Friday, December 26, 2008

The Last Thank-You

This post concludes our series on the role players who have received entirely too much loyalty from one team. Why is the market not churning more for these players? We previously reviewed some reasons here and here. The last reason I can offer is an explanation that is non-trivial, but not terribly interesting: Inertia. Sometimes economic actors is simply too lazy to do a deal to shake up their asset structure, because they are not in the mood for transaction costs, or perhaps they are not in “roster optimizing” mode. (Yes, crazy, I know.) Otherwise I can’t explain why some of these guys below stuck around for so long.

This is now Walton’s sixth season playing small forward for the Lakers. Surprisingly, his role has shrunken with each passing year. As a rookie in 2004, he achieved notoriety when his teammate Kobe Bryant complimented him during the NBA Finals as a better passer than Shaquille O’Neal. When Malone, Payton, Fisher, O’Neal, and Fox departed after the 2004 Finals, Walton found himself the primary sixth man (and later a starter after Caron Butler was traded for Kwame Brown) on a team also featuring Smush Parker and Chris Mihm in starting roles.

Butler’s departure didn’t help Walton’s career much in the long run, though: since then, the Lakers have signed Vladimir Radmanovic as a free agent and traded for Trevor Ariza, who perform skills (shooting and defense, respectively) that Walton can’t. Today, Walton has only played in 21 of the team’s 29 games this season, averaging 11 minutes and earning $4.4 million for his efforts (with $22 million left on his contract over four more years).

This is Harpring’s seventh year with the Jazz. Like his teammate Kirilenko, Harpring has spanned the transition from the Malone-Stockton era to the new era of Williams, Boozer, and lovable east Europeans. Coach Sloan clearly likes something about Harpring, just as Sloan showed nine years of loyalty to Greg Ostertag (then brought Ostertag back for a tenth season after his brief stint in Sacramento). Since undergoing knee surgery in 2007, Harpring has averaged only 16.6 minutes per game. Perhaps he serves a useful role for Sloan: someone needs to be the bench sparkplug who spells stars when they are slowed. According to lore, Harpring is tough like a linebacker when he is on the hardwood. But that’s a lot of loyalty for a guy with a highly limited role. He couldn’t even step in as a starter even when both Okur and Boozer were unavailable earlier this season.

Every encomium to Jerry Sloan’s 20 years as Utah coach has specified his “toughness” and his “hard-nosed” ethos. Other than being tough, another common denominator with many of his favorite players is that they are white. Utah has historically seen a higher than typical incidence of starring white players, including Ostertag, Jeff Hornacek, John Stockton, Kirilenko, and Mehmet Okur. This isn’t to say that those guys were/are untalented or undeserving of their roles, but there are a limited number of star-caliber white players, and the Jazz always seem to end up with a few of them. The Jazz’s biggest star, Karl Malone, liked to call himself a “black redneck”, whatever that is.

(But the Jazz are not the ‘whitest’ team in the league, at least right now. To wit, the Lakers currently field Gasol, Radmanovic, Farmar, Vujacic, Walton, Mihm, and, until recently, Coby Karl.)

Maggette is a quasi-all star: He routinely puts up 20 points per game, but he is not known for his defense, and it is hard to imagine him ever making an all-star team, particularly now that he is on a team full of shooters with Crawford and Ellis. Amazingly, the Clippers held on to him for 8 years until letting his contract expire after the ’07-’08 season. I call this amazing because he doesn’t seem to show much demonstrable contribution to team wins; the Clippers’ lone good season in his span there, 2006, happened because they acquired Sam Cassell in his contract year and Elton Brand slimmed down. Besides that, the Clips’ record has been desultory, and the waxing and waning of Maggette’s “performance”, as it may be, had no apparent correlation with team success. Already, his new team, Golden State, is talking about trading him after only 28 games.

Pietrus spent six inconspicuous and undistinguished seasons with Golden State, during which the team sucked almost the whole time. Pietrus was lucky to participate in a minor renaissance in the spring of ’07, when the team defeated Dallas in the first round of the playoffs and came reasonably close to a conference finals trip. Like other guys on this list (but unlike the humbler players discussed in our earlier “Thanksgiving” posts), Pietrus was frequently quoted in his local paper whining about not receiving a bigger role on the team. Nellie used him mostly to play stout defense and shoot corner 3s, but perhaps Pietrus wished to take a more featured role in his time on the court, like his friend Boris Diaw. In any case, his contract expired in the summer of ’08 and the Dubs said no thanks. Pietrus signed on with Orlando, where so far he has been part of a frequently revolving rotation of starting 2-guards with Keith Bogans and J.J. Redick.

Croshere had a few brief moments of sunlight in the 2000 NBA Finals, when he hit some big shots against the Lakers. Like Tyronn Lue in the ’01 Finals and Speedy Claxton in ’03, moderate success on the biggest stage can lead to outsized paydays due to faulty perception by those who hold the purse strings. Croshere stuck with Indiana from his draft selection day in 1997 all the way until 2006, long past the date when it became clear that Croshere would not develop into a championship-quality star. Like Jeff Foster, Croshere had the odd experience of joining Indy at the height of the Reggie-Smits-McKey-Davis Brothers days, then seeing that team dismantled and a new title-contending squad of Artest and O’Neal built on its ashes, then sticking around for yet more rebuilding. Today, Croshere plays for the Bucks, where he has averaged 7 minutes in 11 games this season.

