TrueHoop: Sebastian Telfair

The star-crossed Clippers and Timberwolves

January, 20, 2012
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz

Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images
The Sam Cassell-for-Marko Jaric trade in 2005 set into motion a series of bizarre and historic events.

Almost seven years ago, the Minnesota Timberwolves and Los Angeles Clippers swung a trade on a sleepy August day.

The Clippers sent combo guard Marko Jaric and Lionel Chalmers to Minnesota in exchange for 35-year-old point guard Sam Cassell and a Timberwolves first-round draft pick that was lottery protected for the next six years.

And so began an odd relationship between two teams whose fortunes became inextricably linked. For the next several years, the Wolves and Clips mysteriously ran into each other everywhere and got trapped in the same elevator more than once. Cassell retired nearly three years ago and joined Flip Saunders' coaching staff in Washington. Jaric married model Adriana Lima and was last seen in a Montepaschi Siena uniform. Yet that trade still has enormous implications today, as the teams prepare for a Friday night matchup at Staples Center that will be nationally televised on ESPN -- something that would've been unthinkable even a year ago.

Cassell led the Clippers to their most successful season in history in 2005-06, when his mouthy leadership took the team within a Raja Bell 3-pointer of the Western Conference finals. The Timberwolves won 33, 32, 22, 24, 15 and 17 games respectively over the next six seasons and, for a stretch, somehow displaced the Clippers in the Crapola Sweepstakes as the NBA's most ridiculed franchise, even after the Clippers fell back to earth.

The Clippers had historically stood as the team most likely to botch the NBA draft, but the Timberwolves were nipping at their heels. For a while, the Brandon Roy-for-Randy Foye trade dogged the Wolves. Then, in the 2009 draft, the Timberwolves were mocked for choosing three point guards in the first round -- Jonny Flynn, Ricky Rubio and Ty Lawson -- Flynn and Rubio back-to-back at No. 5 and No. 6. Rubio's first reaction when Minnesota picked him? "It's cold there." The Timberwolves kept Flynn while trading Lawson, chosen at No. 18, to Denver (as instructed by the Nuggets as part of a trade). Today, Flynn rides the pine in Houston, while Lawson is running point for an impressive team in Denver.

How did the Timberwolves score the pick for Rubio? They fetched Mike Miller from Memphis in an eight-player deal featuring O.J. Mayo and Kevin Love, but included Jaric. The Timberwolves eventually sent Miller, along with Foye, to the Wizards for the pick that became Rubio. Foye, of course, is now in his second season with the Clippers.

Before the Timberwolves cornered the market on first-round point guards in 2009, the Clippers took Blake Griffin at No. 1. While Griffin was the obvious choice for the Clippers, it's easy to forget that Rubio was leading many draft boards during the winter and spring of 2009, and there was a reasonable minority that felt he was the finest prospect in the draft. Sacramento was the odds-on favorite to win the first pick before the lottery betrayed the Kings, and many observers had the Kings selecting Rubio if they landed atop the board. Had the Clippers not had Baron Davis locked into an extended deal, Rubio might be in L.A.

After the Clippers selected Griffin, they began the process of rebuilding. In the two seasons following the 2009 draft, they recruited half the Timberwolves' roster. Craig Smith, a former second-round pick of the Timberwolves, became a fan favorite in Los Angeles, while Ricky Davis became a fan unfavorite. Sebastian Telfair, who came over with Smith in a deal for Quentin Richardson, served as Davis' backup for 39 games (before landing back with the Timberwolves a season later). Needing to fill out their depth on the wing in the summer of 2010, the Clippers signed Foye and Ryan Gomes to modest multiyear deals.

Lingering above all this is what became known in Los Angeles as simply "The Minnesota Pick" -- the one the Clippers acquired along with Cassell in 2005. The worse things got for the Timberwolves, the more excited Clippers fans and execs became at the prospect that the misery in Minnesota would outlive the lottery protection on the pick. If the Timberwolves could continue to be awful for just a couple more seasons, the Clippers could conceivably have a top pick in 2012! When Rubio opted to remain in Europe for two seasons, that possibility went from remote to real.

