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Brooklyn Nets 2019-20 NBA Season Preview

The Brooklyn Nets had a stellar off-season landing not one, but two major star free agents. The problem is both stars bring more questions than answers, which begs the question – are the Nets better today than they were a year ago? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Brooklyn Nets in this 2019-20 NBA Season preview.

Basketball Insiders

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The Brooklyn Nets enter the 2019-20 NBA season with very different expectations than they did a season ago. Lots of teams enter training camp talking about culture and/or how they’re being overlooked. Well, the Nets were one of the few teams that were right in 2018-19. They entered last season having won only 28 games the season prior and ended the season with 42 wins and a playoff berth.

Being overlooked can benefit a team in numerous ways, but that is not a luxury they will have this season.

The Nets swapped out D’Angelo Russell for Kyrie Irving, they return a fully healthy Caris LeVert and they still have Kevin Durant to look forward to in 2020-21. Further, they fleshed out their depth at the center position and swapped out Allen Crabbe for Taureen Prince. Long story short, the Nets are ready for the national spotlight. Now they’ll have to live up to the hype instead of playing above expectations.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

The Nets became contenders incredibly quickly – going from the laughing stock of the league to the envy of it in about two years. Even with Durant missing most – or probably all – of 2019-20, the Nets will still boast top-10 talent. They swapped out D’Angelo Russell for Kyrie Irving and Jared Dudley for Wilson Chandler (who will serve a 25-game suspension to begin the season). The Rodions Kurucs allegations are unfortunate and troubling, but it’s a single issue rather than an indication of a bad culture within the team. They’ll be fun this season and if Durant returns to form in 2020-21, look out. The one caveat for 2019-20 is if Kyrie can put his ego aside and be the Nets on-the-court leader. He struggled to do so in Boston. But last year was a learning opportunity and Irving should be better prepared to be a team-centric leader with the Nets this year.

3rd Place – Atlantic Division

– Drew Maresca

The Nets had one of the best offseasons in the league. It’s just unfortunate for them that they likely won’t reap the benefits until the 2020-21 season as Kevin Durant is expected to miss the entire year as he recovers from an Achilles injury. Not to worry, Kyrie Irving and company are more than capable of leading the Nets back to the playoffs. Sean Marks inherited a mess of a team when he took over in the front office, and he’s done a remarkable job of cleaning it all up and putting a real contender together. Brooklyn has become a destination for marquee players and that was evident this past summer. Taurean Prince, Garrett Temple, and Wilson Chandler were solid pickups. Jarrett Allen and Rodions Kurucs were spot on draft picks. It will be huge if this team can manage to win a playoff series while Durant recovers.

2nd Place – Atlantic Division

– David Yapkowitz

The Brooklyn Nets have sure come a long way from 2013 when they were trading just about every future draft asset possible in a failed attempt at a title. After a few seasons of smart and patient moves on the periphery, the Brooklyn Nets managed to sign both Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant as free agents this offseason. Irving is coming off of a drama-filled season in Boston but is still in his prime and one of the top point guards in the NBA. However, Durant will likely miss this upcoming season after tearing his Achilles tendon in Game 5 of the 2019 NBA Finals. Despite the lost season for Durant, this is a major win for the Brooklyn Nets, who managed to outmaneuver the New York Knicks in attracting Irving and Durant. Brooklyn made some nice smaller transactions as well, including trading D’Angelo Russell, via sign and trade, along with Shabazz Napier and Treveon Graham to the Golden State Warriors for a protected 2020 first-rounder as part of the deal to acquire Durant. The Nets also added Taurean Prince, who could be a nice addition on the wing, in a trade with the Atlanta Hawks. Signing Garrett Temple to a two-year $9,772,350 contract (team option on final season) is also a good value. However, I’m not a big fan of signing DeAndre Jordan to a four-year, $39,960,716 contract considering his declining performance and with Jarrett Allen already being on the roster. However, Jordan is close friends with Durant, so adding him makes sense and could be a good move if Jordan ends up playing with more intensity than he has in recent seasons. It wasn’t a perfect offseason for Brooklyn, but adding Irving and Durant is a major win and sets Brooklyn up nicely in the short and long-term.

