This is the other side of a career, this purgatory, this hellish road leading to a cliff. Here is the edge. But the precipice is not the worst thing. The worst thing has already happened to Chris Kaman. He plays only when someone is hurt. He plays only on a whim. He played six minutes in Boston. He did not play in Toronto. He did not play in Chicago. He did not play in Miami. He did not play in Orlando. He did not play in New York. He did not play the two home games. One of which was against a physical Indiana team with tough post players, the other was against Charlotte. Al Jefferson, a 17 point a night scorer, dropped 40 points on the Lakers weak front line. It is these past few weeks of a coach’s mistrust that has led him here- to the edge. The team he wanted no longer believes in him unless there is an injury. So he will play on Tuesday because Pau Gasol is hurt.
Try this. Glance his way. On the bench there he is with his arms folded and yet he is not what he appears, he appears like a NBA player, a tall man, but what he really has turned into is a shadow, a shadow on the bench, a shadow on the team, a shadow in the curious mind of his coach who seems absolutely clueless as what to do with him. Of course it changes nothing, this narration of his absence, that he waits and waits and perhaps someone will get hurt, none of this is a secret, his being punished, the odd man out on a team that has won 16 games and lost 31. A team that cannot rebound even though Chris Kaman can. A team that cannot score in the post even though Chris Kaman can. It would all be so funny if it wasn’t all so tragically true.
There are mornings after, there are regrets. Usually they come after a night of reckless behavior and temptation, too many shots of Tequila, too much bourbon. The next day you feel the effects, your body aches, your head hurts, there is an insufferable taste in your mouth. You search for remedies to cure it all, make it go way. You question your sanity: why did I do that? This is Chris Kaman’s reality minus the alcohol, his wondering what could have made him do this? In July he could not contain his euphoria at the thought: playing for the Lakers. He was drunk on the idea. Now it is February and he is stuck, ruined by a coach’s decision. Will he ever be redeemed?
So much of life is temporary, not made to last and it only means you have to endure it. And then try to forget. Besides, beginnings always are about promises until they are not, then it is over. So call this season what it really is, an audition for the future but a long shot as well. Perhaps it made sense to do it this way for the floundering career of Wesley Johnson. Or the inconsistent career of Xavier Henry. Or the lost career of Shawne Williams. Or the mediocrity of Nick Young. Or the work as hard as possible mantra of Jodie Meeks. Or the futility of Robert Sacre. Or the energetic but non explosive Jordan Hill. But Chris Kaman auditioning? Really? The Lakers signed Chris Kaman to the most money of any other player last summer, 3 million dollars which took all of their mini mid-level exception dollars. They were very specific in their intention. There was a reason they went after Chris and landed him. They convinced him and themselves they needed him. After all Chris Kaman had up to that point had a very solid career. It was even discussed that Chris Kaman was going to be the center to replace Dwight Howard.
During the preseason Chris and Pau had great chemistry on the floor, high post to low post. They looked for one another, made back cuts or slip screens to the rim. And then it came to a crashing end. It was separated at birth, it was buried.
Last year, with the Mavericks Chris shot 50%. No current Lakers player shoots 50%. He averaged 11 points a game. He had a stretch of games in which he scored 20 points, 10 points, 14 points, 15 points, 20 points, 12 points, 18 points, 15 points, 11 points, 20 points. He played in 66 games and in a third of those games shot over 60%. He shot 80% five times. His proficiency with Dallas even as it was an off year for him had Chris excited. If this was what he could do for the Mavericks the possibilities were endless playing with a big man like Pau Gasol, another seven footer he could learn from. Except his education was rudely interrupted. Except Mike D’antoni was not as interested. Two seven footers, too many bodies in the paint, too slow of a game, he would rather lose than play this way. And so losing is what has happened.
Chris has always been concerned about his one year contract. He is 31 years old and frankly the stress attached to each performance is like digging through concrete, eventually you get deep enough where the rock is unbreakable, you are stopped, you can go no further. But he is a seven footer who has a consistent mid range shot and can score in the paint. He can rebound. His game is suited more to the Eastern Conference than the explosive Western Conference and come July he will have teams that need size and skill in the post. Of everything that has happened to him this year none of it will be held against him. It wasn’t that Chris Kaman couldn’t play. It was that D’antoni would not play Chris Kaman so in some odd peculiar way he has been victimized by small ball and by D’antoni’s relentless need to make this team into something they can never be even if Chris is collateral damage.
It seems something is always wrong with Pau Gasol. He plays beneath a silent plague. First it was his foot. Now it is his groin. This is the only opportunity Chris has anymore, the wounded making a place for the forgotten and of course it is ironic. The team that claims this year was about saving money signed Chris Kaman and by not playing him means they wasted their money.
And Chris wasted this year though it is not his fault. But when you are a NBA player in your thirties it no longer matters who is to blame. Time is a precious commodity, you cannot get years back, Chris cannot get this season to rewind and start from game one and there is a sense of acceptance in how it all seemed to go sideways so fast. Even though it doesn’t feel quite real the results do. He knows he is here but he doesn’t quite believe the truth of it all. So he will replace Pau a few games here, a few games there and what did he gain? Nothing. What did the Lakers lose by not playing him all these weeks? Everything.
There is something humanizing about what Chris had endured. All of us have been a victim of the stupid whims of others. They have been wrong and we were the ones that suffered. Chris’s career is not the career he is familiar with. This is his worst. It is too late for the Lakers to recognize anything, for Mike D’antoni to somehow recover his pride, it is too late for Chris Kaman too- the one he was in July, aspirational and amped at the possibilities but it is not too late for his career, it is not out the window just yet, the door is not shut. This off season a lot of teams will not get who they want and they will overpay everyone else and there will be Chris Kaman, the seven footer, the post player, the mid range shooter, the rebounder. He will ring the bell and someone will let him in.