The August and September months are a slog for most NBA basketball fans, but they’re an important time for several important housekeeping items. Rosters are a key area of focus for front offices across the league, from possible cuts to training camp signees and guys on the bubble for the 15-man roster down the road. As Basketball Insiders’ Eric Pincus wrote recently, there are also a number of quietly important league deadlines looming around this time of year.
Most prominent among these is the rookie extension deadline of October 31, before which players entering their fourth year of a rookie-scale contract can negotiate with their incumbent teams regarding extensions that, if agreed upon, kick in to begin the 2017-18 season. If a player and team cannot reach an agreement before that Halloween date, the issue is effectively tabled and the player becomes a restricted free agent on July 1, 2017, with his incumbent team retaining matching rights on any outside offer sheet he signs.
The process is simple enough, but there are numerous variables at play that often make the execution a more complex affair. Teams can offer extra incentives to their very best players to keep them in town, which is why it’s extremely rare for a star-level player to change teams after his rookie deal, but many in the next tier down or below are playing a trickier game.
Locking a guy up before his final rookie-scale season keeps him completely away from the open market, a place where predatory competitors can tinker with poison-pill contracts that hurt a team’s position if they choose to match. Finalizing a deal early also offers the potential for a bargain contract if the player in question takes an unexpected leap in his fourth season.
On the other side of the coin, though, agreeing to a deal commits a team salary-wise regardless of the results in that fourth year. For deals signed with future development as part of the expectation, the risk of a bad contract down the line comes with the territory. Even if the superstars almost never go this route, a number of very talented guys have passed the deadline and hit restricted free agency in recent years.
Made up primarily of picks from the 2013 draft, the crop of extension-eligible players this fall represents a few distinct stylistic groupings: Rudy Gobert and Steven Adams highlight a strong group of “traditional” big men; Dennis Schroder and Michael Carter-Williams are two of several notable guards with numerous complementary skills but lack consistent jump-shooting; Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Otto Porter are among a number of emerging “3-and-D” specialists looking to cash in on the modern value of their role; and of course, as will be the case his whole career, Giannis Antetokounmpo gets his own special category.
Not all these players will receive deals before Halloween, and what’s signed – or not signed – could tell us a lot about how the league values these types of players as the NBA’s next crop of young talent move into their primes.
Primaries: Rudy Gobert, Steven Adams, Nerlens Noel, Gorgui Dieng, Mason Plumlee
Even the grandmothers of discerning hoops fans know the league is trending smaller, but several notable names are set to test that trend over the next couple months. Elite defense is still easiest with a dominant big guy manning the paint, and the best of them do enough other things to be among the most valuable commodities in the game despite a lack of shooting prowess.
Gobert and Adams are the headliners this fall, both undisputed defensive anchors who double as rim-running pick-and-roll threats on the other end of the floor. It’s tough to separate bouts of apparent stagnation from injury concerns after a stop-and-go third season where Gobert missed 21 games and couldn’t ever really find his rhythm. However, he’s cemented his reputation as one of the premier interior defenders in the game, with a few underappreciated supplementary skills to boot. Gobert could be nearly done developing at 24 years old, though – something the casual observer perhaps doesn’t consciously realize.
How the Utah Jazz will approach his situation will be telling, and could reflect a lesson learned a few years back. A difference of a few million dollars reportedly kept them from locking up Gordon Hayward in the summer of 2013, causing Utah to lose a year of Hayward’s services on the deal they eventually matched from the Charlotte Hornets. At the same time, Gobert’s extremely low cap hold next summer could leave open a big chunk of flexibility for additional upgrades – if the Frenchman is willing to play ball and voluntarily table his extension talks until mid-July, with the understanding that he wouldn’t ink a potentially harmful deal elsewhere in the meantime.
That’s a lot of risk, though. As noted by Dan Clayton on the latest Basketball Insiders podcast, that space under the cap the Jazz could conceivably save if they tabled Gobert’s talks might be significantly lessened or even eliminated anyway if the Jazz look to restructure Derrick Favors’ contract – something that makes so much sense that it’s been discussed by local outlets and our Eric Pincus for months. If that happens, a Gobert extension feels even more likely before the deadline.
