Evolution of strategy in sports

Yesterday ended with a bedtime argument about the merits of basketball player Stephen Curry. It was a bit of a weird discussion, because the wife hadn’t heard of Curry before the discussion started, and neither of us watches the NBA (I get put off by the random ad-breaks, also known as time outs).

I happened to be reading this piece by David Henderson, and asked the wife (who had represented her college in basketball) if she knew about Curry. When she replied in the negative, I showed her this montage of his 3-pointers and how that has made him controversial in the basketball community.

The wife, having greater domain knowledge (having played the game competitively) defended Curry’s critics, saying that his tactic of shooting threes had “killed the game” and made it more boring. “Basketball is a team game, and it is about penetration through passing. Three pointers is a last-ditch measure”, she said, “and Curry, by directly shooting threes, is killing the game”.

I disagreed, arguing from a game theory perspective. Every team will try to gain the maximum advantage based on the current set of rules, I argued, and that it was up to the opposition to find a response to this new way of play. While the Golden State Warriors’ three-point based play might be boring, I argued, it was effective, and being a new strategy it made the game more interesting.

She made arguments about the spirit of the game and how football would become boring and be ruined if, say, someone could shoot with high accuracy from his own goal area to the opposite goal. I responded that opponents would adapt to this, soon rendering this strategy irrelevant, and wondered why no one had figured a way yet to stop the Warriors.

I took the example of the Age of Empires, where each civilisation has a special force, and you need to adapt your strategy to that while playing against this civilisation. I pointed out about how when Stoke City came to the Premier League in 2008, they flummoxed opponents by use of their special force of “longthrowman” (also known as Rory Delap), but soon opponents adapted their strategy sufficiently to neutralise his throws.

This got me wondering whether strategy in basketball has evolved too homogeneously over time (again I must mention I hardly watch the game) – the five point zonal defence and attack, ball handling at the top, rebounds, dunks and so on – that when faced with a new strategy of using quick three-pointers, teams have struggled to react.

I was reminded of this Malcolm Gladwell piece on current Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadive leading his daughter’s basketball team to success based on the “full court press” strategy which was then hardly used.

It got me thinking about football, with its diversity of playing styles (admittedly, it’s played in a larger number of countries, on a bigger court and with more players, giving more room for diverse strategies), where a team might be able to achieve short-term results with an innovative strategy or formation, but opponents soon learn to neutralise them.

Is it that basketball, dominated by a handful of teams (note that the NBA has a small number of teams and no concept of promotion and relegation unlike European leagues), hasn’t evolved diversely enough to react quickly enough to new strategies? And this is not the first time that basketball has reacted in a hostile fashion to a new strategy that is well within the rules – as this podcast on the evolution of basketball strategy explains, the NCAA (and also the NBA) actually outlawed the dunk after its effective use by Karim Abdul Jabbar.

The Yin and Yang of Basketball

The way I see it, Stephen Curry’s critics describing his and the Warriors’ tactics as unfair are no different from English footballers who described Scotland’s passing game as unfair (England was used to a dribbling-only no-passing style of football till then) after the first meeting of the two nations in 1872.

One thought on “Evolution of strategy in sports”

  1. Sporting activities go beyond just physical activity. For decades, educational institutions like schools have emphasized on the importance of sports and its benefits for children. Some of the best schools in bangalore nurture a child’s interest in sports. Games and exercises stimulate growth and leads to improved physical and emotional health. I came across Greenwood High in Bangalore.Thier students always participate in co-curricular activities like sports,science clubs, music and art etc

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