Sunday, February 12, 2012

Jeremy Lin

A player named Jeremy Lin has become the Tebow of the NBA this past week. Lin played at Harvard as an undergraduate, was not drafted, but played a bit last year before being traded to the Knicks this season. He was a benchwarmer there until injuries and perhaps a losing record caused the Knick coach to give Lin a shot at starting.

Since he has started the Knicks have not lost. Lin is averaging over 20 points a game during this period and had 38 on Friday night leading the Knicks against Kobe Bryant and the Lakers. What makes Lin's and the Knicks' achievements more surprising is the fact that during the streak, the best players on the Knicks--two all stars--have been unable to play.

In team sports, I have often thought that talent--in and of itself-is an asset that is attributed more value than it deserves. Carmelo Anthony is certainly a far more skilled player than Jeremy Lin. Amare Stoudemire is also far more skilled than Jeremy Lin. But when both of the superstars were in the line-up the Knicks could not win a game. Now that they are both out, the Knicks are not losing. How can that be?

It could only be if the assets that are most valuable in a team game relate less to individual talent, and more to the ability to make a team cohere. If you argue that the whole in team sports is, potentially, greater than the sum of its parts, then aggregating five superior athletes would naturally be less wise than composing a team with players who could, despite limited skill, increase the chance that the sum of the five would be greater than the accumulated value of the five superior athletes.

People in communication studies use the term "nonsummativity" to describe communication behavior in groups. What it means is that when a collection of people meet in organizations or elsewhere, the result of the meeting is not a sum (nonsummative) of the individual assets and wisdom of those in the group. The result is either greater or less than the sum of individual capabilities because when in a team setting, a host of variables can augment what any one person could bring to the table, or similarly reduce what that person can bring to the table. This is why you can have a meeting a work with three very bright people and come away as if you have completely wasted the time spent conversing. This happens so often that in my line of work, either as someone who participates in meetings, or someone who studies them--there is a common complaint about the frustration of these interactions.

This phenomena explains why Stoudemaire and Anthony's talents are limited in a team game. They are both great players, but Jeremy Lin may be better even though he might lose 21-2 in a game of one on one with either of them. Jeremy Lin apparently is able to get the group to have a positive nonsummative result on the court. Sure, it helps that he can shoot well and is quick to the hoop--some skills are essential, but those that help teams win are often not what wows scouts.

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