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NBA AM: Love for Porzingis Knows No Bounds

Latvians are extremely proud of Knicks rookie Kristaps Porzingis, who’s creating many new NBA fans overseas.

Tommy Beer

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It’s 2:20 in the morning and Gints Jankovskis’ alarm is ringing loudly. Ten minutes later, he is sipping his first cup of coffee.

Jankovskis is 17 years old. He lives with his mom and dad in the in the rural village of Dzerumi, located in the Kekava region of Latvia. Gints is a student at the local secondary school, but he is not up at this ungodly hour to finish a forgotten homework assignment or cram for a final exam. No, he has set his alarm to make sure he doesn’t miss a minute of the Knicks-Suns game, which is scheduled to tip off in New York at 7:30 p.m. Eastern Standard Time.

Believe it or not, Jankovskis has watched each and every game the Knicks have played this season.

I very much hope my teachers don’t read this because I sometimes don’t go to school because I was really exhausted after a long night and just don’t wake up in time for school,” he nervously admits.

Catching every single game is a difficult chore even for die-hard Knicks fans who reside in and around New York. For a fan living in Latvia, the challenge is compounded exponentially due to the seven-hour time difference. Yet, it turns out that Jankovskis is but one of a growing number of folks in Latvia, a small country in the Baltic region of Northern Europe, that can’t get enough Knickerbocker basketball. The reason why Latvia has become a breeding ground for Knick fandom is, of course, rookie sensation Kristaps Porzingis, who hails from Liepaja, Latvia.

Jankovskis began following Porzingis back in 2013. The FIBA Under-18 European Championship was held in Latvia that year. The Latvian team finished fourth and a rail-thin 16-year-old named Kristaps raised eyebrows. Jankovskis says he was motivated to follow Porzingis at that point and kept a close eye on him when he went off to play in Spain. Around that same time, Jankovskis began watching more and more NBA games as well. He rarely watched regular season contests, but tuned in for a few intriguing postseason games and the NBA Finals.

However, that causal relationship with the NBA ended once Porzingis invaded America.

Leading up the 2015 Draft, Latvian hoop fans were both excited and nervous to find out which team would select Porzingis. Jankovskis, corresponding via e-mail, says he remembers hoping that the Knicks would select Porzingis.

All Latvian media, before draft night, was sure it would be the fourth or fifth pick,” Jankovskis explained. “I really like the ‘New York Triangle’ and I am really happy to see Kristaps in a New York jersey. Before draft night, I cross[ed] my fingers for Porzingis to get drafted by New York.”

While Americans had only a few YouTube clips by which to judge this European import prior to the draft, Latvians had years of up-close exposure. Still, while Jankovskis thought Porzingis would play well, even he didn’t expect expectations to be exceeded to the extent that they have.

It wasn’t [a] complete surprise for Latvians,” he said. “We sports fans knew he one day [would] play in NBA but we don’t think like that – putback, putback, double-double, etc. Right now, every morning, the headline in every Latvian newspaper is about Kristaps Porzingis; he’s the biggest celebrity in Latvia right now. He’s probably the most popular person in all of Latvia.”

For many Latvians, it is enough to read the game recaps the following day or catch the highlights on local sports shows. But for some, including Gints Jankovskis, that simply won’t suffice.

“Perhaps you will be surprised, but I have not not missed any Kristaps Porzingis games,” he said. “Every game, I wake up and watch. My routine when New York plays: I go to sleep around 9 or 10 p.m. and wake up five to 10 minutes before the game starts [at 2:30 a.m.]. I take my Dell notebook downstairs and connect my PC with HDMI to the TV. We watch many Porzingis games as a family.”

LatviaFamily1Gints’ father, Eriks, who works in law enforcement, watches every game with his youngest son. Sometimes it is very difficult for the elder Jankovskis to get up for work the next day, but Gints scoffs at the idea that something as unimportant as sleep would prevent his dad from missing a game.

“He was in the army and is in very good health,” he said. “He’s a big sports fan, like myself.

“My mom and brother don’t watch all the games because their work. My mom watches when she doesn’t have to work the next day. My brother watches with us only when there are really interesting, strong opponents. If game is in NY at 7:30 p.m., in Latvia that is 2:30 a.m. If the game ends around 5 a.m. then I shut down my PC, TV and go to sleep and wake up to school 6:30 a.m. or if it’s free day like 1 p.m. When I watch games, I eat some chips, popcorn and drink some tea or coffee to not sleep.”

