Friday, April 2, 2010

Rerun: Lessons From Basketball: Outcome vs Process

With Final Four weekend coming up, it's time to revive my one basketball blog. Enjoy ...

Sunday's New York Times Magazine feature, The No-Stats All Star, by Michael Lewis, was nominally a piece about Shane Battier, who plays "small" forward (he's only 6' 8") for the Houston Rockets. On paper, Battier looks like an also-ran, with obvious weaknesses to his game and underwhelming stats.

Funny thing, though, when he is on the floor, his team scores more points than the opposing side. This season, Battier is a plus-10. A good player is a plus-3. Battier has a way of making his other teammates better by creating situations that statistically improve their chances of success. His specialty is creating bad nights for the opposing team, in particular their best shooter.

Sports has been experiencing a revolution in statistics - with the introduction of new measures for a player's performance - which in turn is changing how various front offices seek out talent and configure rosters. For instance, baseball, which started the trend, is now giving much greater weight to a batter's on-base percentage (ie the ability to get to first base, such as by drawing walks as well as getting hits).

Now basketball is beginning to catch on. Battier's forte is to force opponents into taking low-probability shots. For instance, if a shooter likes to turn left, he will force the opponent to turn right. Even if Battier scores zero points, if he can keep the other team's star shooter to say 25 points instead of 35, then Houston is likely to win.

Nevertheless, NBA insiders and players fail to perceive Battier's merits. If a superstar has an off-night against Battier, no one gives him any credit. The superstar simply had a bad day at the office.

The article zeroed in on a recent game against the Lakers. Battier would be guarding Kobe Bryant that night. On the pregame show, the co-hosts scoffed at the notion of Battier shutting Kobe down. Said Chris Webber: “I think Kobe will score 50, and they’ll win by 19 going away.”

Here's where it gets interesting. The article made a distinction between "process" and "outcome." The outcome, basically, is out of your hands, but you can control the process. All night, Battier kept forcing Kobe into low-probability shots. Late in the game, in frustration, Kobe drew a technical foul. That was the process - Battier was in control.

But should a low-probability shot hit its mark anyway - that is the outcome. You can't control that. If you have mastered the process, chances are you will achieve favorable outcomes. But if the outcome doesn't go your way, there is no sense in beating yourself up.

I suppose you can put it like this: Say you want to lose ten pounds. Ten pounds is the intended outcome. The process would be rigorously sticking to a healthy diet, exercise, and other routines. If you do that, losing ten pounds is doable. Most of us, though, fail at the process level.

But a good many dieters do everything right, and still the weight refuses to come off. Very frustrating, but if we had been true to the process, we can hold our heads high.

I've met a lot of patients who do everything right. Still, the depression, the anxiety, the agitation - you name it - persists. Extremely frustrating.

I've also met patients whose lives are in complete violation of the process. Not surprisingly, they are stuck in their recovery. Yes, a favorable outcome may be out of reach, but you will never know that until you have given the process your best shot.

Back in Houston, the game came down to the closing seconds. Kobe had the ball 27.4 feet from the basket. Instantly, Battier was all over him like an extra layer of clothing. As the article explained, Kobe misses 86.3 percent of the time when taking 3-pointers from beyond 26.75 feet at the end of very close games. And tonight, Kobe had to do it blind, with Battier's mitt up against his eyes.

He shoots, he ...

Here is Michael Lewis' closing paragraph:

It was a shot Battier could live with, even if it turned out to be good. Battier looked back to see the ball drop through the basket and hit the floor. In that brief moment he was the picture of detachment, less a party to a traffic accident than a curious passer-by. And then he laughed. The process had gone just as he hoped. The outcome he never could control.

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