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JM

I would just like to back up what BM said earlier: that '96 Kentucky team was stacked with NBA-level talent, which made them distinctly not an underdog at the college level. Also, I do know who Francisco Garcia is -- he's a very good pro right now and could be a star soon. Unfortunately he plays on a very bad team in Sacramento.

The press is an interesting underdog strategy. It seems like it can overcome a certain gap in talent between teams, especially if the team being pressed doesn't have a competent ball handler. Once they have a good point guard, though, the press can become as much a liability as it previously was a strength.

Another reason that it may not be used by underdogs as much is that it works against another common underdog tactic: stalling.

It's a statistical phenomenon that reducing the number of possessions in the game increases the variability of the expected difference in score, and this helps the underdog (you can read a description of this here: http://www.rawbw.com/~deano/articles/tempo.html)*. Pressing, however, increases the pace and thus the number of possessions in a game. This might be why underdogs in college avoid the press.

* The basic reasoning can be explained with an example: suppose you had a normal quarter and your friend had a quarter that came up heads 3/4 times. Now suppose you bet your friend you could flip your coin heads more times than him. Would you rather have you both flip one times or 1000 times? In this example, coin flips are like possessions, and clearly fewer possessions helps the underdog (the one with the normal quarter)

JC

Using Bill Simmons as a source to support Rick Pitino's effectiveness with the Celtics is laughable. Simmons is a comedian known for his extreme lack of objectivity regarding Boston sports teams.

Pitino's Boston legacy is one of failure, despite immense prior good will from New England upon his hiring. The full court press did not lead to a winning team, and completely obscured the talents of Chauncy Billups.

If you really want to talk about extreme strategies, why not talk about Paul Westhead, who coached the Nuggets in the early 90's? That team had the best conditioning in the league, a home-court altitude advantage that accentuated it, and an extreme strategy focused on fast-paced, high risk offense and defense (much like thre press). Their combined record under Westhead: 44-120.

Gladwell's simple principle that one should try new strategies is common sense. But arguing that the press is a good strategy for the NBA shows an incredible disregard for the evidence.

Pasha Bains

Hi Malcolm:

Fascinating article. I press with my Under 15 Boys team that has outstanding ability and effort. What is the case for strong teams doing this same strategy?

John

As a Sacramento Kings fan I can confirm that yes, there are at least a few people who have heard of Francisco Garcia..

Nick Francis

I'm surprised you never mentioned John Wooden's first two NCAA championship teams (64'-65') in your story. These two teams were small (the tallest guy was 6'5") but very quick, and Wooden ran a full-court press all game long. When I played High School ball in Southern Califormia in the late 60's, a lot of HS teams were using that strategy. Our coach even took it to another level by substituting entire units rather than individual players.

L2P

There's a couple problems with the press in college.

The most important is that you wn't win. You can be "competitive," if that means "occasionally upsetting better teams." But to win, you need to get the best players. Not even Pitino, your poster boy, was able to get the finals without solid, NBA-caliber players. But those players generally don't want to play for teams that press. They want to play for teams that let them showcase their talents for the pros.

That gives you an inherent contradiction in the press strategy. You can occasionally beat better teams, but you can't generally recruit the players you need to win consistently. So what happens to the coach that wants to press? Occasionally, like Pitino, he's able to recruit players good enough to win. Almost anybody else, though, will not win, and eventually get fired.

The second problem is skills. Every practice spent on the press is a practice not spent on fundamentals. Remember those 10,000 hours you were talking about? There's a reason Pitino's NBA players are journeyman, and it's not because of lack of talent.

The press is self-defeating. It does allow upsets, but it also guarantees you won't win.

Joe

I really enjoyed the Goliath essay. I will be looking forward to reading more from you.

While some people are arguing that you can beat the press that really wasn't the point. The press gave those girls an opportunity to win that they wouldn't have had otherwise. It was an unconventional approach - drastic times call for drastic measures.
I'm a Christian and increasingly, our church has been talking about how to be revolutionary. The points and examples you use in Goliath have many Christian parallels, especially to the way Jesus and Paul operated in the New Testament.

