Tuesday, March 23, 2010

A Beginning, a Middle, and an End

One thing I alluded to in my previous post, but never made entirely explicit, is the notion that there are distinct phases to a basketball game (and indeed to many sports competitions), which we might call—by analogy to chess—the opening, the midgame, and the endgame. The difference between the opening and the midgame is pretty ill-defined, and in my conception is based on the feeling that teams like to start games by trying out the various things they've worked on in practice, but within a general framework, and by the time they've gotten some ways into the game (after the first set of substitutions, say), they've got an idea for what's going to work in this game, and put it into practice in earnest. As I say, it's not a clear-cut distinction and we could argue endlessly (and, I think, pointlessly, though I'd be happy to be proved wrong) about where the exact division is.

But in my opinion, from a stats geek point of view, there is a clear-cut distinction between the midgame and the endgame. And the strategies are, empirically, different in the two parts of the game.

The whole objective of a basketball game (and in most games that involve points) is to outscore your opponent. And as basketball consists primarily of a sequence of alternating possessions, the goal should be to score more in each possession than your opponent does, by and large. That's why statistics such as points per possession are supplanting others like points per game, and rightly so. The former accounts for the fact that a game consists of a rather arbitrary but evenly matched number of possessions for each team, and the latter doesn't.

In fact, I'd argue that that objective—outscoring your opponent on a per-possession basis—is exactly the definition of the midgame. During this phase, which lasts for most of the game, you are trying to be as efficient as you can on the offensive end, while preventing your opponent from doing the same. Makes sense, doesn't it?

The question that you might be asking, though, is why this isn't your objective the entire game, why this is only the goal for the midgame. And the answer to that (you knew I had one coming, didn't you?) is that during practically any game, there comes a point where the actual scoring margin outweighs average efficiency.

Perhaps the simplest example is the decision about whether or not to shoot a two-point shot (a "deuce") or a three-point shot (a "trey"). Suppose the shooting percentage on the former is x percent, and on the latter is y. In the midgame, where all you're concerned about is the average number of points scored on the shot, you prefer the deuce if 2x > 3y, and you prefer the trey otherwise (ignoring offensive rebounding and the like, which we shouldn't do in a more extensive example).

In the endgame, however, it can be quite different. Suppose you're down two, and you have the ball with the shot clock off. You're going to hold for the final shot. The question is, what shot should that be?

If you shoot the deuce and you make it, you'll tie the game and go into overtime, where you'll win about half the time (studies apparently show that any apparent "skill" at winning overtime games is just a matter of small sample size). The winning probability is therefore x/2. On the other hand, if you shoot the trey and make it, you'll win the game outright, with probability y. So in this case, in the endgame, you prefer the deuce only if x > 2y (a strictly stronger condition than in the midgame), and you prefer the trey otherwise. (And as the defensive team, you probably want to shift more of your attention to the three-point line than you would during the midgame.) The point of this little example is that your objective is shifted, from efficiency in the midgame, to winning probability in the endgame.

The next question: When does this shift take place?

There's no one right answer, but I think one place to start is one I mentioned in connection with a rule of thumb I came up with for determining when a game is mostly out of reach. (Not to put too fine a point on it, a fellow by the name of Bill James also came up with the same rule.) To first order, I think, that same epoch in the game is where the switch between midgame and endgame happens (or "ought" to happen). After that point, the team that's trailing tries tactics that are not the most efficient (and therefore wouldn't be used during the midgame) but nevertheless maximize one's chances of winning the game; the team that's ahead plays to prevent their opponents from utilizing their preferred endgame tactics.

There's a bit of a catch, though, in that my rule (OK, Bill James's and my rule), strictly speaking, applies only to evenly matched teams. For the most part, that's not a stretch in the NBA, but you could imagine a game between an NBA team and a college team, even a very good college team. If both teams just try to be as efficient as they can, the NBA team will blow out the college team. In order to win, the college team would have to play their endgame practically from the opening jump, by employing some kind of gimmick, such as a non-stop trapping defense. Lest you think this is some kind of merely theoretical possibility, such a ploy has been tried in some circles, to some success.

And it likely has some statistical validity, for inferior teams can generally win only by introducing more chaos into the game (in the non-technical sense), which increases scoring variance. And there's no question gimmicks usually do that. Most of the time, they still won't work, but they'll give you a puncher's chance.

What's the point, in the end? As a kind of pie-in-the-sky proposal, since the objectives in the various phases are different, analyze them differently. Collect or synthesize different statistics for them. And maybe, as a result, you learn something new about why some teams can finish, and others can't.

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