I'll open with what many of you don't want to hear: I think Tayshaun Prince will finish this season in a Grizzlies uniform. I don't think the team will be able to get trade him without having to give up too much else.
What that means is this: you're going to watch Tayshaun Prince play basketball this season whether you want to or not, so you may as well accept that fact—maybe even *embrace* it—and enjoy it anyway. That's going to be hard, though, isn't it? That was one of the hardest things about last season for me: watching how many minutes Dave Joerger gave to Prince last year, even when it was clear that Prince was injured, in a funk, tired, worn down from the serious preseason illness that wreaked havoc on his conditioning.
It was hard because it's hard to watch Tayshaun Prince enter the twilight phase of his career. One of the first NBA teams I really loved watching (with apologies to the Hubieball Grizzlies who were coming into their own around the same time) was that 2003-2005ish run of Pistons teams. Especially—and I say this while also thinking Rick Carlisle is a basketball genius—once Larry Brown and Sheed entered the picture. Tayshaun was a huge part of those teams. I loved watching him play, and I continued to love watching him play as those same Pistons teams kept making it back to the Eastern Conference Finals (or farther) every year until 2008.
There's a flip side to that extended stretch (every year from 2003 to 2008) of playing basketball into May and June, a flip side that those of us who watch the Grizzlies saw in every movement Prince made on the court last year: mileage.
Those extra minutes add up. And when a guy played that much early in his career, by the time he reaches the end (and look, even if Prince gets another nice contract after this one and plays for three more years, he's still nearing the end), you can see it on him. He carries it around with him on the court, a weariness, a fatigue, a 100-game-a-year grind that only the best players on the best teams even have to worry about, but eventually it catches all those players, all those greats. Eventually they're running on sand instead of hardwood, and every stride takes them more effort than it takes anyone else. They're running with ankle weights on, ankle weights made of melted Larry O'Brien Trophies.
Tayshaun Prince looks like a guy who has played too many basketball games. I think he still has something to contribute, but all those minutes, all those miles, all those games, all those series, all those seasons: they are tied around his shoulders, and they weigh him down.
It happens during every timeout. He walks over to somebody, somebody just sitting or standing with his Gatorade-branded towel around his shoulders, staring into the crowd, maybe watching Grizz do something funny on the Jumbotron, and he starts talking strategy. He uses his hands to show the other player, whose peace and quiet he just ambushed, which way to cut, whether to go over the top or under this pick, where to stand. He is relentless in his determination to make sure the other players on the court with him know what to do, and he is almost always exasperated when they don't. He does not seem to understand that his teammates are human, the same as he is. He is perplexed when they fail him, and visibly frustrated.
There were times last year when Prince was about to enter the game, and he and Dave Joerger—who, let's remember, is only six years older than Prince, and only two years older than the incoming Vince Carter, which may not make a difference but feels like it should—would stand at the scorer's table talking, strategizing, analyzing what was happening. The days of the player/coach have passed (and I'll fight every urge to make a Mike Miller/Robert Pera joke here) but they'll never really pass, not when there's someone on the team who has played basketball at such a high level for so long.
Whether they want him to or not, Tayshaun is going to coach the rest of the Grizzlies, and there is value in that. Which is good, because he can't help himself. It's what he does.
Every aging player enters a decline and has to accept a smaller role. Especially the good-to-great ones: the lesser ones just fade away—years ago they would've disappeared, but now they just pop up like pop culture references in somebody's basketball blog. How many Jake Tsakalidis jokes have I made? How many times have we talked about Strotential?
How The Tayshaun Situation—and that's what it is, of course, a situation that has to be handled, something that must be managed—goes down could set some interesting precedents for two of the Grizzlies' other aging (but not quite as aged) centerpieces, Zach Randolph and Tony Allen.
Prince is 34. Randolph and Allen are 32, though neither have played the kind of minutes load that Prince has. (Prince has played 33,694, Randolph 28,759, Allen only 14,378.) Both of them are much further away from the "twilight of career" phase that Prince has apparently entered. But don't think for a second they're not watching—that they're not taking notes.
