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Basketball Insiders Week in Review 6/8

Basketball Insiders looks back at some of the articles from last week in case you missed them the first time around.

Kyle Cape-Lindelin

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A “Big Splash” Summer Move?

By Bill Ingram

Houston Rockets owner Les Alexander made quite an impression when he claimed that his team would make a “big splash” addition this summer. With one quick quote he fired the imaginations of Clutch City fans who were left cold when the team that hoped to contend was ejected from the playoffs in the first round. Several weeks have passed since Alexander dropped that bomb, and rumors are starting to leak out about just which ripples Alexander is targeting. The ever-entertaining, often-wrong rumor mill has it that Houston will chase Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving this summer. Of course, chasing and landing are two different things, as the Rockets have often learned. Here’s a look at the scenarios surrounding each player and how they would help Houston grab a spot in the NBA Finals. In each case, we assume that the Rockets are able to move Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin, either to Minnesota, New York or Cleveland, or to some third team that just wants to take on those balloon-payment ending deals. The Rockets have zero ability to add a big name this summer if they don’t move Asik and Lin in the process.

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What’s Next for the Indiana Pacers?

By Joel Brigham

Last week, the Miami HEAT mercifully put the Indiana Pacers out of their misery, finally ending one of the weirdest seasons in league history. No team was hotter coming out of the gates in 2013-2014, and considering the team had advanced one step further in the playoffs every year for the last three seasons, it really was starting to look like the time had arrived for a promising young team to unseat the mighty HEAT.

That, of course, changed almost immediately following the All-Star break, which was when Indiana entered an embarrassing and frustrating skid that sent them into the postseason limping. A lot has been written about the Pacers in the last few weeks explaining why, exactly, things went down the way they did for Indiana, but mostly it all comes down to a combination of Roy Hibbert’s lack of confidence, Paul George’s inconsistency and Lance Stephenson’s selfish vendetta to prove Eastern Conferences wrong for not voting him onto the All-Star team.

Whatever the reason, the Pacers are left a bit of a mess despite finishing among the league’s final four teams, meaning some changes should be expected this summer, so here’s a breakdown of what’s next for Indiana moving forward:

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Breaking Up The Thunder?

By Steve Kyler

With the Oklahoma City Thunder failing to advance the NBA Finals, it’s not altogether surprising that the common belief among fans is that it is time for a change.

Is it?

The Thunder endured an interesting season filled with injuries to guard Russell Westbrook. They put arguably their youngest supporting cast on the floor in as many years and still came away with a 59-23 record and another appearance in the Western Conference Finals. Star forward Kevin Durant earned his first MVP award and from most accounts Westbrook evolved into a more balanced force, especially late in the postseason where his defense pulled out some close plays and won them some games.

There are a number of teams in the NBA would have loved to had the season the Thunder had, but because they are not in the Finals again, there are doubts. There are questions. There is a sense that this team can’t get over the hump.

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Will HEAT Complete Three-Peat?

By Alex Kennedy

Back in 1988, Pat Riley trademarked the word “three-peat” several months after his Los Angeles Lakers won their second consecutive NBA championship. Riley’s Lakers didn’t go on to three-peat (they were instead swept by the Detroit Pistons in the 1989 NBA Finals), but he has made some money off of the trademark thanks to teams like the Chicago Bulls and New York Yankees winning back-to-back-to-back titles. The Lakers did go on to three-peat from 2000 to 2002, but Riley was long gone by that point.

Riley has never had one of his teams pull off the feat, but that may change over the next few weeks. Over 25 years after he trademarked the phrase, the 69-year-old president of the Miami HEAT may finally be able to experience a three-peat rather than just cashing in on other dynasties.

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The San Antonio Spurs: All-Time Great Franchise?

By Moke Hamilton

Without question, the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics reign at the top of the NBA. At 1A and 1B, the general consensus among those that cover the league and those that follow it is that the two winningest franchises in NBA history sit alone.

But are we blinded by the gold sparkle of the Larry O’Brien trophy?

When it comes to anointing greatness, do we simply give that title to the Lakers and Celtics because they have won 16 and 17 NBA championships, respectively?

Is that taking the easy way out?

I think it is, and I also happen to think that a closer look could have one arguing that the San Antonio Spurs are much closer to being the greatest NBA franchise ever than many people think.

