On Luck and Basketball
One week ago, Shane Battier defended Carmelo Anthony. Battier wasn’t marking Anthony the entire game, but he generally didn’t do anything differently than usual – he denied easy passes, tried to anticipate Anthony’s first step and stuck his entire hand in Anthony’s face as any shot was about to be put up. If you looked at Anthony’s shot distribution after the game, you would generally think that Battier did a fine job. Twenty six shots were taken and not a single one was attempted in the painted area. Anthony is a good shooter, but if you’re keeping him away from the rim and off the free-throw line then the odds are most likely in your favor.
The only problem was that Anthony hit 18 of those shots, tallying 50 for the evening.
Despite the end result, did Battier play good defense? It’s certainly possible – when some guys get hot, there is only so much a defender can do, including whacking Anthony in the face on one made jumper as Battier did – but in trying answering that question it’s easy to tumble down the rabbit hole and end up with a different query altogether.
Was Battier unlucky?
“We own our mistakes and we need to do things better,” Spoelstra said of Anthony’s performance. “We did things relatively disciplined and we did it relatively committed and relatively hard. His performance transcended all of that and sometimes you just have to tip your hat and other times you have to absolutely put your foot down and say ‘No, we need to do it better.’ He had a great performance and that is really the difference.”
This may seem frivolous, but in many ways determining when outcomes are influenced by luck is at the heart of what all NBA players and coaches do. They may not all think about it in those terms, but whenever you hear a player say they missed a good shot or a coach say their team just got beat by a tough shot at the buzzer they are really acknowledging that, on some level, they were unlucky. The more accurately luck’s role can be identified in the various aspects of professional basketball, the better those players and coaches can figure out whether or not what they are doing should actually be working.
About a month ago in a convention hall in Boston -- as part of the Sloan Sports Athletic Conference -- author Michael Mauboussin touched on this topic in the context of sports (much of his work centers on the financial markets) and it got the gears turning in my head. Where does luck exist in basketball, and perhaps more importantly, what relationship to players and coaches have with it?
In following up with Mauboussin’s theories, he describes three parameters for luck:
1. It happens to an individual or a group. Luck happens to a person, but randomness occurs within a system. If someone guesses heads 10 times in a row as you are flipping a quarter, they are getting lucky. But in the context of the quarter-flipping system, this is simply a random result.
2. It can be good or bad.
3. For luck to have an influence, it has to be reasonable to have expected a different outcome to occur. If there is only one possible result then there is nothing for luck to influence.
Every system is made differently, however. Luck’s influence once a coin flip, where only two possible outcomes exist, is very different from the role luck plays in a more complex system such as a professional sport. There is a continuum of sorts, Mauboussin describes, of luck vs. skill. On the far left are systems that are pure luck – games like dice, roulette or playing the lottery. On the far right are systems that are absent of luck – chess being the most perfect example. On the left there is complete regression to the mean, and on the skills side there exists no regression at all. And in between exists every other game you can think of.
Of the five major sports, which is the closest to being pure skill? Basketball. Games are played in a highly controlled environment, there are only 10 players on the court at the same time and the best players get the most possessions. In hockey the most skilled players aren’t on the ice enough. Football, baseball and soccer all use larger fields of play that are subject to weather, rules that allow different ballpark dimensions and/or a ball that bounces in unpredictable ways. And if you want to win a championship in basketball, you have to perform well in an 82-season then win four-consecutive seven-game series.
There’s a good reason the NBA probably has fewer postseason upsets than any other major sport. Luck can always win a game or two, but skill, preparation and matchups win out. The Golden State Warriors and Memphis Grizzlies didn’t knock off No. 1 seeds because they were lucky, they did it because they matched up better.
We won’t go too farther into what exactly luck is, in part because we’ll end up talking about neuro-science – something I’m not properly equipped to explain – but also because I was more interested in what the people involved in the game had to say, and I imagine your feelings are also the same. But before we get to what Battier, Ray Allen, James Jones and Erik Spoelstra had to say on the subject, be aware that there is a semantic discussion that can easily be a distraction. Sometimes when we’re talking about luck what we really mean is variance – system vs. individual, as Mauboussin described – and vice versa. This is an important part of the discussion, but not the focus of it.
"A player is who he is. At the end of the day your number will reflect your skill level, however you want to measure it. On many, many different levels. Obviously, that’s taking a body of work and looking at it from that aspect. On the day-to-day journey that we’re on, obviously there’s fluctuations and I think that’s where the excitement lies in basketball. I don’t think people want to admit that basketball players and teams and performances are pretty predictable if you really look at what the process is.
