Please, Please, Please Let the Sacramento Kings Try Cherry-PickingBy
When Malcolm Gladwell wrote a story for the New Yorker five years ago about how underdogs can triumph through unorthodox tactics, he focused on a basketball team of 12-year-old girls in Silicon Valley. Their coach, a software entrepreneur originally from Mumbai, viewed the game as an outsider—and what he saw was rampant inefficiency. Teams routinely retreated to the half court on defense, conceding territory to their opponents. His girls instead defended the full court on every possession. The strategy helped take a team lacking talent and size to the championships of National Junior Basketball.
To Gladwell, the story illustrated how traditions become blind spots. “Playing insurgent basketball did not guarantee victory. It was simply the best chance an underdog had of beating Goliath,” he wrote. “And yet somehow that lesson has escaped the basketball establishment.” The anecdote became the opening passage of the book David and Goliath, another fixture on bestseller lists.
Yet the basketball establishment was unmoved. Underdog teams at every level of the game, and especially at the top, do not embrace nonstop full-court defense. Apologists for the status quo noted that defensive strategy is more complicated than Gladwell had allowed. College basketball players are “not 12 years old” and don’t struggle with basic ball handling.
But that outsider coach, Vivek Ranadive, didn’t stop with preteen basketball. Last year he became the controlling owner of the Sacramento Kings, putting him inside the NBA. He talked about creating the “NBA 3.0,” a league built in the mold of Silicon Valley. He crowdsourced the Kings’ draft preparation. He built apps to anticipate every whim of fans in the arena. He gave Google Glass to the team mascot. He accepted Bitcoins.
Despite the front-office novelties, the Kings’ strategy on the court was familiar enough to the basketball establishment. There was no full-time, full-court press—just rumblings about big changes to come. In October, Zach Lowe’s NBA column for Grantland included this nugget: “Owner Vivek Ranadivé has pitched the idea to the team’s brain trust of playing 4-on-5 defense and leaving one player to cherry-pick, according to multiple sources familiar with the matter.” This was beyond what even Malcolm Gladwell might sanction.
Cherry-picking, or leaving a player on the offensive side of the court, is the stuff of lazy pickup basketball. The idea that an NBA team might try it was laughable, and basketball obsessives on Twitter guffawed accordingly. But the Kings, as Lowe noted, were not about to try it even if their D-League team might.
Then came a column from Yahoo! on the firing of Kings coach Michael Malone:
“The [Kings'] owner played the part of a fantasy league owner, treating the Kings like a science experiment. He shared tactical experiences with Malone about coaching his child’s youth team, and pressed him to consider playing four-on-five defense, leaking out a defender for cherry-picking baskets. Some semblance of that strategy is expected to be employed.”
This is a great moment not just for basketball fans, but for anyone interested in the culture of Silicon Valley. The rhetoric of disruption—and its implied critique of whatever came before—could get an unusually pure and public test. Cherry-picking in the NBA would either succeed or fail in spectacular fashion. Everything we thought we knew about basketball is either wrong or right. Let’s find out.