This story appears in the March 19, 2012 "Choke Issue" of ESPN The Magazine. Subscribe today!
WITH THREE MINUTES LEFT on a frigid February night in Philadelphia, the Lakers had the ball, a two-point lead and, if history means anything, a certain road win. Some 76ers diehards explored halfhearted "Beat LA" chants. But none did so with the glee you'd expect, considering that the man with the ball was Kobe Bryant, the suburban Philly native who once said of Sixers fans that he wanted to "cut their hearts out." The NBA's most celebrated closer was scrubbed in for the cruelest of surgeries.
Bryant held the ball beyond the three-point line and turned to face the defense. At 33 years old, in his 16th season, he's been famously banged up of late. But whether the result of German centrifuges or a surge of crunch-time adrenaline, you wouldn't have known that from his vicious slash to the left, threatening the precious territory in the middle of the floor.
Mirroring Bryant's every step was the Sixers' best on-ball defender, Andre Iguodala. Every inch as tall as Bryant and with arms as long, Iguodala is thicker through the shoulders and chest and five years younger. Physically, the matchup was no contest, and even Bryant seemed to sense it, retreating once again beyond the three-point line, chewing on his dribble like a piece of gum, building tension as his teammates watched the show, waiting for the explosion.
Two power dribbles toward the baseline and Bryant was into his signature move: rising and firing that floating, fading 15-footer. Iguodala stayed between Bryant and the basket and, even without jumping, reached his red-sleeved left arm into Bryant's face as the shot was fired.
Bryant works in grand scale. He's not a man prone to subtlety or to easily admitting defeat. And so, a mighty eight times in the final three minutes, the Lakers entrusted their offense to him, flying solo, almost always against Iguodala, with other Lakers in great position to score: Matt Barnes cutting hard to the hoop, Pau Gasol calling for the ball with deep post position solo-covered by a point guard, Derek Fisher alone on the perimeter -- and not even getting a look.
The plan failed miserably. That 15-footer? It clanked off the rim, not long before a Bryant turnover. A feathery baseline jumper over Iguodala's fingertips couldn't find its target, a heroically long three over Jrue Holiday bricked, a left-side jumper hit nothing but iron, a foray into the paint resulted in a miss over three Sixers and, in the closing seconds, a turnaround, fadeaway three had no chance. In all, Bryant scored two points in that stretch as the Lakers' two-point lead became a five-point loss.
The hearts of Sixers fans remained, to a person, firmly inside their chests. And another failure in the long and puzzling history of the least effective strategy in team sports -- a mass delusion masquerading as tradition -- was firmly in the books.
"You can be sure of succeeding in your attacks if you only attack places that are undefended." -- Sun Tzu
IF THERE WAS one takeaway from February's All-Star Game, one thing fans could agree on, it was this: LeBron James should not have forced the pass that led to a last-possession steal. Even in meaningless exhibition games, passing is taboo in macho crunch time. And bad passes are unthinkable. There's a reason that even James, a man well-practiced at defending late-game gaffes, was quick to express regret for this one. Nobody respects the crunch-time passer. He's an affront to the game -- the game of hero ball.
Perhaps you've heard of hero ball. Maybe not. That would hardly be a surprise, as its practitioners like to pretend it doesn't exist. But even though hero ball looks suspiciously like basketball -- it's played on the same court and uses the same rims, same ball and at least some of the same players -- it differs from basketball in one key respect: The goal of hero ball is not necessarily to outscore your opponent. The goal of hero ball is, instead, appeasing egos, saving coaching jobs, kowtowing to talking heads and mollifying idiot owners sitting on the floor. If hero ball is tangentially about winning basketball games, it's about winning them only through the least efficient, most predictable means of doing so.
The first (and only) rule of hero ball: Big-name scorers must always take the last-minute shot. That the numbers now exist to prove it doesn't work is, curiously enough, beside the point. In the world of hero ball, when Bryant -- by the numbers, the least efficient clutch-time go-to scorer in the league -- barks at James at the end of an All-Star contest for not jacking up a low-percentage shot, Kobe is praised, LeBron is vilified and the world mouths along with the Laker yelling: "Shoot the f--ing ball!"
So how did we get here? You could blame Michael Jordan, whose last-second heroics spawned the posters that adorned the walls of a generation of wannabes. Bucks assistant coach Jim Boylan has his own take: "You're down one. There are 15 seconds to go. You come down the floor, make a few passes. Somehow your best player ends up not getting the ball. Now there are five seconds left, four, three, two ... boom. Got to shoot. You miss. After the game, everyone asks, 'Why didn't your best player, your highest-paid player, get the basketball? This is why he's here. We're paying him to get the ball at the end of the game and win it for us.' As a coach, you're stuck."
"The clever combatant looks to the effect of combined energy." -- Sun Tzu
GARRICK BARR was once a member of Mike D'Antoni's coaching staff in Phoenix, a video coordinator with great aspirations. A former college player and college coach, the son of an engineer, Barr was an ex-jock with the soul of an egghead. He was also frustrated by a lack of meaningful leaguewide stats. So in 2004 he took matters into his own hands, launching a company called Synergy Sports Technology. His dream and Synergy's mission: to systematically chart every single play in the NBA.
In those early years with the Suns, Barr had seen what John Wooden, Red Auerbach and Phil Jackson all preached: Going one-on-one, without the benefit of passing or other team actions, is seldom effective. Pick-and-rolls, cuts, coming off screens all deliver more points per possession. "Open looks," Barr says. "That's what it's all about." And over the years, as Synergy grew and its metrics became more complex, what Barr found only served to confirm his suspicions.
