[Thanks to Coach Caputo at GMU and Jake for passing it along.]
The article tells of how Rockets GM Daryl Morey joined the team, his charge from ownership was to "find ways to improve the Rockets without spending money."
Says Morey: "We couldn’t afford another superstar, so we went looking for nonsuperstars that we thought were undervalued. That’s the scarce resource in the N.B.A. Not the superstar but the undervalued player."
Through innovative statistical analysis, Morey "came up with a list of 15, near the top of which was the Memphis Grizzlies’ forward Shane Battier. This perplexed [Rockets owner Les Alexander] who hired Morey to rethink basketball."
“All I knew was Shane’s stats," Alexander says, “and obviously they weren’t great. He had to sell me. It was hard for me to see it."
Alexander wasn’t alone. It was, and is, far easier to spot what Battier doesn’t do than what he does.
His conventional statistics are unremarkable: he doesn’t score many points, snag many rebounds, block many shots, steal many balls or dish out many assists. On top of that, it is easy to see what he can never do: what points he scores tend to come from jump shots taken immediately after receiving a pass.
“That’s the telltale sign of someone who can’t ramp up his offense,” Morey says. “Because you can guard that shot with one player. And until you can’t guard someone with one player, you really haven’t created an offensive situation. Shane can’t create an offensive situation. He needs to be open.”
For fun, Morey shows me video of a few rare instances of Battier scoring when he hasn’t exactly been open. Some large percentage of them came when he was being guarded by an inferior defender — whereupon Battier backed him down and tossed in a left jump-hook.
“This is probably, to be honest with you, his only offensive move,” Morey says. “But look, see how he pump fakes.”
Battier indeed pump faked, several times, before he shot over a defender. “He does that because he’s worried about his shot being blocked.” Battier’s weaknesses arise from physical limitations. Or, as Morey puts it, “He can’t dribble, he’s slow and hasn’t got much body control.”
Battier’s game is a weird combination of obvious weaknesses and nearly invisible strengths. When he is on the court, his teammates get better, often a lot better, and his opponents get worse — often a lot worse.
He may not grab huge numbers of rebounds, but he has an uncanny ability to improve his teammates’ rebounding. He doesn’t shoot much, but when he does, he takes only the most efficient shots. He also has a knack for getting the ball to teammates who are in a position to do the same, and he commits few turnovers.
On defense, although he routinely guards the N.B.A.’s most prolific scorers, he significantly reduces their shooting percentages. At the same time he somehow improves the defensive efficiency of his teammates — probably, Morey surmises, by helping them out in all sorts of subtle ways.
“I call him Lego,” Morey says. “When he’s on the court, all the pieces start to fit together. And everything that leads to winning that you can get to through intellect instead of innate ability, Shane excels in. I’ll bet he’s in the hundredth percentile of every category.”
When evaluating talent, the key, according to Morey, is to "measure the right things. The five players on any basketball team are far more than the sum of their parts; the Rockets devote a lot of energy to untangling subtle interactions among the team’s elements. To get at this they need something that basketball hasn’t historically supplied: meaningful statistics."
There is a tension, peculiar to basketball, between the interests of the team and the interests of the individual. The game continually tempts the people who play it to do things that are not in the interest of the group.
It is in basketball where the problems are most likely to be in the game — where the player, in his play, faces choices between maximizing his own perceived self-interest and winning. The choices are sufficiently complex that there is a fair chance he doesn’t fully grasp that he is making them.
For Morey, Battier is the "exception: the most abnormally unselfish basketball player he has ever seen. Or rather, the player who seems one step ahead of the analysts, helping the team in all sorts of subtle, hard-to-measure ways that appear to violate his own personal interests."
Last season when the Rockets played the San Antonio Spurs Battier was assigned to guard their most dangerous scorer, Manu Ginóbili. Ginóbili comes off the bench, however, and his minutes are not in sync with the minutes of a starter like Battier.
Battier privately went to Coach Rick Adelman and told him to bench him and bring him in when Ginóbili entered the game. “No one in the N.B.A. does that,” Morey says. “No one says put me on the bench so I can guard their best scorer all the time.”
The author writes that "before the Rockets traded for Battier, the front-office analysts obviously studied his value. They knew all sorts of details about his efficiency and his ability to reduce the efficiency of his opponents. They knew, for example, that stars guarded by Battier suddenly lose their shooting touch. What they didn’t know was why."
Morey recognized Battier’s effects, but he didn’t know how he achieved them. Two hundred or so basketball games later, he’s the world’s expert on the subject — which he was studying all over again tonight. He pointed out how, instead of grabbing uncertainly for a rebound, for instance, Battier would tip the ball more certainly to a teammate. Guarding a lesser rebounder, Battier would, when the ball was in the air, leave his own man and block out the other team’s best rebounder.
In HOU's game against the Lakers, "on defense, it was as if Battier had set out to maximize the misery Bryant experiences shooting a basketball, without having his presence recorded in any box score. He blocked the ball when Bryant was taking it from his waist to his chin, for instance, rather than when it was far higher and Bryant was in the act of shooting."
“When you watch him,” Morey says, “you see that his whole thing is to stay in front of guys and try to block the player’s vision when he shoots. We didn’t even notice what he was doing until he got here. I wish we could say we did, but we didn’t.”
