To say the New Orleans Pelicans have fallen short of expectations since reaching the playoffs during the 2014-15 would be an understatement. If you’re looking to cast blame, you could easily point to their injury woes, head coaching change or roster upheavals.
The frustration of losing, especially in a smaller market, puts the microscope squarely on the Pelicans’ franchise player: Anthony Davis. The franchise has been here once before, during the Chris Paul era, and it ultimately led to a top-10 player forcing his way to Los Angeles.
So it’s perfectly natural, amidst all of the losses, that all eyes (and ears) are evaluating how Davis truly feels about his long-term future with the organization.
Earlier this week, Davis reiterated to The Vertical that he’s in it for the long haul and fully committed to seeing things through in New Orleans.
“My desire to win here is the same,” Davis told The Vertical. “I go out there and play. I don’t care what the record is. I just go out there and play. I have to lead this team and make sure my guys are always happy and high energy. I don’t care what people say about our team. They’re not in our locker room seeing us, not part of our group. That’s all white noise.
“I just try to control what I can: go out there and compete.”
Davis doubled down when asked if his commitment to the Pelicans has wavered as the losses continue to mount.
“No, no, never,” Davis said, according to the report.
These quotes, on the surface, should at the very least help Pelicans fans sleep a bit better at night, right? Well, if recent history involving some of the game’s biggest stars in a similar situation is any indication, the answer is a resounding no. More on this later.
Davis isn’t purposely being deceitful in his assessment of the current situation in New Orleans. In fact, these quotes are probably at the purest form with free agency for the big man nowhere in sight.
Here’s the deal…
Davis is in the first season of a five-year, $145 million contract extension signed in July 2015. The earliest he could become a free agent is the summer of 2020 by exercising a player option for the 2020-21 campaign. If there’s ever a time when you’d expect Davis to be locked in and fully invested in the franchise, it’s now. Period. Davis has no leverage in trade talks and publicly forcing one would damage his brand and he would instantly be criticized for bailing on a franchise prematurely.
Davis remaining committed to the process in New Orleans isn’t shocking given his lack of options and leverage. The important time for Davis to reiterate these feelings will be in 2018 or 2019 when his leverage grows with free agency looming.
We thought it would be a fun exercise to track down some early quotes from some of the league’s elite players that were once in Davis’ shoes… and then ultimately bolted in free agency. You will notice a similar theme play out.
LeBron James, free agency of 2010 (left Cleveland for Miami)
James was arguably the most sought after free agent in league history back in 2010 and his recruitment process, if we’re being honest, started years before the doors opened on July 1, 2010. Below are some of his quotes leading up to free agency and his commitment to staying the course in Cleveland.
June 2008 – Prior to Olympics (New York Daily News): “On draft day, I’m watching some of the younger guys coming into the league and they’re saying, ‘You know, teams are making trades (to sign) LeBron James in 2010.’ I just kind of laugh at that. I’m excited to be in Cleveland, and right now, I’m excited to be part of this Olympic team. It’s kind of funny to me.”
James signed a three-year extension worth $43 million in 2006 with the Cleveland Cavaliers. The deal included a player option for the 2010-11 campaign, which he ultimately exercised. Most expected him to opt out of the final year to test free agency, but the Cavaliers offered another contract extension during the 2008-09 campaign. No one expected James to truly sign the extension as it wasn’t a benefit for him financially to do so, but his public quotes indicate the deal could be in play at season’s end.
December 2008 – Regarding possible contract extension (ESPN): “You play out this season of course; I will consider it. The direction we are headed is everything I expected and more. I definitely want to keep an open mind, I will look at everything. [The extension] is a good point. I think me and my group have pretty much made good decisions so far and we’ll look at the options and go from there.”
The last quote comes one month before his free agency began in 2010. James told Larry King on CNN the Cavaliers were in the lead to re-sign him. We all know how that played out one month later as James departed to Miami.
June 2010 – One month prior to free agency (CNN): “Absolutely,” James said when asked if Cleveland had the edge entering free agency. “Because, you know, this city, these fans, I mean, have given me a lot in these seven years. And, you know, for me, it’s comfortable. So I’ve got a lot of memories here. And – and so it does have an edge.”
LaMarcus Aldridge, free agency 2015 (left Portland for San Antonio)
Two years prior to Aldridge’s free agency, back in 2013, there were persistent rumors about the forward’s desire to be traded or play elsewhere. However, heading into training camp everyone toed the company line.
