Basketball, like most other things in life, should be meritocratic. Those who deserve distinction, a role, or a buck should get it. Chalk it up to the American dream or whatever you’d like, but the fundamental notion that work and success should be rewarded doesn’t sound all that revolutionary to these ears, and shouldn’t be kept apart from basketball by a white picket fence.
Yet almost inevitably, complications begin to creep in, and for a variety of reasons the goods in this sport aren’t always doled out as they should be.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is sadly one of those times.
On Tuesday night, Ian Mahinmi and Alexis Ajinca played their tails off. They hustled, they scrambled, and they fought for every rebound they could. They were everywhere, even though thus far this season, they’ve been nowhere. Mahinmi and Ajinca were able to accomplish all of this on a night that was supposed to be Brendan Haywood’s; with Tyson Chandler sidelined by stomach illness, this was Haywood’s grand opportunity to show that he’s still a meaningful member of this rotation, and that the gargantuan contract he was given this summer was a wise investment, albeit one that has yet to pay off.
Haywood didn’t show any of that. He looked just as fireless as he’s been all season, and though Haywood grabbed a few boards and scored a few points (six and four in 18 minutes, if you’d like to be exact), this was every bit the Brendan Haywood we’d seen through the year’s first 20 games. What’s worse: he cared just as little, even when the spotlight was fixed squarely on him.
With about a quarter of the season in the books, Brendan Haywood doesn’t seem to care. He sometimes defends like he gives a damn, but his total effort? Particularly on the boards? It’s outright distressing, if not depressing. If another player in another spot in this rotation gave similar effort, they’d find themselves demoted. If Caron Butler listlessly floated through games like Haywood has, Shawn Marion would have his starting job in a few games’ time. If DeShawn Stevenson hadn’t grabbed his one opportunity by the throat and played well ever since, Rick Carlisle would toss him back to the end of the bench.
But Haywood hasn’t been taken down a peg on the depth chart, and that’s as much about what he’s capable of doing (playing great interior defense, cleaning up inside, rebounding effectively) as it is about the price tag clipped to his ear. Dallas doesn’t just need Haywood to play well because he’s the best back-up center option available by a long shot. They need Haywood to play up to his potential because that’s what they paid for, and what they’ll continue to pay for over the next five and a half seasons.
Mahinmi and Ajinca are hungry, even if they’re not as capable as Haywood. That’s endearing. Hell, Mahinmi’s 12 points (with 10 FTAs), 10 rebounds, a steal, and two blocks against the Warriors — that’s endearing. Yet nothing can ever change within this rotation, and it shouldn’t. If you don’t think Haywood’s stock could possibly fall any further than it already has, imagine throwing a demotion — in favor of the unheralded Mahinmi, no less — on top of it all, followed by Haywood’s likely response to such a situation. Brendan Haywood isn’t playing well now, but it can get much, much worse.
It’s a shame that this is the way we’re forced to reflect on a talented center and his fresh new contract, but this is what has become of Haywood. He’s no longer even displaying the kind of effort you’d expect from a second-string center. He’s being outplayed by both Ian Mahinmi and Alexis Ajinca. And without ample production to justify his minutes, validating Haywood’s playing time involves waving around the money he’s owed in an attempt to avoid a complete collapse in value. Come back, Brendan.