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2015-16 Toronto Raptors Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the Toronto Raptors’ 2015-16 season.

Basketball Insiders

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The Toronto Raptors are coming off of back-to-back Atlantic Division titles and have set new franchise records for single-season wins in each of the past two years. Although the current roster lacks the star power that Vince Carter and Chris Bosh brought to the Toronto in the past, one could certainly make the argument that we are currently witnessing the golden age of Canadian basketball, with the Raptors succeeding and plenty of young Canadians establishing themselves in the NBA (including Andrew Wiggins, Tristan Thompson, Cory Joseph and Kelly Olynyk among many others).

But while the Raptors have played well, are they a legitimate contender in the Eastern Conference? That is what we will find out this campaign, as they look to finally advance past the first round.

Basketball Insiders previews the Toronto Raptors’ 2015-16 season.

Five Thoughts

I’ve been somewhat critical of the Raptors this summer, stating several times that I didn’t like the contracts they gave to DeMarre Carroll and Cory Joseph and saying that I still don’t view them as a championship contender. But let me make something clear: I do think this is a very good team that will win a lot of games this season and easily take the Atlantic Division crown. They won 49 games last year and I could see them finishing right around the same win total (or improving on it) this season. I just wasn’t crazy about how much money they gave to Carroll and Joseph, and I’m curious to see if they can thrive in a bigger role outside of systems that made them look very good. As I said, I’m not sure Toronto is a title contender, but they will be a talented team that wins a lot of regular season games.

1st Place – Atlantic Division

-Alex Kennedy

‘They the North,’ and they also look poised to win their third consecutive Atlantic Division title. However, this year it would be nice if they could actually make it out of the first round of the playoffs. Losing Amir Johnson hurts, but Toronto reloaded reasonably well by adding Luis Scola and Bismack Biyombo at bargain basement prices. And anyway, the real bread and butter for this team is in the backcourt, which features Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross. DeMarre Carroll was a pricy but nice addition, and Jonas Valanciunas has more than paid his dues and looks ready for a breakout campaign. The Raps have a nice team this year, but they’ve had a nice team for almost three years running. What really matters now is doing something after the first 82 games.

1st Place – Atlantic Division

-Joel Brigham

The Raptors scored in free agency by landing former Atlanta Hawks glue guy DeMarre Carroll. The swingman adds instant toughness, grit and hustle. Having journeyed throughout the NBA, he can adapt quickly to a new team. Over the years, the Raptors have moved up the rankings in the East. However, despite their progress, they have fallen short each year once they hit the playoffs. The team has to take that next step in the postseason. They are constructed for regular season success. It is important they use their 82 games to put themselves in a better position to win when it matters.

1st Place – Atlantic Division

-Jessica Camerato

The Raptors entered the playoffs the past two seasons as the higher seed in their first-round series. But in both instances, Toronto was sent home packing in embarrassing fashion. On a positive note, future Hall of Fame forward Paul Pierce – the antagonist in both of those playoff eliminations – is now in the Western Conference. Toronto invested $90 million in free agency in DeMarre Carroll and Cory Joseph. The team is undoubtedly banking on the duo’s upside. Ross is up for a contract extension, but his disappearing act in the playoffs most likely led to the addition of Carroll from Atlanta. The Raptors should once again be in the Eastern Conference’s top five, but with the team’s recent playoff flame outs, advancing past the first round in the postseason is no guarantee.

1st Place – Atlantic Division

-Lang Greene

It’s easy to like the Raptors. They play hard, they play together and they are a team that believes in their head coach. All in all, the Raptors should have a fairly easy time winning the Atlantic Division for the third consecutive season, and I do expect DeMarre Carroll to make them a stronger team. However, I would still consider them to be a tier below both the Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls. The Raptors continue to have problems advancing in the playoffs, and they have only made it out of the first round once in their franchise’s history (2000-01). Without a legitimate superstar, it is difficult to imagine the Raptors breaking that trend, though it would obviously depend on how the bracket aligns. Regardless, I would pencil them in for another 45-plus win season and the Atlantic Division title. If Jonas Valanciunas fulfills his potential and gives them a consistent presence on the inside, then we can start talking about more. Until then, I’ll keep waiting.

