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Fixing the Golden State Warriors

In the wake of firing Mark Jackson, what can the Warriors do to become true contenders next season and beyond?

Nate Duncan

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The Golden State Warriors have seen quite a bit of upheaval during the last 12 months. A year ago, they were the darlings of the league after an electric upset of the Denver Nuggets. Since then, they (rightly) let Carl Landry and Jarrett Jack go, then acquired Andre Iguodala in a sign-and-trade that was enabled by the trade of 2014 and 2017 first round picks to the Utah Jazz.

Yet after a 51-win regular season and a hard-fought first round playoff loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, the Warriors have fired head coach Mark Jackson with one year remaining on his contract. Whether that was a wise decision remains to be seen, but with Jackson’s firing the pressure is now squarely on management to nail their next coaching hire and improve the personnel. And, as we shall see, the pressure is also going to be on owner Joe Lacob and his ownership group to open their wallets to maximize this team’s odds at a championship. Here’s what the Warriors should do moving forward:

Evaluate The Team

Warriors management has to determine whether it thinks this can be a championship core at some point in the future. A fairly obvious first step, right? As General Manager Bob Myers said to me earlier in the year, “The end goal is and will always remain winning championships and doing it over as long of a period of time as you can.”

How close the Warriors are must be determined so that management can figure out whether it should work on alleviating the weaknesses around this core or if major changes need to be made. But answering that question may be more difficult for this Warriors team than for any other good team in recent NBA history.

On one hand, the team made the playoffs for the second straight year, an unprecedented development for the franchise in the past 20 years. They improved from 47 wins to 51 wins, and perhaps more importantly from 44 “expected wins”* to 54 this year.* The team’s plus 5.4 net rating was sixth in the NBA, and the defense improved all the way to third in points allowed per possession. From a statistical perspective, this was a team that was a fringe championship contender. One could argue that the team very well might have defeated the Clippers had Andrew Bogut been healthy in the first round, or even if they had one more dependable athletic big man to replace him.

*The number of wins predicted by their point differential.

On the other hand, the team was still merely the number six seed in the West for the second straight year, and did not advance a round as it did last season. The team blew a number of winnable games against inferior opponents at home during the year that perhaps cost them a chance at the top half of the Western Conference bracket. Only a few of the more analytical writers even mentioned the possibility that the Warriors could be a championship dark horse even in their best stretches during the year. Even with a healthy Bogut it is nearly impossible to imagine the Warriors navigating through the Clippers, Thunder and Spurs without homecourt advantage this season. And perhaps the only reasons that first round series was so close were the Clippers’ distraction from the Donald Sterling affair and Chris Paul’s balky hamstring.

Whichever view you take, it seems clear the team was not quite a championship contender this year. Is this core likely to become so in the future? Stephen Curry had another healthy year and emerged as certainly a top-10 and possibly even top-five player in the NBA. Draymond Green emerged as one of the most versatile defenders in the league and vastly improved on what was a sub-replacement level season offensively a year ago to become a very solid role player. He can improve even further by becoming more of a knock down shooter. Klay Thompson improved to become a better on-ball defender and finally began to diversify his shooting-based game with more passing and drives to the basket as the year ended, though his overall season and playoff statistics still suffered from a dearth of assists, rebounds and free throws. It is also worth noting that Green and Thompson basically never get hurt. Meanwhile, former lottery pick Harrison Barnes regressed from what was a middling rookie season, posting terrible efficiency on well below-average usage. Barnes was talked about as a future star after last year’s playoffs*, but at this point his only true merits are shooting standstill threes and playing above-average defense. Nevertheless, at only 22 years old, Barnes does have the skillset to develop into a reasonable three and D wing who could come off the bench or start in a pinch.

*Surprisingly, given the fact he had a mere 13.8 PER even in the playoffs, which was by far his apex for the year.

NBA players generally hit their primes between 25 and 27, although there is some evidence that superstars may peak slightly later. So that is it for Warriors mainstays who are likely to improve next year. Andrew Bogut (30 next year), Andre Iguodala (31) and David Lee (32) are now at the point where they will begin declining. All three struggled with nagging injuries this year.

Lee has looked athletically overmatched of late, especially against the Clippers. He may have to transition into a role as bench scorer as early as next season, as he is going to struggle to score one on one against the league’s more athletic players and he lacks the athleticism to make a positive impact on defense or the boards. Iguodala, while he rated very well by advanced plus minus metrics, averaged a mere 10.4 points per 36 minutes. He could well decline to an unacceptable individual level offensively very quickly, and while he was a great team defender his ability to lock down great scorers is already on the wane. Bogut should hold up a bit better over time due to his size, but injury is an ever-present risk for him.

