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2014-2015 Los Angeles Lakers Preview

Basketball Insiders continues previewing the 2014-2015 NBA season with a look at the Los Angeles Lakers of the Pacific Division.

Basketball Insiders

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The Los Angeles Lakers ended last season with the worst record (27-55) in the franchise’s illustrious 66-year history. Basketball Insiders takes a look at the 2014-15 roster as this proud organization attempts to not only rebuild in the shadow of an aging giant, but also find a way to permit five-time champion Kobe Bryant to finish his Hall of Fame run as gracefully and successfully as possible.

Basketball Insiders previews the 2014-2015 Los Angeles Lakers.

Five Guys Think

Here’s the cold reality for the Lakers: Kobe Bryant makes a lot of money for a team that wasn’t very good a year ago, so currently Hollywood is not the free agency hotbed that it used to be. The Lakers also are not quite the team they used to be, but for those already writing them off completely: stop it. There are some decent ball players on this team, even if half of the roster is seemingly comprised of power forwards, and behind players like Kobe Bryant, Jeremy Lin and Carlos Boozer, they can be more competitive than many are giving them credit for. Nick Young, Jordan Hill, Ed Davis and Julius Randle all should be respectable role players, and if healthy, Bryant would definitely rather go out with a roar than with a whimper. They’re not competing for a championship, but they’ll be better than many expect.

3rd Place – Pacific Division

-Joel Brigham

The Lakers had a disappointing offseason. They entered the summer hoping to land a star player like LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony or Kevin Love. Instead, their big acquisitions were Jeremy Lin, Carlos Boozer and Ed Davis. Getting Kobe Bryant back from injury should help them, but it remains to be seen if he can return to elite form. Drafting Julius Randle was an excellent decision for L.A. and he could be a star for them in the future. However, it’s hard to imagine the Lakers having much success in the short-term. The team may be marginally better than last year’s 27-55 squad, but they’re bringing back many of the same players and the Western Conference is just as loaded with talented teams. It seems like the Lakers are poised to struggle once again.

5th Place – Pacific Division

– Alex Kennedy

The Los Angeles Lakers are no longer among the league’s elite and will head to training camp with plenty of question marks. Can Kobe Bryant regain his form and play at a high level after numerous injuries? How much does point guard Steve Nash have left in the tank in what may possibly be his final season as a professional? Is rookie forward Julius Randle ready to play a significant role right out of the cereal box? The health of Bryant is obviously the most important in the equation. Without Bryant playing at a high level, for a significant amount of games, the team will struggle to pull out wins. Too many what-ifs present to predict a playoff berth, but the team should definitely improve on its 27 victories from  last season.

4th Place – Pacific Division

– Lang Greene

Although the Los Angeles Lakers failed to catch one of the big fish from last July’s free agency school, they managed to salvage quite a bit. The acquisition of Jeremy Lin is a low-cost, high-reward proposition, as the point guard position has been a void on this roster for quite some time. Carlos Boozer, though not as talented as Pau Gasol, will replace the Spaniard and, along with rookie Julius Randle, provide the Lakers with some much-needed size up front. Whether or not the Lakers have a real chance of qualifying for the playoffs or not will ultimately fall squarely on the 36-year-old shoulders (and knees) of Kobe Bryant and whether or not new head coach Byron Scott can replicate the success he had as the head coach of the New Jersey Nets from 2000-2004. In all likelihood, the Lakers will once again be on the outside looking in when playoff time rolls around, but with so many new faces and Bryant’s pending return, it would be unwise to completely discount them.

4th place – Pacific Division

– Moke Hamilton

For decades the Los Angeles Lakers have been operating with distinct advantages that the rest of the league struggled to compete with. The league’s increase in exposure has really worked against them, taken away from their prestige and even the playing field when it comes to recruiting stars. You no longer have to play in Los Angeles to be a nation-wide, or global-wide star. That’s why they’ve been one of the biggest losers in each of the last two offseasons. That, and the appeal of playing with Kobe Bryant coming off of the two most serious injuries of his career while he’s getting paid the most money in the league just isn’t that attractive. It’s quite possible that we’ve seen the last of Bryant in the playoffs, as the Lakers lack the top-tier talent necessary to compete in the Western Conference right now. Barring impressive bounce back seasons from Steve Nash, Carlos Boozer and Bryant, it’s hard to see how the Lakers even come close to competing for a playoff spot. Their competition only got better, while they frankly got worse. For the first time in his career, it’s easy to choose against the Black Mamba, and it could be until they strike gold in the draft like they did with him before they ever contend again.

