After being selected with the No. 47 overall pick of the 2006 NBA Draft, Paul Millsap slowly but surely carved out a niche for himself with the Utah Jazz. He spent a few years playing behind Andrei Kirilenko, Mehmet Okur and Carlos Boozer before eventually emerging as a starter in the wake of Boozer’s 2010 departure.
In July 2013, after proving he was an impact player at the NBA level, Millsap agreed to what many believed was a below-market contract with the Atlanta Hawks: $19 million over two years. After playing out those two seasons, Millsap re-signed with the Hawks in July 2015 on a three-year deal worth $60 million.
It was a rare instance when a player “betting on himself” and opting for a shorter-term contract for less money paid off in the end. Not every player is as fortunate.
Just ask Lance Stephenson.
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Like Millsap, Stephenson was a second-round pick who found success in the NBA. Playing under Frank Vogel in Indianapolis, Stephenson had some freedom to utilize his gifts on the floor but, somehow, remained disciplined enough on both ends to not be a detriment to his team.
After experiencing some success with the Pacers, Stephenson sought a new contract and opted to bypass the five-year, $44 million offer that the Pacers made to retain him in July 2014. Instead, Stephenson chose to sign with the Charlotte Hornets on a three-year deal worth $27 million. It was a rare occurrence where a non-superstar opted for a shorter-term contract, believing it to be in his best long-term financial interest. He thought he’d thrive in Charlotte, then the market when his individual stock and the NBA’s salary cap were significantly higher.
Since packing his bags for Charlotte, Stephenson has been traded twice. First, the Hornets sent him to the L.A. Clippers in exchange for Matt Barnes and Spencer Hawes. Eight months later, the Clippers sent him to the Memphis Grizzlies in exchange for Jeff Green.
After a somewhat uneventful tenure in Memphis, the Grizzlies declined that third-year option on Stephenson’s contract. After the first week in August, he remains a free agent whose options appear to be extremely limited.
Not every free agent winds up being as productive and as fortunate as Paul Millsap, so Stephenson should serve as a cautionary tale to every player who considers leaving guaranteed money on the table.
Other cautionary tales include J.R. Smith, Josh Smith and Ty Lawson. In their own right, each player has had personality or disciplinary issues in the past. J.R. Smith was obviously a key contributor on the Cleveland Cavaliers 2016 championship team, but the fact that he remains unsigned by the team after the first week in August may not bode positively for his future there and it certainly doesn’t bode well for his marketability or bargaining power.
Since leaving the Atlanta Hawks for the Detroit Pistons back in July 2013, Josh Smith has been descending dramatically. His minutes and productivity have decreased and he is no longer viewed as a player who makes a positive difference on the court. Things were so bad with Smith in Detroit that Stan Van Gundy opted to waive him and pay out the remaining $26 million owed to him under the terms of his contract to get him off the roster. The Pistons have been a much better team since that move, and the stench has remained with Smith.
Ty Lawson, unlike the J.R. and Josh Smith, had more than just personality and personnel issues in the NBA. Lawson, quite notably, was arrested multiple times. His two latest arrests occurred in 2015 and, over the years, Lawson has had numerous issues with driving under the influence. Where he is similar to Stephenson, however, was his willingness to bet on himself. He was desperately needing a change of scenery from the Denver Nuggets and gave up guaranteed money to make that move happen. Lawson had agreed to a four-year, $44 million extension with the Nuggets in October 2012, but as a condition of the July 2015 trade that sent Lawson to the Houston Rockets, he agreed to waive the $13 million guaranteed salary that he was entitled to for the 2016-17 season under the terms of the extension he signed with the Nuggets. The Rockets subsequently waived Lawson and that $13 million is money that he’ll likely never recoup.
Each of the aforementioned players have had success at various points while in the NBA, but it has not been easy for any of the four to find work lately. In today’s NBA, after seeing the San Antonio Spurs reign, the prevailing belief across league circles is that building a winning team and an elite franchise starts with high-character players and a strong culture.
While every player deserves a second chance (and most do get second chances), recurring disciplinary issues or episodes can be fatal to a career. Or, at least, hurt a player’s wallet and end their days of being a powerful earner.
