Category Archives: Sports

Discussion of sports and fantasy sports, with a focus on basketball and football

The Real Winner

So it’s fantasy football season, and I really wanted to write an article discussing draft strategy and player projections and stuff, but unfortunately, I can’t bring myself to do that, because my league hasn’t drafted yet and I don’t want to help any of them out. But I am the best in our league, so I might throw them a bone next week.

Some of the members of my league would argue, however, that I’m not the best in the league, simply because I didn’t “win”. Whatever that means. If you’ve ever played fantasy football, you would know that it’s involves a great deal of luck. Some of the Roundtable’s members know this.

Why does it involve a lot of luck? Well for one thing, football players themselves are very inconsistent, not only from year to year, but from game to game. This means owners will often get lucky with draft picks and unlucky with bad draft picks. Even the experts aren’t very good at this, with the top experts only reaching about 60% accuracy. (As an aside, here’s how fantasy pros measure “accuracy”). Basically, there’s so much randomness and so many variables involved in the sport that prediction becomes very difficult.

But that’s not really an excuse. You can still make optimal decisions to improve the expected value of the points that your team would score. The owner who made the best decisions would end the season with the greatest amount of fantasy points. And over a large period of time, this owner would also end up with the greatest number of victories. Here’s the real problem: the fantasy season is only about 15 weeks long. Let’s look at why this is a problem:

My league page isn’t loading now for some reason so I’ll post the picture once it does.

For those of you who don’t know, in fantasy football, pairs of owners “face off” each week, and the owner with the most points at the end of the week is deemed the “winner”, and receives one victory. It’s a totally binary system that doesn’t account for margin of victory at all. Also, due to the touched upon inconsistency, the best team doesn’t always win the week. The result is an inefficient week that does a poor job of rewarding good decision making and places a high degree of emphasis on luck. We can see this because of the correlation between points scored and wins, which stands at ___. This is because the distribution of points each week is far from even, and so there will be several weeks in which even the worst team would beat the best team.

As you can clearly see, I scored the most points in my league by a significant margin. The margin would have been even greater, but after I lost in the playoffs, I didn’t even set my lineups for two weeks, and had two injured players in each week. Regardless, I was still undoubtedly the best owner in our league this year. The eventual champion was 3rd in points scored, so I can’t be too pissed about him winning, but the guy in second place was a lowly 7th! The owners of my league will point and laugh at me and say that I’m just bitter about losing. And I am. But only because I think I demonstrably deserved to win. But it doesn’t matter. I know I was the real winner.


Backyard Basketball: Alternative Scoring Systems

Welcome back to another edition of Backyard Basketball! In this much awaited sequel, we’ll examine how the discussion on shot selection presented in the first edition of Backyard Basketball changes in the alternative scoring systems often used in recreational basketball.

Playing By Ones and Twos

Sometimes, recreational basketball is played by ones and twos rather than by twos and threes. This means that shots inside the arc are worth one points and shots from downtown are worth two points. The implications of this are immediately obvious: long-distance shots are now twice as valuable as all other shots! To see exactly how valuable they are, let’s take a look at the table on shooting percentages presented in the first edition, adjusted for the new scoring system:

At the Rim

3-9 Feet

10-15 Feet

16-23 Feet

Beyond 23 Feet






Wow! Under this scoring system, three pointers gain incredible value. They’re even more effective than the average layup! So if you’re on offense, and you’re even reasonably competent at shooting three pointers, I recommend shooting them. At least half of your shots should be threes, anything less is simply unacceptable. In fact, I recommend for you to shoot 75% of your shots from beyond the arc. While picking players for your team, prioritize three point shooting above all else.

If you’re on the defensive side of the ball, work as hard as you can to prevent your opponent from getting good looks from three point land. Close out hard on shooters and force them to drive to the rim; remember, layups are worse shots to take than threes!

Of course, this assumes that you are as good at shooting from each location on the floor as NBA players. However, given the shorter distance of the three point line in recreational courts, I think it is likely that these percentages are proportional to shooting percentages at the equivalent distances in recreational basketball.

I don’t know why this scoring system is ever used. I don’t think it’s really any easier to count by 1s and 2s than by 2s and 3s, and even if it is, such ease comes at the cost of giving three pointers ridiculous value relative to other shots. It may be the case that certain courts are very tough places to hit threes from, “justifying” their high value. While I’m pretty sure most basketball player don’t take this into account, it still doesn’t truly address the issue, as the eFG% of the threes are still likely to be higher than mid range shots. So, the next time your opponent wants to play by ones and twos, jack up as many threes as you can and destroy him (or her, I guess).

No Three Pointers

In this scoring system, all shots count equally, regardless of where on the floor they come from. This is often used on courts without any three point lines. To understand the implications this, lets revisit the shooting percentages by distance. You math whizzes nerds may have realized that this is the same chart as previously, with the eFG% of “two pointers” cut in half :

At the Rim

3-9 Feet

10-15 Feet

16-23 Feet

Beyond 23 Feet






Threes are now the worst shot in the game, so even if there is a line on your court, don’t take any threes under this scoring system. Shots at the rim stand out as the best shots to take by far, so try to have as many of your shots come from here as possible, preferably 100%. Of course, even without a shot clock forcing you to shoot, this isn’t realistic, especially as the best defensive strategy under this scoring system is to clog the paint as much as possible.

So how do you best take advantage of this scoring system? One way would be while picking teams; disregard perimeter shooting entirely and focus on getting big men and strong, physical basketball players. Rebounding and put backs will be invaluable, as will having a post presence who can get deep inside the paint and get those high percentage shots at the rim.

Another way to gain a leg up is to play a 2-3 zone defense. This will help you have more bodies down low to protect the rim and gather rebounds. Pack the paint as much as possible, sag off shooters, and go under screens.

Unfortunately, I can’t provide much more help for this scoring system. It’s a tough nut to crack, as the inventors of basketball learned early on. The original game of basketball (which of course had no three pointers), had become an overly physical, grind of a game. Shorter players were getting phased out; they couldn’t contribute much to their teams compared to their bigger counterparts. The three point shot completely revitalized the game and made it a much more fun and exciting product.

In conclusion, both of these scoring systems cause certain skill sets become much more valuable than they would under the normal “twos and threes” scoring system. Use this to your advantage. If you have a team with great shooters, tell your opponents that you’ll be played by ones and twos. If you have a team with great big men and slashing forwards, but limited shooting, try to play with the traditional “twos and threes” rule, or ideally, play without three pointers at all. Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for more Backyard Basketball!

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!