I’ve become somewhat obsessed with basketball over the last few years. I’m not entirely sure why, though it’s a combination of it being on at a convenient time (I’ve found Sundays harder to swallow over the last few years) and some really interesting work going on around new approaches and analytics (a few years ago the NBA installed a series of motion-tracking cameras in every stadium allowing for some really interesting analysis of how the game works).
Anyway, my basketball interest has crashed headfirst into my new parenthood, and thus being awake in the middle of the night fairly often. As much as I’d love to be reading serious stuff while I’m waiting for a baby to go to bed at 3am, I just can’t make it work, so I’ve been reading some basketball books. This week it’s The Jordan Rules, which covers the Chicago Bulls 1991 championship season (Jordan’s first). It’s a fun and easy read for the middle of the night.
Anyway, when I read this passage I couldn’t help but fast-forward to today’s conversations around “small ball” (some teams, specifically the Golden State Warriors, are going out and playing without a traditional center and instead running with 5 guys who can dribble and shoot and space the floor). In the mid-1980s the trend was “Twin Towers” (playing with two centers):
But Cartwright didn’t get much playing time in New York after returning from those foot injuries. Patrick Ewing had come along by then, and Brown tried a twin-towers approach with Cartwright and Ewing. That approach had come into vogue when Houston, with Akeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson, upset the Lakers in five games in the 1986 Western Conference finals; suddenly everyone wanted two centers. But Ewing didn’t care to play forward, and when Brown was replaced, Cartwright took a seat on the bench behind Ewing. He didn’t like it, but he started to get used to the idea.
At the end of the day, part of what makes sports so interesting to me is that it’s a nearly perfect space for a bunch of economics theories. Advantages are won and lost quickly, new ideas spread through leagues nearly instantly at this point, and at the end of the day all the strategy in the world doesn’t replace talent.
And I’m back …
Thought this was a really interesting comment from ESPN’s Ryen Russillo during the Grantland Basketball Hour in December. He was talking about the moves by Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadivé (also known for Gladwell’s writeup of his all press all the time approach to his daughter’s basketball team) and generally what it’s like for these guys who have made a lot of money in the business world coming into sports.
New owners can’t help themselves because you think about how successful these guys are at amassing their wealth. They go, “I’m the man, and now I’ll just buy a team, I’ll apply the same analytics, the same principles … I’ll just go win.” But the model in business allows many companies to be successful, the model in sports only allows one.
I never really thought about it like that, but it’s true. Although many think of business as being zero sum, it isn’t really, especially in the world of technology where people are bound to use multiple devices and applications (that’s not to say within a specific category it can’t be zero sum). Sports is different in that there is only one winner. Of course the counter-argument here is that something can’t really be zero sum when everyone gets rich, but it’s interesting to consider nonetheless.
A few weeks ago my friend Nick sent me a link to this epic 12-part series on Dennis Rodman’s basketball prowess. While Rodman has been in the news for some interesting reasons lately, prior to that he was a basketball player unlike any we’ve ever seen and this series sets out to prove the point. I was especially part of part 2(a)(i) on “Player Valuation and Conventional Wisdom,” which has a nice explanation on the battle between the eye-test and math-test in sports:
Yet chances are he remains skeptical of the crazy-talk he hears from the so-called “statistical experts” — and there is truth to this skepticism: a typical “fan” model is extremely flexible, takes many more variables from much more diverse data into account, and ultimately employs a very powerful neural network to arrive at its conclusions. Conversely, the “advanced” models are generally rigid, naïve, over-reaching, hubristic, prove much less than their creators believe, and claim even more. Models are to academics like screenplays are to Hollywood waiters: everyone has one, everyone thinks theirs is the best, and most of them are garbage. The broad reliability of “common sense” over time has earned it the benefit of the doubt, despite its high susceptibility to bias and its abundance of easily-provable errors.
I know we’re long past the NBA finals, but I really liked this quote about what actually wins basketball games:
There is nothing that has ever won a basketball game except for turning possessions into points. Both teams have about the same number of possessions — they alternate all game — and one team will turn those into more points. Halftime speeches, energy drinks, blue-chip college pedigrees … nothing matters unless it makes one team better at turning possessions into points than the other team.
One of the things that drives me a bit nuts is people saying Lebron James doesn’t have the killer instinct or whatever else. At the end of the day this is the thing that matters. Moneyball proved it, Wages of Wins is proving it, it’s hard to deny math.