The bright side for a player like Stephenson is that the NBA’s salary cap is expected to continue to rise. Over the course of the next year, the NBA and the Players Association will have more conversations related to the league’s collective bargaining agreement. If a new agreement is ratified, the cap calculations and mechanics may change. However, if the current system remains substantially similar to any new system that may be implemented, there will be opportunities in abundance.
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With a $94 million salary cap taking effect for the 2016-17 season and each team being required to spend about $85 million on payroll, scores of players have easily found rich deals. Aside from Mike Conley’s record-setting five-year, $153 million contract, other players such as Timofey Mozgov ($16 million), Ian Mahinmi ($16 million), Bismack Biyombo ($18 million), Chandler Parsons ($23 million) and Harrison Barnes ($23 million) have each found lucrative paydays.
Next summer, the most conservative cap estimates have the additional cap increase brought forth by the influx on new television money at $8 million. In other words, in July 2017, there will be more money available and higher dollar amounts given out. For a player like Stephenson (as well as J.R. Smith, Josh Smith and Ty Lawson), the availability of that money could signify another opportunity to cash in and resume what seemed to once be very promising, very lucrative careers.
However, in the interim, each players has to prove that they can stay out of trouble and contribute to a winning environment. Heading overseas is an option and so is taking a one-year contract with the hopes of cashing in next summer. One thing that recent history has shown us, however, is that once a player accepts a minimum contract, it is difficult for him to “unbrand” himself as being a “minimum” player. It was that exact fear that prevented Steve Nash from taking far below his market value in the sign-and-trade deal that was eventually agreed to by him involving the Phoenix Suns and the Los Angeles Lakers back in July 2012.
Back then, Nash seemed to know what many of today’s players don’t fully understand: tomorrow is promised to no one. Interestingly enough, the Nash acquisition was a disaster for the Lakers. They surrendered four draft picks in exchange for Nash (first-round selections in 2013 and 2015 and second-round selections in 2013 and 2014) and agreed to pay him $27 million over three years. During his time there, Nash would appear in only 65 games due to injuries and didn’t come anywhere close to producing like he did with the Suns.
On a personal level, Nash won. Those years had to be frustrating, but he has a lot of money to show for them. And if there is one thing all other players should learn from Lance Stephenson, J.R. Smith, Josh Smith and Ty Lawson still searching for jobs after the first week in August, the first would be to keep your nose clean and the second would be to take the money and run when faced with the opportunity.
As the Atlanta Hawks waived goodbye to Al Horford and Jeff Teague, Paul Millsap has suddenly emerged as one of the elder statesmen in Mike Budenholzer’s lineup. He bet on himself years ago, and he won.
But make no mistake, that isn’t the norm for non-superstars in today’s NBA.
NBA Daily: Checking In With Terrance Ferguson
Oklahoma City Thunder rookie Terrance Ferguson talks to Basketball Insiders about learning from his teammates, earning minutes and being mentally tough.
Before he reached the NBA, the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Terrance Ferguson was once often referred to as a man of mystery. After changing course on two different programs in a two-month span, Ferguson ditched the typical one-and-done collegiate season for an adventure on the other side of the planet. But even after the Thunder selected Ferguson with the No. 21 overall pick in last year’s draft — the questions still lingered. How would a teenager with one season overseas adjust to the world’s most physical basketball league?
Not many rookies can contribute to a 40-plus win squad out in the cutthroat Western Conference so quickly — but down the stretch, here Ferguson is doing just that. With the Thunder locked in a tight playoff battle with six others teams, the 19-year-old’s hard-working personality has fit alongside the roster’s three perennial All-Stars — Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. And although his rookie season has come with some growing pains, Ferguson is earning meaningful minutes and making the most of them.
“I think it’s my work ethic, I come in every day with the same mentality,” Ferguson said. “I work my butt off — inside the game, being physical. Even though I’m a skinny guy, as everyone can see, I’m still everywhere on the floor being physical. I think [the coaching staff] really likes that, especially on the defensive end.”
