Tom Ziller vs. Malcolm Gladwell: Risk and Reward in the NBA

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Tom Ziller vs. Malcolm Gladwell: Risk and Reward in the NBA
(Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

There’s been a recent spate of interest in basketball and risk that seems to be confusing a fair number of people. 

Malcolm Gladwell, noted author of  books like Blink and The Tipping Point, wrote an article in the New Yorker recently arguing that underdogs need to use unconventional strategies to have a chance to win. 

In his article, Gladwell talks about the way in which a full-court press might be one of those strategies. 

Gladwell also engaged in a lively back-and-forth with ESPN’s Bill Simmons, in which he mentions the way in which the current NBA draft setup creates a “moral hazard”—in other words, there’s an incentive for lottery teams to lose, since losing makes it more likely you’ll win the lottery.

There are a number of objections you can make to Gladwell’s theories.  For instance, longtime readers of this blog will remember that I debunked the “there’s value in tanking” myth, indicating a rational team would not try to lose. 

Some people, however, have chosen to make less reasonable criticisms.  This includes the usually-sensible Tom Ziller, who recently argued on FanHouse that these stances were contradictory.

Basically, Ziller says that the first theory says “teams should try to increase risk,” while the second theory says “we should penalize risky behavior from teams.”  To use his words:

“The draft structure rewards risk. This is bad, says Gladwell. A lack of innovative strategy—seen as risky—is a problem, says Gladwell. Do you want risk, or not?”

Those of you so interested can read my immediate reaction as the second comment on the FanHouse post cited.  I reproduce it here in somewhat lengthier format, so that the point is a little clearer.

There are two basic problems with Ziller’s argument.  First, he doesn’t understand what Gladwell means by risk.  Second, he mixes up a claim about how a team ought to work within the rules with one that’s about how the rules should look, creating a contradiction where none exists.

First, Gladwell isn’t talking about the same kind of risk in each situation.  When talking about pressing teams, Gladwell’s making a really simple argument—let’s say that if both teams play normally, we know that my team will lose. 

Why on earth would we play normally?  If the goal of the game is to win, and playing normally guarantees that you lose, playing normally is a really strange decision to make. 

Sure, pressing is risky in that it could take us from a close loss to a blowout—on the flip side, it could take us from a close loss to a win.  If you’ve got nothing to lose, give yourself a puncher’s chance!

I don’t think this claim is controversial at all—people who disagree with Gladwell are saying that the press is a bad tool for this objective, not that he’s wrong about the objective.  When Gladwell talks about risk in this context, therefore, he’s talking about a risk that is it’s own reward—a chance to win that you didn’t have before, that comes at the cost of possibly increasing your margin of defeat.

In the argument about the draft, Gladwell is talking about the way in which there’s an incentive to lose more games so that you get a higher draft pick.  Risk isn’t actually a part of his argument at all—it’s mentioned when he makes an analogy to banks, NOT as part of the conversation about teams. 

The argument Gladwell is actually making here, if Ziller had bothered to actually pay attention, is about the incentives that teams have.  Gladwell’s point is pretty simple here—we should want teams to try to win as many games as they can. 

Therefore, creating a system that makes teams want to lose games is bad.  The current system makes teams want to tank, so they can get a better draft pick, so the current system is bad. 

Again, I don’t think this point is very controversial.  I think the alternatives he suggests are ridiculous, but the idea that the lottery needs reform isn’t new, and the moral hazard idea is straight out of Economics 101.

Notice, therefore, that risk doesn’t mean the same thing in either example, so trying to strawman Gladwell’s arguments into “risk is good” and “risk is bad” is all kinds of silly. 

Even more interestingly, these arguments are operating at completely different levels—one is about a team’s decisions given a set of incentives, and the other is about the incentive structure that team works within.  The first one says that if teams are trying to win, they should take risks like pressing, while the second says that we should encourage teams to try to win.

Let’s use a different example to make this point clearer.  Suppose that Gladwell made the argument “teams that have a lot of money should use as much as they can to make themselves better,” and also the argument “the league should impose an overall cap on how much a team can spend to make itself better.” 

In Ziller’s eyes, these would be contradictory – after all, the first one says “teams should spend money,” and the second says “teams shouldn’t spend money,” right?  Any reasonable person can see, however, that this is not the case—the first is talking about what a team should do given the current rules, and the second is about what those rules should look like. 

To put it another way, the first argument is about strategy, and the second is about fairness.  Since they have completely different goals, any attempt to compare those two is inevitably doomed to fail.

Gladwell’s arguments have a bunch of problems with them, and other people have done a thorough job of exposing them.  Let’s not create some where none exist, yeah?

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