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Enormous Contracts Are the NBA’s New Reality

Nate Duncan looks at the money available for free agents this offseason to explain why the market is so hot.

Nate Duncan

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It has been a relatively quiet first day of free agency as the market waits for big fish like Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James to bite.  But the few deals that have been signed have shocked many observers in both salary and length.  Notably, 30-year-old Marcin Gortat agreed to return to the Washington Wizards for a reported five-year, $60 million pact, Jodie Meeks agreed to three years and nearly $19 million with the Detroit Pistons, and the Golden State Warriors reportedly agreed with Shaun Livingston on a three-year deal for their full mid-level exception, although the last year is only partially guaranteed.  This morning it was reported that restricted free agent Avery Bradley agreed to a four-year, $32 million deal to return to the Boston Celtics, and C.J. Miles agreed to four years, $18 million with the Indiana Pacers.

While these contracts are far above the market rate for last year, the rising cap this year, the number of teams hording cap space and the increased number of teams looking to compete this year has significantly inflated the market compared to the last few post-lockout years when the cap remained relatively flat.

Bear with me if you will for a short gaming of what this offseason will look like.  Please note that this is not a prediction of where these players will land necessarily, but more of an exercise to get an idea of how much money will be left once the main players have found their destinations.  To do so, I went through the salary situations of all 30 teams starting with the updated salary situations from our Eric Pincus.*  The goal was to determine how much room they would have, either via exceptions or outright cap space.  Obviously such an exercise involved myriad assumptions such as which players’ cap holds will be renounced, which non-guaranteed players will be retained, ad infinitum.  Clearly, not all of these can be correct.  They will not be delineated here, as that is not really the purpose of the exercise.  The point is more to get an idea of the total amount of free agent money available.

*Eric’s numbers include cap holds that have yet to be renounced as well as a lot of non-guaranteed money that will likely be cut.

As we will see, not only are the Meeks, Livingston and Bradley deals in line with this year’s market, but the teams signing them might have even been smart to move on them so quickly.

The Big Fish

The first part in modeling the summer is accounting for where the major free agents will land.  Aside from where we have reporting to the contrary, the assumption will be that most if not all of the major free agents will return to their prior teams.  Because the market is so inflated, the incumbent team will often have to use the advantage of offering a fifth year, as only the prior team may do. Since many of those teams are over the cap with no way to replace those players, that seems the most likely scenario in these cases. This is especially so since most of the teams in this situation are trying to get better this year.

If so many players end up returning to their prior teams, that will cause more overall money to be spent due to many of those teams using Bird rights to re-sign those players by going over the cap.  If those players leave, then those teams likely will not have the spending power to replace those assets, while teams with cap room still must spend to at least 90 percent of the projected $63.2 million cap this year.*

*If a team does not spend that much, it must distribute the difference between its actual payments to players and the salary floor to the players on its roster via whatever formula the NBPA finds appropriate. This would most likely be pro rata based on how much the players on the team are already making.

On to the main players.

The Heatles

Reports have generally indicated that LeBron James will demand a maximum deal. Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade may sign for the max as well, but it’s possible that they’ll re-sign for less. Udonis Haslem will also re-sign for less than his original salary, but probably for more years to make up the lost income.  Most estimates have floated the idea that the Miami HEAT could have around $10 million in space to sign free agents, plus the $2.7 million Room Exception for teams under the cap.

Carmelo Anthony

Anthony seems the most likely star to leave his prior team. This analysis will assume he goes to the Chicago Bulls, but the overall league market would be much the same if he goes to another new team. If he remains with New York, that leaves another team with cap space that must be filled and inflates the market even further.

Dirk Nowitzki

All reports have indicated he is going back to the Dallas Mavericks, likely for about $10 million per year.

Lance Stephenson

Because the Pacers have no way to replace him, the assumption will be he ultimately returns there despite reports of an impasse after Indiana offered him a five-year, $44 million deal.

Kyle Lowry

Reports have Toronto mulling whether to offer him a fifth year on a contract starting at $12 million per year. If that is indeed the offer, it is hard to imagine him leaving because there is no way he would get that kind of money as a 32-year-old free agent coming off a four-year deal.