Mason doesn’t quite qualify for my list, but I regard him as a puzzling case anyway. Drafted in 1999, he spent three years with the Seattle Sonics, then three with Milwaukee, then two with the Oklahoma City Hornets (being an OK guy), then one with Milwaukee, and now he’s back in Oklahoma City … with the Thunder (née Sonics) this time. So that makes three franchises and three cities that have shown remarkable affinity to him (and he to them). Maybe those cities are hungry for abstract expressionism?

As a further note, I am curious to ask: Which superstar-caliber players stayed on one team for the duration of their careers? Off the top of my head, here are some: Isiah, Magic, Stockton, Robinson, Bird, McHale, Reggie Miller, Willis Reed, Elgin Baylor. Among today’s stars, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, and Paul Pierce are in their thirteenth, twelfth, and eleventh years with their present teams, and a migration elsewhere seems unlikely.

But Hakeem didn’t do it; at the end of his career, he had the ignominy of joining the Raptors in their darkest days. Nor Barkley, nor Iverson, nor Wilkins, nor Kidd, nor Drexler, nor Ewing, nor Garnett, nor Pippen, nor Shaq. Many of these guys joined title contenders late in their careers after hopes had run dry on their first clubs. And it worked for many of them: Drexler, Garnett, and Shaq won titles late in life, while Barkley and Pippen got to at least the conference finals. Jordan and Malone had things under control, until greed marred their pure résumés and led them to join new teams while well past their prime. Nash’s greatness didn’t emerge until after he had switched teams twice. LeBron, Amar'e and Bosh will probably leave their original clubs soon. Looking at an older era: Kareem, Oscar, Wilt, and Dr. J all switched teams.

I mention all this in the context of the role players to discussion to highlight that long tenure with one team really is rare, even for the greats. Jeff Foster is possibly the luckiest man in this league.
And with that, we say to these well-pampered role players: Begone with ye! Take your overstuffed contracts and inflated egos to Russia, or Greece, or maybe to the Timberwolves, where at least you’ll have company in mediocrity. Stop holding back potentially good teams from realizing their awesome power!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Too Sexy For My Shorts

In one sense, this story last week about Julius Erving’s hitherto unwanted daughter was not surprising. As a semi-savvy fan I know that lots of NBA guys sleep around and leave pregnancies behind. What’s amazing, though, is that Erving has received almost zero negative publicity for this. Until this gushing article, I was not aware of this scenario, and I read a lot about basketball. It certainly hasn’t harmed his post-playing career as an “ambassador” of the league. I recall about five seasons ago, he appeared as an aged guru in a series of humorous NBA-produced ads involving various players expressing their burning love for the Larry O’Brien trophy. And every February he seems to show up as a slam dunk contest judge. I guess the salt-and-pepper hair allows him to appear as a hunky, virile sage (it works for George Clooney) but what about his low-quality behavior in his personal life?

Why does the media give players a pass on their sexual escapades when other figures like actors and politicians are required to trod the cleanest path? A variety of political figures (Clinton, Spitzer, John Edwards, Jim McGreevey, Gary Hart) have been brought low by infidelity and other sex scandals. (As a side note, how come only Democrats are seriously tarnished by this? Newt Gingrich has a sorry record with his women, but he’s still seen as a possible president. Giuliani, too. And McCain. David Vitter hired a prostitute, but he’s still in the Senate, while Eliot Spitzer was forced to resign for the same transgression.

Yet when Magic Johnson sleeps around with dozens or hundreds of women, no problem. He’s just a victim! Wilt had 10,000 partners? Hurrah for him, a true baller! Karl Malone and Larry Bird have children they won’t acknowledge? That’s okay, they’re still Hall of Fame candidates. And a case cannot be made that off-court behavior has no bearing on Hall of Fame candidacy. Why, then, is Dennis Rodman (five rings, two DPOY awards, seven rebounding titles) not in the Hall? Oh no, he colored his hair yellow and pierced his nose. We can’t have that!

Perhaps the implicit attitude is that boys will be boys. These situations have received occasional discussion in popular media, but few fans now associate Hakeem Olajuwon with "prolific daddy". It is more interesting that the really big stars largely are not tarnished by their wanderings, while lesser or less savvy lights like Shawn Kemp are pilloried. Did you know Dwight Howard sired a son last year with a woman whom he's now not seeing?

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Where Have You Gone, Joe DiMaggio?

This post is about Isiah Thomas: once an icon, now fallen. It is also about me and my evolution as a basketball fan. It is equally about the utility of technology in facilitating nostalgia. Finally, it is about the centrality of heroes to the resilience of communities.

1989 was a grand time to be a young boy in suburban Detroit. Driven by bustling sales of the four-year-old Ford Taurus and the six-year-old Dodge Caravan, the automakers boomed, the local economy bustled, and all my friendsparents had cool cars; with a looming recession in Japan, talk of a new era of foreign automotive dominance seemed silly. Mayor Coleman Young was re-elected in Detroit; the papers bragged of a renewed attention to city-suburban relations. The weather was gorgeous that year and the Tigers (though, admittedly, they played like crap) still fielded several of the stars from their 1984 championship team: Jack Morris, Willie Hernandez, Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, Chet Lemon.

