Shane Battier on diversity in NBA analytics: ‘The odds would have been against me’
The former Heat forward discusses his current role with the franchise, the power of data, and the greatness of LeBron James and Kobe Bryant
Former 13-year NBA forward Shane Battier is in his fourth season as a member of the Miami Heat’s analytics department, the last three as the team’s vice president of basketball development and analytics. In that role, Battier, who played for the Memphis Grizzlies, Houston Rockets and Heat, acts as the franchise’s “futurist,” using predictive data to analyze basketball and put the Heat in the best possible position to be successful.
In theory, that has paid dividends, as the Heat are currently playing in the NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers just six seasons after losing LeBron James to free agency and one year after the retirement tour of Dwyane Wade. Though Battier can’t comment on his role in bringing them aboard, advanced analytics (and, of course, scouting) can be credited with the acquisition of players such as Duncan Robinson, Tyler Herro, Kendrick Nunn and Bam Adebayo, unheralded draft picks and free agents who played huge roles in getting the Heat back into contention in the Eastern Conference.
The son of a white mother and Black father, Battier is one of a few African Americans working in an analytics department in the NBA, a job that more likely would go to an MIT grad (read: white) than a former player (read: Black). The lack of diversity in analytics is a well-known problem, and Battier is hoping to make it more accessible as the rest of the world grapples with systemic racism.
Battier spoke with The Undefeated during the 2020 Finals about his current role with the franchise, the power of data, and the greatness of James and Kobe Bryant.
LeBron James recently said the Heat’s Game 2 loss to the Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 Finals still “burns me to this day.” You joined the team a season later. What did you see once you got there?
I had never been around a team that was that hungry, ever, ever. And I walked in the door the first day and I’m like, ‘holy mackerel,’ these guys are pissed. And it wasn’t just the players, it was Pat Riley, it was Coach Spo. It was the video coordinators, and there was an edge to it.
I’ll never forget the first game on Christmas Day after the lockout … it was ring night. Mavericks got their rings, and we were just in the backroom waiting to come out and play. And I never felt like just the vitriol of guys. And there was no talking, and we just want to go out there and just crush Dallas, and we went out and beat them by about 30 or 40 [the Heat led by 35 points midway through the third quarter before winning 105-94]. And I said, ‘Oh, we’re winning this year. We’re winning.’
You played with and against LeBron, you played against Kobe. What made those two so much better than everyone else?
The great ones that I’ve played with and against, obviously their physical talents are just different. They’re born with the set of physical tools that no one else has. But there are a lot of guys that I played with that had physical tools that didn’t have the mental component.
The truly, truly great ones, they have an undeniable competitive spirit. They do whatever it takes to win. They do whatever it takes to inspire their teammates, in many different ways. The meticulous nature in which they take care of their bodies and make sure they’re always at their best physically; it’s a different level. To be a special player like that it can’t be understated the amount of work that goes into it. It really is a full-time job.
And I was professional, I worked really hard. I don’t think I worked as hard as those guys. I drank too much beer. But it was inspiring to see the truly greats up close and personal on both sides and understand what true greatness is.
What are your thoughts on diversity and analytics in the NBA? What can the league, and basketball in general, do to improve those numbers?
It’s essential that we create opportunities across the board. I have not done a great job of that. I’m guilty. And I’m cognizant of that as I build my department. My department’s very, very new. My department’s only 3 years old. But I understand the pitfalls that, if we continue the way that we do, the danger of basically building an echo chamber of people who have the same backgrounds who think alike, and of anyone I should know this. I’m not classically trained in this. My background is I learned from Daryl Morey and Sam Hinkie in Houston the power of data and analytics. And I understood the advantages I can gain by really understanding the data and what it was and what it wasn’t in the game of basketball.
And I was a religion major. I wasn’t a math major and probably the furthest thing from analytics, but I understood the implications and I understood the pragmatism of data. And it made me an All-NBA defender, and then allowed me to be a two-time world champion, and stay on the floor for fourth quarters, and have a pretty darn good career for someone who’s kind of unathletic.
And so my strength might be that I’m not like everybody else and I think differently, and I’ve been in the fires, and I understand when I see data, what’s real, what can you implement and what’s just theoretical. And I think that’s a huge advantage.
For you, if all things were the same – you go to Detroit Country Day School, you go to Duke University, only thing different is you don’t have a 13-year NBA career – do you think someone who looks like you would have still been able to get a job in analytics in the NBA?
I like to think because I’m resilient I would have been able to do whatever I wanted. But I understand that the odds would have been against me, as a matter of probability. I understand that, but I like to think that there’s nothing in my life I hadn’t overcome through sheer will and sacrifice. And that’s the message that I give to young Black aspiring statisticians and data scientists. There are some out there, and they’ve expressed their frustration with the process. I said, ‘It is tough. Absolutely.’ Because the slots that are out there are super, supercompetitive with analytics. My inbox is flooded with really, really talented people, from around the world, not just in America, fighting for these shots. And my advice to them is, ‘Look, like in any other job, you have to separate yourself from the pack.’
Give me some original research. Show me that, besides loving basketball, besides ‘I’m going to work really, really hard.’ Yeah, you and everybody else, OK. How do you think? How do you think about the pick-and-roll differently than somebody else? Show me something that shows me, ‘You know what, I’m like everybody else, but I’m different.’
