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.

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