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Moneyball Comes to the NBA, Literally

"Moneyball" is shorthand for the advanced use of statistics in sports.

It's also a book, of course, about the Oakland A's, by Michael Lewis.

Lewis is the king of writing about this kind of stuff, but has not done so in basketball. Until now.

The cover of this weekend's New York Times Sunday Magazine is a Michael Lewis article called Money (Basket) Ball and it's all about the Houston Rockets, Daryl Morey, Shane Battier, and new kinds of statistics.

You have to read the whole thing. There never was a good case that the box score was as good as it would get, or that better analysis couldn't help basketball teams make smarter decisions. But now, thanks to this article, there is even less of a case to be made for the old way of doing things.

An potent example comes in Lewis' discussion of how Battier plays Kobe Bryant. Learning about Battier's process makes it clear that it's no coincidence so many superstars have bad nights against Battier:

People often say that Kobe Bryant has no weaknesses to his game, but that's not really true. Before the game, Battier was given his special package of information. "He's the only player we give it to," Morey says. "We can give him this fire hose of data and let him sift. Most players are like golfers. You don't want them swinging while they're thinking." The data essentially broke down the floor into many discrete zones and calculated the odds of Bryant making shots from different places on the court, under different degrees of defensive pressure, in different relationships to other players - how well he scored off screens, off pick-and-rolls, off catch-and-shoots and so on. Battier learns a lot from studying the data on the superstars he is usually assigned to guard. For instance, the numbers show him that Allen Iverson is one of the most efficient scorers in the N.B.A. when he goes to his right; when he goes to his left he kills his team. The Golden State Warriors forward Stephen Jackson is an even stranger case. "Steve Jackson," Battier says, "is statistically better going to his right, but he loves to go to his left - and goes to his left almost twice as often." The San Antonio Spurs' Manu Ginóbili is a statistical freak: he has no imbalance whatsoever in his game -- there is no one way to play him that is better than another. He is equally efficient both off the dribble and off the pass, going left and right and from any spot on the floor.

Bryant isn't like that. He is better at pretty much everything than everyone else, but there are places on the court, and starting points for his shot, that render him less likely to help his team. When he drives to the basket, he is exactly as likely to go to his left as to his right, but when he goes to his left, he is less effective. When he shoots directly after receiving a pass, he is more efficient than when he shoots after dribbling. He's deadly if he gets into the lane and also if he gets to the baseline; between the two, less so. "The absolute worst thing to do," Battier says, "is to foul him." It isn't that Bryant is an especially good free-throw shooter but that, as Morey puts it, "the foul is the worst result of a defensive play." One way the Rockets can see which teams think about the game as they do is by identifying those that "try dramatically not to foul." The ideal outcome, from the Rockets' statistical point of view, is for Bryant to dribble left and pull up for an 18-foot jump shot; force that to happen often enough and you have to be satisfied with your night. "If he has 40 points on 40 shots, I can live with that," Battier says. "My job is not to keep him from scoring points but to make him as inefficient as possible." The court doesn't have little squares all over it to tell him what percentage Bryant is likely to shoot from any given spot, but it might as well.

The reason the Rockets insist that Battier guard Bryant is his gift for encouraging him into his zones of lowest efficiency. The effect of doing this is astonishing: Bryant doesn't merely help his team less when Battier guards him than when someone else does. When Bryant is in the game and Battier is on him, the Lakers' offense is worse than if the N.B.A.'s best player had taken the night off.

Also, Roland Beech recently found that Kobe Bryant makes a surprisingly low percentage of the shots he takes with the game on the line. Lewis uncovers some data from the Rockets that helps to explain that. Keep in mind the NBA 3-point line, at its furthest point, is an imposing 23 feet and nine inches from the hoop: "Since the 2002-3 season," writes Lewis, "Bryant had taken 51 3-pointers at the very end of close games from farther than 26.75 feet from the basket. He had missed 86.3 percent of them."

UPDATE: Much of the article focuses on a particular Lakers vs. Rockets game, and ESPN's statistical whiz John Hollinger happened to be at that game, too.