There’s a similar calculus for Adams in Oklahoma City, where Sam Presti and crew have been silent to this point on extension talks for not only the big Kiwi, but also Victor Oladipo and Andre Roberson. Presti has typically acted early in these scenarios, and there’s a real chance the Thunder are playing the longer game here and hoping for trust – particularly from Adams.
After losing a ton of talent in Kevin Durant this summer, holding off on extensions and saving the cap space will allow OKC to take a real run at the free-agent market in their last chance to re-stock before Russell Westbrook hits unrestricted free agency in 2018. Adams might be the exception, especially if he’s willing to take a slight discount on his near-max value in exchange for security, but even in his case – and even with the understanding that he’s a core piece staying in Oklahoma City no matter what – a deal before the October 31 deadline seems like no sure thing.
For guys like Noel, Dieng and Plumlee, the final dollar figure is likely more interesting than the timing. Team roster situations could play a big role: Noel suddenly finds himself in a frontcourt cluster with multiple other lottery picks including No. 1 pick Ben Simmons, while Plumlee just watched seemingly every teammate (plus a new center in Festus Ezeli) get a huge raise and clog up Portland’s books ahead of his big extension summer. Dieng is the only one of the three with a relatively safe role, but it’s tough to gauge his value (and whether he’s worth locking up ahead of his fourth season) in a situation where he isn’t even the fourth-most valued young player on an up-and-coming team.
The way these guys are approached by their incumbent teams will be dictated in part by circumstance, but they could tell us something more. Are younger teams willing to pony up for big man talent even if it risks future flexibility, or will they test the perils of restricted free agency in hopes of finding more modern talent and (hopefully) still retaining their big later on?
Primaries: Dennis Schroder, Michael Carter-Williams, Victor Oladipo
An even smaller niche as the league modernizes is the talented ball-handler who does many things well but can’t shoot an accurate enough jumper, and several notable candidates for extensions dot the pool in this category as well.
Oladipo may fall into a similar category as Adams in Oklahoma City. With a huge summer already on the horizon next year, it’s tough to imagine Presti and Co. committing a big number to a guy who hasn’t even played a game in a Thunder uniform yet. Carter-Williams feels like even more of a lock to enter the 2016-17 season without an extension, especially considering the Bucks just brought in Matthew Dellavedova at the same position. And even if there’s money left for Carter-Williams after Antetokounmpo gets his expected max raise, it’s unlikely John Hammond and his brain trust will want to shell it out before seeing how things fit on the floor.
Schroder probably falls between those two skill-wise, but he’s a completely different ballgame. The Hawks signaled his inheritance of their starting point guard position when they traded away Jeff Teague before the draft; letting Schroder enter his final rookie-scale year without an extension in place would appear to run completely contrary to this line of thinking.
That doesn’t mean it’s a sure thing, of course. Schroder and his representation surely recognize this same reality, and could be pushing for a big payday. Will they be willing to play the game of chicken and refuse a fair market extension, demanding more or allowing Schroder to prove his own value as a starter? Like always, it’s a big risk – a career 32 percent three-point shooter at the point has a ceiling, and Schroder probably isn’t upping his current value next year unless that sees a real uptick. There would appear to be motivation on both sides to get a deal done before October 31.
These types are a dying breed in the NBA, and their eventual market could reflect that. Teams might be more willing to let restricted free agency dictate their value; in return for security, these players and their agents might become amenable to accepting less than what they feel they’re worth. What we hear and see on these names in the next couple months will be telling.
Primaries: Otto Porter, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Andre Roberson
Where traditional centers and non-shooting guards could have a plethora of talents but be left behind for lacking one or two vital skills, “3-and-D” wings are completely at the other end of the spectrum: Even if they’re pretty limited in many aspects of the game, the value of these kinds of players is exploding if both “3” and “D” are present in their skill set. Kent Bazemore, an athletic but limited swingman who does pretty little outside shooting threes and defending multiple spots on the perimeter, got a payday the same size as Dwight Howard this summer.
Exactly how far this concept can stretch will be tested by this extension season, and Porter might be the perfect case. At 23 and sporting a career 35 percent mark from deep, Porter barely qualifies in one half of the equation; many in Washington will tell you it’s a coin flip for the “D” part on a given night as well. Metrics may disagree on the latter half – ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus placed Porter in the upper tier of defenders at the small forward spot, and others have similar outputs. In either case, Porter isn’t doing a whole lot else on the court.
