DENVER — There was a debate nearly six years ago before the 2008 NBA draft. Who was the better, more NBA-ready guard, Jerryd Bayless or Russell Westbrook?
There was a case made for Bayless. He was a high-scoring guard from the University of Arizona, a one-and-done who was prepared to take his offensive arsenal to the next level. Yet, he hasn’t been able to showcase that arsenal. In the NBA, he has been a volume scorer off the bench, nothing more. He had started just 45 of his 340 NBA games before Tuesday night, when the Celtics became his fifth team in six seasons.
He is a 25-year-old journeyman and an impending free agent, meaning the next 48 games will be spent attempting to impress a club — perhaps even the Celtics — to commit to a contract. But time is running out. The deal that sent him to Boston for Courtney Lee in a three-way deal with Oklahoma City is the fourth time he has been traded.
Bayless has played with the Trail Blazers, Hornets, Raptors, Grizzlies, and now the Celtics.
On Sunday, after he had 10 points, 5 assists, and 3 rebounds in 26 minutes in a Grizzlies victory at Detroit, he found out about the impending deal to Boston from agent Jeff Schwartz. And he said he knew before tipoff that it likely would be his last game as a Grizzly.
He scored 6 points on 3-for-11 shooting in his first game with the Celtics, Tuesday night’s 129-98 loss to the Nuggets.
With Bayless’s contract expiring, and with Lee having a better season and being signed for two more seasons, Bayless was expendable. But he sounded Tuesday before the Celtics’ shootaround at the Pepsi Center like a player looking for some faith from an organization.
“I’ve been traded a couple of times before, so it’s nothing new to me,” he said. “It’s difficult at first, but once the initial shock wears off, you move on with it and that’s what I’m trying to do.”
But the possibility of being a basketball journeyman isn’t much discussed when players are considering leaving school three years early, or at the rookie symposium. Bayless was supposed to be a superstar at this point. He dropped nearly 20 points per game with Arizona, but unfortunately he is a shooting guard in a point guard’s body, and those undersized scorers are expendable in the NBA.
Bayless is one of the league’s more impressive binge scorers when he’s on, and against the Celtics the past two years, he has been unstoppable. He totaled 67 points against Boston in the past four games for Memphis, a total of 82 minutes. He brings something the Celtics haven’t had since the heyday of Eddie House, a shooter who can score in bunches off the bench. That’s a very specific role for a 25-year-old with aspirations of a lucrative contract and becoming a starter, so Bayless is in a quandary. If he flourishes as a scorer, he cements his reputation as merely an offensive player.
Bayless would like an opportunity to show more.
“I’ve played the [point guard], I’ve played the [shooting guard], I’ve been kind of the scoring niche off the bench and I have bounced around a lot,” he said. “And I am looking for a home where I can just settle in. I don’t think it’s a negative, because every time you bounce around, somebody else wants you. That’s the way I try to look at it. Here, hopefully this can be one of my last stops. I’ll try to make the best of this situation.”
The impatience of organizations, their desire to move contracts and dip under luxury taxes, have made younger players more disposable, especially if they have the reputation of being limited defensively. Just ask Celtics guard Jordan Crawford.
While Westbrook is a multiple All-Star who has played with one franchise, Bayless is still seeking stability. The NBA wasn’t supposed to work out this way, not for somebody with so much pure offensive talent.
“It’s disappointing for the first couple of days,” he said about changing teams. “I think once you get traded initially it’s kind of disappointing. The hardest part is you build relationships with people. This business is so uncertain at times, but you still build relationships with so many people. And just to have to pick up and move all your stuff and move your life to another city, it’s tough, it’s very tough.
“But I guess it’s something all of us have signed up for and you have to be ready for it.”
Bayless was prepared. He arrived in Denver Monday morning and waited in the team hotel until the deal was official. He said he doesn’t know many of the Celtics all that well. He looked like the kid who transferred into homeroom halfway through the semester, but there was no time for deep breaths. He came off the bench Tuesday night, pressed into a familiar role of scorer.
Bayless has got a few months to make a good impression. This summer easily could produce his sixth stop in seven years, but Bayless appears anesthetized to the change.
This not what he envisioned, but it’s his reality.