Leaving Las Vegas
The exodus of players departing mid-stream for the NBA (and the reasons why) dominated G League Showcase discussion rather than trade talk
LAS VEGAS — That famed desert maxim we all love to recite has never been less true for the National Basketball Association.
Seemingly nothing and no one involved with the 2021 G League Showcase stayed in Vegas for very long.
The NBA brought Showcase back to the Mandalay Bay Convention Center after a one-year, COVID-19 imposed absence in 2020 with the intent of reestablishing the event as basketball's spin on baseball's Winter Meetings. It simply wasn't possible to create that kind of effect in the league's current COVID climate, with teams all over the NBA map forced to move player after player into health and safety protocols and then consumed by a frenzied search for replacements.
Beyond its obvious appeal as a backdrop for trade talks, with representatives from every NBA team in attendance, Showcase has always offered abundant scouting opportunities, featuring four days' worth of games in one place to get a look at every single G Leaguer. Yet this has been a Showcase unlike any other, with more than 30 G Leaguers called up on 10-day hardship deals as emergency NBA signees before Day 3 of the Showcase schedule had even tipped off.
The G League's single-season record for call-ups was established in 2014-15: 47 players promoted to the NBA via 63 separate transactions. That record is likely to fall now before we even get to January, which is the month that 10-day contracts become permissible leaguewide in a normal season.
Thanks to the exodus of talent on the Vegas strip, attendance from the scouting community was expected to wane entering Wednesday's play — especially with the G League Ignite, easily the biggest draw for NBA team representatives in attendance, having already played its two games Sunday and Monday.
Numerous key decision-makers from around the league were spotted during the first two days, including Denver's Tim Connelly, Dallas' NIco Harrison, Memphis' Zach Kleiman, Charlotte's Mitch Kupchak, Oklahoma City's Sam Presti and the San Antonio duo of R.C. Buford and Brian Wright. Toronto's Masai Ujiri, fresh off his own recent stint in the league's health and safety protocols, was also briefly in attendance.
Yet the swift spread of the Omicron variant has quickly made this season look a lot like last season, when the NBA had to postpone 31 games from December through February. After a relatively placid start to the 2021-22 campaign, more frequent testing post-Thanksgiving and the rise of Omicron has led to more than 100 NBA players entering the league's COVID protocols this month.
The resulting scramble to deal with roster crises, at least for now, has taken precedence over trade talks for numerous teams.
Seven NBA games have been postponed this month, two of the 30 G League teams scheduled to compete here (affiliates from Chicago and Toronto) were sent home because of COVID issues and mounting concern throughout the league about staging the five games which appear on Saturday's highly anticipated Christmas schedule with representative rosters is palpable.
The expectation nonetheless persists that the NBA, following the template it established last season, will do whatever it can to avoid pausing the regular season, for all the reasons I listed Sunday in the tweet below. Prime among them is the unfortunate reality that bringing a halt to games for a week or a month or whatever time frame is proposed does not ensure that a further rash of COVID intrusions or a new problem variant isn't lurking on the other side of the pause.
"This virus will not be eradicated, and we're going to have to learn to live with it," NBA commissioner Adam Silver said Tuesday in a televised interview with ESPN.
Rising criticism that the league faces over quality of play amid so many lineup disruptions, competitive balance caused by roster tumult, inconsistency compared to last season in terms of which teams' games are being postponed and the overall product fans are getting these days at full NBA ticket places is all valid and justified. But I've heard little surprise expressed in the Showcase crowds about the league's push to try to grit through the winter months as seen in 2020-21. The NBA did not bake flexibility into this season's schedule like it did last season by releasing only a first-half schedule for starters, so the desire to limit the number of game postponements that require second-half solutions by any means necessary was somewhat expected.
Much more difficult to understand and accept is the nightly sight of so many maskless fans congregated at NBA games played indoors. Toronto is the league's only team to date that has seen its crowd capacity reduced and masking regulations ramped up by local government officials since the season began. Hopefully local jurisdictions throughout the league will start to step in and impose similar mandates, because it's clear by now that many teams — facing Year 3 of diminished revenues in the Coronavirus Era — are unlikely to proactively turn ticket-buyers away or police the maskless.
If we can strain to pinpoint a silver lining in these circumstances, it's the rush of opportunity for so many players toiling in the G League who, when December arrived, could only dream of a spot in Silver's league.
Among them: Lance Stephenson. Born Ready, as Stephenson is known, has been out of the NBA since his stint with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2018-19 and watched three teammates on the Denver Nuggets' affiliate — Davon Reed, Isaiah Thomas and Nik Stauskas — get NBA call-ups before he did. To his credit, Stephenson stayed engaged with the Grand Rapids Gold as he kept getting passed over, playing with unmistakable force in Grand Rapids' loss Monday to the Birmingham Squadron.
"He's getting called up — there's no doubt in my mind," Grand Rapids coach Jason Terry told me after the defeat, insisting that the Stephenson skeptics out there would not prevail for much longer.
On Tuesday morning, Terry was proved correct. Stephenson finally got the call from the Atlanta Hawks, reuniting him with his former Indiana Pacers coach Nate McMillan.
"This is the best time ever to be a G League guy," Boston Celtics coach Ime Udoka said this week.
