Who Can Still Play In Free Agency?: While the bulk of the deals have been finalized, there are still a few NBA teams with salary cap room to play with. Here is who has cap cash left:
Portland Trail Blazers – $19,477,606 Under The Cap
The Blazers currently have the most available cap room of any team in the NBA and have 17 players currently on the roster. There is a good chance that swingman Mike Miller will be bought out at some point, and the Blazers do hold three players with non-guaranteed deals.
There is no question that when LaMarcus Aldridge opted to leave in free agency things changed. As Blazers GM Neil Olshey has explained a few times, the plan in Portland is to surround Damian Lillard with players in his age range so that they can grow into something together, and most of the team’s free agent moves and trades have lined up with that.
With so much cash left to spend, the Blazers can leverage that space to extract assets, much like they did with Cleveland and the Brendan Haywood contract. It’s unlikely the Blazers throw cash at anyone left in the market place, but if a large salary guy becomes available in trade the Blazers have the resources to make a deal.
Cap space is a commodity and, as the Philadelphia 76ers have proven for the last two years, having room to park a contract can help you collect a lot of assets. That seems to be the Blazers’ plan for the immediate future.
Philadelphia 76ers – $13,907,212 Under The Cap
The 76ers come in second to the Blazers, and surprisingly they may use some of it for an offer sheet on restricted free agent Norris Cole. The 76ers’ plan for the last two years was to amass assets and talent, and this year seems to be the year they plan to put that talent on the floor and try and compete.
The 76ers have made leveraging cap space into assets an art form, so even if New Orleans opts to match an offer sheet on Cole (which is still in discussion), the 76ers will continue to work the field as long as they have room to do it.
Playing the cap game as Philadelphia has done isn’t overly sexy, but when you look at what they were able to extract in payments for parking players on their cap, they have done as good a job as anyone in the NBA at stocking up the cupboard. If Cole doesn’t pan out, you can expect more of it, as this may be the last year where that tactic yields fruit.
Utah Jazz – $6,738,065 Under The Cap
The Jazz have some real cap space available, but it’s unlikely they are going to use much of it. With 17 players under contract and 13 fully guaranteed deals, there isn’t much room on the roster for more guys.
While improving and competing for a playoff berth is something the Jazz are expecting this year, there is a belief that the biggest gains will come from internal growth not external additions.
Having space is always a good thing, especially when the trade market opens up in December, but as things stand the Jazz’s free agency is mostly complete. The question becomes which guys at the end of the roster make the team? There is a real debate on who gets those final roster spots.
Denver Nuggets – $2,643,907 Under The Cap
The Nuggets’ cap number likely goes up if they follow through on waiving Kostas Papanikolaou, who has an October 4 guarantee date on his $4.8 million. The Nuggets have some time to try and re-trade him for an asset, especially for a team trying to shed cap cash or create some roster flexibility.
As things stand in Denver they have 16 roster players including Papanikolaou and a partial guarantee on Erick Green. It’s unlikely that the Nuggets are going to add much more to the roster than they already have and will likely have flexibility around the trade deadline, which could make them buyers, especially if they waive Papanikolaou as expected.
Cap flexibility in and of itself is an asset, especially for a Nuggets team that’s always mindful of cash flow.
Orlando Magic – $1,889,998 Under The Cap
The Magic have a little bit of breathing room under the cap, but not enough to make a splashy move. The more likely scenario is Orlando uses some of the cash to guarantee some money to camp invites with the intention of stashing them in the D-League like they did a last year with Seth Curry, Peyton Siva and Kadeem Batts.
The Magic currently have 14 players under contract not including second rounder Tyler Harvey or guard Keith Appling who they were reported to have reached a contract with, so there isn’t much room on the roster for more.
The Magic could trigger a trade or two to open up spots, but the general belief is this is the group that’s going to open the season. How the parts fit together will tell if it stays that way throughout the season.
While the number of teams with space is fairly small, the number of teams staring at the luxury tax is significantly bigger; here is what to watch for with each:
Oklahoma City Thunder – $12,417,411 Over The Tax
As things stand today, the Thunder are over the cap more than any other team in the NBA. That’s a little surprising considering how many assets the team has given up over the last few years to stay under the tax line, but it’s clear that the Thunder are all the way in on this roster.