Jesus was as unconventional as they come and his rule-and-tradition-breaking got him into trouble with the authorities and ultimately lead to his death. As you pointed out, b/c Goliaths want to stay powerful, they will try to protect their rules, even if they are silly.

God took a seriously drastic approach to reconcile the relationship with his creation - he sent his son to die on the cross for our sins. Whoever recieves him has eternal life. So cool.

Dominic Roberts

The New Yorker article reminded me of kid's football (soccer) in the UK. Ruthless teams have been known to put a guy in front of the opposition goalkeeper when he kicks the dead ball from his own penalty area. The keeper is usually a weak kicker (at the age of 9) and the ball hardly ever reaches the opposing half. Oh joy. In this situation Lawrence of Arabia would have had to bribe the referee to get a win. My son gave up kids' football.

Warren Coolidge

I'm troubled the decision to include Rick Pitino in the "David" camp in your recent article on underdogs. You cite, in error, that Antoine Walker is the only NBA All Star that Pitino has coached at the collegiate level. In fact, Pitino has had three: Walker, Jamal Mashburn and Jamaal Magliore. Additionally, 9 NBA first round draft choices went through Pitino's University of Kentucky teams - an embarrassment of NCAA basketball talent if ever there was one. The team he piloted to the 1996 National Championship is widely considered to be one of the most talented teams in NCAA Men's Basketball history. There was a time when Pitino used to have to get more from less but he has certainly been among the Goliath's since taking the helm at the University of Kentucky in 1989.

Tim

Dean Oliver has written about this over the years. Here's something he wrote in 1995

http://www.rawbw.com/~deano/articles/BellCurve.html

I think his book Basketball on Paper also covers some of this. He provides the statistical foundation for these ideas as they relate to basketball, how 'high risk' strategies make sense for underdogs.

He also points out, though, that Pitino's strategy with the mid-90's Kentucky teams could possibly backfire, because his teams did have so much talent by that point. They were no longer underdogs, but were still employing risky, underdog strategies.

I wonder if there any historical parallel to this? Where a favored army used a risky, underdog strategy, and opened the door to defeat by a weaker opponent?

Is it possible this is what happened to Kentucky in the mid 90's? I remember how good their teams were, but still, they only won one championship. Maybe the underdog strategy COST them a championship, because they didn't recognize when they had become strong enough that those strategies were an unecessary risk.

jstreed1476

I'm not particularly interested in whether you're exactly right about how the press elevates certain teams' chance at winning.

The general lesson of the piece, though, has made a deep impression on me. If I'm up against better-equiped competitors, what can I do to change the contest so that I can thrive?

This is the sort of thing that Seth Godin turns into a book, isn't it?

mark

In your article, you write "David can beat Goliath by substituting effort for ability". But I don't think your examples support that. David is actually a low-effort success story. It doesn't take much effort to snap a slingshot. David is a story of finding a solution by thinking unconventionally. We don't know how much effort went into that thinking. The anecdotes about Lawrence of Arabia and basketball presses show both - effort and strategy. But seeing a strategic insight is as much an "ability" as any physical ability is. It's easy, conversely, to imagine huge efforts leading to failure due to poor strategy. There are probably plenty of such examples in the history of warfare or of business, for example.

Briks

I think pressing is actually the opposite strategy an underdog should use in college basketball. They should be trying to slow the game down as much as possible to reduce the total number of possessions for each team. The more possessions that take place, the better chance that the true talent will work itself over time. However, in a smaller number of possessions, there will be more variance and an underdog can pull the upset. This is why games like Princeton-UCLA are able to happen.

Think about it in poker terms. If you know that every hand you play against Phil Ivey gives you a 40% chance of winning, would you rather play one hand against him for one million dollars or 1 millions hands against him for $1 each?

The hands in this example are the same in the possessions in an example of a big favorite versus a big underdog in basketball.

