Thursday, February 19, 2009

Thoughts on the Money(Basket)Ball Rockets

The Michael Lewis piece in New York Times Magazine on how the Rockets organization is attempting to apply the Moneyballmodel of advanced statistical analysis to basketball, personified in the quest to try to quantify the value of Shane Battier, has been the talk of the basketball world for the last few days, and rightly so. It's the brilliant reporting we've come to commonly expect from Lewis, whether he's writing about sports or the meltdown of the economy, and I'm thrilled that he's writing about basketball.

Still, as I worked my way through the piece, I couldn't help but think that the following people were directly or indirectly thrown under the bus by Rockets GM Daryl Morey to make the story happen:

1. Kobe Bryant. It seemed to be quite a gauntlet thrown down by Morey to suggest that, essentially, the Rockets had figured out how to stop Kobe Bryant:
    People often say that Kobe Bryant has no weaknesses to his game, but that’s not really true. Before the game, Battier was given his special package of information. "He’s the only player we give it to," Morey says. "We can give him this fire hose of data and let him sift. Most players are like golfers. You don’t want them swinging while they’re thinking." The data essentially broke down the floor into many discrete zones and calculated the odds of Bryant making shots from different places on the court, under different degrees of defensive pressure, in different relationships to other players — how well he scored off screens, off pick-and-rolls, off catch-and-shoots and so on....

    [Bryant] is better at pretty much everything than everyone else, but there are places on the court, and starting points for his shot, that render him less likely to help his team. When he drives to the basket, he is exactly as likely to go to his left as to his right, but when he goes to his left, he is less effective. When he shoots directly after receiving a pass, he is more efficient than when he shoots after dribbling. He’s deadly if he gets into the lane and also if he gets to the baseline; between the two, less so.... The ideal outcome, from the Rockets’ statistical point of view, is for Bryant to dribble left and pull up for an 18-foot jump shot; force that to happen often enough and you have to be satisfied with your night.... The court doesn’t have little squares all over it to tell him what percentage Bryant is likely to shoot from any given spot, but it might as well.

    The reason the Rockets insist that Battier guard 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," Morey says. "But if Shane is on him, it isn’t." A player whom 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.
All of this may indeed be true, but something about letting sleeping dogs lie still comes to mind, and seems like it may be a more prudent course of action. We'll see.

Before the January game which was profiled by Lewis, Morey was quoted as follows:
    "I’m certain that Kobe is ready to just destroy Shane," Daryl Morey, the Rockets’ general manager, told me. "Because there’s been story after story about how Shane shut Kobe down the last time." Last time was March 16, 2008, when the Houston Rockets beat the Lakers to win their 22nd game in a row — the second-longest streak in N.B.A. history. The game drew a huge national television audience, which followed Bryant for his 47 miserable minutes: he shot 11 of 33 from the field and scored 24 points. "A lot of people watched," Morey said. "Everyone ­watches Kobe when the Lakers play. And so everyone saw Kobe struggling. And so for the first time they saw what we’d been seeing."
I can only imagine how Kobe is going to feel next time, after this story. Assuming that Phil made his way to the Magazine after he finished the Sunday Times Crossword and perused the op-ed page, I have a feeling that this piece is going to work its way into Mr. Bryant's hands one way or another, and it probably already has. Circle your calendar for Wed., March 11: Lakers at Rockets.

2. Jerry West. The Rockets acquired Battier by trading Stromile Swift and the draft rights to Rudy Gay to Memphis, which was run by Jerry West at the time. Battier is quoted as saying, "From the minute Jerry West got there he was trying to trade me."

An undeniable implication underlying the entire story is that Jerry West didn't comprehend Battier's worth, that he doesn't truly understand how to evaluate players if he can't grasp Battier's worth.

