The NBA: Swiss watches and Swiss army knives

Some people misinterpreted my recent post on the NBA.  It’s actually my favorite league (do people actually watch baseball?); I just think it would be even better without the 3 point shot.  I’d like to see less of Klay sprinting to the corner when he has an open lane to the basket on a fast break, and more of Kyrie making impossible layups over bigger defenders.

This year the NBA reached a new pinnacle, with 4 of the all-time greatest teams ever–two in the regular season and 4 in the playoffs.  Take The Spurs, which lost to OKC, which lost to the Warriors, which lost to the Cavs.  The Spurs were clearly one of the greatest teams in NBA history.  A 10.6 point differential (just below the Warriors 10.8) and 67 wins.  They actually outscored OKC by 608 to 605 in a 6 game series.  Then the Warriors came from behind to outscore OKC 750-743.  The final series was tied 3-3, with each team having 699 points with a minute to go.  The Cavs scored the last 4 points.  Four essentially equal playoff teams.  (Although arguably the playoffs were more exciting two years ago, with lots of thrilling games.)

Update:  Here is more scientific evidence of the greatness of these 4 teams.

I see the Spurs and Warriors as Swiss watches, which explains their superb regular season records.  They outclass their opponents, who are not prepared for what hit them.  OKC and the Cavs are Swiss army knives; they have enough athleticism and skill to adjust when you force them out of their comfort zone.  OKC was blown out in game one of the Spurs series, and then adjusted their defense to stop the Spurs from playing the way they wanted to play.  The Spurs have lost some flexibility through a combination of aging, and elite talent that is one dimensional (Aldridge.)  Then OKC almost did the same to the Warriors, and the Cavs succeeded.  Just as with OKC against the Spurs, the Cavs were blown out in early games, then figured out how to disrupt the Warriors offense.

Since the Cavs and OKC don’t have well-oiled machines, they have to play harder to win, and that’s tough to do over 82 games in the regular season.

There’s a good argument against my hypothesis.  Maybe the real reason that the Warriors lost is that Curry was slowed down by a nagging knee injury.  I think that’s possible (he looked slower), but I also recall that the Cavs did roughly the same thing last year, when strong defense gave the Warriors trouble against a team that was barely more than LeBron plus d-leaguers.  The Cavs lost, but showed some weaknesses in the Warriors,  Curry was also a bit sub-par in that series, despite being healthy.  Even so, the Warriors are my pre-season favorite to win it all next year.

PS.  I agree with commenter John S that LeBron is now top three of all time, and also agree with his other two choices.

PPS.  I suppose I need a “Wild Kingdom” ending to tie this into monetary policy.  Just as a flexible team can beat a well-oiled machine, NGDP futures targeting gives monetary policy the ability to adapt to a wider range of shocks than a simple Taylor Rule.



20 Responses to “The NBA: Swiss watches and Swiss army knives”

  1. Gravatar of Marco Salvi Marco Salvi
    21. June 2016 at 09:38

    Prof. Sumner, have you any plan to visit Switzerland soon? All those knives, watches and negative interest rates… You would be very welcome.

  2. Gravatar of David Pinto David Pinto
    21. June 2016 at 09:50

    I’m the opposite, love baseball and don’t care much about basketball. I understand some people enjoy the action of hoops versus the tension of the batter versus pitcher. Baseball, however, allows for a greater diversity of physiques. From Jose Altuve to Bartolo Colon, baseball players come in all shapes and sizes. Anyone on the roster could be the hero that day, while Michael Jordan always takes the last shot.

    I wonder if there is a statistician/economist split on the sports? Baseball events tend to be discrete, while basketball is more a continuous flow between teammates. Baseball represnts transactions and basketball represents markets?

  3. Gravatar of Randomize Randomize
    21. June 2016 at 10:11

    Hope you weren’t planning on running for office. Insulting “America’s Pastime” is a political death sentence no matter how terrible it is to watch.

