The Pacific Division has been dominated by the Los Angeles Lakers for a long time. The Sacramento Kings and Phoenix Suns have also experienced sustained periods of success over the last decade. But now it is the Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State Warriors who lead the Pacific, which goes to show that nothing lasts forever, even when it comes to the Lakers and Clippers.
With this in mind, let’s take a look at each of these teams and assess who has the brightest future.
Los Angeles Clippers (57-24, 3rd in the Western Conference, 1st in the Pacific Division.)
Coach: Doc Rivers
Cornerstones: Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, DeAndre Jordan
Assets: 2014 1st round pick, Reggie Bullock.
The Clipper’s ascension to the top of the Pacific started a few years ago when they unexpectedly won the 2010 NBA Lottery and selected Blake Griffin with the first pick in the draft. Griffin joined a team that featured young players like Eric Gordon and DeAndre Jordan, and veterans like Chris Kaman and Baron Davis. But from day one Griffin was the new foundation for the Clippers and everything was built around him.
Then, in December 2011, the Clippers landed Chris Paul in dramatic fashion after David Stern cancelled a deal that would have placed Paul with the Lakers. Stern, acting as de facto owner of the league owned New Orleans Hornets, said his decision was for “basketball reasons.” This trade seismically shifted the power dynamic in Los Angeles, and is the main reason why the Clippers are now atop the Pacific division.
How Things Went This Season
The Clippers entered this offseason looking to make a run to the NBA Finals. To do this, they hired former Boston Celtics head coach Doc Rivers. The team sent their 2015 first round pick to the Celtics, who agreed to release Rivers from his contract and take over the Clippers. In addition, the Clippers signed point guard Darren Collison, center Byron Mullens, forward Antawn Jamison, and resigned small forward Matt Barnes. The Clippers also acquired Jared Dudley from Phoenix and J.J. Redick from Milwaukee via trade, sending Eric Bledsoe and Caron Butler to Phoenix and a second round pick to Milwaukee. The team also added young sharpshooter Reggie Bullock from North Carolina with the 25th pick in the draft.
The Clippers set a franchise record on April 15, beating the Denver Nuggets and winnings its 57th game of the season. They managed this by fielding one of the league’s most potent offenses and steadily improving on defense all season long. The Clippers currently have the highest rated offense in the league, scoring 109.5 points per 100 possessions, and the 7th best defense, giving up 101.9 points per 100 possessions. This combination is good for a 7.5 point differential, second best in the NBA behind the ageless San Antonio Spurs.
Credit goes to Doc Rivers and his staff for making some key changes that have paid off this season for the Clippers. First, Rivers instituted his strong-side defense, which has improved as the players have adjusted, and has turned the Clippers into the best team at guarding the three-point line. Also, from day one Rivers has instilled confidence in Jordan, which has resulted in a career year for the young center.
Most importantly, Griffin has taken the next step in his development. After Paul separated his shoulder against the Dallas Mavericks on January 3, Griffin stepped into the lead role and has not taken a back seat since. He is shooting with more confidence, hitting free throws, running fast breaks, creating scoring opportunities for teammates, and is engaged defensively.
The Clippers are structured to win this year and for the foreseeable future. Griffin and Paul both are locked up until 2017-2018, when both players will have a player option to opt out of their contracts. Jordan is signed through next season, at which point the Clippers will try to extend him. In addition, J.J. Redick is locked in until 2016-2017. The Clippers have a team option on 6th man of the year candidate Jamal Crawford for 2015-2016, which the team will likely exercise. Also, Rivers signed a three year contract with the team that will run through 2015-2016 as well. With these five players, and Rivers, who will likely be around until at least 2015-2016, the Clippers look to be atop the Pacific Division for the foreseeable future.
Additionally, with a first round pick in this year’s draft, and youngster Reggie Bullock developing, the Clippers have a few assets in their back pocket. Look for the Clippers to bring Bullock along slowly. The Clippers will also continue to benefit from the free agent market as they have this season with players like Darren Collison, Danny Granger and Glen Davis, who all signed for substantially less for a chance to play on a contending team.
