Prototyping in the NBA

Abstract

The Design Thinking methodology is all but ubiquitous within the traditional design fields. In this paper, I argue that the implementation of the principles of Design Thinking into organizations outside of design, in this case, the NBA, stand to gain enormous benefit. This paper focuses on the three-point field goal rule and how its adoption and perpetuation demonstrate a lack of prototyping, producing the negative externality of alienation of fans. Through the process of prototyping, the league stands to incorporate productive disruption, which in turn, will lead to an innovative, better NBA product for fans.

Introduction

The tools and processes traditionally employed by designers have become increasingly popular within non-design disciplines, namely, to create disruption and innovation. In this paper, I will illustrate how a select aspect of Design Thinking, prototyping, can dramatically improve the game of basketball, namely in the National Basketball Association (NBA).

At present, Basketball is the America’s second-favorite sport[1] (37% of Americans list Football as their favorite sport, with Basketball at 11% and Baseball at 9%[2]). In the United States, professional basketball is played in the NBA — the league responsible for recently hosting mythical-like players in Michael Jordan and Lebron James. Historically, NBA basketball is known for being a beautiful, fast paced, elegant, exciting and physical game. In the past decade, that has changed. The smooth, elegant style of play, embodied by Julius “Dr. J” Erving and Wilt Chamberlain, is increasingly becoming a thing of the past.

Although it holds the honor of America’s second favorite sport, NBA basketball ratings have been recently decreasing[3]. For many fans and spectators this is, in part, due to NBA gameplay alienating a large share of its audience, at times being perceived as more boring than ever — an opinion shared contemporary coaching great, Greg Popovich[4].

I argue that this phenomenon can be understood as the shared externality of two primary factors: the three-point field goal (a decades-old, revisited-only-once rule change) combined with the hyper-analytical, “Moneyball”, approach employed by many contemporary team managers and coaches.

I will not be offering a panacea to the league’s watchability issues. I will, however, argue that that by using the Design Thinking methodology, disruption and innovation can be implemented into contemporary NBA gameplay. Using such a system can enable league executives to ask better questions, implement change appropriately and fully test changes before they are instantiated.

Design Thinking and the NBA: Where are we?

Design Thinking is a convoluted term. Countless individuals and organizations use as many different methodologies for slicing up the process. To avoid semantic confusion, when I refer to “Design Thinking”, I will be using the process as outlined by the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford, also known as the “d.school”. The d.school’s process is made up of five modules, referred to as “modes”: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test[5]. The d.school’s guide gently suggests transitioning from one mode to another, as respectively listed above. However, the guide emphasizes that an individual using Design Thinking should make the process their own. Yes, one should properly define the problem before ideating possible solutions, for example, but if lessons have been learned in subsequent phases of the process, jumping backward to refine different modes is encouraged[6].

In his book, Sprawlball, Kirk Goldsberry, who holds a Ph.D. in Geography, highlights the most impactful rule change in modern NBA history: the addition of the three-point field goal[7]. Prior to this rule, every made shot on a basketball court counted equally, for two points. With the three-point line now painted 23’-9” from the center of the basket (with a shorter distance, 22’, in the corners)[8], some shots were worth more than others. If a player shoots threes efficiently, they increase the number of points per shot.

To better understand why threes are so valuable, let’s look at a quick example. Let’s say a player shoots 10 two-point field goals and makes 50% of them (five made shots), they have scored 10 points — or one point per shot. However, if the same player shoots 10 three-pointers and connects on 40% of them (4 made shots), they have scored 12 points — 1.2 points per shot. This efficiency precisely characterizes the fairly novel “Moneyball” approach to the game, where team decisions are heavily based on analytical models and statistics. Under this style of play, teams maximize the number of high efficiency shots, three-pointers.

The Platonic instantiation of Moneyball came during the 2017–18 NBA season in the form of the Houston Rockets — managed by MIT graduate Daryl Morey and lead on the court by James Harden. During this season, the Rockets “became the first team in the history of the league to shoot more threes than twos”[9]. This approach to the game is exactly what turns off many otherwise fans of the game. The cold reception of Moneyball’s arrival into the league can be understood by sports broadcaster Ryen Russillo’s condemnation of the Rockets playing style: “I can’t stand the Rockets. I will root against them no matter who’s playing against them. I am admitting my bias right now. I am telling you, I’m not rooting for your team.[10]”

The three-pointer is clearly, at least in part, responsible for the state of contemporary NBA game play. It would be fair to ask: was this idea ever tested? Have differing alternatives ever been offered to the 23’-9” distance? The answer to both queries is a very lukewarm: “yes” — the level of “prototyping” and “testing” employed by the league would be unrecognizable to contemporary designers familiar with the Design Thinking process.

Abe Saperstein, the first ever Harlem Globetrotters coach and commissioner of the short-lived American Basketball League (1961–1962) is the individual credited with the creation of the three-point line in professional basketball[11]. Prior to its addition, Saperstein did some prototyping of his own. According to his son, Jerry Saperstein, Abe, accompanied by DePaul coach Ray Meyer, walked on a court and “arbitrarily drew lines” where they thought the three-point line might best be located[12]. Jerry continues, saying that there was “really no scientific basis. Just two Hall of Fame coaches getting together and saying: ‘Where would we like to see the line?’”[13]. This prototyping session ended with the assessment that the line belongs 23’-9” away from the basket. Where did the NBA locate the line when it was first adopted in 1979? 23’-9” from the basket. Where does the line exist today? 23’-9” from the basket[14].

Ahead of the 1994–95 NBA season, the NBA dabbled in some ad hoc prototyping and testing of their own. In an attempt to space players more evenly on the court and speed up the rate of play, the league moved the three-point line from 23’-9” from the basket to 22’ away (the distance used in NCAA basketball)[15]. What happened would have been easy to predict: teams made a higher percentage of their three-point shots on increased attempts. The shortened line was seen as an ineffective solution to the relevant problem and reverted to the 23’-9” distance prior to the 1997–98 season[16]. As far as prototyping and testing goes in the NBA, with at least with somewhat high stakes, this is the only recent example.

Design Thinking and the NBA: Where could we be going?

According to the d.school, prototyping is “the iterative generation of artifacts intended to answer questions that get you closer to your final solution”[17]. So, what might an iterative generation of ideas, rather than artifacts, look like within the NBA? One might say that different officials in the league could do what Abe Saperstein did: go onto the court and quickly come up with some ideas. However, for a prototype to be solvent, to be meaningful for a game played by individuals at the height of their profession, testing should be done by and for these very individuals. So, those in positions like Saperstein, who are not professional athletes, could be on the ideation end of prototyping; however, the ideas need to be executed by those who will be most affected: professional athletes.

It just so happens that there exists a plethora of relatively low-stake basketball games being played by professional athletes. This hotbed for prototyping is the NBA’s minor league system: The NBA G League. To its credit, the G League already exists as a testing ground for various rule changes. In the 2019–2020 season, for example, the league instituted am experimental free throw rule in an effort to speed up gameplay[18]. The rule was instituted and, presumedly evaluated. As of this writing, there is not public information on the fate of this rule change.

Because they fail to incorporate any kind of iterative generation, experimental rule changes within the G League fail to meet the criteria of “prototyping”. Rules are introduced and tested over the course of an entire season, and then, again presumedly, evaluated. Not only does this inhibit the opportunity to test a higher number of ideas, which might be less obvious but more effective, it also fails to afford the league with real-time results. I argue that there are alternate modes of prototyping that the league could institute to more effectively collect metrics. One possible mode might include prototyping a novel rule intermittently over the course of a season, such as every other game. The remainder of this paper will look at this modality, what I refer to as intermittent prototyping, to better illustrate how true prototyping might lead to concrete innovation.

In his “Design of Business”, Roger Norman claims that Design Thinking firms are able to cultivate innovation due to “their willingness to engage in the task of constantly redesigning their business”[19]. To the NBA’s credit, the practice of introducing experimental rules in the G League is a step toward innovation. As stated above, however, the move is underleveraged and possibly less insightful than it otherwise could be. The G League is rife with personnel turnover[20]. Prototyping a rule from year to year might show one anomaly or another, but there is no real baseline, or control group. Results for or against the league’s interest could very well be a explained by the addition of a new rule, but it could equally be a product of different players playing each year.

Intermittent prototyping mirrors processes that traditionally belong to the experimental sciences. This kind of system starts with a control group (games played under normal rules), introduces an independent variable (games played with a new rule) which, in turn, influences a dependent variable (the change in gameplay in games with an experimental rule). Framing intermittent prototyping in this way allows for in-depth, tangible analysis of the effects that stem from the institution of novel rules.

To conclude this paper, let’s look at how intermittent prototyping might be implemented into the G League. Goldsberry, again in his book Sprawlball, offers a number of three-point alternatives (independent variables) aimed at “fixing” the rule. The most compelling rule change is the elimination of the corner-three[21] which, remember, is 1’-9” shorter than three pointers elsewhere. Because of the shortened distance, this spot on the court produces some of the most efficient shots in the game, referred to by Goldsberry as “statistical loopholes”[22]. These hyper-efficient shots are, at least in part, responsible for the “boring” Moneyball oriented NBA product: on almost every possession, one or two players on offense will “camp” in the corner, stunting ball movement and game-flow[23].

Goldsberry argues that the elimination of the shortened three will have desirable consequences (dependent variables), the most important of which is making the “NBA’s shot economy more fair”[24]. With a fairer shot economy, different positions could, in turn, become as valuable as three-point shooters — possibly unalienating wavering NBA fans. Although we will never go back to the style of play seen before the introduction of the line, this could be a start. Best of all, intermittent prototyping could investigate measurables that are both objective (how the league’s shooting trends might shift) and subjective (the fans experience of the game). If such a rule has no effect on the fan experience, it could be abandoned, substituted for a different, possibly better, possibly worse, idea. In the end, it would be possible to, at minimum, try different rules.

If a certain rule prototyped in the G League is deemed desirable, the league can adopt it in actual NBA gameplay. If it does not work, they could simply revert to the way things are, or go back to the drawing board in the G League. Going back and forth between prototyping and real-time testing, the NBA could start the process of constant redesign of their business, borrowing from Design Thinking it two most valuable assets: disruption and innovation.

Conclusion

In this paper, I have shown that Design Thinking offers tools whose implementation could have impacts outside of traditional design fields. In this case, that field is the NBA. I have shown that a lack of prototyping can explain the existence and perpetuation of a suboptimal state of certain aspects of the field — here, that looks like the three-point line. I finished by arguing that the introduction of prototyping could bring about disruption and innovation, ideally improving the end product of NBA gameplay from a fan’s point of view.

References

Adande, J.A. “Nba Votes To Lengthen 3-Point Shot.” The Washington Post. WP Company, June 28, 1997. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/sports/1997/06/28/nba-votes-to-lengthen-3-point-shot/2019cf2e-73d9-4acb-9354-dd71cab03f34/.

Cohen, Ben. “How George Steinbrenner and the Harlem Globetrotters Changed the NBA Forever.” The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company, February 13, 2020. https://www.wsj.com/articles/3-point-line-nba-abe-saperstein-steinbrenner-harlem-globetrotters-11581535595.

Goldsberry, Kirk Patrick, and Aaron Dana. Sprawlball: A Visual Tour of the New Era of the NBA. Mariner Books, 2019.

Martin, Roger L. The Design of Business: Why Design Thinking Is the next Competitive Advantage. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press, 2009.

Monroe, Mike. “Of Copycats and Stolen Cookies: Gregg Popovich, Steve Kerr Hold Forth on Today’s NBA.” The Athletic. The Athletic, January 1, 2020. https://theathletic.com/1501411/2019/12/31/of-copycats-and-stolen-cookies-gregg-popovich-steve-kerr-hold-forth-on-todays-nba/.

NBA. “G League to Experiment with New Free-Throw Rule.” NBA.com. NBA.com, October 10, 2020. https://www.nba.com/news/G League-experiment-free-throw-rule-official-release.

NBA. RULE NO. 1: Court Dimensions — Equipment, January 1, 2020. https://official.nba.com/rule-no-1-court-dimensions-equipment/.

NBA G League. “NBA G League 101: How Rosters Are Built.” NBA G League, October 30, 2019. https://gleague.nba.com/how-rosters-are-built/.

Norman, Jim. “Football Still Americans’ Favorite Sport to Watch,” January 14, 2021. https://news.gallup.com/poll/224864/football-americans-favorite-sport-watch.aspx.

Russillo, Ryen. “Rockets Hate & McShay.” ESPN Ryen Russillo Show, podcast audio. Accessed March 10, 2021. https://www.espn.com/radio/play/_/id/26656406.

Shenks, Michael. An Introduction to Design Thinking PROCESS GUIDE. Hasso Plattner Institute of Design. Accessed March 15, 2021. https://web.stanford.edu/~mshanks/MichaelShanks/files/509554.pdf.

[1] Norman, “Football Still…”.

[2] Norman, “Football Still…”.

[3] Paulson, “NBA’s sluggish start”.

[4] Monroe, “Of copycats…”

[5] Shenks, “Design Thinking”.

[6] Shenks, “Design Thinking”.

[7] Goldsberry, Sprawlball.

[8] Goldsberry, Sprawlball.

[9] Goldsberry, Sprawlball, 99.

[10] Russillo, “Rockets hate…”.

[11] Cohen, “How George Steinbrenner…”.

[12] Cohen, “How George Steinbrenner…”.

[13] Cohen, “How George Steinbrenner…”.

[14] NBA, “RULE NO. 1”.

[15] Adande, “NBA”.

[16] Adande, “NBA”.

[17] Shenks, “Design Thinking”.

[18] NBA. “G League”.

[19] Martin, Design of Business, 7.

[20] NBA G League, “NBA G League 101”.

[21] Goldsberry, Sprawlball, 211.

[22] Goldsberry, Sprawlball, 210.

[23] Goldsberry, Sprawlball, 211.

[24] Goldsberry, Sprawlball, 213.

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Andy Madrick

Andy Madrick

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I’m a designer in grad school at the University of Washington.