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Dan Winters for The New York Times
He had more or less admitted to me that this part of his job left him cold. ?It?s the same thing every day,? he said, as he struggled to explain how a man on the receiving end of the raging love of 18,557 people in a darkened arena could feel nothing. ?If you had filet mignon every single night, you?d stop tasting it.?
To him the only pleasure in these sounds ? the name of his beloved alma mater, the roar of the crowd ? was that they marked the end of the worst part of his game day: the 11 minutes between the end of warm-ups and the introductions. Eleven minutes of horsing around and making small talk with players on the other team. All those players making exaggerated gestures of affection toward one another before the game, who don?t actually know one another, or even want to. ?I hate being out on the floor wasting that time,? he said. ?I used to try to talk to people, but then I figured out no one actually liked me very much.? Instead of engaging in the pretense that these other professional basketball players actually know and like him, he slips away into the locker room.
And up Shane Battier popped, to the howl of the largest crowd ever to watch a basketball game at the Toyota Center in Houston, and jumped playfully into Yao Ming (the center ?out of China?). Now, finally, came the best part of his day, when he would be, oddly, most scrutinized and least understood.
Seldom are regular-season games in the N.B.A. easy to get worked up for. Yesterday Battier couldn?t tell me whom the team played three days before. (?The Knicks!? he exclaimed a minute later. ?We played the Knicks!?) Tonight, though it was a midweek game in the middle of January, was different. Tonight the Rockets were playing the Los Angeles Lakers, and so Battier would guard Kobe Bryant, the player he says is the most capable of humiliating him. Both Battier and the Rockets? front office were familiar with the story line. ?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.? Battier has routinely *guarded the league?s most dangerous offensive players ? LeBron James, Chris Paul, Paul Pierce ? and has usually managed to render them, if not entirely ineffectual, then a lot less effectual than they normally are. He has done it so quietly that no one really notices what exactly he is up to.
Last season, in a bid to draw some attention to Battier?s defense, the Rockets? public-relations department would send a staff member to the opponent?s locker room to ask leading questions of whichever superstar Battier had just hamstrung: ?Why did you have so much trouble tonight?? ?Did he do something to disrupt your game?? According to Battier: ?They usually say they had an off night. They think of me as some chump.? He senses that some players actually look forward to being guarded by him. ?No one dreads being guarded by me,? he said. Morey confirmed as much: ?That?s actually true. But for two reasons: (a) They don?t think anyone can guard them and (b) they really scoff at the notion Shane Battier could guard them. They all think his reputation exceeds his ability.? Even as Battier was being introduced in the arena, Ahmad Rashad was wrapping up his pregame report on NBA TV and saying, ?Shane Battier will try to stop Kobe Bryant.? This caused the co-host Gary Payton to laugh and reply, ?Ain?t gonna happen,? and the other co-host, Chris Webber, to add, ?I think Kobe will score 50, and they?ll win by 19 going away.?
Early on, Hoop Scoop magazine named Shane Battier the fourth-best seventh grader in the United States. When he graduated from Detroit Country Day School in 1997, he received the Naismith Award as the best high-school basketball player in the nation. When he graduated from Duke in 2001, where he won a record-tying 131 college-basketball games, including that year?s N.C.A.A. championship, he received another Naismith Award as the best college basketball player in the nation. He was drafted in the first round by the woeful Memphis Grizzlies, not just a bad basketball team but the one with the worst winning percentage in N.B.A. history ? whereupon he was almost instantly dismissed, even by his own franchise, as a lesser talent. The year after Battier joined the Grizzlies, the team?s general manager was fired and the N.B.A. legend Jerry West, a k a the Logo because his silhouette is the official emblem of the N.B.A., took over the team. ?From the minute Jerry West got there he was trying to trade me,? Battier says. If West didn?t have any takers, it was in part because Battier seemed limited: most of the other players on the court, and some of the players on the bench, too, were more obviously gifted than he is. ?He?s, at best, a marginal N.B.A. athlete,? Morey says.
The Grizzlies went from 23-59 in Battier?s rookie year to 50-32 in his third year, when they made the N.B.A. playoffs, as they did in each of his final three seasons with the team. Before the 2006-7 season, Battier was traded to the Houston Rockets, who had just finished 34-48. In his first season with the Rockets, they finished 52-30, and then, last year, went 55-27 ? including one stretch of 22 wins in a row. Only the 1971-2 Los Angeles Lakers have won more games consecutively in the N.B.A. And because of injuries, the Rockets played 11 of those 22 games without their two acknowledged stars, Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming, on the court at the same time; the Rockets player who spent the most time actually playing for the Rockets during the streak was Shane Battier. This year Battier, recovering from off-season surgery to remove bone spurs from an ankle, has played in just over half of the Rockets? games. That has only highlighted his importance. ?This year,? Morey says, ?we have been a championship team with him and a bubble playoff team without him.?
Here we have a basketball mystery: a player is widely regarded inside the N.B.A. as, at best, a replaceable cog in a machine driven by superstars. And yet every team he has ever played on has acquired some magical ability to win.
Solving the mystery is somewhere near the heart of Daryl Morey?s job. In 2005, the Houston Rockets? owner, Leslie Alexander, decided to hire new management for his losing team and went looking specifically for someone willing to rethink the game. ?We now have all this data,? Alexander told me. ?And we have computers that can analyze that data. And I wanted to use that data in a progressive way. When I hired Daryl, it was because I wanted somebody that was doing more than just looking at players in the normal way. I mean, I?m not even sure we?re playing the game the right way.?
The virus that infected professional baseball in the 1990s, the use of statistics to find new and better ways to value players and strategies, has found its way into every major sport. Not just basketball and football, but also soccer and cricket and rugby and, for all I know, snooker and darts ? each one now supports a subculture of smart people who view it not just as a game to be played but as a problem to be solved. Outcomes that seem, after the fact, all but inevitable ? of course LeBron James hit that buzzer beater, of course the Pittsburgh Steelers won the Super Bowl ? are instead treated as a set of probabilities, even after the fact. The games are games of odds. Like professional card counters, the modern thinkers want to play the odds as efficiently as they can; but of course to play the odds efficiently they must first know the odds. Hence the new statistics, and the quest to acquire new data, and the intense interest in measuring the impact of every little thing a player does on his team?s chances of winning. In its spirit of inquiry, this subculture inside professional basketball is no different from the subculture inside baseball or football or darts. The difference in basketball is that it happens to be the sport that is most like life.