Ryan Anderson: An NBA career that has seemingly reached an abrupt ending

Nov 8, 2018; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Phoenix Suns forward Ryan Anderson (15) reacts in the game against the Boston Celtics during the first half at Talking Stick Resort Arena. The Boston Celtics won 116-109 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 8, 2018; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Phoenix Suns forward Ryan Anderson (15) reacts in the game against the Boston Celtics during the first half at Talking Stick Resort Arena. The Boston Celtics won 116-109 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports /

What happened to Ryan Anderson?

During the 2016 offseason, Ryan Anderson inked his name onto a contract guaranteeing the man a total salary of $80 million spanning over the course of the next four upcoming years.

The signing, which was perused by Daryl Morey and the Houston Rockets, was seen as both an ambitious and questionable move, although most could fathom why a mere role player would be offered the amount of money that Anderson was back in 2016. Sure, he wasn’t a star, but every team in the league was searching for a guy like him.

In the midst of a tremendous shift in the way the game was played, the sniper’s shooting ability paired with a 6-9 frame made him an ideal free agent target that Houston knew they would have to pay well to ensure that he’d be with the team.

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Especially for a team like the Rockets, who have been at the forefront of this revolutionary period after using advanced stats and analytics to build a seemingly unbreakable system molded around the idea that 3’s and layups near the rim are the only shots worth taking, everything about the way that Anderson played the game was the perfect representation of the progressive Houston culture.

The first two years of the deal went smoothly. He enjoyed two semi-successful seasons in which he played 138 games, started in all but 16 of them, and boasted numbers of 11.6 points, 4.8 boards, 2.4 3’s made, and 39.6 percent shooting from deep; the hefty contract seemed to no longer be a concern. Anderson was doing everything the Rockets could want out of him, and, from time to time, the man looked like a reincarnation of Larry Bird out there when he hit a hot streak from long range.

The confusion began when the 2018-19 season started up. Anderson had recently been shipped off to Phoenix alongside De’Anthony Melton in exchange for Marquese Chriss and Brandon Knight, and even before his time repping Houston’s Red-and-White was complete, his role with the franchise had slowly begun to dwindle.

As the 2017-18 season reached a closing point, Anderson’s seemingly secure starting position was taken over by PJ Tucker. Nagging, minor injuries also resulted in him continually missing chunks of games for small periods of time, the worst of which came during March of that year when an ankle injury forced him to miss nine consecutive contests.

Although the health issues at first appeared to be nothing more than annoying and meaningless, things began to become more of a problem as the injuries piled. Anderson was losing his role in the lineup and, when they tried to acclimate him back, things were very rarely successful.

That year, the Rockets pulled off a historic playoff run in which the team nearly bested the Warriors dynasty in the Western Conference Finals. It looked like the team had finally figured things out and were headed in the right direction, but one of the few aspects of the roster that they had not figured out was how Anderson should be integrated back into the system. A year prior, the man’s playoff high in minutes was 37. Now, the best he got was 18. In the 2018 playoffs, Ryan averaged a measly 8.6 minutes, 1.7 points, and 1.2 rebounds.

This playoff run is perhaps the most overlooked and yet simultaneously most significant piece to the puzzle. Many will look at the fall of Ryan Anderson and credit the transaction that had him land in Phoenix as the culprit that sparked this decline when the truth was that things began to get rocky during his final moments in a Rockets uniform.

Taking into account the blatant rejection he was receiving from the organization, it was no surprise that they wanted to move on from him as fast as possible before his trade value disintegrated into what it currently is now: Nothing.

Upon his arrival to the Valley, he at first sustained a starting role with the team and got amounts of playing time that he hadn’t seen for years. Unfortunately for him, a young, developing team like the Suns wasn’t willing to wait for a veteran like Anderson to start performing to par, and after playing him an average of 21 minutes a night for the first 10 games of the season, failed to even get him out there on the court during 33 of the next 37 games he was available for.

Although the blame can be put on Anderson for brutally underperforming in those first 10 games (averaging 5 points and shooting 23 percent from 3 as a player who’s best and arguably only redeeming skill was shooting is far from acceptable,) it is equally inexcusable for the Suns to take such drastic measures to address the issue at hand.

