June 27, 2016

Why don't basketball players do free throws underhand?

It's not that they don't know it works better.
Chamberlain wrote — "I felt silly, like a sissy, shooting underhanded. I know I was wrong. I know some of the best foul shooters in history shot that way. Even now, the best one in the NBA, Rick Barry, shoots underhanded. I just couldn't do it."...

He's a high-threshold guy. He needs everyone to be doing something new before he's willing to join in. But Rick Barry? He's different.... What's interesting is that Barry actually has the same initial reaction as Wilt Chamberlain — I'm going to look like a sissy. But he thinks about it, and he decides it doesn't bother him....

That's exactly what it means to have a low threshold. If you have a threshold of 0, you're someone who doesn't need the support or the approval or the company of others to do what you think is right. Now, here's the catch — the person who thinks this way is not always easy to be around.... Half the players disliked Rick. The other half hated him....
Also at that link — Why don't football teams use all 4 downs to get 10 yards instead of punting? Research shows they'd tend to win 1 more game a year, and they know that. They're not stupid.

62 comments:

Bob Ellison said...

If you have played basketball, you know that the ball belongs pretty high when you take the shot. Larry Bird positioned it above his scalp, and Bird is 6'9". You work on your shot pretty carefully, learning how to get it done right as often as possible.

Ever since about 1985, most basketball players know a few things about shooting: try to shoot the same way every time, use a consistent motion, and get it done from the free-throw line.

Most of them do that quite well. Wilt Chamberlain and Shaquille O'Neal are outliers. They did not shoot well. They didn't have to.

But telling a guy to throw away everything he knows about getting the ball through the net, and shooting it underhanded like a granny, is stupid.

tim in vermont said...

They made Socrates drink hemlock for this kind of thinking. It's annoying to be around people who keep questioning your assumptions, especially if they are often right.

Brando said...

I can't speak to the basketball question, but in football I often wondered why going for it on 4th down is such a rare thing--even when there's less than 3 yards to go and you're near or even past midfield. After all, the average play is going to gain at least a few yards more often than not, and the consequences of turning it over on downs really just depends on how much faith you have in your defense (are they tired out, have they been able to prevent long drives).

I suspect the reason comes down to the downside tradeoffs. Punting on 4th, even where there are decent odds of getting a first down, doesn't have an obvious downside--no one really boos you when you take the conservative route. But even if it's a minority of the time, if you go for it on 4th and fail, it looks bad to the fans and top brass. So the coaches prefer to play it safe.

Matthew Sablan said...

Brando: It's the same reason Stephen King doesn't get an editor. Sure, a good editor might make King's book better and maybe sell slightly more. But the guy suggesting that or the editor doing that won't get any of the credit, but if the book bombs, it is going to be "because we did something different."

Gabriel said...

Maybe Gladwell knows something about basketball, but I wouldn't take advice on math from a guy who talks about "Igon values".

...when a writer’s education on a topic consists in interviewing an expert, he is apt to offer generalizations that are banal, obtuse or flat wrong.

Brian said...

Free throws: The high release point cited by Bob Ellison is important to prevent someone blocking your shot; that issue is removed at the free throw line. Any player who just can't get to 70% or more at the line should at least try a radical shakeup in his approach. Once upon a time, there were few NBA players who shot so poorly. Now there are many, and their poor performance at the line is degrading basketball as entertainment.

4th down: risk-aversion is real. The college team I root for has a risk-taking coach --- lots of trick plays, going for it on 4th down, playing for the win rather than the tie late in games, etc. --- and its effect on the fanbase is like a mass demonstration of every cognitive bias in the books. We are deranged. We are also winning more games than we have in ~40 years.

WisRich said...

In regards to 4th down, I think the coaches mentality is slowly morphing. I've noticed in the last couple of years teams seem to be willing to take that chance once over the 50 yard line. I'm sure there's a stat for that.

BDNYC said...

For punting, it depends.

If you're around the opponent's 40 and need only a few yards to get a first down, you go for it. I think almost everyone agrees with that.

If you're facing fourth and long inside your own 10, you punt. I think almost everyone agrees with that.