Briks

I want to clarify my poker example above. I am describing a game where the winner at the end is whoever has more dollars. The amount of dollars you end up with is meaningless. The same way that losing 100-99 in basketball is the same as losing 100-0. Both are 1 Loss in the standings.

In the 1 hand/1 million dollar example, you have a 40% chance of having more chips at the end of the game. In the 1 million hand/1 dollar example, your chances of having more dollars at the end is amost 0%.

Briks

@ Tim:

I read Oliver's work and you are correct that high risk strategies do provide more variance and that helps the underdog. But I disagree with you that full court press is a high risk strategy for the better team. I think it is lower risk. If both teams get 1000 possessions a game, the better team will win almost every time. If both teams get 1 possession a game, the underdog will win much much more. Now these are extreme examples, but the relationship is linear. The more possessions favors the favorite, and a full court press leads to more possessions. So the full-court press is actually a lower-risk strategy for a favorite.

baker

Mr. Gladwell,

I enjoyed your article about unconventional strategies to overcome the odds, as well.

I think you may be interested in the case of the football team at Wofford College, in Spartanburg, South Carolina. The Wofford Terriers have become a power in the division that used to be I-AA (now it's called Football Championship Subdivision) by using a throwback running game similar to the old "Wishbone" attack.

While Wofford doesn't compete at the very highest level -- it's not the Pac-10 or SEC -- the competition is quite good. Teams like Appalachian State, Furman and Georgia Southern are in Wofford's division and conference, the Southern Conference.

When Wofford joined, it was the smallest school in the whole country playing Division I football. As a liberal arts college with high academic standards, Wofford's coach, Mike Ayers, simply couldn't recruit many of the players admitted to competing schools. Wofford also had a shortage of scholarships. All this equated to a serious talent gap.

But with an old-school "Triple-Option" offense, Ayers' teams quickly became competitive. The offense emphasized discipline, assignments, quick blocking at the point of attack (rather than holding blocks for a long time to protect a drop-back passer), and great decision-making on the part of the quarterback. And Wofford might run the ball, literally, 90 percent of the time -- entire games would take place in which the team only threw 2 or 3 passes. One principle of the offense was to run a lot of clock, to keep the other team off the field and allow the Wofford defense to rest. Also, it's an offense that defenses don't see very often, so that made it hard to prepare for.

Within a few years, Wofford was finishing in the top half of the league and has since won two Southern Conference championships. In 2007, Wofford upset the number-one-ranked University of Montana, becoming the first warm-climate team ever to win on Montana's home field.

Little by little, Wofford has brought in better and better athletes. Additionally, the team passes more now than Ayers' teams did 8 or 10 years ago. But the emphasis is still very much on the running game....and Ayers continues to recruit players who might not be as athletically gifted as the guys they oppose, but for whom determination and smarts are key factors.

Your article immediately the Wofford football program to mind.

jncc

You wrote: "The typical Bedouin soldier carried no more than a rifle, a hundred rounds of ammunition, forty-five pounds of flour, and a pint of drinking water, which meant that he could travel as much as a hundred and ten miles a day across the desert, even in summer."

The idea that some could travel 110 miles a day through the desert with only a pint of water seems a bit far fetched, don't your think.

Did you check this (and other factual assertions) in your article?

Ken Weinstein

One argument against the full-court press, and in favor of another untraditional "David" approach, is that over time, more teams will score upsets in the Princeton mold than the Pitino Providence mold, i.e., by intentionally shortening the game (decreasing possessions) rather than lengthening it (increasing possessions through a press, which inevitably leads to a more rapid pace). Why? Because in a game where margin of victory doesn't matter, the lesser team has a better chance of victory given fewer possessions for both teams. It's related to the law of large numbers in statistics -- the same reason why, if all I cared about was my probability of being up for the night at Foxwoods, I'd play one hand of blackjack for $500 instead of fifty for $10 each. Or, better yet, imagine you had an unfair coin -- 60% of the time it comes up heads, 40% it comes up tails. If you flip it three times, there's a 35.2% chance you have more total tails than heads. Flip it five times, there's only a 31.7% of having more tails. Twenty-five times, and you're down to a 15.4% chance. Now imagine your team scores 95 points per hundred possessions, and your opponent scores 105 per hundred possessions. All else equal, wouldn't you rather shorten the game, play fewer possessions, and flip the coin, so to speak, as few times as possible?
--Ken Weinstein (borrowed from a post I wrote a few years ago at YocoHoops)

Sean

A key point is implied in this analysis, which I think needs to be made explicit: such a strategy will only work if David changes the game to something that he is better at than Goliath is.

