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Swift - Time for Change?

Is Stromile Swift just another contract, another expiring contract ideal for making a last minute trade...or is there some hope that this former #2 overall draft choice will finally fulfill his promise or if not that, become a solid rotation player?

That’s what the Nets have to be wondering now that he is ready to return to action. His acquisition last February 1 marked the beginning of the team’s rebuilding. The Nets gave up four-year starter and defensive stalwart Jason Collins—and some cash—for Swift. Thus far, it hasn’t worked out. But in a perverse sort of way, that offers some hope.

Swift had his worst season in 2007-08, and the 21 games he played for the Nets was the worst stretch of his career since his rookie year in 2000-01. It wasn't any devastating injury that kept his minutes down. It was lack of production. So the hope was that maybe with a new start, a full camp, he would improve. Problem is on Oct. 17, he had a hard fall in practice, so hard that some in the practice facility that day thought he might have broken his back. He didn't get back on the court again for a month. Now, finally, on this week's road trip out west, Swift is back in uniform.

But things have changed in the six weeks since he went down. Brook Lopez is averaging 15.7 points, 9.2 rebounds and 2.0 blocks as a starter at center. Josh Boone, who had two 14-rebound games before he got hurt, will be returning from his bone bruise soon. Two other young bigs, Yi Jianlian and Ryan Anderson have alternated big games, using a weapon--the deep three--that Swift does not have in his repetoire.

So where does he fit? How long will he stay?

Swift has been a career disappointment and it’s been mostly his fault. Few possess his athletic gifts. Even at 29, he's capable of awing fans and teammates alike. It’s his basketball IQ along with inconsistent focus and desire that have always been the issue. He also has had as run-ins with coaches. Just before the Grizzlies traded him to the Nets, their coach, Marc Iavaroni, suspended him. He and Jeff Van Gundy had an ugly exchange as well when he was with the Rockets.

Do a Google search for "Stromile Swift" and "athleticism" and you’ll come up with 3,600 hits. His dunkathons have been called the "Stro Show". Unfortunately, a Google search for "Stromile Swift" and "raw" gives you 4,550 hits. And his nickname among fans and bloggers in Memphis was "Not So".

There have been moments, even (short) stretches, throughout his career when Swift has looked the part of that prototypical power forward, the running big man with the awesome vertical leap. His stunning two-hander over fellow LSU product Tyrus Thomas last season was ranked the fourth best dunk of the year by NBA TV. But watching it, you had to wonder if he did what he did for purely personal reasons--to prove which ex-Tiger was the dominant one, a show of force meant only to impress and intimidate...on an individual level.

Indeed, it was his only highlight in a miserable season. Even in his best years, he hasn't shown enough consistency and a willingness to play hard. Between 2001-02 and 2005-06, for example, he averaged 10 points and 5 rebounds in a little more than 20 minutes a game over 338 games. Not bad, but he also missed 72 games in that same stretch.

His history is one of great games or even great stretches where he will put up monster blocks and dunks and look like he is about to break out followed by periods of listlessness that drives coaches mad.

Here's one: Late 2006 -- Mike Fratello, now the Nets' TV analyst, is replaced as Grizzlies coach by Tony Barone. Barone quickly installs a wide open running game with Swift as first man off the bench. Over the next five games, Swift averages 15.4 points, 7.2 rebounds, 1.8 blocks and shoots 57.1% from the floor while playing 30 minutes a game. The stretch includes games of 15 points, 14 rebounds, and two blocks vs. the Raptors; 13 points and 9 rebounds vs. the Rockets and a monster 26-point, 9-rebound, and 4-block performance vs. the Warriors. Then, he got hurt and by the time he had returned, he simply wasn't as effective.

None of Swift's many injuries have been devastating: no microfracture surgery, no rods or screws inserted. In fact, his recent injury may have been the worst. It was certainly the most frightening. His seeming unwillingness to play through pain made him a target of Memphis writers.

