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Brooklyn Nets 2018-19 NBA Season Preview

The Brooklyn Nets have been under a slow rebuild for the last couple of seasons. Is this finally the year they can do something with all their young talent? Basketball Insiders takes a deep dive into the nets in this 2018-19 NBA Season Preview.

Basketball Insiders

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Following another season full of injuries, under-the-radar emergences and late-game losses, the Brooklyn Nets are nearly impossible to nail down.

Since the offseason began in July, the Nets have managed to move Timofey Mozgov’s albatross contract, draft two intriguing European prospects and add short-term pieces like Shabazz Napier and Ed Davis to the puzzle. Jeremy Lin, formerly presumed to be the next franchise point guard, was traded to Atlanta in a series of moves that brought Kenneth Faried and a protected first-round pick back in return. In bursts, the Nets have shown signs of life in recent years but that pesky injury bug has always derailed their efforts before too long.

While the roster and front office have both tentatively looked toward a playoff push this season, the Nets regained control of their own first-round draft pick for the first time in five years. Beyond that, Brooklyn has amassed a hearty collection of developing youngsters but, at this point, they’re still waiting for one of them to break out. Supplemented by veterans on low-cost deals — Jared Dudley and Treveon Graham included — the Nets may have the right mix of athleticism and experience to make some noise in the weaker conference.

To kick things off, here’s where the Basketball Insiders team projects the Nets to finish during the 2018-19 campaign.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

It’s much of the same moving forward for the Nets as the front office continues its workmanlike efforts to get out from under the massive hole the previous regime dug for this franchise. In their final year without their own first-round pick, the Nets once again used their open cap space to eat some dead money and pick up a future asset, this time absorbing Kenneth Faried and Darrell Arthur from the Nuggets in exchange for a 2019 first-rounder and a 2020 second. On the court, the Nets will be a similarly feisty but under-talented group – they’ll be looking for major court time and development from guys like D’Angelo Russell, Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen, with vets like Jared Dudley and Faried around to help mentor. They have enough depth that this could be a team that threatens for a lower playoff seed if the East is really as thin as it might seem to be, though whether that should be the ultimate priority at this point is debatable.

4th Place – Atlantic Division

– Ben Dowsett

The Nets are FREE! That should be the headline of their season. They finally control their own destiny again, which still leaves them as a mediocre team at best, but still. All credit should go to Sean Marks and Kenny Atkinson for building a good foundation in such a bleak situation. The Nets had yet another subtly brilliant off-season, acquiring more assets while simultaneously getting out of paying long-term cash. With the solid group of veterans, they have to surround their solid group of young talent, the playoffs are a longshot, but not out of the question.

4th Place – Atlantic Division

– Matt John

Kenny Atkinson’s work with these Nets since the day he stepped foot in the organization’s headquarters has been nothing short of superb. He has the team believing in itself. His players are getting opportunities that they have earned and are flourishing because of it. Spencer Dinwiddie played spoiler almost all season long during clutch moments. D’Angelo Russell will be at full health to start the year and frontcourt players such as Caris LeVert and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson will keep improving as their careers become more and more established at this level. Unfortunately for Brooklyn, the Atlantic is no walk in the park.

4th Place – Atlantic Division

– Spencer Davies

The Brooklyn Nets didn’t land any superstars this offseason, but I think they arguably maximized their resources better than any other team this summer. The Nets made several moves to add talent while maintaining future flexibility. Among other moves, the Nets traded Timofey Mozgov, the rights to Hamidou Diallo (45th pick in this year’s draft), a 2021 second-rounder and $5 million to the Charlotte Hornets for Dwight Howard. They also moved Jeremy Lin’s contract, signed Shabazz Napier to a partially-guaranteed two-year $3,787,723 contract, signed Ed Davis to a one-year $4.4 million contract and signed Joe Harris to a two-year $16 million contract. These are some solid moves and we haven’t even discussed some other deals that landed the team some additional draft assets. Brooklyn also drafted Dzanan Musa and Rodions Kurucs. Long story short, the Nets made creative moves that helped to add talent to the roster and maintain the team’s future cap flexibility. This Nets team is far from undoing the damage from the last regime but they are certainly trending in the right direction.

4th Place – Atlantic Division

– Jesse Blancarte

Rebuilding is a long and brutal process, but after years of trying to dig out from past mistakes, the Brooklyn Nets finally look like a team ready to do something. The roster has the right mix of veterans and young talent, they have a great head coach and if anyone on the roster pops into legit star status, the Nets could be a post-season team. If anything, the Nets will be scrappy, but in reality, they are likely the best kept secret in the East. Don’t be surprised if they win 40 or more games this year.

