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2015-16 Utah Jazz Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the Utah Jazz’s 2015-16 season.

Basketball Insiders

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The Utah Jazz aren’t sneaking up on anyone this year. A strong close to the 2014-15 season, headlined by a historically great defense from the All-Star break forward, put Utah firmly on everyone’s radar out West, where they’re making a push to get back in the playoffs after a couple years out. The Jazz return a trio of Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert as their primary pieces, flanked on the wing by impressive rookie Rodney Hood and returning Alec Burks following shoulder surgery. The Jazz have significant depth at every position but point guard, and their 54-win pace post-All-Star-break last year came with the worst play at the one in the league, so there’s evidence they can survive another year until Dante Exum returns. The group stayed basically intact this summer and is in their second year under detail-oriented coach Quin Snyder. Expecting improvements elsewhere, particularly more comfort offensively, is reasonable. The Jazz are ready to make noise with a handpicked core, and no one is looking past them on the schedule.

Basketball Insiders previews the 2015-16 Utah Jazz season:

Five Thoughts

I love this Jazz team. Rudy Gobert is a monster, who will only continue to improve as he continues to gain experience and further his development. Derrick Favors has developed into a very talented big man who can make an impact on both ends of the floor. Gordon Hayward has made huge strides – as a player and as a leader. The injury to Dante Exum is extremely unfortunate, but I still believe Utah can sneak into the playoffs as the eighth seed in the Western Conference. They became a defensive juggernaut in the second half of last season and I think they can continue to cause a lot of problems on that end this year, especially since the team should be more comfortable under Quin Snyder in his second year as the team’s head coach. I’m really looking forward to watching this talented young core develop, and I think they’ll get some valuable playoff experience this season (and be very good in a few years).

2nd Place – Northwest Division

-Alex Kennedy

The Jazz showed promise as a young team on the rise last season. Gordon Hayward established himself as a near 20-point player, both Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors averaged near double-doubles, and the Jazz drafted Dante Exum and Rodney Hood as key members of their future. They finished third in the Northwest Division after having one of the best winning percentages in the league after the All-Star Break. Now they look to carry the momentum into this season. They will have to do it without Exum, who suffered a torn ACL during international play for Australia. But while the defending champion Golden State Warriors and other contenders steal the spotlight in the Western Conference, expect the Jazz to continue quietly improving and flying under the radar with a core of young talent who could be the newest team to snag the eighth seed sooner rather than later.

3rd Place – Northwest Division

-Jessica Camerato

The Jazz just feel like a team ready to make a big leap. We’ve all been touting their fascinating young core for a couple of years now, but at some point the team has to stop being all about potential and start winning games. Losing Dante Exum for the year hurts, but Gordon Hayward looked every bit the max player he was paid to be last year and Rudy Gobert is transforming into one of the league’s more dominant defensive presences. Derrick Favors needs to emerge as a consistent star, and we’ll need to see quick development from guys like Rodney Hood and Trey Lyles, but this is a slick little team that could very well surprise some people. The Northwest is a division in rough shape, anyway, so Utah actually has a chance to do a little damage there this year.

2nd Place – Northwest Division

–Joel Brigham

There are a couple of things that will aid Utah’s ascent in the Northwest. The current rebuilding projects of Denver and Portland should serve to help elevate the Jazz in the final standings. The club also will benefit from the return of shooting guard Alec Burks and the continued development of interior force Rudy Gobert. The loss of guard Dante Exum stings, but make no mistake this is Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors’ team at the end of the day. The Jazz, despite having some financial flexibility, didn’t make any big splashes over the summer, preferring to allow their young core to grow together. Ultimately, that may be the reason the team falls short of a playoff berth.