The team, who had just reached one of their lowest points in franchise history, was definitely stuck in no-man’s-land, and spent the entire season experimenting and fiddling with rotations left and right simply as an attempt to figure out what worked best for the team. Above all of the other flaws that were more-than-present with this team, structure and consistency prevailed over all the rest.

Midway through the season, Phoenix said farewell to Anderson when they sent him off to Miami for Wayne Ellington, Tyler Johnson, and cash. As expected, the increased depth present in the new environment resulted in only more problems coming his way.

More importantly, however, was the strict health conditions Miami famously keeps their players in. At the start of the 2019-20 season, we saw James Johnson, a black belt in karate and an important part of the Heat’s bench unit be sent home by the franchise and told not to come back after failing a conditioning test and going over a weight goal the team had assigned for him.

Coach Erik Spoelstra was very vocal about the fact that Anderson’s health wasn’t up to par with what the organization expected out of their players, and ensured that the only way he’d manage to squeeze his way into the rotation is if he first got in better shape.

"“We will get him in Miami Heat shape soon enough,” Spoelstra said in a 2019 interview. He also said that he felt prepared to play Anderson “meaningful minutes if need be,” something that the veteran had been struggling to find anywhere else in recent years."

The day never came. Anderson did play some games with the team on-and-off throughout the end of the year, but never received enough of an opportunity for anybody to remember this man ever repped a Heat jersey even just one-and-a-half years after the fact.

Since the conclusion of the 2018-19 season, Anderson’s name hasn’t made any headlines whatsoever. The man has laid low in search of any job opportunity he could get, but at this point, things look bleak. It’s worth mentioning that the Rockets, the team who’s benching of the forward in 2018 set off this entire chain of events in the first place, gave the man a 10-day contract in the middle of the 2019-20 season, but nothing amounted out of it and Anderson remains unsigned to a team.

As we approach the tail end of the 2020 NBA offseason, the name Ryan Anderson simply seems like something of the past. Most would probably label him a “former NBA player,” even though he has not retired nor missed a season of basketball since he was drafted back in 2008.

Especially in an era in which his style of play fits so well, it feels strange that a man who was starting on one of the best teams in the league in 2018 could be most likely out of the league for good come 2020.

We can write off the rapid downfalls of old-school bigs such as Greg Monroe and Jahlil Okafor simply by looking at the just-as-rapid cultural evolution of how the game is played. Alternatively, Anderson is almost a pioneer of this modern style.

He came into the league over a decade ago as a 6-foot-9 power forward with a strong 3-point jump shot from day one, an extreme rarity back then. Ever since the league has shifted in a way one would think would benefit him, and although it was able to secure him $80 million, it couldn’t secure him a stable NBA career.

The fall of Ryan Anderson is a testament to the fact that shooting and height are never enough. Have those two skills, and factors such as iffy athleticism, constant injuries, and point-blank bad luck still can intrude and ruin a career. If it can happen to a proven and successful NBA vet, it can happen to anyone.

With this in mind, maybe it’s time to stop calling players whose singular standout skill is shooting “just shooters,” because “just a shooter” wouldn’t make it anywhere near the hardwood of an NBA floor. Shooters can be found everywhere – from your local gym to your school or place of work, to even in your own household. Any rec league is abundant with “just shooters,” but the NBA? Not a chance.

“Just shooters” that reach the pros have so much more to worry about than simply sustaining a strong and steady jumper they can consistently launch from one particular spot on the court – they need to be in top physical shape,  be much more athletic than the average man, be always ready and available to play, and hit a stroke of luck with the team that gives them a chance. So many factors are at play that it is simply impossible for “just a shooter” to make his way up to the big leagues.

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Is it fun to joke and nag on players? Yes. Should we expect fans to always fairly represent every player in the league? Of course not. But if one is aiming for accurately describing a player, the “just a shooter” label will never fit. If we can extract anything out of the rapid decline of Ryan Anderson, it’s exactly that.