The first time the Nets went after Keyon Dooling in 2005, it was big deal. Not so much the second time...just smart.
Dooling had played well for the Heat in the 2005 playoffs and was looking for a new contract. Lawrence Frank was (and is) a big fan of Dooling’s game, particularly his defense and particularly after the Nets had lost to the Heat in the second round of the playoffs. So after dropping by the Atlanta residence of Shareef Abdur-Rahim in the early morning hours of July 1, Frank boarded a plane and flew to Miami, Dooling’s hometown. He made the 6’3" combo guard an offer he and the Nets hoped Dooling would accept.
Frank and Rod Thorn later took Dooling out to dinner in New York. Dooling was still considering the Nets offer. Then, at the end of dinner, Orlando called with a better one...and off he went to play for Brian Hill.
The Magic signed him to a three-year, $11 million deal, which ended this past season. Then, in July of this year, the Nets had another opportunity and this time, they did it more or less low key cleverly using arcane parts of the collective bargaining agreement.
The Nets had picked up a trade exception in February by skillfully breaking the Jason Kidd deal into pieces. The TE amounted to $3.3 million. It was an added bonus to the already lopsided Kidd trade, one fans didn’t know about for months. In fact, some of the beat reporters didn’t know about it either, thinking the Nets were limited to what was left from the MLE after signing Eduardo Najera. And since the Nets had received $3 million in cash in the Kidd deal as well, they had some money to play with.
The Magic, by this time, had made their choice...and it wasn’t Dooling. After failing to woo Chris Duhon, they decided to go for Anthony Johnson, the former Net. The 34-year-old AJ was brought in for a modest salary, not far above the vets minimum. The Magic then made a perfunctory offer to Dooling: the lower-level exception, a $1.9 million salary in 2008-09 and a raise the next season. The second year wasn’t guaranteed.
They expected him to reject it and oh, did he. The language used was very direct. As Nets fans will soon learn, Mr. Dooling doesn’t fool around with the truth.
"I don't even know why they offered that [LLE] because I rejected it right away. I don't know if they were trying to devalue me or whatever the case may be, but that wasn't acceptable," Dooling told Florida Today. "It's ridiculous. That's not a suitable offer for someone who was a good player on a good team. It wasn't a market value offer and that's the bottom line."
And Dooling was a good player for the Magic. He averaged 8.1 points a game in only 18.5 minutes and played good defense…very good defense.
In fact, ESPN stats guru John Hollinger wrote in April that he thought Dooling was the league’s second best defensive point last year, behind only Rajon Rondo.
"I was skittish about putting somebody who played so little so high up the list, but he's an active defender with good size, plus he can guard two positions and willingly pressures the ball," Hollinger wrote. "More importantly, his numbers pretty much leap off the page in terms of how much better the Magic defend with him on the court."
Numbers indeed show how good he is. When Dooling was on the court, the Magic held opposing offenses to 104.4 points per 100 possessions. To put that in perspective, only three teams have better defenses over the whole season: Boston (100.0), Houston (103.0), and San Antonio (103.8). Hollinger also put Devin Harris among his best defenders as the point, ranking him fifth last season. He had won top honors the year before.
There have been questions about Dooling’s shoot-first mentality at the point, his decision-making but beyond defense, Dooling was also a glue guy for Orlando. The Nets like glue guys now, after the chemical disaster that had been last season.
So working with Dooling’s agent, the Nets offered Orlando a sign-and-trade. The Magic would sign Dooling to a three-year, $11 million deal--the first year matching that $3.3 million trade exception from the Kidd trade--and send him north. In return, the Nets would send a modest amount of cash and that trade exception to the Magic. The Magic agreed. At the end of the day, it was as if the Nets had gotten both a starter and back-up at the point out of the Kidd trade.
"I'm a pretty realistic guy," Dooling said when he was introduced as the newest Net. "I haven't been a starter consistently in my whole career. Of course, I think that's every player's aspiration, to be a starter, to be a healthy contributor. But whatever the role is I need to play, I'll execute it every night. And if I can't execute it, it won't be because of lack of effort."
"I'm excited. We've got a very, very young team. I consider myself a young player although I've got eight years under my belt," Dooling said. "So it will be kind of fun to take some of the young guys under my wing and show them what it is to be a pro. I'm excited about the prospects of playing with Vince and Devin."
"I think it's more relevant on the defensive end,'' Frank said when he finally had his prey under contract. "Keyon is a well coached player ... I love guys who play with energy, passion and who love to play. He's a bubbly guy and that's the way he plays. He's the same way as a person as he is as a player.''
Dooling laughed when he was told that Frank called him "bubbly'' but admits it fits.
"I guess that's a good term,'' Dooling said. "I like being bubbly. I like talking and getting along with people, dealing with the media. I can handle all of that.''
He also knows his niche.
"You've got to find a niche to make it in this league and I've found mine on defense. Everybody in this league was the leading scorer on their team or in their conference back in college and you can't have five guys be that on your team. Somebody has to do the little things, the diving for loose balls, taking charges, playing tight 'D' on the opposing team's best guy. That's what I do. That's what I bring to this team."
Coming out of Missouri in 2000, after his sophomore year, Dooling was seen as much more than a role player. The scouting reports back then compared him to Baron Davis.
"Dooling is a fantastic athlete at the point guard position," wrote one scout. "At 6-3, he has the height to be an NBA PG, but his weight of about 185 doesn't cut it. He's too thin. Still, he's got great quickness and speed, super leaping ability (he won the dunk contest at the NBPA camp out of HS), a nice handle and some herky-jerky, shifty moves off the dribble. I think he can be reasonably compared to Baron Davis of UCLA, in that he is an explosive athlete who can handle the ball well enough to play point, and whose shooting went from nowhere in HS to decent at the college level. Dooling's shooting is likely to be shaky in the NBA, just as Davis' is.
