Looking for depth at the wing positions, the Toronto Raptors signed Landry Fields to a three-year $20 million deal this offseason, making him the fifth highest paid player on their roster. Yet, only six games into his new contract, in an admittedly small sample size, Fields has been steadily losing playing time to Alan Anderson, a 30-year-old veteran whom Toronto picked up off the European scrap heap last season.
In all likelihood, neither Anderson nor Fields is a long-term answer for the Raptors. Both are smart 6’6+ wings who can spot up off the ball, serve as a secondary ball-handler and be a cog in a defensive system, but neither has the athleticism to be an elite perimeter defender or consistently create good offensive looks, either for themselves or their teammates. The only real difference between them is the opportunity Fields received early in his career with New York, an opportunity Anderson never received in his first stint in the NBA.
Anderson, a 6’6, 220 swingman, was a four-year contributor at Michigan State from 2001-2005. As a senior, he averaged 13 points, six rebounds and two assists on 39/56/87 shooting, helping lead the Spartans to a Final Four appearance. However, on a team that featured six players averaging between 9-14 points a game, including three other future NBA players (Maurice Ager, Shannon Brown and Paul Davis), Anderson’s steady play was overlooked by most of the league.
After going undrafted, he signed a free agent deal with the Bobcats and made their roster, a significant accomplishment for any UDFA. Unfortunately, with Gerald Wallace entrenched at a forward position and No. 3 overall pick Adam Morrison at another, Anderson never got much of a chance to earn consistent minutes. He played in 53 games over two seasons and his per-36 minute averages were respectable, but NBA teams weren’t beating down the door for an undrafted 12th man on two lottery-bound Charlotte squads.
After the 2006-07 season, Anderson began a six-year odyssey through the hinterlands of pro basketball. There was a stint in the NBDL, and then Russia, Italy, Spain, Israel and China. In 2012, at the age of 29, he was still in the prime of his pro basketball career, but his name had long been forgotten by even the most hardcore NBA fans. The Raptors, a team with extensive connections in Europe, eventually gave him a chance last season, signing him to a minimum contract.
In contrast, Fields has led a rather charmed NBA existence since coming out of Stanford in 2010. A 6’7, 215 swingman, he was a four-year contributor for the Cardinal who became the team’s star player as a senior, averaging 22 points, nine rebounds and three assists on 34/49/67 shooting. But with very little talent around him, Stanford went 14-18 and missed the postseason, so his exploits occurred largely under the radar of the national media and even most scouts.
Going into the 2010 Draft, he wasn’t even in ESPN Insider Chad Ford’s Top 100 list. And while Ford is hardly the Mel Kiper Jr. of the NBA, his rankings do a fairly good job of mirroring the consensus of NBA front offices. Nevertheless, all it takes is one team who believes in you, and the Knicks, who were running Mike D’Antoni’s free-flowing offensive system at the time, made Fields the No. 39 pick.
More importantly, D’Antoni installed Fields as the team’s starting shooting guard before the season even started, rare in a league where even lottery picks are eyed warily by many coaches. Playing in a system that stressed ball movement and sharing the floor with four bigger offensive threats (Amare Stoudemire, Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler and Raymond Felton), Fields absolutely thrived, averaging 10 points, six rebounds and two assists on 50/39/77 shooting.
No one thought Fields would be a future star, but his steady play on a high-profile Knicks outfit earned him a spot on the All-Rookie first-team. However, while rookie performance has an outsized role in shaping early perception of a player, the sophomore season is generally a far better indicator of their true talent level. Fields beat out Paul George, Eric Bledsoe, Avery Bradley and Gordon Hayward, among others, for that spot on the All-Rookie team.
The acquisition of Carmelo Anthony, meanwhile, negatively impacted Fields, as his minutes were cut while the system he thrived in as a rookie was replaced, culminating in D’Antoni’s resignation towards the end of last season. As a restricted free agent this offseason, he was low on the Knicks' priority list, so when the Raptors swooped in with their $20 million offer, New York had no problem letting a once prized rookie walk for nothing.
As it turns out, Toronto probably didn’t value Fields’ skills all that much either. Many believe they signed him in order to prevent the Knicks for using him as part of a sign-and-trade deal for Steve Nash, since the Raptors had made acquiring the Canadian icon their top offseason priority. Instead, Nash opted to chase a ring with the Lakers/be closer to his family in Phoenix, leaving Toronto holding the bag on an overpriced replacement-level swingman.
What many NBA teams don’t seem to understand is that the market for perimeter players who can’t create their own shot is incredibly fungible. A first-order effect of the explosion of interest in basketball worldwide is the ever growing number of international players in the NBA; a second-order effect is those players have pushed numerous Americans overseas who would have made the NBA a generation ago.
There’s no bright line dividing proven NBA rotation players like Fields and European free agents like Anderson. For the most part, “NBA experience” isn’t worth the extra cost. Just as in tennis, the distribution of talent in basketball is pyramidal. The difference between LeBron James or Novak Djokovic and the #350 player in their respective sports is immense; the difference between player #350 and player #450 is negligible, as much a matter of opportunity as anything else.
Fields will rebound from his abysmal start to the 2012 season because no NBA-caliber player is that bad, while Anderson will need to improve his efficiency numbers if he’s going to stick in the league in his second time around. No matter what happens, he’s doesn’t need to become a poster child for the quality of European free agents, not with Gary Neal, Gerald Green and Anthony Parker already out there. In a post-CBA world of punitive luxury tax penalties, overpaying role players and ignoring the vast amount of readily available talent overseas is a luxury NBA teams can no longer afford.