13 Observations From the D-League Showcase

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Some random news and notes after a few days on the West Coast — first in Santa Cruz for the D-League Showcase, and then in Los Angeles to tape The Grantland Basketball Hour:

1. The Larry Sanders situation is the talk of the league right now.

This is a worst-case scenario for any team that bets big on a talented young player with major personal issues. The league suspended Sanders a minimum of 10 games, and he will likely miss more than that — possibly many more — as he works through the league’s treatment program.

It’s unclear exactly how much the Bucks knew about Sanders’s marijuana issues when they signed him to a four-year, $44 million extension in August 2013. This is Sanders’s fourth violation of the league’s drug testing rules; players don’t face any suspension until violation no. 3. That came toward the end of last season, when Sanders served the mandatory five-game suspension. Teams generally aren’t notified about any drug violations until a player is suspended, meaning the Bucks might not have received any formal notice of Sanders’s first two violations. That does not absolve the Bucks from doing background work on their own player.

Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo reported over the weekend that the Bucks had not yet discussed a potential buyout with Sanders, but most league sources expect the discussion to eventually go that direction. It’s tempting to suggest the Bucks ride this out for a bit. Sanders is one of the league’s best rim protectors. His development on offense has stalled out, but he has some potential on that end as a Tyson Chandler Lite — a guy who screens, dives to the rim, and sucks help defenders in from the perimeter. He needs time (and possibly a hand transplant) to approach even 60 percent of Chandler’s value on offense, but his contract is fair in basketball terms.

Milwaukee has a clean cap sheet going forward and no plans to rush its rebuild with a mega–free agency signing. Is the savings it might net in a buyout, plus lifting the Sanders pall from the locker room, worth the risk he might eventually thrive on another team? Maybe it is. The situation may well be worse than we realize.

2. The Showcase itself is a fun event, though not as fun as it might have been.

The D-League had planned to partner with Zebra Technologies to install tracking devices inside the jersey of every player during the event. The devices pump out cool motion-tracking data fast enough for real-time use on television, but Zebra and the league couldn’t quite get everything up and running by go time in Santa Cruz. Oh well.

The D-League announced about a year ago that four of its teams would wear a different sort of motion-tracking device during games — the Catapult product that monitors heart rate, accelerations, and other health-related data. Only one team, the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, currently outfits all of its roster players with the Catapult monitors. It is not a coincidence Fort Wayne is the only D-League team without a one-to-one NBA parent club; 13 NBA teams share the Mad Ants. Parent clubs with direct control of a single D-League team have been less interested in Catapult, since all recorded information goes into a shared database all NBA teams can access.

3. The Showcase ended with a single-elimination tournament.

The NBA has floated the idea of its own midseason tournament, and it’s probably not a coincidence it tried out a similar format at this season’s Showcase.

4. The aborted Brook Lopez trade hijacked the Showcase on Thursday night.

Everyone was buzzing about it. The Thunder under Sam Presti have long had an affection for Lopez; one former Thunder official revealed to me two years ago that the franchise thought seriously about drafting Lopez over Russell Westbrook in 2008. The Thunder were on the verge of acquiring Lopez at a super-cheap price — something like Jeremy Lamb, Grant Jerrett, and Kendrick Perkins’s expiring contract — until the Nets wisely pulled back to further test the market. I’d expect the Thunder to inquire on Lopez again soon.

There were loud debates at the Showcase on Thursday and Friday about whether Lopez would fit in Oklahoma City. The detractors claimed Lopez was a slowpoke who would hold back the Thunder’s transition attack, clog the lane on offense, and demand back-to-the-basket post-ups that would siphon possessions away from Westbrook and Kevin Durant. Lopez has a scary history of foot and back issues; one more broken foot could have a catastrophic impact on his career.

All fair points. But the Thunder aren’t getting much better than Lopez for the pu pu platter they offered up, and they already traded one first-round pick for Dion Waiters. The Thunder could have gotten one solid player — Jeff Green, Arron Afflalo, or some 3-and-D wing type — with the combination of Perkins’s expiring and a future first-round pick, and there is something to be said for turning that same combination of assets into two players.