  4. Gravatar of Bill Ellis Bill Ellis
    21. June 2016 at 10:23

    I like the three point shot…I’d Like to see them ad a four point shot from way out. Even a five point shot from the opposite baseline. It would sure open up the end of the game…

  5. Gravatar of Bill Ellis Bill Ellis
    21. June 2016 at 10:34

    If the NBA just raised to hoops enuff no one could dunk and the men would be forced to play “fundamentals ” style basket ball again…like when white men dominated the league…or just like the WNBA…

    Fundamentals are important but they ain’t the only thing of value the NBA is about…

    I kinda doubt there would be much of an audience for raising the hoops and watching men play fundamentals, when people can watch the NBA . But I really do think it would be interesting.

  6. Gravatar of Jim W. Jim W.
    21. June 2016 at 11:13

    4 greatest teams ever? No

    Come on. You were around to see the 80’s Lakers and Celtics and the 90’s Bulls. The size and skill of those teams at every position would have imposed itself on the smaller modern teams. Those teams had better quality depth than any of the four from this year. And the bench depth of those teams would have allowed their starters to be fresher through a long series. The salary cap back then was a lot more flexible and it was possible to stockpile talent on a team in a way you can’t today.

  7. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    21. June 2016 at 11:37

    Marco, I’d love to visit, but how can I afford to pay $10 for a soda? Bring back the 1.20 exchange rate first.

    David, I agree about baseball being more discrete. But I do think there is just as much variation in body size in basketball as in other sports.

    Randomize, No chance of that.

    Bill, Thank God you are not in charge of the NBA. 🙂

    Jim, You said:

    “4 greatest teams ever? No”

    I agree, and never said otherwise. I said 4 of the greatest. Look, The Warriors just won 73 games, and the other three teams were roughly as good in the playoffs. The Warriors three point shooting could blow away any team from the good old days. Heck, even the Cavs 3 point shooting would blow away any of those old teams. Big men don’t fit in the modern NBA. Since teams are still free to try to use big men, and still do on occasion, we can infer that the modern approach is superior to the older approach. Bill Cartwright (of the Bulls) would be almost useless today. But I certainly agree that those great Bulls teams were among the all-time greatest as well. (I’d add the 71 Bucks, the 72 Lakers, the 1983 76ers, and maybe some of the great Lakers and Celtics teams of the 1980s. Also the Piston team that won 2 straight.)

    I loved watching Magic, but LeBron can do everything he could, and lots of things he could not.

  8. Gravatar of Jim W Jim W
    21. June 2016 at 12:30

    I’ll say no to four of the greatest as well.

    I’m arguing from talent not what the modern game rewards today. The modern NBA limits teams to having two or three (at most) elite players. The modern game also tweaked the rules to favor guard/small forward play so teams focus their dollars on the 1-3 positions (occasionally a 4). There’s no money left for skilled big men, so big men are simply defensive rim protectors. If the cap rules were looser and/or the rules were adjusted back to the way they were teams would once again seek out and reward skilled big men.

    Even playing under todays rules, I think the three teams I mentioned would beat any of the four teams from this year fairly handily. I think GS would be the only team to give those teams problems and even there I think you underestimate the defensive ability of those past teams. GS would make a lot of threes but the Lakers/Celtics/Bulls would shoot 55%-60% each game because of their skilled big men, dominate the offensive board and really limit transition (where GS gets a very significant number of their open threes).

    Lebron > Magic but Worthy/Kareem >>> Irving/Love

  9. Gravatar of Gordon Gordon
    21. June 2016 at 13:59

    Like David, I prefer baseball to basketball. At the major league level, athletic talent is not enough to compensate for a lack of intelligence. Every player is given an equal opportunity to be the hero of the game. And with each pitch, danger or opportunity will grow. When Michael Jordan stepped away from his basketball career to try to make it as a baseball player, his teammates were astounded to find that he had no knowledge of a pitcher count versus a hitter count.

  10. Gravatar of TravisV TravisV
    21. June 2016 at 17:27

    Kevin Drum cites some interesting research:

    “Want a More Dynamic Economy? Rein in the Size of Big Market Incumbents.”

