A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

Supersized Humans, Missing Giants

with 4 comments

An article from the New York Times has cause a little bit of a stir in the basketball world, really because it gives more scientific credence to something we already know: People have been getting bigger.

Here’s the most dramatic big picture quote from the article:

I don’t know that there is a bigger story in human history than the improvements in health, which include height, weight, disability and longevity,” said Samuel H. Preston, one of the world’s leading demographers and a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania.

Here’s one with some numbers:

To take just a few examples, the average adult man in 1850 in America stood about 5 feet 7 inches and weighed about 146 pounds; someone born then was expected to live until about 45. In the 1980s the typical man in his early 30s was about 5 feet 10 inches tall, weighed about 174 pounds and was likely to pass his 75th birthday.

Hot damn! So when do I get my 8 foot center?

The future is now, and there are no flying cars

Well, unfortunately for those most excited, I don’t think there’s much reason at all to think that the height of big men in the NBA is going to change much short of genetic tampering. First let’s look more closely at the article’s finding.

Hmm, so the average of height increased by 3 inches from 1890 to 1950, and less than an inch from 1950 to 1980. Obviously the real trend here isn’t so much that modern 1st world countries ARE exploding in height, it’s that they DID explode well before most of us were born, and we’ve been in the process of stabilizing ever since.

Not saying this isn’t noteworthy – it is – but that deceleration of growth makes it a touch less exciting when daydreaming about the future of the game of basketball.

Same as it ever was

It gets even less exciting when you think it through with basketball specifically in mind. The historical NBA starts around 1950, which means that that the big growth spurt basically has nothing to do with changes in the NBA over time, at least in terms of American-born players.

Of course, just because a peak of human height has been achieved in the 1st world, doesn’t mean it has in the whole world. Beyond that, one would presume that as the NBA grows in global popularity, and pays more money, it would have better access to talent the world order. So while we may not get 8 foot centers, we should expect to get more quality big men, right?

You see where I’m going with this: We’re missing a shipment of giants. The average height of NBA players has decreased in the last 25 years, and we’re now to the point where we regularly give power forwards the spot for center on all-star and all-NBA teams.

Mutombo towering over Russell? Image via The Sports Hernia

Of course, even when we were in what may be the golden age of centers in the early ’90s and a superficial notion that progress was being made on the acquisition of giants, it didn’t really add up.

To the side you’ll see a picture with old school giant Bill Russell and new school (at least by my age) giant Dikembe Mutombo. Russell was listed at 6’9″ and is known for his clashes with bigger centers like Wilt Chamberlain. Mutombo was listed as 7’2″, and in the era with Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, and Patrick Ewing, really only Shaquille O’Neal was bigger than him. Yet you see them next to each other, and it’s hard to imagine that there is truly 5 inches difference between them.

Just to discuss that 5 inch difference: The answer lies in the fact that there is good reason to fudge a person’s height. Old school supporters will tell you that they now include a player’s shoes in measuring the height which gives a general edge to modern players. Personally, I would fully expect that people lied about their hate back in the day as well. I mean, if you could start a team in Chicago and call them the Harlem Globetrotters without people being the wiser, you could certainly get away with other such marketing lies.

Really I’m driving toward two points:

Like I said: Same as it ever was

Russell was the best defender of his era. The best defender of Mutombo’s era? Olajuwon, who was remarkably right around the same size as Russell. Again don’t look at the numbers, look at the pictures. Russell’s not much shorter than Mutombo, and Olajuwon was the shortest of the great big men in Mutombo’s era.

Basically, we found the build that seems to work best for great defending big men over a half century ago. Tall but not too tall, fantastic jumping ability and timing coordination, ridiculous agility that seems impossible for someone that height. While it might work to have someone a bit taller here (Kevin Garnett comes to mind here), the agility is absolutely essential. And we’ve never seen a super-super-tall guy come anywhere close to having this.

True outliers aren’t hatched with regularity

I think it’s kind of obvious once you hear it said, but people don’t often think it through. Consistency comes with sample size. At any point you have a particular sample, the pieces of data on the very edge essentially exist in their own tiny sample size, and are thus unreliable from one batch of data to another.

Image via kumc.edu

The above graph helps hammer home how serious the curve of talent on a typical human endeavor. Now understand that at least in the United States if you have the talent to be the best in the NBA at something really important, you probably are going to do that. Nothing’s certain of course, but when it’s obvious you have massive talent in something that’s ubiquitous and ungodly profitable, you’re typically going to go in that direction.

What that means is that where the graph above basically tops out show someone with 1 in 100 ability, an average NBA player is many more order of magnitude more of an outlier than that, and a Russell or an Olajuwon is several orders beyond that.

“One in a million” for most people is hyperbole, for these guys it’s actually an understatement.

These players are just too rare to come up on a fixed interval, and so what we see is that while the quality of the average player in a league can be raised or lowered based on predictable causes and incentives, the guys furthest from the norm either exist or they don’t at any given point in time.

We probably won’t see the dominated by 8 footers any decade soon, but that dearth of big men right now? That’s temporary.

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Written by Matt Johnson

May 6, 2011 at 4:27 pm

4 Responses

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  1. It’s easy to acquire seven footers. The trick is to move your franchise to LA or Boston.

    Greyberger

    May 6, 2011 at 11:31 pm

  2. Yeah I think we’re more likely to see robots killin it in the NBA than 8 footers

    Julien Rodger

    May 7, 2011 at 3:18 pm

    • Mecha Kobe shoots you with his laser-beam eyes if you don’t pass it to him.

      Greyberger

      May 9, 2011 at 8:17 am


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