Feb 16, 2009

Not Worthy (And I Don't Mean James)

NY Times Magazine Cover Subject Shane Battier of the Houston Rockets

Sunday's New York Times Magazine featured a cover story, "The No-Stats All-Star," on the Houston Rocket's forward Shane Battier written by well regarded scribe Michael Lewis. The article discusses the way that the use of scientific statistics to evaluate players has now made its way into basketball, after initially taking hold in Major League Baseball back in the 1990s. Baseball writer Bill James is the figure most associated with the practice known as sabermetrics, which is a highly scientific way of evaluating even the most mundane statistical data for the purpose of finding especially productive players. Houston Rocket's General Manager Daryl Morey is highly influenced by the use of statistics and is credited in the Lewis article with bringing this approach into basketball. Shane Battier is emblematic of the type of player the sabermetrics approach focuses on, one who is not a superstar or even regarded as especially athletic, but who makes his team better whenever he is on the court, while the team appears to suffer when he sits on the bench.

The problem with this article, and there are several, starts with the exclusive focus on Battier. Not that Battier isn't a important piece for the Houston Rockets, he is, but his overall value to his team and by extension to basketball is quite a bit overstated. Secondly, one doesn't need statistics to know that an NBA game often comes down to individual players taking over in crunch time. Nor does one need sabermetrics to know that NBA basketball has long featured what are called "role players", which is what Battier most certainly is. A role player or "glue guy" as they are often described in the colloquial parlance of the contemporary NBA, is not a superstar, but one who does the little things, the dirty work, and all other tasks deemed to be in the interest of helping the team--taking charges, diving for loose balls, etc.--so that the superstar can flourish. Think of a good supporting actor, as opposed to a movie star.

The article talks about Battier's time with the Memphis Grizzles and the Rockets, yet neither team has made it out of the first round of the playoffs during Battier's tenure. Perhaps a better subject for the article would have been James Posey, now of the New Orleans Hornets. Posey, a role player who is known for his defensive skills and his three point shooting ability, like Battier, has been an important member of two of the last three NBA champions; the Miami Heat and the Boston Celtics. Posey's defense on Kobe Bryant in last year's finals was significant in denying Kobe the opportunity to take over games and the unorthodox-looking 3s that Posey hit with regularity were always timely. Some have argued that Posey's absence from the Celtics bench this year might be the difference that keeps them from repeat as champions. Yet Posey's name doesn't even come up in Lewis' article. Lewis goes on and on about Battier's defense on Bryant during the regular season last year, as though Wack Mamba has never been contained before. The difference is, Posey did it in the Finals while helping his team win a championship. Of course every team that wins a title has one or more contributing role players as these players are an important component of any championship squad.

James Posey, celebrating the Celtics' championship (June, 2008)

So why the focus on a rather unspectacular player who has had limited success? Well it seems that in the age of Obama, Battier's biracial birth rite is what Lewis really wants to talk about. Battier, who starred in college at Duke, has a white mother and a black father. He is idealized in the article partly because he seems to have defied the expectation of some of the African American players on the AAU circuit who thought that he was soft back when he was in high school. Lewis spends a lot of time in the article describing Battier's struggles to fit in as a youth because of his biracial heritage and the fact that other NBA players don't really like him, the implication being that they don't like him because he's considered a suburban guy with a Duke pedigree in a league dominated by street players.

If you want to write an article about the struggles of biracial people to fit into society, so be it. By all means. But this particular article high jacks basketball in order to tell this story, using the sabermetrics angle as a ruse. Lewis doesn't demonstrate that the investment in statistics has spread beyond the Houston Rockets. Neither Battier or Daryl Morey deserve this type of basketball attention because they have yet to win anything of significance. The sabermetrics theory is a non theory as far as basketball goes. The sport is played on the court, not computers. NBA basketball is a game that still revolves around improvisation and creativity, something no computer in the world can measure. Save the sabermetrics for baseball. The culture of basketball is firmly rooted in the streets and though Shane Battier is a good player, his NBA career to this point has been nothing but incidental.


mosca said...

The NYT is afraid their readers would go to sleep after the first graph if they did a straight up sabermetrics story.

Anonymous said...

the good doctor,

i SO miss sitting in your lectures. 7 years later and this brings me back to "Sports & American Cinema"/"Hip Hop Cinema"/and of course, the Blaxploitation class. i'm loving the blog.