Sports and Complexity


Applications of Complex Systems: The Complexity of Team Play

by Yaneer Bar-Yam

Complexity is a measure of the number of possibilities. In the context of sports, an effective defense has to meet the possible choices of the offense. Thus, the number of possible ways a player or team can create an offense is important. If a player or team has a more diverse set of offensive plays, the other side may not be able to defend against each play. The plays that it cannot defend against can be exploited. In basketball, this applies for two individuals playing one-on-one and for two teams playing against each other.

The 2000 NBA Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and Indiana Pacers can serve to illustrate this principle both at the individual and at the team level [note: I was a fan of the Pacers in this competition].

Shaquille (Shaq) O'Neil the 7'1", 315 lb. center of the Lakers is often called the most dominant player in basketball. When he has the ball near the basket, his opponents often send two or three rather than only one player to defend. He often scores anyway, averaging nearly 30 points per game during the 99-00 season, the best in the sport. Clearly his size has something to do with his success. However, when he talks about his abilities to defeat players in one-on-one play, he says that he can defeat his opponent because he has over thirty different moves.

The importance of having a variety of different team plays is generally recognized in the game of basketball. Teams practice passes to set up different shots, establishing first options and, if blocked by the defense, second or third options. However, the importance of having a variety of offenses extends to all aspects of the play in ways that are not always recognized. To illustrate this I will focus on the first game of the 2000 NBA Finals series which was won by the Lakers. Most of the commentators have emphasized how dominant Shaquille O'Neil was in this game where he scored 43 points. Once he had the ball, the Pacers almost never stopped him. While Shaquille's abilities are clearly important, I will argue that attributing the success to him is like saying that the head of the hammer is what pounds in a nail. To say that Shaquille could not have done what he did without the rest of the team is not the point. There is something specific about the way the Lakers played in the first game of the playoffs that was significant.

To understand the key to the Lakers' play, we need to understand how the Pacers play their game. The Pacers are a remarkably good team, but for someone who studies complex systems, and even for some who do not, they have one clear weakness. As is often the case this weakness is related to one of their great strengths. They have a pattern of play which, at one point, is simple. This simplicity arises because they are so good at what they do that they don’t feel they have to vary it. Because they don’t vary it, they are vulnerable to an opponent who recognizes this simplicity and attacks at that point.

Mark Jackson, the point guard of the Pacers, is the player who, for most of the game, is responsible for bringing the ball from one end of the court to the other. The reason he does this is to set up the offensive play after the Pacers regain the ball from the Lakers. However, Mark does essentially the same thing every time while he is taking the ball up court. This consistency reflects the incredible reliance of the Pacers on his ability to set up the play for the offense. The problem is that an opponent who recognizes this can attack at this point, and the Pacers have almost no alternative.

If you watched the game, you would have seen that Kobe Bryant, who is generally one of the most successful scorers for the Lakers, was consistently trying to bother Mark on his way down the court. Kobe didn't stop him, because Mark is too good a ball handler to be diverted for very long. What Kobe achieved was a delay in time. There were two important consequences, the play that Mark eventually set up was more rushed and less likely to succeed, because there was not enough time to try for several possibilities. Second, and very importantly, Shaquille O'Neill had enough time to move up the court and take a position for defense. The importance of this is not to be underestimated. As the most massive player, Shaquille also has an important weakness, he has to expend a much larger effort to move quickly. Stated differently, he cannot move as fast for as long as other players, and changing direction is a major effort. This is a law of physics, which is well understood in basketball, smaller players are generally quicker (quicker does not only mean faster, quicker also means able to change direction). The extra time given to him by Kobe's defense, makes a difference each time he has to run up the court. Over the course of the entire game this is significant, especially since each player is expending their maximum possible effort.

One interesting question is: Are the Lakers consciously doing this or is it just a coincidence that they know what to do? There is one clear evidence for the consciousness of their effort. In 1998, two years ago, the Pacers faced the Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals. At that time, in what was a hard fought series, the first two games were also lost by the Pacers. What was going on at that time? It wasn't Kobe Bryant, but it was Scotty Pippen who was pestering Mark Jackson mercilessly. Pippen was very intensively doing this and was very good at it. It was also clear what he was doing. Both Pippen and Kobe are very good offensive players scoring highly in most games. In these games, Pippen and Kobe both scored uncharacteristically little. Their energy was expended in this defense. There is another common factor between these two games. The coach of the Lakers in 2000 is the same coach as that of the Bulls in 1998, Phil Jackson.

In the 1998 games, the Pacers continued to play Mark Jackson throughout. In 2000, they had another option, Travis Best, who is the second point guard with a different strategy and tactics. His play has a different strategy and it gave them a better chance, but it wasn't enough.

This discussion illustrates the importance of complexity as a measure of the behavior of a system. Counting the number of ways one can act or react to environmental conditions is an important part of the study of complex systems in general.

Relevant links:
Information on the Pacers/Lakers 2000 Finals
Information on the Pacers/Bulls 1998 Playoffs

Copyright © 2000 Yaneer Bar-Yam. All rights reserved.

Banner photo © Flickr user "Halley"

 

 

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