A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

Why height/length may be only 10% of what matters in an NBA’s player’s success

with 2 comments

If you follow the NBA Draft, you know how much a player’s height and wingspan is talked about. Who’s undersized, who’s arms aren’t long enough, who’s extra long for their position.

Length matters in the NBA. Clearly it is key to defending and it helps plays find space offensively.

But let’s do some math. First off if judging raw ability, let’s remove effort level and motor or other character concerns for now, we can assume a player’s “tools” are a combination of physical talents, skills and intelligence. Don’t confuse this with my personal grading system of physical impact and skill impact (shoot, post, pass), where I factor in how literal skills like ballhandling helps a player attack the basket and physically impact the game, or literal physical tools like strength help the effectiveness of a post game or skill impact. For now let’s just assume physical tools includes athleticism, strength, length, skills includes everything a player does with the ball in his hands. Their literal definitions.

So with these literal definitions of physical talents, skill talents and intelligence, the question is how much each one matters. Let’s give physical tools a favorable split of 40% of ability, with skill and intelligence combining for 60%. I may not agree with this number but it’s conceivable.

Now most agree athleticism is the most valuable physical talent. In particular the ability to either explode by player to get to the rim, or explode vertically to finish is key. Let’s give say athleticism is half of what matters with physical talent. Again I may consider it more valuable personally, but I’ll use that number for now.

From 40% of physical talent’s overall worth, 20% is athleticism, leaving another 20% for other physical talents – namely, body strength and length. Splitting it down the middle which may or may not be fair, leaves them both at 10%.

Now, I did this all with only 3 factors in physical tools, skills and intelligence, the literal definitions. In reality most consider effort level and heart, another important part of succeeding in the NBA. If factoring this in and then redoing the ratios, the number would be bumped below 10%. Another reason of course is that it’s very arguable that giving a 40% physical tools/60% skill and intelligence combined weighting, is too high. A 30%/70% split between physical talents and skill and intelligence is just as conceivable. Overall 10% looks generous to me.

These are all estimates, but the point is this. Length matters in the NBA, but it’s one of many factors. Skill is hugely important and there’s multiple aspects within skill that are important. Intelligence and instincts are key and there’s many facets to that as well. Within physical tools alone, which competes with skill, intelligence and effort for important, length then competes with athleticism and strength for importance. Consider it this way, even if length was 40% of what mattered to physical talents and physical talents were 40% of what mattered to the player, that still only adds up to 16% when multiplied together, hardly a domineering number. Even if length was 15-16% of what matters for a player, that’s far lower than how important the talent is considered in the draft process and then in the NBA. Do your own numbers for the importance of physical talents to a player’s success and then the importance of length to a player’s physical talents. When it’s accepted physical talents are a fraction of what it takes to succeed in the NBA, then length is a fraction of what’s important in physical talents, the number comes out low.

If the number is 10-15%, that still matters and is enough to care about in the NBA. If a student has an exam that’s worth 10-15% of his grade, he shouldn’t blow it off. However the NBA tends to act like a poor showing on that test is enough to make passing the course from there an uphill climb and huge task and I don’t believe logic bores this out.

Written by jr.

May 2, 2013 at 9:06 pm

Posted in Basketball, NBA Draft

2 Responses

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  1. i think it matters quite a bit more than 10%, because so much of basketball can simply be reduced to a contest of “who can get their hands up highest”.

    look at this years all star teams: i count three guys out of twenty-four (lee, paul and griffin) who possess below average length for their positions. its a sport played in such a compact space, and given how high the level of competition is it takes a ton of speed/strength/skill/intelligence to make up for the fact that the other guy always has a 3 inch head start on you to the goal (whatever that may be).

    but i think you are right to keep banging this drum that length/vertical explosiveness, while important, are not the sine qua non for good nba players. and in practice a deficiency in these areas is not more harmful than a lack of basic basketball intelligence for example (in theory someone could gain this intelligence by working at it, while no amount of work can make your arms grow, but in practice that rarely happens).


    May 3, 2013 at 10:52 pm

  2. I think you have to have an extreme skill set or other physical tools that overwhelm… and/or be comfortable with being a roleplayer if you’re lacking the appropriate size. That said, position matters.

    Chuck Hayes is a fine 6’6 center… as long as he’s a roleplayer. Earl Boykins was a fine sparkplug bench scorer. Muggsy Bogues was an intriguing player, though with obvious limitations and a clear ceiling. And so on and so forth. That’s more of the extreme end, of course. JJ Redick has T-Rex arms and he’s doing alright.

    Blake Griffin is 6’10 and doesn’t have a great wingspan, but he does OK. He’s even a star player. 6’10 isn’t a particularly damning height for a PF, it’s right about where you’d like to be, perhaps even above average.

    Vertical height has utility, but wingspan and other physical tools trump that as long as the height isn’t much beyond the usual range. Quickness and skills matter. Wingspan also seems to mostly relate to defense more than anything else. It can help in the post, but you have to have the moves first and those are good as long as you get the footwork and the touch right for the most part.

    Vertical leap couldn’t possibly be MORE overrated, though, especially since you almost never go to max vertical leap in an NBA game anyhow, even on contested shots around the rim that end up in dunks. It helps, but quickness and power are a lot more valuable. Obviously, it yet has its utility, but is so over-discussed and over-valued that it’s amusing. A great case study in that is Brandon Roy, who HAD a huge vertical, but actually almost never used it. Or Paul Pierce. Or Dwyane Wade, actually, who manipulated wingspan and quickness with a less-than-elite vertical to become the monster he was in his hey-day despite being 6’4 or so barefoot (but with that stocky frame).

    I wonder if we shouldn’t be looking at sort of a range of ability in these physical traits and then finding correlations with increase/decrease in skill to compensate. If we look at some of the best players in the league at any given point, they seem to follow certain patterns of distribution through these attributes and matching certain types of skills and reads to their physical tools in a way that really highlights that you don’t need to have stunning physical tools to be a very good player… and that older guys don’t have that anyway, and yet many of them to continue to be highly valuable, which helps reinforce the value of top-end coaching and understanding of the game, and the slightly under-valued element of cardiovascular endurance.


    May 4, 2013 at 5:46 am

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