From Pick Up to Prime Time: How to Fix the Big 3 Basketball League

I grew up playing basketball. While a full court game with ten players was almost always the ideal way to play, a half court game only required a single available basket, and the smaller area made the sport more accessible for the out-of-shape homies.

Injecting Full Court Fun into Half Court Mechanics

Some of the most fun and creative moments happen in fast breaks, not only as a player but as a viewer. Even in today’s NBA broadcasts, fast breaks take up a large portion of highlight reels. These are all but missing from a half court game.Because of the single basket, where you are on the court doesn’t indicate whether you’re currently on offence or defence. Players have to rely on more subtle cues.

For example, having to “clear” the ball (by moving it past the three point line after a rebound) simulates bringing the ball up-court, and signals the switch between offensive and defensive postures. The exception is a turnover or an airball. If the ball doesn’t touch the rim, then the ball doesn’t have to be cleared.

This simple mechanic, although unintuitive, keeps players on their toes, and rewards good defensive play with the ability to counter and score quickly. The Big 3 League builds around this, adding more mechanics for efficiency, like the 14-second shot clock and single free throws.

NBA Jam: Tournament Edition with the Hot Spot power-up worth 7 points

The concept of the "4-point circle" is particularly interesting. Three circles painted on the court from which a jumpshot is worth 4 points. Besides being an easy-to-understand feature of the league, it shows the maturation of the sport in a post-Nintendo era. First introduced as a visual indicator in games of H.O.R.S.E. in Jordan vs. Bird, and as a power-up in NBA Jam, it eventually made its way into NBA All-star Weekend as part of the Shooting Stars event. In the Big 3 League, it serves as a strategic device to allow sharpshooting teams to spread the floor more easily, since defenders will have to guard those areas of the court. It’s a modern and welcome addition, now that Steph Curry’s range has inspired a new generation of jump shooters.

The Big 3's succinct rules have their merits, but they are not without flaws. For example, while the 4-point circle spreads the floor, it also increases the harm of a bad call, as a fouled shooter is awarded a free throw worth a whopping four points! This is exacerbated by pro players’ savvy ability to pump-fake a defender into the air and then jump into their airborne body to force a foul. It’s only a matter of time that a team builds their entire strategy around 4-point shots, forcing refs to decide the results of a game.

Lessons from Other Sports

I have no doubt that the announcers, player interviews, camera angles and other broadcast sport-isms will all improve over time. However, the most critical improvement that would secure the Big 3's longevity is a fundamental one, I’m afraid.You might have thought about it while watching the games that devolved into brick fests, or perhaps some of the games felt slow compared to regular NBA games.

Well here it is. What this league needs is the “possession” rule (also known as "winners’ outs" or "make it, take it"). This means that if a team scores, it gets the ball again on offence. A defending team could end up never getting the ball on offence if the other team scores on every possession.For these ex-pro players, it sounds like a path to one-sided, unwatchable matches, especially if you have Shaq and Kobe on your team. However, let’s consider the benefits to the actual watchability of the action, as well as a much-needed layer of team strategy to the game.

Keeping possession of the ball after scoring allows a team’s offence to dominate another’s defence, wearing them down until they are continuously dunked-on or lit up from beyond the arc. It’s grueling for the defenders, but it makes for an entertaining series of highlights with a dash of schadenfreude. To save face, teams would have to develop a coordinated, hard-nosed defence built around match-ups, which opens up all kinds of action off the ball.Most of all, it allows turnovers to be a more meaningful change in momentum, that would result in some glorious comebacks rather than the slow, incremental grind of two teams taking turns shooting jumpers.The probability of this “possession” rule determining a winner has actually been studied at Indiana University, and surprisingly, the winners and losers remained relatively the same with or without the rule.

Volleyball scoring is divided into sets. Here, Russia wins 3 sets to 2.

For mercy, the match would be divided into a series of sets, similar to volleyball. Applying that system to the current Big 3 structure, which is designed to last around 45 minutes per game (first team to reach 60 points with halftime at 30), gives us sets of first-to-21 points, with a race to 3 sets, or 63 points total. Mix in some ads and some colorful analysis between sets, and it’s still a palatable media product for the audience, with the potential for a dramatic fifth and final set.

A Good Start

I'll be watching. While it’s disappointing to watch Iverson get shutdown offensively and sit more than actually play, his presence is good enough, and speaks to the traction that commissioner Ice Cube has been able to get with the community of retired players, as well as basketball brands like Spalding. Presumably, the strategy is to create enough value to eventually partner with the NBA.Overall, I have a lot of hope for the Big 3 League. I have no idea who to root for, but I'll start with the humanity beyond pro sports. Age-prone injuries like the one Jason Williams and others suffered are just a fact of life, and this league serves as a very real (and cruel) demonstration of time’s effects on the human body, which at least lets us appreciate the peak performance of NBA players even more.