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Basketball evolving in different ecosystems: Just why are the offenses in the NBA and the NCAA so different?

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Arguments between NBA and college basketball fans as to which game is "better" have gone on for as long for as long as I can remember.  I am not interested in participating in this argument.  I enjoy watching both NBA and NCAA games.  I watch more of the college game, but that is largely because I don't have a rooting interest in any of the NBA teams.

But while I don't want to participate in the debate about which game is better, the NBA and the NCAA games are undeniably different.  Of course, the player skill levels are different, but that isn't what I am talking about.  The way the games are played are also quite different.  Most NBA offenses seem to have little in common with most division I NCAA offenses.  This makes the games quite different aesthetically.  The differences also pop up with any cursory look at the statistics.  For example, last season 33% of all field goals in the NCAA division I were three point attempts, whereas only 22% of NBA attempts were from beyond the three point line. 

So if we accept the premise that NBA and college offenses are quite different strategically, it is pretty reasonable to ask why this is so.  I think some of the explanation is due to the different circumstances under which NBA and NCAA offenses have evolved.  The NBA and NCAA basketball ecosystems are quite different, and it is interesting to speculate on how these differences have affected the evolution of basketball offense.

So let's speculate a little.

First off, I think it is useful to state a basic assumption that I have about how basketball offensive strategies change over time.  Radical innovation in basketball offense is extremely rare.  Football coaches seemingly come up with entirely new offenses at a pretty high rate.  New offenses are created for basketball much less frequently.  But we do have a wide diversity of offensive styles on display in both the college and pro games.  It is my view that these offenses are more a product of slow evolution, rather than radical innovation, although radical innovation did play a role in their development.  Radical innovation created the flex offense back in the 1970's, which has slowly evolved into things like the Jerry Sloan offense used by the Longhorns.  Another big offensive innovation was the motion offense, which is commonly attributed to Henry Iba back in the 1940's, and was later heavily influenced by Bobby Knight in the 1970's.  Today we have a very wide range of offenses built on motion offense principles.

Accepting the premise that offenses evolve in basketball, how can this theory of basketball evolution help explain some of the differences between the college and pro games.  Let's take a look at some of the environmental pressures that are different between the NBA and NCAA.

NBA players are better than college players.  This seems like a likely source for differences in strategy.  NBA players are more skilled offensively in several distinct ways.  Most NBA teams have at least one guy who is extremely hard to guard one on one.  This factor, combined with some additional factors below (the shot clock and the legacy of illegal defense rules) have led to a lot more isolation offense being used in the NBA than in the college game.  Creating favorable isolation situations is one of the key components of most NBA offenses.  This is even true in the more "team oriented" offenses such as the Triangle used by Phil Jackson.  In the Triangle, isolation of Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan on the weak side is a major component of the attack.  There are far fewer isolation plays for wings in the college game, in part because the players are not as good.

The NBA also features many talented big guys.  Highly skilled big men are really rare in the college game.  This may be because they are just so valuable in the NBA, so skilled big men don't stick around very long in college.  This makes the low post game a much bigger component of the pro game than the college game. 

I also wonder if NBA players and NBA teams are just better at closing out on the three point shot.  Given just how efficient the three point shot is, I am sort of at a loss to explain why there aren't more three point shot attempts in the NBA.  Some of this difference is also probably due to the differences in the three point lines between the college and pro games (more on this below).

The legacy of the NBA illegal defense rules.  Ten years ago, the NBA radically changed its rules governing illegal defense.  There is a brief history of some of the rule changes here.  (Note the link is a bit out of date, and doesn't include the more recent changes to the hand check rules, which have also affected the way the game is played.)  For those of you that don't remember much about the NBA of the 1980s and 1990s, the NBA illegal defense rules made help-side defense extremely difficult to accomplish.  Any player guarding a defender on the weak side could not be in the "college lane" for more than three seconds, meaning they couldn't really protect the basket until the offensive player had committed to driving to the hoop.  This rule had a profound influence on the NBA game of the 1990s.  It essentially encouraged a lot of one on one or two on two isolation plays, with as many as three guys basically just standing around on the weak side. 

The NBA was also lacking a "closely guarded" 5 second rule for much of this era, and allowed very liberal hand checking.  As a result of these various rules, many NBA games consisted of a lot of slow and physical isolation play, where a player would methodically go one on one with with a defender, not unlike the way that someone might play one on one in the driveway.  The poster child for ugly isolation play was probably Mark Jackson, who was famous for out muscling smaller guards by backing down his man one on one.  This led to the creation of the so-called "Mark Jackson rule," which prevented players from backing down their man for more than 5 seconds.  However, it isn't really fair to blame Mark Jackson for this style of play, as many other teams and players were employing it (including some all-time greats, such as Magic Johnson).

Prior to the big change ten years ago, the illegal defense rule might have been the single biggest factor in creating the difference between the college and pro games.  These very restrictive illegal defense rules have now been gone for some time.  While we don't see the types of isolation offense that once was common in the NBA, I do wonder how the ideas about basketball offense that were created during the illegal defense era still influence strategy in the NBA.

The difference in the shot clocks.  The 24 second shot clock used by the NBA forces teams to really get to the point on offense.  The 35 second shot clock gives NCAA teams a lot more time to maneuver.  Motion and continuity offenses where nearly every player touches the ball at least once in a possession are much more practical with 35 seconds to work.  In a 24 second window, there is greater urgency to attack the basket quickly.  It makes sense that so many NBA teams employ a mix of isolations, pick and rolls, and quick hitting set plays.

The difference in the position of the three point line.  The NBA guys have to shoot the three point shot from three feet further than the NCAA players do.  It is pretty reasonable to suspect that this distance has some effect on the way the games are played.  During the mid 1990s, the NBA played three seasons where they moved the three point line in from 23 feet 9 inches to 22 feet.  During that time period, the percentage of field goal attempts taken from three increased markedly, jumping from 11.7% in the 1993-1994 season to 18.7% in the 1994-1995 season (the first year of the rule change).  By the 1996-1997 NBA season, 21.1% of all field goal attempts were three point shots.  This is close to the rate at which three point shots are taken today.  In the 1997-1998 season the three point line was moved back to 23 feet 9 inches, and three point attempts dropped to 15.9% of all field goal attempts.


There are probably some other differences that I am overlooking, but these four differences strike me as important.  The effects of the illegal defense era should disappear with time (if they haven't already).  There is at least some indication that cross-fertilization between the pro and college games is possible.  The "Princeton offense," which is widely used in the college and high school games, has been adapted to the NBA by Rick Adelman.  Much of Jerry Sloan's offense is derived from the Flex, and less modified versions of the Flex are used all over the NBA.  We also see NBA-style tactics based on floor spacing and the pick and roll in the college game.  Just to cite a few prominent examples, Duke has used this approach some in recent years, and Florida makes heavy use of the pick and roll as well.

So what are your thoughts on the parallel evolution of pro and college basketball?