Watching the Houston Rockets- Golden State Warriors NBA Western Conference Final on Monday night and the comparisons hit me. Some teams in the NBA (Golden State and Houston most specifically) have been using a style of play that recalls the days of the “Run and Shoot” offense in the NFL and the current “Home Run or Nothing” style currently in vogue in MLB.
All three sports feel going for the big shot, big play or big hit supersedes playing their games that way it evolved over decades. The numbers tell ’em to do it.
When playing that all or nothing style works, offenses can be very impressive. When it doesn’t, teams can look like they don’t know how to play the game at all. The numbers as crunched by statistics mavens show the reward outweighs the risk.
Yet, most fans wish their favorite teams had a fall back plan when things aren’t going so well. For decades the phrase “Live by the Sword, Die by the Sword” has been changed in sports to “Live by the Pass, Die by the Pass” or “Live by the Jump Shot, Die by the Jump Shot.” Baseball probably needs its own variation now, “Live by the Home Run, Die by the Strikeout.”
The point is that while throwing passes which all have a greater chance to be longer gainers than running plays does analytically look good and make sense, what happens on those days when the quarterback is missing targets, receivers have butter fingers or the weather is inclement? Does the same team have a running game they can use as a fall back? In the Run and Shoot days–which have passed in the NFL– the answer was always, “no.” To run the offense well teams no longer carried tight ends, replacing them with extra receiver. Running backs were mostly blockers, but were used when defenses started falling back too much to protect deeper regions. They could occasionally have big runs or even big games, but were not hard to defense if a run and shoot team started to try to run too much. There weren’t enough blockers on the field. Run and Shoot teams could never run out the clock. They couldn’t keep a drive going only on the ground.
The run and shoot evolved into a spread offense that has some of the same principles, but included a tight end and an offense that did not try to throw the ball on every down. That was a wise decision.
Can the NBA follow suit? At times the NBA game is very ugly to watch. The emphasis on the three point shot instead of simply having the three point shot as an option is again the result of analytics. Three points is better than two is obvious, but the sacrifice is a lower field goal percentage, more missed shots and potentially more possessions for the opposing team after those missed. Analytics say the advantage is still with the three point shooting team. The catch is basic. Like the run and shoot football team whose quarterback needs to be on target so do three point shooting teams need to hit the right percentage of attempts. Two for six provides the same points a 3 for 6 in two point shots. Anything less than hitting 33% of three pointers can be counter productive especially when considering that each miss results in a rebound and defensive rebounders tend to out number offensive rebounders by a large margin.
But the major problem with shooting three pointers is not having much else with the offense. When shots are not falling or closely contested teams need other options at least for awhile until things open up again. Many don’t. They may have players capable to going one-on-one but that often results in everyone else standing around waiting for an emergency pass from the one on one practitioner when things break down. Or, it results a forced shot as the clock is about to expire. That is not efficient and is certainly not pleasing for the fans. Having a play call for a motion offense with movement of both ball and player would be pleasing. However, sometimes the wrong players are on the court for that to be a viable option. Most three point heavy teams don’t practice that option. Rotating spots behind the three point line is considered a play. A two man pick and roll can be a fine play, but it is not one that can be run excessively since it can be defended.
Right now teams in the NBA that use the analytically approved three point shot at the primary weapon are faced with having some games…or stretches of games when the shots don’t fall and they play very poorly. Then again, when the shot is going in the world is nothing but roses. The Golden State Warriors have won multiple championships with the three point shot the single most key part of their offense. During the regular season of 2015-2016 they set a record with 73 wins and Houston led the NBA with 65 regular season wins this season. So, moaning about the games when reliance on the three point shot did not work is not really fair, but is still fodder to feel teams that successful should have other weapons in their arsenals.
That brings us to the current state of major league baseball. A recent news story pointed out that hitting singles is dying. Extra base hits or strike outs are taking over the batters box. Certainly bunting for a base hit has been dead for years which is a shame since with the extreme shifts used defensively against many left handed hitters a simple–not even good- bunt to the third base side is a nearly certain base hit. Swinging the bat can’t come close to having the odds of a hit as good as that simple tap.
Ah, but you can NEVER hit a home run by bunting. Swinging the bat you always have a chance even though with even the best hitters it is not that great.
And while hitting the ball works better than missing it entirely, the same philosophy applies. When you swing you MIGHT hit a home run. When you walk you have no chance. So, you take a big whack. After striking out, you wind up walking back to the dugout about three to four times more than you circle the bases after hitting a home run, but like the three point shot or the pass on every down you had a chance for the big one. Being “out” instead of hitting home run is in at least the 10-1 range or more. And that is for a hitter with 500 ABs and 50 HR which is quite rare. Actual odds are double that for most.
The analytic folks say going for the “big one” makes sense in the total picture, but it has made the games different and on bad days not very entertaining.
In baseball strike outs are way up. Home runs are up, too. The defensive alignments and hitting philosophy are not totally responsible for the strike outs. The average pitcher in major league baseball has a higher velocity fastball than any time in history. Even so, fewer teams play “small ball” to manufacture runs which to some would be he way to counter all this heat. Shorter swings, going for contact, moving runners would all seem the way to go. Instead we get lots of strikeouts, fewer fielding plays and the occasional home run.
All sports run in cycles. The NFL seems to have found a balance. Will the NBA and MLB follow? I hope so. I hate incomplete passes, missed three point shots and strikeouts!