Doc Rivers had to be grateful to receive that call from DeAndre Jordan, who just three days earlier had verbally committed to signing with the Mavericks.
Jordan expressed regret about his decision, and the league’s moratorium preventing free agents from officially signing with clubs was still six days from being lifted. After hearing that Jordan was wavering, Rivers gathered a stronger Clippers contingent than that of their previous meeting with Jordan — including newest addition Paul Pierce — and headed to Houston to convince Jordan to accept their maximum offer and remain with the only NBA team he’s ever known.
The 26-year-old center committed to Dallas on July 3 after meeting in Los Angeles with the Mavericks’ recruiting team that included owner Mark Cuban. After he pledged to sign, Jordan headed home to Houston, where he told his family he was having second thoughts. He then began approaching his Clippers teammates.
As one NBA executive said, “Once Doc got wind of this and then pitched DeAndre’s mother on coming back to Los Angeles, it was over.”
Jordan broke the unwritten rule of sticking to a verbal commitment during free agency. The nine-day moratorium period was instituted to prevent a Wild West style of free agency in which teams would demand free agents sign immediately. Now these young, impressionable men have nine days to make a decision, and Jordan had six days to consider his decision. It appears he was influenced by agent Dan Fegan, who wanted Jordan in Dallas. And the Mavericks lured Jordan by offering a chance to be a primary offensive option, something that was not promised in Los Angeles.
By the time the meeting ended with the Mavericks, Jordan felt inclined to commit, at the urging of Fegan, who also represents Dwight Howard, a player Cuban tried and failed to recruit a few years ago.
When Jordan did sign a four-year deal with the Clippers, Fegan was not present. A representative of his agency was, indicating there was a disconnect between client and agent. What this also may indicate is that some players are being unduly persuaded by agents to make free agent decisions to perhaps pay back favors to owners, or to allow those owners to offer contracts to the agent’s other clients.
Some players appear to misunderstand that the agent is their employee, not the reverse. Jordan is a former second-round pick who blossomed into one of the league’s best defensive centers. He shouldn’t be blamed for changing his mind. He should be blamed for not accepting Cuban’s frantic calls and explaining that he was going to stay with the Clippers.
In 2011, Jordan was a restricted free agent and received a four-year, $43 million offer from the Warriors that the Clippers matched. This was his first opportunity at unrestricted free agency and he botched the process but eventually made the right decision for himself. The decision wrecked the Mavericks. They had to spend their cap space so they were resigned to offering an additional $13 million to Wesley Matthews, who signed a four-year deal for $70 million coming off of a torn Achilles’ tendon.
With Jordan waiting until the last minute to make his final decision, the free agent market was bare, forcing Dallas to acquire Milwaukee’s Zaza Pachulia as a stopgap. Luckily, the Mavericks were also able to acquire Brooklyn’s Deron Williams, who was bought out by the Nets.
Still, Cuban is forced to place an inferior product on the court because Jordan changed his mind. It’s a difficult situation but teams generally don’t offer apologies when they trade a player in the middle of a multiyear contract or include a player in a trade simply because the salaries fit.
Following Jordan’s experience, perhaps now players will take a deep breath following these recruiting dinners and make sound decisions that don’t involve emotion. The NBA likely won’t adjust the moratorium rules. The league will refer to this Jordan incident as an exception and point out the dozens of free agents who kept their verbal commitments.
But this may also be a lesson to players to be more assertive when dealing with their agents, and for agents to drop the personal agendas and understand the needs and desires of each client. That is what is most important in this process.
Divac sets sights on Kings’ revival
Vlade Divac is a legend in Sacramento, playing for some of the outstanding Kings teams in the late 1990s and early 2000s. New owner Vivek Ranadive essentially hired him to run the organization, and soon after general manager Pete D’Alessandro headed to Denver knowing he was being replaced in Sacramento.
Now in charge, Divac has spent the last 10 days throwing money at any marketable free agent who would consider Sacramento. Some passed on the Kings’ money, others such as former Celtic Rajon Rondo, former Memphis center Kosta Koufos, and ex-Spur Marco Belinelli accepted their offers.
