Gooden ready to settle down
Clippers forward Drew Gooden has played with eight teams during his career
The former No. 4 pick in the draft has averaged a double-double with Los Angeles
He hopes to join a team for the long-term after free agency this summer
Drew Gooden moves as if a tracking label has been tattooed onto his bare shoulder. Over the last three years, seven NBA teams have accepted him on delivery, tried him out and then re-gifted him elsewhere.
That's why Gooden has learned to travel light.
"I plan as soon as I get there not to settle down and dig my roots too deep into a city," he said. "Knowing if I have to move it's going to be easier."
It's like his career has turned into one of those science-fiction TV series: one long disjointed and unpredictable trip away from home -- a home he is seeking but has yet to find. He hoped that home might turn out to be Dallas when he signed a one-year deal with the Mavericks last summer. Even when they packaged him to Washington last month at the trade deadline for Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood, Gooden was stubbornly hoping to negotiate a buyout that could send him back to Mark Cuban. But four days later, Gooden's contract was being shipped out to Los Angeles in a deal with the aimless Clippers.
"Coming from a playoff team, you get traded to Washington and then you get traded without playing a game to another team -- that's the kind of situation that will rock your world," Clippers interim coach Kim Hughes said.
Gooden's newest coach -- himself a temporary hire following the removal of Mike Dunleavy as the Clippers' coach just two weeks earlier -- wanted Gooden to feel less like a foster child and more like Jeff Foster, who has been with one team (Indiana) for his entire 11-year career. So Hughes instantly promoted Gooden to the starting lineup, enabling him to average career bests of 15.2 points and 10.1 rebounds in 19 games.
"I understood the psychology," Hughes said. "My hope was to get him going, that it would help him after being bounced around or kicked around nine teams in eight years. We all like to criticize what [players] can't do or what they can do better, but there are so many things he can do. He's smart, he's been around, he knows all the other teams. Sometimes he has trouble defending Dirk [Nowitzki] in the low post, or [opponents who have] lower-body strength -- he struggles with that. Sometimes he has trouble finishing in traffic. But he does so many other things well and he's so versatile.
"I'd heard that he's dumb and that he never guards and is selfish. I haven't seen that. So it doesn't matter what issues he had with other coaches and what problems he's had. As far as I'm concerned, he's done the things I've requested of him and he's done them well. He tries all the time, and that's all I can ask."
Gooden recognizes that his career jumped off the wrong foot and that he did not react well. The Memphis Grizzlies drafted him No. 4 overall in 2002 and then tried to squeeze him into their lineup as a small forward.
"I didn't buy into that role," said Gooden, who is 6-foot-10 and 250 pounds. "It was kind of unfair to me, playing in the post my whole career [before the NBA] and then coming into my rookie year and having to guard faster guys. I mean, I remember having to come in and guard Kobe Bryant -- even though I was the small forward, I had Wesley Person, who was my shooting guard, and they put Wesley on the small forwards and me on the shooting guards. So I'm getting hit with picks trying to guard shooting guards."
He was pleased by news of his trade to Orlando four months into his rookie year, though maybe he should have been more careful with his wishes.
"I was becoming disgruntled in Memphis. I felt like I was more effective down low than anything," he said. "I was young then, too, so I didn't really want to adapt. And we were losing [in Memphis] and having some coaching changes, and I was kind of rebellious. But I ended up getting traded and doing all right at Orlando at the '4.' "
He averaged 13.6 points and 8.4 rebounds for the Magic over the remainder of that year, but the false start with the Grizzlies put him on a precipitously hopeless path.
"I went 0-13 [to start my career] in Memphis, and then the following year, I lost 19 games in a row with Orlando," he said. "So I was in a losing situation my first two years, and that's where the journey began."
He became something of a fall guy, a temp. The Magic packaged him (along with the rights to rookie Anderson Varejao) in 2004 to Cleveland, where he stayed for parts of four seasons until he was dumped in February 2008 to Chicago in a three-team deadline trade. That move launched an ongoing and disruptive pattern of midseason trades: from Chicago to Sacramento in 2009 (where he played one game, was released and signed for the remainder of the season by San Antonio), and now this nightmarish Dallas-Washington-Los Angeles voyage in which he was circulated like a piece of misplaced luggage.
Gooden believes he might have stayed with one team forever had the draft played out differently for him.
"It's always where you get drafted and the situation," he said. "I see guys like Manu Ginobili and Amar'e Stoudemire and Tayshaun Prince, and they stayed with their teams and they played an effective role and they were winning. So that helped them out a lot.
"When I came in, just look at it -- Yao Ming was No. 1, Jay Williams [of Duke] was No. 2, [Mike] Dunleavy Jr. was three, I was four and Skitska -- I can't pronounce the name -- [Nikoloz] Tskitishvili was five. So that was a pretty bad top five."
Other players routinely try to convince anyone who will listen how they or their careers are better than people think, but Gooden has stopped playing that game. He no longer bothers trying to color opinions. He was in the middle of a poorly scouted draft and everyone knows it, so why fight it? He said, "The guys who seem to have had the better careers were in the second round or late lottery, you know what I'm saying?"
Of course, he is right: Seventeen first-round picks from that 2002 draft aren't playing in the NBA anymore. The bottom half of the lottery included Stoudemire at No. 9 and All-Star Butler at 10. Prince went No. 23, Carlos Boozer was No. 34 and Luis Scola was No. 55.
At 28, with respectable career averages of 11.9 points and 7.9 rebounds, his future faces a predictable fork. He could remain on the lonesome current path and challenge the NBA record shared by Chucky Brown, Tony Massenburg and Jimmy Jackson of appearing on the active rosters of 12 different franchises. So far, Gooden has been activated by eight clubs (the Wizards didn't keep him around long enough to give him a uniform), and he is planning as best he can to change course as a free agent this summer in hopes of staying far away from that record.
"I'm just going to let them know whatever situation I'm in, whatever role I'm asked to play, I'm going to do it to the best of my ability," he said. "I think a lot of teams have seen that I've endured a lot of different situations and circumstances and roles, and that I've been able to adapt in every situation."
His return to Dallas last week was the biggest game of his season, because he hasn't given up on returning there for good. He knew the Mavericks' plays as well as those of his own Clippers, and he made it show with 26 points and 20 rebounds in a 106-96 loss.
"I still feel like they're family," Gooden said after punishing them. Family life, as he has heard, can be complicated.
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