Without a Fighting Chance – The Broken Captaincy of Jameer Nelson
The following is a guest post for MBO written by Preston Raulerson:
A hundred thousand words have been written of Dwight Howard, and the same of Otis Smith, Stan Van Gundy, and the Magic’s ownership. An equal amount has been burned between the contracts (and validity of their existence, even) of Hedo Turkoglu, Chris Duhon, and Jason Richardson. All of this is as it should be: the Orlando Magic organization sits at a dangerous intersection between relevance and risk, with the disoriented ego of their co-captain directing traffic.
Co-captain. There are two captains for the Magic. One is a 2004 first round draft pick that’s played his entire career with the Magic, and so is the other. Jameer Nelson has been a foundational cog for everything Dwight and the Magic have accomplished these last 7 years. This is the All-Rookie Team Jameer Nelson, the All-Star Jameer Nelson. The Naismith Player of the Year Jameer Nelson. The Wooden, The Oscar Robertson, The Rupp Trophy Jameer Nelson.
This is also the Broken Jameer Nelson. The Wronged, the Rejected, the Unconsidered Jameer Nelson.
Often in sports, we have a few categories of individuals and their plights that we can generalize into. LeBron is used as the example (fairly or not) of a player whose talent and ability have never seriously been questioned. Shaq fits in there too, along with hoards of others who ooze with raw talent, ability, and size. There are those whose talent and ability are slightly less elite, but that have a chiseled mental function that they’ve used to create a more complex but just as undeniable skill set (Ray Allen and his shot, Steve Nash and his passing, Tim Duncan and his footwork). There are other stereotypes, handfuls of them, that can be used to try and generalize what Dwyane Wade has, what Paul Pierce has gone through, and the peculiarities of Larry Bird’s success.
Oh, but The Runt.
The Runt transcends basketball. The Runt is familiar to each of us, and at every level of competition we’ve experienced. The player who is identified by his or her size, but who is defined by their fight to eclipse it. Those rarest of athletes whose success at each level is not through their natural physical gifts, but in spite of them. Think about them now, the ones that you surely know and the impression they left on you. Each of them have played the subject in a sentence that mentioned “just a few more inches”, or “a little more bulk”, and of course those comments that wished for a bit greater natural speed, innate quickness. Those players where the premature terminations of their careers came off the decisions of coaches and recruiters. All of them fight, and all of them seem to win those games they play…and all of them seem to be ended not by the games they lose, but by the ones they aren’t invited to.
Jameer Nelson, the Runt. His path was not a gilded road to follow, but one that had to be paved with advocates, one that required a concrete foundation that only his play could make, mix, and pour. From high school, to St. Joseph’s, and then to Orlando, I have zero concern for anyone’s opportunity to find a champion of Jameer Nelson. I’d go as far as to say every coach, nearly every teammate, would volunteer to be counted in those numbers. ‘Nearly’ indeed.
Place yourself into this current situation for the Orlando Magic, and both of their co-captains. The foundation for so many of the rumors and demands from Dwight is in the current inadequacies of the Magic. Sure, the market is smaller than NYC and LA, and the roster doesn’t have another ‘max’ player, another perennial superstar. But the subtext is more important, and more painful. It is there in that subtext of Dwight’s player wish list of Deron, Paul, Monta that you understand how deep the slice of his desires has hurt that Runt.
Because Dwight Howard, above all people, knows the character of Jameer Nelson. Outside of ownership, Jameer and Dwight have the longest tenure of any Magic resource, on and off the court. The GM has changed, the team president has changed, the coaches have changed. No teammates remain from the 2004 team. They’ve won and lost together, have grown together, and have called each other best friends. They have spent more than half of their post-pubescent lives together. Use this time to relate this to your own life: do you have someone that you’ve worked/traveled/lived for more than 7 years if your life? Chances are, if you do, it’s either a spouse, a sibling, a parent, or a child. Understand that we are talking about a level of interaction that is rarely found outside of family. Family.
So when Dwight, through others, says that the Magic need to acquire any number of star point guards to progress and achieve his goals, the message is much more than outlining Otis’s options. Dwight is saying that, after 7 years of weighing and measuring, Jameer has been found wanting. It is the Runt’s effort-paved road developing a sinkhole…a brother calling his brother inadequate. Granted, it is basketball, and at the end if the day we as observers see well-paid men playing a game.
But for Jameer? This is his life’s work, and his identity, shattered by it’s closest observer. Dwight might not be the greatest personnel evaluator in the world (as evident by his pining for Big Baby, Stephen Jackson, and Anthony Morrow as ideal 4-3-2 additions), but certainly is the one with the most information. At season start, Jameer’s sub-par play was noticeable. The offensive efficiency and fluidity has cracked again and again, and the Boston game showed just how fragile his hold is. Improvement has not arrived, and disappointment, frustration have both renewed their lease within the Magic locker room to enjoy the unravelling. Lost in this all, until Otis mentioned it a few days ago, was just how shallow our perspective has been around the personal dynamics between the players.
We talk all the time about the relationship of confidence to performance for athletes-how has this been so undersold? Careers have been made on psychologically analyzing Tiger Woods’ swing pre/post his Thanksgiving “drive”. For Jameer Nelson, he is asked to pass and screen with the source of his broken confidence. Co-captains.
We need to revisit that: the leaders of the team, and nearly the longest tenured Magic employees, are destroying each other. Not Hedo’s contract, nor Otis Smith’s incompetence, nor Big Baby’s offensive limitations are to blame for this disfunction. It is foundational, if only because the two of them make up the deepest basketball roots of the organization. How do you fix that without removing one of them? How do you reconcile something so core to team play, to teamwork? In a Disney movie, Jameer would overcome, and Dwight would reinvest his faith in him (and Justin Beiber would be the assistant coach to come up with the championship-winning play).
Sadly, proximity to Disney doesn’t make this a movie, and this will play out just as so many other broken teams have. They will deconstruct the Magic, moving one or both of Jameer and Dwight, and hopefully sooner than later. This is a torturous situation for Jameer, and a trade would be more of a reprieve than disruption for him. Free him, give him a chance to recapture a sliver of confidence and handle with teammates than can appreciate it. More than anything he needs someone to say ‘show me what you can do for me’, instead of ‘let me remind you who I want more than you’.
For those Magic fans distraught in potentially losing both cornerstones of the team as they know it, two things to understand. First, there is no positive end in having either someone against his will (in Dwight), nor someone suffering through his environment (in Jameer).
But secondly, do you have joy with this dynamic? Is there something that you are gaining by observing and rooting for it? The team led by these captains is already lost, certainly in spirit and on the way to being lost in performance too.
Dwight said after the New Orleans loss that they are a team of professional athletes, paid to perform, and there’s no excuse because of that. When the last leader left standing is calling out to his team with the rallying cry ‘remember that you’re paid’, you can know he expects nothing else to be invested.
This shouldn’t be about Dwight Howard’s poor leadership though, because we all recognize that he is an immature leader (this is not a revelation of any sort). Granted, he has improved with age and experience, but his leadership comes through his play on the court, not in his motivation of men. But that is exactly why he is a co-captain, so that he doesn’t have to fail under that burden of effective motivation and leadership. So that he has someone else to deliver a better rallying cry than ‘paychecks’.
I wish I could end this with: “Thank God for that co-captain. Where would the Magic be without him?” Instead, we end with the answer to just that question.
Where would we be? Right here. Exactly right here.
***This is Preston Raulerson’s first official guest post for Magic Basketball Online. Follow him on Twitter.***