Stephen Curry and mixed strategies

Ever since I learnt recently about the rise of Stephen Curry, and Golden State Warriors’ rise using a three-point strategy, my interest in basketball and the NBA has gone up. I still can’t watch a game – the randomly spaced ad-breaks are too mindfucking for that. But I’ve been reading a lot more about Curry and Golden State Warriors and Joe Lacob of KPCB.

There are two ways in which you can attack in basketball – you can either keep tiki-takaing and drive in to get close to the basket to layup/dunk or you can go for a three-pointer. We can think of each basketball attack as a “game”, where the offensive team decides to go for either the three-point or the tiki-taka, and the defensive team decides how to defend against it.

I won’t bother with drawing the payoff table here, but given research on similar “games” in sports (such as penalty kicks in football), it wouldn’t be hard to guess that the dominant strategy here is the “mixed strategy”, where a team chooses at random whether to tiki-taka or long range.

Over time, this would have led to a certain proportion of the time when the team would have decided to take long shots, and defences would have adapted accordingly (defence against a mixed strategy is also a mixed strategy).

What Curry’s extraordinary three-point shooting skills have done is that they’ve completely changed the payoffs for his team, but significantly increasing the payoff of the three-point strategy. So the Warriors have adapted their strategy accordingly, by going for the three-point game more often than the tiki taka game.

And my sense is that Curry’s shooting statistics are so much better than others’ that the proportion with which the Warriors go with the three-point strategy (as the game theoretic solution suggests) is significantly higher than the proportion with which other teams adopt such a strategy in attack.

Consequently, defences have failed to anticipate this change in the payoff matrix and defend like they do against other teams (whose mixed strategy hasnt changed). In other words, the Warriors’ opponents haven’t been playing the optimal strategy while playing against them. And this is what has led to their unprecedented 73-win NBA season.

With time, other teams are likely to adjust and adapt more optimal strategies. It’ll be interesting to see how the Warriors perform next season!

Evolution of strategy in sports

Yesterday ended with a bedtime argument about the merits of basketball player Stephen Curry. It was a bit of a weird discussion, because the wife hadn’t heard of Curry before the discussion started, and neither of us watches the NBA (I get put off by the random ad-breaks, also known as time outs).

I happened to be reading this piece by David Henderson, and asked the wife (who had represented her college in basketball) if she knew about Curry. When she replied in the negative, I showed her this montage of his 3-pointers and how that has made him controversial in the basketball community.

The wife, having greater domain knowledge (having played the game competitively) defended Curry’s critics, saying that his tactic of shooting threes had “killed the game” and made it more boring. “Basketball is a team game, and it is about penetration through passing. Three pointers is a last-ditch measure”, she said, “and Curry, by directly shooting threes, is killing the game”.

I disagreed, arguing from a game theory perspective. Every team will try to gain the maximum advantage based on the current set of rules, I argued, and that it was up to the opposition to find a response to this new way of play. While the Golden State Warriors’ three-point based play might be boring, I argued, it was effective, and being a new strategy it made the game more interesting.

She made arguments about the spirit of the game and how football would become boring and be ruined if, say, someone could shoot with high accuracy from his own goal area to the opposite goal. I responded that opponents would adapt to this, soon rendering this strategy irrelevant, and wondered why no one had figured a way yet to stop the Warriors.

I took the example of the Age of Empires, where each civilisation has a special force, and you need to adapt your strategy to that while playing against this civilisation. I pointed out about how when Stoke City came to the Premier League in 2008, they flummoxed opponents by use of their special force of “longthrowman” (also known as Rory Delap), but soon opponents adapted their strategy sufficiently to neutralise his throws.

This got me wondering whether strategy in basketball has evolved too homogeneously over time (again I must mention I hardly watch the game) – the five point zonal defence and attack, ball handling at the top, rebounds, dunks and so on – that when faced with a new strategy of using quick three-pointers, teams have struggled to react.