3rd Place – Atlantic Division

– Jesse Blancarte

The Nets have earned their keep and standing in the Association. Behind the brilliance of Sean Marks, they went from one of the most undesirable situations in league history to arguably the healthiest situation in the present day. The success has led to Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant making their way to the Barclays Center. Irving will be on his own this year with KD on the sideline, but there’s something about being home that lifts a weight off your shoulder. He’ll leave the drama behind in Boston and Cleveland to start anew under head coach Kenny Atkinson. With a backcourt partner like Caris LeVert, things could get real very fast regarding the cohesiveness and danger this team presents. DeAndre Jordan will be hounding the rim on both ends of the floor, back tapping whatever misses comeand finishing whatever passes he’s thrown. Taurean Prince might’ve been one of the best under-the-radar acquisitions in the league, as his commitment to the defensive end and improvement as a shooter are well-documented. With all of this said, the Atlantic Division rivals the Pacific for the toughest in the Association. Regardless of where they end up, the Nets are playoff-bound again – and this time, it could be a special run.

3rd Place – Atlantic Division

– Spencer Davies

On paper, the Brooklyn nets won the off-season in a walk. They nabbed arguably the top two free agents in the market and added to a roster via trade that was already respectable. The problem is Kyrie Irving was a cancer to the Celtics a year ago, and Kevin Durant may miss most of, if not all of the season to an injury that kills basketball careers. On paper these moves are incredible, but in practice, the Nets may have killed a really good thing. The Nets had built an impressive young core that looked to be a team on the rise but to make it all work they parted with the roster’s only All-Star and went all-in on the named guys. If Irving can bounce back to his All-Star form and buy into his young guys and his coach, then Brooklyn will be better. If Durant can be the guy that comes back from an Achilles to remain an All-Star, the Nets could be title contenders. The problem is neither one of those things seems likely, especially not this year. The Nets bet big, but it remains to be seen if that bet will pay off.

4th Place – Atlantic Division

– Steve Kyler

FROM THE CAP GUY

The Nets were extremely creative over the offseason, maximizing their cap space to sign Kyrie Irving while using D’Angelo Russell in a dual sign-and-trade deal with the Golden State Warriors for Kevin Durant. The move gave Brooklyn a hard cap for the season at $138.9 million, but given the team has 15 guaranteed players at $126.1 million with no additional exceptions, the spending limit is mostly immaterial.

Taurean Prince is eligible for a contract extension before the start of the season. The Nets already reached a deal with Caris LeVert on a three-year, $52.5 million deal. Brooklyn also has to decide on team options for Jarrett Allen and Dzanan Musa before November.

– Eric Pincus

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Kyrie Irving

Irving’s talent is almost impossible to comprehend. He is a top-five shooter, ballhandler and finisher. He is extremely crafty, can score in isolation, initiate the offense and play off the ball. His defense leaves something to be desired, but mostly because he gives up serious size to opposing guards. He is undoubtedly the Nets most skilled and versatile offensive player – at least until Durant returns from injury. There is enough talent alongside Irving so he doesn’t need to not burn himself out, and can even rest (i.e., load management) when it’s situationally appropriate. Irving will probably start the season with a major chip on his shoulder. But he won’t be judged on how he starts the season – it’s all about how he ends it. Regardless of how he plays, the most important thing will be for Irving to demonstrate patience and a willingness to mentor his new teammates. Taking a true leadership role hasn’t been Irving’s strong suit and displaying progress would make a lot of executives in Brooklyn feel a whole lot better about their investment in him.

Top Defensive Player: Jarrett Allen

Allen boasts a resume that few players throughout the history of the game can, having blocked LeBron James, Blake Griffin, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis and James Harden.

