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2015-16 Brooklyn Nets Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the Brooklyn Nets’ 2015-16 season.

Basketball Insiders

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Give Mikhail Prokhorov credit: it seems that from the very moment he became involved with the Brooklyn Nets, the franchise has been one of the most talked about across the entire NBA. Now, as the Nets stare at the prospect of what may be a very long season, the faithful fans of Brooklyn collectively wonder what the first year of the post-Deron Williams era will bring.

Built around Brook Lopez, Thaddeus Young and Joe Johnson, when compared to the likes of the Detroit Pistons, Orlando Magic and certainly the Milwaukee Bucks, the Nets seem to be a team headed in the wrong direction. Williams is off to Dallas and fans of this team wonder what the 2015-16 season will bring. Quietly, we wonder the same.

Basketball Insiders previews the Brooklyn Nets’ 2015-16 season:

Five Thoughts

The Nets haven’t been this unexciting since they officially moved to New York. While it’s good that they were able to hold onto Brook Lopez and add some exciting young talents like Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Thomas Robinson, the reality is that the Jarrett Jack and Bojan Bogdanovic starting backcourt isn’t inspiring a lot of confidence in fans. The Nets have pieced together an interesting roster with loads of likeable players like Donald Sloan, Shane Larkin and Quincy Miller, but despite that it really is a pretty sad little roster. It’s a time of transition for the Nets, who very likely will entertain trade offers for Joe Johnson non-stop from now through February.

4th Place – Atlantic Division

–Joel Brigham

The Brooklyn Nets are a team I expect to drop out of the playoffs next season. They snuck into the eighth spot last year with 38 wins, but that was by surpassing Indiana Pacers and Miami HEAT teams set back by injuries. Deron Williams left the Nets this summer for the Dallas Mavericks, which could end up benefiting the team given his lack of consistency and production over the years. The Nets, however, have underperformed since a team of mega-contracts was compiled. Joe Johnson is in the final year of his deal and the Nets will have more flexibility to add new talent once that’s off the table. Until then, the Nets are poised to remain in the bottom half of the Eastern Conference.

4th Place – Atlantic Division

-Jessica Camerato

The Nets have been one of the league’s biggest spenders over the past two seasons, but only have one playoff series victory to show for their investment dollars. Heading into training camp, the expectations surrounding the club are now much lower – and rightfully so. Seven-time All-Star guard Joe Johnson is the best player in the Nets’ rotation, but he’s been on a decline since 2012. Brook Lopez is a nightly 20-point threat, but has had more than his share of injury woes. The team has $81 million in guaranteed salaries on the books this season, but just $45 million for the 2016-17 campaign. Brooklyn may fall out of the playoff mix this season, but a quick bounce back next year isn’t out of the question.

3rd Place – Atlantic Division

-Lang Greene

Ever hear of addition by subtraction? The Nets are certainly hoping to find some of that. Just two short seasons ago, with Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Jason Terry and Deron Williams, the Nets dreamed of toppling the Miami HEAT in the Eastern Conference. Now, amazingly, and in short order, none of those players are with the franchise. I can’t deny Brook Lopez’s above-average abilities, but I simply do not think that a team built around him and his gifts will ever be a championship contender. By necessity, his team will need to force-feed him and play down to his speed and I am just not sure if that is a winning recipe in today’s NBA. Aside from that, the Nets lost many of their best three-point shooters and defenders over the past few years and although they are getting much younger, they do not seem to be getting any better. Who is the emotional leader for this team? Who will lift their spirits? Who will teach the younger players? I honestly have no clue, just like I have no clue how they can expect to be any better than fourth in their division this year.

4th Place — Atlantic Division

-Moke Hamilton

Last year, Brooklyn managed to sneak into the playoffs with just 38 wins. This year, I think it’s going to take significantly more wins than that to be a playoff team in the East, and I have the Nets on the outside looking in. With that said, I like some of the young players they added including Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Thomas Robinson, Willie Reed, Shane Larkin and Quincy Miller among others. The team cut bait on Deron Williams this offseason, which was the right move, and it’s good to see them bringing in some young players. They’ll take a step back, but creating flexibility is likely a smart decision.

