Sunday, February 15, 2009

Rocket man

Shane Battier
One of MoneyLaw's recurring themes is the search for gritty, unglamorous faculty members who elevate an entire school's performance. In the context of teaching, we laud the utility law teacher. In the never-ending quest to neutralize destructive faculty members — Arschlöcher habt Ihr immer bei Euch — we've also turned to plus-minus, a crude but revealing hockey statistic.

Michael Lewis, of Moneyball fame, has now added one more story to MoneyLaw's repertoire of narratives highlighting the value of good teamwork. His latest contribution, The No-Stats All-Star, sheds light on the "basketball mystery" called Shane Battier, a player who "is widely regarded inside the NBA as, at best, a replaceable cog in a machine driven by superstars," yet confers upon "every team he has ever played on . . . some magical ability to win."

Click here to read the rest of this post . . . .Basketball has evidently caught "[t]he virus that infected professional baseball in the 1990s, the use of statistics to find new and better ways to value players and strategies." According to Lewis, "every major sport . . . . now supports a subculture of smart people who view it not just as a game to be played but as a problem to be solved." These new thinkers seek "new statistics" and exhibit an "intense interest in measuring the impact of every little thing a player does on his team’s chances of winning." The difference is that basketball "happens to be the sport that is most like life":
There is a tension, peculiar to basketball, between the interests of the team and the interests of the individual. The game continually tempts the people who play it to do things that are not in the interest of the group. On the baseball field, it would be hard for a player to sacrifice his team’s interest for his own. Baseball is an individual sport masquerading as a team one: by doing what’s best for himself, the player nearly always also does what is best for his team. . . . In football the coach has so much control over who gets the ball that selfishness winds up being self-defeating. The players most famous for being selfish — the Dallas Cowboys’ wide receiver Terrell Owens, for instance — are usually not so much selfish as attention seeking. Their sins tend to occur off the field.

Basketball teamworkIt is in basketball where the problems are most likely to be in the game — where the player, in his play, faces choices between maximizing his own perceived self-interest and winning. The choices are sufficiently complex that there is a fair chance he doesn’t fully grasp that he is making them.

Taking a bad shot when you don’t need to is only the most obvious example. A point guard might selfishly give up an open shot for an assist. You can see it happen every night, when he’s racing down court for an open layup, and instead of taking it, he passes it back to a trailing teammate. The teammate usually finishes with some sensational dunk, but the likelihood of scoring nevertheless declined.
Shane Battier, a forward playing for the Houston Rockets, may be "the most abnormally unselfish basketball player." Lewis calls him "the player who seems one step ahead of the analysts, helping the team in all sorts of subtle, hard-to-measure ways that appear to violate his own personal interests." He is valuable not because of his raw athleticism, but in spite of his physical limits:
Shane BattierIt was, and is, far easier to spot what Battier doesn’t do than what he does. His conventional statistics are unremarkable: he doesn’t score many points, snag many rebounds, block many shots, steal many balls or dish out many assists. On top of that, it is easy to see what he can never do . . . . “He can’t dribble, he’s slow and hasn’t got much body control.” . . .

Battier’s game is a weird combination of obvious weaknesses and nearly invisible strengths. When he is on the court, his teammates get better, often a lot better, and his opponents get worse — often a lot worse. He may not grab huge numbers of rebounds, but he has an uncanny ability to improve his teammates’ rebounding. He doesn’t shoot much, but when he does, he takes only the most efficient shots. He also has a knack for getting the ball to teammates who are in a position to do the same, and he commits few turnovers. On defense, although he routinely guards the NBA’s most prolific scorers, he significantly ­reduces their shooting percentages. At the same time he somehow improves the defensive efficiency of his teammates — probably . . . by helping them out in all sorts of subtle ways. “I call him Lego,” [Daryl] Morey says. “When he’s on the court, all the pieces start to fit together. And everything that leads to winning that you can get to through intellect instead of innate ability, Shane excels in. I’ll bet he’s in the hundredth percentile of every category.”
It's hard to overstate Battier's value to the Houston Rockets. That team's payroll having been committed, "for many years to come, to two superstars: Tracy ­McGrady and Yao Ming," management needed to seek undervalued, underpaid players. “That’s the scarce resource in the NBA. . . . Not the superstar but the undervalued player.”

"One well-known statistic the Rockets’ front office pays attention to," says Lewis, "is plus-minus, which simply measures what happens to the score when any given player is on the court." The Rockets have evidently refined plus-minus from its crudest form into a powerful evaluative tool. Battier rates a plus 6. “It’s the difference between 41 wins and 60 wins.” In even starker terms, this year's Houston Rockets “have been a championship team with him and a bubble playoff team without him.”

Here in academia, I remain convinced that some version of plus-minus would significantly improve the evaluation of faculty performance. If Battier's story sheds any light on this process, it is this: the single factor that makes a great team player is the mirror image of the single factor that turns even the most productive scholar into a toxic Arschloch: selfishness. Battier has almost none of that trait, and his teamwork makes him the greatest basketball player that no casual fan can name.


Blogger Ani Onomous said...

I knew this story would find its way here!

I think we'd discussed before whether there is, in fact, some kind of plus/minus measure that could be used in an academic setting, and I have yet to hear a candidate. If anything, a stats-driven evaluation process will almost certainly lead to the Battiers of academia being under-rewarded, rather than the reverse. Wouldn't it be enough to reward those who just seem to distinguish themselves by their selflessness?

P.S. Note that, even within the NBA -- in which it is much easier to do a plus/minus assessment -- Battier gets undervalued by most teams, and if he weren't still riding a six year contract would probably get paid a lot less even by the Rockets.

2/15/2009 12:57 PM  

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