I will note that I've always found Jerry West to be a little overrated as a GM because he had such huge advantages as a Laker. By far and away the most important thing he did is building L.A.'s most recent champions was say "Yes" when Shaquille O'Neal expressed an interest to join the team. (And yes, I know, I know, West picked Kobe Bryant, but don't forget that he was only able to acquire Kobe because he had a huge asset to trade - a skilled 27-year-old 7-footer in Vlade Divac - which became available expressly because of Shaq.)

Still, the universal perception in the basketball world is that Jerry West is the ultimate personnel man, with an unassailable sense of how to put together a team. My point is this: that is another mighty big gauntlet to throw down for a huge, high-profile story to be written that implies Daryl Morey understands player evaluation in a way that Jerry West does not. And I don't care that this is never explicitly stated - it is an undeniable implication of the story.

3. Harvey Pollack. Morey also had this quote in the story: "Someone created the box score and he should be shot." That someone is the great Harvey "Superstat" Pollack, the only person who has been working continuously for the NBA since its inception in 1946, who is known and loved for his delightful annual statistical yearbooks, who took the photo of Wilt holding up the "100" sign, and who is truly an NBA legend in his own way.

Harvey is credited with being the first person to systematically tabulate categories like minutes played, blocked shots, offensive and defensive rebounds, assists, steals and turnovers.

I mean, I know Morey was being flip and I'm really just trying to have fun with this one, but there is still plenty of valuable information that is conveyed in a box score, through stats that were essentially invented by Pollack. I know what Morey was trying to say, and I know he wasn't trying to off Harvey, but the comment came off as disrespectful to someone who has played an important role not just in the NBA as a whole, but also in helping to establish ways to understand basketball quantitatively, even if categories like blocks and steals can be misleading.

4. Jeff Van Gundy. Morey was also quoted as saying "Our last coach dragged [Battier] into a meeting and told him he needed to shoot more. I'm not sure that that ever happened."

Minor one here, but that "last coach" was Jeff Van Gundy. I didn't find anything wrong with this particular quote, but knowing how prickly JVG can be about public comments people make about others in the league, I wonder if he didn't take umbrage with the tone of this statement.

Don't get me wrong, the old Bill James Baseball Abstracts I read as a kid are some of the most influential books I've read in my entire life. I *love* that the Moneyball revolution of advanced statistical analysis has hit basketball. I fully support it and hope that Morey succeeds and becomes a template for what an NBA GM should be, washing away the know-nothing ex-superstars of the Jordan, McHale, Isiah mold, as much entertainment as their personnel misadventures may provide.

That said, one of the main criticisms of Oakland A's GM Billy Beane was the hubris of his apparent eagerness to be so ready, willing and able to be portrayed so heroically by Lewis in Moneyball.

And now I wonder if Morey, a GM who has yet to win as much as an NBA playoff series, isn't walking a similar line at this stage in his career, to be going after NBA legends publicly, even if it's implicit.

On a certain level, I always welcome justified attacks on conventional wisdom and sacred cows, but I just wonder if it might not serve Morey to be a little more circumspect and humble, at least until he gets a team to the second round of the playoffs.


The Lewis piece was an outstanding portrait of how important it is for an NBA team to have acts of unselfishness which don't show up in stats, whether it's Battier boxing out a big man so that some other Rocket can get a rebound, or simply getting a hand in the face to contest a shot.

In addition to this kind of "little-picture" unselfishness, it's crucial to keep "big-picture" unselfishness in mind when building an NBA team as well, the delicate balance of getting guys to accept a team's pecking order.

Our favorite example of this, which we've written about before, is how the Pistons were considering trading Joe Dumars prior to their championship run, possibly for more talent, but owner Bill Davidson persuasively argued against by saying something to the effect of "You'll never find a better player who's willing to sit second chair to Isiah."

It's what we see now in L.A. with Lamar Odom accepting a bench role in a free-agent year. It's what we've seen for years in S.A. with Manu Ginobili accepting fewer minutes even though it keeps his stats low and probably costs him All-Star appearances.

It's what makes me wonder if we'd have a different perception of KG and Kevin McHale and the Minnesota Timberwolves of the last decade if Stephon Marbury had simply been the type of player to accept playing second fiddle.