******


Gunars Klegers is 36 years old. He resides in Riga, Latvia’s capital city, and works as a PR professional. He is also a blogger and a publisher of a fishing magazine. In addition, he’s a self-professed “newborn Knicks fan in Latvia.”

At this time last year, Klegers had absolutely no interest in basketball contests taking place in the United States of America. He admits that as recently as a few months ago, he would not have even recognized the NBA’s reigning MVP if he plopped down next to him at a pub.

So far Porzingis has made a lot of new basketball, NBA and New York Knicks fans in Latvia who are getting up in the middle of the night to watch games or are waking up in the morning on working days with their phone in hand to see the stats and highlights of last night’s Knicks games,” Klegers said.

“If someone would have told me seven months ago that I would be staying up late on weekends to watch live NBA games and dig deep into NBA stats every day, I would suggest to that person to take some medicine, because I had zero interest in the NBA. I didn’t even know who Steph Curry was! My interest in the NBA faded away along with Michael Jordan’s retirement from the Bulls. And seven months ago, KP was the only another prospective youngster in our basketball community hopeful to be drafted.”

The last time Klegers had stayed up late into the night for a sporting event played in North America was when (Latvian legend) Sandis Ozolinsh was playing in the Stanley Cup Finals. That was back in 1996.

Klegers can’t stay up to watch games during the week due to work commitments, but if a Knicks game falls on a weekend, he fights to stay awake.

“I don’t go to sleep until 4 or 5 in the morning and my wife and kids accept that I get a couple of hours longer sleep the next morning,” he said. “Yes, there are some zombie-days sometimes, but it’s worth it. This kind of fairy tale is unique for Latvia and I don‘t want to miss it.“

What has amazed Klegers most about Porzingis’ surge in popularity within Latvia is how it has spread like wildfire throughout the entire country. No one, regardless of age or occupation, is immune to the Porzingis appeal.

“From kids to pensioners, from simple workers to our President… if earlier while making small-talk you had to talk about weather, now you can easily switch to Porzingis’ highlights from last night,” Klegers said.

******

Josh Harrellson is 26 years old. He lives in Riga. He’s plays basketball for a living.

After playing three years at the University of Kentucky, Harrellson was drafted in the second round of the 2011 NBA Draft by the New Orleans Pelicans and immediately traded to the Knicks. Just like Porzingis, Josh spent his rookie season in New York. Harrellson earned minutes by playing surprisingly well for the Knicks during his lone season in NYC. In fact, ironically enough, there are only two players in Knicks franchise history who have scored at least 12 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and hit four or more three-pointers in one game during their rookie season: Kristaps Porzingis and Josh Harrellson. After playing for the Miami HEAT in 2012-13 and the Detroit Pistons in 2013-14, Josh pursued his basketball dreams abroad, including stops in China and Puerto Rico.

This year, Harrellson landed in Latvia, signing with VEF Riga. He wasn’t sure what to expect when he agreed to spend eight months in Northern Europe. However, Harrellson affirms he has been pleasantly surprised.

“I live in Riga and it is a very nice city, a lot of things to see and a lot to do! Overall I am very impressed with Latvia, it’s a beautiful country,” Harrellson said.

Because he has his own career to focus on, Harrellson hasn’t watched much live NBA action but he does check box scores each morning to keep a pulse of the league. From what he’s seen, Harrellson has been impressed by how well Porzingis has played.

“I have been really surprised by his success this early in his career. He is very skilled and still has a lot of growing to do. I can only imagine how good he will be when it is all said and done,” Harrellson explained via e-mail.

Harrellson has seen his fair share of hype and excitement (he played alongside Jeremy Lin when the unforgettable “Linsanity” craze engulfed New York), and he can attest to just how popular Porzingis is in Latvia. Harrellson recently coached in a high school All-Star Game for standout players in Latvia and during the dunk competition, two dunkers surprised the crowd by donning Porzingis jerseys to show their love for the hometown hero.

As someone who is currently living in Latvia, but first learned the ropes playing for the Knicks in New York, Harrellson was asked what wisdom he would pass along to Porzingis: “The only advice I can give is that New York has the best fans. Just play with your heart and they will love you forever. Keep your head up no matter what. Remember they booed you and they booed Patrick Ewing and look how he turned out!”

