Friday, February 25, 2011

Breaking Down the Battier/Thabeet Trade

Posted By on Fri, Feb 25, 2011 at 1:22 AM

The Grizzlies made only one trade yesterday, but it was a doozy. And even the deal they did make was obscured by the one they tried and failed to make.

Call it a Comeback: Shane Battier back in Beale Street Blue.
  • Call it a Comeback: Shane Battier back in Beale Street Blue.
There's way too much to sort through for one post, so I'm breaking up trade-deadline-related material into probably four posts. This one will look exclusively at the reasons for and ramifications of the Shane Battier/Hasheem Thabeet trade. Over the next few days I hope to come back with stuff on: 1. The magnitude of the Thabeet mistake, what was or wasn't learned from it, and the chances of him coming back to haunt the team. 2. The failed Mayo-to-Indiana deal, what happened and what it means now. 3. How the Western Conference playoff race looks in the wake of a massive day of NBA dealing.

None of those posts — I hope — will be nearly as long as this one.

But I will offer a quick take on the Mayo non-deal first: Don't believe stuff suggesting that the Grizzlies decided to back out of that trade. Michael Heisley himself has made clear that the team tried to make the deal but that it just didn't come together in time for the deadline.

In addition to a desire by some in the organization to trade Mayo for immediate on-court purposes, I think much of the deal was also financially motivated. In the short term, it would have mitigated the extra money the team took on in the Battier deal. And heading into the summer, the team hopes to resign Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, and Battier and has decent cheap players (Tony Allen, Sam Young, and Xavier Henry) in place at the two guard. I think they wanted to move off Mayo's money in order to free up more room for Randolph/Gasol/Battier.

The Pacers deal, while nowhere close to good value for Mayo, would have done three things: Freed up cash now and this summer, given them a better back-up center (Josh McRoberts) to replace Thabeet the rest of this season, and given them a first-round pick as the spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. I wouldn't have liked the deal at all, but I understand it.

And, with that, on to the main event:

The Deal: The Grizzlies trade Hasheem Thabeet, DeMarre Carroll, and a lottery-protected future first-round pick to the Houston Rockets for Shane Battier and Ish Smith.

Why Do It?: For the Grizzlies, this deal had value in terms of both addition and subtraction. In terms of subtraction, there are at least two kinds of value that come from simply getting rid of Thabeet, a colossal bust of a #2 overall pick who was averaging only 8.2 minutes a game — with several DNPs scattered in his game log — and showing little sign of becoming a viable NBA player.

One is financial: The Grizzlies were going to owe Thabeet $5.1 million dollars next season, which is entirely too much money for a small-market team to have sunk into a non-contributor when facing the free agencies of both Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. The Grizzlies had to get off that contract, yet have only themselves to blame, as they chose to take the team option on Thabeet's third season.

The other benefit of simply getting Thabeet off the roster is to wash the team's collective hands of the franchise's biggest player personnel gaffe. Having a non-developing Thabeet rotting on the bench or floundering on the court not only isn't helpful; it's sort of a distraction.

In terms of addition, the team adds a playoff-proven, immensely popular veteran who both plays a position of current need (small forward, with Rudy Gay out) and provides a much-needed offensive attribute (career 39% three-point shooting).

Of course, the team also parted with a future first-round pick to make this deal happen, which is a bitter pill to swallow in a trade in which you're swapping a recent #2 overall pick for what could end up being a two-month rental on a veteran role player.

For what it's worth, the team claims to be intrigued with Ish Smith, the speedy but poor-shooting rookie point guard who had been a bit player with the Rockets this season.

Hasheem Thabeet: A poorly conceived draft pick that was even worse than expected.
  • Hasheem Thabeet: A poorly conceived draft pick that was even worse than expected.

The Pick: The pick, at least, will never be a high one. It is top-14 protected every year and not eligible to be used until 2013. The Minnesota Timberwolves — who own the rights to the future first round pick the Grizzles sent to the Utah Jazz last season for Ronnie Brewer — are ahead of the Rockets in line for a Grizzlies first rounder. If the Grizzlies make the playoffs this season, the Wolves will get that pick in this summer's draft. In that event, the pick being sent to the Rockets will be eligible to be used starting in 2013 (you can't trade picks in back-to-back years). If the Grizzlies miss the playoffs this season, that pushes both picks back at least a year. If the pick owed to the Rockets is not exercised by 2016, the Rockets will receive a second-round pick and $3 million.

What Battier Adds (On the Court): At 32, this Shane Battier is not quite the same player Grizzlies fans will remember from the Hubie/Fratello years, but he's still a quality addition who has been having a pretty good season, averaging 9 points, 5 rebounds, 2.5 assists, and 2.1 "stocks" in 31 minutes a game for the Rockets.

Defense has always been Battier's calling card, and while he's not quite the same one-on-one defender he used to be, his size, smarts, and hustle still make him quite effective. And with Tony Allen on board, Battier won't be asked to be the team's primary "defensive stopper" against top wing scorers. He'll be able to be more of a team defender, which is his bigger strength.

With Battier coming in and getting minutes presumably at the expense of O.J. Mayo and perhaps Sam Young, the Grizzlies are further accelerating their evolution into a defensive-oriented team. Battier is also, unlike Young or Allen, a true small forward who matches up well with the bigger players at that position. For that reason, once Battier gets acclimated, and until Rudy Gay returns, you'd expect for him to become the team's starter at that position.