2nd Place – Northwest Division

-Lang Greene

Over their final 24 games of last season, the Jazz went 15-9 and we saw Rudy Gobert emerge as the most talked about big man in the league, at least for a few weeks. Clearly then, Jazz fans are among the most optimistic heading into this season. At least that was the case before Dante Exum’s ACL injury. A lot will immediately fall on the shoulders of Trey Burke, but this team needs Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors to continue to earn their keep. As much as I like many of the pieces out there in Salt Lake City, it is difficult to imagine the Jazz getting into the playoffs. A team like the Mavericks, in my opinion, are still better and I have the Jazz clocking in outside of the playoff picture. Still, like the Orlando Magic, I think the light at the end of the tunnel is becoming brighter and that things are taking shape for Utah. Give them two more years.

2nd Place — Northwest Division

-Moke Hamilton

Top of the List

Top Offensive Player: Derrick Favors

Full disclosure: Gordon Hayward has a very good case here, and definitely is Utah’s most important offensive player (they just die without his creation), but Hayward is even more impossible to leave out of a couple areas. Favors is likely the most well-rounded Jazz player overall, and a varied offensive game is part of it.

Favors can do a little bit of everything after last season, when he finally expanded his shooting range to become a threat from the deeper midrange areas and particularly on rolling free-throw line jumpers in the two-man game. He’s long been a feared presence when the Jazz can get him the ball with momentum toward the hoop – no player in the NBA finished more plays via cuts to the hoop than Favors last season, per Synergy Sports. He’s among the game’s best finishers near the rim. He’s also a smart and underrated passer when teams crowd him on the catch, combining with Rudy Gobert to form a mostly unheralded frontcourt passing duo. Favors is a post option in a pinch as well, with a sneaky first step and effective push shots over both shoulders. Such a well-rounded game is welcome for the Jazz in certain units, and allows them to keep opponents off balance.

Top Defensive Player: Rudy Gobert

Not a whole lot of debate here. The Stifle Tower burst onto the scene last year, more than quadrupling his rookie minute total and serving as the driving force for the team’s defensive turnaround in just a couple short months. The big question this year is whether teams are able to more effectively scheme for Gobert’s presence. He’s no longer an out-of-nowhere guy anymore, and he’ll be at the top of scouting reports for opposing offenses. Teams started to get a bit more adventurous near the end of last season, downsizing to smaller lineups and forcing one of Gobert or Favors to guard a wing player – they might take these sorts of themes to a much more extreme point to attempt to get the big Frenchman out of his comfort zone.

There might not be a more powerful defensive force in the league, though. Gobert has far and away the widest shot blocking range in the NBA, altering teams’ entire game plan the moment he steps on the court. Easy looks at the rim simply cease to exist. And unlike many ground-bound rim protectors, Gobert has lateral speed – he can defend pick-and-roll attacks with a combination of mobility and ridiculous length, and even holds his own when switched onto the perimeter. If he stays healthy and continues to refine the edges of his game, he’ll be one of the league’s top defenders for a decade.

Top Playmaker: Gordon Hayward

Even when Dante Exum was healthy last season, this title unquestionably belonged to Hayward. He’s the team’s nucleus offensively, the only consistent option last season as a primary ball-handler until Rodney Hood made a late charge. He should get some further help with Alec Burks’ return from injury, but Burks is much more of a score-first option. Hayward led the Jazz in assist chances per game last season, per SportVU data, and is a very safe bet to do so again. Hood could lighten the load some for Gordon, but also didn’t showcase nearly as much as a passer and was generally only capable of generating his own looks. Unless incoming point guard Raul Neto exceeds expectations and can play 30 minutes a night (quite unlikely), Hayward is the guy.

Top Clutch Player: Gordon Hayward

More than any individual who is shooting the ball in clutch situations, the Jazz need Trey Burke to be the one who isn’t. Burke somehow took only six fewer shots than Hayward last season with the score within five and the clock under five minutes in regulation – Hayward scored 93 points on his 59 attempts, Burke a paltry 47 points on his 53 tries. If the Jazz’s coaching staff can get Burke to tone things down a bit, Hayward will lead the team in attempts and overall touches down the stretch by a large margin. He’s their most capable isolation player and best overall ball-handler, proving his chops on a big stage early last season with a game-winner as time expired to lift the Jazz over LeBron James and the Cavs. When Hayward doesn’t have the ball in his hands, look for Rodney Hood, Alec Burks or Derrick Favors to step up.

