It usually happens later. For Shaun Livingston, however, it happened early – too early – in what should have been a long, illustrious NBA career. It, of course, is the transition from being a present or future franchise centerpiece to being a capable and important role player. Most often, players have to make this transition due to a debilitating injury – or simply old age – that robs them of their all-world skill.
It’s something that many players struggle with; Allen Iverson refused to subjugate his game and flamed out of the league. Stephon Marbury couldn’t handle not being the focal point of a team.
Others, though, attack the task with zeal. Tracy McGrady transitioned from All-NBA small-forward to backup point guard and offensive facilitator. It took him a few years, five teams and a bunch of knee and back injuries to get there, but he did it. Grant Hill was one of the best players in the league in Detroit and Orlando, but injuries sapped his explosiveness and derailed much of his career. Since landing in Phoenix, he’s excelled as a premier wing defender and fill-in-the-blanks guy. Tim Duncan has slid gracefully into a secondary role in San Antonio after so long being the focal point of everything the Spurs wanted to accomplish.
We constantly praise those that are capable of making this transition, deriding those who can’t while at the same time ignoring how difficult it must be. Just how humbled by your declining talent or lack of physical capabilities do you have to be in order to recognize that you can no longer do what you once could? And then, even after that realization, how hard is it to inhabit a new role so different from the one you occupied for most of your life? How ego-less do you have to be to make such a transition? We, as fans and consumers, assume and expect that players will do everything in their power to subjugate their game for the betterment of the team and for the elongation of their careers while often declining to see the bigger picture.
“Allen Iverson would be so good as a secondary player if he would just take less shots and become more of a distributor,” we’d say. “His quickness and his court vision could allow for him to create so many open shots for teammates,” goes the narrative, as we don’t stop to think about whether taking the attack dog mentality out of Iverson would completely and permanently diminish is effectiveness. “T-Mac is such a good passer, such a smart player. He’s long and strong and quick. He can use that to his advantage and become a point forward and defensive stopper,” we opine, while ignoring the fact that he’s likely never played either role in his life. Necessity and circumstance often force players into roles they never imagined having, and it’s only the strongest among them – mentally – that are able to succeed.
Livingston, once a future star for the Los Angeles Clippers, has developed into a steady backup guard for the Milwaukee Bucks this season after playing well in the same role for the Charlotte Bobcats last year.
But let’s rewind for a minute. Livingston was supposed to be a superstar. The long, lanky, 6-foot-7 point guard reminded many scouts of a young Magic Johnson, and with reason. Livingston’s passing, his vision and his creativity were unparalleled in his class. He played the game with a youthful exuberance that few others could match. He was named co-MVP of the McDonald’s All-American Game as a high school senior in 2004, and was hailed as a top 5 draft pick and potential franchise savior.
The Clippers made him the 4th overall selection in the 2004 NBA Draft. They already had Sam Cassell on their roster, so Livingston was their backup point guard and sometimes shooting guard. He struggled a bit with injuries through his first two seasons, but was still a valuable contributor on the 2005-06 Clippers team that made a surprise appearance in the playoffs. Livingston played pretty well in the playoffs that year, putting up averages of 7.5 points, 4.7 rebounds and 4.8 assists in 27.7 minutes per game off the bench.
The 2006-07 season finally saw Livingston beginning to live up to his endless potential. He started over half the Clippers’ games and was playing nearly 30 minutes a night, averaging just over 9 points and 5 assists per. He was shooting a career-high 46% from the field. He was rebounding more, turning it over less, taking smart shots and getting the Clippers into their offense. On February 23, 2007, Livingston dished out a career-high 14 assists against the Golden State Warriors. Things were looking up for the young man from Peoria, IL. Little did he know that just three days later, everything would change. If you’ve already seen it, I urge you not to watch the video below. If you haven’t, prepare your eyes for one of the most gruesome sports injuries ever (Livingston’s injury comes at the 1:51 mark, I was unable to find any singular clips on YouTube).
Livingston’s knee was shot. He tore his ACL, MCL, PCL and lateral meniscus and dislocated his patella and tibia-femoral joint for good measure. His career as we knew it was over right then and there, almost before it started. Livingston never played for the Clippers again. He bounced around the league over the next few years, catching on here and there, teams hoping they could tap into that limitless potential he once had, but it was for naught. Livingston wasn’t the same player, and he never would be. He was signed by the Miami Heat and traded 4 games later to the Memphis Grizzlies. Memphis waived him on the spot.
He then landed with the Tulsa 66ers, the D-League affiliate of the Oklahoma City Thunder, eventually impressing them enough to earn a call up back to the big team. He played sparingly in 8 games and was mildly effective. He appeared in just 10 games the next season before being waived again. Livingston then landed in Washington, where he played out two consecutive 10-day contracts before being signed for the rest of the season. He was on his way back.
In 26 games and 18 starts for the Wizards in the 2009-10 season, Livingston averaged 9.2 points per game on 53.5% shooting andÂ chipped in 2.2 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game for good measure. He played well enough to earn himself a 2-year guaranteed contract with the Charlotte Bobcats for $7 million, covering the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons. Livingston appeared in a career-high 73 games for the Bobcats last season. He played less minutes, but he made the most of them; he was no less effective than he was in his short stint with Washington the year before. His per-36 minutes numbers were some of the best of his career.
Livingston’s in Milwaukee now, mostly splitting his time backing up Brandon Jennings at the point and Stephen Jackson and Carlos Delfino at the 2-guard spot. He’s logging 23 minutes a game and has actually started 18 of the Bucks’ 31 contests. Even in games like yesterday’s against the New Jersey Nets where he struggled from the field, Livingston is finding a way to make an impact. Despite a 1-for-9 shooting line, he still managed to tally 10 points, 3 rebounds and 6 assists in his 34 minutes in a 7-point Bucks victory. In Milwaukee’s shocking comeback win over the Miami Heat last month, the game that saw Brandon Jennings go off from the three-point line, Livingston put up what was possibly his best line of the season with 10, 5 and 5, and 2 steals as the cherry on top.
Every once in a while, he gives us a blast from the past.
He’s not a building block. He’s not a centerpiece. He’s just a guy that fits in. And that’s okay. Most of us are just happy to see him back out there.