« Experimental Philosophy | Main | An Oscar Opinion »

Risk and Basketball

Fascinating dialogue (part one; part two) between Bill Simmons and Malcolm Gladwell. The most interesting contention is Gladwell's view, near the end of part two, that "bad GMs" in the NBA are usually insufficiently risk-averse. Both participants say various smart things about that, but I thought I'd add the obvious -- people want to try and win championships. That's obviously much harder to do than is fielding a winning team or a playoff team and I can see believing (and, indeed, it may even be true) that you need to take bad risks to elevate a team to this status.

I think this is a bad thing altogether. Of course it would be weird for a GM to aim for better-than-average status rather than championship status over the long haul. But as a fan, I'm reasonably satisfied with making the playoffs and having some hope of advancement as long as it's not obvious that the team's entered a perennial cycle of decline. In some ways, the most impressive achievement is to do what the Pacers have done and make the playoffs 14 years out of 15 while needing (naturally) to rebuild the team on the fly as former stars age or leave.

March 4, 2006 | Permalink

TrackBack

TrackBack URL for this entry:
https://www.typepad.com/services/trackback/6a00d8345160fd69e200d834266a6c53ef

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Risk and Basketball:

» how to make sedatives from Niklas Carlsson
Risk and Basketball [Read More]

Tracked on Mar 28, 2006 3:34:30 AM

Comments

I wasn't too impressed...I thought both Gladwell's and Simmons' comments were full of obvious errors or contradictions. The point you make is one obvious example that also struck me when I read it.

For another example, the idea the GMs are not *accountable* because their organizations are insufficiently *bureaucratic* is laughable. This is right in the same conversation that has references to GMs often getting fired. How often do people in truly bureaucratic organizations like the government get fired?

Another example: Simmons confidently declares that "you should never, ever, ever, ever, EVER use somebody's height as a determining factor for whether you should draft someone." This based on a few cherry picked examples of great shorter players over several decades. No mention of the dozens and dozens of great college players who were expected to be mediocre in the NBA and who *in fact did turn out to be mediocre.*

Yet another example: Gladwell argues that Isaiah is a bad GM because he overthinks things (supported by an irrelevant example about German's knowledge of San Antonio), then says that GMs should be more like the "Moneyball" Oakland A's.

The conversation actually has a lot of interesting ideas in it, but they are discussed with breathtaking overconfidence on an utterly superficial level.

Posted by: ed | Mar 4, 2006 12:34:28 PM

I think Gladwell's argument about Isiah is more like, he overthinks every individual decision because he doesn't have an overall plan, like Billy Beane.

As far as risk-prone vs. risk-averse GMs, looking back on the last 20 years or so of basketball, I don't see that many championships won by teams who took spectacular risks, once you put aside the chance Joe Dumars took in picking up 'Sheed. Out of the last 7 years you have the Spurs 3 times and the Lakers 3 times, each your classic example of a great center winning a championship. There was no risk in drafting Duncan or signing Shaq to any size contract, and Kobe was something like the 17th pick in his draft. Before that, eight years of Bulls and Rockets--Olajuwon was a #1 overall pick, Jordan was #3 the same year, and the Bulls got Pippen for Olden Polynice, not exactly a high-risk trade. (On the other hand, drafting Bowie over Jordan was arguably the lower-risk move for the Blazers, especially since they already had Clyde Drexler.)

It's possible that GMs swing for the fences because the NBA so often goes according to form, with the very, very best players on the very, very best teams winning it all, meaning that usually you can't win a championship by assembling a team of just good players. I think the more parsimonious explanation is that a lot of GMs suck.

Posted by: Alexander "Benjamins" Hamilton | Mar 4, 2006 1:04:09 PM

the idea the GMs are not *accountable* because their organizations are insufficiently *bureaucratic* is laughable. This is right in the same conversation that has references to GMs often getting fired.

I'm not sure this point has the force you wish. I believe they are both alluding to the fact that getting fired from one GM job (Isiah at Toronto) won't keep you from getting another GM job (Isiah at NY). IIRC, they said this explicitly.

