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Holding Pattern

Jason Terry has become an NBA hot potato.

Last night Terry was traded to the Sacramento Kings along with some huge guy of questionable talent, in exchange for a slightly younger, smaller and more dynamic guy, also of questionable talent. Those details aren’t important. What’s important is that this was the second time Terry had been traded since the end of last season and this transaction was essentially a giant banner officially announcing the end of his relevance as an NBA player.

That’s not to say Terry doesn’t have meaningful contributions to make in Sacramento (although his 36.2 percent shooting would seem to indicate otherwise). It’s just that any other positive contributions he makes on the basketball court this season will be akin to shouting down a well. As Principal Edward Rooney would say, Sacramento Kings’ basketball is a first class ticket to nowhere.

Terry spent eight years with the Dallas Mavericks, winning a total of 419 games. He played a total of 20,219 minutes for the Mavericks, and all but a few were of the meaningful variety. Terry’s career numbers will fall well short of a Hall of Fame resume, but over the past fifteen years he’s played as much pressure-packed basketball as anyone, and built a reputation on rising to the occasion. His legacy is one of swagger and chatter, thoroughly supported by action. Joe Namath guaranteed a championship victory but didn’t have the foresight or imagination to get that guarantee tattooed on his bicep…before the season began….a full eight months before he would have an opportunity to make good on his promise. Jason Terry is the patron saint of backing it up.

But he’s also become a sad caricature of himself.

When Terry left the Dallas Mavericks it was to be a key bench contributor as the Pierce-Garnett Celtics made one last championship push. Although he left a giant, smoking crater in the Celtics back-court, it seemed conceivable he could play that sort of role for the Brooklyn Nets when he accompanied Pierce and Garnett on their move down the Atlantic seaboard. Instead, he’s continued his descent into the volcanic mouth of NBA oblivion. The Nets had no need for his sub-40 percent shooting or ability to pile swagger on top of swagger. And the prospect of paying him nearly six million dollars next year to continue his brutal, brick-hurling assault on the Barclays Center rims and backboards was not an appetizing proposition.

So he’s been shipped off to Sacramento and you can almost see him heading out of Brooklyn; walking every-so-slowly off the court, doing the Sam Cassell cojones-juggle, while the sad, walking away music from The Incredible Hulk plays over the Barclays Center’s PA system.

I’ve always had a soft spot for Jason Terry. I don’t know if was the knee-high socks, slightly off-kilter headband or the way my existing relationship with Reggie Miller made me predisposed towards shooters who jawed their way back up the court after each made shot. I’m not much for video games but I always loved the NBA Live series, even though I never really enjoyed actually playing the game. My vice was taking over a franchise, completely cleaning house and rebuilding the roster from scratch. Terry was always a part of the process, regardless of what team I was remaking, and so I’ve seen a miniature, digital Terry in every NBA jersey.

But he still looked weird in a Celtics’ jersey, weirder still in the new black-and-white garb of the Nets. I don’t even want to picture him in the elegant, royal, purple-and-black of the Sacramento Kings. It’s been six seasons since the Kings amassed more than 30 wins in a season and eight since they made the playoffs. Over that time their style of basketball has swung like a pendulum between degenerative chaos and a rich, deep blanketing of ennui. Either seems like a cruel purgatory to end a career in. Basketball matters to Jason Terry and Jason Terry matters to basketball, but probably not in Sacramento.

I don’t mean to paint him as a victim. He signed a contract that placed his compensation far above his projected value. He made himself an afterthought in both Boston and New York with staggeringly ineffective play. Circumstance and Terry’s own production have made sure that the basketball he’s played the past two seasons didn’t matter. But it all seemed transitory, not permanent, until faced with a move to Sacramento. If he, or his team, could catch a few breaks, importance would come rushing back in like the evening tide. But that faint prospect has now been quashed. He’ll get to play some back-up minutes for the Kings, force some jumpers, maybe even celebrate some meaningless heroics. Or perhaps he’s here to sharpen the edges on Ben McLemore and that nice Mormon kid everyone was so high on, passing on his histrionics and preparing for a role as a veteran mentor. I suppose it’s even possible that Terry could be headed for a buyout, finishing the season as a Ronin wandering the NBA looking for a home.

Either way, the magic has faded. Talent ebbs, age advances, every career ends. But the impending end for Terry feels especially unfair. It’s not just about losing the ability to do the things you’ve always done, it’s about losing the identity those things built. Without impact, swagger and confidence seem ridiculous and depressing. Like a middle-aged man with a hairpiece and a brand-new sports car, these days, watching Terry jet around the court with arms spread wide is depressing, a joke everyone is in on but him. There is still a place of honor for Jason Terry in the shrouded halls of memory. But I’m not sure what sort of place there is for him in today’s NBA.

Ian Levy

Ian Levy (@HickoryHigh) writes about basketball from the wilds of Southern Vermont. In addition to his work for Hardwood Paroxysm, he is the man behind the curtain at Hickory-High and a contributor to Indy Cornrows, The Two Man Game and HoopChalk.