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2015-16 New Orleans Pelicans Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the New Orleans Pelicans’ 2015-16 season.

Basketball Insiders

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Last season, Anthony Davis emerged as one of the NBA’s best players and led the New Orleans Pelicans to a 45-win season and their first playoff berth since the 2010-11 campaign. The Pelicans were swept by the eventual-champion Golden State Warriors, but New Orleans was surprisingly competitive in the series and Davis was outstanding (to nobody’s surprise).

Now, Davis has spent this offseason expanding his game and the Pelicans hired Warriors assistant Alvin Gentry as their new head coach. New Orleans is hoping this is the year that they can climb the Western Conference standings, but do they have what it takes to be an elite team?

Basketball Insiders previews the New Orleans Pelicans’ 2015-16 season.

Five Thoughts

I can’t wait to watch Anthony Davis this season. He finished his third season with averages of 24.4 points, 10.2 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 2.9 blocks, 1.5 steals (all of which were career-highs) and became one of the NBA’s best players. Then, this summer, he has added muscle and significantly improved his three-point shot. Not to mention, new head coach Alvin Gentry should really help Davis continue to improve, particularly on the offensive end. Davis is only 22 years old, so it’s very possible that he still has room to grow as a player. That seems crazy considering how dominant he was last year, but that’s why I’m excited to see what he does in the 2015-16 campaign (and beyond). Last year, injuries to Davis, Jrue Holiday, Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon among others really limited the team, making their record and playoff berth even more impressive. If Davis continues his ascent and the team can stay healthy this year, I believe they’ll show improvement over last season’s 45 wins. I have them as a virtual lock to return to the postseason, but I do think they lack the talent in Davis’ supporting cast to be a legitimate contender.

4th Place — Southwest Division

– Alex Kennedy

There are plenty of players in the NBA today who would love to consider themselves stars, but only a handful of them are superstars good enough to lift their teams to new heights regardless of what other players are around them. Anthony Davis is one of those guys, and he’s starting to resemble someone who could win the league’s MVP award very soon – maybe even this year. The Pelicans made the playoffs six months ago and performed well once they were there. A lot of that had to do with Davis, but a healthy Jrue Holiday along with Tyreke Evans, Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon should make for an interesting team this year. They play in the toughest division in basketball, but this is a playoff team again this year, and maybe even one that can win a series or two.

4th Place — Southwest Division

– Joel Brigham

The masses complain about the NBA season being too long and each individual game not necessarily counting, but the Pelicans proved that to be false last season by making the playoffs on the final day of the season. With Alvin Gentry taking over on the bench and Anthony Davis continuing to progress, I certainly expect the Pelicans to make their second consecutive trip to the postseason. The sad thing, to me, is the fact that Eric Gordon’s scoring average has decreased each of the last four seasons. If he and Jrue Holiday could actually be healthy for the entire year and play up to their full potential, then the Pelicans would truly be a scary team. Instead, I see them as being locked into the seventh seed or so for the foreseeable future, partially due to the tough conference and partially due to the fact that they simply do not have enough talent around Davis. That could change with time, obviously, but for now, I wouldn’t consider them anything more than a first-round team.

5th Place — Southwest Division

– Moke Hamilton

There are 145 million reasons to watch the Pelicans this season. The organization locked in Anthony Davis to a five-year mega deal this offseason. Now the question is, how much better will he get? Last season, he averaged 24.4 points, 10.2 rebounds and a league-high 2.9 blocks per game. Davis is only 22, and although he provides star power, the team can still benefit from veteran leadership. That’s where the experience of players such as Tyreke Evans, Ryan Anderson and Jrue Holiday comes into play. The Pelicans also signed Kendrick Perkins, who has won a championship, to help mentor Davis. Last season, the Pelicans snagged the eighth seed in the Western Conference and fell to the Golden State Warriors. Their goal will be to establish themselves as a lock, not a question mark, for the playoffs in the competitive Western Conference. They should be right there this season.