3rd Place – Atlantic Division

– Steve Kyler

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: D’Angelo Russell

It’s September, which means it’s officially time to write about Russell and his potential to become a superstar once again. After two turbulent campaigns with Los Angeles, Russell joined the Nets last offseason as the presumed centerpiece on a roster full of secondary options. Russell dropped 20-plus points in six of the Nets’ first 12 contests, but he underwent knee surgery in November, missed 32 games and then struggled to find that electric consistency in his return. Despite all that, there are plenty of reasons to be excited about Russell and he represents Brooklyn’s best chance of taking the next step as a franchise.

Heading into his fourth professional season, Russell is just 22 years old and often showcases the skills of an offensive juggernaut. Through 191 games, Russell has hit three or more three-pointers on 50 separate occasions already, even hitting career-best averages in the rebound (3.9) and assist (5.2) departments in 2017-18. With the aforementioned Lin out of the picture for good, the Nets hope he’ll lead a formidable 1-2 backcourt punch alongside Spencer Dinwiddie.

Ultimately though, Brooklyn will go as far as Russell takes them.

Top Defensive Player: Rondae Hollis-Jefferson

For the Nets’ best defender, it’s easily Hollis-Jefferson — a long, hard-working 6-foot-7 forward that can practically guard four positions on the floor. Although Hollis-Jefferson’s offensive game improved considerably last season, the longest-tenured Nets’ biggest benefit is offering head coach Kenny Atkinson loads of positional flexibility. Hollis-Jefferson can guard faster opposition, switch admirably in the pick-and-roll and does a fine job of defending the perimeter, a trio of skills that make him the Nets’ poster child for versatility. His determined energy and ball-hawking nature have deservedly made Hollis-Jefferson a mainstay in Brooklyn’s crunch-time lineups since he was drafted in 2015.

Hollis-Jefferson is up for restricted free agency next July, so expect more of his nightmare-creating defense and small-ball athleticism all year long.

Top Playmaker: Jarrett Allen

Last September, it was fair to assume that the raw rookie might spend most of his year in the G-League — instead, Allen quickly became one of the league’s most interesting projects. The Nets started Allen off slowly, often using him in low-risk chances behind Tyler Zeller and Mozgov. But once he was truly unleashed, it was quite the introduction to the high-flying, shot-blocking 20-year-old. Truthfully, Allen is Brooklyn’s best playmaker because, well, he simply makes stuff happen, both on offense and defense. By all means, this is a slightly-altered twist on the normal connotation of a playmaker — but he literally just makes plays, it’s that easy.

From throwing down thunderous dunks to popping off the pick-and-roll or even smashing away a weak-side block, the Nets played so much better deploying Allen as the starting center. Although Russell is the better scorer, Dinwiddie the better passer, Allen Crabbe the better shooter and so on and so forth, there’s something magnetic about Allen. It could be his 58.9 percent tally from the field or his uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time — but the court seems to open up for everybody when Allen is on the floor.

In some cases, there’s no better definition of a playmaker.

Top Clutch Player: Spencer Dinwiddie

The recent third-place finisher for Most Improved Player has patiently waited his turn to be mentioned in a superlative category — admittedly, there’s an argument for Dinwiddie all over the place here. Even if Russell inches him out in overall offensive firepower, Dinwiddie definitively deserves the title of the Nets’ most clutch, as he proved periodically last year. Beyond saving the season after Lin and Russell went down, Dinwiddie thrived and lived for the fourth quarter’s biggest moments by hitting a multitude of tough crunch-time buckets.

For much of the year, Dinwiddie went toe-to-toe against the likes of C.J. McCollum and Russell Westbrook for game-tying or go-ahead shots in the final minute. At a fraction of the cost, Dinwiddie nearly carried the Nets through another frustrating season. Whether he was fearlessly bouncing off seven-footers in the paint or launching away from behind the arc, there’s no question that Dinwiddie is clutch — but what does he have in store for the encore?

The Unheralded Player: Kenneth Faried

At long last, Faried has been freed.

Following his breakout campaign way back in 2012-13 — 11.5 points and 9.2 rebounds per game — Faried has seen his court opportunities decrease almost every year since, even falling to a paltry 14.4 minutes last season. Thanks to the emergence of Nikola Jokic and the recent addition of Paul Millsap, it’s no wonder that Faried had dropped out of the rotation — but now, he’s back in a golden situation. Faried, of course, is a somewhat limited player. He’s attempted 20 three-pointers (and made only two of them) and over his seven-year career, while 87.9 percent of his shots have come within 10 feet of the rim.

But for what he lacks in range, Faried makes up for it by being an absolute menace and a pest in the paint. Even during his rotation-shortened 2016-17 season, Faried managed to pull down nine or more rebounds in 25 games. The player that came closest to reaching that total for the Nets last year was DeMarre Carroll at 19. Generally speaking, if Faried gets his minutes, he’s a near-lock to rebound at an above average rate. For a team that struggled to do exactly that in crucial moments all last season, Faried should bounce back in a big way in Brooklyn.

