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.  

Spurs honor Kobe Bryant in his last game in San Antonio (VIDEO)

LOS ANGELES - MARCH 30:  Kobe Bryant #8 of the Los Angeles Lakers stands next to Tim Duncan #21 of the San Antonio Spurs on March 30, 2006 at Staples Center in Los Angeles, California.  The Spurs won 96-85. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
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The Kobe Bryant farewell tour has gone all around the NBA, but some stops are more emotional than others. His final trip to San Antonio certainly qualifies — the Spurs and Lakers have played each other in the playoffs eight times in his career, including twice in the Western Conference Finals (the Lakers won both times). The only player who has rivaled Bryant’s longevity is Tim Duncan, and the Lakers and Spurs were the two most dominant teams of the 2000s, winning nine of the 12 championships from 1999 to 2010 between them.

So, of course, the Spurs had an elaborate tribute video planned for Bryant. The video ran two and a half minutes and featured narration from Gregg Popovich, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. Watch it below:

Report: Clippers’ Austin Rivers has broken hand, out 4-6 weeks

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 29:  Austin Rivers #25 of the Los Angeles Clippers scores on a layup past D'Angelo Russell #1 of the Los Angeles Lakers during a 105-93 win at Staples Center on January 29, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and condition of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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The Clippers are without Blake Griffin for the next few weeks as he recovers from a broken hand stemming from an altercation with an equipment manager. Now, the Clippers have lost backup point guard Austin Rivers to the exact same injury, albeit not in the same circumstances, obviously.

The loss of Rivers isn’t as devastating as the loss of Griffin, but given the Clippers’ lack of depth, it’s certainly not ideal. Now, Chris Paul‘s only backup is Pablo Prigioni.

Warriors hold off late Thunder run to remain undefeated at home

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For once, a marquee matchup involving the Golden State Warriors lived up to its billing. Their much-hyped meetings with the Cleveland Cavaliers and San Antonio Spurs were anticlimactic blowouts nearly free of drama. And for the first half on Saturday night’s 116-108 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder, it seemed like the defending champions were headed for another snoozer. They led by as much as 20, and completely outmatched the Thunder on both ends of the floor.

But the Thunder rallied behind a surprising defensive effort in the second half and some solid play from Enes Kanter. Plus, you know, Kevin Durant, who led all scorers with 40 points and gave the normally unflappable Draymond Green fits defensively. They tied the game at 104 before Golden State pulled away.

Despite the huge first-half lead, the Warriors weren’t their usual selves. Stephen Curry shot 1-for-8 from behind the three-point line, and triple-double machine Draymond Green scored just nine points. Golden State’s most consistent player was Harrison Barnes, who has probably read the speculation that the Warriors would have to dump him to land Durant this summer. He hit three three-pointers and shot 8-for-14 overall on the way to 19 points.

The Warriors’ bench carried them for stretches, outscoring Oklahoma City’s reserves 42-17.

Despite the Thunder’s late run, this was a statement win for the Warriors. They sent the message that, even when they aren’t in total control from start to finish, they can still pull away from other elite teams. The Thunder have given them the toughest challenge of any team they’ll likely have to face in the late rounds of the playoffs this spring, and it’s to their credit that they took the first-half punch and came back to make it a game. But the Warriors are on a different level from the rest of the league, and they showed that clearly on Saturday.

Kevin Durant brushes off free-agency speculation: “Once that time comes, I’ll make that decision”

OAKLAND, CA - JANUARY 05:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder drives on Harrison Barnes #40 of the Golden State Warriors at ORACLE Arena on January 5, 2015 in Oakland, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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It goes without saying that with the Thunder and Warriors playing each other for the first time on Saturday night, Kevin Durant free-agency talk has been at an all-time high. The hot rumor this week is that the Warriors are the frontrunners to land Durant this summer, which would shake up the league like nothing since LeBron James going to Miami.

Obviously, all parties were going to be asked about it before the hotly anticipated game. And obviously, all parties were going to downplay it. That’s exactly what happened.

Here’s what Durant said, via the San Francisco Chronicle‘s Rusty Simmons:

“Once that time comes, I’ll make that decision. I’ll sit down and talk to my closest friends and family and figure it out, but right now, I’m just trying to be the best basketball player I can be every single day. I have to be at a high level to lead every day at practices, shootarounds and games, and that’s a tough task. I can’t focus on anything else, other than that.”

Warriors coach Steve Kerr also downplayed the speculation:

“I don’t know why anybody would talk about anything but the fact that we’re 45-4 and have a hell of a team,” said Kerr, who hasn’t addressed rumors about Durant favoring the Bay Area as a future destination with his players. “Why would anybody talk about some different team, future stuff and other players?

“Focus on our team. We’re pretty good.”

On both sides, that’s the appropriate way to respond publicly. Not that this is going to go away anytime soon. They play each other two more times this season, once in Oklahoma City and once more in Oakland, and this is going to get brought up then, too. And just like Saturday, nobody will give a definitive answer. Nor should they. Nobody will know anything until July 1. But until then, it will be impossible to quiet the chatter.