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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: Scattered Bubble Thoughts

Four days into The Bubble, Matt John relays some of the observations he’s made since the 2019-20 NBA season has resumed play.

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It didn’t sound possible back in March, but the 2019-20 NBA season has finally resumed! We should enjoy the rest of the regular season while we can because, before you know it, we’ll be entering the playoffs. Though Major League Baseball definitely has some more kinks to work out, the NBA has had no issues to speak of since continuing the season in Disney World and its Bubble.

We’ve only had four days of NBA games so far, and we’re going to learn a lot more in the coming weeks, but in the short time we’ve had basketball back, there’s plenty that may have an impact on the final result of the 2019-20 season.

“Defense? What’s that?”

Let’s face it: The NBA is more fun to watch when there are more points on the board. Thanks to the three-point revolution, we’re more likely to get high-scoring games than in the past because of every team’s emphasis on spreading the floor. Thus far, we’ve seen a lot of high scoring games. A lot. More so than we would expect during a typical season.

It’s still early, but in the 19 games we’ve had so far, only two boasted a team being held to less than 100 points – both were on Aug. 1 when the Utah Jazz put up 94 points against the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Los Angeles Lakers put up 92 against the Toronto Raptors. Besides those rare instances, every team has scored 100+. In fact, on Jul. 31, the lowest scoring output for a victorious team was when the Milwaukee Bucks hung 119 on the Boston Celtics.

Honestly, none of this should have come as any surprise. Many suspected that while players have been working earnestly on their games, both individually and with their team, getting their defensive timing back was going to take some time. This should clear up when everyone gets their legs back, especially when the pool of teams shrinks from 22 to 16 and beyond that. Over time, anticipate lower scores, or at least scores to not be nearly as consistently high

Kemba’s Knee – So Far, So Good

There was a lot of justified concern surrounding whether Kemba Walker’s ailing knee would be ready for when the season started. The fact of the matter was that the injury coincided with him tallying some putrid numbers before the season was put on pause. And given his need to still rehab it four months after that is a flag so red you may as well call it scarlet.

In spite of his insistence to play more, Boston has been conservative with their All-Star point guard since the league resumed play. In the 41 minutes total that he’s played in Boston’s first two games, Walker looked more like his old self than he did in February and March.

In Boston’s first game against Milwaukee, he put up 16 points on 5-for-9 shooting which included hitting three of the six three-pointers he attempted in all of 19 minutes. The next game against Portland, he put up 14 points on 5-for-6 shooting from deep in only 22 minutes.

Even when Walker was slumping, he still had a couple of 20+ scoring performances – so why are these so encouraging? Because, besides the fact that his burst looks back to normal, the last time Walker shot better than 40 percent was on Jan. 26. Efficiency was never really Walker’s strong suit to begin with, but barely shooting over 30 percent is definitely not something you expect to see from him. So this, even in spurts, is worth celebrating.

What is yet to be seen is if Walker can do this when his workload increases or, better yet, when the stakes get higher – but Boston has to be excited to smoothish sailing so far. If these numbers aren’t a fluke and the Celtics get Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker at their individual peaks this season, then they become just as dangerous as they were potentially feared to be. If not more so.

Two Playoff Teams Trending In Different Directions

Utah and Oklahoma City squared off on Aug 1, and even though the Thunder won by 16 in the end, the game was pretty much never in doubt. OKC controlled the pace from the very start and led by as many as 29 at one point. Despite Utah remaining in the thick of the playoff race, this was another in what seems like a long line of frustrating losses during an overall underwhelming season. At least now, Bojan Bogdanovic’s season-ending wrist injury gives them an excuse they didn’t have before.

Jazz fans have probably heard all about what’s gone wrong for the boys in Salt Lake so there’s no need to harp over the issues they’ve had both on and off the court. What’s really stood out about their game against the Thunder was the opposing team’s roster design. That bunch is currently led by the likes of:

  • An aging but very experienced/skilled All-Star point guard (Chris Paul)
  • One of the league’s promising young guards (Shai Gilgeous-Alexander)
  • A monster defensive presence on the interior (Steven Adams)
  • A secondary scorer capable of shooting from anywhere (Danilo Gallinari)

Hold on, wasn’t this who the Jazz were supposed to be this season? A playoff contender that may not have boasted the most star power, but the lack of holes in its roster should have made them incredibly hard to topple? We did get to see that team after all. It just wasn’t in Utah. The Thunder have become one of the league’s most entertaining underdogs, while the Jazz have mired in disarray and uncertainty.