All 15 roster spots have a guaranteed salary, so there won’t be any relief or reductions via camp cuts.
There are a couple of contracts that could be movable to reduce the tax bill, but in talking with sources close to the Thunder there isn’t a lot urgency to cut cost and there is a belief it’s now or never with this roster. Given the looming free agency of star Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook’s future not that far behind, this is the window the Thunder have been waiting for and they are ready to spend to prove it.
Now if the injury bug resurfaces or the parts just don’t fit under new head coach Billy Donovan, things could change but it’s more likely than not that the Thunder stay where they are which means a tax bill of more than $22.293 million, when you factor in the gradually increasing tax penalty on over spending.
Los Angeles Clippers – $10,765,710 Over The Tax
Given how little the Clippers had to work with this summer in terms of cap space, they did a great job re-tooling their roster. There is almost no scenario in which the Clippers are not tax payers, and given the moves they have made they are fairly locked into this current roster.
The lone exception might be swingman Jamal Crawford. With the arrival of Lance Stephenson and the re-signing of Austin Rivers, it’s unclear how big a role Crawford will play. This one could go both ways, moving off his $5.675 million contract might return a decent lower priced player and reduce the tax bill a little. But given how quickly the Clippers ran out of gas in the postseason, hanging on to Crawford for the playoffs might make more sense.
It’s unlikely the Clippers do anything before training camp; if Crawford gets traded its likely because guys like Stephenson and Rivers live up to expectations making Crawford expendable.
Golden State Warriors – $10,747,927 Over The Tax
The Warriors look fairly locked into their tax overage, as there really isn’t any combination of players that could be offloaded to clean up their books. The Warriors recently flipped Gerald Wallace for Jason Thompson to reduce their tax burden, and there may be one more smaller move to get the number lower as the season goes on, but this seems like the roster the Warriors are bringing to camp.
A little luxury tax is a small price to pay for a NBA championship, and if healthy it’s hard to imagine the Warriors won’t be in the hunt for a repeat.
Cleveland Cavaliers – $10,668,795 Over The Tax
The Cavaliers will be monster tax payers, the question becomes how much will they ultimately pay? There are still two roster spots under negotiation, the biggest being restricted free agent Tristan Thompson. Word is the two sides are still having on-going conversations but the gap between what was originally agreed to be workable – five years, $80 million – seems to have been tabled after others in the free agent class received more. The problem with more for the Cavaliers is that every extra dollar given to Thompson gets taxed at a much higher tax rate. For example, Thompson’s $6.77 million qualifying offer costs the Cavaliers $12.085 million in new tax. If Thompson signs a deal at $13 million, the tax cost jumps to $29.05 million, and that’s just the cost of Thompson. Not the other $88.63 million owed to the rest of the roster or the $5.83 million in tax they owe to that spending.
While having Thompson pick up the qualifying offer is risky, as it would make him an unrestricted free agent next summer, is he really worth more than $13 million in salary and $29.05 million in tax? Next summer when the tax ceiling rises tremendously, fitting a big deal for Thompson likely makes more financial sense even if it means bidding against a much higher salary cap environment. Waiting could shift more of that expense into Thompson’s pocket.
The sense from the Cavs is either they’ll do a deal in the $80 million range, or Thompson plays out his qualifying offer; there seems to be almost no interest is trying to solicit an offer sheet from another team.
The last chip for the Cavaliers is guard J.R. Smith. Sources close to the situation say the value of his deal will be based on how much the team has to pay Thompson, but there continues to be a sense that Smith will be back with the Cavaliers and that he’s not overly interested in other situations. Given the Cavs’ tax situation, it’s hard to imagine they offer a ton to Smith in a new deal.
Miami HEAT – $7,133,745 Over The Tax
Not only are the Miami HEAT $7.133 million over the tax, they also qualify as “repeater” tax payers which almost doubles their tax penalty. To put that into perspective, the HEAT’s current tax bill as a “repeater” is $18.367 million. That’s not an insignificant number. The HEAT have been linked to situations involving forward Chris Andersen, who is poised to make $5 million this season. Point guard Mario Chalmers has also been talked about as a trade candidate; he is set to make $4.3 million.