Golden State Warriors (50-31, 6th in the Western Conference, 2nd in the Pacific Division)
Coach: Mark Jackson
Cornerstones: Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala
Assets: Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green
The Golden State Warriors entered this season with high expectations after advancing to the Western Conference Semifinals last year.
How Things Went This Season
The Warriors made a big move this offseason, acquiring defensive ace Andre Iguodala. With the addition of Iguodala and Andrew Bogut anchoring the defense, the Warriors have touted the league’s third highest rated defense, which allows only 99.9 points per 100 possessions. But with explosive players like Curry and Thompson on the team, and a top rated defense in place, the Warriors should arguably be first in the Pacific, even ahead of the Clippers.
The problem is that the Warriors are rated as the 12th best offense in the league, scoring 105.3 points per 100 possessions. This is above league average, but with a talent like Stephen Curry running the show, and players like Klay Thompson, David Lee, and Iguodala, it’s fair to expect this team to at least be a top-10 offensive team. Part of the issue is that for the better part of the season, the Warriors bench has failed to contribute as much as other top teams. The Warriors recognized this and made trades for players like Steve Blake and Jordan Crawford. These were both underrated acquisitions, but the Warriors still are not as efficient as they could be.
In spite of this, the Warriors have a chance to make a run this postseason. They will likely face the Clippers in the first round and will have to be at their best to advance without Bogut, who sustained a broken rib this past week and is out indefinitely. It will be a tough series, but if Curry and Thompson get hot from the perimeter, they might be able to get past the Clippers.
The Warriors, much like the Clippers, are designed to win now and in the immediate future. Players like Bogut, Iguodala, and Curry are locked in until 2016-2017. Also, Thompson will likely sign a new contract with the Warriors this offseason that will lock him up for anywhere between the next three-to-five years. The Warriors also have a team option on Harrison Barnes for next season at $3,873,398. Though Barnes has had a disappointing season, he can bounce back and be a major piece for this team moving forward. Lee is signed through 2015-2016 and may very well resign with the Warriors. However, his next contract will be for less, as he is set to make $15,493,680 next season.
While the roster is set to win now and in the future, the coaching situation is less stable. Mark Jackson has led the Warriors to winning seasons since taking over. However, recent reports indicate that the front office has not yet committed to Jackson long-term.
The most recent issues pertain to Jackson’s assistants. Brian Scalabrine was recently demoted by Jacksons to the Warriors’ D-League affiliate team in Santa Cruz, and lead assistant Darren Erman was dismissed from the team for a “violation of the organization’s policy.” Jackson’s future with the Warriors depends in large part on how the team fares in the playoffs. If the Warriors cannot advance past the Clippers, expect Jackson to be placed on the hot seat.
In spite of the unstable coaching situation, this roster is good enough to compete with the Clippers this season, and for the foreseeable future. Bob Meyers, the general manager of the Warriors, has done a good job of assembling a roster of young talent, and solid veterans. Curry is a top talent, and with players like Thompson around him, this team is set to compete for many years to come.
Phoenix Suns (47-34, 9th western conference, 3rd in the Pacific Division)
Coach: Jeff Hornacek
Cornerstones: Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe
Assets: Three 2014 first round picks, Alex Len
Throughout the mid-2000s the Phoenix Suns were atop the Pacific Division with the Los Angeles Lakers. Their past success stemmed in large part from former head coach Mike D’Antoni’s fast-paced-offense, which has caught on throughout the league. Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire ran the system perfectly, and the Suns managed to surround these two with shooters and other versatile players. However, Stoudemire eventually left for New York, and Nash was eventually traded to the Lakers. Thus, the Suns finally started to rebuild from the ground up this past offseason.
How Things Went This Season
The Suns have been the surprise team of the season. This past offseason the Suns hired rookie head coach Jeff Hornacek, and drafted Alex Len with the fifth pick in the draft, along with Archie Goodwin (29). The Suns then traded Jared Dudley to the Clippers for Caron Butler and Eric Bledsoe, and then traded Luis Scola to the Indiana Pacers for Gerald Green and Miles Plumlee, and a 2014 first round pick (lottery protected). The Suns then traded Marcin Gortat, Malcom Lee, Kendall Marshall and Shannon Brown to the Washington Wizards for Emeka Okafor and a protected 2014 first-round pick. The Suns also picked up the fourth-year options on Markieff and Marcus Morris and used the stretch provision to waive Michael Beasley.
