Three Upcoming Tests for the Gladwell Theory

Nathan MattiseContributor IMay 17, 2009

The editors at The New Yorker must give Malcolm Gladwell a gigantic hug every time he comes into the office. At the very least they have to buy him lunch once a week. 

Gladwell is known primarily for his three best-selling books. However his recent piece for the magazine entitled "How David Beats Goliath" is what's generating buzz everywhere. It's become must-read to the point where a discussion he had via e-mail with's Bill Simmons was linked on the front page of for a week.

Gladwell's article tells the tale of a seventh and eighth grade girls AAU Basketball team from Redwood City, Ca. Their coach was a man who came to the U.S. from Mumbai named Vivek Ranadivé. He simply wanted to coach his daughter's basketball team but didn't understand a common basketball strategy he viewed as a mistake:

Ranadivé was puzzled by the way Americans played basketball. He is from Mumbai. He grew up with cricket and soccer. He would never forget the first time he saw a basketball game. He thought it was mindless. Team A would score and then immediately retreat to its own end of the court.

Team B would inbound the ball and dribble it into Team A’s end, where Team A was patiently waiting. Then the process would reverse itself. A basketball court was ninety-four feet long. But most of the time a team defended only about twenty-four feet of that, conceding the other seventy feet.

Occasionally, teams would play a full-court press—that is, they would contest their opponent’s attempt to advance the ball up the court. But they would do it for only a few minutes at a time. It was as if there were a kind of conspiracy in the basketball world about the way the game ought to be played, and Ranadivé thought that that conspiracy had the effect of widening the gap between good teams and weak teams.

Good teams, after all, had players who were tall and could dribble and shoot well; they could crisply execute their carefully prepared plays in their opponent’s end. Why, then, did weak teams play in a way that made it easy for good teams to do the very things that made them so good?

Ranadivé's idea became the focal point of Gladwell's Theory. In basketball, if you are clearly the inferior team and your best effort may not be enough to win...why not press? Taking a risk doesn't guarantee victory but Gladwell believes it increases the chances of it by forcing a superior team to move away from what they do best.

We see plenty of examples of this in sports and life. College football teams run spreads, trick plays or unconventional pass-oriented offenses to try and defeat stronger schools. Rick Pitino took a 1987 Providence team (that Gladwell considers one of the weakest Final Four teams ever) to the national semifinals largely on the merits of pressing.

Heck, even Mickey Rourke's recent movie comeback fits the mold. He was a washed up actor with nothing to lose and had to take a chance (an independent film about a washed up wrestler?) in order to become relevant again. I mean, he went from no work to the villain for Iron Man 2.

Now that everyone is paying attention, the true test(s) of what I'll call the Gladwell Theory ("if you're an inferior entity, risk taking increases your chances but does not guarantee success over superior entities") are to come. Check out these upcoming three trials:


1. Game Seven: Houston Rockets at L.A. Lakers

Houston is a team that has already taken an unconventional approach to reach this point. They hired a non-traditional GM (Daryl Morey, dubbed "Dork Elvis" for his meticulous stats approach) who built a team on energy and specialization guys.

They took a flier on Ron Artest, lost the two players who would represent them if a 2009 NBA Jam was released and have still forced the top-seeded Lakers to the brink in this series. If you're on the road and lost your last game in the Staples Center by 40, wouldn't it be worth playing Brooks-Lowry-Battier-Hayes-Artest and making the Lakers work 90 feet for it?


2. Syracuse University Football signing Greg Paulus

Take it from a Syracuse University graduate, football here has been irrelevant since Calvin Johnson's coming out party in 2004 (and you could argue it wasn't very relevant then either). New head coach Doug Marrone seems like a good direction for the program and he wasted no time by making a splash with the Paulus signing.

It makes a lot of sense for both parties.

Paulus wasn't going to play professional sports from just his Duke career and SU's football team was just another "W" coaches penciled in on their schedules.

There is no guarantee either entity will succeed in those endeavours, but certainly each has increased their chances by taking the unconventional approach.


3. The Minnesota Timberwolves searching for a new GM

Take it from example one—a non-traditional GM can bring a fresh perspective to basketball that is invaluable to a front office. I'm not saying he's the right answer, but doesn't Bill Simmons have a point? He's been using his space on as a platform for the position and Minnesota won't even acknowledge it.

Simmons argues that a largely irrelevant franchise (last playoff run - 2004) with plummeting finances should think outside the box. A Simmons-hire would not only bring lots of media coverage ("the only way they'd lead PTI" as he put it) but also fresh ideas because he hasn't been in basketball operations his entire life.

Hiring someone internal or hiring a recycled GM from another franchise isn't the answer for this team with a promising young nucleus. Simmons might not be it either, but he has a valid argument. Now is the time to try something different up in Minnesota.