With the other two members of Washington’s starting perimeter eating up a combined $40 million or more every year moving forward (and reportedly feuding to some extent), whether these glue skills alone are enough to break out the checkbook yet again for Porter is an intriguing question. Porter and his representation know full well the value the league places on his primary functions, and could easily be willing to risk injury or slight regression to let him hit the market next summer if the Wizards are reticent to commit so much money to three guys.
It feels like a more tightly-run ship in Detroit currently, but that doesn’t make Caldwell-Pope’s impending extension eligibility any less complex. Barring a sizable salary-shedding move before July, a deal with KCP this fall would immediately stamp out any cap space the Pistons may have been hoping to use on the free agent market in 2017. If Stan Van Gundy is going to act now, it’s with a virtual certainty that this is his group for the future.
Van Gundy is a savvy executive, though. He already curried favor among his players by rewarding Andre Drummond with a deserved five-year max after Drummond did the franchise a solid and waited on his own rookie extension, allowing the Pistons to sign additional pieces alongside him. It’s tougher with a non-max guy like KCP, but look for the same approach here; Van Gundy can sell team loyalty after a successful 2016 summer, and might even be able to kill two birds by adding more talent next offseason before once again rewarding one of his guys for their patience. There’s still a lot of risk here though, and Caldwell-Pope’s agent, Rich Paul, is known for hard-nosed bargaining.
Further still, this is a distinct seller’s market. There are fewer capable “3-and-D” guys in the league than there are needs for such players. The summer of 2017 will introduce even more money into the equation, and guys like Porter and Caldwell-Pope simply have to look back at the contracts signed in the past few months to see what they might be in for. Their team situations could determine outcomes this fall, but just how far the league’s obsession with these two skills stretches will be interesting to track through next offseason.
Miami’s Struggles About More than One Player
Drew Maresca assesses the Miami HEAT’s early-season struggles and their statistical slide from the 2019-20 campaign.
The Miami HEAT appeared to successfully turn the corner on a quick rebuild, having advanced to the bubble’s 2020 NBA Finals. It looked as though Miami took a short cut even, rebounding from the LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh era incredibly quickly. Ultimately, they did so through smart drafting – including the selections of Bam Adebayo, Kendrick Nunn and Tyler Herro – plus, a little luck, like the signing of Jimmy Butler and smartly sticking with Duncan Robinson.
But despite the fact that they should have improved from last season, the tide may have turned again in South Beach.
Through 15 games, the HEAT are an underwhelming 6-9 with losses in each of their last two games. Miami is also scoring fewer points per game than last season – 109.3 versus 112 – while giving up more – 113.1 against 109.1.
Miami has played the 14th-toughest schedule in the NBA, and there are some embarrassing and noteworthy loses thus far. They lost by a resounding 47 points to the Milwaukee Bucks earlier this season, with extra harsh defeats of 20 points to the lowly Detroit Pistons and the mediocre Toronto Raptors.
What’s to blame for Miami’s woes? Unfortunately for the HEAT, it’s a number of things.
First of all, they need more from a few of their stars – and it starts at the very top. Jimmy Butler was Miami’s leading scorer in 2019-20, posting 19.9 points per game. But this season, Butler is scoring just 15.8 points per game on a sub-par 44.2 percent shooting. While Butler shot poorly from three-point range last season, too (24.4 percent), he hasn’t connected on a single three-pointer yet in 2020-21. This, coming from a guy who shot 34.7 percent from deep in 2018-19 and 35 percent in 2017-18.
But it’s not just his lack of scoring that’s hurting. Butler is also collecting fewer assists and rebounds as well. He’s averaging only 5.5 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game, down from 6.7 ad 6.0 last season.
However, Butler’s main struggle this season has nothing to do with any statistic or slump. Butler has missed seven straight games due to COVID-19 protocols. Although to go-scorer wasn’t playing particularly well prior to isolating from the team – scoring in single digits twice – the HEAT are always in better shape if their leader takes the floor with them.
It’s not just Butler either. Tyler Herro also needs to regain his bubble form, at least as far as shooting is concerned. After connecting on 38.9 percent on 5.4 three-point attempts in 2019-20, he’s sinking only 30.2 percent of his 5.3 three-point attempts per game this season.
