The West’s Top Five Stories
By Bill Ingram
NBA free agency may have gotten off to something of a slow start, but once LeBron James committed to the Cleveland Cavaliers, all of the other dominoes started falling into place. The landscape of the Eastern Conference has changed dramatically, but that doesn’t mean the Western Conference won’t still be the vastly better conference next season. With so much more at stake, here’s look at the West’s biggest free agency stories.
Big Season Ahead For Chicago Bulls
By John Zitzler
The Chicago Bulls will go into the 2014-15 season with championship aspirations yet again. They have seemed on the verge of breaking through for years, but have been tortured by the unfortunate inability of Derrick Rose to stay on the court. Rose electrified the league during the 2010-11 season on his way to the Most Valuable Player award. For the first time since the since Michael Jordan era, the Bulls had a legitimate superstar in Rose. The franchise locked Rose up the following December, signing him to a five-year, $94.8 million dollar extension.
But Rose played in only 39 games during the lockout shortened 2011-12 season, battling an assortment of ailments including a bruised toe, back spasms, a strained groin and a sprained ankle. Despite suffering a litany of injuries, Rose remained productive and averaged 21.8 points and 7.9 assists per game. The Bulls secured the top seed in the East and appeared poised to make a deep run in the playoffs.
We all know what happens next. Bulls fans, be advised that the next few paragraphs may reopen some painful wounds. Proceed with caution.
Summer League: Studs & Duds, Day 9
By Moke Hamilton
With the field down to eight teams vying for the 2014 Las Vegas NBA Summer League title, Day 9 featured some spirited competition, but none better than the triple-overtime classic between the Washington Wizards and the San Antonio Spurs.
(We are not, in fact, actually sure if a Summer League game can qualify as being a classic, but if you were on hand for the dramatic 95-94 Wizards victory, you would feel similarly).
Otto Porter stole the show and leads the studs of Day 9, while the New York Knicks, Atlanta Hawks, Chicago Bulls joined the Spurs as teams who saw their championship hopes dashed.
Brandon Knight Sees Brighter Days for Bucks
By Joel Brigham
It has been a long time since the Milwaukee Bucks were a team that really generated buzz on a competitive level, but the turning of the tide this offseason is palpable with a superstar draft pack in Jabari Parker and a burgeoning head coach in Jason Kidd adding their talents to the organization in the last month.
Of course, they aren’t the only guys that make the Bucks more buzzworthy than usual this year. Even though they posted a league-worst 15 wins last season, there are young players on this roster worth getting excited about, and guard Brandon Knight is one of them.
Knight, attending the Las Vegas Summer League last week, seemed optimistic that Milwaukee won’t be back in the league basement again this season. In fact, he thinks the team can use last year’s frustration as motivation for a better year to come.
Al Jefferson Loves Hornets’ Moves
By Alex Kennedy
Last season, the Charlotte Bobcats took a tremendous step forward as a franchise. After losing 120 of 148 games in the previous two years, expectations were low entering the season, but the team managed to go 43-39 and secure the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference. It was just the second postseason appearance in the organization’s history, and the improvement was in large part due to the addition of Al Jefferson, hiring of Steve Clifford and growth of Kemba Walker.
Now, Charlotte is hoping to continue their successful run and take the next step in the 2014-15 season. The team name has changed from the Bobcats to the Hornets, but they’re hoping the culture change that started last season is just getting started.
Zach LaVine Shows Versatility in Summer League
By Jesse Blancarte
The Minnesota Timberwolves have missed the playoffs 10 seasons in a row, which is the longest drought in the NBA. Minnesota has been in the headlines recently as superstar power forward Kevin Love has informed the team that he will opt out of his contract after next season, which will make him an unrestricted free agent.
The Timberwolves are currently negotiating with the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers for notable players like shooting guard Klay Thompson and first overall pick Andrew Wiggins. As of now, it is not clear which, if either, team will acquire Love and which players will be sent to Minnesota.
What is clear, however, is that the Timberwolves have some young talent currently on the roster, showing Minnesota fans during the Las Vegas Summer League that there is hope for the future. Among them is the 13th overall pick in this year’s draft, guard Zach LaVine from UCLA.
Do You Trade Wiggins For Love?
By Steve Kyler
If all that’s standing in the way of the Cleveland Cavaliers obtaining Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Love is rookie swingman Andrew Wiggins, do you trade one of the most promising players in this year’s draft to get arguably one of the best power forwards in the game?
The short answer – absolutely. The long answer has several caveats.
