Note: back in early 2008, I was writing at a small-time blog and watching too much basketball for my own grades’ good. I came across a Lakers-Nuggets game, and I was instantly glued. It’s no secret that I am a huge Kenyon Martin fan, and given that he was just getting out of his streak of injuries, I was very curious to watch him play. He did not disappoint. This entry was originally published on January 21st 2008 at www.hoopsnake.blogspot.com. Enjoy.
I have been one of Kenyon Martin’s biggest fans for a while. Back in 2001, he was a young, exciting player who tried to dunk any ball he caught within 12ft of the basket, who hustled his backside off and who was becoming an improving outside shooter. In the 2002 Finals, he was the only Net with a pulse besides Jason Kidd, and the unnoficial 2002 regular season MVP’s pulse must have been quite accelerated, because he could not hit water from a boat for most of the series.
During the offseason after being swept from the Finals, K-Mart was one of the most intriguing players in the league. In his 35-point Game 4 performance, he displayed a shooting touch that most hadn’t seen, or even expected from him. He repeatedly blew past Robert Horry and finished at the rim, either with a ferocious throwdown or with a little finesse half-hook. When his man backed off, Martin dropped 17-footers like his name was Rip Hamilton.
That summer, I thought we were about to see Martin become Rasheed Wallace 3000; a deadly outside shot, a tenacity rivaled by very few, the most athleticism in a big man since Shawn Kemp’s prime and the conviction that any shots thrown around his basket should be sent back to the seventh row. In 2002-03, his numbers didn’t change much, but he and JKidd confirmed that they had become the best alley-oop duo since The Glove and The Reignman, and the Nets showed they were for real by tearing through the Eastern Conference again.
In the process of reaching the Finals for the second consecutive year, Martin used the series against Boston to not only take a giant step toward superstardom, but also take away Antoine Walker’s star status forever. If K-Mart could put up a similar showing against Tim Duncan in the Finals, he would become a household name. Things didn’t go quite as planned, and what seemed like a poorly-timed case of the flu that sabotaged Martin’s Finals performance was, unbeknownst to all of us, the beginning of the end.
Sure, the 2003-04 season gave us Martin’s finest statistic output, saw him become an All-Star and sign a huge deal with Denver in the offseason. It would all go downhill from there. During his first year in Denver, Martin couldn’t justify the big money that went his way, as his averages dropped in pretty much every category. Things would improve next season, I thought. It’s not easy adjusting to an anarchic team when you’ve spent the last three years playing alongside the greatest point guard of your generation. The altitude must have been a factor early in the season, and his conditioning suffered accordingly throughout the year. This was Melo’s team anyway, and all Martin had to do was be an energy guy, albeit a great one at that. All of the above could have been reasonable explanations to excuse K-Mart’s poor production, as well as give hope that he’d get back on track the following year.
All the “following year” was good for was confirming that Martin was declining, his numbers closer to his injury-riddled rookie year than to his All-Star season. Even more worrysome, Martin missed 26 games with an injury and picked a fight with George Karl in the Playoffs, leading to a suspension.
At the outset of the 2005-06 season, I had started to hope Martin had morphed from an offensive force who occasionally rebounded with gusto into a full-time enforcer. His scoring numbers were smaller than ever, but he was crashing the boards like a middle-class man’s Charles Oakley. That lasted for all of two games, and then his season was over, with many thinking the two words that put a premature end to his campaign would be forever engraved in his career’s epitaph: microfracture surgery. When one surgery turned into two, I admittedly gave up, thinking there was no way a player who relied so much on supernatural physical abilities could come back from not one, not two, not three, but four severe injuries (don’t forget he broke his leg twice in a one-year span between his senior year at Cincinatti and his rookie year with the Nets).
Early this season, I saw glimpses of the vintage K-Mart, but I didn’t want to buy in only to be disappointed again. Little by little, I was being drawn into watching Martin again. Maybe I wasn’t getting many 17-10-4-2-2 performances, but I’m pretty sure both of us would sign for a guaranteed, healthy 12 and 7 every night. Then tonight happened.
As I watched him against the Lakers, I was having flashbacks to June 2002. His 14 first-half points were more about finesse than brute force, perfectly exemplified by a smooth jumper from the elbow towards the end of the second quarter.
By halfway through the third, he had a double-double. His only points after halftime came on a ferocious jam after putting Kwame Brown out of his misery by pretending to use a subtle fake right when all Martin used was his sheer willpower. For some reason Kobe ended up iso’d on the right wing against Martin, and what would have seemed like an easy drive for Mamba turned into a jumpball-forcing block by K-Mart. As if to remind us all of what used to be, Martin won the tip, and gave us yet another glimpse into the past by blocking Ronny Turiaf a couple of plays later.
In between all these plays that get box score attention, we witnessed as Martin set some of the most ill-intentioned screens the Lakers have seen this season. In the fourth, Martin kept funneling Lamar Odom into uncomfortable shots with Marcus Camby protecting the basket. In one play, he chased down a loose ball and started the fastbreak, something that seemed imposible just 6 months ago. He picked up a couple fouls, but they were good, hard fouls, negating the possibility of an and-1.
We even saw some retro attitude from Martin, staring Vujacic down after the Lakers’ guard blatantly flopped and Dick Bavetta bought the act. Of course, where the K-Mart of old would have been T’d up, today’s version diplomatically pleaded with good ol’ Knick. AI is certainly not JKidd when it comes to passing, but that didn’t deter Martin from rolling hard to the hoop after several screens, even if he wasn’t rewarded with the alley that could have allowed him to produce an emphatic oop.
In the end, things were a bit too much like they were in 2002. Martin tried, but his team didn’t follow. Martin hustled, but his teammates didn’t want it bad enough. Martin scored early, but he couldn’t sustain his production. Martin, again, left it all on the hardwood, mentally and physically, but it didn’t suffice. I just hope the basketball gods are kind enough to let this warrior write the final page of his own book.