Isaiah Thomas

We will assume he returns to the Sacramento Kings on something like an $8 million per year contract as a restricted free agent.  They too have talked about trying to get better this year, and if they lose him they would still be capped out with no other decent point guard on the roster and only the MLE to offer.  Given the amount of money available around the league, I am surprised Thomas isn’t being talked about for offers over $10 million per year.  Apparently teams are scared off by his size.

Trevor Ariza

It has long been predicted that Ariza will return to the Washington Wizards.  With Martell Webster going under the knife for back surgery, Otto Porter nowhere near ready to start (if he ever will be), and Marcin Gortat already paid, the Wizards will likely retain the 29-year-old Ariza as well using Bird rights. This too may be tougher than expected for Washington, given the other potential suitors for Ariza.

Restricted Free Agents

As reports of the Cleveland Cavaliers making a max offer to Gordon Hayward swirl, it appears very likely that Hayward, Eric Bledsoe and Greg Monroe will get maximum offers given the amount of space available around the league.  A maximum offer sheet for these restricted free agents will start at approximately $14.7 million. We will also assume that their incumbent teams will match such an offer sheet.  If, however, they do not, the Utah Jazz, Phoenix Suns and Detroit Pistons will all have an extra $14.7 million in cap room to use on other free agents since they are all below the cap.  Therefore, the ultimate destination of these players does not really affect the total amount of money available in the system.

Meanwhile, it seems very likely that Chandler Parsons has some sort of arrangement to return to the Houston Rockets, or they would not have let him out of his contract a year early when his signing an offer sheet as a restricted free agent could potentially scuttle their free agent plans.  Because he still has a low cap hold of $2.9 million, the Rockets will still be able to sign free agents up to the cap before exceeding the cap to re-sign him with Bird rights.  The assumption will be that he returns on something approaching a $10 million deal, presumably with a bit of a discount priced in since the Rockets did him a favor by not exercising their team option for under $1 million for 2014-15.

Edit: To be clear, under this scenaio Parsons would not actually sign his new deal until after the Rockets sign additional players.  Signing it before the Rockets sign anyone else would use up their Room prematurely.

Teams With Cap Room

Now that those assumptions are in place and most of the major free agents are accounted for, here is my projection of the remaining available cap room around the league.

Philadelphia 76ers–$30.9 million

Orlando Magic–$22 million*

Los Angeles Lakers–$21 million

Phoenix Suns–$20.9 million

Charlotte Hornets–$18 million

Atlanta Hawks–$16.1 million

Dallas Mavericks–$16 million

Cleveland Cavaliers–$15 million

Utah Jazz–$13.8 million

Milwaukee Bucks–$13.1 million

Miami HEAT–$10 million

Houston Rockets–$7 million*

Detroit Pistons–$2.8 million

*The Orlando projection includes the two-year, $9 million contract given to Ben Gordon.  Houston’s includes Jeremy Lin on the roster for now. Although they will likely move him, it would be to another team with cap space so it would not affect the total amount of money in the system.

Look at those figures again.  Even with most of the major free agents gone, there could remain as much as $218 million in cap space around the league.  That number could of course change based on the potential destinations for the big boys, but it represents a reasonable proxy for what is out there.*

*While teams like Philadelphia, Orlando and Utah may not spend all the way up to the cap on their own free agents, the 90 percent salary floor means they are incentivized to take on bloated contracts from other teams in exchange for assets, which would open an equivalent amount of cap space elsewhere in the league.

Available Exceptions

Of course, that is nowhere near the maximum amount of money available around the league.  Based on the math and what we know of teams’ luxury tax tolerance, quite a few teams will have the full mid-level exception to spend.  By my projections, Boston, Denver, Indiana (partial use), Los Angeles Clippers, Memphis (likely Mike Miller), Minnesota, New York (if Carmelo leaves), Oklahoma City (possibly a partial use), Portland, San Antonio and Washington (depending on how high Ariza’s contract goes) could use the MLE.  That is 11 teams. If we conservatively assume that six of them will use the full MLE and another two use part of it, that is another $35 million or so in the system.