September 2013 – During Portland’s annual media day festivities (Oregon Live)s: “I’m here, I’m happy, I’m looking forward to the season. This team looks really good. We have a better bench. We have (Robin) Lopez, who’s a true center. So I think this year should be good for us.”
Blazers general manager doubled down on his star player’s stance during the same event, challenging anyone regarding the validity of any potential Aldridge unhappiness.
September 2013 – Neil Olshey at media discussing LaMarcus Aldridge: “Oh, dear God — would you guys get over it? Show me a media report where LaMarcus Aldridge said anything other than, ‘I hope the team improves, I’m excited about what we did, I want to get better, I want to win.’ Then we can have a conversation. Until then, let’s move on. OK? Is that possible?”
Kevin Durant, free agency 2016 (left Oklahoma City for Golden State)
Durant shocked many this past summer by bolting Oklahoma City. But after his MVP acceptance speech two years ago, you would have been hard-pressed to find many people who believed his heart wouldn’t be with the Thunder for the long haul – let alone for only the next two years.
May 2014 – Durant’s MVP acceptance speech: “I enjoy being a part of something like this, knowing that when we come into the arena, they’re going to love you no matter what. They’re going to always feel the same way about us. You don’t want to take that for granted, because the grass is not always greener on the other side and you need to learn to appreciate these wonderful people here.”
Dwight Howard, free agency drama of 2011-13 (focusing on his tenure with Orlando)
Howard would ultimately demand a trade from the Orlando Magic, but not before the situation turned into a daily circus of notable quotes. Here are a couple below. Keep in mind, the first comes with Howard having two seasons remaining on his deal before he could exercise his early termination option to become a free agent.
September 2010 – Howard responding to whether he would sign an early contract extension: “I plan on being here forever.. I love Orlando.”
When pressed on whether he would sign the extension from the team, Howard became vague but doubled up on his stance of not leaving.
“I can’t answer that,” Howard said. “I mean, I love Orlando. I don’t want to leave.”
A few short months later, Howard’s tone changed slightly as he became annoyed by constant questions.
February 2011 – Howard asked about signing an extension in Orlando: “Yeah, I am annoyed. I can’t sign a contract this year. I can’t sign anywhere this summer, so why keep bringing it up? Why are people talking about me going any other place right now? Right now is about this season. It’s not about L.A., New York or whatever. I’m really tired of it. I don’t wanna be talking about where I’m gonna be playing basketball next or people in Orlando asking me ‘Are you going to leave us?'”
Howard would ultimately move on to the Los Angeles Lakers before bolting to Houston in free agency after just one season in L.A.
Transitioning back to the future of Anthony Davis, it’s clearly too soon to tell whether his words of commitment will stand the test of time. It’s possible he truly means what he says, it’s just not the first time we’ve heard pledges of loyalty like this. If the departures of recent stars tell us anything, it’s that there’s a big difference in how the language changes once a player gets more leverage and can see the free agency period on the horizon.
How this will impact Davis as we get into 2018 and 2019 remains to be seen.
PODCAST: Breaking Down The Western Conference Playoff Race
Basketball Insiders Deputy Editor Jesse Blancarte and Writer James Blancarte break down the Western Conference playoff race and check in on the Los Angeles Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers.
NBA Daily: The Cleveland Cavaliers Need Tyronn Lue
The Cleveland Cavaliers have faced injury adversity and a roster shakeup, and now face uncertainty regarding coach Tyronn Lue’s health.
The most enduring image of Cleveland Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue came moments after his team sealed the 2016 NBA Finals with a third consecutive win after trailing the Golden State Warriors 3-1. As the team celebrated its historic comeback and readied to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy, one camera focused on Lue, who sat on the bench with his face buried in his hands.
— Buddy Grizzard (@BuddyGrizzard) June 20, 2016
The image tells a thousand words about the pressure Lue was under as Cleveland teetered on the brink of elimination for three games. Rather than sharing the euphoria of his players, it seemed that Lue’s emotions centered around the massive weight that had been lifted from his shoulders. Almost two years later, it appears that burden has caught back up with Lue, whose leave of absence for health reasons complicates things for Cleveland with the playoffs just around the corner.
