The Detroit Pistons hit the reset button on their culture this offseason without making significant roster changes. The Stan Van Gundy era officially ended after the 2017-18 season. With new head coach Dwane Casey at the helm, the Pistons hope to achieve more success in the form of playoff wins; the Pistons did not win a single playoff game – let alone series – in Van Gundy’s four years as coach and general manager.
But Van Gundy didn’t leave the cupboard entirely bare. While the Pistons are unlikely to compete for championships in the near future, the team has enough talent on the roster to surprise people this season. And the team hasn’t even been together long enough to appropriately set expectations.
The trade that redefined the Pistons just prior to last season’s trade deadline netted it Blake Griffin, who represents a clear upgrade in talent. Yes, the team’s lost 2018 first-round pick stings, as does Griffin’s contract, which stretches until 2021-22; however, the team’s roster is better positioned for success in 2018-19 than it was entering last season.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
The Detroit Pistons were relatively quiet this summer but have reason to be optimistic heading into the 2018-19 season. The Pistons named Dwane Casey as the team’s new head coach with the hope that he can provide the same kind of internal improvement he generated in his tenure with the Toronto Raptors. Casey has talent to work with, including Reggie Jackson, Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond. It’s unclear how far Casey can take this team as constructed but outside of the Celtics, 76ers and Raptors, the Eastern Conference is essentially wide open. Detroit has the opportunity to jump into the second tier of Eastern Conference contenders and make some noise in the postseason. However, that will require Casey to generate significant chemistry between his core players and instill a culture that allows him to maximize the talent he has available on the roster.
3rd Place – Central Division
– Jesse Blancarte
The Stan Van Gundy era may be over in Detroit, but his aura still lingers all over the roster. This is a capped-out roster paying nearly $75 million to Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson alone, and that’s a scary thought when you consider that the Pistons went just 11-14 with Griffin in the lineup following their acquisition of the big-name power forward from Los Angeles. Does a culture change in the form of Dwane Casey do enough to overhaul things and turn this group into a legitimate contender in the East? The Pistons had very few options to improve the roster over the summer, mostly tinkering around the margins on the personnel side. They’ll be counting on renewed continuity from the core plus some ingenuity from Casey to propel them a lot further than last season’s disappointing 39-win showing.
3rd Place – Central Division
– Ben Dowsett
Could we be underestimating the Pistons? They will have their roster back fully healthy, Blake Griffin should be fully acclimated, and Dwane Casey is the reigning Coach of the Year. Even if it’s not a contender, that roster still has good talent to work with. Andre Drummond’s notable growth as a player fell under the radar thanks to the Pistons’ struggles last season. Should Detroit improve from last season, he could make the All-Star team without having to be a replacement. Also, outside of Griffin and Drummond, the Pistons have plenty of trade-able contracts at the helm. Expect the front office to be on the lookout if someone good becomes available.
3rd Place – Central Division
– Matt John
Might a change in philosophy and leadership be the answer in the Motor City? We’ll find out. Dwane Casey has decided to take on the task of being the head coach of a Pistons team that always seems to stay where it’s at in the middle of the pack. Health is going to be what defines their season. Between Reggie Jackson and Blake Griffin, the two missed 61 total games combined. Detroit will need these guys in order to progress towards the goal of the playoffs. Though he’s a double-double machine and two-time All-Star, it’s not like Andre Drummond can do it by himself. Still, bringing in Casey will benefit all parties involved for the long haul. Can they put it together?
4th Place – Central Division
– Spencer Davies
$123 million; that’s what the Pistons have in guaranteed contracts going into the 2018-19 season. That’s seems like an awful lot for a team that may not win 45 games. The Pistons are trapped in a lot of really bad decisions, and unfortunately as good a coach as Dwane Casey, this roster just seems like a look of square pegs and not many square holes. There is a good possibility that Blake Griffin emerges as an elite All-Star in the East, he has that kind of potential, but its hard to envision that this Pistons team isn’t going to be much more than .500 and that means playoffs at best, but an early exit in May.
5th Place – Central Division
– Steve Kyler
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Blake Griffin
This one is a no-brainer. Griffin is the only career 20 point per game scorer on the roster. He is entering his ninth season, and his game is still incredibly effective despite relying on his athleticism. Only he no longer relies exclusively on athleticism.
Griffin has slowly but surely morphed into a true point forward: initiating fast breaks, throwing lobs and shooting from distance. When healthy he can score the ball effectively, create for others, shoot the ball and finish around the rim better than almost anyone not named Russell Westbrook. If he can produce like he has in years past, the Pistons will present problems for many Eastern Conference foes.