While the newly acquired DeAndre Jordan will eat into his minutes – and possibly even steal his starting job – Allen is the star of the defensive show. Allen isn’t going to hand over the starting job, telling Nets Daily that he prefers to start, but also that he’ll accept whatever role Coach Atkinson assigns him.

Allen has a strong work ethic and a great attitude, especially considering he’s only 21 years old. He still needs to grow his game in a lot of ways, but his defensive instincts have been spot-on throughout his young career – he posted the eleventh most blocks in the league last season in only his second year in the NBA.

A major knock on Allen was on full display in the postseason last year against Joel Embiid and Philadelphia. Embiid made a habit of bullying Allen in the post, and Allen simply couldn’t hold his ground. But according to Nets Daily, Allen added 10 pounds of muscle this offseason, which will come in handy when battling bigger and more physical opponents – and which could help separate him and other above-average rim protectors as early as this season.

Top Playmaker: Spencer Dinwiddie

Spencer Dinwiddie attacks the basket with supreme confidence – he averaged a career high 6.6 points in the paint in 2018-19. But he can also dish the rock, too. He averaged 6.6 assists per game in 2017-18 and 4.6 in 2018-19.

He’ll probably play alongside Irving a bit but since the Nets lack true point guards, he’ll also almost certainly rack up minutes as the lead guard for the Nets’ second unit, allowing him to demonstrate his ability to create for others.

If Dinwiddie can shore up the second unit, the Nets will – once again – boast two top-tier point guards. And the drop off from Irving to Dinwiddie might be the smallest across the entire league as far as starting and backup point guards is concerned, which is a huge buoy to a team’s offensive continuity.

Top Clutch Player: Joe Harris

Joe Harris gained national attention in the last year or so, thanks entirely to his shooting ability. Harris is definitely more than just a shooter, but he is also a certifiable assassin from long-range. He shot 45.9 percent from three-point range last season and ran around screens at an elite level – according NBA.com, Harris ranked 5th in the league in average speed on offense at 5.17 mph. He also shot 47.9 percent on 4.2 attempted catch-and-shoot three-pointers per game.

Also, his time with Team USA this summer should only improve his game and work ethic, having been exposed to superstars and their processes, including Kemba Walker and Jayson Tatum.

Harris’ unassuming approach and demeanor also make him a perfect fit with other similar-minded Nets like Jarrett Allen. And having a team-first shooter like Harris is a must for teams hoping to compete for a championship (e.g., Kyle Korver).

The Unheralded Player: Caris LeVert

It might be a stretch to call LeVert unheralded, but the presence of guys like Irving and (eventually) Durant will allow him to fly under the radar, even after a quasi-breakout year last season.

Fresh off of a three-year extension with the Nets, LeVert can now put financial distractions aside and focus exclusively on his game – not that that’s been an issue. He looked primed for an All-Star selection through the first few weeks of last season, but an ankle injury derailed his year and cost him more than 30 games.

A healthy LeVert will benefit from the increased offensive threat that is Kyrie Irving. He is an ideal third option alongside Irving and Durant come 2020. But LeVert will happily develop his game as the second option this season next to Irving – and the Nets could find themselves contending for an NBA title if LeVert takes his game to the next level.

Best New Addition: Kevin Durant

As much as Durant doesn’t affect the on-the-court product this season, building a dynasty is about much more than one year. Durant’s addition truly validates the Nets ascension. They have completely arrived as a force to be reckoned with. Irving was a great addition and boasting a strong core and excellent coaching staff is equally important, but adding a top-three active player moves the needle in the NBA like few other things can. Durant has the luxury of being patient with his rehab and recovery. While rumors already began to circulate about Durant’s return thanks to video of him walking without crutches in Los Angeles this summer, it’s more likely than not that Durant takes his time and returns at the start of the 2020-21 season. And the Nets should do everything in their power to ensure that is the case – unless his recovery is so far ahead of schedule that the team and every expert available all agree that he there is no doubt he is back to 100%.