“It’s like losing one of your best players,” said Cavaliers forward LeBron James after Cleveland’s 124-117 win at home over the Milwaukee Bucks on Monday.
Kevin Love returned from a six-week injury absence to post 18 points, seven rebounds and four assists against the Bucks. James likened Lue’s absence to the burden of trying to replace Love’s output while he was unavailable.
“We’ve got to have guys step up, just like guys trying to step up in Kev’s absence,” said James. “We have to do the same as a collective group as long as Ty needs to get himself back healthy.”
There’s optimism that Lue could return before the playoffs, but there’s a great deal of uncertainty given the seriousness of his symptoms, which reportedly included coughing up blood. Lead assistant Larry Drew, a former head coach with the Bucks and Hawks, will handle head coaching responsibilities until Lue is ready to return.
Kyle Korver played under Drew in Atlanta and said he’s confident in his ability to fill in.
“We’d love to have Ty here and healthy,” said Korver after the Bucks win. “Coach Drew has done this for a long time as well. He coached me for a full year in Atlanta. We know he’s fully capable.”
Korver also doubted Drew would introduce any major stylistic changes.
“I think LD’s been Ty’s top assistant for a reason,” said Korver. “They really think a lot alike. They coach very similarly. We miss Ty, but I think the style of what we do is going to be very similar.”
While style and approach should remain unchanged, what could an extended absence for Lue mean for the Cavaliers? Lue cemented his legacy as a leader by keeping the Cavaliers together as they fought back from a 3-1 deficit to the Warriors, but Drew hasn’t had that kind of success as a head coach.
In 2012, the Hawks had a real opportunity to reach the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in Atlanta history. The Hawks faced an aging Boston Celtics squad in the first round. The eighth-seed Philadelphia 76ers awaited in the second round after defeating the top-seeded Chicago Bulls.
After splitting the first two games in Atlanta, the Hawks faced a pivotal Game 3 in Boston with the opportunity to retake home court advantage. Atlanta Journal-Constitution beat writer Michael Cunningham used Synergy Sports to break down every offensive possession for Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo. His conclusion? For three quarters, Rondo did not score a single basket while guarded by Hawks combo guard Kirk Hinrich.
The Hawks traded a package that included a former and a future first-round pick to obtain Hinrich from the Wizards in 2011. But in Game 3, Hinrich failed to score a point despite his effective defense. Apparently feeling the need for an offensive spark, Drew left Hinrich on the bench in the fourth quarter and turned to career journeyman Jannero Pargo.
With Hinrich out of the game, Rondo’s offense came to life as he slashed to the basket at will. Boston opened the fourth with a 13-7 run before Pargo went to the bench and Atlanta closed on a 15-7 run to force overtime. The NBA did not publish net rating data at the time, but we can now see via historical data that the Hawks were outscored by nearly 52 points per 100 possessions in Pargo’s minutes in Game 3. Rather than entrust Atlanta’s season and his own legacy to a player the Hawks traded two first-round picks to obtain, Drew went with Pargo, a career end-of-bench player.
What does this mean for the Cavaliers? It means the team needs to get Lue back. Drew and Lue are both former NBA players who have received mixed reviews as head coaches. But when his legacy was on the line, Lue pushed the right buttons.
For Drew’s part, in his first postgame press conference since Lue’s absence was announced, he remained publicly deferential.
“Coach Lue is the one who makes that decision,” said Drew when asked about lineup combinations. “That’s not my call. We look at a lot of different combinations — whether guys are starting or whether they are coming off the bench — and we assess everything.”
On the critical question of how lineups will be fine-tuned as the Cavaliers prepare for the playoffs, Drew once again emphasized Lue’s active role even as he steps away from the bench.
“I’ll talk to Ty,” said Drew. “He’s got the final say-so. Whatever he wants, then that’s what we’re going to go with. But if he tells me to make a decision, then I’ll have to make the decision.”
With Lue suffering acute symptoms, there’s no way of knowing when he will be ready to step back into the pressure cooker of a leading role for a team with championship aspirations. But the Cavaliers need him and need his steadying influence and instincts. Cleveland is a team that has battled through injuries and a major roster overhaul at the trade deadline. It also faces the pressure of James’ impending free agency decision this summer.
Now, with the playoffs just around the corner, the Cavaliers must endure uncertainty about Lue’s ability to return and lead the team. James has emphasized that Lue’s health overshadows any basketball concerns, but gave his most terse remark when asked about learning that Lue would step away on the same day Cleveland finally got Love back.
