OPINION: The way we score pickup basketball games is just wrong

In pickup basketball games, we’ve incentivized shooting from outside even further, while simultaneously making mid-range and close-range shots even less valuable. Why?
6 min. read
Pickup hoops games are usually scored by ones and twos. (Creative commons/Flickr)

I was lacing up my shoes on a bench by the basketball court in Washington Park on Saturday morning  when I turned to a man in a red T-shirt next to me and asked a simple question: "Why do y'all play by ones and twos instead of twos and threes?"

Out on the court, which is just a slab of coarse concrete, the first pick-up game of the day was taking place. There were two teams of five, and the game was crawling by. It was 4-1 after 10 minutes of play. There was an ugly rhythm to it. One team dribbled the ball down, hunted for a 3-point shot, jacked it up and crashed the boards. Then the other team tried the same thing.

There were a few shots around the rim mixed in. But for the most part, the game revolved around the 3-point arc, which likely had something to with the fact that in the majority of pickup basketball games, we've clung to the idea that shots taken outside the arc should be worth two points and shots inside the arc should be worth one.

In any normal basketball game, 3-pointers are worth 50 percent more than twos. That's the way the game is played from grade school all the way up to the NBA. In pickup basketball games, we consider shots from outside the arc 100 percent more valuable. That further incentivizes shooting from deep. Mid-range and close-range shots just aren't worth that much comparatively. Why do we insist on playing this way?

"Man, I don't know," the man in the red T-shirt said. He thought about it for a moment then offered a couple ideas.

His first was that it's especially difficult to make shots from behind the arc at Washington Park, so, the thinking goes, they should be worth more. The court there features double rims, which means that if you don't shoot a swish, the basketball caroms off the orange circle like shrapnel. That idea makes sense when you begin to understand how unforgiving the rims there are.

Another of his theories: Playing by ones and twos makes the game go by quicker. If you're playing to 12, you only have to hit six shots from outside the arc to win. A game can fly by if someone gets hot from outside the arc.

In the first game I played on Saturday, the opposing team had a lanky fella who was wearing white tube socks and a white tank top, which is just a tube sock for your torso if you think about it. His breath smelled like cigarettes if you got too close. He had a nice-looking jumper where his right arm goose necked on the follow through. It was a smooth, repeatable motion. He hit four shots from outside the arc, and we got wiped off the court pretty quickly, 12-6.

The game took about 10 minutes. It served as proof of how hot outside shooting could accelerate things. The problem is that it's impossible to know if playing pickup games by ones and twos makes them go by quicker in the aggregate, though.  For every pickup hoops player with a pretty shot like the dude in the tube socks, there are three or four who just toss up crooked jumpers and hope they go in.

I'm part of that group. My game is predicated on slashing and finishing inside, a skill made less valuable by the way most pickup hoops games are scored. Big men who play back-to-the-basket games deal with this as well.

Adam Mares, the site manager of the SB Nation blog DenverStiffs.com, played at Colorado College from 2002-2006. He runs in pickup games in Thornton and Westminster nowadays. The games at Thornton are scored by ones only. The games in Westminster are scored by twos and threes. On the rare occasion that Mares does find himself in a pickup game that's scored by ones and twos, he notices himself operating on the perimeter more than usual.

"So I’m a big guy, right? I play primarily inside, especially in pickup where I’m usually one of the taller players," said Mares, who's 6 feet 5 inches. "But in my head, I’m thinking this doesn’t make sense for me to keep posting up. I can keep killing my guy, but it’s still going to take so long to win a game."

Mares tries to make a push for scoring the traditional way when he stumbles into games where the other players are accustomed to counting by ones and twos.

"Pickup basketball can devolve really, really quickly," Mares said. "The more you value chucking 3s, the more it’s going to devolve. Cutting and stuff is fun. The best pickup games are when there is actual ball movement going on. When you deemphasize that, and those layups are worth less, you run a greater risk of it getting out of hand."

Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey is also of the belief that pickup games should be scored the same way as real-life basketball games. Morey explained to the now-defunct sports and pop culture website Grantland two years ago that playing by ones and twos tilts the game too far in one direction.

"I always make pickup games threes and twos to 15 or 20," Morey said.

This was coming from a man whose team has jacked up the most treys in the NBA in three of the last four seasons. The Rockets averaged 40.3 3-point shots per game in 2016-17, which was nearly seven more than the next-closest team. That's 3,306 3-pointers over 82 games. If the architect of that team feels that there is too much outside shooting in pickup basketball, there's a problem in the way the game is being played.

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