In a discussion with Galley Friend A.W. I was pressed to explain more fully why I think Gladwell's full-court press/David/Goliath piece is such bosh. Here's a more unpacked expansion of that first post
1) Gladwell's central premise, that overmatched parties in any sort of conflict need to alter the rules of engagement to maximize their chances of victory, seems so broad and obvious as to be not worth writing about at all. It's like doing 5,000 words on "Hey! In any sort of physical confrontation, the high ground provides an advantage!"
2) Gladwell's specific point about changing the rules of engagement in basketball is, as I've said, ridiculous. There's a reason he had to find a middle-school girls basketball team to bear out his example of the press working as an equalizer: Because the press almost never
works as an equalizer; to the contrary, it almost always
acts as a multiplier on the talent/skill differential between teams. The press actually stands for exactly the opposite of Gladwell's central premise: It's used by better coached, better skilled, more athletic teams to multiply their advantage over less athletic, skilled, etc. teams.
The reason most "Davids" don't try the press against the "Goliaths" is that the press is *very easy to break* if you're more athletic and skilled than the people pressing you. When weaker teams press stronger teams the result is usually fast-break points for the stronger team as they throw over the top of the press and wind up with a 2-on-1 advantage near the bucket.
The reason Gladwell had to go all the way down to middle school girls basketball is because at that level *none* of the teams--even the really good ones--are particularly skilled or athletic. Using that team to hang his entire piece on is like finding something that worked once in pee-wee soccer and saying the premier league teams should try it. Middle school girls don't play the same game as even junior high school boys, let alone elite Division I men. I wouldn't expect Gladwell to know this, but nearly every strategic aspect of the game changes once you reach the level where people on the court are playing above the rim.
3) Because of this, I suspect, Gladwell doesn't mention the most noted example of a pressing team--Nolan Richardson's "40 Minutes of Hell" Arkansas Razorbacks who won a title and went to a couple other Final Fours. The reason Gladwell doesn't mention them is that those teams were so much more athletic than everyone else that they pressed *and* fast-broke--on almost every made shot offensively and missed shot defensively. The reason Richardson had his team do this was precisely to magnify the advantage his guys already had.
4) Why is it that presses maximize a strong team's advantage? Because it creates more possessions. If Team A shoots 45% and Team B shoots 30%, Team B's best strategy is to cut the number of possessions in the game to the point where they have some chance of winning. The more possessions there are, the better the chance that the law of averages helps Team B pull an upset.
5) As it happens, there are two basketball strategies which underdogs have used throughout the ages to to alter the rules of the game. Gladwell mentions neither of them.
The first is the Four Corners. The four corner offense--spreading the ball in the half court and taking as much time off the clock as possible--was used all through the '60s and '70s and parts of the '80s by underdog teams to give themselves a chance at upsetting better teams. Because if you're an underdog, you could win a game 20-18; but if the score got into the 60s, your chances diminished. The NCAA eventually fought this strategy--because it was so effective--by instituting the shot clock.
The second is the zone defense. The zone presupposes this: The further you get from the basket, the smaller the difference in shooting percentages between good and bad teams. That's generally (though not always) true. So overmatched teams often pack into a zone determined to cut off any shots closer than 10 feet on the assumption that they have a better chance dueling with outside shots where the differential between good and bad is most often no more than 10 percentage points.
6) The other time-worn way to score upsets is by using a gimmick. Paul Westhead, of Loyola-Marymount fame, devised an offense in which his team never held the ball for more than 10 seconds. They fast-broke on every possession, even made baskets, often pulling up and shooting 3s. His teams would average something like 80% more points than the NCAA average; playing them was a nightmare if you saw them for the first time in the tourney; they scored a number of NCAA tourney upsets. Yet Westhead's teams were not, as you might imagine, totally dominant in their own leagues. Why? Because if you see a gimmick a couple times a year, its weaknesses become obvious. Other gimmicks include Syracuse's match-up 2-3 zone and Temple's 1-3-1 trapping zone. These defenses aren't pure gimmicks, but are played infrequently enough that teams seeing the Orange or the Owls for the first time are often given fits by them.
7) Gladwell doesn't mention this, but reason they don't press in the pros is that zone presses (or even true zone defenses) aren't allowed. The NBA--even with it's modified "help-zone" rule--is designed for man-to-man.
So why is Gladwell so enamored with the press? I suspect it's not because he was actually concerned with finding a way for underdogs to lessen their disadvantage in basketball because, as previously stated, there are strategies for that which Gladwell ignores.
It seems obvious that Gladwell fixed on the full-court press because he thought he could use it as a stalking horse for his Outliers
contention that great people (or in this case, teams) aren't really great--they just had the luxury of getting 10,000 hours of practice, or having rules tailored for their traditional success, or whatever. Gladwell's middle-school girls let him tell his readers that the ability to work hard is what's rare, not physical talent. Using statistcs-based strategies (like the four-corners or the zone or even Princeton's back-door weave) wouldn't allow him to make that claim.
I think that's what I find so offensive about this piece. As someone who was a mid-level high school player who spent literally thousands of hours practicing basketball, I can assure you that, at least on the court, physical talent trumps perseverance nine times out of ten. Here's the nub of what Gladwell wants to tell his readers
We tell ourselves that skill is the precious resource and effort is the commodity. It’s the other way around. Effort can trump ability—legs, in Saxe’s formulation, can overpower arms—because relentless effort is in fact something rarer than the ability to engage in some finely tuned act of motor coördination.
Merely confining himself to strategies which minimize the differential between stronger and weaker teams--like the Four Corners, or zone defenses--wouldn't allow Gladwell to make this grand claim. So Gladwell needed the press, because the press lets him pretend that effort is what makes the difference.
Again, Gladwell's argument might be true at the level of pee-wee soccer, or middle-school girls basketball, but it strikes me as being self-evidently untrue when applied to more advanced arenas. America's playgrounds are teeming with kids throwing themselves into serious, rigorous practice for all kinds of sports. But if you can't throw a baseball 90 mph, you're never going to be a big-league pitcher, no matter how relentless your effort. Which is more rare, a kid who practices basketball relentlessly, like me, or someone who is 6'10", with soft hands who can hit from 15'?