Thursday, May 07, 2009

Sailer Puts the Press on Gladwell

Steve Sailer has what may be his most devastating deconstruction of a Malcolm Gladwell article yet. The subject is sports and underdogs, and in particular the full-court press in basketball.

Gladwell's hypothesis--that weaker teams should press stronger teams to even the odds--is so divorced from basketball reality that I wonder if he's ever played organized ball at any level. Just one season of 8th grade ball would have taught him that the press (like the fast-break) is a way stronger teams (and by strong I mean "more athletic and better skilled and coached") maximize their advantage over weaker teams.

My middle-school team was pretty insane in 7th and 8th grades. We had probably 10 guys who could dunk and we went undefeated over those two seasons. (My family moved and I wound up at a different high school, but my teammates would go on to win states in our senior season.) We started every game out in a press, either a 2-2-1 or a 1-2-2, depending on whether or not they showed an ability to pass over the top. Typically, we'd call it before half-time since we'd be up by 20. On the rare occasions other teams tried to press us, they'd give up after a couple possessions.

On an semi-related note, we would mostly alternate between running man and a 1-3-1 zone in the half-court on defense. (Our coach was pretty nuts about throwing different defensive looks at people, which had the effect of doing a great job teaching us about the spacial-relations of the game.) The 1-3-1 has the practical effect of acting like a half-court press, with the ball getting trapped every time it goes near a corner. And it has the same overdrive advantage of a true full-court press--it maximizes the better teams advantage.

Also, it was amazingly fun to play. The reason it's not taught more often, however, is because it's only effective when used by very good teams.


AW said...

"The reason it's not taught more often, however, is because it's only effective when used by very good teams."

Isn't that categorical statement specifically disproved by the fact that Gladwell's article identifies an example of effective use of the press by a not-very-good team?

PG said...

This is awesome. Right now a college or even a pro coach who fancies himself "cerebral" (because he reads The New Yorker) is reading Gladwell's piece and thinking "genius".
I can't want until that coach tries to press against a superior team.
FCP requires conditioning, athleticism, and discipline that only elite teams usually have. Furthermore, teams that press usually need above-average shooting percentages to set up their press. This is why crappy teams don't press, it's hard to set the press when you're shooting 37% from the floor. Attempts to establish the press off a missed shot usually end in fast-break points for the other team. Go look at the best pressing defenses of the past 2 decades, they all shot well.
This is a classic Gladwell article: take the conventional wisdom, flip it, cite 1 or 2 examples that don't prove your point and usually prove the opposite, and declare yourself a genius.

Anonymous said...

Disproving categorical statements is easy!

"Tiger Woods is a better golfer than Tim Clark."

But Tim Clark beat Woods head-to-head at the WGC!

Rafael Nadal is a better clay-court player than Juan Carlos Ferrero.

But Ferrero beat Nadal at the Rome Masters on clay last year!

Half-court shots not effective in basketball.

But I hit one once!

AW said...


You might have a point if you actually used used examples analogous to the ones in the original post. Like:

"Tiger Woods *always* is a better golfer than Tim Clark."

"Rafael Nadal *always* is a better clay-court player than Juan Carlos Ferrero."

"Half-court shots are *never* effective in basketball."

If the original post had said that the press "is usually effective only when used by very good teams," then your comparison would have been apt.

Ben said...

Is this your way of letting us know you could once dunk? Fine, we're all jealous now!

Anonymous said...

Sorry, AW. I assumed we were all grown-up enough to be able to speak in generalities without having to lawyer Every. Single. Observation.

Particularly ones that are, you know, obviously accurate.

For instance, I think it'd be acceptable for me to state that "I can't hit big-league pitching."

But perhaps you'd rather I say that "If you allowed me to face a big-league pitcher for many thousands of at-bats I would, in all probability, eventually be able to make contact with said ball and perhaps, maybe, even put the ball into play."

I mean, what are the statistical odds that I could *never* get a hit off an MLB'er given an infinite number of opportunities!

Come to think of it, I hate it when baseball people talk in categorical statements like, "He can't hit the curve" when, in reality, the hitter _can_ hit curveballs 0.02% of the time.