3rd Place – Atlantic Division

– Alex Kennedy

Top of the List

Top Offensive Player: Brook Lopez

With all due respect to Joe Johnson, Brook Lopez is the top offensive player for the Brooklyn Nets. Lopez may have his faults as a player and the mobility of dump truck, but he is an efficient offensive player who possesses both an ability to play with his back to the basket and confidently score from well outside of the paint. In 2013-14, Lopez averaged 20.7 points per game and although he scored substantially less last season (17.2 PPG), it’s because his usage seemed to deteriorate more as a result of Lionel Hollins playing off of his wing players a bit more. To his credit, Lopez still shot 51 percent from the field and handled a demotion to the bench quite well, all things considered. Assuming he can stay healthy, there is no reason to believe that Lopez will cease being one of the more productive and efficient big men in the NBA, and it is easy to consider him the top offensive force on the Nets.

Top Defensive Player: Thaddeus Young

After losing Kevin Garnett, Alan Anderson, Andrei Kirilenko and Shaun Livingston fairly recently, the Nets now find themselves devoid of many plus-defenders. For that reason, Thaddeus Young almost wins here by default. Young has always been a good on-ball defender, but does often struggle to stay in front of small players. Together, he and Brook Lopez form a credible tandem in terms of making opposing big men work for their baskets, but overall, the Nets may truly miss Alan Anderson. Newcomer Shane Larkin can be fairly pesky, but his lack of size has been perhaps the biggest obstacle he has had to overcome to this point, and he will continue to face challenges as a result. As for Young, while far from perfect, he is capable on the defensive end. Markel Brown certainly warrants mention here, as he certainly proved himself a capable defender last season, but with such a small sample size, we would have to say that Young remains numero uno in this regard.

Top Playmaker: Jarrett Jack

It’s amazing to us that a quality player and person like Jarrett Jack has been so transient in his NBA career. Now playing on his seventh team, Jack appears destined to be the full-time starter for the Brooklyn Nets at the point guard position. Jack hasn’t started as many as 50 games since 2010 but it certainly appears that the job is his to lose now that Deron Williams has taken his talents to Dallas. Overall, Jack is only a mediocre distributor, partially evidenced by his career 5.6 assists per 36 minutes. Where Jack excels, however, is creating space off of the dribble. Jack is an outstanding step-back shooter and is quite capable at dribbling around screens and shooting after creating a sliver of space. As the full-time starter and playing the lion’s share of minutes as the team’s point guard, Jack will be higher on the opposition’s scouting depth chart and will have an opportunity to consistently find his shooters. Though we prefer Jack in situations where he is creating his own shot opportunity, he has always been willing to move the basketball and has the ability to help Andrea Bargnani, Joe Johnson and the other shooters on this team shine.

Top Clutch Player: Joe Johnson

There are numbers and metrics that would support the notion that Joe Johnson is the top clutch player in the entire league, at least over the past five years. So yes, it is easy to declare that he is the top clutch player on the Brooklyn Nets. During the 2013-14 season, Kevin Garnett famously referred to Johnson as “Joe Jesus.” The reason? According to Garnett, “He may not be there when you want him, but he’s there when you need him.” Johnson earned the moniker after a January 2014 victory over his former team, the Atlanta Hawks. Despite a dearth of late-game heroics last season, at least comparatively speaking, there are few players across the entire league that strike fear in the opposition the way Johnson does.

The Unheralded Player: Thaddeus Young

Entering his ninth season, Thaddeus Young is a player whose name probably rings a bell to some NBA observers, but only those who live and breathe basketball. In other words, he is not a household name or known by many casual fans. Now, out of necessity, the Nets will lean on him to be one of their top playmakers and with that, for Young, will come tremendous opportunity. Always regarded as a capable defender over the years, Young’s game has improved immensely. He can finish around the basket and in traffic, possesses good athleticism and can create his own scoring opportunities off of the dribble. He is observant and engaged on either end of the court and also excels at playing off of the basketball. What was most impressive about Young last season, however, was that in his 28 games as a member of the Brooklyn Nets, he connected on 38 percent of his three-point looks. Although it was a small sample size, it may be indicative of his learning how to effectively play with and off of both Brook Lopez and Joe Johnson. In his final season as a member of the Philadelphia 76ers, Young averaged 17.9, six rebounds and 2.3 assists per game. With the Nets, if he proves himself capable of shouldering a heavy load, his usage and minutes will likely increase to the point where he can best those numbers. The potential is certainly there.

