My Favorite Ghost: Corey Maggette Goes Home
Corey Maggette’s Wikipedia page lists the typical highlights and out of context numbers that it does for every basketball player. The flow is the normal variety of Personal Life, Rookie Year blah blah blah but then it ends abruptly after a brief section on his time with the Golden State Warriors. Corey Maggette played three seasons of NBA basketball which have not been documented on Wikipedia, which doesn’t matter whatsoever but is emblematic of his career. Through whatever clerical error made by whoever it is that maintains and curates athlete wiki pages, Maggette is left incomplete. He spent three seasons on three different teams after that, but all of them were in the hinterlands of the league, and were seasons of such little consequence to the overarching narrative that they may have never existed in the first place. Was Corey Maggette a basketball ghost this whole time?
Obviously he was real. There is video of him playing NBA basketball and the ontological realities of are not up for debate. The question revolves around a type of Maggette-shaped tree falling in a forest of NBA fans and an uncertain whumph. The floor of this particular forest is filled with grand, proud trees in various states of preservation or rotting. History eventually cannibalizes the fallen, their careers exhumed for consumption or retrofitting by the current generation. Unless the retiree is a major star, their legacy is collapsed to a set of bullet points. You can almost imagine these on a powerpoint. Grant Hill: Cruel fate of injuries. Great in College. Noble as an old dog on a few teams. Next slide.
Maggette doesn’t really fit into this schematic. There is no linear arc to his career. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense when evaluated within the rubric of a quote unquote typical NBA career narrative. For one, his greatest skill was the ability to rupture the flow of a game, stop time, and shoot free throws. The twin acts of manufacturing and converting free throws are solitary practices. Many great three-point shooters rely heavily on passing and team-wide misdirection. Maggette was his own player, a monument to individualism in a sea of cooperation. This is an unsatisfying skill, if not a pragmatic one. Basketball is by its nature a whirlwind. Ten players run around and attempt to harmonize their motions so as to achieve an objective, and Maggette’s chief solution to the problem of buckets was to blunt the objective down it’s simplest form and go take shots on his own time.
If this was all he did, Maggette would be probably be remembered as a role player who found a way to exploit a technicality and create something out of nothing. Two free throws are worth the same as a perfectly executed offensive set or a powerful dunk. However, Maggette wasn’t just an earthbound margin-dweller. He competed in a dunk contest and the central attraction of his first dunk involved a front flip. The rest of dude’s dunks weren’t too creative; windmill here tomahawk there, but the central spectacle of it all was ‘look at how cool I can make these basic dunks.’ It was all style, as if the athleticism and strength of his performance were going to be enough to drown out his opponents’ artistry. This proved unsuccessful, as Maggette finished last and never returned to the dunk contest. Maggette also sported a pair of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle arms, and was probably the most musclebound player of his NBA tenure. For all his physical advantages, he never evolved into the rugged star many predicted him to be out of Duke.
This is not to say Maggette was by any metric a poor player. His PER was almost always above 15, and has averaged over 20 points per 36 minutes for his entire career. The numbers show that he was an effective player, and my hazy adolescent memories of him confirm this to a certain degree. The problem, if you can call it a problem, was that it feels hollow now. Perhaps this is an unfair byproduct of constantly measuring a player not by their production, but rather as a ratio of how much of their hypothetical potential they fulfilled. As much as we attempt to predict the future, it’s impossible. You can get an idea of production but there’s no way to put an actual ceiling or floor on potential. There is too much uncertainty involved.
More likely, Corey Maggette appears unfinished, a player who could never fully leverage his physical gifts because of the teams we was on and the associations that come with those teams. He played the first eight seasons of the millenium on the Los Angeles Clippers, a team that was the laughingstock of the NBA for an entire era. The first half of his time with the Clippers was played alongside two of the sadder reminders of unfulfilled potential, Darius Miles and Michael Olowokandi. These teams were bad, and they floundered in the hyper-competitve Pacific Division. The 2005-2006 season was his only winning season in L.A., and the Clippers most successful of the post-Walton, pre-Blake interlull. Maggette missed most of the season, but returned for the playoffs (his only career trip to the second season) and was the Clippers’ best player. They turned out a Denver team in round one, and pushed Phoenix to seven games before succumbing to Steve Nash and Shawn Marion. The next year, they finished two games behind Golden State and missed the playoffs. Maggette joined that Warriors team for 2007-2008, but they imploded and Maggette was destined to a few years of semi-anonymous vagabondhood. Milwaukee traded for him, seeking a scoring punch. However, just like the Warriors, they regressed upon the arrival of Maggette and in a bizarre twist of symmetry, followed up a surprising playoff run with falling two games short of the playoffs. He then moved to various sinking ships and went to the Bobcats, then the Pistons and finally, off into the sunset.
This isn’t how fans and analysts expect things to progress. A player enters the league, wins some or loses some. They face a career defining foe, and either conquer it or gracefully fall in defeat, all the while improving. Maggette was somewhat a victim of circumstance. He played his best years out in the boondocks of the NBA and then when he finally moved on, it was always a year too late. This is not to absolve him. Corey Maggette was moderately effective, but his style did not particularly lend itself to team success. He did not improve the weak facets of his game much throughout the course of his career, and gradually lapsed into self-caricature and irrelevance. Rather than develop into a better player for himself and his team, Maggette drifted chaotic-neutral through the league. If anything, his time in the NBA is a reminder of the size and forward churn of the league. There is so much basketball out there, so many young guys seeking to supersede entrenched players.
Corey Maggette was always too good to be supplanted all the way out of the NBA during his prime, but he was instead pushed aside. The league never slows down, and Maggette’s late-period shuffling serves as an antidote to the cruel, Darwinian aspect of NBA ball. For every rookie who gets drafted and makes the roster, one more spot for a veteran disappears. Maggette was once a promising young player who stagnated. If the forward march of history forces vestigial players to adapt or make way, Maggette’s antithetical longevity shows that the league is not too specialized. The NBA is still a big business and as such is obsessed with marginal advantages. Maggette stuck around despite this, and was an emblem of an era since gone by. He was weird and maybe even fun, and most importantly, he trended retrograde to the blossoming era of stats and efficiency. The league is not so big and unforgiving that wayward talents can’t find a home. Maggette was athletic enough to earn contracts for a while, and while he did, he was a living symbol of the NBA’s beautiful imperfection.