Top Defensive Player: Stanley Johnson
Johnson has not developed exactly as the Pistons had hoped, but his upside remains – especially on the defensive side of the ball. NBADraft.net favorably compared Johnson to Kawhi Leonard and/or Ron Artest in its 2015 NBA Draft scouting report.
This prognosis has obviously not come to fruition, but Johnson remains a long, smart defender who can still lock down good wings. In fact, Coach Casey suggested at his own introductory press conference that Johnson is the best defensive matchup for the league’s best player, LeBron James.
Look for Johnson to play a bigger role in 2018-19. If he’s successful, Johnson’s career trajectory could take a positive turn. And much of Johnson’s overall success, as well as the team’s, will be tied to his defense and motor.
Top Playmaker: Reggie Jackson
Griffin received serious consideration given his ability to create and lead fast breaks relative to his peers, but Jackson is the right answer. Jackson is a creative and confident lead guard. In his only professional season playing more than 60 games (79 games played in 2015-16), Jackson posted 18.8 points and 6.2 assists per game en route to 44 wins and the team’s only playoff berth since 2009.
So while Griffin is the team’s best player and first option, Jackson’s influence is potentially as great in that he changes the pace of the game and creates scoring opportunities for himself and his teammates. This is exemplified perfectly by the following statistic: when Jackson injured his left ankle on December 26, 2017 – which sidelined him for 37 games – the Pistons were five games above .500. The team went 20-29 following his injury.
Top Clutch Player: Reggie Jackson
It’s difficult to refer to any of the Detroit Pistons as clutch. Some are more so than others, though, and Reggie Jackson is the most clutch of the bunch.
Jackson is viewed as injury-prone more so than clutch. And to be fair, he has missed a combined 126 games in his seven seasons in the league. But Jackson is also a confident shooter who is not afraid of big moments. His swagger is infectious to teammates and fans. If Jackson stays healthy and can lead the Pistons to playoff victories, he can begin to change his narrative from fragile to clutch.
The Unheralded Player(s): Ish Smith and Glen Robinson III
The Pistons have two players who could easily overachieve this season. The first is Ish Smith, a journeyman guard who has played for 10 teams in his eight NBA seasons. But don’t let Smith’s transient nature mislead you into thinking he doesn’t get results. Smith is a crafty six-foot tall guard with a motor that more than makes up for his lack of size. He is a good finisher who can get buckets in a hurry. He averaged 10.9 points and 4.4 assists per game while posting a 15.4 PER in a full 82 games last season, 35 of which he started. Smith is reliable and dynamic in ways that a lot of backup players are not. His contract isn’t ideal at $6 million in 2018-19, but it’s far from the worst deal on the roster.
Glen Robinson III is the Pistons’ other sleeper. He was a second round pick and has mostly flown under the radar throughout his career. He was beginning to find a role in Indiana two seasons ago, where he logged career highs in minutes per game (20.7), points per game (6.1) and rebounds per game (3.6), but a poorly timed ankle injury prohibited him from continuing to improve. Robinson is an above-average three-point shooter who can still slash and finish around the rim. He is not a big time difference maker, but if the Robinson reaches his potential in the near future, consider him a steal at $4 million.
Best New Addition: Dwane Casey
The 2018 NBA Coach of the Year joined the Pistons shortly after being fired from his job in Toronto, but not before he led the Raptors to a franchise-best 59-win season in 2017-18. He possesses a calming influence few coaches have and is widely viewed as a player-friendly coach, unlike his predecessor, Stan Van Gundy. Coach Casey must now go about developing trust with the Pistons’ roster. If Casey can maximize the potential in the Griffin-Drummond-Jackson big three, then the team should have a relatively successful season.
Looking beyond next season, challenges remain in the form of the Pistons’ 2019-20 cap situation. Casey must focus on developing camaraderie and getting the most out of each player this season so his roster can hopefully continue overachieving the following season. After all, the Pistons are cash-strapped through 2020 and have limited resources to improve the roster via free agency next year.
– Drew Maresca
WHO WE LIKE
1. Andre Drummond
The six-year veteran has been mostly effective throughout his career thus far save for free throw shooting. But who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks? Drummond shot a much-improved .605 from the free throw line last season after shooting a dismal .386 the year prior. In fact, prior to last season, he had never shot above .418. Will he continue shooting free throws at the same rate as last season? Might he improve? The Pistons hope so, because while he is an obvious target for intentional fouls, Drummond is also a difference maker. He posted a PER of 22.9 in 2017-18, which is just slightly higher than his career average (21.8). He is an above average athlete who is constantly among the league leaders in rebounds. He is also a strong finisher and an above-average shot blocker.
