Wednesday, October 29, 2014

It's All About Playing Time

Writing about Taj Gibson and Kendrick Perkins in the last few days has made me think a lot of about career paths in the NBA. The two are 29-year olds in the same place - reserve big men on one of the top teams in the NBA - but they took dramatically different ways to get there. Perkins is a guy whose been a starter for a long time and has to adjust to coming off the bench while Gibson is a bench guy whose been pushing for a starting job for years.

My guess is neither is totally content with their current status. When you are a basketball player, the goal is to play as many minutes as you can. That's a point a lot of people miss when they talk about what guys should do. It would be nice to do that on an elite team, but you would rather be somewhere where you have a chance to play 30+ minutes a night. Older players will take fewer minutes to save their legs, but guys in their prime want to play.

In that sense, it's no different than a guy in his late 20's who plays rec-league basketball. You got this finely-tuned body, you want to let it loose. You want to get up and down the floor, run around as much as you can, fly around the court and break a sweat. You want to get a good work-out and only come out of the game because you are too tired not to. This can't be emphasized enough - it's a lot more fun to play basketball than to watch from the bench.

Perkins gets a lot of flack for the death grip he had on the starting C job in OKC, but you can't expect him to go to his coach and say someone else should take his spot. That's on the coach - a player is going to play regardless. Even if you aren't very good relative to your NBA peers, a guy whose made it to the league has an ego and he's going to believe that he is helping his team, even if what he does "doesn't show up in the box score". 

With a guy like Gibson, people will say that it's better to close games than to start them. That's a bit of a false choice, though - in an ideal world, you would be a starter who also closes most games. A guy like that is going to play a ton of minutes. And if a team trusts him to play a lot of minutes, he's going to get a lot of stats. And if he puts up enough stats and his team wins enough games, he will get a long-term deal that sets him up for life.

You don't want to go to a situation like the 76ers, but other than that, you want to be on a team that's going to let you stay on the floor. A starter on a good team has more job security than a starter on a bad one, but a starter on a bad one (column A) still gets a lot more opportunities than a reserve on a good team (column B). If a guy does poorly in column A, he goes to column B. If a guy does well in column B, he goes to column A. 

This sounds obvious, but it's worth pointing out - if you don't get a lot of minutes, you aren't going to stay in the league for a very long time and you aren't going to make a lot of money. An NBA team can sign anyone to sit on the end of their bench and they shuffle through those guys pretty quickly. If you can't ever get into the rotation, you aren't going to stick around for very long. The average NBA career is only 4.5 seasons long.

Once you prove that you belong in the NBA, the next step is finding a place where you can really showcase your game. You don't want to stay in a place that can't give you the opportunity to play a lot of minutes. That's what happened with Omer Asik in Houston - he was like, no, I'm way too good to be playing 15 minutes a night. I can start for most of the teams in the NBA, so let me go somewhere where I can help.

When you are evaluating players, those are really the levels you need to look at. Can this guy be an NBA starter and can he be a starter on a good team? If you put enough of the latter on a team, you are going to have a really good team. There just aren't many guys who can hack it at that level. Houston's assembly-line style of assembling teams isn't that big an exception - if you aren't helping a team, you will eventually lose your spot.

Once you find that niche as a starter on a good team, there's not a ton of reasons to go anywhere. Kyle Lowry is a good example of that - he established himself as a foundation piece on a good young Toronto team, so it's no surprise he signed with them rather than chase rings for less money in Miami. He's 28, he's trying to make it or not on his own, not play off of other guys and sacrifice his stats for a few more playoff games.

The key is that starting role. Even if you aren't getting a ton of touches, as long as you play enough minutes, you will run into some stats. When you are coming off the bench, though, the grass is always greener somewhere else. That's what happened to Eric Bledsoe and that's what I think will happen to Reggie Jackson. A young guy wants to prove what he can do - not get put in a box because of the role you have on the team that drafted you.

Unless you are a guy like LeBron or KD, going after championships is icing on the cake stuff. It would be great to win a ring, but the NBA is a business and basketball is a career with a really short shelf-life. You have to max out what you can earn in the short amount of time you have to earn it. Even if you play 18 seasons like Steve Nash, you are still retiring at 40 with a lot of life ahead of you and no more NBA checks coming.

As long as a guy can stay as a starter on a good team, they might as well stick around in the league. It's only when you have to start coming off the bench and scrap for playing time than it's like, maybe I've had enough. Just look at Kidd and Nash - even though they weren't stars towards the end of their careers, they were still playing big roles on decent teams. That's a pretty great life for a guy in his late 30's, so why not keep making money?

In theory, the money they make in the NBA should be enough to that it doesn't really matter when they are making career decisions. The numbers tell a different story, though - 60% of NBA players are broke within five years of retirement, so you better make as much money as you can. You never know what can happen. Talking about that championship you won isn't going to put a roof over your kids heads when you are 50, much less if you have a bunch of baby moms.

Because we talk so much about the Hall of Fame, it kind of skews the perception of what constitutes a successful NBA career. It's not about your legacy, it's about how many years you played in the league, how many seasons you were a starter and how much money you made. If you are in the league long enough, you develop relationships with a lot of people in different areas of the basketball industry. Those relationships are what count.

What I mean by that is - how much validation should retired players look for from people they will never know? Once you got to know someone personally, you would judge them like anyone else, not on the minutiae of what they did and didn't do in a previous career long before you met them.  Jalen Rose is an example of a guy who never won a title and won't be in the HOF, but why would he be disappointed about his career?

When you look at guys who slip out of the league in a given season and try to evaluate their careers, that's the stuff that really matters. Whether or not they made a huge impression on the national audience isn't a huge deal. Playing 15+ seasons in the NBA says it all about how good a basketball player a guy was. Everything else is stuff you hang in a spare bedroom that your kids won't really be all that impressed by.

With all that in mind, here's a look at a few long-time vets who aren't in the NBA at the start of the season and who may end up retiring. Those 3 categories don't tell you everything, but they do tell you a lot about what these guys were about:

Years Played
Years Started
Money Earned
Antawn Jamison
$142 million
Jermaine O’Neal
$169 million
Rashard Lewis
$155 million
Metta World Peace
$74 million
Stephen Jackson
$68 million
Al Harrington
$87 million

Side note - those Pacers teams in the mid 00's were absolutely stacked. They were the most talented team in the league for at least 1-2 seasons. You know that because they had a bunch of guys who played in the NBA for 10+ seasons. You can't really front like any of the guys on that list weren't really nice basketball players. They proved that in their NBA careers. A guy who made that much money playing professional basketball? He must have been pretty good.

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