Therefore, it seems likely that among this core, improvement from the young guys will be countered by decline from the older guys, resulting in a similar performance from those players overall during the next few years. It is possible that one of the younger players breaks out to lift the core to new heights, but equally possible one of the older players drops off the map completely.

It is understandable that Warriors fans are shocked at the dismissal of Jackson. They just watched their best team since 1976, when Rick Barry brought a team that won the 1975 championship to the Western Conference finals, where they lost in seven.*

*That was a series in which it was alleged that Barry refused to shoot for much of Game 7 because his teammates did not come to his defense in a fight.

But the fact that the team has a terrible history is irrelevant to the team’s future goals of competing for a championship. Since this year’s core was not good enough to win one, and should play about the same going forward, it is clear that changes will need to be made.  Unfortunately, the team went close to all-in with the trade of two future draft picks, and contracts for Bogut and Iguodala that last until 2017. And Barnes’ value has decreased mightily since his playoff heights last season.  Therefore, the options are relatively limited for making massive improvements. Nevertheless, there are a few paths open to the Warriors.

Be Willing to Spend Big. Now.

In the modern NBA, no discussion of a team’s plans can be complete without a discussion of its finances. The Warriors have approximately $65 million in salary commitments to 11 players under contract for next year assuming Green is retained, as he will be since his $916,000 non-guaranteed salary is preposterously cheap for his production. That is over the projected* $63 million salary cap , but well under the projected $77 million luxury tax and, more importantly, the projected $81 million “apron,” over which transactions such as sign-and-trades and use of salary exceptions become quite limited.

*Those 11: Curry, Thompson, Iguodala, Lee, Bogut, Barnes, Green, Marreese Speights, Festus Ezeli, Nemanja Nedovic and Ognjen Kuzmic. This assumes the Warriors do not extend Jordan Crawford a $3.2 million qualifying offer to retain the rights to match any contract offered to him as a restricted free agent.

These figures are higher than was originally believed, a fact that could become very useful for the Warriors given the availability of a $9.8 million trade exception left over from Richard Jefferson’s trade to the Jazz last summer (which must be used prior to July 10) and the $5.3 million mid-level exception (MLE).* These exceptions can be used piecemeal, but cannot be aggregated. However, the trade exception could potentially be used to essentially “sign” a free agent for up to $9.8 million, assuming his prior team could be persuaded to assist via sign-and-trade.** The Warriors could also include sweeteners like their 2015 first-round pick (which can dealt after the draft) or perhaps Barnes to entice a team to trade a player into the exception as well, likely an overpaid but still-productive player already under contract from a team looking to dump salary.

*It should be noted that using the mid-level exception or receiving a player in sign-and-trade would result in the Warriors being hard-capped at the $81 million apron for 2014-15.

**If a free agent’s prior team believes the player will depart regardless, it will often agree to a sign- and-trade to obtain a trade exception and/or a middling future draft pick, such as the Bucks in the J.J. Redick sign-and-trade last summer.

However, the upshot of using these two exceptions to improve the team means that the Warriors would almost certainly pay luxury tax next year, as taking on $14.1 million in salary would put the Warriors at about $79 million for 13 players. The team might also merely dump unproductive guaranteed players like Kuzmic and Nedovic to free up a little more room, but avoiding the tax could prove difficult. Next year, they would only be at most $4 million over the tax, resulting in luxury tax payments of up $6 million and further costs in foregoing the tax revenues distributed by the league to non-taxpaying teams.

The luxury tax chickens would really come home to roost the next year, assuming whomever were added via the MLE or trade exception had multi-year contracts. Green will be a restricted free agent in the summer of 2015, and Thompson will be if he and the team do not agree on a lucrative extension this offseason (which would kick in for 2015-16). Those two players could command up to $15 million combined in annual salary, if not more. That could push the team salary to $95 million or more in 2015-16, about $15 million over the projected luxury tax for that year. That would mean that the Warriors would be paying approximately $95 million in salary plus another approximately $28.75 million in luxury tax in 2015-16 for a year until Lee’s contract expired in the summer of 2016.* The team could also try to bribe a rebuilding team to take Lee’s contract to minimize the tax payments, as he probably will not be particularly useful by then. After that, the bill would become manageable again until the expiration of Curry, Bogut and Iguodala in the summer of 2017 would enable a major makeover.

*For nerds, the formula: $1.50/$1 for the first $5 million over the tax, then $1.75/$1 for the next $5 million, then $2.50/$1 for the next $5 million, $3.25/$1 for the next $5 million, and then increasing by $0.50/$1 for every additional $5 million after that.