There are so many other variables to consider, e.g., how much time is left, what the score is, how your defense is playing, does the opponent's punt returner sometimes fumble. I don't care what the "research" purports to show, most NFL teams know better what to do and when.

Gabriel said...

@Brando:I can't speak to the basketball question, but in football I often wondered why going for it on 4th down is such a rare thing--even when there's less than 3 yards to go and you're near or even past midfield.

I don't know much about football, but my guess is that they may not wish to reduce their 4th down conversion stat by a lot in exchange for an extra win. That may or may not make sense from the perspective of how teams are evaluated.

Birkel said...

A football team could only win one more game if only it employed the 4-down strategy. If all teams employed the 4-down strategy no more games would be won.

Math is fun.

rehajm said...

Pulasky Academy never punts.

Brando said...

"Brando: It's the same reason Stephen King doesn't get an editor. Sure, a good editor might make King's book better and maybe sell slightly more. But the guy suggesting that or the editor doing that won't get any of the credit, but if the book bombs, it is going to be "because we did something different.""

I didn't realize King didn't have an editor, but I could see a publisher not wanting to mess with what has worked for them for so long (same reason a lot of coaches avoid unconventional offensive and defensive formations, and Hollywood sticks to proven franchises rather than risking creating new ones).

Just goes to show there's room for innovators to take risks and succeed. And a lot of what we take for granted perhaps is worth questioning.

David Begley said...

Easy answer. The vast, vast of majority of shots during a game are not underhanded. Too unfamiliar and too dissimilar from what they normally doing.

Also shooting well from the line reinforces shooting jump shots well from the field. Same motion.

Bob Ellison said...

Brian said, "Free throws: The high release point cited by Bob Ellison is important to prevent someone blocking your shot; that issue is removed at the free throw line."

OK, so now I'm at the free throw line. I'm going to deploy a different technique than the one I use to score from the floor. I only get to deploy this technique about three times per game, but I'm gonna deploy it, because I'm told it's better.

Matthew Sablan said...

I don't know if he does/doesn't. But there was an essay eight or nine years ago titled "Why Stephen King Needs an Editor, But Won't Get One" or something.

Gabriel said...

@Birkel:A football team could only win one more game if only it employed the 4-down strategy. If all teams employed the 4-down strategy no more games would be won.

Math is fun.


The same can be said for any change in how the game is played that confers an actual advantage. The real question is not, what would happen if everyone did it. The real question is, given that anyone doing it has an advantage over anyone who does it, why aren't we starting to see individual teams starting to do it?

I mean, you can say the same for armor--if all armed forces had tanks then they'd just all be even again, so let's not bother with armor. Well, if one side starts the other has to follow.

Gabriel said...

@Bob Ellison:I only get to deploy this technique about three times per game, but I'm gonna deploy it, because I'm told it's better.

Are you forbidden from going to practice? Because of course you could practice your underhanded free throws in practice, couldn't you? It's not like you are forbidden to use the technique except in games.

Brando said...

"I don't know much about football, but my guess is that they may not wish to reduce their 4th down conversion stat by a lot in exchange for an extra win. That may or may not make sense from the perspective of how teams are evaluated."

Well, I assume the extra win is "on average" and that they mean going for it (at least with short yardage situations, when far enough from your own end zone that the risk of failure is a little less dire) would pay off more often than it would not. Between giving your defense more time for rest, getting closer to scoring position and getting an offensive rhythm, it can change the complexion of the entire season.

As noted above, there's a lot of factors to consider in that decision, but teams (at least in the NFL) have long been very conservative. I wonder if that may start to change as more teams begin taking more risks on those downs.

Brian said...

"I'm going to deploy a different technique than the one I use to score from the floor. I only get to deploy this technique about three times per game, but I'm gonna deploy it, because I'm told it's better."

Well, presumably you would, you know: practice, and find out if it's better for you.

BDNYC said...

"Pulasky Academy never punts."

High school football offers little guidance for what makes sense in the NFL. NFL defenses and punters are just too good for that strategy to make sense.

Rick said...