5th place – Pacific Division

– Yannis Koutroupis

Top Of The List

Top Offensive Player: For the first time in a decade, last year’s Lakers team didn’t have Kobe Bryant to serve as the team’s top offensive weapon and it was evident on many nights. While players like Jodie Meeks (Detroit) and Nick Young (re-signed) may have enjoyed career seasons, the team lacked a clear-cut and dependable “first option” and someone whom could be leaned upon for leadership and guidance throughout adversity on most nights. Although age and the attrition of both minutes and injuries will force Bryant to continue adjusting his game, he will likely remain the top offensive player for the Lakers until he removes his jersey for the final time.That isn’t to say he’ll absolutely need to be the team’s leading scorer each and every night (although we wouldn’t put it past him to end up leading with somewhere around 23.5 PPG), but Bryant will still remain the most pivotal offensive piece both as a scorer and playmaker for the Lakers frankly because he’s still talented enough to do so. Even though we’ve likely seen the last of his free-wheeling and high-flying days of the past, as long as Bryant is healthy he’ll still be able to out-think and out-maneuver most opponents on a given night. Scott and Bryant have to find a way to balance his responsibilities and minutes played so that he can be most efficient and effective while on the court. Never has there been a greater need for Bryant to pace himself, not only throughout the season and from game to game, but even as far as self-assessing from quarter to quarter.

Top Defender: This will likely be Scott’s most difficult responsibility in 2014-15. The fact is the team simply doesn’t have enough defensive oriented players at this time. Bryant is 36, in his aforementioned 19th season and returning from what were ultimately consecutive season-ending injuries. As someone that had been unable to consistently answer the bell on the defensive end even prior to the last two seasons, clearly the Lakers cannot and should not enter the year expecting Bryant to champion the cause. Julius Randle is a young and active body, but we have yet to see what his defense will look like at this level. Ed Davis and Jordan Hill have each been rim-protectors in reserve roles, but with a potential starting backcourt that could have a combined age of 77 years old by the second week in February, chances are these Lakers are going to need the equivalence of the reincarnation of Wilt Chamberlain or a young Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Sweet Lew, if you will…) manning the paint in order to prevent opponents from living in the lane. Scott can preach about pride and passion all he’d like, but unless he can devise and get the team to execute perfect defensive schemes and game plans on a nightly basis, that will remain their biggest issue along the way.

Top Playmaker: Jeremy Lin is in the unique position of being in a contract year with an opportunity to lead one of the NBA’s ‘Glamor Franchises’ as it attempts to rise from the ashes all while during the comeback  and literal Swan song of the one of the more beloved players in the organization’s history. If that doesn’t make for a grand stage for a free-agent-to-be, we aren’t sure what might. We’re not predicting a repeat of ‘Linsanity’ or anything of that nature, but the circumstances are in place for Lin to have a very productive year as he seeks long-term security moving forward. While known for being a guy that thrives in the pick-and-roll, Lin has actually improved as an all-around offensive player that can also play off-ball. At 6’3, Lin does a good job of probing in the halfcourt set, and routinely finds his way into the paint and to the rim. Although he should be one of the team’s primary ball-handlers and playmakers, he remains versatile and flexible enough to shift into whatever role Scott may ask of him.

Top Clutch Player: This is probably the easiest answer of any preview we’ll do throughout the preseason, but we have no doubts Bryant will occupy that spot once again for the Lakers. He may not be expected to go off for 20-point quarters or single-handedly carry these Lakers throughout a game, but if there’s one thing Bryant has absolutely lived for throughout his career it would be for the opportunity to pull his team through in the end by any means necessary.

Top Unheralded Player: A strong case should probably be made for Nick Young as he heads into his second season with the Lakers and a chance to play alongside a mentor in Bryant, but we’re not sure just how “unheralded” you can claim to be when you’re in the limelight (for various reasons) quite as much as the 29-year-old swingman. Instead, we’ll actually take a moment to acknowledge Wesley Johnson as someone we expect to have a bit of a turnaround season this year. While Johnson was one of the few players from last year that was active on the defensive end in most games, he still struggled to find consistency on the offensive side of things and in particular with his shot. In an effort to improve on that end, it was reported that Johnson decided to work with Bryant throughout the summer and emulate his offseason training regimen. Put simply, if you’re looking to learn a few tricks of the trade and further develop your game, then you could probably do a lot worse than being personally tutored by a ‘Roundball Rembrandt’ like Bryant.

Top New Addition: The Lakers have to absolutely hope Julius Randle fulfills this role. Even though Bryant will remain a key figure regardless of the circumstances, the team must move forward in terms of developing and nurturing the up-and-coming talent. After concerns surrounding the draft, all reports are that Randle’s surgically repaired foot is strong and healthy. Although seen as a guy that is generally liked and respected by his players, Scott is also known for holding them accountable and has already challenged Randle to report to camp in the best shape of his life. Randle isn’t currently slated as a starter despite being a high lottery pick, but don’t be surprised to see this determined and self-motivated young man work himself into playing a significant role within the rotation and earning additional minutes and trust throughout the year.

