It’s difficult to write an article about New York Knicks big man Kyle O’Quinn and focus solely on basketball. He is a talented player who has carved out a nice niche for himself, but there are many entertaining O’Quinn stories that the public needs to know about. He is widely considered one of the funniest players in the NBA, and over the years his sense of humor has helped unite locker rooms, led to some crazy interactions with celebrities and spawned some great pranks.
I first met O’Quinn when he was doing his pre-draft training at Impact Basketball in Las Vegas and a mutual friend introduced us. My colleague Steve Kyler and I shot some video of his workout and did an interview with him. He was funny and just seemed happy to be there since he never imagined he’d have a shot at being an NBA player (more on that later).
That night, O’Quinn and our mutual friend invited Steve and I to dinner with fellow draft prospects Ashton Gibbs of Pittsburgh, Maalik Wayns of Villanova and Xavier Gibson of Florida State. We went to Firefly, a tapas restaurant in Las Vegas, and noticed a party taking place in the back. We waited for a bit and when the players arrived, they guided us back to the party in the private section.
It turns out this wasn’t a casual dinner with a few players. Instead, we had been unknowingly invited to the birthday dinner for Floyd Mayweather’s sister.
It was a large event with a ton of family members and close friends in attendance. Floyd had left earlier, but we got the opportunity to chat with some of his close relatives and his business manager Leonard Ellerbe. When singing Happy Birthday, Steve and I glanced at each other and we had the same confused, “how-did-we-end-up-here” look on our faces. We weren’t complaining though. Everyone was extremely welcoming and dinner was delicious.
Immediately after dinner, the players decided that they wanted to get an additional workout in (even though they had just trained really hard at Impact’s gym earlier that day). After trying to find an open gym, they settled on a 24 Hour Fitness about 30 minutes away. We were unsure about going since we had to wake up early the next day and it was well past midnight. But I wanted to see these players do a private workout and persuaded Steve to come too.
When we arrived with the players, three ridiculously expensive cars pull up and Mayweather gets out of one. He’s surrounded by his Money Team entourage, and he’s apparently here to play pick-up basketball with the soon-to-be pros. We had no idea that this was going to happen. O’Quinn, Gibbs, Gibson, Wayns and Mayweather played against a team of random dudes who were just shooting around at 24 Hour Fitness at 1 a.m. and, obviously, destroyed them. At one point, Mayweather caught an elbow to the face from a guy in his early 20s as they were battling for a rebound. Initially, Floyd’s face turned extremely serious and he glared at the guy as he processed the pain. However, seconds later, he smiled, dapped the kid and complimented him for fighting for the board. He appreciated that the guy didn’t back down or give up the ball out of fear.
The game continued and while his talented peers were going relatively easy on the competition and having fun with their inferior opponents, O’Quinn was dunking on people, pinning shots on the backcourt and yelling at teammates who weren’t running full speed in transition. Sure, he was cracking jokes here and there, but he was going hard out there. I realized that O’Quinn is an extreme competitor who despises losing – no matter the circumstances. At Impact, he would yell at himself if he felt like he could’ve done better in a drill or scrimmage scenario. That’s understandable. But that same intensity was present at this random 24 Hour Fitness pick-up game.
“Kyle is one of the funniest guys I’ve ever met, but he takes his workouts seriously and he works relentlessly,” Gibbs told Basketball Insiders. “And Floyd had the same confidence on the court that he has in the ring, so they were playing hard.”
After the team of soon-to-be pros won convincingly, the group went back to Mayweather’s place to check out his cars (he owned several pairs of cars that were the same year and model, with the only difference being one was painted white and one was painted black) and tour his mansion. The next day, O’Quinn described the unexpected evening as one of the best nights of his life. He was inspired to see that Mayweather had built an empire and become an all-time great boxer through hard work, but was even more shocked by the way that Mayweather treated him like a peer.
“The thing that I remember most about that night is that it was my first time feeling like a professional athlete,” O’Quinn said. “I had just recently gotten to Impact Basketball in Las Vegas, so I basically went from being in my dorm room at Norfolk State to hanging out with Floyd Mayweather at his mansion and he’s recognizing us – myself, Ashton, Maalik, Xavier – as fellow pro athletes and there was mutual respect. That was the first time that had happened to any of us and it was a special feeling.”
“He’s right, that’s true,” Gibbs said. “The night with Floyd was epic.”
The players respected Mayweather’s athletic greatness, intense work ethic and ability to overcome every obstacle in his way (including the serious ones he brought upon himself) to achieve his seemingly impossible dream.
O’Quinn always seems to have a positive attitude and be in a good mood, perhaps because he never thought he’d be in this position when he was growing up. He was a late bloomer when it came to basketball and, in fact, he almost gave up on the sport as a junior in high school due to a lack of playing time. He planned to focus on football full time, but ultimately decided to stick it out and play his senior basketball season. This turned out to be an excellent decision, as he thrived. He received a scholarship offer from Norfolk State University and was thrilled, since he never expected to get a full ride to college from basketball. O’Quinn was ecstatic that he could play at the next level. After that, he wasn’t sure what he’d do. Try to play overseas? Find a job outside of basketball? Had you told the Queens native that he’d be playing in Madison Square Garden for the Knicks, he likely would’ve laughed in your face.
