The countdown to July 1 is real. Each year – whether it be the likes of LeBron James, Dwight Howard or, most recently, Kevin Durant – fans and front offices alike dream about what it would mean to snag the big fish in free agency.
During the first week of July, headlines are dominated by high-profile acquisitions and max-level players.
Sometimes, though, it’s the under-the-radar signee who can make all the difference in the world for a fringe contender. As we approach mid-July, Basketball Insiders takes inventory of the top remaining free agents.
LeBron James (Small Forward)
All indications are that LeBron James will re-sign in Cleveland, but until he does so officially, it merits mention that the reigning Finals MVP is uncommitted for the 2016-17 season. In all likelihood, the re-signing of James is a mere formality, especially as the Cavaliers prepare for their title defense.
Donatas Motiejunas (Power Forward)
The Lithuanian-born Donatas Motiejunas experienced a bit of a breakout during the 2014-15 season before appearing in just 37 games last season. Motiejunas is a restricted free agent and has proven that he can be a meaningful player in the NBA. Whether it’s with the Houston Rockets or a new team, he absolutely belongs in a rotation.
Dion Waiters (Shooting Guard)
Traditionally, restricted free agents are paid handsomely, and Dion Waiters hopes that trend continues. With Kevin Durant having taken his talents to Oakland, the Oklahoma City Thunder would probably rather retain Waiters than let him walk away to a new team such as the Brooklyn Nets (who are reportedly interested). The Nets are still attempting to fill out their roster in order to get to the salary floor, so Waiters may find himself the subject of a bidding war. Until he signs, however, he remains free and he has certainly proven capable of being a productive bench player in this league.
J.R. Smith (Shooting Guard)
As is the case with LeBron James, the Cleveland Cavaliers are hopeful that they will eventually strike a deal to re-sign J.R. Smith. General manager David Griffin recently told ESPN that he’s confident a deal will get done. And after waiting his entire career to be labeled a “winner,” it would stand to reason that Smith would welcome a return to Cleveland. Still, with his career earnings at a shade over $45 million and a lot of money being thrown around this summer, Smith could generate some interest from other teams after emerging as a vital cog in the Cavaliers’ title chase. Re-signing seems likely, but the exit door for Smith still appears to be a tad ajar.
Ty Lawson (Point Guard)
It seems like the days of Ty Lawson and George Karl leading the Denver Nuggets to a 57-25 record were so long ago. Over the course of his first six years in the league, Lawson increased his assist production each year, topping out at 9.7 assists per game during the 2014-15 season. Since being moved along from Denver, however, he has struggled to find consistent minutes and production. At just 28 years old, Lawson likely hasn’t fallen off of any sort of cliff—he just needs to find the right situation.
Lance Stephenson (Shooting Guard)
After leaving head coach Frank Vogel and the Indiana Pacers during the summer of 2014, Lance Stephenson has been struggling to recapture his productivity, having played for a total of three teams over the past two years. Stephenson’s talents will continue to be in high demand, but as of now, he appears to be intent on trying to find the big payday that has eluded him thus far.
Mario Chalmers (Point Guard)
Although LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh deserve most of the credit for the Miami HEAT’s two championships and four Eastern Conference titles, Mario Chalmers was a major part of the team’s early success. Chalmers is a pesky defender and has proven that he isn’t afraid of taking and hitting big shots. At 30 years old, Chalmers is an experienced veteran who still has a lot left to offer a team that finds itself on the cusp of contention.
Josh Smith (Power Forward)
Long an enigma, since leaving the team that drafted him, Josh Smith has had trouble rediscovering the productivity that helped him carve out a career in the league. Since leaving the Atlanta Hawks for the Detroit Pistons following the 2012-13 season, Smith has changed teams three times and hasn’t come close to putting up the numbers Hawks fans became accustomed to seeing. Even still, it’s difficult imagining a more athletic, defensive-minded combo forward coming off of someone’s bench than Smith.