Regarding Isiah and Moneyball, I think Gladwell's point was that Isiah believes he can intuitively analyze a player's worth better than anyone else. He doesn't realize how many strange biases his judgment has. (In Isiah's case, it seems pretty clear that he overvalues physical talent, and undervalues "not a head case.") This is roughly the claim made by the "old guys" in the A's organization; they don't need analytical, rationalized tools because they can just tell.

The point about "shorter players" and "what they've proved on the hardwood" stands as stupid, though. You use the best tools you have available. As good players avoid college, there is less and less reason to believe that college competition tells you very much. Morrison's going to suck, and Reddick will be worse.

Posted by: SomeCallMeTim | Mar 4, 2006 1:53:05 PM

"The conversation actually has a lot of interesting ideas in it, but they are discussed with breathtaking overconfidence on an utterly superficial level."

Exactamundo.

My fave example is Gladwell criticizing the Jalen Rose trade. Even if you think most of Zeke's deals are insane, the Rose trade is beyond reproach. Since he had two big expiring contract this year, by swapping Davis for Rose he exchanged that for one this year and one next year. This stuff gets covered in the first week of NBA GM 101.

Posted by: Petey | Mar 4, 2006 4:03:28 PM

SCMT -

Uhm, good players can't avoid college so much anymore. There are a lot of kids who would've been drafted out of high school on potential that, I believe, will not play well enough in their first year for them to feel confident entering the draft; I don't think the replacement for all the untested high schoolers is going to be repeats of the Marvin Williams Story (ending: still unknown; first chapter: quite disappointing).

I think y'all are misreading what Simmons is saying about height, as well. I don't think he's arguing that height shouldn't be considered as a factor (though I do believe height in basketball is overrated as compared to strength/weight and jumping ability/length of arms), just not a binary switch the way so many GMs use it. How many places did Ben Wallace not get a chance *simply because he was told he was too short*? I believe it was my own Boston Celtics that memorably advised him to work on his shooting and market himself as a 2 guard. He was thrown into the Detroit / Orlando Grant Hill trade when the Magic's management asked Doc Rivers which young big he'd rather part with and they WENT WITH KEEPING JOHN AMAECHI. Ryan Gomes, leading scorer in PC history, dubbed by Emeka Okafor the toughest matchup he'd ever faced? Too short, end of story, let's move on. I don't think Gomes is going to be a starter in this league, ever, but I think he was a ridiculous steal at #50, he's clearly late first round talent AT WORST, and has demonstrated the potential for success as a 6th or 7th man on a *good* team. If you changed nothing about him but made him 6'9" he would've been taken much earlier. *That's* ridiculous.

Posted by: Quarterican | Mar 4, 2006 4:06:58 PM

"In some ways, the most impressive achievement is to do what the Pacers have done and make the playoffs 14 years out of 15 while needing (naturally) to rebuild the team on the fly as former stars age or leave."

In a certain sense, sure. But I suspect the owner of the Pacers would have traded the past two decades of steady moderate success for the boom and bust of the last two decades of the Pistons or Bulls.

Posted by: Petey | Mar 4, 2006 4:29:34 PM

I don't follow the NBA much, but I do follow MLB closely, and it strikes me that bad GMs in MLB are usually OVERLY risk-averse. We have a fine example here in Seattle. See also Minnesota, Tampa Bay, and the Chicago Cubs. In MLB, at least, the issue often seems to be as much risk-averse owners as GMs. Steinbrenner, on the other hand, is unusually willing to take risks, which has a lot to do with his success. Of course he has more money than anyone else, but Pohlad in Minnesota is a billionaire, and the Mariners bring in a ton of money. It's not just about having money, it's also about being willing to spend it to build the team.

Posted by: Rebecca Allen, RN, PhD | Mar 4, 2006 4:44:35 PM

Ed hit that nail on the head. The part which irked me was the anti-elitist stance, "I could do better than most GMs", because they know too much. Knowing your stuff leads to better results, not the opposite.