4th Place — Southwest Division

– Jessica Camerato

Anthony Davis has officially arrived and now it’s time for general manager Dell Demps and company to surround the future perennial MVP candidate with a title-worthy supporting cast. New Orleans has talent up and down the rotation, but the franchise has been decimated by injuries the past two seasons. Jrue Holiday, Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon and Davis have been unable to stay healthy long enough to truly maximize their potential as a unit. Despite the injuries, New Orleans still managed to flirt with 50 victories last season and now ushers in the head coaching era of Alvin Gentry. Another playoff run should be in the cards but the squad isn’t among the few in true title contention.

4th Place – Southwest Division

– Lang Greene

Top of the List

Top Offensive Player: Anthony Davis

As previously mentioned, Davis averaged 24.4 points per game last season (which ranked fourth in the NBA) while shooting 53.5 percent from the field. He was also incredibly efficient, leading the NBA in player efficiency rating (30.8) by a huge margin and finishing fourth in the NBA in offensive win shares (9.9). Davis has become one of the most dominant offensive weapons in the NBA, so he’s obviously the top offensive player on his team. As if Davis’ regular season averages weren’t impressive enough, he was even better in the postseason. In the Pelicans’ first-round series against the Warriors, he averaged 31.5 points while shooting 54 percent from the field. This season, it’s very possible that Davis improves his numbers since the team hired offensive genius Alvin Gentry, who will look to increase Davis’ production and maximize the forward’s potential. Remember, Gentry played a big role in the Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State Warriors becoming top offenses in recent years, serving as an assistant coach for those teams. Not to mention, Davis has spent this offseason improving his three-point shot and bulking up to 253 lbs. (while staying at 10 percent body fat) to better finish at the basket. In other words, Davis may be even more dominant in the 2015-16 season, which is a scary thought for the rest of the NBA.

Top Defensive Player: Anthony Davis

We try to spread the love around in these previews and not focus too much on one particular player, but there’s simply no way someone else could be selected over Davis as the Pelicans’ best defender. Last season, the big man led all NBA players in blocks per game (2.9) and total blocks (200), while also averaging 1.5 steals per game. In addition to those excellent numbers, he grabbed 10.2 rebounds per game. And just like his offensive numbers, Davis improved his defensive stats in the postseason, averaging 11 rebounds and three blocks against the Warriors. Davis finished the season ranked seventh among all NBA players in Defensive Real Plus-Minus (4.20) and 12th among all NBA players in Defensive Rating (100.2), showing he was one of the league’s better defenders. With his terrific offensive and defensive contributions, one could make the case that Davis is the best two-way player in the game today. New Orleans’ next best defenders were Omer Asik and Jrue Holiday (according to DRPM, but Davis was clearly the team’s most effective weapon on that end of the court).

Top Playmaker: Jrue Holiday

Holiday is the Pelicans’ best playmaker, running the offense well and leading the team in assists with 6.9 per game. Unfortunately for New Orleans, Holiday missed 42 games last year. Over the last two years, the veteran point guard has started in a combined 71 games. He has been sidelined for far too many games and in order for New Orleans to play to their full potential, they’ll need Holiday to be completely healthy and playing his best basketball. The year before Holiday landed in New Orleans, he started 78 games and was an All-Star (averaging 17.7 points, eight assists, 4.2 rebounds and 1.6 steals). If he can get back to that level and stay on the court, that would really help the Pelicans as they try to take the next step as a team. Also, keep in mind that Holiday just turned 25 years old in June, so it’s not out of the question that he’ll make some strides this season. Tyreke Evans definitely deserves a mention in this section since he averaged 6.6 assists over 79 games last year and did a really good job handling the ball and facilitating once Holiday went down.

Top Clutch Player: Anthony Davis

When thinking of the Pelicans’ best clutch player, Davis’ double-clutch three-pointer that beat the Oklahoma City Thunder in early February immediately came to mind. If you aren’t familiar with the shot, you should watch it right now. But that wasn’t Davis’ only clutch play of the season. In fact, he finished last year as one of the best clutch players in the NBA. In clutch situations (defined as a game with under two minutes to go and a score differential of two points or fewer), Davis hit 13 of his 16 attempts from the field for a league-best clutch shooting percent of 81.3 percent. He also led the league in clutch blocks with four. Not to mention, he was 10 of 11 on clutch free throws (90.9 percent). As if it hasn’t been made clear, Davis is a beast who destroys teams on offense and defense, from the start of the game to the very finish. If this preview hasn’t sold you on the fact that Davis is a superstar, nothing will.