1st Place — Atlantic Division

-Moke Hamilton

Top of the List

Top Offensive Player: DeMar DeRozan

DeMar DeRozan is only a 27 percent three-point shooter for his career, but he is still probably the best offensive player on Dwane Casey’s Raptors. Like Kyle Lowry, he takes the gross majority of his shots from mid-range, but shoots a bit better than average from that distance. Where he gets the nod over Lowry is that DeRozan is a more capable finisher both at driving the basketball and finishing in traffic. Hands down, Lowry is the better three-point shooter, but DeRozan is, without question, the better scorer. During the 2013-14 season, DeRozan averaged a career-best 22.7 points per game on 43 percent shooting from the field. Last season, those numbers dipped to 20.1 points per game on 41 percent shooting from the field, but at just 26 years old, expecting a bounce back year is not unreasonable. It’d be nice to see DeRozan do a better job of finding his teammates when they are in position to score, but we can live with his mediocrity in that area, considering he is a shooting guard whose primary responsibility to his club, historically, has been to score.

Top Defensive Player: DeMarre Carroll

Spend time around DeMarre Carroll and you’ll immediately notice the significant amount of time and energy he puts into stretching and doing agility drills prior tip-off of a great many of his games. He has long been regarded as a top-notch defender, and ended up being pursued by the Raptors because of the growth he showed on the other end of the floor. Focusing on the defensive end, though, Carroll’s exquisite timing and nose for the ball also translates to him being an above-average rebounder. The best thing about Carroll, though, is his versatility. His size and length does not diminish his mobility, and he is one of the more valuable players in the league in that he can effectively guard any of four positions on the basketball court. If he has anywhere near the impact on the Raptors this year that he did on the Hawks last year, at the very least, expect him to receive a few more votes for Defensive Player of the Year, as he has that type of game-changing potential.

Top Playmaker: Kyle Lowry

It may have taken him eight years, but Kyle Lowry has finally emerged as a force among NBA point guards. Even better for him, it appears that he has finally found a home in the league after spending time as a member of the Memphis Grizzlies and Houston Rockets before landing in Toronto. Lowry has traditional point guard instincts, even if he is still a bit too shot-happy. Over the last two seasons, his 7.4 and 6.8 assists per game are on-par for a starting point guard, but not necessarily near “top flight” status. Still, on a roster that only features Cory Joseph as its other playmaking point guard, Lowry is easily the top playmaker on the team. Jonas Valanciunas does have a unique presence in the post and does seem to see the floor well for a big man, but he is no Shaquille O’Neal and does not make the game easier for his teammates in the same way that Lowry does. With an additional mouth to feed on the offensive end in Carroll, Lowry will have the challenge of looking for another one of his teammates, but it is a challenge that he will probably welcome.

Top Clutch Player: Push

Over the years, we have seen both Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan make big plays down the stretch of games, even working in tandem to defeat the Boston Celtics last season. Together, Lowry and DeRozan have formed a nice one-two punch in Toronto and have partnered to guide the franchise to what is its most successful era. At the end of a game, if the contest is hanging in the balance, Coach Casey has shown a willingness to let his players play through it and, in tight situations, he trusts either Lowry or DeRozan. That makes the Raptors less predictable, and it is certainly not a bad thing to have two clutch players capable of shouldering the load. So here, we call it a push.

The Unheralded Player: Cory Joseph

The Toronto-born Cory Joseph spent the first four years of his career as a member of the San Antonio Spurs and saw his minutes and productivity increase last season. With a championship ring and a generous multi-year payday that was hard earned, Joseph has the type of character and experience that most NBA head coaches would love to have on their bench. That he is from Toronto and has extensive experience representing Canada in international FIBA tournaments makes the signing even better from a franchise point of view (as Masai Ujiri has stated he wanted to add Canadian-born players). Joseph is, of course, thrilled to be back home. From a basketball standpoint, he is still somewhat raw and trying to find his way, but on a roster with quite a few veterans, Joseph will enter camp as Lowry’s primary backup at the point guard spot. All things considered, he has been prepared to flourish in that role. Luis Scola and Bismack Biyombo will give the Raptors something, as well, but it is Joseph who is the top unheralded player.

