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by Phil Stott | May 28, 2009


"He can't dribble, he's slow and hasn't got much body control." What do you call a basketball player who fits that description? How about MVP?

While it may seem unlikely, that description was recently applied to Houston Rockets forward Shane Battier. Even more surprising is that it came from Rockets general manager Daryl Morey—the man who identified Battier as an under-appreciated talent, persuaded the franchise to sign him, and who views him as one of the key players on the Rockets' roster. And all despite the fact that conventional basketball stats suggest Battier is nothing exceptional. That, suggests Morey in a recent New York Times profile, says infinitely more about the shortcomings of how players are measured than it does about Battier's ability—a lesson that has potential ramifications far away from the world of basketball, and that any manager concerned with measuring performance and output could learn from.

The key to Daryl Morey's approach at the Rockets is his realization that "for most of its history basketball has measured not so much what is important as what is easy to measure—points, rebounds, assists, steals, blocked shots—and these measurements have warped perceptions of the game." For managers, swap in "business" for "basketball", and concepts such as "output," "individual sales figures," and "productivity" for the things that are easy to measure, yet essentially meaningless in providing a picture of the performance of a company's employees.

Thinking outside the box

Now, there's a lesson in there for anyone who relies on statistics to measure human performance—the lesson being that most humans do things that stats can't or don't measure. In the case of Shane Battier—a fairly ordinary player, or so his stats would suggest—those things include an almost magical ability to reduce the opposition's ability to score, while collectively raising the performance of his own teammates. And until Daryl Morey came along, no one knew why. The key, apparently, is that Battier does things like block an opponent's view of the basket when he's shooting—something that doesn't show up on his stats, but which reduces the effectiveness of the opponent. And he does other things that are good for the team—like communicating, being in the right place at the right time, and even volunteering to sit on the bench when he thinks someone else is a better option—none of which are measured, but all of which go towards making he and his team better than their stats suggest.

As Morey points out in the article, the traditional set of stats for measuring players –known in the game as the box score—is deeply flawed. An example of a flaw is that players know which stats they're being rewarded for, and play to boost those—a situation that sets up a conflict between doing what's good for the team and the individual. By focusing only on those players with attractive "box scores," then, many teams run the risk of losing out on the missing link—the Shane Battier figure—that somehow pulls it all together and makes it work.

Those seeking a corollary to the business world don't have far to look. Consider a row of cubicles with two high-performers and one employee whose stats are lower. Come a blip in the economy (like, uh, now), when jobs are under threat, it's the lowest performing of the three that's likely to get cut. But what if that employee's the one doing all the things you can't measure that keep the business ticking along as an overall unit? You know:  the little things like offering the advice and support that aids the "high performers" in getting to where they're at—something that cuts into their own stats, but works for the overall good of the company. The other two, meanwhile, may well be doing things that enhance their stats, but which are undercutting the firm's long-term goals or good standing.

At a time when many businesses are seeking to trim their rosters, it's the perceived high-performers that are least likely to be cut, while the unsung stars may find themselves cleaning out their lockers. Without being able to effectively assess a team member's entire contribution, however, there's a risk that companies are cutting the very people they need to be successful. To sum up that risk is to go back to Shane Battier's example one final time: during this season, injury has prevented him from playing in around half of the Rockets' games. That, says Daryl Morey, has led to a situation where "we have been a championship team with him and a bubble playoff team without him." In this economy, how many businesses can afford that?


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