A season ago Jerryd Bayless made his first trip to Portland as a member of an NBA team other than the Trail Blazers. Bayless, for those of you who might have forgotten, was taken 11th overall by the Indiana Pacers in the 2008 draft and immediately shipped to the Blazers. He was the kind of dynamic scoring point guard in training who, when teamed with All-Pro Brandon Roy, would put the Blazers’ backcourt over the top.
After two underwhelming seasons proving that he might not, in fact, be a point guard, Bayless was traded to the New Orleans Hornets (now the Pelicans) for a conditional future first round draft pick—basically nothing.
Bayless was traded a second time in 2010, this time to the Toronto Raptors, and because of the nuances of NBA scheduling and the 2011 lockout, it took him two whole seasons to make his return to the Rose Center (the former name for the Rose Garden, as some of you old-schoolers may recall).
On the night of his return as member of the Memphis Grizzlies, on March 12, of this year, Bayless stood at the free-throw line and iced a 102-97 victory. When asked how it felt to put the finishing touches on the team that drafted him and then dismissed him for a player (Armon Johnson) who currently plays his professional basketball in Kazakhstan, he says, “Honestly, Portland is so far behind me, I really don’t care. It is what it is.”
This is the traditional attitude of young players who get traded before reaching free agency. As a quick primer, rookies are subject to “rookie-scale” contracts that last between two and four years, locking players in at a cheap rate until they develop into big free agents, struggle and get cut, or ask for too much money and get traded.
A young player that is traded by the team that drafted him, especially if that team took him in the draft lottery, is basically being told that they are no longer worth the investment—an investment sometimes worth millions of dollars. When this happens, a young player is well within his rights to be upset. And he may use that anger and aggression to stick it to his old team whenever he gets the chance.
The NBA being the NBA though, that tends to not happen. Or at least, it tends to not be advertised.
This season’s Blazer team is home to yet another high draft pick who was traded by the team that took him. Thomas Robinson, drafted last season by the Sacramento Kings one spot higher than Damian Lillard, was traded in the middle of his rookie year to the Houston Rockets, and traded again to Portland during his first professional off-season.
In the second week of this young Blazer season, Robinson was given the chance to face-off against his first team twice in two nights. And the first night, Robinson—a power forward long on athleticism and potential but with some considerable ground to cover before he can be regarded as a real impact player—went out and had just about his best night as a Blazer.
Can some credit for that success be given to Robinson wanting to prove to his old team that he’s found a place with his new team, and that maybe they should have given him more than 51 games to prove his worth? Not to hear him tell it.
“It’s over with,” Robinson said. “It’s a business. I got traded. It probably won’t be the last time. I’ll move again. It’s a business, you’ve got to accept that and keep playing. This is about the Blazers, it’s not about Thomas Robinson getting traded.”
In a league that makes considerable hay out of clichés both tired and worn, “it’s a business” is one of the most tired. It’s also one of the very first NBA neophytes learn. And it could also be the cliché steeped in the most truth. The NBA is a business. The decisions made by NBA owners are business decisions. And if we know anything about business, it’s that it’s not personal.
But are all NBA players ambivalent to the teams they used to play for? Not exactly. When Mo Williams, a veteran of 10 years and five teams, was asked the same question as Robinson—if there is an added incentive to shine when your opponent is the team that brought you into the league—his answer was a bit different.
“Absolutely. You want to play well,” Williams said, adding, “And I’m happy for [Robinson] for doing that."
For Williams, possibly enough time has passed since he was drafted in 2003 by the Utah then traded after his first season that he doesn’t feel like he has to offer lip service to the “it’s a business” cliché. Maybe with age, an NBA player is allowed to acknowledge that some things are personal.
The important thing, though, is that Robinson—a question mark at the back-up power forward position that could really help the Blazers should they want to actually compete in the Western Conference in 2013-14—had at least one productive outing against his old team.
Robinson won’t get to play Sacramento every night, the Blazers and Kings only face each other two more times this season, but it might help him to pretend. Against the Detroit Pistons, in Portland’s first game after facing the Kings on back-to-back nights, Robinson managed only two field goal attempts in just over five minutes on the court.
Over the course of those same five minutes, Robinson laid a goose egg in both rebounds and points. He’s going to have to do better than that if he wants to stay in the Blazers’ rotation—and he’s going to have stay in the rotation if he’s going to want keep Portland off his growing list of former teams.