This isn’t the best of times for NBA Arkansans.
The playoffs began this weekend with defending champion Miami Heat as the most overwhelming favorite to win it all since the early 2000s Lakers. Back then, Arkansans played pivotal roles on a few title contenders. Little Rock native Derek Fisher, of course, manned the point for Los Angeles, which had to push through powerful Portland teams featuring Scottie Pippen.
A few years later, Corliss Williamson aided the Detroit Pistons’ push to a championship and an injury to Little Rock native Joe Johnson might have been the biggest reason Steve Nash’s run-and-gun Phoenix Suns never made the NBA Finals.
Eight years later, Johnson again finds himself in a supporting role. This time, though, instead of sprinting beside Nash and Amare Stoudemire, he’s jogging with Deron Williams and Brook Lopez on the No. 4 seed Brooklyn Nets. These days, production from Johnson, age 31, is trending downward. This season Johnson averaged 16.3 points on 42.3% shooting – the lowest averages since his second season.
The biggest reason for the drop has been nagging injuries – plantar fasciitis and a quad contusion – since February. Johnson, a six-time All-Star, needs a big playoff series against the No. 5 seed Bulls to give the Nets’ legitimate hope of dethroning Miami. If he’s looking for inspiration, he need look no farther than a series preview which ran in the Chicago Sun-Times.
In it is a position-by-position matchup analysis that pits Johnson, a six-time All-Star who has plenty big-time playoff experience, with Jimmy Butler, a 23-year-old who had played four playoff minutes in his career. The advantage went to Chicago.
By far, the most Arky-fied matchup is in the West, where Junction City native James Anderson and former Razorback Patrick Beverley helped Houston finish the season strong to lock up the eighth seed. Beverley, though, projects to play a much larger role than Anderson against No. 1 Oklahoma City. The 6-1 guard with a 6-7 wingspan joined Houston in January and has proven to be every bit the disruptive defender in the NBA that he was at Arkansas and in Europe. Beverley’s defense of Russell Westbrook is critical to Houston’s upset bid. [The task won’t be easy]
It should be no surprise to Hog fans that P-Bev is the NBA’s second best guard in offensive rebounding rate. In 2007-08, he was Arkansas’ shortest starter yet led the team with 6.6 rebounds a game.
Guards Derek Fisher and Ronnie Brewer are Oklahoma City substitutes. Fisher keeps ticking at age 38 but as his overall numbers continue to dwindle year-by-year it’s apparent he won’t be able to postpone his career’s end much longer. Still, it should not be taken for granted that dude is still playing point guard in the NBA at 38. That in itself is amazing, 33.3% FG shooting be damned.
Brewer, a former Razorback All-American, is a conundrum. He looked like a long-term NBA starter early in his career for the Jazz but in the last three years has bounced between four other teams. These playoffs could determine whether future teams are willing to invest millions more dollars into the 6-7 28-year-old or not.
Brewer’s long-term pro future hinges on his ability to improve his shooting, which has nosedived in the last two seasons. But, realistically, the Thunder don’t need Brewer to shoot even once to prove valuable in these playoffs. His true calling will likely come in a potential Finals rematch with Miami, when he would be summoned from the depths for the most grave task of climbing Mt. Defense. At the summit, above him, will glow LeBron James. Nothing short of a full-fledged living sacrifice will be expected.
“Human pinata” is not the sort of future Hog fans envisioned for Brewer when his career seemed so promising in Utah. Still, there’s no shame in being an NBA Arkansan who is expected to do not-so-big things in the playoffs. Everybody, it appears, is in the same boat.
But just because these guys don’t project to take center court on a national level, they still grab the spotlight right on this blog.
If Fisher wins a sixth NBA title, he joins Pippen as the NBA Arkansan with the most rings. Where does Fisher rank, though, in other statistical categories?
Stay tuned for Part 2 for a breakdown of the Top 5 NBA Arkansans in each statistical category.
This piece is slated to publish in SYNC magazine.