Fast forward four years later to O’Quinn’s senior year at Norfolk State, when the Spartans shocked everyone in the NCAA Tournament by upsetting the second-seeded Missouri Tigers. This was in large part because of O’Quinn’s 26 points, 14 rebounds, two blocks and two assists (while shooting 62.5 percent from the field). America fell in love with him right after the win when he admitted on national television, “We even messed up my bracket!”
After Norfolk State’s surprising March Madness run ended, O’Quinn thrived at the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament (where seniors can showcase their skill set in front of NBA talent evaluators before the draft). He averaged 11.7 points, 11.7 rebounds and 3.7 blocks at the tournament, and once again showed off his clutch gene when he tallied eight points, 12 rebounds and six blocks in the event’s championship game.
Despite starting behind many of his peers, he eventually grew more comfortable in his large body and worked extremely hard to improve. He realized that doing the dirty work that other players shied away from allowed him make an impact each time he stepped on the court, even if his opponent was more talented or athletic. By his senior year at Norfolk State and certainly after the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament, it was clear that he’d be drafted. Even still, he had doubts. He checked mock drafts frequently, asked reporters for their thoughts and considered what he would do if he didn’t get picked. When someone would congratulate him that his NBA dream was close to becoming a reality, he’d pump the brakes and pepper his response with “maybe” and “hopefully” and “we’ll see.” The NBA never seemed like a realistic career path, so he was scared to get his hopes up and be crushed.
Unlike some of today’s prospects, who grow up believing that being drafted is a foregone conclusion and become quite big-headed from a young age, Kyle matured and went through four years of college before realizing the NBA was in his future. Coaches and teammates believe this is a big reason why he has remained down to earth and never acts entitled, since he’s essentially playing with house money after exceeding his wildest basketball expectations.
O’Quinn was, in fact, drafted on June 28, 2012. The Orlando Magic selected him with the 49th overall pick. This didn’t guarantee he’d make the team, though, as most players picked that late end up outside the NBA, sometimes before they even suit up for the franchise that drafted them. But O’Quinn won over Orlando’s decision-makers and teammates right out of the gate.
In the Orlando Summer League, O’Quinn played very well and wasn’t afraid to be himself. He dominated No. 9 draft pick Andre Drummond in one game, holding the lottery pick to three points and three rebounds in 21 minutes (while O’Quinn had 11 points and six rebounds in 24 minutes). And he trash talked throughout the entire contest, making sure Drummond knew he was being worked by a late second-rounder who was essentially obscure just one year earlier. Drummond was rattled, to the point that some teammates were trying to comfort him and get his confidence back up throughout the contest. At one point, Drummond told O’Quinn, “You know, I was the No. 9 pick.” O’Quinn says he responded, “I know, I went 40 picks after you. There were a lot of motherf***ers like you taken before me.” Remember, this was a Summer League game.
Another center (who shall remain nameless because Kyle is nice and didn’t want to embarrass him) received similar trash talk whenever the two bigs matched up. O’Quinn always felt that he was better than this individual prospect, but he lost all respect for the other center when the two were at a pre-draft workout competing against each other. Halfway through the workout, the team’s talent evaluators asked the centers to run sprints. Everyone was exhausted, but started running anyway. Everyone except this unnamed center, who told the front office personnel, “F*** it, you aren’t picking me anyway,” and proceeded to leave the gym and not return. O’Quinn cracked up, and still laughs anytime the story is brought up. However, from that point on, O’Quinn was understandably frustrated that he was picked after that center (who went in the first round).
With the Magic, O’Quinn’s hard work, positivity and swagger were contagious. These things were important during the team’s post-Dwight Howard rebuilding years, and O’Quinn became a key rotation player. Due to his sense of humor, hustle plays and the fact that he was always the first player off of the bench to congratulate or console a teammate, he also became a fan favorite in Orlando. It wasn’t uncommon to see O’Quinn jerseys and fake beards around the Amway Center.
One child wore an O’Quinn jersey and fake beard to each home game, so Kyle autographed it, took him in the locker room occasionally and insisted that the boy give him a signed Pop Warner football jersey in return. O’Quinn could barely fit into the child-sized jersey, but he’d squeeze into it for fun every now and then to show the little boy that the fandom was a two-way street. As a kid, it’s a relief when your favorite player is nice the first time you meet him. For this kid, it doesn’t get much better than the events that unfolded after he met O’Quinn and actually became his friend.
“Kyle is the guy who makes you want to come to work every day,” said former Magic teammate E’Twaun Moore, who now plays for the New Orleans Pelicans. “Kyle brings positive energy to the team and he works really hard. He’s definitely the type of guy who brings a team together. I think he is the ultimate teammate.”
At one point during his stint with the Magic, O’Quinn tried to cheer up his teammates in the middle of a losing season. O’Quinn is constantly cracking jokes, and he decided to pull a prank on his locker-neighbor Nik Vucevic. Rather than pulling one of the same unoriginal pranks that NBA players have been doing for years, O’Quinn got creative – and, well, personal.
One day, he decided to tape a picture of Vucevic’s girlfriend to the front of his locker. He never said a word about the image, but would tap it for good luck or do things to draw attention to it. I asked him about it during some small talk before a game and, after making sure Vucevic wasn’t around, he smiled mischievously and explained that he had put it up several days prior and couldn’t wait for Vucevic to notice. Finally, after quite a bit of time, Vucevic asked about it and the whole team (including Nik) had a huge laugh.
“I’m not gonna lie, I forget exactly how long [it took him to notice],” O’Quinn said, recalling the prank with laughter. “But it was so funny.”