It's what makes me realize that the Portland Trail Blazers, even with all of their assets, have a big challenge as they make moves going forward, just because they have such a nice ego balance with Roy, Oden, and Aldridge all seemingly to coexist peacefully no matter the relative attention one or the other might get. This especially applies to B-Roy, who handled the initial Oden hoopla so gracefully, even though he had already established himself as a young star.

I think that Travis Outlaw is a promising young player, and, from a Blazers perspective, I don't like the trade rumors I've seen involving him on a talent basis. but I think back to this story from The Oregonian from the summer, with this excerpt, and I understand why he probably needs to go:
    He came to Portland in 2003, right out of Starkville High. That makes him the longest-tenured Blazer, and he notes that he has seen a lot in his time -- from the self-destruction of Bonzi Wells and the trade request of a disgruntled Rasheed Wallace to the franchise's passing fancies that were Sebastian Telfair, Zach Randolph and Darius Miles.

    With that perspective, he ponders his place with the franchise's upswing. He has experienced enough success -- last season hitting game-winning shots at Memphis and Atlanta and finishing ninth in the sixth man of the year voting -- that he thinks he could one day be an All-Star. But he wonders whether that potential will be stifled on a team built around Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge and Greg Oden.

    And all of that feeds his apprehension of how the team perceives him as he enters what could be a contract year.

    "We have a really good team," Outlaw says. "But I don't know if they are going to be able to keep us together."

    His mood never dwells on his apprehensions. It seems every time they arise, he gathers in his surroundings, be it listening to the June bugs, taking in the scenery at the secluded pond he fishes, or embracing the comfort of family. It seems to ground him, and he becomes the man that is so familiar in Portland: gentle, respectful and humble.

    "Things come to you in due time," Outlaw says late one night. "If God has it in his will, then that's how it's gonna be."

    So he is content to wait another year, perhaps two, for his personal aspirations to take precedence. But he wants to make one thing clear: He is not content remaining with the status quo of his game.

    "I don't want to be a sixth man forever," Outlaw says.
All of this is to say that I think the irony of this whole Michael Lewis Rockets story is that I don't think there's been a team in the league that's been as out of balance in terms of its pecking order in the last few years as the Rockets have been.

This team should revolve around Yao Ming, with the big fella as the primary option and a free-flowing offense running around him. Instead, all too often, when I've watched the Rockets, I've seen McGrady pound, pound, pound the ball into the hardwood aimlessly, pulling up for some long, contested 2-pointer as his teammates stand by idly.

Of course, Morey inherited this situation, he didn't create it, so I certainly don't blame him. It's why I supported the McGrady for Vince Carter trade rumors for Houston even though Vince is older and has a more onerous contract, and is certainly not an upgrade in mental toughness from T-Mac (though let's make clear we're talking about on-court mental toughness; McGrady's trip to Darfur made it clear that he has about as much real-life mental toughness, for lack of a better term, than anyone in the league). But I think that Vince would accept being the no. 2 guy to Yao at this point in his career in a way that McGrady never would.

Now, with McGrady's microfracture surgery, the Rockets can't acquire Vince, but still have a chance to now reshape their team in the big picture. I found this quote from Battier fascinating:
    Last February, Yao Ming broke his left foot and missed the last 26 games of the season. The Rockets ran off 10 consecutive victories after Yao was hurt, and Battier said the Rockets will adapt easier to McGrady’s absence than they did to Yao’s.

    "When Yao went down, that was devastating," Battier said. "Obviously, Tracy is a great player and he’s a big part of what we did. But Yao, at the time, was our foundation."
I think he understands the big picture and well as the little picture, which is hardly surprising. It's going to be interesting to see where this team goes.


Also on The Painted Area:
Hoops TV Week: Feb. 19-25 - Week's highlights include the double-nickel, real-life Hoosiers, Celtics-Suns and loads of draft prospects.


At 9:21 AM, Blogger Wild Yams said...