Best New Addition: Thomas Robinson

Since being selected with the fifth overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft, Thomas Robinson has had a tough time finding consistent minutes and productivity. His career 14.1 minutes per game average is all the proof one needs to recognize that Robinson hasn’t been given the requisite minutes to make a difference in the league. Entering his fourth season, it is fair to question whether or not Robinson has something to do with his lack of opportunity. Still, with the flashes he has shown, the Nets hope that they have acquired a youngster that will prove to be a late bloomer. And if there is one thing that Robinson has already shown, it is a ferocious presence on the glass. In just 22 games with the Philadelphia 76ers last season, Robinson grabbed 7.7 rebounds in just 18 minutes per game, translating to a ridiculous 15 rebounds per-36 minutes. Over the course of his career, Robinson has grabbed 12.2 rebounds per-36 minutes, proving that he has at least one bona fide NBA talent. Although he may be overly assertive with his shot selection, he is an impressive finisher around the basket and plays at a breakneck pace. The Nets have made other acquisitions this summer that may prove to be worthwhile for the club, but with his upside and ferocity, we lean toward choosing Robinson as the best among them.

Who We Like

Lionel Hollins: Without question, Lionel Hollins, both as a player and a head coach, is someone with identity. Hollins is a proven leader who believes in playing the game of basketball a certain way and if there is one thing he deserves credit for more than anything else, it was how he was unafraid to challenge both Brook Lopez and Deron Williams last season. At various points during the season, we received word that Lopez and Williams were the subjects of questioning and prodding by their head coach and each went through stretches of the season where their minutes and usage waned tremendously. That type of accountability is rarely seen in the NBA these days and it is hardly ever seen as it relates to a first-year head coach attempting to pull greatness out of the two players that many regarded as franchise mainstays. From an Xs and Os perspective, Hollins leaves a bit to be desired, but most coaches do. Tough-nosed and seasoned, he is a plus-contributor on the bench and is one of the few bright spots for a team that has become a perennial underachiever.

Their Young Players: During the 2013-14 season, nine Nets players were at least 30 years old. Last season, that number dipped to six. Entering the 2015-16 season, the Nets will have just three players on their roster who are 30 or older. Led by Thaddeus Young and Bojan Bogdanovic, the Nets have an array of youngsters – Markel Brown, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Wayne Ellington, Ryan Boatright, Thomas Robinson and Willie Reed – that still have some perceived upside. Over the coming years, the Nets will continue to shave their payroll, but they have at least added some young players whose best days seem to be ahead of them. In the short term, the team is not likely to challenge for the Eastern Conference Championship, but clearly, building around overpriced veterans was not a recipe of success for these Nets, so kudos for altering the game plan. Now, if only they still owned their draft picks…

Mikhail Prokhorov: Say what you want about Mikhail Prokhorov, but until you have actually stood next to him in person, you simply have no idea what kind of charm and personality the man has. One other thing he certainly has? It’s a way with words, and we say that sincerely. Prokhorov is witty and intelligent and has no issue with being controversial. He entered the NBA beating his chest and declaring his team to be a championship contender, and although he has fallen short of his own grandiose predictions, he is still committed to winning and is willing to spend money in that pursuit. At the very least, he is worth commending for that.

Strengths

Strengths are admittedly difficult to find on the Nets, but if there is one thing that we can point to as potentially causing the opposition some headaches is size. With Brook Lopez, Andrea Bargnani and Thaddeus Young all getting minutes in the front court and Thomas Robinson expected to get some bench minutes, it seems that the big man platoon for the Nets may surpass its perimeter players in terms of productivity. Willie Reed, who was a Summer League standout, could also be a surprise contributor (much like Hassan Whiteside emerged for the Miami HEAT last year).

Another strength is how young they are, especially when compared to previous iterations of Brooklyn’s team. Lopez and Young are each just 27 years old while Joe Johnson (34), Jarrett Jack (31) and Andrea Bargnani (29) are the three oldest players on the roster. With a collection of youngsters, the Nets certainly have more upside than they have had in recent years.

