« Canadian Healthcare, redux | Main | Thoughts on Freakonomics »


Stephen Tilson

Terry: I know just enough about basketball to be dangerous, but I'd venture that if playing your stars with three early fouls were a winning strategy, coaches would probably do it.

One reason they sit is that star players are those that can make the late-game clutch plays -- Kobe's three-pointer in (I think) game two of the 2004 Finals, for example, when the Pistons were on their way to winning that game to go up 2-0 in the series. Kobe hadn't been benched but up until that shot he'd been 4 for 27 from the field. Everybody steps up in the fourth, and that's when a star player can make the most difference, so it makes sense to hold him in reserve if he's in foul trouble.

Games are lost or won in the fourth -- if you follow the Hawks at all, you know what I mean.

So that explains why starters sit. Others, sixth or seventh men... suppose your sixth man picks up his third: either you can sub your starter, or your starter's unavailable anyway, and you'd be forced to go even further down the bench in the critical fourth. So again, it makes sense to sit him down.

Charlie Evett

I made this point in the other thread, too. But one thing that Gladwell and Simmons left out in their discussions is that there is a potential reward in the NBA for high risk players who don't work out -- a lottery pick. And lottery picks have historically been the foundation for championship teams.
Micheal Jordan, Tim Duncan, Magic Johnson, etc.

The lottery makes it much easier to justify risky picks with big "upside" because if they're a bust, you get another shot at the top spot. Whereas if you go for safer choices you may never get over the hump.

Nicholas Taylor

Please find below an excerpt from my response to this post, the entirety of which can be found at http://thinkingaboutsports.blogspot.com:

There are certainly logistical holes in Gladwell's argument, but I don't think that's the point -- it's a thought experiment, so we're supposed to think about the deeper issues involved. Living in New York, reading the sports section brings these types of questions to mind every single day. Knicks GM Isiah Thomas makes move after move, all in the name of stockpiling talent and getting younger and stronger, but the team just gets worse and worse. It seems that Thomas tinkers with the team because he feels he has to do something -- if he doesn't, then he won't be working to earn his very lucrative contract. But I agree with Gladwell, especially when discussing the Knicks -- if Thomas came out and said, "Look, I don't know how to run a team, but Duke and UConn seem to know what they are doing, so I'm just going to trust their judgment and acquire only their players," I think the Knicks would definitely get better than they are now. In fact, the Chicago Bulls and the Charlotte Bobcats seem to have adopted a variation of this strategy -- in the last few drafts, these two teams have selected only players from championship or near-championship college or international teams (the Bulls with Argentinian Andres Nocioni, UConn's Ben Gordon, Kansas's Kirk Heinrich, and Duke's Luol Deng, and the Bobcats with UConn's Emeka Okafor and the University of North Carolina's Sean May and Raymond Felton).

What I really appreciated about Gladwell's piece was how he demystifies the task of the NBA GM. Here in NY, Isiah Thomas makes it sound like the most difficult, mysterious, and meticulous job in the universe -- it requires superhuman patience, tinkering, wheeling, dealing, and attention. But what if it isn't that difficult at all? If he'd just acquire only Dukies, for instance, the team would be better off, but he wouldn't seem so smart or clever, an image which, of course, he has a vested interest in protecting.

New York Knicks fans, of course, would like to go one step further with Thomas -- that he be barred from making any moves at all! No more trades, no more signings, no more draft picks, since with every piece he adds, the teams gets worse. Perhaps the franchise should just be left to devour itself, shedding its dead weight until they don't have enough players to suit up and take the court. At that point, at least, the physical reality would match the philosophical reality that all thinking fans already know to exist: that the Knicks have ceased to be anything resembling a functioning, viable, and vibrant basketball team.


interesting argument. big flaw: this assumes that you draft only the best players from duke and uconn; the strategy dictates you would take the 6th player on duke over the best player on, say, north carolina or michigan state.

if judgments on the part of general managers don't matter, according to the logic, all the players on uconn and duke are essentially the same, because if they can't properly pick players by their judgment, they can't distinguinsh players playing on the same team.

and enough with the memphis bashing, please? my hometown gets enough grief. bashing memphis is easy, like making fun of canada.

NC State Fan

I just want to point out that this article ignores the best basketball team in the world, but who can blame the guy... he's from NYC. His only exposure to basketball is Northern teams... Yes, I know Duke is in NC, but considering only 17 percent of Duke students are from NC and the rest are from New Jersey, I'm counting that as Northern. He also ignores probably two of the best players to come out of duke Christian Laettner and Cherokee Parks--oh wait those guys sucked in the pros.

