May 02, 2013 12:50 PM EDT
Jason Collins made history this week, when he became the first active player in one of the four major North American sports leagues to come out as openly gay. A 7’0, 255 center built to win wrestling matches on the low block, Collins has carved out a 12-year career as a defensive specialist for six different teams. Before his announcement, he was known mostly for his stint with the New Jersey Nets, where he was the starting center on NBA Finals teams in 2002 and 2003. Now, at 34, he’s at the tail end of his career, with a 3.0 PER in 38 games for the Celtics and Wizards during the 12-13 season.
After playing on a one-year contract for the veteran minimum last season, Collins will be the most discussed third-string center in the history of free agency this summer. A decade ago, a player with his skill-set wouldn’t have found much trouble staying in the NBA, as every team needed more size and experience on the low block. However, with the modern game becoming more perimeter-oriented, lumbering centers have become an endangered species. As a result, there’s a good chance Collins’ NBA career is over, not because of his sexuality, but because his job description is obsolete.
As even his most vocal supporters would acknowledge, Collins has always been a fairly limited player. Statistically, he has been one of the least productive players in the NBA for almost a decade. While no one expects a backup center to be a particularly skilled passer, shooter or scorer, Collins averages only 5.6 rebounds per 36 minutes of action, terrible numbers for a player his size. His only value on offense comes from his ability to do the things “that don’t show up in the box score”, but when he made his mark with the Nets at the beginning of his career, he could do box score things too.
He’s not that useful on the defensive end of the floor either. The best defensive centers have the quickness to move their feet across the lane and the explosiveness to defend far above the rim. Collins, on the other hand, is neither quick nor explosive. Even worse, his paltry defensive rebounding percentage of 14.5 percent means he allows a lot more offensive rebounds and second shots than his peers. His one redeeming skill is his ability to hold position on the low block, as it’s nearly impossible to dislodge someone of his size and strength without committing an offensive foul.
That’s where the problem comes for Collins: he’s a defensive specialist, except the players he’s supposed to defend no longer exist. When President Barack Obama talked about him to reporters, he said that Collins “had the strength to bang with Shaq”. Unfortunately for Collins, Shaquille O'Neal has long since taken his “comedy” act to TNT. In his prime, Shaq was such a dominant player that teams were forced to keep massive defensive specialists on hand just to give him six fouls. Collins averaged five fouls a game in the 2002 Finals. Shaq, in every sense of the word, was a job creator.
In the modern NBA, however, you can count the number of elite low-post scorers on one hand. Most can also step out and take a 15-foot jumper, rendering Collins useless. Perimeter-oriented big men dream of a match-up against a defender as slow as Collins. Not only does he lack the footspeed to contest their jumpers, he doesn’t have the skill to punish them on defense. As a result, opposing coaches can go small against him with impunity, essentially forcing his team to play 4-on-5 on both sides of the ball. Kendrick Perkins ran into the same problem in the 2012 NBA Finals, crippling the Thunder when Scott Brooks refused to adjust.
Collins’ reputation comes almost exclusively from his ability to defend Dwight Howard, who is possibly the last of a dying breed of power-based centers. Howard’s game is based around overwhelming opponents at the point of attack, something he can’t do to Collins. In the first round of the 2011 playoffs, Collins played a crucial role in the Hawks upset of the Magic, as he could defend Howard in the post without a double team. Howard still averaged 27 points and 15 rebounds, but since he wasn’t drawing double teams, Atlanta was able to shut down his extremely limited supporting cast.
The Hawks kept Collins on their roster to match-up with Howard, but there are easier ways to defend a low post scorer in the modern NBA. Without the illegal defense rule, almost every team has copied Tom Thibodeau’s “flood the zone” schemes to defend great big men. In this year’s playoffs, the Spurs used Matt Bonner on Howard for stretches, sending help and forcing the Lakers perimeter players to beat them over the top. Despite his defensive limitations, Bonner was more valuable than a true center because he could stretch the Lakers defense. In contrast, L.A. would have completely ignored a player like Collins.
With floor spacing at a premium, it’s become nearly impossible to hide a player who can’t score. Centers don’t necessarily have to be great jump-shooters, but they have to at least be a threat rolling to the basket in the pick-and-roll game. Tyson Chandler, a long and lean 7’1 240 center with great hands and finishing ability, is the prototype for the modern interior defender. He shot 64 percent from the floor this season; Collins shot 48 percent. Teams without a conventional center, like the Mavericks, have had more success using a small-ball center like Brandan Wright, a 6’10 210 stringbean, than a bigger and more limited player.
