It’s late June, the perfect time to talk about Kent Bazemore. He was at his most visible in Golden State. This was the Mark Jackson era, when Steph Curry wasn’t yet his flamethrowing self, and a young Klay Thompson was being discussed as trade bait for Kevin Love. Jackson didn’t know how to use his young stars, which was quite a feat, and so it’s unsurprising that he saw little in Bazemore, an undrafted rookie who appeared on the court only in late-game cameos but developed a cult on social media for being the league’s most flamboyant end of the bench celebrator. Curry would pour it in from range and there was Ingenue Baze barking and flexing, dancing in the aisles at church, hanging off his teammates necks and beaming that gap-toothed smile.
He was traded to the Lakers in the middle of his second season, tore a tendon in his foot toward the end of the calendar, and has spent the past five seasons in Atlanta. He was a bit player on the Spurs East Hawks team that won 60 games and took on greater responsibility within the lesser squads that followed. As Atlanta retooled and demi-stars Al Horford and Paul Millsap glommed on to more promising projects, Bazemore stuck around, not out of loyalty but because the franchise had signed him to a $70 million contract, a We Gotta Pay Somebody maneuver that got super-sized due to the 2016 cap spike. All things considered, the Hawks are likely satisfied with that deal anyway. Bazemore defends excellently, shoots competently, and is a shockingly decent playmaker for someone who can’t beat anybody off the dribble. He works hard and all his teammates like him.
Given that we’re on the verge of finding out where franchise players like Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant are going to sign this offseason, it makes sense that the swap of Kent Bazemore for Evan Turner by Atlanta and Portland didn’t make a huge amount of news when it was announced a few days ago, but it certainly meant something. That we think of Bazemore and Turner as the same kind of player at this point in their careers is interesting by itself, given that one entered the league a nobody and the other was supposed to be a star. When you’re pushing 30, that context tends to have faded away. You are no longer your hype, or lack thereof.
If this trade isn’t exactly banishment for Turner, who will enjoy playing the old head in Atlanta, it does feel like a favor to Bazemore, who’s an ideal fit in Portland. With Dame Lillard and C.J. McCollum handling the ball, all Bazemore will have to do is shoot threes, back cut, and play defense. He can work in three-guard lineups or, with Al-Farouq Aminu or Moe Harkless at the three, he can check the other team’s best guard and allow Dame or C.J. to hide on a spot-up shooter.
And blessedly, Bazemore finally gets to play an important role on a really good team. The money is in bountiful supply and playing basketball for a living is about as fun as a job gets, but it must strain the professionalism of players on tanking or otherwise uncompetitive squads to hone their craft as committedly as they do while receiving so little in the way of fulfillment. The Hawks have won 24 and 29 games in the past two seasons, respectively, and Bazemore has been their rock as an assortment of foundlings have flooded the roster and acclimated themselves to the NBA in fits and starts. The reward of nurturing young talent probably dims after a while. Coaches and front offices tend to like the idea of having a few mentors around, but athletes don’t get into this game to teach some overmatched rook the nuances of various pick and roll coverages. You’ve only got so many leaps and dead sprints in your legs, and if you’re not a star, you can’t expect to be playing deep into your 30s.
We have yet to see the shape the Western Conference will take over the month of July, and Bazemore’s arrival in Portland doesn’t heavily factor into that. It’s a development that means a lot more to the player than it does to the league. Over seven seasons, he’s been a prominent scrub and an anonymous role player. Playing meaningful minutes in games that matter is a new thing for him, one he’s toiled hard for and inarguably earned. Bazemore has taken an indirect route to this moment, but that is the way it always goes for players like him.
In making his celebratory post-championship press rounds, Danny Green has spoken candidly about how he’d like to be back in Toronto next season, but that decision isn’t really up to him. If Kawhi returns, he expects be offered a new contract with the Raptors, and if Kawhi flees for Los Angeles, Green might have to search for a new team. That’s the NBA yeoman’s plight: you have a limited degree of agency. No franchise will go out of their way to secure your services and some won’t ask about you at all. So you sign with whoever’s paying, or where you feel most wanted. Maybe that’s a title contender, though the odds are it’s a middle of the road organization where you can do a job, or a backwater that’s happy to have you.
You hope at some point that the current sets you down somewhere you can truly shine, and you hope that happens before your neck aches every morning and you can’t keep up with speedy point guards as well as you used to. The Blazers represent that exact serendipitous opportunity—the thing you dream about—for Bazemore. He won’t, by himself, put them in the championship hunt, but he’s never wielded power that decisive. It’s possible that, beyond his realm of influence, the stars will align and he might find himself logging his 22nd minute in a closeout game in the Western Conference Finals, along for the ride but chipping in too. This is all you can ask for, if you’re Kent Bazemore. Not a second too soon, he’s getting his chance.