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"Someone created the box score, and he should be shot"***

2009 February 15
by Skip Sauer

Michael Lewis has a piece in this weekend’s NY Times Magazine, “The No Stats All Star.” The focus is on the Houston Rockets’ Shane Battier, and to a lesser extent on their General Manager, Daryl Morey. Morey is a a bit of a stats geek, and Battier is a basketball player with “no stats,” a prototypical team player who Morey identified and signed for Houston. But how? Here’s a clue:

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. In its crude form, plus-minus is hardly perfect: a player who finds himself on the same team with the world’s four best basketball players, and who plays only when they do, will have a plus-minus that looks pretty good, even if it says little about his play. Morey says that he and his staff can adjust for these potential distortions — though he is coy about how they do it — and render plus-minus a useful measure of a player’s effect on a basketball game. 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.” He names a few other players who were a plus 6 last season: Vince Carter, Carmelo Anthony, Tracy McGrady.

That’s a small slice of an intriguing story; this is Lewis at his best. Thanks to Al Roth for sending the link. Roth’s post at Market Design identifies the principal-agent problem as key to the conflict between individual and team productivity in basketball. Lewis’ account also illustrates how innovative managers like Daryl Morey can mitigate the problem. While Lewis focuses mostly on Battier, the athlete and the person, the economic punch line seems to me to reside in Morey, the general manager. As Roth points out, “basketball contracts may change” as a result of his innovations. Great stuff.

***Daryl Morey, as quoted by Michael Lewis

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