The other argument for keeping Collins around is his presence in the locker room. As Jason Kidd told the New York Times: “[Collins] is a guy that can help and he’s a veteran guy. In this league, you need veteran guys.”
Of course, a 19-year NBA veteran is hardly a disinterested observer when it comes to the value of NBA experience. Not only does having a lot of aging players affect a team’s depth, but there’s a large opportunity cost in terms of forgoing the chance to develop young players. Collins doesn’t have more experience than Erick Dampier, who didn’t cover himself in glory as a 35-year-old center in Miami.
The casual fan may not care who the 12th man is, but every roster spot in the NBA, and the guaranteed contract that comes with it, is incredibly valuable. With so many talented basketball players in the world, why miss out on the next Patrick Beverley to keep a guy who can’t help you win? While Collins has had a fine career, his style of play is no longer useful to an NBA team. Ironically enough, for as progressive as he may be off the court, he’s an anachronism on it. As a cultural figure, Collins has been a long time coming, but as a player, he was born a few decades too late.
Apr 19, 2013 2:25 PM EDT
After playing only four minutes on an injured foot in the New York Knicks' final regular season game, Rasheed Wallace retired on Wednesday. One of the most talented and controversial players of his generation, he was still effective at 38, 20 years after he appeared on the national scene at North Carolina.
Along with Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Chris Webber and Dirk Nowitzki, Wallace redefined the power forward position and revolutionized the game. But while he was as talented as his four contemporaries, he's the only one won't wind up in the Hall of Fame. Wallace never cared much for his image or his legacy, which is why, paradoxically enough, he became such a beloved countercultural figure.
There were very few things Wallace couldn’t do on a basketball court. At 6’11, 230 with exceptionally quick feet and a rumored 7’4 wingspan, he was a defensive prototype. He had the strength to battle the best low-post scorers on the blocks, the quickness to move in space and the length to protect the rim. He had all the tools on the offensive side of the floor too: an excellent post game, complete with a turnaround jumper that was essentially indefensible and the ability to stretch the floor out to the three-point line. His versatility on both sides of the ball and his understanding of the game made him the perfect teammate, capable of playing any role his team needed.
If there was a criticism of the way he played, it was that he wasn’t selfish enough. Despite being an overwhelming force on the low block, he shied away from dominating the ball, preferring to play a more team oriented game and often floating out to the three-point line. Even though he could create his own shot against anyone, he never averaged more than 20 points a game. His lack of aggression on the offensive end can be seen his number of free throw attempts. While Dirk, Webber, KG and Duncan all had seasons with more than six a game, Wallace’s career high was a little over four. He wasn’t as suited to being a primary offensive option as his peers, but when he was dialed in, his versatility allowed him to have a similar impact on a game.
In many ways, Wallace was ahead of his time. His fascination with the three-point shot drove many fans and analysts crazy, but it’s the ideal place for a big man to be on offense. The modern game is built around spacing the floor, with coaches in the NBA and the NCAA searching everywhere for a “stretch 4” who can drag his defender out of the paint. The problem comes on the other end of the floor, as most jump-shooting big men can’t play defense. Wallace was a stretch 4/5 who doubled as one of the best defensive big men in the game. MVP candidates are the only players more valuable than that. It's the same reason why Chris Bosh, not Dwyane Wade, is the second most indispensable player on the Heat.
It’s no coincidence Wallace won everywhere he went. The only year he missed the playoffs was his rookie season, when he played with Webber (!) and Juwan Howard (!!) on an underachieving Washington Bullets squad that was quickly broken up. By 22, he was one of the key players on the legendary “Jail Blazers” squads in Portland, where he began to develop the “rebel without a cause” reputation that followed him throughout his career. Seven years later, he wound up with the Detroit Pistons, where he teamed with Ben Wallace to form one of the most fearsome defenses in NBA history. He finished his career with stops in Boston and New York, where he was still a key player on two elite teams, even in his late 30’s.
Few players had more near misses than Wallace. The Jail Blazers came this close to knocking off the Shaq/Kobe Lakers in 2000, blowing a 15-point lead in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals. The Lakers went on to win the next three NBA titles while the Blazers were quickly dismantled after the public grew tired of their off-court shenanigans.
In 2005, a year after Wallace got his revenge on L.A. as the missing piece for the Pistons, they lost to the Spurs in a classic 7-game series in the NBA Finals. In 2010, Wallace was the third big man for the Celtics who lost to the Lakers in another 7-game Finals that went right down to the wire. A couple bounces are all that separate Wallace from four titles.