It is not necessarily the case that players acquired with these two exceptions must have multi-year contracts, but the better they are the more likely they are to demand them. With big new contracts for Green and Thompson looming, the Warriors will not be able to add any significant free agents after this summer until 2017, as their new contracts plus the current core alone would put the Warriors into the tax and close to the apron. The time to strike must be this summer.

Warriors majority owner Joe Lacob has made key changes to what was once a downtrodden franchise. He is is obsessed with winning to the point of putting enormous pressure on management and the coaching staff. Will he and his partners sacrifice profits to maximize the team’s chance to win as Curry enters his prime? And how much in profits are they willing to sacrifice?

Hire a Great Coach

The Warriors are certainly taking a risk in firing Jackson, who despite his other foibles succeeded in getting his players to defend and to play together. These are perhaps the two primary jobs for an NBA coach. Some have argued that Jackson is not really responsible for the solid defense, pointing to the systems implemented by former assistants Mike Malone and Darren Erman and the intelligence of the players on the roster as the primary impetus. But the fact remains that the team defended at an elite level in last year’s playoffs and all season this year with Jackson, and we don’t know whether they will for another coach.

The good news is that Golden State has the best talent on hand of any opening, unless Oklahoma City were to falter and relieve Scott Brooks. With great fans, a wonderful community and (hopefully) ownership committed to spend, Lacob, Myers and company should be able to lure the best candidate on the market. Evaluating coaches who have not been head men before is very difficult, but winning coaches such as Stan Van Gundy and Mike D’Antoni are available. However, both have had their personality clashes and dysfunction at previous stops with both management and players, which could make management gun-shy about pulling the trigger on those coaches. Steve Kerr has also been discussed; from a personality standpoint he is nearly as beloved a figure as exists in the NBA today. He has solid NBA experience as a GM with the Phoenix Suns, but has never coached. He, like all first-time head coaches, would represent a risk as well.

For my money, I would roll the dice with Van Gundy were he willing. He has shown the ability to coach excellent defenses and got more out of his teams in Orlando than anyone had a right to.

Kick the Tires on a Big Move With David Lee

Of all the Warriors players, Lee is likely the worst fit going forward unless he somehow learns to shoot threes at age 32. Given his odd shooting form, which does not particularly utilize his legs, that seems unlikely. Lee is a big salary and overpaid at this point, but he could possibly be traded for a player signed to a four-year deal last summer if his current team has buyer’s remorse. Barnes could also potentially be added to complete the deal if negotiations so require.

The perfect example of such a player is Josh Smith.* Smith was awful for the Pistons, compiling his worst statistics in years while playing out of position at the three and taking jumpers far too frequently and inaccurately. Lee was undeniably better last year. But Smith is much younger, and is excellent defensively when playing the four in the right system. His presence would make the Warriors absolutely impossible to score on, as they could switch everything from the two through four positions and protect the rim with Smith and Bogut. With room to operate as a four, Smith would also make a nice pick-and-roll partner with Curry and could take bigger fours off the dribble. He and Iguodala would also be terrors in transition. And Smith wouldn’t need to take nearly as many jumpers on a team with Curry and Thompson as shooters around him.

*Would the Pistons do this trade? That depends what their as yet unnamed GM thinks of Barnes, what happens with restricted free agent Greg Monroe and whether they think Smith is salvageable. If Monroe returns, then the Pistons would be unlikely to accept Lee.

Smith would be a risk, but he has much more upside if the cost is only Lee and possibly Barnes. Financially, there is little cost in flexibility since Smith’s contract will expire along with nearly everyone else’s after 2017, although the Warriors would be looking at another year of potentially hefty tax payments in 2016-17 since Smith’s contract is a year longer than Lee’s.

This sort of trade would not have to happen for Smith necessarily, but it gives an example of what the Warriors could do with Lee. The Warriors’ management has proved very creative in the past with the Iguodala, Crawford and Blake deals, so one can be certain they will exhaust all possible avenues.

Address the Offense off the Bench

Regardless of whether Lee or someone else is the starting power forward, the Warriors’ biggest regular season weakness was offense off the bench. The team scored a top-five rate with Curry in the game, but cratered to near league-worst levels when he was out. Barnes and Crawford were tried in the role of bench creator, but neither was any good during the regular year. Armed with the MLE and the Jefferson trade exception, the Warriors might acquire one or more of the following free agents to handle the ball and/or create offense from the bench:

Vince Carter
Devin Harris
Darren Collison
Xavier Henry
Mike Miller
D.J. Augustin
Patty Mills
Greivis Vasquez

I am partial to Mills and Vasquez of that group. Vasquez in particular could play with Curry and guard less threatening wing players with Thompson, Iguodala and Green available to take on tougher threats. Another option would be trading for an overpaid player that another team doesn’t want to fill this role.

