Andray Blatche is threatening to become for 2012 what Erick Dampier was to very late 2010 free agency — a borderline irrelevant big man with a semi-famous name whose free agency draws undue attention because it occurs during the NBA’s dead time. The Heat eventually signed Dampier, who played 815 regular-season minutes for the eventual runners-up, didn’t take the floor in the postseason and then reportedly partied in Miami with his former Dallas teammates after the Mavs’ Game 6 clincher.
Miami is involved again this offseason, going head-to-head with the Nets to sign Blatche to a minimum salary deal that may end up as a fully non-guaranteed training camp invite. Twitter is already laughing at the Blatche Watch, and it doesn’t help that Blatche has made himself into something of an NBA punch line. His annual summertime “This is the year, I swear!” declarations are legendary blog post fodder. He made these hilariously optimistic inspirational T-shirts for his Washington teammates before last season. He sponsored and/or presented something called “Lapdance Tuesday.”
On a more serious note, Blatche came from a difficult family background in the Syracuse area and was shot in a car-jacking during the early part of his NBA career. As chronicled here, Blatche has admitted getting too caught up in the NBA “nightlife,” and you can guess what that entails. His off-court issues have been real — and damaging.
Things on the court haven’t been much better since his decent 2009-10 season, a campaign which inspired the Wizards to ink Blatche a cap-room contract extension hailed then as a creative means of locking up a versatile young big. He has battled both conditioning issues and nagging leg, foot and shoulder injuries, problems that can produce a hand-in-hand vicious cycle among less than diligent players. His effort level on both ends of the floor has shifted between “almost acceptable” and “totally embarrassing for everyone.” He he hoisted mid-range jumpers at near Nowitzkian rates over the last two seasons despite hitting less than a third of them — one of the worst accuracy rates for high-volume mid-range shooters. Blatche has never had the speed or body type to be a real defensive stopper, but he has too often been a stationary, reaching blob on that end, destructive to his team.
All of this resulted in the Wizards using the amnesty clause on Blatche in July, well after most teams had completed the bulk of their big offseason moves — or at least agreed to them. There wouldn’t have been much league-wide interest in spending more than the minimum on Blatche regardless; he’s viewed as something close to toxic around the league.
And yet: Here we are, with the current champs and a would-be rival battling for the right to perhaps use a roster spot on Blatche. And at this price, it makes sense, even with a few other big man role players still floating around free agency. Blatche isn’t guaranteed minutes in Brooklyn, Miami or anywhere else, and the chances of him tipping the championship equation even a millimeter are basically zero. But he just turned 26, and there is quite clearly a useful NBA player in there somewhere. A good team on which Blatche has no chance of being even a top-four option, with a good player development staff, stands the best chance of finding that player and perhaps gaining his longer-term loyalty if they manage it. The chances are slim, but the chances of Darko Milicic, Chris Andersen, Mehmet Okur, Sean Williams or some other free agent making a real impact are just as slim. Kenyon Martin is probably a different story, especially for a Brooklyn team in need of some interior defense, but Martin might be (futilely) holding out for more than the minimum-level deals most contenders can offer.
Back to Blatche: In 2009-10, a total of 94 players 6-foot-9 or taller logged at least 1,000 minutes. Of those players, only 12 assisted on a higher percentage of their team’s baskets than Blatche, who recorded dimes on nearly 14 percent of Washington’s hoops that season — a very nice mark for a big man. He drew double teams on the block and read them very well, kicking the ball to Mike Miller behind back screens, picking out cutters and occasionally tossing fancy behind-the-back dishes. He could flash to the elbow and toss rapid-fire passes from there.
And he was an effective post scorer when he used his bulk and went quickly, when the first opening arose. He has been especially good at spinning to the baseline, and he has an array of tricky off-the-glass finishes to use in traffic. Basically, when the 2009-10 Blatche acted quickly upon receiving the ball, he did good things, regardless of whether he passed or shot the ball. That Blatche is a valuable player, provided he’s in at least decent mental and physical condition.
But Blatche never fully embraced the “go quickly” part of his game, even in the spring of 2010, and as the years have passed since, the highlight-reel seeker has far overtaken the solid decision-maker who popped up a lot in that season. Blatche has instead taken to holding the ball endlessly, seeking a high degree of difficult individual success instead of quick-hitting team-first play. The results have been disastrous — over-dribbling on the perimeter, crazy fadeaway jumpers from both blocks and contested mid-range jumpers that come after four or five seconds of total stasis. It has been brutally inefficient — a losing sort of play that has probably turned off a team like the Bobcats, who have about $1.3 million in cap room, a dire need for young talent and their own frontline amnesty candidate in Tyrus Thomas. But the Bobcats probably look at Blatche and wonder how much damage he might do as the self-proclaimed top option on a bad team. The Hawks could have used an extra big before signing second-round pick Mike Scott today. The Celtics’ big rotation behind Kevin Garnett (an old Blatche tormentor) and Brandon Bass is basically a giant question mark.
The Nets and Heat would not be depending on Blatche for anything, but could use whatever he might be able to give. The Nets’ third-best “big man” behind Brook Lopez and Kris Humphries is probably Gerald Wallace, a small forward who can swing to power forward in smaller lineups. The real third big man, Mirza Teletovic, is a totally unproven NBA commodity. Reggie Evans is proven — as a very limited player who can’t space the floor even an inch and provides very inconsistent defense. At the very least, the Nets could use someone like Blatche as insurance against a Teletovic bust. The 2010 version of Blatche could absolutely be a key option on second units with C.J. Watson and Marshon Brooks.
The Heat won’t need as many rotation big men as a “normal” team if they continue their philosophical shift to building around LeBron James as a power forward. They can go through entire games playing only Udonis Haslem and Chris Bosh significant minutes if they lean on that alignment, with Joel Anthony, Rashard Lewis and perhaps Dexter Pittman filling the gaps. But they also need to be versatile, both to avoid overtaxing James in the regular season and to player bigger lineups if necessary against a team like the Lakers. Blatche probably won’t end up as part of those lineups, and it would be safer to sign a steadier defense presence like Martin. But taking a shot on multiple big-man combinations is not a bad idea.
Again: The chances a Blatche signing works for anyone are very, very low. There is just too much baggage and too long a track record of irresponsible play. But at this price, it’s worth a shot, provided a team can offer the right context.