Could a 4-on-5 Defense Really Work in the NBA?

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There is a whole bunch of weirdness going on in the Sacramento Kings camp right now, and as a result, they’re becoming something of a wellspring of fun ideas and interesting notions. For example, they recently fired their head coach, Mike Malone, and while there were the usual disagreements about which players fit where and how to best field a winning basketball team, there were also some gems. Like bringing cherry picking into the highest level of organized basketball. Seriously.

“[Owner Vivek Ranadivé] shared tactical experiences with Malone about coaching his child’s youth team, and pressed him to consider playing four-on-five defense, leaking out a defender for cherry-picking baskets. Some semblance of that strategy is expected to be employed,” Yahoo Sports reported. For anyone who’s unaware of what cherry picking is, it’s when a player hangs out near the other team’s basket instead of playing defense, so an outlet pass can secure an easy basket. As easy as picking cherries, in fact.

Let’s be clear: This, on paper, a terrible, terrible idea. While it’s an annoying strategy that works in pickup games at the park and in preteen basketball games (we’ll get to that in a second), there’s absolutely no way that an offense wouldn’t be able to exploit having to face four defenders with five offensive players. By definition, that leads to an open shot, and open shots are the best shots you can ask for at any level of basketball.

If you’ve got a lot of open shots, you’re going to get a lot of baskets. And the cherry picking only works when you can successfully make the outlet pass — something that the Kings, with their current roster, will struggle to do. But let’s talk about where Ranadivé gets his ideas from.

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In 2009, Malcolm Gladwell wrote a laudatory piece about Ranadivé’s experiences as the head coach of his daughter’s basketball team. It is fairly typical, in that it is undoubtedly Gladwellian in tone and outlook. Whether that is a good thing or a bad thing is owed to your personal taste. The important thing, though, is that it holds the key to the new owner of the Sacramento Kings, in that it describes how Ranadivé sees basketball.

“He would never forget the first time he saw a basketball game. He thought it was mindless. Team A would score and then immediately retreat to its own end of the court. Team B would inbound the ball and dribble it into Team A’s end, where Team A was patiently waiting. Then the process would reverse itself,” Gladwell wrote. “Ranadivé thought that that conspiracy had the effect of widening the gap between good teams and weak teams. Good teams, after all, had players who were tall and could dribble and shoot well; they could crisply execute their carefully prepared plays in their opponent’s end.”

So, then, the bad teams should be playing in ways to disrupt the flow of the game. Ranadivé’s team wound up making it to a national championship, which is exceptionally more common than a person being talented enough to join the NBA, and has about as much bearing on basketball strategy as it does on the price of tea in India. That is to say, none at all.

But, as the owner of the Kings, Ranadivé can do as he wishes, and can instruct his employees to play the way he wishes the game to be played. The results are sure to be interesting.