The Unheralded Player: Ryan Anderson

Since winning Most Improved Player with the Orlando Magic in 2012, Anderson has flown under the radar with the Pelicans. That’s mainly because he comes off of the bench for the team, but he’s still an extremely effective three-point shooter and a solid rebounder. Last season, he averaged 13.7 points and 4.8 rebounds in just 27.5 minutes off of New Orleans’ bench, and his spacing really helped the team. Not to mention, he’s capable of putting up a lot of points in a hurry and helped the Pelicans pull away in some games with his excellent shooting (he ranked 17th in the NBA in three-pointers made per game, despite being a reserve). But Anderson, like Holiday, needs to stay healthy for the Pelicans to take the next step as a team this year. He has missed a combined 81 games over the last two seasons, but the hope is that he’s 100 percent this year and can stay on the floor in 2015-16. One more thing to keep in mind: Anderson is in the final year of his contract and will be an unrestricted free agent next summer.

Best New Addition: Alvin Gentry

Two years ago, Gentry was an assistant coach for the Los Angeles Clippers and was in charge of running their offense. They finished that year with the NBA’s No. 1 ranked offense, scoring 109.4 points per 100 possessions. Last year, Gentry was an assistant coach for the Golden State Warriors and was in charge of running their offense. They finished with the NBA’s No. 2 ranked offense, scoring 109.7 points per 100 possessions (just barely ranked behind the Clippers, who scored 109.8 points per 100 possessions and were still using Gentry’s concepts). In other words, Gentry helped the Clippers and Warriors turn into offensive juggernauts in recent years, and now he’s hoping to do the same thing with the Pelicans. It’s going to be a lot of fun to see what Gentry can do with an offensive weapon like Anthony Davis, who many feel wasn’t utilized correctly under former head coach Monty Williams, as well as complementary pieces like Tyreke Evans, Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson. The Pelicans didn’t make any significant roster acquisitions this offseason, so Gentry is the clear-cut best addition of the summer. Gentry has said he’ll run an up-tempo offense with Davis as the focal point, and he has encouraged his superstar to shoot plenty of three-pointers this summer to prepare for the season. As a head coach, Gentry has a 335-370 regular-season record (which he should improve upon this season) and a 12-9 playoff record. The best year of his career was the 2009–10 season, when he coached the Phoenix Suns to 54 wins and a trip to the Western Conference Finals (where they lost to the L.A. Lakers).

-Alex Kennedy

Who We Like

Tyreke Evans: While I could go on and on about why I like Anthony Davis and think it’s inevitable that he’ll be the NBA’s best player in the near future, I’ve spent enough time talking about him. Let’s move on to some other Pelicans, starting with Tyreke Evans. The 26-year-old is another player I like quite a bit and his well-rounded game was very important for New Orleans last year. His versatility was huge for the Pelicans, especially since their backcourt of Holiday and Gordon has been so injury prone in recent years. Evans was able to move around the lineup throughout the season, playing three positions (starting 61 games at either point guard or shooting guard and 15 games at small forward). Evans finished the year with averages of 16.6 points, 6.6 assists, 5.3 rebounds and 1.3 steals – which was quietly one of the better seasons of his six-year career. We’ll see if he can pick up where he left off and thrive in Coach Gentry’s up-tempo offense.

Eric Gordon: As previously mentioned, injuries have ravaged this Pelicans team in recent years and nobody has been sidelined more than Gordon. In his four years with the Pelicans, he appeared in nine games, 42 games, 64 games and, most recently, 61 games. He has missed a large chunk of time in every season since his rookie year, which has obviously held the Pelicans back. With that said, Gordon was effective this past season when he was on the court, averaging 13.4 points, 3.8 assists and 2.6 rebounds while shooting 44.8 percent from three-point range. Now, Gordon enters a very important season since he’s in the final year of his contract (worth $15,514,031) and is poised to be an unrestricted free agent next summer. If he has a big year, perhaps there will be a team willing to give him a decent pay day next offseason. After all, his career averages (16.8 points, 3.4 assists, 2.6 rebounds, 1.1 steals, 38.3 percent from three) show that he can be a significant contributor when healthy. But staying on the court has always been the problem, and he’ll a risky signing for whichever team inks him next summer.

