What Is Basketball?
Richard “TheProfessor” Cheeks

What is basketball?

On one level, it is a game that nearly every schoolboy enjoys playing on the asphalt, concrete and dirt courts that populate our parks, schoolyards, and back yards.  However, there is another level to this sport, a highly competitive, high stakes level.

The University of Kentucky and many other Universities assemble teams each year for the sole purpose of competing for the biggest prize the game has to offer, a NCAA National Championship. To be competitive on this elite level, these Universities seek the very best talent, coaches, trainers, scouts, recruiters, and players because in this high stakes game, the team with the best talent will prevail at the end.

With respect to coaches, these Universities are willing to compensate them at levels ranging from the mid six figures to mid seven figure ranges, with considerable incentive compensation for results. When successful coaches find they can improve their compensation by changing schools, they often do, without a second thought to prior contractual commitments to the school that provided them opportunities in the first place. Likewise, when these highly paid coaches do not produce the expected results, the Universities do not hesitate to terminate their contracts, pay whatever legal penalty attaches to that breach, and find another coach who they believe will satisfy those high expectations.

Such is the world of major college basketball. These facts are not new, but the magnitude of the numbers has certainly increased in recent years as the big money from TV and other media coverage continues to pile up in the NCAA coffers. Each school wants to maximize their own share of those proceeds, and in some cases rely upon those proceeds to pay the ever mounting coach compensation packages.

So, I ask again, what is basketball?

The game itself is a war between two teams, played within the outer boundary of the 94 by 50 [more or less] game court with a basket mounted at each end. The team that scores the most points by putting a round basketball through their basket wins. That is a very simple explanation, but the implementation of the game is much more complex.

Each team devises plans and strategies to improve its effectiveness in scoring those points, and each team devises plans and strategies to frustrate their opponents' plans for scoring at the other end. The war is a battle of wills, and when the game is played at the highest levels of competitiveness, the battles can be intense. That is why so many folks spend so much time watching the great match ups each year.

Can we measure the effectiveness of a particular team's plans and strategies? Yes and all fans everywhere are able to quote their favorite statistics regarding their favorite teams and players. The bottom line however, is which team scores the most points.

Scoring is the product of pace and offensive efficiency. Defense against scoring is also the product of pace and defensive efficiency. Pace is the common factor, though not always identical for two teams in a given game, and I defer a discussion about pace for another day. Suffice it to say that the NCAA D1 average in 2006 was 80 possessions per game for all teams, in all games.

What is efficiency?

Many fans will point out that their team scores 80 points per game, and thus is a monster on offense. Other fans will similarly point out that their team only allows its opponents to score 65 points per game, and thus is a monster on defense. First, only a few teams each year can boast those levels of effectiveness at both ends of the court, and second, these raw scoring averages are often misleading.

Take two teams, A and B, both averaging 80 points per game. Team A plays a very fast, helter skelter style, running and shooting at will, with no real attempt to improve its opportunities to score on its possessions while Team B plays a more conventional pace, 80 possessions per game designed to maximize its own offensive efficiency. It should be clear that their respective scoring averages are not really equivalent although they may be equal. Team A scores at a rate of 0.889 points for each possession it gets in the game while Team B scores at a rate of 1.000 points per possession.

Furthermore, the team that gets 90 possessions in a game, essentially allows its opponents to have 90 possessions in the same. If Teams A and B have equal defensive effectiveness, then Team A's opponents will score more points than Team B's opponents, and Team B will be a stronger team overall.

Similar analysis applies to defensive efficiencies, and I do not repeat that analysis here for brevity.

The objective of each team must be to maximize the spread between the offensive and defensive efficiencies.  The data indicate that teams that establish dominance over its opponents through high spread between the offensive and defensive efficiencies over the course of a full season are the same teams that will compete at the end of that season for the national championship that all teams, and their fans, covet and work so hard to achieve.

However, just as is the case with offensive and defensive efficiencies, it is necessary to view the average game margins in efficiency terms, points per possession.. Consider two teams that beat opponents by 15 points per game. However Team A uses the 90 possessions per game to achieve this result while Team B uses the 80 possessions per game.

I call this parameter the Net Game Efficiency [NGE], which is the algebraic sum of a team's offensive and defensive efficiency. Winning percentage and national competitiveness are a function of a team's NGE. For any given NCAA D1 season, the average NGE is zero, with an approximate equal number of teams having positive and negative values. The strength of a particular team's schedule will affect their own NGE. I will not discuss the algorithm that can account for this factor at this time, but two teams with identical NGE values at the end of the year are not equally strong unless their respective schedule strengths are identical.


What Is Basketball?

What is a Possession?

Change in Position on Definition of Possessions

What Is Net Game Efficiency?

Why Do "Upsets" Occur?


Do Objective Performance Measures Like NGE
Account For Intangible?


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