Bloomberg Opinion – Whatever its flaws, the National Basketball Association is one of the most functional institutions in American society. Two years ago, in the face of the advance of Covid-19, the league rushed to close the regular season, and in the summer of 2020 it managed to make the playoffs in the “bubble” with few setbacks. The league has been on top when it comes to adapting to the age of social media. Thanks in part to the NBA, basketball is the most dynamic American sport and has come a long way on the world stage.
As the playoffs begin this week, one wonders what can be learned from more recent NBA history. This year, NBA history is a story of talent, extreme talent. The talent is so abundant that even the average teams are full of strong players. The broader lessons of the global economy are very optimistic.
Consider the three players vying for the best player award: Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo. His game and stats were amazing. Embiid, for example, has led the league in scoring, is a leader in rebounding and defense, and his team is in contention for the NBA title. However, he is not the favorite to win the award because the other contenders (at least in my opinion) are better. My choice is Jokic, who is the number one player in the NBA with 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds, and 500 assists in one season.
Other notable players like Jayson Tatum, Luka Doncic and Ja Morant could be MVP winners in other years. But this year they have no chance. LeBron James, Kevin Durant, James Harden and Stephen Curry (the best players of the recent past) are still amazing, but they are practically second to none.
For a long time, the ’80s and ’90s were considered the “golden years” of the NBA, first with the Lakers-Celtics competition and then with Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. However, from a present-day perspective, many of those teams and players seem mediocre. They didn’t play consistent defense, many were overweight, and very few managed to score consistently and accurately from longer ranges. Players outside the US were still rookies, reflecting how limited the talent pool was.
My hometown team, The Washington Wizards, didn’t even come close to making the playoffs this year. However, the team is full of highly skilled sportive young players. If they were transported back to the past, they would do very well. It’s not that today’s top stars are squeezing their numbers by hitting the weaker teams. They have some great skills, honed to the max.
Note that the top three nominees for the US Player of the Year all come from outside the US: Djokic from Serbia, Embiid from Cameroon, and Antikonomou of Greek and Nigerian descent. This is a sample of the seriousness with which the National Basketball Association seeks to cultivate talent.
Another characteristic of these three players is that they are all approximately two meters tall and are all capable of three-point shots. This is a skill that most of the big stars didn’t have until recently, and it’s a sign of better education and training. In general, NBA talents are better trained, better evaluated, and have better medical care, making it easier to recover from injuries.
The lessons and implications for the economy and society as a whole are incredibly encouraging. If the National Basketball Association can do it, other parts of the world can do it as well. Let’s imagine that business and science (and perhaps politics?) are improving at the rate of professional basketball. The most important form of wealth today is human capital. As the world moves away from a brute force economy, human capital is also the main driving force for productivity.
The National Basketball Association (NBA) shows that it is possible, over time, to do a much better job of finding and mobilizing talent. It is true that most of the world is not as well managed as the NBA, so the process will be slower than it should be. But it works.
The ramifications are amazing. Yes, global problems are piling up at an alarming rate. On the other hand, access to global talent is more accessible than ever. Which of the two phenomena could have greater consequences? As the co-author of an upcoming book on the importance of talent, I suspect you can guess my point.
As for the NBA Finals: My pick is the Milwaukee Bucks. But I’ve never seen so many great teams racing before.
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