******

Maris Keiss is 30 years old. He lives Jekabpils, a small town of about 25,000 people, located approximately 140 kilometers from Riga.

Like many other Latvian basketball fans, Porzingis popped up on Keiss’ radar in 2013 at the FIBA U-18 championships. Keiss still sadly recalls how a buzzer-beater from Spain coast Latvia the bronze medal. Still, despite the loss, Keiss was immediately impressed by Porzingis’ play. He followed the big man closely in Spain, and was extremely excited to see if Porzingis could continue his success in America.

While Keiss’ first glimpses of Porzingis three years ago were enormously encouraging, his first impression of Knicks fans and New Yorkers (watching the 2015 NBA Draft) were just as memorable but for all the wrong reasons.

“I was so mad, so angry at Knicks fans. I didn’t understand how they can boo somebody if they didn’t even see him play?” Keiss said. “After draft, I read many things about Knicks fans and the organization, and found out that happens with every drafted rookie in New York, so i just let it go.”

As with many other Latvians, Keiss’ first substantial exposure to the NBA came in 2008. This is because Andris Biedrins, the first and only other Latvian player to make a significant impact in the NBA, played the best ball of his career that season, and played for a remarkable team.

“I can’t say I was big fan of the NBA, but I remember Jordan playing in my childhood, some Europeans players after,” Keiss said. “I started to watch NBA in 2007 or 2008 when Biedrins had his breakout season with the Warriors. They knocked out the Mavs in first round of playoffs. I remember it as ‘the biggest upset in NBA history.’ Baron Davis, Matt Barnes, J-Rich, Monta Ellis, Captain Jack were on the team. So many good memories!”

Keiss works for a restaurant in town. Fortunately, his schedule allows him to sleep late, so he finds a way to get his Porzingis fix nearly every time KP takes the court.

“I have seen almost all games,” he said. “I missed only three or four.”

Keiss’ shift ends in the early morning hours, so he stays up late on nights the Knicks play and then finally collapses into bed once the the game ends.

“Thank God I am working in afternoons till late at night, so I have a chance to see games,” Keiss said. “Usually I wake up at 1 or 2 p.m. I have to be at work by 3 p.m. After work, I am always drinking strong coffee to make sure I don’t fall asleep before the Knicks’ game starts.”

He’s had his sanity questioned more than once.

“My parents say that I’m crazy and that I’m killing myself, but there’s nothing I can do; I’m addicted to the Knicks now,’ Keiss said.

“In the beginning of season, I knew only ‘Melo and KP, but now I’ve fallen in love with every single member of the team. I like D-Will’s emotions and I like Gallo’s inspiration. I even like how RoLo runs back home after two points. ‘Melo’s leadership is incredible. KP is in right time and in right place.”

kris1

******

Peteris Sprogis is 42 years old. He lives in Riga with his wife Marta and their four children. He is a pastor.

Sprogis hadn’t followed the NBA since the Michael Jordan era, which coincided with his high school years. Sprogis and his family have many other interests.

“Latvia is very much into arts, theater and music,” he said. “We have world-renowned orchestra conductors, composers, singers, etc. There is a large segment of the population that is more into the arts than sports.”

Kristaps2However, in Peteris’ opinion, Porzingis transcends sports.

“At this point, Kristaps Porzingis for Latvia is more than a famous athlete,” Sprogis said. “We see him also as our ambassador to the world and to the USA. I travel to America several times a year and I have tried to explain where Latvia is, that we are not part of Russia, etc. No offense, but geography does not seem to be a favorite subject in school for many Americans. So now I have hope that on my next trip, more and more people will know where and what Latvia is.”

Sprogis seems genuinely surprised at just how much interest he now has in the Knickerbockers. He’s watched more live games than he’d like to admit.

“I have to confess, quite a few times NBA and Knicks have stolen my good nights rest,” he said. “I have heard that the USA is a country where people like to sue one another and lawyers advertise on billboards like hamburger shops. Maybe I should sue [the] NBA for harming my sleep and for not writing a warning notice: Addictive!”

******

Kaspers Kambala is 37 years old. He is currently playing professional basketball in Adanaspor, Turkey, but lives in his native Riga during the offseason.