All that, however, has been overshadowed by the way he carried himself both on and off the court. In terms of records that will never be broken, his 41 technical fouls in 00-01 is up there with Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak and Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 point game. With the NBA now suspending players after 16 technicals, no player will ever be able to carry on such a long-standing feud with the officials. Perhaps the best testament to Wallace’s talent was his ability to thrive despite so openly thumbing his nose at the sport’s power structure.
That’s where Wallace angered so many basketball traditionalists. Rather than using his immense talent to make himself the very best basketball player he could be, he used it to give himself the freedom to be the type of player he wanted to be. Wallace was such a good player that he could afford to view the game from an entirely different perspective, disregarding the basic norms of being a professional. He openly used recreational drugs, disrespected people in power and spoke his mind. Depending on your own personal view of the world, that made him either a hero or a villain. What made Wallace such a fascinating character is that he didn’t really care either way.
If a player doesn’t care about his image, there’s nothing the media can do to him. These are things he actually said, in reference to the NBA drafting kids out of high school: "They don't know no better, and they don't know the real business, and they don't see behind the charade," Wallace told The (Portland) Oregonian. "They look at black athletes like we're (expletive deleted). It's as if we're just going to shut up, sign for the money and do what they tell us ... As long as somebody CTC, at the end of the day I'm with them. For all you that don't know what CTC means, that's 'Cut the Check.” Wallace, quite literally, said anything he wanted too. He was good enough of at basketball to get away with it.
Wallace had the ability to be a Hall of Famer. He could hold his own against anyone in the NBA at his position; no one played better post defense on Tim Duncan. Circumstances never quite worked out for him, but it doesn't seem that he's all that bothered by it. The greatest players are supposed to play for their legacy, as if securing a place in Bill Simmons’ Hall of Fame pyramid should be their main goal. But why should a player spend his whole career worrying about how it will be viewed when he’s 60? Hopefully, he won’t spend his entire middle age re-fighting the battles of his youth. Rasheed Wallace was the A student happy with a B+. What’s the difference? He understood all the grades are pointless anyway.
Apr 18, 2013 12:45 PM EDT
A winning record to reach the playoffs wasn't necessary this season in the Eastern Conference, which demonstrates how far the below list of eliminated temas are from becoming contenders without addressing significant issues this offseason.
The Big Questions:
- Will they get the No. 1 overall pick?
- Can a frontcourt with a core of Nikola Vucevic, Tobias Harris, Andrew Nicholson and Maurice Harkless compete in the East long-term?
- Can they find another team who will give them an asset for Al Harrington’s partially guaranteed deal?
Notable Free Agents: None
2013 Draft Picks Held: Own 1st Round and Golden State’s 2nd Round (own 2nd round held by Cleveland)
The Lay of the Land: The Magic have a fascinating group of young players and a serious chance to add more assets. With a tie for the most ping pong balls, Orlando should be able to bring another high-level talent into the fold. While point guard stands out as the biggest long-term need, the team would be wise to take the best player available since they still need depth and quality at every position. Another interesting piece for Orlando this summer comes in the form of Al Harrington- because his contract is only half-guaranteed for the final two seasons of the deal, the creative Magic front office could use that to try and gain an asset from another team in exchange for the cap savings of a contract that counts on the book for more than the payment amount until he is cut. Considering Orlando already has a ton of money on the books for 13-14, it could even be a way for them to reduce their burden for the following years.
The Big Questions:
- Will they get the No. 1 pick?
- When should they use the amnesty on Tyrus Thomas?
- How much are they willing to pay to keep Gerald Henderson?
Notable Free Agents: Gerald Henderson (Restricted) and Byron Mullins (Restricted)
2013 Draft Picks Held: Own 1st Round, No 2nd Round (held by OKC)
The Lay of the Land: While the Bobcats have two potential lottery picks coming from Detroit and Portland in future years, in all likelihood neither of those will make it to Charlotte this season. That could be for the best considering how weak this class is on the lower end of the lottery. That said, the choice to take on Ben Gordon’s extra year to get a pick from Detroit means that Charlotte will have some money this summer but not enough to go after elite talent. The Bobcats do still have their amnesty available and have a perfect target in Tyrus Thomas, though they could still see some potential value in him since they would still need to pay him even if he comes off the books from a salary cap perspective. I’m guessing they wait one more year to push him off on an ice float though doing it now would be fine.