In pop culture, “The Little Mermaid” was a hit and our third-grade choir teacher had us singing “Under the Sea” all the time. Steve Urkel made his first appearance on network television. Hulk Hogan fought Randy Savage at WrestleMania V (“The Megapowers Explode”) in Atlantic City, and with an atomic legdrop, the Hulk was back on top of the wrestling world after a year-long interregnum (caused primarily by his time away to film the odious “No Holds Barred” in ’88). The carefully plotted Hogan-Savage divorce storyline was far better than anything the NBA ever came up with in relation to Kobe and Shaq. Sure, Kobes telling the Colorado police about Shaqs dealings with his mistresses was just as juicy as Hogan stealing away Miss Elizabeth. However, after 2004, Kobe was never on a contending team at the same time Shaq was, and vice-versa; their manufactured Christmas day battles held little meaning and never felt like a “main event”. Sometimes fake sports are more interesting.

Something was in the water that turned ordinary basketball players into gladiators that spring. The head men’s basketball coach at the University of Michigan resigned just prior to the NCAA tournament to take a job elsewhere, and a rookie coach with no expectations was appointed to guide them. Shockingly, Michigan ended up winning the national championship, beating a field that included Duke with Laettner and Ferry, Georgetown with Mourning, UNLV with Larry Johnson, Syracuse with Derrick Coleman, Illinois with Nick Anderson and Kendall Gill, Arizona with Sean Elliott.

The Wolverines were only a third seed, but in retrospect, Michigan had a hell of a team with six future NBAers (Terry Mills, Loy Vaught, Sean Higgins, Mark Hughes, Glen Rice and Rumeal Robinson); their championship opponent Seton Hall (Seton Hall?) had just Andrew Gaze. Perhaps Coach Fisher got lucky to step into such an embarrassing wealth of talent (and, on the strength of this success, he lucked out again two years later when he convinced the Fab Five to sign up). Hello, Malcolm Gladwell.

But most dazzlingly for young 9-year-old boys like me in Detroit (and certainly plenty of young girls as well), the Detroit Pistons reached the Eastern Conference Finals for the third consecutive year, and, by knocking both Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson out of the playoffs, delivered the city's first NBA title. The team was led by star point guard Isiah Thomas, who had patiently been steering the team towards greatness for eight years. As I outlined in an earlier post in my Vinnie Johnson spotlight, building the Pistons entailed a slow and careful workstream. It was certainly worth it when the clock ticked down on Detroit's sweep of the Lakers and the town Of Three rejoiced. Looking back, that may have been the citys apogee.

Like many kids in town, I looked up to Isiah Thomas as a hero. I never met him, but I felt that I knew him: his face was everywhere across the city. People even said repeatedly that my mom resembled his wife. Here are two photos taken in the current decade, about 15 years after the Bad Boys reigned. What do you think?

When our local electric utility decided to put its name on some television public service announcements, there was no other man or woman in town whose words were combed and whose oracular view was revered more than Isiah. The choice of the Pistons leader to front the Say No To Drugs campaign was indisputable. Not even Rosa Parks, who made her home in Detroit after she achieved fame in Alabama, had his spiritual oomph.

(Note, all the YouTube videos in this post originate in the personal VHS collection of Jordan Pushed Off. We recently uploaded all of these online. To our knowledge, these December 2008 uploads are the first time that any of these videos have seen light on the internet. We hope we are not violating any copyright.)

Amazingly, you would think that Isiah would plug the local auto industry as a champion of the Detroit machine, no? Yet Isiah actually decided to shill for Toyota. This ad is cute, but only Isiah and his baby-faced smile could get away with endorsing the competition:

In 1990, basking in his second consecutive title (a feat that Steve Yzerman’s Red Wings never could muster once, at least not until they loaded the team up with Russians), Isiah was invited to produce a Christmas special for one of the local TV stations. He and his writing team came up with "Never Lose Your Hope", a kind of "A Christmas Carol" for urban youth. Re-watching it now, it really was cute, and Isiahs charm is undeniable.

Putting myself in the position of my 10-year-old self 18 Decembers ago, it is not hard to imagine that the image of Isiah-as-guardian-angel could seem quite non-preposterous. He certainly saved the city from its decade-long funk as the Japanese seemed to ascend to greater industrial heights.

I like the conceit, shown below, that under Isiahs patronage, the young boy can fly several feet in the air. (though the suspension of disbelief is ruined by the cameras failure to hide the adult holding up the kid!) I think something similar was advanced in the 2002 film "Like Mike", only with a more palatable angel.

Finally, it is hard not to feel kind of toasty at the sight of Isiah and his crew singing along to an originally jazzy Christmas song cooked up by the Winans:

I also remember to this day that the local classic rock radio station (WCSX 94.7 FM) played a jingle to the tune of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Down On The Corner”:

Early in the morning
Just about playoff time
Isiah and the Pistons
Are starting to unwind

Down at the Palace
Dancin’ in the seats
Isiah and the Bad Boys are playin’
And the Pistons can’t be beat!

