Hillcrest Prep Post Graduate Team Reaches End of the Road

As the sun rises over Hillcrest Prep, a handful of players are already in the gym lifting weights or working on their shots. Practice for the post-graduate team starts at 9:45 a.m. sharp every day, but players are often in earlier to hone their skills.

With high school no longer restricting their practice time, basketball has become their no.1 priority. Their job now is to get college basketball programs to notice them because after this, it’s all over.

This is the end of the road.

“This is a last chance for me,” said Emeka Udenyi. “I know I have to play hard every time and make the best of my opportunity.”

Udenyi’s style of play combines his intimidating size, 6-foot-6 and 230 pounds, with his surprising grace, and punishes anyone who stand in his way. His smile lights up the room, and his booming voice echoes through the empty gym on an early Monday morning.

His story is not unlike that of many of his teammates. Udenyi was a good high school basketball player, starring on his local team and garnering mild attention and praise locally. But his college offers were lacking.

“I wasn’t getting the interest I really wanted,” said Udenyi. “I still felt like I was kind of slept on.”

Only Western Oregon and Cal State East Bay, two Division II programs, offered Udenyi scholarships. So instead of attending a less than stellar program or enrolling at a junior college, Udenyi utilized the one year of eligibility the NCAA offers high school graduates to try and improve as a player and elicit offers from more elite college programs. He bet big on himself, uprooting from Concord, California to attend Hillcrest to try and obtain that elusive Division I offer.

Other players on the team already had Division I offers when they graduated high school, but believed they were capable of more. Trevon Taylor is a lanky 6-foot-7 swingman with a funky shot that always seems to go in, and arms that stretch for miles. He received an offer from Norfolk State, a low Division I program, but instead decided to attend Hillcrest.

“All my coaches and my family told me if not a high major, I could be a mid-major guy so I just want to get one of those,” said Taylor.

The fundamental problem with a team of this nature is the inherent selfishness that plagues each player. Team success takes a backseat to individual success, because gaudy statistics get you noticed and impressive win-loss records don’t.

The relationship between players is more akin to coworkers than friends, as members of the team come from across the country to play for Hillcrest, stay for a year, and then jettison off to college.

Practices have a distinctly different vibe than that of a regular high school team. They’re more intense, they’re chippier, there’s less joking around and more scowling. There is a sense of desperation that shrouds the gym. Players look like grown men fighting for their lives because in reality, that’s what they are.

“We have a lot players who’s first and only objective is to score the ball,” said part time assistant coach Wayne Smith, whose son is on the team. “You look around at some of the higher levels of basketball and that seems to be all anyone cares about, so naturally it’s how these players think they’re going to get noticed.”

There are serious doubts about whether a program of this nature is beneficial to the players, or merely giving them a vehicle in which to extend their frivolous dreams of stardom.

There are success stories that emerge from teams like this, but they are few and far between. In the end, every player gets told eventually they are no longer good enough to compete at the highest level. For many of the players on this team, that moment is now.

Future Sun Devil Kyree Walker primed for success

Kyree Walker, star sophomore on the Hillcrest Prep basketball team, does everything to the max. Whether it’s running the simplest of drills, to orchestrating plays in a high intensity intra-squad scrimmage, Walker does it all with a fervent passion.

This passion, combined with his otherworldly athleticism and high basketball I.Q. have transformed Walker into one of the best high school prospects in the country. In the latest ESPN class of 2020 rankings, Walker is listed as the No. 14 player in his class. For him, that’s thirteen spots too low.

“They’re trying to rob me,” Walker said with a jovial grin. “This year they’re going to see, I’m coming back for my title as the number one player. I’m ready to become another monster.”

The title Walker is referring to is MaxPreps Freshman of the Year, an accolade he earned while playing for Moreau Catholic High in Hayward, California. Walker averaged 21.5 points, 6.6 rebounds and 3.9 assists as a freshman, carrying the team to a 25-10 record en route to a spot in the California Division II title game.

After his freshman season, Walker and his family decided it was time for a change, and moved to Arizona to team up with more elite level prospects at Hillcrest Prep.

“Some people thought I was scared,” Walker said. “But coming to a prep school is all about starting a new life. This is a new life move.”

When watching Hillcrest play, it becomes quickly apparent that Walker is the most talented and important player on a loaded squad that looks to reassert itself as one of the best teams in the country. He’s also the youngest player on the team, yet makes no qualms about his role as leader.

“I have to be a leader on this team, I mean that’s my role,” said Walker. “My coaches told me it doesn’t matter if you’re the youngest you have to lead by example. Be here early, work hard, and push everybody.”

