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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.”

Watch LeBron James pass Kobe Bryant for third on the all-time scoring list

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LeBron James just passed a Laker legend.

Kobe Bryant may be No. 1 in the hearts of Lakers fans, but he is now No. 4 on the NBA’s all-time scoring list after LeBron James passed him with a layup with 7:23 left in the third quarter. The basket gave LeBron 33,644 points.

LeBron got a massive ovation from the Philly fans for his accomplishment.

Kobe Bryant Tweeted his congratulations.

LeBron now has Karl Malone (second) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar ahead of him on the scoring list. Kareem was on SiriusXM NBA Radio this past week with Frank Isola and Brendan Haywood and said LeBron could pass him if he’s focused.

“I think it is up to LeBron. If he wants to do it, he’ll do it. He has the talent. He has the opportunity. So it’s just up to him as to how he wants to end his career. I certainly cannot be upset about it. The reason that they keep these records is so that we learn how we are improving. And we learn how to teach the game, taking note of the accomplishments of the great players. So, hey, it’s a natural progression. I don’t have any problem with it.”

Another report Wizards shooting down all trade talk around Davis Bertans

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Washington GM Tommy Shepard has been clear and not changed his position: he had no intention of trading Davis Bertans.

Instead, the plan is to re-sign the sharpshooting 6’10” power forward this summer. Bertans — who averages 15.3 points and 4.6 rebounds while shooting 42.6 percent from three on 8.7 attempts per game — would fit well as a floor spacer on a John Wall/Bradley Beal team looking to make noise in the playoffs next season.

That has not stopped teams from looking at the Wizards situation, then calling to see if they can land Bertans in a deadline trade — a floor-spacing big could help teams such as Denver and Boston. However, those teams are still getting hung up on according to Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated.

Inquiries to Washington have gone nowhere; several executives tell SI.com that the Wizards wouldn’t even discuss a deal. Some teams, though, are holding out hope Washington will make Bertans available before the trade deadline.

Shepard and Washington are making a bet Bertans wants to stay in Washington, he is an unrestricted free agent this summer. If Washington gets the sense Bertans wants out this summer, they need to trade him now and get something in return. If they believe he wants to return, then they need to get owner Ted Leonsis to open up the checkbook. After this breakout season, and at a position of need for a lot of teams around the league, Bertans likely will get offers at or above $17 million a season, and Washington might need to overpay a little to keep him.

Washington’s plan — as evidenced by words and actions — is not to rebuild but to get healthy and make a run up the East standings next season. They have Beal (playing at an All-NBA level this season), they get Wall back (he has looked good in practice of late), and from there they re-sign Bertans, count on growth from rookie Rui Hachimura, and put together a roster of role players who can win games in the East. 

Debate amongst yourselves if that is the smart direction to go, it’s clearly the one the Wizards have chosen.

Donovan Mitchell scores 25, Rudy Gobert has 22 and key late block, Jazz rally past Mavs

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Rudy Gobert had 22 points, 17 rebounds and five blocks to propel the surging Utah Jazz to a 112-107 come-from-behind victory over the Dallas Mavericks on Saturday.

Donovan Mitchell scored 25 points and Bojan Bogdanovic added 23 for the Jazz, who have won 14 of their last 15 games.

Luka Doncic scored 25 points for the Mavericks, who have dropped two of three after winning four straight. Doncic managed only two points in the final quarter.

Seth Curry added 19 points for Dallas.

Gobert’s three-point play — a dunk and a free throw — gave the Jazz their first lead since the first half at 96-95. The Mavericks responded with a 3 by Curry and two free throws from Delon Wright.

Gobert broke a 104-all tie with a tip-in, and after Tim Hardaway Jr. and Royce O’Neale exchanged 3-pointers, Gobert blocked what looked like an easy layup for Wright.

Mitchell made a pair of free throws, and then Gobert rebounded Doncic’s missed 3-pointer and was fouled. He made one of two free throws for the final margin.

The Mavericks raced to a 32-19 lead behind Doncic’s playmaking and shooting. The Jazz later scored 12 consecutive points and took a brief 37-36 lead on Georges Niang’s 3-pointer.

Kristaps Porzingis scored 15 points and Hardaway and Wright each chipped in 11 for Dallas.

Portland’s struggles do not have Damian Lillard pushing for trade, “I can weather the storm”

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Damian Lillard isn’t going anywhere.

The Trail Blazers are 19-27, sitting as the unexpected 11 seed in the West, and there calls from some quarters of the Pacific Northwest for Portland to do something drastic to try and salvage the season. Too often, those calls are followed by “what if Lillard decides this isn’t working and pushes for a trade?”

It’s not going down that way. Not according to Lillard.

In a league where it’s become commonplace for superstars to use their leverage — either to get traded or to force the team to make bold moves they want — Lillard remains loyal and trusts the front office in Portland. He realizes what this season has become for the Trail Blazers and he wants the franchise to think about next season, not desperation moves to save this one. Here is what he told Jason Quick of The Athletic.

“That don’t have nothing to do with my commitment to the team,” Lillard said. “I mean, it’s not like we are going to do something that is going to take us to the championship at this point. I think it’s more important for us to protect the assets we have, the guys who are going to be here and who are going to help us going forward. I don’t think it makes sense to sacrifice that just to make a desperate play.

“It’s been a tough season, but the season is not over. We can make something of this season as we are, but it’s not worth, you know, saying ‘OK, let’s force something and go do something that at the end of the day doesn’t make sense.’ But that has nothing to do with my commitment. I said it after last game (Golden State): I feel like I can find a way. I can weather the storm. I can go through hard times.”

He also has made clear he isn’t going to push GM Neil Olshay to make specific trades.

Lillard is averaging 28.3 points and 7.6 assists per game, he scored 108 points in his last two games, and he’s playing at an All-NBA level again. He remains one of the game’s top guards and a player the Trail Blazers can build a contender around. His five-year max contract extension doesn’t kick in until next season.

Portland’s challenge is this: Lillard is 29 and in his prime. If they are going to win a title with him that has to happen sooner rather than later. Portland should not make desperation moves to salvage this season — getting Jusuf Nurkic back in the next few weeks could turn things around without a trade — but even looking ahead: If they are fully healthy next season are they on the level of the Lakers or Clippers? To my eyes, no. Then the question becomes what needs to be done to get there? If it’s time for something bold, should they test the trade market for CJ McCollum?

The Trail Blazers have some big questions to answer after this season.

The thing they don’t need to worry about is Lillard.