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April 18, 2007

Working The Refs

To be more precise, Matt's line here was, "you know how they say conservative media is about working the refs? Well, working the refs is about working the refs." Fair point. Meanwhile, I was struck watching the game, as I always am, by the power law talent distribution on the court. You'd think that at the professional level, the curve would flatten out, and all these really good basketball players would cluster fairly close together. In fact, it's the opposite, and one or two players dominate absolutely everyone on the court. The width of the distribution, even at such a rarified level, always surprises me. The Wizards, sadly, were without their two most dominant players, so this dynamic was working powerfully against them. But still.

Update: So I don't sound too hopelessly nerdy in Matt's story, I should mention that I've always played sports, just never gotten into watching them. Going to a game is great fun, to be sure, but watching basketball on the teevee just makes me want to...play basketball. Or at least some video game version of it. Just watching is too passive.

April 18, 2007 | Permalink

Comments

Actually your first paragraph in this entry is what makes you sound hopelessly nerdy; Matt's story was kind of charming.

Posted by: mrgumby2u | Apr 18, 2007 4:56:49 PM

"Just watching?" Wow, you really don't watch sports much, do you? I know very few sports fans who, when watching, just watch.

That said, yes, playing is better than watching. It's just that I'm lazy.

Posted by: jhupp | Apr 18, 2007 5:05:48 PM

the structure of the distribution of human excellence is weird that way.

Think about music--the most talented kid in your high school makes it all look easy. Then goes off and washes out of the Julliard, overwhelmed by people vastly better. Those people in turn live in awe of Yo Yo Ma. Ma, meanwhile, is one of our generations greatest musical interpreters, but on his best days he is only interpreting the genius of Brahms, and Ma is so good that he realizes he is nothing next to Brahms. And that's the same Brahms who studies Bach obsessively and declares that if he could have even written one of Bach's compositions he would have died happy.

In actual mountain ranges, Everest is not that much taller than K2, and there's a lot of clustering in the middle 20 thousands. In the mountain range of music, Bach is actually ten times as tall as the second tallest composer; Chopin is an easy 100 times as tall as a Bernstein or Yo Yo Ma, and these guys are a thousand times as tall as the best musician in your high school or college class.

I suspect a mathematician would tell a similar story about Gauss, Euler, Archimedes, and so on. It's weird, but that seems to be how human talent works in some areas.

Posted by: Count Cant | Apr 18, 2007 5:07:30 PM

Bill James discusses this in relation to baseball: that talent is an exponential curve. There may be literally a handful of guys (or gals) who can play a given game at the very top level of skill. Below that may be twice that number, and so on.

At some point the number of players becomes so great and the skill level so low (relative to the skills need at the top level) that you drop down an entire level of competition: NBA to CBL, Major league to AAA, etc...

Posted by: FDChief | Apr 18, 2007 5:46:07 PM

The miracle of exponentials is indeed at work here. If the distribution of hooping skills is a bell curve, the cutoff distribution of the best players is an exponential; there will be a big difference between the best of the best and the pretty-good best.

The underlying point is that there's no natural upper bound to basketball ability. Tall mountains don't follow a similar distribution because there's something that pulls down the tall ones: gravity.

Posted by: Sean Carroll | Apr 18, 2007 6:06:44 PM

The underlying point is that there's no natural upper bound to basketball ability

???

Surely there is a limit .... how good of a basketball player you are is in principle reducible to a bundle of physical traits/abilities, which have their own natural outer limits.

Isn't this the same as saying there's no natural upper bound to 100-meter dash ability? Sure, the times keep getting better and better, but one day it will hit a high water mark. Nobody's ever going to run it in zero flat.

Posted by: Jason | Apr 18, 2007 6:15:11 PM

So I don't sound too hopelessly nerdy in Matt's story...

Why on earth would anyone not want to sound hopelessly nerdy? Are you posting from some Bizarro World where being a nerd is a bad thing?

Posted by: Tom Hilton | Apr 18, 2007 7:35:43 PM

"Going to a game is great fun, to be sure, but watching basketball on the teevee just makes me want to...play basketball."

The NBA actually makes for amazingly good TV. It's got huge amounts of grace and drama.

Posted by: Petey | Apr 19, 2007 12:32:54 AM

"You'd think that at the professional level, the curve would flatten out, and all these really good basketball players would cluster fairly close together. In fact, it's the opposite, and one or two players dominate absolutely everyone on the court."

It makes perfect sense. The skill spread between the top one percent of players is bound to be much greater than the skill spread between the middle one percent. Think of the far end of a bell curve--the number of players at any given skill level will drop to zero. To make a team, you're going to have to combine quite a range of skill levels--there just aren't enough (insert famous player here) to make up a team. At the median, you'll find zillions of people who have the same skill level.

Posted by: heresiarch | Apr 19, 2007 1:26:33 AM

I'm warning you youngsters.
Keep Bill James and the Saber-dweebs away from basketball or there will be consequences.

Posted by: charles pierce | Apr 19, 2007 11:26:44 AM

Charles, it's too late. The Rockets quietly hired a metrics guy to be mentored by Carroll Dawson in the final year before Dawson retires.

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