At the risk of sounding overly dramatic, we believe the Oklahoma City Thunder’s 2015-16 NBA season will be the most critical one thus far for the young franchise. The reason is simple: In the event that the season is unsuccessful – meaning the team fails to reach viable title contention – there’s a really good chance Kevin Durant answers the phone when 29 NBA teams call him up with free agency sales pitches next year. And if Durant walks, Russell Westbrook will likely do the same the following year. It’s a possibility that fans and supporters cannot bear to even contemplate. The decision-makers in OKC’s front office are trying to avoid that very worst-case scenario. Shortly after the abrupt end to their 2014-15 season, the coaching staff was revamped (Scott Brooks is out; Billy Donovan is in as head coach) and just minor roster changes were made. On paper, this is the deepest group of players to surround two of the league’s top players in Durant and Westbrook. Last season, a plethora of injuries to key players was the Thunder’s ultimate downfall. With all players now healthy and ready to make a run this season, it’s no understatement to pronounce this is the year that everything is on the line.
Basketball Insiders previews the Oklahoma City Thunder’s 2015-16 season.
The Thunder were obviously limited by injuries last season, so it’ll be nice to see them at full strength in the 2015-16 campaign. Kevin Durant should be back to 100 percent and players who have been training with the former MVP say he looks better than ever before and is determined to have a monster bounce-back campaign. Russell Westbrook was excellent last season and it’ll be interesting to see if he can continue that success (or at least produce close to that level) while playing alongside Durant this year. If Oklahoma City can stay healthy this year, their starting lineup of Westbrook, Dion Waiters, Durant, Serge Ibaka and Enes Kanter gives them a chance to be one of the West’s best teams. I loved the addition of 14th pick Cameron Payne, who was one of my favorite rookies in this class and someone who could be a very good sixth man for OKC as early as this season. The addition of head coach Billy Donovan was a solid move too, as he should be more creative on the offensive end and help that lineup reach its full potential. Oklahoma City has a chance to contend this season, but keeping everyone healthy is vital.
1st Place – Northwest Division
Everything depends on how healthy Kevin Durant can be this season, and based on how poorly his foot healed a year ago, there certainly are some doubts about whether he can stay on the floor for 82 games. Still, between Durant, Russell Westbrook and a Serge Ibaka, the Thunder should be the most dominant team in the Northwest, even if there are still some issues with their roster. Enes Kanter and Dion Waiters could help out a ton by making giant leaps forward this season, and it’s certainly time to see some progress from Steven Adams. Even without that, though, there’s enough star power to be a thorn in the West all season long, and with Durant healthy, they’re more than good enough for a title run too.
1st Place – Northwest Division
The return of Kevin Durant instantly boosts the Thunder back into contention in the West. Last season, despite their injuries, the team just barely missed the playoffs thanks to jaw-dropping performances from Russell Westbrook. The key to the Thunder’s success is health, both Durant’s and Serge Ibaka’s (who also suffered a season-ending injury). Watch for Enes Kanter, who was acquired last season from the Utah Jazz, to be an impact player in the middle. The Thunder also landed Cameron Payne with the 14th pick in this year’s draft. Payne is entering the league with a chip on his shoulder and an abundance of swagger. The rookie will be ready to get on the court and contribute while learning from two star players.
1st Place – Northwest Division
One word sums up the Oklahoma City Thunder’s 2014-15 campaign: Injuries. There were a ton of them. Heading into training camp with the squad now fully healthy, the team looks to regain title contention form. It has been three seasons since the franchise made a run to the NBA Finals, so it’s acceptable to question whether the core group of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka has run its course. Durant, of course, will answer free agency questions all season long. So far, the All-Star has taken those questions head on, but will the rumors ultimately become a distraction internally? At the end of the day, the Thunder have the talent to make a Finals run. Let’s see if they get it done.
1st Place – Northwest Division
So long as Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant are healthy, the Thunder should be able to sleepwalk to the division title and challenge any team in the Western Conference. At this point, though, I’m not sure that I’d favor them in a seven-game series over either the Golden State Warriors or San Antonio Spurs. What could make the difference for the Thunder is whether Enes Kanter is able to flourish while sharing the floor (and touches) with both Durant and Westbrook. The other thing that may be overlooked here is the fact that a rookie head coach is going to be taking over the team. Billy Donovan will find himself in the same situation that Steve Kerr did last season; that is, being a rookie head coach replacing a beloved, experience coach on a championship contender. It is an unenviable predicament for Donovan to find himself in and one that has gotten the best of most of his predecessors. With talents like Westbrook and Durant, though, he may not necessarily meet the same fate. The other teams in the Northwest Division won’t have a shot at the Thunder this season, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to their foes in the Southwest. Along with the L.A. Clippers, I am most interested in seeing what the playoffs will hold for them, so if you want a prediction on my part, chalk the Thunder in as the fifth seed, at worst, and a tough out come April.
