Does someone ever stop paying for the worst thing they did?
There were so many times -- maybe in Volgograd, maybe in Bremerhaven, maybe Sioux Falls -- when DeAndre Liggins was sure he’d never be allowed in the NBA again for what he did. He understood it.
“It wasn’t about what I could do talent wise, or defensively,” he said at his locker last week. “It was about my character. I had to get my character in order. I always thought, it’s over for me. I’m gonna have to just go overseas, just make as much money as I could, and have a solid career overseas.”
For three years, Liggins lived on basketball’s periphery, a former second-round pick of the Orlando Magic in 2011 who was radioactive around the league following his role in an especially heinous domestic violence crime against his then girlfriend, Jasmine Horton, in 2013, while he was a reserve for the Thunder. Released by Oklahoma City the day after he was charged with several felony counts, including kidnapping and domestic assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, Liggins ultimately reached a plea deal with local prosecutors, pleading guilty to a single count of domestic abuse. He escaped jail time by agreeing to make a donation to a local diversion program.
But in the intervening three years, Liggins has done everything asked of him, both by the courts and the NBA. And now, with J.R. Smith sidelined for three months with a broken thumb, Liggins is the starting two guard for the Cavaliers, playing alongside LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, asked to do what he does best -- defend point guards all over the court. So he checks Stephen Curry and Reggie Jackson, tries to make things as tough as possible on them, use his length and quick feet to contest shots.
“He picks up 96 feet -- and the court is only 94,” James says of Liggins. “That’s what he does.”
“It wasn’t about what I could do talent wise, or defensively. It was about my character. I had to get my character in order."
He’s cashed in a lottery ticket. He’s not only back in the NBA, he’s starting for the defending champions, making more than $1 million this season with the Cavs holding a team option for slightly more for 2017-18. He is on the floor with multiple All-Stars, every night, until Smith’s thumb fully heals, which probably won’t be until late winter or early spring. On offense, he just has to catch and shoot.
“I’ve got to be ready, with my feet set, hands ready, and knock the shots down,” Liggins said. “I’m gonna be open. Our offense is just be ready to knock shots down, miss or make, and live with the results. My thing is, I put the work in. So I can live with the results, miss or make.”
Being showcased on a winning team can do nothing but help his chances of cashing in in the summer of ’18 for a pretty sizeable contract, either in Cleveland or somewhere else. Two separate league folks last week mentioned Tony Allen as a comparison point for Liggins; Patrick Beverley -- like Liggins and Allen, also a Chicago-native, defense-first guy -- also came up. It’s an amazing sea change in a short period of time.
“I know he’s a really good defender,” Celtics All-Star guard Isaiah Thomas said. “We played against each other in college one time, and I know he puts his hard hat on and really wants to defend. He’s like an Iman Shumpert. I think they’re from the same city and they go about things the same way. “
Liggins has completed multiple domestic violence classes. He says he and Horton are no longer dating, but have a “good friendship,” and jointly raise the couple’s five-year old son, Bracyn. He has visitation rights to see Bracyn without supervision.
He is in regular communication with the NBA’s counseling service, and has never missed or been late for mandated meetings with a domestic violence counselor. Because he was not with an NBA team after pleading guilty to the one count of domestic abuse in 2013, and because he’s been fully compliant since, the NBA did not punish him further.
The Cavaliers, of course, can bring almost anyone on earth to their team. They can be extremely selective in who they choose. They chose Liggins.
“The thing that’s meaningful to me, that I want people to understand, was we didn’t make this decision blindfolded,” Cavaliers General Manager David Griffin said Thursday. “I understood the depth of the decision. My wife (who also met with Liggins) understood it. And ownership understood it … he’s on a zero tolerance, non-optional policy with us. I think that should be obvious.”
When I mentioned Liggins’ story during Thursday’s Cleveland-Boston game on TNT, a few people protested on my Twitter feed, asking why there was a need to discuss “the past,” and why I couldn’t just let Liggins live his life. But, you can’t gloss over what he did. Domestic violence isn’t about what the perpetrator did; it’s an act that impacts the victim for the rest of their lives. And Liggins certainly believes it’s why he had no NBA offers after being released by the Thunder.
Liggins got in an argument with Horton at his home in Oklahoma City on Aug. 13, 2013. According to a probable cause affidavit, he dragged her out of bed, punched her several times -- most striking her in the back of the head. He left the room, but then returned after Horton had locked the door, punching and kicking her in the head and neck. He allegedly also threw an XBox and box fan at her and hit her in the head.
Liggins and an associate refused to let Horton leave the house twice before she finally fled and went to a neighbor’s home. An examination showed Horton had a separated shoulder, bruising on the back of her head and multiple scrapes on her head and neck. He was charged with two counts of kidnapping, one count of domestic assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, two counts of battery with a dangerous weapon, three counts of domestic abuse in the presence of a minor (Bracyn was in the home at the time) and one count of violating a protective order.
Liggins was never involved in any kind of domestic violence incident before, and he hasn’t been since. But he was involved that night.
“What happened years ago, that wasn’t me,” he said. “It wasn’t what I thought (about him); it’s about what other people thought of me, and what happened. The Ray Rice thing came out like a year later (in February, 2014), and really blackballed me. So my job was to stick with it, believe in God and continue to work on my game and on me as a person.”
Almost all of the charges against Liggins were dropped when Horton opted not to cooperate with authorities in Oklahoma City. The charges were refilled as a single misdemeanor count of domestic abuse.
He signed with Miami’s NBA Development League affiliate, the Sioux Falls Skyforce, and started 34 games, averaging 14.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 4.9 assists. The Heat then brought him up on a 10-day contract in February, 2014. He only played in one game for the Heat before being released in March of that year. Even though he was named the D-League’s Defensive Player of the Year, and got a camp invite from the Clippers, he didn’t stick there.
Liggins was fortunate to have one of the game’s most respected agents, Henry Thomas of CAA, representing him. Thomas has represented some of the game’s most upstanding people over the years, from Dwyane Wade to Chris Bosh to Michael Finley and Udonis Haslem. Liggins, though, was not a high-profile client. But Thomas didn’t drop him.
“You have to know your guy,” Thomas said Friday. “He was young when that happened. I’ve stuck with him for the whole time. He’s from Chicago. I tend to stick with Chicago guys, because I’m from Chicago. I just thought that he had a chance to make it in the NBA. I thought he was skilled enough to make it. He just needed to be with the right team.”
Liggins signed with BC Red October, a Russian club in Volgograd that plays in the VTB United League along with traditional power CSKA Moscow, to start the 2014-15 season. He left Red October in January of 2015, and finished that season with Eisbaren Bremerhaven of the Basketball Bundesliga in Germany.
After returning from overseas, Liggins went back to Sioux Falls last season. He earned a second Defensive Player of the Year award for the Skyforce, which won the D-League championship last season, and got on Griffin’s radar. The Cavaliers almost signed him last year, but opted to go with veteran Dahntay Jones instead down the stretch and into the playoffs.
“We had a chance to watch him a couple of times last year in the D-League,” Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said. “They played our team, they played Canton a couple of times in the playoffs. So I had a chance to see him play. As a point guard, he played the point guard position, he made a lot of great passes, he saw the floor, didn’t make a lot of mistakes. But to me, what stuck out was his defense, defensively, how he got a lot of deflections, hands on the ball, guarding the best player every single night. And he was willing to take that challenge. That’s what stuck out to me.”
But Griffin needed time to get the full story of what Liggins did in Oklahoma City and if such behavior was part of a pattern in his life. He determined it wasn’t.
“The kid’s a great human being who made a really, really bad decision,” Griffin says.
