Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Fun read

Gladwell teams up with Bill Simmons for the second time (here's the first) to talk about "Outliers" and other sports related topics.

A few excerpts:
I wonder if there isn't something particularly American in the preference for "best" over "better" strategies. I might be pushing things here. But both the U.S. health-care system and the U.S. educational system are exclusively "best" strategies: They excel at furthering the opportunities of those at the very top end. But they aren't nearly as interested in moving people from the middle of the pack to somewhere nearer the front.

The consistent failure of underdogs in professional sports to even try something new suggests, to me, that there is something fundamentally wrong with the incentive structure of the leagues. I think, for example, that the idea of ranking draft picks in reverse order of finish -- as much as it sounds "fair" -- does untold damage to the game. You simply cannot have a system that rewards anyone, ever, for losing. Economists worry about this all the time, when they talk about "moral hazard." Moral hazard is the idea that if you insure someone against risk, you will make risky behavior more likely. So if you always bail out the banks when they take absurd risks and do stupid things, they are going to keep on taking absurd risks and doing stupid things. Bailouts create moral hazard. Moral hazard is also why your health insurance has a co-pay. If your insurer paid for everything, the theory goes, it would encourage you to go to the doctor when you really don't need to. No economist in his right mind would ever endorse the football and basketball drafts the way they are structured now. They are a moral hazard in spades. If you give me a lottery pick for being an atrocious GM, where's my incentive not to be an atrocious GM?

I think the only way around the problem is to put every team in the lottery. Every team's name gets put in a hat, and you get assigned your draft position by chance. Does that, theoretically, make it harder for weaker teams to improve their chances against stronger teams? I don't think so. First of all, the principal engine of parity in the modern era is the salary cap, not the draft. And in any case, if the reverse-order draft is such a great leveler, then why are the same teams at the bottom of both the NFL and NBA year after year? The current system perpetuates the myth that access to top picks is the primary determinant of competitiveness in pro sports, and that's simply not true. Success is a function of the quality of the organization.

Another more radical idea is that you do a full lottery only every second year, or three out of four years, and in the off year make draft position in order of finish. Best teams pick first. How fun would that be? Every meaningless end-of-season game now becomes instantly meaningful. If you were the Minnesota Timberwolves, you would realize that unless you did something really drastic -- like hire some random sports writer as your GM, or bring in Pitino to design a special-press squad -- you would never climb out of the cellar again. And in a year with a can't-miss No. 1 pick, having the best record in the regular season becomes hugely important.


Or how about eliminating the draft altogether? I'm at least half-serious here. Think about it. Suppose we let every college player apply for and receive job offers in the same way that, oh, every other human being on the planet does. That doesn't mean that everyone goes to L.A. and New York, because you still have the constraints of the cap. It does mean, though, that both players and teams would have to make an affirmative case for each other's services. So you trade for Steve Nash or Jason Kidd, because they make you instantly attractive to every mobile big man coming out of college. Instead of asking the boring question -- which team is going to be lucky enough to draft Derrick Rose? -- we ask the far more interesting question: Which team, out of every team in the league, should Derrick Rose play for? Or suppose you're the T-Wolves, and you've been a doormat for years. You could say, "From now on we're a clean-living, Christian organization. We have prayer meetings before every game. We are home by 11. We never do drugs." Then you'd have the inside track on every clean-living college basketball player in the country. Are there enough quality religious players out there to win a championship? There must be! (By the way, why has no one ever put together the all-time clean-living starting five? And how great a name for a franchise is the "Minnesota Christians?")

The bigger point here is that what consistently drives me crazy about big-time sports is the assumption that sports occupy their own special universe, in which the normal rules of the marketplace and human psychology don't apply. That's how you get the idea of a reverse-order draft, which violates every known rule of human behavior.

Here's another example: We now have pretty good epidemiological evidence that the long-term health consequences of playing in the National Football League are considerable. The life expectancy for former NFL players is 20 years lower than it is for the general public. Part of that is due to the type of person that plays football. But a big part of that is also due to the consequences of playing football: concussions, and the raft of health issues that come with being obese, which -- let's face it -- the NFL basically requires most players to be. This is the kind of issue that, say, the companies who ran coal mines dealt with 50 years ago. And yet somehow the NFL -- which has a thousand times more resources than coal companies ever did -- gets to pretend this problem doesn't exist. Huh?

