The best at what they do

The thought experiment is to compare players across sports. I.e., are basketball players better at basketball than, say, snooker players are at playing snooker?

Unless you count being tall as one of the things NBA basketball players “do” I would say on the contrary that NBA basketball players must be among the worst at what they do in all of professional sports. The reason is simple: because height is so important in basketball, the NBA is drawing the top talent among a highly selected sub-population: those that are exceptionally tall. The skill distribution of the overall population, focusing on those skills that make a great basketball player like coordination, quickness, agility, accuracy; certainly dominate the distribution of the subpopulation from which the NBA draws its players.


When you look at a competition where one of the inputs of the production function is an exogenously distributed characteristic, players with a high endowment on that dimension have a head start. This has two effects on the distribution of the (partially) acquired characteristics that enter the production function. First, there is the pure statistical effect I alluded to above. If success requires some minimum height then the pool of competitors excludes a large component of the population.

There is a second effect on endogenous acquisition of skills. Competition is less intense and they have less incentive to acquire skills in order to be competitive. So even current NBA players are less talented than they would be if competition was less exclusive.

That's Jeff Ely on whether basketball players are better at basketball than other athletes are at their sports (h/t Marginal Revolution). Click through to see which sports he considers to have the best at what they do.

It's commonly said that one reason the U.S. can't field a world class soccer team is that our best athletes go into football and basketball instead because they are more glamorous sports in the U.S. That might serve as an additional complicating factor.

The equivalent in the tech world seems to be that design talent disproportionately flocks towards consumer rather than enterprise apps and services, or so it's often said. Based on my experience using enterprise apps as compared to consumer apps, it certainly feels like the crucible of competition has run hotter on the consumer side, resulting in superior user experience.