Despite that the two’s records are neck-and-neck – Utah (42-24) has a half-game lead over Oklahoma City (41-24) – the former seems stuck in the same rut they were before the season halted. While the latter has been deceptively better than we’re giving them credit for even though they were already exceeding expectations in the first place.

About That Last Spot In The West

Remember the whole conspiracy everyone had that the NBA constructed these temporary playoff rules in The Bubble as just an excuse to get Zion Williamson into the playoffs? Well, whether it’s true or not, New Orleans doesn’t seem to be taking advantage of it. They’ve restricted Williamson’s minutes pretty strangely thus far. With him being off the court for the majority of the game, the Pelicans flat out don’t look ready for the big time just yet. They lost a very winnable game against Utah in the first game back, then got flat-out embarrassed by the Los Angeles Clippers. A lot of rookies don’t usually single-handedly alter a team’s fortunes, but we all know Williamson is a rare breed.

Lucky for them, their schedule eases up a lot following those two games. They then face Memphis, Sacramento (twice), Washington, Orlando and San Antonio. Those are among the lower squads in the 22-team bubble, but they still have to get through a fair amount of competitors for that last spot. San Antonio and Phoenix have won its first two games, and, of course, they’re dealing with Portland now too.

The Trail Blazers, as we are all being reminded, are a much different animal with Jusuf Nurkic back and healthy. Nurkic’s smarts and girth make him such an intimidating presence on the floor that it opens up much more of the floor for the two backcourt stars. He’s primarily the reason why they beat Memphis and were one basket or two away from defeating Boston. Zach Collins’ return also makes a difference, but Nurkic alone makes Portland so much better than their current record is.

It really is such a shame that Portland never had its full squad healthy this season. Imagine what this team could have been with Trevor Ariza and Rodney Hood, too.

After losing its first two games, Memphis is going to have its hands full trying to stave off rivals for that last spot. Many thought the Pelicans were going to be the team to overthrow them, but the Trail Blazers won’t be going down without a fight.

Of course, there have been more noteworthy instances that have come up but we can only talk about so much. There’s plenty of basketball left to be played, so many of this scenarios could be turned on their head in the next week. Still, the early signs are of overall success for the NBA – but there’s rust to kick off around the league.

What has stood out to you since the NBA resumed in The Bubble?

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NBA Daily: With Thibodeau In Town, What’s Next for Knicks?

The New York Knicks reached an agreement to make Tom Thibodeau their new head coach. Drew Maresca examines what’s next for the Knicks and coach Thibodeau.

Drew Maresca

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The New York Knicks have hit the reset button a number of times since 2010, when then-general manager Donnie Walsh and former head coach Mike D’Antoni attempted to lure LeBron James to Broadway. Since then, they’ve had numerous leadership changes and, more pressingly, six head coaches (Mike Woodson, Derek Fisher, Kurt Rambis, Jeff Hornacek, David Fizdale and Mike Miller). Well, let’s make that seven. The Knicks announced this week that they’ve arrived at a five-year agreement with the 2011 Coach of the Year, Tom Thibodeau.

Thibodeau is a polarizing figure, with supporters believing he’s a savior and cynics feeling he suboptimal at talent development and guilty of running players ragged. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle and that’s not a bad thing at all for the Knicks.

Thibodeau is a career basketball guy that is familiar with the bright lights of New York. He was brought in as a Knicks assistant coach under Jeff Van Gundy, where he remained on hand for most of Don Chaney’s tenure, too. But that’s not all. Thibodeau started out as an assistant coach under Bill Musselman in Minnesota. He was also an assistant for John Lucas in San Antonio and Philadelphia, and he joined Doc Rivers in Boston as an associate head coach for three seasons.

He ascended to the head coach of the Chicago Bulls in 2010-11, where he remained for five seasons. In addition to winning a Coach of the Year in his first season as head coach (2010-11), he also coached a league MVP (Derrick Rose, 2010-11) and a Defensive Player of the Year (Joakim Noah, 2013-14). He also won 64.7 percent of regular-season games and his team advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2010-11; like the Jeff Van Gundy-led Knicks teams he was a part of earlier in his career, Thibodeau’s Bulls teams probably would have won at least one championship if it weren’t for their overlapping with LeBron James and the Miami HEAT.

Thibodeau left Chicago before the 2016-17 season to take over as president of basketball operations and head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves. But as coaches often do, Thibodeau struggled to strike a balance between maintaining flexibility for the future and adding talent for the present. But most of his failures in Minnesota were front office-related, and he is still revered by many of his former players including Jimmy Butler, Joakim Noah and Derrick Rose. Van Gundy also remains a big Thibodeau fan.

