HoopsHype.com Columns

Compute to achieve
by Dennis Hans / March 15, 2004

The National Basketball Association is leading America’s youth down a dead-end street with its “Read to Achieve” campaign. Math and science is where the emphasis needs to be.

A headline in a recent edition of the St. Petersburg Times declared, “Better math skills, better jobs.” It sat atop a column by the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof, who bemoaned “a tendency in U.S. intellectual circles to value the humanities but not the sciences. Anyone who doesn't nod sagely at the mention of Plato's cave is dismissed as barely civilized, while it's no blemish to be ignorant of statistics, probability and genetics.”

Kristof noted that the “latest international survey, called Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, found that the best-performing eighth graders were, in order, from Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan, Belgium and the Netherlands. The U.S. ranked 19th, just after Latvia.”

An NBA star reading The Cat in the Hat to our grade schoolers won’t help them catch their Latvian and Dutch counterparts in the subjects that matter most. The NBA should do our kids a favor and replace “Read to Achieve” with “Unblinded by Science” and “Number-Crunching for Fun and Profit.”

It may well be that NBA poobahs don’t promote math proficiency because they don’t want to call attention to their own glaring deficiencies in that area. An understanding of basic math — e.g., 2 is greater than 1.75 — would allow the poobahs to tweak the rules so that all the stuff they regard as bad for the game are punished rather than rewarded.

Using math to ensure that “penalties” penalize

NBA poobahs are smart enough to know that fastbreaks rev up the game and excite the fans. So why do they have a rule that rewards intentional fouls that stop fastbreaks in their tracks? It’s as if they said to themselves, “What can we do that will most please the control-freak coaches who have ruined the game?”

A fastbreak possession is much more likely to produce two points than a non-break possession, which on average produces about a point. Thus, there is an incentive for a defender to reach out and grab the nearest fast-breaker, particularly if the defender’s team is not in the “penalty situation.” The whistle blows, and the play is terminated before anything exciting can happen. The offensive team retains possession, but it now faces the more difficult task of scoring against a set defense. The big losers are the fans and those players who dazzle in the open court.

The penalty for this and every other intentional foul must be greater than the number of points the intentional fouler suspected would be scored if he didn’t execute a deliberate grab, whack or mid-air mugging where it’s clear the defender had not attempted a clean play on the ball. That means the penalty has to be greater than 2 points. I recommend 2.5 points, with possession reverting to the team that committed the foul. If the league doesn’t want to mess with half-points, then the penalty must be 3 points.

Either way, we will have dispensed with the absurdity of rewarding a player for intentionally committing a foul. A penalty that truly penalizes will serve as a deterrent, and the ludicrous concept “smart foul” will disappear from hoop discourse.

Re-calculating the clear-path foul

NBA poobahs are so dumb that when they created a new rule with an extra steep “penalty” to prevent intentional fouls when a player has a “clear path” to the basket and a sure-thing deuce, they came up with a “penalty” that rewards! The “penalty” is one free-throw (average value = .75 points) and possession of the ball on the side (average value = 1.0 points). That’s 1.75 points — an average defensive savings of .25 points, which is all the control-freak coaches need to make such fouls standard operating procedure. If they’re playing on the road, the
control freaks get a bonus reward, as a clear-path foul prevents the possibility of a show-stopping, crowd-rousing dunk. Control-freak coaches are never happier than when show-stoppers are bottled up and fans are bored silly.

The simple mathematical solution is to give the fouled player 2 points (just as if he had attempted a shot that was goal-tended) and give his team a bonus penalty point or half-point. Everybody wins but the control freaks. And whenever they lose, it’s a good sign you’ve come up with something that’s good for the game.

Devalue the trey to promote mid-range marksmanship

A common lament these days is that the mid-range jumper is going the way of the dinosaur. Are Glenn Robinson, Richard Hamilton and Sam Cassell the last of a dying breed? Only if NBA poobahs keep thinking like dodo birds.

Because the NBA awards a ridiculously high 50-percent bonus for every shot sunk behind the arc — 3 points instead of 2 — a player making a paltry 35 percent of his trey attempts generates more points than a hard-working sap sinking 50 percent of the same number of mid-range attempts. Thus, it’s perfectly rational for a perimeter player to work hard at mastering the 24-footer, even if it takes practice time away from 15-to-20 footers or requires him to alter his stroke so it’s better suited for long distance than medium distance.

