Gladwell's Anecdotes Make for Bad Basketball Analysis - NBC4 Washington

Gladwell's Anecdotes Make for Bad Basketball Analysis

The New Yorker reporter goes awry trying to talk sports



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    The New Yorker certifies Rick Pitino's brand of basketball.

    This week's issue of the New Yorkerfeatures a long article from Malcolm Gladwell arguing that more teams should use the full-court press in basketball, because superior effort will beat superior talent. It's not really a sports article, however, but a primer on how Davids in many different walks of life should prepare for battles with Goliaths. The common thread is that David should do something unexpected to panic Goliath, which is where the full-court press comes in. 

    The argument works very well when Gladwell applies it to combat: "Lawrence of Arabia" fans will enjoy that section, but his basketball theories aren't as easily swallowed.

    Gladwell uses a 12-year-old girl's basketball team to make his case, which ultimately causes his argument to fall apart. The team is coached by a software engineer who doesn't know much about basketball, but realizes that allowing the opposing team to bring the ball up to the front court is an inefficient way to play defense. So he tells his girls, described as lacking ability across the board, to press from the first minute of the game. The team wins and wins because the opposition can't handle the pressure.

    So, Gladwell asks, why wouldn't every underdog team press in every game? Because hustle doesn't always beat ability, especially not as you get into a higher level of competition than what's on display among 12-year-old girls. For instance, at higher levels of competition, opposing teams can prepare for the press they're about to see. With the aid of some scouting and simple prep work,talented point guards are capable of dribbling and passing their way out of trouble with ease.

    Gladwell tries to prop up his argument by talking to Rick Pitino, a press believer of the highest order. He and Pitino talk a lot about how successful the press worked at Kentucky. A big deal is made of a 1996 game against LSU, but never mentioned is the fact that Kentucky had nine future NBAers and that LSU was a poor team. Somehow, though, Pitino's years with the Celtics and Louisville get short shrift. Perhaps that's because he didn't have a significant talent advantage?

    And that's the problem with the piece. When the anecdotal evidence fits, Gladwell includes it as part of his argument but when it doesn't -- see Michigan State-Louisville in this year's tournament or everyone vs. Celtics in Pitino's NBA career -- it just gets ignored. Why not include a few of the games when underdogs who try to press are smoked by better teams simply because they're better.  

    The Pitino argument only works when he's the Goliath, and the 12-year-old girl argument falls apart because there aren't really any Goliaths at that level of competition. If anything, Gladwell winds up proving the opposite of what he sets out to do. Good teams should press and eliminate any chance underdogs ever have to win games. That's not quite so noble as the original story idea, but it's closer to the truth.