With history made and a barrier broken, Jason Collins now has 10 days to fight for his NBA opportunity.
Those 10 did not come easy. Nearly a year ago, Collins strode proudly into a new identity as an openly gay man, positioning himself to eventually become the first disclosed homosexual athlete in any of the four major American sports. The support he received publicly from across the sporting world, the White House, and the rank and file of fans and celebrities should not obscure the risks involved. Things have gone remarkably well for Collins since coming out, but his was an announcement 33 years in the making, fraught with uncertainty and vulnerability no matter his conviction. With just two words he took a plunge -- forever changing the way he would be seen personally and professionally, all while looking to secure new NBA employ as an unrestricted free agent.
On Sunday that new contract finally came to pass. Collins' 10-day deal with the Nets is merely a trial run, as he'll need to prove his value to the team to justify staying beyond that term. Yet for a player who was already set to be on the league's fringes before his wave-making announcement, even a marginal contract is an essential foot in the door. It's almost impossible at this point to extricate Jason Collins the Man from Jason Collins the Symbol, but for the former this is a chance to extend his life's work. The countless hours spent in a gym weren't dedicated to cultural progress, but the pursuit of a craft that Collins himself has found rewarding.
He'll have a chance to continue to practice that craft professionally with Brooklyn, reintroducing the world to the fact that he is, among all else, a basketball player. That said, Collins is far from an exceptional talent by NBA standards; the 12-year veteran has never been even a passable pro-level scorer, doesn't rebound well for his size or position, and roundly fails to amass traditional box score stats of any form. All of those limitations are particularly evident at this stage in Collins' career, which has manifest as a twilight of hard fouls and hyper-specialized defensive value.
It should be noted, though, that Collins was one of the more intriguing NBA case studies during the formative days of basketball analytics for a reason: His defense helped shape games in a way that the box score couldn't quantify. At the peak of Collins' career, nascent metrics like adjusted plus-minus rated him as one of the top defensive centers in the game. He didn't rack up rebounds or pile up blocked shots like Tim Duncan or Ben Wallace, but Collins had an incredible ability to take angles and fill space in a way that clogged up the workings of opposing offenses.
That broad level of defensive influence has since left him, as Collins' declining mobility and the general evolution of the league have negated the quality that defined his career. Still, Collins retains spectacular, specific value in one particular phase of the game. Post defense is no longer as essential in the NBA as it once was, given that modern defensive tactics make 90s-level post reliance almost impossible. Yet it still has its place, as Collins showed in a series-changing performance against Dwight Howard in the 2010-11 playoffs.
Collins was already past his prime at that point, playing on a veterans minimum contract for the 5th-seeded Hawks. Yet it was his ability to limit Howard in the post without help that buttressed Atlanta's entire defensive approach in that series, eventually to the point of securing an upset in six games. With Collins checked out of that game over the course of that series, Howard averaged a killer 26.9 points per 36 minutes on 66-percent shooting from the field. When Collins was in the game, that output dropped to 16.1 points per 36 minutes on 56-percent shooting. Howard committed far more turnovers, got to the free throw line far less often, and grabbed fewer boards overall when Collins was impeding his progress, all of which resulted in a swing of 10.8 points per 100 possessions in Atlanta's favor.
He may be a few seasons removed from that particular showing, but the factors that went into Collins' master class of post defense remain unchanged. Above all is the fact that Collins is a boulder when he establishes defensive position, which functionally baits opponents into offensive fouls. If a post player doesn't put some power behind his moves, they're not likely to budge Collins with the kinds of bumps and nudges that typically create separation. Yet when they do lower a shoulder or look to push off against Collins, he'll square up and take the charge to create a turnover. That in itself is a tricky combination to manage, made even more difficult by the fact that Collins is a seven-footer with great anticipation.
Even beyond the post, Collins has the tools to be a solid team defender in occasional minutes for Brooklyn. The question is whether that's worth the oppressive limitations he brings on the offensive end, where Collins makes a player like Oklahoma City's Kendrick Perkins seem dynamic by comparison. For a player as big as Collins to shoot 41 percent for his career without much attempting to space the floor conveys a unique inefficacy. He spent the first half of his career playing alongside one of the game's greatest table-setting playmakers. in Jason Kidd (his new head coach) He wasn't expected to put up difficult attempts and didn't force the issue. Yet still Collins struggled to convert even basic catch-and-finish plays, as his terrific defense helped forgive his complete lack of touch and timing around the hoop.
With that defensive influence a mere fraction of what it once was, it will prove difficult for Brooklyn to compensate for all that Collins cannot do. After all, any player who can't even feign to contribute offensively is a millstone in today's NBA. Collins' experience as a pro should help him get up to speed quickly, and in practice his sexual orientation won't be an issue. The difficulty is tolerating a player who is an offensive non-entity to the point of being a disruptive force -- so unthreatening on that side of the ball that his defender will be free to wander and crowd other areas of the floor.
That's a handicap that the 25-28 Nets don't exactly need, but one they've chosen to accept in the hope that it can be managed. It's not as if Brooklyn will have to work around Collins on a game-by-game basis; his role on the team allows him to be used only in the matchups and minutes that make sense. If the situation calls for more versatile contributions, Andray Blatche's minutes can be stretched. If speed and athleticism better fit the bill, then Mason Plumlee might get the call while Collins sits. There's even the possibility that the Nets could pursue former NBA big man Ivan Johnson -- who will soon finish up his season in China -- which would make Collins a 15th man saved for best-fitting cases and filling out practice squads. The Nets know this. They understand all that comes with signing Jason Collins the Man, the Symbol, and the Basketball Player, and made the decision to do so because Billy King and Jason Kidd thought it would prove helpful. All Collins has to do, at long last, is be himself.