The opposite of macho

At the MIT Sloan Sports Conference last month, I made a presentation about how bad decisions in sports skew macho, video of which is now online.

If you read "Moneyball," the concept was not necessarily to use modern statistics to identify a particular talent. The concept was to use modern statistics to identify things that are currently undervalued, and can therefore help you find an inexpensive road to wins. Getting on base happened to be the undervalued thing at that time, but just like on Wall Street, the value play is ever-changing.

So, what's undervalued now? It's a complex question. But there's a simple element: Being bigger, faster, stronger, tougher ... that's never undervalued in any sport. Every fan, coach and GM loves that stuff.

In this talk, I make the case that if you're looking for value, you could do worse than to look around for players, techniques and skills that don't fit the bigger and tougher macho mold.

For example, Shaquille O'Neal says that some of the dumbest advice he ever got was to shoot free throws granny style. Rick Barry did that with great success, and has long advocated that approach for O'Neal, with his enormous hands that seem to get in the way of traditional shooting form.

O'Neal has been honest that he never considered it, for the simple reason that would make him look dumb. And doing things his way, O'Neal -- a career 53 percent free throw shooter -- has won four titles.

But at the same time, it's undeniable that O'Neal could have done more. Four seasons ended with rings, and a dozen seasons ended with playoff losses. And in eight of those 12 years that ended badly, there were games where, if O'Neal had made free throws at a good rate, his team would have lived to fight another day.

In other words, bad free throw shooting may well have cost O'Neal titles. For instance:

  • He missed nine free throws as a rookie, in a playoff game his Magic lost by two.

  • The next year he made six of 11 in a Finals game against the Rockets, and lost by three.

  • In his fourth year, as a Laker, he made five of ten in an elimination series game Utah won by two.

  • In 1999, against the Spurs, O'Neal made two of 10 free throws, and the Lakers lost by two.

  • More recently, as a Sun in 2008, the center made nine of 20 in an elimination game Phoenix lost by five.

The misses are just the tip of the iceberg, too.

Consider that O'Neal played much of his career trying to avoid the free throw line. Imagine if that had never been the case. With O'Neal's power and strength, and ability to get position in the lane, he had the potential to shoot more free throws than any player in NBA history -- if he had been seeking that. He was an incredibly effective player. But with the power to make free throws, he might have been literally the most efficient player ever.

If the granny shot did half of what Barry claims it would have done, it's easy to project that O'Neal would have won more titles.

But he made a macho decision not to even try.

None of that means O'Neal is rare, or foolish. We all understand his decision. But it also means that if we're looking far and wide for any little thing that might give our team an edge, well, in a competitive league a willingness to look other-than-macho could be an asset. That's one of the seven ideas I discuss in the video.