Former Nuggets center JaVale McGee was headed to Boston, according to reports, before negotiations fell apart. McGee wanted a player option for the second year of his contract while the Celtics wanted a team option. McGee, who has played only 335 combined minutes in the past two seasons, felt comfortable walking away knowing that other teams will come knocking. Such is the power that comes with being seven feet tall and athletic at a time in which the demand for players like that is at an all-time high thanks to the emergence of Hassan Whiteside.
It’s hard for teams to pass on McGee. While he has struggled staying on the court and has a past of knuckle-headed behavior, he has always been considered an NBA player. Whiteside, on the other hand, was a casualty of the stigma against mental health issues, as his ADHD caused him to fall in the draft. When he couldn’t make an impact early in his career, he was cut loose. He played in leagues that weren’t competitive before returning to the D-League. Only after excelling there was he given a second chance in the NBA by the Heat in what is in hindsight a fantastic signing.
So of course the Heat, Mavericks, Warriors and Raptors, among others, are interested in getting their own version (and in the Heat’s case, another version) in the form of a player with a more prestigious resume. If they can harness his talent to turn him into a poor man’s Whiteside for cheap, they will have one of the key pieces to building an NBA defense. For all his flaws, McGee looks the part of a rim protector. In his one healthy season with the Nuggets, teams attempted fewer shots and shot a worse percentage within five feet of the bucket and he blocked two shots per game. He’s also just 27 years old. Who’s to say he won’t put it together and become the next sneaky great signing.
Yet McGee isn’t Whiteside. He has had chances to prove his worth and hasn’t been able to. He’s not nearly the rebounder Whiteside is, boasting a career-high of 11.2 rebounds per 36 minutes to Whiteside’s 16.1. Other defensive centers like Tyson Chandler don’t get gaudy rebounding numbers but show awareness and ability to defend in space that McGee has never showed. In his best year, regularized adjusted plus-minus had him far from the top in defensive impact. The 2012-13 Nuggets were better overall without him on the court. And yet teams are lining up for a shot at signing him, proving that the rim protection bubble is ready to burst.
Of course it’s all about money and being in the right situation. As Josh Smith proved, someone who was actually hurting a team can help another with an adjustment in role and, for the right money, even mercurial players are worth a shot. Having him out there 10 minutes a game and signed for the minimum means the risk is reduced significantly. For some of the teams that are reportedly interested in McGee like the Warriors, Mavericks and Rockets, he’s nothing but insurance against injury. That teams prefer to get McGee instead of going for a D-League standout or any of the decent players already under contract as their Plan B, however, speaks of just how tantalizing the opportunity to replicate the success of others is for front offices in a copycat league.
Regardless of where he signs, McGee will be following the footsteps of Greg Oden and Andrew Bynum, big men who kept getting opportunities without doing anything to earn them. Height has always been enough for some guys to stay 10 years in the league. Adding the potential for rim protection to the equation will likely mean that even if he doesn’t play much with his new team, McGee was right in deciding to retain his freedom for next season because someone will pay him in the hopes that he can be their version of Whiteside, despite only sharing a physical profile with the Heat’s center. And whoever does it will likely regret it as much as teams in the early 2000’s who picked European teenagers thinking they were getting the next Dirk Nowitzki.