Luck Favors the Deserving

Amir Coffey http://hopkinsrp.org/1061/sports/coffey-named-to-all-metro-first-team/#prettyPhoto

Amir Coffey Photo Credit: The Royal Page 

Even as a student, I wondered why the Minnesota State High School League didn’t use a shot clock. Without the timer a basketball game is shortened, played at a slower pace because teams are never forced to attempt a shot at the basket within an allotted amount of time.

This induces less shot attempts, henceforth less scoring, but also limits the amount of mistakes the youth players are capable of making. Because not every player at the high school level possesses of an abundance of talent, smaller and less prestigious programs, forced to generate more shot attempts and possessions, may walk into a massacre when facing a state powerhouse. But the absence of a built-in pace-booster proved problematic during what was the first of two, state-semifinal, games played at the Target Center in Minneapolis, last Thursday.

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George Mikan was recognized as one of the most dominant basketball players of his time. During the 1950 season, Mikan averaged 28 points and 14 rebounds per game during an era when games were played without a shot clock. On November 22nd, the visiting Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons were in Minneapolis taking on Mikan’s Lakers. This in an excerpt from a book written by John Taylor titled; The Rivalry: Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and the Golden Age of Basketball.

In one notorious example of “stall ball,” as it was also known, on November 22, 1950, between the Minneapolis Lakers and the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons, the final score was 19-18. The Pistons coach, Murray Mendenhall, had decided not to run the ball but simply to hold it and wait until the end of the game to score the winning point. He succeeded, but fans were reading newspapers in the stands; some walked out and demanded their money back, others swore never to buy another ticket to a professional basketball game.

Not long after after Mendenhall’s Pistons defeated the Lakers by using the, unfavorable, tactic; a different use of ‘stall ball’ surfaced on the East coast.

In January of 1951, the Indianapolis Olympians and Rochester Royals were tied 67-67 at the end of regulation. Both teams deployed zero sense of urgency to score, in fact, the Royals and Olympians each decided to try and freeze the ball when they were in possession, trying to win on one final shot. In the sixth extra period, one of which included zero shot attempts from either team, Indianapolis eventually defeated the Royals of Rochester (75-73) after Ralph Beard made an open, transition layup just before the sound of the final buzzer.

Reference: GoldenRankings.com

The NBA first implemented the shot clock in 1954.

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The Hopkins Royals, ranked as one of the top-50 high schoolteams in the country according to MaxPreps, remained tied with the Shakopee Sabres, 41-41, with 2:49 remaining to play in the game. Kamali Chambers, a Hopkins senior, began dribbling just ahead of half court while the Sabres refused to move out of the compact zone that had given the Royals trouble throughout the evening. Under the instruction from his renowned coach, Kevin Novak, Chambers remained stationary just over the half-court line.

He dribbled until Novak signaled for timeout with 19 seconds remaining in the game; enough time for Hopkins to draw up a play for the final possession. The Sabers never allowed the Royals to play at the pace that they had become accustomed to scoring at throughout the season, but need to make one more stop if they were going to keep their run in the tournament alive.

Shakopee had briefly avoided elimination as Hopkins failed to even attempt a shot at the basket.

The standoff continued for three overtime periods and into a fourth, where the Royals won the tip and — again — held for the last possession. Coach Novak called for a timeout to orchestrate a plan. However, Hopkins committed a turnover out of the huddle with five seconds remaining. Following that, the Sabres failed to convert on a three-point attempt and the ball went back to the Royals with only a sliver (four seconds) of time remaining. It was all Amir Coffee, a sophomore, needed.

Hopkins, despite limiting the game’s possessions during crunch time, would have won handedly (49-46) had both teams been abiding to stipulations of a shot clock. I’m able to show why pace made almost made the difference in this game by combining multiple sets of data. Keep in mind that Hopkins (32 games) averaged 87.82 points per game entering the State Quarterfinals while Shakopee’s averaged stood at a meek 61.64 (31 games).

Because the MSHSL plays a third place game, both teams played an additional game after meeting in the Semifinals — Hopkins and Shakopee played four games during this tournament. Pace, the amount of possessions a team averages per 48 minutes, isn’t tracked to the high school level, but, thanks to Matt D’Anna, and game statistics from Minnesota State High School League website, by using the formula [48 * ((Team Possessions + Opponent Possessions) / (2 * (Team Minutes played / 5)))] we are able to determine them ourselves.

Screen Shot 2014-03-17 at 7.31.40 AM

As you can see, Hopkins averaged nearly four more possessions per 48 minutes than Shakopee did throughout the tournament. Conversely, these numbers are still somewhat useless, because these are only scoring opportunities. It’s fair to assume that Hopkins is the more prolific scoring team, because of their PPG average prior to the tournament. However, we can calculate how many points per possession each team scored using this formula [(Points scored * 100) / Possessions)].

Screen Shot 2014-03-17 at 7.41.20 AM

Although the sample is small, the marginal gap in points per possession separating Hopkins and Shakopee (0.13) is magnified because of their competition’s status as Minnesota’s best basketball teams. Shakopee made it interesting, but in a game with more shot clock induced possessions — the Royals offense would have become undoubtedly overwhelming. But interestingly, with Shakopee playing incredibly well defensively and grinding Hopkins’ offense to a standstill, it was Hopkins who opted to try and use ‘stall ball’ to distill their on-paper advantage to a single possession.

Margolis is a student reporter for Hopkins High School.

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Hopkins would go on to fall to the Lakeville North Panthers last Saturday evening, in the State Championship game. The Panthers averaged 78.84 PPG during the season (A round-difference of nine PPG compared to Hopkins). The Royals average pace was higher during the tournament (34.67) than Lakeville’s (33.03) by a small margin of 1.64 possessions per game, but the Panthers made up for it with their efficiency and scored .12 more points for every 100 possessions than Hopkins.

According to a local CBS column published on March 14th, in the hours preceding the semifinals. The Minnesota State High School League states there’s not enough support from coaches to put shot clocks into effect, albeit the fact that some bigger schools have installed them as they update their gyms. Provided availability,  schools are allowed to use these clocks in “experimental purposes,” like non-conference games and holiday tournaments.

Ultimately, it is too early to implement the shock clock for all teams at the high school level. Considering the vast points per game (season) difference between Hopkins and Shakopee (16.18), it would be unfair to try and force more possessions onto the smaller, less competitive schools. Dominant, superior teams often show mercy on overmatched opponents during the season so that scores aren’t offensive and students, players and coaches aren’t shamefully embarrassed.

Conversely; there should be some experimentation with shock clock implementation. Perhaps the MSHSL can use the timer during the fourth quarter, or final few minutes, of games played in arenas that have the technology. Doing this would prevent instances such as the Pistons victory against the Minneapolis Lakers back in 1950, when Fort Wayne played keep-away for nearly the entirety of the game. This also denies opponents opportunity to play ‘stall ball,’ such as the Olympians and Royals (Rochester) did nearly 64 years ago, when it becomes most convenient, just as Ken Novak instructed his Hopkins team to do during the waning moments last Thursday’s semi final meeting against Shakopee.

There are currently eight states that use shot clocks in at least one class of high school basketball.

Special thanks to Matt D’Anna (Senior Pattern Analyst at BAIR Analytics) and Josh Margolis (Hopkins High School Student Reporter at The Royal Page) for their help in collecting data for this article. 

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