Of course, unless youre the Spurs, who have enjoyed twenty years of excellence, every great team eventually hits the top of its arc and returns to mediocrity. The beginning of the end for Detroit came when the Bulls, newly fierce with Phil Jackson's triangle offense fully roaring, swept the Pistons in the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals. For reasons I never quite understood, Isiah led the team's stars to walk off the court and into the locker room with 10 seconds left in the final game, not bothering to shake the hands of Jordan and Pippen. Surprisingly, the local papers had Isiah's back the next day, for what was, I'm sorry, a total dick move. I was only in fifth grade so I did little more than appreciate their hagiography. I made a habit of reading the Detroit News religiously (my dad found the Free Press too liberal, so our subscription was to the News). Here is what writer Drew Sharp of the Freep had to say on May 28, 1991, the day after the Bulls' triumph. If the liberal Free Press supported Isiah, imagine what the jingoistic News would say. Recall that the Detroit News employed the late White House press secretary and Fox News personality Tony Snow for many years as editorial page editor. (I couldn't find the Bulls-Pistons story in their archives.)

As the Bulls joyously cherished their new seat on the throne, the Pistons refused to acquiesce. Why should they show respect to a team that showed them none in the last week?
When in the closing minutes the Palace crowd erupted with a chant of "Go LA! Go LA!" -- the Bulls' likely opponent in the NBA Finals -- Isiah Thomas thrust his fists in the air to share the sentiment.
The Pistons didn't stick around to watch the Bulls' on- court celebration. The entire bench filed to the dressing room with 7.9 seconds left on the clock. John Salley was the only Piston to congratulate the Bulls following the game. The rest of the Pistons wanted no part of the gaiety.

And with that, the Pistons as we knew them were done. (Frightfully, the next few years included Olden Polynice and Orlando Woolridge as alleged low-post threats.) Isiah retired in 94, after an odd final season including a brawl between him and Laimbeer that broke Thomas's hand, and rumors of Isiah signing a "Piston for life" post-playing contract that never quite came to fruition. Soon after, Isiah signed on to run the not-yet-existent Toronto Raptors, and he was gone.

I will not recapitulate Isiah's sorry post-playing career and all the scandals he created; that job has been done elsewhere. It is sad, though, that a man who once ruled the city has brought himself so low. What happened to that cute man who gave Lester a magical sweater and restored his hope? He was real to me. Detroit, too, was once a town full of promise. Sure, we had crime and fear, but the 90s were a new age, and we all thought the tag team of Governor Engler and Mayor Archer could bring Detroit back. But then the Germans bought Chrysler and treated the company as an ugly stepchild before flipping it to a private equity fund. Today, thanks to President Bush and Hank Paulson, GM and Chrysler will live a few more months, but they may not last much longer. The public schools have lost tens of thousands of students in recent years. Derrick Coleman and Chris Webber are continuing to try making a difference in Detroit, but where is Isiah? Allegedly he has a foundation that promotes literacy, but according to this site, the foundation had zero assets as of December 2006. It is sad that a man whom I thought legendary turned out to be just a dumb jock. But thanks to those charming videos, I can always return to a moment when I was yet innocent and our city still had a champion, in every sense of the word.

I want to say one more thing about Isiahs management strategy as head of the Knicks. In a way, during his 4.5-year tenure as Knicks president and coach, Thomas ran a Ponzi scheme not dissimilar to the Bernie Madoff scenario. Madoff, it is alleged, paid returns to yesterday’s investors using new principal invested by today’s investors, rather than earning an honest return in the market. From the outside, investors were happy with their results, and the scheme works as long as new money keeps flowing in. However, the crisis of 2008 resulted in a lot of big-money investors freaking out on general principles and trying to pull out their money, presumably to put it in safer vehicles. This capital outflow resulted in the collapse of Madoff’s scheme, because, of course, the old money was gone. (As a side note, doesn’t this quite resemble the U.S. Social Security system?)

Thomass approach to roster management and fan satisfaction was not unlike Madoff’s investment “strategy”. Let’s acquire Stephon Marbury. Wait, he’s a non-performing asset? A prudent investor would get out of that vehicle, but Isiah says, we’ve gotta make this work! Our stakeholders who have put financial or emotional investment into this asset -- i.e., James Dolan and our fans and sponsors -- want some return on Starbury. Lets use the promise of Marburys potential to sell our fans on Tim Thomas as a star. We just acquired Nazr Mohammed as our new center? Hmmm, forget about him, now we need Vin Baker. Our first three glamour guards (Allan Houston, Penny Hardaway, Marbury) aren’t making an impact? That’s okay, let’s acquire Jamal Crawford. Baker is a drunk? Well, instead of letting his contract expire and getting cap relief, let’s trade him for Maurice Taylor, who sucks. Mohammed is not a superstar? That’s okay – instead of letting his contract expire in ’06, let’s trade him for Malik Rose, who has a contract that lasts until ’09 … and who sucks. Tim Thomas (lazy) and Michael Sweetney don’t seem to be working out? Let’s trade them for Eddy Curry, who’s even lazier and fatter! Antonio Davis isn't packing much punch in the middle? Fine, instead of letting that contract run its course, let's acquire Jalen Rose, who's owed much more. Penny Hardaway is washed up? Let's dump him (and one of our lone performing assets, Trevor Ariza) for Steve Francis, who at least used to be a regular All-Star Game starter. Wait, Francis cant play anymore? Let’s trade Francis (and another good asset, Channing Frye) for Zach Randolph.

Interestingly, the "returns" Thomas delivered to his stakeholders year after year were not wins on the hardwood, but rather the shiny potential of future wins from a roster that might finally aggrandize with the very next tweak. He kept feeding possibility to Dolan and the fans, and they kept coming back for more, as evidenced by Thomas's tenure, Dolan's willingness to pay the big salaries, and the uninterrupted corporate sponsorships and sellout crowds at MSG. When you're in a city founded on aspiration, perhaps possibility is enough. I know that sure wouldn't work in Detroit.

