Lichtenstein: Retired Collins Can Be Nets’ Role Model On Court, Not Just Off

By Steve Lichtenstein
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Covering the Nets-Bucks game last Wednesday was a bit like being under the big top.

At one end was the return of former Brooklyn coach Jason Kidd, who engineered his exit over the summer so he could instead toil in Milwaukee. Kidd wanted the world to know (through some subtle and some not-so-subtle hints) that it was all Nets general manager Billy King’s fault.

Of course, the main attraction was a triple-overtime game, during which both the Bucks and Nets squandered multiple opportunities to end the marathon affair–most notably when Milwaukee point guard Brandon Knight gagged on an uncontested breakaway layup at the first overtime horn—before Kidd’s Bucks eventually won the bragging rights, 122-118.

And in the far circle, conducted with less fanfare in the bowels of the Barclays Center a half-hour before game time, a few reporters gathered around a different Jason.

On this same night, Jason Collins officially announced his retirement from the NBA.

You may recall that Collins became the first openly gay player to participate in a game in one of our four major American professional sports following his signing of the first of several 10-day contracts with Brooklyn in February.

The point of this piece, however, is not to delve into Collins’ legacy as a trailblazer—he will forever be hailed for his courage to, in his words, “live an authentic life” within the testosterone-filled confines of pro sports locker rooms.

Though it will be (and should be) deemed far less significant, how many of you will remember what Collins contributed to his teams on the court?

Collins was the quintessential role player. He never averaged more than 6.4 points, 6.1 rebounds or 0.9 blocks per game (all in 2004-05).

Said Kidd of Collins, his teammate when the Nets rose to earn back-to-back NBA Finals appearances in 2002 and 2003, “He wasn’t one that could jump and touch the top of the backboard, but he knew how to be a true pro, and I was very fortunate to be able to have the opportunity to play with him here as a Net, and I thought it was a great for the guys to have that opportunity for what we went through last year.”

So other than being seven feet tall, how did Collins manage to last 13 seasons in this most athletic pursuit? Why were Collins’ teams, according to a recent Wall Street Journal report, a good deal better with Collins on the floor compared to when he was off?

Collins was a master at the little things that are integral to a team’s success. He set solid screens (“de-cleating people,” as Collins put it), gave hard fouls and boxed out on rebounds.

In other words, all the things the 5-8 Nets are lacking today.

After watching Saturday’s 99-87 loss in San Antonio, it’s clear that Brooklyn coach Lionel Hollins wishes he had someone with Collins’ mentality manning the middle.

How else can you explain the ascendance of reserve center Jerome Jordan, a player who had been out of the league since 2011-12, in Hollins’ rotation?

Actually, it’s been a move I wished the Nets made at the beginning of the season. Back then, many of my fellow Nets fans looked at me as if I was on LSD when I suggested that Jordan may be a better fit for the backup role to Brook Lopez than Mason Plumlee, who had just returned from a summer of fun (and serious training) with the U.S. Men’s National Team in Spain.

Like Collins, Jordan doesn’t look like he does anything special. He doesn’t have Lopez’s offensive skills nor does he run the floor and leap like Plumlee.

But if you watch closely, there’s a reason the Nets have been scoring more and yielding less when Jordan is on the court versus off.

On offense, Jordan’s lack of a true low-post game is a blessing, not a curse. This is a team that seemingly needs four basketballs in play simultaneously to keep everyone happy. If you’re sharing the floor with Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Mirza Teletovic, and either Jarrett Jack or Bojan Bogdanovich, you shouldn’t be hogging up space on the strong side and calling for the ball, which is what Plumlee has been doing all season so he can show off his supposed summer enhancements.

Jordan sticks to put-backs and dives to the basket off pick-and-rolls. Plus, he makes his free throws.

I believe Jordan makes more of an impact on the defensive end. He moves his feet well enough so as to not be exposed when confronted with pick-and-rolls and he has been a presence in the paint.

I was sold sometime during Jordan’s seven-minute run in the second quarter of the Bucks game. In one sequence, Milwaukee forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, whose out-of-this-world leaping ability inspired the nickname “Greek Freak,” was in position to posterize Jordan with a vicious slam dunk.

Jordan went up with Antetokounmpo and, though Jordan was whistled for a foul for getting a little bit more than the ball, denied him at his apex.

You wouldn’t think it, but this seemingly innocuous play by Jordan had consequences. Over the next six minutes or so, Milwaukee became allergic to the paint. The Bucks attempted very few field goals from in close and only two–a lefty hook throw by John Henson and a short jumper by notable bricklayer Larry Sanders–went through the hoop.

On one possession, Bucks star rookie Jabari Parker had what looked like an open route to the rim along the left baseline, except that Parker saw that Jordan was lurking underneath. So he dribbled two steps forward—and then two steps back.

For whatever reason, Hollins must not have been as impressed, as Jordan never saw further action despite the game’s extraordinary length and the Bucks’ sudden increase in points in the paint.

In the Nets’ two games out west this weekend, including Friday’s 94-92 escape at depleted Oklahoma City, Jordan again was a plus player.

It was in the second half against the Thunder where Jordan usurped Plumlee for good (I hope). He made his usual contributions—a rebound here, an assist there, knocked down a pair of free throws, committed a hard foul—and what was once an embarrassing nine-point Nets deficit late in the third quarter became a back-and-forth affair down the stretch.

He wasn’t as effective against San Antonio, but then again the Spurs’ mission is to pulverize every opponent through their cohesiveness. Still, Jordan’s five points and five rebounds in 13 minutes bettered what the Nets got from either Lopez or Plumlee.

In no way am I suggesting that the Nets shake things up by inserting Jordan into the starting lineup. I still maintain (and it was nice to see Mike Mazzeo of ESPN.com agree) that the Nets’ best starting lineup would have Kevin Garnett at center with Teletovic as a “stretch four.”

Lopez hasn’t earned Hollins’ trust to finish games, so logic dictates he should not be starting. Let Lopez lead a second unit that doesn’t rely so much on spacing.

KG doesn’t have the stamina to log as many minutes playing center, so that’s where Jordan can fill in some gaps and allow Garnett to play some forward. For example, Hollins should sub in Lopez for Garnett at the usual six-minute mark of the first quarter, with Teletovic going the full 12 minutes.

A Jordan-Garnett front line would begin the second quarter and Lopez and Teletovic can re-enter sometime in the latter six minutes. In the second half, as always, whoever is riding the hot(ter) hand stays in.

The bottom line is the Nets’ bottom line. The Nets just haven’t been able to beat any worthwhile team playing the way they have. Hollins has been adjusting on the fringes, but he has started the same five (as long as they were active) guys every game this season.

You can argue that Lopez just needs some more time to fully rehabilitate his game after reconstructive foot surgery over the summer. And I can argue that it may never happen.

It’s not enough that Lopez has proven he can score in bunches. There’s more to winning basketball than that.

Here, as well as to society, Jason Collins can be a role model.

For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.

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