Managing the “Right Stuff” – Leadership Lessons from the NBA

The No-Stats All-Star – NYTimes.com

I’m not a basketball fan. Before reading this article, I couldn’t have named a single player on the Houston Rockets – and in fact, had never heard of Shane Battier, who is the subject of this article.  Shane Battier, his approach, and the observations made about the larger “mode of managing” illuminated here have leadership repercussions what we focus on, where we find ourselves as a society and an economy today – and I can feel the tremors rippling through leader- and management development as well.

In summary:  Shane Battier is an individual with undistinguished individual statistics.  However, he does many of the “right things”, the unselfish things, the ego-less things… those things that make his teammates’ performances improve, that dramatically improve his team’s overall odds of winning games – and increase opponent’s odds of losing.  The Houston Rockets have been able to create a “meta model” of performance – and measure these intangible but very real contributions of Shane Battier – and in fact, of every Houston Rocket.

[Note to author Michael Lewis: Basketball isn’t the only ‘arena’ where we should be looking at team-level performance metrics (and the ways that individual performance affects the team and other members on it). Basketball isn’t the only place where we should be attending to “team dynamics” and team performance – instead of individual performance. It isn’t the only place where we should be thinking about metrics and measures that really matter to the long-term health and vitality of the enterprise. Just thought you’d want to know.]

Our economy – and esp. the financial system, set up with incentives and loose regulation for the Masters of the Universe, could drive sales (see this note elaborating a view on the financial system meltdown).

Apparently, however, this system could not review the odds as well as Daryl Morey and Shane Battier, apparently can’t digest and respond to data as well, or understand from the data what it is that they should be doing.  Apparently, this system and the leaders and players in it, could learn a lot about managing – and about winning, overall as a team – from watching the NBA, and from studying the Houston Rockets.

The No-Stats All-Star – NYTimes.com

Article Excerpts:

Statistical Anomaly His greatness is not marked in box scores or at slam-dunk contests, but on the court Shane Battier makes his team better, often much better, and his opponents worse, often much worse.

Here we have a basketball mystery: a player 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.

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 N.B.A.’s most prolific scorers, he significantly ­reduces their shooting percentages. At the same time he somehow improves the defensive efficiency of his teammates…

… 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.

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.

… [in the game], 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.

… instead of grabbing uncertainly for a rebound, for instance, Battier would tip the ball more certainly to a teammate. Guarding a lesser rebounder, Battier would, when the ball was in the air, leave his own man and block out the other team’s best rebounder.  A player whom Morey describes as “a marginal N.B.A. athlete” not only guards one of the greatest — and smartest — offensive threats ever to play the game – but renders him a detriment to his team.Knowing the odds, Battier can pursue an inherently uncertain strategy with total certainty. He can devote himself to a process and disregard the outcome of any given encounter.