Strategies from pickup basketball -- Why you shouldn't guard the worst player or focus too much on the documentation no one reads
Pickup ball versus the NBA
First, by “pickup ball,” I mean unorganized basketball that you play at a local gym or park with a group of other people you casually know. In contrast, the “NBA” (National Basketball Association) refers to professional basketball that you see on TV. Although presumably both pickup ball and NBA follow the same rules, actually there are some differences. In pickup ball, you will not get a charge, carry, fouls for pushing while rebounding, defensive three seconds, or three-in-the key. You’ll never foul out, nor will the other team get free throws when you foul them. Everyone knows these discrepancies, and it’s not really my focus here. What I’d like to highlight are the lesser discussed differences in defensive strategies.
The rover strategy
In the NBA, everyone is usually potent on offense (though from different positions). If you’re a terrible outside shooter, you’re probably in the NBA because you’re a 7-ft Steve Adams or Rudy Golbert or DeAndre Jordan, and you gobble up rebounds and put the ball back from 3 ft away, or you get lob passes 12 feet high and dunk the ball, or you have deadly post moves. As a result, you can’t leave offensive players alone in the NBA. You have to guard everyone.
In contrast, in pickup ball, not everyone is worth guarding. The players are accountants, or engineers, or people who never actually played organized ball. Some of them can’t score, and it’s a waste of time guarding them.
If you want to win in pickup ball, guard the worst player, and then don’t really guard this player at all. Instead, only keep loosely aware of the player and instead rove around in the paint, rotating to double-team anyone who drives or posts up. When you do this, you shut down the other team’s ability to score on drives or post moves.
They’ll then need to score by shooting threes (a lower-percentage shot). If you encourage your teammates to get in their opponent’s face to disrupt the long shot (promising that you’ll help out on the drive), the other team’s three-point shooting percentage plummets even further. It’s basically game over for the other team.
Here’s a rough depiction of the strategy:
This strategy tends to fail only when the other team doesn’t have a weak player, or when the other team has good outside shooters. But remember, this is pickup ball. Usually, at least one person on the other team is notably weak. This weak player is a major advantage to exploit, and you can do so by simply not guarding (or only loosely guarding) that player.
Now, note that I didn’t say that the person playing rover, who is double-teaming the others on drives and posts, just sits back and lazily stands in the key like a statue. No, this player has to be hyper-aware, following the ball and deciding when to help out and when to hang back. This player must still keep the person he or she guards somewhat in the back of mind, ready to move at least a bit if the player is actually passed the ball, but the rover’s real focus is on the other four offensive players. In short, this paint-roving player must be active and aggressive and alert, quickly darting into the right spot to counter any offensive penetration.
For the most part, you don’t see this strategy implemented in the NBA because, as I said, NBA players are all lethal scorers and you can’t just leave them alone to double-team another player. However, if you watch the NBA, pay attention to Draymond Green, last year’s Defensive Player of the Year. Green is one of the best players to watch to see someone help out in a rover-like way on defense. When someone drives, Green slides over to help out, creating a double-team. Sure, lots of players help out a little like this, but Green helps out in an aggressive, pro-active way, fully anticipating a drive or post move and then suffocating the play.
NBA players would normally exploit this open player that the rover leaves, but when Green comes off his opponent to help out, another Golden State player often slides over to take Green’s opponent, and the whole defense shifts around to plug these open gaps. It’s a complex multi-person switch that could never be implemented in pickup ball.
Take a look at this highlight reel of Green. In about 75% of these highlights, Green (#23) leaves his opponent to slide over and help out, double-teaming someone who is driving to the hoop.
This is the genius of Green’s defense. You don’t stay glued to your man while watching one of your teammates get beat on the drive. You rotate when the offense drives or posts up. The driving player doesn’t usually see the open player you just abandoned. The offensive player driving with the ball is usually too focused on his or her path, the rim, the defender – all while driving forward with clever footwork – to spot the open player and pass him or her the ball.
