Blazing the Trail: Shane Battier, the data-ball defender

Blazing the Trail: Shane Battier, the data-ball defender

Welcome to Basketball News' 10-part mini-series, Blazing the Trail, where Mat Issa breaks down the most revolutionary players of the 1990s and 2000s. Throughout this series, we'll examine how these players changed basketball and pioneered their respective skills.

In this third installment, Mat goes in-depth on two-time All-NBA Defensive Team selection Shane Battier and his role as a next-generation defender on the "Moreyball" Houston Rockets. It features insights from his former coach in Miami, David Fizdale, his high school coach, Kurt Keener, and Battier himself. 

"One of these pieces doesn’t fit."

A statement commonly elicited from viewing the list of players featured in our "Blazing the Trail" series. 

"Shane Battier was a fine defender. But revolutionary? I’m not sure someone who only made two All-Defensive Teams can be considered revolutionary."

Even after New York Times writer Michael Lewis famously dubbed him the "No-Stats All-Star" in Feb. 2009, outside observers have failed to accurately appraise Battier's unique value.

But what if Lewis' moniker for Battier wasn’t just a clever name? What if the captain of data impacted the game in a way we couldn’t measure at the time? And what if, through his courtship with Daryl Morey, Battier became the most groundbreaking trailblazer of them all?

Let's find out.

What Made Battier Special 

On offense, Battier was the quintessential role player. He could shoot, maintain spacing and make quick decisions, and he hardly ever committed turnovers — the perfect piece to pair with elite scorers and creators. But that’s not why we’re discussing him.

Battier made his bones on the defensive end. 

There, he possessed an unorthodox toolkit for a player of his archetype. He was a “3-and-D” wing without picking players' pockets too often. From 2006 to 2011, his steal rate never eclipsed the 50th percentile, per Cleaning the Glass.

However, Battier did create positive events through his weak-side shot-blocking and timely charge-drawing. And he also refrained from causing negative sequences by avoiding fouls (remember, preventing free throws — the most efficient shot in the game — is an immensely valuable skill).

“He was always on time when the low-man was required,” said David Fizdale, Battier’s former coach in Miami and now-associate general manager for the Utah Jazz.

“Whether it was to take a charge, steal/deflect a pass, discourage [a driver], trap the box — he was going to be there every single time. He was the king of the charge.” 

Battier's game was basketball minutiae, predicated on the intricate subtleties that make or break a possession. He fronted goliaths in the post, swiped at the ball when it was still low to bypass challenging shots vertically and utilized the hand-in-the-face contest to hinder his adversaries' efficiency even further.

With that said, he didn’t reach his full innovator form until he crossed paths with a data wizard in July 2006 — then-Houston Rockets assistant general manager Daryl Morey, who assumed full-GM duties the following season in May 2007.

“The Rockets were the first team in basketball to adopt a data-centric philosophy,” Battier explained to Basketball News. “Daryl had a thesis that [he] wanted to run his entire organization based on what the data says.

“I was their first major acquisition when Daryl became the general manager because the algorithms they used identified me as a player that provided outsourced value at a very reasonable price,” recalled Battier, who was acquired by the Rockets just months after Morey's hiring.

(In exchange for Battier, the Memphis Grizzlies received Stromile Swift and Rudy Gay)

Like Steve Nash, Battier’s approach made him the perfect test subject for his mentor’s dissertation.

“He was just curious about how everything worked,” said Kurt Keener, Battier's high-school coach at Detroit Country Day in Oakland County, Michigan. “In basketball, he was curious about, 'If I do X, Y, and Z, can I improve in ways that make a big difference?'"

“When I got there, I was very curious about how they thought about data,” Battier said of the Rockets. “And I really became enamored with it. This is like having the answers to the test before taking the test.”

In Houston, Battier — a player accustomed to surface-level scouting reports that were commonplace at the time — was exposed to more nuanced, data-driven preparatory materials.

“Before analytics, [the scouting report] would read, ‘Kobe Bryant: Great first step, capable three-point shooter, will attack the rim, fadeaway shot in the post and a great competitor.' It’s like, yeah, thanks. I don’t need a scouting report to know that Kobe is a great competitor,” Battier laughed. “It was completely qualitative. With the quantitative report that the Rockets produced for me, I knew who exactly a player was down to the percentile.

“Instead of saying, 'Kobe Bryant has a great right hand,' I knew that Bryant drives right 65% of the time, and when he does, it’s basically a 62% shot. When he goes left, he only goes there 35% of the time, and it’s a 42% shot.”

Here are a couple of illustrations of that data in practice:

On-Court Production

These insightful scouting-report nuggets became dangerous weapons in the capable hands of Battier. Similar to "Revis Island" — a desolate wasteland that star wide receivers were banished to when they faced the New York Jets in the late-2000s — Battier’s stomping grounds became a torturous venue for the superstars who occupied his position.

From 2006 to 2009, every All-Star small forward/shooting guard who played primarily on-ball saw a sizable dip in efficiency when matched up against Battier (with the lone exception being Josh Howard):

Visual Created by Daniel Bratulić

“The secret for all these volume scorers: the places those guys absolutely crushed you were at the rim and the free throw line,” Battier revealed.

“As long as I did two things — kept them out of transition and didn’t foul them — I could live with any other shot those guys would take. Where a lot of people go wrong is they get caught up in the results. I don’t care about results. I just care about the process.”

Battier’s process consisted of seducing his opponents into a high volume of mid-range shots. From 2006 to 2008, the Rockets surrendered the highest frequency of mid-range jumpers in the league (per Cleaning the Glass).

