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On Battier, Defense and Statistics

Defense is a tricky thing to analyze. We want to think of it in results-based evaluations because results are definitive. You win or you lose. The ball goes in or it doesn’t. You get the steal in the passing lane or you leave your man open.

The way we want to think about defense doesn’t quite hold up, though, to any sort of deconstruction. Because by that logic, if you were standing in front of LeBron James, and he happened to miss a jumper while you were standing there, you had then played good defense.

Of course you didn’t actually stop LeBron James from scoring, the ball just happened to not fall through the net, just as James will sometimes make a shot despite being blanketed by one or multiple defenders. Defense, for all intents and purposes, is based entirely on probability.

That’s where Shane Battier comes in.

Battier is not an easy player to put a value on. He’ll spread the floor and make all the right passes on offense. He’s a positive player to have in the locker room – he’s taken up his post-practice free-throw sessions with Chris Bosh and Juwan Howard – and isn’t concerned with how many shots he’ll get. He’ll also devour any scouting report put in front of him, as Michael Lewis let us know a few years back, which is a sensibility he shares with Erik Spoelstra.

“He’s a coach that enjoys the cerebral part of the game,” Battier said. “And I sort of get off on that too, as weird as sounds. The chessmatch that is basketball . . . that’s something he and I will be able to talk about. I look forward to learning a few new tricks from him.”

But Battier is a defensive player first, even though Synergy Sports ranked him in his time with the Houston Rockets last year (his Memphis sample size is far too tiny) 88th in the league in defense by points per possession, a few spots above Luke Ridnour and Channing Frye, and few spots below Tyreke Evans and Darren Collison. That’s where probability comes into play.

It’s common sense that Battier’s marching orders have most often been to mark the best perimeter scorer on the other team for as long as he’s in the game. He’s not, however, told to guard the LeBron’s, Kobe’s and Durant’s of the world because he always makes them miss the most shots. He’s told to guard such high caliber players because he offers them the lowest chances of making the shot.

Take a game of dice. One die each, high roll wins. I roll a four, you roll a five, you win. That’s fair, right? We each had an equal chance of rolling any given number, you just happened to roll a higher number.

Battier’s job is to introduce skill to the game, to be a loaded die that rolls a five every single time. Sure, you may go on a run of sixes, but every time you roll you still only have a 17 percent chance of winning outright. You may win the occasional battle, but Battier’s game is about the war.

With that in mind, watch this video and count the number of times you see Battier playing bad defense.

See what happened there, when we tricked you? There wasn’t any bad defense. Battier got scored on four times in that video, and he got scored on 213 times before he was even traded to Memphis last season. It just took his opponents 526 shots, at a 40 percent clip, to get there.

In Isolation he was even better, as opponents made just over a third of their shot attempts when Battier was defending. In fact, for isolations only, Battier ranked 15th in the NBA, by points per possession, among players who defended at least 100 possessions. Around him are perimeter players such as Kevin Durant, Manu Ginobili and Paul Pierce, fine defenders all, but players that are not called on to defend the caliber of scorer Battier is for a game's duration.

It’s no mistake that Isolations are where Synergy ranks Battier the highest. That’s where he has direct control over the probability of his opponent making a shot, something he controls in part because he studies the situation before hand.

The following brief conversation with Battier is about that information, and the role the HEAT’s reputation as a forward-thinking team played in his decision to move to Miami.

Having, played for a team in Houston that is very stats-friendly. Was finding a team with similar sensibilities important to your free-agent decision?

This is a very difficult league to win one game, so every edge you can gain is an edge that is very valuable. With the new wave of analytics in sports, and I’m a big proponent and believer in the numbers, the numbers don’t lie. It’s not the full story, but I believe it can give you a considerable edge. So that’s why I prepare and I value those types of research projects.

Have you looked at scouting reports before and felt like you were lacking information?

It’s all different. Your traditional scouting revolves around the eye test. You may see a guy and say, ‘You know, he favors his left hand’ or he is a really good offensive rebounder. With the new ways of looking at the game now, you can see not only how much better that guy is going to his left hand, but how many more times he goes to his left hand. You know volume, you know quantity and quality. As a defender it helps a lot.

It’s a lot of information to process. It’s not easy to take all that information and process it in a split second against the greatest athletes in the world. But after a few years of practice you get used to it.

How much have you gotten into using Synergy over the years?

I was in on the early stages of Synergy. I was in Houston and they had their own database, but similar ideas.

Have you heard of the SportVU cameras that Stats, Inc. is offering, then? The ones that can tell you the average distance of a defender to an offensive player, the speed at which every player is moving and the touches each player uses for possession? It would seem pretty valuable for a defensive player.

It is getting crazy. It’s a fine line. Obviously the numbers are valuable, but you don’t want to go overboard. At the end of the day, the basic rule of this game is can you put the ball in the hole and can you stop your opponent from putting the ball in the hole, regardless of what the numbers say, and that’s what you always have to remember.

The Synergy numbers would hint that you’ve lost a step or two on the defensive end, but when you watch the tape you’ve still got your hand in the shooter’s face, regardless of whether the shot is made or not.

Defensive representation of the numbers is still more of an art than a science. Any great perimeter defender in this league, or any perimeter player that won defensive player of the year, I can almost guarantee that they had a shot blocker behind them. It’s funny how you become a much more effective wing defender when you have a Dikembe Mutombo behind you earasing all your mistakes. You always take defensive representation with a grain of salt, because it’s all contingent on your scheme, does your team believe in helpside defense, is it a defensive team, is it an offensive team. To be honest with you I’ve been doing the same thing the last six years of my career. Sometimes I’ve had a shotblocker, sometimes I haven’t, but I haven’t changed what I’ve been doing in the last six years.

So, for example, your numbers took a dip in pick-and-roll defense, but the scheme in Houston seemed to involve a fair amount of switching. Are those numbers you can really use to evaluate performance?

Pick-and-roll defense, it should be a two-man gig. It’s not just and individual thing. It’s as much on me as it’s on my big guy that’s playing the pick-and-roll. You can make that argument with every facet of defense almost. Probably the only thing that’s on you is 1-on-1 ISO defense and post defense, because you’re all alone. And those situations will happen a whole lot in this game. So you take the numbers with a grain of salt, and the only one that matters is the win or loss column at the end of the game.