Before facing Bryant, the Rockets' staff hands Battier a "special package of information" which breaks down "the floor into many discrete zones and calculated the odds of Bryant making shots from different places on the court, under different degrees of defensive pressure, in different relationships to other players — how well he scored off screens, off pick-and-rolls, off catch-and-shoots and so on."
Battier learns a lot from studying the data on the superstars he is usually assigned to guard. For instance, the numbers show him that Allen Iverson is one of the most efficient scorers in the N.B.A. when he goes to his right; when he goes to his left he kills his team.
The Golden State Warriors forward Stephen Jackson is an even stranger case.
“Steve Jackson,” Battier says, “is statistically better going to his right, but he loves to go to his left — and goes to his left almost twice as often.”
The San Antonio Spurs’ Manu Ginóbili is a statistical freak: he has no imbalance whatsoever in his game — there is no one way to play him that is better than another. He is equally efficient both off the dribble and off the pass, going left and right and from any spot on the floor.
“He’s the only player we give it to,” Morey says. “We can give him this fire hose of data and let him sift. Most players are like golfers. You don’t want them swinging while they’re thinking.”
The data shows that while Kobe "is better at pretty much everything than everyone else... there are places on the court, and starting points for his shot, that render him less likely to help his team."
When he drives to the basket, he is exactly as likely to go to his left as to his right, but when he goes to his left, he is less effective. When he shoots directly after receiving a pass, he is more efficient than when he shoots after dribbling. He’s deadly if he gets into the lane and also if he gets to the baseline; between the two, less so.
“The absolute worst thing to do,” Battier says, “is to foul him.”
It isn’t that Bryant is an especially good free-throw shooter but that, as Morey puts it, “the foul is the worst result of a defensive play.”
“If he has 40 points on 40 shots, I can live with that,” Battier says. “My job is not to keep him from scoring points but to make him as inefficient as possible.”
The reason the Rockets insist that Battier guard Bryant is his gift for encouraging him into his zones of lowest efficiency. The effect of doing this is astonishing: Bryant doesn’t merely help his team less when Battier guards him than when someone else does. When Bryant is in the game and Battier is on him, the Lakers’ offense is worse than if the N.B.A.’s best player had taken the night off.
A player whom Morey describes as “a marginal N.B.A. athlete” not only guards one of the greatest — and smartest — offensive threats ever to play the game. He renders him a detriment to his team.
According to Morey, “The Lakers’ offense should obviously be better with Kobe in. But if Shane is on him, it isn’t.”
For coaches, this next passage from the article is excellent:
And if you knew none of this, you would never guess any of it from watching the game. Bryant was quicker than Battier, so the latter spent much of his time chasing around after him, Keystone Cops-like.
Bryant shot early and often, but he looked pretty good from everywhere. On defense, Battier talked to his teammates a lot more than anyone else on the court, but from the stands it was hard to see any point to this.
And yet, he swears, there’s a reason to almost all of it: when he decides where to be on the court and what angles to take, he is constantly reminding himself of the odds on the stack of papers he read through an hour earlier as his feet soaked in the whirlpool.
“The numbers either refute my thinking or support my thinking,” he says, “and when there’s any question, I trust the numbers. The numbers don’t lie.”
Even when the numbers agree with his intuitions, they have an effect.
“It’s a subtle difference,” Morey says, “but it has big implications. If you have an intuition of something but no hard evidence to back it up, you might kind of sort of go about putting that intuition into practice, because there’s still some uncertainty if it’s right or wrong.”
Looking at the stat sheet at halftime of the LA-HOU game, the scored was tied and Kobe was the high-scorer with 16 points. "But he required 20 possessions to get them. And he had started moaning to the referees."
Bryant is one of the great jawboners in the history of the N.B.A. A major-league baseball player once showed me a slow-motion replay of the Yankees’ third baseman Alex Rodriguez in the batter’s box.
Glancing back to see where the catcher has set up is not strictly against baseball’s rules, but it violates the code. A hitter who does it is likely to find the next pitch aimed in the general direction of his eyes. A-Rod, the best hitter in baseball, mastered the art of glancing back by moving not his head, but his eyes, at just the right time. It was like watching a billionaire find some trivial and dubious deduction to take on his tax returns.
Why bother? I thought, and then realized: this is the instinct that separates A-Rod from mere stars. Kobe Bryant has the same instinct.
Tonight Bryant complained that Battier was grabbing his jersey, Battier was pushing when no one was looking, Battier was committing crimes against humanity. Just before the half ended, Battier took a referee aside and said: “You and I both know Kobe does this all the time. I’m playing him honest. Don’t fall for his stuff.”
Moments later, after failing to get a call, Bryant hurled the ball, screamed at the ref and was whistled for a technical foul. Battier had once again turned Bryant into a less-efficient machine of death.
At the end of the Rockets-Lakers game, the scoreboard read: "Bryant: 30. Battier: 0."
"I know that doesn’t look good," said Rockets VP of Basketball Ops Sam Hinkie. But remove Shane from the lineup and "we lose by 12. No matter what happens now, none of our coaches will say, 'If only we could have gotten a little more out of Battier.'"