I was reminded of this Malcolm Gladwell piece on current Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadive leading his daughter’s basketball team to success based on the “full court press” strategy which was then hardly used.

It got me thinking about football, with its diversity of playing styles (admittedly, it’s played in a larger number of countries, on a bigger court and with more players, giving more room for diverse strategies), where a team might be able to achieve short-term results with an innovative strategy or formation, but opponents soon learn to neutralise them.

Is it that basketball, dominated by a handful of teams (note that the NBA has a small number of teams and no concept of promotion and relegation unlike European leagues), hasn’t evolved diversely enough to react quickly enough to new strategies? And this is not the first time that basketball has reacted in a hostile fashion to a new strategy that is well within the rules – as this podcast on the evolution of basketball strategy explains, the NCAA (and also the NBA) actually outlawed the dunk after its effective use by Karim Abdul Jabbar.

The Yin and Yang of Basketball

The way I see it, Stephen Curry’s critics describing his and the Warriors’ tactics as unfair are no different from English footballers who described Scotland’s passing game as unfair (England was used to a dribbling-only no-passing style of football till then) after the first meeting of the two nations in 1872.

Basketball and playing to your strengths

Earlier this week the wife went to play basketball with some classmates in Barcelona. As she was on her way back home, we were talking about the game and I inevitably referred to my own style of playing (it’s a theme now – she says something about school, and I start off my own story with “back when I was in B-school…”). I was telling her about how I never really got good at laying up or dribbling, and I built my game around a careful avoidance of those themes.

She snapped that I was “one of those guys” who doesn’t bother learning certain kind of stuff because I’m good at other kind of stuff, so I assume that I don’t need to learn new stuff. What she said took me back to this piece in Scientific American which talks about two kinds of learning – which the piece calls as “fixed mindset” and “growth mindset”. The piece goes on to say that kids who are usually praised for results or intelligence end up developing “fixed mindsets” and that for such kids, learning stops at some stage. Those praised for effort and process on the other hand, the piece says, continue to learn and their learning is everlasting.

When I read the piece I completely identified with the fixed mindset. I sailed through most of school without putting in much effort, but when the learning curve got steep (like in Class XI physics, or at IIT) I simply gave up and started working around concepts that I found hard to learn. I didn’t do badly then, but it started affecting me when I started working. And over the last three years I’ve institutionalised playing to my strengths, while making an effort to simultaneously learn.

Coming back to basketball, the wife talked that day about how my view of the game was wrong and compared my views to those of people who would ask her “so how many points did you score” after a game – which she said was extremely pointless.

Anyway I had a chance to put that to test this morning when I played basketball (after a gap of close to 9 years) with Rohin, Vivaan and Issac (links not available to latter two). It was a chance occurrence – I stumbled upon Rohin’s tweet calling for people to play basketball with him and I responded. And it was a wonderful morning today, as I played the game after nine years.

Two pertinent observations – firstly I haven’t regressed too much. I missed shots much more frequently than I normally do, but got better as the game wore on. The second and more important pertinent observation – I still play in a fashion similar to how I played back in 1997.

So despite having gone for formal training in basketball for a brief period when I was in class 1 (or 2), I’ve never been good at dribbling. I’ve never learnt to put a good lay up . And I’ve never been a quick runner. And right from the beginning rather than working on these weaknesses, I simply played to my strengths and improving my play in those – I can shoot reasonably well (though I didn’t do so today), my above-average height (by Indian standards) means I can pick rebounds well, I have developed a good sense of positioning to compensate for my lack of speed, which also means I can defend fairly well, and so forth. And I make up for lack of dribbling and layups by relying on quick short passing. And all this put together has made me a reasonable player at casual level, and I had a satisfactory game this morning too.

