The Shot Clock Cometh
My kids aren’t old enough to bring home significant others, but I imagine that when that time comes, there will be emotions that mirror what college lacrosse fans are working through right now. I mean, I understand the mechanics of how the interaction will go; most people have been that significant other at least once. So it’s not like I’ll be unsure about what is going to happen. But how it’s going to go? How each party will respond to the situation? That’s the great unknown.
And so it goes as we start to get ramped-up for the 2019 campaign. Except instead of a potential spouse meeting the parents, we are all preparing to welcome a permanent visible shot clock into our lives. We understand the mechanics of how it’s going to work (80 second shot clock, 20 to cross mid-field). (That is unless they modified the rule again and I didn’t notice.)
But how the coaches and players will respond to this strange new situation? Who knows?
But I will say; kudos to the sport for taking the plunge and trying something new. Granted, it’s been done at other levels and in other sports, but the fluidity of the process (including the quickly revised first iteration of the policy) is encouraging. I’m not usually one to care much about whether lacrosse “grows” into a mainstream sport, but for those that do, this has got to be cool.
So while we at LacrosseReference tend not to care much about the viewership numbers, we will always care about the stats getting spit out by players and coaches like digital sweat.
Applying the LacrosseReference lens
I’ve had a few questions come in that sound something like this: you’ve got possession data; how do you expect the new rules to affect different teams?
And there are probably a few ways to tackle this. Do you look at how the distribution of possession lengths varies by team? Or do you focus on how the overall pace of play is going to be different? Or do you take one of the hundred other approaches to breaking down this stuff?
That’s part of the challenge here: the fixed shot clock is new, and none of these players/coaches have more than token experience with it. I suspect the vast majority of teams will adjust their approach in some way (duh), so what we saw last year may not be all that useful as we look ahead.
That said, you would imagine that a team that is more used to playing an up-tempo style would have less to adjust and therefore can fall back on experience more than a team/coach that is throwing out decades or more of stall-ball tactics (I’m looking at you Maryland).
Let’s start broad and go small.
League-wide pace of play
Even though there is a lack of data from games with a fixed shot clock, we can look at some historical trends to try and create a framework for 2019. For example, most possessions include at least one shot. The shot clock should create more possessions, and theoretically, more shots.
To see whether the is the case, we need to know the baseline: how many shots per game have we seen historically? (Jan 22, 2019 update: Thanks to reader Michael Mauboussin for pointing out that this table originally included only shots that did not result in goals; it has been updated.)
|Year||Shots / 60 min|
There has been a general trend to fewer shots per game over the last 6 years. Teams have been valuing possession more and more, perhaps as a result of the rise of the uber-faceoff guy.
In 2019, will the shot clock lead to more desperation shots or as I mention below, a more defensive strategy? We will see.
I don’t have great data on turnovers because of how the games have been coded over the years, but I should be able to at least compare the last few against 2019 to see if there is a new turnover trend. You would imagine that the faster pace of play is either going to produce more shots or more turnovers. More on that once the games start.
The Wild West
Of course, the million-dollar question is not how many shots or turnovers we see in 2019; it’s how many goals. The defining question of this season is, on either end of the field, how does each team exploit the new rules (or be overcome by them)?
For the first weeks of the season, we are going to be have a very unique opportunity to watch teams experiment with various approaches to the new rules. Coaching groupthink will eventually mean that whatever teams have the most success get copied, but for the time being, D1 lacrosse is suddenly going to be a petri-dish of lacrosse evolution. And on a scale that we have not seen before.
You might think that the best way to look at this is to see which teams improve or regress the most on offense or defense and then assign credit or blame to those units. But there is too much murkiness involved for things to be that cut and dry.
Players graduate for one thing, so it will be a forensic challenge to figure out what effect the shot clock has had on individual units. What we can look at, with some confidence, is whether offenses or defenses are having the better of it early on.
By fortunate happenstance, the number of goals scored per game has been very consistent over the last 6 seasons:
|Year||Goals / 60 min|
As we start to see 2019 data roll in, it should be fairly clear by looking at these numbers whether offenses or defenses are winning in this new world.
As the year progresses, it’s possible that the initial advantage could fade as the opposite side learns more about how to press their advantages, but I suspect our goals/gm numbers will be about the clearest signal in the effort to assess the impact of the new rules.
To dump or not to dump
Switching gears for a minute; as I mentioned before, there is a huge lack of data to use in any truly quantitative analysis of potential shot clock impacts. Until Feb 1, 2019, there are exactly zero college games in my database that include possessions based on a fixed shot clock.
Pace of play trends are interesting, but whether they accelerate, maintain trend, or reverse with the new shot clock is anyone’s guess. Best approach in situations like this: go back to the experts who played or coached the game at a high level and see what they think.
That is why I was pleasantly surprised when someone with a much more impressive “lacrosse mind” than mine brought up an interesting point: faced with an dwindling shot clock, many teams will just dump the ball to the corner, initiate the ride, and hope to turn the opponent over.
In retrospect, it seems rather obvious, but I had not entertained the idea that a team would give up possession without trying to get off a shot. The lesson for anyone statistically minded: “always be skeptical that history is predictive.”
If you are a lacrosse coach, you are always thinking about how the opponent will react to your tricks. Doing this well relies on an innate (often subconscious) ability to consider many different factors and adjust your plan accordingly. The weather, the temperature, the how the officials are calling the game, injuries/fatigue, your history against the opposing coaches. All of it.
A model is very bad at incorporating all these factors much less weighting them appropriately in the moment.
So when a coach tells me that “hey, a lot of teams will just dump it to the corner,” I’m inclined to agree. I am also inclined to analyze the hell out of the resulting data. Giddy up 2019 season.