Weaknesses

The biggest weakness of the Nets is their seeming lack of an alpha-male and emotional leader. Brook Lopez is the team’s longest-tenured player and arguably their cornerstone, but he is not particularly emotional or otherwise able to galvanize and lead troops into battle. Joe Johnson is similar in that regard. Although a fine citizen and a tremendous teammate, Johnson is renowned for being soft spoken and leading more so by example than with his words. With youth surrounding Lopez and Johnson, it will be on them to set the tone for this franchise and for them to show their teammates how to make things work in Brooklyn. That may be easier said than done, at least for these two.

The other obvious weakness for the Nets may be outside shooting. As currently mentioned, it stands to reason that the team will primarily rely on Brook Lopez for their offense, but without capable shooters surrounding him, opposing defenses will have the green light to collapse on the interior and dare many of those who will be sharing the court with Lopez to fire away. That doesn’t necessarily apply to Joe Johnson, Andrea Bargnani or Bojan Bogdanovic, but the former two are among the older pieces on the team. After losing Deron Williams, Mirza Teletovic and Alan Anderson this past offseason, it seems that there is an obvious void in terms of proven three-point shooting ability.

The Burning Question

What exactly are the Nets doing?

After paying a king’s ransom for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, the two have both been moved along and the Nets have very little to show for it. The team has $86 million on its ledger this coming season and just recently re-signed Brook Lopez and Thaddeus Young for a combined $117 million dollars. Yet the team also cut bait with Deron Williams—the player who was the face of the franchise since arriving back in 2011. With Joe Johnson entering the final year of his contract, he will earn about $25 million, so by next summer, we will have certainly gotten an answer to the burning question.

Just what exactly are the Nets doing? Are they rebuilding? Restocking? Does general manager Billy King have another ace up his sleeve? Built around Lopez, Young and newly installed starting point guard Jarrett Jack, can the Nets compete in the seemingly tougher Eastern Conference? There are tons and tons of questions, but very little answers.

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NBA Daily: Ivica Zubac Rounding Into Form For Clippers

David Yapkowitz writes about Ivica Zubac and his strong bubble performances for the Los Angeles Clippers – is he the key for a deep postseason run?

David Yapkowitz

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The Los Angeles Clippers have no shortage of star power. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George form one of the most dangerous duos in the NBA, and both Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell are averaging close to 20 points a game each while coming off the bench.

But there is one player on the roster who might be the team’s X-Factor, one player who could hold the key to being able to withstand the imposing frontline of the Los Angeles Lakers – and that’s Ivica Zubac.

Zubac was once a Laker before he was casually tossed aside to the Clippers at last season’s trade deadline. He had shown flashes of his capabilities with the Lakers but spent most of his first couple of seasons in the league with the Lakers’ G League affiliate. Upon his arrival to the Clippers, he immediately became a key player and has since settled into the starting center role.

His arrival to the NBA’s restart bubble in Orlando was initially held up as he had tested positive for COVID-19. He has since joined the team after a mandatory quarantine period and is looking ready to help the team as they gear up for a playoff run.

He admitted that although he only experienced mild symptoms from the virus, he still felt winded and not quite up to speed as he tried to ease himself back into regular game flow.

“It’s much better, it’s much better than when I got here. I can feel it getting better with each practice, each game,” Zubac said on a recent conference call with media.

“After I first started getting back in shape, after I was cleared, I felt like I was out of shape. My chest was a little tighter when I would do some stuff. But I feel great right now. I don’t feel anything. I’m getting back into shape, I’m almost there. It’s going to take some more time.”

Zubac feeling like his old self again has been evident with each passing game. He started slow, only finishing with two points and three rebounds against the Lakers while being outworked by Anthony Davis. Against the New Orleans Pelicans, he looked a bit better, especially with his effort on the glass.

In the Clippers’ third game of the restart against the Phoenix Suns, Zubac put up 18 points and 12 rebounds while shooting 77 percent from the field. He followed that up with his best bubble game to date with 21 points on a perfect 10-for-10 shooting and 15 rebounds against the Dallas Mavericks.

Zubac equated his increased production with gradually regaining his conditioning and mobility and getting the feel again for regular game speed.

