July rolls around, the sun is scorching in many places other than just Phoenix and NBA front offices buzz more than Kemba Walker’s Charlotte Hornets.
It is free agency season in the Association, and while the common NBA fan is preparing for a Fourth of July Weekend consisting of charcoal, hamburgers and fireworks, most of the league’s free agents are looking forward toward cashing in some big checks.
The chosen few—LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Eric Bledsoe and perhaps even Kyle Lowry—have managed to play themselves into whopping paydays. But often, it is a clever signing of a fifth or sixth man that helps put a team over the top, or at least allow them to swim near the surface with the other elites in the NBA.
As free agency begins, Basketball Insiders takes a look at a few of the lesser discussed free agents that could help to turn a pretender into a contender, or a contender into a champion.
Patty Mills (Point Guard, San Antonio Spurs, Unrestricted)
Last summer, fresh off of a productive playoff outing, the cost-conscious San Antonio Spurs opted to allow Gary Neal to seek greener pastures after the guard put together an all-around impressive playoff run.
Whether or not history will repeat with Patty Mills is a question that many are pondering, especially with recent reports suggesting that the New York Knicks and Mills have eyes for one another. Although the world only just became familiar with Mills over the course of the immediate-past playoffs, he has been a productive guard for the past three years he has spent in San Antonio.
An efficient shooter, Mills has the ability to create his own shot off the dribble and play the game at a breakneck pace. He takes care of the ball, as evidenced by his averaging just 1.5 turnovers per 36 minutes last season. During the playoffs, he came up huge for his team in the close-out Game 6 against the Oklahoma City Thunder when Tony Parker was unable to return for the game’s second half and, quite famously, in Game 5 of the decisive NBA Finals against the HEAT.
As J.J. Barea once did before him, Mills has again shown that a change-of-pace guard who has the ability to get hot and score points can pay major dividends in an important playoff series.
The Spurs seem far too wise to not realize that themselves and retain Mills—but they will not do so at all costs. He can be had and will likely end up representing good value for the dollar.
Shaun Livingston (Point Guard, Brooklyn Nets, Unrestricted)
By now, just about everyone is aware of the horrendous knee injury that Shaun Livingston suffered back in 2008. His career nearly ended, but now, after a long and winding journey, he has proven that he can be a productive contributor for a winning team.
During spurts last season, Livingston was forced to start for the aging Nets and did so 54 times. He averaged 26 minutes per game and routinely disrupted opposing offenses. Livingston’s athleticism has somewhat returned and today, he is one of the few players in the league that is capable of defending either guard position and blocking a forward’s shot at the rim.
At 6’8, his wiry and athletic frame is an asset on the offensive end, as well. Livingston, surprisingly, was one of the Nets’ more productive post scorers and, along with rookie Mason Plumlee, played an integral role not only in the Nets’ mid-season turnaround, but also the franchise winning their first playoff series of the Brooklyn era and the team’s first since 2007.
Mario Chalmers (Point Guard, Miami HEAT, Unrestricted)
With his struggles in the 2014 NBA Finals still fresh and the Miami HEAT being rumored to be in search of an upgrade at the point guard position, Mario Chalmers may have played his final game as one of LeBron James’ running mates.
Without question, though, he played a major role in the two championships that the HEAT won in recent years.
As a point guard, Chalmers does not have above-average ball handling skills or court vision, but when coupled with the correct personnel, he can be incredibly effective. He is an above-average on-ball defender, even if not light-footed. He is a better finisher around the basket than he is credited for and is a career 37 percent three-point shooter.
He may not necessarily be a starting point guard on scores of other teams around the league, but as a sixth man, with championship experience and pedigree, a team could do far worse than signing Chalmers. He has seen his fair share of big games and has had his share of big moments over the HEAT’s historic run. Unfortunately for him, his market value may be adversely affected due to his poor playoff performance this past season, but ultimately, if he leaves Miami, a wise contender will have scooped him up with his stock at a low point.
In the long run, though, the 28-year-old Alaskan will bounce back and continue to be a winner.
Shawn Marion (Small Forward, Dallas Mavericks, Unrestricted)
Despite the fact that this production has been steadily declining over the past few years, Shawn Marion is still a productive and versatile front court weapon. If he continues to age as gracefully as his current teammate Vince Carter, Marion can be a productive player for the next three years.
