Commentary

Theory in practice

Applying concepts from Gladwell's book "Outliers" to the NBA proves enlightening

Originally Published: March 18, 2009
By J.A. Adande | ESPN.com

Ray AllenJesse D. Garrabrant/Getty ImagesRay Allen's reading habits helped explain the historical context of Boston's last title.

In the rush to get ahead of the game, NBA general managers might be overlooking that old freshman year standby: sociology.

The trend is toward numbers, a drive to come up with some secret formula that will lead to the ultimate combination of players. I'd advise them to pick up Malcolm Gladwell's book "Outliers" instead.

"Outliers" details how success is dictated by environment and timing as much as by anything else. According to Gladwell, the Beatles became the ultimate rock band because they started off with gigs that required them to perform for five hours, night after night; Bill Gates became a software whiz because he lived in a community that gave him computer access long before household PCs were as common as toasters; and a disproportionate number of the richest people in the history of the world were born in the 1830s, which set them up to cash in on the industrial revolution later in the 19th century.

It's fascinating to apply the concepts to the NBA, to search for the combinations and circumstances that lead to championships. It's not that Gladwell despises statistics. He was intrigued enough by the scholarly analysis in "The Wages of Wins" to write an article about the nouveau stats for The New Yorker, and he has touted ESPN.com's John Hollinger, as well. And the word outlier refers to "a statistical observation that is markedly different in value from the others of the sample."

[+] EnlargeMalcolm Gladwell
Neilson Barnard/Getty ImagesGladwell writes that individual success usually results from a team effort.

But the book "Outliers" is all about social and historical contexts, situations when the crucial numbers are such data points as the dates on birth certificates. The Wages of Wins data suggested the individual components of the 2007-08 Boston Celtics were good for 52 victories based on their production the previous season. The Celtics wound up winning 66 games and the NBA championship. Clearly, something was up that couldn't be explained by the numbers.

This all started on Christmas Day, at the Celtics-Lakers game, when I walked into the visitors' locker room at Staples Center and asked Boston's Ray Allen what he'd been reading lately. (In 17 years of covering the NBA, that's the first time I've asked such a question; then again, Allen is the only player I've ever seen reading books before games.) Allen reached into his backpack and lifted up his copy of "Outliers." I promised him I'd read it by the time the Celtics returned to Los Angeles in February.

The next time he came around, I asked him whether he had recognized any of qualities of the Celtics' championship season in the book. Yes, as it turned out. Only for Allen, it's not just the Boston players who are exemplary.

"Everybody in this league is successful," Allen said. "Everybody in this league has made it to this level where they're a flagship in their society and their community where they grew up. People look up to them. They're outliers in their world.

"We're not outliers among ballplayers, but we're outliers amongst the people that we grew up around. I started analyzing why that is. What made me successful? I was successful because of the opportunities that I had, outside of the other opportunities that people had, the breaks, people pushing me forward. The communities I grew up in, people were always adding an extra five bucks to get me to camp. The same thing that Bill Gates went through with the computer access. I had access to a gym, just the same. Once I started going there, people started seeing my passion for it, they started helping me.

"That's why I always tell people, no matter what sport you're in, whether it's team or individual, everybody has a team. There's a crew that helped get you where you are, no matter how you see it, how you look at it. You start thinking about it, analyzing situations. Anybody in this locker room, people helped you achieve your goal."

[+] EnlargeKevin Garnett and Bill Russell
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty ImagesBill Russell found a worthy green heir in KG.

So what made the Celtics the best of the best? I think the answer can be found on Page 170 of "Outliers," in the midst of an explanation of why rural Kentuckians were more likely to settle their differences through violence.

"The 'culture of honor' hypothesis says that it matters where you're from, not just in terms of where you grew up or where your parents grew up, but in terms of where your great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents and even where your great-great-great-grandparents grew up," Gladwell writes. "That is a strange and powerful fact. It's just the beginning, though, because upon closer examination, cultural legacies turn out to be even stranger and more powerful than that."

