COMMENTARY | Has Chris "Birdman" Andersen found a permanent nest with the Miami Heat? Or will he flock to a more lucrative locale when he becomes an unrestricted free agent July 1?
Make no mistake, Bird (his preferred name, and I don't want any trouble) has gone from unemployed in January to a vital rotation player for the Heat, and someone they'd desperately like to bring back next season.
His offensive rating (points produced per 100 possessions) has exceeded his defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) by at least 19 points each of the last five seasons. What that means, in short, is that while Bird is in the game, his team is consistently dominant.
That's certainly been the case in Miami, as the Heat have gone 48-4 with Bird in the fold. He's regularly one of the league's top centers on a per-minute basis (averaging 12 points, 10 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per 48 minutes this year), a guy who indisputably makes his teams considerably better. LeBron James said after Miami's 103-102 overtime win over the Indiana Pacers in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals -- a game in which Bird set a Heat playoff record by shooting 7-for-7 for 16 points with five rebounds and three blocks -- that Miami would've lost the game without Bird's contributions.
Which begs the question: Why was someone so reliably efficient jobless in January when teams much worse than the Heat continue to employ the Earl Barrons and DeSagana Diops of the world? The answers may keep his price tag low enough for the Heat to keep Bird around for another year.
Substance-abuse problems knocked Bird out of the league for the entire 2006-07, and he appeared in just five games in 2007-08.
The ongoing legal investigation into Bird's possible involvement in internet crimes involving a minor convinced the Denver Nuggets to use their amnesty clause on him last July. He still hasn't been charged, and the image-conscious Heat clearly felt good enough about his role in the whole ordeal that Pat Riley finally signed off on his acquisition, at the behest of head coach Erik Spoelstra. But a cloud of unknown still lingers over the situation, and there's a public relations element involved for any team interested in signing a player facing such accusations.
Then, there's the look.
You'd think society would be past judging books by their cover or intimating that tattoos preclude athletes from being championship-caliber, at least in the NBA, where not being inked up leaves one in the minority. But Bird frequents the parlors more than most, and it's not crazy to think the older, conservative owners who sign players' checks are a bit uneasy about someone so aesthetically individualistic representing their organization.
Bird's limited utility is the final strike against him. He's averaged over 20 minutes per game just twice in his 11-year career, and he has hovered around 15 minutes a night for the last three. He's a role player with a small gas tank, a niche guy. No matter how effective he is during those 15 minutes, teams may be reticent to commit $4-5 million guaranteed for multiple years to a guy capable of playing about a third of the game.
And those drawbacks could be enough to keep him in Miami going forward. Bird's found a soft landing in Miami, where a franchise that not so long ago banned its players from wearing headbands now embraces all the quirks that come with its cult hero of a backup center.
Miami is well over the salary cap and luxury tax, but the taxpayer mid-level exception ($3.18 million in 2013-14) might be enough to lure Bird back. The attractiveness of that exception will depend on the quality of offers Bird gets from teams with cap room or the non-taxpayer mid-level, which is about $2 million more than the one Miami can, and will, offer. If the Heat were coming off back-to-back championships, that probably wouldn't hurt the recruiting effort, either.
The combination of Bird's past and his current comfort in Miami might just be enough to keep one of the league's most interesting personalities in a Heat uniform for another season.
Rob Smith is the sports editor at the Venice Gondolier Sun newspaper in Venice, Fla.
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