Excerpted from Chasing Perfection: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the High Stakes Game of Creating an NBA Champion by Andy Glockner. Available from Da Capo Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2016.
Shane Battier came to crave the kind of information the Rockets (and, for his final three seasons, the Miami Heat) could provide, but he was a bit of a rarity then. Even now, the NBA is full of guys who have no interest in seeing their own stats or shot charts, let alone those of players they will be defending. These players have gotten to the league and landed eight-figure contracts doing things their own way, and it will take some time for a larger subset of the players to buy in.
“It’s still in its infant stages, to be honest with you. At this point, it’s still a fairly academic movement,” Battier said about the analytics surge. “It’s still a movement that is rooted in the office of the GMs and the personnel directors. Now you have coaches who are trying to implement the data, and are walking along the company line of the analytics-based general managers, but there’s still a ways to go before the effect is complete and it reaches the most important people in the equation: the players. There’s still a deep rift between the belief in, I guess, what we would say [is] traditional basketball and what that means and what the data suggests as good or bad basketball.
“And the divide is pretty stark even with coaches, especially those of the old guard. Obviously not new, younger coaches who have been exposed to analytics, but the last frontier is players,” he said. “As a player, you’re taught basketball is almost a primal exercise. It’s mano a mano, the strong will survive, and you have to do what you need to do to survive because there’s always someone knocking, clipping at your heels, trying to take your job, trying to take your contract, trying to take your roster spot, trying to take your money, and trying to take your life.
“And so when you try to explain analytics and data to a player, they think, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, basketball is not about numbers, basketball is about being primal, it’s about emotion, it’s about mental toughness,’ and most players don’t think there’s any link to the data.
In actuality, all analytics are are a way to explain all those things: heart, determination, and toughness. And you just have to look at it in a different way.”
At the 2015 Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, Battier relayed an interesting story about how in one of his seasons with the Heat, he only took one jump shot that was inside the 3-point arc. He said his consumption of data, understanding what efficient shots were, and what his specific role was on those teams actually hindered him as an offensive player. He would find himself thinking on the court about whether something was a bad shot rather than playing naturally and taking what was available.
That said, knowledge for a player of Battier’s skill set can be really valuable, and it’s doubly so when the team’s coach buys in and is delivering the message. Battier said that a large part of his success in Houston was in the way then-coach Jeff Van Gundy (Stan’s brother) would internalize data and then impart that philosophy to his players.
“Jeff is one of the smartest coaches I’ve ever played for, and he understood the value of a lot of the data, and he would just tell us, ‘Look, 2-point dribble jump shots don’t [beat] us,’ Battier said. ‘And he would beat that mantra into our heads: 2-point dribble jump shots don’t [beat] us. And if you know the data behind that, you know that that’s the lowest-percentage shot in basketball . . . [a] non-paint two, off the bounce. In an elite level, shooters like, you know, Steph Curry is like 46–47 percent. The rest of humanity is a [sub-40 percent] dribble jump shooter. And as a defender, that was my shot to make people take. But when you put it like that, and you create a mantra, and Jeff would say, ‘Look, if someone makes a 2-point dribble jump shot on you, it’s on me as a coach, I’m never going to yell at you, you’re not going to get crushed, it’s on me.’
“And that gives you an amazing confidence as a defender knowing that, look, I get it, from an academic standpoint, an intellectual standpoint, and I know I’m not going to get punished for it, yeah, OK, yeah, no problem with a long, off the dribble, 2-point jump shot.
It’s going to take that sort of simplification from a coach, and that’s what makes coaches great coaches. The ability to reach each member of their team. If you start spouting stats like, ‘Look, if you got a 3-pointer on the angle at the break of the arc, don’t take it, if you can get a [closer] 3-pointer because the percentage is 10 percent better,’ all of a sudden, you are being confusing. Say, ‘Hey, I will never yell at you if you take a corner 3-pointer,’ people get that. And you don’t necessarily have to explain why. Sort of like Van Gundy did.”
As data-friendly as Battier was (and still is), there’s one area where he’s still a bit reticent of recent developments: the growing push for biometric data on players. Battier understands from a player’s standpoint how potentially harmful this could be. For every instance where a player can stave off injury or find out some predisposition to a potentially lethal condition like Marfan syndrome, there are situations where data could be used against a player, and many don’t want all of that personal information in the hands of their employers. There are issues of data security, and the NBPA will have to wrestle with a process that likely will benefit its membership overall but could have some individual cases of collateral damage should info leak.
“I was interested in my own performance,” Battier said. “I took very good care of my body for thirteen years in the NBA. I probably drank too much red wine, didn’t sleep as much [as I should have], but I was always interested in trying to see how I could find an edge with rest, or recovery, and that is all very applicable and poignant. But I think we are entering a very dangerous time. If you’re a player, [it would be] the invasion of privacy. Because when you own information, you can [distort] that information to your own purposes.
So that’s the danger of where this is all headed.
“I think it’s inevitable that teams will be able to collect information via blood, urine, stool, what have you. It can be used for good, but it can also be used for destructive purposes and when – it’s sort of the whole big brother question and that allegory that comes into play. How much do people really need to know? And the body fluids and lifestyle choices . . . I’m glad I’m getting out of the game at the right time.”