February 14, 2009

SOMETHING EVEN HARDER TO QUANTIFY...:

The No-Stats All-Star (MICHAEL LEWIS, 2/15/09, NY Times Magazine)

Seldom are regular-season games in the N.B.A. easy to get worked up for. Yesterday Battier couldn’t tell me whom the team played three days before. (“The Knicks!” he exclaimed a minute later. “We played the Knicks!”) Tonight, though it was a midweek game in the middle of January, was different. Tonight the Rockets were playing the Los Angeles Lakers, and so Battier would guard Kobe Bryant, the player he says is the most capable of humiliating him. Both Battier and the Rockets’ front office were familiar with the story line. “I’m certain that Kobe is ready to just destroy Shane,” Daryl Morey, the Rockets’ general manager, told me. “Because there’s been story after story about how Shane shut Kobe down the last time.” Last time was March 16, 2008, when the Houston Rockets beat the Lakers to win their 22nd game in a row — the second-longest streak in N.B.A. history. The game drew a huge national television audience, which followed Bryant for his 47 miserable minutes: he shot 11 of 33 from the field and scored 24 points. “A lot of people watched,” Morey said. “Everyone ­watches Kobe when the Lakers play. And so everyone saw Kobe struggling. And so for the first time they saw what we’d been seeing.” Battier has routinely ­guarded the league’s most dangerous offensive players — LeBron James, Chris Paul, Paul Pierce — and has usually managed to render them, if not entirely ineffectual, then a lot less effectual than they normally are. He has done it so quietly that no one really notices what exactly he is up to.

Last season, in a bid to draw some attention to Battier’s defense, the Rockets’ public-relations department would send a staff member to the opponent’s locker room to ask leading questions of whichever superstar Battier had just hamstrung: “Why did you have so much trouble tonight?” “Did he do something to disrupt your game?” According to Battier: “They usually say they had an off night. They think of me as some chump.” He senses that some players actually look forward to being guarded by him. “No one dreads being guarded by me,” he said. Morey confirmed as much: “That’s actually true. But for two reasons: (a) They don’t think anyone can guard them and (b) they really scoff at the notion Shane Battier could guard them. They all think his reputation exceeds his ability.” Even as Battier was being introduced in the arena, Ahmad Rashad was wrapping up his pregame report on NBA TV and saying, “Shane Battier will try to stop Kobe Bryant.” This caused the co-host Gary Payton to laugh and reply, “Ain’t gonna happen,” and the other co-host, Chris Webber, to add, “I think Kobe will score 50, and they’ll win by 19 going away.”

Early on, Hoop Scoop magazine named Shane Battier the fourth-best seventh grader in the United States. When he graduated from Detroit Country Day School in 1997, he received the Naismith Award as the best high-school basketball player in the nation. When he graduated from Duke in 2001, where he won a record-tying 131 college-basketball games, including that year’s N.C.A.A. championship, he received another Naismith Award as the best college basketball player in the nation. He was drafted in the first round by the woeful Memphis Grizzlies, not just a bad basketball team but the one with the worst winning percentage in N.B.A. history — whereupon he was almost instantly dismissed, even by his own franchise, as a lesser talent. The year after Battier joined the Grizzlies, the team’s general manager was fired and the N.B.A. legend Jerry West, a k a the Logo because his silhouette is the official emblem of the N.B.A., took over the team. “From the minute Jerry West got there he was trying to trade me,” Battier says. If West didn’t have any takers, it was in part because Battier seemed limited: most of the other players on the court, and some of the players on the bench, too, were more obviously gifted than he is. “He’s, at best, a marginal N.B.A. athlete,” Morey says.

The Grizzlies went from 23-59 in Battier’s rookie year to 50-32 in his third year, when they made the N.B.A. playoffs, as they did in each of his final three seasons with the team. Before the 2006-7 season, Battier was traded to the Houston Rockets, who had just finished 34-48. In his first season with the Rockets, they finished 52-30, and then, last year, went 55-27 — including one stretch of 22 wins in a row. Only the 1971-2 Los Angeles Lakers have won more games consecutively in the N.B.A. And because of injuries, the Rockets played 11 of those 22 games without their two acknowledged stars, Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming, on the court at the same time; the Rockets player who spent the most time actually playing for the Rockets during the streak was Shane Battier. This year Battier, recovering from off-season surgery to remove bone spurs from an ankle, has played in just over half of the Rockets’ games. That has only highlighted his importance. “This year,” Morey says, “we have been a championship team with him and a bubble playoff team without him.”

