Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Full Court Press

Malcolm Gladwell finally wrote a new article recently. It's about how underdogs (in any field) can increase their chances of success when the odds are stacked against them by using unorthodox and innovative strategies. Good idea and a compelling piece that has the usual overgeneralizations, but is fun to read.

The framework for the article and one of the key strategy examples Gladwell uses is the idea of underdog basketball teams using the full-court press in order to level the playing field against their more talented opponents. One of his lynchpin examples is the case of Rick Pitino. Ben Mathis-Lilley of New York magazine thinks Gladwell's argument has some flaws and Gladwell thinks otherwise (Pitino is a great coach and his teams have overachieved everywhere, even at Kentucky where he had top-level talent). Now Gladwell and Bill Simmons are having a lengthy exchange about this issue, among others.

First of all, Gladwell has an amazing brand and an amazing ability to write about fascinating topics just specifically enough that you think he's smart, but just generally enough that you question his conclusions. This makes him perfect for the internet, where everyone (including me right now) can then give his or her own take on the topic and Gladwell.

Second of all, I completely agree with the main thrust of Gladwell's piece, especially as it pertains to sports. Gladwell and Simmons get into this a bit, but the status quo bias in sports is simply outrageous. Gladwell has some ideas about reorganizing drafts of college players that I'd like to hear Tyler Cowen's take on (last three paragraphs here), but there's still so much more to say. For example, a I'd love to see an article about the trickle-up effect (if any) of innovations from high school to college to professional leagues, including analysis of why certain strategies (e.g. the option in football) simply don't work in the higher leagues (for the option it's usually said that athletes are too fast). Further, end the speculation. In this age of oversharing, will not one GM/Owner admit why he doesn't try something radical? Maybe if he openly admitted it was because of the fans, the fans might say, "Try Anything!" This is related to the Bill Simmons for GM push and related to my third point.

Third of all, I'm surprised that no one in these articles so far has mentioned Moneyball or the Phoenix Suns of 2004-2007. Maybe too much has already been written about Moneyball, but isn't it the classic example of the underdog playing a different strategy to defeat the heavy favorites?* Now, how about the Phoenix Suns? Their run and gun style of 2004-2007 was very similar to the full court press in forcing other teams out of their comfort zones and allowed a decent team talent-wise to become a great team accomplishment-wise. Yet because they never won a title, a lot of people fell back on the "they were entertaining, but you can't win like that" excuse. They could have easily won a title, if not for consistent bad luck in the playoffs and the fact that only one team can win a title each year so the odds are always against them! But are there lots of teams copying their style? No there aren't because teams are always afraid to be different and put in the effort it would take to do something outside the ordinary and deal with the consequences.

Finally, it's nice to see this kind of stuff cropping up more often in the mainstream media and maybe one day we'll finally witness an NFL team that never punts.

*As opposed to the press, it's been liberally adopted across baseball and its tenets are seeping into other sports, so maybe that's why it's not mentioned here? Additionally, the fact that it's more of a macro strategy might contribute to its exclusion too.


  1. Only thing that I (or anyone) thinks re: Malcolm Gladwell:

    "Hair! Tee hee hee! Carrot top..."

  2. Rich, why do you take Gladwell's assertion seriously?

    A more talented team will be able to break a full-court press used by a less talented team. Similarly, at the highest level of play, guards (and forwards) are such competent ballhandlers that a press will likely be ineffective.

    I suspect that the reason press by bad teams works in young girls' basketball is that the team being pressed doesn't have good ballhandling skills.

    I haven't read Gladwell's article. But, I've played organized basketball enough to know that pressing a superior team will lead to embarrasing defeat.

    Pitino regularly recruits all-americans, so I think using his teams as examples of underdogs is misguided. Status quo prejudice may be as damaging as status quo bias.


  3. *Bias against the status quo may be as damaging as bias for the status quo*