There's going to come a time when all of this talk about looking tired and worn down is going to apply to Z-Bo. When this talk about "is he still the best guy for the job" will be about Allen instead of Prince (and maybe some of it already is). Nothing lasts forever, especially not an NBA career. So if the Grizzlies are able to do right by Tayshaun in the last year of what's probably his last big contract (although I don't expect it to be his last contract period) it'll set a tone for them: (1) a tone of acceptance that you can't do what you used to do and (2) an acknowledgement that nothing is gained by being disrespectful in the way a guy who's been around a while is shuffled to the end of the rotation—that nothing is gained by simply ejecting people when we have no more use for them. (Though as I write this, I'm sure the Grizzlies have tried; think back to the draft night deal that was willing to dump Prince for John Salmons.)
There will come a day when the Fan Favorites are the ones who need to take a seat. This is only the start of that, the smaller, earlier test run. It is inevitable. It's the nature of everything.
I don't really know how NBA guys do it. How, even as their bodies start to rebel against it, they drag themselves to yet another training camp and play all of these preseason games that mean nothing all over the region, and then they drag themselves through 82 games that all matter but some more than others, through back-to-backs in Milwaukee and Orlando and places where there's not much to do and they don't have time to do it anyway. How on a random Tuesday night in February a building can assume a playoff atmosphere and suddenly everyone is playing for their lives, and then as soon as it's over, the realization that there are 38 more games to play in ten weeks, and that they are tired, and that there will be no rest until the summer, and all they can do is take a shower and go home and sleep.
In seasons 10, 11, 12, I can't imagine that gets any easier. I would think that he thoughts of "What am I doing out here?" start to gnaw at a man, start to undermine the foundations of everything he does. It's an odd thing to have a vocation that basically never lasts until after one is 40—a job that one becomes too old to do much more quickly than any other job. Yes, retirement, but what's Tayshaun Prince going to do, move to Florida and buy a condo? Start working as a greeter at Wal-Mart? He's not even 35 yet. He's made millions upon millions of dollars. And yet, he will be retired, probably within the next 3-5 years.
I don't know what that's like. I don't have a job like that—I don't have to run five miles a night 82 times a year, and practice, and condition, and try to rest up in 30 different nice hotels in 30 different cities, none of them my home. I have enough trouble trying to figure out what I want to do with my life without being physically spent and without a career that I know won't last beyond middle age. Despite the camaraderie, the money, the pride that comes from playing on NBA championship teams, I can't imagine that that's anything but harrowing for guys in Tayshaun's position, even just a little bit: what am I going to do? It's why we see so many greats hang on too long. Patrick Ewing in a Magic jersey banging bodies with Toronto Raptor Hakeem Olajuwon. I don't think Tayshaun is there yet, but I know the thought has crossed his mind. He's human; it has to have.
"What am I going to do?"
So this season, when Prince is on the floor and you're not sure why, you can complain about it. Lord knows I have. But while he's out on the floor soaking up minutes—minutes that, yes, could be going to someone else, someone who makes the offense better, or someone young who needs the time to develop, or just someone better overall—there are things to do other than be mad about it.
For one, it's not a lost cause. Prince is, and has always been, a good post-up player when he's matched up on a smaller man. His back-to-the-basket play led the Detroit Bad Boys blog to start keeping track of the number of "Isotayshauns" per game (and sometimes I like to point 'em out, too). But as small lineups start to permeate the NBA game, there's probably room there for Prince as a 4, because those freakishly long arms let him get off a hook shot over just about anybody his size or smaller. On the Grizzlies, there's not as much room for him on the blocks, and that's an issue for the coaching staff to worry about (assuming they care). But playing Prince to his strengths would be a lot better for everyone involved than just asking him to be a ball-passing floor spacer, which he's never been in his career.
For another, there are more things going on in any given basketball game that who is winning and who is losing. As tired as we get of hearing about "The Narrative," there are always narratives in play. We're humans; narratives are how we understand one another, how empathy works, how we understand ourselves. When Prince is on the floor, you're watching a Very Good Basketball Player trying to adapt himself to a team that's not really built for his strengths and at the same time play out a situation where he could very easily change his name to Tayshaun Prince's Expiring Contract somewhere close to the trade deadline. And that has to weigh on a guy with that much pride, though I'm sure he wouldn't admit it. It has to. He's human.
I'm not sure the Prince situation will be worked out in a way that makes the Grizzlies better. I'm not sure it will be worked out in a way that sets Prince up to end his career going out in a blaze of glory. Happy endings and neat little bows don't usually happen in real life—not even in sports, the most "let's make this an inspirational story" activity we do as people. But it will be worked out, one way or another, and whatever happens will be interesting. And that's worth paying attention to. Worth being mindful of.
There is always an ending. If you're watching too closely, sometimes you miss them until they happen.