For the past five, though, Marion has been a part of the Dallas family and was a major contributor to the team winning its NBA championship back in 2011. Although his production has steadily declined since then, last season, even at 35 years old, Marion was able to play about 32 minutes per game for the Mavericks, scoring 10.4 points and grabbing 6.5 rebounds per contest. He has become renowned as a rare breed of NBA player who never takes a play off and has consistently managed to impact games over the course of his 15-year career.
Marion has flourished playing system basketball and has embraced the role of being a scrappy go-getter who never complains about minutes, touches or a lack of shot opportunities. In other words, he is one of the key ingredients in a winning basketball program, so it is no surprise that success has followed him over the course of his career.
Because he is fairly durable and not overly-reliant on his athleticism, Marion is very likely to remain a productive player in the NBA for at least a few more years.
Paul Pierce (Small Forward, Brooklyn Nets, Unrestricted)
With the now departed Jason Kidd having taken his talents to Milwaukee, there are even more questions in Brooklyn now than there were this spring when the Nets flamed out against the Miami HEAT in just five games.
Entering this offseason, there was questions surrounding the health of both Deron Williams and Brook Lopez and the potential departures of Shaun Livingston and Andray Blatche.
Today, there are questions about the circumstances leading to Jason Kidd’s departure, but the one that has seemingly flown under the radar is whether or not Paul Pierce will return.
Pierce will become a free agent and could make sense for the Los Angeles Clippers, among other teams. Both Pierce and Kevin Garnett were staring at the prospect of heading to Los Angeles with Doc Rivers last summer before then-Commissioner David Stern stepped in and forbade such a maneuver. Now, though, the veteran Pierce will enter the free agent market, and there will be a demand for his services.
Over the course of last season, Pierce capably led the Nets, especially in a few tight moments. He, like Pau Gasol, has seen his best days pass him by, but Pierce is still a capable defender and can still score effectively in spurts. In end of game situations, he is perhaps one of the players that the opposition does not want to give an opportunity, but more than being just a decoy, last season, Pierce proved that he can still play.
A team could do far worse than inking the 36-year-old to a two-year deal, especially since Pierce is in line for a substantial pay-cut from last season’s $15.33 million salary. His days of scoring 25 points per game may be done, but he is far from finished.
Pau Gasol (Power Forward, Los Angeles Lakers, Unrestricted)
With the arrival of Julius Randle, there is at least one more big man to take rotation minutes from Pau Gasol—making his return even more improbable. Gasol had a famous falling out with former coach Mike D’Antoni, but even with D’Antoni’s resigning, Gasol has openly discussed the thought of ending his career elsewhere. Largely under-appreciated in Los Angeles, Gasol has battled myriad health issues over the past three years, where he has missed 72 total games.
Still, even at 33 years old, there are few seven-footers in the league that possess the all-around skill set as Gasol. He still plays with his back to the basket, he still sees the floor tremendously well and he still has impeccable timing. If he can stay healthy, he would make a world of difference for any contender that has a void in the middle.
With the Lakers thinking about life after Kobe Bryant—and after committing $48.5 million to him over the next two years—it is highly doubtful that the Lakers would be willing to commit significant money to the aging Gasol.
Still, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure and if Gasol found his way to the Oklahoma City Thunder, Chicago Bulls, Dallas Mavericks, Miami HEAT or Houston Rockets, his impact would be felt immediately.
Marcin Gortat (Center, Washington Wizards, Unrestricted)
One of the more underrated centers in the entire league, Marcin Gortat has long been overlooked as a reason for his team’s success. Although he has played with a number of talented teammates including Dwight Howard, Steve Nash and John Wall, Gortat’s ability to impact the game on both ends of the floor has been evident to anyone who has watched him closely over the years.
For a man of his stature, he has exquisite footwork. He reads and reacts to pick-and-rolls exceptionally well for a center and has been integral to the success of the Orlando Magic, Phoenix Suns and now, the Washington Wizards.
After helping lead the Wizards to their first playoff appearance since 2008 and to their first series win since 2005, it is quite difficult imaging the Wizards allowing Gortat to flee, especially with the deep pockets of owner Ted Leonsis.
