Shane Battier Could Venture Up I-10 West As Houston Rockets Head South

Robert Kleeman@@RobertKleemanSenior Analyst IFebruary 1, 2011

HOUSTON - DECEMBER 29:  LeBron James #6 of the Miami Heat drives to the basket over Houston Rockets' Shane Battier #31 in the first half at Toyota Center on December 29, 2010 in Houston, Texas.  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 Bob Levey/Getty Images)
Bob Levey/Getty Images

A glance at the AT&T Center rafters provides a glimpse into San Antonio Spurs history. Six retired numbers--00, 6, 13, 32, 44 and 50--complement the four championship banners. A slew of division titles serve as the afterthought accomplishments.

The Spurs thrashed the Houston Rockets on Saturday 108-95 and took one more step toward putting a few other nifty things up there.

San Antonio, barring an injury-provoked collapse, will run away with the Southwest Division title this year. A 40-7 record suggests winning the "whole damn thing," as Gregg Popovich sometimes calls it, for a fifth time is not impossible. The numbers on the backs of the jerseys worn by Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker--21, 20 and 9--will hang majestically in a few years. The Spurs brass also figures to do the right thing and afford Bruce Bowen that honor.

So, 12 may become the franchise's 10th unavailable number. The No. 31, by all accounts, remains up for grabs. The Rockets limped into the AT&T Center with a 32-year-old veteran who would wear it well. Shane Battier's contract just happens to expire this summer.

While the Rockets' second straight loss accelerated a nosedive two seasons in the making, the Spurs continued a rarefied march to postseason ascendancy. San Antonio last dropped a home game Nov. 18. Houston is just average enough at Toyota Center and away to avoid leading the top-pick pursuit.

The Spurs travelled to Portland to face the Trail Blazers tonight, kicking off a nine-game edition of the Rodeo Road Trip. The Rockets conclude a brutal stretch with back-to-back road contests against the L.A. Lakers and Utah Jazz.

The two teams, separated by only a few hours and Interstate Highway 10, have split the season series every year since 2007. That remains possible, with the Rockets hosting the final two matches later this spring. But these two units could not rank farther apart in the categories that measure championship preparedness.

The Spurs defense has slipped a bit since the 2007 title run, but Gregg Popovich's squad demonstrated Saturday it can dust off those stopper chops when necessary. The Rockets allow opponents to extend the lay-up drills that are supposed to end when the horn signals National Anthem time.

The 22-27 Rockets surrender more than 105 points per game and an opponent field goal percentage in the bottom 10. A 6'6" hustle hound and a 6'9" scraptastic competitor start at center and forward, and the starting two guard, Kevin Martin, takes porous to a new level.

Superstars make a difference. The Rockets do not have any. Martin poured in 10 quick first-quarter points but was invisible after that early outburst. He pulled off the evening's impressive magic trick: Creating the illusion that he played at all in the final three periods.

When the Spurs needed critical baskets to ice the game, they turned to Ginobili. Parker and Duncan also contributed their own scoring flurries. Those three players are Springfield bound, in addition to earning distinct places in San Antonio hoops history.

The Rockets? If they want to become more than eighth-seed challengers, they need to unearth the right building block. Sans an anchor, Houston should expect to sink in the quicksand of mediocrity.

If Dejuan Blair was not carving up Rick Adelman's defense with three consecutive dunks, Richard Jefferson was slicing to the rim and drilling jumpers en route to a seven-for-eight night. The Rocket players assigned to check their counterparts, Chuck Hayes and Battier, still rank as the squad's finest defenders. That is a problem.

Hayes and Battier, of course, did not allow all of those baskets. There was plenty of non-help to go around. The onus for much of the embarrassing defense falls on the youngsters, who wouldn't have a clue if Adelman put one on a board game.

The Spurs had spent so much of the night piling up easy points that Courtney Lee's superb stands against Ginobili on a pair of step-back triples did not matter. San Antonio's next step as a title hopeful is easier to define than Houston's. Does GM Daryl Morey blast the roster's core to bits, or does he show restraint and wait for the roster-changing move that seems more likely to materialize this summer or next season, if a work stoppage does not swallow it?

The heralded numbers-crunching executive can build deadline deals around any of the players whose contracts expire the eve of July 1. A staggering six employees on the current roster--Battier, Yao Ming, Chuck Hayes, Aaron Brooks, Jared Jeffries and Ishmael Smith--could end the year as another franchise's gateway to financial flexibility or cap space.

