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.  

76ers tie NBA-record losing streak, dropping heartbreaker to Celtics

Isaiah Thomas, T.J. McConnell
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After a rare period of on-court competence, the 76ers led the Celtics by five with two minutes left tonight.

Then, Philadelphia snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

The 76ers yielded a 9-0 run to close an 84-80 setback.

They’re now 0-16. Combined with their 0-10 finish to last season, that’s a 26-game losing streak – tied for longest in NBA history. Last year’s 76ers already shared the record.

Philadelphia is also in danger of the worst start to a season. The 2009-10 New Jersey Nets began 0-18, and last year’s 76ers won only one game sooner.

The 76ers will try to avoid the all-time longest streak at the Rockets on Friday. If that goes unsuccessfully, they’ll try to avoid matching the worst season start at the Grizzlies on Sunday. And if both fail, they could set the worst-start record against the Lakers on Tuesday.

76ers-Lakers – it’s shaping up to be a big one.

Timberwolves read mean tweets about themselves (video)

Flip Saunders, Karl-Anthony Towns, Tyus Jones
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The Timberwolves didn’t select the meanest tweets about these players, but credit Karl-Anthony Towns, Tyus Jones, Shabazz Muhammad and Zach LaVine for being good sports.

LeBron James: I’m healthier than a year ago


LeBron James received an injection in his back before the season.

It’s working.

Dave McMenamin of ESPN:

LeBron James now says he feels better than he did even a year ago.

“I feel better in the mornings; I feel better throughout the games; I feel better throughout the day,” James said before a Cavs shootaround Wednesday in preparation for their game against the Toronto Raptors. “It was a rough start to the season for me last year and for our team. Obviously the way we’ve been playing, a lot is predicated on my health and being able to lead these guys out on the floor and not from the sidelines.”

LeBron certainly looks healthier than he did at this point last year. He’s moving much better and giving more effort.

But comparing November to November means very little for the Cavaliers, who hope to play deep into June.

The key question: Did LeBron properly time his injection? There’s a limit on the number he can have in a year, and it takes time to recover after one. Cleveland doesn’t want LeBron to peak to early.

It’s good for the Cavs that LeBron feels better now, but his health in the playoffs remains the priority.

Report: Suns signing Bryce Cotton

Bryce Cotton
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Eric Bledsoe missed the Suns’ loss to the Spurs on Monday with a knee injury.

So, Phoenix is bringing in a reinforcement – Bryce Cotton.

Marc Stein of ESPN:

The Jazz waived Cotton before the season despite Dante Exum‘s injury leaving them with just two other healthy point guards. That says something about Cotton – but also Utah’s depth.

Cotton – who went undrafted out of Providence last year – is quick, varies his speed well and can leap. There’s reason to believe in his potential at age 23. But his 6-foot-1 frame limits him defensively, and he’s not much of a distributor.

Phoenix will rely on Brandon Knight and Ronnie Price at point guard if Bledsoe is unavailable. The Suns can also use fewer two-point guard lineups – giving more minutes at shooting guard to Devin Booker, Archie Goodwin and Sunny Weems.

Cotton provides insurance while Bledsoe is banged-up with what seems to be a minor injury. But he might have to show something to keep drawing an NBA paycheck once Bledsoe gets healthy.