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NBA Sunday: Learn From Lance Stephenson

Paul Millsap bet on himself and won. Lance Stephenson, a cautionary tale for all players, hasn’t been as lucky.

Moke Hamilton

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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.

LanceStephensonInside1Clearly, this was a grave mistake, especially considering that the third year of the contract was a team option.

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.

* * * * * *

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.

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Fred VanVleet is Finding Success in the NBA

David Yapkowitz speaks to Toronto’s Fred VanVleet about his unheralded path to the NBA and more.

David Yapkowitz

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Fred VanVleet is used to being the underdog. Prior to the NBA, he spent four seasons at Wichita State, a school that hasn’t always been in the national spotlight when it comes to college basketball. Even after he finished his college career in impressive fashion, leading the Shockers to the NCAA tournament every year he was there, he went undrafted in the 2016 NBA draft.

But despite the lack of recognition from national media outlets, VanVleet always knew that he was good enough to play in the NBA. He knew that his path to the league was going to be much different than many other top prospects, but he was confident. He put his trust in NBA personnel to recognize what was right in front of them.

“If you can play, they’re gonna find you. That’s the best thing about the NBA, you can’t hide forever,” VanVleet told Basketball Insiders. “You just got to try to wait and keep grinding for the opportunity, and when it comes be ready to make the most of it and that’s what I did.”

Making the most of his opportunity is definitely what he’s done. After he went undrafted in 2016, he joined the Toronto Raptors’ summer league team in Las Vegas. He put up decent numbers to the tune of 6.2 points, 3.0 rebounds, 1.6 assists, and 54.5 percent shooting from the three-point line.

He also showed solid defensive potential as well as the ability to run a steady offense. The Raptors were impressed by his performance and they invited him to training camp for a chance to make the team. They already had 14 guaranteed contracts at the time and had invited five other players, in addition to VanVleet, to camp.

VanVleet did his best to stand out in training camp that year, capping off the 2016 preseason with a 31 point, five rebound, five assist performance against San Lorenzo de Almagro of Argentina. The Raptors were in need of another point guard after Delon Wright was ruled out to start the season due to an injury.

Not only did he make the Raptors’ opening night roster, but he ended up playing some big minutes for the team as the season went on. This year, he started out as the third-string point guard once again. But with another injury to Wright, he’s solidified himself as the backup point for the time being.

“You just want to grow each year and get better. I had a smaller role last year, I’m just trying to improve on that and get better,” VanVleet said. “It’s a long process, you just try to get better each game on a pretty good team, a winning team. Being able to contribute to that is what you work for.”

VanVleet’s journey to the NBA is one that is not very common anymore for players coming out of college. More and more players are opting to spend one, maybe two years at most in college before declaring for the NBA draft.

Players like VanVleet, who spend the entire four years in college, are becoming more of a rarity. Although for him, he feels like the additional time spent at Wichita State helped him make more of a seamless transition to the NBA than some of his younger peers.

“I think more so off the court than anything, just being an adult, being a grown man coming in the door,” VanVleet said. “A pro before being a pro, being able to take care of your business. Coming in every day doing your job and being able to handle the things that come with the life off the court.”

The NBA season is a long one. Teams that start out hot sometimes end up fizzling out before the season’s end. Similarly, teams that that get off to a slow start sometimes pick it up as the season progresses. The Raptors have been one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference the past couple of years and this season looks to be no different.

Even with the Boston Celtics’ hot start, the Raptors are only three games back of the top spot in the East. They’re only one game back in the loss column. There was a time when mentioning the word ‘championship’ was unheard of around this team. Things are different now.

“We’re trying to contend for a championship. Obviously, we’ve been at the top of the East for the last few years,” VanVleet said. “We’re trying to get over that hump and contend for a championship, that’s definitely our goal. It’s a long year and still pretty early, but we’re just trying to grow and build and get better each game.”

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G-League

NBA DAILY: Tyrone Wallace Is Breaking Out in His Own Backyard

On his second G-Leauge team in two years, Tyrone Wallace is putting up numbers close to home, working towards his NBA shot.

Dennis Chambers

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Located in the heart of Southern California, Bakersfield sits just on the cusp of Los Angeles’ shadow.

In terms of size, it’s not easy to overlook this Californian destination. Bakersfield is the ninth most populated city in the state. But it doesn’t hold the glamour that its contemporary two hours south down Interstate-5 possesses. Instead, Bakersfield rests its laurels on the farming past that made it the city it has become today, with three of the four top employers in the city either being farm or produce companies.

Working for a produce company doesn’t interest Tyrone Wallace, though. He’d much rather spend his time on the hardwood. Wallace grew up in Bakersfield. He’s Bakersfield High School’s all-time leading scorer and two-time Bakersfield Californian Player of the Year.

Wallace has sown his oats with a leather ball as opposed to some vegetables.