Best New Addition: Ed Davis

Similarly to Faried, the newly-signed Davis fills a massive hole for the Nets in the frontcourt. He’s a strong rim protector — in Portland, opponents shot 43.6 percent against Davis in 2017-18, the best mark on the roster — and a steady rebounder. Supporters of the Trail Blazers were sorely disappointed when management let Davis walk this offseason, but their loss is most clearly the Nets’ gain. Quincy Acy, Timofey Mozgov, Jahlil Okafor and Dante Cunningham have all been moved on from, so Davis immediately becomes the first big off the bench.

He’ll presumably spend most of his minutes backing up Allen, but he’s got the versatility to spell Hollis-Jefferson and Carroll at power forward too. Davis won’t be the Nets’ long sought-after answer as a stretch four, but he’s excelled in every high-energy role he’s been handed since he joined the NBA in 2010. Due to his fantastic fit and impending opportunity, this could be a career-best campaign for Davis in black and white.

– Ben Nadeau

WHO WE LIKE

1. Sean Marks

For the second offseason running, general manager Sean Marks takes the top spot here — and why wouldn’t he? With the Nets still firmly looking toward free agency in 2019, Marks executed the rebuilding grand slam this summer. Not only did he acquire future draft assets, but Marks shed one the NBA’s worst contracts, unclogged positional jams and addressed the roster’s biggest weaknesses — all without taking on major salary commitments past this upcoming season.

To top it all off, Marks selected two highly-rated European prospects in Džanan Musa and Rodions Kurucs back in June’s draft. Although both rookies are far off from contributing on a nightly basis as they stand, Marks has quietly put together an assortment of prospects while replenishing picks and looking toward the future.

Under Marks, the Nets are in safe and sound hands, finally.

2. Caris LeVert

Alongside Dinwiddie, LeVert was one of the Nets that dutifully saved the sinking ship behind those crushing injuries at point guard. Thrown into the deep end, LeVert thrived as a playmaker and court general, upping his assists average from 1.9 to 4.2 almost overnight. In December, LeVert tossed out a career-best 11 assists to go with 12 points and five rebounds. Even better, the third-year professional made two or more three-pointers on 27 occasions, proving that some important strides of improvement are already here.

Even if he comes off the bench below Crabbe or Carroll, LeVert seemingly makes everyone around him better, regardless of the role he’s in that night — so expect big things from the flexible utility man in 2018-19.

3. Džanan Musa

On the topic of their rookies, Musa assuredly looks like he’s worth the excitement — maybe not in 2018, but in the very near future. Following Luka Dončić, Musa entered the NBA Draft as the most captivating overseas scorer and the Nets were happy to scoop him up at No. 29 overall. Musa himself believes he could play anywhere in the frontcourt — even at point guard — and at 6-foot-9, that’s a tasty proposition for Atkinson.

In April, Musa tallied 36 points, 10 assists and eight rebounds on 5-for-7 from three-point range for KK Cedevita off the bench — exhibiting the type of all-around game he may eventually possess. As of now, Musa will likely get spot minutes to spell Joe Harris and Carroll at small forward. Nevertheless, the Nets will need to be patient with Musa as he must get bigger and stronger before he can frequently contribute at the highest level. Either way, Musa is only 19 years old, the seventh-youngest player in the NBA this season.

4. Allen Crabbe

The acquisition of Crabbe last year came paired mixed feelings and his slow start didn’t convince many doubters either. But after settling in, Crabbe averaged career-highs almost across the board — in points, rebounds, three-pointers, assists and minutes — and launched from deep an astonishing 7.1 attempts per game, 13th-most in the entire league. As most sharpshooters go, when Crabbe is locked in, he’s a game-changer without hesitation, but he’ll need to find more consistency moving forward.

When Crabbe hit three or more three-pointers, the Nets went 14-18, a far cry from their 5-16 record when he made just one or zero from deep. For a team that jacked up the second-most three-pointers in 2017-18 — and registered a lukewarm 20th-ranked percentage on them — it’s evident that Crabbe will be a key cog in Brooklyn’s offense for the foreseeable future.

5. Joe Harris

Last, but definitely not least, is Harris, the Nets’ first official success story in the new regime. Brooklyn picked him off the scrap heap in 2016, but Harris fast became one of the team’s best shooters and defenders — eventually making him an asset they badly wanted to re-sign this summer. Harris’ 41.9 percent clip from three tied him for 16th-best in the NBA and he functioned side-by-side with Carroll as the Nets’ most reliable two-way players throughout 2017-18.