I'm not doing any research to respond to this either--I'm just listing eligible players. But here's what I came up with off the top of my head. The all UNC basketball team that would run the league:

Possible Coaching Staff--all former players to choose from:
Michael Jordan, Larry Brown, George Karl, Phil Ford, Dave Hanners, Sem Perkins, James Worthy, Brad Daughtery, Kenny Smith


Jerry Stackhouse
Rasheed Wallace
Vince Carter
Antwan Jamieson
Ed Cota
Marvin Williams
Sean May
Rashaad McCants
George Lynch
Raymond Felton
Jeff McInnis
Rick Fox

Small Paul

I don't know anything about basketball, but "here" = worst link text ever.




Billy Packer

Interesting strategy...I think you maybe overlooking one of the most underrated college programs in the country (Wake Forest)!!



He specifically said the top 2 players on Duke and UConn, so your 6th best guy doesn't come into play.

Havign said that, I think nit-pickign this specific idea isn't so much the point. Rather it is the general concept that a GM probably over thinks things and "outsmarts himself" quite a bit. Simmons does a great draft diary every year where he ridicules GMs who take unproven highschoolers and foreigners instead of guys who have proven themselves at big time colleges (think Darko over Anthony and Wade) Or last year about anybody over Paul. What is great is it isn't hindsight, he is saying this stuff real time and is pretty much always proven right.

My own take on the NBA is that realistically there are only 4 or 5 teams (if that) at any given time who have a chance to win it all. You gotta have one of the best 4 or 5 players in the game plus the right role players and a good coach (in baseball a team like the D'Backs can win inspite of every stupid move their manager makes, I think in the NBA a coach is critical). Detroit arguably being the exception to the having a top 5 player rule, they are really a perfect case of the whole being better than the sum of the parts and probably not a model that can be reapeated. The rest of the teams are just rearranging deck chairs. But since GMs and owners can't admit that they have to keep doing things that make it look like they will contend.

Pablo Garcia

Yo, i agree with what you just said, and i think Isaih has a bad case of fantasy basketball. He is probably playing in a leauge where points matter the most, and not, say, a rotisserie leauge, in which many stats count over the entire season. So he picks the wrong guys for his team, and he doesn't realize it, which means he might need to be alittle bit more informed, or maybe he isnt informed enough. He would either get lucky and win a ncaa mens bracket, by picking the teams like how someone had said earlier, and go by their record. Or out think himself and pick all the wrong teams. Hes one of those two people. Hey just like Mavens Connectors and Salesmen. By the way, getting hit in the face with a 85 mph fastball hurts.

Pablo Garcia

and like someone said, that a team has to be at the top and at the bottom. But when you think in terms of a tournament, it is weird, when you see a team wins. But if you go back and look at their road, it is incredible how, they win all their games. I guess its not thought of enough, that a team wins 7 straight. Its such an astonishing defeat, especially since, as you go along the competition gets alot tougher, i find it incredible, i dunno if any of you have ever competed in tourneys, like double eliminattion baseball tourneys, but its just... i dunno i think its nuts.


Maybe Mark Jackson reads this blog.

Watching the Nets/Bulls game and he's calling it with Marv Albert. And I (paraphrasingly) quote Mark Jackson:

"I really like what the Bulls are doing. They get guys that know how to win. Look on the court right now. They got two Dukies on the floor, a guy from Kansas, a guy from UCONN. They come from programs that know how to win and get the job done."

Oh, and they beat the Nets.

And the Knicks won back to back games.

So it's all moot.


can i send you my books for you to autograph? or when and where is your next book signing?


The Knicks currently have people with the title Scout, one with the title International Scout and a director of scouting. If those eight positions were consoludated into one (Note: they also have an advance scout, I don't want to eliminate that position), the team would save a conservative estimate of $525,000 per year(50k per employee and 50% of salary in other expenses and taxes). The one Scout could watch every Duke and Uconn game and follow international games to find players for second round picks. That $525k could be used to purchase Isiah a clue as to how to be GM (or it could actually do some good and be used to get Americans to actually look at what's going on in Darfur.)

Paul Lewis

Malcolm, you must have been running the U.S. men's Olympic team.


I think the clippers have adopted this principle...you have brand, maggette, ewing and livingston(who signed with duke before he made the jump). I would much rather prefer the draft the uconn/duke players before putting francis and marburry in the same backcourt.


Usemybank Casinos

UseMyBank casinos offer UseMyBank, a Canadian online payment service. This convenient and easy- to- use service allows people who purchase goods and services online to use their banks to pay.



