The restoring force in basketball (or the “poor get richer” phenomenon)

Random Walk Picture of Basketball Scoring, a recent paper in JQAS, is well-worth a read; it’s one of those ideas that when I read about it, I thought “why had no one ever tried this before!?”

I wanted to share a quote from it that is incredibly intriguing and, after my brief searching, has never been expressed before:

The [ubiquitous feature augmenting random scoring in a basketball game] is the existence of a weak linear restoring force, in which the leading team scores at a slightly lower rate (conversely, the losing team scores at a slightly higher rate).  This restoring force seems to be a natural human response to an unbalanced game – a team with a large lead may be tempted to coast, while a lagging team likely plays with greater urgency.

The authors revisit this feature later in the article, but only so much as to re-describe the phenomenon and relate their adjustment approach to a common physics model.  I do not intend on talking about the implications or existence of this feature, but rather, I want to focus on its cause.

The authors, who admittedly approach this features origin naively, do not thoroughly explain why the phenomenon occurs, except to link it to a “natural human response” that has been referenced previously in economic competitions.  While I do not doubt that said response exists, I am skeptical that it is the most influencing component of this phenomenon.

Consider the strategy of a coach when his/her team is leading.  If the lead is often great enough, a coach may choose to bench their starters in hopes of keeping them fresh (and, thus, more efficient).  This would almost certainly decrease the talent level of the team in the lead.  In an effort to keep themselves in the game, the opposing coach often takes the corresponding risk by keeping their starters on the court during that time to exploit the temporary drop in talent.  A perfect example of this is this year’s Sweet 16 game between IU and UK, where Zeller stayed on the court with IU trailing when Davis went off, both of whom were in foul trouble.

A less obvious way that coaching strategy could lead to this “poor get richer” phenomenon can be found in the response to a team gaining a lead or going on a run that produces a lead: timeouts.  It’s almost exclusively the case that coaches take timeouts when there is very little time on the game clock or their opponent has been going on a scoring run.  In both of these scenarios, the coach taking the timeout is likely trailing the other team.  It’s also believable that a timeout “interrupts” the scoring ability of an opponent and increases a team’s chances of scoring in the next possession (note: what little research exists on the effect of timeouts has been shown it to be significantly in the favor of the team calling the timeout).  Thus, team’s down, who much more frequently call timeouts, would see themselves increasing their probability of scoring compared to play before the timeout.

There are likely other explanations for this restoring force (e.g. players are more often fatigued after scoring than after failing to score).  Regardless, I believe very strongly that this phenomenon, in general, deserves further attention.  What causes it?  Are we sure it’s a weak force?  Is this exclusive to basketball, a sport with infinite substitutions, or does this carry over into other sports like baseball, where roster depth places an even bigger role via relievers, removals after substitutions, etc.?

People do not play to their skill set

It never ceases to amaze me how people who can provide fair and accurate judgement on the game of others have no ability to reflect that same skill upon themselves.  It seems most obvious when playing pickup basketball.

I by no means have any basketball skills; my body is basically a scaled version of Kermit the frog.  That said, I know that same body gives me some advantages down-low.  So, my game plan has always been simple: stay, shoot and help defend down-low in the paint.  If I have the ball outside of the paint with no clear lane, pass it immediately.

What’s so shocking is how often I see, say, the other team’s 5’5″ guard trying to do the same thing, or a big man on my team taking completely unnecessary shots from way outside the arc.  You see this stuff happen in college all the time (e.g. Quinn Cook) and even in the NBA (e.g. Antonio Walker), which is incredibly frustrating to watch.  It’s why I find it very refreshing to see players who can take a particular skill set and squeeze everything out of it.  My favorite example is the Big Z, Zydrunas Ilgauskas.

Take a look at his stats per shooting locations in the 2008-2009 season:

You’ll notice that he basically only takes two types of shots a game: shots at the rim or mid-range jumpers.  By delving further into his mid-range shots, they’re almost exclusively catch-and-shoots (notice the ridiculously high %As, or percentage of makes assisted).  What’s even more telling is that he’s not only taking them from the same distance, but nearly always the same place on the court: off of the left wing of the basket, 2 feet in front of the 3-point line.  Check out his shot chart from his best game that season (vs. the Bucks):

Zydrunas Ilgauskas shot chart in his best game of the 2008-09 season.

The clustering to the left of the rim is his sweet spot.  He’s clearly comfortable there, whether it be from practicing or some innate skill.  What you don’t see are shots taken randomly all over the court; he knows where he can best shoot because he understands his skill set.

Why does he have such an understanding?  Tape is often the key, but even a basic sense can be gathered by listening to others.  Or, in the case of pickup basketball, observing the reactions of your teammates whenever you do something stupid.

NBA in the red due to capital expenditure

In a recent article on TrueHoop, Adam Silver, COO of the NBA, is quoted as saying

“The league will not make money this year,” Silver says. And next year? “Maybe.”

I think there is a little truth and a little fibbing in this statement.  Yes, it’s easy to forget that even with the league’s popularity, and subsequent ticket sales, rising fast due to Jeremy Lin, the league will still take a huge hit to profits because of the lockout.  However, that cost could easily be construed as a capital expenditure.

Ultimately, the league (or owners, depending on your perspective) chose to take the loss in present revenue in hopes for a larger portion of future revenue; that is, by stalemating, the league invested in the chance that the players would accept a deal that allotted them a smaller chunk of BRI.  Even if that money “lost” went towards variable costs (e.g. wages, venue maintenance), it was still spent on a calculated risk for future benefits, which almost certainly qualifies it as a capital expenditure.

So, next time you hear Adam Silver (at a bar?) say that the league is losing money this year, just respond with “technically …”