  11. Gravatar of Michael Byrnes Michael Byrnes
    21. June 2016 at 18:03

    ” I’d like to see less of Klay sprinting to the corner when he has an open lane to the basket on a fast break, and more of Kyrie making impossible layups over bigger defenders.”

    On the second point, I actually think that’s a benefit of the three pointer. Teams need to guard the three and it opens up the middle for drives. I don’t think there’s a player in the NBA who has made more impossible layups over bigger defenders that the Celtics’ Isaiah Thomas – and some of that is a product of the three point game.

    I think without the three you’d see more shot-blocking 7-footers and defenses that are more geared toward guarding the paint and conceding the outside shot.

    I’ll grant you, however, that when the teams get too three crazy it stps being fun to watch.

  12. Gravatar of anon/portly anon/portly
    22. June 2016 at 12:55

    I agree pretty much with your NBA point about the 4 great teams, but you have to wonder if the point differentials put up by the Warriors and Spurs aren’t partly an artifact of many poor teams trying not so much to compete, but stockpile youth & draft picks. Similar to the great point-differentials of the early 70’s Bucks and Lakers during the period of rapid expansion, maybe.

    An alternative or perhaps complementary argument to the Army/Watch idea is that OKC and Cleveland benefit in the playoffs from altered “let them play”-style officiating. Tristan Thompson and Steven Adams are good examples of players who are awfully useful when the officials are refereeing with a light touch.

    Cleveland in addition got the benefit of only having to play one great team, while Golden State and before them OKC had to play two, and were relatively worn down in the following series.

    I also think chasing 73 didn’t help the Warriors. Curry seems like a guy who’d you like to start doing the whole Spursy “let him play 65” thing with well before he gets old.

    The point about how even the teams were, though, is totally dead on. All these NBA pundits just watched a 7 game series in which the overall play was very even through 6 games plus 45 minutes, then came down to a “who can make the tough 3” contest, and the outcome of that contest … wait for it … determines now and for all time the “legacy” of Lebron James! Yes, that’s right, if Kyrie misses that 3, and Curry makes his, we should have a totally different opinion about LJ’s greatness!

    Clearly these people don’t look at 3 point shots (or any shot or event during a sporting contest) as probabilistic. I think in their minds Kyrie Irving had a 100% chance of making that shot (same for the Ray Allen one against the Spurs). It’s like at the moment the ball goes through the hoop (or misses), something is supposed to snap in our brain, not unlike the wave/particle thing, where suddenly there is a quantum leap one way or the other in our opinion of Lebron. And Lebron isn’t even taking the shot!

  13. Gravatar of Ray Lopez Ray Lopez
    22. June 2016 at 14:26

    Sumner: “Update: Here is more scientific evidence of the greatness of these 4 teams.” – WRONG. Elo, as used by the cited ‘scientific’ article, cannot be used to compare teams that never compete with one another, only to compare teams that compete with one another. This is well known by chess fans, who understand Dr. Arpad Elo’s system (he, a chess player) much better than the pseudo-scientists Scott Sumner.

    Sumner: “that Curry was slowed down by a nagging knee injury” – what about L. James slowed down by old age? Excuses are for losers. I personally thing the refs fixed game 5 to give it to the Cavs, then games 6,7 were tossups that the Cavs won, much to the delight of the NBA which does not like small city teams winning all the time, pace the Spurs which are an “international” group of players so perhaps the league doesn’t mind this ‘diverse’ group winning so often. Just my tinfoil hat speculation.

  14. Gravatar of Floccina Floccina
    23. June 2016 at 07:37

    The 3 on 2 break used to be a thing a beauty, the 3 point shot ruined that.

  15. Gravatar of Floccina Floccina
    23. June 2016 at 07:38

    Here is my face book page on the subject:

  16. Gravatar of Jacob A Geller Jacob A Geller
    23. June 2016 at 08:41


    I for one think Curry was injured last year. He hit his head super hard and looked concussed thereafter. He cleared the protocol, but failed the (my) eye test.

    (Klay was certifiably injured as well… Also with a concussion.)