It’s easy to forget he’s still a sophomore. He is so naturally talented, and plays the game with a fluidity usually reserved for men twice his age. He can score with ease, but seems to find true pleasure in setting up his teammates up for easy baskets. Fittingly, when asked what NBA player Kyree is most similar to, his father and assistant coach Khari Walker compared his son to one of the best to ever play the game.

“Magic Johnson,” Khari Walker said. “He’s that level playmaker. For [Kyree] it seems like the speed of the game really slows down as he gets going.”

Walker’s unique brand of basketball has him ideally suited for his next endeavor, college basketball. Although he is only a sophomore, Walker has already committed to Arizona State and the pressure of becoming the next great Sun Devil looms large.

“I’m not scared,” Walker confidently said. “Committing to ASU so early, I’m talking to the coaches already and they’re teaching me new things. I’m also communicating with some of the players on the team and they’re helping me out. [Head Coach] Bobby Hurley is a great coach, he went to Duke and was able to play with a lot of great players. He’s a player-coach. He’s going to be able to teach me some things that Coach Krzyzewski taught him. I really just want to pick his mind and learn about the point guard position.”

The fact that Walker will be able to be around Hurley and his staff for the next three years before even enrolling at ASU will unquestionably improve his game and make his transition to college significantly easier.

“I think it’s great for him to stay so close,” said Hillcrest head coach Howard Thomas. “ASU is able to get eyes on him all the time so they’re coming down here all the time to come watch us. For him, he can build up a really good rapport with their staff which I think for any kid is huge.”

While Walker won’t officially enroll at ASU until the fall of 2019, the belief that he could revitalize the program is already widely held. His future coach is certainly a believer.

“Coach Hurley told me we’re going to play around you, start a team around you,” said Walker. “That sounded really good to me, and I know that when the time comes, I’ll be ready.”

 

Coming to America: The Incredible Story of Alireza Shafiei

Alireza Shafiei, better known as Ali by his teammates and coaches, doesn’t exactly fit the mold of the typical elite basketball prospect. He’s relatively short, coming in a little under six feet tall, he’s built more like a linebacker than a point guard, and he was born and raised in Iran.

On a Hillcrest Prep team littered with incredible athletes with almost superhuman abilities, Ali more closely resembles your average high school basketball player. Yet watch him play and all questions on how he is part of this team, much less actually get play time are answered. He plays defense like a rabid dog, typically guarding his opposition the full ninety four feet of the court. He invades his matchup’s personal space with aplomb, nestling himself right underneath the chin of his typically taller opponent. And if that wasn’t enough, he never shuts up. Sometimes it’s words, other times it’s just incoherent noises coming out of Ali’s mouth. Regardless, it is always loud and it is always right in somebody’s ear.

He seems to take special pleasure in guarding players who have been granted the incredible God-given gifts he was not. Kyree Walker is Hillcrest’s best player and is one of the top sophomores in the country. When the end of practice rolls around and scrimmages begin to take place, Ali always seems to finagle his way into guarding the 6’6 Walker, despite the sizeable difference in height and talent. While Kyree often bests Ali in their duels, they are not as one sided as one may assume. Ali gets the better of Kyree more times than Walker would probably like to admit, and his efforts have not gone unnoticed.

Coach Howard Thomas rarely played Ali in the first few games of the season, but has quickly grown to rely on the tenacious point guard for key minutes off the bench.

“He really just brings so much energy,” said Thomas. “He’s had several games where we’ve injected him when we’re a little sluggish and he immediately just comes in and is this Energizer Bunny. He gets the other guys so hyped up.”

Ali’s journey to America was not an easy one. To call the relationship between Ali’s home country of Iran and the United States tense would be an understatement, and it was only worsened by the emergence and eventual victory of President Donald Trump. Iran was one of the six Muslim-majority countries President Trump banned immigrants from. While thankfully the ruling was shot down months before Ali was planning on moving to the States, it was not the most welcoming of gestures. Anti-American sentiments were already present within Iran, as the country has boycotted over 200 American products. Regardless, Ali was determined to make his way to the United States, and despite the odds he was going to try and make his dream a reality.

“It was really hard,” said Ali, referring to the immigration process. “Everybody back home told me it would be impossible to get a visa, but I went and applied and for some reason they gave me one. It was a miracle.”

Hillcrest Prep provided a basketball oasis for Ali. Through a system of international scouting and friendly working relationships between coaches, Hillcrest is able to find top international prospects and bring them to Phoenix. Bringing international players to Phoenix is more than just a basketball decision though. The likelihood of Ali and players like him getting into top universities, through basketball or just purely academics, has skyrocketed now that they are in the states.

