“Quantification of individual credit on a basketball team is one of the main goals of this book as well. I want to engineer the success of a team of individuals, first and foremost. But “engineering,” almost by its very nature, means breaking success down into its different components and understanding the value of those components.”

Key Takeaways:
  • The “Hot Hand”
  • Game Theory Coaching
  • Consistent vs Inconsistent Strategy

This was one of the very first topics I ever wrote about on this site pertaining to the hot hand. It was a class discussion during graduate school on the Flow State of Mindor “being in the zone,” written extensively by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. The hot hand is really just a matter of opinion from a spectators perspective, right? For example, watching James Harden go for 40 on 20 FGA doesn’t give the indication that he had a great shooting night, or was in the zone. But if a more obscure professional athlete, say Meyers Leonard goes for 40 on possibly a similar shooting performance the fans might walk out of the arena thinking Leonard was just hot that night. The rationale is for doing something that seems out of the ordinary in a streaking fashion that is unstoppable despite different defensive strategies.

Contrary to the study referenced in the book, the author Dean Oliver (former NBA staffer) believes in the hot hand. Also a psychologist Tversky, produced a study during the mid-’80s to gauge if there was evidence to support the players’ ability to string made shots together that would otherwise be considered abnormal. Oliver largely pokes holes in the findings based on the variables of shot selection and defensive strategy. Nonetheless, we’ve all been in the situation where the scouting report suggests a low probability to make shots from the perimeter and proceeds to hit multiple threes that earns the staff a look back from the head coach.

Game Theory & Selfish Inclination

“The science of game theory which rests on the idea that people independently try to maximize their own net gain, doesn’t very well cover this type of cooperative game.”

We hear and have applied the coach speak of only being as strong as our weakest link. The culture of our program is dependent upon buy-in from every stakeholder in the program. And part of that challenge is generating value in the eyes of every student-athlete to the extent where they feel their contributions are rewarded on a relatively equitable standing in comparison to everyone else on the team. We know who our top tier athletes are on the roster. I’d infer that the team is well aware of where they all stand – from a rotation standpoint and direct impact on wins/losses. However, wins and losses are a reflection of chemistry from the court to the locker room. If the locker room isn’t right the record will reflect that vulnerability. Everyone wants minutes. Everyone wants recognition. Not everyone can receive equal amounts of credit. Game theory applied to basketball is the balancing act of the team over the individual.

“Good coaches know how to recognize this and how to reward supporting players so that they do continue to put on their shoes and go to work every day.”

Consistent vs Inconsistent Teams & Strategy Involved

At this point, we all should have familiarity with a bell curve from our global attempt to flattening the spike of high contamination with the coronavirus. Getting back to basketball, Oliver looked at the bell curve as an attempt to project team success based on team tendency.

“What this means for good teams is that, if they are inconsistent, they win less than they should. What this means for bad teams is that, if they are inconsistent, they win more than they should. In other words, being inconsistent brings a team toward .500, toward mediocrity.”

There is nothing more frustrating for a coach than an inconsistent team. There is one thing that is worse, that is a consistently bad team. An inconsistent team demonstrates high levels of variance where one game all things seem to click, then the next could look like the Washington Generals came to play. Where Oliver contributed to the coaching community is in the implication of strategy based on expectations of the upcoming opponent. If you have been steady all season with a very good record going into the playoffs, but come across a matchup where you may find yourself as an underdog – what is the gameplan?

  • Stick to what you’ve always done?
  • Increase the amount of risk for the higher reward?

If the numbers provide any influence sticking to the gameplan might get you an earlier tee-time than you’d hope. But, then again more risk can have a trickle-down effect on the team possibly giving the impression of lack of confidence, confusion, or fear of losing. There are a lot of risk strategies that can be deployed, some more consequential than others:

  • Press Strategy
  • Clock Management
  • Rebounding Strategies – Leak outs or crash the glass
  • Shot selection

All of this is interesting to consider and why some coaches prefer to be more analytical in decision-making versus going with their gut. There is no wrong answer until the scoreboard suggests otherwise.


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