Far above the rim

The unexpected connection between Lebron James and NASA's Mars landing

What a Mars rover mission can tell us about basketball. An excerpt from a new book by Nick Greene.

Getty/Inverse illustration

The assist may be the most deceptive statistic in basketball. The NBA rulebook defines it as a subjective metric that is not only open to interpretation but wholly reliant upon it:

“An assist is a pass that directly leads to a basket . . . In basketball, an assist is awarded only if, in the judgment of the statistician, the last player’s pass contributed directly to a made basket. An assist can be awarded for a basket scored after the ball has been dribbled if the player’s pass led to the field goal being made.”

It is a shame that a beautiful act like passing gets associated with something as flighty and skewable as the assist. Ball movement is the connective tissue that turns five individual kinetic entities into a harmonious system. It’s the signature of aesthetically pleasing team play.

When Emily Lakdawalla played basketball in high school, she spent most of her time on the bench pulling double duty as the team’s manager. One of her responsibilities was to log statistics, and she enjoyed the game’s most subjective stat more than the others. “I really appreciated the assists,” she tells me. As a planetary geologist and writer, Lakdawalla is a walking encyclopedia on rover and orbiter missions, and, when I initially reached out to her, I wanted to talk about jump shots. Given the prevalence of the three-pointer in today’s NBA, I figured someone so familiar with aiming objects onto faraway targets would understand the joys and pitfalls of long-range shooting, but, as I’ve discovered repeatedly while working on this book, we all see the game differently.

“I think that interplanetary travel is more like passing in basketball,” Lakdawalla says. She is waiting on the cable guy when I call her, confounding my assumptions yet again. (I figured her for a satellite customer.)

“When you’re launching something from a planet, say Earth, to another one, like Mars, neither Earth nor Mars is stationary,” she tells me. “When you’re designing a trajectory, you are accounting for the speed, motion, and trajectory that Earth already has as its starting point. Similarly, we’re launching it to a spot where Mars is not yet but will be once the spacecraft gets there. That’s what passing is all about, getting the ball to the place where they’re going to be. That aspect of both the passer and the recipient having to account for both their own and the other’s motion, and then the ball is in motion, I think that’s a perfect analogy right there.”

"Pass attempts, like space travel, have a decent track record for success"

Further helping the comparison is the fact that pass attempts, like space travel, have a decent track record for success. Sure, there are the occasional disasters, but the odds of completing a pass are far greater than they are for hitting a three-pointer, which, even in the most capable hands, is about a 40 percent proposition, at best. “Early in the space age there was a much lower success rate,” Lakdawalla tells me. “For obvious reasons. It was new. You’ll often hear that only half of all Mars landing attempts have succeeded. While that’s technically true, the success rate on recent missions is a lot higher. Most missions these days are successful. It’s very rare to have a complete failure.” Of the past ten Mars orbital or landing missions, only one has been a dud. A joint attempt from Russia and China in 2011 got stuck in Earth’s orbit and eventually disintegrated above the Pacific Ocean. It was a costly turnover.

This NASA animation shows this month's mission to Mars executed the gentlest placement of the Perseverance rover on the red planet after its seven-month journey from Earth.NASA

One reason passes are so much more dependable than shots is because, unlike rims, humans have arms that can reach out and grab the ball. Similarly, a planet’s gravitational pull can pluck a well-positioned spacecraft from the void. As is the case with a bullet pass to a lumbering center, however, a certain level of accuracy is needed for the object to arrive safely at its destination. “Basketball players are tall, but their reach isn’t that long compared to the size of the court,” Lakdawalla says. “The gravity of that planet really doesn’t matter a whole lot until you get really close. The timing needs to be perfect. If you miss, that’s it. That actually happened to a Venus mission called Akatsuki. The nozzle of its rocket engine broke and Venus failed to catch it, basically. It went out of bounds.” You hate to blame your teammates, but Venus really blew it on that one.

While surprises aren’t always welcome during a fine-tuned space mission, Lakdawalla’s favorite basketball passes are the ones she can’t see coming. “I really do appreciate the assists where the passer has this clairvoyance about where his teammate is going to be,” she says. “They’ll rocket these passes, and it’s amazing.” Lakdawalla loves going to Lakers games, and she gets to watch LeBron James do his clairvoyant thing.

LeBron James doing his clairvoyant passing thing.Christian Petersen/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images

To say that LeBron has eyes on the back of his head would undersell his court vision. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say eyes cover every inch of his cranium like mirrors on a disco ball. “Sometimes when guys come here, they’re not really used to having wide-open shots, and that’s something that he supplies,” Lakers guard Kyle Kuzma told reporters regarding James’s ability to find teammates in space. It’s an ironic sort of learning curve, one where players must learn how to take easy, unguarded jumpers.

A basketball court is 4,700 square feet, and every inch of that area is fair game for one of James’s passes. He is six-foot-nine, the same height as Magic Johnson, and he surveys the floor like a galloping air traffic control tower. Whereas teams devise elaborate plays full of weaving movement in order to work a pass to a shooter waiting in the corner, LeBron can achieve the same result with a casual flick of the wrist. Driving or stationary, looking or not looking, he can get the ball wherever it needs to be. It’s painless teleportation, like if Jeff Goldblum had quit while he was ahead in The Fly.

LeBron doesn’t simply pass to his teammates — he serves the ball to them à la carte. “It’s my responsibility to know how my guys want the ball,” he told ESPN’s Brian Windhorst. “If they like it with no seams or with the seams. I know that might not make sense — some guys like it different ways. I get the ball right in my hand before I throw it.” “Seamless,” as he puts it, likely means that the ball will land in their hands with the three main, parallel lines facing toward the hoop. It’s not a common term in the sport because few players are so aware of their teammates’ wants and needs as to align the seams of the basketball to fit those individual preferences.

Lakdawalla tells me about how voyages to Mars require careful planning for the sake and health of the planet itself. “It is a place we want to protect from Earth bacteria. When we send a lander there, the landers are highly sterilized. We are very careful. It’s called planetary protection.” But while the lander is clean, the launch vehicle that guides it is not, and so scientists devise ways to ensure that only the preferred components of the craft touch down. A seamless pass, some would call it. LeBron would be proud.

The above is an excerpt from the new book, How to Watch Basketball Like a Genius: What Game Designers, Economists, Ballet Choreographers, and Theoretical Astrophysicists Reveal About the Greatest Game on Earth, by Nick Greene, published by Abrams Press © 2021.

The book goes on sale March 2, 2021.