Rockets Preseason Player Previews - Small Forward
Hey, it's still preseason until the first game starts (and it can't come soon enough - this was one of the longest pre-seasons I've ever experienced.)
I've written lengthy preambles to the PG and long SG pieces. I ain't got time for that now.
Sugar Shane Battier is entering his 10th NBA season as the Rockets starting SF. He's 31. He doesn't use a walker. He's not on Medicare, and he doesn't get an AARP discount for anything.
Everyone, I think, knows his game. He plays defense on the opposing team's best wing scorer, sometimes on PFs. He tries to force the opponent into low percentage shots, without giving up fouls. He shoots corner threes, and rebounds pretty well. For more, you really should read the NYT Michael Lewis piece on Battier, it explains his game better than I could.
Shane is roughly the same age as Kobe Bryant, but Shane has played almost 4 fewer seasons in the NBA and a whopping 496 fewer games than Kobe. I'll give Kobe (a player I largely despise) credit - he's played in almost 2 1/2 full seasons of playoff basketball. That's amazing.
Why the Kobe comparison? To point out that rumors of Shane's demise are likely exaggerated. Kobe is pushing 7 SEASONS worth of pro basketball beyond what Battier has played, when one considers Kobe's national team appearances, and Shane is the one who's cooked?
In addition to a reasonable amount of ball played for his age, it helps that Battier has never traded on athleticism, high-flying antics, or speed. Here are Shane's primary good traits: he's big, he's fundamentally excellent, he's smart, he prepares like no one else, he passes well (especially to Yao at the low post) and he's relentless. How many of those traits lessen with age? If there is any concern in terms of Battier's game on my part it is lateral movement, never his strong suit, slowing down. So far, he's ok. Remember, he's not really a shut-down defender, but rather a defender who saps efficiency from his matchup - inefficient scoring is acceptable, because the odds favor the Rockets over a season.
In my estimation, what will end Battier's career will be more frequent injuries and slower recovery time from them. This may be happening, and this season will tell the story. Battier has spent the better part of two seasons not being right physically, and playing pretty well despite this. Watching the pre-season, though, he looks like he feels better - he's moving more fluidly, offering quick help defense, and blocking shots. If Battier returns to 07-08 form, two years away from an injury cascade, he really is a No-Stats All-Star again (4.6 Defensive Win Shares in 07-08 - 8th best in the NBA). If not, it's possibly the last season for one of my favorite Rockets.
That was a gamble that paid off. The Rockets sent Detroit a check, Detroit sent Houston the 44th pick in the 2009 Draft. They got money, the Rockets got a possible NBA starting SF.
Budinger is an interesting player, and a walking advertisement for value investing. Chase was a highly-touted high schooler, and though his Soph season at Arizona, expected to be a lottery pick. Then came his junior year. Budinger's stats fell off, as the Arizona basketball program imploded, derailed and was consumed by endless silly drama. Budinger's stock fell so far Houston was able to buy a pick to acquire him. This is the "buy low" part.
After a season, Budinger looks like a lottery pick. He's a legit 6'7" at the wing (anyone notice how tall most of the Rocket wings are?) with great athleticism. He's able to finish on the break, well above the rim. But he's almost got an excellent shooting game (cf vs Dallas), with great range and form on his 3pt attempts and the ability to stop and pop from almost anywhere. Budinger can be an emergency "point forward" if the need arises, as his handle is assured. He is, of course, not a point guard, but passes well for his position, and uses his size and athleticism to rebound well. I've heard talk of a post-up game, but haven't seen it. In short, Chase Budinger is a strong all-around player with one nagging question - his defense. If you could combine Battier's D and Chase's scoring game into one player, you'd have an All-Star.
But Chase can still get there, or at least become a legit NBA starter. The Rockets have renewed their focus on D, and with their depth can play all-out. If Budinger can improve his D, he's a likely replacement for Battier, and I think he has the intelligence and motor to do so. If not, he remains instant offense from the bench, part of a second unit that can hang with most NBA starting fives, and should lay waste to lesser players.
Budinger is a pleasure to watch on offense, as he moves well without the ball, rarely settles for lazy positioning and can explode off the dribble for a dunk or drain a long range shot. This is the year the league learns to fear (Insert Nickname Here), and we will see how high Budinger's stock can soar.