Hornets, full of expiring contracts, pulling together

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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – Free agency stunned Jeremy Lin last summer.

He knew his value had slipped after a rough season with the Lakers, but some teams wouldn’t even offer a minimum contract. Lin couldn’t believe how far he’d fallen.

One team offered salvation: The Mavericks. They had agreed to terms with DeAndre Jordan and Wesley Matthews, using all their cap space without addressing their need at point guard. With only the room exception available, Lin seemed like an ideal fit. You couldn’t find a better point guard for the money, and Lin would thrive running pick-and-rolls with Jordan while Matthews and Dirk Nowitzki spaced the floor and Chandler Parsons served as a secondary playmaker.

Lin was sold.

“I thought it was Dallas the whole way until the end,” Lin said.

Of course, that dream died when Jordan reneged and returned to the Clippers. With money pledged to him suddenly freed, the Mavericks signed Deron Williams.

Lin, knowing the marketplace had been unkind, was in a bind. He signed a two-year, $4,374,255 contract with a player option with the Hornets.

“Charlotte came out of nowhere,” Lin said. “Had I known it was going to go down the way it went down, I would’ve definitely planned things a little differently.”

If Lin seems like he might just be passing through Charlotte, he’s not the only one.

The Hornets have three starters (Nicolas Batum, Marvin Williams and Courtney Lee) and two key reserves (Al Jefferson and Lin) on expiring contracts or deals with a player option. Yet, this potentially transient group is one of the NBA’s most cohesive.

In a situation ripe for selfishness and jealousy, Charlotte players share the ball and trust each other defensively. There’s a reason the Hornets went 48-34 – the franchise’s best record since reemerging as the Bobcats – entering a first-round series against the Heat.

“The way that guys get along, I literally – 1 through 15 – I could choose any two people, and I could see them hanging out off the court,” Lin said. “We all enjoy being around each other.”

In five other seasons with the Lakers, Rockets, Knicks and Warriors, Lin has seen the other side. Pending free agencies can rip apart teams.

But its roster construction hasn’t bitten Charlotte.

“This is rare,” Lin said. “I’ve been around long enough. This is rare.”

After the trade deadline, 60% of the Hornets’ minutes have gone to players with expiring contracts, including those with a player option for this offseason – the most in the NBA:

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In practicality, the Hornets are further ahead of the pack than the above chart indicates. The second-place Mavericks rank so highly, because Dirk Nowitzki holds a player option for next season, but he has already declared intent to opt in.  Lin is the only Hornet with a player option, and he seems likely to opt out.

Miami is the only other team doing anything near Charlotte – winning while willingly stocking the roster with expiring contracts. The Lakers, Nets and Wizards are done. The Clippers’ percentage was raised only because Blake Griffin, who’s locked up next season, was injured/suspended for most of the season’s second half. They’ll rely on players contracted long-term much more in the playoffs.

On the other hand, this is who the Hornets are.

They made a risky trade before the season, acquiring Batum – who could walk this summer as an unrestricted free agent – for the promising Noah Vonleh, who’s set to reach restricted free agency not until 2018. Then, Charlotte doubled down by dealing for Lee before the trade deadline.

One reason it works: Hornets coach Steve Clifford, who confronted the challenge head on with a speech on day one.

“You want to make money,” Clifford said, “play on a team that wins.

“For every player, at the end of the day, winning is the best way for them to make more money and have more worth. People are always wary of guys who put up numbers on teams that don’t win.”

Clifford gave his team specific examples, and though the coach declined to reveal them, Jefferson brought up two: Monta Ellis and DeMarre Carroll. Both players signed four-year contracts last summer coming from different circumstances the season prior.

Ellis:

  • Scored 18.9 points for the Mavericks, who lost in first round
  • Got $43,981,000 from the Pacers

Carroll:

  • Sored 12.6 points per game for the Hawks, who reached conference finals
  • Got $58 million from the Raptors

“You want guys who compete well, and I think the good competitors are going to play better when their contract is on the line,” Clifford said.

