April 11, 2006

NBA height

A reader who is a 6'-6" former NBA player writes in response to my posting that the average height of pro basketball players hasn't gone up in 20 years:

Some examples of difficulty in thinking about this: 1) The countries where people are growing tend to be countries where they are short. (There is one Mexican in the NBA; and he isn't from Oaxaca where all the really short people seem to be. I think there are two Chinese, a very tall guy, Yao Ming, and a short one who looks like a mixture, named Lieu.)

2) I have read that the tallest people are Nordic (including Scotland), but they aren't interested in basketball.

As I've written, "Europeans tend to grow tallest where the climate is cold but not frigid. Writing in 1965 before the Dutch grew quite so tall, the prominent physical anthropologist Carlton Coon noted, "In mean stature, we find the tallest people in Scotland, Iceland, Scandinavia, the eastern Baltic region, and the Balkans, particularly Montenegro and Albania. In general, the crest of tallest stature runs on the cold side of the winter frost line." The two places where height and basketball enthusiasm come together are the Baltic and the Balkans, which is why Lithuania, Serbia, and Croatia have done so well in the Olympics, despite their small populations.

3) The NBA is super-specialized. On the inside we have "the bigs", two of 'em. They had better be close to 7" or the team is doomed. At least one substitute who is also huge is needed. The remaining three players are where the 6-6 to 6-9 players reside (although a point guard can be almost any height if he has the skills). For a championship team, all these players must be able to shoot. Because inaccuracies propagate directly with the length of arms and hands, as do response times to stimuli, it is very unusual for a very tall man to be a good shooter (not talking about slam-dunk contests here!).

I recall the impact of Bob McAdoo in 1973-1974, a very tall man (although I see now that they've reduced his listed height to 6'-9" from the 6'-11' he was advertised to be back then) and outstanding leaper, who averaged 15.1 rebounds per game, yet who was a deadly outside shooter. His shooting percentage was a gaudy .547 while scoring 30.6 per game (and that was without the 3-point line back then). It's hard for somebody to average 30 points per game while shooting much over .500 because of the large number of shots required to score that much. Diminishing marginal returns sets in. For example, none of the top 10 scorers in the NBA this season is shooting .500 from the field. But even McAdoo couldn't stay that much of an anomaly for long, and his career declined under the pressure of carrying every club he was on, until he found a role as a valued substitute on the great Laker teams of the 1980s.

And 4) Although it is a huge advantage, height is somewhat counter-balanced by quickness and body-control. So we may be on a plateau here. We've leveled out at an average of 6-6 to 6-8. I don't think you can improve the speed of the electro-chemistry by which impulses are transmitted around inside the human body or the way errors are propagated by extra length. Ergo, you can't get rid of the penalty for being tall.

That sounds likely to me. I was an extremely average schoolboy athlete. My impression is that my outsized height (I'm 6'-4") meant that I looked gawkier than average when playing sports, but tended to be a little more effective than I looked. For example, I looked lousy playing tennis, but won more than you'd think judging by my form because of my long reach. Overall, in regular life, I'd say the best height for a man is a little over 6 feet, like 6'-1.5"President Reagan. He was a mediocre athlete, but recall how much better he moved than the first President Bush, who at 6'-3" looked gawky, even though he was a much better athlete.

One other thing -- The NBA has expanded from 23 teams to 30 teams over the last 20 years, which, all else being equal, would reduce average heights, but that's not an extreme degree of expansion and the growth in the game around the world should have made up for that.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It seems logical that the average height in the NBA has gone up, due to human evolution. The average height of the american troops born in the mid-nineteenth century had an average height of 171 cm (5' 7.3"), and today the average american finds himself 175.8 cm (5' 9.3") tall, with the average white american at 178.2 cm (5' 10.2") and the african-american at 177.8 cm (5' 10"). I guess among others, the latin population lowers the average. The tallest countries in average are the Czech Republic, Denmark, Norway and Germany with around 180 cm (5' 11"), Sweden and Iceland is a little taller than 181 cm (5 feet 11.3 inches), and the Netherlands tops it off with their 184.8 cm. The Dutch troops born in the mid-nineteenth century had an average height of 164 cm (5' 4.2"). The tallest living man to date is Leonid Stadnyk at 257 cm (8' 5.5"), from Ukraine. Now, I'm from Norway, so I'm not that into Basketball, but it seems the craving for tall players has grown and so has the resources of the clubs, and the human evolution part adds some sense as well. But have not really checked out the evolution of the average height I the NBA, but if the players are taller today, I guess mye hypothesis checks out a bit.