The Unheralded Player: Rodney Hood

Hood’s rookie year was marred early on by a series of injuries that kept him off the court and unable to develop any sort of rhythm with his teammates as they learned Quin Snyder’s new scheme. Once he saw the court and got into the swing of things, though, he was quietly one of Utah’s most impressive players. Hood shot 42 percent from three following the All-Star break on nearly four attempts per game, establishing himself as a knockdown guy both off the dribble and spotting up. He showcased a pick-and-roll game few rookies are capable of – incredible patience with his dribble and an ability to shield opponents on his back while he takes his time and finds the right option. His in-between floater already looks like a veteran’s, and he was much more impressive defensively than anyone had expected early on. Hood has work still to do as a distributor, but don’t bet against him making some strides early this season after all the jumps he made in just 50 total games last year. He’s already an absolute steal with the 23rd pick and could be one of Utah’s primary wing assets with another strong year.

Best New Addition: Alec Burks

Burks isn’t a newcomer by the most technical definition, but Jazz GM Dennis Lindsey has been consistent in half-ironically referring to Alec as the team’s “biggest offseason acquisition.” It fits if you think about it – the Jazz ushered in a new era of modern basketball when they hired Quin Snyder, and to a man the roster members have noted how it took several months for the group to collectively pick up Snyder’s complex scheme.

Unfortunately for Burks, shoulder surgery just 27 games into the season meant he wasn’t even on the floor when the team started to grasp things. He’ll have a steeper learning curve than most of his teammates, and a big part of his overall effectiveness will be determined by how quickly he learns on the fly. His slashing style is perfect for Snyder’s motion scheme, but Burks will need to tone down the me-first aspect of his game there to a degree. Defensively, he has major work to do away from the ball, where he’s been bad about spacing out and losing his man. But Burks was a breakout player in his last full season, a speedy penetrator who can get to the rack against anyone, and he’ll be yet another valuable wing asset for Utah if he picks things up.

– Ben Dowsett

Who We Like

Quin Snyder – Were it not for a few early-season injuries and Utah’s young core needing more time than anticipated to adjust to his approach (and had Enes Kanter perhaps been traded a bit earlier in the season), Snyder would have been a fringe candidate for Coach of the Year in his first campaign at the helm. What he did for a Jazz defense that ranked dead last in the NBA the year before his arrival was remarkable – it’s tempting to simply chalk it all up to Rudy Gobert, but the Jazz still had the league’s best defense by a mile after the All-Star break even when Rudy sat down (it was basically the same whether or not he played). The test for Snyder this year is on the other end of the floor. He’s repeated often that the offensive side of his scheme will take longer to come along than the defensive side; how quickly it does so – and just how effective it can be when things start to fully click – could determine Utah’s ceiling for the season.

Bryce Cotton/Raul Neto – Presumed initially to be fighting Burke for backup point guard minutes, Cotton and Neto have been thrust into more of a spotlight with Exum’s injury. At least one will have to play backup minutes, and maybe more if Burke can’t right his ship. Neto is an ACB transplant known for his passing and feisty defense, while Cotton played 15 games with the Jazz near the end of last season. Cotton is the best shooter among Utah’s healthy point guards but is also quite undersized (5’11 or so), while Neto is the right size but had a spotty jumper at a lower level. The Jazz could use a breakout performance from at least one.

Trevor Booker – Booker is Utah’s glue guy, and a team veteran at just 27 years old. He sets the emotional tone for the team even as a bench piece, working his butt off every day and quickly becoming a favorite among a fan base that identifies with these sorts of traits. He’s also a sneaky good NBA player – he shot a better percentage from three than Draymond Green last year, his first in the league with a license to fire away from deep. He’s a solid defender, a great rebounder for his undersized nature and a more versatile offensive piece than he’s given credit for. Booker is a legitimate third big who can offer some spacing and a change of pace from Gobert and Favors up front.

