Sunday, February 15, 2009

Michael Lewis on Basketball

Michael Lewis is my favorite living writer. Basketball is my favorite living sport. (I think I would have enjoyed the ancient Aztec sport of Tachli. It is almost impossible to find an intramural Tachli league these days, though.)

Michael Lewis has a new article in this week's The NYT Magazine titled "The No-Stats All-Star" that, in classic Lewis fashion, combines a profile of Shane Battier with an investigation into the advanced statistical analysis of basketball. This piece didn't strike me as groundbreaking as Moneyball, but, then again, Moneyball was my first introduction to advanced statistical analyses of any sport. But now, five years later, I'm a devoted reader of Basketball Prospectus and I already know much of what Lewis is describing. Also, I can't help the feeling that what makes basketball compelling lies much more intimately with the individual personalities involved. Basketball--in a way that baseball and football can't be--reveals a deep sense of character and style. Can that be reconciled with a Moneyball approach? I'm not sure.

That said, Lewis is superbly great at what he does and the article is well worth a read. The piece is at its strongest when looking at how selfishness plays a role in basketball. Here's an excerpt:

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. “The marginal assist is worth more money to the point guard than the marginal point,” Morey says. Blocked shots — they look great, but unless you secure the ball afterward, you haven’t helped your team all that much. Players love the spectacle of a ball being swatted into the fifth row, and it becomes a matter of personal indifference that the other team still gets the ball back. Dikembe Mutombo, Houston’s 42-year-old backup center, famous for blocking shots, “has always been the best in the league in the recovery of the ball after his block,” says Morey, as he begins to make a case for Mutombo’s unselfishness before he stops and laughs. “But even to Dikembe there’s a selfish component. He made his name by doing the finger wag.” The finger wag: Mutombo swats the ball, grabs it, holds it against his hip and wags his finger at the opponent. Not in my house! “And if he doesn’t catch the ball,” Morey says, “he can’t do the finger wag. And he loves the finger wag.” His team of course would be better off if Mutombo didn’t hold onto the ball long enough to do his finger wag. “We’ve had to yell at him: start the break, start the break — then do your finger wag!"

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