“Kyle is a great teammate, who keeps things light,” Magic point guard Elfrid Payton told Basketball Insiders. “But he also knows when to be serious. He was always asking questions, trying to learn about the game and get better. He’s a very hard worker.”
When players praise O’Quinn’s work ethic, they aren’t lying. Not only does O’Quinn work hard individually at Impact Basketball and his team’s facility in the offseason, he also makes an effort to travel to where his teammates are training so that he can work out together and strengthen team chemistry. In the past, he has encouraged others to do the same, getting multiple teammates together in the summer. It’s that kind of extra effort – plus his attempts to keep the locker room a fun place and make sure everyone feels included – that has won over countless teammates.
When O’Quinn’s deal with the Magic ended, the New York Knicks rewarded him with a four-year, $16 million contract (through a sign-and-trade with the Magic). Born and raised in New York, this made O’Quinn’s life seem even more surreal.
Last season was O’Quinn’s first with the Knicks, and he averaged 4.8 points, 3.8 rebounds, 1.1 assists and .8 blocks in 11.8 minutes per game. He shot 47.6 percent from the field and 76.7 percent from the free throw line. In Orlando, he started 41 games and played a larger role, but he did what was asked of him last year in New York and approached his reserve minutes with the right attitude.
He produced when given playing time, as evidenced by his incredibly impressive per-100-possession averages of 20.8 points, 16.8 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 3.3 blocks.
Oftentimes he was doing the little things that every team needs from role players, such as fighting for loose balls, making hustle plays and altering shots. However, O’Quinn did block his fair share of shots too. In fact, his 3.1 blocks per-48-minutes ranked seventh in the NBA – ahead of notable interior defenders such as Serge Ibaka, Anthony Davis, Tim Duncan, Dwight Howard and Nerlens Noel.
“As someone who does the dirty work myself, I appreciate Kyle’s hard-nosed approach to the game,” Los Angeles Lakers big man Larry Nance Jr. told Basketball Insiders. “If you don’t match his energy and effort, he’ll make the game extremely difficult for you.”
Entering the 2016-17 season, O’Quinn knows he must be ready to produce at his highest level yet. Expectations have increased significantly since the team added Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Courtney Lee and Brandon Jennings to a core that already featured cornerstones Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis. The playoffs are a realistic goal, and O’Quinn wants to be the junkyard dog that makes life easier for his star teammates.
“When I saw the moves, I was thinking, ‘Man, we’re really trying to make a push, we’re not trying to develop,’” O’Quinn said excitedly. “I think this is one of the first teams I’ve been on where it’s pretty clear cut that they went after guys who they think could help win now. In the past, it’s been, ‘Okay, we’ll give this guy a chance,’ or we were signing guys who were trying to find their way into the league.
“Now, I think if we stay healthy, everyone feels [the playoffs] are possible. When I saw the moves, of course I was excited. Playing with Carmelo is exciting enough, but then you add guys like D-Rose and Joakim Noah and Courtney Lee? That’s so exciting. Now, we’ll just try to create a strong locker room with those guys and enjoy the process.”
Creating a strong locker room is one of the things that O’Quinn does best. He brought people together with his sense of humor in Orlando and he has done the same thing in New York, according to his teammates.
“Kyle is hilarious,” Cleanthony Early said after playing with O’Quinn last season. “He’s a jokester and he’s a good energy to be around. He works extremely hard, and he’s a good person. Every team needs guys like that.”
And it’s not forced or some kind of act. He’s just being Kyle.
“I mean, it’s pretty easy coming in the locker room and just being myself,” O’Quinn said. “I think that is the biggest part, just being comfortable with who you are. You’re coming in and letting everyone know who you are, speaking here and there. Some guys don’t speak and I think that’s the first thing you need to do just to ease the mood. Communication and relationships are important.”
In addition to the notable players New York added, they also hired a new head coach in Jeff Hornacek. O’Quinn has talked with the new sideline general and is very impressed thus far.
“I think it’s a great hire,” O’Quinn said of Coach Hornacek. “He showed what he can do out in Phoenix. With the team he had, being in the battle for the playoffs in the tough Western Conference was impressive. It goes to show you that he’s had success, he knows how to win. From just hanging out with him for a week down at Summer League, he’s very personable, very straightforward and easy to talk to. I think those are qualities in a coach that are underrated because sometimes as a player, it’s a little scary to talk to coaches. I mean, they determine so much – playing time, plays, everything – so you kind of want to come correct at all times. But I think as a coach, being open and willing to talk to players is a good trait. I’ve talked to him a little bit and we’ve had nothing but positive interactions to this point. I know he wants to up the pace and I think that’s just on us. We have to be in the best shape we can be going into training camp and just really adapt to what he wants to do.”
To be in the best shape of his life, O’Quinn has been grinding at Impact Basketball in Las Vegas.
“Kyle has had an excellent summer of training,” Joe Abunassar of Impact Basketball said. “We were able to bring his weight down and get him in elite shape to be able to play at a fast pace this year and be active in all areas of the game. He has been working out at least two, and sometimes up to three, times each day and now that we are getting into September, we are really focusing in on basketball specifics. His overall game will be much improved this year because of the work he has put in. His consistency is impressive and his focus has been at another level. I have seen dozens of players mature and be able to raise their games, and Kyle has definitely hit that point this summer.”