The Suns clearly were all in on rebuilding the franchise from the ground up. With a rookie head coach, and few veteran players, no one expected Phoenix to be in the playoff hunt this season. Nevertheless, the Suns exceeded all expectations and were only eliminated from playoff contention on April 15, when they lost to the Memphis Grizzlies.
The Suns thrived this season behind the excellent play of Most Improved Player candidate Goran Dragic and budding star Eric Bledsoe. With Dragic and Bledsoe sharing the backcourt, the Suns featured the league’s eighth best offense, scoring 107.1 points per 100 possessions. Beyond Dragic and Bledsoe, players like Gerald Green had career years. Green has made the fourth most three pointers in the league (currently 202) on 40 percent shooting from beyond the arc.
It’s a shame that Suns will did not make the playoffs this season. If the Suns were the in the Eastern Conference, they would be ranked 5th and set to play the Chicago Bulls in the first round. Fortunately for the Suns, they have a pile of draft picks to add more players, and potentially trade.
Dragic (player option), Len (team option), the Morris twins (qualifying offers), and Plumlee (team option) are likely to be with the team through 2015-2016. The Suns will look to sign Bledsoe to a long term deal this offseason, but it remains to be seen at what price. Other teams looking for a long term fit at point guard may offer Bledsoe a max free agent offer sheet, which the Suns will have the right to match.
The Suns will also look to keep players like P.J. Tucker (qualifying offer), Green (signed for next season), and Frye (player option). After next season however, these players may become too expensive for the Suns to keep. The Suns will also consider packaging draft picks and players for an established star, like they tried to earlier this season with Pau Gasol. The Suns could even make a substantial free agent offer to free agents like Luol Deng, who would add veteran stability to the young roster.
The Suns are in a favorable position right now. They unloaded veteran players and turned them into future assets. They acquired players like Green and Plumlee, who had career years, and hired a young coach who could win Coach of the Year. With a roster that almost made the playoffs in the deep Western Conference and with more flexibility than just about any team moving forward, the Suns are ahead of schedule on their rebuild. This is a team to keep an eye on this offseason and could compete with the Clippers and Warriors in the near future for Pacific Division supremacy.
Sacramento Kings (28-53, 13th in the Western Conference, 4th in the Pacific Division)
Coach: Michael Malone
Cornerstones: DeMarcus Cousins, Isaiah Thomas, Rudy Gay
Assets: Ben McLemore, 2014 first round pick
The Sacramento Kings have been at the bottom of the Pacific Division for the past few seasons and are looking to turn that around under new owner Vivek Ranadivé. The Kings hired Michael Malone who is trying to develop young players like DeMarcus Cousins, and create a winning culture in Sacramento.
How Things Went This Season
It has been a disappointing season for the Kings. During the offseason, and throughout the season, the Kings made moves to add young talent and veterans to create a more balanced roster.
Last offseason the Kings selected Ben McLemore with the seventh pick and Ray McCallum with the 36th pick. They then traded Tyreke Evans to New Orleans Pelicans for Greivis Vasquez and two second-round picks. The Kings then signed Carl Landry to a four-year, $26 million contract. In November, they traded Luc Richard Mbah a Moute to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Derrick Williams and in December, the Kings traded John Salmons, Chuck Hayes, Patrick Patterson and Greivis Vasquez to the Toronto Raptors for Rudy Gay, Aaron Gray and Quincy Acy. In February, the Kings traded Marcus Thornton to the Brooklyn Nets for Jason Terry and Reggie Evans.
While the flurry of moves did not pan out this season, there is still hope for a better future in Sacramento. DeMarcus Cousins, in spite of his maturity issues, is a top center in the NBA. In each of his last three games, Cousins has scored over 30 points and hauled in over 10 rebounds. Though his shooting percentage from the field needs to improve, and he needs to control his on court emotions, he is one of the most skilled big-men in the NBA, and is a major asset for the Kings.
