Why Hero Ball Doesn't Cut It in the NBA Playoffs
In the NBA playoffs, winning is the only thing that matters, which makes the prominence of Hero Ball a head-scratching reality. Just because a mentality is firmly entrenched in our collective consciousness doesn't mean it's the proper method of approaching a situation.
During the regular season, this strategy can occasionally work. But during the postseason, when defenses are ramped up more than a few notches and everything slows down, Hero Ball is a terrific recipe for an early exit.
So far, the extracurricular affairs of the 2013 season have seen Mark Jackson call on Jarrett Jack to run isolation plays for the Golden State Warriors. Kevin Durant took over down the stretch for the Oklahoma City Thunder—and during the rest of the game, for that matter—once Russell Westbrook was hurt. Carmelo Anthony seemed to do nothing but play Hero Ball.
What do all three of those players have in common?
They're all sitting at home and watching the Indiana Pacers, Miami Heat, Memphis Grizzlies and San Antonio Spurs continue to duke it out for a shot at holding up the coveted Larry O'Brien Trophy.
Coincidence? I think not.
The very notion of playing Hero Ball is one that's rooted in failure. You might think of the concept as giving the best player on the team a shot to win. The ball is in his hands, after all.
However, think about the opportunity cost of the play. By committing to one player (and only one player), the team is forgoing any semblance of team play. It's essentially admitting that it has no confidence in its ability to generate a quality look by running a set, instead settling for what's likely to be an extremely difficult shot.
ESPN's Henry Abbott has a brilliant idea:
Argument for Hero Ball is somebody needs to make difficult shots. My idea: take an easier shot. Open guys all over the crunch time video.— Henry Abbott (@TrueHoop) May 14, 2013
Abbott's argument is simple, but it's rather profound. Sometimes the best ideas are the ones rooted in simplicity. Occam wouldn't have been able to shave if that weren't true.
Teams need to stop insisting that difficult shots by the best players are the route du jour and instead focus on getting the easiest look. That's the principle that the San Antonio Spurs have built their offense around for years.
Using backdoor cuts, tons of ball movement and plenty of unselfishness, Gregg Popovich has installed a system that ensures a team passes up a good look for a great one.
Why isn't that the case in crunch time for all teams? Why can't they pass up a bad look for a better one?
And make no mistake about it, a difficult shot taken by a terrific scorer can still be a bad look. Even Durant, 'Melo and Stephen Curry can hoist up unfavorable attempts in late-game situations.
Instead, teams should be attacking the rim and devising plays that free up open looks, not heavily contested one-on-four situations for their best players to navigate. According to Shane Battier, defenses are actually softer during these crucial situations, possibly because the thought of fouling makes them nauseous.
Are they soft against one player trying to take on an entire team by himself? Not so much.
You can see Battier's full thoughts on Hero Ball in the embedded video.
During that same video, ESPN's Kevin Arnovitz brings up the interesting point that coaches might be conditioned to give the ball to the superstars in late-game situations because they're loss-averse. No one can blame them if their superstar fails, but a blown play at the end could look quite bad in the headlines the next day.
Loss aversion is everywhere in sports. It's why football teams don't go for it more on fourth downs, even though it's mathematically beneficial to do so. It's why baseball teams with new managers are more likely to get rid of incumbent players who are slumping. They can't afford to wait it out and hope for a return to prominence.
And yes, it's part of the reason that Hero Ball has become so omnipresent in the 2013 playoff landscape.
But trust me, you don't want to get me started on loss aversion in sports; you'd end up reading a 50,000-word tome. So let's move on.
If you're looking for evidence that Hero Ball isn't working during the postseason, you're in luck, because there's plenty out there.
Let's roll back the clocks and look at the New York Knicks' overtime loss to the Boston Celtics in Game 4 of the first-round series. The game is tied at 84 with the clock ticking down in the final quarter, and Anthony has just clanged a three-point attempt off the back of the iron. Tyson Chandler tips the ball out, and the play resets.
Take a good look at where Jason Kidd, Iman Shumpert and Chandler are positioned.
See any differences yet?
Mike Woodson is making absolutely no effort to run any sort of play, instead resigning himself to the fact that Anthony needs to create his own shot when the defense on him is at its tightest.
Meanwhile, Raymond Felton backs off, and here's the crucial part: Jason Terry is well aware of what's going to happen. You can see him motioning to Avery Bradley that he should be ready to pick up Felton if necessary.
Terry is now prepared to give Green a little bit of help in ensuring that the team in green doesn't lose on this shot.
You know, because the situation wasn't tough enough for the league's leading scorer already.
Notice anything else? Not a single teammate has moved. Even as the situation spirals downward, there's no attempt to abandon Hero Ball.
Surely this wasn't the best look that the Knicks could find. There had to be better options than 'Melo jacking up a deep two-pointer as he faded away and drifted to the side in an attempt to avoid the double-team.
Let's not just pick on Anthony and the Knicks, though.
If you go back and watch any of the Thunder losses to the Grizzlies, you'll see Durant trying to take over too much in late-game situations. It seemed like he took every single shot down the stretch until a game was out of hand.
During the 2012 playoffs, Abbott—yep, him again—conducted an interesting study on Hero Ball. He looked at 15 star players (Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Rudy Gay, Manu Ginobili, Danny Granger, LeBron James, Joe Johnson, Dirk Nowitzki, Tony Parker, Chris Paul, Paul Pierce, Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade and Russell Westbrook) and compared their performances during the last five minutes of games in which the teams were separated by less than five points to the shooting of the non-stars.
The stars shot 41.8 percent from the field and 25.6 percent when they were behind the arc. Meanwhile, the non-stars posted respective percentages of 54.2 and 36.
You tell me which you'd rather have.
Although I don't have numbers for this postseason readily available, your eyes should be telling you that a similar story is unfolding.
This isn't a new problem. It's one that's been around for quite some time, meaning that even the legendary Phil Jackson ran into trouble with Hero Ball when he and previous head coach Doug Collins (to whom Jackson was assistant from 1986-89) had Michael Jordan under their metaphorical wings. The following is a passage from Sacred Hoops, Jackson's book that should be considered a must-read for any hardcore basketball fan:
The problem was that Jordan's teammates were often just as enchanted as the fans. Collins devised dozens of plays to get the rest of the team involved in the action; in fact he had so many he was given the name Play-a-Day Collins. That helped, but when push came to shove, the other players usually faded into the background and waited for Michael to perform another miracle. Unfortunately, this mode of attack, which assistant coach Johnny Back dubbed "the archangel offense," was so one-dimensional the better defensive teams had little difficulty shutting it down.
What do you think of Hero Ball?
"The archangel offense" is quite similar to Hero Ball, even if it didn't necessarily take place late in the game. And if Michael Jordan couldn't get it to work, who exactly can?
There are plenty of reasons for a coach to just hand the ball to his superstar in a crucial situation and hope for the best as the other players get out of the way. The problem is, there are more reasons for him to do anything else.
Winning is one of those reasons that falls into the latter camp. In the playoffs, that should be enough to sway even the coaches most hell-bent on going to war with Hero Ball as the only weapon in their arsenal.
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