Pickup Basketball Purism

I tweeted about this last night, but 140 characters just wasn’t enough for me to state my case regarding the scoring in pickup basketball. (I only tackle the really important issues on this blog.)

pickup basketballI love pickup basketball. In fact, the widespread availability of pickup basketball is one of the best reasons to live in Utah. Not only do we have YMCA-like fitness centers in every town, but on any given weeknight or weekday morning there is an 87.9% chance that there are four churches where guys are playing ball within a one-mile radius of any given location along the Wasatch Front. I love that every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday morning at 6:00 AM I drive for two minutes and I’m at basketball. Same thing on Thursday nights. Oh, and sometimes I play during lunch at work. (Despite all of this, I’m pretty terrible.)

What I don’t love is keeping score by 1s and 2s. You know, what would normally be a two-point field goal in high school, college, NBA, or really any organized form of basketball becomes a one-pointer, and a three-pointer counts for two.

Here’s my argument:

  1. Basketball—real basketball—has what I consider to be a fairly simple scoring system. If it were, say, pickup figure skating, or even pickup tennis, I could see wanting to simplify the score-keeping. But honestly, how hard is it to credit each team with two points for any basket inside the three-point line, and three points for any basket outside it? Am I missing something here?
  2. More importantly, counting by 1s and 2s fundamentally changes the game. By making a three-pointer worth twice as much as a two, instead of 1.5x, you’re possibly incenting people to play outside; you’re giving them a good reason to play bad (i.e., not very fun) basketball. When a three is a three and a two is a two, the upside of jacking up a bunch of threes probably doesn’t outweigh the upside of good ball movement and working for a decent shot inside. But when you’re counting by 1s and 2s, suddenly it might make more sense to play three or four guys around the arc and hoist up three point tries all game. Three-pointer after three-pointer is great for the shooter(s) when he’s hitting. . . and completely annoying for everyone else. Everyone hates the guy who brings the ball up the floor and then calls his own number by pulling up for a three. I’m not saying people consciously decide to play differently when counting by 1s and 2s, but the possibility is there (and it doesn’t need to be; see point #1).
  3. Along these same lines, remember, there are no free throws in pickup basketball, so even if you’re counting by 2s and 3s in a pickup game, the incentive to shoot a lot of threes is already higher than it is in organized basketball. Let’s say I’m an NBA player who shoots 50% generally from inside the three-point arc and 40% outside of it. Some fans look at this and say, 40% * 10 three-point tries = 12 points and 50% * 10 two-point tries is = 10 points, so shouldn’t you always take the three? The answer is no, primarily because this faulty analysis ignores the fact that in organized basketball you are far more likely to get fouled and produce valuable free throws when shooting inside the three-point line (driving to the basket or helping to create shots for teammates), so your two-point tries are more valuable than they seem on the face of it. The possibility of creating free throws does not exist in pickup basketball, whether you’re counting by 1s and 2s or whether you’re counting by 2s and 3s, so you’re already more incentivized to play outside than you normally would be; why make things even worse by increasing the value of a three-pointer unnecessarily?

As you can tell, I’ve given this some thought. And maybe that’s because I’m too much of a purist; the NBA and college ball have been playing with 2s and 3s since the early 1980s, and the ABA had it even earlier. It just seems silly to change something that works so well.

So now I am counting on you, all three of my blog readers (hi mom!), to tell me what I’m missing. Who invented counting by 1s and 2s and why did they do it? Do you have a preference and why? Did I miss something important?

12 comments

  1. Christopher says:

    Your 87.9% statistic is priceless. But I’m not convinced we should do 2s and 3s. I think the biggest difference here is that you play with much better ballers than I do. Far and away most weeks we don’t have any shooters good enough to make 3-pointers consistently enough to really change the game. When someone is hot from outside, it does change the game because they can close in on any lead in a hurry, but we just don’t have that problem often enough. And we certainly never have the problem of multiple shooters, so you can just play the one shooter tight and take that out of the game.