“This idea that Tom (Thibodeau) doesn’t know how to pace his team is one of the great slanders that has been perpetuated by the media on a coach,” Van Gundy said on a recent ESPN NBA restart conference call.

But what does Thibodeau do for New York? Most importantly, he legitimizes New York basketball. Thibodeau is widely viewed as a basketball savant. But lots of great coaches and executives have come in New York with promises of resetting the culture and turning the team around. Lenny Wilkens, Larry Brown, Mike D’Antoni, Mike Woodson and David Fizdale all tried and failed, as did Phil Jackson (as team president). Can Thibodeau succeed where so many other greats have failed? Maybe. Eventually, someone has to get it right – why not Thibodeau? To do so, Thibodeau must prepare to succeed in the following five areas.

Selecting The Staff

Rumors have swirled about who might join Thibodeau on New York’s bench. Generally speaking, assistant coaches don’t move the needle with regards to national news — but this is New York, the proverbial lightning rod of the NBA.

There is a legitimate reason to get excited about the Knicks’ new coach, though. Team president Leon Rose and Thibodeau allegedly agree on the front office’s involvement in fleshing out the coaching staff, and there is major internal support for a return of former head (and assistant) coach Mike Woodson. There are also rumors about Mike Miller, interim coach, being retained. Woodson is viewed, like Thibodeau, as a defensive specialist, and Miller won serious brownie points as a result of his record relative to his predecessor and his ability to connect with the roster.

Other candidates could include former Thibodeau assistants like Andy Greer, Ed Pinckney and Jerry Sichting.

Getting Familiar With The Roster

First of all, it’s not as though Thibodeau isn’t already extremely versed in the Knicks’ strengths and weaknesses. He was rumored to be pouring over film last weekend before receiving word that an agreement had been reached. And that’s nothing new to Thibodeau, who allegedly stayed up as late as 4 A.M. watching film with coach Mike Krzyzewski in Rio during the 2016 Olympics.

But reviewing film and understanding players’ limitations are worlds apart. The idea of his overseeing the team in a second bubble for the eight teams who failed to qualify for the NBA’s 2019-20 restart would be alluring. But despite the early success of NBA’s Orlando bubble, it’s unlikely they risk the potential negative PR that would coincide with positive tests for eight worst teams in the league.

But a full-on bubble might not be the only way for Thibodeau to begin coaching before the offseason. According to the Charlotte Observer, the NBA and NBPA are expected to come to an agreement that would enable the eight teams who are excluded from the season’s return to begin workouts soon. In fact, individual workouts with coaches could begin as soon as early August, meaning that all that stands between Thibodeau and his soon-to-be players is a formal announcement.

Develop The Young Core

Thibodeau’s effect on the younger guys has been a polarizing topic of late. Many believe he’ll demand too much of them, hurting their confidence and diminishing future returns by leaning too heavily on them. Ironically, former coach David Fizdale was criticized for playing the team’s young core for too few minutes. But that sentiment is not echoed amongst coaches around the league. Monty Williams, Phoenix Suns head coach and former New York Knicks first-round pick, feels that he’ll have a positive effect.

“I kind of laugh at all these people that say he can’t develop younger players and that he just wears his teams out,” Williams, who worked with Thibodeau on Team USA for a number of years, said on SiriusXM NBA Radio. “Look at the success with his programs and his teams and the results bear witness. You talk to guys who played for Thibs, they love him.”

While Thibodeau’s effect will probably vary player-to-player, he will almost certainly favor two very important young guys – Mitchell Robinson and Frank Ntilikina.

Robinson, who averaged only 20.6 minutes per game as a rookie and only 23.1 in 2019-20, will certainly see more playing time under Thibodeau, who is notorious for playing his best heavy minutes; Noah averaged at least 30.4 minutes per game while playing for  Thibodeau in Chicago and he topped out at just over 36 MPG.

But Robinson’s abilities are impossible to ignore, so fans and analysts alike have been mystified by his lack of playing time – although some of that can be chalked up to his propensity to foul and play defense with his hands once out of position. However, Robison set the single-season record for field goal percentage in 2019-20 (74.2 percent) and he averaged 3.6 blocks per-36 minutes over his two-year career. He closes out on three-point shooters better than just about anyone in the game today, and he’s a nightmare to defend in the screen-and-roll. He will almost certainly become one of Thibodeau’s favorite players — and that doesn’t even take into consideration his improved ball-handling that’s been on display via his Instagram account.