Quincy Pondexter: Pondexter has been a solid role player throughout his career, providing quality defense and three-point shooting. Last year, the Pelicans acquired Pondexter from the Memphis Grizzlies in January once New Orleans realized their bench needed reinforcements. The 27-year-old small forward was targeted since he’s a reliable two-way reserve who can defend multiple positions. In 45 games with the Pelicans last year, he averaged nine points and 3.1 rebounds while providing spacing by shooting 43.3 percent from three-point range. He even slid into the starting lineup for 28 games due to injuries, and improved his averages to 9.4 points and a 44.5 percent from three. He’ll likely play the same reserve role this season (unless injuries force him to start again) and the Pelicans know he’ll be around for a while since he’s under contract for the next three seasons.

Norris Cole: The Pelicans and Norris Cole couldn’t come to an agreement on a long-term deal this summer (and, as a restricted free agent, Cole didn’t sign an offer sheet from another team), so he took the one-year qualifying offer worth $3,036,927 and will be an unrestricted free agent next summer when the salary cap will increase significantly. With that said, Cole is a key player for the Pelicans since they have very little depth. Much like Pondexter, Cole was acquired in a midseason trade when New Orleans was desperate to improve their bench. After coming over from the Miami HEAT in a trade deadline deal, the point guard was thrust into a significant role for the Pelicans. Aside from Ryan Anderson, he was the team’s top bench scorer, averaging 9.9 points in 24.4 minutes a night while shooting 44.4 percent from the field and (a career-high) 37.8 percent from three-point range. He also averaged 3.2 assists as a reserve. Expect Cole to play a similar role this year, and he could have some extra motivation with unrestricted free agency right around the corner.

-Alex Kennedy

Strengths

Having arguably the best two-way player in the NBA is certainly the Pelicans’ biggest strength, and Davis is bound to win them a handful of games on his own each season. Their offense should be a big strength as well, especially with the addition of Coach Gentry. Last year, New Orleans ranked ninth in the NBA in offense, scoring 105.4 points per 100 possessions, and you can expect that number to increase with Gentry’s up-tempo offense and (hopefully) less injuries to key players. The Pelicans weren’t bad shooting the ball, ranking 12th in True Shooting Percentage (53.7 percent) and, again, that number will likely go up thanks to Gentry. The team’s ball movement was also solid, as they ranked eighth in the league in assist ratio (with 17.2 percent of their possessions ending in an assist). They also finished seventh in the league in rebound rate (51.1 percent).

-Alex Kennedy

Weaknesses

Despite having Davis – one of the game’s best defenders – the Pelicans have struggled on that end of the floor. Last year, New Orleans had the league’s 22nd-ranked defense, allowing 104.7 points per 100 possessions. That put them behind non-playoff teams like the Philadelphia 76ers and Detroit Pistons among others. Some people expected the Pelicans to go with a defensive-minded coach because of their struggles on that end last year, but they obviously went with Gentry instead. We’ll see how the team fares on that end under him. New Orleans’ bench is obviously a huge weakness as well, which is why they traded for Pondexter and Cole last year (as well as signing Dante Cunningham and various other players for brief stints). Even with the addition of those two players, New Orleans isn’t deep at all, which is very bad considering their injury history.

-Alex Kennedy

The Burning Question

New Orleans will only go as far as Anthony Davis takes them, and we’ll have to see what kind of impact the added muscle, expanded shot and addition of Coach Gentry has on Davis’ game. Still, even if Davis somehow finds a way to get better, health is a big concern with this Pelicans team. They rely on too many injury-prone players for me to trust them to stay at full strength for an entire season, so it’s hard to consider them a contender. Not to mention, they just don’t seem to have the talent (even when healthy) to stack up against the best teams in the Western Conference like the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers, Oklahoma City Thunder, Memphis Grizzlies and Houston Rockets. I think the Pelicans are a lock to make the playoffs, but I think they’re still a year or two away (and perhaps some moves to improve the supporting cast) from being a legitimate contender.

-Alex Kennedy

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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

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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