While Herro is scoring more – 17.2 points per game this season – and doing so more efficiently, he’s doesn’t pose the same threat from deep this season. So while he’s sure to pick it up sooner than later, he must do so to put more pressure on opposing defense.
It’s fair to assume Herro will solve his long-distance shooting woes, but the fact that he’s also struggling from the free throw line is concerning because it speaks more to his form. Herro is still well above the league average, connecting on 76.5 percent of his attempts from the charity stripe, but he shot a scorching 87 percent on free throw attempts last season.
So what’s behind the slump? More importantly, which Herro can the HEAT count on for the remainder of 2020-21? As much as Herro is on track to grow into an incredible player, Miami needs his efficiency to return to last season’s form if they expect to compete. But like Butler, a major part of Herro’s struggles are off the court.
Herro is currently dealing with an injury, having missed the last five games with neck spasms. Coach Erik Spoelstra noted that giving the injured Herro so many minutes before his big layoff likely exacerbated his injuries.
“There’s no telling for sure if this is why Tyler missed these games,” Spoelstra told the South Florida SunSentinel. “But it definitely didn’t help that he had to play and play that many minutes. We didn’t have anybody else at that point. If he didn’t play, then we would have had seven.”
But the HEAT’s struggles are about more than any one player – and that’s a big part of what makes Miami, Miami.
Still, their team stats are equally puzzling, like that the Miami HEAT currently ranks 20th in offensive rating and 23rd in defensive rating. In 2019-20, they were 7th in offensive rating and 11th in defensive rating. Obviously, something isn’t translating from last year, but what is it that’s missing?
Firstly, the HEAT are only the 18th best three-point shooting in terms of percentage. Last season, Miami was 2nd by shooting 37.9 percent. Herro returning to his old self should help quite a bit, and Butler making at least a few threes should improve spacing, too.
But it’s not just three-point shooting as the HEAT ranked last in field goal attempts last season, tallying just 84.4 attempts per game. And while they’re last again this season, they’ve managed to average even fewer attempts per game (81.7) despite maintaining nearly all of their roster.
The HEAT are also last in offensive rebounding, which translates to fewer field goal attempts and fewer points. And while Miami was 29th in offensive rebounds last season, they’re corralling 2.1 fewer rebounds this season (6.4) than in 2019-20 (8.5). What’s more, Miami is now last in total rebounds with only 40.9 per game. A number that also represents a fairly significant change as the HEAT were 17th a season ago with 44.4 per game – whew!
Lastly, Miami is turning the ball over more often than nearly any other team – sorry, Chicago – in 2020-21. During the prior campaign, the HEAT were barely middle of the pack, turning the ball over 14.9 times per game, a mark that left them 18th-best in the league. This season, they’re 29th and turning the ball over 17.7 times per game – dead last in terms of turnovers per 100 possessions.
It’s not all bad news for the HEAT, though. Bam Adebayo looks great so far, posting 20.3 points, 8.9 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game. Second-year stud Kendrick Nunn is averaging 21.5 points on 56 percent shooting through the past four games; while Duncan Robinson is still a flame thrower, shooting 44.4 percent on 8.4 three-point attempts per game.
The HEAT’s upside is still considerable, but it’s easy to wonder if they captured magic in a bottle last season.
What We Learned: Western Conference Week 4
It’s only been a month, but the NBA season has already seen plenty of ups and downs. In the Western Conference, especially, the 2020-21 season has been a smashing success for some, but a complete and total slog for others.
But which teams have had it the best in the West so far? The worst? Let’s take a look in the latest Western Conference installment of Basketball Insiders’ “What We Learned” series.
The Clippers Hit Their Stride
Los Angeles’ holdovers from a season ago have often pointed to their regular season complacency as to why they fizzled out during last year’s postseason. And, because of that, they’ve made a concerted effort to play hard on every possession so far in the 2020-21 season.
So far, the results have been good. More than good, even; the Clippers, tied for the best record in the NBA with their in-house rival, the Los Angeles Lakers, are on a six-game win streak. Paul George has played like an MVP candidate, while Kawhi Leonard has looked healthy and at the peak of his powers. Offseason additions Nicolas Batum, Serge Ibaka and Luke Kennard have all made strong contributions as well.