“My goal for now is to get into a good school,” said Ali. “If possible, I’d like to play basketball in college and then who knows. Why not the NBA?”

If Ali were to make the NBA, he would join Hamed Haddadi as the only two Iranian players to ever suit up for an NBA team. While it is clearly not a huge emphasis in Iran to produce NBA-caliber players, Ali believes the style of basketball played in Iran compared to that of America’s limits the possibilities of any players emerging from his home country.

“Here in America, there is a much bigger emphasis on scoring and being selfish,” said Ali. “Everybody is looking to create for themselves. In Iran, we played for each other. We passed the ball a lot more and played more team basketball.”

Overall though, Ali reports the transition from Iran to the United States has been a good one. When asked what he misses most, his answer is his family without hesitation. He says he rarely talks to them due to the time change, which makes it even harder. It’s not exactly clear if his parents fully comprehend his decision to come to America to play basketball, but he says they support him none-the-less.

Culturally, Ali reports a relatively quick and seamless assimilation. While his English isn’t perfect, it can be kind of broken at times, it is still incredibly impressive for someone who came to this country in September. He laughs off the idea of any sort of language barrier, reminding me that Iranian school children are taught English from a very young age. Yet there are still some things in America that manage to surprise even someone as confident and comfortable as Ali. When asked what his favorite new food is, he has to think for a while but eventually comes up with an answer of Mexican food. He proceeds to go on a long and poetic spiel about the beautiful intricacies of the first taco he ever enjoyed, how the way the meats and cheeses and spices came together it was unlike anything he had experienced back home. While it is obvious Ali pines to see his home and his family again, he also makes it readily apparent that he is adjusting better than anyone could’ve expected.

Of the four international players currently on Hillcrest’s roster, Ali is certainly one of the more vocal and outgoing. He seems to have a unique and genuine connection with seemingly every player. Off the court, his teammates appear to take pleasure in educating Ali in the ways of the American teen. Every first brings a new round of excitement and laughter for all.

“For the other guys, learning about where Ali is from is always comedy,” says Thomas. “For him, so many things are new like hot dogs, music, girls, all that stuff is brand new to him and we’re just not used to that. I remember the first time he had macaroni and cheese. Those are like huge deals to him. For us, it’s just comedy watching how he gets so excited for stuff that’s so routine for the rest of us. It’s always funny with Ali, because we never know what’s new to him. Every time we’re with him and we do something and it’s the first time for him we have a great time. He’s like a kid in a candy store. It’s funny, but I also know it’s a great experience for him.”

The perspective a player like Ali can provide for his Hillcrest teammates is immeasurable, and despite his impressive talents on the court his affect may be more heavily felt off of it. He is usually calm and collected, but when he needs to be he can be jovial and gregarious. He is one of the more liked players on the team, and at times can provide leadership for a team that is sometimes lacking. While he may not realize his own importance, he does comprehend just how good Hillcrest can be and speaks excitedly about their potential this season.

“This is a really, really fun team,” says Ali, who is almost giddy with excitement. “There are so many really good guys, it’s really great. This team won it all last year, and I think we can do it again.”

July 7th, 2018: Arizona Sports are Saved

Alright, so a lot happened on Saturday, and I’m here to tell you about it.

 

  1. Devin Booker Extension

Five years. $158 million. All five years guaranteed, no options. This is the nature of the extension of the Phoenix Suns’ franchise player. Devin Booker, after holding out due to Tyler Ulis miscommunication, signed his extension on July 7th, 2018. For the next five years, he is a Sun, and he won’t even be in the prime of his prime when that extension ends. He’ll be 26! And when that contract expires, THEN he’ll be in his prime and the Suns can sign him to something even better! That’s amazing news, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

 

  1. Deandre Ayton did some cool stuff

21 points and 12 rebounds was the name of the game for Deandre Ayton in game 2 of his Las Vegas Summer League tenure. His first half looked very lackluster, as he was getting beat in the post by Harry Giles, a man who has undergone two ACL surgeries. He was trying to post up by standing straight up and down instead of trying to dig into his defender, and he wasn’t slashing strongly after setting screens. He ended the half with 4 points, and Marvin Bagley looked to be his superior. But, in the second half, something changed. He was setting tough on-ball screens, he was passing out of doubles effectively, he was catching the ball over the top of his defender, and he really started to dig in. By the end of it all, he was efficient, strong, and using his size extremely well. Deandre Ayton looks good.