Many teams could also use the $2.1 million Bi-Annual Exception. These include Boston, Los Angeles Clippers, New York, Portland, and San Antonio.* If four of the six use it, that’s another $8.4 million.

*If Chicago can execute a sign-and-trade for Anthony or another target, they will likely use the MLE and BAE as well.  Edit: A previous version of this article stated that Washington could also use the BAE, but it was used on Eric Maynor last year.

Given Brooklyn’s recent spending habits, it will likely use the $3.3 million Tax-Payer MLE (MMLE).

Finally, many teams trying to improve with cap room could use their $2.7 million Room Exception.  These include Atlanta, Chicago, Cleveland, Dallas, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles Lakers, Miami, Milwaukee, New Orleans (lost other exceptions due to going under the cap for the Omer Asik deal) and Phoenix.  That is another 11 teams. All but Atlanta and Milwaukee of this group seem certain to use theirs, so let’s conservatively say nine teams.  That is another $24.3 million.*

*I assumed that cap teams Orlando, Philadelphia and Utah would not use their Room Exceptions.

That now leaves us with approximately $289 million in available money—an absolutely enormous sum.

Who Gets the Money?

Now remember again that this $289 million is available to be spent with almost all of the best free agents off the market.

In the scenario I’ve modeled, here are some of the remaining notable free agents:

Pau Gasol

Spencer Hawes

Luol Deng

Channing Frye

Ed Davis

Boris Diaw

Josh McRoberts

Shawn Marion

Paul Pierce

Patty Mills*

Patrick Patterson (RFA)

P.J. Tucker (RFA)

Mo Williams

Vince Carter

Thabo Sefolosha

*Mills has a shoulder injury that will keep him out until at least midseason, and is widely assumed headed back to San Antonio.

Certainly other players could get paid this offseason, but that list is incredibly unexciting.  And yet in this scenario $289 million, plus minimum salaries, is going to be split up among these players and even lesser lights. The choice between massively overpaying older players like these and investing in maximum contracts for players like Hayward, Bledsoe and Monroe is an obvious one.  That is why those players will almost certainly get maxed out.

What is Market Value?

Given the realities of the market, the Livingston, Meeks and Bradley contracts do not look nearly so bad. Then consider that the salary cap is projected to increase a further $4 million next year, and may see even higher increases in the years after that as new national and local television deals kick in.* Even the Gortat contract seems to be right about what he would have gotten on the open market in terms of annual value.

*Especially with respect to the national deal, the NBA may elect to mute a possible huge one-year jump in the cap by structuring the national TV contract to increase in value over its lifetime rather than doubling the previous contract in year one.

Nevertheless, the mere fact a contract is market price based on what other teams are willing to pay does not necessarily make it a good deal.  This is especially so for players like Gortat, Lowry and Ariza who will likely re-sign with their old teams.  With the market so competitive, the fifth year becomes critical for both player and team, especially when a player is on his third long-term contract.  With the amount of competition on the market, length of contract rather than size will become more important than ever.  We may see smart teams move ever more in the direction of shorter offers for more money to free agents when they are signing players below the upper crust.

For the first three offseasons after it was enacted, many cited a depressed free agent market as the reality of the 2011 CBA.  It is now clear that was an artificial reality imposed by the flat cap required to reduce the players’ percentage of BRI into the agreed-upon 49-51 percent range from the previous CBA’s 57 percent, as well as bloated longer contracts left over from the previous CBA. The shorter contracts under this new CBA will put many more free agents on the market every year. The new breed of general managers are much smarter about maintaining flexibility. The cap is now rising, and should continue to do so beyond what many have imagined. Get used to three years, $19 million as a relative “bargain” for Jodie Meeks for the foreseeable future.  It is the NBA’s new reality.

 

Nate Duncan is an NBA analyst and attorney. He writes regular features for Basketball Insiders and chats weekly at 11 Eastern on Tuesdays.

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NBA Daily: An Elite Generation Takes Aim At The Postseason Greats

Even without LeBron James in the playoffs, there are plenty of historical narratives worth keeping an eye on — from steals to blocks, there’s plenty up for grabs.