Acquire a Two-Way Third Big Man

While the Warriors got a wonderful performance from Jermaine O’Neal considering his age, he is a free agent and also lacks the mobility, explosion and/or shooting the Warriors would ideally have in a big off the bench. Marreese Speights can score on occasion, but kills the defense due to his lack of awareness and failures to execute the scheme.

Ezeli missed all of 2013-14 with a knee injury. His absence was pointed to as a reason for the struggles of the second unit, but Ezeli seemed like a player best suited as a third center even before the injury. Although he started at times in 2012-13, he had only a 9.3 PER and somehow had a .467 TS% despite using only 10 percent of the team’s possessions and never shooting outside of five feet. He also has horrendous hands. Ezeli is a force blocking shots and on the boards, but has so many offensive limitations that he is unlikely to be a player worthy of major playing time going forward.

Therefore, a true two-way big man is needed, especially considering that Andrew Bogut’s minutes will likely continue to be limited during the regular season. Not all of these players fit the bill, but available free agents include:

Spencer Hawes
Channing Frye
Ekpe Udoh (restricted)
Boris Diaw
Emeka Okafor
Chris Andersen (player option)

Hawes and Frye would be particularly deadly with their shooting ability, although either would likely command a high enough salary that the Warriors would have to dip into the trade exception and secure the assistance of the Cavs or Suns to get that done.

Develop the Young Talent

We touched on the need for Thompson to diversify his game. If he can become more of a threat posting up, coming off screens and playmaking for others on such plays, he could play with the second unit and alleviate some of the scoring woes. And there should still be some (if not much) hope for Barnes to become a quality scorer, as he has shown flashes such as a 30-point performance in the meaningless season finale in Denver. He supposedly has dominated in practice at times, so perhaps another offseason and a new coaching staff can unlock his talent. While I do not believe he will ever have the quickness and moves to score efficiently against real wing defenders, perhaps amazing development could prove me wrong.

Speights, while he has defensive issues, could become a real bench weapon if he turns more of his two-point jumpers into threes. He flashed that kind of range at times during the year, so it is possible. He is under contract for two more years, so the Warriors need to do what they can to maximize his effectiveness.

It is hard to imagine how Curry could improve on his skills, but he could at least serve to cut down on his turnovers through better decision-making.  He could also stand to get stronger to avoid being bumped off his path by stronger guards and provide at least some modicum of resistance when he is posted up on switches.

Nate Duncan is an NBA analyst and attorney. He writes regular features for Basketball Insiders and chats weekly at 11 Eastern on Tuesdays.

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NBA Daily: Let The NBA Trade Chatter Begin

More than 95 NBA players become trade-eligible this week. Steve Kyler breaks them down.

Steve Kyler

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Let The Trade Chatter Begin

While NBA teams are always talking, whether aggressively or casually, the date most teams circle on the calendar to start really exploring trade options is December 15.

That’s mainly because that’s when the bulk of trade restrictions on players signed during the offseason to free agent deals lifts, but also because most teams have played 25 or more games.

While it’s easy to talk about trades, especially for teams that get off to a slow start, it’s also important to realize teams put in mountains of works assembling their rosters. That includes weeks and weeks of development and planning work, so rushing to tear it all up after a slow start isn’t always smart. Take the Cavaliers as a perfect example. The Cavs were 3-4 entering November looking dreadful, since then, the Cavs have gone 17-4.

Most teams want to give the roster they built a chance because change does not always equal improvement. However, as teams get to the 30-game mark, there is enough of a sample size to know where you stand, which is why trade talk tends to be lower until mid-December.

With more than 95 players becoming trade eligible tomorrow, trade talks are going to start to heat up.

NBA teams are prohibited from trading players signed during the offseason for 90 days or December 15th, whichever is greater.

Players who re-signed with the same team and received more than a 20 percent increase in salary from last season, are further restricted until January 15th.

Players that signed one-year deals with the same team, also gain the ability to veto trades, as do rookie scale players that signed a Qualifying Offer.

Equally, players who had free agent offer sheets matched, like Washington’s Otto Porter Jr., also gain veto rights for the first calendar year of their deal.

