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.
NBA AM: Is It Smart To Bet On Yourself In This Market?
Many extension-eligible players opted to bet on themselves and a questionable free agent marketplace next summer.
No Big Surprises On Draft Extensions
The big news yesterday wasn’t a new extension for a 2014 first round draft pick, it was the news that the San Antonio Spurs reached a three-year, $72 million extension with veteran LaMarcus Aldridge.
The news was surprising for a couple of reasons. The biggest being the Spurs had shopped Aldridge in trade scenarios this offseason under the idea that he was a problematic fit for the Spurs.
Ultimately, Aldridge and the Spurs ended up in the same place on his deal. The Spurs were not going to be big free agent players and locking Aldridge in now gives them some security as well as trade leverage later. In Aldridge’s case, his camp saw the marketplace this past summer and all of the mouths that need to be fed in July and realized he wasn’t likely getting more money on the open market come free agency.
One of the things the Spurs found out was that trading a player with a player option is not an easy task as teams that would give up value want to know what comes next, either way. Over the past few years, player options have become almost toxic in trade, mainly because there are two classes of trade partners, one that wants the ending contract and a player for a stretch run in the postseason and teams that want the player for next season. The options make valuing the player sticky at best.
In doing a deal for Aldridge, the Spurs basically lock him into their roster for this season but give themselves a trade chip next summer, if they need it. This was smart for both sides. The Spurs locked in the player and the trade asset, Aldridge locked in money he likely wouldn’t have gotten in the open market.
For those players drafted in the first round of the 2014 NBA Draft, yesterday closed the window on the “Early Extension Period.” While there were talks all the way to the wire on several players, the bulk of the deals that didn’t get done didn’t get close enough to seal the deal.
The Boston Celtics and Marcus Smart frequently talked about an extension, and his camp labeled the talks as getting “close” but ultimately, future luxury tax concerns killed a possible deal before the extension deadline, meaning Smart will hit free agency in July.
The Celtics will have a couple of months to see if Smart continues to evolve before they have to make decisions, and they now know what a deal would take for Smart to sign outright. Given the Celtics tax concerns, there is a window for a team with cap space to poach him in July if they come with the right kind of offer sheet. While the Celtics can obtain the right to match Smart with a $6.53 million qualifying offer, the tax issues won’t go away without a cap dump of a trade. Equally, the Celtics roster is loaded with point guards, so the C’s have the luxury of seeing what unfolds in the next three months before the February 8 trade deadline.
The Orlando Magic and their pair of 2014 draftees, Aaron Gordon and Elfird Payton, talked about extensions, mostly out of courtesy. The Magic would have done deals if it favored the team, but the new front office in Orlando has been open and honest that they are still very much in evaluation mode on the roster and were not going to pay a premium at this point.
The Magic’s reluctance to do a deal wasn’t about valuing either player as both are said to have been very good so far, this preseason. The Magic don’t have a clear-cut direction yet and inking a long-term deal with either would have been counter to their goal of flexibility. Equally, the Magic also know that both players are unlikely to get huge free agent offers unless they blossom this season, which would make matching an easier decision after seeing how they play this season.
Neither player entered the process expecting to reach a deal, so there is no ill-will about not getting an extension. Both players have said publicly and privately they knew they had to earn their next deal and came into camp with that mindset.
The Utah Jazz and guard Rodney Hood engaged on an extension most of the summer. The Jazz are very committed to Hood, but would not commit to a deal at this point for a bunch of reasons, the biggest being they don’t really know what the team is yet. Hood is going to get a big opportunity this year, and the Jazz want to see if he can handle the increased load and stay healthy. Injuries have ravaged the Jazz lately, and they were reluctant to lock in a big number to a player that hasn’t been durable.
Of the bunch, Hood is the most likely to get a deal without the restricted free agent offer sheet process next summer—the Jazz may simply pony up and pay him if he can fill the void they hope he can for the team.
The Milwaukee Bucks and injured forward Jabari Parker did talk about an extension despite him having torn his ACL for the second time. The Bucks looked at the idea of locking Parker in at a value, but ultimately, neither side got close enough for it to be realistic. Parker is expected to return to action sometime in February, meaning he may log enough games for a big deal in July to be realistic, especially if the Bucks are as good as they project to be this year and land home court in the postseason.
The big hurdle for all of the players that did not get an extension is that the free agent marketplace in July does not project to be as robust as it was even last year. A number of agents urged their clients to take the security of money on the table this summer, and many players opted to bet on themselves, which always sounds like a great idea until the reality of restricted free agency sets in.
Nerlens Noel and JaMychal Green were both causalities of a shrinking marketplace this past summer. It will be interesting to see if some of the players that got close this week get less in the open market in July.
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NBA PM: Hornets Rookies May Become Key Contributors
Some key injuries may force Charlotte’s rookies into becoming effective role players earlier than expected, writes James Blancarte.
As the NBA finally gets underway tomorrow evening, the 2017 rookie draft class will get their first taste of regular season action. Teams reliant on young rookie talent might produce an exciting brand of basketball but that rarely translates into a winning formula. Having rookies play a key role for a team hoping to make the playoffs can be a risky endeavor.