“I’m just trying to get ready to gel with these guys as quick as I can when I meet up with them at training camp,” O’Quinn added. “We have made a lot of additions to the roster. A lot of people expect us to be in the playoffs and what not, so I just want to handle my part, which is just taking care of my body, continuing to learn more and more about the game so I can catch onto concepts as quickly as possible and just continuing to work on my jump-shot. I’m working on my mid-range jump shot, and stepping out to the three here and there in our workouts. And I’m continuing to watch film. I’m just trying to get familiar with everything. I’m running through our actions so I’m ready when I’m setting screens for D-Rose or Brandon Jennings or Courtney Lee or whoever is coming off. I will be ready to do my part. The next evolution for me is just solidifying my role and running with it.”
His role as class clown was solidified long ago, and continues in New York.
“Kevin Seraphin is obsessed with social media, so I unfollowed him on all of his accounts during last season,” O’Quinn with a laugh. “I just didn’t say anything and left him unfollowed for a few days. He was so confused. He really cares about that stuff, so he came to practice and was really concerned. It messed with his head. Carmelo played along and told him, ‘If a teammate unfollows you, he’s lost all trust in you. You need to fix this.’ Other teammates went along with it too. Kevin was confused for a few days and then at a team dinner in, I think, Utah, I gave a big speech in front of everyone. I talked about how mistakes were made, but I was willing to give Kevin a second chance and put my trust in him again and rebuild our bond. He was smiling like a kid in a candy shop. Then, everybody just busted up laughing. Jose Calderon was cracking up, sounding like a little kid. That’s when Kevin realized that I was messing with him the whole time and he started laughing too.
“That was my favorite semi-prank this past year,” he said with a smile. “I haven’t done anything too crazy to teammates in New York. Yet.”
NBA Daily: 8 Free Agents – Southwest Division
Spencer Davies rounds out Basketball Insiders’ Free Agent series by looking at some of the better names in the NBA’s upcoming 2020 class this offseason.
It’s time to wrap up our Free Agent series here at Basketball Insiders!
Last week, we covered five divisions and the best players that could possibly be entering this offseason’s market. We’ll finish things off with the Southwest Division, which has perhaps some of the more intriguing names on the list compared to the others.
A Tier Above The Rest
Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans – Restricted – $7,265,485
In a class considered “weak” by many voices around the NBA, Ingram very well could be the big fish…if it can be caught. According to Chris Fedor of Cleveland.com, the Pelicans are expected to match any offer sheet that is extended his way. That’s for good reason, as the fourth-year swingman has blossomed with the Pelicans at a rapid rate.
Coming off his first All-Star campaign, Ingram’s numbers have exploded across the board as New Orleans’ first option in essentially equal the amount of playing time he had with the Los Angeles Lakers. He’s gotten much more comfortable with the three-ball and is thriving in head coach Alvin Gentry’s fast-paced offensive system. The points have come by easier and with great efficiency.
Executives seem to believe that a maximum contract is in Ingram’s future, but that won’t make Pelicans back off one of their most important franchise cornerstones moving forward. Barring an unexpected change of heart on the front office’s part, expect these two to continue their relationship and maintain a highly-talented young core in NOLA.
Elite Secondary Scorers
DeMar DeRozan, San Antonio Spurs – Player Option – $27,739,975
This situation is a tough one. Individually, DeRozan is having himself another impressive season. His 59.7 true shooting percentage is a career-best by far, and he is an absolute assassin in the mid-range game and aggressive drives to the bucket do the brunt of his damage. Unfortunately, however, this has not translated into consistent winning. The Spurs are creeping closer and closer to missing out on the playoffs for the first time in over two decades under Gregg Popovich.
Why does this matter? One, DeRozan is reportedly not too thrilled with how things have shaken out in San Antonio. Two, the impact of the coronavirus will likely lead to a decrease in the league’s salary cap, which could make it more difficult for him to turn down over $27 million next season. Leaving money on the table might not be the wisest of moves for a 30-year-old whose game — albeit mighty dangerous offensively — isn’t suited for the perimeter-oriented, efficient nature that the league covets. While it might not be the perfect match for either party, DeRozan and the Spurs will probably spend next year together.
Tim Hardaway Jr., Dallas Mavericks – Player Option – $20,025,127
Hardaway’s situation is similar logistically to DeRozan’s, yet the complete opposite in terms of his relationship with his current team. Per Sports Illustrated’s Dalton Trigg, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban foresees a long-term future with the 27-year-old in Dallas and the feeling is mutual. Again though, with a salary cap plummet, Hardaway may very well elect to exercise his player option for nearly $19 million and revisit a new deal the following offseason.
Looking at the production, Hardaway has done his part — and then some. For a player who some considered a salary dump in the Kristaps Porzingis trade with the New York Knicks, he has exceeded those expectations by becoming one of the top shooting threats in the entire NBA at a 40.7 percent clip. He’s an ideal teammate for Luka Doncic’s drive-and-kick style, while he can step up as the team’s go-to guy in stretches where he’s needed.
You Know What You’re Going To Get
P.J. Tucker, Houston Rockets – Non-Guaranteed – $17,650,000
Would the Rockets really let go of one of their most influential locker-room voices? Though unlikely, the decision might be resting on what happens with current head coach Mike D’Antoni, whose contract expires after this season. Remember that Tucker is the team’s starting small-ball five after Houston moved Clint Capela, making him an even more integral piece of its rotation. What other “role player” logs over 34 minutes on a nightly basis?