Research shows they'd tend to win 1 more game a year, and they know that. They're not stupid.

It's true they aren't stupid, they know research claiming this is incomplete. It relies on yardage achievements on all downs without regard to (1) defensive reaction and adjustment and (2) the emotional carryover effect into later possessions.

rehajm said...

The granny shot is just one. The NBA is rife with inefficiencies to exploit. How about playing defense? I've always dreamed of buying the Nuggets then get Pitino to coach five guys who are wiling to play full court press.

rehajm said...

Easy answer. The vast, vast of majority of shots during a game are not underhanded. Too unfamiliar and too dissimilar from what they normally doing.

If this is true there's a fortune to be made wagering with NBA players that they can't hit a granny shot.

rehajm said...

NFL defenses and punters are just too good for that strategy to make sense.

Yeah. No coach in the NFL would try something so stupid.

tim in vermont said...

I didn't realize King didn't have an editor,

You've never read The Stand then.

Ann Althouse said...

"If you have played basketball, you know that the ball belongs pretty high when you take the shot. Larry Bird positioned it above his scalp, and Bird is 6'9". You work on your shot pretty carefully, learning how to get it done right as often as possible."

What do you make of the discussion of Wilt Chamberlain in the story and the other evidence that underhand throwing can make someone go from 40% to 87%? Chamberlain was over 7 feet tall.

Wilbur said...

I heard Rick Barry say once that he was hired to and did teach Shaq the underhanded method for free throws. Barry guarantees he can get any player who adopts his method to shoot 70% (I believe him). He said there is a specific way to hold the ball and move the wrists when doing it, and that Shaq had a congenital problem with one of his wrists which prevented him from properly executing it.

There's no question it would be worth for a player like Wilt, Shaq or Dwight Howard to adopt a method which would get them to 60-70% on free throws. They shoot many more than three a game and were/are in fact removed from games when their poor free throw shooting makes then a liability. The major hurdle is to get them to buy into it.

When I was in high school and junior college I mimicked Rick Mount's somewhat unusual free throw style: one quick bounce and shoot it immediately. It worked for me. And Mount didn't do too badly himself.

Birkel said...

Gabriel,

You have identified the prisoner's dilemma. But that only holds if it is a finite game. Repeated games may get fit-for-that play.

Therefore, the coaches might communicate and known they will largely honor the agreement.

But if that tacit agreement no longer existed, the team's would not win an extra game.

Math.

Birkel said...

tit-for-tat

David Begley said...

Free throws is a mental thing. Wilt spent that time at the line thinking about the women he was going to hook up with after the game.

Bob Ellison said...

Wilt was not a good shooter. The best evidence is the list of the best FT shooters.

Ann Althouse said...

"A football team could only win one more game if only it employed the 4-down strategy. If all teams employed the 4-down strategy no more games would be won."

Because everyone will have adopted the better strategy. Are you suggesting that's a reason for no one to adopt the better strategy? That doesn't make sense. If everyone's holding back from doing something that works better, anyone should jump to the better strategy. At some point, all may switch, but unless there's a mutual agreement not to switch, the switching should start.

Birkel said...

And yet, Althouse, I have current practice on my side. You have theory.

Birkel said...

See my 3:48 anticipating your comment, Althouse.

Birkel said...

Althouse: That doesn't make sense...

You forgot the words "to me" but perhaps it was implied.

Johnathan Birks said...

@rehajm: " I've always dreamed of buying the Nuggets then get Pitino to coach five guys who are wiling to play full court press."

The Celtics tried that almost 20 years ago. Pitino fell on his face after winning NC at Kent. 25-30 y.o. men aren't as physically able to play full-court for 48 minutes.

Ann Althouse said...

"You forgot the words "to me" but perhaps it was implied."

What exactly in my statement do you disagree with (if anything)?

rehajm said...

25-30 y.o. men aren't as physically able to play full-court for 48 minutes.

I qualified the statement- you need the right guys. The Celtics players he had despised him for his coaching style. Towards the end of his tenure he read the racing form while the team warmed up...

rehajm said...

Plus: Denver

jaydub said...

