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The More Things Change …

2009 March 24
by Brian Goff

CBS college basketball analyst and former coach (Manhattan, Villanova, UMAss), Steve Lappas made this (paraphrased) observation over the weekend:

The game has changed. We used to think that you had to pass the ball to get shots. Things have changed over time with the three point shot. With guys spotting up at the three point line, dribbling and driving has become more important. Getting the ball to the low post doesn’t matter much anymore.

Lappas’ views fit my own (making them more appealing to me) — the three point line has changed a lot of things. It makes an interesting econ story. Rule changes change incentives. The effects show up in obvious ways, more long distance shooting but also in not-so-obvious and maybe unintended ways — less ball movement, less player movement, more dribbling, fewer assists, less low post play, and so on.

I decided to do a little, preliminary data analysis, thinking to confirm my predictions. Of course, there are always limitations to data. Unlike hockey, basketball does not award for the pass leading to the pass leading to the score. As a result, assists might stay high (dribble and “kick-out” type assists) while passing leading up to the assist may diminish.

I collected data on assists, field goal attempts, free throw attempts, and points scored for second round NCAA tournament games in 1986 (the last year before the 3-point line) and for 2008. This comprises only 32 teams and 16 games for each year, so the results are hardly the final world. Here they are:

Assists 1986 = 13.8
Assists 2008 = 13.7

FGA 1986 = 58.9
FGA 2008 = 57.4

FTA 1986 = 21.8
FTA 2008 = 21.1

PTS 1986 = 70.9
PTS 2008 = 72.6

None of these differences come close to statistical significance and certainly don’t set off alarm bells in terms of big, big changes. So, while dribbling may be substituting for passing some and maybe some three point shots are substituting for low post play some, the end result in terms of assists, shot-taking, free-throw taking, and point scoring is surprisingly similar to the pre-3 point eara.

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