Tuesday, May 05, 2009

David, Goliath, And The Full-Court Press

Malcolm Gladwell's piece on the full-court press and other unconventional strategies is an interesting read, even if I don't agree with all of his conclusions. The portion about Rick Pitino is worth addressing:

Pitino became the head coach at Boston University in 1978, when he was twenty-five years old, and used the press to take the school to its first N.C.A.A. tournament appearance in twenty-four years. At his next head-coaching stop, Providence College, Pitino took over a team that had gone 11–20 the year before. The players were short and almost entirely devoid of talent—a carbon copy of the Fordham Rams. They pressed, and ended up one game away from playing for the national championship. At the University of Kentucky, in the mid-nineteen-nineties, Pitino took his team to the Final Four three times—and won a national championship—with full-court pressure, and then rode the full-court press back to the Final Four in 2005, as the coach at the University of Louisville. This year, his Louisville team entered the N.C.A.A. tournament ranked No. 1 in the land. College coaches of Pitino’s calibre typically have had numerous players who have gone on to be bona-fide all-stars at the professional level. In his many years of coaching, Pitino has had one, Antoine Walker. It doesn’t matter. Every year, he racks up more and more victories.

The bit about Antoine Walker is disingenuous, since Gladwell seems to be suggesting that Pitino has been overachieving with modest talent thanks to the press. But I don't think it's arguable that Pitino has wanted for great college basketball players.

The press is a risky strategy, one that leads to higher variance from game to game; i.e., greater inconsistency. As Dean Oliver notes in Basketball on Paper, inconsistency is both good and bad:

What this means for good teams is that, if they are inconsistent, they win less than they should. What this means for bad teams is that, if they are inconsistent, they win more than they should. In other words, being inconsistent brings a team toward .500, toward mediocrity.

You need that variability if you're the underdog, but not so much if you're the favorite and risks aren't necessary because the you've got the edge in talent.

That gets us back to Pitino's Kentucky teams, which were very good but inconsistent because of risky strategy. Oliver again:

The University of Kentucky under Rick Pitino played a lot of high-risk strategies, pressing and shooting threes. They offset that tendency somewhat with a faster pace to take advantage of their tremendous talent. Their "riskiest" year was 1995, when their overall point spread standard deviation was about eighteen. Despite outscoring opponents by a mammoth eighteen points per game, the team lost five games overall and didn't make it to the Final Four despite a roster that included Tony Delk, Walter McCarty, Rodrick Rhodes, and a young Antoine Walker. In other seasons in Pitino's era, Kentucky played it a bit safer, with point spread standard deviations around fourteen. If Pitino's 1995 club, which was a general "favorite" and not an "underdog," hadn't been such a high variance one, they could have added another 6 percent to their winning percentage. Rather than 28-5, they might have been 30-3 and still alive in the Final Four.

It's possible that Pitino's success at UK came in spite of the press.

As far as optimal use of the press goes, I think Gary Williams has it right. They practice it to the point where they can use it effectively, but they are not defined by it, nor do they only pull it out only in desperate late-game situations. Middle-of-the-road programs like Maryland find themselves as both clear underdogs and clear favorites in a given season, so it makes sense to make part-time use of a risky strategy like the press.

(As a side note, it's worth pointing out that shooting a lot of threes and slowing the pace are also strategies that Oliver calls risky. And that's why Herb Sendek's Princeton hybrid was simultaneously both a stroke of genius and an exercise in self-limitation. I think it was despised more because it was an open admission of inferiority--he had to play in an unconventional way to have a chance against the league's elite--than because it wasn't fun to watch. That's an ugly truth, made more difficult to stomach by a decade of futility, and the offense served only to reinforce it game after game.

The problem was, that system was an ingrained identity, much moreso than something like a press that you can pull or put back in your pocket as need be, so it wasn't very situationally flexible. In the cases where it would have made sense to play conventionally, we didn't have that option. Sendek's teams often won fewer games than their pythagorean winning percentage suggested they should have, and the high-risk strategy was a big reason why.)