"The Minnesota Pick" ultimately became a centerpiece of the most fateful trade in Clippers history just a few weeks ago, when the team reeled in Chris Paul from New Orleans. The pick was the one asset that set the Clippers apart from other suitors, and the Hornets were adamant about its inclusion in any deal.

On Friday night, Paul -- hamstring permitting -- will face off against Rubio in a contest between two of the most telegenic teams in the league. Individual matchups are often overrated, but Paul on Rubio -- and Rubio on Paul -- has a marquee quality to it. In a league dominated by point guards who earn their livings on the attack, Paul and Rubio are throwbacks to a time when vision trumped speed. Prefer a big-man brand of basketball? Keep your eyes on the low block, where Griffin and Love will wrestle for supremacy.

The Timberwolves have been rewarded for their patience, the Clippers for their craftiness. Now two teams that have been tethered together in the Western Conference dungeon for the better part of a decade will get to show off their shiny new toys.

The Clippers get ready for Summer 2010

February, 18, 2010
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
Los Angeles Clippers
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images
Gentlemen, slide over and make some room.

For the better part of a year, the Los Angeles Clippers have been lurking around the fringes of the 2010 free agent marketplace. For bored sportswriters and denizens of NBA message boards, the Clippers have been a fun hypothetical in the LeBron James parlor game -- whether James has any interest in the Clippers is an entirely other matter.

Wednesday, the realm of possibility became a little bit larger for the Clippers, when they managed to shoehorn themselves into the Antawn Jamison deal. Cleveland’s acquisition of their coveted stretch-4 will undoubtedly be the lead story, but the Clippers were somehow able to dump $5.5 million in 2010-11 payroll by offloading Al Thornton onto the Wizards and Sebastian Telfair onto the Cavaliers. In the process, the Clippers have established themselves as a legitimate contender for the league’s elite free agents this summer.

The Clippers will enter the summer with a skeletal roster consisting of only Baron Davis, Eric Gordon, Blake Griffin, Chris Kaman and DeAndre Jordan -- with just over $33 million in salary commitments. Assuming they keep their first-round draft pick and depending on the salary cap, the Clippers will have somewhere in the neighborhood of $15-$16 million range to spend, which will be about the amount needed to pay a maximum salary, maybe a bit shy.

For Mike Dunleavy, the primary target seems obvious enough. But what happens in the likely event that LeBron James chooses to stay in Cleveland or points east? It's that old dilemma: If cap space exists on a spreadsheet and there's no one around to claim it, does it really exist?

Plan A: King's Ransom
Ironically, the deal that freed up all that cap space for the Clippers also reduced the likelihood that LeBron James will leave Cleveland next summer. The Clippers will certainly make their pitch to James and his representatives, and they have a good case to make. Few other teams would be able to offer James a more attractive supporting cast than the Clippers. Despite the drawbacks of sharing the market with Kobe Bryant, southern California is certainly big enough for two superstars. The ancillary benefits that come with being in Los Angeles are also alluring, from the lifestyle to the media spotlight that's essential for cultivating a global brand. The Clippers offer one other intriguing sweetener: the opportunity for James to have enormous (unilateral?) input on whom he'd like patrolling the sidelines as head coach.

There are a host of reasons why James would decline the Clippers' overtures -- ownership, history, the Lakers' long shadow -- but the primary one is that he's happy where he is. Still, the Clippers are obliged to ask.

Plan B: Max Junior
For a team that's struggling, the Clippers are remarkably well accounted for at multiple positions on the floor. Davis, their point guard, has three years and nearly $42 million remaining on his contract. Center Chris Kaman is locked in for another two years. Both Eric Gordon and Blake Griffin are good, young assets at the shooting guard and power forward spots respectively. The Clippers need someone to play small forward, but after James, the crop of free agents at that position is very thin. At 6-foot-7, Joe Johnson could man the 3 spot for the Clippers, but it's believed that Johnson isn't looking to return west. After Johnson, the field drops off considerably. Rudy Gay has the size and length the Clippers covet at that spot, but the Clippers would probably have to overpay to lure Gay away from Memphis, where he'll be a restricted free agent.