– Jabari Davis

Who We Like

1. Kobe Bryant: Forgive us if we fall over ourselves saying “DUH” to this one. Even at this state of his career, Bryant finds a way to enter the season with a proverbial chip on his shoulders as he attempts to disprove any/all doubters (See: Charles Barkley). The truth of the matter is, the greatest battle may just lie within as Bryant has been very candid and forthcoming about the natural doubt and questions that come along with attempting to rehab and return to form after so many years.

2. Julius Randle: Whether he starts to begin the year or serves in a reserve role for his rookie campaign, the most important thing for Randle (and these Lakers) is that he is permitted to work on his game against live action as much as possible. He’ll provide the energy and effort, but it will be upon Randle, Scott & Co. and his teammates to ensure that he is afforded the opportunity to develop. He already has a nice over-the-shoulder and jump-hook game from the post, but could stand to develop consistency as a face-up option as well as fine-tuning his ball-handling skills. He may be versatile and more agile than expected at his size, but actual season will not be quite as forgiving as some of the summer league action was when he attempted to act as a playmaker off the dribble.

3. Carlos Boozer: It was about time we mentioned Boozer, as he was actually a pretty good pick-up for these Lakers once Pau Gasol decided to leave for Chicago. Boozer may be far from the player he once was while playing as a member of the Utah Jazz, but he can still be an effective offensive player at this point in his career. He’s coming off a year where he provided 13.7 PPG and 8.3 RPG, and while he may not play quite as many minutes (28.2) especially by the end of the year, he is a guy that knows how to score and produce while on the court.

4. Jeremy Lin: We’ve already mentioned that he’s in a great spot during a contract year and should be expected to provide some quality minutes as the primary ball-handler, but he can also serve as a mentor along with Steve Nash for the Lakers’ second-round pick (purchased from Washington) in combo guard Jordan Clarkson.

5. Nick Young: Young may have played the market a bit, but it made a lot of sense for him to return to the ‘Purple and Gold.’ Not only was he absolutely embraced and beloved by the fan base, but Young was as comfortable as we’ve seen him at any point in his career last season. The trick for Young will be finding a way to be productive while serving as a member of a competitive team, and giving the focused effort it will take on the defensive end to keep Scott happy.

– Jabari Davis

Strengths

Even though no one is going to mistake the Lakers’ roster – as currently constituted – as any type of contender, they have clearly improved at several positions where they were playing D-League call-ups for long stretches of 2013-14. If healthy, they should be able to score and produce on the offensive end as everyone settles into and learns Scott’s offensive philosophy. If Scott stays true to form, you’ll probably see them running a mixture of pick-and-roll with various elements of the Princeton offense.

– Jabari Davis

Weaknesses

We hate to harp on the subject, but defense is most likely to be this team’s greatest weakness. Neither Jordan Hill nor Ed Davis have ever served in a starter’s capacity for an entire season, so it will be interesting to see how the coaching staff decides to break down the minutes at the center position. The roster is also a bit heavy with players that are generally power forwards, and does not much depth in case of injuries to either of their four swingmen. They could ultimately decide to test the 6’5 Clarkson with some reserve minutes as a shooting guard if things progress well enough for the first-year player.

– Jabari Davis

The Salary Cap

For the first time since the team acquired Shaquille O’Neal in 1996, the Lakers dropped under the salary cap.  After acquiring Jeremy Lin in trade, Carlos Boozer via an amnesty claim (from the Chicago Bulls) and re-signing Nick Young, the Lakers have used their spending power.  The team also utilized their $2.7 million Room Exception to re-sign Ryan Kelly and Xavier Henry.  The Lakers chose not to stretch out Steve Nash’s $9.7 million salary over three years (at $3.2 million) to protect future spending power.  With 13 players under contract, the Lakers can only add via minimum deals or trades.  The team may look to send out Nash before the trade deadline, and even recently re-signed Jordan Hill (not until after January 15), but unless the Lakers get value in return, they may just wait for next summer when they should have cap space once again.

– Eric Pincus

Dunc’d On

It was a desultory 2013-14 for the Los Angeles Lakers in all respects.  Kobe Bryant got a ludicrous extension that will curtail the Lakers’ efforts to compete through 2015-16, then immediately was re-injured. Mike D’Antoni elected not to return without a contract extension, and the club was unsuccessful in landing Carmelo Anthony, the only major free agent it chased.  Free agent signings with the ostensible goal of competing resulted in a roster without a single above-average defensive player.  Byron Scott, who presided over defenses ranked 25th or worse during all his years in Cleveland, was brought in to coach.

Alas for Lakers fans, there does not appear to be much of a coherent plan in Lakerland these days.  The Bryant extension and his presence on the roster is greatly complicating for a team that should be looking to develop young talent rather than pursue the Sisyphean task of making the playoffs with this roster.