Start with the basics. The goal of basketball, in its simplest form, is to turn possessions into points. And on that basis, when Synergy began breaking down NBA plays by type in 2004, what it found would have made Wooden smile: Plays involving off-the-ball cuts (1.18 points per possession) and transition plays (1.12 ppp) are by far the most efficient, followed by putbacks (1.04 ppp) and pick-and-rolls in which the ball reaches the hands of the rolling man (0.97 ppp). And the least efficient? Isolation plays, good for only 0.78 points per possession.
Perhaps as a result of that dismal track record, of the 10 play types Synergy identified, isos are only the fourth most frequently run, accounting for just 12% of all plays in an average game. But in crunch time (defined by Synergy as the last five minutes of regulation and close overtime situations), their usage rose to 19 percent, second highest behind spot-up plays.
There was more. The stats revealed that when a player passes out of an iso, his team's points per possession rise from that woeful 0.78 to a more tolerable 0.93. Despite that, players pass out of isos only 20 percent of the time -- and only 16 percent during crunch time. If that player is the team's top iso threat, the number drops to 12 percent.
There it was, right before Barr's eyes: Go-to scorers in crunch time who are isolated against one or more defenders -- the very definition of hero ball -- almost never give up the basketball even though they are, in that moment, the least effective scorers on the court.
"In war, the way is to avoid what is strong and to strike at what is weak." -- Sun Tzu
HERO BALL is to the NBA what polyester is to clothes. Few claim to like it, yet curiously, it never seems to go away.
TNT analyst and former Suns GM Steve Kerr can hardly contain his glee when he hears Synergy's stats. "Well ... hello!" says Kerr, whose title-clinching 17-footer for the Bulls in 1997 is perhaps the signature anti-hero-ball moment. "I've never been a big fan of isolation."
Robert Horry, aka Big-Shot Rob, had the chance to win games in crunch time only because ball movement brought the shot to the open shooter: him. Horry, not surprisingly, calls isolation "bad basketball," before adding that it's something the best coaches simply don't use: "People always want the lead dog to take the shot. People forget you've got to be pretty good to be in the NBA. Even though they don't take a lot of shots, those other players are very capable of making those shots."
Although Thunder coach Scott Brooks coaches one of the league's top hero-ball scorers in Kevin Durant -- with a 1.07 ppp in clutch-time isolations -- Brooks still disavows it all, telling his players, "If the right play is for you to shoot it, shoot it. If the right play is for you to pass it out of a double-team, I don't care who you pass it to, you just have to pass it."
Who else hates hero ball? Apparently, Bryant's teammates. This season, when shooting out of crunch-time isos, Bryant has averaged roughly 0.5 ppp. If the Lakers offense worked that miserably for 48 minutes, the team would score fewer than 50 points a game. Still, Bryant easily leads the league in crunch-time iso attempts. Why?
"I don't know, man," says Bryant's teammate Andrew Bynum, with a dejected shrug, after this year's All-Star Game. He calls it stating the obvious to say the team's late-game offense is a problem. Bynum, a 54% shooter, is one of the Lakers' most efficient offensive weapons. Gasol, at 50 percent, is another. But the two bigs almost never have late plays run for them. Bynum's guess? "Because some guys get paid big bucks to hit shots, so that's what they've got to do."
"Do not repeat the tactics that have gained you one victory, but let your methods be regulated by the infinite variety of circumstances." -- Sun Tzu
NBA LEGEND RICK BARRY is cranky by nature. He's especially cranky watching crunch time come down to isos. "It's crazy!" barks the Hall of Famer, sitting courtside at the recent D-League All-Star Game. "It's not good basketball. It's not high-percentage basketball. Why in the world do you want to put your best player in the situation to work that hard against the best defender the other team has?" Even if superstars are selfish glory hounds, Barry argues, this is hardly the way to win. "As great as these players are, they make the game so much harder. You run LeBron off a double- or triple-staggered screen, give him the ball on the move, I defy anybody on earth to guard him."
Barry, for one, blames the so-called heroes for hero ball. And he's hardly alone in doing so. Consider Carmelo Anthony, with a 0.72 ppp in clutch isos, insisting to ESPN's Stephen A. Smith that the last Knicks shot should be his: "Of course I want to take the last shot, let's be quite frank: I've been doing it for nine years already, and I've made a ton of them."
Or consider Jackson, owner of 12 NBA rings, writing in his book The Last Season of the many times Bryant broke plays to call his own number at the end of games. As Raptors coach Dwane Casey says of Bryant: "In the flow of the game, he's a willing passer. But in crunch time, he is looking to get his. He's not looking to pass, and I tell my team that."
Does that sound like criticism? Then consider too that it's actually how Bryant describes his own approach. After missing 22 shots in a New Year's Day loss to Denver, he scoffed at reporters who hinted that he should have moved the ball: "If you're asking me if I'm going to shoot less," he said, "the answer is no. It starts with me. I do what I do. We play off of that, and that's not going to change."
This is good news for fans of hero ball. It is not good news for anyone who likes to see made baskets. Or Lakers fans. Or fans of Bryant who do not enjoy watching him fail.
There is, however, one person who grins at the thought -- a guy who is paid in no small part to prevent baskets, the defensive stalwart, Iguodala. He looks back on all those Lakers isolations a few weeks ago and sees nothing wrong at all. "It worked out well for me," he says, before adding, "it usually does."