What-if? Probably the greatest the phrase in sports today or any other time. No matter how well your team may be playing at the moment, there’s almost always a compelling “what-if” scenario to make you doubly grateful that things worked out the way that they did.
Since this is a Memphis Grizzlies site, most of the what-ifs found here are Memphis-centric. Today, we look at what would have happened if the Grizzlies had been able to retain Shane Battier after the team’s playoff run in 2011.
Shane Battier had been on the Memphis Grizzlies’ first three playoff teams before leaving town in a trade for Rudy Gay on draft night in 2006. He was always a solid contributor and is one of the most likable people in a league that suffered from a lack of charismatic figures off the floor when he entered the league.
After spending a few years in Houston, the Rockets decided to part ways with Battier and ended up dealing him back to Memphis in time for a playoff run near the trade deadline in 2011. Interestingly enough, the guy that Battier was traded for had been lost for the season. Gay was having the best season of his career when a shoulder injury sidelined him for the rest of the regular season and eventually the playoffs.
So the Grizzlies needed a swingman to step in and contribute. The Rockets were outside of the playoffs looking in but didn’t figure to be much of a factor if they made the postseason. Battier was on an expiring contract, but the Rockets didn’t simply want to lose him for nothing, so they moved him to the Grizzlies for a future first-round pick and former second overall pick Hasheem Thabeet who was well on his way to becoming one of the greatest busts of all-time.
If you’re reading this, then you probably know what happened next. The Grizzlies’ minutes fell into place with Battier getting the lion’s share of minutes at small forward, despite coming off the bench. The shot distribution also worked itself out as Battier has never needed the ball in his hands like Gay has. Battier is a good jump shooter, but he isn’t entirely capable of creating his own shot and isn’t the type of guy to gripe about touches anyway. With Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol taking a majority of Memphis’s shots and guys like Battier, Tony Allen and Darrell Arthur worrying about their roles, the Grizzlies stunned the top-seeded Spurs and almost advanced all the way to the Western Conference Finals before losing to the Oklahoma City Thunder in seven games.
We know about all that. I bring it up every column it seems like. You’re probably sick of hearing about it. What we should really be talking about is what if Shane had stayed with Memphis after the 2011 season?
As you may recall, the 2011-2012 NBA regular season began with a lockout and a shortened free agency period started not long after the players and teams went back to work. The Grizzlies wanted to keep Battier, but Battier eventually signed with the Miami Heat. Nobody is exactly sure what the Grizzlies’ offer may have looked like, but it has been suggested by a lot of people that he took less money to play in Miami. Hard to knock Battier’s decision as the Heat won the title last year and look like the favorite again this year.
But what if he stayed in beale street blue? Let’s break down the ramifications:
1.) The Grizzlies’ starting line-up looks like this: Conley, Allen, Gay, Randolph and Marc Gasol. Not too shabby right? It’s the same starting line-up of the previous season’s playoffs, except with Gay starting in place of Sam Young. Rudy, despite his shortcomings, is unequivocally a better basketball player than Sam Young by almost any measurable.
Off the bench the Grizzlies are almost as good as they trot out a second unit of O.J. Mayo, Shane Battier, Marressee Speights, Dante Cunningham and Darrell Arthur. Even with Arthur missing the entire 2011-2012 season, that’s a strong second unit, especially when you include this guy…
2.) Greivis Vasquez. Oh yeah!!! That guy!! Remember him? He spent his rookie year out of Maryland with the Grizzlies and played a huge role in the upset of the Spurs as he held the Grizzlies together when Mike Conley got into early foul trouble in game 6.
Vasquez had some ups and downs in his rookie year, but for the most part his play was solid and probably would have started at point guard for some other teams. You know, kind of like he is now for the New Orleans Hornets.
However, Vasquez never endeared himself to Lionel Hollins and often found himself on the bench in favor of Mike Conley playing 44+ minutes or Mayo masquerading as a point guard. Or both. When Vasquez missed a defensive rotation that led to James Harden’s game-tying three-pointer in the triple overtime game (game 4 of the Thunder series for those unaffiliated) that pretty much sealed the deal. Hollins was still talking about it at training camp after the lockout. With the Grizzlies needing another swingman to defend and make threes, Vasquez was traded to New Orleans in exchange for Quincy Pondexter.
The trade was kind of confusing at first and has become borderline inexplicable as Vasquez keeps posting double digit points and assists and looking like the poor man’s Chris Paul. Pondexter is a fine player, but in this scenario with Battier on the roster already, the Grizzlies keep Vasquez instead of trading him for a swingman making their bench unit a game-changer instead of the plodding, uninspiring unit that the Grizzlies trotted out against the Clippers in the eventual first round loss.
In that series, the biggest difference-maker was probably the Clippers’ back-up point guard Eric Bledsoe who wreaked havoc on Mike Conley when he was matched up with him and almost ended O.J. Mayo’s basketball career because of the pressure he put on him. The Grizzlies’ inability to get the ball up court and initiate was one of the main reasons that they lost in the first round. Vasquez may not have fared any better, but it’s hard to believe that he would have been worse.
Most importantly, maybe Battier would have been able to take advantage of a one-handed Caron Butler when Gay was unable to do so. I’m not sure that Battier is the type of guy that can swing a playoff series, but Battier and Vasquez? That seems a little more likely. The Grizzlies almost definitely lose to the Spurs in round two because San Antonio was on one heck of a roll at the time, but advancing is better than bowing out in the first round any day.
3.) Would the Heat have even won without Battier? Up until this point we’ve been nitpicking losing in the first round or second round and haven’t ultimately looked at the NBA’s big picture yet. But Battier had a huge role with the Heat on their way to the 2012 World Championship. Miami would have definitely signed another veteran swingman but would they have had the same impact that Battier did? We can’t be sure. Just like we can’t be sure that Miami wouldn’t have won without him, but it’s at least a debate worth having.