It was just last year. It was just last year on an ordinary night at Staples Center. And yet ordinary was not Jordan Hill’s world. He stood in front of his locker with a look of disbelief and devastation etched upon his face. Everything about his body had shifted. His shoulders were rigid and crisp, his voice drifted into that no-man’s land cavern that happens when life suddenly messes up your plans. His eyes were especially somber. This was why. His 2012-13 season was over. Just like that. No more backing up Pau Gasol or Dwight Howard. No significant minutes off the bench for what was supposed to be a playoff contending team, a team that was struggling to keep its head above water. In a game against Denver, Jordan tore a muscle in his hip. There would have to be surgery and rehab. That night, after word filtered through the arena that his season was done, even as Jordan himself had time to adjust to the swiftness of something being taken away from him, Jordan still appeared stunned. And he felt terrible, as if he was somehow responsible for all of it, as if he let the team down by the sheer fact of his body breaking.
Injuries happen in the cruelest of seasons, in the quickest of all ways. Oh how we know that now after this season was plagued with one fallen player after another. But the difference that January was that Jordan’s injury did not cast a heavy weight over the team. It was just misfortune, it was something random but simple. It was not a black cloud hovering deeply over the recesses of the training facility in El Segundo. It was Jordan who was suffering and Jordan alone who took all of the burden from it. He kept saying he let the team down. He let the fans down.
Fourteen months have passed. The injury has healed. And yet Jordan may indeed decide that the team he did not want to let down last January is the same team he has to flee. Or specifically it is Mike D’antoni he needs to run away from for the second time in his career. The first time was when Jordan was a rookie, a lottery pick anticipating his career. He played in New York and Mike D’antoni was the coach. Sometimes Jordan played 10+ minutes, sometimes he didn’t. Jordan was the third power forward in the rotation behind Al Harrington and Jared Jeffries. Harrington was the prototypical D’antoni power forward, a big man who could make three point shots and pull the defender away from the rim. Jeffries was a rebounder with little to no offensive game. Then there was Jordan Hill who D’antoni didn’t have much use for. Just to be clear: that 2009-10 Knicks team won 29 games. They had the worse field goal% defense in the NBA. They were unable to keep teams from rebounding. They were unable to keep teams from offensive rebounding. Teams took more shots when playing the 2009-10 Knicks than when they played any other team. The Knicks were at the bottom of the league in blocked shots. All of these metrics are consistent with a Mike D’antoni influenced team, the adoration of distance shooters over post scorers. So it came as no surprise that the Knicks traded their physical power forward Jordan Hill mid season to the Houston Rockets for an aging Tracy McGrady.
So, of course Jordan Hill has seen this movie. This is the sequel. He has no intention of being part of a third remake. At the trading deadline he was one of the hot commodities that teams were vying for and were offering the Lakers nothing of value to get. Every team that is a playoff contender is desperate for a Jordan Hill type player. Someone who rebounds and is tough inside and plays with high energy. It is only Mike D’antoni who has developed an allergy for the Jordan Hill’s of the world.
It has not escaped notice what Jordan Hill has done this year in an offense meant for him to disappear. He had a 21 point, 11 rebound game. He had an 18 point, 15 rebound game. He had a 24 point, 17 rebound game. He had an 18 point, 13 rebound game. He has been yanked in and out of the lineup for whimsical reasons. He started 10 games in a row. Then he came off the bench for three. Then he started 6. And then he came off the bench for three. Then he started one. Then he came off the bench for seven. It was enough back and forth to make you dizzy. Or if you are Jordan Hill, to make you sick. Of D’antoni.
Jordan Hill has his detractors. He is not athletic enough to chase down rebounds. He can’t sky over the rim. He falls awkwardly; he has never played an 82 game season. He is not much of an offensive threat or a post defender. He rarely blocks shots. Some or all of those things are true. But Jordan rebounds in a league where rebounds win games. The Lakers are not the only team with money to spend this coming off-season. Phoenix will have $30 million and Jordan would be a veteran and inside presence for a young team that has no post players. New Orleans will have $20 million and is in search of a back up for Anthony Davis. The Hawks tried to get Jordan at the trading deadline. He is only 26 years old which makes him an attractive free agent for a variety of teams. The Lakers are another team who will need someone with his particular skill set. No he is not the mid range shooter D’antoni has tried to make him into. He is a hustle player, someone whose energy translates into confidence.
We like to think people change, we like to think of it as a human phenomenon. It’s not true, not really. People stay the same. Mike D’antoni the second time around was no better than Mike D’antoni the first time around. He had no particular interest in Jordan Hill’s ability nor in Jordan himself. Contrary to popular opinion, this does not make Mike D’antoni a worthless human being. It just makes him Mike D’antoni, the ultimate Lakers outsider. He is someone whose basketball prism is an unfamiliar game in this proud city. He wants to play small and run and create a restless pace even as that has never proven successful.
There is no middle ground here, not in a relationship that never got off the ground. Mike D’antoni and Jordan Hill just do not mix for all of the understandable reasons everyone lists. In a way they are both stranger’s to the other’s world. Lost in their own tribe they have no interest in the other’s way of doing things and why should they when everything around them has dissolved like this? It is not much of a secret that a decision is coming that affects the future of both men. The consequence, though unintended, will probably be someone’s freedom. And then maybe they will be able to forget each other. And that this terrible year ever happened.