Ben Mclemore is another asset moving forward despite his underwhelming rookie season. At times throughout this season Mclemore has displayed elite athleticism and the smooth jump shot that scouts raved about entering the draft. Like the majority of rookies, Mclemore has been inconsistent and hesitant at times. His shooting percentages, 37.3 percent from the field and 31.9 percent from beyond the arc, need to improve dramatically, but the talent is there.
One of the biggest questions marks heading into the offseason is whether Rudy Gay will exercise his player option for the last year of his contract (worth $19,317,326), or look to sign a new, long-term deal. Gay has improved his play since arriving in Sacramento and he has indicated that he would like to stay with the team moving forward. If the Kings can sign him for a reasonable rate, they should sign lock him in for the next few seasons.
The other big question is what will happen with Isaiah Thomas. Thomas has exceeded all expectations and proven to be a valuable player for the Kings. However, at 5’9 Thomas gives up considerable size to most opposing point guards. The Kings undoubtedly want to keep Thomas, but it will have to be at a price that makes sense for the franchise.
Overall, the Kings have quality talent on the roster. However, there are veteran contracts that are taking up too much cap space, such as Carl Landry, Jason Thompson, and Travis Outlaw. Look for the Kings to try and unload these contracts, and continue adding young pieces around Cousins, Thomas, Mclemore, and Gay. This includes the Kings’ top-10 pick in the upcoming draft, which includes some very talented prospects. The future looks bright for the Kings, but it will take a few seasons before they can compete for Pacific division supremacy.
Los Angeles Lakers (26-55, 14th in the Western Conference, 5th in the Pacific Division)
Coach: Mike D’Antoni
Cornerstones: Kobe Bryant
Best Assets: 2014 first round pick, Ryan Kelly
The Los Angeles Lakers are one of, if not the league’s marquee franchises. However, this has been a rough season for the franchise and its fans. In fact, this season is the first and only time in NBA history that the Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knicks, and Boston Celtics failed to make the playoffs in the same year.
How Things Went This Season
The Lakers entered this season with cautious optimism, in spite of losing center Dwight Howard to the Houston Rockets. Kobe Bryant indicated that he may be healthy enough to play opening night, and Steve Nash had spent the entire offseason rehabbing as well. In addition, the team had signed young players that had underachieved for other teams, and were looking for a fresh start. Things did not work out however. Bryant missed opening night and only played six games all season. It was the worst season in franchise history, with one of the worst defeats coming at the hands of the Clippers, who won by 48 points. Unfortunately, there were only a few bright spots, such as Kendal Marshall, Jodie Meeks and Nick Young and Ryan Kelly.
The Lakers selected Ryan Kelly with the 48th pick in the draft, signed Jordan Farmar to a one-year, minimum contract for $1.1 million, waived Metta World Peace with their one-time amnesty provision, and then signed Nick Young to a two-year, minimum contract at $2.3 million (second season player option). The Lakers then signed Chris Kaman to a one-year, $3,183,000 contract, and Wesley Johnson to a one-year, $916k minimum contract. They also signed Xavier Henry to a one-year, non-guaranteed $916k minimum contract.
The biggest move of the season came in November when they signed Kobe Bryant to a two-year, $48.5 million extension. Bryant had not returned from his injury yet, but the Lakers wanted to show their commitment to their star. Then in February, the Lakers traded Steve Blake to the Golden State Warriors for Kent Bazemore and MarShon Brooks.
These roster moves did not lead to much success unfortunately. The Lakers have the second fastest pace in the league, but are rated 21st in terms of offensive efficiency. Even worst, the defense has allowed opposing teams to score 108.1 points per 100 possessions, third worst in the league. Beyond the offensive and defensive issues, the Lakers have been devastated by injuries.
The Lakers have roughly $34,226,243 in guaranteed player salary next season. This comes mostly from Bryant and Nash’s contracts. When the Lakers announced Bryant’s contract, the immediate reaction was surprise. Everyone thought Kobe was going to take a major discount so the Lakers could sign two max free agents, like LeBron and Carmelo. Instead, the Lakers now have room for only one max free agent, and little else. The contract seems to indicate that the Lakers realize that they are at least two years away from truly contending, and are going to ride out Kobe’s last two years in the league. Despite the Lakers and Kobe publically stating that they are planning on contending next year, the reality is that there simply is not enough flexibility to make that happen. While you can never count out the Lakers, the immediate future does not look bright.