However, Dooling lacks the bulk and strength, the scout warned. "He will struggle to finish plays on drives where he is bumped. Dooling's playmaking is developing, but is still raw. He won't make it as a shooter, and there are better pure playmakers available. I don't think he's a lottery pick, but the potential to be a good NBA point guard is there."
Indeed, his early career matched that latter assessment. After being taken at #10 by the Magic and immediately traded to the Clippers, Dooling got lost in the shuffle, seen as a bit of a bust for a lottery pick. Finally, after his fourth year—and disappointing stats across the board, the Clippers wished him farewell. So on July 24, 2004, Dooling headed home to Miami, and a one-year veterans’ minimum deal with a player option the second year. It was ten days after the Lakers had traded Shaquille O'Neal to the Heat for three players and Miami was looking to fill their roster with cheap players.
Dooling found that niche he had been looking for under Pat Riley. He became a hard-nosed stopper for Miami, working behind Dywane Wade and Eddie Jones, then filling in for Wade when injuries slowed him in the playoffs. Riley liked his competitiveness, but he liked his vets’ minimum contract better. With the Heat facing luxury tax issues after signing Shaq to a big deal, Dooling went looking for work and finally found it with the Magic.
With the Magic, he played well but faced a number of injury issues, missing an average of 18 games each year. His workaday play didn’t get him a lot of attention. The only time his name hit the headlines was in January 2006 when he was involved in an ugly brawl with Ray Allen. He and Ray Allen were ejected during the second quarter of the SuperSonics' win over the Magic. Dooling had gone running at Allen and pushed him to the floor. Allen got up and tackled Dooling into the first row of seats along the sideline and onto some fans.
The two briefly scuffled and television replays showed Dooling throwing a punch at Allen that did not connect. If it had ended there, it might not have caught much attention. After being ejected Dooling ran toward the Sonics locker room and was seen yelling at Allen, but team officials and police kept the two apart. Dooling was suspended for five games without pay and Allen three. The league took note of Dooling’s "attempting to confront Seattle SuperSonics guard Ray Allen in the hallway following his ejection."
Everyone agreed what Dooling had done was very uncharacteristic and he apologized.
"Sometimes you don't think, you just react. I wish I could take it back. I feel bad for the fans that participated in it and for the kids that had to see it. If you ask around the league, people will say we are good guys. It was just a mistake on both our parts."
In many ways, Dooling's best season was last season. His defense has already been noted, and he played in 72 games, the most since his one year in Miami. His shooting percentage was 46.8%, more than five points higher than his career average and hit a respectable 33.8% from the arc.
As Third Quarter Collapse, the Magic fansite noted in its year-end review:
If anyone told you in October that Keyon Dooling would end up the Orlando Magic's sixth-man for the season ahead, you might have laughed and predicted the Magic would max-out at 40 wins, as they did in 2006/2007. "Keyon Dooling," you might have said incredulously, "the 6'3" combo guard who's never averaged more than 9 points or 2 assists per game in his career? Please! Surely no great team has use for him."
Well, Keyon proved you wrong. The Magic were great, and Keyon's steady performance was one of the reasons why.
But he had an up-and-down relationship with coach Stan Van Gundy, who wanted more of a distributor on offense...thus the decision to sign Johnson and low-ball Dooling. Van Gundy liked switching back and forth between him and Carlos Arroyo, who is a distributor but not a defender.
In March, for example, Dooling was playing well, scoring 14 points off the bench in back to back games against the Kings and Nets, then getting hurt, missing three games.
Arroyo who wasn't playing while Dooling was starring off the bench, stepped in and played well. Van Gundy told the Orlando Sentinel he can't give ample time to three point guards--and doesn't believe that a player automatically deserves to reclaim his position when he returns from injury.
So on his return to health, Dooling didn't play a second against the Hawks, and saw mop-up minutes against the Clippers. Eventually he worked his way back into the rotation and played decent minutes in the playoffs.
Otis Smith, the Orlando GM who low-balled him, was quoted Sunday on the reasons why let Dooling go. It wasn't about Dooling, he said. It was about starter Jameer Nelson.
"We had guys like Carlos and Keyon playing behind Jameer for a reason. ... to kind of hold him up. I don't think we're at the point anymore. We're at the point where he should be comfortable as your starter. We're going to miss Keyon in certain areas. He brought a level of energy to us every night. I think MP (Mickael Pietrus) has that same kind of energy. Other guys are going to have to step up and do other things."
Now he's on the Nets and by all accounts, he is relishing his role as a veteran leader on a very young team. He has decided to look the part as well. At the Nets' press conference welcoming him after the sign-and-trade, he showed up in a three-piece suit, looking quite the New York banker. Even at last week's "State of the Team" meeting with season ticket-holders, he was wearing a white shirt and tie--fashionably askew--and a vest. Everyone else was wearing golf shirts and pullovers (except for Eduardo Najera who wore a black-on-black shirt-and-jacket combination that made him look like he had made the transition from Chihuahua to North Jersey quite comfortably.)
"People are really down on us, but i want to tell you, I'm in this gym every day and every day I see these guys bring their work ethic." he told the season ticket holders, comfortable weilding a wireless microphone. "And i think that's the way you change an organization. This group of guys and the guys on this team is the group that is going to get the nets back to where we're supposed to be.
"I respect my job. I appreciate my job so I'm going to work hard at it and do it to the best of my abilities. being able to communicate that the the fans and let them know our commitment hopefully that will help them jump on board with us."
Bottom line, fans will be disappointed if they expect Dooling to be anything more than what he says he is: a solid defender, a leader, an athletic combo guard off the bench. But considering what they saw last year, that ain't bad.