Kambala played professionally in Latvia at a very early age before heading to America in his late teenage years. He attended high school in Wisconsin and then stared at the University of Nevada Las Vegas as a collegian from 1997 to 2001. He led the Runnin’ Rebels in scoring his junior and senior season at UNLV and led the team in rebounding three of his four years in Vegas.

He played for a few NBA summer league teams in the years after college, but never appeared in a regular season NBA game. However, Kambala has enjoyed a very successful pro career in Europe. He still holds the Euroleague record for most points scored in a single game when he poured in 41 points against FC Barcelona in October of 2002. It’s been reported that Kambala, as one of the few Latvians playing big time ball abroad, was one of the players a young Kristaps Porzingis looked up to as a kid. Thus, Kambala is able to offer a unique perspective on the topic of Porzingis’ recent success in the United States.

Unsurprisingly, Kambala was aware of this young phenom from Leipaja before most.  

“I first heard his name maybe four or five years ago: ‘There’s a young talented kid you need to come watch,’ people would tell me,” Kambala said during a long conversation via Skype. “Back then, they would just say he’s really tall and talented.”

However, Kambala is not all that surprised by Porzingis’ exceptional play over his first few months in the NBA.

“He really started making a name for himself the last two years, especially last year in Spain,” he said.

Seeing how well and how hard Porzingis competed against older, stronger players impressed Kambala, especially because he knew the type of pounding young Kristaps had to deal with each time he confronted the cagey veterans in Spain.

“European basketball is very physical,” Kambala said. “The Spanish league is a tough league. It’s one of the toughest in Europe. They’re not giving you anything easy. People think he’s a just a 20-year-old young kid, but he’s been playing against physical, grown men that have been beating him up these last two years.”

Also, Kambala knows about the pressure Porzingis faced in those challenging environments, which helped prep him for what was to come in the Big Apple: “The Spanish club he played for had a lot of spectators. This is not his first time dealing with fame. It’s been coming, not at this magnitude of course, but this is not his first time experiencing this.”

Still, he has been delighted to watch the way Porzingis has aggressively attacked opponents in America.

“It’s not just that he’s playing well, it’s the way he’s carrying himself. He plays with a high level of confidence… He plays with a lot of swagger!” Kambala says with a smile.

Practice starts at 10 a.m. for Kambala so staying up into the wee hours of the morning to watch games live is not an option. However, he can’t help but catch daily updates of Porzingis’ accomplishments.

“Latvia is really small,” Kambala said. “Every day, I go through Facebook and all I see is highlights that people and sports channels have posted. And all my friends are retweeting stuff about him on Twitter. I see what he’s doing all the time. It’s really cool.”

While his international fame never reached ‘Porzingis proportions,’ Kambala can relate to being a star player representing his hometown in faraway places.

“I made a joke once back in my younger days, my cockier days… I had just signed with Real Madrid after winning two championships in the Turkish league. As Latvians we think the whole world should know where Latvia is, but that’s not always the case. Latvia has a population of less than 2 million, you know. I played college ball in America and then played in Turkey, which has about  is about 90 million people, and then in Spain. So, I made a joke: ‘More people around the world probably know my name than my country’s president’s name.'”

Kambala eventually learned that a certain responsibility came along with that recognition.

“Through basketball, you really have an opportunity to carry your country’s name to different parts of the globe. People found out about Latvia that way. They would ask, ‘What’s that? Where is Latvia?’ Kristaps is taking it even further. He is bringing our country’s name not just to New York and America, but worldwide, because the NBA is everywhere.”

******

Reinis Osenieks is not a doctor, and has no medical training, but he has uncovered an epidemic sweeping across the Republic of Latvia. He has termed it “The NBA Hangover.”

Osenieks is 28 years old. He lives in Riga and works as a sports journalist and on-air personality for Latvian TV, the national television station. He’s covered many major sporting events, including the NBA All-Star Game and the NBA Draft in New York last year, and will be heading to Rio, Brazil to cover the upcoming Summer Olympics as well. Yet, he recognizes that Porzingis has captured the attention of the Latvian people in an uniquely special and endearing way.

However, there are repercussions to this love affair, according to Osenieks: “I call it ‘The NBA Hangover!’ You haven’t been to a party, you haven’t got drunk, but you feel not very good the next day. That is ‘The NBA Hangover!’”

