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Nick Collison, plus-minus god and Thunder culture-setter, retires from the NBA

Nick Collison, one of only two remaining players who’d been with the Thunder since their arrival in Oklahoma City, announced his retirement on Thursday. (Getty)

Since entering the NBA, Nick Collison has been a lottery pick turned rugged young big man on the Ray Allen-Rashard Lewis-era Seattle SuperSonics, a key rotation player in the meteoric rise of the Kevin Durant-Russell Westbrook-James Harden-era Oklahoma City Thunder, and an elder statesman and respected pro’s pro who helped OKC navigate the departures of homegrown stars and subsequent reorientation toward a new Westbrook-helmed future. Now, after 14 NBA seasons, he’s decided it’s time to hang up his high tops, and leave the screen-setting, charge-taking, dribble-hand-off-initiating and locker-room leading to the next generation.

Collison announced his retirement Thursday, in a first-person piece as told to longtime Thunder beat man Royce Young of ESPN.com:

I’ve had the privilege of being one of the guys on a basketball team for a long time. I’ve loved the friendships and appreciated the camaraderie. There is nothing better than being on the road and going on a run in the fourth quarter to put a game away, then going out with all of the guys after.

I’ve had a lot of those nights.

I won’t get to feel that fire or that rush anymore, but I do get to keep the memories, the stories and the relationships. That’s what I will cherish the most. Things worked out for me.

I got to stay here a long time, but now it’s time to go.

Collison also bid farewell via Instagram, sharing a brief video tracking his basketball journey from youth ball in Iowa all the way to the NBA Finals:


After a heralded career at Kansas during which he helped lead the Jayhawks to two Final Fours, finishing as the all-time leading scorer in the history of the Big 12 Conference, Collison went to the Seattle SuperSonics with the No. 12 pick in the 2003 NBA draft, expected to step in and play a rotation role for Nate McMillan on a Seattle club that had finished four games out of the playoffs one year earlier. But he dislocated his shoulder during training camp, requiring surgery that knocked him out for what would’ve been his rookie season.

When he finally got back on the court the following season, he began learning the finer (or, if you prefer, not-so-fine) points of being a complementary big man in the NBA: how to set stiff screens to spring ball-handlers and shooters, how to jockey for interior position against ravenous rebounders, how to stonewall sledgehammer post-ups, and how to scratch and claw for every loose ball to extend possessions — and carving out the role that he’d wind up occupying for the next decade and a half.

The 6-foot-10 Collison never averaged double-figures in points or rebounds. The closest he came was 2007-08, the Sonics’ final year in Seattle before moving to Oklahoma City, when he averaged 9.8 points and 9.4 rebounds in 28.5 minutes per game. But he stayed in the rotation for coach after coach, no matter how the roster evolved around him, thanks in part to a consistent professionalism that OKC brass felt helped crystallize the organization’s culture.

“Sometimes, in the early phases of an organization’s life cycle, the right player ‎comes around at the right time to help define their vision,” said Thunder executive vice president and general manager Sam Presti in a team statement following Collison’s retirement. “For the Thunder, Nick Collison was one of those players. Nick has helped define the standards we work by on a day-to-day basis, on and off the court and has become synonymous with the Thunder shield. He is a craftsman; tough, selfless and humble. He brought the best of himself his entire career each day he walked through the door. As result of his consistency and longevity, his contributions to our culture and community will have a lasting effect. That is rare in any industry, but especially professional sports.”

Collison’s persistence as a mainstay, first in Seattle and later in Oklahoma City, owed in large part to his persistent ability to contribute what his team needed when it was needed, in ways that weren’t always effectively measured by the common statistical analysis of the era. The Thunder just always seemed to play better when he was on the floor than when he was off it, a fact widely discussed in the quant community of the latter Aughts and early 2010s, and blown out into public view in 2011 by then-ESPN Insider columnist (and current Memphis Grizzlies executive) John Hollinger:

For the [2011] postseason, Collison is one of 10 players to play at least 150 minutes and have a net plus-minus of at least +7.0 or better The other nine have played in at least one All-Star Game; Collison has never averaged double figures. […]

Of course, this is nothing new for Collison. In the 2010-11 regular season, the Thunder were 11.05 points per 100 possessions better with him on the court than off it — the eighth-best net plus-minus in the league and by far the best on the Thunder.

In the 2009-10 regular season it was +9.45, ranking him 11th in the NBA and second only to Durant on the Oklahoma City roster. And in the six-game playoff defeat to the Lakers in 2010, it was a monstrous +29.39 — the third-best figure in the league.


All those not-so-little things we measure now as hustle stats — screen assists, deflections, loose balls recovered, charges drawn, shots contested, box-outs — and the ones we’re still trying to get a handle on (help defense, positioning, shot quality, etc.) were the foundations of Collison’s game. His talent for contributing all over the floor without demanding shots and attention that would be better funneled to Durant, Westbrook and Harden — especially Harden, as part of Oklahoma City’s dynamic second unit — marked him as a “no-stats All-Star” in the vein of Shane Battier, and helped fuel the Thunder’s rise from high-lottery curiosity to legitimate member of the NBA’s elite, making the playoffs in six of seven seasons, with four Western Conference finals appearances and one trip to the NBA Finals.

“When this Thunder thing came together, I really found my niche and found ways that I could really impact winning,” Collison said, according to Nick Gallo of Thunder.com. “I realized that and totally bought into not worrying about my stats, not worrying about how many shots I was getting. It wasn’t all out of being unselfish. It was like, ‘This is the best way for me in my career right now — to really embrace this.'”

Even as Collison aged and his role and minutes waned in recent years — he logged just 35 games and 202 minutes over the last two regular seasons — he remained an important leader and veteran voice for an Oklahoma City team going through major transitions following the departure of Durant. Presti valued that presence enough to re-sign Collison to a one-year deal in unrestricted free agency last summer, but after the Thunder bowed out in the opening round of the 2018 playoffs to Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert and the Utah Jazz, the 37-year-old decided he was ready for the end.

“My goal was always to make a career out of basketball, and I was blessed to be in the NBA for 15 seasons,” Collison said in a statement. “As my time as a basketball player comes to an end, I’m so grateful for my family, friends, teammates, coaches, fans, my hometown, Kansas University, the Thunder organization and everyone else who has helped me along the way. From the bottom of my heart, thank you. It has been an incredible journey that I’m proud of, and it would not have been possible to do it on my own.”

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Dan Devine is a writer and editor for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@oath.com or follow him on Twitter!

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