How will announcement affect Jason Collins' impending free agency?
What we don't know is whether Collins will have a job next year. Traded by Boston to Washington during the 2012-13 season, Collins is now an unrestricted free agent. Whether or not he finds a team will have a negligible effect on the 2013-14 season, as it's been six years since Collins averaged more than 16 minutes a game and even longer since he contributed more than 5 points.
It could, however, have a significant cultural impact. If Collins stays in the league, he will be a lumbering, charge-taking conversational catalyst. Stories will be written about his teammates, and opponents, and how he's treated by fans. He will be an ambassador and hero to some. He will be an object of derision for others. But we'll never know how his peers and coaches will react -- how we will react -- unless he plays.
So the hope here is that Collins does make a team. That he forces people to think, debate and confront their own biases. That he suits up and practices and showers with his teammates. That he furthers a much-needed dialogue about tolerance in the sports world.
How realistic is it that Collins will be signed? One Western Conference executive I spoke to yesterday said that, had you asked him last week, he would have put the odds of Collins making a roster at "1-in-5." Another exec said it would have been "a close call."
"He was on the pile of old big guys you grab when you need a body," says the exec. "There's a dearth of bigs and he's the guy you call right before Labor Day. Frankly, now he's more interesting. I think this could help his career."
From a strictly basketball standpoint, Collins has what could generously be called a "limited skill set." He has size but lacks length, mobility and athleticism. He's smart but not particularly well-coordinated, at least by NBA standards. He can't run. He can't jump. And his offensive game is so limited that Wizards teammate Martell Webster, in one of the best athlete responses yesterday, marked the historic moment by tweeting to Collins: "[Y]ou have made sports what it should be and that's "OPEN" proud of you for being you. That's [sic] jump shot is still weak lol."
It's true: his jump shot is incredibly weak. What Collins has always possessed, however, is a knack for defense. In 2005, when I wrote a story for SI about the nascent NBA stats movement, Collins was one of the players singled out as undervalued by the analytics folks. Dan Rosenbaum, a UNC economics professor who has since consulted for the Cavaliers, rated Collins as the fourth most effective defensive center in the league over the prior three seasons. According to Rosenbaum's numbers, the Nets (Collins' team at the time) did almost everything better defensively when he was on the floor, allowing fewer free throws, fouling less, rebounding better and giving up fewer points. As Rosenbaum explained: "He's very consistent and consistently very good. Meaning he's either the luckiest center alive and teams just fall apart when he's on the court, or he's doing something."
In the years since, a lot has changed when it comes to player evaluation, and acceptance of new metrics. A player's impact on the court can be measured in a multitude of different ways. Just look at Marc Gasol, this season's Defensive Player of the Year. These days, the Jason Collinses of the world are more easily appreciated.
That said, at 34, Collins is not as active as he once was (which was not very, to be honest), and the trend of quicker, more athletic centers makes it harder for him to match up. Even so, a year ago, during the 2011-12 season when he played for the Hawks, his defensive rating was 96.9. Though clearly a very small sample size -- Collins played only ten minutes per game -- that number is still lower than all manner of defensive stalwarts, including Tyson Chandler, Serge Ibaka and Shane Battier.
Another point in Collins' favor is his high basketball IQ. He's selfless on the court, a great teammate and a positive locker room influence. (Doc Rivers told Ian Thomsen that Collins was "one of the best guys" he's ever been around in the NBA.) He practices hard, plays hard and does all the little things -- setting hard screens, rotating on defense, dispensing hard fouls -- that, when added up, accrete into something more substantial. He's that guy you always want on your team in a pick-up game.
For GMs, he is the kind of player they know won't hurt the team, even if he might not help it all that much. His best chance, according to one of the execs, would be to sign with a potential four or five seed that knows its within range of a deep playoff run and needs depth, size and veteran leadership.
As for Collins' announcement, it's unclear how, or if, it will affect his prospects. "I don't know how this news moves things, if it's up or down," says one exec. "I think it's largely likely to be a non-event." Then the exec pauses. "Which is kind of neat."