International Basketball's Dirty Little Secret

I prove that international games are far more of a coin toss than NBA games. Therefore, the right strategy, even in hindsight, is sending the most marketable team. Team USA sent the right team.


International games are basically three-point shootouts with the three-point line nearly as close as the college three. Zone defenses to a large degree prevent both dribble penetrations and low-post scoring. The only solution is shooting threes.

Italy beat Lithuania with threes. USA beat Spain with threes. It doesn't always happen -- Spain did go 5-0 in the qualifying round despite its lack of deadeye three-point shooters -- but it's certainly a trend.

International games are shorter than NBA games. Forty minutes of shooting threes means there are about 50 possessions for each team, because the shot clock is 24 seconds (40 minutes * 60 seconds/minute / 24 seconds per possession = 100 total possession = 50 possessions per team). Suppose you just have a shootout of 50 three-pointers with a buddy of yours. Suppose you both shoot about 50% typically. Then purely by chance one of you is likely to hit more than half your shots while the other is likely to hit less. It could end up being 26 three pointers to 24. That's a score of 78-72. It looks like an international score, doesn't it?

How can you make the outcomes of games more random? Try it in a video game. Pick your favorite one, pull up the opponent you usually lose to, and then set the game length to its lowest possible value: one minute, one second, whatever. I bet you win more games that way. Why? Because there's less time for talent to establish itself.

Why aren't NBA games random? Why do more talented teams tend almost always to beat the less talented teams?

It's not just zone defense. The NBA also allows zone defenses now to a degree. It's largely because the three-point line is so far back.

Imagine making the three-point line right around the free-throw area. Why would anyone ever look for the low-post shot? You don't get enough advantage in accuracy to make up for the loss of conditional points.

Alternatively, imagine keeping the three-point line out there, but making it worth 100 points. The same logic follows.

There has been talk that perhaps the NBA should adopt some of the international game's rules.

It shouldn't.

Rules should be such that the better team wins consistently, not randomly. Repeated samples should have little variation when the talent difference is big enough.

What really ought to be done is the international rules should extend the three-pointer another three feet all around to get to the NBA distance. The NBA three-pointer should be 23-9 from the basket at all points, not just at the top of the arc with narrower sides: the width of the playing field should be extended so that the three-point distance is consistent everywhere.

James Naismith, the investor of basketball, conceived of the concept of rewarding with more points shots from 30 feet out, not 20-25, and for the exact reason that the three-point line makes sense: to draw the defense out of the middle.

When the middle is only a step away from the three-point line, it not only loses its value, but it makes games more random.

The solution, to repeat, is simple: make the three-pointer a consistent distance from the rim everywhere, and make it pretty far back. Nearly 25 feet.

Given the randomness of the international game, we can finally address the main complaint from everybody on the planet: that Team USA sent its most marketable team, not the team most likely to win.

If the outcome is more or less random anyway (since when was Italy ever anybody's favorite for a medal?), then the right thing to do is send the marketable team. You don't hurt your chances much, if at all, but you do increase revenue.