April 08, 2011
In his first season with the New Jersey Nets, the 6-foot-9 forward has seen his per-minute production in nearly every statistical category — points, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks, you name it — either drop to a career low or get darned close to one. As M. Haubs noted in his recent Random Hoop Musings at The Painted Area, Outlaw has posted an awful Player Efficiency Rating of 8.9, the fifth-worst PER among players who've logged at least 750 minutes in the NBA this year.
Tough times, everywhere you look. Including, it seems, in the sparsely settled stands at the Prudential Center.
In his postgame notebook following the Nets' win over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Tuesday night, Jake Appleman reported at NBA.com that at one point during the contest, Nets fans struck up "a sarcastic 'M-V-P' chant for Travis Outlaw." Al Iannazzone picked up the chant to lead a Thursday piece on Outlaw in The Record of Bergen County, N.J.:
As Travis Outlaw was attempting free throws Tuesday night a group of Nets fans inside Prudential Center mockingly chanted "M-V-P!"
You could find some truth to the chant, though. Outlaw has been the Nets' most vilified player and the most vulnerable player — to criticism, that is.
It's not at all hard to understand why fans are displeased with Outlaw. His across-the-board lackluster performance is certainly not the initial return that the Nets and their supporters hoped to see from the five-year, $35 million investment the team made in Outlaw as a free agent last offseason.
Plus, Outlaw presents a steady target for derision — despite his struggles, he's been a fixture of the Nets' lineup all season, starting 55 games for coach Avery Johnson and joining Brook Lopez(notes) as the only two Nets to suit up for every New Jersey game. When you're present, you're going to have to be accountable, and Outlaw's play has left quite a bit for which to answer.
That said: This is kind of a ... well, let's call it a "jerk" move, Nets fans.
I understand passionate fandom, how it can lead to outbursts of extreme exultation when things are going well, and how it can lead to other, less positive kinds of outbursts when they aren't. I'm on board with fans' freedom of speech and the idea that paying for a ticket affords you the right to express your feelings as you see fit.
And sure, this type of Bronx cheer sing-along is far from the worst thing that comes from the seats in a pro sports arena. Angry people, emboldened by the presence of like-minded folks, the safety of relative anonymity, booze or all of the above, often say much, much more awful things than "M-V-P, M-V-P." I get all of that.
But you know who I'm pretty sure already knows Travis Outlaw isn't the Most Valuable Player in the league? Travis Outlaw.
This is a 26-year-old man who finally got an opportunity to start after an injury-shortened 2010 that followed five-plus years of coming off the bench for the Portland Trail Blazers. Given his first real chance to shine, however, he has instead had a season-long nightmare.
Maybe he doesn't know all the grisly details, like that his marks of 37.6 percent from the field and 29.3 percent from 3-point land are both about five percentage points below his career averages. Or that according to BasketballValue.com and 82games.com, the Nets have been notably less efficient, especially on defense, with him on the floor than when he's on the bench. He might not have the proper distance or context to fully understand that, by most measurements, he's been one of the worst regulars in the league this season.
But do you think he somehow doesn't know that he's sucked this year? Do you think that doesn't suck for him, too?
Whether edified by grandstand snark or not, Outlaw told Iannazzone he understands that the last five months have been terrible:
"It was not a good season for me," said Outlaw, who had 11 points on 4-for-13 shooting in Wednesday's 116-109 loss to the Detroit Pistons. "It wasn't bad. I was at a new position. But I know I can do way better.
"I'm a little disappointed because I know I can play way better than what I'm doing."
Pick whatever explanation you want for Outlaw's poor play — maybe he's suffering from the square-peg-round-hole move of trying to make a career-long tweener into a full-time small forward. Maybe he's wilting under the pressure of trying to live up to his first sizable free-agent contract. Maybe he's succumbing to the general toxicity surrounding a Nets team that has now lost 124 of its last 160 games, or maybe he's just not that good.
Outlaw's career numbers do suggest that he can play better than this, though. And at age 26, it's not unreasonable to think he will again, whether it's for the Nets or for someone else; Iannazzone writes that New Jersey will try this summer to shed the remaining four years and $28 million of Outlaw's contract in search of an upgrade at the three. (Good luck with that.)
Players are paid to perform, and when they don't, they're going to be jeered; that, of course, is part of the bargain. And for fans of teams playing out the string after another fruitless year, late-season games can offer opportunities for bile to boil. The frustration is understandable.
But in this case, the method of expressing that frustration — sneering and snickering at a guy who's surely as aware of his failings as anybody and who has, if nothing else, continued to show up for work every day, face the music and give effort — doesn't come off witty, or clever, or sharp. It just seems bitter, and petty, and mean. Piling on. Another bad look in what, for New Jersey, has been a season full of them.