The NBA has a Baseball Problem

San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich

With the Houston Rockets and Milwaukee Bucks shooting three-pointers in the playoffs like there’s an invisible electric fence installed in the arc that will shock anyone who shoots the ball between it and the restricted area, Gregg Popovich’s comments about how the NBA has devolved into a three-point shooting contest have once again been all over Twitter.

To wit (and hat tip because it inspired this article)…

You’ll notice that the objection isn’t about analytics. It’s not saying teams shouldn’t shoot threes if they want to try to win basketball games. Only a fool would try that line of argument, and to be fair to Billy Cliff, he’s no fool:

So what we’re left with is an NBA fan who’s being turned off by the modern game for a subjective reason, one that is perfectly understandable because the NBA is far from the only sport to have the aesthetics of the game and the analytics of the game be so far at odds with each other as to be off-putting to a certain subset of fans.

I’m talking, of course, about baseball. And once again…

Which just so happens to dovetail with one of my pet peeves about baseball, one that explains why I’m running an NBA enthusiast site and not one for MLB:

I hate Three True Outcomes baseball.

Can’t stand it. It is boring beyond measure to me.

I like baseball that hearkens back to the Whitey Herzog era in the 1980s, the station-to-station, walk-stolen base-score from second on a single baseball that’s still practiced to this day in the Japanese leagues.

I hate watching golden sombreros. Hate ten-pitch plate appearances where a batter fouls off four two-strike pitches before taking ball four and, rather than stealing second and scoring on a base hit, instead stands like a statue on first base until someone hits a two-run homer.

Put simply, I miss Rickey Henderson.

And, of course, the incongruity between my love of inefficient baseball and my extreme distaste for inefficient basketball (as anyone who’s read a word I’ve ever written on this site or on Twitter about the NBA knows) wasn’t lost on my own Twitter audience.

“How can you be so stat forward in one sport and so archaic in another?”

It’s a sensible question, and the only answer I have is the same one Billy on Twitter had for the NBA.

I don’t like watching it, and as a result, it puts me off the sport as a fan.

Granted, every sport either has or has had this problem in the past. The NBA, of course, had the original clogged-toilet-offense problem in the 1970s that led the NBA to introduce the three-point arc in the first place (the idea being that making an outside shot should be rewarded in proportion to its difficulty, which would’ve seemed like common sense in the ’70s) and now the equal-and-opposite reaction of players getting good enough at threes that the league now has a dearth of inside-out play that people used to like.

Baseball has the loss of station-to-station baseball, with its variety of outcomes and the thrill of the stolen base and the stretched single yielding to a rigid orthodoxy of walks, home runs, and strikeouts.

There are football fans, drunk on the heady potions that were Barry Sanders, Emmitt Smith, and Walter Payton, who just watched Le’Veon Bell miss an entire season due to a contract holdout and the Steelers nearly make the playoffs anyway, who wish the running game would come back.

And to that point, if you doubt the analytics of the death of the run game, one need look no further than the New York Giants drafting Saquon Barkley, the best running back in the draft and the Rookie of the Year, second overall and finishing 5-11 and 17th in offensive yards because you don’t get an explosive offense without heavy emphasis on the forward pass. The run isn’t quite the midrange jumper of football—you still need a good running game to kill clock in the fourth quarter when you have the lead—but nor is it the kind of thing you spend the second overall pick in a loaded quarterback draft on.

And hockey…well, if the words “dump and chase” mean anything to you, you probably stopped watching the NHL in 2004 just like I did.

Does this mean the NBA should make a rule change to reduce the amount of threes?

Well…probably not. I’ve gone into detail about how the number of outside shots and inside shots hasn’t changed over the past few years. 45 percent (give or take a couple of percentage points each year) of shots are taken from outside; the difference is that long twos are going extinct in favor of the similarly accurate but 50-percent-more-valuable three-pointer. This is just common sense.

And two-pointers are becoming more efficient (especially considering the value of the and-one) as more twos become layups and dunks and stop being midrange jump shots.

And as long as layups/dunks and threes are a similar value proposition, we’re going to see an evolution in the game to where about 40 percent of shots are threes, 40 percent are layups or dunks, and the remaining 20 percent (with some fudge room on all three of those numbers based on who the best players on any given team are; obviously, the Rockets and the 76ers have different strengths) are going to be midrange jump shots at various distances as teams either force up bad shots late in the shot clock or get stymied by the defense on aborted drives and have to shoot a floater or other contested shot because their other option would be to just turn the ball over.

When the NBA reaches that logical endgame, there might be a fan exodus. If what you liked about basketball isn’t in pro basketball anymore, you might want to try the Missouri Valley Conference, about as far from the NBA style-wise as any group of college teams plays.

Likewise, if you don’t like MLB and three true outcomes, try the independent minors or the Japanese league—you don’t have to speak Japanese to understand the universal language of baseball, after all. You might learn some Japanese words for various outcomes along the way.

Is this headlong rush toward three-and-layup ball going to hurt the sport’s popularity? Ehh…I wouldn’t go that far.

But let’s not ignore anyone whose objection to basketball is rooted in an aesthetic rather than a statistical argument. The NBA is an entertainment business, and some folks just aren’t entertained.

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