Tucker’s prowess on the defensive end is crucial to the Rockets’ success, and he’s automatic from the short corners with the opponent collapsing on their penetrating guards. As it stands, he is guaranteed $2,569,188 until July 1. If Houston decides to keep him around as Shams Charania reported, Tucker will make the full $7,969,537 for the 2020-21 campaign.
Derrick Favors, New Orleans Pelicans – Unrestricted – $17,650,000
Believe it or not, Favors is still only 28 years old and that’s with a decade of experience under his belt. He’s still got plenty left in the tank as a dependable paint presence, whether that’s as a starter or as a leader of a second unit. Boasting a 62 percent field goal percentage, he makes his mark in the post and finishes at a high rate inside. There’s definitely mileage on the tires, but there’s plenty left in the gas tank.
Worth A Gamble?
Josh Jackson, Memphis Grizzlies – Unrestricted – $7,059,480
De’Anthony Melton, Memphis Grizzlies – Restricted – $1,416,852
Ben McLemore, Houston Rockets – Non-Guaranteed – $2,028,594
This trio here is a prime example of young talent shining with an organization that took a chance on each of them. Be it underwhelming in their previous stint or simply not being a fit elsewhere, things didn’t work out originally for any of these guys. Yet in the NBA, all it takes is an opportunity. With a second (and in McLemore’s case, third or fourth) chance to prove their worth on this stage, these players have flourished in different ways.
Jackson spent the majority of his time in the G League with the Memphis Hustle, where he was to earn his way back up to the NBA. He followed through on this plan and has since joined the Grizzlies’ rotation on a permanent basis. It’s a small sample size to justify a big-time payday — and his past behaviors off the floor might cause some teams to be hesitant — but Jackson should drive interest from teams that lack wings and have money to spend. With a strong support system and cultural structure helping him mature, rolling the dice on Jackson could pay huge dividends.
Melton came along with Jackson in a trade with the Phoenix Suns, and he turned out to be the more immediate boost to the team. It took until December for the second-year guard to become a fixture in Memphis head coach Taylor Jenkins’ rotation — but when he received the opportunity, he took it and ran with it. Traditional numbers don’t particularly suggest the true difference he has made, so let’s go to the advanced ones.
According to Cleaning The Glass, the Grizzlies are 11.1 points per 100 possessions worse with Melton off the floor, putting him in the 96th percentile among his NBA peers. He is a heady defender and has a knack for making the right play on the offensive end of the floor — a true team-first guy. He’ll be a restricted free agent this summer, so we’ll see what teams go after him and if Memphis will match whatever offers are thrown his way.
The Rockets gave McLemore a shot to prove himself in the first half of the season, and he didn’t let them down. In order to play for that team, you’ve got to be able to shoot — and he answered the bell, specifically in a stretch from December to February where he knocked down 43 percent of his triples over a 40-game span. One would have to surmise that the arrival of Robert Covington has stunted his role a bit now, however. That shouldn’t take away from the fact that there clearly is something there still with the former 2013 No. 7 overall pick. He’s not a superstar by any means, but a 27-year-old scoring wing that’s rediscovered himself could prove to be a steal. Of course, that’s if Houston waives him prior to June 30.
The rest of the bunch is full of older veterans on expiring deals: Courtney Lee, E’Twaun Moore, J.J. Barea, Tyson Chandler, Thabo Sefolosha, Jeff Green, DeMarre Carroll, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marco Belinelli. Younger players such as Bryn Forbes and Jahlil Okafor will be out there, as well as little-used swingman Bruno Caboclo.
Kenrich Williams is absolutely worth a look, though he is restricted. Frank Jackson is in the same boat with his Pelicans teammate. There’s a threesome of guys with player options — Austin Rivers, Willie Cauley-Stein and Jakob Poeltl — that will probably generate interest.
As you can see, the crop coming out of the Southwest Division might be the best of the slim pickings the league has to offer this offseason. Let’s hope that we get this resolved soon and back to hoops so it can come sooner rather than later!
NBA Daily: The Hot Seat – Eastern Conference
Matt John takes a look at which coaches and general managers from the Eastern Conference are on the hot seat.
Speculation is what makes following the NBA fun. Theorizing what’s going to happen so easy and so fun that it’s harder not to do it. It’s why everyone is hooked on the draft, why they are hooked on free agency and why they are especially hooked on the trade deadline.
Do you notice a commonality there? All of that has to do with player movement. The players make this league what it is. No question. That’s why we always keep our eyes peeled when one could potentially be on the move. Especially if it’s a star. Then, there are the coaches and general managers. Even if speculation about them is not nearly as strong as it is for players, the hot seat is something we do keep our eye on.
We usually have a pretty good grasp on whose job is on the line. When we see a team not playing up to expectations, or not making the progress that they intended to make, or just flat-out sucking the life out of everyone, usually it’s the coach and/or the general manager whose job is in the most jeopardy.
However, we’ve seen in recent weeks that the hot seat can at times be unpredictable. We knew this was supposed to be a gap year for the Brooklyn Nets. Even if they had been one of the worst teams in the league, did anyone really believe for a second that Kenny Atkinson would get the ax? Things were on the up and up for the Nets his last week as the head coach. Next thing we knew, he was out of a job.
Imagine how that conversation went.
Thanks for helping our franchise look respectable again after we put our fans through the seventh circle of hell! OKAY BYE!