The Lakers do have a top-10 pick coming up this offseason, and if that pick pans out, it can turn things around for the Lakers quickly. Also, if a player like Kevin Love becomes available, expect the Lakers to offer a package based around the pick.
Current players like Young, Meeks, Hill, Marshall, and Henry have proven that they are worth keeping around, but there is no real core to build around. Every other team in the Pacific has star players, or potential star players to build around except the Lakers. However, as bleak as things may seem now, the Lakers always bounce back quickly. Unfortunately, the next time the Lakers are contending for top spot in the Pacific, it likely won’t include Kobe Bryant.
NBA Daily: Jonathan Isaac Proving to be Key Part of Orlando’s Future
Basketball Insiders spoke with Jonathan Isaac about his rookie season, injuries, areas to improve on, his faith and more.
On January 13, the Orlando Magic were eliminated from playoff contention. This date served as a formality as the team has known for quite some time that any postseason hopes had long since sailed. The Magic started the year off on a winning note and held an 8-4 record in early November. However, the team lost their next nine games and never really recovered.
Many factors play a role in a young but talented team like the Magic having another season end like this. Injuries to franchise cornerstone Aaron Gordon as well as forward Evan Fournier and forward Jonathan Isaac magnified the team’s issues.
Isaac, a rookie selected sixth overall in the first round of the 2017 NBA Draft, started the season off reasonably well. On November 10, in 21 minutes of action, he registered an 11-point, six-rebound, one-assist, one-steal, two-block all-around effort against the Phoenix Suns to help the Magic get to that 8-4 record. Isaac then suffered an ankle injury midway through his next game and wouldn’t play again until December 17, by which time the team was already 11-20 with athe season quickly going sideways. From November until March, Isaac would only play in three games until finally returning to consistent action in the month of March with the season all but decided.
Basketball Insiders spoke to Isaac recently to discuss how he has pushed through this season, staying healthy, his impressive skill set and more.
“I’ve had a lot of time off from being injured so, I think my body is holding up fine along with how much I’ve played. I haven’t played a full season,” Isaac told Basketball Insiders “I feel good. I feel good.”
Isaac talked about what part of his game he feels strongly about and has improved on.
“I think defensively,” Isaac said. “I didn’t expect myself to make strides defensively like I have. I’ve been able to just be able to just do different things and help this team defensively and I didn’t expect that coming in so, that would be the one thing.”
Magic Head Coach Frank Vogel was effusive in his praise of Isaac’s defense and also focused on the rookie’s great defensive potential.
“His defense is out of this world. I mean it’s really something else,” Vogel said. “Just watch him play and everybody’s getting a taste of it right now. They haven’t seen him a whole lot but he’s an elite defender right now at 20-years old and the sky’s the limit for what he can be on that end of the floor.
While Isaac hasn’t logged a huge number of minutes on the floor this season, he has impressed in his limited action. As Coach Vogel stated, anyone who has taken the time to watch Isaac play this season has noticed his ability to guard other big men and his overall defensive impact.
“I think I’ve been able to do a good job on most of the people that I’ve had to guard,” Isaac said.
Missing Isaac’s defense impact and overall contributions partially explains why the Magic cooled off after their hot start. However, with the playoffs no longer an option, younger players like Isaac now have the opportunity to play with less attention and pressure. While it can be argued that the Magic aren’t really playing for anything, the truth is these late-season games can be an opportunity to develop these younger players and determine what to work on during the offseason.
There is more to Isaac than just basketball, however. Isaac discussed other parts of his life that are important to him, including religion and his faith.
“[M]y faith in Jesus is something that I put a lot of emphasis on,” Isaac told Basketball Insiders. “It’s a part of me.”
Isaac did not hesitate to credit his faith when asked if it helped him push through his injuries.
“I would say definitely,” Isaac said. “Especially with getting injured so early in the season and being out for 40 games. That’s a lot on somebody’s mental capacity and then just staying positive, staying joyful in times where joy doesn’t seem like it’s the right emotion to have. And I definitely [attribute] that to my faith.”
