Big Men: On Jason Collins Returning to the Nets and Glen Davis Joining the Clippers

With two massively important basketball moves, Sunday will go down as perhaps the most meaningful day ever in the world of NBA buyout transactions and 10-day contracts.

The Clippers have played like something very close to a title contender despite near constant rotation turmoil. They’ve missed J.J. Redick and Chris Paul for long stretches, they’ve gotten zippo from their backup big men, and about a month ago, they demoted Jared Dudley from the starting lineup in favor of Matt Barnes. But they’re 38-20 after Sunday’s thrilling win over Oklahoma City, with a point differential — plus-6.4 points per 100 possessions — about identical to those of both Miami and San Antonio. The Clips have been a borderline top-10 defense after a sieve-like first few weeks, and the defense has held at that level when the Blake Griffin–DeAndre Jordan duo patrols the front line — a reversal from previous seasons, when the team’s starting lineup was unreliable on defense.

Jordan has improved across the board, in rather glaring fits and starts, and Griffin has made a meaningful leap. The Clips went 13-6 when Paul missed time with a shoulder injury, and Griffin, once considered a scavenger who mooched off Paul’s talent, played the best ball of his career as a no. 1 option. They need to get healthy and get their rotation in order, and especially to get more reps with the Redick-Barnes wing combo, but the Clippers have made a strong case for inclusion in the “contender” conversation.

That case might get stronger soon, as Doc Rivers told reporters in Los Angeles Sunday the team was close to adding Glen Davis. The Clips traded two offense-first backup bigs who can’t play offense anymore in Byron Mullens and Antawn Jamison, leaving them with just Ryan Hollins and Hedo Turkoglu as rotation “bigs.” The Clips have actually performed well with those guys on the court, but the sample sizes are small, and the competition has mostly come against opposing benches. The Clips are right to worry about counting on either for meaningful playoff minutes, and they were inevitably going to sign some backup big off the buyout scrap heap.

We know what Hollins is. He can only dunk on offense, and he can’t really do that all that well, since he has trouble catching the basketball when someone throws it at him. Griffin has improved his midrange jumper to the point that Doc Rivers is calling plays for it, but it’s still developing, and Jordan cannot shoot beyond the length of his arm. Mixing Hollins in kills the team’s spacing, and he doesn’t make up for it with defense or rebounding.

He’s nearly Andrea Bargnani–level bad as a big-man rebounder, and his defense is more hyperactive than productive. The Clippers are a troubling 26th in defensive rebounding percentage, with little room in their rotation for a big who can’t eat glass.

Turkoglu is out of shape, ice cold from the field, and unable to run the pick-and-roll in high volumes as he once did as Stan Van Gundy’s point forward. He’s still a useful passer, but he’s not quick enough to play small forward anymore, and the Clippers obviously give up size and physicality when they slot him at power forward — the position he has played almost exclusively this season. The challenge of playing him there cuts both ways. Bigger teams can outmuscle the Clips, and those who prefer to go smaller, with a wing player at power forward, can do so comfortably with Turkoglu in the game, knowing the old Turk can’t punish them with size.

Davis is no great shakes, and his midrange chucking has gotten downright irresponsible in Orlando. Almost half his shot attempts have been midrange jumpers, per NBA.com, and while he’s shooting a respectable 42 percent on those shots, they are low-efficiency looks the Magic will happily redistribute to younger players. Davis can’t jump, and as a result has always struggled to finish at the rim among the league’s monsters. He doesn’t get to the line much, and he rarely even rolls to the basket on the pick-and-roll. He has cut to the rim this season on just 29 percent of his pick-and-roll plays, per Synergy Sports, one of the dozen lowest such figures among 80-plus big men with more than a token number of pick-and-roll finishes to their names. The other pop-first bigs are mostly top jump-shooters — LaMarcus Aldridge, Paul Millsap, Kevin Love, Spencer Hawes, and others. (Hilariously, Josh Smith is also among this group. What does the boss say here? That Detroit fans will now light themselves on fire?)

