Linsanity and Systems Design

You don’t need to be a fan of professional basketball to marvel at the ostensibly unprecedented series of games that have inspired the New York Knickerbockers during the past few weeks.

It all began on February 4, in a match against their regional rival, the New Jersey Nets. The Knicks had only won 2 of their 11 preceding games and 8 of 23 overall; they appeared to be hopelessly mired in a dreadful pattern of mediocrity.

At that point, an unheralded journeyman player named Jeremy Lin came off the bench and scored 25 points to spark the Knicks to an unexpected victory. At the time, most sports reporters considered the game to be a brief highlight in an otherwise bleak Knickerbocker season.

But Lin continued to shine in game after game, and the Knicks continued to win. During the ensuing two weeks, Lin led the Knicks to seven consecutive victories, and was featured in the cover story of the national magazine Sports Illustrated each week. Knicks fans, enamored with his success, began talking about the playoffs and perhaps even challenging for a national championship.

A Scientific Explanation

Some of the most experienced professionals in the sport claimed that they had never witnessed such a series of performances during their entire careers. But how could a journeyman player suddenly emerge from nowhere and turn around a mediocre team so thoroughly? Indeed, many professionals expressed surprise that such an event could occur at all.

Interestingly, some commentators actually attributed Lin’s surge to the absence of the Knicks’ team leaders Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony. Their injuries, these commentators claimed, opened the door for Lin’s emergence and permitted him to change the team’s “chemistry.” Indeed, these pundits believe that intangible and unquantifiable factors like team chemistry can drive a team’s ability to succeed, and can quickly change the direction of an entire season.

Such opinions, though, run contrary to the scientific theory of systems design. According to this theory, Lin’s emergence on the Knicks as an unusually superior performer — as well as the emergence of other players and teams as unusually inferior performers — are predictable outcomes of an unusual disruption to the “system” of basketball this year.

Maturity and Volatility

Any young, fledgling, immature system inevitably experiences a significant degree of volatility (both positive and negative) in its operating performance. When professional baseball first emerged into its “modern era” over a century ago, for instance, pitchers like Cy Young were able to win 500 games, while hitters like Ty Cobb and Rogers Hornsby were able to compile annual batting averages over .400 during multiple seasons.

Among active players in the sport today, though, Roy Halladay leads all pitchers with only 188 victories, supplanting the recently retired Tim Wakefield. And no batter has achieved a batting average over .400 in a single season since Ted Williams managed that feat in 1941.

Do these results imply that modern professional baseball players are less competent than their predecessors of a century ago?  Not at all; in fact, today’s superior dietary and exercise regimens may make modern players superior (in terms of physical ability) to their predecessors. However, the sport of baseball is a system that has matured over many decades, and has — like any other mature system — largely eliminated wide disparities in performance.

So even though we no longer cheer for pitchers like Cy Young, who won 511 games from 1890 to 1911, we (conversely) no longer commiserate with players on teams like the Cleveland Spiders, a squad that won only 20 out of 154 games in 1899. No pitcher won more than 4 games for the Spiders that year, and no hitter socked more than 2 home runs for those arachnids during that season.

Disruptive Events

Occasionally, mature systems are disrupted by unusual events, and thus experience uncommon increases in volatility. The infusion of steroids into professional baseball ten to fifteen years ago, for instance, led to aberrational spikes in the home run totals of players like Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire. It also enabled the 354 win career of pitcher Roger Clemens.

Similarly, the 2012 professional basketball lockout completely eliminated the sport’s annual pre-season and resulted in a drastically curtailed and compressed regular season. That was the disruption that enabled the volatility that underlies the recent performance of Jeremy Lin.

According to systems design theory, though, patterns of extreme volatility should feature unusually weak performances as well as uncommonly superior performances; the current NBA season features such extreme disappointments too. The Charlotte Bobcats, for instance, have only won 14.6% of their first 41 games this year, a performance that (if extended for a full year) would rank it as one of the five worst teams in league history.

Thus, while assessing the incredible performance of Jeremy Lin in a scientific manner, it is important to note that uncommonly weak player and team  performances are occurring as well. That’s a convincing indicator that the performance volatility might be attributable to a disruption of the system itself.