The problem with moving money and not taking any in return is it usually costs draft picks and young talent, something the HEAT don’t really have to spare. Luol Deng’s $10.151 million ending deal could become a reasonable trade chip, especially closer to the trade deadline when the HEAT has paid the bulk of the salary.
The HEAT have ways to reduce their tax bill, and it seems likely they will do that as the trade deadline gets closer, but their message is that if healthy, they believe they are a contender and want to see if that’s true before making any more cost cutting trades.
Chicago Bulls – $4,284,375 Over The Tax
The Bulls as a franchise have been somewhat resistant to paying the luxury tax which puts their current $4.28 million overage on center stage. Combine the pending tax burden with a log jam in the front court and the proverbial clock seems to be ticking on Bulls forward Taj Gibson. Long considered the odd man out, the Bulls have until the trade deadline to reduce their tax bill and moving off most of Gibson’s $8.5 million salary would get it done in one transaction.
Sources close to the Bulls say there have been no decisions made on anyone’s future as they want to bring everyone to camp and see who really fits in new head coach Fred Hoiberg’s system. But with rookie Bobby Portis and second year scorer Doug McDermott expected to see more minutes, someone may not play the role equal to their salary and the Bulls do not like to pay the tax.
San Antonio Spurs – $2,331,718 Over The Tax
Considering the offseason the Spurs had, it’s amazing they were able to work the cap rules as they did to not only land LaMarcus Aldridge but get the bulk of their guys re-signed and stay relatively close to the luxury tax line. There isn’t a single non-role player that could clean up the projected $2.331 million tax overage, although Patty Mills’ $3.578 million could do it and then some. The guy to watch is Kyle Anderson; while the cap value of Anderson is only $1.142 million, combined with partially guaranteed guys like Jimmer Fredette, he could get the bill significantly lower if neither finds a role in training camp.
Houston Rockets – $493,113 Over The Tax
The Rockets are over the tax line with all fully guaranteed contracts so there is no room for relief in partially guaranteed players. What’s worse is the Rockets are only carrying 12 players at this point so the odds are pretty strong that Houston will add to their tax bill before it’s said and done. Being over the tax in a minor way isn’t a terrible thing, but it does restrict what a team can to in trade construction.
If the Rockets wanted to get out from under the tax line, they do have guys like Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas that could clean up the cap and return reasonable assets. With both headed into restricted free agency next summer, those might be the names to watch.
Brooklyn Nets – $184,480 Over The Tax
The Nets get under the tax line after training camp. The Nets have five players on partially guaranteed deals, and cutting almost any of them in camp gets them below the tax line, so it’s highly unlikely Brooklyn faces the tax this year. Considering where they were two seasons ago, that’s pretty impressive cap work.
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NBA Daily: Grading The Offseason – Chicago Bulls
David Yapkowitz continues Basketball Insiders’ “Grading The Offseason” series by taking a look at the Chicago Bulls.
With summer league over and the big name free agents all signed, we’re now approaching the doldrums of the NBA offseason. Most big moves have all been made, and we shouldn’t expect to too much movement between now and the start of training camp.
Most teams probably have an idea already of what the bulk of their roster will look like come training camp, and as such, we’re starting a new series here at Basketball Insiders taking a look at each team’s offseason to this point.
Next up in our series is the Chicago Bulls.
The Bulls are a team clearly in rebuilding mode. After this offseason, they’ve done a pretty solid job at filling out the roster with young talent at every position. It’s obvious now that they were clear winners of their trade with the Minnesota Timberwolves two years ago that netted them Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn.
LaVine continued his ascent to stardom this past season. There may have been initial concerns when he was traded to Chicago as to how he would respond after his torn ACL, but since then, he’s showed no lingering limitations. He’s well on his way to becoming one of the elite shooting guards in the league. Few can match his scoring prowess whether he’s slashing to the rim or shooting 37.4 percent from the three-point line.
Markkanen has emerged as one of the top young big men in the NBA. He made some strong steps forward in his second year in the league. He’s moving closer to becoming a double-double threat every night. He’s exceeded projections from when he was drafted that pegged him as little more than a three-point shooting big. He has shown a lot more versatility to his game.
