An N.B.A. Arbitrage Opportunity

Benjamin Hoffman has an article in today’s N.Y. Times about an investment banker named Gary Boren whom the Dallas Mavericks use as their free-throw guru. He films the players’ free-throw attempts, breaks down their mechanics, and then teaches them to improve. “Since he joined the Mavericks [in 1999],” Hoffman writes, “they have finished in the top six in the league each season in free-throw shooting, including four first-place finishes. This season, Boren has them at 80.7 percent, the fourth time his team has been higher than 80 percent at the line.”

There are a few wrinkles worth thinking about here. Maybe the Mavs were already a good free-throw team before Boren arrived (the article doesn’t mention this statistic). Maybe his presence simply forces them to shoot more free throws in practice. Maybe there’s a placebo effect in play.

Regardless, this is a pretty fascinating window into how one team is emphasizing an integral but often overlooked aspect of the game. According to Hoffman, no other N.B.A. team has hired a free-throw coach. If what Boren is doing is truly successful, that is mind-boggling.

Here are a few key insights into Boren’s approach (which he learned from Denny Price, a longtime basketball coach and father of free-throw legend Mark Price):

1. “What’s amazing is, these guys have seen miles of film running up and down the court and the coaches are yelling at them, but not one in a hundred has been filmed standing still shooting a free throw,” Boren said. (I agree: that is amazing, and along with the fact that no other team has a free-throw coach, presents a great arbitrage opportunity for the Mavericks.)

2. “They all think they’re better shooters than they are,” Boren said. (This is a bit like investors’ overconfidence bias.)

3. “Possibly Boren’s biggest success story was the 7-foot-6 center Shawn Bradley. During the early part of his career, Bradley shot mostly between 60 to 70 percent from the free-throw line. Working with Boren, he reeled off three consecutive seasons above 80 percent, including 92.2 percent in 53 games in 2001-2.” (Again, we don’t have all the factors here — was Bradley hurt in those earlier years? — but still, it’s impressive.)

All of which makes me wonder: why do no other teams have a free-throw coach, and why didn’t Pat Riley buy one for Shaquille O’Neal for Christmas?

On a barely related note, here’s how a variety of N.B.A. players wished a Happy Hanukkah. (P.S.: check out the Hebrew writing on Shaq’s police hat; too fuzzy for me to make out, but perhaps someone out there can.)


avtherav

It says Mishtarat Yisrael, "Israeli Police" Those hats are available at all the usual tourist outlets in Israel.

chrisbergman

I saw an interview with Shaq in which he explained that his life would be perfect if he could make free throws, so he's not motivated to improve. After four (three? five?) rings and universal acclaim, not to mention a couple hundred million bucks, who are we to say otherwise?

By the way, Shawn Bradley wasn't hurt before hooking up with Boren. He just sucked. He was proof that being 7'6" isn't a guarantee of being a great baller. It just means, at least in his case, that you have long arms from which to throw cheap-shot elbows.

RattlingTheKettle

At the end of the video, the reporter reminds everyone to light a "menorah". It's interesting that even Jews don't know that the name of the candelabra lit at Hanukkah is "Chanukkia". A "menorah" holds only seven candles, while a "chanukkia" holds nine.

melloyello9838

While I don't doubt that Boren is very effective, it's not like other teams don't have a coach that helps players with free throws. It's just that he's the only one whose sole responsibility is to free throw shooting.

With only so much practice time allowed, as dictated by the league's CBA, team strategies may just involve incorporating more time for other priorities, like not choking with a two game lead in the NBA finals.

pfeltovich

This seems like a pretty even-handed example of the role of "deliberate practice" in expertise. Across the NBA teams, the "talent" levels are all reasonably high. Yet one team can improve/excel at some specific aspect of the game. The program decribed seems to meet many of the criteria of deliberate practice: analytical tools (e.g., the taping), focused goals (e.g., to improve some aspect of the delivery), the guided use of feedback, involvement of an expert mentor, teacher, lots of repetitions...

yeshaya

As a Jew, let me explain to you why we say "menora."
Firstly, chanukia is a made up word to describe a candelabra that can be used on Chanukah.
Secondly, the whole reason we celebrate Chanukah is because of a miracle involving a menora.
Fourthly, because orthodox Jews HATE making up hebrew words (I.E. don't do it).
Lastly, menora is easier to say than chanukkia, and it's close enough in meaning.

Come to think of it, I'm not even sure that "menora" means specifically a 7-branched candelabra. It might be that it's only used in the Torah in that context, and so the 7 branches thing just became associated with it.

JoelF

If Pat Riley had given Shaq a free throw coach for Christmas this year, he would have tried to return him for store credit.

