Iso-Joe: Not Just A Hawks Problem

I would pay good money to watch Joe Johnson read and then provide a rebuttal to this article by Henry Abbott on the dreadful phenomenon of star players going one-on-one at the end of close games. Here are the guts of the piece:

The goal of basketball, in its simplest form, is to turn possessions into points. And on that basis, when Synergy began breaking down NBA plays by type in 2004, what it found would have made Wooden smile: Plays involving off-the-ball cuts (1.18 points per possession) and transition plays (1.12 ppp) are by far the most efficient, followed by putbacks (1.04 ppp) and pick-and-rolls in which the ball reaches the hands of the rolling man (0.97 ppp). And the least efficient? Isolation plays, good for only 0.78 points per possession.

Perhaps as a result of that dismal track record, of the 10 play types Synergy identified, isos are only the fourth most frequently run, accounting for just 12% of all plays in an average game. But in crunch time (defined by Synergy as the last five minutes of regulation and close overtime situations), their usage rose to 19 percent, second highest behind spot-up plays.

There was more. The stats revealed that when a player passes out of an iso, his team's points per possession rise from that woeful 0.78 to a more tolerable 0.93. Despite that, players pass out of isos only 20 percent of the time -- and only 16 percent during crunch time. If that player is the team's top iso threat, the number drops to 12 percent.

This is the ideal role for stats: confirming something that my eyes already tell me. My biggest pet peeve in basketball - and we will see it over and over again during the NCAA Tournament - is a team having the final possession of a game and then running some silly iso play so their best perimeter player can take a terrible shot at the buzzer. On any normal possession, the head coach would scream at said player for taking an off-balance show from 24 feet with a defender in his face. On game-ending possessions, coaches actually draw up these plays.

The motivating factor for coaches in doing so is almost certainly that they do not want to give the opponent a last chance. In this respect, basketball coaches resemble their gridiron brethren, who often call plays at the end of a game with the clock being the sole motivating factor. "I have a three-point lead and there are three minutes to go. I'm going to run the ball three times, even though a first down or two would end the game and I've been getting first downs on 75% of my sets of downs over the course of the game." Football coaches seem to have gotten better in this respect. They understand the value of killing the clock with first downs, most likely because offense is in the ascendancy and they hate the idea of giving the opponent a chance to win the game with a late touchdown. My sense is that basketball coaches, even good ones, are behind the curve on their risk-reward analysis. They are too afraid of giving the opponent a last shot and not afraid enough of running sub-optimal offensive sets in high leverage situations.

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