Tibor Pleiss – Possibly spending a number of his minutes with Booker will be Pleiss, Utah’s second foreign offseason addition. The 7’3 former Barcelona center backed up European superstar Ante Tomic last season, then was featured alongside Dirk Nowitzki in the frontcourt for the German national team with impressive results. The Jazz see a legitimate shooter in Pleiss despite a nearly nonexistent track record here in Europe – if they’re correct, he’ll be a major asset behind Gobert at center. In a perfect world, Pleiss and Booker combine for a spacing-overload lineup where both bigs on the floor are threats from deep. If he doesn’t pan out, his contract is cheap.

– Ben Dowsett

Strengths

Utah’s defense is the foundation of their identity. They’ve got length for days and the best rim protection duo in the league in the paint, and became better and better as last season wore on at funneling opposing ball-handlers to the places that allowed Gobert and Favors to operate optimally. Even lineups with some of their weaker defensive pieces were strangling teams after awhile. They’re also one of the top rebounding teams in the league on both ends.

The Jazz should have more depth to complement things as well. Pleiss and incoming 12th overall pick Trey Lyles should see minutes in the frontcourt, and Burks’ return will push the Jazz to five deep on the wing, all guys who have shown they’re capable rotation players or better at this level (Hayward, Burks, Hood, Joe Ingles and Elijah Millsap).

Finally, the team’s continuity under Snyder should play a role this season. His is a system that takes real time to master and a cohesive group to maintain, and keeping the primary pieces so similar to last season was an intentional move.

– Ben Dowsett

Weaknesses

Point guard play is the biggest concern. Brief late-season surges from Cotton and Burke aside, none of the three guys on Utah’s current roster have any track record as even average at the position in this league. Burke is in his third year as a lottery pick, and this may be his last chance. If he’s not up to it and the other two aren’t any better, it could be a long year at the one-spot while the team waits for Exum to return next season.

The Jazz will also likely be thin on spacing, especially if guys like Pleiss, Lyles and Booker aren’t threats there from the frontcourt. They’re similarly thin as far as primary creators, particularly if anything happens to Burks, Hood or especially Hayward.

– Ben Dowsett

The Burning Question

Can their defense remain elite over a full season, and can their offense catch up?

It’s really two questions, but the interplay between them could define the season for the Jazz. There could be a few simple tweaks available to goose Utah’s league-average offense from last season, but some of them – an emphasis on pushing in transition and the introduction of more small-ball, for instance – could potentially harm their airtight defensive culture.

Can Snyder toe the line here and find improvements on one end without a sacrifice on the other? The Jazz could still be the league’s best defense even if they fell off a bit from their post-All-Star-break pace last season. Put a borderline top-10 offense next to that, and you have the makings of a true contender.

It will be a struggle at times. Favors and Gobert are a devastating combo, but there are periods where the Jazz have to sweat for every bucket while they share the floor. A larger regression defensively isn’t entirely out of the question either, and this group has their work cut out for them if that happens.

It’s hard to find a team with a better defensive foundation, though. They’ll be better around the margins this year, and that alone will make them a fascinating team to watch.

– Ben Dowsett

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NBA Daily: Ivica Zubac Rounding Into Form For Clippers

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

David Yapkowitz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Free Agency Update: Changes In The Bubble

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

Drew Maresca

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

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

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

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

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

The Stars

Mike Conley Jr., Utah Jazz – Player Option

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

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

Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans – RFA

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

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

Fred VanVleet, Toronto Raptors – UFA

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

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

 DeMar DeRozan, San Antonio Spurs – Player Option

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

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

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

The Known Commodities

Marcus Morris Sr., Los Angeles Clippers – UFA

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

Making A Case

Trey Burke, Dallas Mavericks – UFA

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

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

Jordan Clarkson, Utah Jazz – UFA

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

Reggie Jackson, Los Angeles Clippers – UFA

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

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

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

The Unknowns

Harry Giles III, Sacramento Kings – UFA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ben Nadeau

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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