    I also thought you were going to go the other way with your analogy – the Warriors are the Swiss army knives and the Cavs are the Swiss watches. Almost every Warrior player has a wider range of skills and can play more positions than their closest matchup on the Cavs. Viewed another way, you could say that the Cavs have the finer division of labor… A bunch of guys that only do one thing (shoot 3’s, or get rebounds, or shoot from mid-range, or isolate and drive, etc), vs a Warriors team loaded with guys who can dribble, pass, shoot and play defense against multiple positions. LeBron is the only major exception.

    (The analogy to division of labor breaks down when you consider that unlike countries or companies, basketball players can to some extent choose their competitors, e.g. the Cavs this year were always trying to get Steph “in the action” against Kyrie and Lebron, plays are designed to force defenders to switch or help, creating mismatches and so on…)

    But either way you look at it yes, the best players on the Cavs and OKC do have to play harder to win a Championship. And no I’m not in any sort of “If such and such player wasn’t injured then things would be different” camp – the Cavs, Kyrie and Lebron in particular, played their asses off and deserve everything that comes with what they’ve achieved. Cointerfactual counterschmactual.

    Sorry for the long comment.

  17. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    23. June 2016 at 12:33

    Jim, You said:

    “There’s no money left for skilled big men,”

    That’s not even close to being true, and even if it were it would make no difference. The NBA contains the world’s most skilled big men, whether they are paid $5 million, $10 million or $15 million. It doesn’t matter, they aren’t going to switch profession. They are still the best in the world. And now we draw on much more global talent.

    However, it’s quite possible that the best Laker teams were better than the Cavs this year, I think that may be true. But not by much.

    The basic problem with your argument is that the Warriors won more games than the Bulls ever won, in a league that is overall, top to bottom, more talented. So to make your argument work you’d have to show that the variance of talent was higher in the old days, but win/lost records don’t support that, do they?

    The baseball, basketball and football teams of today are the best ever.

    Michael, Yes, I think the spacing argument is the best one.

    Anon/portly, Very good comment. I think that few people realize how much of a role that luck plays. I recall one ring that Kobe won that might not have occurred if Brian Shaw had not banked in a 3 pointer at the end of the third quarter against Portland. In contrast, that lucky shot stopped Pippen from getting 7 rings.

    Floccina, I agree.

    Jacob, Those are good points. My point is that people like LeBron, Kyrie and Westbrook are so athletic that they are basically unguardable. But they are not as good shooters as Curry and Klay.

    When there is intense defense, the athletic types can find other ways to score more easily than the specialists. So my argument only applies to a subset of players on each team.

    Here’s what I’m not sure about—was the poor play of Curry and Klay in game 7 due to the Cavs defense, or some other factor?

  18. Gravatar of Jacob A Geller Jacob A Geller
    23. June 2016 at 22:25

    Curry’s shot selection was a lot worse in this series than during the regular season, his turnovers were through the roof, he was doubled up all the time, and the Cavs were giving him a healthy dose of LeBron, Shumpert, Tristan, and Richard Jefferson. LeBron’s defense alone was huge. If Steph had gotten better looks against worse individual defenders and simply missed them, then I’d say his ankle/knee/elbow issues were more to blame, but…

    The Cavs also wore him out on offense repeatedly, with LeBron backing him down all the way from the high post, and so on. Partly that’s why Steph got into foul trouble so often and so early in this series, and got pulled from the game several times.

    The Cavs defense was comprehensive, with the major exception of Kyrie. Any injuries, while important, were icing on a defensive cake rather than the other way around.

    IMO! 🙂

    PS not sure how to explain Klay’s performance except to say that a) he’s very good but can be streaky, and b) as a shooting guard he’s better when Steph is better, but I’m speculating…

  19. Gravatar of anon/portly anon/portly
    24. June 2016 at 09:47

    I like the last two Jacob A. Geller posts a lot. The question I have (and don’t have any answer to) is why were Curry and Thompson taking those shots? It seems like the series began with Golden State being very successful despite Cleveland’s success in stopping Thompson and Curry but it ended with Golden State not being very successful because of that same thing.

  20. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    24. June 2016 at 10:33

    Jacob, Good comments.

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