Ntilikina has a less impressive resume but has almost as much potential as Robinson. Thibodeau hasn’t had many guards like Ntilikina; in fact, there aren’t many guards like the Frenchman around, period. The 6-foot-4 point guard is a pass-first guard whose defensive presence is incredibly impressive. He boasts a 7-foot-1 wingspan and is absolutely fearless on the defensive end of the floor. He needs to play more confidently and consistently on offense, but he’s demonstrated serious improvements there, too; Ntilikina shot a career-high 32.1 percent on three-point attempts this season, while also posting career highs in field goal percentage (44.4 percent) and points (6.0).

Like Robinson, Ntilikina suffered from inconsistent playing time, receiving only 20.8 minutes per game in 2019-20. But that too could change, especially considering his humble attitude and approach.

But Ntilikina is almost too gifted and smart to fail. His closest comparison — granted it’s a favorable one — is probably Marcus Smart. Smart showed serious improvements this season, but Thibodeau was already enamored with his skillset in 2018, when he gushed over him in a pre-game press conference.

“He’s tough, he guards people, he’ll get to a loose ball and hit the floor,’ Thibodeau said. “He’ll get to an offensive rebound, he allows them to do a lot of switching, he’ll guard big guys, small guys, doesn’t matter.”

Hopefully, Thibodeau is equally impressed with Ntilikina – in which case, the Ntilikina-hive can look forward to serious improvements.

The 2020 NBA Draft

This one’s the easiest since it’s more reactive for Thibodeau than anything else. The Knicks are in desperate need of talent at a number of positions. Fortunately, the Knicks finished with the sixth-worst record in the NBA. Assuming they don’t move in the lottery, they’ll pick behind the likes of the Golden State Warriors, Atlanta Hawks and Cleveland Cavaliers. Thankfully, most teams above them have a point guard. In fact, the only team slotted ahead of them who hasn’t drafted one (or more) point guards in recent drafts or doesn’t already possess a franchise point guard is the Detroit Pistons.

Sadly, the 2020 NBA Draft appears to lack a generational talent like Luka Doncic or Zion Williamson. And with NBA franchises inevitably facing fiscal pressure from COVID-19, most teams will be open to the idea of moving back to a lower-profile draft slot. But the Knicks don’t have the same monetary struggles as most teams. This could be their best shot at moving up to secure LeMelo Ball, who is reportedly number one on their draft board.

Does Ball mesh with Thibodeau? Who knows. But generally, Thibodeau is not overly welcoming of rookies – namely, he doesn’t play them much. In his career as a head coach, he’s played his rookies: 12.1 minutes per game (Omer Asik), 8.5 MPG (Jimmy Butler), 8.2 (Marquis Teague), 16 (Tony Snell), 20.2 (Nikola Mirotic), 17.1 (Kris Dunn), 4.0 (Justin Patton) and 16.8 (Keita Bates-Diop).

But while his track record pertaining to playing rookies isn’t great, he’s had solid alternatives in both Chicago and Minnesota. There won’t be as many in New York. So while he might not love the idea of leaning on rookies, he might not have a choice, either.

Luring Productive Veterans

Lastly, Thibodeau will be a major part of recruiting pitches to star free agents. Now, attracting a star player shouldn’t dictate who is selected as a team’s head coach – and the Knicks finally got this right. They could have gone with Jason Kidd in hopes of attracting his former player, Giannis Antetokounmpo. But they instead went with the more established and respected candidate in Thibodeau.

While Thibodeau has much to prove as Knicks head coach, he, too, has in-roads with numerous star players. Remember, Thibodeau was close to a number of stars as an assistant coach for the 2016 Olympic team. The team’s main roster featured very few soon-to-be free agents – but fear not Knicks fans, the broader talent pool included Victor Oladipo, Anthony Davis, Chris Paul, Damian Lillard and Bradley Beal.

That’s not to say that any of them are likely to join the Knicks – but all of them have recently been connected to New York in some way, shape or form. Thibodeau would obviously love to add any of those stars to a roster in need of star power, but beyond trading for Paul – which might not be an option depending on how Oklahoma City performs in the 2020 NBA Playoffs – these are all unlikely to happen in 2020. Davis looks like a sure thing to re-sign with the Lakers, Beal is signed through 2023 and would have to request a trade as he is signed through at least 2024 (with a player option for 2024-25).