Best Case Scenario

20-62

The Lakers and Celtics, the league’s two proudest franchises, share the dubious distinction of benefitting long-term from having worse records in 2014-15.  While I have argued tanking is an overblown concern in general, that is certainly not the case when a team trades away a protected pick.  In the Lakers’ case, the top-five protected pick they owe Phoenix for the Steve Nash trade provides a great incentive to finish as badly as possible.

Meanwhile, the Lakers’ hopes of acquiring a major free agent or two in 2016 when Bryant comes off the books hinge on having young talent on the roster.  Randle is the only player who qualifies, and he will hopefully start and play over 30 minutes per game. But having another young cost-controlled stud on the squad may be essential to luring top-end 2016 talent.  The Lakers have no way to obtain such a player except by retaining their pick in 2015.  Unfortunately, it looks like the presence of Bryant and myriad mediocre veterans will likely preclude that possibility unless the Lakers get some lottery luck.

Worst Case Scenario

32-50

Randle starts poorly and plays little, as players without a long-term future in LA like Carlos Boozer and Jordan Hill play more minutes than he does.  Bryant is painful to watch, while the best defense in Lakerland belongs to the rabid combination of Laker and Jeremy Lin fans reacting to perceived slander of the team.  The squad misses out on the playoffs, yet gives up its draft pick to Phoenix.

– Nate Duncan

The Burning Question

Can the Lakers remain competitive in a deep Western Conference?

Considering it a longshot might be putting it mildly, but then again we aren’t as bold (or as foolish) enough to prematurely kick dirt on Bryant’s grave until we see what his body will permit him to do upon returning. Regardless of what he has left in the tank, this team’s overall team health will be the difference between whether the 2014-15 Lakers are at least competitive or in jeopardy of having to worry about surrendering a lottery pick (1-5 protected) to a team within the division in the Phoenix Suns.

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NBA Daily: Free-Agent Watch: Centers

Drew Maresca continues Basketball Insiders’ Free Agent Watch by discussing the robust class of centers set to hit the market.

Drew Maresca

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The NBA is returning incredibly soon, but it definitely won’t be the same – at least not initially.

While most aspects of the game will hopefully return to normal as soon as next season – and other fun surprises like the return of Jamal Crawford and Michael Beasley to the Brooklyn Nets (the latter of whom is still in negotiations) will bring some unexpected joy to an otherwise nerve-wracking situation –  the long-term financial implications of COVID-19 are very real. Immediately, players will sign lesser deals due to an assumedly smaller salary cap and teams with multiple max contracts on their books will struggle to surround their star players with the support they need to compete.

With that being said, Basketball Insiders is identifying the best free agents at each position with the new and unique realities facing NBA teams in mind. Today we turn out attention to the men in the middle. The center position has changed dramatically since the 1990s, when having an elite big man was practically a necessity. But the definition of “elite” has changed drastically between that era and this one. Historically, big men hunkered down in the post — they were burly and physical, blocked shots and grabbed rebounds. What they did not do was stretch the floor, handle the ball or defend guards like many at the position do today.

So let’s dive into the best centers available in free agency.

Marc Gasol, Toronto Raptors – Unrestricted – $25,595,7500

Gasol will be an unrestricted free agent following this season. And, from the surface, his prospects wouldn’t seem great; Gasol missed considerable time in 2019-20, playing in only 36 games due to a hamstring injury, which resulted in career lows in scoring, rebounds and blocks per game.

That said, there’s still some room for optimism – and it’s squarely rooted in his weight.

Gasol has slimmed down quite a bit since COVID-19 forced the NBA to shut down in mid-March. Returning lighter and more fit should allow him to move more seamlessly with the team on the court and further leverage his athleticism. It should also enable him to stay on the floor for longer stretches, another positive as Gasol’s presence on the court has often been positive for the Raptors; of Toronto’s six lineups that logged 100 or more minutes, Gasol is in all three that are at least +10 and didn’t play at all in the other three (which were -4.1, -10 and +3.1, respectively).

What’s more, Gasol’s a great passer, an excellent defender (he allowed the tenth fewest points per touch last season) and his three-point shooting has continued to improve dramatically (he shot 40.2% on 3.5 three-point attempts in 2019-20 – second among centers in the entire league behind only Karl-Anthony Towns).

Gasol isn’t the modern and mobile “point center,” but adding bits and pieces of that style to his game has surely made him a valuable asset on the open market, even at the age of 35 and despite the lackluster regular season. He’ll have eight games plus the playoffs to prove that he’s healthy and ready to contribute — if Gasol can step back up, he should be in line for a nice payday.

Hassan Whiteside, Portland Trail Blazers – Unrestricted – $27,093,018

Whiteside was meant to be a stop-gap for the Trail Blazers. Portland’s plan was always to bide their time until Jusuf Nurkic was able to return from a compound fracture of his left tibia and fibula.

But the 31-year-old put forth such an impressive 2019-20 campaign that, while it’s highly unlikely the team recants their dedication to Nurkic, Whiteside has almost certainly secured himself a major deal for next season.

