AP Photo/Bob Leverone

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, JaMychal Green have technical fouls rescinded

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Kevin Durant and Patrick Beverley got two double technical fouls in the Warriors’ Game 1 win over the Clippers.

Though Golden State had the game in hand (really, unlike Game 2) by the time the players were ejected, the techs were a much bigger deal for the Warriors. Durant will stick around the playoffs long enough there’s a real risk of him getting seven technical fouls and automatic ejection.

That concern was heightened in the Warriors’ Game 3 win last night when Durant and JaMychal Green received double techs.

Durant, via Drew Shiller of NBC Sports Bay Area:

“We were conversing about the play before, and then someone came out of nowhere and tech’d us both,” Durant explained to the media after the game. “Hopefully it gets rescinded.”

The NBA obliged:

Durant is back down to two technical fouls for the playoffs.

Loaded with expiring contracts, Pacers still scraping and clawing together

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Thaddeus Young faced a tough decision last summer.

Coming off the best season of his career, he held a $13,764,045 player option with the Pacers. Opting in probably, though not definitely, maximized his salary this year. But opting out would have allowed him to sign a long-term deal with more total compensation.

Young opted in.

“Obviously, I had a few teams that wanted to pay me some money and stuff like that,” Young said. “But I figured that playing another season and going into it with these guys is better for me.

“We’re a family. We built something. We have some unfinished business.”

That decision, several others and Victor Oladipo‘s season-ending knee injury sent Indiana toward its identity – a tough, balanced team full of players incentivized to look out for themselves.

Several key Pacers – Young, Bojan Bogdanovic, Wesley Matthews, Darren Collison, Cory Joseph and Tyreke Evans – are on expiring contracts. But they don’t play like it. Indiana has remained cohesive amid obstacles, including the contract situations.

Don’t expect that to change with the Pacers trailing the Celtics 2-0 in their first round series entering Game 3 tonight.

Indiana proved its mettle last season. Largely written off after the Paul George trade, the Pacers became the NBA’s surprise team by winning 48 games. Victor Oladipo broke out as a star.

This season brought a new complication – players on the verge of getting compensated for their success. It could have happened more gradually, but circumstance created a rush.

Young opted in. Indiana exercised a $10.5 million team option on Bogdanovic and a $10 million team option on Collison, locking this in as the final year of their contracts. Matthews got bought out by the Knicks and signed for the rest of the season with a Pacers team that presented major opportunity with Oladipo sidelined. Evans, finding an underwhelming market in free agency last summer, prioritized a one-year deal. Joseph was the only one who was clearly entering the final season of his contract in Indiana.

The Pacers have given 68% of their minutes this postseason to players on expiring contracts. That’s a close second to the 76ers (only because I counted a few players with sure-to-be-declined player options – Jimmy Butler, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving and Khris Middleton – as having expiring contracts).

Here’s the percentage of minutes given to players on expiring contracts this postseason:

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In the regular season, Indiana trailed only the Wizards.

Pacers coach Nate McMillan said he addressed the contract situation before the season. His message, as summarized by Joseph: “We’re better when we play together, and if we do, then everybody will get rewarded.”

Players clearly bought in. Indiana surged to a 32-15 start. But Oladipo’s injury tested the Pacers’ cohesiveness.

They clearly wouldn’t be as good without their star, and they went just 16-19 since his last game. It would have been a logical time for players to go their own ways and start playing for themselves in what looked like it’d be a lost season.

Instead, they tightened their bond. This team has been quite competitive without Oladipo. The schedule got tough in March, but the Pacers stuck together.

“We don’t have big names, big stars on our team,” Bogdanovic said. “But we are fighting every single night.”

The delicate balance of Indiana’s offense – especially considering contract-year motivations – is quite stunning.

The Pacers averaged 5.4 double-digit scorers per game this season – the most in nearly two decades. Not bad for a team that finished 22nd in the NBA in points per game. Though scoring is up this season, 69 other teams averaged more points per game since another team had so many double-digit scorers per game.

“There’s a lot of players on the other teams that play for their own stats,” Bogdanovic said. “…We have this season, eight or nine players with expiring contracts, and we are still playing the right way, sharing the ball. We don’t care who’s going to score. That’s why we are successful.”

Unconcerned about their scoring numbers, Indiana players exert their energy on other things – defending, rebounding, screening. The Pacers impose a hard-nosed style, just as they did last year.

Indiana’s professionalism and focus on winning is a tribute to its players and organizational culture. This is a veteran team with the right priorities.

As much as he believed in this group, as well as he has guided it, McMillan wasn’t quite certain how the contract situations would affect his squad.

“That can go either way,” McMillan said. “It can be good or bad. It’s been good for us. Our guys have committed to playing together.”

Possible top-10 pick Sekou Doumbouya declares for NBA draft

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Just three 18-year-olds have played in the NBA since the league instituted its one-and-done rule: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Dragan Bender and Devin Booker.

Sekou Doumbouya – who’ll remain 18 until Dec. 23 – could become the fourth.

Jonathan Givony of ESPN:

French forward Sekou Doumbouya has submitted paperwork to the league office to make himself eligible for the 2019 NBA draft, his agent, Bouna Ndiaye of Comsport, told ESPN.

Doumbouya projects as a potential lottery pick.

The 6-foot-9 power forward is extremely physically developed for his age. He’s strong and mobile, and he can elevate.

But he’s still early in his skill development. His shot, handle and feel all need work.

Doumbouya has plenty of tools. His rebounding is already impressive. The rest? It’ll be a project.

Report: Pelicans cut Lakers GM Rob Pelinka from Anthony Davis trade talks

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On Jan. 31, a report emerged the Pelicans hadn’t returned the Lakers’ calls about Anthony Davis. Later that day, another report said the Pelicans and Lakers discussed a Davis trade.

That sparked questions: Was the first report wrong? Did New Orleans and Los Angeles begin talking that day?

Maybe we missed an important distinction.

The first report said then-Pelicans general manager Dell Demps hadn’t returned Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka’s calls. The second report said Demps spoke with Lakers president Magic Johnson.

Dave McMenamin of ESPN:

Pelinka was mostly cut out of trade talks between L.A. and New Orleans, with the Pelicans preferring to deal directly with Johnson, multiple league sources told ESPN.

Since Johnson stunningly resigned, Pelinka has assumed control in Los Angeles. The Lakers surely still want to trade for Davis.

Will having Pelinka running the front office impair their ability to do so?

We don’t know why the Pelicans rebuffed Pelinka. Different theories bring varying levels of present concern.

Maybe the Pelicans just didn’t want to waste their time with someone who’s not in charge. That’s often an issue when lower-level executives contact other teams. If that’s the case, Pelinka assuming the top job in basketball operations would solve the problem.

Maybe Demps was still bitter with Pelinka over Pelinka’s time as an agent. In 2012, New Orleans restricted free agent Eric Gordon – represented by Pelinka – signed an offer sheet with the Suns. Gordon lobbied hard to leave New Orleans, even saying his heart was in Phoenix. Though New Orleans matched, the saga caused animosity. But the Pelicans fired Demps and hired David Griffin, who’ll now oversee Davis. If this was a personal issue between Pelinka and Demps, that’s now irrelevant.

Maybe Pelinka is just that off-putting. I definitely don’t buy everything people say about him. Being a good agent often means ruffling feathers, and it’s easy for people he countered in negotiations to gossip about him now. But maybe there’s some truth to Pelinka being difficult to work with. If so, that’d come up again – not just with the Pelicans, but every team.