May 27, 2006

Malcolm Gladwell admits his basketball statistics book review was given the razzberry by the cognoscenti

On his blog, Gladwell writes:

"I’ve noticed, in reading reactions to the book around the blogosphere, a certain residual skepticism, particularly among hard-core basketball fans."

He then makes some admissions about the shortcomings of the Wages of Wins book he hyped so credulously in The New Yorker. I guess it's good that after he publishes an article in The New Yorker he he goes and does the research he should have done the first time, but isn't that a little odd? Isn't he getting paid enough by The New Yorker (about $5 per word, roughly $10,000 for this 1,900 word review) to bother getting it right from the start?

By the way, Gladwell continues to claim:

"For instance, they show that the correlation between a team’s payroll and a team’s performance, in the NBA, is surprisingly weak. What that tells us is that the people charged with evaluating and rewarding ability and performance in the NBA do a lousy job."

Maybe, maybe not. One obvious factor that lowers the correlation between payrolls and wins is that one way to win in the NBA is to get a great young player in the draft who isn't yet eligible for free agency (which normally starts in the fourth year in the league). Then you can take the money that you save paying your young star less than market value and spend it on veterans, or simply pocket the savings as profit. For example, Miami can afford to pay veteran Shaquille O'Neal $20 million per year because they are paying star third year man Dwayne Wade only about $3 million. LeBron James has almost singlehandedly made Cleveland a respectable franchise, and he's only getting $4.6 million.

Gladwell notes that his three economists find Kevin Garnett to be the best player in the league in recent years, which seems pretty reasonable to me. But Garnett's Minnesota team has had very little playoff success because Minnesota's management can't afford to put good players around Garnett. What happened was that Garnett wasn't all that great in absolute terms his first three years in the NBA, when he wasn't making much money, so the Timberwolves weren't all that good then. The team didn't get that big of a premium in performance over what they were paying Garnett because he was so young during his first three years. But he was fantastically good for his age (19 through 21), and was obviously going to become one of the best players ever. So in his fourth year, he got a gigantic contract that increased from 14 million to 28 million per year by the time he was 27. But that just throttled Minnesota's chances of getting much help for him.

In contrast, Tim Duncan, who is probably most similar to Garnett in accomplishments, spent four years in college, so he was an instant outstanding contributor as soon as he arrived in the NBA. But the San Antonio Spurs got to pay him at below market rates for his first three years, during which they won the first of their three championships and built the foundation for two more.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

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