Interesting short cut theory.
I find a couple flaws, albeit minor. I believe the best individual players don't always make the best team. It's in part why Olympic dream teams or all-star teams don't always work. And why the 1980 USA Hockey, old Boston Celtic and old Pittsburg Steelers teams did find success.

And I think your choice of Duke is flawed for the simple reason that Duke players comparatively have more successful careers in college than in the NBA.

Brian McCormick

On my blog, I have suggested that computer PER rankings could pick a better Olympic team than Jerry Colangelo: http://highfivehoopschool.blogspot.com

So, these ideas are not a stretch. Furtermore, one poster quipped about picking takent based on commentators; I can assure you college coaches do this. College coaches are so insecure, they will not offer a scholarship to a player unless they know similarly statured universities are recruiting the same player. It's why once Lute Olson jumped on Gilbert Arenas, other schools like UCLA tried to swoop in at the last minute; until Lute was interested, nobody but Cal State Northridge though Arenas was a DI player.

And, as for those who criticize the premise, Billy Beane has built a successful baseball rganization through similar methods, choosing experienced college players with little risk but less upside over hs kids.

In the salary cap era, the way to build a team is to have a star, some good players on rookie contracts and some veterans to fill the holes. LeBron James is the most valuable player in the league because he makes $3 million a year; even Tim Duncan is a bargain at $13 million because without a cap, some team would offer him $20 million or more, like Arod.

Gotham Image

Malcom, very interesting argument -similar to efficient market theory with stocks. You rely on many variables to be factored in, thus reducing chance for error. No? While your theory may work out over time, there would be surprises along the way. Also, the model on which it is based, the way the NBA is structured will change in subtle ways.

Ryan Bell

Not sure why Carlos Boozer wasn't mentioned, but that's another very good player to bolster the very good front line.




I think people are missing the point here. Its not only about uconn and duke. What I think Mr. gladwell is saying, is that instead of wasting high draft picks on players who could be great, but are unproven it would be a good strategy to take proven players from solid programs. This is exactly the strategy that John Paxson has taken in Chicago with Hinrich, Gordon, Deng, Duhon etc.., and the results are there. (Don't let a slight dip fool you this year, no post presence + young team has accounted for some of their losses) Instead of taking the ndubi ebi's why not take the tayshawn prince'S. NBA GM's have a lot of pressure, and like to swing for the fences because superstars are hard to come by, but, if they pan out can completly change the fortunes of your team. Don't forget the marketing aspect which is almost just as important. Its a lot easier to market Sebastian Telfair than jarret jack.


I live in Portland, trust me Telfair's "marketability" ain't doing squat for the Blazers:-)


I think this has probably been well covered in the many posts I don't have the energy to read, but...
As a Duke fan, I can tell you just drafting Duke players is no guarantee. Even assuming you have enough basketball knowledge to know the difference between walk-ons and starters, and further between hacks and stars, it would still be easy to end up with a Duke contingent from your time frame (since Grant Hill) consisting of William Avery, Trajan Langdon, Eric Meek, Jeff Capel, Chris Carrawell, Chris Collins, Antonio Lang, and Roshown McCleod. All of whom were stars to some extent at Duke and all but Collins and Capel, were in fact drafted. Nothing against these players, but they wouldn't beat even the Knicks. Point being, there is still some degree of basketball knowledge required.

the guinz

Big deal. YOu could take all the players' names in the NBA, put 'em in a hat and select them at random and STILL get a better team than the Knicks.

Or how about this? Just pick the entire Argentine national team.

Sloppy, sloppy thinkings. Hip, cool, but sloppy. People 20 years from now will chuckle that anyone took this stuff seriously.

The comments to this entry are closed.

My Photo


  • I'm a writer for the New Yorker magazine, and the author of four books, "The Tipping Point: How Little Things Make a Big Difference", "Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking" and "Outliers: The Story of Success." My latest book, "What the Dog Saw" is a compilation of stories published in The New Yorker. I was born in England, and raised in southwestern Ontario in Canada. Now I live in New York City.

    My great claim to fame is that I'm from the town where they invented the BlackBerry. My family also believes (with some justification) that we are distantly related to Colin Powell. I invite you to look closely at the photograph above and draw your own conclusions.

My Website


  • What the Dog Saw

    buy from amazon


    buy from amazon

    buy from amazon UK


    buy from amazon

    buy from amazon UK

    Tipping Point

    buy from amazon

Recent Articles

Blog powered by Typepad