Mike James was waived by the Suns Saturday, as the team prepares to reactivate Devin Booker following his recovery from a groin injury. This is an excruciatingly tough break for a guy who just two weeks ago celebrated becoming the first player in NBA history to convert one of the association’s new two-way development contracts into a standard contract.
Two-way contracts are a way for NBA teams to expand their overall pool of talent and have more roster flexibility, while providing more opportunities for fringe or developing players to stay stateside and provide value to parent teams. Their advent, in the latest collective bargaining agreement, allows NBA teams to sign up to two players per season to contracts that secure them as prospects within an organization’s developmental pipeline, and grants those players up to 45 days of eligibility with the organization’s NBA team. If a player hits that threshold, he can still stick with the organization in the development league, but in order to play again with the big club that season he must be signed to a standard contract.
Mike James hit his threshold back on December 7, having spent the bulk of the early season not only as a member of the Suns, but playing an increasing nightly load of rotation minutes, and eventually starting 10 games. James is tiny, and 27 years old, and is understandably no organization’s first choice for a future building block. But he is for sure an NBA player, and the circumstances of his exit blow, big time: Booker and Davon Reed went down with injuries, and the Suns brought in journeyman—but comparatively bonafide NBA player—Isaiah Canaan to play some of those guard minutes; Canaan played all of four games for the Suns, but now that the time has come to bring back Reed and Booker, and therefore to free up the roster spot temporarily taken by Canaan, the Suns decided to dump James and keep the new guy. The shitty truth is, it is possible to be the best bargain and the best two-way contract player in the whole world of professional basketball, and also the least valuable player on the roster of a crappy NBA bottom-feeder.
The lopsidedness of that transaction is just brutal: James has spent his adult life battling uphill to even sniff an NBA roster; finally, two-way contracts gave him the break he needed to get some actual, by-God NBA exposure; an injury to Brandon Knight and the trade of Eric Bledsoe cleared the way for a little burn; James made the most of that playing time, and the exhaustion of his allotted pro time put him in line for that elusive NBA contract. He was simply too valuable, two weeks ago, for the team to foreclose on any future NBA playing time. But that works out to have been something of a curse, too: because his standard contract tied him to a Suns roster spot, when they needed to free one up for the return of more established guys, he got axed for friggin’ Isaiah Canaan. Now, instead of being a plucky developmental guy on a dirt-cheap contract, he’s completely jobless. He is both the first two-way contract success story, and the first two-way contract cautionary tale, as the unintended consequences of a brand new roster mechanism work their way into the light.
Here, let’s enjoy a couple minutes of Mike James slicing and dicing his way to 26 points against the Timberwolves, last month: