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Rethinking Pickup Hoops

9 December 2009

Cross-posted at Rotosynthesis

There is a scourge out there, killing pickup basketball, the holiest of pastimes. It strikes without fear, without mercy and without remorse. Its name? Mathematical incompetence.

Imagine for a moment that home runs were worth double in baseball. A solo shot becomes worth two runs, a two-run homer counts for four runs, three-run bomb for six, grand slam worth eight. Wouldn’t MLB teams immediately go out and acquire every big, fat guy who ever hit 30 homers in a beer league, defense and speed be damned?

Now let’s say field goals were worth six points instead of three in football. Wouldn’t NFL teams load up on kickers at the top of the draft? Wouldn’t we see a new generation of football prodigies, sired by Morten Andersen instead of Archie Manning?

This is the problem plaguing pickup hoops. In nearly every pickup game I’ve played for the past 10 years, the scoring system has been the same: 1 point for a basket, 2 points if it’s a shot from beyond the three-point line, game to 11. It’s a quick and dirty way to track the score and play a fast-ending game, so that the hordes waiting on the sidelines get a chance to play too.

I’m all for quick games. But the idea that 20-foot jumpers should be worth twice as much as any shot closer in is completely insane.

Change the scoring system in any sport even a little, and you have the potential for seismic changes in how the game is played, who excels, which players become elite, and which ones become marginalized. Make a major change, and it scarcely resembles the same sport. If the NBA adopted this rule, Jason Kapono would be the reigning five-time MVP and Craig Hodges would still be playing.

It hits home with penny-ante games on random Tuesday nights too. I’ve been fortunate enough to live close to various college campuses for the past decade. That’s meant regular games at USC, the University of Washington and the University of New Hampshire. It’s been tons of fun, but also a challenge.

I’ll let Wooderson explain.

That’s what I love about these high-school girls, man. I get older, they stay the same age.

Replace “girls” with “guys”, “high school” with “college”, and “love” with “hate”, and you understand the challenges a 30-something dude with a lot of heart and a broken jumper faces in his thrice-weekly runs. Still, hustle, set screens, use your height to rebound and block shots and you can at least not embarrass yourself, with gusts up to usefulness.

Unless, of course, you play by these ridiculous rules. Making long jumpers worth twice as much as other shots turns anyone with a decent stroke into a superstar, even if he never passes the ball, never drives to the hoop, or even takes a step inside 20 feet. It nearly obliterates the utility of players with any other skill set, with the exception of a good screen-setter or the guy who relentlessly crashes the offensive glass so he can pass back out to teammates.

Now, my days of hoisting shots are long gone, and I understand my role in a game. But who goes to the gym to spend the bulk of two hours standing still at the top of the key and absorbing defenders, all so Tim Legler can dribble around you and fire up a jumper? How much fun is it when your biggest contribution comes from killing yourself on the off chance you’ll grab a loose ball, just so you can toss it back out to your Legler teammate for another long bomb?

There’s a simple solution to this problem. Make field goals worth 2 points, and 3-point field goals worth (gasp) 3 points! Game to 21. Play goes just as quickly, you’re still rewarded for superior shooting range, and everyone else can get back to playing a normal game.

Sadly, bringing up this all-too-logical solution elicits sneers at best, mocking derision at worst. I weep for the people who find that adding 2s and 3s up to 21 is too much of a burden on their fragile brains. Better to watch five guys scamper around halfway out to half-court until someone gets an open inch and can launch a shot vaguely in the direction of the basket than perform first-grade math in your head. And hey, if you can bury one in four shots from beyond the arc under existing pickup rules, you’re a playground legend.

I know I sound old and cranky and Andy Rooney-ish with this screed. You know what? That’s fine. I will gladly sacrifice whatever shred of basketball cred I have left in my old age if it means making a better game for the next generation of slow dudes with lefty hook shots who hustle a lot. Nothing less than the fate of global pickup hoops is at stake.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. 10 December 2009 11:30 am

    Amen. Back in my middle school days when I would have friends over to play some two-on-two or three-on-three, we always played to 21 with standard 2-and-3 point scoring because it, heaven forbid, works. And we always had a good time, even though we all pretty much sucked, because it led to a good, balanced game. You had people driving to the hoop and missing layups, 18 consecutive putbacks before the ball dropped though the hoop, no-look passes that went flying over the fence into the neighbor’s yard, AND outside jumpers that clanked off the side of the rim. But it was fun, damnit!

    But maybe you’ve stumbled onto something else — an explanation as to why the hell Rasheed Wallace is jacking up so many bad threes this year. Did someone trick him into thinking they redid the scoring system to 1-and-2? Hmm…

  2. 10 December 2009 8:41 pm

    I vote no, but for entirely selfish reasons. Not that I’ve played pickup hoops in a while, but my game was always “hustle on defense, jack up threes on offense.” No way will I ever be in good enough shape again to hustle at both ends. The current system is good for my game.

  3. drewltb permalink
    11 December 2009 11:26 am

    I’m big on one point for everything. If you’re calling your own fouls, you don’t get extra credit for longish jumpshots.

    • Jonah permalink*
      11 December 2009 11:38 am

      Good point re: calling your own fouls, Drew. And I don’t think crediting 1 point for every shot would clog the lane anyway, because people would realize that open jumpers still beat six-footers with three guys on you anyway. Spacing will always be important.

  4. brigo8371 permalink
    15 December 2009 4:50 pm

    Amen…..my friend tries to insist upon 2’s and 1’s, and I argue that’s the same as 2’s and 4’s. The only place I’ve ever played that did it consistently properly was at Dartmouth. Guess us Ivy Leaguers weren’t tricked by all that hard math.

  5. 6 December 2012 9:48 pm

    since you brought this up on twitter i don’t feel so weird about commenting on a three year old post…

    given the quality of shooting in pickup basketball relative to college/NBA, i don’t think the 2:1 value is as out of whack as you do. If someone is going to hang outside and chuck, he’ll be closely guarded. clank, clank, clank, as you calmly get one at a time on the other end.

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