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.