 

2b. Mikal Bridges did things too

In the last two games of Summer League, Mikal Bridges is 5 for 8 from three and 6 for 10 in general. That’s impressive. He looked great defensively on Saturday, and he had a nice steal and slam to cement himself as a decent defensive talent with athleticism. He’s proving he’s worth the trade-up on draft day, and that’s good.

 

  1. Masked Josh Jackson happened

Need I say more? That block is plastered all over every highlight page online. He stood over him and taunted him! He taunted the 2nd overall pick! Don’t elbow Josh Jackson in the face. He will kill you.

 

  1. The Diamondbacks scored 20 runs in a single game

That’s a franchise record. Wow. Alex Avila had 3 RBIs. That’s really all you need to know about that. He’s hitting .148 and he had THREE RBIs. The Padres are very bad.

 

Well, there you have it, folks. Arizona sports are saved and everyone can rejoice as Phoenix becomes a great sports city once again. (But, seriously, it was a good day. There’s a lot for the Suns to build on, and the Diamondbacks might finally get back into the groove they were in to start the season. I’m very happy about these results. Thank you for your time.)

Elie Okobo will be your new favorite Sun

Drafted 31st in Thursday’s NBA Draft, Elie Okobo is one of the newest members of the Phoenix Suns. First thing he did? Call himself Swaggy E on Twitter.

Okobo is a currently a point guard for Élan Béarnais Pau-Lacq-Orthez in France. He’s a little undersized at 6’2’’, but he gets the job done on the offensive end. He’s also got a 6’8’’ wingspan, which helps him have active hands on defense. Here’s highlights of a recent game against AS Monaco, where he scored 44 points. That’s awesome. He’s awesome. As shown by the highlights, he’s got a nice handle, and a pretty silky-smooth 3-point shot. An offensive-minded, undersized point guard may not be the solution to the Suns’ defensive woes, but he’s a much needed spark off the bench on offense.

Swaggy E is also known for notable performances for the French U20 national team, and was the third highest scorer in the 2016 FIBA U20 tournament with a line of 18.9 points/3.9 rebounds/1.6 assists/1.9 steals. Obviously he didn’t move the ball a lot, but he scored when he needed to be the primary scorer, had active hands on defense, and rebounded surprisingly well for a guy his size.

When Elie was drafted at 31, a large portion of analysts and writers called it a steal. This is a good sign already. Ryan McDonough, while not good at many things, is good at the NBA Draft. He finds the right guys (Alex Len notwithstanding) to get the job done. Booker at 13, Warren at 14, and (even though we didn’t keep him) Bogdan Bogdanovic at 27. Consensus on Okobo was that he’d be a good pick in the mid-teens in the first round, so getting him at 31 was one of the better under the radar picks in this year’s draft.

Lest we forget another French point guard that was drafted 28th overall in 2001. He ended up having a pretty good career.

As of yesterday, Okobo signed a 4-year, $6 million rookie deal, with the 3rd and 4th years being team options. Okobo has two years to develop into something fantastic. Okobo will also play on the Suns’ Summer League team in Las Vegas starting next week, so we get to see just how NBA-ready he is, and how his talent translates from overseas.

There’s a certain aura to Elie Okobo that’s kind of indescribable. He seems fun, but hungry at the same time. I might just be being optimistic here, but there’s something there that will set him apart from the Suns point guards of the last few years. He’s got something that Bledsoe, Knight, and Ulis just don’t have. I don’t know what it is yet, but there’s something there.

Elie Okobo will definitely leave an imprint before his third year in the league, as long as the Suns give him time to see the floor and learn the game. He’ll be an integral part of the Suns bench sooner than later. If Tyler Ulis’s contract isn’t picked up, he’ll be coming off the bench with Daniels, Bridges, Chriss, and Chandler. If that happens, Okobo stands to make an impact right away.

I have a good feeling about this one. Elie Okobo will be my (and your) new favorite Sun.

Lakers in position for an exciting offseason

Dominating an offseason is not uncharted territory for the Los Angeles Lakers’ franchise.

In July of 1968, the Lakers traded for 76ers superstar Wilt Chamberlain who, in 1972, led Los Angeles to their first NBA championship. He was named the Finals MVP. In June of 1975, Los Angeles acquired Kareem Abdul-Jabbar via a trade with Milwaukee. As a member of the “Showtime Lakers,” Abdul-Jabbar helped win five titles. In the summer of 1996, the Lakers made their most successful free agent signing in history when they brought in Shaquille O’Neal. He went on to win an NBA MVP award and three Finals MVPs.