1st Place – Northwest Division
Top of the List
Top Offensive Player: Kevin Durant
Durant is so skilled offensively that even when he had what was universally termed a “bad season” last year, his statistical numbers remained enviable. During his injury-plagued campaign, wherein he appeared in just 27 games, he managed to average 25.4 points, 6.6 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 2.4 three-pointers per game. Nearly across the board, his shooting percentages (.578 in effective field goal percentage) topped his previous years’ numbers (.560). To the delight of those who love to watch him play, Durant recently proclaimed he is completely healthy and ready to go for the season. Of course, it’s difficult to forget all the foot surgeries last year. It’s hard to curb the notion that his foot issues might be a recurring problem. If he is indeed healthy and returns to that familiar and spectacular Durant form, nobody would be surprised if he captured his fifth scoring title or even his second MVP this season.
Top Defensive Player: Serge Ibaka
When you think of the Thunder’s defense, you have to think of Ibaka. He’s been named to the NBA’s All-Defensive First Team three of the past four seasons. He’s led the league in total blocks four of the past five seasons, and he’s far more than just an extraordinary shot-blocker. Ibaka, who just turned 26, is that rare breed of player who spreads the floor on offense and fiercely protects the rim on defense. At 6’10, he’s a physical beast, able to consistently swat away and alter opponents’ shots and disturb their flow seemingly at will. His teammates appreciate the way he cleans up their mistakes, both inside and outside the paint, with his distinctive combination of pure athleticism, speed and timing. Even though some of his numbers decreased last year (partly due to nagging knee issues that led to season-ending arthroscopic surgery in mid-March), he seems to improve defensively every year. Last season, he introduced three-point shooting as part of his arsenal (averaging 1.2 makes per game), which baffled many who believe the team is best served without Ibaka’s long-distance shooting. To others, this skill was just another reason to stand in awe.
Top Playmaker: Russell Westbrook
The Thunder’s starting point guard has steadily earned respect since he entered the league in 2008. The way he carried the team on his back last season – both in performance and leadership – in an effort to push them toward the playoffs was particularly exceptional. However, in a stacked Western Conference, the Thunder’s 45-37 record (the New Orleans Pelicans had the same record, but held the tiebreaker) yielded a ninth-place finish. Last season will be remembered for the near-ridiculous amount of injuries that plagued the team (Westbrook even missed 15 games with a broken hand and facial injury), but it will also be known as the season Westbrook became an NBA superstar in his own right. There were multiple lengthy stretches last year when Westbrook’s name ruled all NBA talk due to his singular performances and beyond impressive game contributions. Let’s run down his stats from last season, all career highs: 28.1 points, 7.3 rebounds, 8.6 assists, 2.1 steals, 8.1 free throws and an incredible 29.1 Player Efficiency Rating. He won his first league scoring title, and he led the league in triple-doubles (11) and Usage Percentage (38.4). He shattered too many records to list last season. He was in MVP consideration for months on end and had to settle for an MVP title of the All-Star Game instead. Not only is Westbrook the Thunder’s top playmaker, he’s a dominating force in nearly all facets of the game.
Top Clutch Player: Kevin Durant
Durant didn’t get much of a chance to show his clutch skills last year, but we’ve seen what magic he can work when the game is on the line. Westbrook had his clutch moments last year as the best option without Durant on the floor. It might have been nice to see what Ibaka or even sharpshooter Anthony Morrow could have done in that type of situation, but clutch duties historically fall to Durant or Westbrook when needed. Durant was league-ranked among the very best in clutch shooting over the past few seasons, and if healthy (as expected this year), he should land high on the list again. With Durant having considerably better shooting percentages in two-pointers, three-pointers and free throws than anyone else on the team, he’s the one to trust late in close games.
