The Flip Side: Shane Battier lives again

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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.  

PBT Podcast: What to watch during stretch run of season

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Are the Cleveland Cavaliers for real? And by “real” do you mean best in the East or threat to Warriors?

Who is going to make the playoffs in the West? Is Utah going in? Portland? The Los Angeles Clippers?

Is James Harden going win MVP? Is it Ben Simmons or Donovan Mitchell for Rookie of the Year?

Those are just some of the storylines as the NBA races down the stretch run of the season (most teams have around 25 games left). Kurt Helin and Dan Feldman of NBC Sports break down all the things to watch from the end of the season, including if Detroit can climb up into the postseason, and how the top of the East is going to shake out.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.

Suns, Hawks say they won’t change strategy to tank

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Phoenix shut down healthy players in a transparent bid to tank last season. But Suns general manager Ryan McDonough said not to expect a repeat.

Scott Bordow of azcentral:

Wednesday, McDonough told azcentral sports that the Suns won’t approach the final 23 games of this season the same way. In other words, Phoenix isn’t tanking in order to improve its chances of landing the No. 1 pick in the May 15 draft lottery.

“We’re planning on doing what we have been doing, that’s playing our young players. For us, that’s not a change,” McDonough said. “… We want to continue to have them improve and get minutes and try to win as many games as we can.”

The Mike Budenholzer-coached Hawks also won’t sit their top players.

Michael Cunningham of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

Some other teams near the bottom of the standings have publicly proclaimed they will favor youth over experience for the final four-plus weeks of the season, but Budenholzer said he will stay the course.

“I think we’ve been a mix of young and veteran guys all year,” he said Wednesday. “I think the way we progressed through the season — of course when you start the season you think it could be a little different — (but) right now but I think the way we’ve played, and the way we continue to play, won’t be that much different.”

To some degree, McDonough and Budenholzer are just trying to avoid a Mark Cuban-esque fine. The NBA discourages most talk of tanking.

But Phoenix and Atlanta don’t need to change their rotations to tank. They’re already good at losing! Both teams are a league-worst 18-41.

Some teams will get more serious about tanking down the stretch. The Suns and Hawks are already there. That doesn’t make them more virtuous than the Mavericks.

Still, this is a tight race for the top of the lottery. Four other teams have just 18 wins. Another has only 19, and one more has only 20. If the Suns and Hawks need to get worse to improve draft position, I wouldn’t put it past either team.

By the way, that headline can be read a couple different ways. That’s intentional.

Report: Kyrie Irving requested trade after ‘sloppy’ discussion by Cavaliers’ front office

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The Cavaliers reportedly explored trading Kyrie Irving in June. He requested a trade in July.

Since dealt to the Celtics, Irving has said he’ll never pinpoint his precise reason for leaving Cleveland. But he also said the Cavs “didn’t want me there.”

Did the Cavaliers push him out?

Dave McMenamin of ESPN:

On the day of the NBA draft back in June, just days after Cleveland parted ways with former GM David Griffin, a robust Cavs contingent made up of front-office personnel, coaches and team support staff members held an impromptu, “what if?” discussion about Kyrie Irving’s future, multiple team sources confirmed to ESPN.

The discussion, characterized as “small talk” by one source familiar with its content, was less a formal straw poll of what the Cavs should do with their All-Star point guard should trade opportunities present themselves, and more a thought exercise anticipating what the market could bear for a player of Irving’s caliber.

The talk got back to Irving, multiple team sources told ESPN, and that served as the tipping point that led to Irving formally requesting a trade a little more than two weeks later.

“It was sloppy,” one league source familiar with the draft-day discussion told ESPN, adding that any talk about trading a player of Irving’s ilk — however informal it might be — should be handled strictly between the GM and owner, because of the sensitive nature of its content.

While Altman was involved in the meeting, he and Mike Gansey — at that point officially the head of the Cavs’ G League team — were only keeping the ship afloat on an interim basis and had yet to be formally elevated to their current roles as GM and assistant GM, respectively.

This is one spin on the story. Yet another: Irving initially requested a trade before the draft and considered requesting one in 2016.

Both sides are trying to blame the other for the disintegration of their relationship.

It can be difficult to read how serious the draft-day discussion was. Maybe Irving interpreted ut correctly. Maybe he didn’t. Maybe he just used it to justify a trade request he wanted to make anyway.

What’s more clear: Communication hasn’t been as strong between the front office and players under general manager Koby Altman as it was under Griffin. McMenamin:

While the Cavs were struggling in late December through early January, LeBron James questioned Altman’s absentee status on a long Cleveland road trip, team sources told ESPN.

Altman helped repair that relationship leading up to the trade deadline, looping LeBron in on discussions that culminated with three trades. LeBron appears more invested in the Cavaliers, just in time to keep him next summer.

But some mistakes can’t be fixed before it’s too late. Maybe those Irving trade talks in June were one of them.

Report: NBA considering play-in tournament for playoffs

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Adam Silver and LeBron James are publicly arguing about 1-16 playoff seeding.

But that’s not the only change to the NBA’s postseason potentially afoot.

Zach Lowe of ESPN:

sources say there is also some behind-the-scenes momentum for the idea of a play-in tournament determining the last two seeds in each conference — to the point that two specific proposals are circulating at the highest levels within teams and the league office.

The play-in proposal that has generated the most discussion, according to several sources: two four-team tournaments featuring the seventh, eighth, ninth, and 10th seeds in each conference. The seventh seed would host the eighth seed, with the winner of that single game nabbing the seventh spot, sources say. Meanwhile, the ninth seed would host the 10th seed, with the winner of that game facing the loser of the 7-versus-8 matchup for the final playoff spot.

It is not coming next season, and it would be a shock if the NBA adopted it in time for 2020 or even 2021. It may never happen. Any such change would need approval from the competition committee, and then from a supermajority of 23 NBA teams. That process has not even started.

The NBA playoffs, with best-of-seven series, makes it more likely the better team advances. The NCAA tournament, with one game per team per round, generates excitement with increased variance and upsets.

Each format presents its own pros and cons, and I think too many NBA people seek the unpredictability of college basketball without considering the tradeoffs.

But I actually like this, because it makes the long regular season matter more. Each play-in seed faces a progressively easier route to the real playoffs:

  • No. 7 seed: Win one of up to two home games
  • No. 8 seed: Win one road or one home game
  • No. 9 seed: Win one home and one road game
  • No. 10: Win two road games

With more doors open to post-regular-season basketball, that’d theoretically curb tanking. Most tanking occurs lower in the standings, and the NBA hopes its lottery reform will address that. But this could incentivize teams otherwise be out of the playoff race to keep competing.

There are still plenty of questions to answer: How is revenue from the play-in tournament distributed? Could it work in conjunction with 1-16 seeding? How are are play-in-tournament teams treated in the lottery?

But this at least seems plausible.