Gerald Green (Small Forward)
Once upon a time, Gerald Green was only known for his insane hops. Since then—and after spending two years out of the league—Green has proven to be a valuable all-around NBA contributor. His productivity has decreased since averaging a career-high 15.8 points per game as a member of the Phoenix Suns during the 2013-14 season. Now 30 years old, Green’s tires do have some wear, but tread shouldn’t be a problem. He has proven to be durable and has averaged only about 20 minutes per game over the course of his career.
Gary Neal (Point Guard)
Gary Neal has long been underrated as an NBA contributor. In a season with the Washington Wizards that was cut short due to injury, he connected on 41 percent of his three-point looks and scored 9.8 points per game in just 20 minutes off of the bench. Neal is 31 years old and brings a wealth of experience with him. Unlike most other “veteran” signings, Neal may end up making some general manager look incredibly smart this coming season (so long as he fully recovers from the hip labrum injury that ended his season early).
Maurice Harkless (Small Forward)
The New York City product finds himself as a restricted free agent and is reportedly considering accepting taking the Portland Trail Blazers up on their one-year qualifying offer of about $4 million. Accepting such an offer would allow Harkless to re-enter the free agency market next summer as an unrestricted free agent when the salary cap is expected to exceed $100 million. Harkless has reportedly drawn interest from the Detroit Pistons, Dallas Mavericks and other teams, but it stands to reason that none of those offers were for serious money if he is leaning toward remaining in Portland for at least another year.
Thomas Robinson (Power Forward)
Since being selected with the fifth overall pick of the 2012 NBA Draft, Thomas Robinson has already played for five different NBA teams. His impressive per-36-minute numbers show that Robinson can be effective given playing time and opportunities. Although the clock is ticking on his NBA career, we still feel that it’s a bit early to write him off as a difference-maker and believe, given the right situation, he can be a productive rotation player for any number of teams in the league.
Others worth noting: Kirk Hinrich (PG), David Lee (PF), Dorell Wright (SF), Aaron Brooks (PG), Raymond Felton (PG), Chris Andersen (C), Ray McCallum (PG), Brandon Bass (PF)
NBA DAILY: Lou Williams Stepping Up For Injured Clippers
The Clippers have been hit by injuries again, but Lou Williams is doing everything he can to keep the team afloat.
The Los Angeles Clippers have been decimated by injuries this season. Blake Griffin is sidelined until approximately February of next year. Danilo Gallinari has been sidelined for an extended period of time with a glute injury and will continue to be out of action for some time after suffering a second glute injury recently. Patrick Beverley underwent season ending microfracture surgery in November. Milos Teodosic suffered a foot injury in just the second game of the season and only recently returned to the lineup. Austin Rivers just suffered a concussion and could miss some time as well.
With so many injuries, the Clippers currently find themselves in the 10th seed in the Western Conference with an 11-15 record. This isn’t what the Clippers had in mind when they brought back a solid haul of players last offseason in exchange for Chris Paul.
Competing with the top teams in the Western Conference was always going to be difficult for this Clippers team. Los Angeles has plenty of talent on the roster and added a few younger prospects to develop. However, key players like Griffin and Gallinari are injury prone and both needed to stay on the court for the Clippers to have any hope of staying in range of the West’s top teams. The Clippers lost 9 games straight in the middle of November and it looked as though they were on course to be competing for a top lottery pick in next season’s draft.
However, despite all of the injuries and setbacks, Lou Williams, along with iron man DeAndre Jordan, has picked up the slack and has done more than his fair share to keep the Clippers’ playoff hopes alive. This season, Williams is averaging 20 points, 4.8 assists and 2.7 rebounds per game, while shooting 45.2 percent from the field and 40 percent from three-point range (on 6.2 attempts per game). Williams is sporting a healthy 21.2 Player Efficiency Rating, which is a near career best rating (Williams posted a 21.4 PER last season). His True Shooting percentage (59.3) is tied with his career high rating, which Williams posted last season as well. Williams’s free throw rate has taken a dip this season, but his ability to draw timely (and often questionable) fouls has been a valuable asset to his team once again. Simply put, Williams has been particularly efficient on offense this season for the Clippers – a team that has lost its most reliable scorers and playmakers.