That is all I can say about Mr. Thomas. Maybe I dont know him well enough; maybe I have been too fanciful in trying to interpret him as a "text" rather than just taking him as the incarnate man he is. I've always felt a little connected to Isiah, and I have to say that he's let me down.

Here is what the Associated Press had to say about Detroit yesterday:

Detroit's downtown abounds with symbols of past dreams — the still-gleaming round towers of the Renaissance Center of the '70s, Super Bowl XL venue Ford Field, the three hotel-casino resorts with their gaudy exterior lights and cavernous gaming rooms.

Yet less than two miles from downtown stands the decaying, 18-story Michigan Central railroad station, built in 1913 and unoccupied for 20 years while developers shied way from the cost of restoring its Beaux-Arts grandeur. Along Grand River Avenue, a six-lane thoroughfare leading from downtown to the northwest, liquor stores and check-cashing outlets alternate with scores of abandoned commercial buildings, some boarded up, others just gutted shells.

To the west, in the modest residential neighborhood of Brightmoor, there were five burnt-out houses on a single short block. The facade of one was daubed in red and blue graffiti — some obscene, some gang-related; the charred rubble inside included a battered toy truck.

The scene brought to mind the city's motto, crafted by a Roman Catholic priest after a devastating fire in 1805: "We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes".

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Thank You Very Much, Part II

A few days ago we gave you our better-late-than-never Thanksgiving post, illustrating role players who have received undue fealty from their teams.

In the last post, we outlined some reasons that might explain why some jobronis see supranormal tenures with their teams: (1) Teams are eager to avoid switching costs relating to retraining new reserves; (2) The players receive irrationally rich contracts that render them nearly untradeable; (3) Players like the stability of remaining in one city.

After some further thought and reading, let me now introduce two further reasons why role players may enjoy such long tenure. (4) The players are good enough to be stars, but more mature or skilled players are starting ahead of them, and the team doesn't want to lose the asset to a competitor. This may be why Portland kept a young Jermaine O'Neal for 4 years to ride the pine behind Rasheed Wallace, and why, today, Utah keeps Paul Millsap around despite having two other all-star power forwards, or Orlando JJ Redick. And (5), the team may have non-basketball reasons for keeping a player around. In some less urban communities like Utah or Indiana, some fans may be wary of players (OK, I'll say it: usually black) who appear "thug-like" with cornrows and tattoos and so forth, and clean-cut guys like Rasho Nesterovic (or heck, Al Thornton, who doesn't have any tattoos either) have marketing potential that outweighs their basketball abilities.

Anyway, let us now go forward with our spotlight of thankful scrubs. Again, our focus is on role players (non-all-stars) who have played for the same team for at least six consecutive seasons.

This guy goes all the way back to my childhood. The Pistons did not emerge as a contender fully formed; it took years of careful building to create the eventual two-time champs. Vinnie came aboard in a trade from Seattle in the fall of ’81 after being picked early in the ’79 draft. The core of Isiah, Laimbeer, Vinnie, and Kelly Tripucka added coach Chuck Daly in ’83, then Joe Dumars in the 1985 draft, then substituted Adrian Dantley for Tripucka in 1986 (then Aguirre for Dantley in ’89). In the ’86 draft Detroit picked up two Renaldo Balkman-type hustling rookies in Rodman and Salley. Meanwhile, the Bad Boys needed bruisers to truly be bad. Rick Mahorn signed on in ’85, and James “Buddha” Edwards joined up in the summer of ’87.

For almost ten years, until the Bulls knocked off the Pistons in the spring of ’91, Vinnie was the first guy off the bench. Some Pistons pundit (I don’t know which; perhaps George Blaha) dubbed him the Microwave, because he heats up in a hurry. What a brilliant nickname! Surprisingly, he never won the Sixth Man of the Year award, though it began in 1983.

This guy convinced Orlando to employ him for nine years in a row from 1999 until 2008, when he finally retired. When you hit the prime of your career and your scoring average drops from 4.6 and 4.9 to 2.2, that’s probably a good idea. What does he do that is useful? The stats don’t reveal anything obvious. For a few seasons he was stroking the 3-ball at better than 40%, but in the last four seasons he couldn’t do that anymore. Maybe he hustles better than most. Perhaps in a world of imperfect information, a team is better off sticking with the bum they know, rather than the bum they don’t know. If they are comfortable with the role Garrity plays, and decently sure enough that they cannot find a better and equally well-behaved replacement, why go through the fuss of finding someone new?

This guy was lucky to be the best available talent on the board when the Lakers (they of Bryant, O’Neal, and Glen Rice) made their first-round choice in the 1999 NBA draft. This guy logged a total of 3 minutes in the NBA Finals at the end of his first season in June of 2000; yet somehow he acquired a reputation as a defensive stopper who propelled the team to their three-peat. George logged seven seasons all told with the Lakers; it probably helped that after most of their stars left in the summer of ’04 (see above), he was a genuine keeper compared to the other alternatives. Today he is a backup for Dallas, but low on the depth chart behind Josh Howard and Gerald Green. With Howard out nursing a bad ankle, George has played about 20 mpg in the last two weeks and is shooting 3-pointers at nearly a 50% clip, making two such buckets per game. Not bad.