I really like situations that help describe the fact that lots of factors ultimately go into the way you feel about a brand/design/marketing. I wrote a bit about how Jony Ive feels about it last week and I thought this was another interesting example from a very different place. In the early 90s a designer named Alexander Juilian was given the opportunity to redesign the UNC Tarheels basketball uniform. He was a huge Tarheels fan and thus felt a ton of pressure to deliver something amazing. Not wanting to leave things to chance, he looped Michael Jordan into the decision (Jordan, at the time, was just starting his ascent to the greatest player in the history of the NBA but he was already UNC royalty). Ultimately Julian sent all the designs to Jordan to let him sign off on his favorite:
“And guess what? As soon as Michael [Jordan] said that [the argyle design was his favorite], then the entire team also liked the argyle best. So we made the first uniform in Michael’s size, sent it to Chicago, he worked out in it, then we sent it down to Chapel Hill. There was near frenzy, I’m told, in the locker room as to who was going to be the first Carolina player to put it on after Michael because they wanted Michael’s mojo. Hubert Davis (photo, above right) won, he was the same size and he was the model. Now he’s a great sportscaster.
I’ve been reading Bill Simmons’ Book of Basketball and in one of the footnotes he mentioned that the NBA (and all the other sports leagues) has a contingency plan in the case of a team losing all its players to a horrific accident. I guess it’s not surprising, but it’s kind of crazy to read the rules from this 1992 New York Times article. Here’s how it would work in basketball:
The National Basketball Association has a contingency plan that goes into effect if five or more players on any team “die or are dismembered,” according to Rod Thorn, the league’s operations director. The league would permit only five players on every other club to be protected, insuring that a fairly good player — the sixth best — could be drafted by the club suffering the tragedy. Each of the contributing clubs could lose only one player.
Bill Simmons has a good article about Bill Russell, Kobe Bryant and leadership. I found the first paragraph especially interesting:
I spent five hours with Bill Russell last week and thought of Kobe Bryant twice and only twice. One time, we were discussing a revelation from Russell’s extraordinary biography, Second Wind, that Russell scouted the Celtics after joining them in 1956. Why would you scout your own teammates? What does that even mean? Russell wanted to play to their strengths and cover their weaknesses, which you can’t do without figuring out exactly what those strengths and weaknesses were. So he studied them. He studied them during practices, shooting drills, scrimmages, even those rare moments when Red Auerbach rested him during games. He built a mental filing cabinet that stored everything they could and couldn’t do, then determined how to boost them accordingly. It was HIS job to make THEM better. That’s what he believed.
The idea of scouting your own teammates is really interesting and clearly has business implications. We tend to spend a lot of time looking at the landscape and understanding our customers, but there’s always an opportunity to better understand the people around us. We sort of do it with reviews and goals inside organizations, but this seems like a different lens on the idea of management and leadership. Instead of just trying to look at people and understand how to help them grow, you look at how competition would exploit your team and use that to try to identity your blind spots.
After last year’s NBA playoffs I got really into the NBA. I attribute it to two big things: First, the busier I am at work the more I want to just go home and veg out and the NBA makes it easy with things to watch every night and second, this season (and last year’s playoffs) is just good basketball.
Anyway, there’s a movement in the NBA (and every sports league at this point) about “advanced metrics”. It’s each league’s attempt to apply Moneyball principles to their sport. In basketball a big part of the point of these type of metrics is to answer the question of how much points are really worth. This is because the public gives an outsized amount of attention to guys that score a lot and not to how they actually get their scoring done (in other words, is someone who scores 30 points on 10 of 15 shooting better than someone who scores 40 points on 15 of 35 shooting). (If you’re bored of this now you can drop off, I won’t be offended.)
A site I enjoyed called The NBA Geek put together a nice primer on this question (and the point of advanced metrics generally). The point he makes is that each missed shot has a price and we need to take that into account in the same way we count the made ones. Regardless of the method of counting you use, you’ve got to be able to accept that basic idea. He sums it up like this:
But one thing is clear, to me at least: just because a player has great talent and is clearly capable of creating easy scoring opportunities, this does not make their bad shots “valuable”. The simple fact is, Carmelo Anthony would be a more productive player if he simply stopped taking shit shots; so would Russell Westbrook. The idea that the bad shots that these players take create value for their team has no basis in evidence at all (nor is there any evidence that these players are reluctant shooters who are shooting so much because “someone has to take the shots”). You can choose to disagree with me on that, but it’s rather like disagreeing with me about evolution and creationism — as far as I’m concerned, prove it or move it.
