Last week, the popular WBEZ radio/podcast show This American Life featured Malcolm Gladwell, author of countless, sometimes careless riffs on academic research, talking about sports.
In particular, Gladwell honed in on the infamous “granny shot,” popularized by Rick Barry, a former small forward for the Golden State Warriors. Unlike most players who shoot overhand, Barry would “flip” the ball underhanded, much in the way a 5 year old might in order to get the power needed to make a basket.
Though the shot style was unorthodox, it helped Barry earn free throw percentages in the mid 90% range in the final three years of his career.
And the reason for this incredible record wasn’t that Barry had mastered a fairly arcane way of shooting baskets; it was the granny shot itself. As Gladwell points out, it helped Wilt Chamberlain achieve the still unmatched record of 100 points in a single game, in 1962. As Barry argues, shooting underhanded is simply more effective than the traditional wrist flick business:
When I shoot underhand in free throws, where are my arms? Hanging straight down, the way they are normally. And so I’m totally and completely relaxed. It’s not in the situation where I have to worry about my muscles getting tense or tight. And then the shot itself, it’s a much softer shot. So many of my shots, even if they’re a little off, they hit so nice and soft, and they’ll still fall in the basket.
Which, of course, raises the question—if underhanded shooting is so effective, why doesn’t everyone do it? In typical Gladwellian fashion, Malcolm crowbars in an answer from a sociology study.
The reason more players don’t shoot overhand is NBA hasn’t reached an appropriate ‘threshold’ of shooters using the move to make it socially acceptable, according to Gladwell, who cites Mark Granovetter’s Threshold Model of Collective Behavior.
In Granovetter’s words a “threshold” is “…the number or proportion of others who must make one decision before a given actor does so.” So if you’re a certain type of person in a certain type of situation, you will need x number of people to participate in an otherwise socially unacceptable behaviour before you join in, whether that means throwing rocks through a window or shooting the basketball like a weirdo.
The rest of the TAL segment sort of spells itself out. Most players know that shooting underhanded is more effective but they don’t do it because, in Wilt Chamberlain’s words, they don’t want to look like “sissies.” So until enough players are “courageous” enough to shoot underhanded, they’re going to stick with this inefficient shot. Gladwell even goes so far as to use this example as a kind of kitty poster bit of inspiration:
I know we’ve really only been talking about basketball, which is just a game in the end. But the lesson here is much bigger than that. It takes courage to be good, social courage, to be honest with yourself, to do things the right way.
I think this example is illustrative, but not for the reasons Gladwell lays out. Rather, the underhanded free throw reveals a faultline in sports analytics, between aesthetics and results. When I criticised Gladwell on Twitter for misunderstanding the nature of basketball in this piece, a few analysts piped up, incredulous that a player might want to do anything less than score as many points as humanly possible in a game.
But in speaking to and working with people on the “other side” of the club wall, it’s clear that aesthetic considerations aren’t mere “fluff” to be cast aside in the name of winning at all costs—clubs often discuss attractive football as an end in itself, a goal not secondary but equal to table finish.
As of writing, I can’t think of an example from football as stark as the “granny shot” in basketball, but there is good evidence that soccer clubs should rarely if ever shoot from long distances, and that many teams cross the ball far, far too often. Nevertheless, we need to keep in mind that reducing or eliminating these behaviours might lead to unintended consequences both on and off the pitch, or court.
For example, let’s say next NBA season every team sees the light and starts shooting underhanded free throws. Chances are a few point records would be broken, but the advantage is essentially canceled out if all teams adopt it. But now you’ve got players having to perfect two shot types instead of one (albeit one is far easier), and you’ve got this ugly, low-skill, high return shot at the line.
In other words, basketball remains just as competitive, but now fans and teams basically don’t have much reason to care about free throws—they’re practically a gimme. Here, the added “efficiency” ultimately leaves a net deficit.
That’s because the pointless added difficulty of the overhand shot from the free throw line isn’t just “less efficient”, it’s pleasant, for a host of reasons that have nothing to do with points. The overhand shot requires more concentration, more focus, more risk, and yes—more difficulty. This is the entire nature of sports—teams use a set of athletic skills to overcome a series of challenges to achieve a goal. Maybe the underhand would be nice to add to the repertoire once in awhile, tied games in the fourth quarter maybe, but generally they take away rather than add to the game. Despite what it might say on a Nike shirt, when you scratch the surface you learn that yes, there are sometimes things in sports that matter more than doing whatever one can within the bounds of the rules to score as many points as possible.
To better illustrate why efficient point-scoring can involve significant tradeoffs, imagine if humans developed football-playing androids with ten times the skill of Lionel Messi, and by some miracle FIFA allowed clubs to put them out on the football pitch. Almost overnight, human players would disappear. Androids would score spectacular goals and then run efficiently back to the centre circle with no understanding of what they accomplished. Teams would be separated only by the quality of the android they could afford.
Though the point-scoring would be “more efficient,” the game would be less enjoyable and more predictable, more perfect and less human. There is a reason why we love Magnus Carlsen but are indifferent to Deep Blue. Analysts who may scoff at the idea of aesthetic considerations may be shocked to discover how many clubs will look to them for advice on how to play more attractive football, not less.
There are, as ever, caveats to this. For example, smaller, financially struggling clubs lower down the table should almost always put results above aesthetic or cultural considerations, for existential reasons. But for those who dream of working with top flight clubs, more and more teams consider futbol del arte as an end in itself, not a perk or a side effect.