“If it’s not one thing, it’s another,” said James. “That was my reaction.”
A Breakout Season for Joe Harris
Brooklyn Nets swingman Joe Harris talks to Basketball Insiders about his second chance with the Nets.
The NBA is all about second chances. Sometimes players need a change of scenery, or a coach who believes in them, or just something different to reach their full potential. They may be cast aside by several teams, but eventually, they often find that right situation that allows them to flourish.
Such was the case for Joe Harris. Originally drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers with the 33rd overall pick in the 2014 draft, Harris rarely saw the court during his time in Cleveland. He averaged about 6.4 minutes per game over the course of about one and a half seasons with the Cavaliers.
During the 2015-16 season, his second in Cleveland, he underwent season-ending foot surgery. Almost immediately after, the Cavaliers traded him to the Orlando Magic in an attempt to cut payroll due to luxury tax penalties. He would never suit up for the Magic as they cut him as soon as they traded for him.
After using the rest of that season to recover from surgery, he would sign with the Brooklyn Nets in the summer of 2016. He had a very strong first season in Brooklyn, but this season he’s truly broken out.
“I think a lot of it has to do with just the right situation in terms of circumstances. It’s a young team where you don’t really have anybody on the team that’s going out and getting 20 a night,” Harris told Basketball Insiders. “It’s a collective effort most nights and it can be any given person depending on the situation. It’s one of those things where we’re real unselfish with the ball. A lot of guys get a lot of good looks, so your production is bound to go up just because of the system now that we’re playing.”
Known primarily as a sharpshooter in college at the University of Virginia as well as his first stop in Cleveland, Harris has started developing more of an all-around game. He’s improved his ability to put the ball on the floor and make plays as well as crashing the glass and playing strong defense.
In a relatively forgettable season record-wise for the Nets, Harris has been one of their bright spots. He’s putting up 10.1 points per game on 47.3 percent shooting from the field while playing 25.4 minutes per game. He’s up to 40.3 percent from the three-point line and he’s pulling down 3.3 rebounds. All of those numbers are career-highs.
“My role, I think, is very similar to the way I would be anywhere that I was playing. I’m a shooter, I help space the floor for guys to facilitate,” Harris told Basketball Insiders. “I’m opportunistic offensively with drives and such. I’m out there to try and space the floor, knock down shots, and then play tough defensively and make sure I’m doing my part in getting defensive rebounds and that sort of stuff.”
Although Harris didn’t play much in Cleveland, he did show glimpses and flashes of the player he has blossomed into in Brooklyn. He saw action in 51 games his rookie year while knocking down 36.9 percent of his three-point attempts.
He also saw action in six playoff games during the Cavaliers’ run to the 2015 Finals. But more importantly, it was the off the court things that Harris kept with him after leaving Cleveland. The valuable guidance passed down to him from the Cavaliers veteran guys. It’s all helped mold him into the indispensable contributor he’s become for the Nets.
“Even though I wasn’t necessarily playing as much, the experience was invaluable just in terms of learning how to be a professional,” Harris told Basketball Insiders. “The approach, the preparation, that sort of stuff. That’s why I learned a lot while I was there. All those good players that have had great, great, and long careers and just being able to kind of individually pick their brains and learn from them.”
When Harris came to Brooklyn two years ago, he initially signed a two-year deal with a team option after the first year. When he turned in a promising 2016-17 season, it was a no-brainer for the Nets to pick up his option. Set to make about $1.5 million this season, Harris’ contract is a steal.
However, he’s headed for unrestricted free agency this upcoming summer. Although he dealt with being a free agent before when he first signed with the Nets, it’s a different situation now. He’s likely going to be one of the most coveted wings on the market. While there’s still a bit more of the regular season left, and free agency still several months away, it’s something Harris has already thought about. If all goes well, Brooklyn is a place he can see himself staying long-term.
“Yeah, it’s one of those things that I’ll worry about that sort of decision when the time comes. But I have really enjoyed my time in Brooklyn,” Harris told Basketball Insiders. “It’s a great organization with a lot of good people, and they try and do stuff the right way. I enjoy being a part of that and trying to kind of rebuild and set a good foundation for where the future of the Brooklyn Nets is.”