Lopez can be a lane-clogger on offense, but Steven Adams and Perkins are already doing that for damn near 48 minutes per game between them. If you’re going to muck up driving lanes, you might as well do it with a big man who can actually score.

The risk would be minimal if Scott Brooks used Lopez off the bench, where he’d be a massive upgrade over Perkins and whatever remains of Nick Collison. He could work as the fulcrum of bench-heavy units that might grow too dependent on Waiters and Reggie Jackson, though Brooks over the last few games has done a better job keeping either Durant or Westbrook on the floor at nearly all times.

Lopez has the versatility on offense to slide into the Thunder’s crunch-time lineup alongside Serge Ibaka — at least in games when Brooks doesn’t feel comfortable finishing with Durant at power forward in small-ball lineups. Lopez has gravitated more toward the perimeter this season, and he has hit a tidy 44 percent of his long 2-point jumpers — mostly on pick-and-pops and spot-up chances. He hit 55 percent from that range last season, per Basketball-Reference, before suffering another broken foot.

Lopez could actually help the Thunder’s spacing in some lineups. Oklahoma City is going to have trouble playing Adams and Andre Roberson, which is a problem, since they’re both starting now. We’ve seen this movie in the playoffs with Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha, only Roberson, a nice kid and tenacious defender, makes Sefolosha look like Kyle Korver. Slide Lopez into some of those minutes, and Roberson is suddenly playable again

When Lopez is healthy, he’s a smart cutter away from the ball. He can skulk around the baseline, wait for a slasher to break down the defense, and then flash into open space around the hoop for easy buckets. He can be a dump-off guy for Westbrook and Durant. And for all of his faults as a defender and rebounder, Lopez is a legitimate obstacle when he’s standing near the basket as a last line of defense. He can’t jump, but he’s huge, and teams haven’t shot all that well on close shots when Lopez is near the rim, per SportVU data.

He wouldn’t be the cleanest fit. Neither is Waiters, despite his hot-ish start for the Thunder. But the cleanest fits aren’t always available.

5. Any deal for Lopez would raise tax issues — both past and present.

It would make us revisit the James Harden trade, since the Thunder would be rocketing themselves into the tax for a vastly inferior player — and flipping Perkins, the guy they wouldn’t amnesty, to make the deal work. Lopez has a $16.7 million player option for next season, and most league executives expect him to exercise it, barring a major surge over the second half of the season.

Adding that to the Thunder’s books would take their payroll into the $85 million range for next season, about $4 million above the projected tax. That doesn’t include any salary for Jackson, a restricted free agent this summer. Any deal for a Lopezian salary in 2015-16 would likely clinch Jackson’s departure from Oklahoma City — if that ship hasn’t already sailed.

6. The Celtics have a gazillion trade exceptions of varying sizes.

After their flurry of deals over the last two weeks, the Celtics could absorb some extra salaries from teams looking to shed money or work complex trades. (Credit to Marc Stein, who rattled off Boston’s precise trade exception information when I bumped into him Thursday in Santa Cruz. Few people enjoy trade exception minutiae as much as Steiny.)

Boston has been calling around the league over the last week, reminding GMs that Philly isn’t the only team with salary space to rent out as we approach the February 19 trade deadline.

7. Speaking of the trade deadline: Don’t be shocked if there is some discussion about moving it up by a least a week or two.

As Kevin Pelton noted, we’re on a record pace for pre-February trades. The perception that the championship race is wide open explains some of that urgency, but there is a sense that more team executives would prefer to get major in-season moves done earlier. Acting at the trade deadline leaves only 25 games or so to integrate a key new player.

There’s a flip side, of course: A later trade deadline gives teams more time to see how good they really are, and to identify themselves more comfortably as “buyers” or “sellers.” There’s no right answer, but some executives have already pitched an earlier trade deadline in informal discussions with league officials.

8. There were some laments at the Showcase about how many quality players had left the D-League this season, or passed on it entirely, to chase more lucrative deals in Europe.

This is not a new issue. Top players in the D-League earn only about $25,000 per season, much less than even a marginal NBA prospect can make overseas. I wonder if the league and players’ union could sit down and bargain on this one issue between now and 2017, when either side can opt out of the collective bargaining agreement and start renegotiating the whole damn thing.

