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Veterans scramble to stay in league after new additions

With teams adding draft picks, free agents, jobs become scarce

POSTED: Sep 3, 2016 1:46 PM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner


Free agent Lance Stephenson is among the NBA veterans hoping to continue his NBA career.

The promise of the new additions increases the level of excitement each NBA offseason, as embodied by the shiny new players coming into the league.

Between the guys rounded up via the Draft -- lottery picks, future rotation players, sleepers, and longshots -- and a handful of unproven international imports who dip their toes in every year, there is change and fresh looks for many teams.

But NBA rosters are fixed.

There are 450 available jobs, most of them filled, a few of them shared. So if anywhere from 45 to 65 newbies find work in a given season, an equal number tap out and get pushed out of the league.

Some, like Kobe Bryant, Amar'e Stoudemire and Tim Duncan, are ready. Many are not. Some are fortunate and accomplished enough to retire on their own terms and timetables. Others may feel forced out and do what they can to find a door back in to keep playing a game they love, many of whom had never been without the game for a long period.

"As you go through a player's career, you're always working really hard to find him the right home, the right spot," said longtime NBA agent Mark Bartelstein, CEO of Priority Sports & Entertainment. "There are only so many jobs and free agency, in a lot of ways, is like a game of musical chairs."

Maybe it's a player of some repute still scaring up workouts as summer turns to fall, the way Lance Stephenson recently auditioned with the New Orleans Pelicans. Maybe it's a veteran such as Kirk Hinrich, Kevin Martin or Andre Miller, for whom the decision of playing another year gets made by others.

Every agent who's done this for a while has had guys who have fallen through the cracks ... You don't want him to just take anything but at the same time you've got to take something.

– Longtime agent Andy Miller

There are "name" players such as Josh Smith or Chris Kaman, who would appear to be capable of helping some team and certainly never took a farewell lap. Or someone like Ty Lawson, who at 28 is back to short-term deals just a few years after landing big money (four years, $48 million) as an allegedly indispensable piece in Denver. Lawson's personal issues (multiple DUIs) prompted him to agree last summer to a non-guaranteed salary in hopes of proving himself to the Rockets, but he'll try to do that now with Sacramento.

For every Gary Neal who hops on Facebook in frustration and throws some Washington teammates under the bus by comparing their stats and salaries, there is somebody like Jason Thompson, a starter for most of his NBA career, who split last season with Golden State and Toronto is now headed to China to play for the Shandong Golden Stars. He was the 12th pick in the 2008 draft and he's just 30.

Plenty of others -- Norris Cole, Robert Sacre, Chris Copeland and more -- are grabbing what they can or waiting by the phone, hoping their agents will call or text with good news ASAP.

"Every agent who's done this for a while has had guys who have fallen through the cracks," said veteran agent Andy Miller of ASM Sports, "or you're beating your head against the wall trying to get leverage, maybe creating some job offers overseas while you're waiting for an NBA opportunity that would make sense. Or you're pitching him around with other teams.

"You don't want him to just take anything but at the same time you've got to take something. You don't want to be left without any money. All those things are going on simultaneously, quite frankly."

Miller's clients range from Kristaps Porzingis to Kevin Garnett, from Myles Turner to Markel Brown and all levels of players in between. Most often, agents get their air and podium time, as well as their most lucrative commissions, on the big deals signed by premium players early and into the prime of their careers. But they do some of their most challenging work once the free-agent frenzy of July calms down to more selective shopping in August and September.

There are only so many jobs and free agency, in a lot of ways, is like a game of musical chairs.

– Longtime NBA agent Mark Bartelstein

"When you get a guy with a big contract, it's easy to pound your chest and be proud of it," Miller said. "Not that getting big deals is easy, but in comparison to the smaller guys, they take more time, money and emotion than the bigger guys. You care, you want to help, you want to be a good agent, you're competitive, you have your pride, you have your ego and you don't want to see failure on any front."

Europe or other international destinations provide alternative markets that are embraced by some players who find themselves adrift but eschewed by others who won't accept anything less than the Association. The NBA D-League is getting closer, as it nears a 1-to-1 affiliation setup with the NBA, as a potential place to land, to learn, to wait and to earn a promotion. But from the salaries there to how many teams still view the talent level, it's not quite there yet.

And even as players and their agents are searching for jobs, asking for tryouts or partial guarantees to come to camp, they're aware of the calendar turning and the clock ticking. Unless they're delusional or reckless, they're preparing for the end when they're in the middle.

"You feel a tremendous sense of responsibility," Bartelstein said. "Somebody is counting on you to build their career and have a long, sustainable career where they can reach all their goals and take care of their families. But it's very hard to have a long career in the NBA."

Some careers wind down, some sputter along on life support almost from the start, some end abruptly and prematurely. At least that's how Miller saw it when Bobby Jackson, the 2003 Kia Sixth Man of the Year Award winner, still was eager to play in 2009 at age 36.

"I remember vividly, because that one hurt me," Miller said. "I knew Bobby was toward the latter part of his career, similar to Jason Terry, but I didn't think he was done. I thought he'd bounce a little bit on minimum deals for another year or two. But when his contract expired, I couldn't get a bite in the league, in Europe. I had to apologize to him finally. 'I can't get you anything. It's over.'

"I was the last one to accept that. It was mind-boggling to me because I really thought he had something left in the tank and that other people would see it as well. Sometimes you misjudge it, whether it's because of the emotional attachment or you genuinely believe it. Not all of it ends on their own terms."

The flip side was Chauncey Billups, the former Detroit Pistons point guard, five-time All-Star and 2004 Finals MVP. Now a studio analyst for ESPN, Billups still had a market in 2014 at age 37, but didn't bother to explore it.

"I wanted to keep going," Miller said. "I told him, 'Chaunce, let's get you another year.' He said, 'Andy, I appreciate it. You can do my deals in my post-career. But I'm done. I'm satisfied. I'm in a good place.' He stopped it. I didn't want to stop it."

So few of them do when it's in with the new and out with the old.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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