If the Clippers detect that Dwyane Wade is less than happy with Miami's recovery plan, would they present an offer? Even with Eric Gordon maturing nicely, the chance to bring a top 5 player to work alongside Blake Griffin would be too tempting to not explore.

Plan C: Superabsorbent
The deal that netted the Clippers their cap savings proved that high-priced players under contract are readily available so long as you're willing to soak up the remaining years and dollars. If the Clippers strike out with their top free agent targets, there might be ample opportunity to pluck a top-shelf producer from a team that wants to move into rebuilding mode or become more flexible.

The Clippers could potentially execute a sign-and-trade deal for a small forward, someone like Luol Deng or, if they're sold on his clean bill of health, Tayshaun Prince. It would require some creative maneuvering by the Clippers, but preying on a struggling franchise looking to shed some long-term liabilities could present them with a far better value than overpaying for a free agent.

Plan D: Building Blocks
The Clippers' starting four (plus Jordan) provides the franchise with a strong foundation, but they won't have another soul under contract after the season ends. Is $15 million best spent on a single savior, or are Clippers better off apportioning that money to multiple players?

It's a risky proposition in a league that's ruled by superstars. In recent memory, only the 2003-04 Pistons have been able to win a title without a surefire superstar. The road to hell is often paved with midlevel players. The counterargument goes that a healthy Blake Griffin is slated for superstardom. And the best way to foster that process? Surround Griffin with smart, efficient, productive glue guys who understand their roles. That might not win the Clippers the Larry O'Brien trophy, but you have to walk before you can run. A group of high-IQ competitors with a strong work ethic under a new coach would set the Clippers on that road.

Plan K
For the record, Kobe Bryant has yet to reach an extension with the Los Angeles Lakers.

Carry on.

Plan Aborted
Whether the Clippers are able to lure a dynamic superstar with a max contract or ink multiple players to smaller deals, there are any number of things that could go wrong for the franchise. Since arriving in Westwood as a freshman, Davis has played for exactly one coach he's fully embraced. Kaman was selected to his first All-Star Game this month, but Clippers fans are well aware of how precarious his progress is. The Clippers have high expectations for Griffin, but he has yet to suit up for his first regular-season NBA game.

And those retail purchases? They have a way of looking much more attractive in the storefront window than they do in real life.

Operation Facelift

August, 17, 2009

Posted by Kevin Arnovitz

The Los Angeles Clippers introduced Rasual Butler this afternoon to the local media at their training facility in Playa Vista. For those keeping a tally of what's become of Zach Randolph, Clippers general manager and head coach Mike Dunleavy has now spun him off for the following: 

  • Rasual Butler (1 year, $3.95M)
  • Craig Smith (1 year, $2.5M)
  • Sebastian Telfair (2 years, $5.2M, the second year a $2.7M player option)
  • Mark Madsen (1 year, $2.84M)
  • A remaining trade exception for $3.36M 
  • $14.63M in salary savings for 2010-11, assuming Telfair picks up his option
  • A spot in the starting lineup at the power forward for Blake Griffin

There are no marquee names on that list, and nobody who can match Randolph's raw numbers, but judging from Dunleavy's mood on Monday afternoon, he's over the moon that he's been able to parlay arguably his worst blunder as general manager -- the acquisition of Randolph -- into a collection of cheap, complementary assets and tremendous financial flexibility.

The Clippers are almost certain to improve upon their 19 wins of last season. To what extent they'll be in factor in the Western Conference playoff race is anyone's guess. But if Dunleavy the GM has accomplished nothing else, he's starting to cobble together a roster that looks a lot more workable to Dunleavy the coach.