9. Look for the Bucks to snag a backup point guard.

After waiving Nate Wolters and then watching Kendall Marshall suffer a torn ACL, the Bucks are a team in need. What a tough break for Marshall, who was beginning to find an NBA niche after flaming out as a lottery pick in Phoenix. Jason Kidd had Marshall posting up now and then, and it was actually working as a vehicle to draw help and create shots for other players.

10. We may be getting more summer ball.

In November, Jeff Zilgitt of USA Today reported that officials from the Jazz and the league office were pushing to revive the old Rocky Mountain Revue summer basketball league in Utah — perhaps as early as this coming summer. The push has continued since, and several sources at the Showcase said the league appears on track to host a four- or six-team summer league in Utah this year. An announcement could come soon.

11. Stein reported that the Suns had made Miles Plumlee available for trade.

That was indeed a topic of at least mild interest in Santa Cruz. The Suns want a first-rounder for him, per Stein, and there is major skepticism about whether any team would meet that price.

12. This could be random, but nearly a half-dozen executives from different teams mentioned the possibility of the Spurs luring LaMarcus Aldridge in free agency with a max contract.

Let me be clear, my beloved Portland maniacs: I do not see this happening. Repeat: I do not see this happening. Aldridge isn’t the type to say stuff lightly, so it meant a lot — to everyone — when he declared so emphatically in July that he would sign a new five-year contract this summer and hopefully go down as the “best Blazer ever.”

It’s always wise to take sunny public comments about free agency with a pile of salt, but Aldridge is a bit of a different cat in this regard. Still: I found it interesting that after having heard very little San Antonio/Aldridge talk of any kind, ever, a bunch of unconnected higher-ups suddenly started mentioning it over the last two weeks. Someone said something to start the rumor mill churning, and the Blazers have always considered one of Aldridge’s home-state Texas teams the biggest threat to snag him away.

San Antonio waited on a Kawhi Leonard extension precisely to hoard max cap space this summer in case both Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili retire. Dallas could have max-level space, though it’d have to renounce several very good free agents to get it. Houston would need to cut some salary, but it also has the goods to put together a solid sign-and-trade offer if Aldridge makes it known he’d prefer to go there.

This is probably much ado about very little. Aldridge is in a wonderful spot as the co-centerpiece of a top team, with a superstar point guard, a smart coach/GM combo, and a nucleus of prime-age veterans — most of whom are also free agents the Blazers could re-sign this summer via Bird rights. Portland can offer him one more year and about $30 million more than any other suitor.

13. There was, of course, lots of talk about the Hawks.

The discussions especially are about whether they provide any team-building lessons for the rest of the league. The Hawks have reaffirmed the importance of ball movement, unselfishness, and shooting in a league where zone defense is legal and handchecking isn’t. But we already knew that stuff.

It has long been said that free agency below the star level is an inefficient market — that teams end up overpaying for players on the wrong side of the aging curve. There is a lot of evidence that is true. But some executives see the Hawks as proof that there are smart deals to be had in sub-star free agency if you know what players fit your culture.

Perhaps. Atlanta snagged Paul Millsap, Kyle Korver, DeMarre Carroll, Mike Scott, Pero Antic, and other free agents on what now look like bargain deals. But they also drafted Al Horford at no. 3 and chased Chris Paul, Dwight Howard, Carmelo Anthony, and LeBron James in free agency — or at least positioned themselves in hopes of doing so — at various times over the last three years. Coming away without a superstar and building this particular team was not Plan A. Nailing free agency below the superstar stratosphere requires its own brand of luck — good timing amid chaos, the interest or noninterest of rival teams, the order in which other dominoes fall, and the gamble of injury- and character-related risks. You can only plan so much. Millsap’s two-year, $19 million deal seemed wacky when he signed it, and it seems even wackier now.

Regardless: Atlanta is the toast of the league right now. What a story.

Filed Under: NBA, Larry Sanders, Milwaukee Bucks, NBA D-League, Brook Lopez, Brooklyn Nets, Boston Celtics, miles plumlee, Phoenix Suns, LaMarcus Aldridge, San Antonio Spurs, Atlanta Hawks, Portland Trail Blazers

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Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

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