Livingston's difficult trek to the NBA Finals

ByJ.A. Adande ESPN logo
Sunday, June 14, 2015

There's no player in these NBA Finals -- no, not even Matthew Dellavedova -- who is more appreciative of this once-unfathomable opportunity than Shaun Livingston.

There's certainly no player who's more appreciative of the mere act of shooting extra jumpers after practice than Livingston.

A mixture of disbelief and gratitude floated through Livingston's mind as he watched Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson launch shots following the Golden State Warriors' morning shootaround on the first day of the NBA Finals last week. As he prepared to discuss his journey from fourth overall pick to journeyman to the sport's highest stage, Livingston paused to remember the days when extra shooting was a luxury he couldn't afford because the moment practice ended he had to get to work rehabilitating the knee he severely damaged in 2007.

"Doing stuff like this, I wouldn't have made it," Livingston said. "My knee was already swollen. I wouldn't have made it to the game if I was out here practicing before the game."

As Livingston spoke while sitting in a high stool a few feet from the baseline of the Warriors' practice court in Oakland, he would instinctively reach down and rub his left knee from time to time. That knee still defines his career. It puts everything that happened since Feb. 26, 2007, into context.

Type "Shaun Livingston" into Google and on the first page of results you'll see a link to a YouTube clip of the life-altering moment in a game from his third NBA season with the Los Angeles Clippers. Don't click on it. The visual of his knee bending like a halftime-act contortionist is bad enough. The audio of him groaning in agony is haunting.

The result was uncommon: a torn ACL, a torn MCL, a torn PCL, a torn lateral meniscus and a dislocated kneecap. "No one's seen a lot of these," the Clippers' team physician said at a news conference to discuss the injury a couple of days later. The timing was cruel: Livingston was heading into the last year of his rookie contract. The Clippers gave $52 million to Chris Kaman, who was drafted a year ahead of Livingston. When Livingston's contract was up they offered him the league minimum to play a backup role behind the newly acquired Baron Davis.

The not-so-subtle message was that his NBA career would have to resume elsewhere. There turned out to be a lot of elsewheres. He played in Miami, Oklahoma City, Washington, Charlotte, Milwaukee and Cleveland from 2008 to 2013.

Livingston said the first two years consisted of "rehab, playing, setbacks, multiple procedures, getting waived, cut, traded -- all that stuff." In Washington he felt that coach Flip Saunders gave him a fair chance to play; he also finally felt physically capable of succeeding.

"I felt like, 'OK, I can compete,'" Livingston said. "It's amazing how far my body had come."

His biggest breakout came last year in Brooklyn, where rookie coach Jason Kidd threw Livingston into the starting lineup in a desperate attempt to salvage the season for the league's most expensive roster. The Nets were 10-21 at the time. They finished with a record of 44-38. Livingston finished with career highs in games played (76) and points scored (629). This time he had something to sell heading into free agency.

The Golden State Warriors were looking for a point guard to back up Stephen Curry. They'd tried Steve Blake and Toney Douglas and never found the right fit to replace the role Jarrett Jack played for them the previous season. They signed Livingston to a three-year contract worth more than $15 million. Modest by NBA standards, but the largest of Livingston's career.

"We needed a backup point and we wanted one that could play multiple positions," Warriors general manager Bob Myers said. "So if we wanted to put Steph off the ball we could put Shaun on the ball, and vice versa. We didn't want to spend $5 million [per year] on a player that would only play when Steph was out of the game."

The only thing that seemed unusual was mixing Livingston's style of play amid the Warriors' barrage of 3-pointers. The 6-foot-7 Livingston's game of post-ups and mid-range jumpers along the baseline froze at the moment of the injury in 2007 and has yet to thaw out. That was due to the aforementioned inability to practice because of the knee and his thin margin for error in the limited moments he had to prove to various teams that they should keep him.

"I always just wanted to play my game, minimize mistakes so I had the best chance to make a roster," Livingston said. "That's what I was trying to do: be a reliable guy, dependable guy you know wasn't going to make a lot of mistakes. Maybe not high-ceiling, high-reward, but low-risk.

"Coming back from my rehab, that was really the thought. Play your game, know what you're good at, know your strengths and weaknesses."

In some ways that left him like a longtime prisoner released into a world of cellphones and tablet computers, marveling at the new technology. How different are today's point guards than when Livingston entered the league? Curry attempted 55 3-pointers in five games during the Western Conference finals; Livingston has attempted 51 3-pointers in 544 regular-season games in his career. Yet there's a place for him on this Warriors team.

"The way he fits is just being a smart, cerebral basketball player," Myers said. "Scores on cuts. Scores on the break. Also facilitates on the perimeter, as far as getting our shooters shots. Just kind of an overall game that might have fit the NBA more in the '80s or '90s than it does today.

"It's still okay to have guys that step inside the line and take a free throw-line jumper."

Livingston played a big part in the Warriors' small-ball lineups that won Game 4 to get them to 2-2 in the NBA Finals. The Warriors outscored the Cavaliers by 25 points during his 25 minutes, as he contributed seven points, eight rebounds and four assists.

It didn't take him playing meaningful minutes in a Finals victory to get in a contemplative mood. He was there already when the series began.

"It's crazy how far I've come," Livingston said that day. "And now that I'm playing here it's a special moment."