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!

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