But given the Nets’ current status in purgatory, it was fair to wonder if Harris would take his renewed career and head to a contender. In lieu of that, Harris signed a two-year deal worth $16 million to stick around for a few extra attempts. As Brooklyn’s modern-looking offense gets further fleshed out and refined, there’s a fair chance that Harris will only continue to rise.

– Ben Nadeau

STRENGTHS

Everybody knows that the Nets’ biggest strengths lie within their three-point prowess. It’s not hyperbole to say that Brooklyn lived and died by the three in 2017-18 and it’s unlikely to change at this stage. However, they’ve now got the personnel to do so, so their nightly consistency simply needs to catch up to their fire-rate. But instead of regurgitating those statistics again, let’s look at another potential strength: the Nets’ positional flexibility.

All their point guards can play off-ball at the two, a group that now includes Shabazz Napier. Elsewhere, Musa believes he can handle those responsibilities and LeVert proved he could for much of the previous campaign. At 6-foot-5, Graham can guard multiple positions, a skill set that Carroll and Hollis-Jefferson both filled last season to great success. The duo of Faried and Davis give the Nets have two capable options backing up Allen, while both could play power forward when Carroll or Hollis-Jefferson slide up a position.

Given Brooklyn’s penchant for fast, three-point launching offensive sets, they’ll need their players to wear many different hats all year — for once, they might have the roster to pull it off.

– Ben Nadeau

WEAKNESSES

It’s a sore subject in Brooklyn, but they’re another below average defense unit heading into 2018-19. The good news is that they’re trying and incrementally improving. The Nets have learned to defend the three-point line decently under Atkinson, but have lacked a second rim protector like Allen until now. Davis gives the Nets a sorely-needed upgrade in rim protection and Faried will help to ease any lingering rebound concerns.

More or less, the Nets have effectively addressed solutions for their most glaring weaknesses — all the same, there’s still a giant part missing: a superstar.

Enhanced team defense and three-point shooting are great, but until the Nets find a bonafide star to carry them through difficult, tight contests, this will remain their middling fate. Naturally, they hope to have a budding star in Russell already, but LeVert and Allen have both shown promising flashes in addition. Conclusively, the Nets are stuck in the 9th/10th/11th range as long as their roster is a compilation of second and third options, sadly.

– Ben Nadeau

THE BURNING QUESTION

The Nets can’t actually make the playoffs… right? (Version 2.0)

So here we are again, wondering the Nets could make a playoff push in the Eastern Conference. Here are the cliff notes summary in full: Brooklyn plays in the weaker conference, they are healthy (for now) and their young core is another year wiser. Thus far, Atkinson and Marks have steered their ship elegantly in the right direction, but it’ll be up to the players to finally put it all together.

For now, it’d be reasonable to say that the Nets have an early leg up on the Atlanta Hawks, Orlando Magic and, depending on how the Kristaps Porzingis situation unfolds in a few months, the New York Knicks. Unfortunately, that’s not a strong enough case to put the Nets as a definite playoff contender just yet — but it’s feasible to expect that they’ll hang around 9th or 10th place at the very least.

On the other hand, if D’Angelo Russell evolves into the star-caliber player he’s capable of becoming, then all bets would certainly be off.

– Ben Nadeau

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NBA

NBA Daily: The Importance of the Right Situation

D’Angelo Russell’s breakthrough this season has made some question the Lakers’ choice to trade him. Matt John explains why it was necessary for both sides.

Matt John

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In what could be the ultimate textbook example of poetic justice, D’Angelo Russell and the Brooklyn Nets eliminated the Los Angeles Lakers from playoff contention last Friday.

Russell’s 22 points and 13 assists played a vital role in Brooklyn’s victory over Los Angeles and made for yet another great output in a long line of impressive stat lines by Russell’s name. The former second overall pick is making a strong case for Most Improved Player this season, which should be fetching him plenty of money when he hits the market this summer.

His most recent performance in LA has brought up a question that’s been asked pretty much since his rise to stardom this season: Did the Lakers make a mistake when they traded Russell to the Nets?

The way he’s been playing, it sure looks like it. Russell deservedly made his first All-Star team this season, and at only 23 years old, there’s no telling how many more he’ll make. The strides he’s made as a player also could have really come in handy for what’s been a trainwreck of a season for the Lakers.

Looking at what he’s been able to do, trading Russell to Brooklyn looks to have been ill-advised on both Magic Johnson’s and Rob Pelinka’s part. However, people need to look past the hindsight bias with this trade.

Nobody has ever denied D’Angelo’s talent since he entered the NBA. What has always remained up in the air was whether he had the maturity to reach his ceiling. We’ve seen plenty of players over the years who had the talent to be something special that never put it together because their own hubris got in the way.

Names like Michael Beasley, Andrew Bynum and Eddy Curry come to mind. Early on in his career, Russell showed some red flags that he would become the NBA’s latest waste of talent.

