Meet The Least Important Man in the NBA Playoffs

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You might know the name Blake Ahearn, but it almost certainly sounds somewhat familiar. This is not because you accidentally watched the NCAA Lacrosse finals on a random Memorial Day and saw some longstick middie named Blake Ahearn (or something like it) running around out there. Neither is it because you went to private school on Long Island with a Blake Ahearn or three.

It might be, of course, but if you know the name Blake Ahearn it's more likely because you’re either related to Blake Ahearn or because you’ve watched college basketball. During a prolific career as a mid-major gunner at Missouri State, Ahearn reliably if anonymously shot the lights out—he hit 96 of 202 three-pointers in his senior season, which is 46.5%, and which is ridiculous—and became the NCAA’s all-time leading free-throw shooter. It's a relatively boring, remarkably unremarkable feat of absurd consistency; the sort of thing that occasionally gets brought up on late January weeknights when there’s nothing else to talk about on the college basketball recap show of choice. Through a wide, basketball-only lens, this is who Blake Ahearn is: a once-really-great college free-throw ace, who has played 19 NBA games for three different teams since the 2007-08 season.

Blake Ahearn is also a person who is earning $10,750,000 this season, according to Yahoo! Sports. That would make him the second-highest paid player on the Utah Jazz, behind Al Jefferson and his $14,000,000 haul if it were true. It isn't, at all: it's a backroom programming blooper that has probably not been fixed because no one cares how much money Blake Ahearn is making other than Blake Ahearn and whatever family, friends, and his notional Show Me State Posse. Without any slick, over-simplified, Darren Rovell-like number crunching, on a minute-by-minute pay basis, that Yahoo salary would make Ahearn the highest paid player in the NBA, considering that he played seven minutes and 35 seconds this season, before getting two minutes of low-wattage burn during the Jazz's loss to the Spurs on Sunday.

For the Jazz, garbage time doesn’t really exist. They were a borderline playoff team through the last few days of the season, so an existence on the edge of that particular bench takes on a broader kind of significance and strangeness. Seven minutes is some microscopic run over the course of a full—albeit super-compressed—season; Blake Ahearn’s in the NBA, but barely. He won’t play again in the playoffs unless Tyrone Corbin falls into a mid-game fever-dream or if everyone on the Utah roster contracts mad cow, which is sort of possible, if not probable, depending on various vagaries of diet and the Salt Lake City burger scene.

For a guy who’s played in a Dakota, Madrid, Italy, Reno, Erie, and a bunch of other D-League C-city strongholds, it’s probably pretty good being on an NBA playoff team. (His previous NBA experience came in super-short stints with the Heat and Spurs, but no postseason.) Ahearn started this season playing for the U.S. in the Pan American games. They won a bronze medal, which is maybe not something that will make it onto his resume, but is still playing basketball games. The Jazz picked up Ahearn on a 10-day contract at the beginning of April, and they extended it to season’s end on the 19th. Upon getting the news, Ahearn said, “I know what my strengths are. Any time that I get, I've got to make the most of it. I know if I just play my game it will help the team win.”

This is a weird and secret sort of knowledge. No one really knows Ahearn’s “game” or “strengths” because in a NBA sense he doesn’t have any yet. He scored points in college, played point guard, always, always hit his free throws, and also won a D-League All-Star game MVP, but how any of that translates to the NBA hasn’t been revealed. As mentioned, he won’t play much in the playoffs—outside of some bizarre, last-chance, odds-breaking scenario. He’s basically getting paid not to play basketball in a league that is built upon paying people to play basketball. He is not alone in this, and there are players making more money to play even less, but Ahearn's ad hoc presence—a pale 27-year-old journeyman with a receding hairline and a shade under eight minutes of on-court experience with the team—on the roster feels almost like a favor, in an odd way. It's business as usual, but it's also strange. Not as strange as a typo handing him $10 million, but strange all the same. Still, even with a salary a few zeroes shy of Yahoo's figure, being the least significant man in the NBA playoffs probably beats the alternative.

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Comments

I have heard of several occasions in which Ahearn did in fact not make his free throws.