Sports editors past, present weigh in on mediocre NBA favorites

The NBA does not harbor mediocrity. The All-Star game reminds us of that fact; soon, we’ll get to see basketball’s best share the same court. But what about some love for its lesser talent? Sure, it’s easy to get caught up by the frenzied theatrics of Dame Time, admire LeBron James and Anthony Davis playing the two-man game with domineering mastery, or gawk at Trae Young and James Harden’s silly strokes from deep. Put it in my veins.

But pause and ask yourself: Could the NBA function with just this handful of AllPros? The real backbone of the NBA is not its superstars or even its starters, but players six through 15. From the time they were in diapers to homecoming, these guys were the best every time they laced up and put Spalding to hardwood. That changed when they shook Commissioner Silver’s hand. Suddenly they were schmucks, role players, glue guys, “open for a reason!” dudes. How could we forget irrational confidence guy Dion Waiters? Eerily pale boners like Aaron Baynes and Frank “the Tank” Kaminsky deserve our love and gratitude, no? Let us tip our New Era flat brims to all the journeyman point guards out there: Ish Smith, Jose Calderon, Tim Frazier, Raul Neto, all sweating it out as they battle for another single year contract.

So—to the NBA’s other guys, we haven’t forgotten you. This one’s for all the old school centers, the “he reminds me of me” guys, the purely playmaking point guards. You are heard. You are seen. You are appreciated. Specifically, Jonah, Dean and Mack appreciate you.

Jonah — Ian Mahinmi

I remember being 13 years old, watching you check in for the Pacers, and thinking, my God, that man has large shoulders. I also remember thinking, my God, 28 is an odd number for a basketball player to wear. Today, Ian Mahinmi, I celebrate you.

I see you. You may think nobody noticed your valiant 10-point, 10-rebound effort against the Miami Heat a couple weeks ago. You lost, because you play for the Washington Wizards. Still, Ian, you played for 35 minutes, the second-most of any player in the game. That’s a lot more playing time than you used to have with the Indiana Pacers, when you were backing up Defensive-Player-of-the-Year Roy Hibbert on a perennial playoff team. No, you have never averaged double figures in scoring or rebounding for a single season, though you have been in the NBA for 12 years. The Youtube highlight video from the night of your life, a game-changing 25-point outburst against the Miami Heat, has fewer than 1,500 views.

The video of Mike Scott dunking on you in the 2014 Playoffs, on the other hand, has over 150,000 views. Marcin Gortat dunked on you. Brandon Clarke dunked on you. When you scored in the first quarter of a playoff game against the Toronto Raptors in 2017, the color commentator said, “Anything you get out of Ian Mahinmi is solid points, he’s really, really having a hard time scoring” (Youtube, LuTzzTV, “Ian Mahinmi Full Highlights vs Raptors R1G4/22 pts, 10 reb, 5 ast,” 04.18.2017). I don’t care. I don’t care that you’ve spent the majority of your career averaging fewer than 20 minutes per game. I remember watching you set solid screens for your guards and roll hard to the rim, ready to administer a bruising if not necessarily get a bucket. You will never sniff a Hall of Fame or All-NBA ballot, but those of us who grew up on the NBA in the 2010s will never forget you.

Dean—Marcin Gortat and Pero Antic

Let me bring y’all back. In ninth grade, I hated a man named Marcin Gortat. It was the 2015 Eastern Conference Semis, and my Hawks were facing off against the Washington Wizards. A brooding Polish center was making me suffer. My 60-win Hawks were going out of their way to get abused by the man who came off the bench for Dwight Howard. His angular eyebrows were the stuff of my nightmares, and his mohawk was a 2010’s faux pas only a Eurotrash mother could love. His nickname is The Polish Hammer. He played with no remorse, nor the suaveness that NBA players should possess. He’s not even the type of player who you love if he’s on your team. He makes you herky in a jerky way. There was no telling what he might do to my skinny point guard Dennis Schroeder just out of the evil of his cold heart. He shot 53 percent against my Hawks in the 2015 conference semis. We won, but I still don’t trust the NBA for letting him grace the court. He’s the true Russian operative in our nation’s capital.

Marcin Gortat, you wanted to be loved the way I loved Pero Antic, but I could never love you. You could never pull off a one-legged running jumper for the andone. You couldn’t shoot, which means you couldn’t provide vital floor spacing like Pero did for the Hawks as they cruised to a franchise-best 60 wins. You couldn’t pull up from deep after a defender hesitated to close out because there’s no way “that Macedonian dude” could have a clean stroke from deep. Pero had the best defensive rating for the Hawks that series. He was no question the most exciting player on the floor each time he stepped on. Pero Antic, you man of a man. I have never seen an uglier person do more beautiful things.

Mack—Kyle Anderson and Reggie Evans

“Get on the line!” are the four worst words in basketball—but they’re usually more than just four words, if you also account for the inevitable expletives thrown in there by your power-hungry coach as he masculinizes himself through his whistle. Wind sprints (tapping every line on the court in one run) are called wind sprints because they leave you, well, winded. There’s no basketball involved in any of these exercises, and that certainly is no fun.

I’m sure Kyle Anderson, who was coached by the notoriously fiery Bob Hurley in high school, has run more than his fair share of sprints. But in his role as a quirky NBA journeyman for the Spurs, Hawks and now the Grizzlies, he certainly isn’t toeing that line anymore. Anderson, appropriately nicknamed “Slow-Mo,” has redefined the rules of gravity, building an effective game around a shocking lack of athleticism. While NBA executives salivate over prospects with ungodly leaping ability and speed, Anderson just chills in the 7th or 8th spot on the bench, leveraging his herky-jerky movements to deceive defenders and float up improbable shots that only the most delusional player at your local YMCA would frustratingly hit. Anderson has a massive cranium with a massive brain inside, and it’s fun to revel over that one instinctive no-look pass he makes every now and then. He gives every mediocre basketball player hope and gives their coaches another reason to just swallow their whistles.

Every great team needs an enforcer. There’s got to be that one guy surviving off pure adrenaline, pumping his chest, owning real estate in the opposing team’s head and using all six of his fouls with purpose. Many teams in need of said enforcer have employed Reggie Evans. Whether he’s a King, Clipper, Raptor, 76er, Nugget, SuperSonic or Net (his purest form), Evans always comes ready to play, armed with a menacing beard and headband to boot. He crashes the glass with reckless abandon, vacuums offensive boards (with two hands of course), and finishes dunks at the rim— the kind of plays that never end up on a highlight reel, but leave basketball nerds a warm, fuzzy feeling in their hearts. Evans is a basketball mercenary. And he always seems to be floating around, ready to sneak up behind you and steal your Lunchables. He might even still be playing.

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