In a league so often susceptible to the cynicisms of greater society, Shaun Livingston emerged last season as that rarest of things: a feel-good story everyone, from teammates to casual fans, could get behind.
Seven years after sustaining one of the most gruesome and devastating knee injuries in NBA history, Livingston became one of the Brooklyn Nets’ most trusted rotational cogs—a two-way threat with instincts and intelligence to match his length and athleticism.
Livingston’s season was so successful, in fact, that he may have played his way out of Brooklyn entirely.
According to a report by ESPN’s Marc Stein, the Nets are discussing a trade with the Cleveland Cavaliers involving Marcus Thornton and Jarrett Jack—due, at least in part, to Livingston’s impending free agency:
The Nets, sources say, are already weighing their backcourt options because they're concerned about losing Livingston to a richer offer than league rules will allow Brooklyn to make in free agency after Livingston exceeded all expectations last season playing on a minimum contract.
Because it is so far into the luxury tax, Brooklyn is limited to offering Livingston a three-year deal worth just over $10 million.
Stein’s final point may be the most important: After splurging last summer on Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Andrei Kirilenko, Brooklyn’s bill—league luxury tax included—came out to an astounding $186 million (per Ball Don’t Lie’s Eric Freeman).
Based on his production last season, Livingston is certainly worth Stein’s cited number of three years at $10 million. And with a number of teams poised to have plenty of cap room—not to mention backcourt room to spare—the 6’7” point guard stands to have his pick of the league litter.
Take a team like the Phoenix Suns. Not only do they boast more than $30 million cap room, but Eric Bledsoe, the team’s third-year combo guard, may also well wind up fetching a free-agent offer the Suns simply don’t want to match. As he did routinely with Deron Williams, Livingston would make for a compelling fit alongside veteran point guard Goran Dragic.
The Orlando Magic—similarly youth-laden and cap-safe, as they have the option of declining Jameer Nelson’s $8 million salary—is another intriguing option for Livingston.
Whoever his suitors, Livingston stands to attract quite the market come July 1.
Enough to give the Nets a “hometown” discount? It’s certainly not unheard of. At the same time, Livingston is something of a special case: At 28 years old, he has yet to enjoy the kind of payday he most certainly would’ve received had his horrible injury never happened.
That may sound like a convenient hypothetical to you or me, but for Livingston—who entered the 2004 draft as one of the most heralded prep players in history—it’s a matter of life and livelihood.
This much seems certain: Should the Nets acquire Jack, Livingston is all but gone. There's no way he takes a pay cut to try his hand in a backcourt logjam.
And while Jack has proved himself to be a potent, capable contributor off the bench (he was in the running for Sixth Man of the Year while a member of the Golden State Warriors in 2012-13), it’s difficult to see him as an upgrade over Livingston—owing in large part to how the latter was utilized under head coach Jason Kidd.
Over at The Brooklyn Game, Devin Kharpertian broke down what made the Nets’ small-ball approach—“longball,” if you ask the author—perfect for a player like Livingston:
With or without Deron Williams in the starting lineup, Livingston has been a key cog for the team's starting lineup in 2014. At 6'7" with a wingspan nearing seven feet, Livingston has a wide advantage over his other point guard counterparts, and is long even for a shooting guard with Williams on the floor.
Livingston isn't big enough to guard most forwards for long stretches, but his length allows him to switch onto them for spot possessions without losing significant effectiveness. ‘We like to switch aggressively,’ Livingston noted Tuesday night after the team's win over the Orlando Magic. ‘We don't like to switch and just let teams be able to dictate what they do.’
Indeed, Livingston himself was quick to acknowledge the role Brooklyn’s system played in helping spark his breakout performance—while hinting at the possibility of returning at a discount—in an interview with Bondy back in March:
(My enjoyment with Brooklyn and how I fit) definitely plays a factor. You have to weigh your situations, your options. The reason I’m in a situation where I can demand a contract is because I’m playing for this team, this coach, this system. I realize that and I’m not over my head. But at the same time, it’s a business. You have to look at it like (the next contract) could always be your last. Especially me.
It’s difficult to blame Brooklyn for taking preemptive personnel action in attempting to acquire Jack. At the same time, doing so might mean rendering talks with Livingston a non-starter—assuming, of course, they haven’t gotten down to brass tacks already.
Owner Mikhail Prokhorov has spared little expense in building what he hopes—nay demands—will one day bring a banner into Barclays Center. Only time will tell whether this year’s mediocre showing at the NBA playoffs served to dissuade him from such cavalier economics.
Perhaps whatever the Nets lose in Livingston they’ll make up for with other marginal upgrades. Perhaps having a full year under his belt—equal parts promising and precarious though it was—will help give Jason Kidd an extra coaching edge. Perhaps Livingston won’t be missed at all.
Then again, one can’t help but wonder whether Brooklyn may have priced itself out of something in exceedingly short supply: the kind of fairy tale that pays off in manners that can’t be measured and in ways well beyond the box score.