The Atlanta Hawks made a big push to sign Liggins last summer, and he was very tempted. But Thomas told his client the defending champs were serious about bringing him in, and Griffin was leading the charge. Liggins decided to play for the Cavaliers’ Summer League team. Griffin says Liggins was 30 minutes early for every meeting with him and other team officials in Las Vegas.
Griffin “called me, saying he felt that DeAndre could make their team,” Thomas said. “There were other teams that he could have played with last summer, but I felt that Cleveland was the best shot for him. Just talking to their guy, he convinced me that he could make that team and he could be a contributor. And I believed him.”
But if Liggins was coming back to the NBA, he also had to be vetted by the league. Thomas says he put Liggins in front of league officials over the summer, answering their questions and assuaging their concerns.
“The kid’s a great human being who made a really, really bad decision.”
In the recent past, the NBA has handled discipline for domestic violence incidents on a case by case basis, with very different outcomes. Former Charlotte Bobcats/Hornets player Jeffery Taylor was suspended 24 games in 2014 after he pled guilty to misdemeanor domestic violence assault and destruction of hotel property. This year, Sacramento Kings guard Darren Collison was suspended for the first eight games of the season after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor domestic battery charge.
The new Collective Bargaining Agreement between the league and the union will take a much different approach to handling domestic violence cases and is expected to result in a much stronger policy.
A new committee comprised of two league representatives, two union representatives and three experts in the domestic violence field will take a complete and thorough look at each domestic violence incident involving players, but will have a larger goal toward education and preventing potential problems before they occur. The committee will consult with the league on potential discipline, though the league will continue to have the final say, and will recommend aftercare and treatment programs. The committee will also look at sexual assault and child abuse cases involving players.
Liggins has been “unbelievably” cooperative, according to a source, with the league since he signed with the Cavs.
I asked Liggins what he’s tried to do over the past three years to make things right with Horton.
“Just communication,” he said. “We talk, go to counseling together. We’re not together now, but we have a good friendship. We communicate with each other better now. It’s just a lot that we’ve gotten better at. And, you’ve got to think about it. I was, 23, 24 at the time when that happened. I’m 28 now. I really learned and grew up. And she’s 27. We really have a great relationship right now, as far as co-parenting wise, helping our son.”
With another chance, Liggins is making the most of his larger role after Smith broke his thumb against the Milwaukee Bucks on Dec. 20. It was a familiar feeling for him; his sophomore season at Kentucky, he played with future NBA players John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe and Patrick Patterson. He was often “the other guy” on the floor.
“I shot 38 percent from three,” he said. “I’ve played with superstars before. I played in OKC with Durant and Westbrook, played with Dwight Howard my rookie year in Orlando. I’m used to playing with guys who draw a lot of attention.”
It’s still easier said than done to let it fly, with no conscience.
“Sometimes, you need to go backwards to realize what you had. I wake up and I think about that. I could have been in a worse situation right now. I’m blessed to be back in this situation."
“I’ve been there before, with Kobe and Shaq,” said Lue, who was a rookie in 1998 out of Nebraska trying to make sense of the Lakers’ circus, and how he fit in.
“Those guys throw you the basketball, and you think you have to make the shot, there’s going to be pressure on you,” Lue said. “And he’s probably going through the same thing, with LeBron and Kyrie and Kevin making the pass to him, just thinking about I have to make this shot, it’s a big shot. Just play your game. Defensively, we know every night what we’re going to get from him, and offensively, you just got to be ready to step up and take your shots.”
The conventional wisdom is that earning trust of veteran players on a championship team is something that takes young guys a good hunk of the season to earn. But James says that’s not the case with Liggins.
“Trust is as soon as coach puts you in the game,” James said. “If you’re on the court, we want you to be the best player you can be. There’s no string on anybody here. Once coach puts you on the court, he believes, first of all, the coaches believe you can play the game. That’s why they put you in. And then, we want you to play as great as you can, knowing what you can do best for the team.”