He usually watches the games alone, but Reinis recently heard about a cadre of fans that meet up at a local bar. (Edgars Zanders started a Facebook page to help organize the group, which gathers at ‘Klodaika,’ a bar in Riga that purchased NBA League Pass so Latvians would be able to watch Knicks games together.) 

“I have fallen asleep during two games,” Osenieks admits. “One of them was a little boring, [Derek] Fisher took out KP and I fell asleep on sofa. My girlfriend woke me up at the morning with a text: ‘You should’ve switched off the Christmas lights!’ She was mad at me.”

Nonetheless, Osenieks believes it is but a small price to pay to witness something he feels is truly extraordinary. He eloquently explains, via email, just how much Porzingis’ success means to him and his fellow countrymen.

“Kristaps makes us believe that there are no boundaries!” he wrote. “He’s a great example for every Latvian – that you can fulfill your goals no matter where you come from. He motivates us to be better. When you wake up and watch highlights of KP’s performance from the night before, the mood gets very good to start a great day!”

Riga and New York City are separated by approximately 4,195 miles and seven time zones, but Latvia’s limitless love for and prodigious pride in Porzingis seemingly know no bounds.  

“Latvia is a small country, but with big hearts,” Osenieks said. “Maybe because we are so small, we want to prove that we can do better than others. Kristaps represents the country in one of the biggest cities in the universe! He makes us believe.”

Tommy Beer is a Senior NBA Analyst and the Fantasy Sports Editor of Basketball Insiders, having covered the NBA for the last nine seasons.

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NBA

Free Agency Update: Changes In The Bubble

Drew Maresca explores the free agency implications of the first week of play in the bubble as the NBA continues its return to post COVID-19 play.

Drew Maresca

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Free agency is always a fun time for the NBA and its fans, but particularly so in 2020. Most free agents have usually earned their next deal by the 65th game of any given season – but this year is far from typical. Instead, the NBA has returned, sans its eight worst teams, meaning that competition is consistently better. And with limited competition for our attention, every game is a major event that draws more eyes and has a greater effect on the paydays of to-be free agents.

We’re still only three or four games into the official return of the NBA, but there have already been some changes to how we perceive some players. Take T.J. Warren, for example, who’s averaging over 39.7 points per game through three contests. Or Michael Porter Jr., who looks more like the focal point of a team than a player in his first year of professional action.

This article will focus explicitly on the changes in perception of free agents to-be as a result of their play in the bubble in Orlando.  We understand that the players listed below can still hurt their standings and that teams rate free agents differently. While the sample size is small, we’ve seen deals made based on an equally small body of work (e.g., Jerome James to the New York Knicks).

One caveat to keep in mind is the unprecedented fiscal challenges facing the NBA and its club in 2020. Not only will the COVID-19 pandemic inevitably hurt the 2020-21 salary cap, but there’s also still a conclusion to be had with the preseason China situation.

With all of that in mind, let’s explore the players that have made the loudest cases for a payday come this offseason.

The Stars

Mike Conley Jr., Utah Jazz – Player Option

Conley Jr. has a player option for 2020-21 – but he played poorly enough through March, relative to what we’ve come to expect from him, that it was more than reasonable to assume he would opt-in at $34.5 million.

But wait, there’s a chance that Conley does us all a favor and makes free agency 2020 more interesting. Conley’s averaged 19.8 points and 5.8 assists per game, way, way up from 13.8 points and 4.3 assists per game prior to the stoppage in March. If Conley keeps this going – and especially if he performs well in the playoffs – he might want to test the market considering the lack of elite talent that’s anticipated to hit it – assuming he’s unhappy in Utah, that is.

Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans – RFA

Ingram’s looked similar to the guy we saw in 2019-20 before the play stoppage – he’s averaging 23.5 points and 7.5 rebounds per game when playing 30 or more minutes. While he was less effective in a loss against the Clippers (14 points and two rebounds in 24 minutes), he’s demonstrated growth in how decisively he makes his move and how seamlessly he then scores on the move.

Ingram was probably going to get max offer as of the All-Star break – especially after reaching his first All-Star team at 22 – but COVID-19 probably altered the ability for teams to dole out lucrative deals. But then play resumed and Ingram picked up right where he left off – and with a confidence to use it liberally. Ingram is nearly a lock for a max deal now.

