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NBA Daily: The History of Sacrificial Lambs

DeMar DeRozan is the latest in a long line of players traded before their team took a step up to the next level, writes Matt John.

Matt John

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In order to become great, you have to give up something good.

It sucks having to trade away something that you treasure, but as the Toronto Raptors have shown in these playoffs when you have the opportunity to assemble a championship team, that’s a sacrifice you have to make.

DeMar DeRozan was that sacrifice for Toronto. Although it appears that DeRozan has accepted the Raptors’ decision to trade him, it stings that the team that developed and featured him is one win away from its first NBA title without him.

Because of the team’s newfound success in the wake of its trade for Kawhi Leonard, DeMar has labeled himself as “the sacrificial lamb.'” Honestly, he’s not wrong. Whether Toronto finished off Golden State of not in these finals, they’ve reached a higher level with Kawhi than they ever would have with DeMar. In so doing, DeRozan joins the likes of Pete Best, Eduardo Saverin, Drew Bledsoe and Walter White as professionals who were cut out of their businesses just as said businesses were about to take off.

Toronto’s success makes DeRozan the modern example of a sacrificial lamb, but that does not make him the first one. For decades, NBA teams have used sacrificial lambs in an attempt to raise their ceiling enough to win a championship. This has oddly led to some mixed results.

The prime example of a sacrificial lamb dates all the way back to the first one back in 1956 with NBA Hall of Famer Ed Macauley. Macauley was one of the NBA’s best players in the 50’s, participating in multiple All-Star games and making multiple All-NBA teams with the Boston Celtics.

Macauley’s play on the court didn’t translate into much playoff success, as the furthest the Celtics got with him was the Division Finals – before it was called the conference finals. Despite Ed and his supporting cast featuring Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman, it was clear the Celtics’ had a limited ceiling.

After being eliminated by the Syracuse Nationals in the 1956 semi-finals, Red Auerbach made what was perhaps the first truly shocking trade in NBA history: trading Macauley, along with the draft rights to Cliff Hagan to the St. Louis Hawks for the second overall pick in the draft, Bill Russell.

This trade was shocking for reasons both on and off the court. Macauley was one of the league’s most accomplished players, and Russell was a just a rookie. As a young black man, Russell starting his basketball career in Boston – a city notorious for its racism at the time with its professional sports teams being no exception – A lot was riding on this deal.

The gamble worked out better than anyone could have hoped. The Celtics put up the most dominant era we have ever seen in professional sports, and Russell became one of the most successful athletes of all time. This set the precedent for teams willing to part ways with their talented players for upgrades if it meant a championship was possible.

Over the next few decades, we saw teams sacrifice some of their best players to acquire NBA greats in their prime. Players like Darrall Imhoff, Flynn Robinson and Brian Winters were the centerpieces traded for Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar respectively. Odds are, you’ve never heard of the players mentioned in the former, but they were talented players given up for something better in hopes of going the distance.

This was how the sacrificial lamb strategy operated until the 1980’s when the Pistons added a little variation to it. The Bad Boy Pistons put the league on notice in the mid-to-late-80’s. After suffering defeats at the hands of the Celtics and the Lakers, the Pistons knew they had to make one more alteration in order to get to the next level.

That started with trading Adrian Dantley, who once upon a time, was the player who originally put the Pistons on the map. Dantley was one of the NBA’s finest scorers of his era, whose specialty was his advanced ability to score despite his lack of size and athleticism. By 1988, he wasn’t necessarily making the Pistons worse, but what he demanded as a player on the court got in the way of them reaching their potential. Mid-season he was traded for a player with a very similar reputation in the NBA: Mark Aguirre.

Swapping Dantley for Aguirre was seen as a downgrade, and Aguirre’s numbers proved just that. However, the Pistons winning the next two championships after acquiring him showed that it was a necessary move. Aguirre may have been a scorer, but he didn’t demand the ball or as many minutes as Dantley, so the Pistons’ offense flowed more and the available minutes went to defensive mastermind Dennis Rodman.