Growing up in Bakersfield is crucial to Wallace’s story, however. On the outskirts of Los Angeles, Wallace grew up a hardcore Lakers fan, caught up in the generation of kids who idolized Kobe Bryant. It’s Kobe, and Wallace’s brother, Ryan Caroline, who led him to where he is now.

Where that is, exactly, is playing professional basketball in the NBA G-League for the Agua Caliente Clippers. About another 45 minutes down Interstate-5 from his hometown.

For Wallace, getting an opportunity to work towards his dream of playing basketball at the highest level so close to home is a blessing.

“It’s been really fun for me,” Wallace told Basketball Insiders. “You know (Bakersfield) is a smaller city, not too many guys make it out, especially for basketball. It’s more of a football city, but the support there is awesome. Everybody’s behind me you know. Good games, bad games, guys are treating me, and you know the whole city is, I feel the whole support from the city. So to be so close to home is definitely a treat. I have friends and family that will come out to our games quite often. During preseason I had friends and family come out and watch. It’s been a blessing.”

Playing in front of familiar faces isn’t new territory for Wallace. After making his mark in Bakersfield, the 6-foot-4 guard went on to play his college ball at the University of California. Amid his four years at Cal, Wallace finished first-team All-Pac 12 his junior year, along with being named a finalist for the Bob Cousy Award, given to the nation’s best point guard.

Sharing the court with the likes of other NBA players like Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb in college, Wallace joined the professional fraternity himself at the eleventh hour on draft night in 2016 when the Utah Jazz selected him 60th overall.

Pick one, or pick 60. It didn’t matter to Wallace that night in June. He was just happy to get the first chance he worked his whole life for.

“It was emotional, man,” Wallace said. “You watch everybody and see them go, I had Jaylen (Brown) earlier in the first round who I was really excited for. Just sitting there, pick after pick you’re waiting there hoping you get called. But it was a dream come true, better late than never. Very few people get the opportunity to say that they were drafted so it was emotional. But after I was finally selected, I was happy, there was tears of joy. There was a lot of family with me watching throughout and we were just sitting there hoping to be called, and it happened, so it was a dream come true.”

After being selected by the Jazz, Wallace experienced his first summer league action. His performance at the time was marginal, and didn’t warrant an invite to the big league club. Instead, Wallace found himself down in the minors for Utah, with their G-League affiliate, the Salt Lake City Stars.

During Wallace’s first taste of professional basketball, he displayed some flashes of why, as he put it, he was one of 60 guys drafted in 2016. His first season in the G-League was promising when he posted per game averages of 14.8 points, 3.8 rebounds, 3.6 assists, and 1.3 steals on 27 minutes of action a night.

Alas, that wasn’t good enough for the Jazz organization. On July 18, 2017, just over a year after being selected with the last overall pick on draft night, Utah renounced Wallace’s draft rights, leaving him free to sign with any team.

For some, being let go after what could be considered a productive developmental year may have been a derailing let down. Not Wallace, though.

“I think in every situation you always reflect,” Wallace said. “And look back and say what could I have done better, on the court or off the court. So I think you know you always do that, but I’ve always stayed confident in myself, and I believe in myself. I kinda let that as a new opportunity that I was gonna have to go somewhere else and prove that I can play, and that I can belong. So I wanted to continue. I look at everything as a chance to learn and grow so I was just excited for the new opportunity that would be coming for me.”

New opportunities did come for Wallace. More than a few actually. But it was the opportunity that allowed the California native a chance to return to the place that led him to professional basketball initially, that has really allowed the second-year guard to flourish.

On Sept. 27, Wallace inked a deal with the Los Angeles Clippers. They weren’t his childhood favorite Lakers, but they were the same distance down Interstate-5 from his hometown. Most of all, they represented a chance to keep chasing his dream.

After playing in the preseason, Wallace was one of the last players cut from the NBA roster, and he again found himself in the G-League. This time with Agua Caliente.

Wallace’s second go-around in the G-League so far this season feels different than his last, though. Almost as if the comfort of playing in his own backyard, something he’s been accustomed to for the majority of his basketball life, is easing him out on the court. Whatever it is, it’s reflecting itself in his performance. This year, Wallace upped his averages from last season to 22.5 points, 6.2 rebounds, and five assists per game.

“I worked really hard this summer,” Wallace said. “Just going to the gym, hitting the weight room. I don’t think I necessarily changed anything. I just think being a year in, another year of experience playing in the G-League, I think that helped within itself. Then I think the system here that we run in LA helped a lot, fits my game,  more uptempo. Trying to get out on the break, a lot of pick and rolls. So I think everything just took off at once. I definitely feel like I got better in the offseason, but also just playing in this system where it helps my game.”

