One of the more memorable NBA stories I’ve ever read was called “The No-Stats All-Star,” by Michael Lewis for the New York Times, looking at the analytics movement and Daryl Morey through the efforts of then-Houston Rockets wing Shane Battier and his efforts to guard late Lakers star Kobe Bryant.
It’s a really interesting read that also set the stage for countless memorable match-ups between Battier and Bryant, which always stood out not just for Battier’s tirelessness and Bryant’s determination to destroy him, but also for the way Battier seemed to always, always get a hand in Bryant’s face as he shot.
But while the natural assumption is that Battier was just trying to obstruct Bryant’s vision, Battier recently revealed during an appearance on “The Brodie and the Beard” podcast that his technique actually went deeper than that: It was an attempt to get Bryant to prove that the defensive strategy didn’t work, thus... making it work?
Let Battier explain:
“The funny story about the hand to the face, and Kobe... said ‘that didn’t work, I had so much muscle memory I saw right through it,’ (but) the reason why I did that was not to make him miss. That wasn’t my aim, which he thought it was. It was to try to get him to prove that method didn’t work. And by trying to prove that method didn’t work, the only way he could do that is take his worst shot, the long-dribble jumper, and so that’s all I cared about.
“Whether he made it or missed the shot I didn’t care, but I knew he was doing the thing that was most beneficial for me and the most harmful for his efficiency by taking that shot, so that was the game within the game within the game within the game that Kobe and I played with each other, and it just was the ultimate chess match. I’m getting goosebumps just talking about it right now, but he’s the only guy to ever really bring out that level. I’m just really sad we’ll never get a chance to talk about that in person.”
For those of you keeping score at home, that’s Battier admitting that used a tactic that he knew wouldn’t work while saying it did, just to goad the perpetually confident Bryant into using a less-than-optimal response just to prove Battier was wrong, and that no, that tactic that Battier said worked (but that he knew wouldn’t) didn’t work.
Got it? Maybe? You gotta think about it a few times, but this might be the highest level of reverse psychology we’ve ever seen. But that’s the kind of thing Kobe brought out of people, especially in his prime. He was so technically sound, so fundamentally excellent — even at inefficient shots — that teams had to try these sort of wild mind games just to have a chance.
Battier, in the end, was one of the best to ever attempt to slow Bryant. Even so, Bryant still averaged 28.6 points, 5.2 rebounds and 5 assists while shooting 43.3% from the field while playing against Battier’s teams. He also went 20-17 against Battier over the course of their careers.
When you consider that Bryant’s scoring was less efficient than normal in those matchups, it’s fair to say Battier’s mind games kind of worked, but when you consider that Bryant won more often than he lost anyway, it’s also fair to point out that it probably didn’t matter. Just in case anyone forgot, that’s just how much of a bucket Kobe was in his prime. Even the most effective tactics kind of still didn’t work.