With all of that said, here is how the 2017 free agent trade eligibility breaks down:

Atlanta Hawks

Luke Babbitt
Dewayne Dedmon
Ersan Ilyasova (Veto Rights)
Mike Muscala (Veto Rights) 

Trade Eligible January 15th

None 

Boston Celtics

Aron Baynes
Gordon Hayward
Shane Larkin
Daniel Theis 

Trade Eligible January 15th

None 

Brooklyn Nets

Tyler Zeller 

Trade Eligible January 15th

None 

Charlotte Hornets

Michael Carter-Williams
Julyan Stone 

Trade Eligible January 15th

None 

Chicago Bulls

Justin Holiday

Trade Eligible January 15th

Cristiano Felicio
Nikola Mirotic  

Cleveland Cavaliers

Jose Calderon
Jeff Green
Derrick Rose

Trade Eligible January 15th

Kyle Korver

Dallas Mavericks

Maxi Kleber
Jeff Withey
Nerlens Noel (Veto Rights)
Dirk Nowitzki (Veto Rights)

Trade Eligible January 15th

None  

Denver Nuggets

Paul Millsap 

Trade Eligible January 15th

Mason Plumlee 

Detroit Pistons

Reggie Bullock
Langston Galloway
Eric Moreland
Anthony Tolliver 

Trade Eligible January 15th

None 

Golden State Warriors

Nick Young
Omri Casspi
Zaza Pachulia (Veto Rights)
Kevin Durant (Veto Rights)
David West (Veto Rights)
JaVale McGee (Veto Rights)
 

Trade Eligible January 15th

Andre Iguodala
Shaun Livingston 

Houston Rockets

Tarik Black
Nene
Luc Mbah a Moute
P.J. Tucker
Troy Williams 

Trade Eligible January 15th

None 

Indiana Pacers

Bojan Bogdanovic
Darren Collison
Damien Wilkins 

Trade Eligible January 15th

None 

Los Angeles Clippers

Danilo Gallinari
Marshall Plumlee
Willie Reed
Milos Teodosic 

Trade Eligible January 15th

Blake Griffin 

Los Angeles Lakers

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
Tyler Ennis
  

Trade Eligible January 15th

None 

Memphis Grizzlies

Mario Chalmers
Tyreke Evans
Ben McLemore
Wayne Selden
 

Trade Eligible January 15th

JaMychal Green 

Miami Heat

James Johnson
Jordan Mickey
Kelly Olynyk
Dion Waiters
Udonis Haslem (Veto Rights)

Trade Eligible January 15th

None  

Milwaukee Bucks

None

Trade Eligible January 15th

Tony Snell  

Minnesota Timberwolves

Jamal Crawford
Jeff Teague
Marcus Georges-Hunt
Taj Gibson
Shabazz Muhammad (Veto Rights)

Trade Eligible January 15th

None   

New Orleans Pelicans

Tony Allen
Ian Clark
Darius Miller
Rajon Rondo

Trade Eligible January 15th

Jrue Holiday  

New York Knicks

Ron Baker
Michael Beasley
Tim Hardaway Jr.
Jarrett Jack
Ramon Sessions

Trade Eligible January 15th

None  

Oklahoma City Thunder

Raymond Felton
Patrick Patterson
Nick Collison (Veto Rights)

Trade Eligible January 15th

Andre Roberson  

Orlando Magic

Arron Afflalo
Khem Birch
Shelvin Mack
Jonathon Simmons
Marreese Speights

Trade Eligible January 15th

None  

Philadelphia 76ers

Amir Johnson
J.J. Redick
Phoenix Suns
Alan Williams

Trade Eligible January 15th

None  

Phoenix Suns

Alan Williams

Trade Eligible January 15th

None   

Portland Trail Blazers

None 

Trade Eligible January 15th

None  

Sacramento Kings

Vince Carter
George Hill
Zach Randolph 

Trade Eligible January 15th

None  

San Antonio Spurs

Pau Gasol
Rudy Gay
Manu Ginobili
Joffrey Lauvergne
Brandon Paul 

Trade Eligible January 15th

Patty Mills  

Toronto Raptors

Alfonzo McKinnie
C.J. Miles
  

Trade Eligible January 15th

Serge Ibaka
Kyle Lowry 

Utah Jazz

Jonas Jerebko
Royce O’Neale
Thabo Sefolosha
Ekpe Udoh 

Trade Eligible January 15th

Joe Ingles 

Washington Wizards

Jodie Meeks
Mike Scott 

Trade Eligible January 15th

Otto Porter (Veto Rights) 

Tracking all of these details is pretty tedious, which is what makes Basketball Insiders’ salary cap guru Eric Pincus so amazing. If you want to know more about each teams’ cap situation, make sure to check out the team links here for a detailed break down of every team’s cap position and restrictions.

