Sometime between now and June 30th, the Mavericks will have to decide whether or not to extend Darren Collison a qualifying offer — a provision that would bring Collison back for one more season at a cost of just over $3 million. Projecting out from when he arrived in Dallas last summer, this decision would have seemed like a no brainer. $3 million is a paltry sum to pay for a reliable rotation player in the NBA, especially one with youth and room for growth on their side. But the current decision has become complicated, due largely to the way he has so thoroughly shed the cloak of potential. Up until this season, Collison’s identity as a player has been more tied to his possibilities than to the present player running up and down the court. The bubble has burst, and Collison has arrived at the career plateau where evaluations of him as a basketball player must be based on what is rather than what could be.
Most players who carry the weight of potential arrive in the NBA with that luggage fully packed. But not Collison. His phantasmal future was almost entirely summoned during a splendid three-month span at the end of his rookie season in 2010. Collison was selected with the 21st pick in the draft by the New Orleans Hornets, who at the time were looking for a reasonably reliable backup point guard who could sop up 10-12 minutes a game behind Chris Paul. But as Paul was felled by injury, Collison was inserted into the starting lineup for 37 games through February, March and April of the 2009-10 season. Over that stretch, he averaged 19.0 points, 8.6 assists, 3.3 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game, shooting 50.7% from the field and 44.4% on three-pointers in the process. Indiana, Dallas, and ultimately Collison himself have been chasing those three months ever since.
Ironically, as his play over those few months inflated perceptions of him around the league, Collison seemed in a race to distance himself from it. After arriving in Indiana the next season, he was handed the keys to the team and asked to be a responsible floor general, ignoring all the wild transition pushes and reckless attacks that had helped him rack up those obscene averages. Collison appeared to take it as a challenge of maturity and whole-heartedly threw himself into the personal transformation. He played deliberately and carefully. He played purposefully and with more than a modicum of self-control. And for the most part, he played worse. For the past three seasons, Collison has tried to fill the part of precision-promoting tactician, often paralyzing himself in the process. He’s concentrated so hard on making the right decision that the game has blown past him, carrying him off in a rising tide of confusion and ineffectiveness.
The perception of Collison’s potential has faded as he’s been asked to move further and further away from what elevated those perceptions in the first place. It has become painfully apparent that Collison didn’t fit the role and responsibilities delineated by the Mavs or Pacers. When the Mavericks first acquired him I hoped they would try and slot him into the Jason Terry role — instant offense off the bench with a mandate to always be clawing and scratching at the opponent’s jugular. Instead, Dallas tried to make him into a more functional replacement for Jason Kidd — dancing around the perimeter and tasked with picking apart the opposition with a thousand tiny cuts. Collison is lightning quick, lithe and liquid. But he exerts so much mental energy trying to deploy these tools in exactly the right ways that indecision is able to catch him from behind, wrestling him to the ground and nullifying all that glorious athletic explosion. He is built for chaos and destruction, but cursed with a temperment and personality that appear to seek structure and order. This incongruity begets ineffectiveness.
All the basketball elements that make up Darren Collison — reliable jumpshot, particularly off the dribble; lightning speed; defensive amnesia; futile finishing ability; balsa-wood strength; surprising hops; eagle-eye vision in the open court; advanced dribbling ability; atrocious pick-and-roll execution — seem to reshuffle every game, forcing him to play a new hand. That might be workable if not for a stagnating patience. Collison is the poker player who is always waiting and searching for the perfect hand instead of playing the cards in front of him.
Although the present should define assessment of Collison rather than his future, that in itself doesn’t mean there isn’t still the potential for growth. But those seeds won’t sprout in carefully tilled humus; they need to be soaked in the roiling eddy of a mighty river, carried down a mountainside by an avalanche of granite and hurled into a monstrous chasm by a filthy, sweat-stained yeti. The missing ingredients for Collison are not size or strength, vision or finishing ability. The missing ingredients are chutzpah and rage, muscle-twitching, lip-frothing, pupil-dilating fury. I want fire. I want swagger. I want to see Collison with a championship trophy tattooed on his neck. I want a catchphrase and a signature celebration. I’m pulling for the Sam Cassell ‘cojones-juggle,’ but I’m open to an original creation. I want a stunning, unexpected, and fully-relished heel turn. I want lightning bolt shaped sideburns and feral growls at officials. I want Collison to get off the team bus in a leather jacket with a sobbing Adam Morrison embroidered on the back.
Dallas is not the sort of organization to cultivate this particular sort of skin-shedding. And unfortunately not many teams are. Generally, chaotic players find themselves aligned with chaotic teams, a pairing that makes for great entertainment but less-than-satisfactory winning percentages. That bubble of potential he built in New Orleans came as the team slowly dissolved around him, and another situation like that may be just what the doctor ordered. I don’t think the Mavericks have that sort of double-edged sword to offer him. They may make the prudent decision and opt to pay the reasonable cost for the reasonable status quo. But regardless of where he finds himself next season, I hope that team has enough foresight to start weaning him off structure and order, letting his natural propensity for anarchy and tumult begin to seep back in.
In addition to his work for The Two Man Game, Ian Levy is the author of Hickory High, and a contributor to Indy Cornrows, Hardwood Paroxysm, HoopChalk and ProBasketballDraft. You can follow Ian on Twitter at @HickoryHigh.
Photo from Tim Patterson, via flickr