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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.”

At least one team is off Khris Middleton’s free agency list already (VIDEO)

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Milwaukee Bucks star Khris Middleton has a player option next season that allows him to become a free agent this summer. Milwaukee, currently the best team in the Eastern Conference, would no doubt like to keep one of their top players.

But several suitors will come calling for Middleton, who would like to secure his long-term future at age 27. The Bucks will have some serious thinking to do, especially because their cap situation gets a little less fluid if bidding gets high on Middleton. How much do they really want to go near the luxury tax to keep him around?

In any case, Middleton is starting to gather a list of places he wants to play next year. That’ll include Milwaukee, but Middleton will listen to offers from other suitors. The way teams have paid to add second or third stars to their roster, the Bucks guard could get expensive.

One place Middleton isn’t looking to go? The Cleveland Cavaliers.

Speaking with Kristine Leahy, Middleton said that he wasn’t likely looking at Northeast Ohio this summer.

Then again, whether Middleton returns to Milwaukee is a real question. The Bucks have some cap space to spare, but need to decide what to do with Eric Bledsoe and Nikola Mirotic. They also have just $1 million guaranteed to George Hill, so flexibility is there if they want it.

At this moment, Milwaukee’s ownership appears positioned to try and come in a bit low on Middleton. In a feature published by Zach Lowe on Thursday, owner Marc Lasry said that it’s unlikely Middleton gives the Bucks a discount to stay.

The Bucks know they might have to pay $30 million per season to keep Middleton. “Does he love Milwaukee enough to re-sign?” Lasry asks. “Yes. Enough to give us a real discount? No.”

Milwaukee is a popular choice to make it out of the Eastern Conference right now, which is interesting in and of itself. But things could get even more curious come summer.

Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday will play reduced minutes rest of season

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The Anthony Davis Saga with the New Orleans Pelicans has been one of the oddest, most missed managed trade request in recent NBA history. And that’s including whatever happened with Kawhi Leonard last season with the San Antonio Spurs.

Davis made himself one of the focal points of NBA All-Star Weekend in Charlotte after leaving at halftime of the final Pelicans game before the break. Davis has issued several statements since then, including a bit of a meltdown at Saturday practice availability in North Carolina.

Of course it’s just a matter of time before Davis plays for another team, but we will have to wait until summer for that to happen. In the meantime, both sides are at sort of an impasse with Davis clearly not wanting to play in New Orleans anymore. The Pelicans, naturally, don’t want their asset to become injured and therefore reduced in value.

But Davis is going to play, and according to the team and interim general manager Danny Ferry, both Davis and Jrue Holiday‘s minutes will be reduced from here on out.

Via Twitter:

This makes sense sort of no matter what. New Orleans is no longer a playoff bubble team, and so a reduction in minutes for their top stars this season makes sense anyway.

Hopefully we don’t have to hear much about this moving forward. If we can get through the rest of the year without dealing with more weird Anthony Davis talk, I think we will be better for it.

Meanwhile, let the Boston Celtics and New York Knicks try to gather up their best offers to snake him away from the Los Angeles Lakers. No doubt something crazy will happen this summer with Davis just given how it’s already gone so far.

Paul George says he talked to Nike about his shoes after Zion Williamson injury (VIDEO)

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The basketball community lost its collective mind on Wednesday night when Duke Blue Devils star Zion Williamson was injured after blowing out a pair of Nike basketball shoes in a rivalry game against the University of North Carolina.

Williamson’s injury was such that shares of Nike actually fell come Thursday. Meanwhile, the debate about whether Williamson should continue to play for free in the NCAA raged on all day.

Of course Williamson was wearing Paul George‘s signature shoe when he experienced the blowout, which apparently prompted the Oklahoma City Thunder star to contact Nike about it.

Via Twitter:

George’s shoes are very popular across basketball, and he told reporters that this had never happened to his knowledge.

I do wonder if players will be more reticent to wear one of the more popular shoes in the NBA. Then again, Williamson is a freak of nature in of himself so it’s not likely that the forces created by his power would be exerted by a normal player in the league.

Zion Williamson’s sprained knee became bad day for Nike

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When presumptive No. 1 pick Zion Williamson went to the ground, his knee twisting, early in Duke’s game against North Carolina Wednesday night, the basketball world collectively gasped.

Former President Barack Obama was there and quickly recognized the problem:

It did, unquestionably. The  6-foot-7, 284 pound Williamson was wearing the  PG 2.5 PEs (the Paul George signature line of Nikes), and when he made a hard cut the shoe gave out and Williamson went to the ground in a heap. The television cameras closed in on the busted Nike.

That’s not good press.

Fortunately, Williams suffered only a mild, Grade 1 knee sprain, and is day-to-day.

Nike released a statement to multiple media outlets that said, “We are obviously concerned and want to wish Zion a speedy recovery. The quality and performance of our products are of utmost importance. While this is an isolated occurrence, we are working to identify the issue.”

Nike stock dropped one percent on Thursday, although that level of fluctuation is not serious.

Bottom line, if this remains an isolated incident, Nike’s reputation — and position as the dominant force in basketball shoes — is not in danger. Fans and players will forgive one random incident. Have it happen again to a high-profile player and… Nike doesn’t want to find out.