One major addition the Bulls made last season was the trade deadline acquisition of Otto Porter Jr. When he arrived in Chicago, he quickly played some of the best basketball of his career, fitting in seamlessly with the team and solidifying himself as part of their future core.
They’ve also got Wendell Carter Jr. in the fold. Their top draft pick last offseason, Carter quickly established himself a great defensive complement to Markkanen. An injury cut his rookie season shorter than expected, but he still showed flashes of being a capable around the rim scorer.
They do have some other decent rotation guys in Antonio Blakeney, Chandler Hutchinson and Ryan Arcidiacono. Blakeney is an instant offense scoring guard for the second unit, and Hutchinson was showing flashes of his talent before he too went down with an injury during his rookie season. Arcidiacono was re-signed by the Bulls after being one of their most consistent outside shooters last season.
The Bulls came into draft night with the seventh overall pick. It might have seemed like a disappointment seeing as how the Bulls probably had a shot at a top three pick considering their record. But ultimately, Chicago might have gotten what it wanted in the end. Point guard has been an area of need for the Bulls for quite some time, and they used their pick on North Carolina’s Coby White.
White is a little more in the mold of a scoring guard, but if you could take away one thing from his performance in summer league, it’s that he can thrive as a playmaker as well. It’s unlikely that White will get to start right away, but he’s got the makings of developing into the Bulls eventual starter at the point.
Chicago also picked up Daniel Gafford in the second round. The Bulls needed frontcourt depth after losing Robin Lopez in free agency, and they may very well have found their answer with Gafford. Summer League isn’t always a great indicator of how a player will translate to the NBA, but Gafford was solid as a finisher around the rim and a shot blocker in the paint. He may end up becoming one of the steals of the draft.
In free agency, the Bulls made some rather solid moves. On a team full of young players, it’s necessary to have a couple of key veterans for the young guys to lean on and to provide leadership and stability in the locker room. Thaddeus Young certainly fits that bill. Entering his 13th year in the league, Young played in 81 games last season and was a key guy on a Pacers team that made the playoffs. He’ll provide the Bulls with consistency on and off the court.
They also made a big step to addressing their point guard woes. They acquired Tomas Satoransky in a sign and trade with the Washington Wizards. He’ll provide a perfect stop-gap as the starting point guard while White develops. He proved himself as a facilitator with the Wizards, and he’s one of the better three-point shooters in the league, He’s a versatile guy who can play and defend multiple positions.
The Bulls also picked up Luke Kornet who spent last season with the New York Knicks. Kornet is relatively young and gives the Bulls a solid stretch big man on a decent contract. He’s also a solid shot blocker and should compete with Gafford for minutes off the bench.
Chicago also picked up an intriguing prospect in Adam Mokoka. The French combo guard initially declared for the draft a year ago but ultimately withdrew. He re-entered the draft this summer but went undrafted. In summer league, he showed flashes of playing both wing positions and being a capable defender who can shoot from three. He’ll be on a two-way contract so he’ll see significant time with the Windy City Bulls, Chicago’s G League affiliate.
PLAYERS IN: Adam Mokoka (two-way), Coby White, Daniel Gafford, Luke Kornet, Thaddeus Young, Tomas Satoransky
PLAYERS OUT: Brandon Sampson, Rawle Alkins, Robin Lopez, Shaquille Harrison, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Walt Lemon Jr., Wayne Selden
The Bulls roster currently stands at 15 guaranteed contracts and one two-way contract. They’re likely done with any roster additions unless they find someone to take that second two-way contract slot. They’d most likely move Cristiano Felicio if they could find a taker for his contract, but it’s probably unlikely.
With the additions of Satoransky and White, that likely spells the end of the Kris Dunn experiment in Chicago. If Dunn remains on the roster through the season, and the Bulls aren’t able to move him, it’s highly unlikely Chicago tenders him a qualifying offer. In all likelihood, this is his final season in the Windy City.
The Bulls have done a decent job at filling the roster out with good, young talent. Making the playoffs, even in the Eastern Conference, is still likely a few seasons away. But there is reason for optimism for the Bulls future.