This summer, the Lakers have an opportunity to add multiple franchise-changing players, in hopes of receiving results similar to past successes. Free agency begins on July 1, with unrestricted free agents being able to officially sign on July 6.

However, before they can make a run at stars like LeBron James and Paul George, they have a chance to trade for a former Finals MVP and two-time Defensive Player of the Year who is unhappy in his current situation.

Kawhi Leonard and the San Antonio Spurs had a fallout last season regarding how the organization handled his quad injury. According to ESPN, Leonard would prefer to play in Los Angeles, where he is from.

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Despite Leonard being gone for most of last season, the Spurs still managed to earn a spot in the playoffs. Veteran bigs LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol are locked in for next season, but San Antonio could use guard and wing help. The Spurs will certainly not give Leonard up without substantial compensation, but the Lakers have young pieces that San Antonio may find desirable. Spurs Head Coach Gregg Popovich has always been against helping Western Conference rivals, but perhaps if Los Angeles provides the best offer for Leonard, it could force his and General Manager R.C. Buford’s hand.

The Lakers could package youngsters Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball to send to San Antonio, along with Luol Deng’s $18 million-dollar contract over the next two seasons and a draft pick for Leonard and perhaps a veteran guard like Patty Mills. The Lakers could also add restricted free agent forward Julius Randle to the mix to sweeten the deal, as long as he agrees to a sign-and-trade and the Spurs want to bring him in.

This way, the Lakers add an elite player (as long as he stays healthy) who came in third-place in the MVP voting in 2017, along with a guard who shoots well from the perimeter with a lot of playoff experience. They could also get rid of the noise that surrounds the Ball family which was a distraction last season, not to mention Deng’s lucrative salary.

Meanwhile, the Spurs get a couple of former second overall picks who could potentially blossom and lead San Antonio for years to come. Plus, it would be an improved roster from last season when Leonard was inactive for all but nine games, so they could theoretically contend for a playoff spot again.

Salary-wise, as long as the Spurs willing to take Deng’s contract, Los Angeles should come out of the trade in a very beneficial financial situation. President of Basketball Operations Magic Johnson and General Manager Rob Pelinka would be left with enough cap room to add two max contracts without going far into the luxury tax.

 

If this hypothetical exchange goes through, then the Lakers would head into free agency with Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Kuzma coming off of a very productive rookie season, Josh Hart who also looked good as a rookie last year, and Patty Mills to lure in available talent.

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Photo via @kylekuzma

That cast could certainly be a compelling one, especially for someone who came from a team with lackluster support as LeBron James did.

James is referred to by some to be the greatest player the NBA has ever seen, and should be the Lakers’ number one priority come free agency.

James is seemingly comfortable in LA, he even has two houses in Brentwood. Leonard is a great teammate to have help deal with the Warriors since he can defend many different positions at an elite level. Plus, the Lakers can give him his desired salary.

There is the possibility of a sign-and-trade between the Lakers and Cleveland, but that would be a better option if Leonard ends up elsewhere and the Lakers still had Ball, Ingram and Deng to give up. It still could happen even with the Spurs deal, but it isn’t likely that James would want weapons on his future team traded away when he is looking to win a title.

But, Johnson and Pelinka cannot be solely transfixed on getting James. Paul George is also available, and George-to-the-Lakers rumors have gone on for years. The timing is perfect it seems. A player who grew up rooting for the Lakers, and who has admitted that it would be fun to play for them, is a free agent in the same summer that the Lakers are looking to load up.

Cap wise, the Lakers have the space to take on James, George and Leonard, a hellacious amount of talent to add in one summer. But, they do all play the small forward primarily. Many NBA teams in recent years, though, have strayed away from traditional positions. The Golden State Warriors’ “death lineup” includes two guards, two small forwards and an undersized power forward.

With the facilitating skills of James and shooting ability of both George and Leonard, the three could mesh quite effectively. Defensively, all three have shown to be elite, with Leonard winning the Defensive Player of the Year twice and James and George earning multiple All-NBA Defensive honors each. The three can all defend different sized players as well.

Nevertheless, if Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka feel as if that is too many wing players, there are several centers on the market too. Perhaps instead of George, the Lakers could go after DeMarcus Cousins, an elite scorer with a six-foot-eleven frame. The problem with Cousins is his past of attitude issues, also the fact that he will be coming off of Achilles Tendon surgery and has been a defensive liability in the past.