Just look at Whiteside’s 2019-20 output so far; he improved essentially each month, which culminated in 19.6 points, 14.8 rebounds and 5 blocks per contest across five games in March. Further, Whiteside connected on 57.1% of his three-point attempts – even if he only launched seven all year. If Whiteside can convert threes at that rate – even at such a limited volume – he remains a threat who defenders must cover all the way to the three-point line.

To put Whiteside’s season in context, he secured a career high in points per game, led the league in blocks per game (3.1) and is the second-leading rebounder in the entire NBA. Not bad, right? It may not come from Portland, but Whiteside would certainly seem to be in line for a raise, and a big one at that. And, given his age, don’t be surprised to see him jump at potentially his last chance to cash in big.

Dwight Howard, Los Angeles Lakers – Unrestricted – $3,500,000

Howard signed a one-year, non-guaranteed deal with the Lakers last summer. Expectations were relatively low, especially considering he was a last-minute signing; Howard was signed in August after DeMarcus Cousins suffered a knee injury.

But expectations and reality are not always aligned. Despite his age — Howard turned 34 last December — and the lack of actual playtime to go around with Anthony Davis and JaVale McGee soaking up most of the time at the five, Howard managed an impressive bounce-back season. In 62 games, Howard averaged 7.5 points, 7.4 rebounds and 1.2 blocks while hitting 73.2 percent of his shots and playing strong defense in just over 19 minutes per game.

Per-36, those numbers look even better: 14.1 points, 13,8 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per-36 minutes.

It could be tough for the Lakers to re-sign Howard, as they have about $75 million in guaranteed contracts next year before inking Davis to a massive new deal. That said, and while Howard will be competing with veterans like DeMarcus Cousins for a roster spot, he’s built a strong case for himself – especially if he’s willing to take another discount and continue to accept more of a reserve role.

Andre Drummond, Cleveland Cavaliers – Player Option — $28,751,774

The Cavaliers traded for Drummond for pennies on the dollar. Less than that, even.

In exchange for Brandon Knight, John Henson and a future second-round pick, the Cavaliers netted a two-time All-Star and the NBA’s leading rebounder in each of the last three seasons. It’s not like there was a major downtick in his play this season, either; in 2019-20, Drummond averaged 17.7 points and 15.3 rebounds per game.

But it’s not all sunshine and roses in Cleveland.

Drummond’s situation with the Cavaliers appears to be pretty open-and-shut. He’s been quoted as saying that he will exercise his $28.7 million player option, adding nearly $30 million in salary to Cleveland’s 2020-21 salary cap. But, just because Drummond said it doesn’t make it a guarantee. The Cavaliers could attempt to negotiate a long-term deal, bringing down their 2020-21 cap hit and guaranteeing Drummond more total dollars to appease him.

But there are a few questions that must be addressed before offering Drummond anything beyond next season. Firstly, does Cleveland believe that he’s versatile enough to play center in the modern NBA? Drummond shot just 28.6% on three-point attempts this season and he’s a sub-50% career free-throw shooter. Do those deficiencies outweigh Drummond’s strong contributions elsewhere (i.e. his scoring, rebounding and defense)?

The second question for Cleveland has more to do with his timeline rather than his play. Do the Cavaliers want to further invest in players on a different timeline to that of much of their young core (Collin Sexton, Darius Garland, Dante Exum, Kevin Porter Jr., etc.)? Drummond is set to turn 27 later this year and, while surrounding youth with a veteran leader is definitely the right move, Cleveland already has two of those veteran personalities in the locker room in Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson.

That said, while Love is signed through 2022-23, Thompson — a similar player to Drummond — is set to hit unrestricted free agency at the end of the season.

Cleveland’s strategy as of this past February’s trade deadline didn’t appear entirely cohesive — they resisted trading Thompson (and could now lose him for nothing) only to add Drummond to the fold. And, going forward, it looks as if they have two options: either overwhelm their roster with mismatched talent and try to let it work itself out, or they can surrender Thompson now or Drummond next season. We’ll know which direction they prefer very soon.

DeMarcus Cousins, Los Angeles Lakers – Unrestricted – $3,500,000

Last we checked, Cousins was working his way back from a torn ACL suffered just prior to the start of the 2019-20 season. Cousins’ stats were very good, but not quite great; the former Golden State Warrior averaged 16.3 points and 8.2 rebounds per game in 30 games last season, still hobbled in his recovery from a ruptured Achilles tendon. Before that, Cousins was averaging 25.2 points and 12.9 rebounds per game, shooting an impressive 35.4% on three-point attempts while bullying opponents at the rim (63.1%).

So, is a team willing to gamble on Cousins bouncing back to that form? It will have to wait until next season, as Cousins has stated his intent to sit out the NBA’s restart in Orlando, but the answer is probably yes, but for the right price.

