Manager's note: This week, we will be publishing trial posts from our MMB finalists. With almost 100 applicants, thanks to those who sent an email. This piece is by Andrew Kreighbaum; enjoy!
Shortly before Game 7 of the Mavericks' 2003 first round series against Portland, then coach Don Nelson announced forward Eduardo Najera would be a surprise starter.
Shawn Bradley had started at center the first six games of the series, in which the Mavericks roared out to a 3-0 start and then collapsed over the next three games. He had the height at 7'6" to match the Blazers' massive frontline but a universal reputation as soft.
Najera was undersized at 6'8" but maybe the Mavs' most physical player (in the playoffs a year later, Rick Adelman publicly complained about his physical defense of Chris Webber). He didn't necessarily shut down the middle of the paint--Arvydas Sabonis dropped eight points to open the game when matched up with Najera.
But he seemed to energize the starting lineup and the game helped enshrined his image as the kind of player fans love for providing the grit and smart play to help the team grind out important wins.
Flash forward to the 2014 first round, with starting center Sam Dalembert hobbled by ankle problems and wispy backup Brandan Wright getting torched by Tim Duncan and the rest of the Spurs' front court, Mavs Coach Rick Carlisle turned to backup big man DeJuan Blair, who supplanted Wright in the rotation by Game 4. The former Spur proceeded to muck up the middle of the paint, bothering Duncan and helping Dallas stretch the series to seven games (that despite a Game 5 suspension for a kick that happened to land on Tiago Splitter's head).
Those anecdotes partly explain why I've had a big soft spot for undersized big men for as long as I've been a basketball fan--and why I'm glad to see Ivan Johnson get a contract from the Mavericks, even if he's not likely to make the final roster and players like him are disappearing from the rotations of most NBA teams.
I've always liked pulling for players like Najera, Blair, Brandon Bass, Elton Brand, Brian Grant Danny Fortson and Oliver Miller--post players who at 6'8" or shorter have size more typical of NBA wings but often combine strength and girth with quickness and footwork. With the exception of Brand, few have been stars. But like six-foot guards, they can be easy to root for as physically outmatched players who manage to compete against NBA seven footers with hustle, energy and an understanding of key spots on the floor.
Johnson, with his size and build if not always his style of play, naturally calls to mind comparisons with many of those players. His attitude, volatile temper (as Rembert Browne noted in a 2012 Grantland post, he had five technical and an ejection in his first nine games that season) and dental work remind Dallas fans--at least the ones who actually pay attention to summer league--of DeShawn Stevenson, a defensive stopper and frequent starter for the 2011 title team.
The 30-year-old journeyman was signed to play for the Mavs' summer league team this summer after stints with the Atlanta Hawks and the Zhejiang Golden Bulls in China. Carlisle appeared to already recognize that to see time on the floor, Johnson would have to do more than clean up in the paint. Big men in the modern NBA who don't dominate the ball need to either be skilled at protecting the basket or at shooting from the perimeter. Players that can do both well like Serge Ibaka and Chris Bosh are especially valuable to teams because they can address two needs at one position on the floor.
Although Johnson has shown decent skills defending in the post, at 6'8" he doesn't have the length or the athleticism to contest shots at the rim. On the other end of the floor, Carlisle got to work almost immediately in Las Vegas working on Johnson's outside shot this July. But the results were mixed--he hit only 21 percent of his three pointers on 19 attempts over five summer league games. (He also reminded observers of that temper by earning a rare summer league objection).
Johnson apparently showed Dallas coaches enough to earn a one-year, mostly unguaranteed contract that assures him of little more than a trip to training camp in October and an opportunity to compete for the team's fifteenth roster spot. He may have put in significant work on his three point shot since leaving Vegas but he'll have a tough time beating out someone like Center Bernard James. James has two years of experience on the Mavs roster and in limited time on the floor a block percentage comparable to some of the league's top rim protectors.
And outside of the Mavs, who employed Blair as a part-time starter and key reserve for a decent stretch of last season, there aren't a lot of examples of undersized big men carving out major roles in the league. Those that have are either elite level talents or have developed particular skills that set them apart.
Boris Diaw is the same size as Johnson and even at peak shape isn't an athletic specimen. But he adds value to the Spurs' lineup with above average passing and an improving three-point shot. Denver's Kenneth Faried is only 6'8" himself but is an elite athlete and last season ranked ninth in the league in field goal percentage and nineteenth in rebound percentage. Paul Millsap has been consistent double-double threat throughout his career who, since moving to Atlanta from Utah this past season, added three point shooting to his offensive repertoire, taking more than five times as many attempts from distance as his last season.
The undersized power forwards of today's NBA are less often muscle-bound big men than converted small forwards with are better options as "stretch fours" like Paul Pierce in Brooklyn or even Shawn Marion in Dallas when Dirk Nowitzki was subbed out of games.
Since the playoffs ended Dallas has also filled out its rotation with big men who complement Nowitzki and cover his limitations--a major strength of the 2011 championship roster. Tyson Chandler will reprise his role from that team as an athletic defensive stopper and finisher in the paint. Brandan Wright struggles defending in the post and was burned by the Spurs' pick and roll in the playoffs. But in a reserve role the last two years he's been an elite finisher at the rim, a strong complement to Dirk's shooting. Greg Smith adds more size and toughness at the center position, while Al-Farouq Aminu could replace the rebounding and defense of Shawn Marion as a backup power forward.
Johnson doesn't bring any of those abilities to the table. But even with the added swagger of recently-signed Chandler Parsons, he could add a quality that was key to the mental makeup of past Mavs teams--the nut job who isn't hesitant to talk trash or stick his nose into an on court scuffle. Those guys--from Blair this past year, to Stevenson and Jason Terry in 2011, Jerry Stackhouse in 2006 and Nick Van Exel in that 2003 playoff run--were essential to past playoff runs.
Granted, a nut job on the end of bench likely isn't as valuable as a collection of outside shooters or shot blockers. But I'll be pulling for Johnson anyway.