In short, the way I’ve developed my basketball is by just ignoring what I suck at but focussing on getting better at my strengths. While this means that I rarely put myself outside of my comfort zone, it also means that I become an overall better (though incomplete) player given the amount of effort I put in. I remember times when I would play alone in the half-court behind my hostel at IIT. When you play basketball alone, you have two choices – do layups and shoot. To become a complete player I should’ve practised the former. I chose the latter!

So coming back to the Scientific American piece, while I agree that a fixed mindset can stop growth at some point in time, it is possible to grow around it as long as you recognise your limitations and simply focus on your strengths. And with the coming up of the on-demand economy (which I’m in a weird way part of), division of labour can be such that you can possibly get away doing only those things that you are good at! At least that’s the hope for people like me who’ve grown up with a fixed mindset.

And finally, I realise I’m unfit. Despite going to the gym fairly regularly, the game of basketball this morning showed me up as being severely unfit. Despite being the youngest guy on the court ( I think, but am not sure), it was I who was calling the time outs this morning, and it was I who was panting the most. It’s not good. Basically the kind of fitness you need to play sports such as basketball (lots of short sprints) is very different from what you build by doing “normal gym activities”. To put it another way, squatting 150 lb is no indication of whether you’re capable of playing half-court basketball for 30 minutes!

Volleyball

It’s been over eight years since I last played the game, but if I were to pick one outdoor game in which I’m best at (relative to other games I’ve played) it’s volleyball. And when I say I’m best at that, it’s on a strict relative basis – in undergrad, I struggled to get into my hostel team (let alone college team). It just goes to show how bad I’ve been in other outdoor games! I’m a successful cricket and football-watcher, though!

The thing with volleyball is that my game runs counter to how i play other games, and my life in general. In general, I’m an extremely high-risk person – I’m not into adventure sports, though, but have a Royal Enfield motorcycle – I take chances where possible and go for the spectacular. It is hard for me to be “accurate” and “correct”, and given that I know that I’m prone to making mistakes I try to maximize the outputs from the times when I don’t make mistakes, and thus go on a high risk path.

So I’ve quit my job without something else in hand four times, now freelance as a management consultant, blog about every damn thing – things that have promises of big upsides, but also risks of downsides. It also reflects in how I sometimes talk to people – I sometimes try too hard to make an impression – which can potentially get me big returns, but end up saying something stupid at times, and end up sounding arrogant at other times. Those are risks I willingly take.

And this risky nature has reflected in most games I’ve played, also – again nothing in the recent past. In chess, I get bored of slow technical Carlsen-esque positions, and am prone to go on Morphy-esque attacks that can backfire spectacularly. Playing bridge, I finesse way more than I’m supposed to – making some otherwise unmakeable contracts, but going down in contracts I should have otherwise made.

Back in school, when we played cricket with rubber and tennis balls, I would bowl leg spin, and using a light bat, would try to hit every ball for four or six, rather than trying to bat steadily. And while playing basketball (my “second best” outdoor game, after volleyball) I have a propensity to go for long shots.

What sets volleyball apart is that my game completely runs counter to who I am. In volleyball I’m a solid player – don’t spike too much (can’t jump!!), but can set spikes well, block well and can lead a team well from the back line. In fact, my best volleyball games have been those when the team has had to carry some weak links, and I’ve led from the centre of the back line, lending solidity and helping build up attacks. It definitely doesn’t reflect what I’m like otherwise.

But volleyball has also been the game where I’ve had a large number of spectacular failures. At every level I’ve played, I’ve had some responsibility thrust upon me, and I’ve buckled under the pressure. It’s volleyball that comes to mind every time I let down people’s trust because I do badly a something I’m supposed to be good at.

1. Voyagers versus pioneers, 1999: This was the school inter-house tournament. We go two sets up. They win the next two. Down to the decider. We lead 14-13, and its our turn to serve. Our captain purposely messes up our rotation such that I can serve (I had a big serve – one attacking aspect of my volleyball). The serve clips the net on its way across (back then, a let was a foul serve in volleyball). We lose.

