Innovation Pressure

I'm certainly no expert on basketball; I watch it once a year, until my NCAA bracket gets too tattered, and then I lose interest again.  On the other hand, as so many, many strangers have surmised over the years, I did play girl's basketball for four years.  I was invited to try for the college team, but declined for approximately the reasons described by my mother:  "You just want to smoke and chase boys!"  In my defense, there was also the fact that the basketball team seemed to awaken at a disgracefully early hour.

Thus, I was a little befuddled by this Malcolm Gladwell article.  I've played a full court press, and my memory is that we got creamed.  That's because my team was terrible.  Indeed, as I recall, we abandoned the tactic after three or four games, because it wasn't improving our scores, and might have made them worse.

On the other hand, my team was really, really terrible.  Perhaps a slightly better team would have been more successful.  What do I know?

Via Kevin Drum, however, I learn that Chad Orzel has the same opinion, and he seems to know what he's talking about:

He goes on at some length about what a bold innovation up-tempo basketball is, and how it completely changes the game in favor of the scrappy underdog.

This whole line of argument is somewhat undermined by the fact that there are several decades' worth of examples of people using pressure defense successfully in basketball. OK, he does make a nod to the history of the game by talking with Rick Pitino, but contrary to what you might take away from talking with Rick Pitino, pressure defense in basketball does not begin and end with Rick Pitino. Nolan Richardson, John Thompson, Billy Tubbs Paul Westhead, and others had success with pressing teams well before Pitino's success at Kentucky.

And, in fact, Pitino's 1996 Kentucky team is a terrible example of the point Gladwell is ostensibly making. Yes, they were a pressing team, but they were hardly scrappy underdogs-- nine of the players on the 1995-6 Wildcats went on to play in the NBA. This is not some scrappy group of nobodies who took it to the big boys with their unorthodox style of play. Quite the contrary, in fact-- that Kentucky team was loaded with top-flight basketball talent.

If you want to find real examples of people using the pressing style to overcome opponents with superior talent, you won't find many at the championship level. In fact, you're more likely to find stacked teams losing in spite of playing an up-tempo game than you are to find real teams of scrappy underdogs using the press to beat better competition. Arkansas and UNLV won titles in the early 90's with a pressure game, but more or less the same UNLV squad lost to Duke in a classic game in the '91 Final Four, and Billy Tubbs's Oklahoma team lost to a Kansas team that fits the "scrappy underdog" mold a lot better-- they had Danny Manning and not much else.

There's a reason for this: the press works, as long as the other team isn't ready for it. The idea of a full-court press is to force the opponent into a rushed and frenetic game and get them out of their routine. A team that's ready for it, though, and has skilled and disciplined players, won't get rattled by the press, and can pick the press apart for lots of easy baskets. You can use the full-court press to rattle a superior team that isn't expecting it, but if they know it's coming, there are a lot of ways that pressure defense can fall apart-- missed traps in the back court lead to two- or three-on-one breaks, over-aggressive defense leads to fouls, etc.. The teams that have won titles using pressure basketball have also had lots of talent, because you need something to fall back on if the press doesn't work.

Unfortunately, while you do get bloated incumbents who collapse when you use unconventional tactics, most companies, armies, and so forth are actually run by professionals.  If they are good at their job, your unconventional tactics will make you lose worse than otherwise--think Netscape giving away its product for free in order to get widespread adoption, then finding out that Microsoft could do that for longer than a startup.  The history of business is littered with groundbreaking innovators who were eventually shoved out of the markets they'd created by incumbents with complementary assets; most business school students will be familiar with the case of medical scanning, but the examples are legion.

Worse, unconventional tactics can trigger an adverse reaction in opponents.  If they have the ability to punish you, you'll regret it.  I suspect that most of Al-Qaeda were surprised and horrified when the US reacted to attacks on US soil differently from attacks on military installations abroad:  not with surgical strikes on moderately important targets, but by invading Afghanistan.  Similarly, if the players on the basketball court think you're going too far, as any basketball player can tell you, they have lots of ways to retaliate.