Shane Battier has a well-established and well-earned reputation as one of the more cerebral players in the NBA. It’d make sense, then, for Battier to be one of the most vocal proponents of the SportVU camera arrays that will be in place for all 30 teams this coming season. That bevy of information must truly be a boon to a player like Battier, one whose bread is buttered by his approach to the game and his ability to be one step of his opponent at all times. Right?
Well, not so much.
Is there anything that you want to know about yourself that the new data could tell you?
Nope. I think it will be awesome when I retire, whenever that is, when I step away, to look at the numbers and see how I ranked, but I’m psycho enough to where that will cloud the way I play. That makes it less instinctual, to be honest with you. I rationally understand what’s good for me, obviously the threes, the paint shots, and I stay away from corner twos like they’re the plague, but I don’t want to know anything else.
I don’t want to know. I don’t want to know my weaknesses. I mean, I know what my weaknesses are, obviously, but I want to be as instinctual as possible, while still keeping the rational edge that keeps me a player in this league.
Battier also references the fact that he doubts most players would understand the data, at least in its raw form. And that’s the crux of the issue when it comes to analytics in the NBA. The influx of information is only as useful as the lessons gleaned from the data — and even then, it’s only useful if it’s actionable. To throw a bucketful of numbers at a player and expect him to be readily familiar with what’s meaningful and what’s not would be ridiculous. As Battier says, “It puts a premium on computer programmers. It’s a premium on guys, engineers, computer scientists, guys who can evaluate data and make it adjustable for scouts and make it adjustable for directors of personnel.”
And when that information is adjusted and digestible to players and evaluators alike, it will still only be applicable if it can be internalized. No player, no matter how far into the future we peer, will stop to consider the expected value of two dribbles to his left versus one dribble and a skip pass to the right. That’s ridiculous — laborious mental gymnastics that can only slow a player and create chaos. In the lingo of Shane Battier, it’s an instinctual game. The time for analytics and adjustments is in the periods before and after games, not in the heat of competition. If and when this data trickles down into the day-to-day machinations of an NBA team, it will likely blossom behind the scenes. Practice is the moment where information can overcome inertia. Film study augmented by heads-up displays and statistical overlays; measured points of release on jumpers; tendencies to go one way or the other — they’re all aspects of preparation, not execution. Where SportVU and its offspring can truly help is in ensuring that repetition is thoughtful, that practice habits beget proper in-game instincts.
After all, a guitar player doesn’t mull over her options when she misses a note; she slides to another fret or bends the string in time to save the melody. 500 hours ago and a stage removed, the process was reflection. Now, it’s anticipation and reaction.
In the end, Battier likely said it best:
It’s an edge and players always look for an edge. Be it they work a little harder in the weight room to get a little stronger, whether they take 100 extra jumpers a day to get an edge on their jump shot… It’s just another edge, another way to get ahead of the competition. But obviously you can make more money the more edges you have.
It’ll take time for someone to take the data and make it digestible for players to understand, ‘OK, this is what I really need to work on.’ The game is not changing. It doesn’t change the way it’s understood, described and analyzed. The game is still going to be the same, it’s just going to be a different nuance.
A revolution in the margins and mere inches of ground gained. Welcome to the future.