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Editor: Paul L. Caron, Dean
Pepperdine University School of Law

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Who Is the Shane Battier of Your Faculty?

Shane Continuing my interest (obsession?) with the application of Moneyball principles to law schools (which began in What Law Schools Can Learn from Billy Beane and the Oakland Athletics, 82 Tex. L. Rev. 1483 (2004)), the Sunday New York Times Magazine has a wonderful piece by Moneyball author Michael Lewis:   The No-Stats All-Star:

[The Houston Rockets' Shane Battier is] widely regarded inside the N.B.A. as, at best, a replaceable cog in a machine driven by superstars. And yet every team he has ever played on has acquired some magical ability to win. ...

The virus that infected professional baseball in the 1990s, the use of statistics to find new and better ways to value players and strategies, has found its way into every major sport. ...  Hence the new statistics, and the quest to acquire new data, and the intense interest in measuring the impact of every little thing a player does on his team’s chances of winning. In its spirit of inquiry, this subculture inside professional basketball is no different from the subculture inside baseball or football or darts. The difference in basketball is that it 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. . . .

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.

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. ...

It 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. . . .

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.” ...

Having watched Battier play for the past two and a half years, Morey has come to think of him as an exception: the most abnormally unselfish basketball player he has ever seen. Or rather, 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. “Our last coach dragged him into a meeting and told him he needed to shoot more,” Morey says. “I’m not sure that that ever happened.”

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. ...  A good player might be a plus 3 — that is, his team averages 3 points more per game than its opponent when he is on the floor. In his best season, the superstar point guard Steve Nash was a plus 14.5. At the time of the Lakers game, Battier was a plus 10, which put him in the company of Dwight Howard and Kevin Garnett, both perennial All-Stars. For his career he’s a plus 6. “Plus 6 is enormous,” Morey says. “It’s the difference between 41 wins and 60 wins.”

My Moneylaw blog boss Jim Chen (Dean, Louisville) nicely ties this to law schools:

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.

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Comments

What was odd about the NY Times article is that the thing Battier does best, which is reduce scoring by opposing stars (e.g., Kobe Bryant), is actually pretty easy to measure statistically. This suggests the goal should be better statistics rather than a celebration of "intangibles" which may prove elusive. Perhaps we could begin keeping track of most piercing questions asked at faculty seminars, or whatever the law school equivalent might be: it's certainly worth thinking about.

Posted by: mike livingston | Feb 17, 2009 7:47:13 AM