The Unheralded Player: Dion Waiters
There were mixed reactions when the Thunder acquired Waiters last January. Drafted fourth overall by the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2012, it didn’t take long for the young shooting guard to be labeled a poor decision-maker and an inefficient shooter – terms that don’t seem to fit the Thunder prototype. By the time he landed in Oklahoma City in the middle of an unstable season, supporters chose to welcome a healthy player who had the ability to put points on the board instead of focusing on any shortcomings. Given the injury circumstances of so many players, Waiters was thrown in the rotation immediately, and the team relied on him to contribute in all ways humanly possible. In 47 games (20 as a starter), Waiters averaged 12.7 points, 2.9 rebounds and 1.9 assists in 30.3 minutes. Critics point to his woeful shooting percentages (.392 on field goals, .319 on three-pointers and .625 on free throws), but his numbers did improve as the season progressed. He’s the only Thunder two-guard who can play both offense (Andre Roberson, a solid defender, struggles with scoring) and defense (Morrow, a dead-eye shooter, is a defensive liability). This is why many believe Waiters should land the starting job and let Morrow serve as the offensive spark off the bench. It will be interesting to see how Coach Donovan uses him and how he develops (remember, he’s just 23 years old) playing alongside healthy Thunder stars. He still displays that habit of looking for his own shot first and calling for the ball way too much, but he looks comfortable in a Thunder uniform.
Best New Addition: Cameron Payne
As pointed out, there wasn’t much of a roster shake-up during the offseason. The Thunder parted ways with Jeremy Lamb and Perry Jones, and drafted point guard Cameron Payne with the 14th overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft and selected 7’0 center Dakari Johnson with the 48th pick. The only other addition is forward Josh Huestis, who they selected in last year’s draft before making him the first domestic draft-and-stash player. It’s not known how much playing time Payne will see this season with back-up point guard D.J. Augustin (in his final contract year) in place. He may log time with the Thunder’s D-League team (Oklahoma City Blue) or he may exceed expectations and end up taking over Augustin’s role as Westbrook’s primary back up sooner rather than later. Payne, 6’3, averaged 20.2 points, six assists and 1.9 steals per game in his final season at Murray State. He possesses that Thunder DNA: humility, great character and a strong work ethic. The left-handed guard has terrific potential in this league with his excellent court vision and scoring ability.
Who We Like
The Coaching Staff: Exactly one week after the season ended in disappointing fashion last April, the Thunder’s GM and executive vice president Sam Presti fired head coach Scott Brooks. It was a move more reflective of desiring a new, fresh direction rather than the failings of Brooks. Make no mistake, some of the criticisms lodged toward Brooks were deserved, but Presti decided the time was right to overhaul the coaching staff for this impending pivotal season. Instead of going with an experienced NBA coach, as expected, Presti chose the University of Florida’s head coach Billy Donovan. In a year where championship expectations have never been higher, was it risky to name someone with no history of NBA coaching to lead this supremely talented team? Perhaps. What we do know is Donovan can coach basketball as evidenced by taking Florida to two national championships and four Final Four appearances in his two decades there. Donovan was smart to name Monty Williams (ex-New Orleans Pelicans head coach) as an assistant and to secure the return of Maurice Cheeks (ex-Thunder assistant coach with a ton of previous NBA coaching experience) to the coaching staff. Donovan also brought in Anthony Grant, his longtime assistant at Florida and a previous head coach at Alabama and VCU, as well as Darko Rajakovic, the former OKC Blue head coach with 10 years of head coaching experience overseas. It’s an extremely talented collection of coaches. Without question, all eyes will be on Donovan during this pressure-filled season to see how smoothly he transitions to the big stage and how he manages a team expected to make it to the Finals this season.
Steven Adams: The midseason trade of center Kendrick Perkins opened things up for seven-footer Adams in his sophomore season, and he was able to show just how much he’s progressed defensively in a starting role (7.7 points, 7.5 rebounds in 25.3 minutes). That role lasted until he missed games due a hand injury and ensuing surgery, and by the time he returned, Kanter had joined the team and Adams was relegated to coming off the bench. The most concerning issue for Adams is his free throw shooting. Shooting .502 from the foul line last season (regressing from the previous year of .581) and opposing teams employing Hack-an-Adams with greater frequency, Adams simply must improve in this area. This is especially important given he was ranked second on the team in total free throw attempts (202). With Kanter on board, it’s hard to say if Donovan will start Adams or keep him with the second unit; the latter appears probable. Adams’ likability factor remains off the charts with his menacing physicality on the court and his earnest comments laced with hilarity off the court. Just 22 years old, Adams is a perfect fit for the Thunder, and his upside is phenomenal. Nothing fazes him – no matter what grief opponents give him, he never takes the bait.