Ben Nadeau

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When LeBron James missed out on the postseason for the first time in 14 years, he left a massively large hole in the proceedings. After all, James had dragged his squad to the NBA Finals in eight consecutive seasons, dating back to his inaugural season alongside Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh down in Miami.

Without James, in a way, the playoffs seem just a little bit emptier.

But it goes past his hulking status as a legend or his ability to dominate the headlines throughout the work week — literally, his box score is a standstill, collecting dust for once. James already owns more postseason points than anybody in NBA history with 6,911. That’s more than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, more than Kobe Bryant and more than Michael Jordan — all by the age of 32.

Unsurprisingly, James is also the active leader in nearly every other category as well — games, minutes, field goals, rebounds, assists and steals.

The absence of James and a few notable other leaves the 2018-19 playoffs in an intriguing position in terms of the historical ladder. But since James cannot extend his absurd statistical bounties this spring, here are the players worth watching into the second round and beyond.

Of note, without James, Tony Parker, Dwyane Wade, Udonis Haslem and Dirk Nowitzki on the floor this postseason, Pau Gasol (136) is highest-ranking active games leader. Trailed by Kyle Korver at 133, it’s a small testament to their sticking power in an ever-changing NBA landscape.

Not far behind that pair is Kevin Durant, who will presumably pass Kevin Garnett, James Worthy and Reggie Miller for 37th all-time in postseason minutes at some point in their series against the Los Angeles Clippers.

Durant’s name, naturally, will be popping up far more than just that.

Field Goals — Kevin Durant
1,265, 20th all-time

1. LeBron James, 2,457
10. Tony Parker, 1,613
14. Dwyane Wade, 1,450

44. Russell Westbrook, 834
48. Stephen Curry, 815

Regardless of how Durant’s championships in Golden State resonates person-to-person, there’s no denying that the 6-foot-9 finisher is a crash course with history. At 30, Durant just continues to rise up the ranks and his free agency decision this summer suddenly looms large. Just as the rest of the categories reflect, these year-after-year deep Warriors runs can do wonders for your postseason standings — but Durant seems willing to give that all up. Still, outside of his first playoff berth in 2009-10, Durant has only failed to splash more than 140 field goals in just one other season.

During the Warriors’ championship-winning run in 2018-19, Durant dropped an absurd 212 buckets on 48.7 percent from the floor. Should he just tally a more human total in this current postseason pace, he’ll be knocking on the door of the top ten. Hell, even if Durant leaves Golden State come July in free agency and his field goals per playoffs revert to a more sustainable number of around 150, it’ll only take another three seasons before he’s challenging the likes of Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal.

Durant is destined for greatness, the only question now is how high he’ll go.

Three-Pointers — Stephen Curry
395, 1st all-time


3. LeBron James, 370
6. Klay Thompson, 308
11. Kevin Durant, 273
14. James Harden, 240
15. Kyle Korver, 237
20. Danny Green, 194

Yeah, so, Curry owns the three-point line already — that’s well-established.

Just last week, Curry became the NBA’s all-time postseason leader in made three-pointers by passing Ray Allen during Game 1 against the Clippers.

Also, relevantly, Stephen Curry is only 31 years-old.

At this rate, his record has a legitimate chance to become untouchable by the time Curry retires. Saying that Curry is a fire-flinging marksman almost states nothing at this point — but what he’s done in the span of four years would’ve been borderline unimaginable 10 years ago. Along with three championships, Curry has tallied 98, 80, 72 and 64 made three-pointers over the previous four postseason runs.

For comparison’s sake, neither Ray Allen nor Reggie Miller ever passed 60 made threes in a single postseason during their Hall of Fame-worthy careers.

Needless to say, the gulf between No. 1 and No. 2 could be unfathomably deep in a few years’ time — if not for the efforts of Klay Thompson, his co-Splash Brother.

Over those same four seasons, Thompson has been nearly as prolific as Curry has been. Knocking down 57, 98, 41 and 67 made three-point totals, Thompson has flown to No. 6 on the charts in no time. Of course, Curry and Thompson benefit from playing close to 20 games each postseason — just as James has for the last decade — but these are prime sharpshooters simply showing off.

