Rockets-Lakers: A Tipping Point For The NBA?

As a Golden State Warriors fan – and admittedly a fair-weather one – I could not have found the 2008-09 NBA season much duller or depressing. The play of this uninspired, oft-injured squad and its possibly insane coach drove me well away from following the team despite a raft of discount ticket offers. My inner Assistant General Manager, though, is entirely intrigued by the playoff series opening tomorrow night: the clearly-best-in-the-league Los Angeles Lakers against the Houston Rockets.


kobe battier Rockets Lakers: A Tipping Point For The NBA?

Shane Battier defending Kobe Bryant

This story starts back in February when the New York Times Magazine published “The No-Stats All-Star“ by Michael Lewis. One of my favorite writers for his ability to cross great business writing with incisive observation about sports and its hidden-in-plain-sight economy, Lewis had previously written on applying market theory in baseball (Moneyball: The Art of Winning An Unfair Game) and football (The Blind Side: The Evolution Of A Gameexcerpt).

The NYT article centered on the Houston Rockets and in particular Shane Battier, who is used as an example of how basketball statistics are enormously deceptive by only depicting production with the ball. As he’d done so well in his previous books, Lewis makes the argument that glamor statistics like points per game, rebounds and so forth don’t necessarily show how much a player actually helps its team earn what really counts: wins. The Rockets have put together a team of statisticians to develop metrics for what truly produces wins. With those metrics in hand, they targeted Battier, a well-regarded player who had some tough seasons with the woeful Memphis Grizzlies, but had a record otherwise of always playing with winners. I’ll leave the statistical discussion to Lewis’s article, which I highly recommend, but suffice it to say that the Rockets’ stats-based defensive theory is to learn where opposing players become the least efficient on the floor.

The story was published in February. Before Los Angeles played Houston on March 11th, master motivator Laker Coach Phil Bradley showed Kobe this passage:

The reason the Rockets insist that Battier guard [Kobe] 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,” [Rockets General Manager] Morey says. “But if Shane is on him, it isn’t.”  A player 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.

Sure enough, Kobe put up 37 points with 16 in the fourth quarter alone (albeit with Ron Artest guarding him, not Battier)  to lead the Lakers to a 102-96 come-from-behind win.

So now we get a week or two of this matchup. Not to denigrate the Rockets, which fields two other great defenders in Artest and Yao Ming, but this should be an interesting test of schemes versus skills and of statistical gambits versus the NBA’s most successful coach. If this goes the Rockets’ way, expect a sea change in the way NBA franchises run their teams in the very near future.

Personally, I’m rooting for the Rockets. In reading Lewis’s article, it was apparent that my hometown Warriors are definitely not users of any kind of statistical theory in evaluating its talent or running a game. Warriors forward Stephen Jackson was spotlighted for his bizarre tendency: [He] “is statistically better going to his right, but he loves to go to his left – and goes to his left almost twice as often.)”  Instead the Warriors rely on a well-loved ex-player to run its front office – with disastrous contracts thrown at players of ‘good character’ – and a coach who appears to run the team more on feeling, fear and witchcraft than good sense. Please, Warriors, take a note.

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