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The Philosophy and Practice of a Beautiful Game

Summary:
My love of the game of basketball far exceeded my ability to play the game.  I had my hoop dreams in my youth, but my passion and love for the game has continued long after those hoop dreams crashed against the hard rock of reality.  As we economists like to say, there are endowments and there are choices against constraints, and those didn't line up for me to achieve as a player as I had hoped when I set off on that journey at 12.  But even as a player, I realized I would also would love to teach and coach the game.   When I had my chance as a kid to coach younger kids in clinics, or to work at basketball camps between HS and college, this was just reinforced.  So my expectations were always that I would finish playing in college and then coach.  I finished playing much earlier than

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My love of the game of basketball far exceeded my ability to play the game.  I had my hoop dreams in my youth, but my passion and love for the game has continued long after those hoop dreams crashed against the hard rock of reality.  As we economists like to say, there are endowments and there are choices against constraints, and those didn't line up for me to achieve as a player as I had hoped when I set off on that journey at 12.  But even as a player, I realized I would also would love to teach and coach the game.   When I had my chance as a kid to coach younger kids in clinics, or to work at basketball camps between HS and college, this was just reinforced.  So my expectations were always that I would finish playing in college and then coach.  I finished playing much earlier than I had hoped, and I started coaching much later than I had dreamed. But I did get to coach, and I coached kids from the ages of 8 to 18 for close to 2 decades.  And when I coached HS age kids, I often coached 12 months out of the year --- summer league, fall preparation, regular season, and spring training.  I even self-published a little booklet that circulated around Northern Virginia (thanks Peter Lipsey) targeted at 8th graders getting ready to make their HS teams the following fall entitled From March to November, which was based on the coaching phrase -- Basketball is played between November and March, but basketball players are made between March and November.

I consider basketball a beautiful game on many levels -- athleticism, skill, but also the coordination involved, the creativity involved and the discipline that makes it all come together.  To this day, I probably watch upwards to 300 to 400 games a year. At my peak of coaching, I was coaching over 100 games a year easily and watching film, reading, or watching games live or on TV probably in the number of 500 or so.  Basketball is great because it is a TEAM game played by Individuals.  Coaches like to say, there is no I in TEAM, but as the great Michael Jordan once told his legendary coach Dean Smith, "But Coach there is an "I" in WIN."  And Jordan certainly personified that and from his shot against Georgetown (set up by a teammate's pass) to his championships won with passes to John Paxton and Steve Kerr, to his steal and then individual move and mid-range jumper against Utah, he played the game with creativity within discipline, and exhibited not just unique athletic abilities, but superior fundamentals.  Jordan was a two-way superstar and we should not forget that -- EVER.

He also played that game with great joy -- just like Magic Johnson -- and with ruthless competitiveness -- just like Larry Bird.  So much to still learn from those 3 greats. But today's players at the college and NBA are no less a joy to watch compete so I do and I continue to enjoy creativity within the discipline even in the era of the "one and done".

The game is actually pretty simple if you break it down to the DeVenzio rules: (1) the only time you should stand still on a basketball court is when shooting a free throw, otherwise moooove. Move the ball, move yourself, but move with a purpose; (2) pass the ball only to the kids with the same colored shirt as you, never the other colored shirts, if are going to do that at least throw it out of bounds; (3) take only easy shots, if you have a 15 foot shot, but a teammate has a 5 foot shot, pass to them; and finally (4) don't let the other team take easy shots, tackle them if you have to, you have 5 fouls to give, use them if you have to.

Ok, it is more complicated than that, but actually just in the details of offensive strategy (though the pick and roll has been around since, well probably since Naismith) and defensive strategy well there we get into interesting conversations about fanning or funneling, etc., etc., but fundamentally we want to make their 3 players have to beat our 5 players, and once they get the ball on one side of the floor, we don't ever want them to reverse so we force them into this 3 against 5 situation.  And since offensively we know that 3 against 5 doesn't give us the number, we want to make 2 of their players cover 1 of ours and thus switching the number advantage by driving and grabbing a piece of the paint, relocating in a position to shoot, picking and popping, as well as rolling, and basically making sure that we move the ball to 3 sides of the floor prior to taking a shot (so I used to like to track how many baskets my very competitive teams competing at an elite HS level scored off a pass versus off a dribble).  I religiously tracked that, plus turnovers, and rebounds.  Those reflected the goads I set for my team, and the measures helped me work on ways to improve.  Important point to note -- the measures didn't tell me what to value, they told me how well the team was doing at accomplishing the things as a coach I valued.

