Turn on an NBA playoff game right before tip-off and you’ll see ten men who have no idea what’s about to happen. Their individual activities—their crossovers, skip passes, air balls, rotations, floaters, closeouts—will soon produce something genuinely new, something that transcends any single player’s intention and each team’s careful game plan. The game they will play, on a court whose general dimensions haven’t changed in a century, will have a distinct narrative, one that will differ, ever so slightly, from that of every other basketball game in history. The ingredients of that narrative—miraculous comebacks and heartbreaking collapses, individual masterpieces and stunning feats of team cooperation—are composed of the tiniest moments, split-second decisions that require the coordination of innumerable elements. A no-look pass in a critical fourth-quarter possession is a highwire act. Will the pass’s intended target slide into the corner to receive it? Will he get his shot up just a tenth of a second faster than his defender can close out? The greatest players seem able to bend the history of their sport before our eyes, but they never act alone.
Professional team sports in the United States are, first and foremost, commodities: entertainments that generate ticket sales and foster the consumption of Budweisers and Buffalo Wild Wings. But, viewed through another lens, sports convey a kind of democratic insight: that collective activities possess remarkable power, and that human action is irreducibly contingent. It is precisely that contingency—the fact that our initiatives cannot succeed without the cooperation of others, and that our activity produces effects that we can’t anticipate—that makes both greatness and tragedy possible. At its best, political life offers us the hope that, within the constraints we’ve inherited, we might exercise the freedom to do something new. Athletes, on much less consequential stages, perform that freedom in every game they play.
We’re in the midst of a revolutionary epoch in American sports—upending both in-game tactics and the economics of professional athletic leagues—and two new books offer a snapshot of recent changes in basketball and baseball. In Spaced Out: How the NBA’s Three-Point Revolution Changed Everything You Thought You Knew About Basketball, Mike Prada offers an ode to the players, coaches, and executives who have made pace and space central to modern basketball. In Winning Fixes Everything: How Baseball’s Brightest Minds Created Sports’ Biggest Mess, Evan Drellich narrates the tragic fall of a group of Houston Astros executives who rose to the heights of baseball success before a cheating scandal disgraced the franchise and the league. Both of the revolutions described in these books aim at efficiency, but the way Drellich’s revolutionaries make sense of efficiency and randomness, contingency and creativity, is very different from the way Prada’s do.
The central figures in Drellich’s book do not embrace contingency as the source of baseball’s greatness. Rather, these executives aim to master randomness—understood as the unpredictable elements of the game that seem to elude statistical modeling—and wherever randomness resists mastery, they regard it warily, as an embarrassing testament to the limits of human understanding. Before arriving in Houston, the members of the Astros brain trust worked in some of the shadiest zones of the U.S. economy. Assistant General Manager Brandon Taubman had been a young investment banker at Barclays, where he worked on a project pricing the collateralized debt obligations held by Lehman Brothers. Owner Jim Crane, a logistics CEO, saw two of his employees serve prison time for war profiteering during the beginning of the Iraq War. Visionary general manager Jeff Luhnow, the great villain of Drellich’s book, had worked at consulting giant McKinsey & Company, as well as at a company acquired by Pets.com—one of the iconic casualties of rampant financial speculation during the dot-com bubble.
Luhnow believed in efficiency above all else. In his view, economic dynamism flows from austerity, discipline, and the relentless squeezing of value out of every level of an organization. But he is plagued by a persistent fear that, in the United States, the days of capitalist dynamism may be behind us. “There’s no way to make money anymore,” he recalls worrying as a younger man, “because everything that is profitable has probably already been thought of.” Nevertheless, he kept the faith, and delivered his efficiency gospel to the world of baseball.
For a while, it seemed to work: after years of tanking (being bad on purpose to keep labor costs down and to secure more promising talent in the draft), the Astros developed a core of excellent young players and went on to win a World Series. The team appeared as a ruthlessly efficient organization, remade in Luhnow’s own image. Here it’s worth noting, however, that MLB baseball executives play capitalism on easy mode. Unlike most other businesses, the Astros were able for many years to offer a horrible product nobody really wanted without any real risk of going under. Major League Baseball, after all, is a legal monopoly, and all thirty teams engage in a “revenue sharing” scheme, wherein teams with high revenue send cash to the league’s paupers. The Astros were subsidized in their effort to spend pennies on baseball operations and rewarded by rules that give the highest draft status to the worst teams. Even as they began to improve, the team’s competitive advantage continued to be finding creative ways to pay their players as little as possible. (Taubman, for example, figured out that many foreign-born prospects with poor families would take below market-value contracts if it meant getting immediate cash to send back home.)
All baseball fans know what happened next. After a series of escalating scandals, many of the Astros’ core decision-makers—Luhnow, manager A. J. Hinch—were brought down in the biggest baseball cheating scandal in decades. As Drellich and his colleague Ken Rosenthal report, the team developed a scheme where players, using a television located in the dugout, stole signs and communicated to batters what pitch was coming by banging loudly on a trash can. They cheated and won a World Series. Many commentators have since marveled at the apparent incongruity between the Astros’ public image—as an organization run by suit-clad, uber-competent McKinsey types—and the flagrant doltishness of the sign-stealing scheme. But the efficiency gospel that infused the Astros organization is not so much a commitment to the methodical pursuit of excellence as an almost mystical belief that organizational health can flow only from austerity and pain. What initially seems a philosophy of restraint is revealed to be one of excess: there’s always another screw to tighten, always another corner to cut.