The last example in this post makes me think of university athletic departments(I dont know why). Why do they play such an important role in determining a university's actions and why do their staff get paid such an outrageous salary, with compensation sometimes in the millions. Sure they do recruiting for teams and fundraising but does that really warrant a salary that is so much larger than that of the average university professor who has a PhD and has "signaled" his/her worth to their employer only to be paid $75k? It seems like universities are looking the other way, to me, in regards to this wage differential just like officials at the NFL are looking the other way in regards to the health of their athletes...
I understand why people have been discussing the frequency of medical problems for former NFL players, but I'm not sure what the NFL is supposed to do about this. Should the league be forced to pay the medical bills of any former player that has health issues from their days in the NFL? I don't think so. I tend to agree with the idea that maybe they need to develop a better pension plan. In my opinion, the real issue here is the issue of compensating wage differentials. NFL players are paid a significantly larger salary than most people living in the United States. Even a player with zero experience, a rookie, must make a minimum of $310,000 a year, while more experience and skilled players can make tens of millions of dollars a year. Isn't this a result of comepnsating wage differentials? The risk of concussions, torn ligaments, broken bones and injuries that tend to last a lifetime must be part of the reason these players are paid such a high salary. I think the bigger issue is how players tend to do a poor job of handling their finances
I really like the idea Gladwell mentioned that you could eliminate the draft and make it like entering any other job market. I know that Simmons mentioned he thinks it would eliminate the excitement and all the coverage of the draft, but I disagree, I think it would do the exact opposite. Think about all of the coverage that could be placed on Oden a few years ago if he has his pick of playing for any NBA team that is willing to pay him. This allows GM's to be much more creative in building their teams. I think the other counter argument - that this would lead to certain teams in big markets gaining advantages - could be minimized by the salary cap. (Also, this is something that happens as it is anyway. Good management leads to good teams and vice-versa, even with the draft in place.) I also really like the idea Gladwell mentioned, that you have a better chance to build your team around a theme or trait that allows you to bring in talent (he gave the example of a clean religious team that could use that as their pitch). I love this idea. I think it would provide a better sense of pride in your team. (College teams seem to be more cohesive, and take pride in their team in a way that you don't see in professional sports. And part of this is due to the fact that all of the players on a team went their by choice, theoretically because they share traits, backgrounds etc..)I am sure this will never happen but I think in the long-run it would be good for the league.
I personally think the draft is good the way it is now, if you change it and put all the teams in the lottery then you could have a case where the team that just one a championship could wind up getting another franchise player, which would lead to a situation where the league would be much less competitive and no one would tune in to watch the 30 point blow outs every night. The idea about about eliminating the draft all together and letting the players choose the franchise would do the same thing. No big time player would chose to go to the small market teams regardless of how they marketed them. The way the draft is set up now defiantly works the best because there are 14 teams in the lottery of which some were competitive and since the lottery has started it has done exactly what it set out to do which is to eliminate the incentive to lose the most games, in most years the team with the worst record hardly ever gets the first pick.
It's weird I like agree with almost everything this guy Bill Simmons writes about. Mabye that's why he's so popular on ESPN and has his own podcast. Like I totally agree that we should change the NBA draft so that every team has equal chances of getting the top pick. It's always fun to see really good teams do really well. Take the 80's Lakers, Celts, and the 90's Bulls. Instead, I have to watch really good players waste away on terrible teams. Imagine watching Kevin Durant on the Spurs facing off against Cleveland with Derrick Rose. Eventually the salary cap would even things out but in the mean time it would be way more exciting competition. Granted a lot more teams would suck but overall people would watch more pro hoops like during the 80's when the plethora of bad teams was balanced by a few really good teams that always made it to the conference finals. Also change the current playoff system. I just think its wrong that Phoenix sits at home while Detroit gets murdered by Cleveland. At least have teams play for the final playoff spot so the end of the season isn't a waste of time for a lot of teams wanting that first pick.
I have been following these posts since they came out and i enjoy reading the alternative ideas but i dont think that any of them would really work in the long run. I remember back before there was a lottery in the NBA and it just went in the order of the worst record, which i agree is a horrible way to do things and does give teams the incentive to leave. But, i feel like the current system is close to as good as it can be. One thing i would change, is that instead of giving the teams with the lower records a higher percentage chance at getting the number 1 pick, all 13 teams that dont make the playoffs should have an equal opportunity. This gives the teams who are on the borderline of the playoffs more incentive to win, knowing that even if they dont make the playoffs, they still have the same chance at the fist pick as they would if they just gave up at the end of the season. Giving all teams an equal chance is just asking for even more distance between the top and bottom of the league. Teams that finish 17-65, like Sacramento, finish with that bad of a record for a reason. They are the teams that need to get the top talent in order to have a more balanced league. Also, if you have a good GM and scouts, where you pick really doesnt matter. A perfect example is the Spurs. Arguably their two best players, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, where taken 28th and 56th overall respectively.
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