Cousins was (and probably still is) an uber-talented player. But, like Howard this season, he may have to take a backseat-type deal before he can truly bounce back and earn his next big payday.

Whatever Cousins does is, ultimately, up to him, but, whether with the Lakers or another squad, it would seem wise for Cousins to ride the wave next season with a squad that could go the distance. Rather than rush himself back and risk another potential injury, Cousins could slowly work his way back and show teams that he can still get it done at a high level before hitting the market next offseason looking to cash in.

The return to basketball is inevitable. Of course, not everyone is happy with it, but that won’t stop teams from taking advantage of the remaining games in order to scout players and absorb new information. There are opportunities for players to secure future contracts, while other players will probably play their way into retirement and or out of the league. The 2020 free agent period will probably be the most chaotic version of itself, ever, and, while it may be a little rough for the front offices, it’ll be all the more fun for us to cover and watch.

And it’ll all be here in just a few short months.

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NBA Daily: Malachi Richardson Has Learned What It Means To Be A Pro

Spencer Davies catches up with Malachi Richardson about his participation in The Basketball Tournament, spending a season overseas and what it will take to get back to the NBA.

Spencer Davies

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At this time last year, Malachi Richardson had just come off a championship-winning season with the Toronto Raptors, and he was set for a five-game Summer League stint with the Golden State Warriors.

One year later, the matured 24-year-old swingman is competing for Boeheim’s Army in The Basketball Tournament to showcase his talents, ultimately poised to earn his way back into the NBA after a season overseas.

“I miss playing and being on the court with teammates to find ways to work together and win,” Richardson told Basketball Insiders. I’ve been training hard at Impact with Joe Abunassar this offseason to perfect my game. It’s going to be fun.”

Sporting a slimmed-down frame — he’s lost 17 pounds — Richardson scored 15 points and grabbed three rebounds in his TBT debut, a win over Men of Mackey. The Syracuse alum will take on Team Sideline Cancer this weekend.

Despite his short stay at ‘Cuse, playing for the Orangemen holds a special place in Richardson’s heart. It was where he capitalized on his McDonald’s All-American high school status and put it into action on a national collegiate stage for a top program, making him an attractive prospect at the NBA level. In June 2016, the Charlotte Hornets took the talented wing with the No. 22 pick.

“I wouldn’t change anything about my process,” Richardson said of his decision to enter the draft as a freshman. “Our Final Four run at Syracuse was special and I often reflect on how fun the game was for me at the time.

“Being a one-and-done put me at an advantage to be able to learn the business side of basketball early, so that I learned what it will really take for me to have a long NBA career.”

Richardson was traded a couple of weeks later to the Sacramento Kings, where he spent the beginning portion of his career. He appeared in 22 games during his rookie season, and the minutes in those were scarce.

However, he took advantage of G League assignments with the Reno Bighorns. In 11 games, Richardson averaged over 21 points and 4 rebounds per game, nailing 46 percent of his threes. Things were looking up heading into his sophomore season.

Richardson received an uptick in minutes and even earned his first four starts with the Kings, but it wasn’t for long. Sacramento dealt him at the 2018 trade deadline to the Raptors. He’d spend the next year-and-a-half with Toronto; again, he made the most impact in the G League, this time with the Raptors 905.

“The G-League is great for young guys, especially on teams that may not have as much opportunity for you to get on the floor with the NBA team,” Richardson said. “It gave me a chance to stay sharp so if I did get an opportunity on the NBA floor, I would be ready.”

The silver lining in the situation? An NBA title. During his time up north, Richardson was a part of a championship organization and had a great mentor in Danny Green. The lessons he picked up along the way can’t be replaced.

“On and off the court,” Richardson said. “Being a champion and a player that has made a name for himself as a specialist in the league he definitely helped me figure out what I can potentially be for a team.

“Being with the Raptors showed me what it takes to win at a high level in the NBA. From film, scouting reports, taking care of your body with treatment. And just coming in each day mentally prepared. From day one, it was clear that the goal was to win a championship, and being young in that locker room has put me at a serious advantage today.”

When last July’s summer league concluded, Richardson didn’t receive a training camp invite. He ended up signing with Hapoel Holon of the Israeli Premier League through mid-December. Next up was a move to Italy to join Vanoli Cremona in Lega Basket Serie A.

For the first time in his career, he was traveling from country-to-country and making a living overseas. Luckily, his loved ones were along for the ride and made the transition that much easier.

“Coming home to my son and family every day after a game or practice helped me grow because it’s made me leave the different obstacles of a professional athlete at the door,” Richardson said.

“My son looks at me as daddy. I can’t come home after a long day and not interact with him. He made me forget about a lot of the tough days at the gym as soon as I step in the door.”

