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The Flip Side: Shane Battier lives again

Aug 14, 2010, 11:42 AM EDT

Wednesday’s four-way trade
saw just about every team involved walk away a winner. However, the
effects of that trade are far more specific than just saying “This team
got better,” or “This team accomplished its goals.” In The Flip Side,
we’ll look at one player from each of the four teams — the Nets, the
Pacers, the Hornets, and the Rockets — and how their career is
impacted by the move in both the immediate and distant future.

One piece in The New York Times once turned Shane Battier from fine complementary player into defensive immortal, but a pair of roster moves by the Houston Rockets had somehow rendered him invisible. Last summer, Houston signed Trevor Ariza for the mid-level exception, acquiring Battier’s heir apparent as the Rockets’ primary wing defender. Ariza and Battier, though they have found the most success operating in similar roles, are cut from entirely different defensive molds; Battier’s style is perhaps best described as cerebral, whereas Ariza is more a thin, lanky Ron Artest clone, limiting defenders by way of athleticism, instinct, and will.

The two coexisted on the wing in Houston, but in February of this year, the Rockets traded for the sweet-shooting Kevin Martin, a move designed to restructure the Houston offense. By design, Trevor Ariza’s usage rate began to slip, and the far more effective Kevin Martin gradually began taking more shots and lifted some of Ariza’s shot-creating responsibilities. In the process, Battier, despite his defensive talents, was pushed to the bench, and even worse, teetered on irrelevance.

With Martin in the fold and playing major minutes, Ariza and Battier were no longer a tandem of wing defenders. Instead, they were, in a sense, competing for the same playing time and the same defensive responsibilities. Although Battier has long been a favorite of Rick Adelman and Daryl Morey, Ariza is seven years Battier’s junior and an athletic freak. He was the natural fit next to Martin, and together the two wings were set to guide the Rockets into the world of tomorrow. One a quality scorer, the other a proven defender, and together a solid complement to a star like Yao Ming. Meanwhile, Battier was an aging role player on a now-expiring deal, becoming less and less important to the franchise by the minute.

However, Houston has reorganized the wings yet again, with their third significant move in about a year’s time. Trevor Ariza is a Rocket no more, and in his stead will be Courtney Lee, a similar player in most respects, but a markedly different one in the area that matters most: defense. Lee is a solid defender, but he’s far more suited to defend guards exclusively than opposing he is small forwards. Ariza, on the other hand, has a combination of length and speed that make him an ideal defender at either the 2 or the 3. The difference between the two could be minimal in some situations, but when Kevin Martin, who still seems incapable of guarding just about anybody, is a fixture in the starting lineup? Things get a bit more complicated.

Having a versatile defender like Ariza in the lineup afforded the Rockets the opportunity to hide Martin defensively, but that’s no longer an option every night out. They could try to match Lee up with bigger and stronger opponents at times, though the long-term viability of that strategy is questionable. Instead, the Rockets’ best lineup may be a reversion to what they know, or in this case, who they know: Battier. Even at his age, Shane is capable of covering an opponent’s top perimeter threat, and is better equipped to do so than Lee. Battier has had a lot of success at multiple positions, and without Ariza around to compensate for Martin’s weaknesses, that defensive versatility is invaluable.

The Rockets have plenty of players capable of filling in at either wing position, but none matches Battier’s defensive utility. Trading Ariza for the significantly cheaper Lee was the right move, but if the Rockets really are trying to make an immediate run at that title, Battier will need to play significant minutes on most nights to compensate for Ariza’s absence. Battier and Lee are very much the team of defenders that Battier and Ariza could never have been; they each have their strengths, and while there’s definitely some overlap in their defensive abilities, there should be no mistaking that overlap for redundancy. The Rockets need Battier again, just as they need Lee, and it’ll be up to the two of them to anchor Houston’s otherwise sketchy perimeter defense.  

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