Mark that down as one of the few comforting thoughts that the NBA's Vegas-goers will be bringing home.
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There was a time that a player getting summoned by an NBA team for a call-up while participating in the G League Showcase was an event-shaking, NBA TV-emergency-coverage situation. I can still remember what a big deal it was in 2010 for Sundiata Gaines of the Idaho Stampede to land a 10-day deal from the Utah Jazz.
The 2021 edition will be remembered for a different vibe entirely.
After the first two days of the four-day event, with numerous NBA teams facing a serious manpower shortage because of the latest COVID-19 surges, 30 players leaguewide had been signed to 10-day contracts via the NBA's hardship exception rules that allow for emergency signings. A few were plucked from G League clubs before they even got to Vegas, like Chicago's Stanley Johnson, Brooklyn's Langston Galloway and the Lakers' Isaiah Thomas.
Wednesday brought another flurry of call-ups. With yet another assist from the tireless @KeithSmithNBA, here are the 40-plus players so far (including free agents) to receive hardship contracts this month:
Davon Reed (Grand Rapids Gold to Denver Nuggets)
Stanley Johnson (South Bay Lakers to Chicago Bulls)
Alfonzo McKinnie (Capitanes de Ciudad de México to Chicago Bulls)
Langston Galloway (College Park Skyhawks to Brooklyn Nets)
Aleem Ford (Lakeland Magic to Orlando Magic)
Hassani Gravett (Lakeland Magic to Orlando Magic)
BJ Johnson (Lakeland Magic to Orlando Magic)
Admiral Schofield (Lakeland Magic to Orlando Magic)
Isaiah Thomas (Grand Rapids Gold to Los Angeles Lakers)
*Justin Robinson (Sacramento Kings)
Tyler Hall (Westchester Knicks to New York Knicks)
Justin Jackson (Texas Legends to Boston Celtics)
*James Ennis III (Brooklyn Nets)
Shaquille Harrison (Delaware Blue Coats to Brooklyn Nets)
*C.J. Miles (Boston Celtics)
Wenyen Gabriel (Wisconsin Herd to Brooklyn Nets)
Justin Anderson (Fort Wayne Mad Ants to Cleveland Cavaliers)
Luke Kornet (Maine Celtics to Cleveland Cavaliers)
*Marquese Chriss (Dallas Mavericks)
Theo Pinson (Maine Celtics to Dallas Mavericks)
Damyean Dotson (Austin Spurs to New York Knicks)
Freddie Gillespie (Memphis Hustle to Orlando Magic)
Brandon Goodwin (Westchester Knicks to Toronto Raptors)
Juwan Morgan (Maine Celtics to Toronto Raptors)
*Tyler Johnson (Philadelphia 76ers)
Jemerrio Jones (Wisconsin Herd to Los Angeles Lakers)
Matt Mooney (Capitanes de Ciudad de México to New York Knicks)
Nik Stauskas (Grand Rapids Gold to Toronto Raptors)
Chris Silva (Iowa Wolves to Minnesota Timberwolves)
Rayjon Tucker (Wisconsin Herd to Minnesota Timberwolves)
George King (Agua Caliente Clippers to Dallas Mavericks)
Lance Stephenson (Grand Rapids Gold to Atlanta Hawks)
*Tim Frazier (Orlando Magic)
Zylan Cheatham (Birmingham Squadron to Miami Heat)
Tremont Waters (Wisconsin Herd to Toronto Raptors)
Ade Murkey (Stockton Kings to Sacramento Kings)
Malcolm Hill (Birmingham Squadron to Atlanta Hawks)
Mac McClung (South Bay Lakers to Chicago Bulls)
Jordan Schakel (Capital City Go-Go to Washington Wizards)
*Ersan İlyasova (Chicago Bulls)
Moses Wright (Agua Caliente Clippers to LA Clippers)
*Signed as a free agent rather than via the G League
Three qualified players in the NBA are shooting better than 70% from the floor more than a third of the way through the regular-season schedule: Utah's Rudy Gobert (72.3%), Sacramento's Richaun Holmes (70.7%) and Cleveland's Jarrett Allen (70.2%). There have been only five full seasons in league history, recorded by three different players (Wilt Chamberlain, DeAndre Jordan and Mitchell Robinson), to feature 70% shooting.
Golden State's Stephen Curry is averaging 5.3 3-pointers per game this season — better than the 5.1 per game he made during his MVP season in 2015-16 season in which he sank a league-record 402 3s. Curry needs just 14 more 3s to become the first NBA player with 3,000 career triples and, given that he starts a contract extension next season expected to keep him with the Warriors through 2025-26, he should easily cross the 4,000 threshold and perhaps make a run at 5,000.
Las Vegas is the ninth city to host the NBA's G League Showcase, which is in its 17th year. Sin City's predecessors: Mississauga, Ont.; Santa Cruz, Calif.; Reno, Nev.; Columbus, Ga.; Fayetteville, N.C.; Sioux Falls, S.D.: Boise, Idaho and South Padre Island, Texas.
The Pistons went 32 days without a victory until they beat Miami on Sunday night to halt a 14-game losing streak and avoid establishing a new franchise record for futility. The drought will instead be recorded as the third 14-game skid in franchise history.
Only 10 more shopping days until Cobra Kai Season 4. The return of Terry Silver!