Although Luhnow is no longer in the world of baseball, his philosophy is alive and well—after all, many of his protégés now run teams of their own. In baseball, as with all sports, the game on the field evolves dynamically alongside the economics of the sport. The rhythm of baseball today carries traces of Luhnow’s tenure at the Astros. Pitchers are now considerably more skilled than they were twenty years ago, and for that we can thank, or blame, some of the fascinating discoveries about the importance of pitch spin rate made by Luhnow’s staff. But the improvement in pitching has contributed to a sharp decline in balls put into play and, ultimately, to a flatter, more predictable game—though several promising new rules aim to change that this season. Worst of all, Luhnow’s Astros demonstrated the economic viability of fielding teams that, well, suck. The counterintuitive legacy of the late-2010s Astros is to have given a third of the league permission to barely try at all. “We’re in a rebuilding process,” the league’s cheapskates always insist. The way the sport has absorbed Luhnow’s philosophy of efficiency, it turns out, is very often at odds with baseball greatness.
The NBA’s own efficiency revolution starts, but certainly doesn’t stop, at the three-point line. The historical account Mike Prada offers in his superb book is on one level quite simple: in recent years, basketball has been entirely upended by the recognition that certain shots are far more efficient than others—that is, they generally produce more points. Three-pointers are obviously worth more points than two-pointers, and, as players take more threes and get better at making them, defenses are forced to spread out, making it easier for offenses to score high-efficiency shots close to the basket. The post-revolutionary NBA is chock-full of new statistical measurements (one of the most prominent is the “Player Efficiency Rating”), former investment bankers, and even some executives who carry themselves like Jeff Luhnow. But, as Prada persuasively argues, the best of basketball’s revolutionaries conceive of efficiency and randomness very differently from the way the Astros front office did.
For basketball’s brightest tacticians, randomness is not simply what can’t be captured by a statistical model like the Player Efficiency Rating. Randomness is also the capacity of players and teams to improvise, to recognize a familiar pattern and react to it in a novel way. There’s a remarkable moment in Spaced Out where analytics maven and current Philadelphia 76ers president Daryl Morey is working with veteran coach Jeff Van Gundy to determine which of Van Gundy’s plays is the most efficient, averaging the most points. The answer? A play called “Random,” which is, as Morey recalls, “when the play breaks down and we just set a random screen.” The analytics back it up: NBA offenses can reach remarkable heights when players move fast, make creative decisions, and catch the defense off guard with a sheer diversity of tactical options. Prada insists that this strategy requires, in addition to dazzlingly skilled and intelligent players, a healthy measure of basketball faith.
Prada is deeply attuned to the ways that every advancement in the sport involves refashioning elements from its history. He’s especially insightful on the role that rule changes have played in shaping the game we see today. He shows how the superstars of the 2010s (Lebron James and Dwyane Wade, especially) emerged from the nadir of NBA offense, which resulted from rule changes permitting a more diverse array of defensive tactics. Those changes initially produced some of the best defenses ever seen, which then forced superstars to evolve, honing their court vision and making elite passing more central to modern offensive strategies.
Basketball has a long history of changing the rules to promote a particular vision of how the sport should be played. Prada argues that the kind of sport encouraged by the current rules—a sport that values speed, intelligence, finesse, creativity—is basketball at its best. But the contemporary game is far from perfect: too many free throws interrupt the game flow, referees spend too much time reviewing calls, and, with regular-season scores getting higher and higher, it’s become clear that modern defenses could use some help. Prada’s historical narrative inspires confidence that we might be able to change the rules again to correct these problems and help the game’s natural genius flourish.
Of course, as the league is currently run, “we” don’t have any say over these matters. Players and coaches have only advisory input into NBA rule changes. Fans have no input at all. Decision-making authority ultimately lies with the NBA’s owners, a group of rich people (mostly rich men) who emerged from the kind of backgrounds that tend to make one rich these days. They are mortgage peddlers, gambling magnates, and sons of rich dads. Ultimately, the way basketball appears to fans is, in large part, determined by people with no relevant expertise. Think about that for a moment: Isn’t it a bit weird that the guy from Shark Tank gets final say over what a moving screen is? Don’t the sports we love deserve better?
Could we imagine a different sports revolution—one where professional sports come to be celebrated as a public good? After all, my beloved Fenway Park, just like any public neighborhood park, is a place where community members come together with friends and family to enjoy the sun; it is also, like any community theater, a place where one can be moved by triumph and tragedy. If sports, at their best, can teach us something meaningful about the character of democracy, maybe what we learn there can help us steer professional athletics toward democratic stewardship. Maybe fans and communities could take genuine responsibility for their teams, and together decide to value the well-being of players over Luhnowian austerity. Why should the career of your home team’s best player be subject to the whims of some former management consultant who cares more about the bottom line than about either the team or the sport? Sports are too important, and too much fun, to be left at the mercy of bean counters.
Winning Fixes Everything
How Baseball’s Brightest Minds Created Sports’ Biggest Mess
$27.99 | 272 pp.
How the NBA’s Three-Point Revolution Changed Everything You Thought You Knew About Basketball
Triumph Books $30 | 384 pp.