April 22, 2012


The elephant on the court: Predicting performance in basketball (DARYL MOREY, 4/20/12, The Economist)

Take, say, Josh Slater, a guard from Lipscomb University who is the same height (six feet, three inches or 1.91 metres) as Mr Lin. Mr Slater averaged 17 points, five rebounds, five assists, and two steals per game--a dead ringer for Mr Lin's 16 points, four rebounds, five assists, and two steals per game. Just as Mr Lin put up 30 points, nine rebounds and three assists against Connecticut, a powerhouse team, Mr Slater posted 21 points, nine rebounds and four assists versus North Carolina, another elite basketball school. Was Mr Slater, and all the other college players like him, unjustly passed over as well? Could your favourite NBA team go on a magical playoff run by inserting him in their starting lineup?

Of course not, counter advocates of the traditionalist camp. Mr Lin and Mr Slater might look the same in a spreadsheet, but they couldn't look more different on the court. All one had to do, they claim, was watch Mr Lin play--and shame on those teams like the Golden State Warriors, Dallas Mavericks and my own Houston Rockets, who had him in their organisation and failed to recognise his brilliance.

Neither argument is completely wrong. Maybe Mr Slater could succeed in the NBA, and maybe Mr Lin should have been given playing time sooner. But the structure of professional basketball makes it impossible for teams to give a chance to every prospect who shows some potential.

For example, Major League Baseball (MLB) drafts some 1,500 players a year. Once selected, they must work their way up four levels of minor-league teams before joining the parent club. This gives MLB organisations the incentives of salmon, which spawn scores of young far upriver in hopes that a handful make the treacherous journey all the way back to sea. Each team can invest in hundreds of prospects and see which pan out, needing only a few winners that "hit it big" to make up for all the failures.

In contrast, NBA teams cannot hold the rights to anyone beyond the 15 players on their active roster. That makes them more like elephant mothers, who give birth to very few babies and have to gestate them for almost two years. With limited investment opportunities, teams are forced to choose only the players with the greatest likelihood of success, and then give them a long-term contract and a potential path to significant playing time. And no one could have called Mr Lin a high-probability prospect. In the end, he only got his break after he had polished his game for a year in the NBA Development League ("D-League"), basketball's minor league, and when a series of injuries on the Knicks created an opening at his position.

But they don't choose players likely to succeed, as a Josh Slater was.  They consistently choose physically talented players over skilled players.  Then they have to keep them on the team and they pay them so much money that you can't convince them they have anything to learn.  The result is the wretched iteration of the game we're subjected to these days.
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Posted by at April 22, 2012 8:20 AM

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