Basketball Prospectus: Unfiltered Everything Else is Fluff.

May 20, 2009

Leave Malcolm Gladwell Alone

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 11:36 pm

Being a college hoops type, I’m in the middle of an annual sabbatical and my writerly reaction time is correspondingly slow. So forgive me for being seismically late to this whole Malcolm Gladwell thing.

As you are no doubt aware by now, Gladwell triggered something of a commentary frenzy with his New Yorker piece on how Davids can beat Goliaths. Much of said frenzy centered on two of Gladwell’s examples, both of which were offered to illustrate the value of employing an unorthodox strategy, specifically the full-court press in basketball. The two examples causing the fuss were: 1) a team comprised of 12-year-old girls in the Bay Area, and 2) Kentucky and Louisville under Rick Pitino. (Still another example of praiseworthy heterodoxy offered by Gladwell concerned T.E. Lawrence‘s exploits with Bedouin guerillas in World War I: “Aqaba, from the land!” Consider this an excuse to put the movie in your queue. Nearly a half-century after its release it is still arguably the only American-financed gimme-an-Oscar-scaled biopic to exhibit an abiding and considered ambivalence toward its subject.)  

I’ll grant that Gladwell put an odd display in his store’s anecdotal front window: Louisville makes a poor “David.” And while I have no personal experience playing basketball as a 12-year-old girl, I can report that when I was a 12-year-old boy, our league expressly prohibited the full-court press. After a made basket, defenders had to retreat to their own side of the half-court line. I dare say Gladwell’s piece offers rich testimony in support of my league’s wisdom. A team of 12-year-olds playing a full-court press can trigger chaos that is only tangentially related to basketball.

That being said, an interesting thing happened as I continued to read more and more of the revisionist canon that Gladwell spawned. It occurred to me that the revisions might be every bit as errant as Gladwell’s original piece.

Take this putatively Gladwell-debunking nugget, for example….

Of course, there are plenty of reasons an underdog team might decide against pressing:

  • Pressing is energy-intensive and could tire out your moderately useful players to the point where you have to bring in the complete gits you stash on the bench.
  • Pressing brings more fouls and could force the moderately useful players to the bench, at which point out come the gits.
  • A competent press requires practice time that could otherwise be spent teaching the gits to catch balls with something other than their faces.

Much as I admire any post that so deftly employs the shamefully under-utilized term “git,” I am forced to note that this particular volley of bullets pretty much went 0-for-3. In order….

  • Pressing is indeed energy-intensive compared to standing in place, but I think the widespread conviction–one shared by coaches and fans alike–that the press is uniquely energy-intensive is likely mistaken. Bear in mind that effort expended on D is a function not only of your defensive scheme but also of the offense that your opponent runs.

And I would wager that when Purdue plays Illinois, for example, the two defenses on the floor expend more energy than does your garden-variety pressing team. Not because the Boilermakers and Illini are uniquely exemplary in their commitment to defense. Merely because these two Gene Keady-influenced teams mirror each other exactly on both sides of the ball. Both teams play frenetic man defense, along with low-dribble clock-milking motion offense. To shadow your man through every screen and on every rotation for 30+ seconds on every possession is energy intensive.

As for the press, note that the energy required to deploy it is distributed unevenly across a team’s five players. Typically the “front” three on a 1-2-1-1 press carry the bulk of the effort, while the back two sip beverages festooned with tiny umbrellas and check their email, relatively speaking. Louisville notwithstanding, the major-conference teams currently known for pressing–Missouri, say, or Tennessee–have, I dare say, as many gits as your run-of-the-mill non-DePaul team. But even gits can harass an inbounds pass–which, of course, was precisely Gladwell’s point: the triumph of effort over skill. More to the point, a press requires energy not only from the pressing team but also from their opponent. When it works a press tires out the other team faster than your own, much like a no-huddle in football.

  • The most foul-happy major-conference teams of 2009 (Kansas State, Oregon, Seton Hall, Georgia Tech, Ole Miss, and Indiana) were no more press-happy than your average group of teams. Conversely pressing teams fouled no more or less than average. Basically teams with foul-prone individuals foul a lot, regardless of scheme. Additionally, of course, fouls are a function of each league’s mores and customs as reflected by its officiating. Take any team out of last year’s Big Ten, put them in last year’s Big 12, and the number of fouls called on them would have increased, guaranteed.
  • Any scheme requires practice time to execute well. It’s true that Pitino in particular likes to talk up the oh-so-daunting complexity of his full-court press, particularly when explaining early-season losses to inferior opponents. But the example of Baylor suddenly switching to a zone defense for the Big 12 tournament this season suggests that even in March defensive schemes can in fact be swapped out entirely without teams having to dedicate months of practice to the task at hand. This is not rocket science.        

Even when Gladwell’s detractors agree with him, I can find myself disagreeing. Take for example the idea that the press is a “high-variance” strategy, one that underdogs should indeed consider because anything that introduces an added element of chance to a contest poses a threat to favorites. As my colleague Kevin Pelton has pointed out, the idea that Rick Pitino in particular plays a high-variance style of hoops dates to Dean Oliver, who made the observation when Pitino was still at Kentucky. (Pitino’s style, Oliver hastened to add, includes not only a pressing D but also lots of attempted threes on offense. Threes are indeed variance personified: You make fewer of them but they’re worth more.)

I don’t pipe up with a “hey wait a minute” lightly when the prevailing voices are furnished by the likes of Pelton and Oliver. But are pressing teams truly higher-variance on defense than non-pressing teams in college basketball? I wonder. Certainly Tennessee in 2007 fulfilled the press’s feast-or-famine stereotype. When that year’s Volunteers failed to force their opponents into a turnover, they gave up a whopping 1.38 points per possession in SEC play. Then again Louisville gave up just 1.19 points per turnover-less trip in the Big East this year. Meaning this year’s Cardinal press was not high-variance, and therein lay at least a few seeds of their success: Pitino’s defense was good even when opponents didn’t turn the ball over.

My sense is that variance on defense is simply much more descriptive in football than it is or ever could be in basketball. In hoops the worst thing that can happen is that you give up two or three points. In football your blitz can cost you a 60-yard TD.

What I took from Malcolm Gladwell’s piece was that far too often coaches–much like everyone else–rely on custom and the settled inertia of habit when instead they should, particularly if they’re facing a team that’s better than theirs, ask themselves a simple question: How can I surprise and discomfit my opponent? Gladwell found two coaches who have asked themselves precisely that question, as did T.E. Lawrence some 90 years ago. Coaches, writers, or anyone else can surely benefit from trying to attain their own prosaic “Aqaba, from the land!” In this Gladwell is better than correct. He is correct on something foundational.   

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