2. Jose Calderon and Zaza Pachulia
Simply because of their veteran know-how and grit, Calderon and Pachulia are assumed to be one addition for this piece. Neither is likely to log heavy minutes, but the Pistons roster lacked a veteran presence. In Calderon, the team added a high IQ player and a patient leader. Similarly, the team added savviness and fortitude in Pachulia. The Pistons need both to influence the rest of the roster as much as possible so the team develops poise.
3. Luke Kenard
Kenard performed as expected for a late-lottery pick – inconsistently. The 2017 first-round pick showed flashes, though, especially down the stretch. In the final three games of the season, Kenard scored 18, 20 and 23 points, respectively. Further, when given the opportunity to play 30-plus minutes, Kenard averaged 16.5 points per game. He is a strong three-point shooter, but needs to be put in the position to shoot more regularly. He should benefit from the leadership of Coach Casey and veterans like those outlined above. Thankfully for the Pistons, he remains relatively cheap for as long as the next three years given his rookie deal.
4. Bruce Brown Jr.
It remains a long shot that Brown develops into a serviceable player for the 2018-19 season. Brown dropped to the second round due in part to a foot injury that cost him much of his sophomore season. But the 6-foot-5 point guard impressed the Pistons front office as well as others around the league with his summer league performance. In four games, Brown averaged 12.0 points, 7.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.3 steals per game. Brown must work on shooting more consistently, but he is a tenacious defender whose ceiling is a poor man’s Russell Westbrook. But Brown must ignore those comparisons and focus on becoming the best version of himself. If he develops properly, he could be the Pistons’ next starting point guard.
– Drew Maresca
The Pistons possess two of the better big men in the league: Blake Griffin and Andrew Drummond. Griffin enters his first full season as a member of the Pistons with ample experience playing alongside an athletic, albeit limited, center. Drummond is similar in many ways to Griffin’s former frontcourt mate, DeAndre Jordan. And the two complement each other equally nicely. Griffin is an excellent passer and Drummond is a strong, agile finisher.
But the Pistons must exploit mismatches as much as possible prior to the final minutes of close games. While the team is hoping that Drummond’s free throw shooting continues to improve like it did last season, he is still a liability, shooting .605 from the line. Further, as teams continue to play with smaller, more versatile lineups, how can Drummond stay on the court when opponents attack him in pick-and-rolls? Unfortunately, that means the team will likely need to limit late game minutes in which Griffin and Drummond are on the court together.
– Drew Maresca
Unfortunately for the Pistons, they play in the NBA and not the Big3. The team has a solid core centered around Drummond, Jackson and Griffin that can score points, block shots and clean the glass. But the team’s effectiveness will likely be compromised as games wear on.
The Pistons are especially thin at the wing positions, with Reggie Bullock and Stanley Johnson as projected starters. Neither has been a consistent contributor, and it only gets worse from there. Luke Kennard, Langston Galloway and Glenn Robinson III are likely to be the back-up wings. And while all have strengths and upside, the Pistons need proven players, not assets.
Additionally, the Pistons’ roster lacks a reliable backup center. Yes, the team signed Zaza Pachulia, but he is as much a locker room voice as he is a contributor at this stage of his career. Lucky for the Pistons, the league has deemphasized the need for meaty bigs. But if the Pistons fail to address any of its depth issues, the team’s core will be run ragged from the strains of the 82-game schedule.
– Drew Maresca
The Burning Question:
Can the Pistons’ stars stay healthy?
Yes, the team has talent. No, it’s not likely to be enough to propel them deep into playoffs. But for most teams in the NBA, making noise in the playoffs constitutes a successful season. While the playoffs should be as near a sure thing as exists in the NBA, all of the team’s success is contingent on health.
And the Pistons are headlined by two oft-injured stars: Jackson and Griffin. In fact, they have missed 67 and 107 games over the last two seasons, respectively. But the other side of that argument is when all three of the Jackson-Drummond-Griffin triumvirate played together – only 44 minutes in 2017-18 – they outscored opponents by 13.7 per 100 possessions.
Jackson and Griffin must remain on the court alongside Drummond as much as possible for Detroit to reach its potential. They are all impactful separately, but the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts. The Pistons’ front office recently identified injury issues as a point of emphasis. The team attempted to combat them by bringing back former strength and conditioning coach, Arnie Kander, this offseason as an injury consultant. Kander has historically emphasized stretching and range of motion exercises. While this alone does not guarantee any player’s health, it shows that the team is taking its players’ health seriously.
Further, Van Gundy’s preference for long, grueling practices can lead to fatigue, which can easily cause injuries. Conversely, Casey’s philosophy on practice is to wrap them up more quickly in at attempt to preserve his players’ bodies. If the Pistons can remain healthy, they could see themselves back in the playoffs in a less top heavy Eastern Conference.
– Drew Maresca
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?
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.