In late 2000, the Lakers hired shooting expert Ed Palubinskas to help Shaq and his free throw percentage improved dramatically from 38% on the season to 68% during the final 15 games. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hack-a-Shaq)

Shaq stopping working with Palubinskas and his FT% was above 60% for the 2002-03 season, but has continued to drop since then. Shaq has said that he doesn't care, and Palubinskas cited his apathetic attitude in an interview:

"He was a good student, although not motivated. He did all he had to do and no more. He doesn't care. Seeking greatness in shooting is hard mental and physical work. He is an emotional shooter. He only cares and hopes he can make them when he's missed a whole bunch or when the game is on the line. He can't figure that every single shot is big. He knows he is bigger than the game and does not want to be a true superstar like Jordan, who wants nary weakness in his game. Shaq improved about 30 percent while I worked with him for eight months. A Los Angeles Times full page article read "Shooting Phenom Saves Lakers Season." I earned an NBA ring for the effort, but not one jot or tittle of appreciation from Shaq ever. Sad but true. You go figure." (http://www.hoopshype.com/fan_mail/palubinskas.htm)

Read more...

lermit

Makes you wonder. Still, it is not risk free, so I would not dare call it 'arbitrage'.

Keep it up with the good works!

.lermit

indi500fan

In an age of Phi Slamma Jamma and rainbow 3-pointers, the poor free throw has no sex appeal. You see this even in youth basketball where the kids take their cue from the pros.

wjhatley

Perhaps more interesting from an economic perspective (at least to me) was the column by Rick Reilly in Sports Illustrated a few weeks ago regarding the higher percentage of free throws made when shot "granny-style" a la Rick Barry. Reilly found that his own percentage went up dramatically when shooting this way, but the NBA players he interviewed (including Shaq) refused to consider it because it looks, well, unmanly.

Is this an example of economically irrational behavior?

lermit

There isn't such a thing as economically irrational behaviour.

Not to be confused with moral relativism. That's an aquarium thing I wouldn't want to get into here and now.

.lermit

Freedarko

couldn't pass up the timely opportunity to note that we at freedarko are currently having a bit of a a behavioral-econ-NBA chat of our own as well as a a roundtable discussion regarding the jewish identity of the israeli nba reporter, elie seckbach.

Tracy

Regarding point #3, he leaves out the part where Bradley's FT% dropped from 92% to 81% the following year. Bradley clearly improved under his tutelage, but 2001-02 looks like an outlier.

avtherav

It says Mishtarat Yisrael, "Israeli Police" Those hats are available at all the usual tourist outlets in Israel.

chrisbergman

I saw an interview with Shaq in which he explained that his life would be perfect if he could make free throws, so he's not motivated to improve. After four (three? five?) rings and universal acclaim, not to mention a couple hundred million bucks, who are we to say otherwise?

By the way, Shawn Bradley wasn't hurt before hooking up with Boren. He just sucked. He was proof that being 7'6" isn't a guarantee of being a great baller. It just means, at least in his case, that you have long arms from which to throw cheap-shot elbows.

RattlingTheKettle

At the end of the video, the reporter reminds everyone to light a "menorah". It's interesting that even Jews don't know that the name of the candelabra lit at Hanukkah is "Chanukkia". A "menorah" holds only seven candles, while a "chanukkia" holds nine.

melloyello9838

While I don't doubt that Boren is very effective, it's not like other teams don't have a coach that helps players with free throws. It's just that he's the only one whose sole responsibility is to free throw shooting.

With only so much practice time allowed, as dictated by the league's CBA, team strategies may just involve incorporating more time for other priorities, like not choking with a two game lead in the NBA finals.

pfeltovich

This seems like a pretty even-handed example of the role of "deliberate practice" in expertise. Across the NBA teams, the "talent" levels are all reasonably high. Yet one team can improve/excel at some specific aspect of the game. The program decribed seems to meet many of the criteria of deliberate practice: analytical tools (e.g., the taping), focused goals (e.g., to improve some aspect of the delivery), the guided use of feedback, involvement of an expert mentor, teacher, lots of repetitions...

yeshaya

As a Jew, let me explain to you why we say "menora."
Firstly, chanukia is a made up word to describe a candelabra that can be used on Chanukah.
Secondly, the whole reason we celebrate Chanukah is because of a miracle involving a menora.
Fourthly, because orthodox Jews HATE making up hebrew words (I.E. don't do it).
Lastly, menora is easier to say than chanukkia, and it's close enough in meaning.

Come to think of it, I'm not even sure that "menora" means specifically a 7-branched candelabra. It might be that it's only used in the Torah in that context, and so the 7 branches thing just became associated with it.

JoelF

If Pat Riley had given Shaq a free throw coach for Christmas this year, he would have tried to return him for store credit.

In late 2000, the Lakers hired shooting expert Ed Palubinskas to help Shaq and his free throw percentage improved dramatically from 38% on the season to 68% during the final 15 games. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hack-a-Shaq)

Shaq stopping working with Palubinskas and his FT% was above 60% for the 2002-03 season, but has continued to drop since then. Shaq has said that he doesn't care, and Palubinskas cited his apathetic attitude in an interview:

"He was a good student, although not motivated. He did all he had to do and no more. He doesn't care. Seeking greatness in shooting is hard mental and physical work. He is an emotional shooter. He only cares and hopes he can make them when he's missed a whole bunch or when the game is on the line. He can't figure that every single shot is big. He knows he is bigger than the game and does not want to be a true superstar like Jordan, who wants nary weakness in his game. Shaq improved about 30 percent while I worked with him for eight months. A Los Angeles Times full page article read "Shooting Phenom Saves Lakers Season." I earned an NBA ring for the effort, but not one jot or tittle of appreciation from Shaq ever. Sad but true. You go figure." (http://www.hoopshype.com/fan_mail/palubinskas.htm)

Read more...