Chinanu Onuaku, Louisville's 6' 10" center and recent Rockets draftee, switched to underhanded foul shots and improved his free throw accuracy by around 15%. The physics of the back spin on the underhand shot are better than the regular shot, and the trajectory is better. But, it doesn't look cool, so there you go.

mccullough said...

Chamberlain, Russell, and Shaq were horrible free throw shooters.

Kareem and Hakeem were good free throw shooters (above 70%).

David said...

Wilt was a bit of a head case. At least a bit. He was a good free throw shooter in the gym without going underhand but something happened during the game. Also look at the size of his hands. They were so big that the usual rules of shooting were not always applicable to him. The reverse spin that most great shooters put on the ball was difficult with hands that size. That makes it tougher for free throws.

And watch Seth Curry shoot. He's actually not a jump shooter. He's a quick shooter. If you look at videos of Seth when he was about 12 and very undersized, he shot quick running push short and set shots. Totally white boy old school. (I know. It's how I shot a basketball.) He was too small (and his hands were too small) for a jump shot. He still uses that same shot. His shot is much more like the old time set shot you saw from the likes of Bob Cousy and Slater Martin. Except Seth shoots quicker and better.

Also Wilt had sex with 10,000 different women. I don't say "claims" because it's likely true. Chop that to 6000 and devote the time spent on the other 4000 to free throw practice, and he might have been a lot better.

Birkel said...

Althouse,
Did you read my 3:48, in which I anticipated your comment?

Sebastian said...

"Except Seth shoots quicker and better." His brother Steph ain't too bad either. Or did you mean . . .

Static Ping said...

Why don't sports teams take advantage of possible edges? Lots of reasons. Ignorance. Stubbornness. Fear: a great way to get fired quickly is to try something unusual which then flops, even if the unusual thing had nothing to do with it. Related: prior failed attempts. Peer pressure. Lack of personnel to make it work. Belief that the idea would work in the small scale but not in the large scale (which is why teams do not run gadget play after gadget play). Belief that it would work, but the opportunity cost for this edge is more than it is worth.

Baseball has all sorts of examples of this sort of thing. The modern question is why are teams using their best relief pitcher only in save situations and using the second and third best arms in much higher "leverage" situations. It does not make a whole lot of sense to put in the relief ace in the 9th with a three-run lead facing the bottom of the order - a situation that even the worst arm in the bullpen would succeed 97% of the time - and then not use the same pitcher with a one-run lead in the 8th with two runners on and no one out. Sure, the relief ace would fail more often this way, but the bullpen would succeed more overall. Some teams have figured this out and sign a "proven closer" for the 9th and use some superior young arm as the real relief ace. Since the young arm is not getting many saves and arbitration lusts after saves, the best relief pitcher gets paid very little compared to the closer.

It also needs to be appreciated that statistics measure what is now. Sometimes other teams adjust and the edge goes away. Maury Wills stole 104 bases at an 89% clip in 1962 because all teams had abandoned base stealing in favor of home run centered station-to-station baseball. Therefore teams did not value catchers that were good at throwing out basestealers nor value pitchers holding runners close. Once Maury and other baserunners made it obvious that basestealing had value, basestealing became a lot harder very quickly. Afterwards, Wills only approached 100 steals again once (94 in 1965) and never topped a 76% success rate.

Sebastian said...

Neither theory nor historical stats will settle the Barry Hypothesis. We need a proper experiment. With several treatment/control groups -- i.e., teach the underhanded method to good, mediocre, and lousy shooters, ideally controlling for shots per game as well, etc.

HoodlumDoodlum said...

You guys saying underhand is worse are up against the story itself, where it says when Wilt switched to underhand he shot better.

exhelodrvr1 said...

Same reason blacks don't vote Republican - afraid to go against what the rest do

Francisco D said...

Having been a superstar Jr HS basketball player (sort of like the late, not-so-great GM) the feel of the ball on my fingers meant a lot. I was a very good outside shooter, but an average free throw shooter. It drove my coach nuts to the point that I had to run laps for every missed free throw. (That was in high school).