Unfortunately, in late January, Richardson suffered a fractured hand and was subsequently released a couple of weeks afterward. By the same token, he took advantage of the opportunities and his hard work showed. In 21 total games (12 starts) between the two teams, Richardson averaged over 11 points and nailed a pro-career-best 43.9 percent of his threes.

“Playing overseas was a great experience for me. Being able to see the world and experience the different types of play styles was important for my growth as a player.”

While Richardson’s embryonic career has not been as straightforward as your usual typical first-round pick, hindsight is always 20-20. He’s determined to show his development as a player and a person.

“I’ve learned what it means to be a pro,” Richardson said of his improvements. “Just finding ways to make the most of my body and what I can do to be effective on the court. These were things that I did not take as seriously as I should have the first time around.”

Mental preparation is a facet Richardson is no longer taking for granted. He understands that the NBA is a business, and if you’re not at the top of your game, it can be a harsh one. So he’s going to continue to use his time wisely, mainly perfecting his craft in the gym.

“The different things I need to do basketball-wise that lets me know I’m locked in and ready to play and practice at a high level,” Richardson said.

“Scoring the ball is one thing I think I can do with the best of them, and I’m working on becoming a more complete player. I’m a better passer now and a better defender. Learning as a professional, not just a basketball player, has helped my game grow.”

An NBA return is the goal.

In the meantime, Richardson will look to add another trophy to his collection in TBT.

“I am really putting in the work with this offseason to be ready for whatever comes my way. I hope to get a chance to work out for some teams this offseason and earn a chance to get a roster spot in camp,” Richardson said. “My family has been an amazing support system for me and I’ve been locked in with my workouts, taking care of my body and waiting for the right call to show what I’ve accomplished this past year.”

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NBA

NBA Daily: Free Agent Watch – Power Forwards

Matt John continues Basketball Insiders’ Free Agent Watch by examining the power forwards that could potentially be hitting the market this summer.

Matt John

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Welcome back to Basketball Insiders’ Free Agent Watch series! We’re now making our way to the frontcourt players that could see a new team when the new NBA season starts in December.

On paper, the power forwards have the deepest pool of free agents talent-wise. Although, a few of these players on this list are mentioned because they potentially could hit the market. Common sense would say otherwise. Case in point — take a look at the first guy mentioned here.

Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers – Player Option – $28,751,775

Yeah, we *technically* had to include Davis in here because he could *technically* hit the open market, and he *technically* is listed as a power forward since he plays the majority of his minutes at that spot — 62 percent this season alone, which was his highest since 2014-15. His free agency (if he becomes one) should be pretty straightforward.

Whether he opts in or not, expect Davis back with the Lakers. LeBron James and the Lakers gave up a lot to get him to Hollywood. The Lakers will be damned if they’re going to let him go after they’ve had their best season since 2011, and LeBron will be damned if he’s going to let him go because as much as he’s defied father time; he’s only got so many years left at the top. The two of them have made up the NBA’s best pairing this season. If that breaks up, it’ll be pretty much impossible to find an adequate replacement.

Considering all the drama that led up to the Lakers acquiring Davis, it would take a 99-yard hail mary pitch against the Legion of Boom to get him off the Lakers. This is the best team that Davis has been on his entire career by far, and when you have LeBron taking a lot of responsibility off your shoulders on a team vying for a championship, there’s not a whole lot of incentive to leave. Unless you’re Kyrie Irving.

That’s where the real question lies. Davis will definitely stay on the Lakers for as long as LeBron is right there with him, but how long will that be? LeBron will be on the books for two more years after this season, and everyone knows of his plans to play with his son Bronny in the near future. Should LeBron go leave to take part in the family business, Davis’ future with the Lakers goes up in the air. LA doesn’t have to worry about that for another two years — and those two years should be prosperous — but it’s something they should keep in the back of their minds. Especially if there’s fire to these “return-to-hometown-Chicago” rumblings.

Montrezl Harrell, Los Angeles Clippers – Unrestricted – $6,000,000

When you have a championship window, you have to do everything you can to keep it open, even if it means paying more than what a guy is worth. People give Dan Gilbert so much grief for what he paid LeBron’s supporting cast in Cleveland, but give the guy credit. He knew he had an opportunity that he could not afford to let slip through his fingers. Now, Steve Ballmer has a similar predicament with Harell’s free agency coming up.

Harrell has easily been one of the league’s best bargain contract players over the past couple of years. Not many teams have bigs averaging 18/7 off the bench. The Clippers are the only team to have such a player while paying him chump change. They may no longer have that luxury when he hits the open market.

Kawhi Leonard and Paul George create a championship window that needs to have as few holes as possible. Letting Harrell walk will create one that cannot easily be filled. His energy on both sides of the floor makes him an absolute terror to deal with any opponent they go up against. He’s also going to be their best bet against Anthony Davis in what feels like an inevitable conference finals date with their crosstown rival.