Orlando Magic v Denver Nuggets

But Davis can fit in Los Angeles, should the signing go through, beyond the fact that he should be a huge upgrade over the Hollins-Turkoglu pair. He was a loud veteran in Orlando, and was going to get his shots on a very young roster. He will receive no such deference on Paul’s team. And his midrange jumper may be of greater use here. The looks should be cleaner when the Clips surround him with Paul, two shooters, and one other big who can dive to the rim for dunks.

Both Griffin and Jordan entered the league as clear dive men on pick-and-rolls — athletic freaks who would function best setting a pick, cutting hard to the rim, and hunting lob dunks. This was Lob City, after all. Jordan has remained that sort of player, and really only that sort of player. Griffin has worked himself into a much more well-rounded type, in part to accommodate Jordan’s limitations and help the Clippers generate spacing even while playing two rim-rattling bigs together. The evolution has been splendid. Griffin is an elite high-post passer, a post-up threat on both blocks, and a blossoming midrange shooter.

But it at times has felt strained. Big Baby’s presence as a pop-only artist should mesh nicely with Jordan’s game and allow Griffin to rediscover his Lob City roots for short stretches. Davis isn’t a spacing salve. His shot has no gravity; he doesn’t draw extra defensive attention, and teams are happy to let him hoist. But he can work in this offense, provided he dials it back a bit, and turns some of those midrange jumpers into dribble handoffs that keep the offense flowing. Davis is a mean screener, having learned at the feet of Kevin Garnett, the league’s sensei of illegal picks. And in those rare minutes when both Paul and Griffin hit the bench, Davis can wobble and butt his way to the occasional post-up bucket, though he’s struggled on the block this season.

The real dividends come on the other end, where Davis is a solid defender who moves his feet well and is borderline unmovable in the post. Tom Thibodeau, the league’s premier defensive perfectionist, adored Big Baby in Boston, and the Magic acquired him in the first place in part because Dwight Howard hated trying to move all that weight down low. Howard plays in the Western Conference now, on the team with whom the Clips are competing for the no. 3 seed. Zach Randolph’s team is making a playoff push, and Z-Bo reminded Griffin again in Memphis on Friday that guarding him on the low block is a very unpleasant job that can flat overwhelm Griffin at times. There is also LaMarcus Aldridge’s post game and Robin Lopez’s offensive rebounding in Portland, and big front lines in both San Antonio (if the Spurs ever get healthy) and Oklahoma City. Heck, even Golden State can beat you up a bit with David Lee and Andrew Bogut.

Another big body will be nice to have around, especially since Davis already understands the aggressive Thibodeau strongside overload system Rivers has brought to Los Angeles. Davis gets the scheme’s help principles, he competes hard, and he slides those big feet around faster than you’d expect.

He’s not a stopper, mind you. Opposing bigs have shot nearly 50 percent against Davis in the post this season, per Synergy. That number is a bit of a career anomaly, partly the result of Orlando’s decision to let Davis fend for himself without any double-team help. He offers no rim protection, which is why he chooses to try for charges (often successfully) instead of challenging shots.

But he can fit well on this particular roster, and he fills a major need. Just don’t put the guy up in an Econo Lodge while he searches for a new place.

♦♦♦

There are times when things seem to be happening so fast that life feels out of control — like you can’t even keep up with stuff that is supposed to be in your domain. That is mostly a bad feeling. Holy cow, there are so many trades coming in at once that I can’t even keep my salary cap figures straight. Someone else broke their hand or tore their ACL? How many is that now?

There are so many international crises, and so many in-depth electoral issues, that just being a good global citizen can feel impossible. You unsubscribe from The Economist because the pile of unread issues makes you feel guilty.

But here’s the positive side of that coin: The cross-country progress in gay rights is coming so fast, in so many different ways, that it feels like an uncontrollable avalanche gaining steam. The end result is inevitable, and the rapid pace of breaking news and positive change just highlights that inevitability. Another state legalized gay marriage? How many is that now? And just when you thought Jason Collins was a huge deal, here comes Michael Sam entering the draft of the country’s most traditionally macho sport. We spend so much time wondering when we’ll have the first whatever such-and-such (black president, gay athlete, female Supreme Court justice) that the first step seems so, so daunting. And then it happens, and it happens again, and eventually it becomes a routine part of life.