Foster is now in his tenth season of employment by the Pacers, believe it or not. He has seen four coaches (Bird, Thomas, Carlisle , O’Brien). He has served as the backup center for Rik Smits, Jermaine O’Neal, and now Rasho Nesterovic. He has played in the NBA Finals with the Rik Smits-Dale Davis-Reggie Miller-Jalen Rose-Mark Jackson squad, then the Eastern Conference finals with the Artest-O’Neal-Tinsley-Miller team, and last season held down the fort for a hopeless lottery dweller. This season he seems to be part of the rebirth of the team. Perhaps he will be around for the next down cycle, also. He’s like George W. Bush in a way, who had the bad luck to preside over two recessions. Better to be like Bill Clinton, who like Vinnie Johnson on the Pistons, never tasted hard times as US president.

Jason lucked out in the draft: while his brother was taken by a Jazz team suffering steep decline as Malone and Stockton aged, Jason went to the New Jersey Nets just as Jason Kidd and Richard Jefferson came aboard. Similar to Devean George, Jason Collins thus was able to contribute to an NBA Finalist in each of his first two seasons out of college, and has perhaps been coasting on that reputation since then.

While he’s a good defender, he’s terrible on offense, and not much of a rebounder. Incredibly, Jason Collins stuck with the team for almost seven seasons until New Jersey , desperate to find a paradigm-busting frontcourt scorer who could salvage the Kidd era, traded Collins to Memphis for Stromile Swift last February. (That didn’t work too well, as the Nets traded away Kidd to Dallas just nine days later, in a brilliant move by Rod Thorn.)

Jarron Collins is even luckier than his brother, as Jarron is now in his eighth consecutive season of employment by Utah, the only team whose jersey he has ever donned. He’s started very, very few games over that span; Utah’s starting center used to be Greg Ostertag, and lately has been Mehmet Okur. Like his brother, he’s a smart guy, but not the most athletic jumping bean in the can. Like Foster, Collins saw the dying days of the Malone-Stockton era, and has since stuck around for the rise of the Williams-Boozer-Kirilenko squad that has won three playoff series in the last two years. I still don’t understand why Utah employs him. With rookies Kosta Koufos (who put up 10 points and 3 rebounds in 6 minutes on Friday night) and Kyrylo Fesenko backing up Okur, who needs this big lug?

Malik Rose joined San Antonio as a rookie in 1997, the same year Tim Duncan joined the team. A 6’7” power forward, it is not clear exactly what he brings to the table as an undersized “big”. He doesn’t have a lot of bulk like Charles Barkley or Paul Millsap, and he doesn’t have amazing leaping ability like Dennis Rodman. It is said that he is a good locker room presence, but hell, I could be a good locker room presence. I don’t drink or smoke, I’m polite to my boss, and I like to host my co-workers for parties at my place.

Rose managed to stay with the Spurs (and grab two rings) for almost eight seasons until February 2005, when he was traded to the Knicks for Nazr Mohammed, who eventually helped the Spurs win a championship. Meanwhile, today Rose is still stuck on the hapless Knicks, who haven’t been able to trade Rose due to his absurdly large contract (seven years, $42 million, signed back in the heady summer of ’02, when George W Bush could do no wrong and the whole country seemed Hot in Herre) for a player of his lackluster abilities. Right now they are just happy to see his contract expire in a few months.
In our next and probably final installment of this series, we will consider role players who stayed way too long, including Austin Croshere and Corey Maggette.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

It's The End Of The World As We Know It

Watching TNTs NBA coverage last Thursday (December 4th) I was mildly amused when Kenny Smith made a comment about the quality of Terrell Owens's physique, and his interlocutors (Barkley, Webber, Ernie Johnson) thought that was fun-fun-funny. They continued ribbing Smith all night, and the producers made a series of cartoonish Photoshopped images mocking Kenny's adoration of Owens's abs. (Kenny's comment comes at 0:45 of this video, and the goofy cartoon comes at about 3:05) The mockery continued all night into the postgame show, past the events shown in this video.

[UPDATE: After I put this post up, the Youtube video (not my video) was taken down due to terms of use violations. You can find the "official" TNT video of the postgame show by clicking here, and then paste the following into your address bar:


The beginning minute of the postgame video makes some reference to the Kenny-T.O. stuff. However, the video of the halftime show where all these hijinks started is not available. Perhaps TNT realized that this was not professional television, and they want to expunge it from the record. Anyway, now back to the original blog post.]

All right, that was mildly amusing. Here's what Kenny said: "T.O. doesn't have to wear anything to make his body look like he's in shape." The context was that Barkley just said that T.O. and Tiger Woods like to wear tight shirts to show off their muscles.

Well, that's probably true. Owens is a fit guy. All wide receivers are: they have to be fast, agile, and strong. Is this any different from scouts saying that a prospect is "freakishly long" or, when LeBron finished high school in 2003, that he had an "NBA body"? Why is this worthy of juvenile ragging? If Kenny had said that, say, Marko Jaric has a fine-looking woman, there would have been a general chuckle, and then we would have moved onto to something else, right?

It's no mystery that mens sports have a homophobic, but simultaneously homoerotic, undercurrent. (I should know, I was on my high school wrestling team for one year!) Whats with all the butt-patting? That link suggests that football coaches pat their players on the rear end because the rest of the body is covered in pads and they can't feel it, but gee, Ive seen plenty of butt-patting in baseball and basketball, also.