"In a game, you know if you shoot a certain type of shot, if you give up a certain type of shot, if you foul, the outcomes can be pretty predictable for you. They’re getting to a point now where they can hone in tight on how a game is going to go. I think basketball is a little less random, but the excitement lies in the nights where the randomness wins out."
When a guy is hitting every shot he puts up, do you account for that as normal or even expected variance in his percentages?
"That’s a normal, although you’re in awe of the sort of the shots the guy hits and the quality of shot on paper, it says he shouldn’t have been doing this. There’s always that chance. That’s the fun of it. But in terms of luck, from a player’s standpoint I think that most players believe in luck a lot more than the predictable path of randomness.
"There’s luck. There’s luck involved. That’s the bounce of the ball. Shooting is a little different. I’m talking about the bounce of the ball. The way the ball bounces. So there is luck involved. No question. Does a referee see a play that’s a foul? Did they get a good look at it? That’s luck. That affects the bottom line. If you’re running back in transition and someone slips on a wet spot [or runs into a cameraman, as Ray Allen recently did] and he’s a step late and that’s the difference between making or missing a play, that’s completely luck. There is a lot of luck built into it. I would agree with the assertion that basketball is the least random of the sports."
"I’d say most do believe in luck. I don’t believe most players understand the random path. I don’t think most players have been exposed to it. This is a relatively new way of thinking. I thought the same way most players think when I first came into the league. My thought has totally changed at this point, but it took years of understanding. I think as players go forward they’ll understand the path of analytics and luck and randomness and it will make more sense.
"I just remember having conversations with Sam Hinkie, our assistant GM [in Houston]. He and I would have our own scouting reports for the game. If I was playing Kobe or Brandon Roy or a big scorer he was like, ‘Basically, do you want the best chance of survival?’ I said, ‘Hell yeah.’
"So he would say, ‘Make Kobe do this. If Kobe does this [other thing], it’s death. Stay away from this as much as possible. If the shot goes in then we can live with this.’ After a while you realize that NBA players are very, very habitual and they have their strengths and their weaknesses and once a guy sort of falls into the pattern, that’s who he is for his career. It’s very rare for a guy to change or really improve in an area that’s a weakness or fall off from an area of strength. It’s very rare. From that standpoint, it’s pretty predictable."
"I don’t believe in basketball that there’s any luck. In the game itself, I think you create your own luck. When you’re prepared and you’re out there doing your job, the ball bounces your way. You see that. Every team that has won a championship on any level, you can look back on a game where the ball bounced off of the other team’s shoe and went out of bounds. Do you call that luck? I don’t. Because you play great defense and you put yourself in position to win a game. If I hit a halfcourt shot or hit a shot at the buzzer, people say, ‘Oh, they were just lucky.’ No, because you actually were trying to make it. We’ve always practiced throwing the ball over our heads and making crazy layups. Everything about this game of basketball, we’re somewhat skilled at.
"To me, I don’t think it’s associated with luck other than those opportunities sometimes where the ball bounces in your favor where you end up getting another possession and win the game. The ball hits the scoreboard, comes down and goes in, there’s the luck of a bounce, but it’s always in your favor since you’re trying to make it happen. Football’s different because the football bounces in so many odd ways and weather. Sometimes luck is not on your side.
"I honestly believe that we make our breaks. In every sport you make your own breaks, but in basketball specifically, when you train you’ve got to train physically your body, you’ve got to get up and down the floor. So if I’m training in the offseason, I’m working on everything in the weight room and working on my conditioning outside and then you’ve got to go on the floor and work on your dribbling then you’ve got to work on your shooting, then you’ve got to work on your free throws. You have to be versed in every angle so when you come out there you’re prepared.
"Everybody is different. Everybody thinks differently. The best part is when you practice that way and the game comes, those moments don’t throw you off, you’re ready for them. Certain guys don’t look at it as an obstacle or pressure; it’s just ‘Hey, I’ve done this millions of times.’ But some guys think its luck because they couldn’t fathom them doing it themselves because they don’t push their bodies to that limit."
Much of what you’re talking about doesn’t sound like the influence of luck but the importance of process vs. outcome. Why do you think people latch onto the results so easily?
