Trying to characterize Shane Battier is one of the more difficult tasks as a basketball writer. How do you find the perfect balance between describing the nuances that make Battier a special player without overstating the clichés that have come to define him?
The Battier Scouting Report: He’s selfless. He only cares about winning. He does the little things. He’s an intellectual player. He’s an excellent defender. He’s the ultimate role player/glue guy.
Now that we’ve established those well-worn traits, we can evaluate and assess whether Battier, an unrestricted free agent this offseason, fits into the Clippers’ plans.
The Clippers need an upgrade at the small forward position. In fact, the Clippers’ search for a small forward has been ongoing since the franchise arrived in Los Angeles. Looking back through their bumpy history, the Clips’ best player was almost always a guard or a big man, rarely ever a wing player – Marques Johnson notwithstanding.
Over the past decade or so, the Clippers’ small forward woes intensified. The team has had a revolving door at small forward, forcing shooting guards to play out of position (Corey Maggette, Cuttino Mobley, Quinton Ross, Rasual Butler), relying on inconsistent journeymen (Bobby Simmons, Vladimir Radmanovic, Tim Thomas, Travis Outlaw), and, somewhat recently, handing a starting job to a one-dimensional scorer (Al Thornton).
With the addition of Ryan Gomes last season, the Clippers felt they had temporarily solved their wing issue. Gomes seemed like a decent fit: a complementary piece who could defend, score when need be (career 11.2 PPG up to that point), space the floor as a shooter and stay within the confines of his role.
Unfortunately, Gomes had a career-worst season at 28 (the age when most players are entering or enduring their prime), posting career lows in points, rebounds and percentages across the board; his PER of 9.04 was embarrassing, especially for a starter. Put kindly, the Clippers misjudged Gomes’ fit with the team and overestimated his capabilities (he was never the knockdown 3-point shooter they coveted to spread the D).
What does any of this have to do with Shane Battier, you’re asking? Well, Battier is the player the Clippers were looking for last offseason (a good defender, capable of stretching the defense, intangibles/fundamentals/cerebral guy, etc.), he just arrived one free agent class too late. Fortunately for the Clips, if signed, Battier can expunge Gomes’ mistakes and potentially become the perfect complement to Blake Griffin, and Eric Gordon.
There are several unique qualities Battier can bring to the Clippers, many of which stem from his high basketball IQ. One of Battier’s premier offensive skills is floor spacing, as he understands when to slide from the wing over to the corner, when to cut back door off his man, and when to pop out to allow penetration. Within the Clippers’ offense, Battier’s spacing would allow both Griffin and Kaman to work in the post and on the block, with the option of kicking out to Battier in case a double team ensues.
Take a look at the Clippers’ roster. The only two perimeter players that can stretch the defense, and open up the paint for Blake/DeAndre Jordan/Chris Kaman, are EJ and Mo Williams.
EJ, as Nick Flynt pointed out, has evolved into more than just a spot-up shooter, and it’d be a shame to restrict his offensive talent into such a menial role. Battier’s presence would allow Gordon to roam freely on the perimeter without worrying about spotting up, enabling him to observe the defense for openings to the rim.
Mo, although more of a “2” than a “1”, is a better passer and creator than advertised, and can excel as both a shooter and distributor if given the chance. Battier’s spacing would create gaps for Mo to penetrate and dish to Blake, kick it out to EJ/Battier, or finish himself. Simply adding another shooter of Battier’s caliber would create an entirely different dimension to the Clippers’ starting line-up.
Despite lacking athleticism, speed or quickness, Battier is also one of the league’s elite defenders. He compensates for his lack of athleticism with wisdom as he angles opponents off into his help defense, rotates efficiently off of his man and helps box out the opposing team’s best rebounder. His trademark move defensively (yes, you read that correctly), which gained publicity during his ’09 playoff dual with Kobe Bryant, is blocking his opponent’s vision by putting his hand in their face while they rise up to shoot.
Thanks in large part to a habit instilled by Darryl Morey and his staff in Houston, Battier prepares for each game by studying shot charts of his opponents, analyzing their tendencies, strengths and weaknesses. He knows who’s better going left, who likes to pull up from 15 feet, and who can’t dribble with pressure. The information he collects allows him to have a leg up on the competition, as he is able to maximize his defensive efforts by forcing players into their least efficient shots areas, or situations, possible.
More important than his offensive or defensive talents is Battier’s impact on the team itself. The way he prepares for games (as mentioned above) is bound to wear off on some of the Clippers’ younger players. His analytical and cerebral approach to the game would help increase the Clippers’ collective basketball IQ; his communication defensively would have an immense effect on the young squad still trying to find its identity. A locker room leader in Houston, Battier could provide guidance and wisdom to a team lacking a veteran’s presence.
Michael Lewis, the author of Moneyball, sums up Battier’s game best in his New York Times’ article “The No-Stats All Star” from 2009:
Battier’s game is a weird combination of obvious weaknesses and nearly invisible strengths. When he is on the court, his teammates get better, often a lot better, and his opponents get worse — often a lot worse. He may not grab huge numbers of rebounds, but he has an uncanny ability to improve his teammates’ rebounding. He doesn’t shoot much, but when he does, he takes only the most efficient shots. He also has a knack for getting the ball to teammates who are in a position to do the same, and he commits few turnovers. On defense, although he routinely guards the N.B.A.’s most prolific scorers, he significantly reduces their shooting percentages. At the same time he somehow improves the defensive efficiency of his teammates — probably, Morey surmises, by helping them out in all sorts of subtle ways. “I call him Lego,” Morey says. “When he’s on the court, all the pieces start to fit together. And everything that leads to winning that you can get to through intellect instead of innate ability, Shane excels in. I’ll bet he’s in the hundredth percentile of every category.”
As with any free agent, though, Battier comes with caveats. The soon-to-be 33 year old had visible drop-offs in productivity last season, and it’s only a matter of time before his defensive effectiveness is eventually compromised. He’s also not the most attractive free agent, as Caron Butler, Tayshaun Prince and Andrei Kirilenko all have more impressive résumés, skill sets and are better offensive options.
Furthermore, Battier would probably want to sign a three or four year deal, likely the last lucrative one of his career. Four years is likely too long of a deal (he’ll be 37 by then), and even three may be pushing Battier’s luck against Father Time; two would be ideal, although it’s unlikely Battier would agree to such a short deal.
Of course, the most important concern for the Clippers is how Battier, or any other free agent, affects their cap space. Battier would likely command between $5-6 million per season, a slight dip from his current salary ($7.4 million this season), but a reasonable compromise nonetheless as he heads into his mid-30s. It may just be a pipe dream, but what if Dwight Howard, Chris Paul or Deron Williams decide they’d be willing to play in L.A.? In that scenario, the Clippers would need to need to create as much cap space as possible, and signing an expensive, long-term contract this offseason would potentially hinder their chances of acquiring a superstar.
To get to this point — on the cusp of becoming a playoff team — the Clippers had to draft well, acquire the right talent, be patient and have a little luck.
To get to the next level — a perennial playoff team that can compete in the postseason — the Clippers will need to add veteran pieces that complement their young nucleus. Battier may not be the most talented or offensively savvy free agent, but sometimes less is actually more (there’s another cliché!).
No matter his inevitable drop-off, Battier would still be an upgrade over the Gomes-Moon combo, and will likely be better than Aminu for the next couple of seasons. After a decade-long search for an above average small forward to fit their team dynamic, the Clippers could potentially have one in Battier.