Dunleavy likes to post his guards, and has been imploring the small -- but brawny -- Eric Gordon to develop a post game, something he showed off in Las Vegas. With Butler, Dunleavy gets a lanky swingmen whom he can use in that capacity.

"If you're a 2-guard and you're 6-7, we can throw you down in the post some," Dunleavy said. 

Less discussed, but more relevant is whether Dunleavy will act on his impulse as a tactician: Start Butler ahead of Al Thornton. 

"We'll figure out what makes the best sense for us," Dunleavy said. "Coming into training camp, it'll be pretty wide open."

Dunleavy has coveted a Bowen-model small forward ever since arriving in Los Angeles. He took on defensive stopper Quinton Ross as a project, but Ross was never able to develop a perimeter shot that could stretch defenses. Instead, Dunleavy has had to cope with Corey Maggette and now Thornton. Both are capable creators for themselves, but ball-stoppers, defensive liabilities -- and endless sources of frustration for Dunleavy. Butler is no Bruce Bowen, but he's the corner sniper (45% from there), and long perimeter defender Dunleavy's been after.

Few teams will come into the season with more elastic expectations than the Clippers. So much is uncertain: Blake Griffin's ceiling in his rookie season; Baron Davis' health and resolve; Chris Kaman's ability to bounce back from injury; Eric Gordon's progress.

Toward the end of his media session, Dunleavy spoke about the physical regimen he requires of his players -- their body fat targets and conditioning programs. He also described a torturous, 60-second, three-man weave drill he had to perform himself as a rookie more than 30 years ago.

"If you can do that," Dunleavy said, "then you're in shape." 

Dunleavy paused, then added wistfully, "Last year, I don't think we ever got to it. Period."

Posted by Kevin Arnovitz

No kid in the history of high school athletics saw his young career chronicled with more fanfare than Sebastian Telfair. Ian O'Connor's The Jump, and Jonathan Hock's documentary Through the Fire both captured Telfair's senior year at Abraham Lincoln High School in Coney Island, where Telfair was preparing himself to be basketball's next great phenom. Before Telfair ever suited up in an NBA uniform -- he was drafted 13th overall by Portland in the 2004 draft -- he'd already secured a eight-digit endorsement deal with Adidas, and appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

Thursday afternoon, Sebastian Telfair was introduced as a member of the Los Angeles Clippers, his fourth team in a five-year NBA career. The module on the front page of the Clippers' website highlighting the press conference features a picture of Craig Smith -- Telfair's teammate in Minnesota, who was part of the deal between the T-Wolves and the Clippers. To find Telfair, you have to click on the hyperlink of the story, which will first take you to a video in which Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy refers to Telfair as his new backup point guard. Finally, in the video carousel below, you'll find Telfair's interview. 

Expectations are among the most hardest things in life to manage, and Telfair's attempts to live up to the hype surrounding his amateur career have been difficult. He's still only 24, but his career 38.9 percent field goal percentage and 13.4 points per 40 minutes have relegated him to secondary status, at least for the time being. 

Following his press conference with the Los Angeles media, Telfair addressed issues past and present with TrueHoop:

Britt Robson of Secrets of the City on how Minnesota is adjusting to the absence of Al Jefferson:

When I asked [Kevin] McHale if he was comfortable with Bassy launching 17 shots, the coach replied that if they were good shots, he had no problem with it. Then he explicitly said, "and Bassy had 17 good shots tonight." A few minutes later in the locker room, Telfair pronounced himself more confident in his shot than ever before and pointedly noted that guys needed to step up on offense in Jefferson's absence.