2. NPS Indiranagar versus NPS Rajajinagar, 1999: Then I get selected to represent my school. I’m on the bench, and am subbed in right on time to serve. I decide to warm up with an underarm serve (before I start unleashing my overarm thunders). Hit it into the net. Opponent’s serve comes to me and I receive it badly. Get subbed out.

3. G block versus F block, 2004-05: Semi finals of the IIMB inter-hostel championship. We have two big spikers, two decent lifters and defenders (including me) and two who had never played volleyball in their lives, but were chosen on the basis of their physical fitness alone. Down to third set (best of three). We lead 25-24 (new scoring system). I’m playing right forward. Ball comes across the net. All I need to do is to set it up for a big spike, but I decide to spike it directly myself. And miss. Then I serve on the next match point. Decide to go for a safe serve, gets returned. We lose.

4. Section C versus Section A, 2004-05: Again similar story. I don’t remember the specifics of this, but again it was heartbreak, and I think I missed my serve on match point.

I guess you get the drift..

The Problem With American Sport

There was a basketball epidemic when I was in high school. It was probably a result of two things – we used to play basketball regularly in school, and Star Sports (or was it still Prime Sports?) had started showing live games from the NBA. Everyone in school would talk about basketball. Your knowledge of basketball went beyond the Magic Johnsons and Michael Jordans. You learnt about teams with wonderful names such as “Utah Jazz”. And for reasons completely unknown to me, despite having never watched him play (I still haven’t) Patrick Ewing became my favourite player.

So one morning I decided to see what the fuss about NBA was all about, and watch a game. It made for horrible viewing. There were great plays, of course. It was a great spectator sport in that sense. But what annoyed me endlessly were the time outs and consequent advertising breaks. Just when I would get settled into the rhythm of the game, someone would call a time out and for the mid 90s, two minutes of advertising was a really long time!

I still continued to watch, for “pseud value”, so that I could talk about it in school. However, I could never get the kind of engagement that I could get with cricket (then) or football (now). The game was simply way too discontinuous. A game of basketball is supposed to last 40 minutes, but these things would last three times as long. I don’t think I watched more than 2-3 games.

As everyone on my facebook timeline talks about the Super Bowl, the only thing I can think of is how unwatchable American Sport is. I understand that you need the ads to fund the game, and that greater advertising revenue means greater revenue for players and hence greater quality of sport. What irks me however, is that these ads end up causing much discontinuity in the sport.

So this morning I was thinking about why I get irked so much about ads in American sports (basketball, american football, etc.) while I can still watch cricket, which has a fair share of ads. The answer lies in randomness. I know when a cricket telecast will switch to ads – at the end of every over, at the fall of a wicket, or in an innings break. When an advertisement comes in a cricket broadcast, I’m prepared for it (except of course, when greedy broadcasters cut to ads before the full over is bowled). It is a similar case in tennis, where I expect to switch to advertisements after every two games – there is a rhythm to it.

In American sport, it is not so. That teams can call for a timeout at any point in time, and that can completely put you off. The game cuts to advertisements at moments when you least expect it, and that can be a huge challenge for someone not used to it!

A year or so ago, I had attended this lecture on sports analytics in Bangalore, delivered by a University of Chicago professor. He said that the reason football hasn’t taken off in the US is because it is not television friendly. “Split a game into four quarters, introduce two time outs in each quarter, and you will see Major League Soccer taking off”, he said. The problem, however, is that this would simply ruin the continuity of the game – which is what a lot of people love about football. And looking at the funding of the clubs in the major European leagues, it is clear that football is making sufficient money from television in its current form, without any gimmickry.

An American colleague at my last job offered another perspective. “How can you watch a game continuously for 45 minutes”, he asked. “We are so used to breaks in play every few minutes that we can’t watch continuously for so long”. If I can extrapolate from this one data point and take it with conjunction with what the professor said, you know why football is not popular in the US.

When I woke up this morning I wanted to check if the Super Bowl was being telecast in India. Then I remembered my earlier experiences of trying to watch American football, and decided against it. It is too discrete a game for my liking. There are too many breaks in play. I’d any day watch rugby instead! It is a similar game but so much more elegant and continuous!

On Schooling

Usually I’m quick to defend the school where I studied between 1986 and 1998. I made lots of good friends there and generally had a good time. Of late, however, in discussions on schooling, I find myself mention teachers from that school who I considered particularly horrible, mostly for their method of teaching.

Yesterday I was chatting with a classmate from this school who now works in the education sector, and she happened to mention that she considered her schooling to be mostly “a waste” and that she didn’t learn too much there. And I quickly concurred with her, saying all that I had learnt was at home, and school didn’t teach me much. So what explains my love for the school even though they might not have done a great teaching job?

From 1998 to 2000, I went to another school, where again they didn’t teach much, and instead assumed all of us went to JEE factories which would teach us anyway. What made things bad there, though, was that they didn’t treat us well. That school had a strict disciplinary code which was enforced more in letter than in spirit. Teachers there had a habit of loading us with homework, calling us for Saturday classes and having surprise tests. The problem with School 2 was that not only did they not teach well, but they also made life miserable in several other ways. The only redeeming factor for that school was the truckload of interesting people I got to meet during my two years there.

So what explains my love for School 1 despite the fact that they didn’t do a great job of teaching? The fact that they treated us well, and left us alone. The uniform wasn’t very strictly enforced, as long as you wore blue and grey. The school had an explicit “no homework” policy. Exams happened only according to schedule and there were few assignments. Even in class 10, we had three “periods” a week dedicated to “games” where we played volleyball or basketball rather than wasting our time in “PT”. Teachers were mostly very friendly and the atmosphere on the whole was collaborative and not so competitive.

My friend might think she “wasted” her 10 years in the school because she didn’t learn much there, but I argue that it was better than her going to another school where she wouldn’t be treated as well and where her life wouldn’t have been as peaceful.

Big forward, little forward

When most teams play a front two, it comprises of a small quick guy (called the Number Ten) and a big guy (called the Number Nine). The convention is that when the team is defending, one of these two stays up ahead (just beating the off-side mark, wherever the opposition defence line is), while the other tracks back in order to help out with the defence. The worldwide convention in this regard is for the Number Nine to stay up front in anticipation of an attack while the Number Ten drops back to defend.

Liverpool, of late, however, have played differently. Their Number Ten (figuratively, since he wears seven on his back) Luis Suarez is the one usually left alone upfront when the team is defending, while the number Nine Andy Carroll tracks back to help out in defence.

The logic of this policy is two-fold. One, an additional big player coming back to defend means greater ability to win defensive headers within the box (think of it in terms of winning rebounds in basketball). Secondly, Liverpool under Dalglish have preferred a pass-the-ball-out-of-defence method rather than clearances. This means that when the offence breaks and a counterattack is to be launched, the ball is more likely to be played along the ground to the forward rather than up in the air. And Suarez is the more likely of the pair of forwards more likely to make use of that.

So what is the concept behind the conventional wisdom of leaving Nine upfront with Ten dropping back into defence? The typical strategy in English football is to clear the ball out of defence rather than passing it out, and the big number nine is well positioned to receive it upfront. The big nines usually also have the ability to ‘hold up’ the ball, to allow his team-mates to join him. The number ten, being quick, is able to quickly join the number nine in attack.

The other factor behind leaving the number nine upfront is that they are usually one-dimensional players, with the only abilities being to win headers and hold up the ball. They are either no good in defence, or have big strikers’ egos that prevents from joining defence effectively. Number tens, on the other hand are more skilled all-round and are more likely to come of use in defence.

In this sense, Carroll is not bad at defence, and more importantly he is young and out of form, which makes it easy for Dalglish to force him to track back while defending. So far, it seems to be working.