First, there was that little cell phone incident with Nick Young. Then, his first coach Byron Scott outright questioned his work ethic as a player after Russell’s rookie season. Finally, when Magic Johnson and co. traded him to Brooklyn, Johnson praised D’Angelo’s skills but insinuated that he wasn’t a leader.

If Russell was going to reach his potential in the NBA, it seemed abundantly clear that wasn’t going to happen in Los Angeles. Plus, no matter what you think of how this season went for the Lakers, it’s not like Kyle Kuzma and opening up a ton of cap room to sign LeBron was exactly a bad return for him.

Of course things are different now.

After an injury-plagued first season in Brooklyn, Russell is averaging career highs in virtually every single category. He hasn’t just been good. He has at times looked completely unguardable.

It seems he’s a new man. This new D’Angelo Russell appears to not have gotten to where he is this season without a little help. Just a few days ago on Twitter, Russell thanked the veterans on the Nets for all that they’ve done for him this season.

This indicates that a fair share of Russell’s success came from being around the right people. Also, there’s nothing that motivates a young player than to prove the doubters wrong. When the team that drafted you second overall decides you’re not good enough for them because they think you’re not leadership material, that’s enough motivation to push a player to new heights.

It’s clear that Brooklyn’s environment was more suitable for D’Angelo Russell than Los Angeles. That’s not to say that Brooklyn is better than Los Angeles. It was just better in Russell’s case.

What’s funny about D’Angelo’s story is that it is almost completely identical to Victor Oladipo’s last season.

Much like Russell, Oladipo was selected second overall in his draft, his original team gave up on him, was extremely motivated by doubters and eventually found his stride in his fifth season to become an unlikely star.

Finally, because of his unexpected rise to the top, many question why Orlando – keep in mind, not Oklahoma City – gave up on him so early. It was simple. Even though he had demonstrated immense talent, ‘Dipo did not live up to the expectations that they had set for him.

More importantly, Victor needed the necessary stimuli to get to where he is. Remember how many people said that his trade to Indiana for Paul George would go down as one of the worst deals in NBA history? Thanks to his one year of learning under Russell Westbrook’s tutelage, Oladipo did everything in his power to prove them all wrong. There’s no guarantee that the same would have happened had he stayed with the Magic, much like there’s no guarantee that Russell would have achieved the same success had he stayed with the Lakers.

In the end, neither Orlando or Los Angeles was necessarily wrong to trade their former high lottery picks because neither was the right fit. Both Oladipo and Russell are as good as they are today because they found the best situations for them to thrive.

Now, where both Orlando and Los Angeles went wrong is not that they traded those guys, but what they traded them for. The Magic received Serge Ibaka, who was an odd acquisition and was then traded mid-season, and the Lakers basically used Russell to rid themselves of the egregious error that was Timofey Mozgov’s contract.

There is some caution to D’Angelo’s story. Just because it appears that Russell has gotten past his internal issues this season does not mean that they are permanently gone. The fact that he’s played his best basketball just as he enters free agency may be more than just coincidental.

This writer hopes that Russell’s not doing all of this just for long-term financial security and nothing else, but cases like those have happened plenty of times that it should be brought up as a possibility. If it turns out he’s playing for his legacy more than anything else, then that’s great for both him and the Nets.

It wasn’t too long ago that both Oladipo and Russell were regarded as disappointments given where they were taken in their respective drafts. Because both of their careers took turns that proved to be beneficial, they’re now living up to their hype. It’s not the traditional path to stardom, but it’s still a path nonetheless.

So, after both Oladipo’s and Russell’s success stories, it makes you wonder who will be the next player to follow in their footsteps.

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NBA Daily: Finding Julius Randle A Permanent Home

Julius Randle will be highly sought-after this offseason following his career-year in New Orleans — but where might the talented power forward end up?

Ben Nadeau

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There will be no buried lede this time: Julius Randle is about to make some serious bank this summer.

And without hesitation, he certainly deserves it.

Randle’s road to this advantageous position has been anything but a straight line, first losing his entire rookie season to a broken leg before falling in-and-out of the Los Angeles Lakers’ rotation for the following three seasons. After the acquisition of LeBron James brought the signings of JaVale McGee, Lance Stephenson and Michael Beasley, the hulking forward had no choice but to bet on himself. Randle, 24, asked the Lakers to renounce his rights, wherein he signed a two-year deal worth $18 million with the New Orleans Pelicans.

At the time, it was reported that Randle turned down more lucrative offers to take New Orleans’ — now, he’s set to cash in on his slow burn approach.

See, that second year, wisely, came loaded with a player option. To Randle, he was willing to forgo the long-term security and pay for a re-do at free agency in 2019, should his on-court growth warrant such a decision. Evidently, that threshold has been met and more. In the power forward’s latest career-year rendition, he’s averaged 21 points, 8.7 rebounds, 3.1 assists on 52.3 percent from three-point range. All in all, Randle has improved in every successive season so far — but 2018-19 has quickly become his magnum opus.