With so many versatile players and a roster as deep as any in the NBA, anyone can be “the guy” for Los Angeles on any given night. And, tough to guard because of that versatility, they’ve managed the NBA’s second-best offensive rating through the first month.
After last season’s let-down, the Clippers have played without much pressure this season — and it’s showed. Still, with Leonard a potential pending free agent (Leonard can opt-out after the season), it’s paramount that the team play hard and show him they’re good enough to compete for a title in both the short- and long-term.
So far, they’re off to a great start.
Injury Woes Continue in Portland
Portland’s been bit by the injury bug. And badly.
Already without Zach Collins, the Trail Blazers have lost both Jusuf Nurkic and CJ McCollum in recent weeks. They couldn’t have come at a worse time, either; Nurkic had turned a corner after he struggled to start the year, while McCollum, averaging 26.7 points on 62 percent true shooting, was in the midst of a career year.
It would seem, once again, like Portland has put it all on the shoulders of Damian Lillard. But, in a brutally competitive Western Conference, he may not be able to carry that load alone. They do have some solid depth: more of a featured role could be just what Robert Covington has needed to get out of a rut, while Harry Giles III, the former Sacramento King that was signed in the offseason, has a ton of potential if he can just to stay on the court. Carmelo Anthony, Gary Trent Jr. and Enes Kanter should see expanded roles in the interim, as well.
But will it be enough? We can only wait and see. But, if that group can’t keep the Trail Blazers afloat until Nurkic and McCollum can return, Portland could be in for a long offseason.
Grizzlies Are Competitive — With or Without Ja Morant
Memphis, on a five-game win streak, is just a half-game back of the West’s fifth seed. And they’ve managed that despite the sheer amount of adversity they’ve had to deal with to start the year. Jaren Jackson Jr. is expected to miss most of if not the entire season, multiple games have been postponed due to the league’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols and Ja Morant missed eight games due to an ankle sprain.
However, head coach Taylor Jenkins has the Grizzlies playing hard, regardless of who is in the lineup. They have the third-best defensive rating in the NBA at 106.1 and have managed huge wins over the Brooklyn Nets, Philadelphia 76ers and Phoenix Suns.
Of course, Memphis is glad to see Morant over his injury and back in the lineup, but they might be just as happy to see how their entire core has progressed. Their success this season has, in large part, been a group-effort; rookies Xavier Tillman and Desmond Bane have been strong off the bench, while youngsters Brandon Clarke, Dillon Brooks and Grayson Allen have all proven integral pieces to the Grizzlies’ core for years to come.
As the year carries on, Memphis might not stick in the playoff picture. But, if their young core can continue to develop, they might not be on the outside looking in for much longer with Morant leading the charge.
What’s Going On In New Orleans?
The Pelicans have struggled and there wouldn’t appear to be an easy fix.
5-9, on a three-game losing streak and having dropped eight of their last nine, New Orleans just can’t seem to figure it out. The rosters fit around cornerstones Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram has proven awkward at best, as the team ranks in the bottom-10 in both offensive and defensive rating. Lonzo Ball has struggled offensively to start the season while JJ Redick can’t find his shot. Newcomer Eric Bledsoe has been fine but, as one of the team’s few offensive creators, his impact has been severely minimized.
Despite their stable of strong defenders, Stan Van Gundy’s defensive scheme, which has maximized their presence in the paint but left shooters wide open beyond the arc, has burned them continuously. Williamson’s effort on the defensive end, meanwhile, has been disappointing at best; he hasn’t looked like nearly the same impact defender he did at Duke University and in short spurts a season ago.
They still have time to work it out, but the Pelicans need to do so sooner rather than later. If they can’t, or at least establish some sort of consistency, New Orleans might never see the heights many had hoped to see them reach this season.
Be sure to check back for the next part of our “What We Learned” series as we continue to keep an eye on the NBA all season long.
NBA Daily: Lonzo Ball Presents Difficult Decision For Pelicans
Lonzo Ball is struggling early in his fourth NBA season, leaving the Pelicans questioning whether he will be a part of the team’s long-term plans moving forward.
