First-Mover Advantage: Why Basketball Games Don’t End 2-0

Consider the following two equal-but-opposite scenarios in sports.

On one end, you have a penalty kick in top-flight, World Cup or elite European club league soccer.

The offense, as in the guy who’s about to kick the ball, knows exactly where he intends to put the ball, can do so with a nearly pinpoint degree of accuracy as he’s practiced these kicks for hours on top of hours, and as a result has almost all the control over the ensuing result.

The goalkeeper is nearly helpless; at best he can try to guess where the ball is going, leap at the moment the ball is struck, and either guess right and make a spectacular save or get bailed out by the shooter missing the kick.

In the overwhelming majority of cases, the player taking the penalty kick scores a goal, because he has what’s known in game theory as “first-mover advantage.”

Now consider the opposite side of this situation—a pitch in baseball.

The pitcher knows what kind of pitch he’s going to throw—fastball, curveball, change-up, slider, perhaps something more exotic like a screwball or a splitter. He has practiced for hours and hours since he was a kid in Little League and has nearly pinpoint control over where the pitch will go and, if he’s throwing a breaking ball, when and how the ball will change direction in-flight.

The batter isn’t as helpless as the soccer goalkeeper, but he’s still very much on the back foot; he has to anticipate what kind of pitch is coming, read it out of the pitcher’s hand, then swing the bat at the right place to make solid contact to avoid making an out either because he missed entirely and struck out or because he hit the ball weakly enough that it was fielded to put him out on the basepaths.

The batter’s best option, as with the goalkeeper, is either having the pitcher be too predictable—in which case he can have a sense where and when to swing before the pitch is thrown—or having the pitcher miss his spot for a walk or a nice juicy pitch up in the zone that he can clobber for a home run.

But the pitcher has the “first mover advantage”, and that’s why even in Major League Baseball, batters in the 2020 season hit just .245 and got on base only 32.2 percent of the time. When the defense has the first-mover advantage, what you’ve got is a low-scoring game.

(Soccer’s a low-scoring game overall too, but if it were a penalty kick shootout, that would be different.)

Most sports have some combination of offensive and defensive advantage, or there is so much going on that it nullifies any advantage that can be gained by moving first.

In American football, the offense gets the first move—only the center and the quarterback know when the ball will be snapped—but there are so many other discrete things going on all over the field on every play, from the battle between the linemen in the trenches to defensive coverages designed to fill every gap that could be created for a receiver or a running back, all while limiting the amount of time the offense has to execute a play before their window to do so closes and they end up taking a sack, throwing it out of bounds, or otherwise accomplishing nothing in their quest to go ten yards before they have to punt.

Hockey is similar—where the offense has a clear advantage, on a penalty shot or a breakaway, it is successful the majority of the time just like in soccer. But much like American football, enough is going on in a sufficiently constricted space that the defense has a better chance of a positive outcome on any given sequence than the offense does, which is why, on average, if you go to a hockey game you can expect to see about six goals scored total between the two teams in a 60-minute game.

Three scoring plays per team in the NBA won’t get you to 10 points.

Which is why this particular bit of game theory is most fascinating in basketball.

See, there’s another concept from games—although in this case the “video” kind rather than the “theoretical thought experiment” kind—that informs the action in basketball more than any other sport in existence.

That’s the concept of “decisions per second.” That is, how many different scenarios can the human mind handle in a given frame of time, and how can one player of a given game maximize the decisions he can make in this time frame compared to his opponent?

At one extreme, you have baseball. Very few decisions per second. Almost no chance for a person to have greater “computational power” than the enemy—moving first is a huge advantage, so the pitcher wins the matchup better than two-thirds of the time.

But at the other extreme? Basketball. And the first-mover advantage belongs mainly to the offense.

The best basketball offenses are designed so that all five players on the court are moving at once, and what’s more, they’re moving in such a way that if the timing is right, one of them will gain an edge over his defender and shake loose to get open, the one with the ball, knowing how, in general, his teammates will execute at any given moment, will find him, and that player will get an open shot.

And, since open shots go in far more often than contested shots do, that advantage gained usually translates into points.

But what keeps the defense from anticipating these offensive moves and shutting down every possible lane to the basket or open shot on the perimeter?

Simple. Decisions per second.

At any given time, in any given situation, there are multiple possible outcomes for what can happen next, and they are wildly divergent.

A player being defended could jab step, create space, and shoot it.

He could pass the ball to, in theory, any of the other four guys on the floor, and his defender, concerned mainly with the man in front of him, isn’t going to know where everyone else on the floor is. The offensive player, however, with his head up and facing the action (rather than the defender, whose back is to the situation developing behind him), knows what is going on and can, thanks to the practice he has with his teammates, make a decision faster than not only his defender can react but faster than the other four defenders on the court can as well.

Or, conversely, the player could put the ball on the floor and move with it, changing the focus of the on-ball defender whilst simultaneously changing the angles of attack to reach either the rim or the other players on the team.

The basic possibilities—dribble it, pass it, or shoot it—can be mixed and matched in complex offensive schemes involving both planned and improvised steps over which the offense always has primary control.

And with these decisions and multiple-step executions piling up to where the offense is being proactive and the defense merely reactive, the probabilities increase that somewhere in the midst of all this, something will happen that is advantageous to the offense to such a degree that the ideal—an open look—presents itself.

And unlike hockey, which works exactly the same way, you can’t goaltend in basketball. There’s no goalie whose sole job is to survey everything moving in front of him and by keeping track of the movement of a player, the puck, and the shooter’s stick, be able to save the shot over 90 percent of the time.

Which, ultimately, is how basketball teams score 110 points each game. That first-mover advantage is why the offense has a basic advantage, and the amount of decisions per second can, within 24 seconds, be enough to force the defense to make a mistake to give the offense the best possible chance to get, on average, 1.09 points every time down the floor.

No other sport combines those two concepts from game theory quite like basketball—and it’s why basketball is the fastest, most exciting, most compelling, and ultimately the highest-scoring sport in existence.