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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.

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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: The Stretch Run — Southeast Division

With the All-Star Break behind us, the final stretch of NBA games has commenced. Quinn Davis takes a look at a few teams in the Southeast Division that have a chance at making the dance.

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Well, that was fast.

With the NBA All-Star break in the rearview, there are now fewer than 30 games to play for all 30 NBA teams. In other words, time is running out for certain teams to improve their seeding in the conference.

Here at Basketball Insiders, we will be looking at a certain subset of teams that are right on the border of making or missing the playoffs. In this edition, the focus will be on the Southeast Division.

The Southeast features three teams — the Charlotte Hornets, Orlando Magic and Washington Wizards — operating in the lower-middle-class of the NBA. These three will be slugging it out over the next month-and-a-half for the right to meet the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round of the playoffs.

The two remaining teams are the Miami HEAT and Atlanta Hawks. As this is being written, the former is comfortably in the playoffs at 35-20, while the latter is comfortably gathering more ping pong balls at 16-41.

In this space, the focus will be on the three bubble teams. The Magic are currently frontrunners for the eighth seed, but the Wizards and Hornets are within striking distance if things were to go awry.

Led by head coach Steve Clifford, the Magic have ground their way to the eighth seed behind an eighth-ranked defense. Lanky wing Aaron Gordon is the standout, helping the Magic execute their scheme of walling off the paint. The Magic only allow 31.3 percent of opponent shots to come at the rim, putting them in 89th percentile in the league, per Cleaning The Glass.

Following a post-break loss to Dallas Mavericks, the Magic sit at 24-32 and three games up on the ninth-seeded Wizards. While a three-game margin doesn’t sound like much, that is a sizable cushion with only 26 games to play. Basketball-Reference gives the Magic a 97.4 percent chance to make the playoffs.

The Magic have the third-easiest remaining schedule out of Eastern Conference teams. They have very winnable games coming against the Bulls, Hornets, Cavaliers, Knicks and Pistons. They also have multiple games coming against the Brooklyn Nets, the team they trail by only 1.5 games for the seventh seed.

The Magic are prone, however, to dropping games against the league’s bottom-feeders. It can be difficult to string together wins with an offense this sluggish. The Markelle Fultz experiment has added some spark in that department, but his lack of an outside shot still leaves the floor cramped.

After a quick analysis of the schedule, the most likely scenario appears to be a 12-14 record over the last 26 games, putting the Magic at 36-46 come season’s end. A record like that should not be allowed anywhere near playoff basketball, but it would probably be enough to meet the Bucks in round one.

If the Magic go 12-14, that would leave the Wizards, fresh off a loss to J.B. Bickerstaff and the Cleveland Cavaliers, needing to go 17-11 over their last 28 games. They will need to finish one game ahead as the Magic hold the head-to-head tiebreaker.

The Wizards finishing that strong becomes even more farfetched when you consider their remaining schedule. They have the second-toughest slate from here on out, per Basketball-Reference.

The Wizards do have a trump card in Bradley Beal, who is the best player among the bubble teams in the East. He has now scored 25 points or more in 13 straight games and has been the driving force behind the Wizards staying in the race.

He has also picked up his defense a bit following his All-Star snub in an effort to silence his critics. The increased focus on that end is nice, but it would’ve been a little nicer if it had been a part of his game earlier in this season when the Wizards were by far the worst defense in the league.

Even if Beal goes bonkers, it is hard to see a path for this Wizards team to sneak in outside of a monumental collapse in Orlando. Looking at their schedule, it would take some big upsets to even get to 10 wins over their last 28. Their most likely record to finish the season is 8-20 if all games go to the likely favorites.

The Wizards’ offense has been impressive all season, but injuries and a porous defense have been too much to overcome.

The Hornets, meanwhile, trail the Wizards by 1.5 games and the Magic by 4.5 games. They have won their last three in a row to put themselves back in this race, but they still have an uphill climb.

The Hornets also may have raised the proverbial white flag by waiving two veterans in Marvin Williams and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. The goal coming into this season was never to make the playoffs, so they are likely more interested in developing young talent over these last 27 games.

If the Magic do play up to their usual levels and go 12-14, it would require the Hornets to go 18-9 to finish the season against the sixth-toughest remaining schedule in the East.