And its no stretch to make the connection between the macho, martial mores of the playing arena to bullying behavior off the court. There are plenty of examples of NBA players abusing their wives and girlfriends. (I dont know whether this rate of abuse in the NBA world is higher than the basal population rate, but that seems like a lot of dudes.) There was a whole book about this phenomenon, which, lazily, I have not read.

Former NBA center John Amaechi, who came out as gay in 2007, writes that when his teammates contemplated the thought of knowing a gay person, they came up with: "If my kid grew up gay, I'd throw him into the street." Of course Amaechi surely spiced up his quotes a bit to sell his book, but I have little doubt that this is redolent of the general tenor of locker-room life.

I don't know what else to say, except that Im a bit disappointed that Ernie Johnson, a non-jock, would encourage and even further the homophobic joshing. I guess when you "embed" a journalist with the troops, he tends to internalize the values of the unit.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Hey Mambo

Continuing our exploration of badly pronounced basketball names, I humbly offer up Dick Versace and Dick Vitale, former coaches with the Detroit Pistons. (Versace was only an assistant there, and later became a head coach with the Pacers.) Is there any good reason why the first guy's name (rhymes with “her face”) shouldn't be pronounced like that of the fashion designer? He even proudly says here that he's an Italian American. And why shouldn't Mr. Diaper Dandy have his name pronounced like, say, another redoubtable Vitale of the Michigan area?

Just saying.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Da New School of Witchcraft and Wizardry

Derrick Rose sure is great. I mean that with all sincerity. He shows signs of becoming a HOF, MVP type of superstar. Very few point guards in the last twenty years can say that. How many point guards were MVP contenders? There was Chris Paul, Jason Kidd, Steve Nash, John Stockton, Kevin Johnson, Gary Payton, Tim Hardaway. I don't think Anfernee Hardaway ever rose to MVP level, playing alongside Shaq. Deron Williams is good, but he hasn't been transcendent yet.

And notably, none of the PGs above won a championship. Not one! OK, Payton won a title in 2006 as an ornery backup on Miami, but his luminescent days were long past. The last superstar point guard to lead his team to a title was Isiah Thomas back in 1989 and ’90. Looking at the last 18 championships, the lesson seems to be: If you don't have Shaq, Hakeem, Jordan, Duncan, or Garnett (i.e. a top 15 all-time player), you're out of luck. The Pistons of ’04 were the exception that proved this rule: they were able to prevail only after Duncan, Shaq and Garnett destroyed each other in the West playoffs.

Look at the point guards of all those champions: Rajon Rondo, Tony Parker (well, he was good in 2007, but mediocre in ’05, and so bad in ’03 that Speedy Claxton spelled him), Jason Williams, Chauncey Billups, Derek Fisher, Ron Harper, Avery Johnson, Ron Harper again, Kenny Smith, John Paxson. A serviceable point guard, plus an all-timer and an all-star, is all you need to bring home a title.

(Incidentally, applying that formula, which teams are legitimate championship candidates this year? Boston, Cleveland, Detroit, Los Angeles, New Orleans, San Antonio could all qualify. I hesitate to put Orlando in there, because I don't think Dwight Howard has yet proven that he can hang with the Russells and Chamberlains. I don't think Houston has an all-time legend on its roster, and neither does Denver or Utah. Phoenix and Dallas have O’Neal and Kidd, but they are past their expiration date.)

So Rose is exciting, and his rookie performance thus far is spectacular, but I don't know yet if he can restore glory to the Bulls. As I observed previously, he may be the lure to bring in a marquee free agent in 2010, such as Stoudemire, Bosh, James, or Wade. That would certainly put the Bulls in the mix for the gold.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Shukran ya Ustaadh

Our Thanksgiving post has come a little late, but it took us a while to come up with the piquant content that we pride ourselves by. Our theme today is the giving of thanks, in honor of last week’s holiday here in the States.

We at Jordan Pushed Off would love to have a budget to hire research assistants to crunch some numbers for us. Unfortunately, money’s tight in these credit-crunched days, and we spend all of our spare cash on ESPN Insider and NBA Finals tickets. So, our capacity to run data analysis is not as broad as we might like. Let us still proceed with some speculation.

What do you think is the average tenure with a single team for role players — that is, players who have never made, and likely will never make, an NBA all-star team during their career? (I realize that this definition may capture several players who are certainly better than “role player”, like Tayshaun Prince, Richard Jefferson, Marcus Camby, and others, but I can’t think of a better line of demarcation.) I would guess that the average such tenure is three or four years. Every summer there is an active free agency market for role players, good general managers are not afraid to jettison unproductive bench players and try again the following fall with someone new. Joe Dumars tried Carlos Delfino, but he sucked. Then he tried Jarvis Hayes to play backup 3, but he sucked too. This year he’s going with Walter Herrmann. If Herrmann sucks, I am sure Joe will find a way to dump him in 2009.

Yet there are some role players who have somehow managed how to stick with their team, year after year, often drawing paychecks far out of proportion to their ability. (In fact, the causal relationship may go from bad contracts to lack of tradeability to unreasonably long tenure on a team). Longevity is nice: it means one home, stability for your kids, a secure relationship with management, the ability to pick out enjoyable community programs, perhaps favored groupies if that’s your thing, and fans who keep bringing the love year after year. It is these players of unusually long longevity with one team whom, we feel, have the greatest responsibility to give thanks for their lot in life. We will focus on role players who have played for the same team for at least six consecutive seasons.

