Thursday, April 7, 2016

The Warriors

Interesting article today in Wall Street Journal about Golden State Warriors (subscription required) decision to build their team around the 3 point shot which the article calls taking advantage of a "market inefficiency" and an unusual idea "embraced by the data loving executives" and "The result is a basketball style no one has yet figured out how to defeat."
I am no expert on football, but this reminds me of watching the early Belichick era in New England Patriots football, noticing differences in game strategy between the Patriots and other teams. In the early 2000s the Patriot defenders would try to punch the football out of the grip of the ball carrier instead of the traditional focus on immediate tackling to minimize yardage gains. The Pats seemed do this  long before the other teams caught on. In football, the conservative play is always to go for the consistent short term advantage at high probability rather than take chances that could result in major loss. The natural human inclination is to avoid big losses due to the pain, rather than take chances with low probability of huge gain. Turning over the ball with the momentum shift prevents the other team from scoring on that series and your team gets a chance to score, possibly a touchdown on that turnover. This punching out the football tactic eventually became a staple of the game we watch today.
Instead of building an offense around quarterback Tom Brady of tall, agile wide receivers, the Pats went on to build around a combination including shorter, quick guys (Wes Welker, Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola)  who could dive sideways and low for the reception -- hard to defend, plus tall, massive tight ends (Gronk and others) who could outjump their defenders with their height, make the catch, and, with their girth, barrel down the field for extra yards. By building a different offense, that is, by playing a different game, you do not need to compete with other teams as much for talent. You are drafting different talent. Of course, there were many other reasons for the Patriots success, but playing a different game was a constant, including taking chances where other teams would not.

All this changed in 2015. The Denver Broncos started winning games and improbably remained undefeated through 7 games. Smart analysts decided this would not continue throughout the season. The offense was struggling to score touchdowns and it was not even clear who should be the starting quarterback. With Manning starting QB in the playoffs, the Broncos were the underdogs in both the AFC title game against the Pats and the Super Bowl with the Panthers. Both opponents were favored against the Broncos, but the Broncos defense was able to stymie the offense and the Broncos beat both opponents.

For the New England Patriots, the winning tactics of the past came up short. The Broncos defense overwhelmed the Patriots passing game by finding a key weakness in the inability to protect the quarterback which eliminated of the advantages of Tom Brady and the carefully selected receivers.

Which brings us to Donald Trump. As a businessman, it sometimes pays to be apolitical, so he had contributed to both Democrats and Republicans as many in business do, to gain access to whoever wins elections. But in business he was more willing than most to try out different initiatives in addition to the hotels and casinos - Trump steaks, Trump University, sports teams, Miss Universe - actually the list goes on and on.  He could not help but notice that in the Republican Presidential races in 2008 and especially in 2012, there seemed to be a yearning for a different kind of candidate. The formula for George W. Bush in 2000 seemed to be select a candidate whose primary qualification was a family resemblance to the previous President Bush, along with the ability to rely on strong Presidential advisers (back to the Ford administration), and be willing to employ hardball tactics against opponents. Yet, in 2008 and 2012, there was a rotation of sorts among Republican hopefuls who caught the popular imagination early on, but imploded upon further media scrutiny, only to be replaced in the end by a more "establishment" candidate. That was supposed to be the scene in 2015-2016 according to the pundits. But to Trump,  the winning formula consisted of an over-the-top personality, willingness and skills to capitalize on popular fears, anger and resentment, along with the ability to disarm the establishment choice of a weak candidate. How tempting to run for the Republican nomination. So long as Jeb Bush remained in the race, Trump continued to look good in contrast with the weak candidate who was being foisted on the Party by the powers that be. Romney, the failed candidate in 2012, injecting himself into the discussion only brought to the foreground the "establishment" efforts to defeat the more independent candidate Trump and continued to help the Trump cause. Only now, with the Republican field diminished and no strong establishment candidate to play against (given that Cruz is really anti-establishment), do Trump's own weaknesses as a candidate come to the fore.

One thing is clear.  The key ingredient of recent Republican campaigns in contrast with Democratic campaigns has been to avoid directly addressing issues and realistic policy options in favor of sweeping promises of simplistic solutions along with appeals to fear and anger.  Trump saw the opening to outdo the Republican candidates at their own game and took advantage of it. This was a key element of the decision to run as a Republican. There will be no going back in future Presidential races unless the Republican Party decides to change the rules of the game, that is, how their candidate is chosen, or the Republican candidates change the way they play the game.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Chief Justice Roberts to the Rescue?

Suppose you were the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. The President has nominated a justice to the Court who you would like to see on the court, and potentially close to 100 members of the U.S. Senate would vote to confirm the nominee under normal circumstances. However, in today's tactical politics, the Senate Majority Leader refused to hold hearings on any nomination, sight unseen. That leaves you in the short term concerned with forging agreement case by case to avoid the unsatisfying 4-4 split decisions. Suppose you regard the President's choice as someone who would add value to the discussion and help forge agreement in difficult cases, so the Senate has left your court hobbled. Not only that, but you even made a recent speech indicating that the nomination process "is not functioning very well" and that "We [on the Court] don't work as Democrats or Republicans", but it is getting harder and harder to maintain that perception among the general public. Is there any feeling of being used by that other branch? Sure, Judge Garland was called a political pawn by some, but isn't the Court being used as a political pawn. Is there anything a Chief Justice can do? countertactic would be to rule on any case on which the four liberal justices agree, automatically with those justices to forge a majority of five so long as the Garland nomination languishes without consideration. Even signaling that intent could prompt the Senate to move quickly to consider the nomination. Of course, any of the four conservative justices could take this approach, but the Chief Justice bears the greatest responsibility to protect the institution. Obviously, this is outside of normal judicial temperament and so unlikely, but when one considers that an 8-justice court split 4-4 could persist for years, one wonders if the Chief Justice is at all tempted. Sure, the House could threaten to begin impeachment proceedings, but that is even more unlikely.