Even if Thompson makes a modest 40 three-pointers per postseason this year and next, he’d swiftly pass Allen and James for second on the ladder. Unless proceedings take a surprising twist this summer, Thompson and Curry may have another half-decade of elite play left in Golden State’s backcourt.

Which is to say, basically: Say goodbye to any and all three-point records — both in the regular and postseason — as these two are going to smash them all to pieces — if they haven’t already.

Total Rebounds — Pau Gasol
1,246, 37th all-time

6. LeBron James, 2,122
23. Dirk Nowitzki, 1,446
29. Dwight Howard, 1,315

53. Kevin Durant, 1,025
61. Draymond Green, 942

Gasol has slowed down as of late, but he’s still near the top of the rebounding ladder for now. The Spaniard has been dealing with an ankle injury since he joined the Milwaukee Bucks in March, but he likely won’t feature all that much once he returns either. With Brook Lopez handling most of the center minutes, it’s unlikely that Gasol does too much damage here. He’s on the backend of his career and hasn’t played meaningful postseason minutes since 2016-17, where he tallied 75 rebounds over 365 minutes and 16 games for San Antonio.

Unless there’s an injury, Gasol can reasonably snag a few spot-minute rebounds here and there to pass Kevin McHale (1,253) and Dan Issel (1,255) for 35th all-time. If the Bucks reach the Eastern Conference Finals, there’s certainly a chance Gasol could pass Artis Gilmore this postseason, but don’t expect much fanfare in either case.

Elsewhere, much like Thompson, the Warriors’ length four-year chases have sent Draymond Green skyrocketing up the standings too. Green has put up 166, 190, 135 and 180 tallies over that interval, so another run like that would place him around Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan in the low 40s for the most all-time postseason rebounds. For a second-round selection, Green’s contributions have already left an indelible dent in NBA history with no foreseeable end in sight.

Assists — Chris Paul
815, 25th all-time

3. LeBron James, 1,687
5. Tony Parker, 1,143
13. Rajon Rondo, 981
20. Dwyane Wade, 870

31. Russell Westbrook, 746
41. James Harden, 597
42. Draymond Green, 593
43. Stephen Curry, 592
51. Kevin Durant, 518

This list is popping with recent activity, full of vibrant playmakers and game-changing court visionaries. James, Parker, Rondo and Wade decorate the top of the ladder, however, the next generation is approaching fast.

Paul, who deserves to be in the conversation for the best point guard of all-time, sports a career playoff average of 8.8 assists over 93 games. Of course, his numbers have taken a slight hit since he joined up with the ball-dominant James Harden but Paul can leapfrog a bevy of legends this postseason alone.

If the Houston Rockets play in 15 games again and Paul averages five or so assists in that stretch, he’d finish on par with Clyde Drexler at No. 19 all-time. In matching Drexler, Paul would pass John Havlicek, Manu Ginobili, Chauncey Billups, Julius Erving and Dwyane Wade — so, obviously, that’s not bad company to keep at all.

Paul’s ability to reach even higher will depend on his health and role next to Harden, but his Hall of Fame legacy is already cemented without question.

Steals — Chris Paul
201, 24th all-time

1. LeBron James, 419
14. Dwyane Wade, 273
24-T. Rajon Rondo, 201

30. James Harden, 181
31. Russell Westbrook, 180
35. Andre Iguodala, 174
40. Draymond Green, 169
45. Stephen Curry, 160
48. Kawhi Leonard, 149

Paul’s aforementioned legacy is furthered thanks to his long-time ball-swiping prowesses — today, the 33-year-old finds himself on the verge of joining another elite group. During the Rockets’ Western Conference Finals run in 2017-18, Paul snagged 30 steals. If Paul were able to replicate those totals for the remainder of this postseason and all of the next, he’d have enough to pass Karl Malone for No. 16 all-time in postseason thefts. Again, Paul’s recent injury history makes it a tough area to predict — but as long as he’s playing, his team has a chance to win.

