Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Playing By the Book, Playing By Feel

Almost exactly two years ago I wrote a post here about the 27-game winning streak of the Miami Heat which had just been snapped, in particular focusing on Shane Battier’s level-headed comments afterwards which evoked the idea of an intelligent poker player recognizing he’d been on the good side of variance for longer than should be expected.

“What’s amazing is that we’ve avoided that for so long,” said Battier, referring to the “garden-variety road loss” to the Chicago Bulls they had just suffered. “That was my first thought after the game,” he said, that the Heat had “avoided a loss like this for a long time.”

This afternoon I dialed up Dan Le Batard’s show on ESPN on which Battier was a guest host, and I found him thoroughly entertaining with his commentary and various anecdotes. When talking about his playing days (he retired last year), he once again evoked that same balanced, even intellectual approach to the game.

Early during the first hour, Battier referred to his lengthy NBA career and how even though he was a gifted player he wasn’t necessarily the most skilled or physically imposing. “You don’t play 13 years in the NBA at 215 lbs. as a power forward without having a few tricks in your bag,” he said.

Among those tricks was to study his opponents, in particular the players he’d be matched up against, and even crunch numbers in order to determine the best percentage plays over the long term. “I play basketball like blackjack,” he said at one point, using an analogy to explain his approach. “There’s a ‘house’ way to play it, and a ‘feel’ way to play it. I tried to play basketball like a game of blackjack -- by what the book says.”

Battier elaborated on that idea again during the second hour as they brought up a statistic regarding Kobe Bryant who in “iso situations” (one-on-one) versus Battier shot only 34% during his career, his lowest versus any defender who had played at least 350 minutes against him.

“That makes me blush,” said Battier, earning a round of laughter from the others as he joked about having a plaque made to commemorate the accomplishment. Then he offered to explain how exactly he had managed to be such a strong defender against one of the game’s best offensive players ever.

“Most of that probably happened during the first half of my career when I didn’t know what the heck I was doing,” he begins, sounding a little like a lot of professional poker players who started out their careers running especially well, thereby enabling them to stay in the game longer than they might have otherwise. And, importantly, to gain some experience to help them learn the game better, thereby helping them later in their careers.

“It wasn’t until the later half of my career when I was introduced to basketball analytics [that] I understood what was a good shot, what was a bad shot, what was inefficient... what a player’s weakness actually was,” Battier continued. “I didn’t know for the first six years. The first six years defense was all about heart and toughness and grit.”

I add the italics in the last sentence to indicate how Battier pronounced those words through clenched teeth, kind of exaggerating their importance. It was after those first six years he was traded to the Houston Rockets, got introduced to a couple of people in their organization with knowledge of advanced stats (including Daryl Morey, the team’s GM who is well known for such knowledge), and from that point forward used that information to help himself perform at a level that might well have been above what he would have otherwise.

Interesting to hear Battier talk about basketball in this way, and again to evoke ideas that so closely mirror how we hear poker players -- good ones, especially -- talk about like variance, understanding probabilities (versus playing by “feel”), assessing opponents’ strengths and weaknesses, and so on.

Good stuff. And -- again, I shake my head -- coming from a Dookie! (I evoke my own irrationality in the face of such a logical thinker.)

Here is a short video of Battier discussing the same subject (and from which the image above comes), titled “How Analytics Made Me a Better Basketball Player.”

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