Dantley, in summary, was the sacrificial lamb because less was more in this instance. The Pistons could have won the championship with Adrian anyway, but them winning two titles after trading him proves that the move was beneficiary. The sacrificial lamb doesn’t necessarily have to be about getting the better player, but about doing what’s best for the team.

For all the success that teams have had from making this sort of sacrifice, there is always the chance that pulling off this move doesn’t work out. But even if it doesn’t, that doesn’t mean it was the wrong decision.

The Houston Rockets may not have had much success when they traded for Tracy McGrady, but they probably have no regrets since all they had to sacrifice was Steve Francis and Cuttino Mobley. The Lakers may have had to suffer through the “Dwightmare” in 2013, but all Dwight Howard cost was Andrew Bynum, who played 26 games total after Los Angeles traded him – Can you believe that guy is only 31?! Even more recently, the Celtics’ chances of keeping Kyrie Irving are slim, but even with all that Isaiah Thomas did for them, they would make that trade for Kyrie again in an instant.

Though it doesn’t happen often, sometimes, the sacrificial lamb gets the last laugh. Miami used Lamar Odom as the primary sacrificial lamb when they traded for Shaquille O’Neal in 2004. Miami got what it wanted from Shaq two years later while Odom in that time got flamed for not helping the Lakers have playoff success.

That all went up in smoke when Odom played a huge role in the Lakers winning two championships and reaching three consecutive finals appearances. He wasn’t the primary factor, but he was the glue of those Lakers’ championships. Even if he had to pay a few dues first, being that sacrifice for the Heat wound up being the best turn for his career in the long run.

In others’ cases, being the sacrificial lamb isn’t exactly easy. In fact, it can be the worst. A fair amount of the time, the sacrificial lamb is a young player who is acquired in hopes of rebooting the franchise by replacing the star player who was traded for him. There are plenty of examples of this, but there may not be a better one than Al Jefferson.

Jefferson was a bright spot in a dismal Celtics season. After he evolved into one of the league’s most promising bigs, Boston traded him for Minnesota for Kevin Garnett. He went from one young rebuilding team to another while Boston went from the bottom all the way to the top. Things didn’t really turn around for him after that.

When Big Al started coming into his own in 2009, he tore his ACL mid-season. Even when the Timberwolves had brought in Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio, Jefferson was already off to Utah. Once he arrived, the Jazz were headed for a fallout with both Jerry Sloan and Deron Williams. Al had himself a little hurrah in Charlotte, but it was too short and injuries got in the way again.

There aren’t that many players who had a long career who endured as many bad breaks as Jefferson did, and it all started when he was the sacrificial lamb for the Celtics back in 2007.

Being sacrificed so your previous team can have more success isn’t exactly what most players would want. DeMar DeRozan embraced Toronto through the good, the bad, and the ugly. Like the others, it’s tough to miss out on so much success when you’re responsible for not only getting your former team in the spotlight in the first place but also being betrayed by your team when you could have done the same when you had the chance and elected not to.

At least he can take solace that he, like the others that were mentioned, helped form a team that will be remembered fondly forever.

That counts for something… doesn’t it?

Matt John is a staff writer for Basketball Insiders. He is currently a Utah resident, but a Massachusetts native.

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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.

Spencer Davies

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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.

Overview

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.

Offseason

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

What’s Next

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.

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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.

Matt John

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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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NBA Daily: Carsen Edwards Sending Good Vibrations in Las Vegas

Celtics rookie Carsen Edwards took Las Vegas by storm not only earning a multi-year contract but likely a significant role in Boston this coming season.

Shane Rhodes

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Las Vegas can be a scary place; just ask Carsen Edwards.

“Not to be dramatic, but I really thought I was about to die.”