The presence of Andre Iguodala is an exemplification of his impressive career too, particularly so given his recent multi-round trips as a member of the Warriors. Iguodala, 35, has only missed the postseason once since 2007 — albeit playing in just one series clips typically — but he’s been a springtime staple this era. Over Golden State’s historic four-year journey, Iguodala has snatched away totals of 25, 29, 14 and 21 steals, respectively.

If he were to manage another 20 or so this postseason, he’d rank close to the top 25 in postseason steals — all in all, a fantastic achievement for the well-liked veteran.

Blocks — Serge Ibaka
255, 10th all-time


14. Dwight Howard, 234
15. Pau Gasol, 233
16. LeBron James, 232
25. Dwyane Wade, 175
35. Kevin Durant, 156
37. Draymond Green, 152
44. Al Horford, 138

Saving the best for last is Serge Ibaka, the NBA’s active leader in postseason blocks. That’s right: Not James, not Gasol, not Howard — Serge Ibaka. The 6-foot-10 brick wall has slowed down from his elite days in Oklahoma City, but he’s still consistently climbing the historical ladder. Ibaka hasn’t missed the playoffs since his rookie year in 2008 and he’s featured in 10-plus games in every postseason since 2009. Back in the Thunder’s heyday, Ibaka swatted away a whopping 52, 59, 33 and 42 shots over a four-year period.

North of the border, Ibaka’s postseason tallies have been far more muted — still, he’s got plenty of gas left in the tank. With Toronto looking like an Eastern Conference Finals contender, Ibaka has a real chance of reaching 20 blocks this time around. Should Ibaka do so, he’d be right on the tail of Kevin McHale and Julius Erving for ninth and eighth all-time in playoff blocks. Although Ibaka is extremely unlikely to reach the Hall of Fame himself, his place as one of basketball’s best shot blockers is practically set in stone.

James’ departure — along with the massive holes left by Nowitzki and Wade — have given this postseason a completely different feel. But even if onlookers can’t watch LeBron further many of his categorical leads, there are plenty of other narratives worth paying attention to. Given Curry and Thompson’s elite long-distance shooting, Paul’s high-ranking steals and assists totals and Durant’s overall dominance, that means that every game — whether in the first round or the Finals — has historical implications.

Which NBA legend will be passed next? Kobe Bryant? Michael Jordan? With this group of stat-stuffing future Hall of Famers, almost nothing is off the table.

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NBA Daily: Is Now the Time for the Houston Rockets?

Houston pushed the Golden State Warriors to the brink last year. Shane Rhodes analyzes whether the Rockets are now ready to advance to the NBA Finals.

Shane Rhodes

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In what may be the best eventual series of the postseason, the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors are expected to go head-to-head in the second round.

Both teams are almost certainly looking forward to their postseason rematch — to show which team is truly dominant over the other. Both the Rockets and Warriors, for the most part, have made easy work of their first-round adversaries; while the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers, respectively, may play hard, neither have the personnel to contend with the NBA’s most talented teams. Meanwhile, both Houston and Golden State have subjected the NBA to a season-long offensive clinic, and their postseason performance thus far has shown that neither team has lost much, if any steam.

But, over the last few seasons, the Rockets have had one goal (beyond the obvious Larry O’Brien Trophy), one obsession: unseating the Warriors dynasty.

“It’s the only thing we think about,” General Manager Daryl Morey said last season. They were meticulously built to defeat the beast that Golden State has become in recent years.

And now, Houston may have its best chance to topple a giant.

While some may argue otherwise, the Rockets are a better team than they were a season ago. Not only are they healthy — Chris Paul was lost to injury in the midst of their Conference Finals series last season — but their defense is better. Even James Harden, voted Most Valuable Player a season ago and in line for another this season, has significantly improved, both as an offensive weapon and as a defender.

Houston went through multiple regular season stretches that were rife with injuries. Paul missed 17 straight games midseason, while Clint Capela missed 15 of his own around the same time. But now, there are no major injuries, and the Rockets are actively trying to avoid them: P.J. Tucker and Eric Gordon, amid two blowouts, have seen their time on the court dip from a season ago, while Paul is on pace to finish with a career low in postseason minutes player per game (30).