In the midst of reshaping the organization, Divac also has to determine whether George Karl and DeMarcus Cousins can coexist. Divac maintained he was not going to trade Cousins during the NBA Draft or during free agency, and he has maintained his word.
But he did say the relationship between his coach and franchise cornerstone desperately needs reviving. Cousins indicated that he thought Karl was trying to trade him following the season, discussing deals with the Lakers.
Karl didn’t exactly give Cousins, a one-time All-Star considered one of the league’s better centers, a ringing endorsement when asked about the big man during a charity golf tournament two weeks ago. But for now, the two appear stuck with each other, and Divac is working to improve relations.
“It’s all clear, right?” a smiling Divac said about the relationship between Karl and Cousins. “Everything is getting better. That’s all.”
Divac has spent his post-career as a European scout for the Lakers, a member of the Serbian Olympic Committee, and working in management with Real Madrid. This is his first NBA management job as his sparkling playing career with Sacramento earned him enough clout to make basketball decisions for a franchise that has been moribund for more than a decade.
“It’s great to be back in the NBA and do what actually I did all my life, following basketball, watching games, watching talent, so it’s exciting,” Divac said. “We changed our team from last year, changed the culture. I think it’s very important to make sure that our team has a winning mentality, and that’s exactly what we did.”
It’s a difficult endeavor, changing the culture of a franchise that has been a laughingstock for years.
“First of all, we have a coach who knows how to win the games,” Divac said of Karl. “And we have three guys on our team, Rudy Gay, [Darren] Collison, and DeMarcus, they were in a tough situation the last few years. They were losing, losing. And now we add more talent and somebody who has experience in winning championships like Belinelli, Rondo, and even Kosta Koufos coming from a playoff team. So that put us in a good situation in the locker room.”
Still, the Kings are not expected to reach the playoffs in the Western Conference. They are improved over the past several years. But Ranadive needs to produce an exciting and attractive product as they move into a new arena. Rondo could be an integral part of the rebuilding. But he is coming off a disastrous stint with the Mavericks that saw him eventually excused from the team during the first round of the playoffs. Once thought to be a maximum-salary player when he hit free agency, Rondo signed a one-year, $9.5 million deal to resurrect his career with a team that he previous said he wouldn’t play for when trade rumors surfaced while he was with the Celtics.
“It can happen overnight, it just depends on what kind of chemistry we’re going to build,” Divac said. “We’ll see in October.”
“I really like his game and I think he’s a great kid,” Divac added of Rondo. “Some frustration from losing creates misunderstanding with the coaches [in Dallas]. I give him an opportunity to clear that up and at the same time he’s going to help us. So it’s a win-win situation for both parties.
“I talked very open with him with what we are going through, what we wanted to achieve, and he was open with me. So I think we understood each other very well.”
The Kings likely would not have signed Rondo if not for his desperation to resurrect his image, and the same could be said for Bellinelli and Koufos, who each signed lucrative deals for expanded roles.
“I think the only guy who chose [another team] was Wes [Matthews, who signed with Dallas],” Divac said. “But everyone else I talked to came here. I remember when I was a free agent, I chose Sacramento and it wasn’t pretty. But you want to go somewhere to take that challenge and be part of the process. So I think it was really tough for DeMarcus and Rudy and Darren, but we have some more talent and it’s going to be a different season.”
There may not be a more mercurial player in the NBA than Cousins, who can openly pout on the court when he doesn’t get a call or rush a bad shot when he feels frustrated. But when he is mentally locked in, he can be one of the league’s more dominant players. Divac has maintained the desire to make Cousins the leader of a resurgence.
“In some ways [he’s misunderstood],” Divac said. “He’s a great talent, a great kid. I’m very happy to work with him. There’s a lot of potential there.”
Asked if he would trade Cousins, Divac said, “You media like those things to create — for me there’s nothing out there that I would pull the trigger on.”
Asked about Karl, who has three years left on his contract after being hired late last season, Divac didn’t offer a resounding endorsement: “We’ll see. He has to win the games. He’s a coach who has a lot of experience and he knows how to fix things. So we’ll see.”
Lakers relighting competitive fire
The Lakers didn’t exactly make a splash in free agency, feeling the harsh reality that available players weren’t interested in Los Angeles if they weren’t close to contending. And they aren’t. Essentially, the Lakers settled for free agents Lou Williams and Brandon Bass, and then acquired Roy Hibbert from the Pacers.
