Frank Vogel, Greg Willard

Veteran NBA referee Greg Willard passes away

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NBA referee Greg Willard, who worked in the NBA playoffs last year and one final preseason game this year, has passed away Monday due to pancreatic cancer. He was 54.

Willard had worked nearly 1,500 NBA games since he entered the league in 1988 and had even done two NBA finals. He was diagnosed last year.

“The entire NBA family joins me in mourning the loss of one of our own, Greg Willard,” NBA Commissioner David Stern said in a statement. “Greg touched all those with whom he came in contact thanks to his extraordinary spirit, dedication and hard work. As a Finals referee, he reached the highest level of his profession while at the same time demonstrating a strong commitment to his family and his community. Our thoughts are with his wife Laurie, their children and the rest of the Willard family during this difficult time.”

“Greg epitomized what it meant to be an NBA Referee through dedication to his craft, hard work, and integrity both on-and-off the court,” said National Basketball Referees Association General Counsel Lee Seham in a statement. “He was not only a great NBA Referee, but more importantly a wonderful person, and our thoughts and prayers are with his family during this difficult time.”

There is a fantastic post from Elliott Teaford at the Los Angeles Daily News about Willard from earlier this year, the two knew each other from when they went to Long Beach State together.

Willard refereed one last preseason game this season, and while a lot of people knew it wasn’t public that this was just one more run for him. But Kobe Bryant knew — and Kobe was still Kobe, barking at him after a first period no call.

“Honestly, tonight, I wanted him to ‘T’ me up for old time’s sake,” Bryant told me after the game. “I didn’t want him to have any kind of special night. I wanted it to be just like it’s always been. I wanted to drop a couple of F-bombs on him.

“I wanted it to be like how it’s always been. That’s the best way.”

Later, Bryant went to visit Willard in the officials’ locker room. He didn’t want anyone taking photos or scribbling down what was said or done. He didn’t want anyone to know.

LeBron was thinking of Willard on Tuesday, too.

NBA officials will wear arm bands with Willard’s number on them the rest of the season.

Ryan McDonough: Suns plan to be ‘major players’ in 2017 free agency

Ryan McDonough
AP Photo/Matt York
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The Suns have swung big in free agency the previous couple years, chasing LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony in 2014 and LaMarcus Aldridge in 2015.

But 2016 appeared to be the year Phoenix really eyed.

The Suns structured the contracts of multiple players – including Brandon Knight, Tyson Chandler, Markieff Morris and Marcus Morris – to have salaries that dipped this summer. Time that flexibility correctly, and it can really pay off.

Phoenix big prize? Jared Dudley.

Dudley is a nice player, but he’s hardly the star the Suns seek. So, they’ll try again next year.

Phoenix general manager Ryan McDonough, via Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports:

That’s been one of our frustrations this summer. We were kind of on the sideline for some of the marquee free agents. But as you know, Woj, it wasn’t the deepest free agent class.

Potentially, it’s a very strong free agent class next year. And one of the things we’ve done with our contracts is we’ve lined them up to have max cap space next year without really touching the core of our roster.

I think and I hope at this time next year, we’re major players in free agency. Because as you mentioned, the Phoenix Suns are a destination franchise.

The 2017 free agent class won’t be as strong as hoped.

LeBron James locked in for multiple years with the Cavaliers. Russell Westbrook signed a contract extension with the Thunder. Kevin Durant indicated he’ll re-sign with the Warriors. So has Stephen Curry. Blake Griffin is reportedly “adamant” about re-signing with the Clippers.

Teams will almost certainly match any offer for the top restricted free agents – Giannis Antetokounmpo, Rudy Gobert, Steven Adams and Nerlens Noel – if they don’t extend their contracts first.

That still leaves several quality unrestricted free agents – including Chris Paul, Kyle Lowry, Gordon Hayward and Paul Millsap – but Paul and Lowry are point guards. Phoenix already has Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight, and Devin Booker looks like the shooting guard of the future. So, forget simply sliding Bledsoe or Knight to off guard. It’d take a major shakeup for Paul or Lowry to make sense with the Suns.

Still, McDonough’s approach is logical. If he can keep kicking the can down the road, perpetually selling that his plan is a year from taking it hold, it’ll make it easier for him to retain his prestigious job.

But if he has to make his 2017 free agency plan work rather than deferring to 2018, it could be difficult.

The Suns project to have about $17 million in cap space (under a system that could change significantly with a new Collective Bargaining Agreement). Renouncing restricted free agent Alex Len could clear about $12 million more, and just $500,000 of Leandro Barbosa‘s $4 million salary is guaranteed. Trading Tyson Chandler, Bledsoe and/or Knight could open even more space. Losing Len isn’t ideal, but for the right free agent, the upgrade would be worthwhile.

The bigger issue is winning. Phoenix has struggled to lure top free agents, because the team has missed the playoffs six straight years. That’s unlikely, though not impossible, to change this year. If the probabilities hold, what does McDonough sell then?

He always has the option of using cap space to facilitate uneven trades, a route he previously broached. Depending on the deal, that could encroach on 2017 cap space.

But if his plan holds, the Suns will keep their books relatively clear until next summer.