OFFSEASON GRADE: B
NBA Daily: Grading The Offseason – Cleveland Cavaliers
Spencer Davies opens Basketball Insiders team-by-team “Grading The Offseason” series with an overview of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
On Monday night in Las Vegas, the 2019 NBA Summer League champions will be crowned. The Minnesota Timberwolves and Memphis Grizzlies are set to square off at the Thomas & Mack Center as the last teams standing over the course of the 10-day period.
Once that winner is determined, the world will be without NBA basketball for quite some time. Though the FIBA World Cup will be fun to watch, it’s not until late September that the association returns for training camp.
In order to hold you over until that date, Basketball Insiders has begun a “Grading The Offseason” series, featuring in-depth analysis on how each franchise has done during this wild summer.
To start things off, we’re going to break down arguably the quietest team of them all regarding roster turnover—the Cleveland Cavaliers.
It’s no secret that, on the floor, the season didn’t go quite as expected. Following the second departure of LeBron James, the organization felt it had enough remnants of the conference championship team to move forward and compete while developing young talent under head coach Tyronn Lue. A detrimental injury to Kevin Love changed that quickly.
Lue was fired six games into the 2018-19 campaign and then the wheels fell off pretty quickly. Top assistant Larry Drew pushed for a raise to take the interim role, due to the mixed bag inside of the locker room, and he was granted one. But as the losses piled up, the internal battle between the veterans and the younger players grew. Most of the criticism shaded toward upstart rookie Collin Sexton, yet he later proved what he was capable of to some of those teammates later down the road.
There were bright spots when Love re-entered the picture around February and played until late March, as he helped steer the inexperienced youngsters like Sexton, Cedi Osman and Ante Zizic in the direction of winning basketball. When all was said and done, the final record was ugly. However, the energy surrounding the group was clearly in a much more positive light than it had been beforehand.
What shouldn’t be lost in the shuffle is the job Cavaliers’ general manager Koby Altman and his staff did to revamp the team’s salary cap situation. Entering the year with inflated contracts, via veterans that didn’t want to sit through a rebuild, moves had to be made to tighten up the locker room and lower the cap a significant amount. Ultimately, they were successful in doing so.
Cleveland was able to move Kyle Korver, George Hill, Sam Dekker, Rodney Hood and Alec Burks (acquired in the Korver trade) and turned that into Brandon Knight, Matthew Dellavedova, John Henson, Nik Stauskas and a boatload of future draft picks. Altman’s been in asset accumulation mode since he took over during LeBron’s last season, and he’s done wonders with the opportunity to chop down those loud figures on the cap sheet, even adding future capital in the process.
Not only has Altman done a great job in obtaining that, but he’s also turned “good” into “great” often—i.e. turning Korver into Burks which he then flipped for a 2019 first-round pick, using the second-rounders to acquire another first-round pick. Even landing Larry Nance Jr. and Jordan Clarkson at the 2018 trade deadline to kickstart a new direction was impressive.
After parting ways with Drew at season’s end, the Cavaliers set a new course with the hiring of John Beilein in mid-May. Over the span of these past few months, he’s constructed a fresh coaching staff with former Memphis Grizzlies head coach J.B. Bickerstaff as his associate, University of California women’s head coach Lindsay Gottlieb and five-year Utah Jazz assistant Antonio Lang in complementary roles.
Beilein’s graduate assistant at Michigan, Jay Shunnar, is also a part of the staff. Team favorites Mike Gerrity and Dan Geriot are staying on as well to continue developing the players they’ve worked with.
All in all, the people assembled to take on this task of changing a culture are entrenched in teaching and doing hands-on work. It’s the on-court product with an extremely inexperienced group of coaches—three of which are coming from the collegiate level—that could be a challenge. Luckily, the process seems to be about a collective group with an open-mindedness that won’t allow for egos to get in the way.
Despite the lottery results going south (Cleveland had the second-best odds in the top three and dropped to five), draft night was a smashing success for the organization. The wine and gold came out with a trio of highly touted rookies—Darius Garland, Dylan Windler and, after trades were officially cleared, Kevin Porter Jr. Adding talents to the roster was the top priority for the front office — today, that stands as the most noise from what’s been a mostly silent offseason.
