Rick Carlisle donned his navy blue Mavericks hooded sweatshirt. He both looked and sounded quite casual sitting next to Mark Cuban, whose demeanor was somewhere between proud and giddy.
“Obvioulsy, having him here is a huge step forward for us,” Cuban said about what it meant for his franchise to land Rajon Rondo. “He’s a winner and he’s a competitor.”
Rondo is a few other things too: another superstar in Dallas and a beaming light that illuminates championship hopes.
And now, he is, best of all, a Maverick.
Clearly a bit unnerved, Rondo was reserved and stoic. After nine mostly successful years as a member of the Boston Celtics, he slowly saw his surroundings change as the foundation he came to know crumbled.
Over the years, he saw James Posey, Ray Allen and Doc Rivers flee and Kendrick Perkins, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce traded away. Over those nine years, he went from being the new kid on the block to the last of the mohicans.
And as the days wore on and the Celtics embraced rebuilding, general manager Danny Ainge found himself in the peculiar position of trying to best determine what to do with a late 20-something-year-old franchise-caliber player who had no interest in losing.
As the years wore on, Rondo and the Celtics knew they were headed for an inevitable divorce.
Now, finally, Rondo was 1,800 miles away from where it all began.
Sitting beside Carlisle and Cuban, he paid respect to the Celtics, but he tipped his hand when asked what excited him about his new life in Dallas.
He mentioned “being able to play with future Hall-of-Famers” and being a part of “a team that’s ready to contend for a title.”
Meanwhile, in Boston, Ainge had to field some tough questions about what led to the trade of the talented Rondo and he spoke honestly of the “uncertainty” that the Celtics faced with Rondo’s impending free agency. Ainge was afraid of losing his superstar for nothing in return and simply could not take the risk that the Los Angeles Lakers took with Dwight Howard or the one that the New York Knicks did with Carmelo Anthony.
But in the end, for the Celtics, it was for the best.
It is often said that the worst place to be as a general manager in the National Basketball Association is right in the middle. A team that is not bad enough to get a top three pick in the draft and not good enough to seriously challenge once the playoffs roll around is up the creek without a paddle.
At least, that is what is often said.
This season, though, with the freshly re-signed Anthony and the New York Knicks sputtering out to their worst 25-game start in franchise history, one could easily make a new argument.
The worst place to be in the NBA is at the helm of a rebuilding team whose only asset is an aging player on a maximum salary and that is especially true in the post-2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement era of NBA economics.
Rebuilding teams require cap flexibility, not cap-clogging contracts.
Rebuilding teams require a slew of draft picks.
Rebuilding teams require patience on the part of their player-personnel.
And, among other things, rebuilding teams require youth.
Instead, a team that re-signs its late 20-something year old franchise player to a maximum contract will have already limited its ability to build an adequate supporting cast around him. In today’s NBA, it takes no less than three All-Star caliber performers to seriously contend for a championship, even if you are an Eastern Conference team.
Quite simply, it’s difficult to assemble that type of roster when you are beginning with a player who is collecting upwards of 30 percent of your cap.
Draft picks are the top currency in the NBA. They are lottery tickets with a potential jackpot of incalculable proportions. They are the lifeblood of a franchise and provide hope for the future.
Invariably, a team with a late 20-something superstar will need to find creative ways to field a competitive roster and build around said superstar. By virtue of him being in his late 20s, said superstar will not have patience; he wants to win now. He won’t be concerned with five years from now, he will be concerned with five months from now. It’s because the hourglass is running out on a late 20-something year-old superstar.
What Ainge realized in Boston was that by their very nature, a player like Rondo and his interests were diametrically opposed to the long-term best interests of the franchise.
Ainge made the tough decision, and perhaps the correct one. In the end, he made the decision that the New York Knicks refused to make with the polarizing Anthony.
For all that he is and brings to the table, Anthony has not proven himself to be a player capable of elevating his teammates and franchise. He will turn 31 years old before the season ends, but is in the first year of a five-year contract that will pay him $124 million.
At the age of 34, Anthony will be finishing up the fourth year of that contract in which he will earn $26.2 million. He will have a fifth year option at $27.9 million. Some people feel that he is not worth that type of investment, others simply feel that those numbers will make building around him difficult.
In the interim, the Knicks find themselves in the precarious position of having made a long-term commitment to their superstar and having to navigate the murky terrain of rebuilding while quickly becoming competitive enough to give Anthony a puncher’s chance of achieving highly in the playoffs.
In a way, they find themselves in the opposite situation as the Celtics.