There are few teams in all of sports with a legacy like that of the Celtics. Their championship banners and retired numbers hang above the court, and the legendary players sit in the stands. After they traded for Allen and Kevin Garnett, the possibility of a championship actually helped bring it about, with a revitalized fan base accustomed to winning unleashing 20 years of pent-up energy, and drawing the likes of Bill Russell and Bob Cousy and John Havlicek out to impart wisdom and raise the stakes. The history came to life.

Pierce, Allen and Garnett weren't just playing for themselves. They were playing for everyone who wore the green and white before them. Watch Russell spell it out and Garnett soak it up in this video and ask yourself, what option did Garnett have other than winning a championship?

Think of the exposure Pierce had to winning traditions, from his youth watching the Showtime Lakers in Inglewood to his college years at Kansas to his pro career spent entirely in Boston. When he reached the NBA Finals at last, after 10 years in the league, it was as if he knew exactly what to do, which is why he won the Finals MVP award.

What's daunting for the rest of the league is that other teams can't re-create those circumstances. The Lakers are the only comparable NBA franchise, so it could have worked in L.A. But do you really think Pierce, Garnett and Allen would have had the same results if they had assembled in Memphis?

The one thing other GMs can try to duplicate is the mix of youth and experience the Celtics had. Here's a table (at left) of the average age of the six players who played the most minutes on select championship teams since 1980.

Keep in mind that the average age for NBA players in most of those seasons was about 27. The average age for these championship cores was 28.1 -- almost exactly where the Celtics were last season. They had an ideal blend of veterans and energetic youngsters.

And winning is a logical function of age, if you consider the hypothesis in "Outliers" that 10,000 hours of practice is the threshold for greatness, whether the person is a pianist or a programmer. If dedicated basketball players begin practicing at a high level in an organized manner as teenagers, then spend three hours a day working out, doing drills or competing, they reach that 10,000 mark in their late 20s, right around the time their bodies are maturing.

Bird, Magic, Shaquille O'Neal and Garnett each won their first MVP award at age 27. Kobe Bryant, Charles Barkley and David Robinson won at 29. With a subjective award such as the MVP, some of the timing can be explained by voters' wanting players to "wait their turn" and cede to the league's hierarchy. But there's an understanding of the game, an ability to predict what happens next, a gradual extension of the shooting range that comes with time.

The good news for teams is they can fast-forward the process of development by importing an experienced player or a proven winner. That's what Denver has done by trading for Chauncey Billups, the 2004 NBA Finals MVP. As another GM observed, they have Billups' smarts combined with players such as Carmelo Anthony, Nene and J.R. Smith at their physical peaks. (And the average age of the top six players is 28.2.) If there's a stealth threat to the Lakers lurking out there, this is the team.

Winning comes from winners. It's almost impossible to create champions from scratch in this league, to ask a group of players who haven't accomplished anything before to grab the ultimate prize.

Little Brown

Since 1980, the only champions with no previous NBA winners on their roster were the 1981 Celtics, the 1983 76ers, the 1989 Pistons, the 1991 Bulls and the 1994 Rockets. But those teams all had players who had won championships or at least been to the Final Four in college or had been to the Finals before (Bird on the Celtics; Bobby Jones, Julius Erving and Moses Malone on the Sixers; Isiah Thomas and Mark Aguirre on the Pistons; Michael Jordan and Stacey King on the Bulls; Hakeem Olajuwon on the Rockets).

The secret behind the "instant" success of the 2008 Celtics was that it was actually years in the making, that the folks in Boston reaped the benefits of the evolution of three key players, fused by the unique history of that franchise. But all winning teams are the products of the collective pasts of the individuals. And "Outliers" tells us those individual successes were forged by a community.

"The pioneers of professional life, anybody who's in that position in our society now, they didn't just become rich in the last 10 years," Allen said. "Their wealth began with the passion that they had, and that passion turned into wealth.

"Eventually, you've got to ask yourself, where can you fit in? It's not like these are extraordinary individuals. They're just normal, everyday [people] like we are."

And that's the challenge in the NBA, to find what's exceptional among the exclusive pool of remarkable talent. The answer is in the interaction.

J.A. Adande is an ESPN.com senior writer and the author of "The Best Los Angeles Sports Arguments." Click here to e-mail J.A.

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