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Thursday, December 8, 2011
Shane Battier vs. Mike Miller: Who's better?

By Tom Haberstroh

Unlike LeBron James, Shane Battier decided to broadcast his free-agency decision to the world on Twitter, not on national television. But like LeBron, he announced that he has chosen to play for the Miami Heat.

So what are the Heat getting?

A top-notch perimeter defender and a knock-down shooter who can play anywhere from shooting guard to power forward. As a versatile wing, he would be fulfilling a spot on the roster that Mike Miller seems to occupy already. But they are different players, even if they share the same label as veteran sharpshooters.

At 33 years old, Battier holds the reputation as one of the most cerebral players in the NBA. He was the focus of a New York Times feature by "Moneyball" author Michael Lewis' called "The No-Stats All-Star." In the incredibly insightful read, we learned that Battier approaches the game like a science, studying his opponents' every move and absorbing any kernel of information that can give him the competitive edge.

But does that mental preparation translate to tangible success? Well, his teams have always seemed to overachieve. It's something that analysts and basketball people have tried to tackle for years.

"Here we have a basketball mystery," Lewis wrote. "A player is widely regarded inside the N.B.A. as, at best, a replaceable cog in a machine driven by superstars. And yet every team he has ever played on has acquired some magical ability to win."

That was written almost three years ago and we just watched his latest team, the Memphis Grizzlies, shock the basketball world and upset the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs in the opening round of the 2010-11 NBA playoffs. Of course, it's ridiculous to assume that Battier was the primary catalyst for the Grizzlies' mini-Cinderella run. After all, Battier didn't even start. Probably nothing more than a coincidence.

But Battier plays a winning brand of basketball even if the conventional statistics don't blow you -- or a leaf, for that matter -- away. The Duke product averaged 7.6 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.3 assists last season splitting time between the Houston Rockets and the Grizzlies. His player efficiency rating sits at an underwhelming 12.3, which ranks below the average rotation player at his position.

However, conventional statistics have blind spots where Battier excels: defense and floor-spacing. Let's tackle that first strength on the defensive side of the floor. If you look up photos of Battier in action on the court, chances are you'll see him blindfolding a shooter with his hand. It's his signature move, something he loves to unleash on Kobe Bryant (see here). It's just one of the many ways he does the little things that don't show up in the box score, but will increase his team's chances of winning the possession, and thus the game.

Battier's versatility is what drives much of his value. He isn't the lockdown stopper he used to be, but few defenders can sufficiently guard shooting guards as well as power forwards. At 6-foot-8, Battier enables the Heat to go small and play him at the power forward slot if need be. Depending on the strength of the opposing 4, coach Erik Spoelstra can choose whether to slide James or Battier to the power forward position for defensive purposes. You might not see Battier handle explosive power forwards like Amare Stoudemire or Blake Griffin, but the Heat can throw Udonis Haslem for that.

On other lighter forwards? Battier is capable. Shooting guards too. For what it's worth, Battier held his counterpart opponent to a 10.3 PER last season in Memphis. You know who had a 10.3 PER last season? Dominic McGuire. Actually, McGuire posted a 10.4 rating.

Defensive effectiveness and flexibility is where Battier separates himself from Miller. We saw Miller dive on the floor with reckless abandon last season, and there's no questioning the hustle in Miller's body. But while those passionate displays will win brownie points, Miller can't stay in front of quicker guards, and he suffers from blow-bys as often as any player on the Heat. There's a reason Heat opponents scored 4.5 points more every 100 possessions when Miller was on the court last season. Everyone loves to watch a scrappy player, but the truth is that Miller is often a liability.

Battier's presence also allows the Heat to curb James and Dwyane Wade's minutes next season. Miller aims to play by Christmas Day after hernia surgery, but it's more likely that the Heat will be without him well into January if the original eight-week timetable is accurate. Who would spell LeBron and Dwyane when they needed a break? At this point, the only answer is Eddie House. If Pat Riley and Spoelstra aren't sleeping well these days, that scenario is probably why.

Offensively, Battier does two things: posts up and spots up. At this point in his career, he can't take his man off the dribble and can't be depended on to create his own shot. More than half his field goal attempts last season came behind the arc and he drilled 38.2 percent of them, which is in line with his career rates. According to Synergy Sports, 32.8 percent of Battier's possessions in Memphis came on spot-up shooting and 20.8 percent came from post-up plays, making up his two most frequent play-types. The crafty post-up attack is a new wrinkle in his game, but he was exceptionally effective in this area in small doses.

But there are risks with Battier. He's not what he once was, but then again, few 33-year-olds are. There's no question that he has lost a step or two on the defensive end, although he has unorthodox and sometimes ugly ways of making up for it. He's not a ballhandler like Miller, but he won't be asked to bring the ball up when he's alongside potentially three de facto point guards.

Overall, Battier has maintained his winning touch. The Grizzlies were 6.0 points better per 100 possessions with Battier on the floor last season than when he sat the bench. Elsewhere, the Rockets were 0.9 points better per 100 possessions with Battier on the court than when he sat the bench. If you look beyond last season, Battier perennially shines in the plus/minus department. That's why Lewis wrote thousands of words on him.

Is Battier better than Miller? Probably, but it's hard to say, considering that we don't know what a healthy Miller looks like in a Heat uniform. Then again, we also may never see that. With four surgeries in the past year, there's a chance Miller may be damaged goods at this stage in his career. Thus, it's unclear at this point whether the Heat will keep Miller on the team, but what is clear is that the two players offer different packages. There's room for both on the roster, if there's enough money to keep both.

In the end, the addition of a 33-year-old reserve won't guarantee a championship, but it certainly gets them closer to it.