We’re not there yet, of course. Jason Collins is not routine. The Nets signing him on Sunday was not a run-of-the-mill 10-day contract. Adam Silver doesn’t release statements when the Clippers sign Sasha Vujacic. Collins has been the NBA’s first non-retired openly gay player since his April cover story in Sports Illustrated, but now he is really the NBA’s first openly gay player.

This will create a “media distraction,” according to the bogus line anonymous NFL cavemen used to justify the potential non-drafting of Sam. Brooklyn players will have to answer questions about having a gay teammate. Players on every team Brooklyn faces while Collins is on the roster will be asked about playing against a gay man, and also whether they might welcome Collins, or some other gay player, into their own locker room.

The questions are fair. Some in the media will be fishing for a strange or insensitive response, but most askers want a window into the mind-set of the private NBA world.

They are also easy questions. Players at the NBA level are hardened professionals honing their craft for huge amounts of money. Collins is one of them, in every sense. Playing with him should be easy, because he’s smart, in shape, hard-working, and does the little things you need from a deep-bench big man. Playing against him should be like playing against any other such deep-bench big man, because this is 2014, and not 1985.

There will be a player who says something awkward about Collins, probably an accident of wording in an unscripted conversation. That remark will become a story and initiate an entire feedback loop. What does Collins think about that comment? What do his teammates think? What does the original commenter think about Collins’s response to his comment?

That is a “distraction,” I guess. But it’s not so different from the game-by-game call-and-response that already surrounds coaching decisions, postgame remarks, and rivalry chitchat.

And eventually, the questions will stop. There will be no one left to ask, and nothing left to say. Collins will just be a basketball player. He will have paved the way for the next openly gay NBA player, and inspired gay athletes in high schools and youth leagues all over the world. We all played sports in high school, and we likely all had closeted gay teammates. I know I did. A lot of those people didn’t come out, and some of them probably made that choice because of the language they heard in practices, the general political landscape, and the lack of role models in front of them.

Collins, and Sam, and others, will all change that. Collins isn’t going to affect the championship picture in the way Davis might. Neither he nor his new team is good enough for that, with the Nets’ need for him not as obvious. Brooklyn has been thriving as a weirdo hybrid team playing small-ball lineups that are simultaneously huge, with a rotation that features really only two traditional big men — Garnett and Andray Blatche. They start Paul Pierce at power forward and play the wacky Andrei Kirilenko–Mirza Teletovic–Blatche trio off the pine. Reggie Evans didn’t play much, and Mason Plumlee’s role in the rotation comes and goes.

But Evans is gone, Plumlee is a rookie, and Kidd has been more cautious with Garnett’s minutes than Rivers ever was in Boston. There may be spot minutes for Collins in the normal course, and he’s one injury or splash of foul trouble away from being a real rotation cog. He sets picks, plays within schemes on both ends, and boxes the hell out of his man on the defensive glass. Collins never puts up “good” individual rebounding numbers, but his teams always rebound better with him on the floor. He and Nene are the captains of the “guys who don’t actually get rebounds but nonetheless help your rebounding” team — the Anti–David Lee All-Stars. Much like Davis, Collins is a beast to move in the post, perhaps the league’s best Howard-stopper during Collins’s days as a Hawk. The Nets’ bench units can struggle defensively, and Collins might provide some help here and there.

And, heck, the Nets at some point in the postseason, if they and Collins both make it that far, might face Indiana or Chicago — a bullying team that requires more size and less small ball. They’ll play Chicago toward the end of Collins’s contract, and if he gets another one, the Grizz would be up next.

Jason Collins matters, in more ways than one.

Filed Under: NBA, Jason Collins, Glen Davis, Big Baby, Brooklyn Nets, Los Angeles Clippers, Michael Sam, Zach Lowe, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan

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Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

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