By MICHAEL LEWIS
NY Times: February 13, 2009
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.”
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. “Watch him,” a Houston front-office analyst told me before the game. “When the shot goes up, he’ll go sit on Gasol’s knee.” (Pau Gasol often plays center for 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.”
People often say that Kobe Bryant has no weaknesses to his game, but that’s not really true. Before the game, Battier was given his special package of information. “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 essentially broke 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.
Bryant isn’t like that. He is better at pretty much everything than everyone else, but 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.” One way the Rockets can see which teams think about the game as they do is by identifying those that “try dramatically not to foul.” The ideal outcome, from the Rockets’ statistical point of view, is for Bryant to dribble left and pull up for an 18-foot jump shot; force that to happen often enough and you have to be satisfied with your night. “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 court doesn’t have little squares all over it to tell him what percentage Bryant is likely to shoot from any given spot, but it might as well.
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.
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.”
Knowing the odds, Battier can pursue an inherently uncertain strategy with total certainty. He can devote himself to a process and disregard the outcome of any given encounter. This is critical because in basketball, as in everything else, luck plays a role, and Battier cannot afford to let it distract him. Only once during the Lakers game did we glimpse a clean, satisfying comparison of the efficient strategy and the inefficient one — that is, an outcome that reflected the odds. Ten feet from the hoop, Bryant got the ball with his back to the basket; with Battier pressing against him, he fell back and missed a 12-foot shot off the front of the rim. Moments earlier, with Battier reclining in the deep soft chair that masquerades as an N.B.A. bench, his teammate Brent Barry found himself in an analogous position. Bryant leaned into Barry, hit a six-foot shot and drew a foul. But this was the exception; normally you don’t get perfect comparisons. You couldn’t see the odds shifting subtly away from the Lakers and toward the Rockets as Bryant was forced from 6 feet out to 12 feet from the basket, or when he had Battier’s hand in his eyes. All you saw were the statistics on the board, and as the seconds ticked off to halftime, the game tied 54-54, Bryant led all scorers 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.
Just after that, the half ended, but not before Battier was tempted by a tiny act of basketball selfishness. The Rockets’ front office has picked up a glitch in Battier’s philanthropic approach to the game: in the final second of any quarter, finding himself with the ball and on the wrong side of the half-court line, Battier refuses to heave it honestly at the basket, in an improbable but not impossible attempt to score. He heaves it disingenuously, and a millisecond after the buzzer sounds. Daryl Morey could think of only one explanation: a miss lowers Battier’s shooting percentage. “I tell him we don’t count heaves in our stats,” Morey says, “but Shane’s smart enough to know that his next team might not be smart enough to take the heaves out.”
Tonight, the ball landed in Battier’s hands milliseconds before the half finished. He moved just slowly enough for the buzzer to sound, heaved the ball the length of the floor and then sprinted to the locker room — having not taken a single shot.