specific counterproductive road:

1) We remember the good and forget the bad, particularly when a commanding, decisive presence is the actor. So the inadequacies of the human brain that make us vulnerable to poor estimation of probability are likely to our estimations of star performance rose tinted. This also goes for the stars themselves who are likely to overestimate exactly how well they’re actually doing.

2) We tend to latch onto the facts that fit into our mental schemas, while brushing aside those that contradict them. Thus, merely gaining more experience has a tendency to make us more certain of our ideas even there is zero correlation between them an what actually happens. This is known as confirmation bias.

3) When the pressure is on, human beings tend to tread carefully. We avoid perceived risk. Every time I pass the ball, there’s a variety of things that can go wrong. Deflections, interceptions, bumbling teammates – if I’m the best player on the court, it’s easy to see how I can actually see my ball hogging as simply being the safest course of action. We tend to call this a matter of trust, but more generally it’s a kind of risk aversion.

4) Whenever a game ends badly for a team, if the coach made a call that goes against conventional wisdom, he faces criticism. Conventional wisdom of course means putting the ball in your best player’s hands, even if the opposing team knows that’s exactly what you’re going to do. Now in another era, or another level of basketball, this probably wouldn’t matter a whole lot. Coaches tend to be tough guys, unafraid to take on leadership roles. However, in the modern NBA, star players typically have more sway than their coaches with ownership. Thus, even if a coach does’t tell his best player to shoot the ball through the double team, if the star does it, what consequences will he face?

Written by Matt Johnson

February 18, 2011 at 3:18 pm

11 Responses

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  1. This is awesome. Is Kobe Theory going to become your calling card? 😉

    The high volume study I posted recently (http://elgee35.wordpress.com/2011/02/14/variance-volume-and-elite-wings-part-iii/) further suggests that shooting too much isn’t a good thing. Yet that’s what teams are doing at the end of games and quarters.

    Those isolation plays have been driving me bonkers for years. I started tracking them briefly in 2009, and it’s something I think I’m going to do after the all-star break. We know efficiency is way down at the end of games anyway, but I’d like the numbers when teams go 1-4 iso vs. running the normal offense. As I’ve asked before, if it’s such a good offensive set why don’t teams run it all the time?

    Why do I feel like we’re about 2 weeks away from a Khaneman & Tversky cognitive-basketball extravaganza?


    February 18, 2011 at 4:00 pm

  2. Thank you ElGee. Not going for any particular calling card, but I’m enjoying putting together a schema of insight that keeps building upon itself.

    Your quantitative posts continue to be great reads. Keep’em comin’.

    Solidarity my brother.

    Matt Johnson

    February 19, 2011 at 10:14 pm

  3. I’m watching a game in which Mark Jackson just said “if I’m the opponent, I want Kobe Bryant to get other people involved. History has shown us that there’s no answer for Kobe Bryant.”

    Now, my forehead hurts from the face-palm. If anything, history has shown us the EXACT OPPOSITE. Misinformation is so hard to overcome, so keep it up MJ…


    February 20, 2011 at 12:16 pm

  4. Exactly. It’s stuff like that that makes me so frustrated when people say, “Yeah right, like you know better than the guys who lived this stuff their whole lives.”

    The statisticians who think they know how to run a team clearly better than the real basketball folk are of course silly, but these NBA vets really need some basic help with their analytical skills.

    Matt Johnson

    February 20, 2011 at 12:30 pm

    • They’re paid for their cultural insights more than for their analytical skills. 😉


      February 21, 2011 at 10:46 pm

  5. Of course, there’s nothing profound about what you’re saying. The same people who say “you think you know better!” then crucify former players for their coaching and GM decisions (Isiah Thomas, Michael Jordan, Kevin McHale, etc.). They can implicitly recognize that being a great player is independent from being a great evaluator, but it escapes them explicitly.

    You should write a post on this…


    February 20, 2011 at 12:45 pm

  6. I’ve felt this way about the game without seeing any statistical data for a long time now. I get the idea that you want your best player to be handling the ball at certain moments, for a couple of reasons: 1)because during high pressure moments our brains tend to shut down when faced with too many options, so simplifying the game plan by saying, “here’s the ball—create” makes the game more instinctual and the player less prone to paralysis by analysis, and 2)because the best players are more confident in their abilities and thus less likely to turn into nervous wreck during those high pressure moments. However, a simple pick and roll seems like the better solution in this case. All your options—rolling or popping big, players spaced out for the jumper—are available to you in what is still a relatively simple set-up. In the clutch, the mind can’t process as much information as it normally can, and too many options is a bad thing, but limiting your options to the point where the defense knows exactly what is coming is just as bad.


    February 21, 2011 at 7:37 pm

    • Solid thoughts.

      Personally, I think we overrate exactly how much pressure there is in crunch time. Basketball is a game that moves fast enough with enough regular failure that to me the main source of pressure is for players who are afraid of getting benched if they don’t give the ball to the star player.

      Matt Johnson

      February 22, 2011 at 8:13 pm

  7. I suspect that part of the problem with the Mark Jacksons of the world is that they are paid by the networks to regurgitate conventional view points.

    In this age of digital signals, I would love to have a channel that would allow me to mute out the announcers and just listen to the sounds of the game free of commentary.


    February 21, 2011 at 9:38 pm

    • I somewhat agree. I think the real pull is for entertainment. I think people can be entertained with intelligent points, but the intelligence is purely optional.

      Matt Johnson

      February 22, 2011 at 8:16 pm

  8. […] Kobe Theory and the Drowned Plant (asubstituteforwar.wordpress.com) […]

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