Devonte’ Graham and his three-point shooting have been a bright spot for the Hornets, but it would take some otherworldly performances from him and Terry Rozier down the stretch to put together a record like that. Basketball-Reference gives this a 0.02 percent chance of happening (cue the Jim Carrey GIF).

Barring a miracle, the eight playoff teams in the Eastern Conference are locked in place. The only questions remaining are how seeds 2-6 will play out, and whether the Magic can catch the Nets for the seventh spot.

The Wizards will fight to the end, but it is unlikely they make up any ground given the level of opponents they will see over the next six weeks. The Hornets, meanwhile, are more likely to fight for lottery odds.

At least the playoffs should be exciting.

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The Pressure Is On Anthony Davis

The Rockets’ and Clippers’ strong commitments to small-ball show that the Lakers’ opponents are zeroed in on stopping LeBron James. If the Lakers want their next title, Anthony Davis has to prove he can take over for a contender. Matt John writes.

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LeBron James is the greatest basketball player of his generation and arguably of all-time. No matter how old he is or how many miles he has on those tires — 48,014 minutes total as of Feb. 20, good for eighth-most all-time among NBA players =- he is not to be underestimated. The Los Angeles Lakers know they have a window on their hands, but with LeBron on the wrong side of 30, they know that this window won’t be for too long. Unfortunately, so do their opponents.

This brings us to his partner-in-crime, Anthony Davis. Throughout LeBron’s era of dominance, he’s always had a Robin to his Batman. Dwyane Wade needed time to adjust to it. Kyrie Irving was so perfect for the role that he grew tired of it. Anthony Davis has embraced it since day one.

LeBron and AD have been as good as advertised. Together, the two of them possess a net rating of plus-10.3 when they share the court. They don’t actually run the pick and roll as often as we thought they would – LeBron only runs 26 percent of his plays as a handler while Davis has been the roll man for 13 percent of his plays – but when they do, it’s efficient.

LeBron’s effective field goal percentage as a pick-and-roll handler is 47.5 percent and draws and-1’s at 3.5 percent, which is pretty high for that sort of play. He ranks in the 67th percentile as a handler. Davis’ effective field goal percentage as a roll man is 61 percent and draws and-1’s at 4.9 percent. He ranks in the 72nd percentile as a roll man.

They may not run this in LA primarily because their old school play of playing big probably eats up the spacing. Since the Lakers have the fourth-highest offensive rating in the league, scoring 113.6 points per 100 possessions, it’s not a problem at the moment. This might change in the playoffs, but we’ll get to that.

Something else to note is that Davis’ numbers have stayed relatively the same since going from New Orleans to LA. His scoring average has gone down just a tick, but that’s to be expected when you’re playing next to LeBron James. Davis’ rebounding numbers have taken a more noticeable dip, but having him play next to Dwight Howard or JaVale McGee probably has something to do with that.

He and LeBron have led the Lakers to the best record in the Western Conference. According to Tankathon, they have the 10th-easiest schedule for the rest of the season, so the odds are in their favor of finishing out on top. Of course, their elite production as a duo is about as shocking as Martin Scorsese’s movies getting nominated for Oscars.

The Lakers are expected to make their deepest run since the last time they won the title in 2010. Even if they are among the league’s biggest powerhouses, they’ll have plenty of competition along the way in the Western Conference. Without going into too much detail about who that is — because you probably already know who that is — let’s focus on the two competitors who have been making major shakeups since the trade deadline, the Houston Rockets and the Los Angeles Clippers.

Both may have executed different trades, but both had the same goal in mind when they made them.

When the Rockets traded Clint Capela — their only traditional center that was playable — for Robert Covington, a two-way wing that they believed they could mold into a small-ball five, they traded their size for switchability and versatility. Not only that, they doubled down on their strategy by bringing in the likes of DeMarre Caroll and Jeff Green, two swingmen who have played some minutes at center in their career but very, very few.

When the Clippers traded Moe Harkless — who was doing just fine for them as their third wing — they opted to go for an upgrade at the wing spot instead of another big by trading him among others and a first-round pick for what’s likely to be a short rental of Marcus Morris. They could have used Harkless to get another big to combat the Lakers’ size, but instead opted to add more grit to the wing department. The deal also opened up a few more spots on the roster, but they too opted not for more size, but for another scorer in Reggie Jackson.

