So Is Shane Battier Any Good Or Not?

Illustration for article titled So Is Shane Battier Any Good Or Not?

As expected, there's been a lot of talk generated by that Shane Battier piece—talk that will continue until Michael Lewis writes a 10,000-word story about how centers are the smartest guys in football. (They are.)


It's good to see that most of that talk has risen above the level of "this guy is a stupid idiot jerk," but it also seems like the biggest issue is that most people still can't wrap their minds around Shane Battier as a quality NBA player. Or Daryl Morey as having any kind of basketball sense.

For example, to complain that Morey must be dumb for trading Rudy Gay to get Battier is a willful disregard of the article's thesis. Yes, Gay is obviously the better basketball player, but ... Memphis stinks. They made the playoffs three straight years with Battier and are now on their way to three straight 60-loss seasons without him. Is that all Shane's fault? Probably not. But if anyone's judgment should be questioned here, it's probably not Morey's.

The most interesting point—and I may have misrepresented this in my post as well—is that it's not just about some complex, unknown formula that proves Shane Battier's worth. It's that no contribution matters, if it doesn't help the team win. Isn't the knock on the Kobe Bryant that he's selfish? That he scores thousands of points a season, but doesn't make his teammates better. So here's a player with obvious individual weaknesses, who does appear to make his team better and very few people seem to know how to quantify that. So how does he do it?

Yes, for an article that purports to examine statistics, there is very little math here. However, the Rockets aren't going to discuss their internal strategies with a journalist. And even if they did, the readers of the New York Times Magazine could not possibly care to read about it. You, the hoops loving junkie with NBA League Pass on your satellite dish, are the not the target audience of this article. It's meant to be understood and digested by many people who understand nothing about sports, but are maybe interested in science and non-conventional thinking. (i.e. eggheads who like proving people wrong.)

That's also why the article contains so many details of Battier's upbringing and racial tension. It's called "color" and it is what separates dry, boring articles from entertaining ones.


Yes, there is a lot going on here and the constant gear-changing can occasionally be disorienting for some, but that's a criticism of Lewis' writing, not his ideas. Does the article tell the whole story? Of course not. No single story could. But it's meant to introduce an unfamiliar (to most) concept, break it down, and make people think. On the last point, it has definitely accomplished its goal.

It may have even accomplished a more important goal from the Rockets' perspective: increasing Shane Battier's trade value. The way Morey talks about him in the magazine, you would think Battier was indispensable, but apparently he's so good that the Rockets now want to trade him. That's one way to make your team better!



Oh, one other thing. Some people may have liked the article better when it was written the first time, over a year ago. I stumbled across this 2007 piece by Jason Friedman of the Houston Press that covers the exact same territory—Morey as stats genius—but obviously it didn't get as much attention without the names "Michael Lewis" and "New York Times" attached. I guess you won't see that play in the box score either.


Lies, Damned Lies, and Obama [Talking Point Free]
Statistics, Battier Are No Way to Stop Kobe | NBC Los Angeles [NBC LA]

From 2007
Rocket Science [Houston Press]
What the Box Score Data Says About Shane Battier [Wages Of Wins]


And from 2005:
Measure Of Success [SI]