Thursday, June 01, 2006

The Dismal Science Fouls Out

Malcolm Gladwell, the journalist/sociologist, author of "The Tipping Point" and other works most of us wouldn't read on a bet, tackled the subject of sports in general and pro basketball in particular in this week's New Yorker. As often happens when bigdomes lower themselves to enter the playground, the result created severe misgivings about Gladwell's thoughts on any topic.

The working premise of Gladwell's piece: Allen Iverson is an overrated stiff. The 76ers would be better off without him. The proof: Some trio of tenured economists have developed a mathematical formula to rate NBA players, and Iverson comes in at 37th place.

Well, that's good enough for me. Why doesn't Mo Cheeks see it?

Once I saw where the formula placed Iverson, there was no need to see what was in it before safely dismissing the piece as hooey. Gladwell and his profs have fallen into one of sports' oldest and most lethal traps-blaming the best individual on a team for that team's problems. This is known as failing to see the forest for the tree. In my experience and that of every other sports fan, teams don't lose because their best player isn't good enough, but because of his/her teammates who aren't much good at all.

The Celtics proved this beyond doubt this year. They, like the Sixers, missed the playoffs. Indeed, they went 34-48. Yet by common consent, their star, Paul Pierce, had his finest all-around season by a wide margin. No one has maintained it was his fault Boston stunk, nor should they.

Iverson is a fascinating case study of this trap because he IS such an imperfect star. I'm not discussing his problems with authority, disdain for practice, and all-around weirdness, just AI the player, the man on the court. Iverson is a mediocre outside shooter who shoots a lot, a playmaker who creates an inordinate amount of poor ones, and (no fault of his) so small he's at a defensive disadvantage against many other guards in the league.

And so what? Iverson's also a gifted scorer, creates more good than bad plays, and is annually among the NBA leaders in steals. Oh, and one more thing I'm sure the professors' formula left out. AI has the heart 0f a lion. His fearlessness, ability to play through pain and desire to contribute in the clutch are as great as any player's in league history. There's no MATHEMATICAL way to show those qualities more than compensate for Iverson's weekly 4 for 17 shooting night, but fans know it's true. Iverson is one of the most admired players in the game.

What tickled me most about the economists' dis of AI was their flamboyant disregard of their own discipline. I'm going to assume they weren't Marxists. Didn't these guys notice the free market rates Iverson a lot higher than 37th? There are cold cash on the barrelhead means of measuring an NBA star's appeal to the public. In terms of tickets and replica jerseys sold, AI is always in the top 10 (there's no other reason to watch the Sixers). Do these economists think customers of other businesses are stupid, too?

Philadelphia sportswriters and fans without advanced degrees have suggested the 76ers should trade Iverson. But they acknowledge what Gladwell didn't-that Iverson would be hard to replace, let alone replace with someone better. AI is no Larry Bird or Magic Johnson. But as a coach I know once said, those two aren't walking through the Wachovia Center door any time soon.

Teams dump superstars on a regular basis. As a columnist, I have occasionally advocated that a team do so. But the profs should have the intellectual honesty to confront the flip side of their policy prescription.

Removing one's best player is an admission of failure. It's time to throw out this idea and start from scratch. Everyone involved knows this means years of losing before Plan B bears fruit-even sportswriters. But if there's one thing economists are good at, it's foisting austerity programs off on other people. They don't miss meals in Third World countries, and they won't have to try and sell 76er season tickets minus Iverson, either.

The mega-thesis of Gladwell's essay, as if you can't tell by now, is the same old "Revenge of the Nerds" bull that goes "new numbers-Bill James-Moneyball-you don't need to watch games to understand them." This is a dated and tiresome fallacy that James and Moneyball hero Billy Beane have both disavowed. Both men, by the way, watch plenty of baseball games.

This just in Malcolm. Baseball and basketball are different sports. In basketball, every good player, let alone the stars, makes his team more than the sum of its parts as an inherent part of his game. That capability is both innate and can be learned and improved upon. It's not necessarily the best part of AI's game, except in one vital component. Were I a 76er, I'd be pretty ashamed to lay down on the job seeing the way Iverson gives of himself on the floor. If that's not a value in any game, then said game is much less interesting to watch.

Here's a challenge to New Yorker editor David Remnick, who once covered the NBA for God's sake. Take Gladwell and his three profs and make them apply their formula to the 1986 NBA season. Back then there was a talented guard who shot too much, didn't get along with his coaches or teammates, who couldn't lead the club to a winning record, and couldn't stop it from getting swept in the first round of the playoffs.

Tell me, Mr. Gladwell. How valuable was Michael Jordan that season? Who should the Bulls have traded him for?


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