Let’s start with this one. Love is likely going to be a free agent in July. It makes the most sense monetarily for him to opt-out of his contract and sign a new one in July. Love is now eligible for a new max contract worth 30 percent of the salary cap, which is expected to be north of $66 million. So for the sake of putting a number to the concept, in July, Love can sign a new deal with a first year salary of $19.8 million. If he were to stay in his existing deal, he’d earn $16.744 million. The quick math says Love loses $3.05 million opting into his deal.
The next issue is as much as we think we know about what Love wants, we really don’t and neither do teams. The Timberwolves have not granted anyone permission to talk to Love directly. There are clearly some back channel things happening, but do you really give up a potential star in two or three years without talking to Love and understanding what his goals are? The likely answer is no.
Phil Jackson Leading Knicks in Right Direction
By Cody Taylor
Phil Jackson was introduced as the president of the New York Knicks back in March and vowed to once again make the Knicks one of the NBA’s elite franchises. The state of the team was a complete mess when Jackson took over and it seemed like a job only the Hall of Fame coach would be able to take on and fix.
The Knicks have $87,089,605 committed in guaranteed contracts for the 2014-15 season and find themselves paying the luxury tax once again. Not only did the Knicks have no cap space to work with this summer, they were also one of a few teams heading into the draft with no picks in a class that’s considered one of the best in recent years. The team also needed to find a new head coach, as Mike Woodson was fired after finishing last season with a 37-45 record and failing to reach the playoffs in a weak Eastern Conference. And perhaps the biggest issue of all was the uncertainty surrounding Carmelo Anthony and whether he would re-sign with New York.
Free Agents Headed For The Minimum
By Lang Greene
As Basketball Insiders’ Steve Kyler pointed out in this space on Monday, the money in this year’s free agency market is drying up fast. So while there are still teams remaining with the flexibility to offer lucrative deals, the longer free agency drags on the less incentive those franchises have to dig deep into their wallets.
Basic supply and demand principle at work.
With plenty of talented players still in the hunt for their next deal, franchises are in a strongly leveraged position to wait the process out rather than pay a premium to be the first bidder in the marketplace.
While restricted free agents Eric Bledsoe and Greg Monroe are the two most talented guys remaining and sure to get decent sized deals soon, there are plenty of other established guys who may be forced to take a minimum deal for next season.
Bennett Breathing Easy, Playing Better Without Tonsils
By Jessica Camerato
Take a deep breath and relax.
Anthony Bennett is able to do that a lot easier now. Not just because the pressures of playing his first NBA season as the number one overall pick are behind him, or because he has rehabbed from injuries. Not just because Andrew Wiggins has taken his place as the all-eyes-on-me rookie, or because LeBron James is back to lead the Cleveland Cavaliers.
In May, Bennett underwent surgery to remove his tonsils and adenoids to help improve his sleep apnea. As a result, Bennett, who also has asthma, has found it easier to breathe while playing basketball following the operation.
Lakers Land Lin at Perfect Time
By Yannis Koutroupis
What a lot of NBA prospects don’t realize in the pre-draft process is that all of the workouts and interviews they do don’t just impact where they are going to land on draft night. Teams are often doing research and putting together files on players for when they hit free agency or become available in trades years later as well.
The Los Angeles Lakers’ acquisition of Jeremy Lin from the Houston Rockets after the moratorium was lifted is a prime example. The Lakers have had eyes for Lin for years now, trying to sign him before he landed with the Golden State Warriors and also putting in a claim for his rights when he was on waivers afterward, only to see him ultimately land with the New York Knicks where Linsanity was born.
Porter, Rice Ready for Bigger Roles in Washington?
By Jabari Davis
The 2013-14 Washington Wizards were a talented team that showed signs of how good this up-and-coming squad could be in the coming years, but how much of their success was due to the fact that they played in a historically bad Eastern Conference? It’s hard to say, but one thing that cannot be questioned is this team is determined to disprove any of their remaining doubters moving forward.
While Trevor Ariza left as a free agent, the Wizards re-signed key contributors Marcin Gortat and Andre Miller and added additional veteran depth in Paul Pierce, Kris Humphries and DeJuan Blair. These moves, coupled with internal development from their young core of John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter Jr. and Glen Rice Jr. among others has Washington looking a playoff team for the second-straight season.
PODCAST: Breaking Down The Western Conference Playoff Race
Basketball Insiders Deputy Editor Jesse Blancarte and Writer James Blancarte break down the Western Conference playoff race and check in on the Los Angeles Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers.
NBA Daily: The Cleveland Cavaliers Need Tyronn Lue
The Cleveland Cavaliers have faced injury adversity and a roster shakeup, and now face uncertainty regarding coach Tyronn Lue’s health.