Almost assuredly, Randle will opt out this offseason and sign the newer, bigger and better contract he’s rightfully earned.

While the Lakers certainly deserve scrutiny for their decision to focus on elsewhere — although the Nets’ D’Angelo Russell would like a word on that front too — this is not that piece. Instead, one of the other 29 teams is set to sign their forward of the future, benefiting immensely from Los Angeles’ ultimate impatience. Heading into July, the world may as well be Randle’s oyster — but where might his best fit be?

This, of course, is a messy exercise. There are a handful of franchises that either will be mostly capped out — Boston, Washington, Miami, Oklahoma City, etc — or don’t have a pressing need to add another power forward to the roster — Sacramento, Indiana, Chicago, Dallas, etc. In return, that leaves just about four perfect landing spots for Randle this summer.

Los Angeles Clippers

With the Clippers, their inclusion comes with the obvious whopping caveat: Should they strikeout during their foray into star-chasing free agency, adding Randle would be a more-than-acceptable pivot. As of late, Los Angeles has done a remarkable job of competing without a top-tier star in the crowded Western Conference, particularly so after Tobias Harris’ departure at the trade deadline. If Leonard, the Clippers’ reported main target in free agency, stays put in Toronto or is lured to the opposite locker room within the Staples Center, Randle is a budding option with All-Star potential. Randle would make the Clippers actively better without signing up for another season of wistfully dreaming of a big-time free agent.

In 2018-19, Los Angeles has scored 50.9 points in the paint per game, seventh-most in the NBA. One of the few teams ahead of them? Naturally, the Pelicans at 58.4 are the top dog in that realm and although Anthony Davis certainly boosts their average, Randle’s consistency has been a steady presence under the rim.

Most importantly, Randle would fill a long-term need on the roster. Future restricted free agent Ivica Zubac has remained promising since his arrival from the Lakers in February, but his sample size is still small, all things considered. While Patrick Beverley and Danilo Gallinari have performed dutifully, they’ll both be free agents and on the wrong side of 30 in 2020. Of note, Los Angeles’ most coveted assets — other than that unprotected 2021 HEAT pick — are all guards: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jerome Robinson and Landry Shamet.

Tossing Randle into that mix, especially next to the defensive-minded Harrell, would make for a mobile yin-and-yang pairing down low. Then flanked by those aforementioned young sharpshooters and you’ve got a future worth getting excited about, even without a superstar signing.

Utah Jazz

Heading into April, Utah appears to be flying under the radar once again — and that’s for a few reasons. The Jazz will reach the postseason for a third consecutive season, they’ve found their prodigal centerpiece in Donovan Mitchell and, top to bottom, the roster is well-built already. Elsewhere, Rudy Gobert is in the midst of another potential Defensive Player of the Year campaign, Joe Ingles is a two-way standout and the roster has blossomed with head coach Quin Snyder at the helm — Randle, however, might just be the lottery ticket worth buying. Should the Jazz let Ricky Rubio walk and then waive the non-guaranteed $16.9 million left on Derrick Favors’ deal, the franchise would suddenly have top-tier money to spend.

Similarly to the Clippers, Utah is not often considered a marquee free agent destination — but those times, they are a-changin’. Still, not landing Klay Thompson or Kevin Durant wouldn’t a nightmare scenario as it would clear the runway for Randle. Although the Jazz remain one of the league’s premier defensive units, their scoring efforts are often middling and an offensive rating of 109.4 (15th) reflects that. If anything, Randle is a certified bucket-getter and Utah can lean rather heavily on Mitchell to make things happen. The 6-foot-9 big man has already thrived next to one elite rim-protecting center, but teaming him up with two other up-and-coming superstars is a tantalizing thought exercise.

Brooklyn Nets

The Nets themselves are said to be chasing a white whale the offseason — the likes of Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard continue to pop up — but those free agent fever-dreams still seem at least an offseason away. In recent years, the Nets have become an incredibly successful island of misfits — so signing Randle would be the blissful cherry on top of it all. Understandably, Randle and Russell are buddies from their Lakers days and Brooklyn has an absolutely glaring need at power forward. Ideally, Randle would be a stretch option already — 0.9 made three-pointers per game on 33.3 percent, a career-best mark — but the Nets have created a strong portfolio of development since bringing head coach Kenny Atkinson on in 2016. In fact, Brook Lopez — another one of Randle’s forgotten teammates last season — turned into a three-point maestro almost overnight, after seemingly ignoring the line for the first eight years of his career.

If they can transform Joe Harris from a scrap heap shooter to a three-point champion in two years, the Nets can certainly get Randle to hit at least the league average from deep.