Best New Addition: DeMarre Carroll

Aside from Wesley Matthews, DeMarre Carroll is one of the names that would immediately come to mind when one asks which players were overpaid this past summer. In Carroll’s case, a legitimate argument can be made as to why he is worth the $15 million annual price tag. Prior to last season, Carroll was primarily regarded as a versatile, plus-defender who excelled at both keeping players in front of him and making plays on the ball. Last season, he proved to be an above-average offensive player, converting about 40 percent of his three-point shots (and stepping up on offense for Atlanta in the postseason). Although he averaged just 12.6 points per game last season, his thriving in an equal-opportunity offense in Atlanta proves that he can excel in a team setting and one could easily argue that this increases his value even further. So long as Carroll’s success last season was no fluke, it appears as though the Raptors got a real game changer, and he is certainly the top new acquisition on a roster that has a few other fresh faces.

-Moke Hamilton

Who We Like

Masai Ujiri: Ujiri is regarded by most in NBA front offices as a nice person and an even better basketball mind. After a productive stint with the Denver Nuggets, Ujiri deserves credit for being in charge of a team that seems to have overachieved. He seems to have made smart decisions in re-signing both Kyle Lowry and Dwane Casey and managed to sign DeMarre Carroll — a two-way player who will make an impact in the win column. Ujiri still has some work to do in Toronto if he wants to transform the franchise into a championship contender, but at just over two years on the job, it is difficult to argue with the early returns.

Jonas Valanciunas: Although there are mixed reviews of Valanciunas, it’s important to remember he’s still improving and just turned 23 years old this summer. Valanciunas is far more agile than many of his peers, yet is not overly dependent on it to score baskets. He has traditional big man skills and sees the floor quite well for a man of his size. His rebounding could certainly improve, but over the course of his first three seasons in the NBA, he has increased his scoring average while raising his field goal percentage to 57 percent. Last season, Coach Casey told me that Valanciunas studies film of Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Arvydas Sabonis. If Valanciunas has it in him to want to be as good as those two, then we have something to look forward to. Consistency and strength may be his biggest challenges, but it’s certainly possible he can overcome them.

Luis Scola: Though clearly over the hill, the 35-year-old Argentinean still has some game left. Scola will give Coach Casey another big man who can play in the post. Even at his advanced age, Scola averaged almost two offensive rebounds per game last season and in Toronto, any extra possessions he can get the trigger-happy guards that he will be playing with will be a net-plus. Scola will provide veteran experience and seems like a good fit in Toronto.

-Moke Hamilton

Strengths

Last season, Toronto had the third-best offense in the NBA, scoring 108.1 points per 100 possessions. They finished only behind the Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State Warriors (and the gap was relatively small). Offense is clearly the team’s biggest strength. Continuity is an advantage for Toronto as well. One thing that is often overlooked is the extent to which chemistry and continuity contributes to winning in the NBA. Oftentimes, teams that have been together longer thrive. It’s a simple concept that usually holds true. Dwane Casey, DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, Jonas Valanciunas, Terrence Ross and Patrick Patterson have been together for a number of years, and although their roster looks underwhelming on paper, their continuity with one another and familiarity with each other’s tendencies may make a major difference in the win column. There are new pieces that need to be blended in, but the core players know how to play for Coach Casey and with one another, and that counts for a lot.

-Moke Hamilton

Weaknesses

While the team’s offense was great last season, the Raptors ranked 23rd in defense (allowing 104.8 points per 100 possessions). They opted to pursue defensive-minded players this offseason in hopes of improving on that end of the court. Health is another concern for Toronto. Nobody has ever accused Kyle Lowry or DeMar DeRozan of being iron men. Lowry seems to have overcome the injury issues that plagued him earlier in his career, as evidenced by his playing 79 and 70 games over the last two seasons, respectively. DeRozan, however, missed 22 games last season, and he was just one of quite a few Raptors who fell victim to attrition. Any success the Raptors will have this season will begin and end with the ability of these two to stay healthy.

Finally, point guard depth may be an issue too. Lowry is talented and Joseph has potential, but most NBA teams need at least three guards who are capable of orchestrating offensive sets or initiating action for their teammates. Joseph is still a young player developing into his own, meaning that Lowry is really the only proven floor general on the entire roster. Terrence Ross is a versatile wing player who can handle the ball on the perimeter a bit, but all in all, we would have liked to see the Raptors do a better job of filling the void left by Greivis Vasquez’s departure to the Milwaukee Bucks.