– Drew Maresca

WHO WE LIKE

1. Dzanan Musa

Musa possesses a good jumper and the ability to guard NBA wings. His potential is obvious. Unfortunately, Musa sprained his ankle before the start of the 2018-19 season and he never found his niche with the club. But considering the Nets moved all of their first-round picks last June, the Nets can look to 2019-20 as Musa’s second rookie year. And it’s not that big of a stretch considering he’s actually younger than the Nets’ actual rookie – Nicholas Claxton. And there is reason to believe that Musa will establish a spot in the rotation. He has a good motor and defensive instincts, and he performed extremely well in his stint in the G-League last season (approximately 20 points, 6.3 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game). And more importantly, he added 20-pounds this offseason, which should prepare him to defend more positions.

2. DeAndre Jordan

As much as Allen is the Nets’ defensive anchor, he struggled defending Embiid in the playoffs (as stated above). Jordan’s game is very similar to Allen’s, only he is 10 years older and approximately 30 additional pounds heavier. Having two starting-caliber centers who can’t share the floor with one another – neither of them can stretch the floor – might be unusual for the modern NBA, but it also guarantees that they’ll always have a shot blocker and rim runner available. Signing Jordan to a four-year deal with no team options was curious, but he’s obviously a good addition.

3. Nicholas Claxton

Claxton was rumored to go slightly higher than 31 overall in the 2019 NBA Draft, but the Nets lucked out and grabbed him with the first pick in the second-round. He has above-average length and athleticism and his jump shot showed some potential in his sophomore season at Georgia. He will struggle to secure consistent minutes with Jordan and Allen ahead of him on the depth chart, but he has the ability to learn from two of the best shot blockers and rim-runners in the game. Claxton can definitely grow into a solid back-up center, and he could even develop into a starter if he learns to extend his motor throughout the game and continues to develop offensively.

4. Wilson Chandler

Chandler is a versatile player with a well-rounded offensive game and the ability to defend at least three positions. His three-point shooting has improved dramatically over the years – he shot 30 percent on .9 attempts per game as a rookie and 37.3 percent on 3.1 attempts per game last season. Chandler also adds a significant veteran presence. And at $2.56 million in 2019-20, he will be more than worth the money he’s being paid – once his 25-game suspension for PED use is up.

5. Coach Kenny Atkinson

Coach Atkinson – along with GM Sean Marks – has really streamlined the Nets rebuilding timeline. They seemed so far away only two short years ago, and now they could compete for a championship as early as this season. Atkinson’s pick-and-roll heavy offense was allegedly a draw for Irving and Durant, but his influence supersedes Xs and Os. Atkinson totally rebuilt the team’s culture and he created a great locker room environment, which resulted in his gaining the full trust and support of his locker room. Swapping out Russell for Irving could potentially challenge that last point considering how close the team was last season. Atkinson has his work cut out for him in satisfying two of the tougher players to coach and keep happy. But if anyone can do it, Atkinson can.

– Drew Maresca

STRENGTHS

Shooting. Joe Harris was among the best shooters in the entire league last season.

As a team, the Nets ranked fourteenth overall in three-point shooting percentage last season and some of their best shooters (by percentages) are no longer on the roster – Russell, Allen Crabbe and Jared Dudley. At first glance, it could be perceived that the Nets are in trouble.

But the Nets actually managed to improve their shooting, at least on paper. They added Irving, who shot 40.1 percent from three-point range in 2018-19. They also added Taurean Prince (39.0 percent from three-point range last season) and Wilson Chandler (37.3 percent from three-point range last season).

All three of the aforementioned players represent upgrades from an efficiency standpoint (although they shoot slightly less than the players they’re replacing). Just think, the Nets could realistically put out a starting lineup with Irving, Harris and Prince – who would have shot above .400 from three-point range last season on above-average volume. And there’s still Chandler, LeVert and Dinwiddie for opponents to contend with.

