Basketball, Moneyball Feb 16 2009
Michael Lewis cast his Moneyball lens on basketball in this week's NY Times Magazine. The Billy Beane of the roundball story, more or less, is Shane Battier, a guard for the Houston Rockets. Battier doesn't seem like a great basketball player, but he does a lot of little things that helps his team win.
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.
Battier sounds like an intriguing fellow but the most interesting part of the article is about how the players' incentives differ in basketball from other major American sports.
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. We had a point guard in Boston who refused to pass the ball to a certain guy."
No wonder it's so hard to build a basketball team with the right balance of skills and personalities. Take five guys, put them on a court, let them do whatever they think they need to do to get a larger contract next year, and maybe you get some pretty good results. Now, consider a situation where the plus/minus statistic is the basis for player salaries and all of sudden, players need to figure out how they can make the other four guys on the floor better. And while everyone is making adjustments to each others' games, each player is adjusting to everyone else's game, and the process becomes this fragile and intricate nonlinear dance that results in either beautiful chaos or the 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers.
PS. The brief author bio at the end of the article continues the recent game of "next book" Whack-A-Mole from Lewis. Since the publication of The Blind Side in 2006, Lewis' next book has been listed in various outlets as being about New Orleans/Katrina, financial panics (which turned out to be an anthology edited by Lewis), his sequel to Liar's Poker about the current financial crisis, and now is listed as "Home Game, a memoir about fatherhood". I give up.