With a lack of roster spots and an understanding that there would be little money to spend in a chaotic, competitive free-agent market, the Cavaliers have had to stand pat with what they have. JR Smith’s contract had reportedly fielded some offers between NBA Draft Combine time and around the draft, but the team didn’t like the idea of taking back a bad contract. Instead, they found an easier way to get a third pick in the 2019 first round by using the plethora of second-rounders acquired in the past to flip for Porter.
Chris Fedor of Cleveland.com reported Monday that Cleveland plans on waiving and stretching Smith’s contract for $1.4 million each over the next three years. The move will allow the team to stay under the luxury tax, avoid the repeater tax penalty and also provides a full mid-level exception amount at its disposal. Fedor does mention the front office won’t likely use it heading into the season to remain flexible financially and to keep a roster spot open.
Smith not being traded came as a surprise to many, especially knowing the salary relief his previously-grandfathered CBA deal offered to a team searching to clear space for a big free agency offer. The summer moved fast, though, and other franchises with similar predicaments acted quickly. The Cavaliers could’ve facilitated a few trades to get more future draft assets in return, but they didn’t feel like taking on an albatross contract that would’ve been worth paying the extra tax this upcoming season.
The only other real decision to make was whether or not to retain David Nwaba, who, when healthy, displayed flashes of defensive excellence and aggressiveness on the offensive end, Cleveland did not extend the qualifying offer to Nwaba before the deadline, making him an unrestricted free agent. He recently signed with the Brooklyn Nets on a two-year deal.
This move was not so surprising as Basketball Insiders reported at the beginning of June that Nwaba’s representation would be looking for a multi-year deal. A league source said that last summer’s one-year agreement between the Cavaliers and Nwaba was with the understanding that he’d be strictly looking for a newly re-structured multi-year contract with no qualifying offer in his 2019 plans.
The latest addition the franchise made was inking Dean Wade, an undrafted rookie from Kansas State, to a two-way contract. He played in five NBA Summer League games for the organization between Salt Lake City and Las Vegas.
PLAYERS IN: Darius Garland, Dylan Windler, Kevin Porter Jr., Dean Wade (two-way)
PLAYERS OUT: JR Smith, Marquese Chriss, David Nwaba, Channing Frye
Following the waiving of Smith, the Cavaliers roster will be at 13 players. You’d imagine they wouldn’t keep two roster spots open, so seeing a free agent signing or even nabbing a player from a summer league team could be in the cards.
Per Fedor, the franchise will be above the $109 million salary cap by $22 million once the Smith news is made official by the team. It’s a much healthier number than they’ve been at in years past — so, going into next summer, that cap sheet is going to be as clean as it’s been in quite some time.
Cleveland is going to have numerous attractive contracts on its hands as five players on the roster are on deals set to expire following this year. Tristan Thompson ($18.5 million), Brandon Knight ($15.6 million), Jordan Clarkson ($13.4 million), John Henson ($9.7 million) and Matthew Dellavedova ($9.6 million) are all trade chips that Altman can move to stockpile the future even more. Depending on what offers come their way, it could be yet another busy season regarding roster turnover.
There’s plenty of speculation that the team should trade Love to a contender to both satisfy the player and allow the team to get out of his sizable deal. What people are forgetting is that the Cavaliers want to have a championship-caliber player in the locker room as a guiding voice. Remember, this team has one person that is at least the age of 30, and it is the All-Star big man. The next guys up are 28 years old—Henson, Dellavedova and Thompson—and who knows how long they’ll be around.
Cleveland will have to be blown away to take back what it thinks it should receive in return for Love. No deal will be made just to make a deal. The organization values him too much as a person and a player.
On the court, the focus is going to be on player development, mainly in watching how Sexton and Garland play off one another. Different looks and combinations with the frontcourt of Love, Nance Jr., Zizic, Windler and Osman will be available for Beilein to tinker with. A new coaching staff with a freshly enthused group of players should be intriguing to watch.
OFFSEASON GRADE: C-
Stay tuned to the rest of Basketball Insiders “Grading The Offseason” series over the next few weeks.
NBA Daily: Veterans Influencing Spurs Youngsters
Having NBA veterans that can ease young players into the league can be very helpful, which is why Thomas Robinson and Darius Morris have been nice additions to the Spurs’ summer league roster.
The Summer League is a time for many things.