But, that’s their prerogative. The point is, you never know who’s on the hot seat. You wouldn’t think that guys like Mike Budenholzer, Masai Ujiri or Brad Stevens would be in any danger of losing their jobs, but a coach as well-respected as Atkinson losing his job signals that anything is possible should they find themselves in a situation with just the right amount of wrong in it.
Basketball Insiders is looking at coaches and general managers who could be in danger of losing their job. Today, we’re looking at the Eastern Conference. Going over who may be on the hot seat requires premising why their job would be on the line. With that all in mind, let’s take a look.
“If This Blows Up In Our Face, We Need A Scapegoat”
Brett Brown/Elton Brand — Philadelphia 76ers
The best way to approach this is by starting with those who are probably on the hottest seat of them all.
When a team that has both two young superstars in their prime and championship aspirations appear to be falling way short of expectations, heads will roll. Unless they magically turn things around in the playoffs — if we have the playoffs — the 76ers appear to be going down this route. The narrative that Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, as good as they are, are not a good match together has picked up a lot of steam this season.
Even so, Embiid is 26 and Simmons is 23. They still have time to figure it out. At the very least, Philly will give it another year with those two pending any unforeseen trade requests. Don’t rule anything out. The operative thinking is likely to be that the Sixers will change their surroundings first before they consider getting one of them out of town. If anyone’s taking the fall, it’s most likely going to be Brett Brown.
Brown’s name has been popping up on the hot seat since the end of last season because of Philly’s failure to make serious progress despite having one of the league’s most talented rosters. He still has not been able to find the right formula for Embiid and Simmons, he hasn’t been able to cover the holes left by Jimmy Butler and JJ Redick and he hasn’t been able to fully integrate Tobias Harris, Josh Richardson, or Al Horford.
Philly’s defense remains airtight — that side of the ball has never really been an issue — but its offense has fallen below league average primarily because the lack of spacing has made it look more like a clogged toilet than it ever has in the Embiid/Simmons era. As Simmons and Embiid progressed as players, offensive progression as a whole should have come along too. That hasn’t happened, and that’s on Brown.
But the blame can’t be placed entirely on him. It wasn’t his idea to spend money that could have been used to keep Redick to pay top dollar for Al Horford. Or to give a superstar-like extension to Tobias Harris, a good-not-great player. Nope, that’s on Elton Brand.
Brand shot for the stars last season when he acquired Butler and Harris mid-season, and many Philly fans argue that the Kawhi buzzer-beater prevented the team from a Finals berth. Perhaps, but since then, the moves the Sixers have made since have not worked. Horford has flopped. Richardson has only been okay. Harris still hasn’t rediscovered the groove he once had in LA.
Brown is on a hotter seat than Brand is because he’s been there longer. Since Brand’s been on the job for less than two years, it’s more likely than not that they give him another year to fix this. If hypothetically, Brand was able to find a taker for Horford and his enormous contract, maybe that would keep his job secure, but who would be that willing to take the rapidly aging Horford on a deal like that now?
Scariest of all, this is what The Process is at its completion. There are no more assets to rely on. Cap flexibility is now out of the question. They got the young starlets they wanted, but more and more skeptics are starting to believe that the duo of Embiid and Simmons has peaked. If nothing improves by season’s end, someone’s taking a fall here. The most likely one is going to Brown, but it wouldn’t be overly shocking if Brand goes down with him.
“It’s Time For A Fresh Start”
Jim Boylen — Chicago Bulls
Does anyone know what exactly John Paxson and Michael Reinsdorf see in Jim Boylen? It might be safe to say that they are looking at him through rose-colored glasses. Sure, Chicago played somewhat-promising basketball towards the end of last season, but in the wake of Boylen’s rather odd actions on the court this season — and since the Bulls are still a subpar team in the Eastern Conference — might it be time to pull the plug, guys?
Boylen’s coaching decisions have put off a fair amount of spectators. There’s an ongoing belief of a disconnect between him and his players. Was it mentioned that the Bulls stink?
They’re 22-43. Their defense is average — allowing 109.8 points per 100 possessions is good for 14th in the league — but their offense is ghastly, putting up just 106.7 points per 100 possessions which is good for 27th. The players don’t have a good relationship with him. Other Bulls personnel don’t have a good relationship with him. Lauri Markkanen, one of the Bulls’ most promising players, has somehow regressed in Year 3.
It’s a little awkward since Chicago extended Boylen last summer, but it’s better to admit it’s not working instead of forcing it in hopes of it one day working out. That wouldn’t be a bad strategy if it looked like Boylen and his players were on the same page.
The front office clearly sees it differently. They’d rather wait this out than act now while they can. Who knows? Maybe if and when this coronavirus situation passes, maybe that’ll give them the time they need to make the right move.
When it comes to discussing Jim Boylen, this isn’t as much of a take that says “He is on the hot seat,” but rather one that says, “He should be on the hot seat.”
“If You Can’t Improve Our Bleak Situation Now, We’re Getting Someone Else”
Tommy Sheppard — Washington Wizards
Unlike the previously mentioned name above, what’s happened to the Wizards does not have much, if at all, to do with Sheppard. Basically, he inherited the mess left by Ernie Grunfeld. Washington doesn’t really have a whole lot of options at the moment. The team can either miss out on the playoffs, or they can get thrashed by the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round. Either way, it won’t be pretty.
Their problems go much further than that. John Wall should be coming back, but he’s coming back from a slew of injuries, so who knows what kind of player we should expect to see on the court. Bradley Beal is getting increasingly fed up with the lack of success the team has mustered. You can’t really blame him since the team’s taken a nosedive from their near-conference finals run just three years ago.