    More generally, don’t we count by 1s in every pick-up team sport? Football, soccer, street hockey, basketball, ultimate? It just feels natural to have the lowest possible score increment be normalized to one.

    • Ben says:

      The reason we count by one in pickup football is that pickup football eliminates all but one method of scoring. There aren’t even any extra points. Since every score in pickup football is a touchdown, there is no benefit to counting by six (or seven, if you assume the PAT). In pickup basketball, while free throws are eliminated, the other two scoring methods exist. As for the other sports you mentioned, I believe even their organized versions count by one.

      You’re right that counting by 1s and 2s doesn’t always change the game. In fact, it might never change the game. But why even introduce that possibility? An astute player who can shoot the outside shot should recognize that he is far more valuable in a game by 1s and 2s than he is by 2s and 3s, and he probably should play differently, ceteris paribus. You may not be convinced that you should do 2s and 3s, but I’m not convinced that you should do 1s and 2s. And, frankly, since organized basketball trumps pickup ball shouldn’t the onus be on the advocate of 1s and 2s to convince me?

      • Christopher says:

        The burden of convincing is yours, not the 1s and 2s advocate, simply because of pick-up precedent.

        Good point about the other sports. In fact, if there were two methods of scoring left in pick-up football, say FGs and TDs, the two options would be to count by either 3s and 6s or 1s and 2s, both of which would preserve the ratio.

        There’s also a degree of ambiguity introduced by the switch to 1s and 2s. Someone cans a 3-pointer. Someone says, “Was that a 2?” No one knows whether to answer “yes” or “no, it was a 3.”

        Ceteris paribus, the shooter should park outside. But the defensive response mitigates this incentive. The other team just responds by playing lock-down defense on the outside, forcing him to drive and giving you more of the inside game you’re looking for. Maybe after this conversation, I’ll be more likely to give my man the drive if it means I can drive him off the line because he’s shooting a two-possession shot.

        But I do like being able to abbreviate scores like 13-11 with 3-1, which seems harder to do if you’re scoring 2s and 3s. And it still feels more natural, sorry. (Hypocritically, I kept thinking this morning how stupid it is that we’re not on the metric system. And why do we count time in these weird groups. Why not make second or minutes longer so there are like 20 hours in a day, 50 minutes in an hour, 100 seconds in a minute or something.)

        • Ben says:

          In the mornings we play by 2s and 3s and we don’t seem to have any problems abbreviating 13-11 as 3-1.

          Ideally, yes, you’d defend the guy who is parked at the perimeter and force him into other shots. But does that really happen? I’m guessing that, other than really elite pickup basketball, a strong outside shooter can get his shot off almost at will. I play regularly with a kid who just graduated from high school who shoots (I’m estimating) about 50-55% from three. He’s phenomenal. We all know he’s going to hit threes on us. We try to play him on the perimeter. But whether he’s proven to us that he can drive and score, or whether he’s just that all-critical inch taller than the defender’s hand, or whether it’s pickup ball and we’re just barely lazy enough that we don’t get to him, he still gets his shots. And his teams win more than 50% of their games (and would probably win even more if we were counting by 1s and 2s).

  2. Dan says:

    Ben, you just made my day. If I get a chance (and if you’re ok with it), I may link to this from our Suns blog or the Suns Fan Hub.

    • Ben says:

      That would be a tremendous honor! Feel free to link to it anywhere. I’ll look for the corresponding bump in traffic in SiteCatalyst :)

  3. [...] years after Basketbawful’s post, Ben Gaines (a different Ben than the one above) wrote a more extensive post about his issues with how scoring by 1sN2s changes the game for the worse: Let’s say I’m an NBA [...]

  4. Justin says:

    I enjoyed your post and quoted you in an article / blog post on scoring systems and extrapolating estimated statistics for pickup basketball using data from the pro and college ranks.

    http://yougotfive.wordpress.com/2013/08/09/the-algebra-of-scoring-and-the-calculus-of-keeping-score/

    -J

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