Compare that attitude to Randy Wittman, who was just fired after overseeing the disjointed Wizards. Jorge Castillo of The Washington Post:

Beyond using his players’ contracts to motivate them rather than shrinking from the challenge, Clifford had another advantage. He’s a good coach. His players could reasonably trust that, if they sacrificed for the team, they’d win. It might be difficult to enter free agency with lower numbers, but it’d so much harder without winning on the résumé, either.

As much credit as Clifford deserves, don’t underestimate the professionalism of the players involved. They made this work.

Jefferson’s teammates took notice when he returned from injury and suspension. In Jefferson’s absence, Cody Zeller came into his own as the starting center. So, Jefferson embraced a reserve role rather than sulking about his opportunities.

“I’ve been around too long. I’ve made a lot of money,” said Jefferson, who’s in the final season of a three-year, $40.5 million contract that followed a five-year, $65 million extension. “I can’t have that type of attitude. You’ve got to do what’s best for the team.”

Jefferson admits he probably would have handled this differently when he was younger, but…

“I’ve never been on a team like this,” Jefferson said.

Neither had Batum, though for different reasons. He’d always taken a complementary role behind Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard with the Trail Blazers. Charlotte has given him the ball more than ever and asked him to run the offense. So, how could he complain when  a little sacrifice was necessary from time to time?

Like Jefferson, Batum has enough experience to understand the bigger picture. All five Charlotte rotation players who can become a free agent this offseason are in at least their sixth NBA season. They’ve seen other similar circumstances and learned from them.

For Batum, it was while he was playing in Europe and trying to impress NBA scouts before the draft.

“I was playing for my own situation,” Batum said. “I said, maybe if I played that way, people are going to look at me differently. So, I started playing bad. I can’t do that.”

Lee has seen more than most. The Hornets are his sixth team in eight NBA seasons, and he doesn’t wish for stability. “That’s boring,” Lee said. Instead, he welcomes the uncertainty that surround this team.

Multiple players recounted Clifford’s preseason speech using similar terms. Even Lee, who began the season with the Grizzlies, parrots a the theme after a couple months in Charlotte.

“I just think you have a lot of mature players on this team and that we all understand that, if the team does good, we’ll do good,” Lee said. “If we win, everybody wins. So, that’s just our mindset – to go out there and compete for a championship, and the rest will take care of itself.”

Lee said he’s happy Hornets have his Bird Rights, and he likes his situation in Charlotte. But, with so many Hornets entering free agency, what if the outlook looks dramatically when Lee is ready to sign somewhere?

“As team change, scenario changes. So, just have to wait it out and see how it goes in free agency,” Lee said. “But I’m pretty sure a lot of guys will be back.”

Kevin Durant on chasing MVP: ‘Not really, I’ve been there, done that’

Orlando Magic v Brooklyn Nets
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Kevin Durant carried the Nets to another win Monday night, scoring 45 points on 19-of-24 shooting, plus seven rebounds and five assists.

If you’re having an MVP conversation a quarter of the way into the NBA season, Durant has to be part of it: 30 points per game on 54.8% shooting (and a ridiculous 65.9 true shooting percentage), 6.6 rebounds and 5.5 assists a game, plus playing solid defense and being the anchor of the Nets. After his 45-point outing to get Brooklyn a win over Orlando, Durant was asked about MVP chants and the chase for the award and was clearly not interested.

Durant has MVP numbers, but so do Stephen Curry, Luka Doncic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jayson Tatum and others. If Durant is going to move to the front of the conversation, the first thing that has to happen is Brooklyn has to win a lot more games — 11-11 is not going to cut it when Tatum’s Celtics and Antetokounmpo’s Bucks have the two best records in the NBA. Winning games and finishing on a top-three team in the conference matters to some voters (and traditionally is one measure of an MVP).

Watch Herb Jones inbound off Pokusevski’s back, seal win for Pelicans

Oklahoma City Thunder v New Orleans Pelicans
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With 2.3 seconds left in the game and the Thunder down 2, they needed to steal the inbounds pass from New Orleans to have a real chance. That’s why when Aleksej Pokusevski walked on the court it looked like he was going to guard the inbounder, Herbert Jones.

