Barnstorming: Flight vs. invisibility and practical basketball applications


Flight vs. invisibility is a classic hypothetical question, drawing loose circles around different personality types. But does it work for the world of NBA basketball?

If you could bring a superpower to your next pick-up run or rec league game, would you choose flight or invisibility?

The power of invisibility presents some significant and inherent challenges towards practical use on a basketball court. In the standard presentation of this hypothetical, the power of invisibility includes making your clothes invisible but not things that you touch. On offense then, the ball would still be visible when you were dribbling which would allow a savvy defender to keep track of your location. There would still be opportunities for misdirection and advantages, especially to ball-handlers who already have an edge in speed or quickness. But it seems like a solvable issue for the defense.

When you didn’t have the ball you could, of course, move around the floor undetected but that includes your own teammates. Even if you stationed yourself in an open pocket of space it would take some sort of schematic coordination and a significant amount of faith to have a teammate passing the ball to thin air, hoping their invisible shooting guard happened to be there at that exact moment.

The advantages of invisibility would, theoretically, be mostly realized on the defensive end of the floor. The offensive player wouldn’t be able to see any part of your body which should make steals and deflections easy and off the ball, you could float, doubling on unsuspecting players or parking yourself in passing lanes.

Flight is a bit more complicated because it might necessitate some rule changes or at least clarifications. Can you fly with the ball, or is that a travel? Is it offensive goaltending if you fly directly above the basket and drop the ball straight down through the hoop? If you’re in the air, how do the referees tell if you’re behind the 3-point line?

The parameters of the flight ability in the standard hypothetical include the ability to fly up to 1000 mph, but not much detail beyond that. The specific speed is, presumably, a nod to traveling quickly around the world, a facet that doesn’t have much use in a basketball game. Flight certainly seems like a much more useful superpower for basketball but a lot would come down to speed and maneuverability. If it’s a rough approximation of a player’s ability to change speed and directions with two feet on the ground, that’s good. But who knows what the real-time acceleration is of a flying stretch-4?

Of course this hypothetical is less about practical application than it is about the personality of people who choose each option. In his classic This American Life segment, John Hodgman found, through an informal survey of friends and acquaintances and the analysis of the results, that what you choose may say a lot about you. Towards the end, he summarizes:

"Flight is the hero — selfless, and competent, and unashamed. And invisibility, the villain. Almost everyone I talked to called invisibility the sneakier power."

I am pretty sure that this isn’t an approved diagnostic by the American Psychiatric Association but it works well enough as a simple heuristic, especially if we remove the implied morality of heroes and villains that Hodgman attaches. If you could choose between two supernatural mechanisms that allowed you to do remarkable things, would you prefer to place yourself front and center, or retreat to the background?

Choose your basketball superpower

Answering this question in basketball terms has value as a way of categorizing and thinking about NBA personalities, but the practical challenges of using flight or invisibility on a basketball court make the comparison too messy. And other superpowers present similar challenges — choosing between Mr. Fantastic’s physical malleability and Mystique’s shape-shifting on a basketball court just doesn’t seem that psychologically revealing. So let’s abandon traditional superpowers and think about it in purely basketball terms.

The offensive-defensive divide presents a clean option (would you rather be Domantas Sabonis or Myles Turner?) but it’s also loaded because of the ways in which scoring are glorified and compensated above other attributes which can have similar effects on a team’s win-loss record. And simply looking at offense and defense in their totality includes too wide a range of skills for our purposes here.

Offense, then, can be broken apart into specific skill sets as representative of different ends of the personality spectrum. As an analog for flight, we’re looking for something that draws attention, putting an offensive player in the center of everything. It makes sense then to think about a skill set that literally puts a player in the center of everything. Something like Zion Williamson’s finishing ability strikes me as a much better fit than say, Stephen Curry’s shooting ability — point totals and gravity that put him in the figurative center of the Warriors’ offense but which can also be leveraged off-ball and as a distraction or feint.

The flight vs. invisibility hypothetical rests on plenty of artificially defined structures — your clothes are invisible but things you hold in your hands aren’t. So here, we’re talking about Zion’s finishing ability (65.6 percent on shots at the rim) and his insane ability to create and command shot attempts in the paint (18.89 rim field goal attempts per 100 possessions, most in the league by a wide margin). You get to keep your frame, your size and shape, but you get his strength, touch and the leaping ability to replicate his effectiveness within your own body.

For invisibility, we need something that creates a similar level of impact but does so by deflecting attention and sending it elsewhere. Passing seems like the most obvious choice but it’s worth differentiating the exact kind of passing we’re talking about. What Nikola Jokic does, slinging the ball into open space no one else has the imagination to see, covering distances and angles that no one else can replicate — these acts are often more attention-grabbing than the baskets that come on the other end.

We’re not then talking about Jokic’s passing as the superpower, we need a player like Chris Paul. One who is continually among the league-leaders in assists but does it with meticulous control. Paul throws some jaw-dropping no-look passes but the vast majority of his assists are just about his preternatural ability to get the ball exactly where it needs to be, exactly when it needs to be there. He is the human equivalent of a straight line being the shortest distance between two points.

This is what you get if you choose Paul. No additional speed or quickness, no added accuracy on your jumpshot. In your own body, you get the subtle vision, control and precious to get yourself in position and the ball to open shooters. And for the sake of equivalency, you get those attributes as Paul had them at the age of 30, before any age-related decline and when he was arguably at his overlapping peak of experience and freshness.

So, down to brass tacks. Would you rather be an unashamed centerpiece or a sneaky-sneakerson? Would you rather finish like Zion Williamson or pass like Chris Paul?

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Barnstorming is an irregular column series, willing to go anywhere and take on anything. Check out the entire project at A Unified Theory of Basketball.