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @MikeAScotto, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @TommyBeer, @MokeHamilton , @jblancartenba, @Ben_Dowsett, @SpinDavies, @BuddyGrizzard, @JamesB_NBA, @DennisChambers_, and @Ben__Nadeau .

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NBA Daily: One Year Later, Yogi Ferrell Continues To Rise

One year after a turbulent start to his NBA career, Yogi Ferrell is still thriving with the Dallas Mavericks.

Ben Nadeau

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It was never going to be easy for Yogi Ferrell.

At just 6-foot-0, there were major concerns about Ferrell and his ability to effectively contribute at the professional level, so the 24-year-old was a near-lock to go undrafted despite his impressive haul of collegiate honors. In 2016, he did not hear his name called on draft night — but for a gamer like Ferrell, pushing on was always the only option.

However, on this particularly cold mid-season evening, Ferrell sits at his locker and studies film on a tablet. He looks comfortable and focused as if he knows that this moment cannot be ripped away from him once again. Today, Ferrell is the Dallas Mavericks’ backup point guard and is settled into a steady role amongst a currently crowded backcourt. For Ferrell, he now finally has the life of an everyday NBA player.

But just over one year ago, Ferrell had to take the road less traveled to reach professional basketball for good.

“It was actually about this time [last year] when [the Nets] decided to waive me and I went back to Long Island,” Ferrell told Basketball Insiders. “I didn’t know I’d be here. I’m just thankful for the opportunity the Mavericks gave me and I’m just still trying to be here in Dallas.”

To be exact, the Brooklyn Nets waived Ferrell on December 8th, 2016. 365 days (and counting) later, Ferrell has earned his guaranteed contract but he’s still playing like he has something to prove.

* * * * * *

In order to fully understand Ferrell’s winding journey, it’s necessary to go back to where his story really kicked off: Summer league. Following a solid audition in Las Vegas — 8.8 points, 1.5 rebounds and 1.8 assists per game — Ferrell was shifted to Brooklyn’s G-League affiliate, the Long Island Nets. With the offseason signings of Jeremy Lin and Greivis Vasquez, plus the addition of rookie point guard Isaiah Whitehead, there was no room for Ferrell and he was the last man cut in training camp.

Before the Nets could even blink, Vasquez re-injured his problematic ankle just three games into the campaign, an ailment that would eventually require season-ending surgery. Lin, of course, lasted just two more games before a hamstring injury derailed the key free agent acquisition until deep into the season.

Out of nowhere, it was time for Ferrell.

After waiving Vasquez, the Nets signed Ferrell on November 9th — the same day as his NBA debut, where he logged five points and three assists in a 14-point loss to the New York Knicks. But as the Nets continued to free fall without their veteran point guards, Ferrell grew more confidently into his role and was a solid fit in head coach Kenny Atkinson’s three-point heavy rotation. Over 10 contests with Brooklyn, Ferrell tallied just 5.4 points and 1.7 assists in 15 minutes per game. Nonetheless, for a suddenly talent-deficient roster, it appeared as if the point guard was poised to stick around through the winter.

In a surprise twist of fate, the Nets waived Ferrell to sign Spencer Dinwiddie to a partially guaranteed three-year deal, opting to tie their future to a different G-League point guard instead. Just like that, it was back to Long Island for Ferrell — but surprisingly, it wasn’t something that he hung his head over for too long.

“I knew my next opportunity was going to come — I didn’t know when, but I just wanted to make sure I was ready for it,” Ferrell said. “I had a great coach — coach [Ronald] Nored — and he told me to still go about my business as if I was still in the NBA. I didn’t get all the luxuries, but if you treat yourself like a pro, like you’re there now, once you get there, it’ll make it easier and you can make a splash.”

Upon returning to the G-League, Ferrell continued his hot streak and ended up averaging 18.7 points and 5.8 rebounds over a total of 18 games — both before and after his NBA call-up with the Nets. Ultimately, it wasn’t long before another franchise took notice of the enigmatic guard and the Mavericks capitalized, signing Ferrell to a 10-day contract while both Deron Williams and Devin Harris were hampered by injury. His debut with Dallas saw Ferrell tally nine points and seven assists in a win over the San Antonio Spurs and future Hall of Famer Tony Parker — but somehow, that was only the beginning

Affectionately nicknamed Yogi-Mania — a play on Linsanity, Lin’s historic stretch with the Knicks back in 2012 — Ferrell re-joined the NBA red-hot, even leading Dallas to back-to-back wins over the Cleveland Cavaliers and Philadelphia 76ers. Quickly thereafter, Ferrell signed a multi-year deal with Dallas and then promptly torched the Portland Trail Blazers for nine three-pointers and a total of 32 points. Over his initial two-week stretch with the Mavericks, Ferrell scored 10 or more points in seven of his first nine games and made a serious claim for a permanent spot in the rotation.