“We’ve had some guys go down with injuries and somebody has to step in and fill that scoring void,” Williams said after helping the Clippers defeat the Magic. “I’ve been able to do it.”
Williams has also hit plenty of big shots for the Clippers this season. Most recently, Williams knocked down a go-ahead three-pointer in the final seconds against the Washington Wizards that sealed the win for the Clippers. The Clippers are used to having a natural born scorer coming off the bench to act as a sparkplug as they had Jamal Crawford on the roster for the last five seasons. Similar to Crawford, Williams struggles to hold his own on the defensive side of the ball. But Williams has been more effective defensively so far this season for the Clippers than Crawford was for the majority of his time in Los Angeles. Williams isn’t going to lock down the Russell Westbrooks of the world, but he isn’t giving back the majority of the points he scores either.
In addition to his scoring, Williams is a solid playmaker and has managed to facilitate the Clippers’ offense at various points of the season. Williams isn’t exactly Chris Paul in terms of setting up his teammates for easy baskets, but he has been notably effective in this role, which is very important considering how many playmakers have falled to injury this season. Williams is now, arguably, the team’s best offensive weapon and one of its most effective floor generals. Now that we are nearly two months into the NBA season, it seems as though Williams and his teammates are starting to find a little more chemistry with one another.
“I think these guys are just starting to be more comfortable. They understand we’re going to have some injuries and guys are going to be down,” Williams said recently. “So they’re just playing with a lot of confidence. I think at first you’re kind of getting your feet wet and guys don’t want to make mistakes. Now guys are just going out there and playing as hard as they can.”
Williams will need to continue building chemistry with his teammates if they are to keep pace until players like Gallinari and Griffin make it back onto the court.
The Clippers have won six of their last 10 games and are starting to steady what had becoming a sinking ship. Smart gamblers and predictive algorithms would caution against betting on the Clippers making the playoffs this season, but they are in much better shape now than they were in the middle of November — an accomplishment that Williams deserves plenty of credit for.
Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 12/15/17
Spencer Davies checks in on the race for DPOY with his top six candidates.
It’s mid-December and candidates for individual awards are starting to really garner attention. On Basketball Insiders, we’ve been taking a close look at players who should be in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year in a unique fashion.
As the numbers begin to even out and the noise lessens with larger sample sizes, the picture becomes clearer. There is no clear-cut favorite, and the return of Kawhi Leonard will likely complicate things more in the future, but right now there are six players who have stood out from the rest.
Luc Richard Mbah a Moute
It’s a shame that a right shoulder injury is going to keep Mbah a Moute out of action for the next few weeks. He’s done everything that the Houston Rockets have asked of him and more. It’s been his versatility defensively that’s made him a headache for any opponent he’s guarded. He’s able to seamlessly switch onto assignments coming off screens and create turnovers from forcing extra pressure.
The Rockets have the fourth-best defensive rating in the NBA (103.7) as it is, but when the veteran forward is on the floor, they allow just 99.8 points per 100 possessions per Cleaning The Glass.
There’s not a lot of good going on with the Oklahoma City Thunder right now, though you can pick out a bright spot when it comes to the defensive side of the ball. As a team, they are first in the league in turnover percentage and second in defensive rating. This is due in part to Roberson’s ability to force his matchups to make errant decisions with the ball, which usually results in a steal for one of his teammates.
Currently, the 26-year-old is the top guard in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus ranking system and 10th in Basketball Reference’s Defensive Box Plus-Minus. According to CTG, Oklahoma City is worse when Roberson isn’t playing (97.9 on/10.5 off) and his impact using those figures ranks in the 94th percentile.
Here’s a case where the numbers don’t exactly tell the real story. The Golden State Warriors are technically a better team defensively by 6.4 points per 100 possessions with Durant off the court. But when you go deeper into things, things get clarified. Let’s start simple: He’s tied for most total blocks in the league (51) and the second-most blocks per game (2.1). The Warriors have the third-best defensive rating in the NBA at 102.9.