Skinny or not, Ferguson is one of the league’s youngest players, so the 6-foot-7 guard has plenty of room to grow — literally. But for now, he’s playing an integral role on an Oklahoma City team looking to protect its high postseason seed. Late January brought the unfortunate season-ending injury to Andre Roberson — an All-Defensive Second Team honoree in 2016-17 — so the Thunder have needed both new and old players to step up in bigger roles.
While those candidates included the three-point shooting Alex Abrines, veteran Raymond Felton and the newly-acquired Corey Brewer, Ferguson’s recent rise in the rotation has arguably been the most interesting development. Since the calendar flipped to January, Ferguson has featured in almost all of the Thunder’s games, tallying just two DNP-CDs and one missed contest following a concussion. This steady diet of opportunity comes as a stark contrast to the 15 games in which he received no playing time, spanning from the season’s opening tip to the new year.
Of course, playing time is not always indicative of success, but Ferguson himself isn’t surprised that he’s carved out a crucial role ahead of the playoffs.
“Not really, it’s all up to coach’s decision,” Ferguson told Basketball Insiders. “I’m just here playing my part, staying ready at all times and some minutes came, so I’mma take them and play to the best of my ability.”
Back in October, Basketball Insiders’ own Joel Brigham spoke to Ferguson about his unconventional path to NBA and the choice to spend a year grinding with the Adelaide 36ers, an Australian outfit. In the land down under, Ferguson averaged just 15 minutes a night, considerably less than he would’ve likely received as a highly-recruited prospect here in America. Some five months later, Ferguson’s early-season stance on the move still stands out.
“I’m living the dream now, right? I must have done the right thing,” Ferguson said.
Today, it’s hard to disagree with Ferguson’s decisions considering that they’re currently paying off. In 2009, Brandon Jennings became the first to skip college and play in Europe before being drafted, with Emmanuel Mudiay most notably following in his footsteps six years later. While those two point guards both were selected in the top ten of their draft classes — at No. 10 and No. 7, respectively — it still remains the road far less traveled.
Considered raw by most pre-draft evaluations, an early expectation was that Ferguson would spend much of the season with the Oklahoma City Blue, the Thunder’s G-League affiliate. Instead, Ferguson has played in only three games with the Blue, where he has averaged a commendable 14.7 points, four rebounds and 1.3 steals per game.
But as of late, the Thunder have found somebody that’ll always work hard, learn from others and do the little things that don’t show up in the box score.
“I’ve learned a lot more from when I first started,” Ferguson told Basketball Insiders. “I got great teammates — I got Nick Collison, I got Russ, PG, Melo, so just picking their brains. I got Corey now, so just the work ethic they put in, just picking their brains each and every day about what I can do better, watching game film, it’s a lot of things.”
When he was drafted, Ferguson had a reputation as a skyscraping leaper with the athleticism to become an elite perimeter defender. Although his current averages with the Thunder understate his innate potential, Ferguson knows he can contribute without scoring — even noting that he can make up for it “on the other side of the court.” Playing defense and competing hard every night, he has slowly made a name for himself.
And while Ferguson has tallied far more single-digit scoring outings than his 24-point breakout performance in early January, he’s earned the trust of head coach Billy Donovan and his veteran teammates, which is something the rookie will never take for granted.
“Coach believes in me and that means a lot to me,” Ferguson said. “But my teammates believe in me, so I’m not gonna let them down. I’m gonna go out every day and play my hardest, compete and try to get the win each and every night.”
One might assume that his year abroad in Australia helped to mentally mold him into the high-flying, hard-nosed rookie we see today. Ferguson, however, contends that he’s had that edge from the very beginning.
“I’ve been mentally tough, it wasn’t overseas that did that,” Ferguson told Basketball Insiders. “I had to be mentally tough just to go over there — so I’ve always had that mentality, the [desire] to just dominate, play to the best of my ability and compete.”
And now he’s doing just that in the NBA.
Is Kyrie Irving’s Second Opinion a Cause for Concern?
Shane Rhodes breaks down the tough situation the Celtics are in with Kyrie Irving.
The Boston Celtics are in one awful predicament.