“I’m getting the feel, I’m starting to remember what guys like, what are the best spots on the court for me. My conditioning is getting better each practice, each game,” Zubac told media after the Mavericks game. “I’m feeling like I can stay on the floor for a while, I can run the floor, I can fight in the post with guys, I can rebound. Everything with my conditioning getting back, I can get on another level in every aspect of my game.”

Before his performance against the Mavericks, Zubac had a pretty solid game against the Suns – but the center was obviously still readjusting to his teammates and being able to make the right reads and be in the correct spots on the floor. He played solid defense on Deandre Ayton, but he also ended up having a costly turnover late in the game that set up Devin Booker’s eventual game-winner.

Following the Suns game, Clippers head coach Doc Rivers had mentioned there were a few areas that Zubac could use improvement in, and he was much more effusive in his praise after his performance against the Mavericks.

“He was phenomenal. We talked about it, he did all the things we needed, he really ran the floor, that didn’t show up statistically, but what it did, it created space, it created mismatches,” Rivers told media after the game.

“I loved that our guys were looking for him. I thought his rebounding was fantastic. Really coming off the way we ended the game the other day with Zu, then coming back, playing like that, that was fantastic for his confidence.”

Throughout the season, Zubac has been a player that doesn’t need the ball in his hands to be effective. He does have a soft touch around the rim and can establish a strong position in the post, but he does a lot of damage when he’s rolling to the rim, cutting and moving without the ball and catching lobs from his teammates.

He’s also a good rebounder who gets points off of offensive putbacks, and he’s a solid defender who acts as the team’s interior defensive anchor. He’s also usually on the bench at the end of games when Harrell is in with the starters. But depending on potential matchups, perhaps against the Denver Nuggets and Nikola Jokic, or even the Lakers and Davis, Zubac could find himself finishing some games.

What is certain though, is he’s proving his importance to the team and he’s showing that come playoff time, he could end up being the X-factor. He knows that his teammates are going to look for him and he’s ready for that.

“It’s just communication on the floor, knowing what Kawhi and P.G like, knowing how to get a better angle on a screen, just the plays we run, got to have a better understanding what’s good at the time. It’s mostly communication on the floor,” Zubac said. “It feels great to get rewarded by my teammates after doing all the hard work.”

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Free Agency Update: Changes In The Bubble

Drew Maresca explores the free agency implications of the first week of play in the bubble as the NBA continues its return to post COVID-19 play.

Drew Maresca

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Free agency is always a fun time for the NBA and its fans, but particularly so in 2020. Most free agents have usually earned their next deal by the 65th game of any given season – but this year is far from typical. Instead, the NBA has returned, sans its eight worst teams, meaning that competition is consistently better. And with limited competition for our attention, every game is a major event that draws more eyes and has a greater effect on the paydays of to-be free agents.

We’re still only three or four games into the official return of the NBA, but there have already been some changes to how we perceive some players. Take T.J. Warren, for example, who’s averaging over 39.7 points per game through three contests. Or Michael Porter Jr., who looks more like the focal point of a team than a player in his first year of professional action.

This article will focus explicitly on the changes in perception of free agents to-be as a result of their play in the bubble in Orlando.  We understand that the players listed below can still hurt their standings and that teams rate free agents differently. While the sample size is small, we’ve seen deals made based on an equally small body of work (e.g., Jerome James to the New York Knicks).

One caveat to keep in mind is the unprecedented fiscal challenges facing the NBA and its club in 2020. Not only will the COVID-19 pandemic inevitably hurt the 2020-21 salary cap, but there’s also still a conclusion to be had with the preseason China situation.

With all of that in mind, let’s explore the players that have made the loudest cases for a payday come this offseason.

The Stars

Mike Conley Jr., Utah Jazz – Player Option

Conley Jr. has a player option for 2020-21 – but he played poorly enough through March, relative to what we’ve come to expect from him, that it was more than reasonable to assume he would opt-in at $34.5 million.

But wait, there’s a chance that Conley does us all a favor and makes free agency 2020 more interesting. Conley’s averaged 19.8 points and 5.8 assists per game, way, way up from 13.8 points and 4.3 assists per game prior to the stoppage in March. If Conley keeps this going – and especially if he performs well in the playoffs – he might want to test the market considering the lack of elite talent that’s anticipated to hit it – assuming he’s unhappy in Utah, that is.

Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans – RFA

Ingram’s looked similar to the guy we saw in 2019-20 before the play stoppage – he’s averaging 23.5 points and 7.5 rebounds per game when playing 30 or more minutes. While he was less effective in a loss against the Clippers (14 points and two rebounds in 24 minutes), he’s demonstrated growth in how decisively he makes his move and how seamlessly he then scores on the move.

Ingram was probably going to get max offer as of the All-Star break – especially after reaching his first All-Star team at 22 – but COVID-19 probably altered the ability for teams to dole out lucrative deals. But then play resumed and Ingram picked up right where he left off – and with a confidence to use it liberally. Ingram is nearly a lock for a max deal now.

Fred VanVleet, Toronto Raptors – UFA

VanVleet started off his time in the bubble with a solid performance (13 points and 11 assists), but he really showed out in his second game against the Miami HEAT. VanVleet led the Raptors to a win against Miami with a career-high 36 points. And then he got right back to being Mr. Consistent for Toronto by posting 21 points and 10 assists in a win against Orlando.

So ultimately, VanVleet has led the Raptors to a 3-0 (re)start, and he’s either scored a career-high or dropped 10-plus assists. James Dolan and Leon Rose are somewhere together – albeit socially distanced, we’re sure – drooling – as are all of the teams in need of a lead guard, like Detroit. VanVleet can only increase his value from here. He’s not assumed to be a max-level player, but if he plays well enough through the playoffs, it’ll be interesting to see just how high he can reach.

 DeMar DeRozan, San Antonio Spurs – Player Option

It’s hard to imagine DeRozan’s value increasing much at this point in his career. After all, he’s an 11-year veteran that has been named to the All-Star Game four times and an All-NBA team twice.

But still, there’s always been presumed limitations to his game, namely his inability to shoot three-pointers. Since being traded to San Antonio, he’s fallen out of the national spotlight a bit. As a 31-year-old capable of reaching unrestricted free agency, DeRozan is at a major inflection point in his career. He could attempt to a final big deal or snag a smaller one if the market for his services doesn’t meet expectations. Or he could just opt-in.

But DeRozan has done his part to remind everyone that he has loads of high-quality basketball left in him. He tallied 30 points on 11-for-20 shooting on Tuesday in a close loss to the 76ers and he’s averaged 22.3 points, 7.3 assists and 4.8 rebounds per game since the Spurs resumed play last Friday. While those averaged mostly coincide with what he did this season, it also represents a decent boost in assists. But more importantly, it solidifies that DeRozan should still receive a serious look as a lead star. And he’ll probably get interest from a number of teams.

The Known Commodities

Marcus Morris Sr., Los Angeles Clippers – UFA

While Morris Sr. is a known commodity, teams could use additional poor performances against him in negotiations. He’ll probably still have the option to sign for a veterans minimum or mid-level exception with a contender like the Clippers or Lakers. But if he’s eyeing another payday that pays him an annual salary equal to what he made in 2019-20, it would behoove him to make his mark on the stat book. 

Making A Case

Trey Burke, Dallas Mavericks – UFA

Burke hasn’t been overly consistent since NBA play resumed last week. But he did have a huge breakout game against the Rockets, scoring 31 points on 8-for-10 for three-pointers in only 30 minutes, while also dishing six assists.

Yes, Burke is averaging just 5.5 points in 18 minutes in the two games since, but the fact that he scored 31 in an NBA game will be enough to get looks as an off-the-bench scorer. And it’s a narrative that can be supported by his past work, too. Remember, Burke is still just 27-years-old  and he has a 42-point career-high. He’s also exploded for 30 four times and eclipsed the 20-point mark on 38 occasions in his 389 career games. So even if it’s just a reminder, it’s good to know that Burke can still get it done offensively – and teams are always looking for ways to manufacture offense.

Jordan Clarkson, Utah Jazz – UFA

Clarkson’s shot only 40 percent from the field since play resumed last Thursday, with an even worse 20 percent from three-point range. Still, scorers are as valuable as ever. It’s what made J.R. Smith so much money in this league, as well as Lou Williams and countless others – and rightfully so. Ultimately, it’s about putting the ball in the hoop. And with that being said, a franchise is going to pay Clarkson and they’ll end up paying more than they would have as of March.

