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Raptors HQ Talks "Touchiness" with Dr. Michael Kraus

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Continuing on this week's analytical theme, the HQ talks to the leader of a study looking at NBA player "touchiness" and how that correlated with team success...


Some of you may recall back in February that TrueHoop's Henry Abbott discussed a study on, where a team of researchers, led by recently "PhDed" Michael Kraus, examined the correlation between NBA player "touchiness" on the court, and team wins.

Interestingly, besides calling out the league's "touchiest teams," the Celtics and Lakers finished atop the league in this respect, their study also looked at individual players who were more prone to high-fives and fist bumps.  Of these individuals, the Toronto Raptors' Chris Bosh finished second behind only Kevin Garnett.

After reading the study, I thought it might be interesting to touch base with Dr. Kraus to get a full breakdown of the study, and in particular, how it might apply to Toronto going forward now that Mr. Bosh has moved on.


1.  RaptorsHQ - Recently Truehoop discussed the study you co-authored which examined correlations between NBA team "touchiness" and winning.  Tell us a bit about the study and its results.

Dr. Michael Kraus:  My colleagues and I at UC Berkeley were interested in determining whether teams can use touch to boost their performance? To examine this question, we watched NBA basketball games during the first months of the 2008-2009 NBA season, and recorded all the touching that players on the same team engaged in over the course of that single game (e.g., high fives, butt slaps, fist bumps, hugs). We then used these early-season touches to predict performance over  the course of the entire 2008-2009 season. Quite interestingly, teams that touched more, performed better, were more likely to reach the postseason, and won more games.

Another interesting thing we found: even when we accounted for how well teams played during the early season game coded for touch, how good the teams were expected to play during the season by experts from ESPN and, and how much teams paid their players, touch early in the season still predicted performance over the course of the entire season.

2.  RHQ - It's an incredibly interesting idea, how did you come up with the premise?

MK:  My advisor (Dacher Keltner, Professor of Psychology and Director of the Greater Good Science Center) and I play basketball together in Berkeley on Fridays. It is a local pick-up game that goes on right before lunch. When we played together we couldn't help but notice how important those high fives were. Not just good plays either. For example, if I took a bad shot, or turned the ball over and someone still gave me a high five, I'd feel better about the team, and that made me more enthusiastic about playing with those guys. We figured that if touch mattered to us during games with strangers, the power of touch would be magnified in team settings where guys play together over the course of an entire season.

3.  RHQ - As we cover the Toronto Raptors, can you talk a bit about how they fared as a team and which of their players were the "touchiest?"

MK:  Your Raptors finished #18 in terms of total touch duration during the 2008-2009 season. Though the Raptors didn't finish high, Chris Bosh was the second most touchy player in the league, initiating what amounted to about 1/2 of all the touches engaged in by Raptor players. In this respect, Bosh asserted himself as one of the on-court leaders of the Raptors.

4.  RHQ - Do you have plans to do any follow-up work on this subject?

MK:  We're definitely planning future research. For example, we are currently conducting experimental studies where we vary whether or not teams touch each other, to determine if touch actually does cause improved performance (our initial study using the NBA, was correlational). In addition, we're interested in understanding if touch is a signal of leadership? and if the current findings will generalize from the court to the corporate meeting room?


5.  RHQ - Some might argue that teams that win and are "touchier" are so because they win - ie; these teams have on-court success and therefore are more willing to congratulate each other and have more opportunity to do so because of their in-game success.  How did you attempt to address that possibility?

MK:  We also were concerned about this. To account for it, what we did was we controlled for preseason expectations from NBA experts (e.g., preseason predictions made by NBA gms in the annual gm survey and sportswriters). What we found was these preseason experts were quite good at predicting which teams would do well this season, however, even while accounting for these predictions, teams that touched more at the start of the season still performed better. So what this analysis allows us to say is that we knew which teams were likely to be winning teams before the season started, but even when we account for knowing this, touch at the beginning of the season still tells us how a team is likely to perform.

Of course, to really, truly know that touch CAUSES better performance we need to do more than this analysis. We need to look at experiments and laboratory evidence of teams who engage in touch vs. teams that don't. This work is currently ongoing at our laboratory at Berkeley. I'll let you know how it turns out!

6.  RHQ - Any prognostications on the level of success of the Miami Heat's "super-team" based on your results?  Or what about Toronto minus its top emoting player; are any of the other current Raptors, players that were high on your "touchiness" results list?

MK:  The summer has been a truly exciting one for basketball and I am very interested in what the Heat will do this coming season. I think having Bosh in Miami is an especially important addition, in light of our data. I don't usually get a chance to talk about this, but both Lebron and Wade do not show up as high-level touchers. In fact, when you account for the number of minutes these guys play, they do very little touching in comparison to other players who play similar minutes. Now this could be due to each of those guys, on their previous teams, having to carry too much of the scoring load (they're both dialed in so much they can't worry about team cooperation), so maybe you'll see more of it from them this coming year. What I think is more likely is that Chris Bosh is going to be the glue-guy for that team, the rock that they can count on, the guy who will keep those other role players involved and together.

In terms of the Raptors new team, there wasn't any one individual high on our touch metric other than Bosh. I think this means that there is a clear opportunity for someone to fill this role for the team in the future. I think when a team loses someone who was such a vital part of their basketball play and their team chemistry it is really going to change the team's identity, and that can be a good thing going forward, but definitely, right now it is not clear who is going to be that leader.


A big thanks to Dr. Kraus for taking the time to talk with me about this and it might be quite interesting to touch base with him down the road on any further research.  His point about the Raptors is especially poignant because minus Bosh, the team really doesn't have a "team-face" any more. 

Is it Andrea BargnaniDeMar DeRozanJarrett Jack

One of these players, or someone else, will have to take the reigns next year in the Bosh "touchy" department and right now I'm not sure who I'd peg for the role.

However minus a defacto "head," perhaps we won't see any "one" individual attempt to be the on-court motivator, and perhaps that's one of the advantages of having the Young Gunz, an already tightly knit group, as the team's new core.  Players like Amir Johnson and Sonny Weems were quite congratulatory with teammates last year and hopefully that youthful enthusiasm spreads throughout the entire club.

On paper though, it's a big question mark at present, which probably explains why in the new edition of NBA Jam, Toronto's duo consists of Jose Calderon and Andrea Bargnani...