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Discrete events, continuous flow, and why I love basketball

In high school I played football and ran track. After high school, I've tried running, biking, ultimate frisbee and a few other sports. But if you read my blog often, you know that my passion these days is basketball.

I find it challenging and exciting in much the same way that I enjoy science. There's just so many combinations of events and so much improvisation. Plus, it's something I can play alone (shooting around), with one other person, 2-on-2 or full-court 5-on-5, giving me plenty of opportunities to practice and participate. This is in contrast to, say, football, which I'll likely never be able to play again with a full team. And as a sport to watch live or on TV, it's fun and fast-paced without all the head trauma of my old sport.

A lot about why I love basketball is summarized in this outstanding sports article (h/t Bri) about the "Kobe Assist." The main point is that Basketball cannot be thought of and analyzed in the same way as baseball. While baseball has discrete, individual accomplishments (e.g. the homerun), basketball plays are much more continuous:
Most basketball statistics refer to discrete events such as shots, steals, and rebounds that occur within the continuous context of a flowing game. Basketball is very different from baseball, but in the basketball analytics world, too often we treat our sport as if it were baseball; we kid ourselves and say a rebound or a corner 3 is akin to a strikeout or a home run, a singular accomplishment achieved by a player that's fit for tallying and displaying in a cell on some spreadsheet on some website.
There is usually a singular event that ends a possession of the ball for one team and the change of possession to the other team. But everything in between is a continuous flow, with important events such as a 3-point shot preceded by maneuvering of the ball-handler, passes, one or more screens, all occurring simultaneously with the positioning of rebounders near the basket. If you stay focused solely on the ball, you'll miss the symphony occurring away from the ball. Dunks will occur apparently out of nowhere. But for every time that Blake Griffin Mozgovs someone, there was a Randy Foy who set up the pick-n-roll, Deandre Jordan diving toward the rim taking the opposing center with him, Griffin rolling to the hoop, and Foy passing.

Similarly, those put-back rebounds of a Kobe shot can be though of as an accidental assist:
Just as the theoretical butterfly flapping its wings in Rio somehow influences the formation of a faraway hurricane, basketball outcomes exhibit sensitive dependence on previous environmental conditions, yet the analytical "baseball-ification" of our fluid sport too often neglects this basic tenet of basketball ecology. We disregard too much environmental context. As an illustration of how this baseball-ification of basketball ecology can hinder our understanding, consider the Kobe Assist, those missed shots that are more like accidental passes that lead to put-backs.
I can't wait until I get back home after this long work-trip. I miss my family and my bed. I also miss playing ball at Braun Gym!


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