Thursday, May 08, 2008

Poll Thursday - Where is Ultimate innovation needed?

Last week we polled on the 2 teams to come out of the last College Open Regionals and head to the Championships. Harvard was a shoe in, but actually finished 2nd. The winner, Dartmouth, was tied for votes with TUFTs.

This week, I've been thinking about innovation in Ultimate. I guess we should define innovation, and in this case, I broadly define it as new advances in Ultimate in all sorts of areas including team strategy, equipment, and league and organizational structures. I'm most interested in strategy at present, so our poll this week will be on strategy innovation. The question is, which part of the game to we need to innovate the most. By part of the game, I mean something along the lines of chess:

  • Opening game - the pull and the first few throws in a set play
  • Middle game - into the flow of a point
  • Counter game (not part of chess) - a turn has happened
  • End game - near the end-zone and trying to score
I'll make one poll for both offensive and defensive versions of innovation in the 4 game parts (poll right).



honeyhands said...

I've been thinking a lot about innovation with respect to mid-game defensive changes. A major question in running a successful defence (I'm assuming a man defence here) is how to balance individual defensive assignments with high risk/reward defensive gambles. Typically, teams show too much of one or the other- you'll see typical touring teams be very regimented in their defensive assignments, often to the detriment of team help opportunities. Conversely, league teams will often become giant poach parties in which you can't even tell who is covering who because there is so much poaching going on. If you're going to win a game doing ONLY individual or poaching defenses, then it seem that at high levels individual D will almost always be more effective than running around and poaching shamelessly.

But is the 'one or the other' approach really the best strategy? I think there's room for this 'poach party' defense to move into a higher calibre game if it can be called as a defensive play. The key is all about setting up expectations for the offense, and then messing with 'em.

My advisor asked me today why Chris Paul (basketball point guard) was able to freeze a bunch of guys and get a layup by raising the ball in the air as he ran. He argued that if he tried this move that the defense would just stick with him and stuff his shot. The difference I argued is that Paul created a strong expectation that when he adopted made that passing move, Tyson Chandler or some other huge dude was jumping for an alley-oop and that the defence came to make this association, hence their overreaction to the fake.

In team defence, you can do the same thing. If on defence you purposely overplay your man underneath on the force side (for example), you know that against a good team eventually the O handler and cutter are gonna get together and say, "I'm gonna bust long and you throw a big sideline huck to me and I'll be open". You play the best catch up defense you know how, but you still underplay. You don't change your strategy. Eventually, good offensive teams will react and start scoring by throwing mid/long throws to punish you for playing underneath.

The middle game innovation comes not from realizing that the O has adapted, but expecting that adaptation and having a set defensive adjustment to it- maybe your next defender adopts a clam position (covering against the deep strike), but only after the initial in-cut. The distinction between this format and just running the clam from the beginning of the defensive set is that the O doesn't see it coming- it's a play generated to promote a predictable throw, and then to get a turnover off of that throw.

I guess the point here is that most defensive sets I've seen rely on players to intuitive know when to help or shift their strategy, or explicitly tell players never to take gambles. There's a lot of room for the defense to promote throws that actually increase the chances of a successful D, but the level of complexity of choosing WHEN in the game to do this is what's still underdeveloped.

I take a lesson from watching NBA playoffs looking at the Celtics defense (which can be very good). The Celtics early in a game will actually try to prevent a swing pass and let the post entry pass in. When the offense gets used to getting this pass in (perhaps the post player scores a couple of turn around shots from the post), they will actually let a roll to the baseline occur (this is later in the first quarter usually) but send 2 helpside players storming at the post player along the baseline. If they had allowed this spin move right away (at the start of the quarter), the offensive player would be thinking pass, but they are so used to taking shots now from that position that they may react too late. Because they create a feeling of isolation in the post and then give the player a 'way out' of that isolated position towards the basket, it makes it more likely that the post player will force a shot rather than pass. This is very analogous to that promoting the sideline huck play I mentioned above.

Similarly, in basketball the guard at the top of the three point line gets used to not being able to swing the basketball and feeling pressured into only passing into the post or forcing their own shot. In the second half, knowing the coaches at halftime are going to be talking about swinging the pass around, the Celtics allow a swing pass but change their defense to rotate so that all the players are covered post swing, effectively making the swing a waste of time (it distracts from getting the ball into the post and doesn't result in open shots). This would be the equivalent to letting break throws come out late in a game where you've been denying the break the whole time, and then switching the force after the break on a called play, leaving cutters in disarray. This will likely disrupt a team's offensive plays. The problem of course with switching things up is that it will likely screw your defense as well if you're not all on the same page. The Raptors also try this rotation strategy but are terrible at rotations, resulting in a carte blanche for opponent 3pointers. This is also what usually happens to ulti teams that let breaks out. Only if the D knows the break is coming can you create a high risk, high reward turnover opportunity.

Ultimately, innovation still comes down to taking the appropriate level of risk for the sitatuation you are in- if it's a close game and you think you're the more skilled team, risk is probably not worth it- but if you're even or believe you're likely to make the first mistake within a rigid system, then creating a situation that will promote risk can serve to disrupt game flow and create a new playing field, one in which you know what's changed and the other team is hopefully left scratching their heads.

Taylor said...

Interesting, Norm, but I wonder how it would apply to ultimate. In basketball you're going to be on O for ~50 points whereas only ~15 in ultimate. Giving up a standard play, allowing them to score more easily, to set up for later confusion seems questionable to me. Also, I feel like teams could figure it out and adjust in maybe 2-3 points.

honeyhands said...

Yeah, I wondered writing the comment about whether fewer points would make it harder to translate, but I think 17 points is still a lot of opportunities for the offence to start developing habits.

I guess you wouldn't want to just give away a deep strike to encourage more deep strikes; you still want to stick with your man. But since you generally have to give up at least one direction in terms of setting up defensive position, why not get the whole team on board as to what you're giving up so they can eventually help?

The reason I'd advocate not sending the help right away is to give the defender a chance to show they can still close on their assigned man, and just play "honest" defence and see where that gets you. If you just start sending help at the start of the game, most teams will start reacting to the help and running undercut from the weakside or something like that. Then you are put in a position of having to react to them.

If you start off playing simple man, assuming the teams are closely matched, you can plan for a close game midway through, sort of like starting the game over again, but now you've introduced a bias into the opponent's thinking- you lead them to expect their main chance at success or highest probability throw is that long throw- not just given away, but they stop looking as much for the slant or undercut, and cutters stop making those cuts as often.

Now with that bias in place, it's a perfect time to start shifting the defence to shift the percentages away from your opponent's bias. Now by sending help you are almost giving up an undercut on any serious deep strike, but assuming at least one of the handler and cutter aren't going to react to their newfound freedom. Still might not work, but maybe worth a shot in a close game.

Sport Management Steven said...

Great post.

I won't vote on the poll because I can't find the "other" option.

I also love the strategy area, and I think ultimate has yet to even scratch the surface. Ditto training and skill development/technique.

My focus is on the overall strategy used by a team versus different opponents. I touched on it in this article

I also think ultimate needs to understand how invaluable it is for an offence/defence to be unpredictable. I should put a post soon.