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I’ve been asked about a dozen times why the Magic made an offer to Jameer Nelson during what everyone considers “a rebuilding time.” My answer has simplified every time the question has been asked and now consists of just five words: because he is a leader. Okay, also because Orlando needs to sell tickets, but let’s look at leadership first.
The more you run those words through your mind, the more it makes sense. Jameer is the most tenured player on the roster, has been to the playoffs, has been to a Finals, quarterbacks the offense, etc. I could go on.
If you’re going to keep a few guys around while you build from the bottom up and take on packs of rookies, you have to have a guy who can lead by example, and you have to have smart and patient guys in those leadership positions. We’re talking about J.J. Redick, Hedo Turkoglu, and yes, Jameer Nelson, even if that meant signing him with money that perhaps could have been spent to further rebuild. Because otherwise what do you have? A bunch of rookies running around, making mistakes, and watching SportsCenter for guidance.
Think of it this way. Before Andrew Luck, if the Indianapolis Colts decided to take a middle linebacker for their first round pick in the draft and this was long before decided and agreed upon by owners and coaches, you might have still said that they were rebuilding. At that point, you have to ask yourself if you want a Peyton Manning who is like a 60 percent version of himself or a new, untested quarterback who has no grasp of the system in place in Indianapolis. Orlando was not in a position to go out and sign a young stud or higher-echelon point guard. So you have to sit back and say, “Yeah, Jameer looks pretty good right now, given our circumstances.”
So leadership is a huge part of this rebuilding process (if you are going to call it that). There’s no more Stan Van Gundy, for goodness sake, and with a rookie coach in place, it further emphasizes the need for proven veterans (player-coach) to be in leadership positions.
Make no mistake, Jameer Nelson is not the same player he was in 2009. I wrote about that last year when he came off a midseason injury. He turns the ball over more than he should, he’s a little slower, his jumpshot is worse, and he doesn’t have Dwight to feed in the post. But if that ball is not in his hands, you’re talking about a trial-by-fire situation with E’Twaun Moore at the helm and J.J. Redick trying to teach him how to run point. Either that or you’re looking at another rookie (or sophomore) trying to man up in a point guard role for a team that lacks character. At it’s best, you have the Washington Wizards last season. At it’s worst, well, I’d rather not go there. Nelson provides a safety net in one position, perhaps the most important position, on the floor.
Nelson was also a terrific guy to keep on because, in a way, Orlando was doing him a favor, which puts Nelson in debt to the organization. I would guess very few solid offers would have been floated Jameer’s way were he to have departed from Orlando. But in Orlando, at a time when the team is at the very start of “rebuilding,” or whatever you guys want to call it, Nelson is still important. In fact, he’s way more important than he could ever be in any other situation. That is crucial for a player. Orlando is basically getting max production (and max focus and swagger) from a guy who very well could be out of a starting job had he landed on another team.
Love it or hate it, the other thing Jameer gives Orlando is an attacking option, even if an average one. With a lack of slashing perimeter players, Nelson, at the very least, is a guy who knows how to put the ball on the floor and attack the rim at this level. It’s an invaluable discipline and one that has gone missing in Orlando for a while. If Nelson doesn’t get signed, Orlando gets stagnant on the perimeter.
The sprinkles on the sundae in this whole situation is the prospect that Nelson may have a good bit left in the tank or that this sudden shift to “most tenured on the squad” might boost his game to another level. We saw just a few seasons back (2009) a guy who could get to the rack at will, a guy who connected on a little more than half of his long two’s for the entire season, and a guy who could bury a triple from almost every point around the arc. While he appears to be a few steps behind where he was in that last Orlando run to the Finals, it shouldn’t surprise anyone to see a pretty strong year from the vet, if for no other reason than the fact that he’ll be considered a much more valuable scoring and creating option than he was with Dwight sitting on the block.
Here’s the good news. Jameer is remarkably consistent. Outside of 2006 and his All-Star campaign in 2009, he has posted a Player Efficiency Rating between 14 and 16 (his career PER is 15.9). There is little evidence that suggests he’ll dip below that this season. Conversely, all the evidence points to him staying the course, at least from an individual standpoint.
I think Jameer will be fine and I think any fuss about him sticking around is for the birds. If anything, it’s a good thing for this “rebuilding” (if you’re going to call it that) season. And yes, Orlando will probably sell a few more tickets this year with him on the roster than without him. But that’s a different story altogether.