Regardless, the Nets have hit home runs with nearly every signing in the Sean Marks era — but it’s time to get serious. Now all they need is a bullish, reliable power forward to wrap their painful three-year rebuild together with a neat bow. Currently, veteran extraordinaire DeMarre Carroll is out of a contract this summer, while Rondae Hollis-Jefferson will hit restricted free agency. Rodions Kurucs, energetic as he may be, has not proven to be the long-term answer in the frontcourt and the speedy rookie seems better suited to riveting one-man fastbreaks. With Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris, Caris LeVert and Russell holding down the guard spots and Jarrett Allen coming into his own at center, the Nets shouldn’t be afraid to chase Randle’s looming athletic stature (and his even brighter potential) come July.

New Orleans Pelicans

Last but not least, we’d be remiss not to mention the Pelicans.

This is an issue most certainly complicated by the status of Anthony Davis — but if you’re hitting the reset button on a perennially disappointing franchise, Randle’s not a bad place to start from scratch.

Davis’ midseason trade request managed to torpedo both New Orleans and Los Angeles’ playoff hopes rather remarkably — but Randle, to his credit, has just kept on trucking. Last week, Randle exploded in a loss to Portland, dropping a career-high 45 points, plus 11 rebounds and six assists. Long before this drama even started, Randle even managed to notch his first-ever triple-double during a November victory over San Antonio. At just 24 years old, that’s undoubtedly something worth betting on.

With Davis’ presumed exit already on the cards — and Nikola Mirotic’s swift departure at the trade deadline — Randle is suddenly the Pelicans’ most talented frontcourt asset, bar none. Even if they don’t recoup complete value for Davis, they’ll have the money to spend big in free agency this summertime. Growing by the game, Randle’s self-gamble has paid off in a remarkable way as he’s gone from castaway to a legitimate near-max contract contender in the span of a year.

And he did all that in New Orleans.

Needless to say, Randle should be a priority for the rebuilding Pelicans the moment he (presumably) opts out. This time, however, the power forward won’t come so cheaply. After some career-scarring bumps and bruises along the way, Randle has made good on his effortless potential — finally, he’ll get to reap what he’s sown. In October, Randle will head into his sixth NBA season and at long last, wherever he may be, he’ll finally have a place to call home.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Fixing the Chicago Bulls

Shane Rhodes continues Basketball Insiders’ “Fixing” series with a breakdown of the Chicago Bulls.

Shane Rhodes

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With some 10-odd games left in the 2018-19 NBA regular season, Basketball Insiders has begun its annual “Fixing” series. So far, we have covered the Cleveland Cavaliers and New York Knicks. Today, we’ll be looking at the Chicago Bulls.

It’s been nearly two years since Chicago kicked off their rebuild with the draft-night trade of Jimmy Butler. In the almost two seasons since, the Bulls have managed an awful — or awesome, depending on who you ask — 48-107 record. Yet, there have been some promising developments, acquisitions and draft selections in Chicago, and the team may be closer to relevancy than most would think.

That being said, there are still some issues that need to be sorted out in order for them to get there. As with any team, the upcoming draft and free agency period could prove crucial to them; the difference between a leap forward or regression.

So, what have the Bulls gotten right or wrong this season, and where do they go from here?

What is Working

Despite an injury that kept him out for an early portion of the season, Lauri Markkanen has continued to show that he can be an impact player on the court and is a major building block for the Bulls.

The Finnish power forward has posted an impressive 18.9 points and nine rebounds per game this season — both increased from his rookie season — while shooting 43.7 percent from the floor and 36.5 percent from three-point range. Markkanen has continued to improve throughout the season and, recently, has flashed a superstar potential. February saw the best stretch of Markkanen’s career; he averaged 26 points, 12.2 rebounds and shot 48.6 percent from the floor.

He has still struggled at times, specifically on the defensive end, but if Markkanen can reach that level of dominance on a more consistent basis, he could find himself in elite company going forward.

Another positive has been Zach LaVine who, like Markkanen, has had a career year in the first of the four-year, near $80 million deal he signed last offseason. LaVine has established himself as the Bulls’ leader on the floor and, in doing so, has set a new career high in points (23.7), rebounds (4.7), assists (4.5) and field goal percentage (46.7 percent). If LaVine and Markkanen can continue to improve in tandem, the two could prove quite the offensive powerhouse in future seasons.

There have been other bright spots from an otherwise dreary season in Chicago; Jim Boylen, after a rough start, has turned things around as of late; while he may not play again this season after thumb surgery in February, Wendell Carter Jr. flashed the ability that made him the seventh overall selection in the draft a season ago; deadline-acquisition Otto Porter has provided another young, scoring wing that the Bulls desperately needed and could make use of going forward; Ryan Arcidiacano, a two-way player for the Bulls last season, earned a standard contract with the team and has provided some big-time energy off the bench ala T.J. McConnel.