A dose of early season adversity seems to have hardened the Rockets mindset quite a bit as well; while they were somewhat carried by Harden’s historic offensive effort, it put the roster in a position where they needed to grind out some ugly wins on the defensive end and it has made them better in the long run. Tucker, an already versatile defensive weapon, has proved even more capable this season while Capela and Paul are their usual stout selves.

As for Harden, who has looked to be in the best shape of his career, he has become even more valuable for the Rockets than he was a season ago. He has proven a stout defender, both on the perimeter and in the post, en route to career-high two steals per game (good for second in the NBA this season).

Offensively, his shot volume has increased dramatically, but he has remained surprisingly efficient, shooting 36.8% and 44.2% from three and the field, respectively, on 13.2 threes (a career high) and 24.5 shots per game (also a career high). But he has developed more than his three-point stroke. While Harden has made art of the stepback three, he has improved on his ability to draw fouls; Harden was the first since Allen Iverson in the 2005-06 regular season to average at least nine free throws made and 11 free throw attempts per game (again, both career highs for Harden). While he is often criticized for his style of play, he has used it to put the Rockets in a position to win big games time and time again.

What may be the best news for Houston, however, is that, through two games, Harden has averaged his lowest postseason minutes played since he was in Oklahoma City. Harden, as have the Rockets in recent years, has tended to run out of gas come postseason time — an entire season playing as physical as he does would leave anyone drained. So, the quicker the Jazz are dealt with, and the more rest the Rockets are afforded, the better.

It could certainly prove a fool’s errand to predict the Warriors demise, but there are causes for concern this postseason.

DeMarcus Cousins, who played a major role with the team upon his return this season, is likely out for the postseason after he tore a quad muscle. Not only does his absence remove one of the Warriors’ biggest chess pieces, but it gives other teams a matchup they can exploit. Even hobbled, Cousins would have been a superior option to Andrew Bogut, Kevon Looney or Jordan Bell.

The team recently sustained a historically bad loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, who overcame a 31-point deficit to steal a game at Oracle Arena, as well. While Golden State punched back — and punched back hard — in the next game, it goes to show that any team, even the Warriors, are prone to take their foot off the gas when they feel comfortable.

And, perhaps the biggest distraction this Warriors group has faced, the future of Kevin Durant has hung like a dark cloud over the team for much of the season.

Now don’t take this the wrong way — short of Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green calling it quits after the Clippers series, the Warriors will be far from a pushover. But, they appear to be vulnerable, for the first time in a long time.

The Rockets already had them on the ropes last season. If they can take advantage now, Houston may very well find themselves in the NBA Finals come June.

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NBA Daily: The Spurs’ Reign is Alive and Well

The promise from some of the Spurs’ young talent has shown that the rumors of San Antonio’s death were greatly exaggerated, writes Matt John.

Matt John

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It’s time for what is called a mea culpa.

Around this time last year, this writer wrote an article detailing why it appeared the Spurs’ dynasty was approaching its demise. Manu Ginobili was on his way to retirement, Tony Parker was not the player he once was, and Kawhi Leonard appeared on his way out. After being predictably defeated in five games by Golden State in the first round and losing the aforementioned players the following offseason, it seemed like the end of a glorious era.

But it wasn’t. The Spurs’ dynasty is far from dead. San Antonio may not have the same household name on the roster like a Duncan or Leonard or a Robinson as of now. What they do have presently is a promising foundation of talent that should keep the team in the conversation for the next 5-10 years.

That much is clear when you see the All-Star caliber players that they have in their arsenal. LaMarcus Aldridge put up yet another fantastic stat line for the Spurs, averaging a near 20/10 on 52 percent shooting despite having fewer touches than last season. Even at 33, Aldridge continues to prove that he’s still one of the most offensively polished bigs in the game.

Then there’s DeMar DeRozan. The Spurs have embraced DeMar’s natural mid-range game while also helping him succeed more in other areas than he ever has before. DeRozan put up his most efficient field goal percentage – 48.1 – since his rookie season, and averaged career-highs in both rebounds (6) and assists (6.2) per game. He may not have made the all-star team, but this season was DeRozan’s best as an all-around player.

