Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Ultimate Team Player

First, an apology. I have slacked off over the past three weeks or so, actually I am in the middle of a certification class to be able to teach MBA classes on line, and the certification is kickin' my butt. The coursework has really gotten in the way of my ability to write and post. I am still reading - but can't report. Not to worry, I only have one more week of the 6-week course left - and I am loaded for bear tonight with about 6 worthwhile posts. I will sit here until I fall asleep on the "f" key - as I have done once or twice before. So, without further adieu...

My first posting regards a weekend article from the New York Times on Shane Battier. (Yes, the basketball player.) It turns out that Mr. Battier is the ultimate team player - not measured by statistics but rather by his team's winning when he is on the court. The article is a long one, and it is by one of my favorite business authors - Michael Lewis (of Liar's Poker fame). Lewis spent many weeks on the best seller list with Moneyball. This article is similar, but it essentially makes the point that basketball is the most selfish professional sport - because every statistic tracked (points, assists, rebounds) is a selfish one. That is, the player might choose to rebound a ball (and recieve credit) or to deflect the ball to an open team mate to start the fast break (no credit).

Why do I post it here? It made me think about the necessity for an organization to have role-players that are not looking for the credit and high profile. Harry Truman once said "It is amazing what can be achieved when no one cares who gets the credit." Shane Battier doesn't score, or rebound, or assist particularly well. But he wins, and he helps his team win.

Enjoy the article. A selection follows:

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 N.B.A.’s most prolific scorers, he significantly ­reduces their shooting percentages. At the same time he somehow improves the defensive efficiency of his teammates — probably, Morey surmises, by helping them out in all sorts of subtle ways. “I call him Lego,” 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.”

There are other things Morey has noticed too, but declines to discuss as there is right now in pro basketball real value to new information, and the Rockets feel they have some. What he will say, however, is that the big challenge on any basketball court is to measure the right things. The five players on any basketball team are far more than the sum of their parts; the Rockets devote a lot of energy to untangling subtle interactions among the team’s elements. To get at this they need something that basketball hasn’t historically supplied: meaningful statistics. For most of its history basketball has measured not so much what is important as what is easy to measure — points, rebounds, assists, steals, blocked shots — and these measurements have warped perceptions of the game. (“Someone created the box score,” Morey says, “and he should be shot.”) How many points a player scores, for example, is no true indication of how much he has helped his team. Another example: if you want to know a player’s value as a ­rebounder, you need to know not whether he got a rebound but the likelihood of the team getting the rebound when a missed shot enters that player’s zone.

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. “There is no way to selfishly get across home plate,” as Morey puts it. “If instead of there being a lineup, I could muscle my way to the plate and hit every single time and damage the efficiency of the team — that would be the analogy. Manny Ramirez can’t take at-bats away from David Ortiz...

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