Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Money (Basket) Ball

In this week’s New York Times Magazine, Michael Lewis writes about the art of Moneyball in the NBA. Lewis wrote a fantastic and revolutionary book about Major League Baseball in 2002, titled Moneyball, where he outlines the search for undervalued talents and the recruitment of such talent by Billy Beane and the Oakland A’s (if you are even a moderate fan of baseball, you must read this book immediately if not sooner). While I am a big fan of using statistics in unorthodox ways to find greater truths about a sport, I do not like basketball much at all. I occasionally get interested in the final rounds of the playoffs if the San Antonio Spurs or Houston Rockets are in contention, but I generally find the games to be fairly dull.

Lewis however is able to expose the NBA’s use of statistics in interesting ways, notably with the Rockets acquisition of Shane Battier. Praised as a star in high school and college, Battier has been seen as a failure at the NBA level by most ‘experts.’ He doesn’t have the traditional stats that stand out, like scoring or rebounds. Facing a situation similar to Beane in Oakland, the Rocket’s GM Daryl Morey had to find good players to round out hi
s team without spending a lot of money.

But Battier can play defense. He routinely guards some of the biggest players in the game, people such as Kobe Bryant and Manu Ginobli. What he does best is render these players much less effective than they are normally, when they are guarded by just about anyone else. Basketball, like all sports, is a game of percentages. For example, Kobe is just as likely to go to his left as his right, but he has a dramatically better shooting percentage when he goes to his right. Battier and the Rockets analysts know this, so rather than shut Kobe down, Battier tries to force him to go left.

Lewis’s article mainly works because Battier is such an interesting person aside form basketball. His mixed-race ancestry and intelligence makes a comparison with President Obama fairly apt. And he's a gut who hung up on Rick Pitino when he was being recruited out of high school for calling outside his scheduled time. But this is also where the main flaw in the article appears. Stating that Battier, unlike all other players on his team, memorizes the stats before a game and uses them to his advantage says a lot more about Shane Battier than it does the statistical methods. Sure they seem sound, but few NBA caliber players would be able to internalize all that information and recall it so effortlessly while on the floor.

Narrating the story over an account of a Rockets/Lakers game played last month, Lewis as always writes a story like the best of long form journalists. He’s a thinking man’s sportswriter, a fresh take in a world where I’ve turned off the television or radio just to stop the blathering noise from the ‘experts’ who know less than I do. A fantastic article about basketball being recommended by someone who pretty much hates the sport. If that’s not a recommendation, I don’t know what is.

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