Having both his bird rights and a limited market will help the Clippers in the negotiating room, but we’ve seen guys leave good teams for less money because they felt insulted by the deal they were offered. This is the chance for the Clippers to show that they truly are committed both to Harrell and the window they have.

Paul Millsap, Denver Nuggets – Unrestricted – $30,000,000

Millsap is the last of a dying breed in the NBA — a pure power forward. Because of the league’s versatility, we see more and more small forwards playing a fair amount of time at the four because they are multi-faceted enough to do so. Millsap impressively has been able to stay productive at the four even as the league has embraced this change. Even more so, the teams he’s been on have pretty much always been good.

At 35 years old, it’s clear Millsap is on his last legs. Although his per-36 stats look just about as good as they were during the height of his prime both in Utah and Atlanta, Denver’s decreased his minutes for a reason. At the same time, there’s a reason why Denver opted to pick up his $30 million team option last summer.

Millsap is definitely not going to see anywhere near the kind of contract he got from the Nuggets back in 2017, but there is going to be a lot of interested parties in his services once the season ends. He’s among those players that aren’t very flashy on the court nor anything spectacular in one area, but just a good fundamental basketball player all-around. He’s a good veteran presence in the locker room, and maybe he won’t put up the All-Star numbers he once could; but as it stands, if all you’re asking him is to be a rotation big on a playoff contender, he’ll do that for you.

Denver has the advantage both because of both its competitors’ lack of available funds and the team having Millsap’s bird rights. Returning to the Nuggets seems like the most obvious path, but Millsap does have to ask himself if he can win with them with what amount of prime he has left.

Serge Ibaka, Toronto Raptors – Unrestricted – $23,271,605

It’s tough to describe where Ibaka is in his career right now. He’s no longer the shot-blocking terror that he was during his time in Oklahoma City — from 3.7 blocks a game in 2011-12 to 0.8 this season — so when you hear stuff like that, you think he’s past his prime. Then you look at his numbers on the offensive end — 16/8 on 52/40/75 splits, some of his best numbers ever — and you would think he hasn’t lost a step.

The contract Toronto gave Ibaka back in 2017 may have been a bit of an overpay — who wasn’t overpaying in 2017? — but he has done what the Raptors have asked of him. He brought veteran experience, still blocks a shot or two, and spaces the floor for them most of the time. He doesn’t have the highest basketball IQ, but he knows what he can do well and sticks to it.

As far as where he goes after this season is quite the mystery. Toronto has been as awesome as a reigning champ who lost its best player could be, but even they have to wonder if it’s worth it to keep the whole band together for another run when Ibaka, Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol are all starting to get up there age-wise. The Raptors could really go either way, and there wouldn’t be a wrong answer. Masaji Ujiri has proven time after time that he knows what he’s doing.

Whoever gets Ibaka knows what they are getting. Besides the skills that have already been listed above, they are getting a champion. That can count for a lot in a playoff run.

Marcus Morris, Los Angeles Clippers – Unrestricted – $15,000,000

Not every player gets to go through what Morris did this season. He got paid a ton of money to play for a team that was bad enough to trade him to a contender willing to pay a high price for him, and now he gets a golden opportunity to showcase his talents for a payday. His odds of getting one took a hit for reasons that were out of his control, but still. This could not have worked out any better for Morris.

Now he’s on the Clippers, where he is the overqualified third wing to spell Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, as well as be a body to throw at LeBron. His three-point percentage took a bad spill once arriving in LA, but before that he was shooting a blistering near-44 percent from three in New York. Morris is a career 36.7 percent three-point shooter, so asking him to shoot that hot from three is placing unfair expectation, but if he can be a reliable shooter from that department, the Clippers will have no regrets for what they spent on him.

Considering the other Clippers who will be hitting free agency this summer, the odds of Morris coming back to LA seem slim on paper, but who knows how the low salary figures will impact free agency. Morris has proven that he is a valuable two-way wing that can play gritty defense as well as score the ball.

Buyer beware, though — Marcus Morris is in the Russell Westbrook mold of players that will not adapt to the system. The system adapts to guys like him. It doesn’t matter if he’s got the likes of Kawhi or PG-13 on his side. If the basketball is in his hands, his first instinct is to score. If you’re bringing him in, you have to know what you’re paying for. There’s much more good than bad to Mook, but the bad is still something that can’t be overlooked.

Marvin Bagley III, Sacramento Kings – Team Option – $8,963,640

“Uh…. what” you may ask? It’s true. Even as the second overall pick in the draft, Bagley’s rookie deal is structured to have a team option for his third year with the team for… some reason. To be honest, this is really brought up more for being a fun fact than anything else.

Because, even if Bagley has paled in comparison to some of his fellow 2018 draftees thus far — Luka Doncic, Trae Young, Jaren Jackson Jr., Shai Gilgeous-Alexander — Sacramento would be absolutely insane to let him go knowing the kind of potential he has… right?

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