Of course, the multi-year contract offered Ferrell something else he hadn’t yet experienced in the NBA: Job security. After Ferrell’s team option was picked up last June, he was happy to have a role with the Mavericks once again, no matter how big or small. Without the worry of being on borrowed time, Ferrell was able to train, learn the system and embrace of the city of Dallas during the offseason.

“The offseason was pretty good, I played summer league with some of the young guys,” Ferrell said. “It was great to work every day and get to know the coaches better, the area of Dallas better. Headed into training camp, I just wanted to work on my game and I had lot more confidence.”

One of those coaches he’s gotten to know better is Rick Carlisle, an old-school guard that has found success as both a player and coach. Under Carlisle, Ferrell is averaging 9.5 points, 3.1 rebounds and 2.2 assists on 42.5 percent from the floor — numbers slightly below his Yogi-Mania marks, but he’s consistently reliable in a way the Mavericks so badly need. Additionally, Ferrell has garnered 28.3 minutes per game so far as a sophomore, good for the third-highest total on the entire roster. Ferrell, who was in the G-League at this time last year, has merited more playing time than any other point guard on the team — a list that includes rookie sensation Dennis Smith Jr. (28.1), J.J. Barea (22.5), and the aforementioned Harris (18.9).

For Ferrell, much of his second-year successes have come from simply putting Carlisle’s words of wisdom into action.

“He’s just always telling me to be a threat,” Ferrell told Basketball Insiders of Carlisle. “First of all, be a threat to score because that’s what opens up everything else. If you’re pushing the pace and getting in the paint, attacking, especially for somebody like myself in my position. You want to just cause 2-on-1s and kicks and find whatever the defense gives us.”

While Yogi-Mania was built off of an electric career-altering hot streak, Ferrell has been a contributor this season in a more dependable, experienced way. Building off the All-NBA Rookie Second Team berth Ferrell earned in just 36 games with Dallas last season, the point guard is now often one of the first guards off the bench, a role that Barea has long excelled in. The comparisons between Ferrell and Barea are all too obvious, the latter being another 6-foot-nothing guard that carved out a 12-year career after going undrafted in 2006.

During the Mavericks’ championship-winning playoff run in 2011, Barea averaged 8.9 points and 3.4 assists, including massive back-to-back 15-plus point outings in Dallas’ series-defining Game 5 and 6 victories. While tearing up the NBA Finals is undoubtedly a long-term goal for Ferrell, he’s just thankful to have teammates like Barea and Harris to learn from on and off the court.

“I always say that I like watching them, especially how they play,” Ferrell said. “I try to mimic the older guys, Devin and J.J., they’re so synced together when they play, it’s something special to watch. I just try to go out there and mimic what they do, they’ve been successful at it and been in this league for a long time, so I’m just trying to learn from guys like them.”

* * * * * *

Precisely, it’s been 370 days since Ferrell was first waived by Brooklyn and found success at the NBA level that little believed was possible. Not one to let an obstacle get in his way, Ferrell went undrafted and still managed to earn a multi-year contract before he even hit 20 career appearances. For his dominating stretch in the G-League last season, Ferrell was named an All-Star — although he was too busy with Dallas to attend the festivities — and he still went on to earn a spot with the All-NBA Rookie Second Team as well.

Overcoming roadblocks and adversity at every turn, it’d be easy to now exhale and relax — after all, his contract is currently guaranteed and he’s got a solidified role in an NBA rotation — but Ferrell, forever hungry, isn’t ready to stop there. Staying motivated isn’t difficult for Ferrell because he knows that much of his journey is still left in front of him and he’s ready to keep climbing upward.

“I’m a winner, I came from a winning program,” Ferrell said. “My mentality is still to prove that I belong here. I just want to win, that’s it.”

For Ferrell, this isn’t the end of an underdog story — this is just the beginning of something even greater.

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NBA

Rookie of The Year Watch – 12/13/17

Shane Rhodes checks back in on what’s become a relatively consistent Rookie of the Year race.

Shane Rhodes

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It has been a pretty ho-hum Rookie of The Year race so far in the 2017-18 season, with the top rookies staking their claims to this list at the beginning of the season and, for the most part, staying there. While there has been some movement up and down over the season and since our last installment, for the large part those who were on the list remain on the list.

Those players have earned their spots on this list with their play, however. This rookie class is one of the better, more exciting classes in recent memory. These players have just managed to remain at the top of the hill.