It’s been an interesting journey for Wallace since he left college. With the way things have shaped out, especially during this season where he seems to do no wrong on the court, it’s imperative he stays focused on his own goals. Instead of looking at others across the league who may be getting a shot he feels he deserves, Wallace wants to just “stay in my own lane.” Patience and hard work are what Wallace believe will ultimately deliver the goals he’s after.

“I know it’s coming,” he said.

When that opportunity does come, whether it’s near home in Los Angeles, or somewhere else across the country, Wallace will be happy to just be wanted. Just like the way Bakersfield has always treated him.

“Man, I’ll tell you any team for me it would be great,” Wallace said. “I haven’t really had a real NBA deal, and so for me just getting to that level on a team would definitely be a dream come true. I don’t have a specific team I would like to play for. Whoever wants me, I’ll want them.”

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NBA

NBA DAILY: Lou Williams Stepping Up For Injured Clippers

The Clippers have been hit by injuries again, but Lou Williams is doing everything he can to keep the team afloat.

Jesse Blancarte

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The Los Angeles Clippers have been decimated by injuries this season. Blake Griffin is sidelined until approximately February of next year. Danilo Gallinari has been sidelined for an extended period of time with a glute injury and will continue to be out of action for some time after suffering a second glute injury recently. Patrick Beverley underwent season ending microfracture surgery in November. Milos Teodosic suffered a foot injury in just the second game of the season and only recently returned to the lineup. Austin Rivers just suffered a concussion and could miss some time as well.

With so many injuries, the Clippers currently find themselves in the 10th seed in the Western Conference with an 11-15 record. This isn’t what the Clippers had in mind when they brought back a solid haul of players last offseason in exchange for Chris Paul.

Competing with the top teams in the Western Conference was always going to be difficult for this Clippers team. Los Angeles has plenty of talent on the roster and added a few younger prospects to develop. However, key players like Griffin and Gallinari are injury prone and both needed to stay on the court for the Clippers to have any hope of staying in range of the West’s top teams. The Clippers lost 9 games straight in the middle of November and it looked as though they were on course to be competing for a top lottery pick in next season’s draft.

However, despite all of the injuries and setbacks, Lou Williams, along with iron man DeAndre Jordan, has picked up the slack and has done more than his fair share to keep the Clippers’ playoff hopes alive. This season, Williams is averaging 20 points, 4.8 assists and 2.7 rebounds per game, while shooting 45.2 percent from the field and 40 percent from three-point range (on 6.2 attempts per game). Williams is sporting a healthy 21.2 Player Efficiency Rating, which is a near career best rating (Williams posted a 21.4 PER last season). His True Shooting percentage (59.3) is tied with his career high rating, which Williams posted last season as well. Williams’s free throw rate has taken a dip this season, but his ability to draw timely (and often questionable) fouls has been a valuable asset to his team once again. Simply put, Williams has been particularly efficient on offense this season for the Clippers – a team that has lost its most reliable scorers and playmakers.

“We’ve had some guys go down with injuries and somebody has to step in and fill that scoring void,” Williams said after helping the Clippers defeat the Magic. “I’ve been able to do it.”

Williams has also hit plenty of big shots for the Clippers this season. Most recently, Williams knocked down a go-ahead three-pointer in the final seconds against the Washington Wizards that sealed the win for the Clippers. The Clippers are used to having a natural born scorer coming off the bench to act as a sparkplug as they had Jamal Crawford on the roster for the last five seasons. Similar to Crawford, Williams struggles to hold his own on the defensive side of the ball. But Williams has been more effective defensively so far this season for the Clippers than Crawford was for the majority of his time in Los Angeles. Williams isn’t going to lock down the Russell Westbrooks of the world, but he isn’t giving back the majority of the points he scores either.

In addition to his scoring, Williams is a solid playmaker and has managed to facilitate the Clippers’ offense at various points of the season. Williams isn’t exactly Chris Paul in terms of setting up his teammates for easy baskets, but he has been notably effective in this role, which is very important considering how many playmakers have falled to injury this season. Williams is now, arguably, the team’s best offensive weapon and one of its most effective floor generals. Now that we are nearly two months into the NBA season, it seems as though Williams and his teammates are starting to find a little more chemistry with one another.

“I think these guys are just starting to be more comfortable. They understand we’re going to have some injuries and guys are going to be down,” Williams said recently. “So they’re just playing with a lot of confidence. I think at first you’re kind of getting your feet wet and guys don’t want to make mistakes. Now guys are just going out there and playing as hard as they can.”

Williams will need to continue building chemistry with his teammates if they are to keep pace until players like Gallinari and Griffin make it back onto the court.

The Clippers have won six of their last 10 games and are starting to steady what had becoming a sinking ship. Smart gamblers and predictive algorithms would caution against betting on the Clippers making the playoffs this season, but they are in much better shape now than they were in the middle of November — an accomplishment that Williams deserves plenty of credit for.

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