The NBA Is Just What 2018 Needs

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- “Not watching sports,” my fellow economist Adam Ozimek tweeted last week, “is my productivity hack.” And so, as another NBA season starts, I face the perennial question of how much of my attention basketball — and sports in general — deserves.

There is a longstanding tradition of American intellectuals (think Philip Roth or George Will) being enamored of baseball. But it’s actually a much broader movement. Sports provide a venue for analytical thinking devoid of many of the partisan biases that infect discussions of politics. I have to confess to being a Washington Wizards fan, but I maintain that I am quite clear about their weaknesses — a claim I am not sure I can make about my political positions. Following at least one sports team can help remind us what objective thinking feels like.

Sometimes I use sports examples to think through economics or managerial problems. Have you ever wondered why the use of the three-point shot in the NBA is still rising, and why the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets have been so successful with it? The three-point line was introduced to the NBA in 1979, and yet it has taken the sport decades to fully exploit its potential. Many experts argue that some teams, such as the Milwaukee Bucks (and the Washington Wizards), still haven’t adjusted their strategies sufficiently.

This is an object lesson in institutional rigidities. Until recently, players were trained in high school to play in different styles, and older coaches had more traditional mindsets. The spread of basketball analytics was slow at first, and realizing the three-point shot’s full potential required agreement and coordination among general managers, coaches and players. This history is strong proof that markets can take a long time to adjust, and that not all sluggishness is the fault of government. (To my libertarian friends: Rest assured, I do not favor a Federal Bureau of Basketball Strategy.)

Earlier three-point innovators were called crazy, and maybe they were. The Phoenix Suns tried a fast-break, three-point offense from 2004 to 2010, and they didn’t break through with it. It was persistent foreign competition that finally drove the three points home, when European and other foreign teams, which tended to take more three-point shots, did surprisingly well against U.S. teams in the Olympics. Basketball thus teaches that innovation is not automatic, and it often pays to look abroad for inspiration, even if you are the top performer at any particular moment.

In addition to being a good default conversation topic, sports also keep us in touch with strands of American life that many of us may not encounter otherwise. Following basketball gives me new entry points into rap music, sneaker contracts, college athletics, gifs, the economics of television, even Twitter; it also helped me diagnose an injury a few years ago, when I pulled both of my rotator cuffs and knew immediately how to deal with it. A lot of the American debate over race, and over protest and proper public behavior, has played out through the medium of sports.

I already have tickets to a couple games this November, and I will be going with economists (and collaborators) and a well-known public policy researcher. I am looking forward not only to the basketball but also to extended three-hour conversations. And no, I am not sure I want the NBA to speed up the game by cutting down on the number of time-outs.

Nor do I see sports as an inferior form of culture. I enjoy the theater, but is the real drama of a live competitive event — when you come armed with a proper knowledge of context — any worse or less elevated than a staged tale? Furthermore, basketball has produced some of today’s best and most analytic journalists, such as Bill Simmons and Zach Lowe.

Most generally, I find it useful to do something that has some elements of uselessness, if only for the change of pace.

I’m busier than I used to be, so season tickets are a thing of the distant past. This year I’ll probably watch fewer than a dozen games, often with the sound off, or for only an hour, and mostly during the playoffs. But I’ll still follow NBA analytics on the internet every day, and that way I will know I am truly a contemporary sports fan.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include “The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream.”

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