Smith, an undrafted rookie point guard, and Jeffries, a rebound-challenged defensive specialist, have played sparingly and would leave town with few Houstonians mourning their departures. That also makes them less attractive as trade assets. The quandary surrounding whether to re-sign Brooks deserves its own column.

Hayes provides cheap labor and will retain his value as a designated interior defensive pest until he retires. Yao will make Morey's life a lot easier if he hangs up his sneakers, as most expect he will.

That leaves Battier as the team's next great mystery. No player has been roasted and scapegoated more after losses. Fans eviscerate him on message boards and in comment sections. One poster even called him "Miss Battier" and suggested the oft-targeted small froward switch tampon brands. Ouch.

The Rockets brain trust still admires his attitude and meticulous approach to his role as the veteran defensive glue guy. Adelman champions Battier's locker room presence. The youngsters see him as the team's soul.

Yet, the criticism after Saturday's game fit. He allowed Jefferson to blow by for a facile two-handed slam in the game's opening minute. None of his teammates adjusted or rotated to seal off the rim. Battier bricked five-of-six shots and could not hold the team together when San Antonio delivered its fourth-quarter charge.

Many nights end that way for Battier, and it is fair to wonder how much his diminished athleticism, slowed defensive reactions and 32-year-old legs can help an organization that may need to liquidate the inventory and start over.

The Rockets' next step depends on whether Morey can land his coveted centerpiece via trade.

The Battier-Rudy Gay swap made sense in 2006, and it still does. The Rockets front office believed then that the franchise was closer to another championship than ever. With Yao and Tracy McGrady as cornerstones, a reliable role player dressed up the roster more than a raw youngster.

Those who lament Gay as a Gulf of Mexico-sized miss should consider that he has not become a sure-fire All-Star. He has yet to lead the Grizzlies to the playoffs.

The Rockets' thinking on that draft night was not preposterous. A healthy Yao, an upright McGrady competing with the fervor and purpose of Paul Pierce or Kobe Bryant, a more consistent third wheel and a reliable Aaron Brooks would have added to Battier's value.

Instead, he averages 8.8 points on a losing team with faint playoff hopes and gets bashed for not doing more. If Morey does not include him in a February transaction, why not let him walk, so he can pursue that elusive ring with a team more equipped to win one?

Veterans of Battier's ilk help secure banners with the right cast. That includes a go-to scorer and adequate rim protectors. Snatch the stars first, then pony up for vets to fill out the payroll. Miami and Boston perfected that approach. It helps, though, that the trio of stars on both squads were seasoned enough when they convened.

San Antonio has done the same for more than a decade. When the Spurs needed younger bodies and more athleticism to compensate for the aging Duncan-Parker-Ginobili core, they succeeded and unearthed George Hill, Blair and others.

The Rockets failed in their quest because Yao and McGrady became training room fixtures and glorified sports coat models. The time may have arrived to strip the wallpaper and shake up the foundation. Boom goes the dynamite.

When the Spurs finished spanking the Rockets, all Battier could do was gush about the opponent's crunch-time execution.

"It was a typical Spurs game," he told the Houston Chronicle's Jonathan Feigen. “They don’t beat themselves. You have to maintain your concentration, maintain your solid play. That stretch there, we lost our concentration, lost our focus, before you know it — 10-point lead.”

Popovich would love to employ another veteran with Battier's basketball IQ and dedication to details. Given the vitriol spewed on sports talk shows and message boards, would Houston fans miss him that much?

A summer defection to the Spurs would keep his address in Texas and minimize the burden of change on his family. San Antonio, for its part, might welcome another natural small forward to spell Jefferson and limit Ginobili's minutes.

Rookie James Anderson figures to get a long look to occupy that role. Gary Neal affords Popovich the luxury of playing small without becoming defenseless. The two oldest players on the team, Tim Duncan and Antonio McDyess, still have a lot to give. With Tiago Splitter's minutes and productivity certain to increase, that might make the three spot more of a priority.

R.C. Buford and Popovich could find a way to lasso Battier into the Spurs' system, even if a new collective bargaining agreement threatens to make it more difficult to fork up money for add-on pieces.

Battier has become entrenched in the Houston community. He hosts a karaoke benefit in the spring and frequents drinking establishments in the mid-town area. He also knows the NBA is a business.

If the Rockets tailspin continues, parting ways with Battier would kick-start a total rebuilding process. A new home three hours down the road should beckon.

The No. 31 is available there. A silver and black jersey, as well as the championship validation that would sweeten a career with just one second-round appearance, awaits.


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