The most enduring image of Cleveland Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue came moments after his team sealed the 2016 NBA Finals with a third consecutive win after trailing the Golden State Warriors 3-1. As the team celebrated its historic comeback and readied to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy, one camera focused on Lue, who sat on the bench with his face buried in his hands.
— Buddy Grizzard (@BuddyGrizzard) June 20, 2016
The image tells a thousand words about the pressure Lue was under as Cleveland teetered on the brink of elimination for three games. Rather than sharing the euphoria of his players, it seemed that Lue’s emotions centered around the massive weight that had been lifted from his shoulders. Almost two years later, it appears that burden has caught back up with Lue, whose leave of absence for health reasons complicates things for Cleveland with the playoffs just around the corner.
“It’s like losing one of your best players,” said Cavaliers forward LeBron James after Cleveland’s 124-117 win at home over the Milwaukee Bucks on Monday.
Kevin Love returned from a six-week injury absence to post 18 points, seven rebounds and four assists against the Bucks. James likened Lue’s absence to the burden of trying to replace Love’s output while he was unavailable.
“We’ve got to have guys step up, just like guys trying to step up in Kev’s absence,” said James. “We have to do the same as a collective group as long as Ty needs to get himself back healthy.”
There’s optimism that Lue could return before the playoffs, but there’s a great deal of uncertainty given the seriousness of his symptoms, which reportedly included coughing up blood. Lead assistant Larry Drew, a former head coach with the Bucks and Hawks, will handle head coaching responsibilities until Lue is ready to return.
Kyle Korver played under Drew in Atlanta and said he’s confident in his ability to fill in.
“We’d love to have Ty here and healthy,” said Korver after the Bucks win. “Coach Drew has done this for a long time as well. He coached me for a full year in Atlanta. We know he’s fully capable.”
Korver also doubted Drew would introduce any major stylistic changes.
“I think LD’s been Ty’s top assistant for a reason,” said Korver. “They really think a lot alike. They coach very similarly. We miss Ty, but I think the style of what we do is going to be very similar.”
While style and approach should remain unchanged, what could an extended absence for Lue mean for the Cavaliers? Lue cemented his legacy as a leader by keeping the Cavaliers together as they fought back from a 3-1 deficit to the Warriors, but Drew hasn’t had that kind of success as a head coach.
In 2012, the Hawks had a real opportunity to reach the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in Atlanta history. The Hawks faced an aging Boston Celtics squad in the first round. The eighth-seed Philadelphia 76ers awaited in the second round after defeating the top-seeded Chicago Bulls.
After splitting the first two games in Atlanta, the Hawks faced a pivotal Game 3 in Boston with the opportunity to retake home court advantage. Atlanta Journal-Constitution beat writer Michael Cunningham used Synergy Sports to break down every offensive possession for Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo. His conclusion? For three quarters, Rondo did not score a single basket while guarded by Hawks combo guard Kirk Hinrich.
The Hawks traded a package that included a former and a future first-round pick to obtain Hinrich from the Wizards in 2011. But in Game 3, Hinrich failed to score a point despite his effective defense. Apparently feeling the need for an offensive spark, Drew left Hinrich on the bench in the fourth quarter and turned to career journeyman Jannero Pargo.
With Hinrich out of the game, Rondo’s offense came to life as he slashed to the basket at will. Boston opened the fourth with a 13-7 run before Pargo went to the bench and Atlanta closed on a 15-7 run to force overtime. The NBA did not publish net rating data at the time, but we can now see via historical data that the Hawks were outscored by nearly 52 points per 100 possessions in Pargo’s minutes in Game 3. Rather than entrust Atlanta’s season and his own legacy to a player the Hawks traded two first-round picks to obtain, Drew went with Pargo, a career end-of-bench player.
What does this mean for the Cavaliers? It means the team needs to get Lue back. Drew and Lue are both former NBA players who have received mixed reviews as head coaches. But when his legacy was on the line, Lue pushed the right buttons.
For Drew’s part, in his first postgame press conference since Lue’s absence was announced, he remained publicly deferential.
“Coach Lue is the one who makes that decision,” said Drew when asked about lineup combinations. “That’s not my call. We look at a lot of different combinations — whether guys are starting or whether they are coming off the bench — and we assess everything.”
On the critical question of how lineups will be fine-tuned as the Cavaliers prepare for the playoffs, Drew once again emphasized Lue’s active role even as he steps away from the bench.
“I’ll talk to Ty,” said Drew. “He’s got the final say-so. Whatever he wants, then that’s what we’re going to go with. But if he tells me to make a decision, then I’ll have to make the decision.”
