The Buck Stops Here: Diminishing skills, salary cap keeping Collins out of NBA - The Buffalo News
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The Buck Stops Here: Diminishing skills, salary cap keeping Collins out of NBA

Last spring, when Jason Collins revealed in Sports Illustrated that he was gay, he was praised for his strength and held up as a champion in a changing sports world. President Obama called to personally congratulate him. He threw out the first pitch at a Red Sox game. He was invited to speak at major events that previously ignored him.

The biggest names in sports lined up to support him but, six months later, teams haven’t lined up to sign him. Several teams showed interest in the 7-foot center during the offseason before turning elsewhere. Collins remains an unrestricted free agent with the NBA set to open another season in less than two weeks.

In an interview last week with the New York Times, he refused to speculate about why no teams have offered him a contract. He insisted several teams have signed inferior players.

“I feel there are players in the league right now,” Collins said, “that, quite frankly, I’m better than.”

Collins deserves credit for coming out, but NBA critics should be careful about connecting his sexual preference to his contract status. I could be wrong, and only he would know with absolute certainty, but it could actually be the opposite.

The cynic in me wonders if Collins knew his skills were eroding and announced he was gay with the hope he would put enough pressure on one team, whether it came from the public or the NBA office, to sign him.

Collins would have had a difficult time landing another contract mainly because the collective bargaining agreement calls for a player with his experience to earn a minimum of $1.4 million. Other players with similar talent can be signed for considerably less, which helps teams manage the salary cap.

Collins was a full-time starter early in his career, but he has started 39 percent of his teams’ games since 2006-07. He finished last season with the Wizards, his sixth NBA team after the Celtics traded him after 32 games. He has appeared in only 42 percent of his teams’ games either by coaches’ choice or injury.

It’s one thing to say, “I’m a 34-year-old NBA center, I’m black, and I’m gay,” as he did to Sports Illustrated. It’s quite another for a team to say, “He’s a 34-year-old NBA center, he’s slow, he averaged 3.6 points and 3.8 rebounds per game, and he deserves $1.4 million.”

“Let me put it this way: if one of my bigs goes down and he’s not signed, I’m signing him,” Doc Rivers, who coached Collins in Boston and is now with the Los Angeles Clippers, told The Times. “I’m not signing him because he’s gay. I’m not signing him because it’s a story and it brings us attention. I’m signing him because he has a value to help us win.”

He’s a grand Papi

Eight years ago, the Red Sox presented David Ortiz with a plaque claiming he was the best clutch hitter in the history of the franchise and a Toyota Tundra to drive them for as long as he could. Some would argue that Big Papi is the best clutch hitter in the history of any franchise, and he’s still motoring.

The grand slam that Ortiz took into the bullpen, along with Tigers outfielder Torii Hunter, in Game Two on Sunday was his fifth postseason hit in the eighth inning or later that either tied or won the game. Pete Rose and Bernie Williams had six such hits in their careers, but Williams’ numbers come with an asterisk.

Williams has 22 homers, second all-time behind Manny Ramirez’s 29, and a record 80 RBIs in the postseason in 465 at-bats. Ortiz had 15 homers, tied for ninth with Babe Ruth, and 54 RBIs, fifth all-time, in 264 at-bats going into Game Three on Tuesday night in Detroit. He turns 38 next month.

Mickey Mantle had 18 homers in only 230 at-bats in the postseason. Reggie Jackson became known as “Mr. October” for hitting five homers in the 1977 World Series, including in Game Six to lead the Yankees over the Dodgers. Nine of his 18 postseason homers came in 1977-78. He had 281 postseason at-bats overall.

Ramirez is often overlooked, but he had a .285 postseason batting average with 29 homers (first) and 78 RBIs (second) with 19 doubles (fourth) and 223 total bases (second) in 410 at-bats (fourth). Ramirez and Chipper Jones are the only players who didn’t play for the Yankees and were listed among the Top 10 in postseason at-bats.

Grigo not on Hertl Avenue

I couldn’t help but notice that the Sabres and Sharks rookie center Tomas Hertl had something in common through seven games: seven goals.

Hertl was the 17th selection of the 2012 draft, five spots behind Mikhail Grigorenko and three picks after Zemgus Girgensons. The 19-year-old played last season in the Czech Republic, where he had 30 points in 43 games.

By no means does it mean Buffalo made a mistake by passing on Hertl. It probably doesn’t matter because the Sabres likely would have mismanaged his development and set the kid back the way they have Grigorenko.

Grigorenko was still looking for his first point going into Tuesday’s game against the Islanders. The Sabres have moaned about his work ethic while failing to comprehend why – keyword: why – he hasn’t been moving his feet. It’s not a case of him being lazy. It’s a matter of him being confused.

When a player is uncertain, he thinks too much. When he thinks too much, his feet stop and he looks sluggish. If Grigo wasn’t jerked around last season and placed in a worse situation this year, he might not be having as many problems. Instead, he’s evolving into a cautionary tale in a book all too familiar.

The Sabres didn’t know how to develop him on the fly last year. They kept him too long, sent him back to junior and brought him back when his QMJHL season ended. They kept him this year because he couldn’t be sent to Rochester, and his former junior coach, Patrick Roy, was hired away by the Avalanche.

Just for fun, let’s check the numbers going into Tuesday night: Grigorenko: 6 GP, 0-0-0. Hertl: 5 GP, 7-1-8. San Jose: 5-0-0. Colorado: 5-0-0. Buffalo: 0-6-1.

Stats Inc

116 – Points scored by the University at Buffalo in victories over Connecticut, Eastern Michigan, and Western Michigan while allowing only 26.

265 – Points scored by the Broncos through six games, which is more than the Chiefs, Jaguars and Cardinals scored in 16 games last season.

22 – Touchdown passes for Peyton Manning, which is more than Jacksonville, Tampa Bay, Minnesota and Washington had combined.

Quick Hits

• Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota is the leading candidate for the Heisman Trophy, according to separate weekly polls conducted by and USA Today. Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, who won last year, was second in both polls. Last season at this time, K-State’s Collin Klein was the favorite.

• Niagara coach-turned-analyst Jack Armstrong believes Greg Oden can resurrect his NBA career in Miami. “He’ll be held accountable by coach Erik Spoelstra, president Pat Riley and a team with good internal leadership,” Armstrong told TSN. “You had better be in shape, do your work and be professional or else. It’s an environment that is conducive to a gradual step in the right direction for him if he can stay healthy.”

• Granted, I’m old school, but it’s grown tiresome watching obnoxious Dodgers rookie Yasiel Puig disrespect the game. Puig was slow getting out of the batters’ box while admiring a triple to right in Game Three, then crossed the line with his celebration after reaching third. Something tells me today’s kids can’t get enough of him.


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