Monday, November 18, 2013

Why Can't Anybody Shoot Anymore?

I don't mind rule changes. I mind dishonest arguments for rule changes.

That, in a nutshell, sums up why I'm bothered by the justification for the new "Jay Bilas rules", which have forced refs to call significantly more fouls in order to artificially increase scoring. But more on that in a moment.

Let's talk about shooting. I had a debate with Mike DeCourcy today on twitter about shooting. He argued that shooting has gotten dramatically worse, and he blamed overly physical play for it. I was skeptical. After all, I wrote a long post back in January debunking the myths about college basketball quality of play dropping.
Mike argued that field goal percentages have dropped from 47.3% in 1988-89 to 43.3% last season. He argued that the three-point line couldn't be blamed, since it was instituted for the 1986-87 season. Both of those facts are correct, but they're misleading. Even though the three-pointer began in 1986-87, it took NCAA teams a full decade to use it nearly enough. The average NCAA team took only 9.2 threes per game in 1986-87, which increased to 11.8 in 1988-89, and nowadays is typically around 18-19.

What do shooting percentages look like historically? See the plot below, which has been normalized to the 1994-95 season:

As you can see, 3P%s were initially high, due to the fact that only sharpshooters took them. Over time, coaches realized the value of threes and started taking more of them, dropping the percentages. But shooting in all ways has been flat for quite some time.

What about two-pointers? I mean, that plot is a little bit hard to read if you want to separate out a few percentages. So let's look at 2P%s from 1980 (the beginning of Jay Bilas's "golden age of college basketball") to now. See a trend? I don't:

One of the common tropes is that players can't shoot anymore. I gave examples of it from two decades ago here. If you search through Lexis Nexus you can find a ton of articles from basically every season of college basketball whining that players can't shoot anymore. You'll hear announcers and read sportswriters talking about it all the time. But it's a myth. Shooting improved throughout the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, as Ye Olde Basketball turned into modern basketball, but shooting has been basically flat ever since the mid-70s.

Why does this myth persist? Two main reasons. First, we're a long way from the past. When we think of the 80s we think of highlights clips. When we think of 2013 we think of that ugly Ohio State/Marquette game on Saturday. When I was a kid I thought Larry Bird never missed a shot. But he missed a lot of shots. I just don't remember the misses. And that brings us to the other reason: irrational glorification of the past.

I've talked about this before, but humans simply have a habit of over-glorifying the past. We tend to think everything is getting worse even as everything is getting better. Ask the average American whether murders, crime, sexual assaults, teen pregnancies or drug usage have been increasing or decreasing nationwide the past two decades. The average American will be wrong on all of them.

And that brings me to the bigger issue here: the rule changes. We've heard all of the talking points. Scoring is down because defenses are more physical, teams are taking more charges, and offenses can't move the ball. These arguments are usually thrown in with assertions that players today are younger and less prepared for college basketball, are coached poorly due to the AAU circuits, and can't shoot anymore.

But here's the problem. Read this post again. Scoring has been down not because teams can't play offense anymore, but because tempo is down. In fact, offensive efficiency has been increasing over the years, and turnovers have been dropping dramatically. None of this makes sense with the narrative, does it? If players are sloppier, coaches are worse, players can't shoot, defenses can be more physical, and defenses can easily draw charges, offensive efficiency should be down and turnovers should be up.

In other words, excuse my french, but I call bullshit on the physicality narrative. I've seen Jay Bilas make his argument by showing a gliding Michael Jordan and Clyde Drexler making a layup in the early 80s and then contrasting that with some guy last week getting hacked but not getting the call. Of course, I could easily show a video of a gliding layup from last week juxtaposed with some dude getting hacked and not getting a call in 1982. The plural of anecdote is not evidence.

The fact that everybody is wrong about shooting and offensive efficiency getting worse reminds us that human memories are terrible. We are unreliable witnesses and we over-glorify the past. Forgive me if I don't take it on memory that basketball was a golden age of free flowing offenses in the early 80s. In general, media sports narratives are wrong. And without evidence, I'm not going to believe this one either.

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