Liggins is aware that a lot of people are vouching for him. And he vows to make them proud they did so.
“Sometimes, you need to go backwards to realize what you had,” Liggins says. “I wake up and I think about that. I could have been in a worse situation right now. I’m blessed to be back in this situation. Some people only get one shot at the NBA. There’s guys in the D-League, and I’m just thinking, wow, I really had to grind it out … my story, it’s crazy. And it should motivate people to do the right things and stay on track.”
… YOU WRITE IN, DA ANSWERS ...
When the pink slips are stuck in the top drawer. From Robert Owens:
Is this one of the slowest years in recent history that you don’t hear a coach getting fired yet?
Mediocrity helps the masses, Robert. Only a couple of teams have stood out so far this season, like Golden State and Cleveland and San Antonio, but only a few have been truly disappointing, like Dallas and Portland. Rick Carlisle is as close to unfirable as they come in the league, and the Blazers remain quite happy with Terry Stotts. Right now the only coach I see in potential danger is Alvin Gentry down in New Orleans, but even he can explain away the Pelicans’ start with all the injuries they’ve had to some of their key guys, along with Jrue Holiday being away for an extended period to be with his wife, Lauren, as she recuperates from brain surgery.
Moose on the Loose? From Alberto Tortella:
What do you think about Greg Monroe’s situation? He refused to sign with NY to become the franchise player in Milwaukee. Now he starts from the bench. I see it as pretty similar to Noel’s situation: he could be traded to a team that needs interior defense.
If a team trades for Monroe, Alberto, it won’t be because of his defense. That was the problem with Greg in Detroit; though he’s extremely capable as a scorer, the Pistons’ defensive numbers with him on the floor were not good. Having said that, there should be a strong trade market for Greg before the deadline, and I’m pretty sure the Bucks will be able to move him. He can put the ball in the bucket and he’ll give you a good night’s work on the glass with enough minutes.
The Setting Suns. From Juancho Jiminez:
My question is about my favorite team, the Phoenix Suns -- it’s been a rough couple of seasons for us Phoenix fans. What do you think the team should do in another lost season? I personally think we should trade veterans Tyson Chandler, PJ Tucker and even Eric Bledsoe for Draft picks and prospects.
I understand your position. But you can’t trade all the veterans from a young team. Someone has to set the example that the kids on a team can emulate. And if you have good vets like Chandler and Tucker, I can understand the Suns’ reluctance to give them away. Phoenix doesn’t need more young players, anyway, as it just added two teenagers (rookies Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender) to go with two 23-year-olds (Alex Len and T.J. Warren) and a 20-year-old (Devin Booker). They just need to marinate for a couple of years and see if there’s a young free agent out there this summer who’d like to get his tan on.
Send your questions, comments and other things that make you bust a gut while you’re trying to bust your gut firstname.lastname@example.org. If your e-mail is funny, thought-provoking or snarky, we just might publish it!
(Last week’s averages in parenthesis)
1) Russell Westbrook (22.3 ppg, 11.3 rpg, 8.3 apg, .442 FG, .731 FT): After getting two technical fouls Thursday and getting ejected from the game against the Grizzlies, and getting another Saturday against the Clippers, Westbrook now has 11 technical fouls this season, just five short of a one-game suspension.
2) James Harden (39 ppg, 11.3 rpg, 12.7 apg, .579 FG, .923 FT): His momentous performance against the Knicks Saturday -- 53 points, 17 assists, 16 rebounds -- made him the first player in NBA history to go for 50 or more points, 15 or more rebounds and 15 or more assists in one game.
3) LeBron James (27.5 ppg, 7 rpg, 10 apg, .488 FG, .538 FT): What’s up with the free throw issues (67.8 percent this season, which would be the lowest of his career) all of a sudden?