Reggie Jackson, Los Angeles Clippers – UFA

Jackson has less to prove than most guys in this part of this list – but given his injury history, he does have to make a statement.

On the whole, Jackson has looked good – but not necessarily great. He averaged 12.5 points, seven rebounds and two assists in his first two contests, but he regressed in the Clippers’ most recent game against the Suns. But on a positive note, Jackson received only 23 minutes on Tuesday versus Phoenix and his 15 points on 5-for-9 shooting, eight rebounds, two assists and two steals accumulated in just 20 minutes.

If Jackson continues to be a contributor to the contending Clippers, someone will overspend on him. After all, good point guards are few and far between.

The Unknowns

Harry Giles III, Sacramento Kings – UFA

Giles III only played four minutes in the Kings’ first game back against the Spurs and he didn’t fare much better over 12:55 versus the Mavericks on Tuesday. But when you’re a fringe player that had injury concerns throughout your young career, any positive outings are good – especially those that come in a contract year. Giles tallied 23 points and eight rebounds in only 20 minutes against the Orlando Magic – a significant jump from his 7.2 points and 4.2 rebounds averages this season.  And that’s probably enough to generate interest amongst a number of teams.

The Kings curiously declined Giles’ fourth-year option, making him an unrestricted free agent as of the end of this season. That’s an interesting decision because the option was relatively cheap given that he was only the No. 20 overall pick (2017). Further confusing matters is the idea that by passing on the fourth-year option, they also lost matching rights – so Giles won’t even be restricted.

To make matters worse, the Kings can’t even bid more than $3.9 million to retain his services. So the Kings ultimately wasted a first-round draft pick on Giles for a grand total of 14.5 minutes per game across 99 games – and he’ll walk before they even know what they had in him.

But this all works out nicely for Giles, who will absolutely get an opportunity elsewhere – and he’ll be paid more than he would have received in Sacramento for it. How good is still an unknown, but he’s shown enough for a team to take a flyer on considering his size, skill set and versatility. He was the No. 1 overall recruit coming out of high school according to ESPN just four short years ago.

Free agency is going to be different than ever before and, up until very recently, that was assumed to be a bad thing. But with some of the above players changing the narratives around them, it could become even more exciting than it’s been in the recent past. Add in the likes of DeMarcus Cousins, Davis Bertans, Christian Wood – and we’re looking at an under-appreciated free-agent class.

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NBA Daily: Breaking Down The Bubble’s Race For 8th

Ben Nadeau analyzes the race for the No. 8 and 9 spots in the Western Conference – who will make the cut?

Ben Nadeau

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As the NBA inched toward its inevitable rebirth, the instant drama surrounding the Western Conference’s No. 8 seed became a conversation wildfire.

Was the league rolling out the red carpet in hopes of a Zion Williamson-LeBron James showdown in the first round? Could the healthier Portland Trail Blazers make another historic run toward history? De’Aaron Fox, the Sacramento franchise cornerstone, took umbrage over a lack of Kings-related faith, while the Memphis Grizzlies had more than enough ground to protect their standing in the current hierarchy.

Three or so games in to our bubbled adventure, everything has changed – and fast.

The Pelicans, still worrisome over Williamson’s health and conditioning, played him about 15 minutes in each of their first two contests – coincidently, New Orleans went 0-2. With their backs against the wall and slowly losing traction in a muddied race, the Pelicans played the future superstar for 25 minutes, where he racked up 23 points, seven rebounds and used a personal 6-0 run to clinch a much-needed win. Not only did the victory signify an important swing in momentum for the veteran-laden squad, but it was another crushing defeat for Grizzlies, who fell to 0-3 and further loosened their once-gridlocked hold on the final playoff seed.

Long perceived to be a five-team fight for the right to face Memphis in the play-in game(s), the Grizzlies’ early struggles have now nearly opened both spots up. All the more interesting, the San Antonio Spurs have begun 2-1, alongside the Phoenix Suns’ 2-0 effort. Although invited without much media afterthought, both the Spurs and Suns – who boast two of the most reliable constants of the bunch, Gregg Popovich and Devin Booker, respectively – are within the four-game window needed to force a play-in too.

So then: Thanks to the Grizzlies’ scuffles, who’ll be the two franchises to reach that play-in showdown?