I’m not sure this fits into the regular topics around here, but I found this too unbelievable to not share:
Certainly it doesn’t take statistical analysis to conclude that NBA players are freakishly tall. (Although some stats help put the freakishness into perspective: Seven-footers are routine in the NBA but so rare in the rest of the country that of American men ages 20 to 40 who stand seven feet tall, an estimated 17% are in the NBA right now, according to analysis of data from the NBA and the Centers for Disease Control.) But NBA players are also outlandishly long—even the “short” ones. At 6’2¾”, Wizards guard John Wall might not be able to see the very top shelf at the grocery store, but with 6’9¼” worth of arms, no doubt he can reach it.
17 percent! That’s madness.
Bill Barnwell weighs in on the finals and the debate around “clutch” free throw shooting:
The natural argument against that math is that the Finals represent a clutch situation where regular-season statistics don’t apply. Well, that’s a testable hypothesis! As it turns out, the Finals don’t really represent some magic world where free throws become more difficult. From 1986 through 2011, the teams that made the NBA Finals shot 74.9 percent from the stripe during the regular season, and then shot 73.8 percent on free throws during the Finals themselves. If you can convince yourself that one free throw in a hundred represents teams wilting under pressure, go nuts.
Was poking around my Kindle highlights (looking to see if there was a way to export them easily) and I ran across a quote from Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s biography “I Am Zlatan”. I was going to post that and then I thought, maybe I should just post lots of sports stuff in one big post, so that’s what I’m doing. No rhyme or reason here, just some interesting sports-related stuff I’ve run into lately.
First the quote from Zlatan on a player’s relationship with their team:
The management owned my flesh and bones, in a sense. A footballer at my level is a bit like an orange. The club squeezes it until there’s no juice left, and then it’s time to sell the guy on. That might sound harsh, but that’s how it is. It’s part of the game. We’re owned by the club, and we’re not there to improve our health; we’re there to win, and sometimes even the doctors don’t know where they stand. Should they view the players as patients or as products in the team? After all, they’re not working in a general hospital, they’re part of the team. And then you’ve got yourself. You can speak up. You can even scream, this isn’t working. I’m in too much pain. Nobody knows your body better than you yourself.
Everything from Grantland has been amazing lately. I think that’s the best site going on the web right now. It houses my favorite sportswriter, Brian Phillips (if you haven’t read it, I can’t recommend his ~100 part series of his Football Manager escapades), everything else is generally excellent, and I read the funniest thing I’ve read in awhile there recently. Here’s Bill Simmons on Dexter Pittman’s flagrant foul at the end of Miami/Indiana game 5 (here’s the video in case you missed it):
Dexter: “Yeah, that!”
LeBron: “I saw it, thanks for that. You’re probably getting suspended, though.”
Dexter: “Yeah, but he’ll never give you the choke sign again, that’s for sure! I SHOWED HIM!”
LeBron: “You sure did, Darius.”
LeBron: “I mean Dexter.”
Dexter: “If you want, I could try to run him over in the parking lot as he’s walking to the Pacers’ bus.”
LeBron: “No, I think we’re cool.”
Dexter: “You want to grab something to eat?”
LeBron: “I can’t, I made plans.”
Dexter: “Want to play video games sometime?”
LeBron: “I don’t really play video games anymore.”
Dexter: “Well, if you ever want to hang, lemme know.”
LeBron: “Sure thing, Darius.”
In other NBA-related reading, Wages of Wins, which tries to put some science behind the ranking of players, has been excellent throughout the playoffs. Here’s how they explained Lebron’s play in case you were curious:
A superstar gives your team a five point edge being on the court. With this scale in hand let’s point something out. LeBron James has played 10 playoff games so far this season. In 4 of them, he’s put up a PoP of +10!
Lebron is playing twice as good as a superstar in the playoffs. That’s mind boggling. Oh, and before I finish the basketball section, the New Yorker wrote a little about former Knick, Latrell Spreewell.
On to soccer, put this on Tumblr earlier, but Michael Bradley’s goal against Scotland was magical. If you missed the insane last day of Premier League soccer in the UK, I highly recommend reading 200 Percent’s recap.
And since I’m writing about sports, if you’ve never read it, go back and read David Foster Wallace’s “profile” of Roger Federer from 2006. It’s magic.
That’s all, have a good Memorial Day.