A quick death in a changing league

Art by Bryan Mastergeorge   Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images   Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images
Art by Bryan Mastergeorge Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images /

Life in the NBA is fragile. It’s easy to forget, because everyone is always focused on the future — looking ahead to the next team, predicting who will make next year’s Finals, picking the next MVP. These are all useful exercises but they give the illusion that everyone in the NBA is always boundlessly moving forward. If you just focus on the future, you miss studying the past, where the NBA is going, and who is being left in the dust.

This is true at the team level. There’s an illusion created by the Warriors and the Cavs and the Heat that making the Finals every year is a given, or maybe closer to an expectation. These two teams, and LeBron James the player, are all outliers. They have rocks on which to build their championship foundations, while most franchises have scoops of sand in their hands. They are desperately trying not to let anymore sand fall through their grasp — one injury, some unlucky bounces in the fourth quarter, a player leaving in free agency, and a championship window closes.

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NBA fans just celebrated the retirements of Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan. All three stood out because they stood at the top of the mountain for so long. Each had long NBA careers during which they were able to evolve and thrive with great teammates and strong organizational foundations. Other NBA players haven’t had those luxuries. Longevity and consistency are hard to foster and keep hold of. The 2013 season was the last time all three of these generational stars made the All-Star team. They were joined that year by many of the stars of the NBA today — LeBron James, Kevin Durant, James Harden in his first All-Star game. Also on the team are those who have drifted from stardom into something else — Jrue Holiday, Dwight Howard, Tyson Chandler, Luol Deng. Those four were All-Stars just a few years ago, but time has elapsed quickly for their careers.

Let’s go back and look at three former stars or rising stars in the NBA, to get a sense for exactly what happened in their careers and where they are now to try and rehabilitate them.

Art by Bryan Mastergeorge

Verticality and a changing NBA

The first thing to think of with Roy Hibbert is verticality. If you are reading this preview, you probably remember this too — Hibbert’s ability to protect the rim was so important from 2012-2014, that people wondered if he had gotten too good, or if the rule of verticality needed to be changed.

Hibbert was a part of some great Indiana Pacers teams and playoff series, too. In the 2011-12 season, the Pacers made the Eastern Conference Finals after winning 42 games and earning the third seed in the East. They had a big three, of sorts — emerging star Paul George, veteran forward David West and and the Great Wall of Roy Hibbert.

Perhaps the culmination, or the high point, of the Pacers’ and Hibbert’s defense was this block against Carmelo Anthony in the playoffs. This is a play that only superstars make, given the degree of difficulty and the circumstances. It’s an incredible, series-altering play.

The Pacers had the unfortunate luck of their collective peak overlapping with one of the great NBA teams ever — the LeBron-led Miami Heat. The Pacers gave the Heat some great games and played them close in two series. In the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals, the Heat won a six-game series. A year later, in the Eastern Conference Finals again, the Pacers lost in seven games.

The takeaway from that little slice of Pacers history is that they had two, maybe three, emerging stars. Young Paul George looked primed to dominate the NBA for years and interject himself into All-NBA and maybe even MVP conversations. But just as loud were praises of Roy Hibbert. If not a nimble defender of the pick-and-roll, he was at least a capable one. Plop him in front of the Pacers wing lineup of long arms, and you had one of the best defenses in NBA history. The Pacers led the NBA in defensive efficiency in 2012-13 and 2013-14, thanks in large part to Hibbert.

Fast forward to today, and where is Roy Hibbert? He’s wearing No. 55 for the Charlotte Hornets, on his third team in three years, projected to be the Hornet’s second-team center. In a summer when everyone made gobs of money in free agency, Hibbert’s new contract with the Hornets is for $5 million over one season.

What happened to Roy Hibbert was an unfortunate case of a changing environment compounded by a slowing body. The league is not the same as it was in 2012 or 2013. The Steph Curry revolution is real. Three-point shooting is more important than ever before, but so are other Warriors trademarks like moving the ball and playing with pace.

The change happened quickly, and left Hibbert in the dust. His only skill — protecting the rim — is overshadowed by his lack of ability to do anything on offense outside of the paint. His plodding around worked in Indiana but as he’s gotten a step slower, his style clashes with the modern era. It’s 2016, Roy Hibbert doesn’t fit in anymore.

There’s a chance that Hibbert can rejuvenate his career under Steve Clifford in Charlotte. The Hornets are replacing Al Jefferson, one slow big, with Hibbert, another. But Jefferson brought value on the offensive end with all his post-ups; Hibbert brings defense that is receding in quality.

There’s a very high chance that Hibbert has already played his best basketball. After making an All-Star team in 2012 and 2014, Hibbert is a replacement level player in 2016. Life in the NBA is fragile.

Post-ups and a changing NBA

David Lee’s story reads just like Roy Hibbert’s, with one crucial plot-twist. Lee is also a two-time All-Star, in 2010 and 2013. He made the All-Star team first with the Knicks in 2010. After that season, he was an unrestricted free agent and signed with the Warriors.

