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Daily Babble: Memphis Deal Represents End of an Era

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In the Swamp, that is.

Perhaps it ended earlier this season in the first place, but when the Memphis Grizzlies complete a trade on Monday, they will be participating in the complete termination of one of the most curious running subplots of this decade of NBA basketball: How Jason Collins spent significant parts of six years as a starting center for the New Jersey Nets.

The Commercial Appeal has reported that, come Monday, the Grizzlies and Nets will finalize a deal that will send Stromile Swift to Jersey and Jason Collins to Memphis, thus ending Twin's six-and-a-half-season Nets tenure.

What this means is that this could be one of the last opportunities for folks to have the impetus to discuss one of the quietest mysteries over the last seven years of NBA basketball: how the Twin Era lasted as long as it did in New Jersey, and how to evaluate the performance Jason Collins submitted while he was there.

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It all just doesn't add up.

Jason Collins played considerable minutes as a reserve center on one team that went to the NBA Finals, and the next season, he was the starting center for that same team as it returned to the Finals.  Of course, his teams got to those Finals primarily because they were decently talented teams in what was at the time a particularly weak conference, and his teams got trounced in those Finals primarily because their Western opponents had big men playing the game on a far greater level than Jason Collins.

On the surface, the two-time Eastern Conference champs' starter at the most important position on the floor appears to be an absolute atrocity.  Though it is decidedly the less important side of the ball for a center, Collins is a putrid offensive player.  Frankly, the fact that he has never scored more than 6.4 points per game in a single season (4.4 per game is his career average) isn't even all that worrisome, as a center's most important roles are rebounding and defense, particularly on teams with offenses dominated by the fast-breaking style of Jason Kidd.  But that Collins has never once shot so high as 43 percent from the field in a single season (he sits at 41.1 percent for his career) is extremely worrisome, particularly when one considers that those figures aren't good for guards, and they are simply horrendous for a center whose primary shooting responsibilities should include dunks, lay-ups and the occasional mid-range jumper.

Again though, except for the particularly exceptional centers, offense is gravy.  It's the defense and rebounding where the money is made.  Sadly, the problems continue here:  Collins has averaged a total of 4.5 rebounds per game for his career, and he has only averaged 6 per game once over the course of a full campaign.  He has never crashed the boards with particular tenacity, nor has he been a great shot-blocker, not even averaging a full block per game for his career or in any individual season for that matter.

Of course, this is where it becomes important to remember that basketball as a whole -- and particularly defense -- is not played on paper.  As SportsCenter's Kenny Mayne has long loved to say, it is played inside television sets. 

Simply taking Collins's blocks totals as a measure of his defensive prowess or his scoring as a measure of his offensive skills (although the shooting percentage provides legitimate reason for concern) would of course be a grossly ignorant approach to evaluating the man who spent so much time in the middle for New Jersey.

The problem is that simply watching the man play basketball over the past several seasons hasn't actually alleviated the confusion about his long-lasting job security.  In fact, it only amplified said lack of understanding.  With the exception of the fact that he has a rather sizable frame (7 feet, 260 pounds), Collins possesses very few physical gifts.  He isn't a great leaper.  He doesn't have great hands.  He certainly isn't flying up and down the court, and his lateral quickness isn't evident to observers.  He doesn't set great screens on offense and certainly commits his share of offensive fouls to boot.

Yet Collins has long been regarded as an above-average if not very good defensive player.  The question of whether or not this comes partly as a product of the fact that basketball observers across the nation (self sadly included; I'm often no more innocent than anyone else on this) tend to naturally presume that any tenured player in this league who is putrid on offense must be a defensive force is certainly a valid one.  The lack of quickness and jumping skills prevent Collins from being much of a shot-blocking or even shot-altering threat, and it generally doesn't appear as though his presence causes a disruption in the flow of opposing offenses.

Yet even after one of Twin's (brother Jarron plays for Utah, for any readers curious about the longtime nickname) worst seasons as a pro, ESPN Insider John Hollinger had this to say in defense of JC's defense prior to the onset of the 2007-08 campaign:

What keeps Collins in the league is his defense. He was one of the best defensive centers in the league last season; amazingly, he didn't receive a single vote for All-Defense. Although he's not a shot-blocker, Collins is an attentive help defender who ranked 12th in the league by drawing 45 offensive fouls, according to 82games.com; per-minute, he ranked eighth.

Hmm.  Given the rather skeptical views being expressed throughout this space, it seems at least worth noting that there is another view of Twin's game out there, one supported by some statistical evidence.

For that matter, it can't hurt to note that over Collins's first two seasons in the league, the Nets led the Association in defensive efficiency.  Until finishing 15th in defensive efficiency last season, the Nets had never finished below sixth in that department over Twin's first five years.  Certainly, team defensive success can't be used as a definitive indicator of one individual's play, and the Nets have had their share of roster turnover over the years, but the truth remains that it is extraordinarily hard to play effective defense without a real presence on the interior.  Collins has been the Nets' one constant in that area throughout this decade, and prior to these last two years, the team has been very effective at getting stops.  One would have to think these efficiency numbers lend support to Twin's case.

Where all of this leaves us, I don't have a clue.  I still don't understand how it never seemed as though there was a real buzz surrounding the need for an improvement in the pivot in New Jersey over the past seven years (despite living as an avid NBA fan in the New York metro area, could I simply have been that ignorant?), or how Collins's job always seemed at least relatively secure, with the Nets never making bigger front-court acquisitions over that span than Jamaal Magloire as a free agent this past summer (who has been a colossal bust) and Sean Williams in the 2007 draft.  With two Finals appearances, four Atlantic Division crowns and a postseason berth in every full season of his tenure, it certainly seems like it oculdn't have been all bad for Jason Collins in Jersey.

But his individual statistics and his clearly limited physical skills continue to muddy the waters so much, leaving us right back where we started.

Which means that, until someone gives me reason to think otherwise, all I can do is marvel at and commend Jason Collins for managing to do his part -- whatever that part actually was -- to stick around as a major part of a relatively successful basketball team for as long as he did.