What is worth noting, however, is that the Wizards have a few other free agents, as well. The most notable includes Trevor Ariza, who was just as important to the Wizards’ success as Gortat. Though Gortat is not a max player, and though he is aging, big men have historically been well compensated on the free agent market. Gortat will benefit from this, even at 30 years old.
With a winning pedigree, size, a back to the basket game and the ability to impact the game on both ends of the floor, he will get droves of love in free agency. If he can be stolen away from Washington, they will immediately go from a team on the rise to one that will regress dramatically.
Whether in D.C. or elsewhere, Gortat’s presence will be felt, just like it has his entire career.
Greg Monroe (Center, Detroit Pistons, Restricted)
The lone restricted free agent of this batch, Greg Monroe warrants attention not only because of the growth he has shown over his first four years as an NBA pro, but also because of the very interesting situation in which he currently finds himself.
In Detroit, Andre Drummond and Monroe could form one of the most dominant interior tandems the Eastern Conference has seen in quite some time. However, with about $57 million committed to the combination of Brandon Jennings and Josh Smith over the next three seasons and the Pistons coming off of a 29-win campaign that saw them fail to qualify for the playoffs for the fifth consecutive season, the Pistons opting to retain Monroe at a hefty tag is no slam dunk. That is especially true with Drummond progressing and seeming like an everyday double-double machine.
Having just celebrated his 24th birthday, Monroe’s best days seem to be ahead of him. Whether or not he spends them in a Pistons uniform remains to be seen. But what can be said for sure is that wherever he spends them, they will be productive.
History has shown that building a team around a dominant big man yields productive results. Monroe will once again prove that theory to be true, either in Detroit or elsewhere.
As the clock strikes midnight, it is the LeBrons and Carmelos of the world who will get the attention and the affection. But don’t be surprised if a lesser thought of acquisition ends up making a huge difference. Just ask the general manager of the 2014 NBA champion San Antonio Spurs, R.C. Buford. He signed Boris Diaw from the scrap heap back in 2012. Clearly, that paid major dividends.
Middleton, Bucks Aiming To ‘Lock In’ As Season Comes To Close
Spencer Davies catches up with Milwaukee Bucks swingman Khris Middleton in a Basketball Insiders exclusive.
Basketball Insiders had the chance to chat with Khris Middleton about the direction of the Milwaukee Bucks as the season comes to a close.
You guys won three out of four before you came into Cleveland. What was working during that stretch?
Just being us. Doing it with our defense, playing fast-paced offense. Just trying to keep teams off the three-point line. We haven’t done that. We didn’t do that [Monday] or two games ago, but it’s something we’ve just gotta get back to.
With the offense—it seems like it’s inconsistent. What do you think that’s got to do with mostly?
Just trying to do it by ourselves sometimes. Standing, keeping the ball on one side of the floor. We’re a better team when we play in a fast pace. And then also in the half court, when we move the ball from side-to-side it just opens the paint for everybody and there’s a lot more space.
For you, on both ends you’ve been ultra-aggressive here in the last couple weeks or so, does that have to do with you feeling better or is it just a mindset?
I’ve been healthy all year. Right now, it’s the end of the season. Gotta make a push. Everybody’s gotta lock in. Have to be confident, have to be aggressive. Have to do my job and that’s to shoot the ball well and to defend.
Have you changed anything with your jumper? Looking at the past couple months back-to-back, your perimeter shooting was below 32 percent. In March it’s above 45 percent.
I feel like I got a lot of great looks earlier this year. They just weren’t falling. Right now, they’re falling for me, so I have the same mindset that I had when I was missing and that’s to keep on shooting. At some point, they’re gonna go down for me.
Is knowing that every game at this point means more an extra motivator for you guys?
Definitely. We’re basically in the playoffs right now. We’re in a playoff series right now where we have to win games, we have to close out games, in order to get the seeding and to stay in the playoffs. Each game and each possession means something to us right now.
Is it disappointing to be in the position the team is in right now, or are you looking at it as, ‘If we get there, we’re going to be alright’?
I mean, we wish we were in a better position. But where we’re at right now, we’re fine with it. We want to make that last push to get higher in the seeding.
Lots of changes have gone on here. Eric Bledsoe came in two weeks into the season. You had the coaching change and lineup changes. Jabari Parker’s been getting situated before the postseason. How difficult does that make it for you guys to build consistency?