When this rover defender comes out of nowhere to provide an additional defense, the offensive player driving with the ball has even less time to react and is usually frantically trying to protect the ball from getting it stripped, or suddenly has to implement some other ballet-like spin move to escape a tighter space. This now smothered player rarely has the visual acumen to scan the court and find the open teammate and pass him or her the ball.
If teams play the Rockets, this rover-strategy is the only strategy for guarding James Harden or Chris Paul, because no one can guard these players by themselves. However, the Rockets have been successful because they stack their team with ace three-point shooters (who also spread out on the floor) so that if a rover-like defender comes off his player to double-team Harden or Paul, it leaves open either a deadly shooter (Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson, P.J. Tucker, or Trevor Ariza), or they lob it to Clint Capella for the dunk.
This is also why the Cavaliers probably won’t make it past the second round in the playoffs. As brilliant as Lebron James is, no one can have continued success drive after drive when he or she is double-teamed. This is why Lebron has as many assists as he does. Even though Lebron is also unguardable (similar to Harden of Paul), when Lebron looks for the open player to pass the ball to, these other open players don’t have the same three-point shooting prowess as the Rockets do (although, when Kevin Love and J.R. Smith are on target, the Cavs become much better).
In pickup ball, players don’t have this basketball IQ. If, as a rover, you rotate onto someone who is driving, the offense rarely exploits the open player. Remember, this open player is usually a less experienced player, and he or she doesn’t have the basketball IQ to do anything to exploit the lack of defense. The person with the ball can’t lob it up to this open player for an easy dunk or lay-in, for example. Nor can this open player move to a three point spot on the other side of the floor and wait for a pass because this player is usually a terrible shooter. As a result, the double-teamed player with the ball usually gets frustrated because he or she sees the extra defense but can’t exploit the open player.
If you implement this rover strategy, you may get a few raised eyebrows when you match up against the worst player. This disproportionate matchup breaks basketball codes. The tradition for defense in basketball is that you almost always play man-on-man defense, and you almost always match up by height and skill level. Your team’s best players guard the other team’s best players, and your team’s worst players guard the other team’s worst players. When one of the better players guards the worst player, people don’t understand why. (If people ask questions, I usually say I want to go for more rebounds or I say that I’m slow — which, actually, I am.)
I’ve had success with this rover strategy on defense for so long that I’ve been looking for ways to implement a similar strategy at work. The strategy is not necessarily to exploit my opponent’s weakness and double-team their best player. The strategy is stop wasting my time guarding players that don’t matter, and to make myself more available for the higher priority offensive players.
Perhaps the most direct application of this strategy for tech writers is to ignore rarely used docs, or docs that don’t really matter. All too often, we have in our heads the egalitarian idea that all aspects of documentation need to be complete and thorough and well-maintained. In short, we spend equal amounts of time guarding the worst player/docs. We spend equal amounts of time working on documentation that sees very little use.
Instead of focusing equal amounts of time on docs, we should largely ignore content that no one reads and instead “double-team” (or place lots more attention and focus on) the hot documentation that racks up much more hits. It’s the 80/20 rule – focus on the documentation that accounts for 80% of the metric points.
This strategy could extend to lots of non-sports situations as well. In my daily list of tasks and other to-do’s, how often do I spend time on tasks that ultimately don’t matter much, which probably aren’t even worth “guarding”?
Other posts about basketball
- My second-chance points strategy with documentation
- What makes Basketball Fun? Gamifying Exercise
- Following the NBA Can Make You a Better Technical Writer
Also, check out this video explaining Lebron’s flaw. It’s related to the topics I’ve touched upon here.
About Tom Johnson
I'm a technical writer based in the San Francisco Bay area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture, writing techniques, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out simplifying complexity and API documentation for some deep dives into these topics. If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the field, be sure to subscribe to email updates. You can also learn more about me or contact me.