Looking forward, both Vogel and Isaac discussed the future and what the young big man can improve on.
“Offensively, he’s grown in confidence, he’s gained so he’s going to give us a big lift and our future’s bright with him,” Vogel stated.
Isaac gave a hint of his offseason training plans when asked what he looks forward to working on.
“I would say consistency with my jump shot. Really working on my three-ball and I would say ball-handling,” Isaac stated.
When asked if there was anything more he wanted to add, Isaac simply smiled and said, “Oh no, I think I got to get to church right now,” as the team prepared to play later that evening.
Tyronn Lue’s Health Concerns Latest Bump In The Road For Cavaliers
Spencer Davies outlines Tyronn Lue’s decision to take a leave of absence to deal with health issues and covers the reaction around the NBA.
The win-loss record is not where they want it to be.
The performances have not been up to par with what they expect.
With that said, one thing is for certain: There is no other team that will have been more battle tested going into the playoffs than the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Day after day and week after week, there’s always something going on with the team. Between in-house arguments, on-court miscommunication, roster turnover, and more, it has been one giant roller coaster of a season.
Monday morning, another twist was added to the ride. In a statement released by the Cavaliers organization, Tyronn Lue and general manager Koby Altman announced that the head coach would be taking a leave of absence to address his health:
“After many conversations with our doctors and Koby and much thought given to what is best for the team and my health, I need to step back from coaching for the time being and focus on trying to establish a stronger and healthier foundation from which to coach for the rest of the season.
“I have had chest pains and other troubling symptoms, compounded by a loss of sleep, throughout the year. Despite a battery of tests, there have been no conclusions as to what the exact issue is. While I have tried to work through it, the last thing I want is for it to affect the team.
“I am going to use this time to focus on a prescribed routine and medication, which has previously been difficult to start in the midst of a season. My goal is to come out of it a stronger and healthier version of myself so I can continue to lead this team to the Championship we are all working towards. I greatly appreciate Dan Gilbert, Koby Altman, our medical team and the organization’s support throughout.”
There were multiple instances where Lue either missed part of a half or an entire game this season. The symptoms are definitely not to be taken lightly. According to a report by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Dave McMenamin, Lue attempted to return to the bench Saturday night in Chicago but the team didn’t allow him to. Evidently, Lue was “coughing up blood” some nights.
Seeing it first hand after postgame press conferences, Lue was visibly exhausted and stress could likely be playing a part. He’s been fighting through the tough times the team has been going through and avoided stepping away twice this season.
Charlotte Hornets head coach Steve Clifford had his own battle with health problems earlier this season and temporarily left the team for those reasons. He has attempted to reach out to Lue, a friend and former player of his.
Other head coaches around the league—Joe Prunty, Steve Kerr, and Luke Walton—have all gone to bat for Lue when discussing the rigors of an NBA schedule and the toll it takes.
Altman supports the decision for Lue to get to the bottom of what’s going on.
“We know how difficult these circumstances are for Coach Lue and we support him totally in this focused approach to addressing his health issues,” he said.
LeBron James is glad that Lue is going to take some time to get better.
“Obviously, health is the most important with everything in life,” James said Monday after shootaround. “Not surprised by it at all. I knew he was struggling, but he was never not himself. He was just dealing with it the best way he could, but he was never not himself when he was around.
“It doesn’t matter what’s going on here. We play a great sport, our coaches get to coach a great sport, and you guys get to cover a great sports. But health is most important right now and that’s what our coach is doing right now and we’re all in favor for it.”
The latest piece of news is a blow to the already injury-ridden Cleveland group. Assistant coach Larry Drew will take over duties until Lue returns.
The good news for the Cavaliers is that Kevin Love can potentially return to the mix as soon as Monday night against Milwaukee.
NBA Daily: Calderón’s Late NBA Start
Jose Calderón might be the only player in the league who didn’t grow up dreaming of playing in the NBA.
There are a lot of different ways to get to the NBA, but most of them involve lifelong scouting and an unceasing dream to play in the world’s premier basketball league.
Cleveland Cavaliers guard José Calderón didn’t really have either of those things.