More could be said about the Bulls but, to keep it simple: the future is starting to look bright in Chicago.

What Needs to Change

The future may be bright, but the Bulls are still a ways away from it. They are on the up, certainly, but there are still some issues that need to be sorted out, both at a basketball level and with their personnel.

Perhaps the Bulls’ most pressing issue is their defensive inability. According to NBA Stats, Chicago has thus far posted the sixth worst defensive rating (112.4) in the NBA this season. They sit above only the Atlanta Hawks (112.5), Washington Wizards (112.6), New York Knicks (113), Phoenix Suns (113.4) and Cleveland Cavaliers (116), teams that most would consider far worse off than the Bulls.

Part of the problem has been a lack of lineup consistency; Markkanen, LaVine, Carter and others have all missed time at one point or another due to injury. But, on some nights, there is an apparent lack of effort from the Bulls, and that will have to change if they ever want to pull themselves out of the NBA basement.

The future of Kris Dunn is another concern. Another piece involved in the Jimmy Butler trade, Dunn impressed in his first season in Chicago, but has taken a step back in year two with the team. There have been stretches where the former Providence product has seemed too reserved, rather than the aggressor that enabled his success a season ago. That regression isn’t all on him — Dunn’s role with the team, and in head coach Jim Boylen’s offensive system has continued to evolve throughout the season — but Dunn must improve if the team is to.

And, with a guard-loaded draft on the horizon, the Bulls will have to make a decision on Dunn as well; whether or not Dunn has secured a spot in their vision of the future for Chicago could have a drastic effect on the Bulls’ draft strategy come June.

Focus Area: The Draft

As of right now, the Bulls hold the fourth worst record in the NBA and would have just a 12.5 percent chance of landing the top pick.

Chicago could go a number of different ways depending on whether they end up there, stick at four, or fall somewhere in between (or out of the top four altogether). But, obviously, if the Bulls have the opportunity the grab Zion Williamson, they take him. The future prospects are so high and the upside so great that you just can’t not take him (barring injury, anyway), regardless of how he would fit within the current roster construction. Williamson has the potential to ascend to that upper echelon level of NBA elite that few players — the LeBron James’, Kevin Durant’s and Giannis Antetonkoumpo’s of the world — reach and so, if you can, you make the roster fit around him, not the other way around.

Assuming they don’t luck out, however, a large part of their strategy should revolve around the future of Porter and Dunn and how they believe their futures align with the future of the team. In a draft loaded with high-upside wings and point-guard type players, the Bulls must leave no stone unturned in order to get the best player to help expedite their rebuild.

Porter, currently out due to injury, had performed well in his brief, post-trade deadline stint with the team — in 15 games, Porter averaged 17.5 points, 5.5 rebounds, 2.7 assists and shot 48.8 percent from three-point range on over five shots per game — but is still potentially due more than $55 million over the next two seasons. Should they choose to move him in the offseason, an abundance of minutes would be made available on the wing, minutes that could almost certainly be eaten up by a number of different prospects: R.J. Barrett, Jarrett Culver, Cam Reddish, DeAndre Hunter, etc.

Dunn, meanwhile, has flashed his ability but, ultimately, has taken a step back this season. Should Chicago believe him incapable of running their offense in the future, a number of different point guard prospects sit near the top of this class, including Barrett, Ja Morant, Darius Garland and others.

Focus Area: Free Agency

While they may try, the Bulls probably won’t have much luck in free agency. As for their own free agents, Robin Lopez is on an expiring contract and may not return next season, while Arcidiacano and guard Wayne Seldon will enter restricted free agency come the end of the regular season. Other than that, the entire roster is under contract through at least next season.

Replacing Lopez (or re-signing him, unlikely as that would seem) is likely somewhere near the top of general manager Gar Forman’s to-do list. Not only did Lopez provide a stable, veteran presence in the locker room, but he provided valuable minutes behind Markkanen and Carter in the front-court. Likewise, Forman could look to add another forward to play behind Porter or, should they look to trade him, to split time with rookie Chandler Hutchison.

Whether they draft a point guard for the future or retain Dunn, a veteran backup guard would also seem a likely option for the Bulls in free agency. A steady hand at such a crucial position could prove invaluable and calming for Dunn or whatever young players the Bulls acquire in the coming months.

The Bulls have been bad the last two seasons, there is no other way to put it. But, for the organization and the fans, there is light at the end of the tunnel. It may not be next season, but the Bulls are certainly on the up. They still have some things to sort out but, if they continue to play their cards right, they could find themselves back in the thick of Eastern Conference contention soon enough

Also, make sure to keep on the lookout for the rest of Basketball Insiders’ “Fixing” series.

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