Sunday, December 2, 2012

Scouting 101: Basketball As Chess


Basketball can be thought of as live-action chess. Each side has five pieces (ideally) moving in unity with the goal of shooting a ball into a basket. The offense tries to create a situation where a player can get an open look at the basket, while the defense tries to prevent the same situation.

The difference between the NBA game and the college game is the types of strategies that are employed.

There are over 4,000 D1 basketball players. In a given year, maybe 30-35 of them (the top 1%) find a spot in the NBA, while perhaps 15 more could have found one if they had not stayed in school. By virtue of being in that top 1% percent, these players are invariably bigger, faster and more skilled than their peers.

So while the court remains the same size, the amount of available space on it is greatly restricted in the professional game. Television, because it is a 2D representation of a 3D environment, can’t represent the court’s size with complete accuracy. When I sat three rows behind the visitors bench, it was the first thing I noticed. There just didn’t seem like there was enough room on the court.

Because defenses can recover much more quickly at the pro level, a premium is placed on the ability of one individual to “create” a shot-opportunity. There’s a myriad of ways it can be done, all with different levels of efficiency depending on the player — from dribbling past the defender or shooting over the top of them to forcing other defenders to leave one of your teammates unguarded.

Since the NBA is a game of individual match-ups, to return to the chess analogy, most strategy occurs at the level of selecting the “pieces”. In choosing combinations of players to put on the court, coaches try to create situations where a “mis-match” occurs. The goal being to have at least one player with a decided advantage over his defender, forcing the defense to over-compensate.

Before the NBA draft, prospects undergo a exhaustive screening process (scouting) to determine whether they can be an attacker on offense (a creator of mis-matches) or can be attacked on defense. Teams poke and prod prospects to rigorously determine their athletic ability and physical dimensions at the annual combine. They then bring them in for individual and group work-outs to test their skill level — from the accuracy of their jump-shot to their ability to dribble through traffic.

The reason people, especially fans, often make mistakes trying to determine the ability of a player to transition from college to the NBA is there isn’t a universal framework that can be applied to every prospect.

Professional baseball scouts, who have had a head-start of more than 50 years in developing scouting techniques, look for five different “tools” when evaluating position players — hitting for average, hitting for power, base-running skills and speed, throwing ability, and fielding abilities.

The more tools the player has, the more likely he will be a major-league contributor. In the scout’s mind, all five tools exist on a pendulum. If a player is lacking in one tool than he needs to balance it out by excelling in another.

Basketball players can be evaluated in a similar fashion, but the five tools are a bit different:

1) The ability to create a shot: 

The hardest, and therefore most valuable, tool to master. The vast majority of All-Star caliber players (the top 10% of the NBA talent pool — 40 of about 400) are guys who can get themselves a good look at the basket and convert it efficiently.

Players selected to one of three All-NBA teams, the elite of elite, are usually the ones who can create those looks in the paint and as close to the basket as possible, where they are inherently easier to convert.

A good example is the Mavericks’ Dirk Nowitzki, who combines a textbook shooting motion that he releases somewhere between eight-to-nine feet off the ground (when you take into account his vertical leap and his fade-away over-the-head form). His shot exists on a plane the vast majority of players can’t reach. Only a tiny handful, like a Lamar Odom or a Shawn Marion, have the combination of height and athleticism necessary to properly contest his shot.

The vast majority of teams can’t defend him with one player; he can position himself at a spot on the floor and shoot over the top of the out-stretched arms of his defender. Either he makes the shot or he doesn’t; there is almost nothing a smaller defender can do to affect the outcome.

2) The ability to defend a position: 

While there are technically five different positions on the court, their roles have become increasingly interchangeable in the modern game.

There are really only three types of players — points (the guy who initiates the offense and sets other people up), wings (the guys who stand around the perimeter and focus on scoring) and posts (the guys who stand around the lane).

The vast majority of players in the NBA are in the league because they have the physical capability to defend on of the three essential positions. Unless they are an elite offensive player, they had better be able to competently defend someone.

That’s where many great college players fall short in the NBA. Adam Morrison wasn’t nearly as effective on offense against NBA-caliber athletes as he was playing in the WCC; for the first time in his life, his offensive game wasn’t enough to compensate for his frail 6’8 200 pound frame and relatively slow foot-speed.

The most important physical characteristic on defense is wingspan. Great defensive players, from Scottie Pippen to Hakeem Olajuwon, almost always have longer arms than their body, which allows them to play a step further away from the offensive player (to anticipate and stop a drive) while still contesting their jumper. Shawn Marion is only 6’7, but a near seven-foot wingspan lets him guard much taller players.

The more positions a player can defend, the more valuable they are. If a point has the size to guard wings, his team can play an undersized scoring guard (one of the most common types of players) and have him defend the opposing point. Without Jason Kidd (a 6’4 point who can guard much taller perimeter players), the Mavericks would have a difficult time giving Jason Terry or J.J. Barea, good scorers who stand only 6’2 and 6’0, playing time.

And since the paint is the most valuable area on the floor, a big man who plays exceptional defense is much more valuable than a similarly defensive-minded guard. Orlando got away with playing Hedo Turkoglu, a defensive sieve, because he could shuttle players into Dwight Howard, the league’s leading shot-blocker. Hedo had a defensive rating of 104 (allowing 104 points per 100 possessions) in Orlando; the next season in Toronto, with Andrea Bargnani as his center, it ballooned to an awful 113.

3) The ability to shoot jumpers: 

When a player doesn’t have the ball in his hands, the guy defending him plays help-side defense and assists the rest of the team. The more effective a shooter, the closer the defender has to play him off the ball. If he can’t shoot, than his defender can feel free to ignore him on the perimeter, forcing the offense into a 4-on-5 situation. If you play farther than 10 feet from the basket, you had better be able to hit an open jump shot.

Texas basketball fans can recall the gruesome offense of the 2009 team that started two guards — Dogus Balbay and Justin Mason — who couldn’t accurately throw a ball into the ocean. That’s why Miami was so obsessed with adding outside shooting over the off-season.

The first two Boston/Miami games show how hard it is to score against an top-notch defense with two non-shooters (Arroyo and Anthony) on the floor, even with three of the league’s top 10 scorers.
Not even James, Wade and Bosh can consistently win 3-on-5 match-ups.

4) The ability to rebound and 5) The ability to pass the ball: 

For most players, passing and rebounding are inversely related skills. Typically, passing skill increases as you move down the height continuum (from center to point guard) while rebounding increases as you move up it.

Players who can flip this trend — point guards who can rebound (Rajon Rondo) or centers who can pass (Pau Gasol) — are incredibly valuable. A point who can rebound a miss saves valuable time in starting the fast break, while a center who can pass can take advantage of his ability to see over the entire defense, creating much easier passing angles.

And just as in baseball, five-tool basketball players are a rare commodity. The ideal five-tool point guard is Deron Williams, at 6’3 200 with a 6’6 wingspan. At shooting guard, it’s Kobe Bryant. At small forward, Carmelo Anthony. At power forward it’s Lamar Odom and at center it’s Pau Gasol.

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