There are glimpses of him during timeouts, lingering in the background, a perfect silhouette of a forgotten man. Seeing him brings about imaginary thinking or at the very least curiosity: what if he was in there. What if he was someone who could finish off plays? Chris Kaman is skilled enough. But there is no point in trying to use logic-things can change on a dime. A few months ago Chris Kaman was a player looking for a job and the Lakers were looking for someone to adequately replace Dwight Howard. In theory Chris was supposed to be one of those elusive pieces, a part of the puzzle for a team in transition, an adequate replacement for the defection of Howard. Chris, a seven footer known for his eccentricities, was to start at center or at the very least come off the bench. Chris was encouraged by the opportunity to play alongside another seven footer and someone he admired in Pau Gasol. The idea of how they could play together was a tantalizing thought. Sometimes though, the best ideas come to a screeching halt, the brakes never let it get started, the beginning is the end.
In the month of December Chris Kaman has played once. It was in a meaningless blowout game in Oklahoma City, a forgettable series of plays with the Lakers trailing and non competitive. Before that fourth quarter it had been 26 days since Chris had played. He had some back issues which accounted for some of the absence but some of the absence was a bit of reverse luck. A few months ago the Lakers wanted him. Now he is considered a liability on offense and on defense too, replaced by Robert Sacre, a second year player who is not nearly as efficient nor as skilled on offense but is a quicker defender. What is left of Chris Kaman, what remains is his ghost.
In 2003 Chris was a lottery pick from Central Michigan, a largely unknown player who was in the same draft as Lebron James, Carmelo Anthony and Dwayne Wade. He did not seem to belong. Now with the Lakers, D’Antoni is repeating a similar mantra though a silent one, still it is as effective as if he is screaming it from the rooftops. Within the structure of a high speed offense Chris Kaman does not belong.
Fact: when you sign a contract there are expectations. But then the season starts. And sometimes the dream dies. So it is for Chris Kaman who is in this very odd, unfair place, trying to walk the fine line between being a supportive teammate and the desire to play meaningful minutes. It is far more than disappointment, what is happening to him midway through the month of December. But let’s backtrack. When the Lakers signed Chris in the offseason there was a reason, a plan for him. Either he was going to start at center or power forward or he was going to come off the bench at center or power forward. His rebounding and post scoring would add much needed relief for a team without much in the paint. It all made sense, the quirky free spirit Kaman offering the Lakers what he was unable to give the Mavericks last year. Then his rebound totals matched his rookie year, he had similar minutes as well. It all seemed providential, more minutes, more production, being in Los Angeles once again. During the preseason Kaman and Pau Gasol developed a chemistry with one another, high post to low post, big man to big man, continually feeding off of one another as one cut to the rim and the other dished the ball. Kaman admired Pau while Pau enjoyed Kaman. It was one of those perfect fits that cannot be diagrammed on paper when a team is assembled.
But then something happened.
Kaman is a big man with an offensive skill set in the post. But that is not as important to D’Antoni as you would think, not even as the Lakers routinely get outscored in the paint and outrebounded. To D’Antoni, the holy grail to the game is pace. With Chris in the lineup the game drags at odd moments. It is a dilemma. Pairing him with the quickness of the bench players distorts their free flowing rhythm. And yet putting him with the starters clogs the paint making it difficult to run D’Antoni’s offense with two seven footers in close proximity to one another, similar to the problems of last year with Howard and Gasol. So Chris watches Shawne Williams, a one dimensional three point shooter and mediocre rebounder get more minutes because he spreads the floor. Or he watches Wes Johnson slide over to the power forward position and guard players who outweigh him by a considerable amount. All of this for a team that is miserable in scoring in the paint, in making two point shots, in keeping players out of the paint. D’Antoni has always said someone was going to be the odd man out, someone was not going to fit the system. As if he knew what was coming, D’antoni made this admission during the preseason when things were still new enough that he could get away with things. D’Antoni was not sure who the demoted player was going to be. He knows now. And he is faced with a problem all coaches dread: a frustrated player, one who is unhappy.
To his credit Chris is saying all of the things he should say in a situation like this though it is not obvious why. He continually talks about how hard he is working and he is trying to maintain a sense of optimism but glimpse him on the bench as he watches from afar and there is something in his gaze and body language that seems distant and detached and drained as he wonders what has happened to this season, how did it all go so wrong for him. Was it his mistake in believing in D’Antoni’s offense, that there would be a place for him when traditionally D’Antoni’s offense hates players like Chris? Or was it the Lakers who were at fault for making him think the impossible was true? Or perhaps it was neither D’Antoni nor the Lakers, perhaps it was accidental, that once the Lakers gathered the group of young players together in September and witnessed their speed and adaptability to D’Antoni’s system there were very few places for Kaman to thrive. He cannot run the floor in the tempo that D’Antoni prefers, he is not quick enough to guard the new breed of power forwards who make threes or the centers who are athletic shot blockers and cover ground quickly in pick and rolls. Kaman still has his skill in the post, he has high ability but in a way it stands alone, separate from everything else.
It is hard to have vision as a player, to see around the corner. You just want to play, you want your part to be your part. And yet Chris knows there are no such things as promises, not in this league. But there is regret and harsh judgment. The demotion of Chris has little effect on the truth, on what he is structurally, and what he can bring to a team, if not the Lakers then someone else, especially when the majority of NBA players can only do one thing well. Chris can do two. He can rebound and he can score. But the way it seems, he is the only one who appreciates that. From his view sitting on the bench his ghost cannot tell D’Antoni to play him when it counts, when the games matter. And so where he sits is where he stays, one more game in a long and enduring season of remorse and ambivalence; it is what the year has come to. It makes you wonder- how long will it be this way, how long will the only recognizable thing about Chris Kaman be his ghost? So far, this season has been a fruitless year for Chris, one of an injured back and injured pride and plenty of time watching instead of doing and there is no higher meaning to anyone of it, only that Chris Kaman knows he will be back. But this is the hard part. Waiting.