Shortly after free agency began on July 1, Courtney Lee received a call and immediately recognized the voice on the other end. It was New York Knicks President Phil Jackson. The Hall of Famer was the first person to express interest in Lee, and the 30-year-old shooting guard was extremely flattered. Soon after, Joakim Noah (who agreed to a deal with the Knicks) was also recruiting him to New York.
It didn’t take long for Lee to make up his mind and commit to the Knicks on a four-year, $50 million contract. He made the decision around 6:30 p.m. ET on July 2, choosing New York over teams like the Minnesota Timberwolves, Sacramento Kings, Philadelphia 76ers, Brooklyn Nets and Atlanta Hawks (who discussed the possibility of adding Lee to replace Kent Bazemore when it looked like he might sign elsewhere).
Lee is a strong addition for Jackson and the Knicks in what has been a very busy summer for the organization. The team also hired Jeff Hornacek as their new head coach and added Noah, Derrick Rose, Brandon Jennings and Willy Hernangomez among others. Jackson and his staff have assembled some intriguing talent around cornerstones Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis, and the squad will look drastically different next season as they try to end their three-year playoff drought.
While the addition of Lee didn’t make as many headlines as the Rose trade or Noah signing, there’s no question that Lee will have an enormous impact on both ends of the court.
Lee has averaged 9.6 points over the course of his nine-year NBA career, shooting 45 percent from the field, 38.4 percent from three-point range and 84.6 percent from the free throw line. Last year, he spent time with the Memphis Grizzlies and Charlotte Hornets, averaging 9.6 points, 2.6 rebounds and 1.1 steals in 29.5 minutes. In Charlotte’s first-round postseason series against the Miami HEAT, Lee averaged 8.6 points while shooting 44.4 percent from three-point range.
But Lee is the type of player who does plenty of important things that don’t show up in a box score. He makes hustle plays, does the dirty work and makes his opponent work for every point. To get an idea of how hard he works when he’s on the court, consider that he ran an average of 2.64 miles per game during the playoffs (ranking fourth among all players, behind only C.J. McCollum, Damian Lillard and Paul George).
In today’s NBA, the ‘3-and-D’ role player has become very valuable and Lee is a perfect example. He’s a two-way threat who will knock down efficient threes and then lock his man down on the other end of the court. Lee is also an excellent locker-room presence, leading by example while knowing his role and playing within it. On a Knicks team that features scorers like Anthony, Rose and Jennings, it’s important to have individuals like Lee and Noah surrounding them (and holding everyone accountable).
Last season in Charlotte, Lee ranked first among qualified players on the Hornets in offensive rating (111.4), net rating (+6), true shooting percentage (57.6 percent) and assist ratio (18.9 percent). In the playoffs, Lee contested 12.1 shots per game, which not only ranked first among all Hornets but ninth among all postseason players. Charlotte’s top three lineups in terms of plus/minus in the playoffs all had one thing in common: Lee playing on the perimeter, either at shooting guard or small forward (when they went small). In fact, Charlotte had two of the top five lineups of the 2016 postseason and both featured Lee.
Now, Lee will join a talented Knicks lineup and try to duplicate his success under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden.
Basketball Insiders caught up with Lee to discuss his free agency process, why he decided to join the Knicks, what he thinks of New York’s other moves, the expectations for next year, how much we’ll see the Triangle Offense under Coach Hornacek and more.
Alex Kennedy: You told me that the Knicks were the first team to show interest in you, with Phil Jackson contacting you shortly after free agency started. What was it like receiving that call?
Courtney Lee: “Man, hearing from Phil and it being the Knicks, it was an incredible feeling. It took me back to all of the things that Phil has accomplished, and it also took me all the way back to my childhood because I grew up in Indianapolis so I used to always watch the Pacers and Knicks battle against each other. It just brought back so many memories. For them to be the first team to call me, it was a good feeling. I mean, it’s Phil Jackson. It’s New York. You’re playing in the Mecca.”
Kennedy: Did you have any discussions with Jackson or Coach Hornacek about how they plan to use you and what they want to see from you?
Lee: “We spoke about that briefly. First and foremost, he wants me to bring energy on the defensive end. I kind of feel like me and Noah will be similar in that standpoint, bringing that energy. He’ll be a rim protector and I’ll be a perimeter defender, and we just want to cause as much havoc as possible for opponents. Then, on the offensive end, they just want me to be able to spread the floor, knock down open shots, get out in transition and play freely within the offense.”
Kennedy: You mentioned Madison Square Garden being the Mecca and spoke highly of New York. What will it mean to put on that Knicks jersey and play in front of those fans?
Lee: “It’s still sinking in, man. I wake up every day and I have butterflies in my stomach, ever since I made my verbal commitment to them. Being in the NBA for going on nine years, I’ve played in the Garden a lot and there’s a special feeling when you play there. There’s so much history. The fans are there night in and night out. Even during tough times in the past when they didn’t have the best seasons, the fans were still there and supporting their team. If they’re down 20 points, you may hear some boos in there because the fans are so passionate, but then if someone makes a play or shows that they’re giving maximum effort, the fans will cheer non-stop. That’s exactly what you want. You want the fans to be just as passionate as you, so that when you’re fighting through fatigue or battling through an injury, those fans are right there cheering you on as you try to make a play or get a big stop. New York definitely has those type of fans.”
Kennedy: The fans are really excited now because of the offseason acquisitions. What are you expectations for this upcoming season?