How about we go further into individual defense? Durant is contesting nearly 13 field goals per game and only 38.4 percent of those attempts have been successful, a mark that is the second-lowest for opponent percentage among those defending at least 10 tries per game. Diving deeper, the reigning Finals MVP is stifling in the fourth quarter, yielding a league-low 30 percent conversion rate (min. three attempts) to his competition.
Trusting the Process has gone mainstream, and for good reason. Everybody is focused on the beautiful footwork, the sensational euro steps and the dream shakes, but Embiid’s got a suit just as strong on the other side of the ball. The Philadelphia 76ers are barely on the outside looking in as a top-10 defense, and they’ve been a team improving as they’ve grown together over the course of the season. The entire trio of Robert Covington, Ben Simmons, and Embiid has been the stronghold of the Sixers’ defense, but it’s been the sophomore center who has assumed the most responsibility to anchor down the paint and take on individual challenges against quality big men.
Embiid ranks third in DRPM among those playing at least 30 minutes per game and has the highest defended field goal percentage differential (-8.7) in the NBA for players seeing at least eight attempts per game. Philadelphia is also allowing 112.4 points per 100 possessions with him sitting, which is a 12-point difference that puts his impact in the 97th percentile.
Since Bledsoe’s arrival, the Milwaukee Bucks have been on the upswing regarding their defensive principles. The combination of Giannis Antetokounmpo—who could be a candidate for DPOY in his own right—and the strong guard has created havoc for opposing teams. There’s a ton of pressure being applied and it’s worked well. Due to a less-than-ideal stretch a month ago, work still has to be done in order to rid the Bucks out of that bottom-10 stigma in that specific area, but they’re on their way.
Bledsoe’s reputation as an in your face, stick-like-glue defender precedes itself. He’s doing an excellent job with one-on-one matchups. Already hesitant to attack him as it is, opponents don’t try to take him much, but when they do, it doesn’t usually turn out in their favor. In isolation situations, Bledsoe is allowing just 0.44 points per possession and is tied for the second-highest turnover frequency on those plays, ranking in the 97th percentile according to NBA.com. Using CTG, the Bucks’ defensive rating dips by 13 points when he’s off the floor. That discrepancy is also highly regarded and ranks in the 98th percentile.
Where would the New Orleans Pelicans be without Davis? There’s a special talent about The Brow that can’t really be put into words. He takes on the brunt of the defensive load and has for years now. DeMarcus Cousins started off as the physical presence of the duo on that end of the court, but it’s been Davis who has remained the most consistent force.
Answering the question posed in the first paragraph, the Pelicans are giving up 117.5 points per 100 possessions when Davis is not present. That is a ridiculous figure, and given that New Orleans isn’t the best team defensively in the first place, it shows his true importance to that group. Including Cousins, he is one of 13 players defending at least 14 field goals per game. The difference between them, however, is that he is allowing just 40.5 percent of those attempts to be successful. It’s the lowest conversion rate among that list of names. Add in the fact that he’s blocking almost two shots per game and is averaging a steal per game—that’s a convincing case for DPOY.
Jahlil Okafor Being Slowly Incorporated By Nets
The Nets hope Jahlil Okafor can be a franchise player for them, but, of course, only when he’s ready.
It’s incredible that a player selected as highly in a draft and as recently as he could be considered damaged goods by his drafting team, but that’s what the Philadelphia 76ers thought of Jahlil Okafor, and the Brooklyn Nets were the beneficiaries.
Remarkably, behind the genius of general manager Sean Marks, the Nets, with Okafor, suddenly have a roster with two young building blocks in he and D’Angelo Russell. With Allen Crabbe and DeMarre Carroll, Marks has done an incredible job of improving the talent base of the Nets despite having little assets to offer in terms of trade value.
Now, with Okafor in tow, the question everyone in Brooklyn wants to know the answer to is “When?”