"I just believe that certain people don’t know the game thoroughly. I’ve seen it first hand. People wonder how I always get open at the end of the game. If you watch the progression of the game from the beginning to the end, you can see why it happens. It’s hard to just defend against it. That’s the same thing with me. I remember early in my career people used to say, ‘how come this guy always gets open on your side and hits a shot against us?’ I’d say, ‘If you watched the game it’s because there’s a rotation, tilt and I had to go help and then my guy is open and there’s nobody left to help, so I had to get back to him and if I don’t he scores.’
"Some people don’t see the progression of it throughout the game. Especially if you have a great player in one position that causes a shift. When that shift happens somebody else who’s a great role player gets hot and he makes buckets. People always wonder, ‘You let so-and-so score 25. . .’ and it’s like, well, a game plan was to keep this guy from scoring and somebody else stepped up who’s capable."
"I don’t believe in luck, I believe in probabilities. When I think about luck I think about being in a situation where your preparation and your skill level have no impact on it whatsoever. So you can be unskilled, not even train and you can basically just roll over and something happens, there’s no input for your output.
"But our sport is one where you can make multiple adjustments easily. In football . . . for the most part it’s a sustained drive and the plays are four seconds of action and 40 seconds of rest. Our game is more free flowing, more movement, so you have to do a lot more thinking on the run and that’s tougher. So I think that’s why when you talk about our game, the level of coordination, all of those factors make it truly the most skilled of the four major sports.
How do you account for the natural variance in the game?
"You won’t hit 100 out of 100 shots. The probabilities are against you. It’s not impossible, but it also depends on your sample size. If you’re shooting two shots a game you can probably make 100 shots if all you have to do is make two shots a game. Our sport is one where no one is ever going to shoot 100 percent, but it’s very simple. If your mechanics are on, there’s a good chance that you can make it and there seems to be a greater margin for error with our sport just because you get so many possessions. There are so many moving parts. You can not execute a play wrong but there are 45 components of that play, 45 movements and all it takes is for your defender to be off. I just think that the more skilled you are, the less it seems like luck."
Have you ever had to remind guys not to blame things on unlucky plays?
"When you think about it, there are so many possessions in our game. You lose a game by two and guys are like, ‘we got a bad bounce, an unlucky bounce.’ Well, that’s not the reason we lost the game. It probably was something before. It probably was a turnover or was something else – a bad foul – that resulted in that outcome. So in that moment it can seem unlucky, but when you think about it, it’s really a situation that’s completely controlled.
"I think younger players . . . they’re in the moment. They’re trying to think play by play. The longer you’re in this game the more you realize that our season is a long process. Winning game one has no impact. Losing game 82, you can say it’s game 82 but a lot of times it’s something of a habit that you either develop early in the season or it’s something that you’re not doing. Young players think that in the moment, they’re unlucky. Veterans, we tend to think that over the long haul, the entire process, we fell short."
What’s important here isn’t whether the players think there is luck in basketball. In one form or another, they all acknowledged that there are some things they cannot control. On some level, they can’t let themselves believe in luck. They believe in variance, sure, because variance is inescapable. But allowing luck to infiltrate the mind’s narrative constructions can create a sense of creeping determinism, when the mind slowly convinces itself that a possession or a game had no other possible result which, as James Jones mentioned, is simply not true.
Players have to believe in the process because they can control the process. They believe in a degree of randomness because, as Mauboussin put it, there is randomness in any system that exists on the Luck vs. Skill continuum. But luck, what affects the individual within the system, cannot be used as an excuse when a better process was possible.
To a degree, of course. While some players will expect perfection of themselves – a fitting description for Ray Allen’s shooting career – few teams are going to play perfect defense through the mid-winter doldrums of the NBA regular season. Throughout this season, Erik Spoelstra has simply wanted his team to improve every game. He wants the process to gradually get better, and month by month it has done just that. And only when he is satisfied with, for lack of a better way to put it, the process of the process, can he allow for the effects of luck to be part of his evaluations.
“You obviously have to build a culture, a foundation,” Spoelstra says. “You must build the right talent however you do it. Then you have to build the systems and the habits. Quite often, so many basketball people talk about Basketball Karma, and if you do things disciplined and the right way, and you do it with purity, you start to create your own luck. But at the end of the day you must have those things first.
“The reality is that luck does play a part of it. It does. Ultimately it's a make or miss league. Sometimes that final result can absolutely skew people's perception above all those other steps. But hopefully if you feel like you are doing all of the things necessary, from the culture to the habits to the talent, that you'll be able to create some of your luck. But that might be just us romanticizing the Basketball Karma and the Basketball Gods.”