To revive the mid-range game and get field-goal percentages on an upward trajectory, cut in half the bonus for beyond-the-arc shots. Make the shot worth 2.5 points, and sell it to the masses by anointing it the “5-spot,” “the Lincoln” or “el cinco.”

Fans can celebrate a successful shot by chanting “sink-o.” Harry Belafonte can re-record “Banana Boat,” replacing “Day-o” with “Cinc-o.” When Ray Allen drains a cinco, the P.A. guy can bellow “Cinco de Rayo.” When a gunner’s in the zone, we’ll say he’s “in the Lincoln Tunnel.” Long-range marksmen can adopt the nickname “Half-point.” It’ll be fun for the whole family and good for the game. No more ugly “bombs away” offenses, as the bomb will only be a percentage play if hoisted by a very good shooter who’s open and in rhythm.

How to restrain Shaqzilla in two seconds

As far as I know, it remains a violation for an offensive player to linger in the foul lane for 3 seconds. It’s rarely called these days, and Shaquille O’Neal seems to have been granted “squatting rights” — the right to dislodge the deed-holding defender and stay as long as he likes.

Maybe if dislodging were categorized as a violation rather than a foul, refs would call it. That’s worth a try, but with the stipulation that floppers be put on a refs’ “Watch List” and be denied the benefit of any doubt.

As for 3 seconds, that’s more time in the lane than a skilled post player should require. So let’s drop a second and start enforcing a new “2 seconds” rule. Here’s how it will work:

The current rule allows the offensive player to stay till the very end of the third second if he is, at that instant, in the act of shooting. Under the new rule, the nearest ref will activate an audible, pre-recorded count the moment a post-up player’s sneaker touches the lane. By pressing a hand-held button, the ref will activate a miniature speaker embedded in the padded base of the backboard. All players in the paint will then hear Snoop Dogg recite, “One, one thizzle; two, one thizzle; three.” If the paint-dweller has the ball, the shot must be out of his hands by the “th” of “three.” If the paint-dweller does not have the ball, he has to be out of the lane by that same “th.” A second press of the button deactivates the count.

Trial and error under game conditions will help determine if the “th” of “three” should sound precisely at 2.0 seconds, at 2.5 or somewhere in between. What’s certain is the current system is broken. My proposal not only puts an end to lane squatting, it keeps the post player, his defender and the ref constantly aware of where the count stands.

Make rules for the masses, not the massive

Sixty or so NBA centers weigh between 220 and 260 pounds. One weighs 350 pounds. Yet the interpretation of the rules governing low-post play has evolved in recent years, most noticeably in the playoffs, to permit greater use of such unskilled tactics as leaning, pushing, shoving and uprooting, thus giving the behemoth an enormous advantage. It’s as if NBA poobahs said, “What can we do to shift the center matchup away from a contest of agility, quickness, hops, and skill — all those bad things we associate with Russell, Walton, Hakeem and Kareem — to one where brute force is the overriding factor and foul trouble hangs like a dark cloud over every important game?”

So here’s another lesson in numbers: If “the steamroller” and “uprooting” techniques are not only illegal but widely regarded as inappropriate for basketball, and the allowance of both immensely helps one player while hurting 60, don’t allow them. Cater to the masses who want to play hoops rather than the lone giant who prefers a hybrid basketball-football game. Do so and the alleged “shortage of quality centers” vanishes. All of a sudden, the NBA will discover it has 25 long, active and coordinated gents capable of being a dependable 38-minutes-per-game center on a championship team.

As for Shaq, he’ll be just fine. In fact, the less he’s allowed to bulldoze, and with a steep penalty in place for intentional fouls, the fewer hard, deliberate whacks he’ll absorb. “No bulldozing” will provide him an incentive to drop 50 pounds, which will increase his still-impressive quickness and mobility, ease the stress on his tender
tootsies, and extend his career. Yes, even Shaq wins when we take the pigskin out of low-post play.

Developing a love of reading is all well and good, but that alone is unlikely to help you “achieve.” American kids and NBA poobahs should follow the trail blazed by Latvian eighth-graders. Knowing your numbers is a must, both for launching a lucrative career and fixing what ails the NBA.

Dennis Hans’s essays on basketball — including the styles, rhythms and fundamentals of free-throw shooting — have appeared online at the Sporting News and Slate. His writings on other topics have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post and Miami Herald, among other outlets.

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