Out West, the Los Angeles Lakers are relying on both Lonzo Ball as well as Kyle Kuzma, who may have worked his way into the rotation with his surprising preseason play. However, the Lakers are, at this point, not realistic contenders in the competitive Western Conference. In the East, the Philadelphia 76ers have more realistic playoff hopes. The team is relying on this year’s top overall draft pick, Markelle Fultz, and 2016’s top pick, Ben Simmons, for meaningful production. Although Simmons has been in the league for over a year, he is still classified as a rookie for this season since he didn’t play last season.
The Charlotte Hornets are looking to return to the playoffs after narrowly missing the cut this past season. The team will likely feature not one, but two true rookies as a part of their regular rotation. Like the Lakers, the Hornets feature a highly touted rookie with the talent and poise to contribute right away in Malik Monk. The team also features Dwayne Bacon, a rookie that has flashed scoring potential as well as maturity — key attributes that will allow him to quickly contribute to the team.
Both players will be given the opportunity to contribute as a result of the unfortunate and untimely injury to forward Nicolas Batum. Batum tore a ligament in his left elbow in an October 4 preseason game against the Detroit Pistons. Initial speculation was that the injury would require surgery. However, it was announced on October 10 that surgery would not be necessary, and that he is projected to return in six to eight weeks. Assuming that there are no setbacks in Batum’s recovery, the Hornets will be looking to replace his perimeter scoring, playmaking abilities and perimeter defense. Enter Monk and Bacon.
Monk and Bacon have both shown the ability to score the ball, which is not exactly a common trait in Hornets rookies. Bacon, the 40th pick in the 2017 NBA draft, has made it a point to look for his shot from the outside, averaging 7.8 three-point shots per game while knocking down 33.3 percent of his attempts. As Bacon gains more experience, he presumably will learn how to get cleaner looks at the basket within the flow of the team’s offense. Doing so should help him increase his shooting percentage from beyond the arc, which would turn him into an even more effective contributor for Charlotte.
Bacon spoke to reporters after a recent preseason game against the Boston Celtics. Bacon was placed in the starting lineup and went 4-4 from three-point range in 34 minutes of action.
When asked what are some of the things he wanted to work on, Bacon focused on one end of the court in particular.
“Definitely defense. I’m trying to perfect the defensive side, I want to be one of the best two-way players to ever play the game,” Bacon stated. “I feel like I got the offensive side so just keep getting better on defense, I’ll be fine.”
Lack of consistency and defense are key factors that prevent many rookies from playing and being successful on winning teams right away. Based on Bacon’s size (6-foot-6, 221 pounds with a long wingspan) and physicality, he has the physical tools necessary to play passable defense. Combine that with his ability to score (he led the team in scoring in three of its five preseason games) and the unfortunate injury to Batum, it’s apparent that Bacon will get an opportunity to make the rotation and contribute.
Reliable two-way players on the wing are crucially important, but are not always readily available and are even less common on cheap contracts. The Los Angeles Clippers went through the entire Chris Paul/Blake Griffin era swapping small forwards on a nearly annual basis, struggling to find this kind of contribution from the wing. With little cap flexibility, the Clippers were unable to acquire a forward that could effectively and consistently play both end of the court, which caused issues over the years. As a second round pick, Bacon is set to make $815,615 in his first year. If Bacon is able to contribute at even a league average level, that will be a major boost for the shorthanded Hornets. Bacon is smart to focus on improving as a defender as Steve Clifford is a defensive-minded coach who will leave talented players on the bench if they aren’t making a positive impact on the defensive end of the court.
In fact, Clifford offered some strong simultaneous praise and criticism of Monk when it came to his scoring and defense.
“He can score, he can score, he can score [speaking of Monk],” Clifford stated. “I think his defense will come because he’s willing, he’s a good guy. I think that being a good player is very important to him.”
It’s apparent in Clifford’s comment that he values scoring, but that defense is also extremely important and essential to any player that wants to be a “good player.”
“He knows and understands that the way he has played in the past [in college], he can’t play in this league if he wants to be a good player,” Clifford said about Monk. “The big thing is, I told him, when people say, ‘he’s a talented offensive player’ that is a lot different than somebody saying, ‘he’s a talented NBA player.’”
Point guard Michael Carter-Williams also suffered an injury (bone bruise in his left knee), which received less attention than Batum’s injury. While Carter-Williams is not the same caliber of player as Batum, the Hornets are alarmingly thing at backup point guard. Without Carter-Williams, the team was going to lean on Batum to act as a playmaker more than he has in the past, which would have, at least in part, addressed the lack of an established backup point guard. But with Batum sidelined, Coach Clifford has given Monk time at the point guard position. If Monk proves capable of playing both guard positions and playing alongside Walker, that could go a long way towards mitigating the loss of Batum and Carter-Williams. It’s not reasonable to expect Monk (or Bacon) to produce as consistently as a seasoned veteran, but having them contribute at a league average level would constitute a big win for a Charlotte team with serious playoff aspirations.