Yeah, it was tough at first. But I think early on we had to adjust on the fly. We didn’t have too many practices. There was a stretch where we were able to get in the film room, get on the court, and practice with each other more.
Now it’s just at a point where we’re adding a lot of new guys off the bench where we have to do the same things—learn on the fly, watch film. We’re not on the court as much now, but we just have to do a great job of buying in to our system, try to get to know each other.
Does this team feel like it has unfinished business based on what happened last year?
Definitely. Last year, we felt like we let one go. Toronto’s a great team. They’re having a hell of a season this year, but I feel like we let one go. This year’s a new year—a little add of extra motivation. We’ve been in the playoff position before, so hopefully, we learn from it when we go into it this year.
Would you welcome that rematch?
I mean, we welcome anybody man. We showed that we compete with any team out here. We can’t worry about other teams as much. We just have to be focused on us.
What has to happen for you guys to achieve your full potential?
Lock in. Just play as hard as we can, play unselfish, and do our job out there night-in, night-out.
NBA Daily: Raptors Look To Fine-Tune The Defense
The Toronto Raptors’ defense had a letdown against the Cavaliers, but has been outstanding overall.
The Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors engaged in an offensive shootout on Wednesday that could be a playoff preview. The Cavs protected home court with a single-possession, 132-129 victory. Afterward, the Raptors spoke about the types of defensive adjustments the team needs to make as the postseason rapidly approaches.
“That’s how a playoff game would be,” said DeMar DeRozan, who missed a three at the buzzer that could have forced overtime. “This is a team we’ve been playing against the last two years in the postseason. Understanding how we can tighten up things defensively, how to make things tougher for them [is key].
“[It’s] little small things that go a long way, and not just with them … with every team.”
Raptors coach Dwane Casey concurred with DeRozan that fine-tuning of the defense is needed. He also pointed out that, with young contributors such as center Jakob Poeltl and power forward Pascal Siakam on the roster, defensive experience against the league’s best player, LeBron James, is something they will have to gain on the fly.
“I don’t think Jakob Poeltl played against him that much, and Siakam,” said Casey. “This is their first time seeing it. I thought Jak and Pascal did an excellent job, but there are certain situations where they’ve got to read and understand what the other team is trying to do to them.”
Poeltl was outstanding, leading the bench with 17 points and tying for the team lead in rebounds with eight. Casey praised the diversity of his contributions.
“I thought he did an excellent job of rolling, finishing, finding people,” said Casey. “I thought defensively, he did a good job of protecting the paint, going vertical. So I liked what he was giving us, especially his defense against Kevin Love.”
Basketball Insiders previously noted how the Raptors have performed vastly better as a team this season when starting point guard Kyle Lowry is out of the game. Much of that is due to Fred VanVleet’s emergence as one of the NBA’s best reserve point guards. VanVleet scored 16 points with five assists and no turnovers against Cleveland. It’s also a reflection of how good Toronto’s perimeter defense has been up and down the roster.
According to ESPN’s defensive Real Plus-Minus statistic, three of the NBA’s top 15 defensive point guards play for the Raptors. VanVleet ranks seventh while Lowry is 12th and Delon Wright is 14th. Starting small forward OG Anunoby ranks 16th at his position.
The Raptors also rank in the top five in offensive efficiency (third) and defensive efficiency (fifth). Having established an identity as a defensive team, especially on the perimeter, it’s perhaps understandable that Lowry was the one player in the visiting locker room who took the sub-standard defensive showing personally.
“It was a disgraceful display of defense by us and we’ve got to be better than that,” said Lowry. “We’ve got to be more physical. They picked us apart and made a lot of threes. We’ve got to find a way to be a better defensive team.”
Lowry continued the theme of fine-tuning as the regular season winds down.
“I think we’ve just got to make adjustments on the fly as a team,” said Lowry. “We can score with the best of them, but they outscored us tonight. We got what we wanted offensively. We’re one of the top teams in scoring in the league, but we’re also a good defensive team.”
Lowry was clearly bothered by Toronto’s defensive showing, but Casey downplayed the importance of a single regular-season game.
“We’ve got to take these games and learn from them, and again learn from the situations where we have to be disciplined,” said Casey. “It’s not a huge thing. It’s situations where we are that we’ve got to learn from and be disciplined and not maybe take this step and over-help here. Because a team like that and a passer like James will make you pay.”