Further, the Nets weren’t shy in launching threes last season. While they didn’t shoot an elite percentage, they did shoot the fifth most three-pointers last season. So with their upgraded lineup, the Nets stand to take and make even more three-pointers.

– Drew Maresca

WEAKNESSES

Too few stretch fours. The Nets have tremendous versatility – only it’s mostly centered around the guard and center positions. They have two guys who would traditionally be considered point guards (Irving and Dinwiddie), another seven wings (LeVert, Harris, Prince, Chandler, Musa, Kurucs, Temple) and three centers (Allen, Jordan and Claxton) – none of whom are known for shooting or passing from the perimeter. And that’s the vast majority of the Nets roster.

Sure, positionless basketball has been adopted by essentially every team in the league. But that doesn’t mean you don’t need versatile bigs – it just means that you need multi-dimensional ones. The Nets don’t have a single big man who can shoot and handle the ball while also rebounding and maintaining a defensive presence in the paint. Now that is a tall order for most players, but that’s why really good stretch-fours are in such high demand.

The Nets 2018 draft picks—Musa and Kurucs – can both potentially grow into stretch fours; both are 6’9 and both have the offensive characteristics of a modern-day stretch-four. But neither boasts the physique to bang with bigger power forwards. Musa allegedly gained nearly 20-pounds this offseason, but Kurucs’ situation has hit a snag. The Nets are certainly disappointed in Kurucs’ recent legal troubles, and they will be greatly affected by the outcome. But either way, neither is prepared to log heavy minutes at the four spot just yet.

The Nets can definitely play around their deficiency and get by without a stretch-four, but they become significantly better if they’re able to add a top-tier forward who can stretch the floor offensively and bang down low and rebound defensively.

– Drew Maresca

THE BURNING QUESTION

Can Kyrie Irving play nice with others?

It’s hard to say so with certainty. His recent past doesn’t speak highly of his ability to do so. He abruptly asked for a trade from Cleveland, and then he wore out his welcome in Boston thanks to an allegedly holier-than-thou attitude.

But Brooklyn might be different. After all, he likely won’t have to endure any prolonged periods of subpar play, which could change his thinking on things – and that probably won’t happen given the level Coach Atkinson had his team operating at last year.

And further, Irving had selected Brooklyn as his destination of choice. While he requested out of Cleveland, Boston was not on his short list of preferred teams. We haven’t seen a prime, locked-in Irving since the 2016 NBA Finals. His recent experiences will serve him well in his dealings with Durant, LeVert and his other teammates.

Additionally, Irving’s played for some accomplished coaches – but none as universally loved by their teams as Coach Atkinson is in Brooklyn. And because of that, Atkinson can get even more out of Irving than did Mike Brown, David Blatt, Ty Lue or Brad Stevens.

So if Irving is willing to be a big brother to his teammates and help lead the way, he’ll have the requisite support of his coaches – and that could result in the 2019-20 version of Irving being the best we’ve seen yet.

– Drew Maresca

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NBA

NBA Daily: Ivica Zubac Rounding Into Form For Clippers

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

David Yapkowitz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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NBA

Free Agency Update: Changes In The Bubble

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

Drew Maresca

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

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

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

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

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

The Stars

Mike Conley Jr., Utah Jazz – Player Option

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

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

Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans – RFA

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

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

Fred VanVleet, Toronto Raptors – UFA

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

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

 DeMar DeRozan, San Antonio Spurs – Player Option

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

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

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

The Known Commodities

Marcus Morris Sr., Los Angeles Clippers – UFA

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

Making A Case

Trey Burke, Dallas Mavericks – UFA

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

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

Jordan Clarkson, Utah Jazz – UFA

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

Reggie Jackson, Los Angeles Clippers – UFA

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

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

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

The Unknowns

Harry Giles III, Sacramento Kings – UFA

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

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

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

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

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

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NBA

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

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

Ben Nadeau

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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