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Talent Rules in Both the NBA and the World Economy

The league has been in the forefront of adapting to an age of social media. In part due to the NBA, basketball is the most dynamic major American sport and has advanced far on the global stage

DENVER, COLORADO - NOVEMBER 08: Nikola Jokic #15 of the Denver Nuggets guards Joel Embiid #21 of the Philadelphia 76ers.
By Tyler Cowen
April 14, 2022 | 12:21 pm

Bloomberg Opinion — Whatever its flaws, the NBA is one of the more functional institutions in American society. Two years ago, as Covid was advancing, the league was quick to shut down the regular season, and in the summer of 2020 it pulled off the playoffs bubble with few hitches. The league has been in the forefront of adapting to an age of social media. In part due to the NBA, basketball is the most dynamic major American sport and has advanced far on the global stage.

With the basketball playoffs starting this week, it is worth asking what can be learned from the NBA’s more recent history. This year the NBA story is one of talent — extreme talent. Talent so plentiful that even the middling teams are full of strong players. The broader lessons for the world economy are very optimistic.

Consider the three players competing for the Most Valuable Player award — Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Their play and statistics have been stratospheric. Embiid, for instance, led the league scoring, is a leading rebounder and defender, and his team is in contention for an NBA title. Yet he is not favored to win the award because the other contenders are (at least in my eyes) better yet. My pick is Jokic, who is the first NBA player with 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds and 500 assists in a season.

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Other top players, such as Jayson Tatum, Luka Doncic and Ja Morant, might in other years be obvious MVP winners. But this year they don’t stand a chance. LeBron James, Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Stephen Curry — the best players from the recent past — are still amazing but are practically also-rans.

For a long time, the 1980s and ‘90s have been considered the NBA’s “golden years,” first with the Lakers-Celtics rivalry and then with Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. Viewed from the present, however, so many of those teams and players seem mediocre. They did not play consistent defense, many were overweight, and very few could shoot consistently and accurately from a distance. Players from outside the U.S. were still a novelty, reflecting how limited was the pool for talent.

My local team — the Washington Wizards — did not come close to contending for the playoffs this year. Yet the team is full of young, highly athletic players with impressive skills; if transported back in time, they would do very well. It’s simply not the case that the top stars today are juicing their numbers by beating up on weakling teams. They have very impressive basketball skills, honed to a fine degree.

Note that the three top MVP candidates all come from outside the U.S. — Jokic is from Serbia, Embiid from Cameroon, and Antetokounmpo is from Greece and originally Nigerian. That is a sign of how assiduously the NBA searches for and cultivates talent.

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Another characteristic of these three players is that they are all about seven feet tall, and they are all capable of hitting shots from three-point range. That is a skill most tall stars did not have until recently, and it is a sign of better teaching and training. In general, today’s NBA talent is better coached, better assessed and receives better medical care, making it easier to recover from injuries.

The lessons and implications for the broader economy and society are insanely bullish. If the NBA can do this, other parts of the world can, too. Just imagine business and science (and maybe politics?) all improving at the rate of professional basketball. The most important form of wealth today is human capital. As the world moves further from a brute-force economy, human capital is also the major force driving productivity.

The NBA shows that it is possible, over time, to do a much better job of both finding and mobilizing talent. Granted, most parts of the world are not as well-run as the NBA, so the process will be slower than it ought to be. But it is underway.

The implications are staggering. Yes, global problems are piling up at an alarming rate.  On the other hand, global talent is more accessible than ever. Which phenomenon is likely to turn out to be of greater consequence? As the co-author of a forthcoming book on the importance of talent, I suspect you can guess my view.

As for the NBA Finals: My pick is the Milwaukee Bucks. But I have never before seen so many excellent teams in the running.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include “Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero.”