Edwards, among a number of other players and NBA-related persons, found himself in the midst of two earthquakes – magnitude 6.7 and 7.1 – that rocked southern Nevada and California last week. “I was in my room by myself,” Edwards said, “and I’m on the 16th floor so, right then I’m thinking – and I know this sounds deep – how am I going to survive?”

Fortunately, for Edwards, his days reading about converting online betting odds in the Silver State may be numbered.

While the earthquakes may have shaken Las Vegas, the Purdue University product has sent the Boston Celtics his own good vibrations. Edwards has impressed mightily during his stint with the Summer League Celtics, so much so that, while fellow second-round pick Tremont Waters recently agreed to a two-way deal with Boston, the Celtics have reportedly are negotiating a full-time deal with the Edwards. And, while he has remained humble when questioned about his high-quality play, it’s hard to imagine that Edwards will see much more time in Las Vegas beyond the coming Summer League Tournament.

“My first experience was a blessing, man” Edwards told Basketball Insiders. “I’m so happy to be here, just to have this opportunity and put on that jersey and be out there.”

Edwards, a standout Boilermaker, has been a certified bucket-getter in his short Summer League tenure. Through four games (and two starts), the diminutive combo-guard has averaged 18 points to go along with 2.8 rebounds, 1.5 assists and a steal in just 23 minutes per contest. Edwards has gotten to his spots on the floor with ease – when it hasn’t been easy, he’s simply put his head down and bullied his way there – and he certainly hasn’t been afraid to pull up from deep.

Edwards has also come along as a shooter since his last showing in the NCAA tournament. In three seasons with Purdue, Edwards posted field goal and three-point percentages of 41.2% and 36.8%, respectively. Since Edwards has proven himself one of the Summer League’s best and most consistent shooters; he has shot 52% from the floor and 48.4% from three-point range.

“I just try to make the right decisions,” Edwards said. “I just try to get into my space, places where I’m comfortable.”

Despite his relative inexperience against NBA-level competition, a continued ascent for Edwards – and an end to his Summer League career after just his rookie appearance – shouldn’t be put out of the question as players and teams head into next season and beyond.

And, while he may not have wanted to slip into the second round of June’s 2019 NBA Draft, Edwards may have hit the jackpot in landing with Boston.

While Head Coach Brad Stevens has struggled with certain aspects of coaching, he has never had a problem with maximizing the production of his guards. 2011’s Mr. Irrelevant, Isaiah Thomas, was a Most Valuable Player candidate in 2017, while Kyrie Irving, despite the reported unrest, posted arguably the two best statistical seasons of his career with the Celtics. Others, including Avery Bradley, Evan Turner and Jordan Crawford have flourished under his watch, and Edwards may be the next player to benefit from Stevens’ system.

Still, Edwards’ work is far from over, and he knows it. “It’s not the same [as in college],” he said as he pointed out that he still needed to focus on his defense, decisions making and consistency. “I’m still learning so much.”

“I know [the Boston Celtics] just want me to improve. Help the team win, but continue to try and improve and be consistent every game.”

Edwards isn’t the perfect prospect or one without his deficiencies by any means. They have yet to do so in the Summer League, and his strong, stocky build should help counteract this to a degree, but NBA competition will take advantage of Edwards’ 6-foot-flat height. And, if it wasn’t already obvious, Edwards is a score-first, pass later type of guard; while that necessarily isn’t a bad thing, given the role he should serve with the Celtics, Edwards’ passing ability must improve as he transitions to the NBA game.

“[NBA players] are more athletic, they have more length,” Edwards said. “Playing against those guys, it’s tough.”

As Edwards pointed out, it will, in fact, be tough for him. But, between the roster and coaching fit and his own talent, it’s as if everything has started to come together for the talented guard and it is there for the taking.

After his debut, Edwards noted his primary Summer League goal was to win. “I just want to make an impact on the team and just help us win,” Edwards said.

Should he take advantage of what’s in front of him, Edwards has the chance to be something special in the NBA, and he could help the Celtics do just that for a long time.

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