With a third of the roster out due to injury, Brad Stevens has been forced into the impossible task of maintaining Boston’s championship aspirations with some subpar talent; while they have performed admirably, the likes of Abdel Nader and Semi Ojeleye wouldn’t see the same run they are currently on with most contenders. Gordon Hayward has missed the entire season, save a few minutes on opening night. Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Daniel Theis are all currently out, some for the year and others not. Key contributors Al Horford, Marcus Morris and others have missed time as well.
It couldn’t get worse, could it?
Well, it may just have. Reports surfaced Tuesday that Irving, who had missed time this season — including the last four games — with left knee soreness, is seeking a second opinion after a lack of progress in his recovery.
My understanding is that Kyrie Irving is getting a 2nd opinion on his left knee, perhaps as soon as tomorrow. Bottom line: he needs the screws out. Knee is flaring up. He will either play thru it going forward or … he will get thee screws out and won’t play at all. Stay tuned.
— Tony Massarotti (@TonyMassarotti) March 20, 2018
With lack of progress on his ailing left knee, Celtics All-Star Kyrie Irving plans to travel for a second opinion later this week, league sources tell Yahoo.
— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) March 20, 2018
In the wake of the Isaiah Thomas fiasco and his ailing hip last Summer, an injury that lingered deep into this season, the Celtics will likely be more than cautious with Irving, whom they gave up a haul (the rights to the 2018 Brooklyn Nets first round pick, most notably), to acquire. But one can only wonder if these persistent issues — Irving’s left knee was surgically repaired after he sustained a fractured kneecap in 2015, and he reportedly threatened the Cleveland Cavaliers with surgery this offseason before his trade to Boston — are a cause for concern for general manager Danny Ainge and the Celtics.
The situation presents the Celtics with a quandary, to say the least.
Knee injuries aren’t exactly a death-knell, but fans need not look far for to see the devastating effect they can have on NBA players (e.g. Derrick Rose). They can snowball and, over time, even the best players will break down. Regardless of the severity, Irving’s knee issue presents problems both now and in the future.
The problems now are obvious: the Celtics, already down Gordon Hayward, cannot afford to lose Irving if they are at all interested in making a Finals run this season. Boston struggles mightily on the offensive end when Irving and his 24.4 points, 3.8 rebounds and 5.1 assists aren’t on the court. In a playoff atmosphere, especially, the team would sorely miss his scoring prowess.
Looking ahead, if Irving is dealing with these problems at the age of 25, what could the future hold for the All-Star guard? Knee issues, most lower body issues in general, are often of the chronic variety, and constant maintenance can wear on people, both mentally and physically.
Just a season separated from a likely super-max payday, will the Celtics want to commit big-money long-term to potentially damaged goods?
If there is a silver lining in it all, it is the fact that 20-year-old rookie Jayson Tatum must now shoulder the scoring load, something that should go a long way in building on the potential that made him the No. 3 overall pick last June. And, should Irving miss the remainder of this season, exposure to the fires of the playoffs should only temper the Celtics’ young roster. In the event that Irving’s absence isn’t prolonged, time like this could only serve to strengthen the roster around him.
Still, Ainge brought Irving to Boston for a reason: he was meant to lead the Celtics into battle, alongside Gordon Hayward and Al Horford, in their quest for a title. Obviously, he can’t do that from the bench. Without Irving at 100 percent, the Celtics are not a championship caliber squad, healthy Gordon Hayward or not. That fact alone will make Irving’s situation one to monitor going forward and for the foreseeable future.
NBA Daily: Houston Has It All
Deciphering whether Houston is a contender or pretender is tough, but they’re making it easy.
It is very easy to get caught up in the NBA regular-season hyperbole. The past is littered with a plethora of NBA teams that looked like world-beaters in the regular season only to pull up lame in the playoffs and emerge as a bunch of pretenders.
So when it comes to the Houston Rockets, it’s no surprise many pundits and fans of the game fall heavily on one side or the other. The 2017-18 Rockets are a polarizing squad in that respect. On one side of the fence, you have the folks that are struggling to get behind Houston until they see how the franchise performs in the playoffs under the brightest of lights and on the biggest of stages. On the other, folks that place a great deal of weight on the 82-game regular season and the ability to sustain consistency throughout the marathon.