Acquiring those wings demonstrates that they have coined the exact same gameplan to taking down the Lakers should they face them in the playoff — slowing down LeBron James.

Slowing down LeBron is a strategy that just about everyone has been familiar with since 2003, but very few have been successful at executing it because, well, there doesn’t really need to be an explanation when it comes to the subject of LeBron James.

By doing everything in their power to make LeBron’s life miserable, they are in effect going to dare everyone else on the Lakers to beat them, and that starts with Anthony Davis.

We know how good Anthony Davis is, but we don’t really know how good he’s going to be when the stakes are higher. Davis’ numbers in the playoffs should hardly concern the Lakers’ faithful. He’s averaged 30.5 points and 12.7 points on nearly 53 percent shooting from the field. The one number that could be concerning is that those averages come from only 13 playoff games total.

Davis is hardly to blame for the lack of playoff success in his name. Injuries ravaged the Pelicans continuously, and the best players he’s played with in the postseason are Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans and Rajon Rondo. The numbers suggest he carries his weight.

He should have less weight to carry when and if the Lakers enter the playoffs, but because their competitors are doubling down on their small ball to make sure LeBron’s covered as tightly as possible, the pressure will be on Davis to keep it going.

Posting up against small lineups shouldn’t be an issue for Davis because he’s been efficient on post-ups this season. On a frequency of 22.8 percent, Davis has a points per possession (PPP) of 0.95 when posting up. Davis is averaging five points while shooting 47.8 percent from the field in the post up throughout the entire season. His efficiency in the post up ranks him in the 63rd percentile. He’s not Joel Embiid or even LaMarcus Aldridge in that area, but he’s reliable.

Still, time will tell to see if it translates in the playoffs. In the Lakers’ most recent game against the Rockets, we got our first sample of how LA will fare against Houston’s new scheme. LeBron struggled with it, putting up just 18 points on 8-for-19 shooting while turning it over six times. The switchability and intelligence that their defenders possessed made life difficult for him.

It was a different story for Davis. He had an excellent game. 32 points on 14-of-21 shooting, 13 rebounds and 3 blocks because he dominated the very undersized center Houston threw at him. Despite that, the Rockets prevailed 121-111.

They were more than happy to let Davis dominate them as long as they took LeBron out of his comfort zone, and it worked. Games like that should make you want to keep your eye on this. Teams know that LeBron James is a nuclear weapon during the NBA playoffs. They have yet to see if Anthony Davis can be the same. If he can’t pick up the slack when LeBron is off his game, then that changes the ballgame.

Davis is an elite player. He has done a lot in his NBA career. He hasn’t had the opportunity to show that he can take over for a contender when the stakes are dialed to 11. When the playoffs arrive, we’ll finally see what he can do.

There shouldn’t be much doubt as to if Davis can do this. There should be much pressure as to if he’ll be able to do enough.

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NBA Daily: Picking Up The Pieces In Portland

The Portland Trail Blazers continue to fight for their playoff lives. Damian Lillard’s recent injury is just another obstacle that this team must hurdle to survive. Chad Smith looks at one player that may be emerging off of their bench just when they need it most.

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The home stretch has begun, and most teams around the league are pushing for a better playoff seed.

The postseason begins in less than two months and many teams are just hoping that they are able to be part of it. That is the case in Portland, where the Trail Blazers find themselves on the outside looking in as they trail the Memphis Grizzlies by 3.5 games for the final spot in the West. They also have four teams right behind them that are hungry for playoff basketball.

The story of the 2019-20 Blazers has been injuries. It began last season when they lost their starting center Jusuf Nurkic to a devastating leg injury that he has still not fully recovered from. Zach Collins was more than ready to fill in, but he suffered a shoulder injury in their third game of the season and has been out since having surgery on it. The organization made a Hail Mary trade for Hassan Whiteside, who has actually played very well for them this season.

