In my conversation on ESPN.com with Bill Simmons, the Sports Guy, I argued that many NBA General Managers—especially Isiah Thomas of the Knicks—could do a better job if they abandoned any pretense at all about exercising their own judgement. It would make more sense, I wrote, simply to draft or trade for players who attended either Duke or the University of Connecticut.
Here's part of the argument:
Let's say I'm so dumb about basketball that all I know is that the best college programs in the country are Duke and UConn, and so as a GM my rule is only draft and/or trade for the first and second best players, in any given year, from those two schools. So I fire all my scouts. I disband my front office, and basically say that I cede my basketball judgment to Jim Calhoun and Mike K. What's my team? It's some combination of Elton Brand, Emeka Okafor, Ben Gordon, Luol Deng, Shane Battier, Mike Dunleavy, Rip Hamilton, Corey Maggette, Jay Williams, Caron Butler, Donyell Marshall and Grant Hill—which is a really wonderful team. Now, of course, in the real world I couldn't get all those people, because lots of them were really high draft picks. But let's say I got Brand in a trade, after Chicago soured on him, and I was lucky enough to be in the lottery for Okafor. Maggette was a 13; Hamilton and Deng were 7s; and Butler was a 10—so at least some of them are doable, particularly since in off-years for Duke and UConn I can trade down and stockpile picks. Battier I wine and dine in the free agent market, because who wants to be stuck in Memphis? Ditto for Gordon, who, it seems, Chicago is thinking of moving anyway. Is that the best team in the league? No. It is better than the Knicks? Absolutely. The point is that clinging to a very simple rule of thumb here—that doesn't require knowing much about basketball—can leave you looking pretty smart.
A reader points out that I neglected to mention one of the very best UConn players—Ray Allen. And given that, I think I was mistaken to say that an all-Duke/UConn team wouldn't be the best in the league. Think of it (assuming you could put together all those players). Okafor at center. Brand, Maggette and Battier at forward. Some combination of Grant Hill and Rip Hamilton and Ben Gordon and Ray Allen in the backcourt. Is there a better team in the league than that?
In defending the knowing-less-is-more position, I cited research by the psychologist Dan Goldstein. The relevant paper is here. It's definitely worth a read.
Goldstein's blog is here.
If you're interested in this line of research, Goldstein is part of a really fascinating band of psychologists interested in heuristics—that is, mental shortcuts that have the effect of helping us better navigate the world. Take a look here, for more.