“All things appear and disappear because of the concurrence of causes and conditions. Nothing ever exists entirely alone; everything is in relation to everything else.”
Basketball is not the study of individuals, but rather the study of the interactions among parts which form wholes. The conditions of the sport make it so, repressing individuality, providing one-dimensional views of the ways in which parts adapt to and interact in systems. This leaves us, as evaluators of basketball, in a constant state of Epoché whose curtains deflect approximations of intersystemic truth, guided by logic and pattern recognition. But those mimicries of knowledge emphasize the ultimate pitfalls of intersystemic thinking: perceiving data for one thing and allowing the underlying motivations to narrow the descriptive power, the resulting knowledge.
Possessions as a Process
Scoring is perennially misrepresented as an individual skill, a sound heuristic on which to form judgments and construct an individual by his abilities. But this, of course, assumes that the priorities of the evaluator are in line with understanding the processes by which systems produce results, by which systems succeed or fail. To entertain the attribution of scoring to “putting the ball in the basket” in such a context would be a blasphemous reduction of the self-imposed heuristic. The process produces the results, but the latter does not describe the former, merely functions as a false indicator by other self-imposed heuristics.
Points ascribed to individuals are the pyrite in the muddy solution to the complex question, one which has already been reduced to fit into the narrowing worldview that seeks knowledge. They encourage the interpretation of the result as the whole fruit rather than its outermost layer which conceals the seeds which had been planted to instigate the process. Measures have been derived from points as data points for players to attempt context, yet still ignore the underlying functions of the process, namely, a “shot quality” metric. Such presentation may encourage the idea of scoring as a measure of points relative to expectation, which remains a result-oriented approach.
Yet, scoring remains a process which spins webs between individuals that conceal intersystemic phenomena in the guise of individuals making shots. The concepts of individual scoring, of shot quality, and of additional context attributed to the moment of a shot, serve as psychological safety nets against the masses of tangible and intangibles processes at work during possessions, processes within processes. To understand the extent to which data accumulates, let us tentatively outline a fundamental, ecological process of offensive possessions.
Perhaps the most widespread tactical approach in basketball’s collective knowledge: the pick-and-roll, and any variation on which the “roller” (if not multiple) will typically relocate to a higher space on the court. Such plays are instinctually recognized as processes, either premeditated or an impromptu one whose execution is predetermined. A common goal of basketball offenses is to convert on the “best” shot possible, the one which will maximize their output in the limited space and time which they receive. They are shots that exist as possibilities and ranges; they are conditional and require recognition of what can be instead of merely what is, and sometimes are never found.
Shots are not free, bound by the limited space and time of possessions but also by the alternatives by which the team might have scored. All shots have costs. (This is why the notion that “efficiency” does not matter is often disregarded.) Sometimes that cost, that next-best alternative, is more than the actual result (team fails to convert on “best” shot possible) and sometimes is it less (team succeeds to convert on “best” shot possible). The pick-and-roll illustrates how this phenomenon relates to the process of scoring, the manners in which teams seek the “best” shot possible and how the process influences the ability to seek, the trade-offs involved in a multi-dimensional scoring process.
Let us conceptually omit the variance in remaining teammates and opponents, coaching staffs, and any parts which influence the happenings on the court during an offensive possession. During the pick-and-roll, there exist a Ball-Handler and a Roller, the former designated with the initiation of optimizing the “goal” (to find the “best” shot possible) with the ball in his hands while the latter encourages this by setting a screen. The two-man interaction between the Ball-Handler the Roller can be viewed as cyclical, an interdependent process by which both parts attempt to optimize the goal by improving each other’s shot quality.
A “traditional” pick-and-roll would ideally result in a field-goal attempt at the rim for the Roller, as such shots (on average) garner the highest expected point-values and taller, sturdier bigs who set screens are less prone to physical resistance in the key. A manner in which the Handler can improve the Roller’s shot quality is by preoccupying defenders, as more space to operate will increase the shot quality of the Roller because he has less physical resistance against his shot. To act out such a thing, the Handler must communicate to the defense a reason for which he must receive an “extra” amount of attention, to open space for the Roller or instigate a chain-reaction of help defense which could improve shot quality for teammates. (Although we solely focus on the Roller in this instance.)
To receive that extra attention is to possess a threat by which the Handler could score with the ball to a degree that exceeds the concerns of his teammates. Thus, the Handler must possess what is colloquially known as a “scoring threat” to improve the Roller’s shot quality in the manner expressed earlier. To do so he must previously score through ways which threaten the defense (processes within processes) and predispose the defense to cautionary measures in following possessions. If the Handler is successful in this regard, he may successfully contribute to the shot quality improvement at the moment of the Roller’s attempt and contribute to the process of scoring.
So why don’t teams employ this two-man game in every possession if they will consistently maximize the difference between their shot quality and the opportunity cost? Because observed repetition refines cautionary measures, and the play is designed to exploit cautionary measures. A team’s shot quality would trend downward because the interaction between the Handler and Roller changed significantly; the further removed a defense is from observing the Handler’s scoring threat, the less likely they are to instigate the cautionary measure which allows for the play in the first place. Therefore, the Handler must recognize the trade-off, revert to earlier habits of attack to keep opponents on their toes and create a possession of possibilities, thereby allowing the process to continue.
Simultaneously, the Roller may continue to garner defensive attention due to the shift toward his scoring threat. The defense would expect him to shoot more frequently and more efficiently, and thus alter their cautionary measures to account for more of his shooting attempts. The result would draw a discrete amount of attention away from the Handler, thus allowing for more opportunities for the Handler to score frequently and more efficiently, the precedence by which the Handler can then influence the Roller’s ability to score frequently and more efficiently. Thus, the process is cyclical, one which evaluates trade-offs and alters the roles of the parts within the system to interdependently optimize its goals.
The Quasi-Existence of Individual Scoring
Points and efficiency, although functional as crude data points of the results of a player’s shots, shed minimal light on the processes by which teams score under the principles of intersystemic thinking. Because the processes often involve trade-offs, the selections of attacks which repress individual talent and independent decision-making, the concept of individual scoring is intertwined in an elegant, endless system from which the concept cannot be unraveled. So why do we so often prescribe such incomplete data to the questions that arise?
People’s predisposition to default to digestible, if-incomplete measuring tools breeds the ground for selectivity, taps into our insatiable need to quantify and rank our self-imposed classifications that narrow our worldviews and set the stage for unknowing, the consequence to the tactics of pattern recognition and the reconfirmation of our heuristics. Scoring as the main principle of basketball understands this, exists as a thing born out of many but is often reduced to the one, and urges us to reconsider the manners in which we observe and judge.