As for the argument made by a commenter that San Antonio or the Lakers won recently without taking risk, this is highly debatable. For Jerry West to get his team, he traded his best big man, Vlade, a very valuable player, for a high-school kid. Point was to clear the center position for Shaq, but had Shaq not signed with them, their best big man is A.C. Green. That's taking a risk.
San Antonio did not really take a risk, but David Robinson blew his back for exactly one year which got them in the lottery which they won to get TD. So no risk, but tons of luck. Those example does not disprove the theory.

Posted by: cedichou | Mar 5, 2006 1:35:08 AM

ced,

I think you're mistaking Gladwell's point - it'd not that he doesn't know anything, it's that he knows he doesn't know anything. SCMT is exactly right as to Isaiah's anti-moneyballism. He knows more about basketball so he can make square pegs fit into round holes, etc...

Though SCMT, Reddick and Morrison won't suck (if they do) because they are too short, but rather that they aren't quick enough to get their own shots and can play no D at all...

Posted by: Pooh | Mar 5, 2006 2:51:19 AM

rather that they aren't quick enough to get their own shots and can play no D at all...

Agreed, though I think there's another way this sometimes gets described.... I mentioned those two primarily in reference to Simmons's injunction to judge players by what they've done on the court. They're both going to be second unit players, at best, at the next level. (Is Casey Jacobson still in the league?)

Redick went 5-21 yesterday. I missed the game, but it sounds like Redick, in John Starks fashion, lost the game for Duke. At least, I hope he wakes up every morning believing that. Ha ha ha ha ha ha.

Posted by: SomeCallMeTim | Mar 5, 2006 9:00:01 AM

Tim,

Have you seen Morrison play? Worst-case scenario, he turns out way, way better than Casey Jacobson. There must be some reason you're comparing those two, other than the fact that they're both honkies. Right?

That said, I don't buy the "next Larry Bird" bullshit (there's an asthetic resemblance, for sure). Morrison, I think, will be a good player, maybe an All-Star. There have been plenty of All-Stars who couldn't guard anybody. Hell, Bird and Magic were both below-average defenders. Charles Barkely was awful.

Posted by: Steve | Mar 5, 2006 1:59:44 PM

SCMT,

Does it make you feel better to be such an inveterate hater of all that is good and right in the world of hoops? (No, I'm not bitter today. Well, maybe a little...)

JJ did kinda suck last night, though Paulus is well on his way to being my least favorite Dukie to get minutes since Capel the First.

Posted by: Pooh | Mar 5, 2006 3:31:57 PM

Steve:

I was thinking, "slow white stiffs." You have to have a way of reading players like Jason Williams, Kirk Hinrich, and Mike Miller out of the group. Also, does anyone use the word "honkies" anymore? It seems steeped in the idiot 70s, somehow.

I haven't really followed the college game for almost a decade, so you could be right about Morrison. Still, I suspect we'll be referring to him as a "poor man's Keith Van Horn" within five years.

Posted by: SomeCallMeTim | Mar 5, 2006 3:34:42 PM

"Charles Barkely was awful."

Barkley was an awful defender for the same reason that Iverson is a lousy defender - they're undersized players and for that reason they can't match-up against others at their position without help.

Iverson and Barkley are instructive on the perils of undersized players even when they come as great as those two. I don't think it's coincidental that neither has a ring.

Some undersized players can be hall-of-fame greats, but size still matters.

Posted by: Petey | Mar 5, 2006 4:03:17 PM

Well, my use of honkies was ironic. And Morrison is way, way more athletic than Van Horn. The guy (Morrison) can flat-out score. I don't see him doing much else, but I think he can put up at least 20 a game in the NBA.

Posted by: Steve | Mar 5, 2006 4:03:52 PM

re: Barkley and defense and size. Ben Wallace is also undersized, and a pretty good defender. Same with Marion. Barkley wasn't a good defender because he didn't try very hard on defense. Plus the size factor, and he didn't move very quickly laterally.

Posted by: Steve | Mar 5, 2006 4:05:50 PM

Speaking of Moneyball, I think one of the more curious non-developments is that it really hasn't seemed to have taken hold in the NBA at all. It's not just the Knicks who have resisted. Although there are certainly many intelligent and competent GMs in the league, there are also way more ex-player celebrity-type GMs in the NBA then in MLB or the NFL (Isiah, Larry, the Paxson brothers, Elgin Baylor, Ainge, Kiki). Now some of these guys have worked out well (Bird, Jerry West, obviously), but it does seem that the NBA GM is almost a less serious position where professional, front-office bona fides are not as important to owners.