Rodney Hood had been a staple for Portland since they acquired him, but he was lost to a season-ending injury earlier in the year. Desperation may have ultimately led them to sign Carmelo Anthony, but he has undoubtedly been a positive addition to the club. The trade Portland made with the Sacramento Kings was thought to have just been a cost-saving move, but Trevor Ariza has been an excellent fit with the first unit.

The latest setback came in their final game before the break when the face of the franchise suffered a groin injury. Damian Lillard has been having an MVP-worthy season, on the heels of what was one of the greatest playoff buzzer-beaters in league history. Fortunately, the injury was deemed mild, and he should only miss a few games. It may be cliché, but it has been the moniker for Portland all season: Next man up.

Early in the season, it appeared as though their 2018 first-round pick Anfernee Simons was going to have a breakout year. After putting up strong numbers in the first couple of months, he was seen as a highly sought after trade target. Simons has cooled off considerably since then, and it has been the play of their other second-year guard, Gary Trent Jr., that has turned some heads.

Appearing in just 15 games as a rookie last season, Trent Jr. has had more opportunities to show what he can do this year. Amid all of the injuries and movement in Portland, he has shown the ability to hit shots and defend. The sophomore swingman just turned 21 last month, but he has the maturity and understanding of a player with more experience.

A large part of that can be attributed to his father, Gary Trent, who was traded to the Blazers after being selected 11th overall in the 1995 draft. While he didn’t turn out to be an All-Star player, he did play for nine seasons and appeared in more than 500 games. His son may not end up being a star, but they both know this is an excellent opportunity for him to showcase his talents.

The former Duke product began his rise in the middle of January after putting up 30 points against the Oklahoma City Thunder, followed by another 20 points against the Dallas Mavericks. He didn’t slow down in the final handful of games before the All-Star break, either. He scored double-digits in four consecutive games against tough competition in Denver, San Antonio, Utah and Miami, where he shot 65 percent (20-for-31) from deep. Those final two games were against elite defenses, in which he put up 38 points while shooting 7-for-15 from downtown.

So far in the month of February, Trent Jr. has shot 48 percent from the floor, 45 percent from three-point range, and is averaging 12 points and 1.4 steals per game. Those are all solid numbers for a third-string guard, but now he will be relied upon more heavily in the absence of Lillard.

It will be interesting to see the adjustments that Terry Stotts makes without his superstar point guard on the floor. CJ McCollum will likely have a higher usage and handle the ball more than he has before. The Blazers struggle mightily with shot creation. While the veteran two-guard will be looked upon to provide play-making for this group, it will be up to guys like Trent Jr. to knock down open shots and make the correct reads and rotations on defense.

Stotts appears to be leaning on Trent Jr. more often — and for good reason. Both he and Simons played in all 15 games in January, with Simons averaging about one more minute per game. Trent shot 39 percent from deep compared to Simons’ 23 percent. What Stotts really likes is how Trent Jr takes care of the ball. In those 15 January games, he had just four total turnovers. He also played 36 minutes in one of those games and finished without a single turnover.

As good as Whiteside has been at protecting the rim, Portland remains one of the worst defensive teams in the league. It ranks 26th in opponent scoring and has the 27th-ranked defensive rating. Trent Jr. is much bigger than the aforementioned Simons. He is actually bigger than McCollum and Lillard. The size and length that he possesses allow him to guard multiple positions and really help create deflections.

In his role as an off-ball scorer, Trent Jr. just fits really well alongside the Blazer backcourt. Even when one of them is out, he has found a way to excel. Over his last 15 games, he is averaging 12.5 points per game on 44.2 percent shooting from three-point range. They may need Trent Jr. to steal some minutes from the McCollum and Lillard, as they both rank among the top 12 in minutes per game.

Easing all of these injured players back into the rotation is going to be tricky. There will be some bumps and some hiccups along the way, but time is simply not on their side. They have just 26 games remaining, and several teams are fighting for that same spot. The good news for Portland is that only four teams have an easier remaining schedule.

A healthy Portland team is a dangerous playoff team. Getting Lillard back is paramount, but getting Nurkic and Collins back into the rotation with Carmelo and Whiteside would be monumental for this group.

A potential first-round matchup with the Los Angeles Lakers would be tantalizing, to say the least. It will take some work for this team to get back into the playoffs, but then again, they have never backed down from a challenge.

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