What makes this even sadder is that Sheppard has done some of the little things correctly since taking over. He literally stole Davis Bertans away from San Antonio. He re-signed Thomas Bryant on good value. He did the same when he brought in Ish Smith. Drafting Rui Hachimura would also be included, but that’s not a little thing now, is it? It’s a huge thing, and it could pay dividends for Washington’s future knowing Rui’s potential. The catch-22 is that no one knows how long it will take for the future to arrive.
The situation with Wall and Beal puts a lot of pressure on Sheppard and everyone else in the front office to get the train rolling because it’s continuously sputtered since 2017. No one should blame Sheppard if he’s not able to salvage this, but that won’t stop the pressure from mounting.
Knowing how awful the New York Knicks have been, there’s a case for general manager Scott Perry to be up here too, but we all know the real problem with the Knicks lies within the very top with James Dolan. The Knicks have been through this rodeo plenty of times that it doesn’t matter who they have making the moves. If serious change is going to happen, it starts and ends with James Dolan.
That’s what the hot seat comes down to. If a coach or GM is in danger of getting fired from their job, it’s predicated from the belief that they’re not making a big enough difference to help their team move forward.
Those who have been mentioned here were put in a tough situation to begin with, but it is on them to change their team’s outlook for the better regardless. If they’re not able to do with this while on the hot seat, then there won’t be a hot seat to sit on for long.
NBA Daily: 8 Free Agents – Southeast Division
Shane Rhodes continues Basketball Insiders’ Free Agent series with a look at the best names coming out of the Southeast Division.
It may seem like it, but, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the NBA world never truly stopped turning, even Bodog Canada is still running.
Yes, in a time of some much-needed, sports-related distraction, the play has been put on hold. But the Association has continued to chug along as the draft and free agency still loom large.
At this point, a resumed season and or expedited postseason would seem more likely than not. But, if the remainder of the 2019-20 season is forgone, players and teams must continue to prepare for that worst-case scenario. And that’s exactly what they’ve done, albeit under awkward circumstances given recent living and travel constraints; players have had to get creative with workouts, while teams have been forced to adopt a much more film-centric approach to the draft.
With that in mind, Basketball Insiders has continued to work as well. In recent days, we’ve looked at several players, spanning the Northwest, Central, Atlantic and Pacific divisions, that could hit the open market once the world gets back on track. Today, we’ll look at the Southeast Division.
It may not be the cream of the free-agent crop, but there are plenty of players coming out of the Southeast that should garner serious interest and that could make a serious impact next season, either with their current team or elsewhere.
Best of the Bunch
Davis Bertans, Washington Wizards — Unrestricted — $7,000,000
While he wasn’t moved, Bertans was a hotly contested commodity at the trade deadline. That won’t change come free agency.
The 6-foot-10 Latvian is the new “normal” for the NBA power forward — a long-armed sharpshooter that can open up the paint rather than bog it down. And, in a league where frontcourt spacing is at a premium, Bertans is set to earn a nice new deal as one of the best shooters, regardless of position.
In 54 games with the Wizards, Bertans shot a blistering 42.4 percent from beyond the arc on nearly nine attempts per game. He set career marks in points (15.4), rebounds (4.5), three-pointers made (3.7) and attempted (8.7) per game, among other stats.
Those numbers are impressive in their own right and should need no qualifier. But, just to drive the point home, Bertans is just one of five in NBA history to play at least 50 games and shoot at least 40 percent on eight or more three-point attempts per game. He would also be the only player on that list to spend the majority of his time at the four-spot.
Even among a “sexier” group of free agents, Bertans’ skillset and potential fit with a variety of different contenders would have him at or near the top of plenty of free agent lists. So, in a relatively weak class, expect his camp to try and break the bank.
And don’t expect it to take very long. Washington may push hard to keep him to appease Bradley Beal, but the sheer amount of potential interest could leave the Wizards out in the cold.
Evan Fournier, Orlando Magic — Player Option — $17,150,000
After six seasons, 2020 may be the year Fournier and the Magic part ways.
Fournier has been on Orlando’s chopping block for what seems like forever; going back to 2016, the Magic have just never seemed committed to the Frenchman. Staring at a second-consecutive eighth-place finish in the East and an inevitable shake-up coming this summer, why would that attitude change now?
Likewise, for Fournier, the Magic have struggled to sustain success during his tenure. In the midst of a career year, a career-high 18.8 points per game to go along with strong shooting and competent defense, a contract comparable to his $17,150,000 option shouldn’t be out of the question, nor should Fournier lack for suitors; why wouldn’t he test the waters?
So, what exactly does a potential team get in Fournier? A talented offensive guard and arguably the best available (pending DeMar DeRozan’s player option) in this free-agent class.
Fournier isn’t going to carry an offense, but any interested teams should already have an established star to pair him with. Think of him as a potential Khris Middleton to Team X’s Giannis Antentokounmpo; a talented player in his own right, but one that would buttress a team’s top option rather than shoulder the load himself (something he has been tasked with in Orlando).
Should he indeed look to leave the Sunshine State, the Atlanta Hawks and Toronto Raptors could prove perfect candidates for Fournier’s services. Likewise, any aspiring up-and-coming squads that are looking to add a veteran while keeping the roster relatively young could do worse than the 27-year-old.