4) Kevin Durant (20.5 ppg, 14 rpg, 8.5 apg, .517 FG, .667 FT): Now talking about running more screen and rolls with Stephen Curry, which should basically be made illegal, and I mean right now.
5) Kawhi Leonard (13 ppg, 4 rpg, 2 apg, .250 FG, .833 FT): Returned to action Sunday after missing two games with gastroenteritis.
BY THE NUMBERS
12 -- Consecutive wins by the Mavericks over the Lakers after their win in Los Angeles Thursday. L.A.’s last win over Dallas came on April 2, 2013. Not only have the Mavericks won all those games in a row over the Lakers, they’ve dominated, winning by an average of 12.3 points during the streak.
$149 -- Cost of a Bucks’ 10-game package for games at BMO Harris Bradley Center that will last until Milwaukee wins -- not plays, but wins -- 10 games at home. The plan starts on Jan. 13 against the Heat; fans could get to see up to 21 home games if the Bucks struggle to win at Bradley the rest of the season.
674 -- Career games for Chicago’s Rajon Rondo, benched Saturday for the Bulls’ loss to the Bucks in favor of Michael Carter-Williams. Rondo said afterward that Bulls Coach Fred Hoiberg has told him he’s looked “slow” in recent games, leading to benchings in the fourth quarter Monday against Brooklyn and in the second half of Friday’s win over Indiana.
I’M FEELIN’ …
1) Thank God it’s 2017. Never been so glad to see the last 12 months float away, hopefully on a flaming barge that will never find a comfortable port in which to anchor. Good riddance to you, awful year in every way humanly possible.
2) Good for you, Chinanu Onuaku. Hope this encourages other players who struggle at the line to try something different.
3) As a guy who’s seen “Cats” about 200 times in the theatre, I heartily approve of Daryl Morey’s other hobby besides ping pong.
NOT FEELIN’ …
1) I’ve been covering this league for a while, and it tends to make you cynical. So I don’t think LeBron James and Kevin Durant give one red damn about the referees and how they’re impacted by the NBA’s Last Two Minutes (L2M) reports. First, most of the time, the L2Ms confirm that the refs, almost always, get the calls right. Second, the L2Ms were instituted because so many players, coaches and fans were complaining about alleged bad calls at the ends of games that were never acknowledged by the league. Now, the league acknowledges the calls, both good and bad, and it’s a problem? Let’s put it this way: I don’t expect any player or coach to say, ‘good. About time they made the refs accountable for the numerous calls they blow at the end of games.’ Oh, don’t mind me. I’m cranky.
2) Is there a PED problem in the NBA? That was one of many allegations George Karl made in his new book, “Furious George.” I have no doubt that there are players and front office people using HGH or other PEDs, just as there are players and front office people that smoke weed, and drink too much. Is it a “problem?” Yes, in the sense that the drugs are always ahead of the testing, and I don’t think the NBA is any better there than any other sports league or anti-drug testing entity like WADA.
3) Y’all can keep talking about how these kids have to play for dear old State U in these bowl games rather than do what Christian McCaffrey and Leonard Fournette did. Ask Michigan tight end Jake Butt about that after he tore an MCL and/or ACL during the Wolverines’ Orange Bowl loss to Florida State. Butt is a top tight end prospect in the NFL draft; now he faces months of rehab and will almost certainly drop a round or two. Are those boosters going to pay the difference in what he’ll make now opposed to what he would have made if he’d skipped the game? These are people’s lives your grandiose notions of school pride are messing with.
4) RIP, Bryce Dejean-Jones, Nate Thurmond, Greg Ballard, Ed Snider, Sean Rooks, Pearl Washington, Clyde Lovellette, Nykea Aldridge, John Johnson, Abdul Jeelani, Drew Sharp, Jim McMillian, Kenny Sailors, Demetrius Pinckney, John Saunders, our own Craig Sager and all the other members of the NBA family who transitioned this year.
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.