Inaccurate descriptives are so frustrating!

AW said...

Actually, Anonymous, the distinction isn't just semantic. It goes to the very heart of Sailer's analysis.

Sailer attacks a straw man; he responds to a cartoonishly overblown version of Gladwell's point. (And that really says something, because it's almost impossible to make Gladwell out to be a bigger cartoon than he really is.) Which is why this espisode is one of the rare occasions on which Sailer actually gets owned by Gladwell. (Except on the Pitino-never-had-stars point, on which Gladwell is ridiculously wrong.)

Gladwell's point is very narrow. He's not saying that underdogs will always -- or even *usually* -- win by using unorthodox strategies. He's merely arguing that given the underdogs low chance of success, the *best* strategy may be the unorthodox one.

(And it's not as though Gladwell used some sort of Straussian read-between-the-lines method to make his point. He flat out said, "Playing insurgent basketball did not guarantee victory. It was simply the best chance an underdog had of beating Goliath.")

So when Sailer responds to Gladwell by saying, "Traditionally in basketball, the full court press has not been the underdog's weapon, it's been the overdog's way to insure that their superiority is manifested in the final score," Sailer does nothing to disprove Gladwell's argument.

And while I'm on the point of bashing Sailer's response, I'll add that his kid's-baseball anecdote is similarly irrelevant. Gladwell doesn't argue that it's not antisocial to use unorthodox strategies, or that other participants won't change the rules in reaction to the unorthodox strategy. Gladwell merely observes that in a game involving a single goal (e.g., score more points than your opponent) and a static set of rules (e.g., the rules of middle school basketball), it may well be the case that an unorthodox strategy that flouts conventional wisdom or social assumptions may well prove to be the one best suited to win the game.

Gladwell made that point painfully clear in the computer-game anecdote. Of course, Sailer brags that he didn't bother to read that part of the article. I guess he should have.

If I sound heated over this, it's only because Sailer's column was so lousy that I actually have to take Gladwell's side in an argument. That's unforgiveable.

philosopherisdog said...

"And while I'm on the point of bashing Sailer's response, I'll add that his kid's-baseball anecdote is similarly irrelevant."

No, the anecdote is relevant. Using the full-court press as a strategy in middle-school basketball is a gimmick. Having your players refrain from taking swings is a gimmick.

Gimmicks are at best superficial, or vacuous. But at worst, they attempt to obscure the true nature of something or to conceal motives. A gimmick is like sophistry: working to make the weaker into the stronger. While there is inspiration in the underdog overcoming adversity to defeat a Goliath, gimmicks are cheap and ignoble.

The reason Gladwell is so wrong here is that he's not only advocating something that will only work in the most limited of arenas (little-league, low-competition settings) as some great under-used strategy --- it is a flat-out gimmick that would likely be a disgrace if employed in such limited arenas (as the baseball walking strategy).

And why name-drop Leo Strauss? Is Gladwell a student of Straussians?

PG said...

Hey everybody, America's favorite antiwar-pot-smoking-married-gay-man has chimed in on Gladwell's article.

Gene Ha said...

Gladwell's article is full of "hot house flower" strategies. In the case of basketball, he notes that it only works in certain situations. In the case of the basketball tournament, the FCP worked great against little kids and mediocre volunteer coaches. Change the circumstances and you'll need a new tactic to win.

Great discussion of the Eurisko software example here:

Gladwell implies that the tactical game had fixed rules, like Chess. Games like that are more like Paintball, with every game having new terrain and starting parameters (eg two of your team must capture the flag within 3 hours). Still, the point is that a computer created a hothouse strategy that worked with the rules and setup for that game session.

Gladwell's point isn't that plucky underdogs created universally winning strategies. It's all about 'hot house flower' strategies that can only survive in one environment. Thus his point about "Insurgents, though, operate in real time." Look at what's different about the current situation and how the other team isn't adapting to it. Then attack them at their weak point before they can adapt.

The mistake the other teams made in the basketball tournament was assuming that tactics that work in high school or college or the pros were 100% applicable to grade school basketball, and couldn't be trumped. By your logic, Alexander is a miserable general because the later Roman maniple would have defeated many of his tricks.