the groupiness of basketball

Moneyball and Liar’s Poker author Michael Lewis has a fascinating article in the NY Times about Shane Battier and the intangibles of basketball (thanks for the tip John!). I’ve never been a huge fan of Battier but it’s because he’s always played on teams that I haven’t liked. As the article points out, he has an uncanny ability to make the opposing team play worse than they normally would. How he does it exactly is a mystery.

We’ve talked about groupiness in sports teams before. The idea is that team sports can’t be reduced to their individual components (or even to their individual statistics).  Team performance is a group outcome. Each players’ ability to perform is affected by every other player’s performance. This is why you can take a team of good players and they do not automatically turn into a good team. Good teams figure out how to play together and take advantage of task and skill interdependence.  Valuable team players like Battier know how to use their skills to complement the skills of the other players on their team. Lewis explains why basketball is especially groupy:

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.” 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.

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.


Written by brayden king

February 14, 2009 at 11:15 pm

2 Responses

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  1. I read this article this morning and was actually disappointed. It was less “Moneyball” (i.e., a meta-analysis of statistics in player evaluations) than a primer on NBA one-on-one defense.

    He also argues that basketball is distinct from baseball and football in that only hoops players face dilemmas of individual versus collective goal maximization (i.e., maximizing one’s own stats is almost always detrimental to one’s team’s chances of winning). But I think he overstates this. In football, for instance, a running back often has to decide between stepping out of bounds (avoiding a hit, and thus preserving his “bodily capital”) and putting his head down and fighting through tackles to get a first down for the team (in the process risking injuries). Late in his career, Franco Harris of the Steelers was often criticized for this.

    Is Lewis writing a book on stats in basketball? If so I hope it’s better than the NYT Mag piece.



    February 15, 2009 at 10:23 pm

  2. I mostly disagree — I thought it was a fantastic article. He can’t do a meta-analysis of the stats used, because they wouldn’t provide him with the stats.

    But I agree that he overstates the idea that only basketball faces the what’s good for the team vs. good for me dilemma. Baseball players have to decide to sacrifice bunt, or hit to the right side, or steal a base at certain times. Quarterbacks have higher ratings when they take a sack than when they throw it away out of bounds. Hockey players face similar dilemmas with shooting, passing, positioning, etc.



    February 16, 2009 at 7:01 pm

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