And you have been working with Black Girls Code?
My team of analysts, they came to me sort of at the advent of the [Black Lives Matter] protests, and they said, ‘Hey, Shane, we want to do something. We don’t know what we want, we want to help.’ And so I said, ‘I am totally in agreement with you.’ I think that we can use our skills and our platform and our resources to help expose kids in underserved areas in Miami — there are a lot of kids that need a lot of love right outside the backyard of our arena, we can help. And so we approached the community investment side of the Heat and said, ‘Hey, I know there’s a relationship with Black Girls Code, amongst other groups that we are involved with, we would love to develop a program to work with young Black coders and just expose them to the world of basketball analytics.’
Basketball analytics are fun, and people are intimidated by data and statistics. But if you love hoops and you look at it through the lens of analytics, a lot of the concepts make much more sense, and math and science becomes accessible. And that’s what we need to do to show – especially our Black and brown kids – that math and science is accessible and it’s practical, and it can be fun and amazing, and if you understand those things, a whole new world can open.
Why do you think that when people see equations and things like that, they just automatically kind of tense up and are afraid of numbers and in learning how to read it and understand it?
Do you remember algebra? There’s no ifs, ands or buts about it, math is intimidating and I don’t know how many people I’ve ever had a conversation with someone who – I’m a 42-year-old man – said, ‘You know what I really miss? I miss doing the quadratic equation. I miss all the different sohcahtoa, co-signs and the tangent, I miss that.’ No, unless you’re an engineer, it seems so archaic to so many people.
And that’s why, to be honest with you, a lot of players don’t embrace data analytics, because they look at it and they’re reminded of high school algebra. I loved it because it gave me a huge advantage, because I knew that even though it was work, and it did feel like schoolwork, but it was work that paid off in my career, immensely, tenfold. It’s about an openness, about can I learn from this? Can I improve? And is it worth my time investment? But we have to make it more accessible, and we’d have to make it more digestible. And that’s what I think we have a great chance to do.
You mentioned some players just don’t want to embrace it that much. What do those conversations sound like the first time someone says, “Hey, your offensive efficiency is this when you do this, this when you do that”?
The way that I was taught – I enjoy going to Las Vegas. And so I played a few hands of blackjack in my life, and the way it was explained to me, which made total sense, that you gotta think about basketball like blackjack. If you’re playing blackjack, there are certain hard and fast rules. You always double down on 11, no matter what. You always split aces. And you always hold on 17. Are you guaranteed 100% to win those hands if you do those things? No, but mathematically it’s proven that if you do that over a long period of time, your chances of success are greater than if you go against what you should do in those situations. For basketball, it’s the same. There is not a right or wrong answer in basketball, but there are certain more right answers and certain more wronger answers.
Kobe, may he rest in peace, I knew when Kobe Bryant went to his right hand and shot a shot in the paint — and you factor in makes, misses, fouls drawn, free throws off those fouls, passes to teammates, their shots off those passes — it was a 62% shot. So every time he did that shot, it was worth 1.26 points. And when I went to his left hand and I kept him out of the paint — factoring makes, misses, fouls draw, free throws, passes, turnovers — it was only a 43% shot. So every time you went left and did that shot, it was worth 0.84 points. Now you don’t have to be a math major to know that guarding Kobe Bryant, you don’t want him to do the 62% thing. You want him to do the 43% thing.
You mentioned Black Lives Matter earlier. With what happened with George Floyd, what were your immediate feelings upon either hearing about what happened or seeing a video for yourself?
I was devastated like everybody else, just devastated. I didn’t have the words, I didn’t know how to talk to my kids about it. That was probably the hardest part, was trying to find the words to – my kids are 12 and 9, and they’re trying to figure out this whole COVID world to begin with, and don’t have a lot of context for the Black Lives Matter times that we live in now.
But it’s important to relay what this means, relate to historical precedents that had been set, and to hear it from their eyes it makes all the sense in the world that they said, ‘This is messed up, Dad. Why is it? It shouldn’t be like this.’ And then just to say, ‘Yes, I know, guys, I know, I know.’ And it’s up to all of us to continue to fight it and to say it’s wrong. And as a Black man, it meant one thing, as a parent it meant something different.
You were also in Miami when Trayvon Martin was killed and the Heat wore hoodies in a photo. How did that personally affect you all in the locker room?
Full disclosure, and people would try to take me to task on this, I was not in that photo. The day that we took that photo, it was in Detroit and it was the only time we came back to Detroit that year. I’m from Detroit. So our hotel was literally, like, five minutes from where I grew up. And so I left straight from shootaround to go and have lunch with my mom. And I didn’t even know that they were doing the photo. But had I known they were doing the photo, I obviously would have told my mom, ‘Hey, we’ll catch up at the game,’ and join my teammates.
That wasn’t surprising for my teammates. It was a very socially conscious team, which is amazing for as much as, collectively, each player on the team had to lose in terms of endorsements and sticking their reputation on the line for social causes. That just spoke to our locker room, a group of amazing men, proud men, who get how to use their platform for change and for positive change. So I was just proud to be part of that group, even though I wasn’t in the photo that day.