During the Memphis Grizzlies' inaugural season, I didn't write about the team. I just talked about them at parties, consistently drawing the ire of fellow fans for complaining about the drafting of Shane Battier.
Battier was in the midst of an all-rookie campaign, playing big minutes and dropping in more than 14 points a game, so I got all measure of grief for suggesting that the Grizzlies had made a mistake taking Battier with the sixth pick.
Three years later, most of my doubts and assertions have been confirmed -- that Battier would never play in an All-Star game, that he'd never have a higher scoring average than he did during his rookie season, that he wouldn't end up one of the six best players in his draft class.
But even if Battier wasn't the best choice the Grizzlies could have made, it doesn't mean he wasn't a good one. As every Grizzlies fan knows, Battier is a player whose worth can't be accurately judged by how many points or rebounds he averages. But his subtle value has never been more apparent than in the past month, as the team has struggled through locker-room turmoil and an unending series of injuries to push itself back into playoff contention.
Last season, as a part of Hubie Brown's structured system, a high percentage of Battier's shots seemed to come either off spot-up threes in the corner or mid-range baseline jumpers on in-bounds plays. But under Mike Fratello, Battier's offense has become more varied. Among other things, Battier has become smarter about the shots he takes and more adept at finishing plays around the basket.
During his rookie campaign, it was not uncommon to see Battier pump-fake a defender several times around the basket only to still get his shot blocked. With a keener sense of his own athletic limitations and a veteran's savvy, it's now far more common to see Battier darting into the lane to float quick shots over rotating defenders. Battier still likes the corner three, but lately he's been taking (and making) more shots at other points around the arc. And Battier has also become more adept at exploiting mismatches in the post when they arise, even if these situations are more likely to result in drawn fouls or open shots for teammates than in buckets for Battier. Plus, Battier plays virtually mistake-free basketball, which makes him a positive offensive force, even if he'll never be more than a good role player.
But as solid on offense as Battier has become, it's still the other end of the floor where his primary value lies. Battier leads the team in plus/minus rating -- a statistic that measures how well a team performs when individual players are on or off the court. Over the course of a 48-minute game, the Grizzlies' offense has been two points better with Battier than without him. But the Grizzlies' defense has been a whopping nine points better with Battier on the floor.
Battier is not the team's best one-on-one defender. Both James Posey (when healthy) and Earl Watson have the superior strength and quickness to lock up opposing players in a manner that Battier can't. Instead, Battier's defensive virtues lie in a combination of versatility, intelligence, and hustle that makes him one of the best team defenders you'll ever see on a basketball court. Rotating, doubling, picking up charges, swooping in from the weak side (or out of nowhere) for timely blocks and deflections -- Battier seems to always be in the right place at the right time. In December, he essentially won a game with a defensive rebound against the Detroit Pistons.
In concert with one of the league's best three-point-shooting attacks, the key to the Grizzlies' recent success -- 16-7 under Fratello and 9-1 over the past 10 games -- has been an amoeba-like team defense that has allowed only 88 points per game since the coaching change and that seems to intensify as games progress. (The Griz allowed Houston only 33 points in the second half Monday night.) As the poster-boy for team defense, the 6'8" Battier has been the catalyst, especially with his versatility. He has proven adept at guarding pretty much any position -- pint-sized guards to athletic wings to bruising post players. And by moving away from the structured 10-man rotation that Brown deployed, Fratello has been able to make use of that versatility with small lineups that place Battier at the power forward slot to close out games.
On a team crowded with quality swingmen, the changes have meant more minutes for Battier, and he's taken advantage of it. In January, as the Grizzlies have gone 6-1, Battier has been back in the starting lineup, playing big minutes (34 a game) and giving the team big production (12 points per on over 50 percent shooting).
Of course, Battier has made this statement as both Posey and Brian Cardinal, two players who boast a similar array of subtle skills, have been hobbled or hampered by injuries. If this team ever has a full healthy lineup, it's anyone's guess how Fratello will manage to juggle the minutes. But you can bet Battier will find his way onto the court. He's certainly answered any and all questions about his value to this team.