Malcolm Gladwell, the author for whom you can blame 1,000 sales conference references to “The Tipping Point,” strikes again in the New Yorker with another lengthy article delving into the secrets of innovation and success. And this time, he’s completely full of shit.
I’m not a steady Gladwell reader, but all I know is that “How David Beats Goliath” takes eight web pages to say, with dubious evidence, what Sun Tzu said about 2,500 years earlier in 18 words: “So in war, the way is to avoid what is strong and to strike at what is weak.”
My particular youth sports beef comes with Gladwell using as evidence how a supposedly unskilled team of 12-year-old girls from Redwood City, Calif., were shaped into an elite basketball fighting force because their coach used a press defense. He wonders why more teams don’t use it, pointing to example’s of Digger Phelps’ undermanned 1971 Fordham team upsetting a UMass squad featuring Julius Erving, and Rick Pitino’s continued success with a press defense even though his talent is supposedly so thin, Antoine Walker is his only notable pro.
Gladwell might know tipping points, but I’m not sure he’s so wise on basketball strategy. The press works if you have a team that relentlessly practices it, and a team playing against you that doesn’t know it’s coming or doesn’t practice for it. I would guess that 100 percent of the teams Redwood City played never played anyone else with a press defense, and didn’t have a college basketball-playing daughter of a former NFL star helping out in practice.
Plus, the effectiveness of the press goes down the higher level you go. Yeah, a press can work great at the 12-year-old level because most kids’ ballhandling skills aren’t good enough to overcome it. But when Pitino tried that in the NBA, he got hammered. Even on the college level, for every Fordham-over-Dr.-J’s UMass upset with the press, there are 100 teams that try it and watch the ball fly past them for easy layups. Apparently Gladwell also missed how slow and methodical Michigan State bounced Pitino’s Louisville team out of this year’s NCAA tournament.
The rec leagues I’ve coached in (junior high/late elementary coed) limit the press to either a certain point of a game (elementary level) or when you’re down (junior high). By doing so, it prevents a game that gets out of hand either way — either a team never able to inbound the ball, or a pressing team getting blown out. Anyway, why don’t I have them defend the whole court instead of the last 24 feet? Because no one is scoring from 50 feet out. I tell my kids to move out the big people, and except for kids we know can shoot from 16 feet out, give player on the outside a lot of space. Then get the rebound and leak out on the fast break — that’s where a commitment to playing the whole floor worked for the teams I’ve had.
Gladwell misses the point when he fawns on the press defense. You coach based on how the strengths of your players match the weaknesses of others — no argument there. But questioning why everyone doesn’t use the press more is way too simplistic a point. So is Gladwell presenting as fact that Pitino uses the press because he ALWAYS has substandard teams. The current starting lineup of Lawrence North High School would disagree.
Any coach who believes their success is completely tied to his or her own system is delusional — and so are the writers who swallow that line. If you don’t have talent on you team, your precious system goes down the crapper. Anyway, you could make an argument on the flipside — the reason so few NBA successes come out of Pitino’s system is because it doesn’t prepare players for what they’ll be doing in pro ball.
By the way, the Redwood City team Gladwell talks about with girls who hadn’t played, or weren’t terribly talented? I bet they weren’t a bunch of kids who had never touched a ball. I don’t care how many practices they had — if the girls didn’t have some speed or coordination already, the press would have failed in a hurry. And as far as development, this coach could be hurting his kids because as they advance and have to play more halfcourt ball, they’ll have no idea what to do.
Gladwell is a good writer, but I think he’s whiffed here. If Dean Oliver presented evidence to show the best ways to attack a defense, I’d listen more, because at least Oliver, the director of quantitative analysis for the Denver Nuggets, puts together statistical models to prove his points. Gladwell’s message is supposedly that teams should concentrate more on attacking their opponents’ weaknesses, but don’t a lot of coaches do that already?
By the way, even if successful, the press can cause you a lot of headache. Just ask Micah Grimes.