Maybe the most telling point of the New York Times Magazine piece on how Shane Battier is the paragon of the new statistical revolution in basketball — and how those stats help him slow Kobe Bryant — is that at the end Kobe just hits the game winning shot right over Battier. Because, no matter what you do, Kobe just does things like that.
But that doesn’t slow Moneyball author Michael Lewis from holding up Battier as the example of a guy who was overlooked but that stats found. I’m not sure that a guy who was recruited to Duke then drafted sixth overall really ever got lost, though it is fair to say he was underappreciated in Memphis.
But the focus of the story is how Battier and the Rockets front office uses statistics slow Kobe Bryant, making him human.
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. “The Lakers’ offense should obviously be better with Kobe in,” Morey says. “But if Shane is on him, it isn’t.” 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.
The story ignores some key things, like the fact Battier has help. Read the story and you’d think Battier is on an island against Kobe. Battier is a good man-on-man defender, but part of that is that he is good at shading — forcing the man he is covering to the defender that is supposed to help him. In Battier’s case, that help is 7-6 Yao Ming. There is a reason a lot of players like Kobe shoot more jumpers against the Rockets — because it is hard to shoot over or around Yao. He controls the paint like few others, so while a jumper may be worse than a lay-up against most teams, against the Rockets it may be the only shot you get.
While it glosses over things, the article is a glimpse into the evolving world of the NBA’s statistical revolution. What the Rockets and other teams are doing is trying to find better ways to define what a player contributes on the court other than just a shot or a block or an assist. And there is value in that — the Lakers roster is frankly filled with guys like who don’t always do things that show up in a traditional box score.
Lamar Odom may lead the team in doing the little things — every night he instinctually kind of fills in what the Lakers need. With Bynum gone that is scoring of late, but some nights it’s rebounding, other nights it may be defense. The difference, from how Lewis describes Battier, is that the Rockets’ player thinks about it. He reads the stats, he consciously tries to make things happen. Odom does it almost purely on instinct. But guys like Trevor Ariza, Sasha Vujacic, Jordan Farmar, Luke Walton are all the same types of players the article talks about.
While the Lakers roster may be filled with players that statisticians love, they are one of only a couple teams not part of the statistical revolution. A call this summer to Lakers media man John Black asking to speak to the statistical guru for the Lakers was met with, “Phil Jackson doesn’t really believe in that.” And in the current Lakers organization, if Phil doesn’t nobody does.
Maybe the old ways do work, too.