-Moke Hamilton

The Burning Question

Are the Raptors actually contenders?

The Joe Johnson-led Atlanta Hawks are probably this generation’s best example of a basketball team that was “stuck” in the middle. The Hawks weren’t bad enough to score high draft picks and they weren’t good enough to make deep playoff runs. The Raptors, despite breaking the franchise’s single-season win record in each of the past two years, were eliminated in the first round both seasons. In fact, the franchise has only advanced out of the first round once in its history, and that was all the way back in the 2000-01 season. Heading into the 2013-14 season, there were many that believed that newly installed general manager Masai Ujiri would tank the season, fire holdover head coach Dwane Casey and firmly commit to trying to land Andrew Wiggins. Obviously, that isn’t how things worked out. Ujiri brought back both Lowry and Casey and has now brought in DeMarre Carroll, evidently, in an attempt to continue building around his core and focusing on winning now. To this point, however, the Raptors do not appear to be a conference contender on par with teams like the Cleveland Cavaliers or the Chicago Bulls. Even with Carroll, in today’s NBA, they are still at least two mediocre players (or one great player) away from being able to challenge out East. If Jonas Valanciunas can show consistent flashes of Arvydas-Sabonis-like play, then that would go a long way toward pushing the Raptors to the top of the standings. For now, though, they still very much seem a team in progress, but at least one that is headed in the right direction.

-Moke Hamilton

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NBA Daily: Reacting To Bubble Headlines

Almost two weeks into the Bubble, Matt John gives his own take on some of the bigger headlines that have sprung up.

Matt John

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All of a sudden, we are almost at the end of Week Two inside the Bubble. We’ve actually had some pretty epic games, wouldn’t you say? We’ve also had some telling and high stakes games too. Now that our regular season is finally at its end, things are taking shape a little. Because of that, we’re seeing some major stories hit the newsstands over the past 11 days.

Instead of repeating last week’s formula, let’s focus on reacting to some of the more recent headlines we have seen since the

“Something Might Be Wrong With The Lakers!”

In their last seven games, the Los Angeles Lakers have gone only 3-4 and, upon deeper examination, they’ve only come up victorious twice since beating their crosstown rivals on Jul. 30. Since the Bubble commenced, they’ve put up the second-lowest offensive rating in the league – scoring 103 points per 100 possessions, only .1 points ahead of Washington. Additionally, they have the lowest net rating among teams that have clinched a playoff spot at minus-5.6.

LeBron James specifically has not looked like himself. Even when the Lakers beat the Clippers, he didn’t put up the best stat line – and since then, he hasn’t played at the same MVP-caliber pace. In his seven games, he’s averaged 22.8 points on 45/33/63 splits while coughing up 3.2 turnovers. Even at 35, we all know that’s a far cry from the numbers he was putting up during his MVP-worthy campaign.

Maybe he and the Lakers are mailing in the rest of the season, or maybe there is something more to these recent unwelcome struggles.

Do you know what the big conclusion to draw from this is? Yawn. If you know James, then you know that reports like these aren’t anything we haven’t seen before. We all should have gotten the picture with the King by now. No matter who he plays for, no matter how good his team is and no matter how much worse this episode looks compared to the last one, every year there’s always going to be some sort of drama going on. And how much does this impact LeBron’s team when the going gets tough? Nil.

It’s part of the LeBron deluxe package. There are going to be concerns. There are going to be questions. There are going to be doubts. That’s what it’s been like for the past 10+ years with any team led by the likes of LeBron James. The Lakers, as fantastic as they have been, were going to face it eventually. It just happened to be with the playoffs around the corner.

No matter because, with the exception of last year, LeBron’s teams have always made their way through the fire as he carried them over the hump. There’s no reason to think it won’t be the same with LA. Besides, how much did the Lakers honestly have to prove in the Bubble? There were really only two tasks at hand for them once the hiatus ended.