Beyond that, both Byron Mullens and Gerald Henderson will be restricted free agents this summer. The team needs to draw a line in the sand on long-term contracts for both players since while each has value they are not strong enough players to warrant tying up cap space when the team can make big moves in 2014 and beyond.
The Big Questions:
- Do they want to use their cap space this summer or wait until 2014?
- Will there be a good market for Anderson Varejao? Would the Cavaliers want to trade him now?
- How can they best use their two picks in each round?
Notable Free Agents: Wayne Ellington (Restricted)
2013 Draft Picks Held: Own 1st Round, Miami’s 1st Round, Own 2nd Round, Orlando’s 2nd Round
The Lay of the Land: Unlike pretty much every other team on this list, Cleveland might have more resources than they can deal with effectively. Carrying four picks in the first 35 on top of four other players on their rookie deals might be a little too much to handle. Fortunately, the team can combine assets and try to find the right fits at varying positions and roles.
The figure looming over the entire off-season has to be LeBron James. Considering how much trouble the Cavaliers have had acquiring high-level talent outside of the draft, it would make sense for them to try and woo the high-end guys in this class and then save most of their flexibility for the chance of LeBron James wanting to return home. Since Kyrie Irving still has another two years on his deal and then would have a reasonable cap hold, the Cavs would be wise to take on some short-term money and get a pick or two if the elite members of the 2013 free agent class choose to go elsewhere.
The Big Questions:
- What extension will the team offer John Wall and would he accept less than the max at this point?
- Will either Emeka Okafor or Trevor Ariza decline their lucrative options for next season?
- Can the team bring back Martell Webster on a reasonable deal?
- Would any team be interested in giving up a long term expensive talent for an expiring contract?
Notable Free Agents: Emeka Okafor (ETO), Trevor Ariza (Player Option), Martell Webster (Unrestricted)
2013 Draft Picks Held: Own 1st Round, Own 2nd Round, New York Knicks’ 2nd Round
The Lay of the Land: The largest consequence of the trade with New Orleans last year was the reduction in salary flexibility for the 13-14 season assuming Okafor and Ariza pick up their options. Either one could choose to go after a longer-term deal though neither should expect to get more per season than what Washington is committed to paying them on their current deals. The challenge for the Wizards would be trying to make the right deal for either should they choose to go for a longer contract since they have value but the team needs the flexibility because next year is the last with John Wall on his rookie deal.
I fully expect the Wizards to offer Wall a generous deal that falls short of the max (more than Curry, Holiday, or Lawson signed for last summer) and have absolutely no idea whether he will take it or not. Considering the Wizards can and should match any four-year deal he could get in restricted free agency in 2014, they have plenty of reason to wait to see if Wall can build on his strong second half.
The Big Questions:
- Can Joe Dumars use his newfound cap space responsibly?
- Will Greg Monroe and the Pistons come to an agreement on an extension?
- What will Andre Drummond’s role be next season?
Notable Free Agents: Jose Calderon (Unrestricted), Jason Maxiell (Unrestricted), and Corey Maggette (Unrestricted)
2013 Draft Picks Held: Own 1st Round, Own 2nd Round, Clippers’ 2nd Round (possibly)
The Lay of the Land: After the Tayshaun Prince trade, the Pistons actually have a remarkable amount of cap room this summer. That number will only increase when the team finally amnesties Charlie Villanueva and clears his $8.58 million off the ledger. Without a ton of money committed for 2014, Joe Dumars can afford to be patient with the space they have and go after all sorts of options this summer from signing a free agent like Andre Iguodala or taking on a long-term deal like the Raptors did with Rudy Gay in the aforementioned trade.
The other big potential decision for Detroit centers on Greg Monroe. He is clearly a good player but we still need to see how he can play with franchise building block Andre Drummond. The Pistons should make a low but reasonable offer to Monroe this year and spend most of next season trying to figure out if he can play with Drummond for years to come, ideally making a decision before the trade deadline since Monroe would have value if the team chooses to go in another direction.
The Big Questions:
- Can they get meaningfully better this summer?
- Will they use the amnesty on Linas Kleiza?
- Where will Terrance Ross fit in with Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan?
Notable Free Agents: None
2013 Draft Picks Held: None (1st Rounder to OKC via Houston, 2nd Rounder to Memphis)
The Lay of the Land: By making the trade for Rudy Gay, the Raptors committed to their current group of players for 13-14. Using the amnesty provision on Andrea Bargnani or Linas Kleiza would not alleviate the cap limitations though it could affect how tightly they push against the luxury tax and the apron. The Raptors will need to add a backup PG and likely one more swingman in order to complete their team.
