Is It a Good Thing That Phil Jackson Is Coming Back?

07/02/2010 12:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Jeff Ma Co-founder, Citizen Sports

In my new book, The House Advantage: Playing the Odds to Win Big in Business", I revisit an age old argument - does the hot hand exist in basketball? In other words are there periods of time during a basketball game where a player suddenly has a higher than normal chance of making a shot or are these streaks just an example of random variance - similar to flipping a coin 10 times and coming up with heads all 10 times.

It is a fascinating debate where those in the statistics camp believe that there is no such thing as a hot hand and those that play they game think the stats people are full of academic manure.

While this argument is an interesting one it really doesn't have a definitive "solution". However as I explored this debate I came across some more practical, more actionable basketball strategies.

The "two-for-one strategy" describes the optimal strategy at the end of each quarter in an NBA game. The NBA has a 24-second shot clock, meaning teams must shoot within 24 seconds of receiving the ball or lose possession and the ball is awarded to the other team. For the most part the shot clock does not have a major impact during the course of the game as NBA teams often shoot well before the 24 seconds have expired. But at the end of each quarter there is an opportunity to use the shot clock to your advantage. Imagine receiving the ball with 45 seconds left in the quarter. If you use all of your allotted 24 seconds, then you will leave the other team with 20 seconds left and they will be able to run the clock out, leaving you no more opportunities for that quarter.

But instead, if you shoot the ball with more than 25 seconds left, you are ensuring that unless you fail to get the defensive rebound, you will get the ball at least one more time that quarter. This is the two-for-one strategy. You are ensuring yourself two possessions to the other team's one.

It's not that simple, however. If you shoot the ball too early, say with 38 seconds left, you are giving your opponent a chance to do a two-for-one to you. So how do you know exactly when to shoot? Your gut would tell you that it is somewhere more than 30 but less than 40 seconds. But is your gut enough?

In the book, I detail some simple research which shows that 33 seconds is the optimal time when teams should shoot the ball to ensure another possession while not giving the other team a chance to do the two-for-one back to you. It's not earth shattering stuff but it is an interesting thing to think about as you watch an NBA game.

In a conversation with Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey, Morey stated that when he sees teams properly employing the two-for-one strategy he knows that they have numbers people making an impact in their organization.

I had this statement and our research in mind as I watched the NBA playoffs. As I watched the game I marveled at how at the end of each quarter the Celtics constantly went for the two-for-ones while the Lakers largely ignored clock management and took the shot they wanted when they wanted.

Looking at the play by play data only once out of 12 times did the Celtics when given an opportunity for a two-for-one, shoot the ball with less than 30 seconds on the clock i.e. each time they gave themselves enough time to get another possession.

In contrast, the Lakers given eight opportunities for the two-for-one, only attempted it three times.

In the end, we all know what happened. The Lakers superior talent and legendary coach won out over the Celtics aging veterans (a sad moment for me as a Celtics fan) and less weathered coaching staff. Yet in examining the reasons why this happened, perhaps Phil Jackson was less the reason than most would think.

Jackson's legacy is certainly unquestioned but his championships have come with some amazing talent - the kind of talent that can overcome a couple of extra possessions here and there.

We never really know how good a coach is. As fans we don't sit in huddles and don't go to practice. All we can see is what happens on the court. Ignoring a chance to get an extra possession at the end of a quarter seems like a simple mistake, yet Jackson's team did it many times in the finals.

Again, you can't argue with results but you can argue with the methods. And there certainly is a hole in the Lakers' methods.