Shane Battier: They're Not Nerd Stats, They're a Competitive Advantage

One of the brightest minds in basketball walks through the theory and implementation of advanced analytics.

Two years ago, the now-retired Shane Battier was named by The Sporting News as the 7th smartest athlete in American pro sports. In his blurb, Battier cites "sabermetrics" as one of his off-court interests. You can imagine Battier spending his free time poring over spreadsheets while his teammates play video games or lift weights. It doesn't get much brainier than that.


Advanced analytics are called by many different names: sabermetrics, big data, nerd stats, fancy stats, etc. They're all labels for the same basic idea. It's an idea that was famously profiled in books like Moneyball and The Extra 2%, both of which focus on baseball — the veritable primordial soup of advanced metrics. Bill James, who is among the pioneers of modern sports analytics, first coined the term "sabermetrics" and defined it as "the search for objective knowledge about baseball." 

As with any innovation that begets a considerable competitive advantage, the underlying idea of sabermetrics — the replacement of biased speculation with impenetrable knowledge — has been translated across sports. The National Basketball Association, for instance, rather recently entered what Battier calls in today's featured Big Think interview "a golden age of analytics.":

Some of the biggest (and often unfounded) criticisms of advanced stats is that they seek to quantify elements of competition that are intangible. As Battier explains in the video, most actions in basketball indeed can be quantified and the only thing advanced stats seek to offer is a detailed, empirical glimpse into the nuances of the game:

"Before I really learned analytics, I tried to guard a guy, Kobe Bryant, who in my estimation was the toughest competitor that I ever played against. And all I had to rely on was the old eyeball test scouting report. Kobe’s got a really good right hand. You have to keep him out of the painted area. He’s a great finisher. So yeah, any Joe Schmo fan could tell you those things. But after studying and going through the school of analytics, I knew exactly to a tee who Kobe Bryant was. And I knew as a defender trying to stop him Kobe’s worst-case scenario and my best-case scenario was to make him shoot a pull up jumper going to his left hand, all right."

Basketball analytics are similar to any other kind of metrics that draw upon large swaths of data. Google Analytics, for example, draws conclusions from an analysis of every hit a website gets. With such a broad sample size, the natural and erratic statistical noise that occurs frequently in small samples is erased. Battier expounds on the above by detailing an example of how data-infused analytics allowed him to exploit a weakness in future Hall-of-Famer Kobe Bryant's game:

"The average possession of the Los Angeles Lakers in 2008 generated 0.98 points per possession, 0.98. So you took the average possession of the Lakers. They were going to score 0.98 points every time they had a possession. And so Kobe Bryant only shot the left-handed pull up jumper at a 44 percent clip. So every time that he went left and shot that pull-up jumper he was generating 0.88 points per possession.

Well that’s a tenth of a point less than the average Laker possession. And so if I could make him do that time and time again which is a lot tougher to do than to say, I’m shaving off a tenth of a point every single time."

Battier is such a great TV analyst because he possesses a great gift for explaining somewhat complicated concepts in general terms. Here he offers an analysis of how the objective conclusions produced via advanced metrics can influence defensive strategy. And while one-tenth of a point doesn't sound like much, it all adds up very quickly when you account for the exploitation the strengths and weaknesses of a dozen or so players per team per game:

"In the NBA, as we all know, the margin between wins and loses is very, very thin. So those tenths of points matter. And that’s all it really is. It’s no different than playing the stock market. You’re trying to shave percentage points off your risk. And if you can accumulate enough, guess what? You’re going to do very well."

It's interesting that Battier compares advanced stats to playing the stock market because the recent trend in NBA, MLB, and National Hockey League front offices is to bring in new executives with experience in fields such as economics, finance, and business. In Major League Baseball, there are more Ivy Leaguers in general manager positions than former players. Professional experience and scouting aren't necessarily being devalued. Instead they're being merged with an understanding of the mathematical intricacies behind performance, value, and statistical evaluation.

For Battier, the shift into the golden age of analytics helped make him a better defender and guided him through a fruitful 13-year career. Sure, they didn't always help him keep Bryant off the scoreboard, but in a game measured in inches and seconds, every bit of help is appreciated.

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Kosovo land swap could end conflict - or restart war

Best case: redrawing borders leads to peace, prosperity and EU membership. But there's also a worst case

Image: SRF
Strange Maps
  • The Yugoslav Wars started in 1991, but never really ended
  • Kosovo and Serbia are still enemies, and they're getting worse
  • A proposed land swap could create peace - or reignite the conflict

The death of Old Yugoslavia

Image: public domain

United Yugoslavia on a CIA map from 1990.

Wars are harder to finish than to start. Take for instance the Yugoslav Wars, which raged through most of the 1990s.

The first shot was fired at 2.30 pm on June 27th, 1991, when an officer in the Yugoslav People's Army took aim at Slovenian separatists. When the YPA retreated on July 7th, Slovenia was the first of Yugoslavia's republics to have won its independence.

