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Five basketball strategies and how they might apply to tech comm

by Tom Johnson on Jul 7, 2021
categories: technical-writing writing

Because it's NBA championship finals time, I thought it might be fun to write a basketball-themed post focusing on basketball strategies that succeeded or failed, and how any of these strategies might apply to technical writing. Beyond the specifics of any particular strategy, the larger application to tech comm is to simply formulate a strategy, to think strategically about how to "win" at technical writing. With that, let's jump into five basketball strategies.

1. The shooting bigs

It used to be that bigs in the NBA (the seven-footers), mostly lived in the paint with short shots and rebounds; then the game evolved and they started shooting from the three-point line, making them much more versatile. Players such as Brook Lopez, Joel Embiid, and Nikola Jokic shoot three-pointers, which runs contrary to the traditional big’s role.

Having a shooting big allows you more strategic opportunities on offense because the big can either play inside or outside, and the defender can’t float in the paint (protecting the rim from others who drive). Shooting bigs are essential hybrid players, able to play in the paint or beyond the arc. Some bigs have a smooth, natural-looking shot. Others, like Giannis Antetokounmpo, make the crowd cringe when he attempts a three. Here’s a short video highlighting this evolution of shooting bigs:

Applicability to tech comm: Think of hybridizing your role, even in unexpected ways. Jack Molisani has been encouraging tech writers to hybridize their job titles for a long time. Don’t think of yourself as a single role player (e.g., “technical writer”). Instead, think “tech writer / usability specialist,” “tech writer / developer,” “tech writer / information architect.” You get the point. The versatility of a hybrid role makes you more of a threat in the content game.

2. The mismatch

This strategy involves setting a pick for someone to create a mismatch, like having a big set a pick for a small guard, so that the big ends up defending a guard. This seems to be the constant strategy of teams lately. Time and again, the Suns set picks for Chris Paul to create mismatches so that Brook Lopez ends up guarding Chris Paul. Chris can take a jump shot, drive past the slow lumbering Lopez, or pass it to an open teammate when other defenders come to Lopez’s aid. In this video, watch how Chris Paul and Devin Booker constantly get mismatched against Brook Lopez and Bobby Portis:

Applicability to tech comm: Many developer doc projects are the ultimate mismatch, where a tech writer with a humanities background attempts to document something that requires an engineering degree to understand. Although it seems like David going against Goliath would be a losing battle in favor of Goliath, tech writers usually win in the end due to their scrappiness, quick learning ability, and good word-handling skills.

(Granted, some tech writers have engineering degrees, which might create a better matchup. But in that case, the mismatch might be an engineer attempting to excel at writing.)

3. Small ball

Some teams flipped the strategy script by introducing “small ball” (namely, the Warriors, Rockets, and others). These teams got rid of the traditional big center and replaced the center role with someone smaller who was quicker, could shoot threes, and also run the floor. This forced the defense to get out of the paint and stick closely to each offensive player. It also meant keeping the defending bigs on the bench because they usually can’t defend smaller shooters playing an outside game. With no big defenders floating the paint, it allowed the offense more space to drive to the hoop. Here’s a video showing this strategy:

If the defense doubles up on someone like Harden, he passes the ball to an open shooter to knock down a three. To avoid being outmatched on defense by another big, teams looked for a versatile forward to play the center role (such as Draymond Green, PJ Tucker, or Robert Covington).

Applicability to tech comm: Maybe a role you thought was key turns out to be superfluous. Maybe you get rid of middle management and replace the role(s) with another senior technical writer, and then share the managerial responsibilities across all the senior writers? Or maybe you get rid of your tools guru and outsource that role to a commercial solution? Or maybe get rid of some process or pipeline stage you thought was essential? What central role or process can you do without?

4. Dribble penetration

The dribble penetration strategy involves a guard penetrating into the paint to collapse the defenders on him, at which point he passes to an open shooter. There’s a gravity that happens around the ball — a gravity that pulls in other defenders, especially as you get closer to the hoop. Trae Young constantly does this by getting into the paint and then, when others come to help on defense, he lobs it to Capela for the dunk. Luca drives a bit, draws defenders on him, and then passes to the open teammate to shoot.

Chris Paul has this down to a science, creating the offense based on options that result from this pick and roll — see Chris Paul’s Pick & Roll Game Broken Down to a Science.

Applicability to tech comm: You might be the most visible person (because of having rapport and years-long relationships with those product teams around you), but it doesn’t mean you should shoulder all the work. Instead of trying to do everything yourself, look for the open teammate and pass him or her the work. Look for that teammate who’s standing in the corner, available, waiting for the opportunity to tackle a new project.

5. Hero ball

Hero ball consists of giving the ball primarily to your best player and letting him or her take the shot — over and over. “Hero ball” was originally called the archangel offense during the Michael Jordan days, where teammates would repeatedly give the ball to Michael to score, looking to him as a kind of game savior. Most recently we saw a lot of hero ball with the Nets, who put the ball into Kevin Durant’s hands time and again to score. When Durant scored 49 points in game 5 against the Bucks, Durant was hailed as a basketball god and people started calling him the best basketball player ever.

Hero ball sometimes wins games, but in the long run, heroes get tired, they get double-teamed, and the other teammates languish in the shadows, playing much less aggressively and less confidently. This is why most other NBA stars don’t want to play with Lebron — because they don’t play with Lebron as much as for Lebron. Instead of hero ball, a more well-balanced team of many involved players and a deep bench (like the Suns) tend to hold up better in the long term.

Applicability to tech comm: Don’t operate independently. Sure, the rock star technical writer on your team might appear to be handling those really tough tickets time and again, while the others watch from the sidelines. But encourage all the team members to get more actively involved in reviewing content, becoming familiar with what’s going on, and generally playing together with the rock star rather than spectating on the sidelines. Operate as a team, not as independent players. For more motivation, check out this recent subreddit post, Uneven workload leading to guilt and frustration, where one tech writer yearns to take on more projects from a senior writer, who handles 90% of them due to being there forever.


That’s it for this exploration of basketball strategies and tech comm. For more sports-related posts, see the sidebar on the left. By the way, I know it seems corny to take strategies from one domain and transpose them onto another, but this is actually a legit brainstorming technique. See my post Brainstorming by transposing patterns from one category to another. A workshop leader introduced a brainstorming technique that involved describing experiences in a cafe and then transposing the qualifiers and other descriptive statements from the cafe to our company’s products.

Sometimes bringing ideas from outside of your current category helps you see it in a new way. Not everything works, but with this post, the whole “hero ball” strategy made me rethink some of the tendencies toward independent work that I sometimes gravitate towards. It made me wonder who is standing in the corner, open and available.

About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.

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