Casspi couldn’t help flashing back to the fandom of his youth when Kerr, now coaching the NBA’s latest team of the decade in Golden State...
Casspi couldn’t help flashing back to the fandom of his youth when Kerr, now coaching the NBA’s latest team of the decade in Golden State, was on the phone leading the Warriors’ free-agent recruitment drive last July to persuade Casspi, a veteran forward, to sign with the league’s reigning champions.
“When I talked to Steve, he was so positive about things,” Casspi said in a recent interview at the Warriors’ practice facility. “And then knowing the players they have here and the culture, I wanted to be a part of it.
“When the Warriors call you, it’s like a dream come true. I just knew, if everything goes right, what it would mean to my country and my family and what it would mean for my career.”
So Casspi signed a one-year deal for the league-minimum $2.1 million, spurning interest from the Brooklyn Nets, who were poised to pay him closer to $5 million this season. A product of perennial Israeli power Maccabi Tel Aviv, Casspi mostly wanted to win again, having played for only one playoff team in his first nine seasons in the NBA (Houston in 2013-14) and appearing in precisely zero playoff games.
Ending that humbling playoff drought would be a lock alongside stars like Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant, which made Kerr’s pitch even more attractive. But very little, in the end, went right for Casspi in the Bay Area.
With the start of the playoffs a week away, Casspi was summoned by team officials Saturday night after the 80th of 82 games and informed that he was being waived to make roster room to convert reserve guard Quinn Cook’s two-way developmental contract into a full-fledged NBA contract before the postseason began.
With Curry expected to miss at least the first round of the playoffs because of a sprained knee, someone had to be cut so the Warriors could make the unexpectedly productive Cook playoff-eligible as Curry’s stand-in.
Golden State’s options came down to cutting Casspi or waiving someone from its center-by-committee sextet of Zaza Pachulia, Jordan Bell, David West, JaVale McGee, Kevon Looney and Damian Jones. A stubborn ankle injury that held Casspi out of his final 11 games as a Warrior, following an earlier back issue, proved to be the clincher.
“It was difficult to sit with him and tell him we were going to do this,” Kerr told reporters Sunday night in Phoenix. “But it was the only decision we could make under the circumstances.”
This is the second consecutive season in which the Warriors have been forced to make such an unkind cut. In February 2017, after promising to sign savvy Spanish playmaker Jose Calderon in the wake of Calderon’s release by the Los Angeles Lakers, Golden State had to abruptly let Calderon go without granting him a single second in uniform. In Calderon’s case, it was a similarly severe knee sprain suffered by Durant that necessitated the addition of a forward (Matt Barnes) as opposed to a guard.
Waiving Casspi at this juncture is painful in its own way, since the Warriors are well aware he took less money than he could have earned elsewhere on the open market and, worse, is ineligible to appear in the playoffs for another team this spring because he was not released by March 1. But the loss of Curry — as well as Kerr’s belief that he will need every big man he can muster to get to a fourth successive NBA finals — left little alternative.
Even though Casspi has been healthy enough to log 10 or more minutes only five times since January, his detractors would argue that he might have convinced the Warriors to keep him had he shown a greater willingness to shoot 3-pointers. Despite its freewheeling reputation, Golden State is actually sorely lacking when it comes to trusty floor-spacers off the bench.
Casspi, though, attempted only 22 3-pointers in his 53 games as a Warrior. This naturally puzzled local observers who will never forget the sight of Casspi, then a member of the Sacramento Kings, tying a franchise record by hitting nine 3-pointers en route to 36 points in a breathtaking shooting duel with Curry at Oracle Arena on Dec. 28, 2015.
Yet Casspi, in last month’s interview, revealed that Kerr never asked him to change his game. Casspi’s best moments in Golden State came when he was moving off the ball and cutting backdoor, capitalizing on the distractions provided by his more celebrated teammates. He averaged 11.9 points and 7.1 rebounds per game in his seven starts while shooting nearly 59 percent from the floor.
“It’s a little bit more complicated than what people think,” Casspi said. “I had a lot of early success with cutting and moving without the ball within our flow and maybe got in love with it a little bit, but when something’s working and you play 12 minutes and you have 12 points, it’s hard to say, ‘Hey, let’s just shoot 3s.’
“Forcing shots has never been my game. I talked to Steve about it several times, and he always said, ‘Keep playing the way you’re playing.'”
Casspi thus remains convinced it’s simply an unfortunate numbers game caused by injuries — Curry’s and his own — that will keep him atop the list of active players with the most regular-season games played (552) to never taste the postseason, narrowly ahead of his close friend, DeMarcus Cousins, the All-Star center of the New Orleans Pelicans (535).
“It’s been the case for the last two years. Every time I hit my stride, something happens,” Casspi said, referring to the broken thumb he suffered in his first game as a member of the Pelicans last season, following the trade that sent him and Cousins to New Orleans.
One inevitably wonders what happens now in Casspi’s basketball-crazed homeland, which had been eagerly awaiting the sight of Casspi, who turns 30 in June, stepping onto the biggest stage in the sport as a member of the team that won two championships in the last three seasons. Memories are still fresh of Israeli fans turning on the LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers after that team fired its Israeli-American coach, David Blatt, halfway through Blatt’s second season with the team.
“For sure every playoff game with Omri would have been a big event here — even at 3 or 5 in the morning,” said longtime Israeli broadcaster and former Maccabi Tel Aviv executive Yaron Talpaz. “So Golden State won’t be Israel’s team in these playoffs. Now it’s going to be more spread around.
“But there’s no way the backlash is going to be close to what it was for Cleveland. There’s a lot of talk about how cruel it is, but Omri is injured. He’s our only NBA player, so we don’t like it, but we understand that it’s the business side of the game.”
Kerr made it clear in his pregame news conference Sunday night that the choice “was not fun.”
“We love Omri and what he brought to the team,” he said, calling Casspi “a victim of circumstance more than anything.”
“I felt awful, but you have to do what you have to do.”
Always on the Outside
Most games in NBA history without a playoff appearance:
1. Tom Van Arsdale 929
2. Otto Moore 682
3. Nate Williams 642
4. Sebastian Telfair 564
5. Omri Casspi 552
6. DeMarcus Cousins 535
7. Popeye Jones 535
8. Eddy Curry 527
9. Doug Overton 499
10. Geoff Huston 496
10. Lee Mayberry 496
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.