1. Beating the Clippers: Mission Accomplished
2. Getting the No. 1 seed in the loaded Western Conference: Mission Accomplished

After that, what else was there to play for? The drama could very well play into the playoffs, but LeBron’s been through this merry-go-round enough times that he practically owns a timeshare in it.

The Lakers are going to be fine, and you probably already knew that. What everyone needs to realize is that this is a regular occurrence for LeBron-led squads. We should have gotten so used to it by now that it would have been more shocking if the season had ended drama-free for the boys in purple and gold.

But Danny Green shooting only 7-for-25 from three-point land? That might be something to be concerned about.

“Nate McMillan Is On The Hot Seat”

This little tidbit came from a podcast last week between Jeff Van Gundy and Zach Lowe. While we have yet to determine the level of heat on such a rumor, let’s go over McMillan’s tenure as head coach of the Indiana Pacers.

Through a black and white scope, McMillan definitely hasn’t brought Indiana to the same heights that his predecessor Frank Vogel did when he took over as coach back in 2016. The Pacers haven’t been out of the first round since 2014 and they’ve only mustered three playoff wins since with McMillan calling the shots over the last four years. When you see things through that lens, McMillan would seem like the usual candidate.

But that’s not the case with McMillan. There’s a reason why his name has been thrown in the Coach of the Year discussion for three years running now. Let’s start with how he’s developed a reputation for player development. Think of the players that have really stood out for Indiana since they moved on from the Paul George era.
Victor Oladipo, Bojan Bogdanovic, Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon and, most recently, T.J. Warren. What do these players have in common? None of them ever reached the heights in their career that they did once they played under McMillan before coming to Indiana.

McMillan even managed to breathe life back into Lance Stephenson’s career for a year or two there. The one failure on McMillan’s part has been Myles Turner, who is still basically the same player as he was when Indiana had a total makeover back in 2017. The fact that McMillan has done this with this many players in such a short amount of time demonstrates that he knows how to put his players in the right position to succeed. Coaches like those don’t grow on trees.

Fate dealt a cruel hand with Oladipo’s knee blowing out, but McMillan certainly can’t be the fall guy for that. Again, no one knows how seriously we should take this rumor. It may be quickly swept under the rug as soon as tomorrow. It’s just that if McMillan were to be shown the door, Indiana would be making a rather puzzling decision after making pretty much all the right moves over the last three years.

“Michael Porter Jr Was Well-Worth The Wait”

There shouldn’t be much of a counterpoint to this. Michael Porter Jr has looked like the dynamic scorer many believed he could be dating back to his high school days. So much so that a fair amount of teams are probably going to second-guess passing him up in the 2018 NBA Draft. Porter’s rise in Florida has to make Denver – who was already a top team in the Western Conference before he got there – so much more optimistic about their future.

Putting up nearly 24 points on 57/46/96 splits in the Bubble has got to make the Nuggets incredibly giddy. He’s got great size for a scorer and an awesome shooting stroke. He’s also a great cutter, which means more highlight-reel assists for the Joker, too. All the Nuggets needed to complement Nikola Jokic was a go-to-scorer to get to the next level. Soon, they are going to pay Jamal Murray to be that guy, but Murray’s production, while not bad, has stayed relatively the same over the last three years. At 23, there’s still hope for him to make the leap, but now with MPJ coming into his own, the Nuggets have a safety valve in case that doesn’t happen.

Now, teams will get more game film on him, so odds are we’ll see a slump from Porter as time passes. Even with that, this shouldn’t be seen as a tease.

Porter should be a future star if he stays on the court and that’s the one hang-up. We still have to go back to the fact that 13 teams passed on him for a very real, very frightening reason. No one doubted the talent this kid had. It was his injury problems that put his future in doubt. Denver’s been meticulously careful making sure that Porter doesn’t get put on the shelf, but there’s no way of knowing if he can do this over a full season, and we won’t know for quite a while.

Injuries were what ruined Michael Porter Jr’s stock in 2018, so hold your breath. As exciting as it is to see him prove all of his doubters wrong, Brandon Roy did the same thing only 13 years ago.

With the NBA’s latest and greatest regular season bubble set to wrap up this week, there are plenty of intriguing storylines to watch. Are the Nuggets even better with Porter Jr.? Do the Lakers have what it takes?

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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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