Let’s take a look at this week’s rankings.

stockup456. Lauri Markkanen, Chicago Bulls (Last Week: Unranked)

By virtue of John Collins missing time due to injury, Markkanen jumps back onto this list. However, that’s not to say Markkanen has played poorly this season. On the contrary, the former Arizona Wildcat and current Chicago Bull has played very well; it’s just hard to get recognized when you are on the worst team in the league.

Markkanen is averaging 14.7 points and 8.1 rebounds per game, third and second among rookies, respectively, while adding 1.3 assists per game as well. Athletic enough to get his own shot and big enough to be a mismatch when he’s on the floor, Markkanen is probably the best (healthy) offensively player the Bulls have. While his defensive game isn’t great, his defensive rating of 106.4 still ranks ninth amongst rookies.

Perhaps most importantly, Markkanen inspires hope for a brighter future in Bulls fans that have watched the team plummet from the 50-win team it was just three seasons ago.

stockup455. Dennis Smith, Jr., Dallas Mavericks (Last Week: 6)

His shooting percentages continue to underwhelm and the Dallas Mavericks still have one of the worst records in the NBA, but Dennis Smith Jr. has been one of the Mavs’ bright spots this season while averaging 14.4 points, four rebounds and four assists per game.

While he hasn’t been a great shooter overall, Smith Jr. has managed to be a big contributor on offense for the Mavs, with an offensive rating of 101.4, ninth among rookies, and an assist percentage of 25.2 percent, fourth among rookies. He is second on the team in scoring behind Harrison Barnes’ 18.4 points per game as well. He is still a work in progress, but Dallas has found a keeper in Smith Jr.

stockdown454. Kyle Kuzma, Los Angeles Lakers (Last Week: 3)

While the Lakers have stumbled over the past few weeks, Kuzma continues to play well when he is on the floor. He still paces the Los Angeles Lakers in scoring with an average of 16.1 points per game, third among rookies, while also dishing in 6.6 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game.

Kuzma is now second among rookies in double-doubles with eight on the season and three in his last five games. With a diverse offensive game, the power forward should continue to impress as the season goes along.

stockup453. Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz (Last Week: 4)

Donovan Mitchell has been electrifying in recent weeks. Second in scoring among rookies, Mitchell is averaging 17.3 points per game to go along with three rebounds and 3.2 assists. As his confidence has grown, so to have his field goal percentage and three-point percentages. Mitchell has led the Utah Jazz in scoring in 11 of their 27 games, and is second on the Jazz in scoring too, behind Rodney Hood’s 17.7 points per game.

Mitchell became the second rookie ever, first since Blake Griffin in 2011, to score more than 40 points in a single game after going for 41 against the New Orleans Pelicans. Coupling that with his high-flying athleticism, Mitchell has been one of the best rookies to watch this season.

stocknochanges452. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics (Last Week: 2)

Jayson Tatum is on pace to be only the second rookie ever to lead the league in three-point percentage. In over 38 years, the only other player to do it was Anthony Morrow, who shot 46.7 percent on 2.7 attempts per game during the 2008-09 regular season. Tatum is currently shooting 50 percent on over three attempts per game.

The 19-year-old forward has also made a near seamless transition from the isolation-dominated basketball that he played at Duke, and has flourished as the third, fourth and sometimes even fifth option on offense, having scored in double digits in 25 of 29 games and averaging 13.8 points per game on the season. His defense continues to be better than advertised as well.

Tatum has been Mr. Clutch among rookies as well. In the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime, Tatum has 14 field goals on 21 attempts, seventh in the entire NBA and tops among rookies. In fact, Tatum is the only other rookie in the top 15 in clutch field goals.

While Mitchell has been on fire recently, Tatum has performed well enough to this point where he is still in control of the number two spot among rookies. But the race for this second spot is close and will continue to be close throughout the season. The race for the number one spot on the other hand? Not so much.

stocknochanges451. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers (Last Week: 1)

It would make for a very boring race if Ben Simmons remained at the top of this list for the entire season. And it looks increasingly likely that that is going to be the case.

Try as they might, the other rookies just can’t hang with Simmons; none of them have the right combination of production and physicality to keep pace with the point-forward. Tatum has been better than advertised while Mitchell and Kuzma have exceeded all predraft expectations, but none of them can produce what Simmons has. With averages of 17.5 points, 8.9 rebounds and 7.7 assists per game, Simmons would be just the second rookie in NBA history, the first since Oscar Robertson during the 1960-61 season, to finish the season with that stat line.

So, unless they combine their powers to become a being with superhuman basketball skills, the other rookies don’t stand a chance against Simmons in the race for Rookie of the Year.

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