It should be noted that the Lakers traded Vlade Divac for the rights to Kobe Bryant before they signed Shaquille O'Neal, not after. It should also be noted that O'Neal was far from a slam dunk signing, as Jerry West had to simply waive a whole host of Laker players to free up the money to offer Shaq a contract (and then had to do so again when Orlando offered much more money). All accounts of the Shaq signing by West were that it was thoroughly exhausting for West, and he supposedly said he would have thrown himself out a window if it hadn't finally gone through. That's why people give West so much credit for building those Laker championship teams.

He also should get credit for first assembling a team as loaded with talent as the 1998 Lakers were, with All Stars Shaq, Kobe, Nick Van Exel and Eddie Jones, along with Rick Fox, Robert Horry and Derek Fisher; and then realizing that all that talent alone wasn't going to produce a championship. He then had to switch it up and made some key trades to get a better chemistry mix in place that could win titles, much like you're discussing in this piece.

At 9:38 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

totally agree that morey should have chosen his words a bit more carefully.

i'm sure kobe will spend march 11 rolling to the left and hitting 18 footers in shane battier's face all night.

the team the rockets have now would win multiple titles in a video game. but a taste of some real world success would have been nice before the article.

i'm still a battier fan though.

At 9:40 AM, Blogger M. Haubs said...

Those are all fair points. I respect the viewpoint, and I respect Jerry West and the relationships he built with his players.

But the bottom line is that Shaq wanted to be a Laker. West was still at a huge advantage simply because a) he had Shaq in his prime and b) he was in a place where players actively wanted to play.

He saw how much more challenging it was when he was in Memphis, a place where players do not actively want to play.

By no means am I saying that I think West was a subpar GM, I just think that the job Geoff Petrie did in building the Kings of that era, for example, was significantly more impressive because Sacramento was and is at such a disadvantage compared to other markets.

At 11:31 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

If Kobe were smart, he'd find a way to get the scouting report on him and find out why he performs worse in certain situations and areas on the court. And then improve on it.

If Kobe were not smart, he would dismiss the Rocket's scouting report on him as statistical mumbo jumbo.

At 5:12 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jerry West didn't pick Kobe Bryant. Kobe was drafted by Charlotte, Jerry West simply traded for him

At 3:40 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very happy to read your critique of this article, Hoobs.

A couple of additional thoughts:

1. When did putting your hand in the face of a jump-shooter become a state-of-the-art defensive move, utilized only by super-geniuses like Shane Battier, versed in the esoteric statistical nuances of the NBA? On the mean streets of Rumson, NJ, at least, you learn to do this at about the same time you learn that a made free throw is worth 1 point.

2. At the end of the article, despite all the preparation and statistics and bloviations by Morey, Kobe did in fact make that game-winning shot. A nice illustration of the difference between what the statistics will predict over the long term with thousands of trials, and, less provable but no less real, what a big-time clutch player will do when the game is on the line. To your point, let's see the Rockets get beyond the first round of the playoffs.

A former classmate of ours makes this point (relative to baseball) in his usual eloquent fashion here:

It's winnin' time!


At 9:03 AM, Blogger ohkeedoke said...


Why do you think Charlotte picked Kobe at #13? Because it was agreed that they pick him and then trade the pick to the Lakers for Divac. The Lakers made that pick through Charlotte.

At 5:39 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

One of the most important points made in the article is that Shane Battier is detached. This is a quality that you can rarely find in basketball players, much less in anyone these days. By doing everything that is asked of you, without moaning, debating/negotiating with coaches -management or fans, and without expecting a specific result is a rare quality.

At 8:58 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


#1 is exactly right.

#2 is exactly wrong. There's nothing contrary to the statistics in Kobe making a 28-footer with a hand in his face to win the game. He doesn't take shots like that every time down the court, because he knows that, most of the time, he'll miss them. But that still means he'll make them sometimes. This was one of those times. We don't need to talk about 'greatness' to understand that.

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