Wednesday, July 2, 2008

On Gravity

Side Note: Thank you Derek Fisher for returning to color-commentating duties for Sparks games! Don't worry Sparks, next time less turnovers, and don't foul so much! And, enough with the full-court press.

The "gravity" I'll talk about here is a quality that is expressed solely on the basketball court. It is not to be confused with marketing prowess or league-altering potential.

One metric I've found lacking in the study of the game of basketball is a measure of a player's mass and gravitational force.

In physics, gravity is the force of attraction that objects with mass exert on one another. In basketball, a player's mass and the resulting gravity is talked about in code: "he draws a lot of attention," "he draws the double team." Basically, a player's "mass" determines his influence on the opposing defense.

Think of a bowling ball placed on a trampoline. As it sinks down, everything else on the trampoline is suddenly sucked toward the location of the bowling ball.

Commentators often discuss a great shotblocker as not only blocking shots, but "altering" shots he doesn't get credit for blocking, as though he is an electromagnetic force repelling the ball from the basket, turning layups into mid-range pull-ups.

On offense, the influential force is not one of repulsion but one of attraction, an attraction fueled by the threat of scoring, ie MASS:

Some players, when they move through the court, they have a power on the defense, regardless of what they actually do with the ball. For instance, when Kobe Bryant makes a cut, he doesn't just take his own defender with him, he also causes heads to turn as he passes by:

Heads turning leads to offensive players (whose defenders are not watching them) being able to cut to the basket for easy dunks and layups. Hence, without registering either an assist or a basket, a player can legitimately be responsible for points being scored. The effect is multiplied when a player touches the ball. Watch the defenders whenever Nowitzki receives the ball:

Assists come easy when aided by the physics of gravity.

So what exactly is the mathematics of mass and gravity? I think it splits down to three categories:
  1. Slashers draw defensive attention whenever they touch the ball, or whenever they roam near the basket. They also draw particular attention at the high post (15 feet out at the free-throw line extended). As they move without the ball, their passing these points on the court can weigh down a defense enough for another player to take advantage. Their basketball mass moving through space actually warps and tilts the floor, leaving teammates with wide-open swaths of court.
  2. Post players attract perimeter defenders, even very slightly. If a perimeter player sags off his defensive assignment just by a few steps to try to anticipate/deny the post-entry pass, he opens the door for a competent offensive player to shoot the three or drive.
  3. Three-point specialists have a unique effect on the space-time continuum of the basketball court. They basically negate the effect of gravity. If a defender would normally be pulled toward a slasher or a post-player due to the warping of the floor brought on by those players' masses, a three-point specialist will hold the defender in minute orbit farther out from the basket, allowing more space inside for skilled operatives to maneuver.
Mass is something that a player has inherently, but how it is used (ie, the gravitational force he exerts on the defense, how he warps the floor) is dependent on coaching and offensive schemes. This is the reason behind so much complaining about the Cleveland Cavaliers' offense -- here you have a slasher (Lebron James) with a great deal of mass that is often left wasted at the perimeter (where the effective attractive force of the mass is minimized) while lesser players try to score without the benefit of extra space.

I think much has to be done to clarify the basic conepts. Some of mass is hinted at in metrics such as efficiency and usage rates, as well as all-star selections, but there is still a lot lacking. I do feel that we can begin a unified gravitational theory of offense, though, with some basic principals:
  • the gravitational pull a player exerts on the defense at any given moment is inversely proportional to the square of his distance from the hoop, until he crosses the three point line. The three-point line itself curves space, and a player with mass can add to that.
  • the ball has its own mass, as all defenders are trained to know where the ball is at all times. However, the effect of the interaction of ball and player on mass is multiplicative and not additive. This explains close-outs at the three-point line and defenses "collapsing" on drivers at the hoop.
  • when high gravity (a player with a lot of mass, close to the basket, with the ball) runs into a strong electromagnetic repulsion, explosive results can follow:


Finally, there is a future discussion to be had about the so-called "BLACK HOLE" (cf: Zach Randolph), a player who misuses mass and collapses upon himself into a singularity of turnovers and missed shots. Anyways, more later when I'm more coherent. Good Night!

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