Move over, baseball. Your title as biggest sport about failure has just been usurped by basketball.
Because in baseball, “you can fail 70 percent of the time and be an All-Star” is both untrue (batting average is dead; all hail on-base percentage, and you’d better be getting on base closer to two times in five if you want to be a true star) and irrelevant; once you are out, you are back in the dugout and your ability to contribute meaningfully to your team’s success is done for another two or three innings.
In basketball, on the other hand, some of the best scoring plays are the result of a play going some way other than intended but still—all within a 24-second shot clock—immediately being turned into something that, while the result of a mistake on offense or a well-executed set on defense, is worth two points, three if you can get yourself fouled.
After all, what is successful NBA offense? If you got an open three-pointer to drop, you succeeded. If you got to the rim for a layup, a dunk, and optionally an and-one, you succeeded.
If you did literally anything else, you failed to find the most efficient way to score on that possession, either coming up empty or making life needlessly harder on yourself.
Settled for a midrange jumper, even if you have LaMarcus Aldridge or DeMar DeRozan (or both) on your team? You got that shot because you couldn’t get an open three; three is more than two and eFG% exists as a stat for a reason.
Sweet floater from just in front of the free throw line? Watch the tape. The shooter’s driving lane got cut off by the defender and he failed to get the driving layup he intended on trying to get by being in that spot on the floor in the first place.
Four-footer from just outside the restricted area? Are you playing the Pacers or Jazz? Because that’s the shot Myles Turner and Rudy Gobert will force you to take and you should just be glad your shot didn’t get blocked.
Fundamentally, this is at the heart of every counter-argument against modern basketball.
“The game is just threes and layups,” we hear people shout from the rooftops. “Whatever happened to the floater or the midrange J?”
And when Aldridge goes for 30 or Trae Young does this…
Trae Young is getting really, really good at punishing bigs who sag back on his drives. It's a bind. Play him too tight and he has the handle and trickery is getting him the step.
Floater game is getting tight (56.8% over his last 15 games). pic.twitter.com/g47TDWRGrd
— Paul Headley NBA (@PaulHeadleyNBA) January 29, 2019
It’s because in each case, those guys had to take what the defense gave them.
And yet basketball wouldn’t work as a sport if, like baseball’s all-or-nothing at-bat scenario, any shot that wasn’t a three or a dunk was a guaranteed miss. What separates greatness from the G-League isn’t Stephen Curry or Shaquille O’Neal.
NBA games are won and lost by what happens when teams make optimal use of suboptimal situations.
In no other sport is this such a defining feature of the game. Every sport has its failure case, of course—an out in baseball, a punt in football, the goalie saving a shot and securing possession for his team in hockey or soccer—but in every other sport, there is finality in failure.
And sure, basketball has finality in failure too—a turnover or a defensive rebound—but no other sport has basketball’s ability to presume that even though only about an eighth of possessions result in a made 3 (.359 3PAR, .355 3PT% league-wide in 2018-19) and about a fifth result in a successful shot within three feet (29.2 percent of all shots are within that distance at a FG% of .658), the other 70 percent of possessions do not in fact guarantee zero points.
About 35 percent of shots are taken from somewhere other than those two ideal locations, either within three feet or beyond the arc. About 40 percent of those shots go in.
And in just about every case, that’s enough points over the course of a game that being a little bit better than the other team at converting your failure cases is as much or even more important than getting your threes and layups, the components the in-a-vacuum ideal NBA strategy would get you on every possession.
That’s not to say you should build your game plan around those shots. Even Aldridge, who hit better than 45 percent of his midrange shots in 2018-19, has a sub-100 points per 100 possessions expectation on those attempts, which is atrocious and would make an offense purely built around such shots the worst in the league by a mile.
What it does say is that guys like that, who hit 45 percent of shots that the rest of the league hits at 40 percent, can swing a game where a third of all the shots come from that range.
So people who decry threes and dunks are still wrong. But people who completely dismiss shots that aren’t threes and dunks? Also wrong.
Basketball is a game of failure. And when you fail, you’d better have a Plan B that reliably works.