But that does raise an important issue, when you are watching the game on TV it is different than when you are coaching at HS with a random draw of talent. When you get to select your team from a wide selection -- as I did for my AAU teams -- or what college coaches do, and certainly what GMs do for professionals, you get to pick players for a system you want to run.  HS school coaches at the public schools should be given a lot more credit because they have to adapt to the random draw of talent they have, and their physical attributes, and cannot just impose their "system". The best ones adapt and change and put teams on the floor that compete.  But elite coaches can pick pieces.  This again I think has gotten harder in the "one and done" era because you don't know how long kids will be around to learn your style of play, and one this is for sure, winning is a lot easier when you have the best talent available playing for you.  As the great coach Hubbie Brown used to put it in clinics, the secret to being a great coach is winning with less talent because, as he stressed, if you aren't winning with superior talent you might be a bad coach.

So when I was coaching and could select, I was looking for the following pieces of a puzzle --- a big man that would rebound and protect the rim and run from rim to rim on every play forcing the defense to collapse toward the basket, a power forward who was big wide and mean, a wing or small forward who was the best athlete on the squad, could slash to the basket, get out on the fast break, and play defense, and preferably someone who if not tall had length, then a shooting guard who could knock down the outside shoot and pass and play strong defense (this was my 180 shooter -- 50% from 2, 40% from 3, 90% from FT), and then finally a point guard who always had head up, was pass first, but always probing to grab a piece of the paint, and could be play defense to keep the opposing point guard not only out of the paint, but preferably making him turn at least 3 times on each possession as he tried to set up the opponents offense. 

Give me that team, and if I could have 2 players at each position, I would have a great team.  GREAT teams can play 10 players; good teams can play 7-8; mediocre teams can only play 5-6.  If you are choosing, try to get 10, and as you get to tournament time reduce rotation to 7. 

To me the most interesting team to watch at the moment as a work in progress is Duke, the team(s) most interesting to watch as works well on their way are Villanova and Virginia -- or Golden State and the Celtics.  Cleveland is a mess -- but that comes from too much isolation basketball in my opinion, and that is true for OKC as well, but San Antonio is undermanned this season, but at their best they are more like Golden State than Cleveland.  Coach K in my opinion has to get his kids to think like Golden State, and that falls in my opinion mainly on getting the 2 freshman guards to figure it out ... Trent has made more progress on this than Duval.  The keys to the bus have been put in Duval's hands, and he has shown flashes of brilliance but not consistency.  So right now he resembles more Trey Burke than Tyus Jones.

To other trivial philosophy to practical points.  Your goal should be that your practices and the time you spend in practice will be reflected in games, so organize accordingly because your team will reflect what you emphasize.  And winning basketball emphasizes unselfish TEAM offense, and disruptive TEAM defense, and your players all should exhibit superior fundamentals.  Watch Duke play defense -- terrible; watch Duke play offense, at times brilliant at other times all relying on individual talent to make plays (which because they are unique talents they can). Now watch Villanova or Virginia play -- they play the game the right way.

Hard work beats talent whenever talent fails to work hard.  The margin of talent difference among the elite programs is so slight, so if there is any element where the players aren't working hard (and they might not even know they aren't because they have never been taught and this is especially true on the defensive end) it will be exposed.  I suspect Duke will lose 5 games during the regular season, but I also predict due to Coach K's amazing talents as a coach that they will cut down nets this year.  If they don't it may very well be Coach K's most underperforming team in his illustrious career.  They do have a non-existent bench to date, but he just needs to get to 7 deep by tournament time.  Watching this master teacher try to get his players to come along as they must is one of the most intriguing story lines of this year in college basketball in my mind.

Basketball is a beautiful game, next time you watch it, see if you can see it through this former coaches eyeglasses.  Look for the creativity within discipline. Look for the teams that play hard, player smart and exhibit joy in the game.*  Sports, in general, but basketball in particular because of its long history of playground or pick-up culture, is also a school of rules. So it can be a great "controlled" experiment in constitutional economics.  Basketball has been under-studied compared to baseball.

*This post was inspired by watching GMU versus VCU; then the last part of the Duke vs. Virginia game; and then the Celtics vs. the Warriors.  All in the context of a day spent discussing political economy with graduate students from 9-12:30 and then from 5:00-6:30.  I trust Ben Powell will appreciate this post -- he shares my passion for the sport.

Peter Boettke
Peter Joseph Boettke (January 3, 1960) is an American economist of the Austrian School. He is currently a University Professor of Economics and Philosophy at George Mason University; the BB&T Professor for the Study of Capitalism, Vice President for Research, and Director of the F.A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the Mercatus Center at GMU.

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