There is excitement in Los Angeles about rookie guard D’Angelo Russell and second-year forward Julius Randle, whose rookie season was reduced to one game because of a broken leg. The plan is to blend young (Russell, Randle) with old (Kobe Bryant) and new (Williams, Bass, Hibbert) to field a competitive team.
When you are unable to attract major free agents, you have to adjust. Coach Byron Scott is in his second season attempting to resurrect a once-proud franchise. The playoffs are a long shot. Competitiveness is the goal.
“Defensively, we have to upgrade from where we were last year,” Scott said of a team that ranked 29th in the NBA in points allowed. “We’ve got to get better at that end of the floor and Hibbert is a former [All-Defensive Team member] and a two-time All-Star. Roy and I talked the other day a little bit and I told him, ‘The one thing I need for you to do is rebound and protect that paint and we’ll figure out the rest later. That’s the one thing we have to do right from the start.’ He was great in our meeting and I am looking forward to it.”
Russell has impressed in early workouts. He has uncanny passing ability and floor vision that could make him a starter on opening night. But he’s a 19-year-old point guard and will have a steep learning curve at the league’s toughest position.
“It might be a little too early to tell but I’ve seen some gifts that he has that are special,” Scott said. “His vision on the court is special. I’ve seen that the last several practices that we had. After every practice, he does something that your eyes kind of get a little bit wider. So he has some things that he can do on the court that can make you smile. I’m really excited about that. I think we’ve all still got to remember that he’s 19 years old.”
The signing of Bass to a two-year deal with a player option for the second season was for the express purpose of pushing Randle and setting an example. Bass was the consummate professional during his time in Boston and served as a leader for the younger players.
“I know Brandon extremely well, he’s just a tough, hard-nosed basketball player,” said Scott, who coached Bass as a rookie with the Hornets. “He knows who he is. He’s a lot like [former Laker] Ed Davis. He doesn’t try to go outside the box. I think every day going against Julius Randle is going to help Julius. But this guy goes hard. And they are about the same size. For practice, the competition at every position is going to be fun to watch.
“I’m hoping that Julius takes the lead and jumps on that opportunity to be our starting power forward. I’m going to let it play out.”
Don’t be surprised that teams aren’t immediately announcing signings and trades now that the free agent moratorium has concluded. Teams are simply trying to maneuver their salary caps to determine which moves to make first, maximizing available money. For example, the Celtics may want to sign Jonas Jerebko or Jae Crowder first after signing Amir Johnson because they may need to go over the salary cap to earn another exception. That’s why every team has a salary cap expert such as the Celtics’ Michael Zarren, a master of the cap and how all moves affect the Celtics’ ability to make other moves. Remember, the Celtics did not officially announce the signing of Evan Turner until August, a month after their verbal agreement . . . The National Basketball Players Association is going through with its “Players Awards,” which will be taped on July 19 in Las Vegas and air July 21 on Black Entertainment Television. LeBron James, Stephen Curry, and Chris Paul are among the All-Stars expected to attend. The NBPA decided it wants to conduct its own awards with players-only voting in contrast to the traditional NBA awards that are voted on by the media . . . Kevin Garnett, after threatening to retire each of the past four years, has agreed to a two-year contract with the Timberwolves, meaning that he will be 41 at the end of his contract and will have played 22 years. Only two players have played at least 22 years in their careers — former Celtic Robert Parish and big man Kevin Willis played well into their 40s. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar played 20 seasons, retiring at age 41. Garnett, 39, missed most of last season with knee issues but apparently will enter the season healthy and prepared to play about 20 minutes per game . . . The re-signing of ex-Boston College standout Reggie Jackson by the Pistons for $16 million per season caused shock around the NBA because it appears Jackson, a restricted free agent, had no other serious suitor. Jackson, 25, who has been criticized for selfishness during his career, played well with the Pistons after being acquired from the Thunder at the trade deadline last season. Coach and team president Stan Van Gundy promised Jackson the Pistons would bring him back. Jackson’s patience paid off. He turned down a four-year, $48 million extension from the Thunder before being traded.
Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.