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May 9, 2009, 02:15 PM ET
Gladwell on Underdogs

by Kevin Pelton

The most interesting bit of basketball theory in the past week, as it occasionally tends to, comes from entirely outside the traditional sports arena. Author Malcolm Gladwell, an NBA fan who has touched on basketball in the past, uses it as a window into the world of underdog strategies in his latest piece for The New Yorker, How David Beats Goliath.

Gladwell’s focus is on the full-court press, used by a coach of 12-year-old girls in the Bay Area to advance to the national championships despite a distinct disadvantage in terms of basketball skills. As often seems to be the case with Gladwell, the big picture is more important than the details. If his piece is read as an advocation of the full-court press, it’s probably off base. But that’s missing the point. The key to the story is Gladwell finding, in both basketball and in war, that underdogs tend to play more conventionally and more conservatively than they ought to. Louisville coach Rick Pitino notes that coaches frequently seek to learn from his famous pressing style only to retreat to a more familiar attack when the season actually starts.

The funny thing about spotlighting Pitino in this story is that, despite Gladwell’s attempts to downplay the quality of his talent (yes, he’s coached but one NBA All-Star, but Pitino has coached a series of lesser NBA talents and one of the remarkable things about his Kentucky teams was how many first-round picks they produced; certainly Pitino had no trouble recruiting there and hasn’t lacked for stars at Louisville either), is that Pitino now is a Goliath, and it’s plausibly to his team’s detriment that they continue to play the way they do.

Father of APBRmetrics Dean Oliver has written extensively about underdog strategies from a statistical perspective, both online and in his book, Basketball on Paper (which I don’t pimp nearly enough on this site–if you haven’t read it, what are you waiting for? Go find it now). For some reason, the Java Applets on the page I linked to above prevent it from displaying correctly on modern browsers, but from the source code here’s what Oliver wrote about Pitino, then at Kentucky:

This is very important for a coach like Kentucky’s Rick Pitino.  His game plan of three pointers and pressing defense is a high variance strategy, one that an underdog should take, not a favorite.  This high variance strategy is how he got his unknown Providence team to the final 4 in 1986.  This is how his Kentucky team came back from a record 33 point deficit a year ago.  But continuously applying this high variance strategy on a team with great talent like Kentucky is asking for an upset.  Kentucky has been among the favorites to win the NCAA title two out of the past three years, only to fall earlier than expected.  Again this year, they were favorites, being preseason #1.  But their high variance game plan cost them last night against Massachusetts.  And it will likely cost them later on this season.  Despite Kentucky’s immense talent, coach Rick Pitino’s risky game plan makes the team more susceptible to upsets.

Of course, the logic applies equally the other way, and there is a very sound mathematical basis for less-talented teams employing riskier or high-variance strategies. The NCAA Tournament is a good example of this. When a lower-seeded team pulls an upset, usually it’s because the team plays an unconventional style, and it almost always relates to being a terrific shooting team that can get hot and outscore a bigger, stronger, deeper opponent.

Where Gladwell errs (probably in no small part for the sake of convenience for his non-basketball readers, just as he simplifies other concepts so people like us can understand them) is in implying in part that pressing is the dominant underdog strategy. By no means is this the case at the highest levels of basketball. Shooting a lot of threes is probably the best and simplest risky strategy, but zone defenses can also qualify and one method we see a fair bit in college hoops but rarely in the NBA (save one notable exception) is slowing the game down to a crawl, because an upset is more likely the fewer possessions in a game.

So why don’t we see these strategies more, especially in the NBA? In part, if you talk to head coaches, you find that there is so much that is out of their control that they become borderline obsessed with consistency. From a mathematical perspective, consistency is good for good teams and bad for bad ones, but it’s easy to see its allure to the coach. Perhaps more importantly, a coach who plays unconventially puts himself at risk of being blamed and getting fired. This manifests itself in many different ways across sports, but in general fear is a major factor.

Even when a coach employs an unconventional strategy and succeeds far beyond his team’s reasonable expectations, there’s still a risk of getting criticized. Witness Mike D’Antoni, who thankfully remains faithful to his belief in his style, as best described in Eric Neel’s phenomenal E-Ticket piece on D’Antoni this season.

Mainstream analysts play a big role in this bias toward conventional wisdom. Just as Michael Lewis‘ so-called “Greek Chorus” argued against Moneyball (itself an underdog strategy of a kind), so too do we hear the talking heads and ex-players dismissing D’Antoni’s system or even the Orlando Magic’s tendency to shoot a lot of three-pointers. As a result, the NBA tends to be more homogenous in play that it really ought to be, and that’s a shame.

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