Backyard Basketball

My favorite sport, by far, is basketball. I used to be pretty decent, and earned a spot on my high school basketball team. Of course, my body suddenly decided then that it wanted to stop growing, and I could only watch as my teammates grew like giant trees around me and started dunking over and through me. Since I got cut  quit, I’ve been regulated to playing mostly recreational basketball, and surprisingly (to me at least), it actually differs a lot from sanctioned play.

For one thing, rec basketball is extremely unstructured. Players run all around the court, basically doing whatever they want.

Often times, people play by house rules as well; different venues have different scoring systems, different boundaries, varying three point line lengths, etc. There’s no coach, so no one gets an earful for losing their man on defense. There’s no refs, so it’s up to the players to call their own fouls. And, perhaps most importantly, there’s no shot clock.

I always thought there must be a way to “break” recreational basketball, to play with smarts and win games you have no business winning. It’s not an area that’s really been studied by many great minds (not that I’m claiming to be one myself), so there must be troves of valuable knowledge hiding within the frameworks of recreational basketball, just waiting to be exploited.

The trouble is that, almost by definition, there really is no data about recreational basketball. However, we can still look at it theoretically and try to glean some insights.

Shot selection is a huge pet peeve of mine in rec basketball. Some kids take the stupidest shots imaginable! What’s more, they do it with infinity left on the shot clock. As I said before, there’s no shot clock in rec basketball, so why would you ever take a bad shot? With essentially unlimited time, it makes sense to only take the best possible shots, no matter how much time it takes.

So that brings us to the key question: what are the best shots to take? Here, it actually turns out that we do have some data, courtesy of HoopData:

At Rim 3-9 Feet 10-15 Feet 16-23 Feet Threes
% of Shots eFG% % of Shots eFG% % of Shots eFG% % of Shots eFG% % of Shots eFG%
31.3% 61.7% 11.5% 41.3% 9.0% 39.0% 25.6% 39.6% 22.2% 53.7%

Above are the average shooting percentages of shots taken from various distances from the basket from the past 6 NBA seasons, expressed in effective field goal percentage. eFG% is basically a measure to take into account the increased value of a three pointer (for example, even if you only make 4 of 10 three pointers, you’ve still contributed more to your team than someone who has made 5 out of 10 two pointers, even though you’ve shot a lower percentage — effective field goal percentage accounts for this).

Now, I realize recreational basket-ballers are not really on par with professional athletes and that the percentages above won’t be totally in-line with your average basketball player. However, I do believe that they are proportional, especially considering the shorter three point line on just about all recreational basketball courts. Now, note that the only places on the court with effective field goal percentages higher than 50% are at the rim and from three. All other shots are, on average, pretty terrible.

So what does this mean for your team? First, try your best to get to the rim. Conventional wisdom says to “attack the basket” and common sense tells us that shots closer to the basket are easier to make, so this seems obvious. But it isn’t just about getting close to the hoop, it’s about getting all the way there. Even if you stray a few feet away, your accuracy drops by an alarming amount, so much so, in fact, that you would be better off kicking it out for a three. That takes us to point number two: shoot more threes! The data shows that the drop in accuracy incurred by taking a few steps back behind the line in more than outweighed by the extra value of the three point shot.

But we can go even further. In the NBA, teams take nearly half their shots from the 3 to 23 foot range, the range where effective field goal percentage is lowest. This likely caused by two factors: the shot clock and a plain lack of knowledge about the most valuable shots to take. The first one isn’t a factor in rec ball, and the second has hopefully been addressed by this post. So, your team shouldn’t be taking ANY shots unless they at the rim or from three. Ok, ok, maybe that’s a little bit too outlandish for you, but I would still recommend taking at least 75% of your shots from either three or at the rim. Also, make sure these are good shots (i.e. shots that are open, not being taken off-balance, shots not being rushed). If the shot isn’t good, pull yourself back, pass to a teammate, and wait for a better one to come up.

You may be one of those people who cares about having “fun.”  You may think having all of these guidelines on when and when not to shoot will take all the “fun” out of the game. Don’t be one of these people. Those “guidelines” you’re complaining about? Treat them more like rules, rules you should follow if you want to win. Now me, I want to win. And I hear winning is plenty “fun.”

I’ve only scratched the surface here, and there are many more topics we can cover in the realm of recreational basketball theory, so stay tuned for another installment of Backyard Basketball next week!

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One thought on “Backyard Basketball

  1. Pingback: Assorted Links | Chirag's Blog

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