Why is that? Owner ignorance? A perception that rigorous analysis doesn't really apply to assembling a basketball team? It baffles me.

Posted by: Jeff | Mar 5, 2006 4:06:17 PM

"Ben Wallace is also undersized, and a pretty good defender."

Very true. But there are exceptions to every rule, and Big Ben is the exception. Wallace is able to compensate from his 2 inch size deficit by means of his freakish strength. And his muscle-boundness is also a reason why he can't shoot, which is why players like him are rare rather than common.

"Barkley wasn't a good defender because he didn't try very hard on defense."

Chuckles himself has promoted that particular line as a way of explaining his defensive deficiencies, but I don't think it's the actual explanation. Instead it's a boastful way of saying that he could have been a great defender if only he'd applied himself.

Barkley was 6' 4 1/2". Name me anyone else who can guard the post at that height. It just can't be done.

Barkley's only defensive move in the post was to 'pull the chair out' from the offensive player and hope it put him off balance. Giving up 3 to 5 inches to others playing his position, I really don't think he had any other options.

Posted by: Petey | Mar 5, 2006 4:28:55 PM

Likewise, Earl Boykins is never going to win defensive player of the year. He could be off the charts in both defensive skill and effort, but when you're giving up lots of inches (and pounds) to most of the players you're defending, you're going to have limited defensive success at best.

Posted by: Petey | Mar 5, 2006 5:34:20 PM

Speaking of Moneyball, I think one of the more curious non-developments is that it really hasn't seemed to have taken hold in the NBA at all.

Simple answer, basketball statistics are not at a level of sophistication (and may never be) where they provide the kind of information about incremental contributions to winning. To my mind, the only stat which can tell you anything about an individual in isolation with any degree of specificity is FT%. Good luck building a team around that...

Posted by: Pooh | Mar 5, 2006 7:18:51 PM

Speaking of Moneyball, I think one of the more curious non-developments is that it really hasn't seemed to have taken hold in the NBA at all. Of course it has! I guess the best example would be the Mavs, who track a bunch of stats and plus/minuses. Just go look at the stats compiled at 82games.com or by a guy like Hollinger at espn. The thing is they're using these tools to gain a competitive advantage, so they won't let you know how they use them. Hopefully someone will write the book some day.

Posted by: cedichou | Mar 5, 2006 7:39:55 PM

"Of course it has! I guess the best example would be the Mavs, who track a bunch of stats and plus/minuses. Just go look at the stats compiled at 82games.com or by a guy like Hollinger at espn."

Everybody in the league uses plus/minus, especially the plus/minus of various entire lineups.

But at the end of the day, stats in basketball will never be nearly as useful as stats in baseball. Most of baseball consists of a single batter standing in isolation against a single pitcher. That's far more conducive to useful stats than a fluid team sport like basketball where almost nothing happens in true isolation.

Baseball is an unusual sport in that its stats tell close to a full story of what happens on the diamond. Basketball isn't like that, especially for individual players.

Posted by: Petey | Mar 5, 2006 7:57:19 PM

Agree with Pooh and Petey. Baseball is made up of set pieces in a way that basketball isn't. I don't really follow baseball, but is there anything comparable to the difference between the way the Suns play and the way that Larry Brown's Pistons used to play? Isn't Divac a lot more valuable to the old Kings than to any less pass intensive team?

Posted by: SomeCallMeTim | Mar 5, 2006 8:08:43 PM

Perhaps worth looking at in this context: efficiency in costs per win.

Posted by: SomeCallMeTim | Mar 5, 2006 8:17:02 PM

SCMT, that's fine and all, but I think the key to the 'Moneyball' approach is the prospective application, and at this point, hoops stats just don't have any predictive power because there are so many omitted variables from any performance analysis.

Posted by: Pooh | Mar 6, 2006 2:44:53 AM

The comments to this entry are closed.