So, let's take a reality check. For the season, Telfair is shooting 35.2%. Over the course of his 4 and a half years in the NBA, his career accuracy is a hair over 39%. As a team the Wolves are shooting 44%. Even from three point range, Bassy's 34% from behind the arc is behind the team's composite accuracy of 34.4%. What makes this especially maddening is that Bassy can keep the basketball on a string like no other Timberwolf. On Sunday he crossed over to his left hand and then zipped a pass half the distance of the court, a la Steve Nash, to a teammate just outside the three-point arc for a hopeful heave at the halftime buzzer. A slo-mo of some of his dribble moves seems a mixture of hip hop, ballet, and computer graphics. Just make sure you stop the tape before he goes up to shoot.

Maybe someday we'll discover who put the silver helmets over the heads of Telfair and [Mike] Miller, flipped a switch, and exchanged their personalities. Miller, who by all indications fancies himself as a point guard in a plodding 6-8 body, has shot 27-52 FG over the last six games, with 34 assists and 21 turnovers. During that same period, Telfair is shooting 32-73 FG with 31 assists and 10 turnovers. Hey here's an idea: How about if the guy with the career 46% FG (47.7% this year) shoots a little more often instead of executing snazzy turnovers while the guy with the team's best assist-to-turnover ratio drops a few more dimes instead of blowing jumpers? Then, just maybe, the Wolves wouldn't rank near the bottom of the NBA in FG efficiency.

Marbury Mini-Bullets

January, 2, 2009

Posted by Kevin Arnovitz

Marc Stein reported today on rumblings that Stephon Marbury might get his ticket out of New York, en route to...Boston.  There are still some hurdles:

The fact remains, though, that Marbury has to extricate himself from the Knicks before he can make any firm future plans. Media outlets in New York have reported in recent days that Knicks president Donnie Walsh is planning to seriously rekindle buyout talks now that the calendar has flipped to 2009, but one theory in circulation holds that the Knicks have dragged out Marbury's release this long in part because they don't want to see him wind up as a contributor in a championship race with a team from the same division...

In buyout negotiations to date, Marbury has refused to surrender more than $1 million of his $20.8 million salary and, at last report, was no longer offering to give back that much. The Knicks have reportedly asked Marbury to give up at least $3 million for the right to choose his next team, although they could be moved to lower those demands if a trade materializes that requires New York to open Marbury's roster spot.

Some reaction from around the web: 

  • Celticsblog judiciously lays out both the positives and negatives for Boston, and ultimately concludes that, though Marbury would certainly arrive with baggage, the downside is negligible when you look at the alternatives: "Given our limited options, Marbury might be the best option for giving this team a shot in the arm.  Then again, it might also be a Plaxico Burress shot in the leg."
  • Paul Flannery at WEEI reminds us that if Marbury hops on the bus, someone has to get off: "For starters, the Celtics will have to clear a roster spot. They are carrying the full allotment of 15 players, which means somebody would have to go, probably from among the Gabe Pruitt, Bill Walker, Sam Cassell trio. Pruitt has shown flashes and Danny Ainge is a fan, Walker has been learning his craft in the D-League, while Cassell has kept busy playing one-on-one with Brian Scalabrine and serving as a de-facto assistant coach." 
  • The New York Post's Marc Berman writes that Marbury is nowhere near New York or Boston right now: "Stephon Marbury is on a plane to Minnesota as we write to visit cousin Sebastian Telfair... Marbury was planning to check out Wolves-Warriors tonight and see Telfair vs. Jamal Crawford live, then head to Detroit for a business meeting."
  • Brett Pollakoff at NBA Fanhouse deems Marbury a high risk-low reward maneuver for Boston: "As far as Marbury becoming any type of distraction though, there's little chance of that happening with alpha dogs Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce around. Still, there's a chance. Which means that this seems like an awfully big risk to take for a team that is the defending NBA champs and has only lost five of their first 33 games."
  • Alan Hahn at Newsday's The Knicks Fix says that Marbury and Eddie House would have to work out their issues: "It's a curious fit for Marbury, who wouldn't get a lot of minutes behing Rondo and would have to contend with Eddie House for ticks at the two behind Ray Allen. Marbury and House have a private feud, which came public during a preseason game at the Garden in October. How does that get settled in the Boston locker room?"
  • Marcel Mutoni spells out his hathos at SLAM: "The idea of Celtics fans gritting their teeth after being forced to accept Stephon Marbury as one of their own makes me very happy for some odd reason. But not quite as much as the possibility that Steph could somehow be involved in the title chase this season. Simply amazing."