Here we have a basketball mystery: a player is widely regarded inside the N.B.A. as, at best, a replaceable cog in a machine driven by superstars. And yet every team he has ever played on has acquired some magical ability to win.

Solving the mystery is somewhere near the heart of Daryl Morey’s job. In 2005, the Houston Rockets’ owner, Leslie Alexander, decided to hire new management for his losing team and went looking specifically for someone willing to rethink the game. “We now have all this data,” Alexander told me. “And we have computers that can analyze that data. And I wanted to use that data in a progressive way. When I hired Daryl, it was because I wanted somebody that was doing more than just looking at players in the normal way. I mean, I’m not even sure we’re playing the game the right way.”

The virus that infected professional baseball in the 1990s, the use of statistics to find new and better ways to value players and strategies, has found its way into every major sport. Not just basketball and football, but also soccer and cricket and rugby and, for all I know, snooker and darts — each one now supports a subculture of smart people who view it not just as a game to be played but as a problem to be solved. Outcomes that seem, after the fact, all but inevitable — of course LeBron James hit that buzzer beater, of course the Pittsburgh Steelers won the Super Bowl — are instead treated as a set of probabilities, even after the fact. The games are games of odds. Like professional card counters, the modern thinkers want to play the odds as efficiently as they can; but of course to play the odds efficiently they must first know the odds. Hence the new statistics, and the quest to acquire new data, and the intense interest in measuring the impact of every little thing a player does on his team’s chances of winning. In its spirit of inquiry, this subculture inside professional basketball is no different from the subculture inside baseball or football or darts. The difference in basketball is that it happens to be the sport that is most like life.

When Alexander, a Wall Street investor, bought the Rockets in 1993, the notion that basketball was awaiting some statistical reformation hadn’t occurred to anyone. At the time, Daryl Morey was at Northwestern University, trying to figure out how to get a job in professional sports and thinking about applying to business schools. He was tall and had played high-school basketball, but otherwise he gave off a quizzical, geeky aura. “A lot of people who are into the new try to hide it,” he says. “With me there was no point.” In the third grade he stumbled upon the work of the baseball writer Bill James — the figure most responsible for the current upheaval in professional sports — and decided that what he really wanted to do with his life was put Jamesian principles into practice. He nursed this ambition through a fairly conventional academic career, which eventually took him to M.I.T.’s Sloan School of Management. There he opted for the entrepreneurial track, not because he actually wanted to be an entrepreneur but because he figured that the only way he would ever be allowed to run a pro-sports franchise was to own one, and the only way he could imagine having enough money to buy one was to create some huge business. “This is the 1990s — there’s no Theo,” Morey says, referring to Theo Epstein, the statistics-minded general manager of the Boston Red Sox. “Sandy Alderson is progressive, but nobody knows it.” Sandy Alderson, then the general manager of the Oakland Athletics, had also read Bill James and begun to usher in the new age of statistical analysis in baseball. “So,” Morey continues, “I just assumed that getting rich was the only way in.” Apart from using it to acquire a pro-sports team, Morey had no exceptional interest in money.

He didn’t need great wealth, as it turned out. After graduating from business school, he went to work for a consulting firm in Boston called Parthenon, where he was tapped in 2001 to advise a group trying to buy the Red Sox. The bid failed, but a related group went and bought the Celtics — and hired Morey to help reorganize the business. In addition to figuring out where to set ticket prices, Morey helped to find a new general manager and new people looking for better ways to value basketball players. The Celtics improved. Leslie Alexander heard whispers that Morey, who was 33, was out in front of those trying to rethink the game, so he hired him to remake the Houston Rockets.

When Morey came to the Rockets, a huge chunk of the team’s allotted payroll — the N.B.A. caps payrolls and taxes teams that exceed them — was committed, for many years to come, to two superstars: Tracy ­McGrady and Yao Ming. Morey had to find ways to improve the Rockets without spending money. “We couldn’t afford another superstar,” he says, “so we went looking for nonsuperstars that we thought were undervalued.” He went looking, essentially, for underpaid players. “That’s the scarce resource in the N.B.A.,” he says. “Not the superstar but the undervalued player.” Sifting the population of midlevel N.B.A. players, he came up with a list of 15, near the top of which was the Memphis Grizzlies’ forward Shane Battier. This perplexed even the man 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.”

There are other things Morey has noticed too, but declines to discuss as there is right now in pro basketball real value to new information, and the Rockets feel they have some.


...is the effect one persona can have on such small teams. When Kevin Garnett came to the Celtics, all of a sudden everyone on the team was ashamed to not be seen playing as hard as he does, especially on defense.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at February 14, 2009 10:15 AM
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