While the Raptors continue to gain experience and dial in the fine defensive details, Casey was insistent that his players should not hang their heads over falling short against Cleveland.
“Hopefully our guys understand that we’re right there,” said Casey.
The Raptors host the Brooklyn Nets tonight to open a three-game home stand that includes visits from the Clippers Sunday and the Nuggets Tuesday. After that, Toronto visits the Celtics March 31 followed by a return to Cleveland April 3 and a home game against Boston the next night. With three games in a row against the other two top-three teams in the East, the schedule presents plenty of opportunities for the Raptors to add defensive polish before the playoffs begin.
NBA Daily: Jaylen Brown Set To Return For Celtics
The Celtics finally got some good news on Thursday. Jaylen Brown’s return is imminent.
Finally, some good news for the Boston Celtics.
Jaylen Brown is set to return to action.
Brown has been M.I.A. since sustaining a concussion during the team’s 117-109 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves back on March 8, but has traveled with the team to Portland and is expecting to return to the lineup on Sunday when the Celtics do battle with the Sacramento Kings.
As the Celts gear up for a playoff run, which they hope will result in them ending LeBron James’ reign atop the Eastern Conference, they’ve picked the wrong time to run into injury issues. Along with Brown, both Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart have each been conspicuous by their absences, and the team could certainly use all of their pieces as they attempt to enter the postseason on a high note.
Fortunately for Boston, with the Toronto Raptors leading them by 4.5 games in the standings and the Celts ahead of the Cleveland Cavaliers by a comfortable six games, Brad Stevens’ team is enjoying the rare situation of having a playoff seed that appears to be somewhat locked in.
Still, with the team only able to go as far as its young rotation will carry it, Brown addressed the media on Thursday.
“I’m feeling a lot better. I’m just trying to hurry up and get back,” Brown said, as quoted by Celtics.com.
“I’m tired of not playing.”
Stevens is probably tired of him not playing, too.
As we head into the month of April, playoff-bound teams and conference contenders begin to think about playing into June, while the cellar-dwellers and pretenders begin to look toward the draft lottery and free agency.
What’s funny is that in the midst of the Raptors and their rise out East, the Celtics and their dominance has become a bit of a forgotten storyline. When Gordon Hayward went down on opening night, the neophytes from the Northeast were thought to be a decent team in the making whose ceiling probably wasn’t anywhere near that of the Cavs, the Raptors and perhaps even the Washington Wizards.
Yet through it all, with the impressive growth of Jaylen Brown, impressive rookie Jayson Tatum and the rise of Irving as a franchise’s lynchpin, the Celtics stormed out the games to the tune of a a 17-3 record. What made the strong start even more impressive was the fact that the team won 16 straight games after beginning the season 0-2.
Although they weren’t able to keep up that pace, they began the month of February having gone 37-15 and turned a great many into believers. With their spry legs, team-first playing style and capable leader in Irving, the Celtics, it was thought, were a true contender in the Eastern Conference — if not the favorite.
Since then, and after experiencing injuries to some of its key cogs, the team has gone just 11-8.
In the interim, it seems that many have forgotten about the team that tantalized the Eastern Conference in the early goings of the season.
Brown’s return, in one important respect, will signify a return to Boston’s prior self.
With Marcus Smart having recently undergone surgery to repair a torn tendon in his right thumb, he is expected to be out another five weeks or so, meaning that he’ll likely miss the beginning of the postseason.
As for Irving, although reports say that his ailing knee has no structural damage, everything the Celtics hope to accomplish begins and ends with him. FOX Sports 1’s Chris Broussard believes that it’s no slam dunk that Irving returns to action this season, but he’s in the minority. This team has simply come too far to not give themselves every opportunity to compete at the highest level, so long as doing so doesn’t jeopardize the long term health of any of the franchise’s cornerstones.
Make no mistake about it, the Celtics are far from a finished product. With their nucleus intact and flexibility preserved, they will have another offseason with which to tinker with their rotation pieces and plug away at building a champion.
But here and now, with what they’ve got, the Celtics are much closer than any of us thought they would be at this point.
And on Sunday, when Jaylen Brown rejoins his team in the lineup, to the delight of the Boston faithful, the Celtics will be that much closer.