Fred VanVleet, Toronto Raptors – UFA

VanVleet started off his time in the bubble with a solid performance (13 points and 11 assists), but he really showed out in his second game against the Miami HEAT. VanVleet led the Raptors to a win against Miami with a career-high 36 points. And then he got right back to being Mr. Consistent for Toronto by posting 21 points and 10 assists in a win against Orlando.

So ultimately, VanVleet has led the Raptors to a 3-0 (re)start, and he’s either scored a career-high or dropped 10-plus assists. James Dolan and Leon Rose are somewhere together – albeit socially distanced, we’re sure – drooling – as are all of the teams in need of a lead guard, like Detroit. VanVleet can only increase his value from here. He’s not assumed to be a max-level player, but if he plays well enough through the playoffs, it’ll be interesting to see just how high he can reach.

 DeMar DeRozan, San Antonio Spurs – Player Option

It’s hard to imagine DeRozan’s value increasing much at this point in his career. After all, he’s an 11-year veteran that has been named to the All-Star Game four times and an All-NBA team twice.

But still, there’s always been presumed limitations to his game, namely his inability to shoot three-pointers. Since being traded to San Antonio, he’s fallen out of the national spotlight a bit. As a 31-year-old capable of reaching unrestricted free agency, DeRozan is at a major inflection point in his career. He could attempt to a final big deal or snag a smaller one if the market for his services doesn’t meet expectations. Or he could just opt-in.

But DeRozan has done his part to remind everyone that he has loads of high-quality basketball left in him. He tallied 30 points on 11-for-20 shooting on Tuesday in a close loss to the 76ers and he’s averaged 22.3 points, 7.3 assists and 4.8 rebounds per game since the Spurs resumed play last Friday. While those averaged mostly coincide with what he did this season, it also represents a decent boost in assists. But more importantly, it solidifies that DeRozan should still receive a serious look as a lead star. And he’ll probably get interest from a number of teams.

The Known Commodities

Marcus Morris Sr., Los Angeles Clippers – UFA

While Morris Sr. is a known commodity, teams could use additional poor performances against him in negotiations. He’ll probably still have the option to sign for a veterans minimum or mid-level exception with a contender like the Clippers or Lakers. But if he’s eyeing another payday that pays him an annual salary equal to what he made in 2019-20, it would behoove him to make his mark on the stat book. 

Making A Case

Trey Burke, Dallas Mavericks – UFA

Burke hasn’t been overly consistent since NBA play resumed last week. But he did have a huge breakout game against the Rockets, scoring 31 points on 8-for-10 for three-pointers in only 30 minutes, while also dishing six assists.

Yes, Burke is averaging just 5.5 points in 18 minutes in the two games since, but the fact that he scored 31 in an NBA game will be enough to get looks as an off-the-bench scorer. And it’s a narrative that can be supported by his past work, too. Remember, Burke is still just 27-years-old  and he has a 42-point career-high. He’s also exploded for 30 four times and eclipsed the 20-point mark on 38 occasions in his 389 career games. So even if it’s just a reminder, it’s good to know that Burke can still get it done offensively – and teams are always looking for ways to manufacture offense.

Jordan Clarkson, Utah Jazz – UFA

Clarkson’s shot only 40 percent from the field since play resumed last Thursday, with an even worse 20 percent from three-point range. Still, scorers are as valuable as ever. It’s what made J.R. Smith so much money in this league, as well as Lou Williams and countless others – and rightfully so. Ultimately, it’s about putting the ball in the hoop. And with that being said, a franchise is going to pay Clarkson and they’ll end up paying more than they would have as of March.

Reggie Jackson, Los Angeles Clippers – UFA

Jackson has less to prove than most guys in this part of this list – but given his injury history, he does have to make a statement.

On the whole, Jackson has looked good – but not necessarily great. He averaged 12.5 points, seven rebounds and two assists in his first two contests, but he regressed in the Clippers’ most recent game against the Suns. But on a positive note, Jackson received only 23 minutes on Tuesday versus Phoenix and his 15 points on 5-for-9 shooting, eight rebounds, two assists and two steals accumulated in just 20 minutes.

If Jackson continues to be a contributor to the contending Clippers, someone will overspend on him. After all, good point guards are few and far between.

