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nash

Assume you’re a coach of a basketball team that features a great offensive player who is awful on defense — an undersized point guard who is a brilliant play maker but whose relative lack of size and strength makes him mostly a liability on D (Steve Nash), or a small forward who can light it up on O but has terrible defensive technique and instincts and is fairly useless on on the defensive boards (Ricky Davis).

Why not play a cherry picking strategy (CPS), in which you leave that player on the offensive half of the court either all the time or at unpredictable moments? Obviously this strategery would work great if the other team is forced to take a player out of its offense, since that player’s offensive value in a 5 on 5 situation is ex hypothesi greater than your crummy defender’s defensive value. But let’s say the other team decides to play 5 on 4 instead. Advantages of the strategy

(1) If the other team turns the ball over that’s pretty much an automatic score for you.

(2) Many defensive rebounds would result in easy transition buckets — if the rebounder was apt at firing quick outlet passes, either to the cherry picker or to a team mate who could make a quick second pass.

(3) Even after made baskets the scoring team would have to be conscious of the importance of rotating someone into the defensive half court fast enough to avoid a long inbound pass to the cherry picker. This would have the additional beneficial effect of keeping the offense from crashing the boards as aggressively as they otherwise might.

The disadvantages are obvious. For one thing you would pretty much have to play a (short-handed) zone, probably a 1-2-1, and the higher the level of basketball, the better offenses become at exploiting zone defenses in a systemic way.

This makes me suspect that CPS would be more effective at lower levels of competition — that it might not work in the NBA, but might work in college ball, or lower-division college ball, or in high school.

A related caveat would be that it might work only to the extent that it was employed unpredictably: that it wouldn’t work well if a team did it 100% of the time, but it might if it were an intermittent or occasional tactic, the possibility of which the opposition would have to take into account.

I’ve watched a lot of basketball and I’ve never seen anyone try anything like this, which could mean that the idea is wrongheaded for some reason I’m not taking into account. Or it could mean that nobody has tried it for the same reason nobody used to go for it on fourth and five from the other team’s 36 yard line — i.e., there isn’t a good reason.

Update: Lots of interesting comments. On reflection, using a point guard to cherry pick is obviously a bad idea. You don’t want to use a decent rebounder or shot blocker even if he/she can’t defend worth a lick, so that pretty much means using a wing player who hates to defend but can score like hell. While there are about 30 guys who fit that description in the NBA, I tend to agree with the commentators who point out that a remarkably large number of NBA players become effective long range shooters when wide open, so that argues for using some version of the strategy at lower levels. I also like the suggestion of a soft version of the strategy, where your Derrick Rose type releases as soon as a shot goes up, or maybe very late in the shot clock. Of course you do see some of that already at all levels, but it tends to be frowned on.

Anyway, I think this is an area that, like the use of relief pitchers in baseball and kicking strategy in football, could probably benefit from more experimentation. (What definitely seems suboptimal is the point made in comments about holding players out relatively mechanically because of foul trouble).

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