You see Warriors and think championships and 73 wins, but back when Lee signed, these weren’t your “unusable on 2k” Warriors. The Dubs went 26-56 in the 2009-10 season, and David Lee was pegged as a savior of sorts. Instead, he ushered in a new era, of Steph Curry and Splash Bros and Draymond Green and really, of championships. Even if he was mostly a passive observer for their 2015 title.

Lee, in his heyday, was a double double machine, but via the postup. If you watch these highlights from a game in the 2013-14 season, you see the Warriors doing Warrior things — Steph Curry pick-and-rolls, Klay Thompson double-clutch threes — but David Lee’s in there, too.

In this clip, David Lee dribbles the ball up the floor, and watching it in 2016, I was triggered into thinking, “Hey, that’s something Draymond Green might do.”

Green actually did take Lee’s starting position. Lee made 67 starts on the 2013-14 Warriors, got hurt at the start of the 2014-15 season and has made just nine starts in his three NBA seasons with three different NBA teams since.

David Lee stands out because of his graciousness in all this. From the outside, it seems like he’s taken everything very well and genuinely enjoyed his overall Warriors experience, especially the part that ended with him getting his first championship ring. But Lee was an All-Star and for four seasons from 2010 to 2014, averaged over 16 points a game for the Warriors. But he gets very little credit for helping create that dynasty. He helped push them up from the dregs of the league was shoved aside when they needed to leap to the top. The very nature of the Warriors revolution not only took his starting position on the team but his pedestal in the league as a back to the basket big and post-up aficionado.

The Spurs signed Lee this summer. He received a two-year, $3.2 million deal, not bad for an NBA veteran. He will pop up in meaningful moments for the Spurs this season, surely, but he won’t play a major role with the team. And when the Spurs play the Warriors in the regular season, and if the Spurs and Warriors face off in the playoffs, Lee will have to be sitting on the bench. He’d be too much of a defensive liability.

Lee helped create the monster that changed the NBA. Then, that change destroyed his place in the league. Life in the NBA is fragile.

Shooting and a changing NBA

There’s a little bit more to the Pacers’ story. They didn’t just make back-to-back Eastern Conference Finals appearances with Roy Hibbert. They made three straight.

The 2013-14 Pacers started out 33-7. They looked unbeatable and there were even rumblings of 70 wins. I promise! They still had Paul George and David West and Roy Hibbert, but there was a new kid on the block — Lance Stephenson. Watching Lance was an experience. His speciality was triple-doubles — his first ever was on November 11, 2013, against the Memphis Grizzlies. His second was 11 days later, and he would finish the regular season with five, the highest mark in the league.

The Pacers, as you remember, didn’t get to 70 wins. They had an odd collapse, the reasons for which still aren’t clear. But they made the Conference Finals and faced the Heat again.

The LeBron ear blowing incident is important, not just because it’s hilarious, but because of the context around it. Stephenson was blowing in LeBron’s ear and messing with Erik Spoelstra in the huddle because, at least somewhat, his play backed up his actions. He and Paul George were monster defenders on the wing. They were the answer to the Big Three, the solution to how to stop both Dwyane Wade and LeBron James.

Very few people can defend LeBron James. Many have tried, but few can do it. Stephenson was one of the guys who could. What’s remembered is the lunacy of the ear-blowing incident, and the memes that followed, but what’s forgotten is how strong his play was in that series.

The very next summer, Stephenson signed with the Hornets. After starting all 78 games he played in with the Pacers in 2013-14, he started only 25 games under Steve Clifford. His career devolved in Charlotte, because the league and his environment changed, and Stephenson couldn’t keep up.

With the Pacers, Stephenson needed the ball. He would dribble around and make something good happen, but that takes time off the shot clock and a patient offensive system. With the Hornets, much of that freedom dissipated. He was asked to play within a system, keep the ball moving, hit threes, be a playmaker from the weak side — all core tenants of the new passing and shooting philosophy in the NBA. Stephenson couldn’t make it work.

He shot 17.1 percent from three with the Hornets in one season there. He didn’t fit in. Next season, he spent time with both the Clippers and the Grizzlies. He played better there, even averaging 14.2 points in 26 games in Memphis, but the swagger that marked his early career wasn’t the same.

This summer, the Pelicans signed Stephenson to a one-year, $1.2 million contract. He’s only 26-years-old, but many of the skills he possesses don’t overlap with which way the NBA winds are blowing. Individuality and playmaking and passion aren’t as valuable if they aren’t paired with simple skills like shooting and the ability to keep the ball moving, to keep the offensive set going. Coach Alvin Gentry is a smart coach, and will do his best to maximize Stephenson’s talents. Perhaps playing in an up-tempo style offense will help and let his playmaking shine through more than his mistakes.

But it’s also quite possible that we’ve already seen the best possible player Lance Stephenson can be. In the 2014 Playoffs, he looked like a rising star on an Eastern Conference Finals team. Entering the 2016-17 season, he’s barely a rotation player for a team that will likely miss the playoffs in the Western Conference.

Oh, how fragile is life in the NBA.