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Clint Capela and DeAndre Jordan are slightly cheaper alternatives at center. They both finish very well around the rim. Capela led the league in field-goal percentage last season and Jordan led the NBA in the category for several seasons before that. They both defend the rim well too, with good size and awareness to block shots. Jordan is a better rebounder, but Capela is five years younger and could be more valuable down the road.

If Johnson and Pelinka do go with the three wings, then they could sign a cheaper big to plug in at center. Perhaps Leonard’s former teammate Aron Baynes, who just had an effective year in Boston and has playoff experience with the Celtics and Spurs, or by bringing back former Laker Ed Davis after three years in Portland. Both can defend the rim well, and should be able to benefit from the passing ability of LeBron James. Baynes can also shoot threes, adding another dimension to the offense. Additionally, in small lineups, Kuzma could plug in as a five for an athletic and strong scoring rotation.

From there, the Lakers would just have to worry about developing their bench beyond Hart, Kuzma and other players still under contract in LA, like Tyler Ennis, Ivica Zubac and Thomas Bryant. They can fill the bench with veterans who would be willing to sign for the minimum, since some players do so near the end of their careers when looking for a chance at a ring, or by drafting a couple of players since they have picks 25 and 47 (assuming they aren’t traded to San Antonio but likely one would be).

 

The problem with value contracts

Where I’m from, avocados cost about two bucks. During some parts of the year, this might go up to closer to $3; other times they’re $1.50. Aside from the fact that this is the price which allows everyone along the chain of avocado production to make a little bit of coin, it is also the price which ensures avocado supply and demand stays pretty well balanced.

If you know anything about economics, this won’t be anything new to you. If one day the supermarket decided that the avocados should be priced at 20 cents, the first ten people to the supermarket would probably buy 100 each, and the rest of us would be ruing not having anything to put with our poached eggs. In contrast, if the supermarket suddenly upped the price to $50 per avocado, no one would buy them, and after a couple of days all the avocados would get thrown in the bin.

So what does this have to do with basketball, you might ask? NBA players, like avocados, have an inherent value. Of course, this is related to their ability to play the game and make a team better, rather than how much nutritional value they provide you with and what they taste like, but the concept is the same. The salary cap is a system which is roughly based around these inherent values, and is intended to ensure that talent is, at least to an extent, distributed across the league.

Another difference between players and avocados though, is that players have a say in their own worth. They can actively decide to sign a contract which doesn’t truly reflect their value. When they decide that they’re willing to take a pay cut so that their team can, say, sign Kevin Durant, the general consensus seems to be to say, ‘hey, good for them. Putting the future of their team ahead of their own personal needs’. As Draymond Green so pertinently stated after Game 1 of this year’s finals, ‘we’re out here trying to feed our families’, so why shouldn’t we laud them for making a sacrifice? Well, aside from the fact that I can’t imagine Dray’s family is going to bed hungry with the $16 million plus endorsements, appearances etc that he makes a year, it disrupts this concept of talent distribution.

Players shouldn’t necessarily be criticised for signing these kinds of contracts, and there certainly is an element of selflessness to it – though they aren’t exactly Nelson Mandela for doing it. This selflessness, however, is more related to the fact that they value a ring over an extra few million a year, rather than a desire to sacrifice for the greater good. It benefits their teammates, themselves, and their fans, but as for the rest of us? Not so much.

The NBA isn’t the most equitable league on the planet, but it isn’t the English Premier League, and as mentioned, the salary cap is one of a number of systems intended to ensure an element of competitive balance. This cap, as we know, acts to ensure teams can only have a playing group with a certain sum worth on their roster. When a player chooses to sign a contract which doesn’t reflect his true worth, it disrupts this system. The result? The Warriors.

I’m not one to say Golden State have ruined the NBA. They were that close to being beaten by Houston, and if that had’ve happened we would have all lost our opportunity to whinge and moan about them. Having said that – despite how good the Rockets are, the Warriors are clearly – clearly – the best roster in the NBA. If they play near their best, they won’t lose.

Now we have an NBA where other great players are scrambling to find ways to beat this juggernaut. Presumably, LeBron will join a far better team than the one he was on last season in a desperate attempt to challenge Golden State. Maybe that team will be Houston, but even if it isn’t the Rockets will no doubt be looking for that extra piece to their already Championship-quality roster as well. The balance is shifting, and a higher proportion of the best players in the league being on a select few teams is going to be the result. Of course the Warriors aren’t the first great team to get even better in their history, but they are the first 73 win team to sign the second best player in the world.