And now, they find themselves in the situation of attempting to reinvent the wheel in building a contender in New York City.
When one looks back closely at the gross majority of NBA Champions over the course of the past twenty years, there are some fairly consistent traits.
The exhaustive list dating back to 1994, in reverse order: San Antonio Spurs (2014, 2007, 2005, 2003, 1999), Miami HEAT (2013, 2012, 2006), Dallas Mavericks (2011), Los Angeles Lakers (2010, 2009, 2002, 2001, 2000), Boston Celtics (2008), Detroit Pistons (2004), Chicago Bulls (1998, 1997, 1996) and Houston Rockets (1995, 1994).
Deep thought around and about each of those teams will yield a few similarities. Each of the aforementioned teams either drafted very well or attained a young player in whom the team presumably saw potential before the player was renowned as a stud. Either situation requires having an astute scouting department, so call that your first necessary trait.
The 2011 Mavericks obviously drafted Dirk Nowitzki, but Jason Terry was not considered a championship player when he was acquired, J.J. Barea was signed as an undrated rookie and Ian Mahinmi had only played 32 professional games before being signed by the Mavericks on a minimum-salaried contract.
For the 2008 Celtics, yes, Paul Pierce was their draftee, and yes, he did have Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett flanking him, but Rajon Rondo, Kendrick Perkins, Leon Powe and Glen Davis—all important contributors for that title run—were all drafted by the club.
Champions in 2004, the Pistons remain the gold standard for a team that believes it can trade its way to a championship. Joe Dumars added quite a few pieces to that 2004 team via trade which makes it somewhat easy to overlook the fact that Tayshaun Prince, Mehmet Okur and Lindsey Hunter were drafted by the franchise.
The other champions are so obviously a result of good drafting nothing more needs to be said of this trait.
The second and often overlooked trait of a champion is prudent cap management.
Inevitably, in the NBA, winning costs money. In a free market economy, the gross majority of NBA players play for the team that is willing to pay them the most. The better the player is, the more lucrative the offers he receives, again, the gross majority of time.
Championship teams rarely overpay for marginal production, or if they do, the player who is being overpaid must be canceled out by at least one other player who is underpaid for his production.
Ever notice how it seems like almost every time a team wins a championship, it loses one or two key contributors to free agency immediately after the team hoists the Larry O’Brien trophy? That is usually a result of this very concept. The player leaving the championship team usually does so in pursuit of a higher payday than his incumbent team was either willing or able to offer him. In effect, that proves that the salary he earned before leaving his team was less than what his production warranted.
Two great examples, again, using the 2011 Mavericks and 2008 Celtics are Barea and Posey, respectively.
Barea earned just $1.8 million from the Mavericks, but played 18.6 minutes per game for the club during their title run and had per-36 minute averages of 17.3 points, 6.6 assists and 3.6 rebounds. The ensuing offseason, Barea signed a four-year contract with the Minnesota Timberwolves that paid him $4.3 million in the first year—a raise of 139 percent.
Posey was a integral part of the Celtics’ 2008 championship run. He, along with Tony Allen, were the team’s most proficient perimeter defenders, but he, unlike Allen, was a highly efficient three-point shooter. Posey hit about 40 percent of his shots from behind the arc and gave the Celtics 10.9 points, 5.8 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 1.6 steals per-36 minutes. He was paid $3.2 million by the team, but left after receiving a four-year deal from the New Orleans Hornets that paid him $5.8 million in the first year—a raise of 74 percent.
In each case, Barea and Posey received substantial raises, helping to make the argument that the Mavericks and Celtics were able to exploit their production for less than their fair market value. Of course, an argument can be made that their market value was increased because they won championships, but a ring without production could not explain such a substantial increase in pay.
So, what does this have to do with Anthony and Rondo?
It’s simple: By trading Rondo (as well as Garnett and Pierce), the Celtics have embraced these concepts fully. They are attempting to rebuild the franchise into a contender by way of patience and draft picks. Without building around an aging star, the team can patiently embark on their all-out rebuild. They will have ample opportunities over the next few years to draft their next cornerstone and once they do, they will scour the market to find like-aged running mates for him.
In the interim, they will not chain themselves to long-money contracts tied to marginal or one-dimensional players and they certainly will not overpay for the services of any player.
By trading Rondo, the Celtics opted to to take the road that the Knicks bypassed.
With Anthony on board, the Knicks do not have the luxury of patience. In a haste, the franchise recently surrendered a 2016 first round pick and second round picks in 2014 and 2017 for Andrea Bargnani—a player who has not made a difference for them and has missed more games (70 and counting) than he has played (42).