There is also the Spurs’ well-oiled rotation full of players who know their roles. Patty Mills, Marco Belinelli, Davis Bertans, Bryn Forbes and Jakob Poeltl all do their thing. Who would have guessed that Rudy Gay – a player who had a reputation for putting up empty stats – has been an effective backup wing for San Antonio? Yet another example in a long line of evidence that Gregg Popovich can make do with anyone in the NBA.

But this isn’t about the star veterans or the role players that the Spurs have molded. This is about the young talent who should be able to keep the Spurs in contender status. First, there’s Derrick White.

If you hadn’t heard of Derrick White leading up to the playoffs, you’ve probably heard of him by now.

White has exploded on the national stage since the playoffs began, averaging 23 points on 68 percent shooting from the field despite shooting only 23 percent from three, with his most recent scoring outburst against Denver being the standout, putting up 36 points on 71.4 percent shooting from the field. His performance has easily made him this postseasons breakout star.

Then again, if you’ve been paying attention to the Spurs all season then you’ve probably known about White all along.

After losing Tony Parker to free agency and Dejounte Murray to injury, many wondered where the Spurs were going to turn to run the point. Sure they had Patty Mills but he fit snugly in the second unit. White didn’t get the call immediately, but when he did, the Spurs threw him to the wolves.

White was thrust into the starting lineup when they inserted him into the rotation. White wasn’t awful when he got those minutes, but he wasn’t exactly lighting the world on fire. His first two months into the season, White averaged 6.3 points on 43/30/80 splits. But then January came.

White tore it up in January, putting up 15.3 points on 60/47/75 splits while putting up 4.2 rebounds and nearly four assists per game. By doing this, it appeared Derrick was more than just a player to use in case of emergency. Both the Spurs and White were on the right track before a heel injury knocked him out for a few weeks. While he came back sooner than expected, Derrick was never able to replicate his play from January.

Now, it appears White has his mojo back, and at the absolute perfect time too.

And it’s not just about his contributions on offense. Defensively, White has proven to be pretty pesky. Derrick ranks behind only Chris Paul in Defensive Real Plus-Minus at 1.59. The Spurs defense is also a minus-3.8 defensively when White is on the floor, third among active rotational players behind only Poeltl and Gay.

Nobody’s saying that White is a franchise player, but the 24-year-old has excelled in his expanded role for San Antonio. If he’s to keep the franchise relevant as they transition away from the Kawhi Leonard era, he’ll need as much help from other young starlets as he can.

Enter Dejounte Murray

Murray was originally believed to be the Spurs’ prized young prospect when the season began. Murray was a jack-of-all-trades point guard for San Antonio. At 6-foot-6, he was a tenacious defender – he made the All-NBA Defensive 2nd Team last year in just his second year – and was aggressive on the boards, corralling 5.7 rebounds per game.

Dejounte was believed to be pretty raw offensively given his youth, but with a bigger role on the team, many believed there was more for him to build off of. That was until he tore his ACL during a pre-season game. After losing Kawhi, Danny Green, and Kyle Anderson, the Spurs’ defense could not afford to lose its expected best player on the defensive end.

The Spurs clearly managed to do fine without him, but their defensive rating dropped all the way down to 111.2, which ranked 19th in the league. Had Murray been able to play, that rating probably would have gone up as well as where the Spurs were seeded.

With his body type and the Spurs’ love for versatility, Murray should be a welcome addition to the team next year when he comes back healthy. After the expectations that were placed on him, Dejounte should be extra motivated to show the world that he is part of the Spurs’ next generation of young talent.

Now that he has another young piece to play off of, both he and White should give San Antonio a strong two-way backcourt that the team hasn’t seen in all its years of glory. These two may very well bring the Spurs back to the promised land. Just not in the way that previous Spurs have done so.

Many believed that the Spurs were finished after they traded one of its all-time players in Kawhi. We should have known better knowing what Pop can do.

Should Murray and White pan out, the Spurs’ expiration may not be brought up again until the 2030’s.

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