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The Case For Greg Monroe

By Jabari Davis

Much to the contrary of the initial reports out of Detroit that seemed to immediately follow his agreement to be the organization’s head coach and team president, Stan Van Gundy made his feelings about the potential pairing of franchise center Andre Drummond and (free-agent-to-be) power forward Greg Monroe as clear as possible over the weekend.

“I think it’s an ideal pairing,” Van Gundy told Pistons.com’s Keith Langlois. “If I look at just the film I’ve watched now and looking at the numbers, you would say Greg and Andre together were great offensively. That was a great combination on the offensive end of the floor, especially when the three guys around them were shooters – more conventional perimeter types. That worked very, very well. Now it didn’t work very well defensively. I think it puts a lot of responsibility on Greg Monroe to have to guard out on the perimeter.”

While that was certainly no guarantee of the organization’s intention to re-sign the four-year veteran at all costs, it may at least be an olive branch toward the same reality shared by those of us that could never quite understand why the previous front office regime didn’t seem to hold the same appreciation for having two multifaceted big men nowhere near their respective prime(s) on the roster.

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HEAT, Spurs More Than Just Star Power

By Yannis Koutroupis

As the Miami HEAT and San Antonio Spurs get set to face off in the NBA Finals for the second consecutive season, both teams deserve a lot of credit just for simply getting to this point. Although at times they made it look effortless, getting to the Finals is no easy feat, especially when you’re wearing a target on your back like these two dominant franchises have for the last several years.

Much of the talk leading into the series surrounds the star players, specifically LeBron James and Tim Duncan. The two former No. 1 overall draft selections are widely regarded as the best ever to play their position and this is a Finals rubber match for them, as Duncan topped James in the 2007 Finals, while James got revenge last year.

The importance of those two cannot be overstated. The Spurs, from ownership on down, never mince words when it comes to talking about the key to their success. Duncan’s presence is the first thing that’s mentioned and everything else, even the emergence of Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili as stars as well, is a distant second. Even at 38 years old, Duncan is the foundation of everything that they do. He sets the tone for the way everyone works off of the court and follows head coach Gregg Popovich’s lead on it.

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Who is the Orlando Magic’s Best Trade Chip?

By Cody Taylor

Draft night in the NBA presents one of the busiest times of the year for general managers, and Orlando Magic GM Rob Hennigan will be among the busiest. The Magic currently own the No. 4 and No. 12 picks in this month’s draft and figure to be very active all night. The way things play out ahead of the Magic at the fourth pick may very well determine what Hennigan and the Magic do. Having those two picks allows the Magic to listen to incoming offers from teams attempting to trade up and position themselves with possibly one or two more picks in the middle of the first-round.

There has been a lot of speculation about who the Magic could decide to take with their first pick, but given their need for a point guard, Australian point guard Dante Exum is the current favorite to land in Orlando. In recent weeks, the Philadelphia 76ers have been rumored to want to draft Exum to pair up with reigning Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams. So if the Magic’s clear-cut guy is Exum and the 76ers draft him, what will the Magic do? If Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid or Jabari Parker fall to the Magic at four, will they take one of them instead of Exum?

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LeBron James: “I Don’t Need Extra Motivation”

By Jessica Camerato

These are the moments LeBron James thrives on. Offseason workouts, training camp, regular season grind, all those instances add up to the ultimate goal — competing for another championship in the NBA Finals.

On Thursday, James will embark on the final stages of his quest for the Miami HEAT’s third consecutive title as they take on the San Antonio Spurs. He is still as hungry now in his fifth trip to the championship round as he was when he entered the league 11 years ago.

“I was a kid who watched so many Finals appearances,” James said on Wednesday. “Watched Michael Jordan and watched Shaq (Shaquille O’Neal) and Kobe (Bryant), and we watched throwback Finals games of Magic (Johnson) and (Larry) Bird and Isiah (Thomas) and Hakeem (Olajuwon) in the Finals. I just wished maybe I could see the Finals verbiage behind me and be a part of this. … I don’t need extra motivation. This is motivating enough.”

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Best Fit to Coach the Lakers?

By Jesse Blancarte

The Los Angeles Lakers are taking a slow, deliberate approach toward hiring their next head coach. So far the list of candidates includes Mike Dunleavy, Byron Scott, Alvin Gentry, Lionel Hollins, Kurt Rambis, George Karl, Larry Brown and Scott Skiles. Derek Fisher has been identified as a candidate as well, but Fisher has not decided whether he will retire and Phil Jackson is reportedly very interested in hiring him to coach the New York Knicks as well.