Goran Dragic, Miami HEAT — Unrestricted — $19,217,900
At 33-years-old, 2020 is probably Dragic’s last chance to earn a sizable, long(ish)-term contract. And, with rumors that the HEAT only plan to offer a one-year (albeit bloated) deal, it may come with a team other than Miami.
Regardless of the team, Dragic should continue to provide above-average offense next season and, amid a resurgence after an injury-riddled 2019, he should earn a pretty penny doing so. Even with a move to the bench, Dragic has continued to produce. In 54 games (53 off the bench) he averaged 16.1 points, 3.1 rebounds and 5.1 assists to go along with a 37.7 three-point percentage, his best clip since 2016.
Whatever his decision, Dragic would likely emphasize winning as he’s made the postseason just three times in his 14-year career. Even on a one-year deal, Miami may be his best bet in that regard, though teams with prior interest — the Dallas Mavericks, mainly — could serve to lure him away.
That said, should an up-and-coming roster offer him a starting opportunity (a la Ricky Rubio and the Phoenix Suns a season ago) along with a large enough salary or more in terms of long-term security, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Dragic jump at it.
Jeff Teague, Atlanta Hawks — Unrestricted — $19,000,000
A Teague addition isn’t going to inspire much confidence in any fanbase. Nor is he going to move the needle much toward title contention.
But at 31, Teague is still capable of solid production from the point guard spot, especially as a passer. In 59 games split between the Hawks and the Minnesota Timberwolves, Teague averaged 10.9 points, 5.2 assists and shot 43.6 percent from the field and 36.8 percent from three. A season ago, while he was limited to just 42 games, Teague averaged more than eight assists.
So, while he may not “wow” many teams, it’s clear there’s some potential there. Ideally, Teague would slot into a reserve role on a contender, an assist man and outside shot coming off the bench, but could also serve as a nice stopgap or bridge option for a team assessing their future at the position — think the New York Knicks, Detroit Pistons, etc. Likewise, Teague is a quality leader and role model that almost any team would benefit from bringing in.
It just probably won’t be in Atlanta.
Of course, with Vince Carter expected to retire, the Hawks could always elect to bring Teague back to maintain that veteran presence in the locker room. But, with Trae Young locked in as Atlanta’s starter amidst a bevy of other talented young guards on the roster, the fit is just a bit too awkward.
Jae Crowder, Miami HEAT — Unrestricted — $7,815,533
Meyers Leonard, Miami HEAT — Unrestricted — $11,286,515
Kelly Olynyk, Miami HEAT — Player Option — $12,667,885
Crowder has bounced around the NBA, having played for six teams in his eight seasons. But, at every stop, he’s proven at least a capable contributor and, more importantly, to have a team-first attitude.
His stats don’t jump out of the boxscore — 10.4 points, 6.1 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.2 steals across 58 games between the Memphis Grizzlies and Miami — but Crowder is without a doubt a crucial building block. He may not win you the Larry O’Brien trophy, but the energy and passion that he can bring to the table go a long way in competing for one. Better yet, Crowder should make that impact for little in terms of compensation.
As for Leonard, any team priced out of the Bertans bidding should look to make him a top target. Aside from the fact that he’ll cost next to nothing in comparison, Leonard has proven a capable marksman in his own right; a career 39.2 percent three-point shooter, Leonard shot 42.9 percent from deep on 2.4 across 49 games with Miami. Like Crowder, Leonard is also a we-before-me personality and could prove a capable leader in a locker room in need of one.
He’s capable enough on the defensive end that he won’t kill you on a regular basis and athletic enough that, when his confidence is there, he can make a serious impact on offense. Should Leonard get lost in the shuffle as the HEAT look to pair a third star with Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler, expect another team to scoop him up quickly.
Now, should a team swing-and-miss on Bertans and Leonard, Olynyk may have what they’re looking for
Like Leonard, Olynyk can knock it down from distance and should prove a capable reserve wherever he may find himself next season. Unlike Leonard, however, Olynyk has a player option for next season, one that he may not be able to pass up. If a team is interested enough, they’ll need to convince him to pass on more than $13 million next season. It’s not unthinkable, should an interested party promise Olynyk more than the 18 minutes per game he averaged with the HEAT this season, but they would need to strike the right balance between pay and play.
The Unlikely Reclamation Project
Nicolas Batum, Charlotte Hornets — Player Option — $25,565,217
Let’s just get this out of the way: Batum is probably spending one more season in Charlotte.
Through two seasons, the Batum-Hornets relationship looked promising, as the forward averaged 15 points, 6.2 rebounds, 5.5 assists and a steal per game. After that… you know the rest. A combination of coaching changes, injury and just general poor play has turned the formerly productive Batum into the world’s highest-paid cheerleader.
With more than $27 million left on the table, it would be hard to fault Batum for sticking out the last year of his deal. He won’t — or at least he shouldn’t — find anything close to that number on the open market, even more reason to opt-in.
That said, should he catch wind of a potential opportunity, would Batum be willing to walk away? While an opt-out may be out of the question, it wouldn’t be a total shock to see Batum opt-in, force Charlotte into a buyout and jump at a fresh start.
This isn’t last summer; the free-agent frenzy won’t be nearly as exciting. That said, and most fans would agree, any basketball action would be welcome right about now — a scratch for that incessant itch that has lingered since the NBA put the season on pause. While we hope that play can resume as quickly and safely as possible, we at Basketball Insiders also hope that, in the meantime, our continued coverage can serve as a nice reprieve to everyone.