Chris Andersen got a shot. Despite the legal trouble that preceded this season, despite the lack of general interest, someone gave him a chance. He signed a minimum deal with a playoff team, working his way into a rotation, injecting athleticism, enthusiasm and flamboyance into a front line that needed him. His strong form carried into the playoffs, where he has made a ridiculous percentage of his carefully managed shots, blocked everything in sight, and made the Conference Finals behind a star small forward.
This is the story of Birdman and the 2012-13 Heat, a contender made even more contendery off an opportunistic waiver wire pickup. But if the story sounds strikingly familiar, it may be because we have seen it before.
Coming off a 2 year drug suspension and a poor, uneventful 5 game post-reinstatement stint with the Hornets, Andersen was something of scorched ground in the summer of 2008. He nonetheless returned to the team that kickstarted his NBA career as the Carmelo Anthony/Allen Iverson (soon-to-be-Chauncey-Billups) Nuggets signed him to a minimum deal, and excelled in his role off the bench for the best team the Nuggets have fielded in the George Karl era. The parallels to this year were striking – people couldn’t understand where this guy had come from, how the Nuggets are getting him for the minimum, how big his impact was on a huge run. He even knocked a Conference Finals game out of the park.
Of course, said performance was parlayed into a 5 year deal that was either too long, too expensive, or just too optimistic. As the makeup of the Nuggets changed for completely different reasons, JaVale McGee took away his shot blocking, hyperathletic, questionable-sanity big man spot. That and an odd, charge-less investigation eventually led to him being amnestied. He was then given a 10 day contract from the Heat during their annual big man tryout tour; they have lost 4 times in the 52 games since.
The natural reaction when a contender finds a cheap contributor lying around is one of inevitability, a feeble acknowledgement of the rich-getting-richer proposition that has no solution and fuels all aspects of life. The 2009 Lakers stumbling into Trevor Ariza in a Brian Cook salary dump, or the 2008 Celtics giving the P.J. Brown resuscitation project one last go, or whatever it was that came into Peja Stojakovic for the 2011 Mavs.
Andersen’s situation was different. He was not buried in the rough, nor off-the-radar. Rather, he was a known quantity who was not worth the trouble. 34 years old, an unknown legal situation, world-renowned oddball, he was largely absent from the Nuggets last season, seemingly by the organization’s own choice. He’s just ostentatious enough to create controversy, and just slightly too anonymous to compensate for it by winning a press conference. Not signing Chris Andersen was a pretty easy move to explain; at least, it was, until he got his sliver and burst through it. Again.
Game 1 against the Pacers was a perfect extension of that. Not even a Birdman Optimization Engine could come up with a better Chris Andersen game. 16 points on 7 of 7 shooting is pretty much inherently perfect, but the nature of those shots were well-fitting of a Chris Andersen stencil. A dunk off a LeBron drive, a layup trailing Wade in transition – much like in January, whenever Miami glanced his way, Birdman was conveniently available.
NBA stars are memorable by sheer existence, but role players tend to only be as memorable as they were prevalent on national television, whether via market or success. The Birdman moniker and the colorful skin would have entrenched him in our minds anyway, but there is still something comforting about the idea that the two seasons that gave us the most Playoff Chris Andersen were born from off-court situations that fit perfectly with his on court persona of opportunism.
That may be why his 2009-2012 seasons with Denver retroactively feel like down years, even though his numbers were pretty much the same as they were before the 5 year deal (though they did take a dip in 2009-2010). You can’t have Birdman on an actual contract getting actual chunks of your salary cap, just like you can’t have him anchor your defense or be an active part of an offensive play – sooner rather than later, you end up focusing on everything that he can’t do. The smarter, funner thing to do is to watch everything else that goes on and be pleasantly surprised when he produces on the minimum or flies in for a dunk, and grin as he leaves with a flap of the wings.