Let’s start with the Pelicans, a team that’ll be better the more Williamson is allowed on the floor, obviously. While that variable remains up in the air, New Orleans’ remaining schedule is not. They’ll finish with the Kings twice, plus winnable matchups against the Spurs, Wizards and Magic. Although that opening day loss versus Utah stings, there’s no shame in falling to the Clippers, so the opportunity is certainly still there for the Pelicans to reach Nos. 8 or 9 in the coming days.

The Spurs, following a hard-fought effort against Philadelphia on Monday, unfortunately, have a much harder path forward: Denver, Utah, New Orleans, Houston and Utah. No Magic, no Nets, no Kings, even. Just New Orleans and three teams currently fighting for ‘home court’ advantage in the first round. Of course, betting against Gregg Popovich is beyond stupid and that is a lesson some select few must re-learn every spring – but they still seem like the least likely of six to leapfrog into a spot.

Likewise, it isn’t much better for Phoenix. They’ll conclude with the Clippers, Indiana Pacers and T.J. Warren’s supernova act, Miami HEAT, Oklahoma City Thunder, Philadelphia 76ers and Dallas Mavericks. Thankfully, Mikal Bridges’ efforts in Orlando and Ricky Rubio’s trusty playmaking have served as great foils for Deandre Ayton and the aforementioned Booker. Overall, their offensive rating just cracks the top half (15th, 110.4) and their defense remains in the lower half – but stars win games and Booker fits the bill.

Even the Kings, losers to the Spurs and Magic to open their bubble campaign, get the Pelicans twice but also a downright bad Brooklyn Nets squad and a potentially-resting Los Angeles Lakers team in four of their final five games – so don’t count them out either. With their destiny firmly in hand, expect the Kings to make a run of their own. Fox put up 39 points against San Antonio before tallying just 13 versus Orlando – and, in the latter, Sacramento’s only scorer above 15 went to Harry Giles’ 23. Given the context and a very winnable schedule, the next week or so bodes well for the Kings’ hopes.

As for Portland, the squad with the most bankable 1-2 punch of the collection, have an impossibly-tough Rockets-Nuggets-Clippers-76ers run-in before ending with the Mavericks and Nets. Worse, that stretch of difficult opposition will come fast and furious – a classic three games in four days slog. But above all, their defense leaves too much to be desired, even with the return of Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins. Before the shutdown, Portland’s defense was only better than the Atlanta Hawks, Cleveland Cavaliers and Washington Wizards at 113.6 in the ratings department.

In the two games back, well, it’s actually been even worse and their putrid 132.0 defensive rating is a whopping 7 points behind the Kings’ 29th-rated unit. It’s early and the sample size is certainly small – but with only six games left, they’ll need to figure it out in the against some of the league’s best. Still, Damian Lillard is a big-moment killer – he did, after all, break up the Thunder core on his own last April – and he’s capable of hot streaks that few others are.

Lillard and Nurkic put up 30 points apiece against Boston – plus 17 from CJ McCollum and 21 notched by Gary Trent Jr. – and totaled 124 as a team… yet it still wasn’t enough. The heroics of Portland’s stars will be relentless, but if they can’t stop the opposition – they’ll come up short.

In the end, even guessing at Nos. 8 and 9 is a fool’s errand. The Bubble has provided shock after shock already – and the added hurdle of rested players for locked-in seeds are soon to come – but six teams will be whittled down to two before long. Despite the slow start, Memphis remains in the driver’s seat – if they can pick up a win on Wednesday versus a seriously-slumping Jazz side, it’ll go a long way toward clinching their place.

And they’d better hope so: If they don’t, they’ll need to hope for some load management with the Thunder, Raptors, Celtics and Bucks to end the mini-campaign. It’s one of the tougher schedules left in the Western Conference, but their cushion, no matter how rapidly it is shrinking, is still reason to believe they’ll limp into the do-or-die scenario.

As for the second spot, it still feels like the Pelicans’ to lose. Between Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball, JJ Redick, Brandon Ingram and, duh, Williamson, there’s too much firepower here to completely struggle through an easier-than-most schedule.

But, sure, bet against Gregg Popovich, Damian Lillard, De’Aaron Fox and Devin Booker at your own risk – conventional wisdom suggests that at least one of them will crash the party, no matter how unlikely it seems today.

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