Moving forward, so long as Anthony is the core player that the Knicks are attempting to build around, the conflict of the franchise’s long-term future and enabling Anthony to win right now will continue to rear its ugly head.
If the Knicks secure a top-five draft pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, would Anthony embrace the idea of playing alongside a youngster and waiting for him to develop into a championship caliber player? Or would he—like his friend Kobe Bryant did once upon a time with Andrew Bynum—advocate trading him away for someone who could help in the immediate term?
In terms of finding talent that overproduces based on their salary, the Knicks could certainly get lucky. But the truth of the matter is that a team attempting to build itself primarily through free agency will often find itself in the precarious position of needing to overpay. That is where the Knicks are; that is what the Celtics avoided.
For the Knicks, are Jimmy Butler and Greg Monroe worth maximum contracts?
Was Amar’e Stoudemire worth a maximum contract?
Has the newly signed Jason Smith made any difference?
Those are the types of questions and decisions that need to be pondered and acted upon for a team attempting to rebuild around an aging superstar. Wanting to win for him, in the short term, yields a haste that is unbecoming of the patience and level-headedness required of a champion.
The Knicks need to win right now, but do not have the means to do so. It is a problem that the Celtics no longer have after trading Rondo.
As division mates, the two teams faced similar situations and came to the same diverging road.
Rondo sat in Dallas. Alongside Carlisle and Cuban, he hopes to continue on toward his dream of another championship.
Meanwhile, back East, the Celtics and Knicks—one franchise with its aging superstar and one without—were taking different routes in pursuit of the same goal.
From here, it will be interesting to see who reaches the destination first.
The G-League is a Path Back to the NBA
The G-League has become an avenue for several player types toward the NBA, writes David Yapkowitz.
When the NBA first instituted their development league, its main purpose was two-fold. The first was to give experience to young players who perhaps were not seeing regular playing time on their respective NBA teams. The second was to give undrafted players a chance at getting exposure and ultimately getting to the NBA.
With the growth in size and popularity of the development league, now known as the G-League, it’s begun to serve another purpose. It’s become a place for older veterans who have already tasted the NBA life to get back to the highest level of basketball that they once knew.
One player in particular who has a wealth of NBA experience is Terrence Jones. Jones is currently playing with the Santa Cruz Warriors, the G-League affiliate of the Golden State Warriors.
Jones was originally drafted by the Houston Rockets with the 18th overall pick in the 2012 draft. He was part of a vaunted class of Kentucky Wildcats that year, which included Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marquis Teague, Doron Lamb, and Darius Miller. During his four years with the Rockets, he emerged as a dependable reserve and part-time starter. He averaged 9.5 points per game on 49.5 percent shooting and 5.3 rebounds.
“It was just a lot of excitement and a lot of joy, being part of the Houston Rockets was a lot of fun,” Jones told Basketball Insiders. “We had great memories and great seasons, a lot of up and downs, I just enjoyed the journey.”
Jones’ dealt with injuries his last two season in Houston, and when he was a free agent in the summer of 2016, the Rockets didn’t re-sign him. He was scooped by the New Orleans Pelicans, however, and he made an immediate impact for them. Prior to the trade deadline, he played in 51 games for the Pelicans, including 12 starts while putting up 11.5 points on 47.2 percent shooting, and 5.9 rebounds.
When the Pelicans acquired DeMarcus Cousins, however, they cut Jones. He didn’t stay unemployed for long, though, as he was signed by the Milwaukee Bucks to add depth for a playoff run. He was unable to crack the rotation, though, and the Bucks cut him as well before the playoff started. After a brief stint in China, he’s now back stateside and using the G-League to get back to the NBA.
“That’s the goal. Right now, I feel I’ve been playing pretty well and just trying to help my team get wins,” Jones told Basketball Insiders. “I think I can play multiple positions offensively and defensively. Whether that’s creating plays for myself or for others, I think I can help contribute on the offensive end.”
He’s been the second-leading scorer for Santa Cruz with 19.9 points per game. He’s pulling down 7.1 rebounds, and even dishing out 4.5 assists. In the G-League Challenge against the Mexican National Team at All-Star Weekend, he finished with eight points on 50.0 percent shooting, six rebounds, four assists, and two steals. He’s definitely a name to watch for as NBA teams scour the market for 10-day contract possibilities.
Another player who’s had a taste of the NBA is Xavier Silas. Silas is currently with the Northern Arizona Suns, the affiliate of the Phoenix Suns. He went undrafted in 2011 and started his professional career in France. That only last a few months before he came back the United States and latched on with the Philadelphia 76ers.