But Oladipo is possible as he’ll enter unrestricted free agency next offseason. The Pacers could try to move him rather than losing him for nothing if he’s deemed to be a flight risk. Would the Knicks be able to build a package strong enough to garner consideration? Would the Maryland native verbalize a desire to come to New York? There are too many unknowns to posit a guess, but odds that the Knicks secure a star free agent are better now than they were before adding Thibodeau as head coach.

Knicks fans are a notoriously an impatient bunch. Unfortunately for them, it will be a long climb back into contention. But there are positives: The roster isn’t inundated with bloated salaries and stars who are past their prime, instead featuring a good deal of youth and flexibility.

That’s a good start – but from here, it’s on Thibodeau, Leon Rose and company. Hopefully, they picked the right guy.

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NBA

NBA Daily: LeBron James; Anthony Davis Resume Mantle as NBA’s Best Duo

David Yapkowitz revisits a thrilling first night back in the NBA, all thanks to LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

David Yapkowitz

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It’s been about four months since the Los Angeles Lakers last took the court. The team was sitting in first place in the Western Conference and ready to use the second half of the season to prep for what they hoped would be a championship run when the NBA halted all operations due to the Coronavirus pandemic.

After not knowing if the league would resume play at all this season, the Lakers returned to the court in the NBA’s restart against their crosstown rivals the Los Angeles Clippers on Thursday night.

All season long, the Lakers’ star duo of LeBron James and Anthony Davis looked like the best one-two punch in the league and, against the Clippers, they certainly picked up right where they left off.

With Avery Bradley deciding to opt-out of the restart and Rajon Rondo out six to eight weeks with a thumb injury, James took over as the starting point guard to do what he does best. He helped control the tempo of the game and allowed himself to act as a facilitator, getting his teammates easy scoring opportunities.

As the game progressed, James became more assertive offensively and had what would ultimately end up being the game-winner as he rebounded his own missed shot and tipped the ball in around Clipper defenders.

“I love having the ball in my hands late game when it’s a tie game, being up. For me, it’s just trying to be aggressive. I felt like I got some contact at the elbow from Marcus Morris, but they didn’t call it,” James said after the game. “Like you were told when you were a kid playing basketball if there’s no whistle you keep playing on. I was able to follow my own shot and put us up for good.”

James didn’t shoot particularly well, only 31.6 percent from the floor, but he did finish with 16 points, 11 rebounds and 7 assists. He also clamped up defensively on a couple of possessions against both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.

The long-time megastar has been one of the frontrunners for the Most Valuable Player Award this year and, in his 17th NBA season, he’s showed no signs of slowing down. He’s putting up 25.7 points on 49.8 percent shooting from the field, 7.9 rebounds and a career-high 10.6 assists. Already down two capable ball-handlers and playmakers in Bradley and Rondo, James is going to be shouldering a lot more of the on-ball duties.

Thankfully for him then, he’s got a good running mate in Davis.

Davis got the Lakers going and n command early with his energy around the rim and his size and quickness going against the Clippers’ bigs. He also spearheaded a comeback in the third quarter when the Clippers took a double-digit lead.
He finished the game with 34 points, 8 rebounds and 4 assists and his aggressiveness was rewarded with 17 free-throw attempts. On the season, he’s putting up 26.7 points per game on 51.1 percent shooting from the field, 9.4 rebounds and 3.1 assists.

But aside from his offensive output, one of the ways he’s been most valuable to the Lakers is defensive versatility. Davis is naturally a shot blocker and deterrent in the paint. But he also has the footspeed and discipline to match up with wings on the perimeter.

Against the Clippers, Davis started out guarding Leonard on the perimeter. He’s quite possibly the frontrunner for the Defensive Player of the Year Award. While he did pick up some early fouls, if he’s able to match up at times with either Leonard or George, that could bode incredibly well for the Lakers chances in a potential playoff series.

“We wanted to make sure we came out and executed on the offensive end,” Davis told reporters. “It felt like a real game to me, two teams battling. Obviously, it’s always a good game between us two teams. We knew they were going to make a run. They made their run and got up eleven, we just kept playing, picked it up defensively, and then we started making shots on the offensive end.”

Despite the win, Lakers’ head coach Frank Vogel still feels like this team has an extra gear they have not yet reached, a level of play that they displayed early in the season.

“To me, it feels like we have a long way to go to reach the habits we were playing with when we entered the hiatus,” Vogel mentioned Thursday. “Obviously we did enough to get the win, but we have a lot of work to do.”

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