Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Even non-sports fans should love this article

But how in the world am I supposed to know, I'm a sports fan (although I'm trying to quit), but its probably impossible for me to put myself in the shoes of a true-blue sports hater. At any rate, this article was mind-blowingly good. Its about Shane Battier, a basketball player for the Houston Rockets, former Duke star. From a statistical point of view, Battier, should be out of the NBA, but from the basis of helping a team win, he should be an all-star.

Here are some of my favorite parts of the article:
"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." 
"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.” 
"Having watched Battier play for the past two and a half years, Morey has come to think of him as an 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. "
"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.”" 
"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." 
"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." 
"Wetzel watched this kid, inundated with offers of every kind, take charge of an unprincipled process. Battier narrowed his choices to six schools — Kentucky, Kansas, North Carolina, Duke, Michigan and Michigan State — and told everyone else, politely, to leave him be. He then set out to minimize the degree to which the chosen schools could interfere with his studies; he had a 3.96 G.P.A. and was poised to claim Detroit Country Day School’s headmaster’s cup for best all-around student. He granted each head coach a weekly 15-minute window in which to phone him. These men happened to be among the most famous basketball coaches in the world and the most persistent recruiters, but Battier granted no exceptions. When the Kentucky coach Rick Pitino, who had just won a national championship, tried to call Battier outside his assigned time, Battier simply removed Kentucky from his list. “What 17-year-old has the stones to do that?” Wetzel asks. “To just cut off Rick Pitino because he calls outside his window?” Wetzel answers his own question: “It wasn’t like, ‘This is a really interesting 17-year-old.’ It was like, ‘This isn’t real.’ ”" 
Battier had once again turned Bryant into a less-efficient machine of death. Even when the shots dropped, they came from the places on the court where the Rockets’ front office didn’t mind seeing them drop. “That’s all you can do,” Hinkie said, after Bryant sank an 18-footer. “Get him to an inefficient spot and contest.”

"The team with the N.B.A.’s best record was being taken to the wire by Yao Ming and a collection of widely unesteemed players. Moments later, I looked up at the scoreboard:
Bryant: 30.
Battier: 0. 
Hinkie followed my gaze and smiled. “I know that doesn’t look good,” he said, referring to the players’ respective point totals. But if Battier wasn’t in there, he went on to say: “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.’ ”"
Sorry for the random assortment of quotes, but I'm hoping this will encourage you to read the article. Its incredible, really, the sport of basketball. How much more important it is for success that all the players play well together as a team, offensively and defensively than individual statistics. And how an athlete like Shane Battier (whose destined for a future in politics by the way), uses very below level athleticism, but far superior intelligence to become literally one of the best players in the game if you measure best by how much that player actually helps a team win.

Can the suns trade Amare Stoudemire straight up for Shane Battier?


Davey said...

I agree with you on this one Scott, that was an exceptional piece of journalism on an exceptional athlete.

The part I liked best was the discussion of the tension between players on the same teams. As a non-sports fan I have always assumed players only played the other team but there is another games going on altogether - the players playing against each other for their own stats.

The remarkable thing is what happens when just one player begins to play only a single game. Battier may be the only player in the league who goes out and plays only one game on the court. And because of this his team wins. Remarkable.

Kierkegaard said "purity of heart is to will one thing". That's what's going on here Battier is the only one out there who is on the court doing one thing and look at what he accomplishes.

I must say though that one of the reasons I liked this article so much was because of some work I did for the Anasazi Foundation, a non-profit youth intervention program. We used the philosophy of a business consulting firm called The Arbinger Institute to intervene with kids, one of the primary emphases at Arbinger was the identification of times when we are focused on ourselves instead of our results (or the kids as it were). Battier was a beautiful example of this. Less emphasis on himself led to greater success for his team. My boss always used to say that he couldn't afford to pay me to do my job, the only way he could afford to pay me was if I did my job in a way that helped other people to do their jobs too. Arbinger has some articles available on their website, Scott, I think you'd love them

btg said...

This was a great article. He is truly a remarkable player/person. It is refreshing to hear of a selfless player at this level. "How many points a player scores, for example, is no true indication of how much he has helped his team." This is a missed fact in the league. On the night that Kobe scored 81 points, approximately 65% of his teams points, he missed nearly 20 shots. Most players would never dream of taking 20 shots, much less missing that many. When the article speaks about the Spurs game:"Battier privately went to Coach Rick Adelman and told him to bench him and bring him in when GinĂ³bili entered the game." Are you serious? No other elite player would sacrifice his own time like that (after reading this article, I think he is elite). I liked his mindset: "My job is not to keep him from scoring points but to make him as inefficient as possible." You have heard it a million can't stop him, you have to contain him. This is an amazing statistic: "A team scores on average about 100 points a game, but two out of three N.B.A. games are decided by fewer than 6 points — two or three possessions." This is why Battier is so valuable. How valuable is he to his team? " ...he not only guards one of the greatest — and smartest — offensive threats ever to play the game (Kobe). He renders him a detriment to his team." It's not that so many players today can't play defense,they can learn, but they are unwilling. Look at Amare. When he wants to be a defensive force (after the press and fans rip on him), he is. He has the ability to impose his will on both ends of the court. But he won't do it more than a couple of games because it's not his "game." The Suns are the perfect example. Porter was a defese first kind of guy (and a pretty good defender in in time) and the team revolted against him. They say defense wins championships. Players like Battier prove that to be true. As far as the trade idea, in today's NBA, it would never happen. Until the uncalculated stats get notice, it will never happen. I guess we just need to get Stat to play on both ends! One last thing...Don't quit being a fan, just don't be a fanatic! Even one of your hero's is sports fan. Unfortunately, Obama is a Steelers fan!