After acquiring Okafor and shooting guard Nik Stauskas from the Sixers on December 7, neither of the two played in any of the club’s first three games following the trade.
The idea, said head coach Kenny Atkinson, is to bring both Okafor and Stauskas along slowly.
“I just think it’s going to take time,” Atkinson, according to New York Newsday, said Wednesday after practice.
“I can’t give you a timetable. I think we come to these decisions as a group. We’ll know when he’s ready and we’ll give you the word.”
Selected with the third overall pick in the 2015 draft, Okafor averaged 17 points and 7.5 rebounds per game as a rookie. Since then, a combination of the rise of Joel Embiid, his lack of defensive presence and perceived inability to play in an NBA where traditional back-to-basket centers are considered obsolete dropped his stock dramatically, to the point where he played a total of 25 minutes this season for the Sixers.
Still, it hasn’t impacted the value that Atkinson or Marks sees in him.
“I think he’s been very serious, very focused, and that’s a great start because that’s where it starts,” Atkinson said on Wednesday.
“What’s your demeanor like? What’s your work? I’m looking to get to know him more.”
It’s not every day that a coach will acquire a new player who has impact potential and seat him on the bench, but that’s exactly what Atkinson has done. What it means, though, is probably more important.
When one considers what has transpired with the Nets since their move to Brooklyn, the franchise has been renowned for attempting to take shortcuts to the top. From Gerald Wallace to Joe Johnson to even Deron Williams, the moves made by the franchise were always designed with the thought of tomorrow, not the pragmatic patience and long-sighted view that, at least to this point, Atkinson and Marks seem to have.
In most situations, a franchise which knows that its first round pick is going elsewhere would feel at least some sort of pressure to win as much as possible in the short term, especially after having the first overall pick in the prior year’s draft snatched from their grasp. As a reminder, as a part of the 2013 trade that sent Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to Brooklyn, the Nets sent the Celtics their first round picks in the 2014, 2016 and 2018 drafts, as well as the right to swap picks with them in 2017.
As fate would have it, the Nets’ pick in 2017 ended up being first overall, but, obviously, the Celtics exercised their right to swap.
Since then, the Celtics dealt the Nets’ 2018 pick to the Cavaliers in exchange for Kyrie Irving, but to the front office’s credit, the knowledge of the sins of yesterday have no impact on the brick-by-brick approach that Marks has taken in attempting to rebuild the franchise.
Okafor, unlike his prior life in Philadelphia, isn’t coming to Brooklyn with the pressure of being any sort of franchise savior on his shoulders—he simply needs to fit in, on his own time.
“They know my weaknesses and strengths and I’m working with them every day to get better,” Okafor said on Wednesday.
“They already told me what they want me to work on and like I said, I’m all in.”
Obviously, Atkinson has a plan for Okafor, and with the Nets playing three games in four nights, having another big body to provide some minutes would do the team wonders. But, for a change, there’s no haste in Brooklyn.
“Right now, I’m just getting used to the pace,” Okafor said. “That’s the main thing. Especially with me really not having played at all this year,” he said, alluding to the fact that, despite weighing in about 20 pounds lighter than he was last season, his lack of action has cause him to lose a bit of his wind.
But while he may have lost his place in the rotation and his game readiness, in Brooklyn, Okafor has found something much more valuable—a sense of belonging.
“They’re just really invested in me and that just makes me feel wanted, it makes me feel a part of this team,” he said.
With the final debit of the ill-fated 2013 trade being paid this coming summer, the Nets will turn the page on a new era that they hope Okafor and D’Angelo Russell—two players selected one pick apart—can help to lead.
Behind the scenes, Marks will continue to work diligently to acquire undervalued pieces which can, for him, hopefully become a part of a sum that’s bigger than their individual pieces.
But, of course, like Okafor’s debut with Brooklyn, it’ll take some time.
That’s okay, though. Finally, at Barclays Center, for a change, there’s pragmatic patience. For sure, this time, there’s simply no need to rush.