With Lue suffering acute symptoms, there’s no way of knowing when he will be ready to step back into the pressure cooker of a leading role for a team with championship aspirations. But the Cavaliers need him and need his steadying influence and instincts. Cleveland is a team that has battled through injuries and a major roster overhaul at the trade deadline. It also faces the pressure of James’ impending free agency decision this summer.
Now, with the playoffs just around the corner, the Cavaliers must endure uncertainty about Lue’s ability to return and lead the team. James has emphasized that Lue’s health overshadows any basketball concerns, but gave his most terse remark when asked about learning that Lue would step away on the same day Cleveland finally got Love back.
“If it’s not one thing, it’s another,” said James. “That was my reaction.”
A Breakout Season for Joe Harris
Brooklyn Nets swingman Joe Harris talks to Basketball Insiders about his second chance with the Nets.
The NBA is all about second chances. Sometimes players need a change of scenery, or a coach who believes in them, or just something different to reach their full potential. They may be cast aside by several teams, but eventually, they often find that right situation that allows them to flourish.
Such was the case for Joe Harris. Originally drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers with the 33rd overall pick in the 2014 draft, Harris rarely saw the court during his time in Cleveland. He averaged about 6.4 minutes per game over the course of about one and a half seasons with the Cavaliers.
During the 2015-16 season, his second in Cleveland, he underwent season-ending foot surgery. Almost immediately after, the Cavaliers traded him to the Orlando Magic in an attempt to cut payroll due to luxury tax penalties. He would never suit up for the Magic as they cut him as soon as they traded for him.
After using the rest of that season to recover from surgery, he would sign with the Brooklyn Nets in the summer of 2016. He had a very strong first season in Brooklyn, but this season he’s truly broken out.
“I think a lot of it has to do with just the right situation in terms of circumstances. It’s a young team where you don’t really have anybody on the team that’s going out and getting 20 a night,” Harris told Basketball Insiders. “It’s a collective effort most nights and it can be any given person depending on the situation. It’s one of those things where we’re real unselfish with the ball. A lot of guys get a lot of good looks, so your production is bound to go up just because of the system now that we’re playing.”
Known primarily as a sharpshooter in college at the University of Virginia as well as his first stop in Cleveland, Harris has started developing more of an all-around game. He’s improved his ability to put the ball on the floor and make plays as well as crashing the glass and playing strong defense.
In a relatively forgettable season record-wise for the Nets, Harris has been one of their bright spots. He’s putting up 10.1 points per game on 47.3 percent shooting from the field while playing 25.4 minutes per game. He’s up to 40.3 percent from the three-point line and he’s pulling down 3.3 rebounds. All of those numbers are career-highs.
“My role, I think, is very similar to the way I would be anywhere that I was playing. I’m a shooter, I help space the floor for guys to facilitate,” Harris told Basketball Insiders. “I’m opportunistic offensively with drives and such. I’m out there to try and space the floor, knock down shots, and then play tough defensively and make sure I’m doing my part in getting defensive rebounds and that sort of stuff.”
Although Harris didn’t play much in Cleveland, he did show glimpses and flashes of the player he has blossomed into in Brooklyn. He saw action in 51 games his rookie year while knocking down 36.9 percent of his three-point attempts.
He also saw action in six playoff games during the Cavaliers’ run to the 2015 Finals. But more importantly, it was the off the court things that Harris kept with him after leaving Cleveland. The valuable guidance passed down to him from the Cavaliers veteran guys. It’s all helped mold him into the indispensable contributor he’s become for the Nets.
“Even though I wasn’t necessarily playing as much, the experience was invaluable just in terms of learning how to be a professional,” Harris told Basketball Insiders. “The approach, the preparation, that sort of stuff. That’s why I learned a lot while I was there. All those good players that have had great, great, and long careers and just being able to kind of individually pick their brains and learn from them.”
When Harris came to Brooklyn two years ago, he initially signed a two-year deal with a team option after the first year. When he turned in a promising 2016-17 season, it was a no-brainer for the Nets to pick up his option. Set to make about $1.5 million this season, Harris’ contract is a steal.
However, he’s headed for unrestricted free agency this upcoming summer. Although he dealt with being a free agent before when he first signed with the Nets, it’s a different situation now. He’s likely going to be one of the most coveted wings on the market. While there’s still a bit more of the regular season left, and free agency still several months away, it’s something Harris has already thought about. If all goes well, Brooklyn is a place he can see himself staying long-term.
“Yeah, it’s one of those things that I’ll worry about that sort of decision when the time comes. But I have really enjoyed my time in Brooklyn,” Harris told Basketball Insiders. “It’s a great organization with a lot of good people, and they try and do stuff the right way. I enjoy being a part of that and trying to kind of rebuild and set a good foundation for where the future of the Brooklyn Nets is.”