Teams Refuse To Back Down To Stacked Warriors
Golden State got better over the summer, but that didn’t stop others from trying to stop them from repeating as champions
Opening week is finally upon us.
Appropriately enough, the new-look Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics will kick off the 2017-18 NBA season tomorrow night, as will the defending champion Golden State Warriors when they host the improved Houston Rockets.
The clear-cut favorites to win the league title are the ones who have done so two out of the past three years, and rightfully so. Warriors general manager Bob Myers has done a masterful job of assembling a juggernaut. They’ve kept their insanely talented core intact and—aside from Ian Clark and Matt Barnes—haven’t lost any of their key bench pieces to free agency.
In fact, Golden State has added to that dangerous second unit. Jordan Bell was bought from the Chicago Bulls and will bring another Draymond Green-esque impact almost immediately. Nick Young and Omri Casspi were brought in to fill the void of backup wings, which is an improvement at the position anyway. With the same roster as last year and better reserves to give the starters a breather, there’s no reason Steve Kerr and company can’t repeat if they stay healthy.
Knowing what the Warriors are capable of and how well they are set up to truly be a dynasty, there are some league executives out there who are hesitant to make significant moves that could potentially flop against such a powerhouse.
ESPN’s Zach Lowe reported back in middle June that select teams don’t want to risk a big play because of it. What that basically translates into is: We’re throwing in the white towel until that ball club disbands.
But luckily for fans and for parity’s sake, there was a handful of general managers that refused to take that path. Just looking down the list in the Western Conference, there were organizations that swung for the fences this summer.
The aforementioned Rockets are one of them.Daryl Morey pieced together multiple trades to allow him to land Chris Paul to play next to James Harden and form a dynamic backcourt tandem. Houston also signed a pair of veteran two-way players in Luc Mbah a Moute and P.J. Tucker to provide depth and defense.
What about the Oklahoma City Thunder? Just when we thought Russell Westbrook’s MVP season was enough to maybe build off, the unthinkable happened. Sam Presti unloaded Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis to Indiana after just one season with the team to add All-Star forward Paul George, who is in a contract year.
That blockbuster move was followed up with another two months later, as Presti decided to deal fan favorite Enes Kanter and Doug McDermott to the Knicks in exchange for Carmelo Anthony. The creation of a Westbrook-George-Anthony big three forms an elite trio that is determined to prove championship worthiness.
Top tier Eastern Conference counterparts did their due diligence as well. The Cavaliers and Celtics are essentially rivals and became trade partners in an attempt to re-tool their respective rosters, in addition to gaining important pieces outside of that.
Boston inked Gordon Hayward to a maximum contract to create a bolstered starting unit alongside Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, and Al Horford until madness happened.
Firstly, Bradley got moved in a swap with the Detroit Pistons for Marcus Morris to address the hole at power forward. After that—with reports of Kyrie Irving’s unhappiness in Cleveland swirling around the basketball universe—Celtics general manager Danny Ainge acted immediately and swung a deal for the All-Star point guard in exchange for his All-Star point guard, a vital member of his team in Jae Crowder and the coveted Brooklyn Nets first-round pick.
It’s almost a brand new squad, but Brad Stevens has a versatile group to work with to try and finally dethrone the conference champions of the last three years.
As for the East’s cream of the crop, the Cavaliers moves are well known because wherever LeBron James goes the spotlight follows. Thomas and Crowder were huge gets for first-time general manager Koby Altman, especially after the outside growing doubt in the franchise’s front office. The rookie executive was also instrumental in signing Derrick Rose, Jeff Green, and Dwyane Wade to veteran minimum contracts.
Rose and Green have plenty of motivation because their critics think they’re washed up, meaning Tyronn Lue won’t have to give them a reason to play their hearts out. Wade simply made the decision to come to Cleveland because he can play with his best friend and potentially add to his collection of championship rings.
Ante Zizic, Cedi Osman, and Jose Calderon are also now a part of the roster that all-of-a-sudden is now deep at almost every position. It’s a new flavor for a team that may have only one year left to compete for a title with James’ pending free agency next summer.
Those four teams feel great about their chances to get in the way of the Warriors. It doesn’t stop there though. The West in general loaded up.
The Minnesota Timberwolves executed the first big move of the year when they traded for Jimmy Butler. The Denver Nuggets signed Paul Millsap to provide leadership and a veteran voice in a young locker room full of talent. The San Antonio Spurs lost Jonathan Simmons but brought in a very capable Rudy Gay under-the-radar as Kawhi Leonard’s backup.
Nobody expected the league to completely fold and hand Golden State another championship, but it was surprising (and relieving) to see so many teams have the fortitude to pull off the moves that they did. There was definitely risk involved for some of them, however, one thing is for certain.
The Warriors will not have a cakewalk to the NBA Finals. They will have to go through a rigorous set of teams in the West throughout the regular season and the playoffs.
If any team is up to the task, it’s Golden State. But we’ll see how it plays out starting about 24 hours from now.
See you at tip-off.