Wesley Matthews: ‘I’m a whole different person’ further removed from injury

DENVER, CO - MARCH 06:  Wesley Matthews #23 of the Dallas Mavericks controls the ball against the Denver Nuggets at Pepsi Center on March 6, 2016 in Denver, Colorado. The Nuggets defeated the Mavericks 116-114 in overtime. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
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After Wesley Matthews tore his Achilles in March 2015, Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle preached caution and suggested Matthews could be out until Christmas.

Matthews said he’d play opening night.

Matthews was right.

He played in Dallas’ first game and 77 others last season. The problem: He didn’t play that well. Matthews meandered through arguably his worst pro season.

Matthews, via Earl K. Sneed of Mavs.com:

“I’m a whole different person,” the 29-year-old Matthews said. “I’m a whole different player, and I’m really just excited to get out there and show it, and just to be who I know I can be and just to continue to grow. Obviously, it was different coming off of an Achilles (injury) and not having four or five months to prepare and all that stuff, and jumping right into the season being physically able to play every single game and play heavy minutes. It took until about after the All-Star break for me to get my legs back, because I play both ends of the court. And I feel better than when I got hurt.

I’ll need to see it to believe it.

Considering Matthews age, time might not be enough to return his production to pre-injury levels. He did improve after the All-Star break, but not enough to put concern behind him.

The stakes are high for the Mavericks, who still owe Matthews $53,652,528 over the next three years. Not only could Matthews’ decline hinder their ability to win a reasonable amount in Dirk Nowitzki‘s final years, it could limit their inevitable post-Nowitzki rebuild.

Hopefully, Matthews feels as good as he says, but players tend to be overly optimistic in these situations. On the other hand, Matthews backed up his similarly daunting declaration last year.

Report: Nets paid record $3 million to move up 13 spots in draft for Isaiah Whitehead

TARRYTOWN, NEW YORK - AUGUST 07:  Isaiah Whitehead #15 of the Brooklyn Nets poses for a portrait during the 2016 NBA Rookie Photoshoot at Madison Square Garden Training Center on August 7, 2016 in Tarrytown, New York. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE  (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)
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In 2010, the Thunder paid the Hawks $3 million for the draft rights to No. 31 pick Tibor Pleiss. That, according to Bryan Fonseca of Nets Daily, is the most ever paid for a player’s draft rights.

The Nets matched it this year – and they didn’t even get a fresh pick. They just paid to move up 13 spots in the second round.

Eric Pincus of Basketball Insiders:

Nets sent $3 million and the 55th pick (Marcus Paige) to the Utah Jazz for the 42nd pick (Isiah Whitehead)

That’s a sizable commitment to get Whitehead, who has the size and raw skills to thrive at guard in the NBA. He was just so inefficient at Seton Hall, I have major doubts about his approach to the game. It will be up to Brooklyn coach Kenny Atkinson to refine Whitehead’s style.

If owner Mikhail Prokhorov is willing to pay for that opportunity, good for the Nets. Brooklyn has bought several extra draft picks over the last few years. The Nets don’t have an exceptionally high hit rate on those selections, but every extra swing increases their odds of finding quality contributors – especially important because they dealt away control of so many of their own first-rounders in doomed trades with the Celtics and Hawks.

Report: Incentive bonuses in Yi Jianlian’s Lakers contract would septuple his salary if he plays 59 games

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 14:  Jianlian Yi #11 of China controls the ball as Nikola Kalinic #10 of Serbia defends during the preliminary round game at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games on August 14, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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Yi Jianlian’s unconventional contract terms with the Lakers had slowly emerged. He’ll earn somewhere between $250,000 and $8 million next season, $1,139,123 just for remaining on the roster through Jan. 10.

But that left a huge sum to unknown incentive bonuses.

Now, they’re known.

Yi can trigger $2,286,959 bonuses for hitting three benchmarks based on games played, according to Basketball Insiders. Here’s the running total for those incentives:

  • 20-39 games played: $2,286,959
  • 40-58 games played: $4,573,918
  • 59+ games played:$6,860,877

Whether or not he plays or is even active, Yi will earn $6,701 each day he’s on the roster from Oct. 25 until Jan. 10 (with a guaranteed minimum of $250,000 in total income). Then, if he’s still on the roster Jan. 10, Yi will lock in another $623,167. That’s his base compensation.

But the bonuses – for actually playing in games – are far more lucrative.

Here’s how Yi’s salary would increase throughout the season, which begins Oct. 25 and ends April 12, if he plays every Lakers game:

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Of course, Yi might not play every game.* So, those three big jumps can be slid back accordingly. The Lakers did well to build Yi’s contract around incentives they have complete control over.

*If Yi doesn’t trigger his first games-played bonus so quickly, his base salary ($6,701 per day) would pass his guaranteed minimum ($250,000) Dec. 1.

The NBA Constitution calls for the trade deadline to be the 17th Thursday of the regular season, which would be Feb. 16 this year – before Yi can earn his third bonus and maybe before he earns one or two. This makes him an intriguing trade chip. Because his cap number will be $8 million throughout the season, he could help fetch a higher-priced player in a trade. Then, the team that acquires him could waive him and pay only what he had earned to date.

But before it gets to that point, Yi will try to fight his way into the rotation.

There’s a lot on the line.