Monday, December 19, 2011

Basketball Physics

December 25th is a day of celebration for many people, but this year an unexpected group will be celebrating: basketball fans. After months of arguing, players and owners finally agreed on new terms, and the 2011-12 season will start on Christmas day. In honor of next week's tip-off, we've collected a few tidbits of basketball physics from around the web. 

Over the past year, Wired's Dot Physics blog has been running a series of posts about probability and basketball shots. In one of the earlier posts, physicist Rhett Allain ran computer simulations of the amazing basketball shot seen in the video above. In the video, the shooter launched the ball from a 140-foot perch on a monument into a basket below. Allain wanted to know if the shot was real or fake.

Allain made a few assumptions for his simulation. For instance, Allain assumed that the shooter doesn't get better with each attempt. Despite the assumptions, Allain's probability calculations should be in the right ballpark. So was the shot real? Allain's research suggests it certainly could be done, but it would take awhile.

According to the simulation, there's roughly a 0.3 percent chance of making the shot on every attempt. After 200 attempts, for example, there's a 40 percent chance that the shot has been made. The shot can be done in a reasonable amount of time, if you have loyal friends willing to transport the balls back up the statue for a few hours.

On the more practical side, researchers earlier this year conducted an analysis of the most effective type of basketball shots: backboard shots or direct shots. Researchers simulated over a million shots and found some counter-intuitive results. Apparently, aiming for the backboard gives you a better shooting percentage when shooting from several areas on the court. In particular, bank shots between the free throw line and the 3-point line are most effective.

But teaching basketball players to aim for bank shots can be difficult. The direct shot is ingrained in many players' minds.

This year, the NBA season will start on December 25th at noon eastern time with a showdown between the Boston Celtics and New York Knicks.

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