HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Josh Childress has no regrets.
And he’s not looking for a payday or anyone’s pity. Let’s clear all of that up now, before we get into the meat of his story, a comeback one of sorts, in need of an appropriate ending.
His only desire is to finish what he started nearly a decade ago, when he was the sixth pick in the 2004 NBA Draft and began what was supposed to be a long and promising NBA career with the Atlanta Hawks.
No, contrary to the rumors circulating in the basketball universe, he is not ready to retire. Far from it. He has not lost an ounce of the desire that he had the day he first set foot in the league. He is simply a veteran player whose career has taken enough twists and turns the last five years you’d need motion sickness medicine to survive it.
“It’s been a ride, a wild ride,” said Childress, who is three weeks away from finishing up his degree at Stanford while training vigorously in Palo Alto, Calif., and contemplating his next basketball move. “It’s not about the money for me. It’s about having an opportunity to get back out there and play the game at the highest level. That’s what is important to me.”
Childress is a free agent this summer, just another seasoned veteran looking for the right training-camp fit, the right place to show that he can still play a vital role for the right team in a mutually beneficial situation.
He’s just a month past his 30th birthday and is as healthy as ever, as athletic as ever, his basketball IQ remains off the charts and his body is fresh. After all, he’s played just 1,485 minutes in 102 games over the past three seasons with the Phoenix Suns and Brooklyn Nets. But he’s operating in a realm where the prevailing wisdom of the day changes like the wind. What’s hot today is ancient history tomorrow. Fall off the NBA radar long enough and you’ll fade into obscurity.
“I feel like I’m the best I’ve ever been right now,” Childress said. “When I was with the Hawks it was a little different. I’d been there four years and really grown in that system. We all knew each other and knew each other’s tendencies. And I don’t think I’ve changed as a player since then. For a guy like me, it’s always been a matter of the right fit. My time in Phoenix … it just wasn’t the fit i thought it would be and they thought it would be. That’s not a good or a bad thing, it’s the way it is. You look around the league every year and guys are in situations that work and some that don’t, and a change of scenery changes everything.”
One choice alters career path
Childress made a drastic change in scenery five years ago, a move that altered the course of his career and carved out his place in NBA free-agent lore. He is far removed from that spotlight now, but five years ago he was in a much different space. He was dealing with the constraints of restricted free agency and a Hawks franchise that was in tumult as members of its ownership group were embroiled in a legal fight that overshadowed everything.
Childress’ unprecedented move to bolt for Greece and a groundbreaking contract with Euroleague power, Olympiacos, landed him a deal that would pay him the equivalent of $32.5 millions over three years. That deal dwarfed the five-year, $33 million the Hawks offered only after learning that the deal from Olympiacos was on the table and legitimate option for Childress.
He accepted Olympiacos’ offer — one that he could not refuse — and made a business decision no matter how controversial it might have seemed at the time. That decision, along with the five-year, $34 million deal he signed when the Hawks traded him to the Suns after he returned from his two-year stint in Greece, is one of the reasons his comeback story now isn’t about getting another lucrative pay-day.
That’s also what makes his current predicament so perplexing. In a league where money and championships serve as the ultimate motivators, in different order for different players at different times in their careers, Childress is someone decision-makers have had a hard time figuring out.
“We honestly haven’t seen enough of him the last couple of years to know what he’s got [left] and what’s driving him now,” an Eastern Conference executive said. “There’s no doubt he was a solid payer before he went to Europe. He was one of the best sixth-men in the league and on a team that was on the rise. I watched him a little bit when he was in Europe and he played well. He didn’t dominate necessarily, but he was solid. But since he came back [to the NBA] it’s been a mixed bag. The Suns were a mess when he was there and they ended up amnestying him. And he only played like 14 or 15 games with the Nets before they waived him. This is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business, man. Everyone knows that.”
Childress was the victim of an ill fit, some poor timing and plain bad luck in his last two NBA stops.
Stats revolution affects Childress’ future
A broken ring finger on his shooting hand slowed him down in his first season with the Suns. He came back sooner than he probably should have, given his desire to prove himself after playing in Europe, and was in a system where wings were spot-up shooters and not the jacks-of-all-trades player Childress thrives at being.
He was on a non-guaranteed deal in Brooklyn was playing lights out in the preseason before a severely sprained ankle knocked him out of the rotation and opened the door for veteran Jerry Stackhouse, who promptly went on a shooting tear. Childress was slated to serve as Gerald Wallace‘s backup, but never got the chance. When it became clear that he wasn’t going to be in the Nets’ plans, he requested and was granted his release.
In the larger scope, Childress has also become a casualty of the analytics revolution that has swept through the league the past five years. High-percentage jump shooters who stretch the floor have become the new utility players who cash in most during free agency (see Kyle Korver and J.J. Redick this summer).
There’s always room for a pro’s pro on someone’s roster, a guy who does all of the dirty work and accepts that role. But now that guy needs to be a dead-eye shooter, too. And while Childress is a career 33 percent 3-point shooter (52 percent from the floor overall), he’ll never be confused for one of these shooting specialists.
But he knows there is always a place for the skills he has honed over the course of his career. He just needs the right setting to show it … again.
“You know it’s really training camp, just being able to show what I can do on the court,” he said. “You get on the court in that situation and do the little things I’ve always tried to do; hustling and rebounding, and all the stuff that helps my team win. More than anything, what I’d love is to get into a situation where I’m with somebody who actually believes in me and what I can bring to a team. I can’t say that I’ve had that lately.”
Fighting for one last chance
Between dispelling foolish rumors and having to remind executives that he was drafted ahead of guys like Andre Iguodala, Luol Deng and even his friend and former Hawks teammate, Josh Smith, for reason, this summer has been a trying process for Childress’ camp.
“Without question it’s frustrating,” said his agent, Chris Emens. “It’s frustrating that so many of the experts … it’s funny how quickly things change. Josh hasn’t changed as a person or a player since he got back from Greece. It’s almost mind-boggling to see him go from a guy worth $6 million a year to fighting for a contract. The thing I love is that Josh wants to fight for it. It’s really not about the money for him. It’s about pride and proving people wrong. I’ve never seen him with chip on his shoulder like this.”
That chip will rest squarely on that shoulder until training camp, wherever that might be. But it’ll be a slow-burn for the always measured Childress. He’s had offers to play elsewhere, overseas. Ironically enough, Olympiacos pursued him again, though it wasn’t an offer he couldn’t refuse this time.
He’s focused strictly on the NBA this time around in free agency.
“I’m patient,” Childress said. “I realize the situation that I’m in. I’ve had offers to go elsewhere. But I feel like I am a NBA player and I can still play at a high level. It’s a mater of getting in a situation where I can do that.”