Jameer Nelson can now be mentioned in the same sentence as Willis Reed and Bill Bradley, and he could be a year away from being the modern equivalent of Julius Erving and Bob Pettit.
Only 64 players in NBA history have spent their entire careers with one team for 10 or more years. The Orlando Magic’s all-time leader in assists joined that elite club last season while averaging 12.1 points and 7.0 assists in 68 games.
But unlike Reed, Bradley, Erving and Pettit, Nelson does not own a championship ring. And with the Magic having a record of 43-121 over the past two seasons, the memory of them playing in the 2009 Finals must feel as distant as ever to him.
Teammates have come and gone since that year, and he’s the last one standing. He would like to see it stay that way entering the final year of a contract where the 32-year-old Nelson is scheduled to make $8 million.
"The challenge of seeing it turn around, the challenge of being involved in a rebuilding process is probably one of the biggest challenges in my career," he said after the Magic came nowhere close to making the playoffs for the second year in a row. "And that’s when my competitive nature kicks in, because I want to see it turn around. This organization has been good to me and my family. It’s part of me wanting to continue to give back."
The possibility that the Magic could let him go before the bulk of what is owed to him is applied to the salary cap was not lost on many fans in attendance before the final game of the season. Nelson, who was not in uniform for the final three games because of a strained left groin, got stopped several times by people who might well remember when he and Dwight Howard broke in with the Magic in 2004.
"There were so many fans pulling me aside and saying, ‘Can I take a picture?’ and ‘You have to stay here, don’t leave’ and all that," he said. "I never said I was leaving."
In both years since Rob Hennigan became the team’s general manager, Nelson’s name has been mentioned before the February trading deadline but nothing has come close to being pulled off. The Magic like what Nelson and Arron Afflalo provide in a locker room where most of their teammates are 25 or younger.
"Jameer’s a great pro, and he’ll continue to be a great pro. The same for Arron," Hennigan said. "These guys are important. It’s important to have veterans who set an example."
The 68 games in which he played represented Nelson’s second-highest total over the past six years. His minutes were down slightly, due for the most part to the addition of Victor Oladipo. While there were a few games where coach Jacque Vaughn never had the two of them on the floor at the same time, Nelson and Oladipo started games together and were used during fourth quarters together.
Nelson even logged a career-high 54 minutes against the Chicago Bulls in a game which went into triple overtime after he had tied the score late in regulation.
"I came into the season in better shape," he said. "Throughout the season, that’s the best my body has felt in years. And I’m going to continue to work as hard as I can to prepare myself for the next season."
He now ranks second on the franchise’s all-time games played list with 651, having moved past Howard during the season. Only Nick Anderson (692) has more.
"Not too many guys can say that in any sport â one jersey and one team for 10 years," Nelson said. "So it’s an honor. I appreciate everything that everybody has done for me."
WHAT HE DID RIGHT
Nelson improved his assists-to-turnover ratio to 2.87, which was good for 15th in the NBA in that category. He missed only five of 54 games before the All-Star break, putting to rest some of the doubts about his durability. And there were no indications that Nelson couldn’t co-exist with Victor Oladipo, who made 44 starts as a rookie and is likely to come off the bench less often next season.
WHERE HE NEEDS TO IMPROVE
For the first time in his career, more than half of Nelson’s field goal attempts (391 of 747) came from 3-point range. He shot less than 35 percent from that distance for the second year in a row, and while he led the team in free-throw percentage (.857), he went to the line only 27 times in 25 games after Jan. 28.
Jan. 15 vs. Chicago. Nelson came within a point of tying his career high in scoring when he finished with 31 points in a game where he also handed out 10 assists in 54 minutes. That was one of four games where he topped the 20-point mark. He had six double-doubles for the season, down from 14 in 2012-13.
Nelson and Arron Afflalo are the only players on the Magic’s current roster who will make more than $5 million next season. Even if the Magic don’t look at Oladipo as their point guard of the future, the selection of one in the first round of the draft — perhaps Dante Exum with the fourth overall pick — could signal the end of Nelson’s time in Orlando.