He played sparingly with the 76ers and was ultimately cut before the start of the 2012-13 season. Since then, he’s played summer league with the Bucks, and been in two different training camps with the Washington Wizards.
“It was amazing, any time you get to go and play at the highest level, and I even got to play in the playoffs and play in the second round and even score, that was big,” Silas told Basketball Insiders. “It was a great time for me and that’s what I’m working towards getting back.”
While his professional career has taken him all across the globe from Israel to Argentina to Greece to Germany and even Ice Cube’s BIG3 league, he sees the G-League as being the one place that will get him back to where he wants to be.
He’s done well this season for Northern Arizona. He’s their third-leading scorer at 19.3 points per game and he’s one of their top three-point threats at 39.9 percent. At the All-Star Weekend G-League Challenge against the Mexican National Team, Silas had a team-high 13 points for Team USA including 3-5 shooting from three-point range.
It’s isn’t just what he brings on the court that Silas believes makes him an attractive candidate for an NBA team. At age 30, he’s one of the older guys in the G-League and one with a lot of basketball experience to be passed down to younger guys.
“I think it’s a little bit of leadership, definitely some shooting. I’m a vet now so I’m able to come in and help in that aspect as well. But everybody needs someone who can hit an open shot and I think I can bring that to a team,” Silas told Basketball Insiders. “I think it’s the best place for anyone who’s trying to make that next step. We’re available and we’re right here, it’s just a call away.”
NBA Daily: Lillard Playing For Something Bigger
Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard has his eyes set on a bigger prize than just being an NBA All-Star.
Playing For Something Bigger
The NBA All-Star Game is a spectacle.
By design, the game is meant to be a showcase, not just for the players selected to compete, but for the league and all of its partners, on and off the floor. It is easy to get caught up in how players selected actually play, but the reality is while most see the game as important for a lot of reasons, Portland Trail Blazer star Damian Lillard understands it has to be put into perspective.
“I don’t think it’s fair to expect people to go out there and treat it like they are playing for the team they’re under contract for,” Lillard explained this weekend.
“It’s the one time in an 82-game season plus playoffs, preseason and training camp that we actually get a break. It’s necessary to take a mental break, along with a physical break from what we do every day. There’s nothing wrong with that, so I don’t think it’s fair to ask guys to go out there and play like it’s for the Trail Blazers. My loyalty is to my team; I got to stay healthy for my team. I got to do what’s best for my team. Obviously, go out there [during All-Star] and not mess around too much and that’s how people get hurt and stuff like that. You got to go out there and play and have respect for the game, but I don’t think it’s necessary to go out there and go crazy like it’s a playoff game.”
Lillard notched 21 minutes in Sunday’s big game, going 9-for-14 from the field for 21 points for Team Stephen, a roster that included three Golden State Warriors players. Lillard believes that eventually, he’ll get the chance to share the weekend, his third, with teammate C. J. McCollum.
“Each year you see teams are getting two to three, Golden State got four this year,” Lillard said. “But you look at it and say ‘why is that happening’ and it has a lot to do with team success. Me and C.J. just have to take that challenge of making our team win more games. I think when we do that, we’ll be rewarded with both of us making it. If we really want to make that happen, then we’ll do whatever it takes to win more games.
“I feel like this season we’ve moved closer in that direction. In the past, we haven’t even been in the position to get one, because I did not make it the past two years. I think if we keep on improving we’ll eventually get to the point that we’re winning games and people will say ‘how are they doing this’ and then hopefully our names come up. Hopefully, one day, it’ll happen.”
Another issue that got addressed during the All-Star Weekend was the growing tensions between the NBA players and the NBA referees. Representatives from both sides met to address the gap developing on the court, something Lillard felt was necessary.
“We’re all human,” Lillard said. “As competitors, we want to win. If you feel like you got fouled, you want them to call the foul every time. I think sometimes as players, we forget how hard their job can be. At the pace we play, it’s hard to get every call, and then you got guys tricking the referees sometimes, we’re clever too. It’s a tough job for them. I think when we get caught up in our competitive nature, and we forget that they’re not just these robots with stripes, they are people too. You have got to think, as a man if someone comes screaming at you every three plays, you are going to react in your own way. Maybe you’re not going to make the next call; maybe I am going to stand my ground. It’s just something that I think will get better over time. I think both have to do a better job of understanding.”
With 24 games left to play in Lillard’s sixth NBA season, the desire to be more than a playoff team or an All-Star is coming more into focus for Lillard, something he reportedly expressed to Blazers management several weeks ago.