The Unknowns

Harry Giles III, Sacramento Kings – UFA

Giles III only played four minutes in the Kings’ first game back against the Spurs and he didn’t fare much better over 12:55 versus the Mavericks on Tuesday. But when you’re a fringe player that had injury concerns throughout your young career, any positive outings are good – especially those that come in a contract year. Giles tallied 23 points and eight rebounds in only 20 minutes against the Orlando Magic – a significant jump from his 7.2 points and 4.2 rebounds averages this season.  And that’s probably enough to generate interest amongst a number of teams.

The Kings curiously declined Giles’ fourth-year option, making him an unrestricted free agent as of the end of this season. That’s an interesting decision because the option was relatively cheap given that he was only the No. 20 overall pick (2017). Further confusing matters is the idea that by passing on the fourth-year option, they also lost matching rights – so Giles won’t even be restricted.

To make matters worse, the Kings can’t even bid more than $3.9 million to retain his services. So the Kings ultimately wasted a first-round draft pick on Giles for a grand total of 14.5 minutes per game across 99 games – and he’ll walk before they even know what they had in him.

But this all works out nicely for Giles, who will absolutely get an opportunity elsewhere – and he’ll be paid more than he would have received in Sacramento for it. How good is still an unknown, but he’s shown enough for a team to take a flyer on considering his size, skill set and versatility. He was the No. 1 overall recruit coming out of high school according to ESPN just four short years ago.

Free agency is going to be different than ever before and, up until very recently, that was assumed to be a bad thing. But with some of the above players changing the narratives around them, it could become even more exciting than it’s been in the recent past. Add in the likes of DeMarcus Cousins, Davis Bertans, Christian Wood – and we’re looking at an under-appreciated free-agent class.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Breaking Down The Bubble’s Race For 8th

Ben Nadeau analyzes the race for the No. 8 and 9 spots in the Western Conference – who will make the cut?

Ben Nadeau

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As the NBA inched toward its inevitable rebirth, the instant drama surrounding the Western Conference’s No. 8 seed became a conversation wildfire.

Was the league rolling out the red carpet in hopes of a Zion Williamson-LeBron James showdown in the first round? Could the healthier Portland Trail Blazers make another historic run toward history? De’Aaron Fox, the Sacramento franchise cornerstone, took umbrage over a lack of Kings-related faith, while the Memphis Grizzlies had more than enough ground to protect their standing in the current hierarchy.

Three or so games in to our bubbled adventure, everything has changed – and fast.

The Pelicans, still worrisome over Williamson’s health and conditioning, played him about 15 minutes in each of their first two contests – coincidently, New Orleans went 0-2. With their backs against the wall and slowly losing traction in a muddied race, the Pelicans played the future superstar for 25 minutes, where he racked up 23 points, seven rebounds and used a personal 6-0 run to clinch a much-needed win. Not only did the victory signify an important swing in momentum for the veteran-laden squad, but it was another crushing defeat for Grizzlies, who fell to 0-3 and further loosened their once-gridlocked hold on the final playoff seed.

Long perceived to be a five-team fight for the right to face Memphis in the play-in game(s), the Grizzlies’ early struggles have now nearly opened both spots up. All the more interesting, the San Antonio Spurs have begun 2-1, alongside the Phoenix Suns’ 2-0 effort. Although invited without much media afterthought, both the Spurs and Suns – who boast two of the most reliable constants of the bunch, Gregg Popovich and Devin Booker, respectively – are within the four-game window needed to force a play-in too.

So then: Thanks to the Grizzlies’ scuffles, who’ll be the two franchises to reach that play-in showdown?

Let’s start with the Pelicans, a team that’ll be better the more Williamson is allowed on the floor, obviously. While that variable remains up in the air, New Orleans’ remaining schedule is not. They’ll finish with the Kings twice, plus winnable matchups against the Spurs, Wizards and Magic. Although that opening day loss versus Utah stings, there’s no shame in falling to the Clippers, so the opportunity is certainly still there for the Pelicans to reach Nos. 8 or 9 in the coming days.

The Spurs, following a hard-fought effort against Philadelphia on Monday, unfortunately, have a much harder path forward: Denver, Utah, New Orleans, Houston and Utah. No Magic, no Nets, no Kings, even. Just New Orleans and three teams currently fighting for ‘home court’ advantage in the first round. Of course, betting against Gregg Popovich is beyond stupid and that is a lesson some select few must re-learn every spring – but they still seem like the least likely of six to leapfrog into a spot.

Likewise, it isn’t much better for Phoenix. They’ll conclude with the Clippers, