Saturday, February 14, 2009

Bill James, Moneyball now ruining the NBA, too

No one wants to piggyback on Michael Lewis' brilliance. However, when he turns his attention to pro basketball, using Houston Rockets shutdown defender Shane Battier as a vessel, people should have all their facets turned on.
"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."
It's not rocket science, but it's something fans really should start weaving into their understanding of sports. The Rockets, under 30-something GM Daryl Morey, a Bill James devotee, the Rockets have a vice-president whose title includes "basketball analytics." It's good, lengthy read, but if you have time on a light sports weekend, give it look-see.

There's a ton in there, including a passage about some subtle cheating by Alex Rodriguez which actually has nothing to with steroids, just how good Steve Nash was in his MVP seasons (take that, Bill Simmons) and why the San Antonio Spurs guard, Manu Ginóbili, is a such a tough matchup. Manu is a freak with "no imbalance whatsoever in his game — there is no one way to play him that is better than another." Free free to wonders if Manu's game was influenced at all by him growing up in a soccer country, Argentina; here one thinks of Paul Shirley joking that Nash was in more in tune with the patterns of flow and movement because he grew up around soccer.

It doesn't mean the Rockets are going to eight-peat as NBA champions. The NBA is where injuries happen, players banking in off-balance three-pointers happens and other teams having Kobe Bryant happens. It is something to have in your understanding as sports fans.
When (Rockets owner Leslie) Alexander, a Wall Street investor, bought the Rockets in 1993, the notion that basketball was awaiting some statistical reformation hadn’t occurred to anyone. At the time, Daryl Morey was at Northwestern University, trying to figure out how to get a job in professional sports and thinking about applying to business schools. He was tall and had played high-school basketball, but otherwise he gave off a quizzical, geeky aura. 'A lot of people who are into the new try to hide it,' he says. 'With me there was no point.' In the third grade he stumbled upon the work of the baseball writer Bill James — the figure most responsible for the current upheaval in professional sports — and decided that what he really wanted to do with his life was put Jamesian principles into practice."
For lack of a better word, it's nice to read something in a sports section which at least increases understanding or spurs some thoughts.

It also validates having Shane Battier on one's fantasy team last season. It didn't necessarily mean that Good Enough 4 Odessa won more games, but it's clearer now that the league was at fault for valuing the stats which are accumulated selfishly. So there.

(As an aside, a few years back in my capacity at the Simcoe Reformer, I wrote a feature on a young woman from the area, Becky Gallant, who played basketball for Brock University. She'd been an intern with with the Raptors and had seen how the video guys cut up game tape; the biggest takeaway for her had been seeing how well a NBA player can pass. She mentioned Nash, who was on his way to his second MVP, but also mentioned Manu Ginóbili. It seemed odd since he doesn't play the point and has never averaged more than 4.5 assists per game, but it makes more sense today.)

The No-Stats All-Star (Michael Lewis, The New York Times magazine)


THE Captain said...

Completely random Neate, but do you know if that Becky Gallant had gone to Assumption High School?

sager said...

She did, if I correctly remember.

THE Captain said...

Thanks Neate! I remember meeting Becky during the 2000 or 2001 OFSAA championships in Ottawa. At the time she was a super person and a terrific ballplayer! Thanks for the flashback!