I think that the free throw situation is less natural and less in-the-flow than an outside shot. It may tend to freeze some players, such as yours truly. Thus, I probably would have done better shooting free throws underhanded.

This feels like a metaphor, but I am too tired from a long day to flesh it out any more.

Ann Althouse said...

"Did you read my 3:48, in which I anticipated your comment?"

Yes. It's the basis of the last question I asked.

Birkel said...

What I wrote makes sense @ 3:48. Therefore the "to me" should have been typed by you.

I disagree with you that what I wrote does not make sense. I have suggested a repeated, infinite game in which the prisoner's dilemma can be avoided by tit-for-tat play. And I infer by the common practice played in actual games that you must be wrong about it not making sense.

When experience does not match the theory, it is the theory which should be adjusted. I have actual practice on my side over a hundred years.

Finally, in a zero-sum game no more total wins are available. (Fewer losses are available due to ties in the NFL regular season.) The risible suggestion that if only one team made an adjustment which observably won more games that such a practice would persist by only one team is dull. And yet we do not observe even a single team trying.

P.S. Billy Ball never won a World Series.

sean said...

Or why don't soccer players shoot right at the goalie's head on a penalty kick? Although that strategy, possibly like the fourth down strategy, would not work if everyone did it.

Laslo Spatula said...

Even the most misshapen, giraffe-esque, ungainly, gangly, unbalanced, wobbly, woebegone clumsy, rumsy, flummoxed, man-handed lesbians of the WNBA don't shoot granny-shots at the Free Throw Line.

A thing I have noticed.

I am Laslo.


Marc Snyder said...

I love Rick Barry but he is clinically disagreeable

Lem said...

George Will has a very high threshold.

Ann Althouse said...

Birkel, you're acting as though I left out something that I did put in.

Anyway, free throws are made by one perosn at a time and the decision whether to punt is made by one team at a time. There's no adjustment for the other side to make that cancels that out, though when the other has its turn, it could choose the same strategy and in the end both sides might add an equal number of points. There's no prisoner's dilemma tit for tat going on in the normal sense, where if teo do the same thing they end up in an even worse position.

Ann Althouse said...

If two do the same thing

Birkel said...

Oh, you are trying so hard to understand but just won't. There might be a time-limited first mover advantage that would immediately dissipate if it proved successful. No more games would be won.

Also, there is a prisoner's dilemma and tit-for-tat is the strategy that nullifies any benefit from deviation.

Take a good, long think.

Gabriel said...

@Birkel:Also, there is a prisoner's dilemma and tit-for-tat is the strategy that nullifies any benefit from deviation.

Show your work. These models only apply for specific cost-benefit combinations. You're making a very bold claim here which you don't realize, rather like Malcolm Gladwell now that I think of it.

To have the prisoner's dilemma you need:
a small, equal penalty happens to both when neither defects
a catastrophic penalty happens to the other when one defects
a large penalty happens to both when both defect

None of that is happening here. The claim is that a team can, on the average, get one extra win per season if they do it and no one else does. That level of penalty is not large enough, compared to neither team doing it or both teams doing it, and so prisoner's dilemma does not apply.

Gabriel said...

Furthermore, if the fourth-down strategy WAS something catastrophic for the other team if only one team did it, and people didn't like that, there wouldn't be "tit-for-tat": they would change the rules so that punting was mandatory on the fourth down. Like spaghetti strings in tennis, or how golf clubs keep getting banned, or restrictor plates in NASCAR. People like the game to work a certain way.

At any rate, if you want to play the "math" card, you're obligated to show your work when it's demanded. Maybe you think you're satirizing the tweets of a Vox editor or whatever but for some of us math is our living, and we take it seriously.

Hammond X. Gritzkofe said...

Sorry, the speaker lost me at "swamana starnu podcast."

Birkel said...

Gabriel,
The penalty is not game related. The penalty exists when coaches are fired and not re-hired.

Best to observe the gentlemen's agreement since extra games CANNOT be won if everybody plays by the new rules.

And then Malcolm Gladwell could proclaim not going for it on 4th downs is advantageous -- if nobody else acts rationally.