“There are guys that have this record and guys that have done these things, and I want to at least get myself the chance to compete for a championship,” Lillard said. “If I get there and we don’t win it, it happens. A lot of people had to go see about Michael Jordan, a lot of people had to go see about Shaq and Kobe. You know, those great teams, but I have a strong desire to at least give myself a chance to be there. Take a shot at it.”
With All-Star out of the way, the focus in the NBA will switch to the race to the playoffs. As things stand today Lillard and his Blazers hold the seventh seed in the West and are tied with Denver, and just a half of a game back from the five seed Oklahoma City Thunder.
If the Blazers are going to make noise this post season its going to be on the shoulder of Lillard, and based on what he said, it seems he’s up to the challenge.
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NBA Daily: James Harden on the new All-Star Format and Chris Paul Being Snubbed
James Harden shared his thoughts on the new All-Star game format and teammate Chris Paul not being selected as an All-Star
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver made a bold decision to alter the All-Star game format. By allowing the two highest voted players in each conference to be team captains, Silver did away with tradition and the usual West versus East format. While there were a few complaints about the switch, fans were seemingly more vocal about the decision to not televise the selection of players by the team captains.
Well, the results are in and praise for new format has been nearly universal. With players more invested in the new format, and perhaps the $100k per player bonus for the winners, the effort level was up, plays were being drawn up and executed and defense made a surprise appearance in an exciting game that came down to the final possession.
2018 NBA All-Star and Houston Rockets guard James Harden spoke about the All-Star game and the new format.
“I think it is exciting. You get an opportunity, you know, for a mixture of guys to play on the same team together. We’re trying to win though, it’s competitive,” Harden stated. “Obviously, the All-Star game has a lot of highlights but we’re trying to win, we’re going to go out there and prove we’re trying to win.”
Harden, who played for Team Stephen, did not get the win. However, Harden also made it clear that playing in the this year’s All-Star game meant even more having grown up in Los Angeles.
“To be able to play in the big boy game means a lot. I grew up, especially being from LA, you grew up watching Kobe, watching Shaq every single year. You see how fun, you see how exciting it was,” Harden said. “Now to be here, to be in the city is more special.”
While Harden made it a point to talk about what it means to play in Los Angeles, another factor he seemed excited and appreciative about was being the first player picked for Team Stephen.
“Man, that’s a great feeling. Just because in middle school I was the last pick. So, to be the number one pick in the All-Star game, that’s what the swag champ is for,” Harden said.
Harden wasn’t universally positive about All-Star Weekend. Specifically, he was not happy about being the only Rockets All-Star – especially considering Houston’s standing in the Western Conference playoff race.
“I have a lot to say about that. What are we talking about? Everyone knows Chris Paul is with the Rockets and the Rockets have the number one [record]. How does that not happen?” Harden asked rhetorically. “It’s frustrating. I know he’s frustrated. He never brings it up. That’s why I did say what I said. He’s never going to bring it up. But, I’ll defend for him. He should be here with me in LA as an All-Star.”
Harden had some success as he led his team in minutes and logged 12 points, eight assists and five rebounds. He spoke after the game and confirmed the reconfiguration of the All-Star game produced a competitive game and a fun product for the fans.
“Felt great. I hope all the fans enjoyed [the All-Star game] as well. It was very competitive. Guys got after it from the beginning of the game. Usually All-Star [games] there are a lot of dunks, a lot of freedom. Tonight was intense,” Harden said.
Harden was not wrong with his conclusion that there was less freedom. With less freedom and better defense played, Harden went 5-19 from the field and 2-13 from three-point range while finishing the game without a single free throw attempted. The lack of free throws may have irked Harden, who is renowned for his ability to get to the line (9.9 free throw attempts per game this season). Adding to that frustration, Harden had the opportunity to put his team ahead with a three-pointer late in the game but failed to connect on the shot. Unsurprisingly, Harden expressed his disappointment with the result.
“I was pissed we lost. I’m still mad,” Harden stated.
On the final play of the game, while ignoring Harden, Curry kept the ball with the chance to tie the game. Curry dribbled into a LeBron James/Kevin Durant double team. Curry wasn’t able to get a shot off and Harden was left with his hands up waiting for a pass and a chance to win the game that never came.
Looking toward next year, Harden was asked if as a possible captain he would prefer to have the player selection two weeks before or right before the game. He thought about it and then smiled.
“Probably right before the game,” Harden answered.
Commissioner Silver has spoken on the subject and is sending strong signals that next year’s selection will be televised. That will potentially add another layer of excitement to the new All-Star game format, which is already paying off for the NBA.