As always, the truth is somewhere in the middle.
At the top of Houston’s lineup are two future Hall of Famers in James Harden and Chris Paul. The latter was a perennial star in his heyday and is still a top-tier talent in the league. Harden, on the other hand, is closing in on his first MVP award and had serious cases for winning the honors in prior seasons, as well. Both Harden and Paul are criticized for their past playoff failures.
Paul entered the league during the 2006 season and has been dogged by the ever looming fact that he’s never reached a Conference Finals. Harden has been to the NBA Finals but has been dogged for multiple playoff missteps and shaky performances that remain etched in everyone’s memory. But something about this season’s Rockets team (57-14) seems different as the duo closes in on 60 wins.
One way to measure the true greatness of a NBA team is evaluating how many ways the roster can win playing a variety of styles. From the eyeball test, Houston checks the boxes in this category. The team sustains leads during blowouts. They have an offense built to erase large deficits quickly. The team possesses the talent to employ an array of versatile lineups to withstand top heat from opposing teams. Head coach Mike D’Antoni has shown the ability to adjust on the fly during certain situations. Houston is seemingly comprised of a bunch of guys that are selfless and ready to sacrifice at this stage of their respective careers.
Time will tell on all of those aforementioned aspects, but the Rockets are built to compete and win now. On paper at least, the team fits the criteria.
Paul has a chance to go down as a top five point guard in NBA history .His court vision is unquestioned and his big men always seem to end up being in the top five of field goal percentage each season (i.e. Tyson Chandler, DeAndre Jordan and now Clint Capela). In years past, the Rockets faltered down the stretch of games because the entire system ran through Harden. But this year’s club has the luxury of taking some of the on-ball expectation away from Harden and by giving the rock to Paul who naturally thrives in this role the squad doesn’t take a step back on the floor.
This is going to be big for Houston which has seen Harden gassed late in playoff games from carrying the entire load.
Small Ball Ready
Presumably standing between the Rockets and an appearance in the NBA Finals are the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors turned the NBA upside down with their free-flowing offense, long range accuracy and the successful ability to push the pace while playing small ball.
At the height of Golden State’s success they employed the “death lineup” which places All-Star forward Draymond Green at center. In different variations this gives the Warriors five guys on the court who can dribble, drive, pass and shoot. Versatility is important and if you look at this year’s Rockets team they have the ability to match the death lineup with their own version. Veteran forward P.J. Tucker would be able to guard Green in this scenario at center or Houston could just rely on the athleticism of Capela.
When it comes to defense, the Rockets will never be confused for the bad boy Detroit Pistons of yesteryear, however, the team has an assortment of individually capable defenders on the roster. Paul has all defensive team honors hanging on his mantle during his time in the league. Small forward Trevor Ariza made his bones in the league by placing an emphasis on defense. Before Capela emerged as a double-digit scorer, he was relied on as a defensive spark off the bench. Luc Mbah a Moute has a reputation and consistent track record of being a very willing defender.
Shooting, Versatility and Experience
All of this success, leads to the variation D’Antoni can put out onto the floor. The versatility to go with a small ball lineup or a lineup heavily skewed toward defenders is a luxury amenity. Houston also features five guys with 125 or more three-pointers made this season with Harden, Eric Gordon, Ariza, Paul and Ryan Anderson leading the way. A sixth, Tucker, should join the +100 club before season’s end. Veteran Gerald Green has only played 30 games with the franchise but has already knocked down 76 attempts from distance.
Experience is key as well. This year’s Rockets team features only one player under 25, receiving 25 or more minutes per night in the rotation. Look at NBA history, title winning teams are full of veterans not second or third year players.
Again, the Rockets will never be confused with the late 80s or early 90s Pistons but the team has more than a few guys that don’t shy away from contact or physical play. The collection of Nene, Tucker, Green and Ariza have had more than their share of shoving matches when things get heated on the floor.
With the start of the NBA playoffs (April 14) under a month away, the Rockets continue to build momentum toward a title run. Will Harden and Paul’s playoff demons from the past emerge or is their first true shot at greatness with a complete team? These questions will soon be answered.