The Warriors themselves, of course, couldn’t give a single shit about any of this. They’ve been given the chance to be on the greatest team of all time, and seem to be having a hoot of a time while doing it. Good for them. I’d probably do the same. Unfortunately, I have about as much talent as Steph Curry’s little finger so don’t have that opportunity, and am instead forced to watch a league in which one team is clearly better than the rest, and everyone else is scrambling to stay competitive.

Draymond shouldn’t be criticised for taking a smaller contract than he could’ve demanded, nor should Durant. After all, they’re just trying to have a good time, and since so much emphasis is placed on rings, why not secure your place in history as one of the most successful players of all time? At the same time though, they do not deserve praise for earning a completely ridiculous amount of money instead of an even more ridiculous amount of money. Because just like the supermarket manager who decided to sell his avocados for well under their market value, they’ve upset the balance.

Clippers Offseason Outlook

The Clippers have a tricky summer ahead of them. They traded away their 2019 first-round pick, so they’ll need a roster ready compete for the postseason next year because having a poor record serves no purpose. So, what can they do?

The salary cap in the NBA for 2017-2018 was $99 million with the luxury tax sitting at $119 million. The cap has increased by $24 million since 2015-2016, resulting in teams being able to give more max contracts to top players.

The Clippers were $7 million under the luxury tax limit last season, when they finished 42-40 and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2011. Despite missing the postseason, the Clippers had the tenth highest payroll in the league.

A lot of what the Clippers can do this offseason will result from player options. Center DeAndre Jordan and guards Austin Rivers and Milos Teodosic all have to decide whether to opt into their deals or to become unrestricted free agents.

Other players who could sign elsewhere are guards Avery Bradley and Tyrone Wallace who are unrestricted free agents. Also, energy big Montrezl Harrell is a restricted free agent with a $1.8 million qualifying offer. Harrell could draw some interest since he is 24-years-old and has improved in each of his three seasons.

So, who is still on the books?

For starters, Sixth Man of the Year finalist Lou Williams signed a three-year contract worth $8 million per year just after the season ended. Forward C.J. Williams agreed on for two more years and will be paid $1.4 million in 2018-2019. Also, Wesley Johnson already opted into his deal worth $6 million for next season.

$56.4 million more is going towards seven players who were already locked in for 2018-2019, $21.6 million of which is going to Danilo Gallinari who played just 21 games last year (he made more than a million dollars per game).

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Photo via @gallinari8888

With all of those deals, and the money Los Angeles owes to past players, the Clippers are in line to spend about $74.7 million for next season at the beginning of June.

Theoretically, if all three players with options opt in, then the Clippers will be spending $112 million for next season before free agency starts.

They all could opt out and renegotiate for more lucrative deals. The most likely to do so being DeAndre Jordan, as he signed his last deal in 2015, before the salary cap rose, and stayed healthy and productive last season.

Rivers’ case for opting out is that he has steadily improved his scoring and three-point shooting in each season that he has been in Los Angeles. But, former GM Doc Rivers was highly criticized for giving his son $12 million dollars to be Chris Paul’s backup in the first place, so Austin Rivers may feel like he won’t get paid as much by another team for next season.

Teodosic should likely opt in. A nagging foot injury held him to 37 games in his debut season last year, but the Clippers were 24-13 in those games. He is a bit of an anomaly, entering the league at age 30 from Europe. Due to his health concerns and age, perhaps opting for the $6 million he’d earn with the Clippers is the smartest move.

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Photo via @MilosTeodosic4

So, the team’s financial situation gives General Manager Lawrence Frank and Consultant Jerry West a couple of options for how to handle the offseason.

One thing they can do is work to retain most of last year’s team and their new draft picks, they have the twelfth.

That means negotiating with Jordan, Rivers and Teodosic if they opt out, as well as matching any offer that Harrell receives.

Bradley was paid just under $9 million per year for the past four years, so he will most likely look to get a pay raise, one that the Clippers will not be able to afford.

Wallace was on a two-way deal last year, like C.J. Williams, meaning he bounced back-and-forth from the G-League. Wallace will most likely play Summer League ball before possibly getting re-signed for a friendly deal, similar to C.J. Williams’ contract. He could be a valuable cheaper player as he played well in his 30 games (19 starts) last year.

Injuries played a big role last season for the Clippers, so perhaps with better luck health-wise and a couple of new young talents, Head Coach Doc Rivers’ club could jump back into the postseason.

However, another way of going about the offseason for Frank and West could start with creating cap room. This requires letting Jordan walk, after a decade of being a Clipper, if he opts out. It also means letting Austin Rivers leave if he opts out, as well as not re-signing Harrell or Wallace.