Lonzo Ball and the New Orleans Pelicans failed to reach an extension prior to the deadline entering the 2020-21 NBA season – which made this season an important year for the former second overall pick to prove his worth.
But things have not gone according to plan for Ball. Originally acquired by the Pelicans in the Anthony Davis trade, Ball has failed to get going early in the current season. After a few years of what seemed like positive progression in the guard’s shooting stroke, this 2021 has brought up the same questions that surrounded Ball in his earlier scouting reports.
In his first three seasons, Lonzo saw his three-point accuracy increase each year. It started at a 30.5 percent accuracy rate and had jumped to an impressive 37.5 by his third NBA season, 2019-20.
Now well into his biggest campaign yet, he sits below 30 percent for the first time in his career, though there is a lot of time left to see that number increase. If Ball expects to be part of the Pelicans’ long-term plans, improvement is absolutely vital.
Obviously, shooting is a key part of the NBA game today, especially as a guard. Simply put, a player needs to give his team the proper floor spacing needed to maximize their scoring output in an offensively driven league.
That point is especially true for Ball, who needs to prove he can play alongside franchise cornerstones Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson. Both players are showing the skillset to be a dominant one-two punch for years to come, and the biggest need around them is proper floor spacing.
So even with all the positives Ball brings to the defensive side of the floor and as a playmaker, he cannot fit alongside Williamson and Ingram unless he’s a threat to hit shots from behind the arc. He’s obviously trying to prove himself in that regard as he has never averaged more three-point shots per game than he currently is – and yet, the result has been concerning.
When the two sides failed to reach an extension this offseason, it was abundantly clear that the Pelicans needed to see consistency before they’d tie long-term cap space to the guard. In the early going of the season, Ball is perhaps playing his most inconsistent basketball since his rookie campaign with the Los Angeles Lakers.
But will the Pelicans benefit from not signing Ball prior to the season? Maybe even by getting him to agree to a team-friendly contract if his struggles continue all year?
That seems highly unlikely. First off, not all teams are as desperate for a good shooting guard as the Pelicans are. As previously stated, Williamson and Ingram are in place as the franchise cornerstones. That means every player brought in on a long deal from here on out is brought in with the plan to fit alongside the forward combination.
Most teams with cap space don’t have the luxury of already having two franchise cornerstones in place. That means they are more likely to build around a player they sign – that’s especially true for a player that will hit free agency at a young age as will be the case with Ball.
While there’s almost no way the Pelicans won’t make a qualifying offer to Ball this offseason, it becomes a whole different question when pondering if they’ll match any contract he signs, depending on the financials involved.
He’ll offer significantly more value to another franchise than he might to the Pelicans because of the fit. The New York Knicks, for example, will be among the teams with cap space this offseason, they could see Ball as a player they can build things around moving forward.
That instantly makes him much more valued by the Knicks than he currently would be by the Pelicans. Of course, New Orleans would maintain their right to match the contract, but what good would it be if he isn’t going to fit next to the stars of the team? At no point will he be prioritized over the likes of Williamson and Ingram, which means he’s on a ticking clock to prove he can play alongside them as the team continues its ascension.
The first step could be adjustments to the rotation that sees Ball play more of the traditional point guard role with the rock in his hands. This isn’t easy for head coach Stan Van Gundy to do though as Ingram and Williamson thrive with the ball in their hands.
In all likelihood, Ball’s future in New Orleans will hinge on his consistency as a shooter, which, contrary to popular belief, he has shown the ability to do in the past. First off, confidence and staying engaged are keys; while Ball has struggled with both of those things in his early NBA seasons.
The second is an adjustment to his tendencies. Instead of settling for the spot-up opportunity every time it is presented, Ball would benefit from attacking the closeout more often and maximizing the chances that come from doing so.
Those options are in areas like finding the next open man for a three-pointer, getting to the free-throw line and finishing at the rim instead of hitting the deep shot. If he does these things, he’ll quickly find himself facing less aggressive closeouts and will be more confident in his game. Naturally, those things could lead to a more successful shooting number as the season continues on.
Ball is as talented as they come and it’s understandable why the Pelicans want to slide him in behind the two franchise forwards they have. The unfortunate reality is that time is running out on pass-first guard’s big chance to prove it’s the right move for the Pelicans moving forward.