- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 19, 2009

Deep down, all serious basketball fans - especially denizens of fantasy leagues - are closet GMs. They know who the best players are, who the stiffs are, who’s underrated, overrated, rising and falling. Given a chance, they could put together a much better team than Ernie Grunfeld. Just ask ‘em.

So it created something of a stir in the hoops world when the New York Times ran a story Sunday suggesting that Shane Battier is one of the NBA’s best players - a “No-Stats All-Star” who, through some mysterious means, makes his club significantly better. The piece has gotten a lot of attention because it was written by Michael Lewis, whose best-selling “Moneyball” shined a light on the growing use of statistical analysis in baseball. That same revolution, Lewis says, is beginning to make inroads in basketball… and leading to a greater appreciation of players like Battier.

Some have scoffed at the notion that the Rockets small forward is a hidden gem - and not the 10 points-a-game role player he has always been viewed as. Others, meanwhile, are excited by the prospect that there might be new ways to evaluate performance, ways that go beyond points and rebounds, turnover-to-assist ratio and the like.

It doesn’t really matter which side you’re on, though. What matters is that we’re having this discussion, we’re open to the possibility that numbers might be able to tell us something our eyes can’t.

Battier is an interesting case study. He has never played in the NBA All-Star Game and has made only one All-Defensive team (second team, 2007-08). His career stats (10.1 points, 4.8 rebounds, 1.8 assists a game, 44.7 percent field goal shooting) are, at first glance, rather ordinary. Even his own general manager, Daryl Morey, concedes he’s “at best, a marginal NBA athlete.” His clubs, moreover - first Memphis, now Houston - haven’t had much playoff success at all.

And yet, for reasons that aren’t entirely measurable, “when he is on the court, his teammates get better, often a lot better, and his opponents get worse - often a lot worse,” Lewis contends. How is this possible?

Well, part of the reason is that there are limits to statistics. Those figures I just listed - 10.1, 4.8, 1.8, 44.7 - only begin to illustrate Battier’s worth. For instance, when you adjust his shooting percentage to account for all the 3-pointers he makes, it rises to from 44.7 to 52.4 (counting a 3-pointer as 1.5 field goals). That’s pretty good for guy who only shoots about eight times a game, often from well outside.

Battier also takes extremely good care of the ball. He averages just 1.05 turnovers a game for his career, and in six of the last seven seasons he has averaged less than one a game. We’re not talking about a bench player who gets 20 or 24 minutes a night, either; except for the year he was the Grizzlies’ sixth man, Battier has gotten anywhere from 31.5 to 39.7.

Then there’s his plus-minus, a less publicized stat that works much like hockey’s plus-minus: Does your team do better or worse, scorewise, when you’re on the court? Battier (plus-5.2 per game) has a better rating this season than Tim Duncan (plus-3.8), Dirk Nowitzki (plus-3.6) and Carmelo Anthony (plus-4.5), among others. (And for his career, his GM says, he’s a plus-6.)

Still, Battier is thought of as the third or fourth wheel in Houston behind Yao Ming, Ron Artest and Tracy McGrady. Such is the fate of understated players, players who don’t make the “SportsCenter” Top 10. And maybe Shane IS the third- or fourth-best player on that team. Maybe these newfangled statistics are a bunch of hooey.

But maybe they’re not. Maybe Battier is Captain Intangibles. Maybe he’s one of those rare players whose genius is as a facilitator - one of those players who, when he’s not making a contribution, gets the heck out of the way so others can make their contributions. After all, “chemistry” in sports, as any GM will tell you, is the most secret of formulas. Who’s to say “a spoonful of Shane Battier” isn’t part of the concoction?

However you feel about him, he’s the antithesis of street ball - unselfish to the core, the kind of player who, in the sports pages of my youth, used to be called “heady.” Put him in a pickup game in Harlem, though, a teammate told Lewis, and “he wouldn’t last. … You better give us something to ooh and ahh about. No one cares about someone who took a charge.”

Or as Woody Harrelson’s character put it in “White Men Can’t Jump”: “A white man wants to win first, look good second. A black man wants to look good first, win second.”

Of course, part of that sweeping generalization was just Woody rationalizing his below-the-rim game. Shane Battier, from what I’ve seen, has no trouble dunking. But the points he’s trying to score aren’t style points.

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