It’s a time for young players to get a taste of what professional basketball is like. It’s a time for teams to evaluate what young talent they have their roster. Most importantly of all, it’s a time for growth.
The Summer League, whether it be in Salt Lake, Sacramento or Las Vegas, serves as a transition for the new blood. Most are either fresh out of college or just arrived into the country, who are also either just beginning or have recently begun their NBA career. Making that transition isn’t always seamless. As talented as some of these kids are, they are prone to make mistakes. That’s where having a veteran who has been around the block can help.
For this year’s summer league. San Antonio brought in two who fit the profile: Thomas Robinson and Darius Morris.
Morris has bounced around between the NBA and the G League since being drafted 41st overall by the Lakers back in 2011. He’s been around the league long enough that playing in the Summer League wasn’t originally in the plans. That all changed when the Spurs called him.
“They actually reached out to me and told me they were interested,” Morris said. “When an organization like the Spurs calls you, you can come in and show that you can blend in and the high character is going to follow you the rest of the way.”
Robinson has also been a journeyman since being selected sixth overall by the Kings back in 2012. Now that he has found himself on the Spurs, he praised the organization for its player development.
“To even get any type of time under anybody on this staff is helpful for any player,” Robinson said. “Whether it’s summer league, mini-camp, or the real roster, it’s always helpful to learn from these guys. They’re like the Mecca of NBA basketball.”
Not many can say that they are the veteran of a summer league team, but Morris not only has that role but also appears to have embraced it since coming on for the Spurs. So much so that even though he takes that responsibility seriously, he and his teammates can have a laugh about it.
“I joke with the guys that I’m transitioning to that vet stage like a little baby vet,” Morris said. “To be able to extend whatever knowledge to the young guys, and kind of getting me in that mode as opposed to being that guy that was drafted, just transitioning to being a mentor and just helping where I can.”
There are various ways in which those are designated as mentors decide to use their role. Some give very little advice while others give nothing but advice. For Morris, he has implemented a “trial by fire” strategy for his younger teammates.
“First, you want them to go out there and play freely,” Morris said. “You don’t want to give them too much advice at first. You just kind of sit back and just watch… You don’t want to put too many things in their ear. Everything is already going 100 miles per hour for you out there and as they go along, just give my advice as we go along.”
As the other veteran/mentor on the squad, Robinson’s approach is simple on the court – just being himself for the Spurs.
“I’m not trying to show that I can do anything different,” Robinson said. “I just want to show that I’m doing everything that they ask me to do the first time.”
Since coming to San Antonio, Robinson has gotten to know some of the Spurs’ young talent. He even took the time to praise some of the Spurs’ young talent – in particular, one of the Spurs’ most recent first-rounders, Keldon Johnson.
“‘Baby Russ’. That’s what I called him” Robinson said. “He doesn’t get tired. He’s super aggressive… He’s big, athletic. I definitely see the makings of a superstar.”
Both Morris and Robinson are leaving impressions with the younger players on their squad. The Spurs other first-rounder this season, Luka Samanic, spoke highly of what they’ve been able to do for him primarily with how he handles his mistakes.
“If I do one quick mistake in the beginning, then it affects my game later,” Samanic said. “So they’re all about ‘Don’t worry about mistakes. You’ll miss shots. It’s all normal here.’ So they helped me a lot with that.”
Blake Ahearn, who coached the Spurs at the Utah Summer League, praised both Robinson and Morris for the calming influence they have on the team.
“It’s huge,” Ahearn said. “Having some of those calming-presence guys on the floor helps those younger guys… That’s a good luxury for coaches to have.”
Spurs assistant Becky Hammon also heaped praise for the two veterans primarily for what they have been able to do for the Spurs’ young players off the court while also reiterating the value guys like that have on these teams.
“They’ve been talking to them in their ear the whole time about what it takes to be a professional and get opportunities,” Hammon said. “Their leadership on the court, off the court has been very helpful. Obviously, having guys like that in a situation like that is very helpful and invaluable.”
Now, undoubtedly, the goal for Robinson and Morris is to be in the NBA again. They’ve been there before and their willingness to play in the summer league shows that they’re not giving up on their dreams.
Regardless of whether they make it, they can take comfort that, in the end, they positively impacted the Spurs of tomorrow.
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