Now He's Gone Too Far

Ever since the immaculate reception given to Blink, his second consecutive #1 bestseller, the sharp reporter's mind and powerful analytical skills of the New Yorker's resident genius, Malcolm Gladwell, have been given free reign to roam the socio-cultural landscape, alighting wherever their master sees fit to make the broad and dazzling intellectual linkages that have become his trademark. This year alone he has detailed how our fear of pit bulls is a form of prejudicial stereotype and that homelessness, like the long-troubled LAPD, is really about a few chronically bad apples. Then earlier this month came an account of dog whisperer Cesar Millan, which limply informed readers that sincere, fully lived-in physical gestures and phrasings of movement made people seem more authentic. (Ever hear of Bill Clinton, or Bill O'Reilly, or his faux-doppleganger, Stephen Colbert?) I like Gladwell, but with his most recent piece ("Game Theory," May 29 issue), a quasi-review of a book about a new algorithm for dissecting victory value in the National Basketball Association, he has gone too far.

The trouble begins with the opening tip, a subtitle that advises us not to believe our eyes in assessing athletic prowess. Unfortunately neither the book nor the article is about judging athletic prowess -- which is defined by strength, speed, size, quickness, and jumping ability -- but measuring a player's relative worth in terms of contribution to his team's wins. The authors of "The Wages of Wins" are Berri, Schmidt, and Brook, three Stanford economists, which Gladwell apparently views as a selling point, accepting at face value both the efficacy of their algorithm, and, more importantly, their results. After the authors weigh the relative value of rebounds, shot attempts, fouls, turnovers, etc., and plug the data into their secret tell-all algorithm, we are informed that in 2004-05, his best season, Allen Iverson was the league's 36th best player, one season after coming in a slightly less impressive 227th. We are also treated to the revelation that "journeyman forward Jerome Williams was actually among the strongest players of his generation." Iverson may be a first-class ballhog but he is undeniably one of the league's top twenty players, and while Williams might well have gone underappreciated for his tireless work ethic, defensive hustle, and hardhat, lunchpail effort on the boards, he is merely a role player.

These two assessments are thus what NBA experts would call hooey, and if they do not move the reader to put the book down and burn all extant copies they should at least force one to look more closely at the authors and their methods. Mysteriously, Gladwell does not dissect the algorithm or even explicitly describe its makeup. Nor does he apply their mysterious formula to actual league success -- do those players that advance deep into the playoffs or regularly win or have won championships come out on top in the survey, for instance? How do the star players currently tussling in an incredibly tense and exciting NBA playoffs perform in the book? More pointedly, does the algorithm measure strength of will, leadership ability, and desire for the ball with the game on the line? He instead goes in the opposite direction, as is his wont, suggesting that the difficulty of considering all of basketball's inconsistent variables when assessing talent is not dissimilar to gauging heart attack risk or buying a house. Really? And here I've been using the real estate section.

[Bona fides disclosure: I am no expert, but at 32, having watched literally thousands of NCAA and NBA games and grown up as a rabid Bulls fan in Chicago during the Jordan era, I believe I have a special understanding for what makes a player great. I also played basketball competitively in grade school and high school, all while regularly banging bodies and butting heads with four brothers on a blacktop court in the backyard, rain, shine, or snow. ]

The following example better illustrates my beef. Because he was named the league's top sixth-man yet rebounded poorly, turned the ball over frequently and shot a low percentage, Gladwell calls the story of the Chicago Bulls' Ben Gordon "most egregious." Yet what Gladwell could not know, being unfamiliar with Gordon's game and NBA play in general (writing that Iverson "writhes" through bigger defenders is a dead giveaway -- Tim Duncan or Dirk Nowitzki might writhe through a thicket of defenders, while Iverson would glide, slash, or knife), most likely, is that 1. Gordon was a rookie that year, and thus is more than likely to decrease his turnovers as he matures as a player; 2. He is almost never near the basket and therefore not expected to get rebounds; and 3. Gordon is a streak shooter, one of the league's streakiest, and even though that does make him inconsistent, he led all of the NBA in double-digit scoring in 4th quarters in 2004-2005 and was widely regarded as one of the game's most clutch players. Finally, Gladwell's last point that Gordon's poor play led to a Win Score of dead last out of the league's top 33 scorers is not surprising considering that his 15.1 points made him the league's 32nd best scorer. Also, referring again to the case of Allen Iverson, how are we to assess a veteran player that is able to increase his relative worth six-fold over the course of one year? Should this not lead us to question the means of assessment?

Gladwell is not entirely to blame. In a rare misstep, the New Yorker editorial staff wandered out of its jurisdiction with this one. This article could have been a straight book review, with the author addressing the book's material and execution critically. Instead it was Gladwell, perhaps because of some special dispensation, taking and running with deeply suspect information about basketball ability and popular opinion, illuminating few and leaving many in the dark. When it comes to sports, stick with what got you here, Mr. Remnick. Let Roger Angell drop the 411 on baseball, all day, everday. Give us occasional slices of football and other various sports through character studies and smalltown profiles. But until you hire someone who's watched the thousands of basketball games the knowledgable fan or so-called expert requires -- someone who knows what she's talking about -- please refrain from dissecting play in the NBA. To paraphrase the quote Gladwell employs to end his piece: You can systematically track what the players do and then uncover the statistical relationship between these actions and wins, but you will never know why teams win and why they lose until you watch an NBA game.

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