Who from this list of candidates makes the most sense for the Lakers? It depends on what are the most important priorities for the front office as they make their decision. With Kobe Bryant signed on for two more years, and a roster that is in need of a significant overhaul, there are competing interests. Bryant wants to compete for championships now, but the Lakers also need to start assembling a core to build around once he retires.

With the new CBA in effect, the most effective way to construct a roster is through the draft and the development of young players. Thus, the Lakers need someone with experience – a proven winner who will demand respect from Bryant, but who can simultaneously develop young players. Ideally, it will be someone who has proven he can develop a culture, give the team an identity and create lasting stability. Here’s a look at the candidates:

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What’s the Next Chapter for Lance Stephenson?

By John Zitzler

Lance Stephenson may only be 23 years old, but his name is one that has been floating around basketball circles for almost a decade. Nicknamed ‘Born Ready’ back in 2006, Stephenson made a name for himself early on competing in summer league games at New York City’s famed Rucker Park, oftentimes against players much older than him. Even at just 15 or 16 years old, Stephenson had a certain bravado about him, a fearless attitude and willingness to take on any and all challengers.

He played his high school ball at Brooklyn’s Abraham Lincoln High School. Stephenson isn’t the first NBA talent to come out of Lincoln; the school has produced the likes of Stephon Marbury and Sebastian Telfair along with a number of collegiate players. However even with Lincoln’s rich basketball history, Stephenson was able to stand out. He led the school to four straight PSAL titles, a first for Lincoln. During his sophomore and junior seasons, he was named New York City’s player of the year by the New York Daily News. As a junior, he was named to USA Today’s All-USA boys basketball team, the only junior to make that list. As a senior, he became Lincoln’s all-time leading scorer, passing Telfair on his way to another PSAL title. He landed a spot in the McDonald’s All-American game that April, another accolade to add to his collection during his historic high school career.

The next chapter in his basketball journey would take him to the University of Cincinnati, hundreds of miles from the New York City streets where he became a star. The expectations were extraordinarily high upon Stephenson’s arrival at UC. His hype was boiling over after tearing through the high school ranks and becoming one the greatest players in New York City history at that level.

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Once Again, Role Players Prop Up Spurs’ Stars

By Tommy Beer

The San Antonio Spurs won Game 1 of the 2014 NBA Finals on Thursday night, yet hardly anybody is talking about them today.

Sports talk radio and social media are definitely buzzing, but it seems all the discussion is centered on LeBron James’ cramps and the lack of air-conditioning inside the AT&T Center.

Still, the Spurs are used to this sort of treatment. Despite being the most dominant and consistently successful franchise in all of professional sports over the past two decades, somehow San Antonio continues to fly under the radar.

The Spurs’ accomplishments dating back to the late 1990s are legendary at this point. They certainly aren’t the flashiest franchise, and although their old-school approach appeals to many basketball purists, it doesn’t draw as many viewers on national broadcasts. The small-town Spurs may not increase ratings, but they do win basketball games. Since Tim Duncan landed in San Antonio, the Spurs have won more games than any team in any of the four major North American sports.

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Wolves Still Confident In Keeping Love

By Lang Greene

The Minnesota Timberwolves are at a pivotal cross roads. The team hasn’t reached the playoffs since the 2004 campaign and enters the offseason with their franchise player Kevin Love pondering the greener grass on the other side of the fence.

On Thursday the T’Wolves announced team president Flip Saunders would also take command of the club’s head coaching duties. Love and Saunders have a solid relationship, but the executive’s descent back into the coaching ranks isn’t thought to move the needle enough for the All-Star forward to soften his stance about opting out of his deal in 2015.

Saunders readily admits the uncertainty surrounding Love has led to the T’Wolves receiving plenty of calls from opposing general managers looking to pry the forward away via trade.

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NBA Free Agency: Who’s Staying and Who’s Going?

By Eric Pincus

The list of summer free agents will remain unclear until the end of June, when teams and players have decide on any contract options before the July free agency period.

Players with player or early termination options cannot be traded in June unless they opt into their deals.  Teams can trade away a player if their 2014-15 salary is non-guaranteed or partially-guaranteed — but a team option must be taken to deal a player in June.

Most of the players with small deals will opt out to explore the market.  Why would Chris Andersen of the Miami HEAT stay for $1.4 million, when he can sign with any team (including Miami) for the same minimum of $1.4 million?

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Kyle Cape-Lindelin is based out of Portland, OR covering the NBA while being one of the newsline editors and contributor to "Out of Bounds."

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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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