Every NBA team wants a competitive advantage…especially before the rest of the league catches onto what they are doing.
Teams are investing heavily in data analytics, sports science and player development. Everything is broken down into detail, from measuring players sleep patterns and tracking shots at practice to ensuring every possible in-game possession is analyzed.
But in this new high-tech, heavily analyzed NBA world it seems like one in-game possession has been forgotten. There is no obvious strategy in place for it, no team is taking advantage of it and players at times actually don’t even care about participating in it.
The humble, unloved jump ball to start the game.
“Who cares about the jump ball!?”
This is a fair argument and it might be true, I’m certainly not trying to paint a picture where the jump ball is the key to winning basketball games.
However, what I will show is why teams should start caring about it a little more and applying some form of strategy, as there are competitive advantages to be gained as small as they may be.
Every possession matters in basketball and if there is a competitive advantage to be gained before the league catches on, then why not look at it?
Let’s firstly look into the biggest reason why winning the jump ball and scoring from it matters. The statistic below isn’t anything ground breaking in the analytics world and has been known in gambling circles for a long time…
In short, whichever team leads at the end of the first period is a pretty good indicator of who is going to win the game.
You would then think winning the jump ball and scoring the first possession of the game would be quite important, especially if your goal is to lead at the end of the first period and give your team approx. a 66.5% chance of winning the game.
Let’s take a look at what NBA teams are doing this season at the jump ball to start a game……
The above shows there is a huge difference between the LA Clippers winning the possession in 65.9% of jump balls compared with the Dallas Mavericks at only 24.4% to begin a game.
At first I thought maybe there was some strategy in play here. Dallas might be tactically losing jump balls? (Note: Teams who gain possession of the jump ball then also have first possession of the ball to start the 4th period. Teams that do not win the opening jump ball gain first possession in the 2nd and 3rd periods.)
Nope it wasn’t a strategic approach at all for Dallas. It turns out Zaza Pachulia is actually just terrible at it.
Zaza is actually trying to win the jump ball, but his timing and athletic ability just isn’t up to it. He even tries to play tricks with opposition player in the jump-ball to get them to mistime their jump.
Zaza in action……
What about the Clippers who are winning 65.9% of jump balls? The answer is pretty easy, DeAndre Jordan is an athletic freak and times his jumps really well. If you watch him, he actually cheats at times and gets his body far over the center court line before jumping which you could argue is a violation.
DeAndre in action……
Let’s have a look at the tactics at play in the jump ball………………This is an easy one, there are none in today’s NBA.
Every team except the Spurs is routinely lining up at the jump ball in the same boring defensive formation with the same tactic of tapping the ball backwards to your point guard.
The formation is identical over and over again……
Looking at the Spurs, they at least try something different with the placement of LaMarcus Aldridge, with the intention being that the opposition will tap the ball backwards to him.
Checkout Danny Green as well in the below clip, he is like a hawk on every jump ball and anticipates trying to steal the ball as it is tapped backwards by the opposing team, the Spurs routinely run the below…
I wouldn’t exactly call this a ground breaking strategy, but they are at least trying something. The 76ers at times have tried the same strategy as the Spurs which is no surprise as 76ers coach Brett Brown is a disciple of the Spurs coaching staff.
Next let’s look at what teams are doing when they gain possession of the jump ball and how they are converting possession into a score.
Again, there is a wide disparity between the league leading Charlotte Hornets with an average of 1.14 points per possession vs the league worst LA Lakers at .28 points per possession.
You would assume the better teams at converting a jump ball into a score are using tactics that complement the new NBA, which is all about pushing the pace and looking for easy scores in transition. Not to mention taking advantage of a defense in a jump ball scenario that has players positioned at half court and are stationary…
Nope. It’s the total opposite. Every team does the exact same thing.
Tap the ball backwards to the point guard who is usually standing in the most defensive position in the backcourt and then walk the ball up at a snail’s pace before getting into a predetermined half court set.
Teams are effectively letting the defense get back into position and allowing them time to find a player to defend, it’s almost a gentlemen-like agreement to let everyone setup before we start to play.
An example of what happens at the beginning of most games.......
Now here is an example of the University of Denver thinking outside the box and taking advantage of a defense on its heels and not ready to defend.
(You don’t need to watch the whole clip, the first 2 examples illustrate the kind of tactic that could at least be attempted in the NBA)
The above is just an example of trying something different and potentially getting a wide open layup to start the game.
I find it quite strange that with all the advancements we have tactically in the NBA today, that teams aren’t at least trying to gain an advantage by catching a team napping at the start of the game.
As I said earlier, winning the jump ball and scoring on the first possession isn’t the Holy Grail. However If you have a 65%+ chance of winning a game by being in the lead at the end of first period, wouldn’t a fast paced start and setting the tone early in the game have some value?
And if an NBA team tried something like the below, well it would be pretty awesome......
* Thanks to nbastuffer.com for providing the play by play logs for the past 2 seasons