Even after Delonte West’s worst regular season since his rookie campaign, NBA front offices know West can compete with anyone in the NBA. Pit him against Dwyane Wade and West likely will not win the head-to-head matchup. But West will stand toe-to-toe with Wade and force the All-Star to earn every point he scores, and West will attack Wade on the other end of the court, and West will never, ever display even the slightest fear. West is not an All-Star, not even close, but his versatility and competitiveness make him a valuable bench player, one NBA teams should covet whenever the NBA lockout ends.
All of which could spell bad news for the Boston Celtics. If a hard cap is agreed upon (which could very well happen), the salary-laden Celtics could be limited to offering West a contract beginning at less than $2 million per season. Even if the new CBA includes certain salary exceptions (such as the mid-level exception), the Celtics could need to add several pieces using mostly minimum contracts.
Despite West’s non-productive regular season, his strong playoff run and solid on-court reputation will make him attractive to other teams. The predominant red flag attached to signing West (his mental health) proved to be a non-issue last season. That was great for the Celtics during the year, of course, but could haunt them as soon as West hits the free agent marketplace.
West’s season began with a left hook—or a right hook, or a strong jab, or an uppercut, or whatever form of punch he used to swing at Von Wafer. In the aftermath of the quasi-fight, one of West’s teammates was quoted saying he could easily notice when West did not take his medicine. Even if it seemed like nothing more than the pissed-off Wafer’s distorted form of revenge, Celtics fans inhaled sharply at the news—maybe West’s recent history of personal issues and mental illness would follow him to Boston, too.
Our fears were not realized—the subdued brawl was the last off-court bruise West’s reputation endured last season. After the fight, he sought no problems and landed himself into no trouble. Or, at least, none that became public knowledge. As far as we know, West did not sleep with any of his teammates’ mothers, transport unregistered firearms via three-wheeled motorcycles, nor did he run into any other forms of off-court trouble.
By the end of the season, I even stopped worrying that West would relapse into bad behavior or a depressive state. That was a big step. After reading some comments West told Ken Berger of CBS Sports earlier in the year, my worries had climbed to new heights.
“Bipolar is like, when things are bad to you, they seem worse and when things are good, they seem great,” West said in November of 2010.
After those comments, I feared for West’s sanity every time he experienced a setback. He missed a potentially game-winning shot and I wondered whether it would bother him for weeks. He broke a wrist and I thought the anguish might suffocate him. He injured his wrist again, this time during dummy drills, and I thought maybe all the adversity would be too much for West to handle. He played sparingly due to injuries and suspension, and when he did play, he played erratically. But he remained a professional.
So much went wrong this year for Delonte West, but as far as we know, West kept his head up every time life tried to knock him down. There was the suspension, and the Wafer fight, and the injuries. West played only 24 regular season games, but he kept moving forward. He averaged fewer points than any season besides his rookie year, but he was ready to contribute in the playoffs. West’s body was unreliable and his performance was underwhelming, but Doc Rivers’ faith in his lefty guard never wavered.
Meanwhile, West remained a fan favorite. We still rooted for West, even after that late-night drive equipped with multiple guns, a three-wheeled motorcycle and some powerful inner demons. We quickly forgave West’s crimes for a number of reasons:
1) He has a mental illness, a real sickness that impairs his judgment. Though West’s mental illness does not excuse his actions, we could sympathize with him even when he committed such sinister acts.
2) He’s on our team. If we could root for Ricky Davis and Mark Blount, cheering for a convicted felon shouldn’t be too tough, right? Even when we don’t like a player on our team, we root for him. That’s how sports go. We all hate Lebron now, but if he signed with the Celtics, every C’s fan would rush to buy his new jersey. Hell, I would root for Satan if he wore “Celtics” across his chest.
3) This last reason is the one I feel least comfortable about, even if I believe it to be true: We can forgive our favorite athletes for off-court sins. We cannot forgive them for on-court transgressions. Los Angeles Lakers fans can forgive Kobe Bryant’s infidelity. Steelers fans can forgive Ben Roethlisberger for assaulting girls. Ravens fans can forgive Ray Lewis for being involved with a murder. Celtics fans can forgive West for carrying guns. But I cannot, and will not, ever forgive Nate Robinson for shooting so many goddamn pull-up jumpers on three-on-one fast breaks.
Robinson seems like a great guy. He always smiles, cheers his ass off for his teammates no matter how few minutes he plays, takes adorable pictures of his children, and shows up to his cousin’s high school basketball games on off days. He plays hard and plays with energy, and loves to have fun. In real life, I would want him as my friend. But in the world of sports, he frustrated me to no end. He rode the basketball slow bus, possessing a basketball IQ that left him taking stupid shots quite routinely. Watching Robinson play for your favorite team is like playing roulette and putting all your life savings on 34. There is a 3% chance you hit the lottery and luck into early retirement. But there’s also a 97% chance you lose everything. Okay, so I’m being a little harsh with the percentages. You get the point. And so I hated Robinson when he played for the Celtics, even though he seems like a hell of a guy.
West is so much different. He makes intelligent decisions. He knows how to defend. He plays hard, like Robinson, but in a different way. Robinson, you see, plays with the energy of a six-year old kid going to the circus for the first time. West plays with the energy of a rising UFC fighter looking to put food on his family’s table. He’s more precise, more focused, more refined, and when it comes to winning, hungrier. As fans, we are drawn to West’s thirsty desire to win. That he also has a personable, quirky side brings him even closer to our hearts. I’m not saying it’s right and I’m not saying it’s wrong, but we love fierce competitors and we love intelligent players, even if they have committed serious crimes in their past, even when they play their worst regular season since 2004-05.
And so do NBA front offices. They will be willing to overlook West’s past partly because he stayed out of trouble recently, but mostly, they will be willing to overlook West’s past because he plays both ends of the court. Whichever team signs West after the lockout will add a nice piece, and a piece that should come attached to a reasonably inexpensive price tag. Here’s hoping that team is the Boston Celtics, who could start the West race with a monetary disadvantage but could certainly use the lefty’s services.