Enes Kanter: Leave it to Presti to surprise the NBA world by managing to obtain a player not even linked to the Thunder when all of the trade deadline rumors were swirling last February. It was both refreshing and endearing to see how happy Kanter was to have landed in Oklahoma City. He seemed to be playing with pure joy, always smiling and cheering for his new teammates from the sidelines. It was quite a change from what he displayed in Utah. In 26 games as a starter, Kanter averaged career highs in points (18.7), rebounds (11, including five in offensive boards, something the Thunder desperately needed) and field goal percentage (.566). Both the rebounds and field goal percentage were also team highs. In Kanter, the Thunder finally have a legitimate low-post presence for easy buckets. Another young player at just 23 years old, the knocks on his defense are valid, but he has potential to improve. He has the quickness and strength to develop on the defensive end with proper teaching. Not to mention, playing alongside Ibaka should help hide some of his deficiencies on that end of the floor. His double-double ability should keep Durant happy, which is of paramount importance.
Sam Presti: It’s not always easy – or even wise – to make a decision that could alter the path of an already successful NBA team. Notwithstanding last year, the Thunder have been among the best of the best for several seasons now. Even though ‘The Dreaded Season of Injuries’ last year had nothing to do with Brooks’ coaching efforts, Presti saw that the timing was right to change sideline generals. Making a head coaching shift from a proven winner in Brooks over seven seasons (338-207 record in OKC) to a coach with no NBA experience was a move we have to respect. Finding a way to secure Kanter, that one missing piece the Thunder has long needed, is another one. And keeping last years’ roster largely intact is one more reason to give Presti credit.
Durant and Westbrook, both celebrating their 27th birthdays very soon, are entering their prime. Both are regarded, deservedly so, as dominant stars of this league. They are highly skilled, richly experienced and are nearly impossible to stop on the court. Presti has surrounded them with the best cast of supporting players yet. The team is stocked with long-range shooters, offensive and defensive post players, an athletic freak in Ibaka, veteran voices and a strong bench. The roster depth is tremendous. The one unknown is the new head coach. Donovan is a proven leader and winner, and he has all the motivation in the world to succeed with a talented coaching staff behind him. He has a complete team ready to buy into a new system and prepared to make noise. We like how Donovan stayed in town during the summer to cultivate relationships with his players. This is the season the Thunder may achieve their true potential.
One of the biggest concerns going into the 2015-16 NBA season is Kevin Durant’s health. Will he really return at 100 percent? The Jones fracture he suffered in last years’ training camp melded into an up-and-down season-long problem, requiring three surgeries over a six-month span. He dealt with a sprained ankle and toe too. When the reality of the situation set in, it was a bitter pill to swallow. Durant had missed just 16 games over a seven-year career; last season, he missed 55. Ibaka missed 18, Adams missed 12, Westbrook missed 15, Nick Collison missed 16, Roberson missed 15 and Mitch McGary missed 50. Injuries can bring down any team, but last year, the constant injuries were almost comical. Another concern is the distraction factor of Durant’s uncertain future with the Thunder. Because he’s about to enter the final year of his contract, the three-ring circus potential is very real.
Lack of ball movement has been an issue, and Donavan has vowed that the team will show improvement in that area. Establishing chemistry between the coaching staff and players may take time. It’s remarkable that Durant has yet to share the court with Kanter. Individual player weaknesses include Kanter’s defense, Adams’ free throw shooting, Waiters’ inconsistency as well as his on-an-island style of play, and Morrow’s defense.
The Burning Question
Will the Oklahoma City Thunder win the NBA title this season?
Barring a repeat of last year’s unbelievable rash of injuries, all the tools are in place for the Thunder to be one of the West’s best teams and seriously compete for the championship this year. The formidable one-two punch of Durant and Westbrook returning will be a welcomed sight. They are veteran players now and are eager to finally get that ring. If they fall short, Durant’s future in Oklahoma City is not at all certain. Donovan has assembled a solid coaching staff and is inheriting an experienced roster full of star power and solid depth in all positions. Home-court advantage during the playoffs, if attained, will be huge for them with their devoted fan base still as loud and energetic as ever. The pressure is on in Oklahoma City and, now more than ever, this season may be championship or bust.
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?
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.