Lee: “We’re contenders, man. They didn’t make the playoffs last year, but we’re looking to change that and win big. The ring is the ultimate goal for everybody on the team; I know it is for me. When they talked to me and told me about the pieces they were adding alongside the players who were already there, I didn’t think anything less than a championship [was the goal]. We’re trying to get the Knicks back into the playoffs and win big.”
Kennedy: Did any of the players on the Knicks recruit you as you were weighing your options?
Lee: “Before free agency, I was talking with Noah and it’s great seeing how passionate he is. This offseason, he’s getting out of breath just being on the phone – like he’s running sprints – but it’s because he’s talking about the city, talking about the fans, talking about the team and talking about everything we can accomplish together. He’s excited and he was recruiting me pretty much the entire time, telling me that I was the missing piece and what not. He kept telling me, ‘Let’s get it done!’ Noah was in my ear a lot.”
Kennedy: There have been questions about Noah’s recent production and injuries, just as there has been talk about Rose’s injuries. How do you think the team can hold up and what do you say to the people who are concerned about the team’s potential health issues?
Lee: “It’s part of the game. When you play 82 games, plus eight to 10 preseason games, plus playoff games, you’re looking at around 100 games a year. We’re all human, so there are going to be injuries. It’s just about whether they’re serious injuries and whether you can bounce back from them. It’s a long season and we all know that injuries occur, but they probably have one of the best training staffs in New York. I think they’ll help us stay on the court as much as possible. All of the injuries from previous years are behind us. That’s the past. We’re looking forward to the future and the future looks bright for New York.”
Kennedy: You’re known for your perimeter defense, and you’ve spent time matched up against some of your new teammates like ‘Melo and D-Rose. What is it like guarding those guys and what makes them so effective offensively?
Lee: “Well, ‘Melo is one of those players who makes things tough for a guy like me since I’m 6’5 and he’s standing 6’8 or 6’9. He can play on the wing, but he’s also able to play in the post. He gave me mismatch problems a lot of times. But playing on this team, it’s going to be fun because he’s going to draw so much attention. Most nights, he’ll probably draw double teams and that’s just going to open things up for everybody else and make the offense flow that much easier.
“With D-Rose, I feel like he’s hungry. He’s been criticized a lot in his hometown. He’d been in Chicago his whole career and then he’s hearing things like, ‘He’s not the same player. He’s injury-prone.’ The city flipped on him. He was the guy who was taking them to the playoffs and he was the MVP, so people can’t forget about that. As a player, I will never forget how talented that man is. I think he’s eager and hungry, and he’ll use all of that as fuel. This is his fresh start in a new location. He’s going to come out with a chip on his shoulder.
“And it’s not just D-Rose. Noah has a chip on his shoulder. Carmelo has a chip on his shoulder because he’s eager to win a championship. KP (Kristaps Porzingis) is still learning, but he’s a dog so he’s going to go out there and compete. Brandon Jennings, every time he touches the ball he wants to score 50 so I know he’ll compete. And as far as myself, I’m always hungry and I’m always ready to scrap. We’re going to try to get the job done night after night.”
Kennedy: That’s an interesting point. Can a team come together and bond over something like that, the fact that you’re all trying to prove yourselves and are motivated by these slights?
Lee: “Yeah, no question. Our core group of guys who will be battling together, in the locker room together, on the plane together, we have to stick together and make sure everybody’s confidence is at an all-time high. If one person falls down, we have to be right there to pick them up. Everybody is hungry and everybody has their own motivation or chip on their shoulder. We just need to come together, get that chemistry and see it click. Once everybody is together and everybody is hungry, I think we can be very scary.”
Kennedy: Fans in New York were very excited when you chose the Knicks because the fit makes a lot of sense. What’s it like to get that kind of reaction and support from the fans?
Lee: “It’s a good feeling. Throughout my journey, I’ve been on a lot of different teams. Teams always say they want me and then I end up getting traded or whatnot. Now, to get a nice contract and the chance to play for Phil Jackson and Jeff Hornacek, and the chance to play in the Mecca, it’s rewarding. But even before I committed to New York, the fans were getting in touch with me on social media. Everybody was telling me, ‘Go to New York! New York! New York!’ Then, once I committed to the Knicks, my Instagram went nuts. The fan support here is like no other.”
Kennedy: Have you discussed how much Coach Hornacek is going to use the Triangle Offense? Will he only use some elements of it, or will it be used less?
Lee: “The only thing that Phil has told me is that he’s going to let Coach Hornacek have the [say] and be able to do what he wants to do. Phil may have some input and we talked about the Triangle a little bit, but I don’t think that Phil’s going to stress it too much.”
Kennedy: Now that you’re playing with Kristaps Porzingis, what do you think of his game and potential? Could we see a breakout season for him during his sophomore year?
Lee: “You should never judge a book by its cover. I remember when he was first drafted, there were a lot of people unhappy that they picked him. Then, when he got on that court, he let his game do the talking. He’s going to be a good player for years to come. The guy is 7’2 or 7’3, can shoot the ball, can dribble the ball and has moves. He’s going to be huge for us. Never judge a book by its cover.”
Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal
The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.
It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.
Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.
There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.
Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.
Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.
That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.
Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.
At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.
It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.
One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.
NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind
Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.
When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.
“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.
Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.
That didn’t last long.
“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”
With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.
As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.
After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.
In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.
“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”
Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.
“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”
Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.
“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”
After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.
Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.
“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”
All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.
“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”
Mavs Guard Devin Harris on Personal Leave from Team
Guard Devin Harris will take an indefinite leave from the Dallas Mavericks after the tragic death of his brother, Bruce.
“I was with him yesterday and just encouraged him that when he’s ready to come on back,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t know when that will be. He can take as long as he needs.”
Source: Tim MacMahon of ESPN