Instead, Pokusevski turned his back to Jones, putting himself in position to step in front of anyone cutting to the ball to catch the inbounds. Except, Jones made the clever play to seal the game.

Pokusevski fouled Jones, who sank both free throws and sealed the 105-101 Pelicans win.

The Pelicans got 23-8-8 from Zion Williamson and picked up a win without CJ McCollum or Brandon Ingram in the lineup. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander continued his dominant start to the season and scored 31.

Watch Lakers fan drain half-court shot to win $75,000

Indiana Pacers v Los Angeles Lakers
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It might have been the loudest the crypto.com Arena was all night.

Between the third and fourth quarters, Lakers fan Jamie Murry of Downey won $75,000 draining a half-court shot — and he got to celebrate with Anthony Davis.

Murry’s celebration is the best part — with Anthony Davis coming out to celebrate with him (and seeming a little shocked by the hug).

One other big shot fell at this game, but Lakers’ fans didn’t like it as much — Pacers’ rookie Andrew Nembhard drained a game-winning 3-pointer as time expired.

Three things to know: Joel Embiid returns, scores final 11 vs. Hawks

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Three Things is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) Joel Embiid returns, scores final 11 vs. Hawks in 76ers win

The 76ers went 3-1 with Joel Embiid sidelined by a left mid-foot sprain, but they are so much more a dangerous team with him.

Embiid scored the 76ers’ final 11 points of the game against the Hawks, including the go-ahead 10-foot jumper with 18.6 seconds left, to cap a 30-point night and lift the Sixers past the Hawks 104-101.

Embiid was making critical defensive plays down the stretch as well.

Embiid finished with 30 points, eight rebounds, seven assists and two blocks. That’s five straight 30+ point games for Embiid, who picked up right where he left off before the injury.

Well, not exactly pick up at the start as Embiid was 1-of-7 shooting to open the game, and he wasn’t the only Sixers rusty at the start. Embiid seemed focused on sharing the ball early but settled into an offensive balance as the game went on. Philly was saved by a solid defensive night.

The 76ers continue to pick up wins with James Harden and Tyrese Maxey out, which is a good sign going forward.

That’s three-straight losses for the Hawks, a loss that stings because they should have been able to dominate the shorthanded 76ers backcourt and get the win.

2) Karl-Anthony Towns goes down with concerning leg injury

Let’s hope the optimistic report from Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN is right and this isn’t as severe as it looked. Because it looked bad.

Timberwolves big man Karl-Anthony simply was pushing off to run back upcourt when he fell to the ground — without contact — grabbing his knee and calf.

Towns was helped back to the locker room and did not return, with the Timberwolves officially saying he was out for the rest of the night with a calf strain.

A calf strain would be the best possible outcome. An MRI Monday will tell us more.

Towns’ stats are down this season as he adjusts to the odd fit of playing next to Rudy Gobert, but he is still averaging 21.4 points and 8.5 rebounds a game.

The Wizards got a monster night from Kristaps Porzingis — a career-high 41 points — on their way to a 142-127 victory. When Porzingis is on this Washington team is tough to beat.

3) Big shots fall at Lakers’ game

Two big shots defined the night at the crypto.com arena Monday.

First, Lakers fan Jamie Murry of Downey won $75,000 with a half-court shot — and he got to celebrate with Anthony Davis.

The second one hurt the Lakers more. Pacers’ rookie Andrew Nembhard drained a game-winning 3-pointer as time expired.

The Lakers got lost in the scramble. On the initial action, Russell Westbrook doubled Bennedict Mathurin in the corner, which left the screen setter Myles Turner open at the top for a clean look at a 3 — but he was short and came off the front of the rim. Tyrese Haliburton out-hustled everyone to the rebound and tried to create his own shot but saw Nembhard wide open and kicked him the rock.

Ballgame.

The Pacers split their two games in Los Angeles at the start of a seven-game road trip through the West.

The Lakers had won 5-of-6 against a soft part of the schedule but that is about to change and over the next few weeks we will get a sense of where this 7-12 team really stands.