On the offensive end, Battier has no chance of duplicating Rudy Gay's primary skill — the ability to create good shots. But for a team that is last in the league in made three-pointers per game and 26th in assist ratio, Battier can help.

Battier has operated as more of a three-point specialist for the Rockets than he did for the Grizzlies the first time around, which is fitting given that his always-ordinary athleticism and shot-creation abilities have been in decline. Battier has been taking more than half of his shots from beyond the arc, many of them from the corner, and hitting at a 39% clip. He can help space the floor for Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol and, as an underrated passer, can help get them the ball in better spots with good post-entry feeds.

With a lack of shot creators potentially getting worse if O.J. Mayo's minutes are scaled back, will Battier still be used the same — efficient — way? I'm betting Battier is too smart and too settled to get away from what makes him effective.

Additionally, Battier will bring a different — more, um, stable — kind of veteran presence to balance out characters like Tony Allen, Jason Williams, and Zach Randolph. (Randolph has been pretty damn stable, actually, but it's been awhile since he's seen playoff action.)

Battier the Beloved: Another consideration, which Chris Wallace downplayed when I asked him about it but which Michael Heisley makes pretty clear was at least a strong enticement is that this city loves Shane Battier. The Grizzlies gave him a poster night when he came back as a visiting player. There are still people out there who think dealing Battier for a rookie Rudy Gay was a bad trade. And there are people who think the team fell apart because Battier was dealt. And, yes, many of these people are middle-aged white guys with the spare cash to buy tickets. I'm sure Buzz Bissinger loves Shane Battier.

Of course, there's good reason for people to particularly like Battier here. He represents the franchise's move to Memphis, its ascent into a playoff team, and its high-water mark in terms of community interest. He was also more active and visible in the community than probably any other Grizzlies player ever. Battier brings good vibes, and for a team whose box-office increase is lagging behind its on-court improvements, that certainly doesn't hurt.

Getting the Band Back Together: Battier is now the second member of the "glory days" Grizzlies to rejoin the team in recent weeks. This is made even funnier and weirder by the presence of "Pau's little brother" in the middle. Does this make Marc Gasol the Jason Bonham of the group?


The New Roster: The Grizzlies roster currently stands at a full 15 players and is very perimeter-heavy: Four point guards (Mike Conley, Jason Williams, Greivis Vasquez, and Ish Smith), four two-guards (O.J. Mayo, Tony Allen, Sam Young, Xavier Henry), three small forwards (Rudy Gay, Shane Battier, Rodney Carney), two power forwards (Zach Randolph, Darrell Arthur), and two centers (Marc Gasol, Hamed Haddadi).

This deal will be popular generally, but I bet Rodney Carney doesn't like it much. Carney was a good signing at the time, but now the team is bringing Battier in before he's played a single game on his current 10-day contract. It's hard to see Carney sticking. Assuming he's not kept, one roster spot would open up. It would make sense for the Grizzlies to replace Carney with a similar type of journeyman center to add frontcourt depth, but given the extra money the team has taken on in the Battier trade and the failure to shed commensurate salary in the failed Mayo deal, I'm skeptical they'll make a move in that area unless another injury forces their hand.

As it is, the team will desperately hope for good health from Marc Gasol the rest of the way and likely play a lot of small ball when he's out of the line-up. Given how poorly Thabeet was playing, the team is likely to gain much more in hustle, skill, and basketball IQ that it's losing in size.

Next Summer: The Grizzlies didn't bring in Battier with the intention of making him a two-month rental. They'd like to re-sign him this summer. But Battier will be an unrestricted free agent and there plenty of potential hurdles to making that happen.

For starters, unrestricted free agent Zach Randolph and restricted free agent Marc Gasol have to be higher priorities. While Gasol is due for a big raise from his current $3.5 million salary, Randolph ($17.3) and Battier ($7.4) are sure to be looking at, at least, modest decreases next season regardless of what teams they sign with. Getting off Thabeet's contract and clearing Marko Jaric off the salary cap will help, but it's still going to take a mighty big collective expenditure to bring all three of those players back — and Battier will be last in the queue. And failing to take Mayo's $5.6 salary for next season off the books now further complicates the team's scenarios for this summer.

The other issue is that Battier's primary position is small forward, where the Grizzlies just happen to have a large, multi-year contract invested in a much better player (yes, Battier fanatics, it's true) who, when back from injury, will command 35-40 minutes a night at that position. Do the Grizzlies really want to spend market value for Battier to back-up Rudy Gay? Especially when they already have three other players under contract for next season — Allen, Young, and Xavier Henry — who could ably do the job? And if not, can they even afford to make what could be the right basketball decision and not re-sign Battier given that they've thrown in a future pick to get him and re-ignited the Battier love across the city?

But even if the Grizzlies are committed to bringing Battier back, would he not be tempted to take equal money for a bigger, potentially starting, role somewhere else? All of these questions can be tabled while fans enjoy the current playoff race, but these will be issues this summer. (The one standing caveat for all contract-related speculation is that these deals will be negotiated under a new collective bargaining agreement, so we don't really know how much league rules or the financial landscape will change.)

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