Collison spent his rookie season in 2003-04 recovering from shoulder injuries, so this is really only his fifth active season. Still, Seattle/Oklahoma has continued to place faith in Collison as a starting power forward, when he has delivered only 10 points and 9 rebounds (in 28 minutes) in his best season. He can’t even block more than one shot per game. Those are “energy guy” numbers, folks. I suppose when your starting shooting guard registers at 6’9” and 215 pounds, you don’t have a lot of quality control. Sadly for the Thunder, they have Collison booked for two more seasons after this one, at over $6 million per.

The big Quebecois-née-Haitienne was drafted by the Sixers in 2001, just after Philly made the Finals with a center squad of Dikembe Mutombo, Matt Geiger, and Todd MacCulloch. Mutombo was looking wizened at the time (though incredibly, he played 7 more seasons, until 2008), Geiger was at the end of his career, and MacCulloch only played two more seasons due to a genetic foot disorder. So a fresh and spry center to play with Iverson seemed like a good idea.

It is said that big men take the longest to mature. Dalembert finally became a serviceable starter in his sixth and seventh seasons, averaging over 30 minutes, 10 points, and 10 rebounds. So far in this season, his eighth with the Sixers, he has regressed, though, averaging only 27 minutes and 6.5 points. Philly doesn’t really have another decent center on its roster (its fifteenth man, 35-year-old Theo Ratliff, has played only 5 times for a grand total of 35 minutes) so it is puzzling why Dalembert can’t get more floor time.

The giant from Holland (and then UCLA) was drafted by Milwaukee in 2002; this is his seventh season with the team. His high point came in 2004-05, when he started 81 games and averaged about 7 points and 8 rebounds. The following summer, with Gadzuric eligible to sign an extension at the end of his rookie contract, the Bucks
locked him up through the 2010-11 season. That’s right; unless Milwaukee can find a taker via trade, they are looking at nine seasons of the Gadzuric Era. After that transaction, Milwaukee brought in Andrew Bogut, the top pick in the draft, to play the 4, and brought in Jamaal Magloire to be their starting center. The following year, Bogut was promoted to starting center, and Charlie Villanueva or Brian Skinner got the nod at power forward. If you can’t beat out Magloire or Skinner for a starting spot on a non-playoff team, what are you doing? Gadzuric’s points per game hovered around 5 for the first two Bogut years, and have dropped to 3 in the subsequent two seasons. Yet Milwaukee is still happy to employ him.

My experience with Dutch men has been that they are uniformly very tall. Like, huge. And indeeed, the few Dutch players to make the NBA have all been centers: Rik Smits, Francisco Elson, and Dan Gadzuric. Incidentally, both Gadzuric and Elson now play for the Bucks.

These two were both drafted in 2001 (Michael Jordan acquired both) and have platooned at center for the Wizards ever since. Amazingly, this is the eighth year that the Wizards have employed Haywood and Thomas together, even though (i) they are mediocre pivotmen on a team that needs a powerful low-post scorer to succeed, and (ii) they hate each other. In recent years they have
fought at least three times. In their reluctant-tag-team roles, they remind me of Colin Powell and Don Rumsfeld, or maybe Cousin Balki and Cousin Larry, or Oscar Madison and Felix Unger, or maybe even Shawn Michaels and John Cena. In a way they sort of remind me of my cats (seriously, click the video, it’s short and funny): They bring a lot of bluster to their skirmishes, but ultimately don’t do a lot of damage.

I suppose together they would be a quality center, delivering about 15 points and 12 rebounds per 42 minutes, but paying a combined

12 million per year to these guys seems more inflated than the list price on a Palm Springs condo development circa ’06.

I have a strong hunch that this season will mark the end of the Thomas-Haywood pairing. The rise of rookie Javale McGee, plus the months-long wrist injury to Haywood, plus the ouster of coach Eddie Jordan, will surely upset the lazy equilibrium that kept the two big galoots together for over seven years.

Golden State picked up two centers in the summer of 1997: Adonal Foyle and Erick Dampier. Amazingly, Dampier stuck around for seven seasons until the summer of ’04, when his contract expired, and Foyle eventually played a total of ten years with the Dubs. During the seven seasons they played together, their combined average stats were as follows, by my calculations: In about 44 minutes per game, 13.5 points, 12.5 rebounds, and 3.3 blocks. About the same as Haywood and Thomas. Then why, in the summer of ’04, did the Warriors sign Foyle to a six-year, $42 million
contract? (And why did Dallas reward Dampier with a seven-year, $73 million contract at the very same time? Isn’t it clear that these guys suck? Dampier sure didn’t contain Dwyane Wade’s drives at the time Dallas most needed him.)

These guys remind me of Thomas and Haywood: one nerd, one jock. Thomas, of course, is an anti-war activist and a
published poet. Meanwhile, Adonal Foyle founded a network of college student clubs that push for public financing of campaigns. Not sure what Foyle thought of Obama’s every-day-is-Christmas routine.


In part 2, coming Thursday, we will consider more role players who should give thanks to their loyal teams, including Malik Rose and the monstrous Collins brothers.