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Michael Lewis: The No-Stats All Star

I'm a great fan of Michael Lewis and own all of his books, with Liar's Poker, The Blind Side, and Moneyball among my all-time favorites. He's a sharp writer and social commentator and I imagine a guy it would be a lot of fun to grab a drink with and talk about the world. He has a real talent for iconoclasm.

He penned an interesting piece for the NYT on Shane Battier and the application of Jamesian sabremetrics to NBA basketball. It first came to my attention through Deadspin, but they didn't really develop it.

Read it. Really read it.

You're going to like it; whether or not you agree with everything in it. Then grab a beverage of your choice and let's discuss.

Some passages that spoke to me:

...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.

So, I build this article up and now will disagree with something right off of the bat. But I think it's an important point.

No, Mr Lewis, a team is exactly the sum of its parts. We just need to account for all of the parts - not just the ones viewed solely through the narrow instrument of a box score. The point is that the parts being measured aren't readily apparent and hard to document, but that doesn't make them indefinable anti-matter. Don't go all mystical on me and undermine your central thesis. As Einstein once said: "Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted." In this case, the plus-minus system and its derivatives suggest that we can.

I love his central thesis though.

How can a team of seemingly inferior athletes (say Greece) whip a NBA All-Star team in the Olympics during the 90s? In fact, and I think Lewis would agree, European teams had a far more sophisticated understanding of what the game of basketball was really about: launching lots of shots from desirable places; limiting the opponent's ability to launch shots from desirable places. They had a bunch of Shane Battiers running around.

But with outrageous accents and centralized healthcare.

This is learning and it's application is a real skill. It made them better basketball players than our guys, vertical leaps be damned. The false metrics of the NBA in the 1990s had ruined our capacity to play and understand actual basketball. As evidenced by most bloggers. Scroll down for his thoughts on why the rankings are justified as to why Shane Battier is the most overrated player in basketball: his confusion as to why you'd send Battier to play elite international competition is amusing on about thirty nine different levels.

And here's a local that should know better. The Mario Williams/Reggie Bush reference, too.

Enough, back to Lewis:

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.

Lewis just nailed the essence of basketball and baseball in four sentences. Very The Wealth of Nations. Lewis has just recently written a book on classical econ and I don't doubt that he saw the parallels there.

Like Oakland GM Billy Beane, I've always been amused by baseball's false communal mysticism when it is demonstrably the most individual of team sports. Just as George Will's superstition-laden writing on baseball ignores its individualism and routinely mocks the Enlightenment (he may as well attribute the art of managing to phlogiston, chi, and small gnomes living inside the sternum and upper bowel) we still worship visionaries and mystics for their "depth" and revile and distrust the technocrat for their uninspiring rationalism. Compare:

"I did the numbers on Jones against fastball hitters, so I made the call for a DH. Gonzales had a nineteen percent greater likelihood of a positive outcome. I played the odds and it worked out."


"I felt strangely compelled by my otter-spirit, Tchingach-touk, with whom I first gained acquaintance inside a sweat lodge while being flogged by a Huron shaman with a bat carcass. Gonzalessssssssss, he whispered. We were rewarded for our piety with a ground rule double and I felt the wa of our team grow commensurately."

The first manager is a boring, emotionless codfish. The second manager!

Lewis writes:

It 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.


Further wisdom:

It turns out there is no statistic that a basketball player accumulates that cannot be amassed selfishly. "We think about this deeply whenever we’re talking about contractual incentives," he says. "We don’t want to incent a guy to do things that hurt the team" — and the amazing thing about basketball is how easy this is to do. "They all maximize what they think they’re being paid for," he says.

Bingo. Show me a person's carrots and sticks and I'll tell you their behaviors. Whether it's a stripper, Tracy McGrady, or your congressman.

Tedious story: as a manager, I was once confronted with a national VP of Sales who decided to incent a product with a 125 million dollar ceiling equally to a product with a 600 million dollar ceiling within the same market to our sales teams. Hmm, OK. I'll hear him out. He supported his decision with a series of rambling inapplicable anecdotes and wouldn't hear dissenting opinions. He was a functional moron, a walking illustration of the Peter-Principle, the kind of suit you want to grab and wordlessly throw into the corporate swan pond.

Each moment of person-time spent on the lesser product was more than four times less productive than the greater, and it also had the capacity to cannibalize the high-ceiling product if not shrewdly promoted in its use. From an associated cost perspective, it was also massively more time-intensive and involved a lengthy certification process for the user and sales team that ate up entire weeks. Its impact was fairly obvious for all of us to see.

Yet, almost every manager in the company blindly followed the Plan-of-Action. I quietly steered my team towards an appropriate 80/20 mix while lying through my teeth to everyone else. I spent months on the wrong end of the corporate structure and beyond the safety of the flock - showing up on various naughty lists that measured everything but actual performance and having to talk down my nervous sales people who were being cautioned by their peers that this was career suicide; believe me, those social pressures cannot be ignored or easily dismissed and it was an introspective time for me.

When performance came back into vogue as national sales plummeted and my region's sales spiked, my vindication and subsequent award-winning was less valuable than my learning: doing the right thing alone is significantly more difficult than doing the wrong thing collectively. Most would rather be wrong together than right by themselves. See Wall Street, government, Tickle Me Elmo hysteria, the pop culture notion that Alan Greenspan is a genius, Maoist China, Stalinist Russia, Nazi Germany....

...and always, sports.

But we've got plus-minus, baby:

One well-known statistic the Rockets’ front office pays attention to is plus-minus, which simply measures what happens to the score when any given player is on the court.

Plus-minus is a shared parlance with the science of card-counting in Blackjack. A card counter tracks the value of cards revealed in a dealer's deck and assigns likelihoods to future play - and when to bet big - based upon it. Of course, unlike basketball scouting, card counting only gives you a small advantage and you need many, many hands to see a positive effect. But the principle remains: to wager more and lose on a hot deck should simply elicit a shrug. You behaved correctly.

Basketball follows exactly the same principles. A guy hits an off-balance jumper from 23 feet where he shoots 18% on the year? Tip your cap. Then have the confidence to make him do it again. Most guys won't - they use a n of 1 - an irrelevant statistical sample, to determine their behavior. Next time, they'll body up on him and open up the drive. Where he shoots 59%. And increases offensive team rebounding opportunities off of a miss.

Not many basketball players say things like this:

"The numbers either refute my thinking or support my thinking," he says, "and when there’s any question, I trust the numbers. The numbers don’t lie." Even when the numbers agree with his intuitions, they have an effect. "It’s a subtle difference," Morey says, "but it has big implications. If you have an intuition of something but no hard evidence to back it up, you might kind of sort of go about putting that intuition into practice, because there’s still some uncertainty if it’s right or wrong."


This is at the core of athletic genius. Great players have no doubt. When a player loses confidence, they doubt their athletic intuition. Perhaps it was injury, but it may just well be that they ran into a bad statistical streak determined by chance. Rather than perservere through it trusting the odds will even out, they begin to tweak their stance, their stroke, their level of aggression. This is the stuff of slumps and the brutal downward spiral.

Maybe that's the essence of good coaching: instilling your players with the confidence to fight through short term trends knowing that the correct behaviors win out over the long haul.

Talk to me....