If those contracts are gone, and perhaps a trade is made to take more money off of the books, then the Clippers could add another max deal by entering the sweepstakes for free agents like Paul George or DeMarcus Cousins.

But, the Clippers refrained from trading Jordan at the deadline, which could mean that they just didn’t find the right deal for him or that re-signing their center is part of their plan. Plus, most of the Clippers’ workouts for players who have entered the draft have been with wings and guards.

Maybe there is a trade brewing to send a few players away while keeping the core with Jordan and Lou Williams intact and pairing them with their youngsters.

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West and Frank could also possibly package their two picks and try to move up in the draft. There are rumors that the Clippers are interested in European prospect Luka Doncic, who is a highly regarded combo guard. He won the MVP of his league in 2017-2018.

A lot can happen this summer for the Clippers’ franchise, especially with Jerry West calling a lot of the shots. He worked wonders as a consultant with Golden State, perhaps he has the right eye to see how to help the Clippers become contenders again.

 

The Cavaliers have a lot to do in order to keep LeBron James

The Cleveland Cavaliers could end up being the NBA’s biggest losers of the offseason. Losing LeBron James in free agency would turn this perennial title contender into a mediocre team that could struggle to make the eighth seed in the East.

James is coming off of one of the greatest playoff runs in NBA history. He averaged 34 points per-game with nine assists and nine rebounds per-contest. He led an otherwise struggling Cleveland team into the Finals for the fourth consecutive year. He also scored 51 points in a losing effort in Game 1 of the Finals.

James will have a lot of options to choose from this summer, and the Cavs don’t appear to be the most appealing. The most prominent reason why is because they will have a difficult time improving their roster that got swept by Golden State.

The Cavaliers paid well over the salary cap this season and are scheduled to still be over the cap in 2018-2019, regardless of whether James re-signs or not.

This is because the Cavs owe Kevin Love over $24 million next year, they owe George Hill $19 million, Tristan Thompson will get $17.5 million, J.R. Smith will get over $14 million and Jordan Clarkson will earn $12.5 million.

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The Salary cap sits at $99 million, and those five players will make $87.8 million combined. Another $14 million is owed to four others. There is no money to work with for General Manager Koby Altman, which is a problem since the talent surrounding James this past season proved lackluster in the playoffs.

The most exciting thing they can do this offseason with the roster they have, besides possibly bringing back James, is drafting the eighth overall pick that they received from the Kyrie Irving trade.

Adding one young player most likely won’t be substantial enough to bring back James. The best chance Cleveland has is to try their best to trade some of their big contracts and create cap room.

This could prove tough. Hill is now 32-years-old and had his worst statistical season since 2012.

Thompson also experienced the worst year scoring wise of his career, and his rebounds-per-game were the lowest since his rookie campaign.

Also, there are cheaper options for teams to sign at shooting guard than J.R. Smith, so many teams will likely pass on him unless given draft compensation. Marco Belinelli, same age and position as Smith, scored more points and shot more efficiently for Atlanta this past season. He made half as much money as Smith last season, and he is a current free agent.

Lou Williams was just re-signed by the Clippers for $8 million per year. He scored 22 points-per-game while leading the Clippers in assists this season, and he will be paid just over half as much as Smith next year.

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Now, if James leaves, then the Cavs will need their eighth overall pick. Historically, players like four-time All-Star Tom Chambers, three-time All-Star Detlef Schrempf and three-time Sixth-Man of the Year Jamal Crawford have been selected there, so a high quality young player could fall to them.

Trading future picks could also prove dangerous because if James leaves, then those picks get higher and more valuable.

But, in order to keep “The King,” they will need to deal some of their picks away with some of their big contracts. A rebuilding team could possibly be willing to eat up Thompson or Smith’s deal if that means they get a future pick.

They could use their picks to trade for a star talent to pair with James possibly. Perhaps the Charlotte Hornets would give up 2018 All-Star point guard Kemba Walker for the eighth overall selection, perhaps a second rounder and then a contract like Thompson’s.

Walker is no Kyrie Irving, but he a talented guard on a team who could be willing to sell. He averaged 22.1 points-per-game this past season and shoots well from three.

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Or, perhaps the Cavs could try to trade their picks and contracts for cheap role players and create cap to go after free agents that James may like to play with. But, that would require a lot of maneuvering, and maybe force Cleveland to deal more picks than they are comfortable with.

Altman and the Cleveland front office have a critical summer ahead of them, and they’ll need to be active from the start in order to have a chance to keep LeBron James.