The Hip Hop Cop

December, 8, 2008

A little irony of the magazine publishing world: Today is December 8. I am writing about the December 8 New Yorker.

You might think, then, that I was right on time.

However, today is the precise day when the December 8 New Yorker becomes old news -- on the website right now is the table of contents and much new content from the December 15 issue.

Which means the date on my magazine is like the date on my milk: Not the day to buy it, but instead the day to throw it away.

In any case, I'm a little late to this, but last week's New Yorker had an Ian Frazier article about Derrick Parker, a former New York City Police Detective who is still law enforcement's point man in the hip hop community. (Parker has a book, Notorious C.O.P.)

In profiling Parker, Frazier came across some NBA news of note. Mostly little stuff, like Parker works the door, with Frazier in tow, of a party with all kinds of big-name guests including Al Harrington.

But the most interesting thing is about Sebastian Telfair and the shooting of Fabolous. None of this is new, but it's still fascinating. Frazier writes:

On an October night a couple of years ago, two crimes took place on same block of West Twenty-first street in Manhattan. At about midnight, a gold-and-diamond chain reportedly worth fifty thousand dollars was snatched from the neck of Sebastian Telfair, a professional basketball player then with the Boston Celtics. The theft occured outside Justin's, a bar and soul-food restaurant frequented by rap stars. Telfair did not call the police or ask anybody else to; but by some accounts he was seen talking on his cell phone afterward. Then, within the half-hour, somebody shot Fabolous, the rap star, in the thigh as he stood in a parking lot just up the street. On the way to to Bellevue Hospital, the car in which Fabolous was riding was pulled over by the police, who found two handguns in it.

Logic suggested that the shooting and the theft were connected. Two weeks after the crime, the News sought out Derrick Parker (reporters, too, sometimes turn to Derrick to help them understand what's going on), and he explained that Fabolous grew up in Brooklyn's Brevoort projects, home to a number of dangerous thugs who belong to a gang called Commission, or the Street Family. Some of these guys are part of his crew, according to Derrick, and Fabolous even gave the Street Family a shout-out in one of his performances. In the past, this gang has robbed the rappers Busta Rhymes, Ol' Dirty Bastard, and Foxy Brown, Derrick told the News. Of the Telfair robbery, he added, "If the Commission members didn't do it, they know who did do it." Telfair, who comes from a project in Coney Island, has had his own run-ins with the law; Derrick speculated that after the Fabolous shooting there might be retaliation against Telfair. In any event, neither the theft nor the shooting was (or is) likely to be solved by the police. Neither victim gave the cops much useful information, and because gun charges against Fabolous were eventually dismissed, even those couldn't be used against him. (Fabolous's attorney says that the Street Family is a group of artists, and his client "is not involved in any illegal activity.")

Several different things to think about there:

  • On an airplane, in his car ... Telfair has gotten in trouble more than once for having a gun where he should not. Maybe he thinks he needs more protection than most. I'm very glad that Telfair has not, apparently, been the target of any violence.
  • Shortly after that shooting nearly two years ago, there was home video from the parking lot outside Justin's. It showed a Bentley -- Telfair is reported to have been driving a Bentley that night -- inching away from the scene while police looked away. There were also reports galore that there was video of the shooting and the theft. Amazing that with all that there were never any convictions.
  • I don't know how you solve it, but in the long run, there needs to be WAY more trust between the victims of these kinds of incidents and the police. It'll be a long process, but it needs to happen. It's a dangerous thing when even someone like an NBA player -- who can afford the finest lawyers, and has media contacts -- sends the message that there is no point in cooperating with the legal system. I also suspect that people like the guy who is profiled in this article could be the key to building those bridges.