After the wars

Image: Ijanderson977, CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Map of former Yugoslavia in 2008, when Kosovo declared its independence. The geopolitical situation remains the same today.

The Ten-Day War cost less than 100 casualties. The other wars – in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo (1) – lasted much longer and were a lot bloodier. By early 1999, when NATO had forced Serbia to concede defeat in Kosovo, close to 140,000 people had been killed and four million civilians displaced.

So when was the last shot fired? Perhaps it never was: it's debatable whether the Yugoslav Wars are actually over. That's because Kosovo is a special case. Although inhabited by an overwhelming ethnic-Albanian majority, Kosovo is of extreme historical and symbolic significance for Serbians. More importantly, from a legalistic point of view: Kosovo was never a separate republic within Yugoslavia but rather a (nominally) autonomous province within Serbia.

Kosovo divides the world

Image: public domain

In red: states that have recognised the independence of Kosovo (most EU member states – with the notable exceptions of Spain, Greece, Romania and Slovakia; and the U.S., Japan, Turkey and Egypt, among many others). In blue: states that continue to recognise Serbia's sovereignty over Kosovo (most notably Russia and China, but also other major countries such as India, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa and Iran).

The government of Serbia has made its peace and established diplomatic relations with all other former Yugoslav countries, but not with Kosovo. In Serbian eyes, Kosovo's declaration of independence in 2008 was a unilateral and therefore legally invalid change of state borders. Belgrade officially still considers Kosovo a 'renegade province', and it has a lot of international support for that position (2). Not just from its historical protector Russia, but also from other states that face separatist movements (e.g. Spain and India).

Despite their current conflict, Kosovo and Serbia have the same long-term objective: membership of the European Union. Ironically, that wish could lead to Yugoslav reunification some years down the road – within the EU. Slovenia and Croatia have already joined, and all other ex-Yugoslav states would like to follow their example. Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia have already submitted an official application. The EU considers Bosnia and Kosovo 'potential candidates'.

Kosovo is the main stumbling block on Serbia's road to EU membership. Even after the end of hostilities, skirmishes continued between the ethnically Albanian majority and the ethnically Serbian minority within Kosovo, and vice versa in Serbian territories directly adjacent. Tensions are dormant at best. A renewed outbreak of armed conflict is not unthinkable.

Land for peace?

Image: BBC

Mitrovica isn't the only area majority-Serb area in Kosovo, but the others are enclaved and fear being abandoned in a land swap.

In fact, relations between Kosovo and Serbia have deteriorated spectacularly in the past few months. At the end of November, Kosovo was refused membership of Interpol, mainly on the insistence of Serbia. In retaliation, Kosovo imposed a 100% tariff on all imports from Serbia. After which Serbia's prime minister Ana Brnabic refused to exclude her country's "option" to intervene militarily in Kosovo. Upon which Kosovo's government decided to start setting up its own army – despite its prohibition to do so as one of the conditions of its continued NATO-protected independence.

The protracted death of Yugoslavia will be over only when this simmering conflict is finally resolved. The best way to do that, politicians on both sides have suggested, is for the borders reflect the ethnic makeup of the frontier between Kosovo and Serbia.

The biggest and most obvious pieces of the puzzle are the Serbian-majority district of Mitrovica in northern Kosovo, and the Albanian-majority Presevo Valley, in southwestern Serbia. That land swap was suggested previous summer by no less than Hashim Thaci and Aleksandar Vucic, presidents of Kosovo and Serbia respectively. Best-case scenario: that would eliminate the main obstacle to mutual recognition, joint EU membership and future prosperity.

If others can do it...

Image: Ruland Kolen

Belgium and the Netherlands recently adjusted out their common border to conform to the straightened Meuse River.

Sceptics - and more than a few locals - warn that there also is a worst-case scenario: the swap could rekindle animosities and restart the war. A deal along those lines would almost certainly exclude six Serbian-majority municipalities enclaved deep within Kosovo. While Serbian Mitrovica, which borders Serbia proper, is home to some 40,000 inhabitants, those enclaves represent a further 80,000 ethnic Serbs – who fear being totally abandoned in a land swap, and eventually forced out of their homes.

Western powers, which sponsored Kosovo's independence, are divided over the plan. U.S. officials back the idea, as do some within the EU. But the Germans are against – they are concerned about the plan's potential to fire up regional tensions rather than eliminate them.

Borders are the Holy Grail of modern nationhood. Countries consider their borders inviolate and unchanging. Nevertheless, land swaps are not unheard of. Quite recently, Belgium and the Netherlands exchanged territories so their joint border would again match up with the straightened course of the River Meuse (3). But those bits of land were tiny and uninhabited. And as the past has amply shown, borders pack a lot more baggage in the Balkans.

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