Just tell me my role, NBA players say. Heck, a lot of us in everyday life say the same thing in one way or another: Let me know my role. Then I’ll know what expectations I need to meet.
Here is a look at Drew Gooden’s roles for the Milwaukee Bucks the past two seasons:
- 2011-12: Veteran power forward forced to play center after Andrew Bogut’s left ankle fracture. Rotation guy-turned-full-time starter over the Bucks’ final 41 games, averaging 12.3 points, 7.0 rebounds and 29.0 minutes.
- 2012-13: Inactive-list placeholder and street-clothed afterthought for all 12 Milwaukee games so far. Averaging 0.0 across the board, because he hasn’t played a second.
Gooden has, for all practical purposes, been rendered invisible by coach Scott Skiles’ decision to use him as the odd man out when submitting his active roster each game night. Milwaukee has 15 players but can only have 13 available for game use, and even with Luc Mbah a Moute recovering from knee surgery, the frontcourt still is too crowded.
Skiles called it “a difficult situation, a difficult decision.” “We’ve got Sam and Ersan and John and Ekpe and Larry and Joel and Drew,” the coach said, rattling off the first names of Dalembert, Ilyasova, Henson, Udoh, Sanders, Przybilla and Gooden. “We’ve got seven big guys, and we like ‘em all. So it’s a tough spot to be in.”
It’s not as if Gooden has been outplayed in practice – obviously, there are no game performances to review this season – as a rationale for his banishment. Skiles said he talked with the team’s big men about the numbers crunch.
“What I told [them was] more than likely, I would have to put a guy or two out for no good reason,” Skiles said. ” I know it’s uncomfortable for him but he’s handling it very, very well.”
Even that’s a tricky thing though, isn’t it? If a player fusses and fumes over being drydocked, he’s selfish and distracting. But if he takes too readily to it, he must not care and be only interested in the paycheck.
So Gooden tries to split the difference, treating this stretch of inactivity like it’s a set of Juwan Howard Training Wheels. He practices hard, warms up before games longer than any of the Bucks, then retreats to shower and dress before tipoff rather than after the final horn. Gooden also finds ways to amuse himself; he engaged in a Twitter war with pal Joakim Noah and gave his game tickets Monday at United Center to fan who tweeted a photo of a Bulls jersey in a toilet.
“It’s something new,” he said after the Bucks’ comeback victory Monday at Chicago. “It’s something that I feel like, later on, down the road, I’m getting ready for in my career. So why not get a taste of it right now and see how I handle it.”
Now in his 11th season, playing for his ninth team, the No. 4 pick in the 2002 draft has averaged 12.0 points and 7.7 rebounds. He has started (493 games), come off the bench (178) and been sidelined by various ailments, including plantar fasciitis for all but 35 games in 2010-11.
“This is my role right now. I’m gonna accept it and do my best job at it. Sometimes it’s a hard pill to swallow. But if you can do that and show people that you can do it, it’s almost like a leadership skill. I feel like I’m setting an example, more than anything.”
A team that had too little size last season suddenly has too much. So much that Skiles could bench Dalembert for what reportedly was a late arrival to the arena Saturday against Chicago, use rookie Henson for just 78 seconds one game after he grabbed 18 rebounds and keep Gooden inactive – then get clobbered inside, with the Bulls grabbing 20 offensive rebounds.
It almost looks like the coach is trying to send a message about roster composition to the front office.
“There’s a lot of stuff going on,” Dalembert said. “I mean, there’s so many big men. Drew did tremendous for this team last year. Y’know, Drew doesn’t deserve to be where he is right now. It’s hard, it’s hard. But you try to stay positive and we keep supporting each other. He’s being a good professional.”
Skiles acknowledged that deploying Gooden this way is a choice. If he wanted, he could rotate various Bucks big men through the inactive list rather than burdening just one guy.
Then again, the inactive rule itself could be tweaked. It came about as a way to shed the old “injured list,” in which teams often had to fabricate an injury to warehouse someone. That system forced a player to sit a minimum of five games before being eligible to return.
“Ultimately what I want to see is, be able to dress everybody and be able to only play 12,” Skiles said. “I’d like to see that and I think most of the coaches would.”
In the meantime, Drew Gooden sits.