The Big Questions:
- What the heck do they do with Andrew Bynum?
- What the heck do they do with Evan Turner?
- Can they find swingmen that make sense long-term with Jrue Holiday and Thaddeus Young?
Notable Free Agents: Andrew Bynum (Unrestricted), Nick Young (Unrestricted), and Dorrell Wright (Unrestricted)
2013 Draft Picks Held: Own 1st Rounder, Own 2nd Rounder, New Orleans’ 2nd Rounder
The Lay of the Land: After all of the moves that the Sixers’ front office has made over the past 12 months, the only real constant they have moving forward is Jrue Holiday. They have long-term money committed to both Thaddeus Young and Jason Richardson but either can move around in the rotation based on who else the team has in future seasons.
While Andrew Bynum looms largest over this summer, the three-pronged choice for Evan Turner might actually affect the team more directly since they have so much more power over the decision. Turner is eligible for an extension and still has value as a trade asset, so the front office needs to decide whether they want to do one of those options or just hold onto him another year and punt the decision on both keeping him and the extension until the deadline or next summer.
Feb 21, 2013
The worst case for the Celtics here is that Jordan Crawford can’t earn minutes and becomes the ninth man off the bench. On certain nights, he can be a dangerous bench scorer.
Feb 18, 2013
The Wizards look to have a particularly compelling outlook moving away from the All-Star break, due to the dichotomy their season has possessed thus far coupled with an uncertain roster future moving forward.
Jan 07, 2013
One of the weirder aspects of NBA draft coverage is the groupthink mentality that quickly emerges and downplaying the quality of a draft class seems to be a pastime for many “NBA insiders.” Far too often, teams deal away first round picks thinking the guaranteed contract that comes with it is a burden rather than an asset.
Dec 31, 2012
NBA teams hold coaches to a stricter standard than they do general managers, yet a coach can only be as good as the players his front office gives him.
Dec 12, 2012
As we move forward with “Amnesty 2.0,” we will see the fascinating possibilities that the provision brings even as the number of teams and players left dwindles with time.
Oct 19, 2012
The Southeast Division could have one team that wins the 2013 NBA Finals (Heat), and four teams that fail to even make the playoffs in the Wizards, Hawks, Magic and Bobcats.
Jul 30, 2012
Kevin Seraphin is the rare young big man comfortable scoring with his back to the basket, and his wide base and long arms allow him to establish deep post position. National team experience could allow a player like Seraphin to emerge in a new role when he returns to the Wizards.
Jul 19, 2012
The Heat, Thunder and Lakers appear to be a cut above the remainder of the NBA, but how do the 27 other teams rank?
Jun 29, 2012
Whle the Pistons, Blazers, Bobcats, Nets, Thunder and Bulls headline the 'Great Drafts', the caboose of 'Bad Drafts' is comprised of the Cavaliers, Suns, Bucks, Wolves, Heat and Knicks.
Jun 29, 2012
On Washington's transformation, the Austin Rivers mess, USA vs. International, Damion Lillard anointed at point guard, Boston's back-to-back picks and how Meyers Leonard fits with Portland.
Jun 28, 2012
The Andre Drummond/Perry Jones effect on this draft before we make sense of picks seven through 30 just hours before a flood of draft-day trades shreds every mock.
Jun 21, 2012
The 2012 NBA Draft is a week away and nothing is certain beyond Anthony Davis going to the Hornets with the first overall pick even though several scenarios are beginning to crystalize.
Jun 21, 2012
Since the financial flexibility component of the piece on Washington’s end has little weight behind it, what they received in terms of players takes center stage. In the worst case scenario, Washington gained two quality rotation players on a team that sorely needed them.
Jun 19, 2012
There are two core reasons why players outperform their pre-draft expectations, while there are two main paths for prospects to underachieve.
May 31, 2012
Anthony Davis will become a member of the Hornets, but the draft is extremely fluid behind him with teams needing several weeks to sort through their unusual number of options even to the Bobcats at number two.
May 23, 2012
While every team in the lottery can bring their Anthony Davis jersey if they win the first overall pick, the gap between Thomas Robinson, Bradley Beal, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Andre Drummond is extremely narrow for me and highly intriguing.
Apr 24, 2012
There was great concern about how teams would struggle with so many games in so little time, but the numbers indicate that they fared better than expected. Teams averaged a .547 winning percentage in the third game of consecutive days.
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