“I never even thought of the NBA when I was a kid,” Calderón told Basketball Insiders. “I grew up in a small town in Spain, and I played basketball because my dad played and I loved it. I was having fun, always playing with the older guys because I was good at that age, but I never really even thought about playing any sort of professional basketball.”
Having grown up in Villanueva de la Serena, Spain, Calderón watched his father play for Doncel La Serena, which was his hometown team as a child. He was something of a prodigy, having attended practices and games with his father from a young age, and as burgeoning teenager he left home to play professionally for the lower-level Vitoria-Gasteiz team.
“They wanted to sign me at 13 years old, and we didn’t even know that they could sign people that young,” Calderón remembers. “So I did that, and I tried to get better. I tried to advance into the older clubs, but I never really did think about the NBA at all, honestly.”
That changed as he got older, though, especially after Spain finished 5th in the 2002 FIBA World Championship and Calderón started to get some stateside recognition.
“After that summer, [my agent and I] got a call from Milwaukee asking about my situation, and asked would I think about coming to play over here. It was sort of a let’s-see-what-happens sort of situation, but I couldn’t at that time because I was under contract. That was the first time I was really approached.”
As his teammates from the Spanish National Team made their way to the NBA, Calderón grew increasingly intrigued.
“Pau Gasol obviously opened a lot of doors for us,” he said. “Raul Lopez came, too. I was just playing basketball, though. I didn’t know anything about scouts. Later, when we started to get the calls from Toronto, I started to realize how possible it really was. That’s when I thought, ‘Hey, why not?’”
Despite being eligible for a few drafts in a row, Calderón never did get drafted, which was fine by him. Growing up the way he did, Calderón never had any dreams of his hearing his name called by Commissioner Stern, so playing his way through most of his deal with TAU Vitoria was no big deal for him. He could take or leave the NBA.
“Not getting drafted was the perfect situation for me,” he said. “In my satiation, coming from Europe, I was already playing professionally for a good team and making some good money. That was perfect for me at the time, and I was happy to be a free agent at 23, choosing where I was going to sign instead of going in the second round and having to play for one team.”
He signed with the Raptors in 2005 since they were the most aggressive in recruiting him to the NBA. As a 23-year-old rookie, he wasn’t overwhelmed physically the way a lot of rookies are, but he did find his new league challenging in other ways.
“The hardest part was just having to start over,” he said. “You start over from zero. It doesn’t matter if the other players know you or don’t, you have to prove yourself all over again. You could be the MVP of Europe, but to get respect in the NBA you have to gain it on the court.”
The talent differential was immediately noticeable, as well.
“There are so many guys out there that are better than you. It’s not just like a guy or two; there are six, seven guys on the floor any given time that are better than you.”
That meant making some changes in the way that Calderón played. He was asked to do a lot more offensively for his EuroLeague team. Playing with so many talented scorers completely changed his approach.
“I went from taking 20 shots a game to doing something else, and as a point guard in the NBA I had to approach that point guard role even more, to make those guys respect my game, to make them want to play with me. I had to be able to pass the ball, to do something different from all the other players, so I became a fast-first point guard to make sure we always played as a team. That’s how I get to where I am as a professional.”
Now 36 years old, Calderón is one of the league’s oldest players, making it easy for him to look back at where he came from to transform into the player he is today.
“I’ve grown so much, but I was lucky to be given the opportunity,” he said. “When you arrive from Europe, whether you’re good or bad, it doesn’t always matter if you don’t have the opportunity. Toronto gave me the opportunity to play 20 minutes a night, and that’s a lot. I made a lot of mistakes, but they let me play through those mistakes. All those little things added up for me, and I learned a lot.”
He owns two silver medals and a bronze in the three Olympics he’s participated in over the course of his career, as well as gold medals in FIBA World Cup and EuroBasket, but he’s never won an NBA championship. Joining up with LeBron James improves those odds, but that’s the thing that would really put an exclamation point on an excellent career.
Calderón could have stayed in Spain and been fine. He jokes that while the NBA has been very good to him, he and his family could have stayed in Europe and he could have made good money playing basketball there. He’s been happy with his career, though, however unorthodox his journey here, and he hopes his most prestigious accolades are yet to come.