Around this time every July, after the initial burst and bloom of free agency, NBA teams with nearly full rosters find themselves picking through the ranks of the unsigned — vets on the outs, undrafted rookies, pros playing in Europe — in search of bargain-basement pickups to bring to training camp, where these overlooked players could earn a roster spot and perhaps even a big-league role come the regular season. Guys who've been rotation contributors on six playoff teams, have defined NBA skills, require only the veteran's minimum, are by all accounts healthy and haven't yet hit age 30 would seem to represent darn good value among those unsigned masses ... and yet Delonte West's phone doesn't seem to be ringing much these days.
The 6-foot-4 combo guard out of St. Joseph's, who has split eight seasons with the Boston Celtics, Seattle SuperSonics, Cleveland Cavaliers and Dallas Mavericks, hasn't seen NBA action in more than a year, and as he recently told SLAM's Tzvi Twersky, that's killing him:
“I had tears in my eyes watching games this past year — not because I’m bipolar, but because I’m sitting at home and miss the game,” West says. “When my agent calls, I’m going to be on the next flight. Not to be cocky, but some teams that are trying to win are one guard away, one guy that can make a couple great plays away from going to the Finals.
“Well, I’m right here,” he continues. “Y’all know it and I know it.”
We do know that West's "right here," and that "right here" means "out of the game." We also know, though, that the situation's more complicated than just, "You need a guard, so hire me."
West didn't suit up during the 2012-13 NBA season after a rapid-fire succession of disciplinary dealings — an indefinite suspension for "conduct detrimental to the team," a full reinstatement one day later and a second indefinite "conduct detrimental" suspension eight days after that — led the Dallas Mavericks to waive the guard just one day before the start of the regular season to make room for center Eddy Curry. After the unceremonious end to his time in Dallas, West didn't draw much serious attention from other NBA teams. (Apparently laying out his résumé for prospective employers didn't do much to sway decision-makers.)
The Memphis Grizzlies reportedly had some interest in bringing West in for a 10-day look-see before the trade deadline, but decided to go with swingman Chris Johnson instead. West was interested in pursuing a spot with the Mavericks' D-League affiliate, the Texas Legends, but changed his mind after Dallas owner Mark Cuban said he had no intention of bringing West back to the big-league club. After some hemming and hawing, West did report to the Legends in early March and played eight largely unremarkable games. No NBA club came calling after the D-League season ended, and that was that.
West, who turns 30 on Friday, thinks the lack of NBA interest had more to do with the media portrayal of his troubles over the years — primarily, his 2009 arrest for operating a motorcycle with a heavy-duty arsenal in a "Velcro-type bag" — than the troubles themselves, according to Twersky:
“Before that, coaches and GMs, they said I was a tough, scrappy player. They wanted to go war with me on their side,” says West. “Everything after that incident became, ‘did he take his medicine?’ Oh, ‘he’s bipolar.’” [...]
“Reporters can’t write a sentence — they can’t write a sentence about even a good game — without mentioning something from four years ago,” says West. “There are plenty of players arrested for DUIs, gun charges, this and that. [Meanwhile], they’ve made me into the Terminator.” [...]
“My whole life the court is the one place where people couldn’t laugh at my skin complexion, or the birthmark on my face or the red hair,” says West in a calm voice. “When I played basketball, because I worked so hard, it’s always been the one place where people couldn’t laugh at me.
“All of a sudden the laughter is now coming from the mainstream,” continues West. “Everywhere I look, the joke is on me.”
It's kind of difficult to know where to go with this sort of self-reflection from West. On one hand, he's right that an awful lot of the coverage about his trials and tribulations over the past few years have referenced his arrest, his on-court disciplinary issues (like, for example, sticking his finger in Gordon Hayward's ear apropos of nothing and then laughing about his $25,000 fine), and his struggles with bipolar disorder. On the other, while not every incident represents an "episode," those things are all undeniably part of West's larger story; they're going to get mentioned when recapping the valleys of his career, which is mostly what there's been to write about Delonte West over the past year or so.
Similarly, it's true that West's combination of talents as a secondary ball-handler, floor-spacing outside shooter, determined defender on both point guards and shooting guards, and veteran role player with playoff experience could represent low-cost quality depth off the bench for a team with postseason aspirations. But it's also true, and worth noting, that when he finally did get on the floor for the Legends in March, he shot 35 percent from the floor, went 2 for 10 from 3-point land and had nearly as many turnovers as assists during his eight-game D-League stay.
You can empathize with West's desire for another chance at the NBA, but you also have to acknowledge that when he was offered one by the Legends, he didn't report until about five weeks after he was acquired and then provided the kind of performance that doesn't get NBA personnel bosses to overlook potential headaches. Like I said: It's complicated. (It's also probably worth noting, as West hits age 30, that he's never played more than 71 games in a season in an eight-year NBA career, though Delonte told Twersky his body "is that of a guy who is 24 or 25” and that he believes he "can play this game 10 more years.”)
As someone who's always loved West's tenacity on the court, his defensive smarts, his ability to play a variety of roles depending on what schemes and matchups dictate, and his evident sense of humor, I'd love to see him back in the league, playing important minutes on a team of consequence in games that matter. But when Delonte follows up his promises to straighten up and fly right with the leveler, "I won’t give the media any more excuses," I get a little more skeptical that we're going to see that any time soon.
If West's fortunate enough to get another chance with an NBA team, here's hoping he proves that he's worth keeping around. I'd much rather write about that than the stuff West doesn't seem to like reading.