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Essay: The Unique Selfishness Of Shane Battier

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Shane Battier is the last player anyone would ever call selfish. He’s been doing whatever he can to get his team a win—regardless of how that’s compromised his stats—for his entire career. But there is one component of Battier’s game which is self-serving. Thankfully for Battier acolytes like myself, it doesn’t ever adversely affect his team, but it’s worth mentioning because it’s a peccadillo distinctive to Battier and few others, and because it flies in the face of everything Battier believes in.

It all starts near the end of the quarter/half/game when most players are either messing around on the bench, headed towards the locker room, giving some dap to friends on the other team (Bill Laimbeer cringe), or trying to find their buddies court side to plan whichever club they’re hitting that night. As the final seconds tick off the clock, Battier suddenly morphs into his bizarro doppelgänger: a player that is trying to get his. He becomes selfish, but only for these few seconds right before the end of a game or the end of a quarter. It doesn’t happen every game, but when it does, it’s a bit startling.

Before we get into how the ultimate teammate could possibly be concerned with his own numbers, let’s go back a few years to a time when basketball statistics were light years behind the analytics currently informing most of baseball’s general managers. I’m talking of course about the Bill James Sabermetric movement that’s unleashed so many acronyms into everyday baseball conversations, the casual fan looks like a dolt if they’re not fluent in baseball-reference’s esoteric rhetoric.*

Basketball only caught on to Bill Jamesian analytics later, but one of the first general managers to embrace the new quantitative data available was Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey. One of his first moves as a result of this advanced statistical thinking was trading Rudy Gay and Stromile Swift for Shane Battier in July of 2006; except, Shane’s stats didn’t—and still don’t—really tell the whole story.

He’s basically the reason you read or hear the word “intangibles,” because there isn’t an easy way to describe the effect he has on his team’s fortune. That is, until you apply more outside-the-box measurements (at least at the time) to Battier’s game. Then, like Morey noticed before most everyone else, every time Battier was on the floor with his team, they performed better than when he was on the bench.

Morey figured out a way to quantify Battier’s brilliance (the simple plus/minus calculation when he’s on the floor that wasn’t very popular at the time), and his decision to trade for Battier in 2006 after he spent five largely inconsequential years in Memphis was detailed by famed Moneyball author, Michael Lewis, in a 2009 New York Times Magazine piece entitled: “The No-Stats All-Star.”

In the piece, Lewis talks with Morey and Battier about Shane’s pre-game routine, where he’s given a veritable novel of printed-out pages detailing the most effective places to force opposing players to shoot the ball. Today, it’s basically the way all team’s scout upcoming opponents, but at the time Battier’s numbers-heavy analysis wasn’t  common. And—to an even larger extent—so was Morey’s affinity for Battier.

After five years in the league with—at first—an awful Memphis Grizzlies team that finally started winning, then losing in the first round of the playoffs when Pau Gasol was brought in, Battier wasn’t as highly regarded as he is now. Sure, he was a smart Duke kid, but he only averaged double figures in points twice after going for 14 in his rookie season (he averaged 10.1 points per game in his last season in Memphis and his first season in Houston).

Battier also failed to produce ostentatious numbers on the defensive end, even though he was a lock-down defender and possibly one of the best perimeter defenders in the league at the time (just ask Kobe). He has never averaged over 2 steals or 2 blocks a game despite his defensive reputation, and he never again had the stats he went for in his rookie campaign when he averaged 14.4 points per game (career high), 1.6 steals per game (career high), 5.4 rebounds per game (career high), 2.8 assists per game (career high) and 2.0 turnovers per game (career high). So what in the hell did Battier do that was impressive enough for Morey to trade Gay and Swift for him?

Simply put, teams just played better with him on the court, and even though his defensive numbers don’t jump out at you, he was night in and night out one of the toughest guys to score on. Also, at the time of the article, Battier possessed a plus/minus in the vicinity of other superstars, so the hard to spot “intangibles” had the desired result that Battier’s team played significantly better when Battier was on the court, even if his stats weren’t very good and even if he doesn’t appear to do anything that well when you watch him. But there was one moment in the Michael Lewis piece that came back to me a couple nights ago when I was watching the Heat lose to the Golden State Warriors.

Just after that, the half ended, but not before Battier was tempted by a tiny act of basketball selfishness. The Rockets’ front office has picked up a glitch in Battier’s philanthropic approach to the game: in the final second of any quarter, finding himself with the ball and on the wrong side of the half-court line, Battier refuses to heave it honestly at the basket, in an improbable but not impossible attempt to score. He heaves it disingenuously, and a millisecond after the buzzer sounds.

Daryl Morey could think of only one explanation: a miss lowers Battier’s shooting percentage. “I tell him we don’t count heaves in our stats,” Morey says, “but Shane’s smart enough to know that his next team might not be smart enough to take the heaves out.”

Tonight, the ball landed in Battier’s hands milliseconds before the half finished. He moved just slowly enough for the buzzer to sound, heaved the ball the length of the floor and then sprinted to the locker room — having not taken a single shot.”

It’s this single instance of selfishness I witnessed from Battier the other night. But it wasn’t the shot Shane didn’t take before the half which was selfish, nor did it have anything to do with the basketball game at hand. No, it was a simple rebound Shane sprinted after—only to lose out on—that caught my eye. As time expired on the first half, Stephon Curry lofted up a three-point shot that clanged off the back of the rim as the buzzer sounded. Yet watch as Shane still sprints towards the ball to collect it. He wants credit for the rebound, but the referee grabs the ball before he can reach it, and whips it away from Battier’s lunging hands. Do you see how angry Battier was with the ref after he usurped his rebound?

That’s the only selfish moment you’re liable to see out of Shane Battier, and God bless him for it because if he didn’t exhibit any proof of an ego I’d just be that more likely to imagine him as some basketball playing cyborg programmed to teach man how to play the game correctly: for team, rather than individual glory.

The irony is that Battier’s team-first mentality is exactly that which distinguishes him from all the other players over the years who just wanted to get their stats, so they could sign a better salary regardless of their team’s success. Battier’s inconspicuous game to the betterment of his team is precisely what made his genius conspicuous enough for a New York Times Magazine profile almost four years ago. And the primary reason I loved seeing him chase down that rebound. It was totally out of character for Shane Battier; except, that it wasn’t at all.

 

*This is a big reason why the average baseball fan is roughly 50 years old, and youngsters would rather count how many Cracker Jacks come in an average pack over following the interminable game going on in front of them.

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