So if you're better at the pressing game because your team is better conditioned, or if the opponent isn't prepared, or lacks ballhandling skills, then a press will be effective. But it isn't a good underdog strategy in the NBA because the good teams are better at the uptempo game, too.

And I definitely agree with Pete's comments about the press being inappropriate in youth basketball. This is why many youth leagues ban the full court press except at the ends of games. Many teams still run a halfcourt trap, which obeys the letter of the law, if not the intent.

Tnic

Hi Malcolm

I enjoyed the article but it felt like the girls' basketball portion had been sculpted to fit your thesis. More to the point, why no exploration of the ethics of coaching 12-yr old girls that way? You allude to opposing coaches being upset but you give them no credence. In little league baseball baserunners can run on just about any pitcher, but thankfully even the most hardcore coaches resist the urge. There is so much more to kids' sports than winning by any means, even if within the rules. Your article seemed to deny such a viewpoint bc I suspect you already decided what you wanted to conclude.

I admire your thinking and writing tremendously but I've noticed a tendency to stretch various points of research to meet your desired ends in a way that ultimately makes me feel cheated. As a reader, I have a hard time seeing the world as cleanly as you seem to, compelling as it appears to be. What do you do with the research that doesnt support your initial hunches?

Paul Westhead

Why is it that in college football commentators always talk about SEC speed, yet in basketball, a sport that thrives on speed especially teams that press, the SEC is usually average to poor?

Are we supposed to believe that SEC speed is only applicable in football?

mike

There is one glaring part of the basketball game that you didn't mention; it's almost the 3rd rail of the game and yet is ignored by what seems to be a conspiracy even stronger than the one that keeps most teams from playing the press. It's free-throws. The masculine way to shoot them is overhand. The "girly" way is the underhand toss, the derided "granny" shot. I bet the average untrained person could quickly make 80%+ shooting underhand from the line. Yet games on the line are decided when the worst foul-shooting player misses a critical basket, often a player with a free-throw average in the 60's or 70's. So why don't coaches have players, especially their weaker ones at the line, shoot free throws underhanded?

To me the real story you're exposing isn't David vs Goliath. It's the incredible strength of social norms to shape behavior in the face of what should be compelling reasons to act otherwise. The goal of basketball is winning but coaches adopt a demonstrably poor strategy. Devout people abandon their ethical principles in business even when they clearly know what they are doing is unethical and/or illegal, because that's the way the game is played. As you showed in one of your books copilots refuse to speak up even when they know the pilot is making a grave error, even when not speaking up costs them their life.

Paul R

First off congrats on another great book! Quite possibly my favorite of the three.

As far as the David v Goliath article I found it very interesting and thought provoking. I think the Wildcat offense that was instituted by the Dolphins this past season is another great example that proves your point. In the initial game where the offense was unveiled, the Dolphins (1 -15 the previous season) snapped the 21 game regular season win streak of the Patriots when they had Ronnie Brown (running back) receive the snap directly from the center. On the six plays where this offense was used, they scored touchdowns four times. Bill Belichick who is one of the games most successful coaches, and a defensive minded coach at that, was completely unprepared and inept at stopping this unconventional offense.

Alexander Benaim

Dear Mr. Gladwell,
I very much enjoyed the article. But I think you omit one major issue: wear-and-tear. People have been talking about shortening the season on account of injuries. Full-court pressing for a full season is akin to adding games, and by extension, potentially shortening lucrative careers.
All the best,
Alexander Benaim

Ravi

Exactly the way Rafael Nadal has trumped Roger Federer in tennis.

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