The 2014/15 MVP Award was both a blessing and a curse for Brian Conklin.
That trophy, and the title that came with it, delivered Conklin due recognition and prestige. It also gave him bargaining power; leverage he used to negotiate a lucrative deal (by NBL standards) during the off-season to return to the Townsville Crocs.
But it also heightened expectations.
You see, MVPs are supposed to put up numbers. They’re expected to score bunches of points and to occasionally put their team on their back and carry them to victories.
MVPs are not often – if ever – “meat and potatoes” guys, as head coach Shawn Dennis described Conklin on Monday.
Of course, that’s not Conklin’s fault.
Always a hard-working guy – a high-energy player with a relentless approach to the game – it was Conklin’s motor that made him a very, very good player in the NBL.
But it was his touch that made him great and that touch had gone missing this season. Conklin’s ability to consistently knock down mid-range jumpers, combined with his constant activity around the basket, was what set him apart during his MVP campaign.
Big men are usually either a bull (Matt Knight, Charles Jackson, Majok Majok) or a face-up shooter (Oscar Forman, Daniel Kickert, Daniel Johnson). Rarely both.
Bigs who can be both of those things at a high level at the same time are worth their weight in gold. That’s what Brock Motum was last season for Adelaide, what prime Shawn Redhage was for Perth for many years, what Mark Bradtke was during his MVP season and what A. J. Ogilvy is for Illawarra right now.
It’s precisely what King Conk was during his MVP year last season.
Unfortunately, Conklin’s jumper has largely deserted him this time around. According to crunchtimeshots.com, Conklin knocked down 47 percent of his mid-range attempts last season. He was an offensive juggernaut, leading the league in field goals made from both inside the paint and mid-range, as well as leading the league in free throw attempts.
This year, he’d connected on just 24 percent of those looks from between the paint and the three-point line. Conklin may have been leading the Crocs in both scoring and rebounding, but his scoring had dropped from 18.9 points per game (in ‘14/15) to 13.5 while his overall field goal percentage had plummeted from .507 to a miserable .362.
In the end, those MVP-level expectations – or rather Conklin’s inability to meet them – are what cost the star import his job.
Crocs General Manager Robert Honan didn’t beat around the bush when addressing the issue Monday afternoon.
“I had spoken with Brian about his performances and the need for improvement. It was well established between Brian and the club that we needed more out of him,” Honan explained.
“Over a period of time we have seen the stats and the facts and collated all that information and made a decision.”
Conklin denies being spoken to by the club about his performance in the lead up to his contract being terminated.
Crocs head coach Shawn Dennis – the man who recruited Conklin to Townsville in the first place – was visibly shaken by the front office’s decision but said it’s just the nature of the business.
“It’s the volatile employment environment that we live in as professional sportspeople… decisions get made and you’ve got to wear them and be professional in moving forward,” Dennis reflected.
“Given the expectations on Brian – there’s big expectations on your MVP – and you want him to perform to that level.”
Honan went to lengths to emphasise that the decision to release Conklin was not one made on financial grounds.
“The financial position of the club is not jeopardised by this decision… This is purely a decision based on performance,” he said.
The truth, of course, is likely somewhere in between.
Conklin was on very good money, his production was not meeting expectations and the deadline for terminating the employment of imports without having to pay out the rest of their contract was fast approaching.
Clause 10.4 of the NBL’s Standard Player Contract deals with the Termination of Restricted Players and states that “a restricted player may be employed on probation” and that “the probation period shall end two months after the first regular season game.”
If a restricted player is terminated during that probationary period he is to be paid one month’s salary in lieu of notice but the club is not liable for the remainder of that year’s salary.
Conklin, however, doesn’t see it that way.
Speaking to Rohan O’Neill of the Townsville Bulletin on Monday, he made it clear that he expects his contract to be paid out in full.
“My next move is to make sure my contract is honoured,” Conklin said.
“I’m not a first year import so they are required to pay my full contract and that’s my biggest goal right now.”
Jacob Holmes, Chief Officer of the Australian Basketballer’s Association (ABA), believes the provisions of Clause 10.4 and its intention is for it to be used on imports brand new to the league, not those who have been here before. Particularly when they remain with the same NBL Club.
“The obvious impressions initially, though, [are] it would only apply to players in their initial period – their first ever regular season game and two months after that.” Holmes told Downtown on Tuesday.
“We’re talking to Brian about his rights under that clause and we’re talking to his agent who is awaiting a response from the Townsville Crocodiles on that basis.”
Holmes said that the ABA has serious issues with Clause 10.4 and that the organisation is focused on bringing about its removal.
“We’ve sought to have it taken out of the Standard Player Contract for over three years, but the lack of continuity at the NBL management has made that extremely difficult to achieve.
“We are now in a situation where it’s being used to the detriment not only to the person involved, who is most important, but also the club and, I think, the wider league perspective.
“This clause is not in the best interests of the league and we’re making sure that we clear it up for next year to ensure that situations like this aren’t allowed to present themselves.”
In the end, though, Conklin has been given his marching orders by the Crocs.
“I went out there every night, tried to rally the guys, and I’ve put my blood, sweat and tears into the club,” he told the Townsville Bulletin.
“I’m better than I’ve been in the last two years in every other statistical category. I just haven’t been putting the ball in the hole.”
Conklin’s rebounding, steals and blocks numbers have been slightly up this season, but he and Crocs management are on the same page about his lack of scoring.
Unfortunately, as his GM told the media Monday, the Crocs operate within a “performance-based industry” and the expectations on Conklin’s performance were clearly that of an MVP-level player. “Putting the ball in the hole” being a big part of that.
The big fella clearly was not meeting those expectations.
Thus, rightly or wrongly, Clause 10.4 was put into action. Perhaps for the last time.