Here’s how one, Geoff Calkins, described his effort his last full season with the Grizzlies…note the heavy dose of sarcasm:

"The stars tend to get all the credit, but no team can accomplish important things without key contributions from role players. Players who are willing to put larger goals ahead of things like personal accomplishment or, say, self-respect. Can you imagine how humiliating it must have been for Swift - who already had a reputation as a malingerer - to miss games with 'back spasms' and a 'sprained ankle' and the 'flu?' He did it, though, and to heck with what people thought. Some people try to play through injuries. Swift courageously sat through his."

Given all that, why would anyone hope that he can turn things around?

Kiki Vandeweghe, who engineered the trade and loves the idea of rescuing "fallen angels", thinks Swift could still be a factor this season. He points out that he is in his "contract year", the last year of his current contract. If he plays well, he could wind up with a good deal come next summer. If he doesn’t, it could be the end of the road for him, at least as far as big money goes. He could be faced with a series of vet minimum deals, a slow fade. You also have to assume Swift has professional pride. He did show up for the voluntary workouts during the summer and has taken up residence near other players in an Edgewater residential complex. He is a certifiable good guy off the court, spending time last summer in Shreveport helping poor residents of that city deal with the devastation of Hurricane Gustav.

And Rod Thorn liked him at one point as well. It was only three years ago that the Nets pursued him as starting power forward. In the summer of 2005, Swift was one of three free agents the Nets had their eyes on. The other two were Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Donyell Marshall. Abdur-Rahim was the top choice but when John Nash, then Blazer GM, started demanding a first-round pick along with the Nets' trade exception in a sign-and-trade, Thorn balked and opened talks with Swift’s agent, who was only too happy to talk. Swift wanted out of Memphis. He informally agreed to the Nets’ terms--a near $30 million offer similar to the one presented to Abdur-Rahim. Then, Thorn and Nash agreed to a compromise and the rest of course is history: the Nets pulled their offer to Abdur-Rahim because of his knee problems. By the time the SAR deal fell apart, Swift had already been introduced as the newest Rocket at a Houston press conference.

Jason Kidd once said he was "intrigued" by the prospect of playing with Swift. He can run with Devin Harris or Vince Carter or whomever else is throwing alley-oops.

There's also the prospect of the Nets' new dribble-drive offense being more wide-open, less difficult, more attuned to the youthful prospects who dominate the roster. That makes it ideal as well for someone like Swift who is considered more instinctive, less celebral.

But, he doesn’t always get along with coaches, as witnessed by this exchange with Jeff Van Gundy when he was Swift's coach in Houston.

As reported by Dave D’Alessandro: "Jeff Van Gundy had him one year in Houston (05-06) and concluded, ‘It’s been a career-long quest to find a game and intensity level and focus so that the word ‘potential’ is not always used in the sentence with him and he can reach some kind of consistency. It hasn’t happened for him yet, but that doesn’t preclude it from happening.’

"Stro’s reaction: ‘Guys that say things like that, most of them are cowards. Most would never say things to your face.’"

Okay then, moving right along.

Swift does believe in himself and generally isn't sullen. He reacts well to fans. He isn't considered a cancer. "Not assertive enough to be a cancer," one fan quipped. And no one knows better than he does that this is his last chance. Whether it's in New Jersey or some other NBA city, he's going to have to buy in.

Swift is also going to be faced with a different, more complicated challenge than he has ever faced before. He is no longer the young player with potential, not with players like Boone (23), Sean Williams (22), Yi (21), Lopez and Anderson (all 20) on the roster. If he's going to succeed, he's going to have to compete with them and Eduardo Najera using his experience, not his athleticism. He admits the road back to the rotation could be bumpy. He admits that he is anxious about how he will feel the first time he goes into the low post and starts getting hit in the lower back.

With seven forward/centers still on the roster and a slew of injuries, Lawrence Frank has been juggling lineups, without the injured Swift. He'll soon be fighting for minutes with players in desperate need of work.

Keeping him and seeing what he can do seems less of a risk than Detroit's signing another bigger draft bust, Kwame Brown, to a two-year, $9 million contract last summer...or New Jersey's own signing of Jamaal Magloire to a one-year, $4 million last year. No doubt he could deliver, but will he? As the season wears on, and players around the league wear down, Swift could no doubt become a commodity again, and what he could deliver might not be points in the paint or rebounds, but a point guard or a swing man.