The Pacers have locked up a playoff spot with three games remaining in the regular season. Besides working out some kinks before a matchup with the Bulls, there is another huge story line for the team over their final three contests. They may be the last three regular season games for Jeff Foster. He’s finishing his 12th season in the NBA, all with the Pacers. Foster is 4th in Pacers’ history in games played, trailing only Vern Fleming, Rik Smits and Reggie Miller. Only Smits, Mel Daniels, George McGinnis and Dale Davis have more rebounds in a Pacers’ uniform.
Foster hasn’t publicly discussed his plans after this season, possibly one of the reasons there hasn’t been much attention paid, even among the Pacers’ faithful. Foster is an unrestricted free-agent after this season and there has been talk of him joining the team’s front office. I don’t want to be premature and I’m certainly not trying to shove him out the door. However, I don’t want the ambiguity of his future plans and the impending lockout to prevent him from receiving recognition for what he’s accomplished. If he decides to continue his playing career, I’ll happily re-post this again in the future.
I’ve heard announcers, from an opponent’s broadcast team, call Jeff Foster one of the all-time great rebounders on more than one occasion. Mentioned casually, and without context, I’m sure that sounds ludicrous to fans who haven’t followed the Pacers closely over the last decade. In a factual sense, there is nothing ludicrous about that statement whatsoever.
Throughout his career, some of Foster’s value has been obscured by his specialized role off the bench, and the average fan’s reliance on per game statistics. Averaging just 20.7 minutes per game across his career, those numbers won’t do justice to his impact on each individual possession. Foster has never averaged fewer than 10.0 rebounds per 36 minutes for a full season, and his career average sits at 12.0. He’s never averaged fewer than 4.2 offensive rebounds per 36 minutes for a full season, and his career average sits at 4.8.
Of players who’ve played more than 10,000 minutes, over at least 400 games, Jeff Foster has the 10th best TRB%. That’s not just among active players, that’s all-time. He ranks ahead of Tim Duncan, Charles Barkley, Robert Parish, Shaquille O’Neal, Kevin Willis, Charles Oakley, David Robinson, Hakeem Olajuwon and Dave Cowens. If you follow that link, and re-sort the list by ORB%, you’ll find Foster at 5th, trailing only Dennis Rodman, Moses Malone, Larry Smith and Chris Dudley.
I started writing this piece after looking at Foster’s place in Basketball-Reference’s Elo Player Ratings. The Elo Ratings are project, which allows fans to help create an ordered list of the greatest players of all-time. The ratings include anyone who has scored at least 10,000 points, grabbed 5,000 rebounds, handed out 2,500 assists OR garnered 1,000 combined steals and blocks. Foster is included for his career rebound total. The system randomly generates matchups between two players, with the fan voting on who was better, based on whatever criteria they choose. This process, repeated many, many times, is used to assign a relative rating to each player.
The ratings change constantly, but over the last two days I never found Foster ranked higher than 479th. That has Foster ranked behind players like Brendan Haywood, Tony Battie, Charlie Ward, Antonio Daniels, Rafer Alston, Bo Outlaw and Lindsey Hunter. With all due respect to those players, I think that’s a severe underestimation of Foster’s value. Each of those players may have provided a greater variety of contributions to their team, but none had an elite skill at the level of Foster’s rebounding.
In addition to his rebounding numbers, Foster was an excellent defender. He didn’t generate many steals or blocks, but he moved his feet, contested shots and always seemed to make the proper rotation. He was the consummate role player. Foster provided an elite skill, concentrated on what he did best and took almost nothing off the table. Foster’s accomplishments aren’t a reflection of his natural abilities, as much as his commitment to effort, conditioning, activity level and force of will. Every minute he was on the floor he put his body between his man and the basket. Its the most basic of basketball concepts, but sometimes the simplest things make the largest difference.
The Pacers’ made the Finals in his rookie season and have seen a somewhat steady decline in playoff participation ever since. It’s a cruel twist of fate to reach the pinnacle of team success just once, in your first season. Foster has never complained, even when his teammates were flailing at fans in Detroit, asking for time off to finish their rap albums and discharging handguns outside of strip clubs. With this newest crop of teammates, he’s become the elder statesman, leading by example and exerting maximum effort in every opportunity on the floor.
Foster won’t ever be included in the Hall of Fame. His retirement, whenever it should come, will likely go unnoticed by fans around the league. I wish there was a place where he could receive the recognition he deserves. In the end, that place may have to be the memories of the players who competed with and against him, and the fans who watched him play. Many players in NBA history have more impressive statistical resumes. Few have done such a splendid job of making the most of their abilities. The Pacers’ marketing department choose “Passion, Pride, Pacers” to promote this year’s team. I can’t imagine anyone doing a better job of representing those three words than Jeff Foster.