“The mid-range jump shot is actually a really hard shot to hit,” Battier said. “It’s like a sub-50% shot; a good mid-range jump shooter, like 45%. That’s not great. You’re not going to win a ball game by making that shot a ton.”

And although he didn’t emphasize the results, the ones his methods yielded were fruitful. Going back to the “No-Stats All-Star” designation we alluded to earlier, it felt like an All-Star-caliber performer was occupying the court whenever Battier graced the hardwood.

From 2004 to 2009, Battier's teams finished top-five in Defensive Rating (both in Memphis and Houston). And there’s reason to believe he was the driving force behind those machines, despite being a non-big man (centers typically have the largest footprint on defense because of their ability to protect the paint).

In 2005-06, the Grizzlies finished second in the league in DRTG. When Battier was traded to Houston the following season, they plummeted to dead-last, despite returning all their coaches and best defenders (except Lorenzen Wright).

Meanwhile, after finishing nearly three points below the league average on defense in 2005-06, the Rockets improved to almost six points below the league average in 2006-07 when Battier arrived.

(Note: The more points below average the better when it comes to defense. For context, the Boston Celtics and Golden State Warriors were only five points below the league average this season, per Basketball-Reference.)

What’s more, in 2007-08 — when the Rockets’ primary rim protector Yao Ming missed the final 26 games of the season with a foot injury — Houston's DRTG remained the same, so you can’t chalk up Battier's success to great backline help.

Fizdale agreed with the sentiment that Battier’s data-driven style made him his team’s most important defender, and enabled him to contribute at an All-Star level.

“Back then, when you’re looking at All-Stars, [people] just looked at Shane as a pest. But for the guys that were on his team, he was an All-Star," Fizdale said. "For us, we saw him as an All-Star."

Weaving the Thread

Keener speculates that Battier's selflessness may have developed from hearing tales of the great egalitarian himself, Magic Johnson.

During practice, Battier's high-school coach would tell fables of Magic from his days in East Lansing at Michigan State University. They were stories about how, during scrimmages, Johnson would intentionally select his least talented teammates to prove that great teamwork could usurp deficiencies in other areas. These narratives had a substantial effect on Battier.

“With Shane, he didn’t have the flair of Magic, but he understood the importance of getting your teammates involved,” Keener reminisced. “[Like Magic,] Shane was tremendous at making sure the other guys on his team were successful.”

A Michigan native, Battier also credits his precious Detroit Pistons for playing a role in his formative years.

“For me, the Pistons were the ultimate team. My dad grew up in a blue-collar job. If you live in Michigan, you understand the importance of the assembly line and teamwork,” Battier reminisced. “For me, it wasn’t about what I did. It was about what did we do. Being from Detroit impacted how I thought about sports and basketball, and was the hallmark of my entire career.” 

Coincidentally, the Pistons team he’s referencing once famously concocted their own carefully curated strategy for decreasing the potency of a prolific superstar. That set of instructions is known as "The Jordan Rules.”

Due to in-depth game plans he leaned on with regularity, Battier had a leg up on his idols. But while teams like the Pistons only resorted to these tactics in dire situations, Battier prepared for every game like it was the postseason.

“The cool part about Shane is he gets into those layers in the regular season,” Fizdale explained. “It’s tough to play teams on a one-day prep… but when you have a guy like Shane Battier, he prepares every game like it's a playoff game.”

Impact on Today’s Game

“Draymond [Green] is probably the ultimate example of modern-day Shane Battier,” Fizdale said. "They both could guard everyone, could switch on everyone, could guard post-ups, could guard guards. They were [both] most likely the smartest person on the court most nights.”

“I love watching Draymond. Draymond is great," Battier agreed. "He sees the defense and plays two or three passes ahead, which I always thought I could do.”

Battier will be the first to point to Green’s superior passing and paint protection as major distinctions between their games. However, the two bear a resemblance to one another in that they are both career 8-point-per-game scorers whose impact often can't be quantified by traditional box scores.

PJ Tucker is another obvious descendant. Tucker is an elite man defender who shares Battier’s process-over-results philosophy (see: Tucker's defense on Kevin Durant in the 2021 playoffs). Also, both players suited up for the Rockets and Heat.

Battier even sees a bit of himself in the human defensive vortex that is Matisse Thybulle: “Defensively, his instincts are amazing, and when he figures out his shot, he’s going to be a handful.”

Putting one-to-one comparisons aside, Battier’s true legacy is that there’s a little bit of him buried inside of most modern NBA players.

“Today, every team has an analytics department. Every team is looking for a player who jumps off the charts analytically,” Fizdale said.

The "Moreyball" movement that Battier helped pioneer in Houston has become common practice in today’s ever-changing NBA landscape. Hell, even the 2022 NBA Finals were determined by a quantitatively-informed decision on the part of the Warriors. 

After the Celtics scored 52 points in the paint in Game 3, Golden State regained control of the series in part by borrowing one of Battier’s old tricks for defending Bryant.

As Battier did with Bryant, the Warriors realized that Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum were less effective when driving to their left, so they forced the tandem to do just that

For reference, here are Tatum’s numbers for the regular season and postseason driving from his left and his right (and here are Brown’s):

Data Provided by InStat

Even this level of tendency awareness was mincemeat for Battier. He knew not only which direction to push you, but how many dribbles to make you take in the process. 

Regardless, the point remains the same: Battier influenced not only the way the game is played, but also its preparation — a feat that few players in NBA history have ever attained.

It looks like the piece fits, after all.

Tune in for Part IV of Blazing the Trail on Aug. 17, which focuses on Reggie Miller — the moving target.

Click here to read Part II: "Rashard Lewis, the All-Star stretch 4."

Click here to read Part I: "Steve Nash, the magician who danced in the paint."

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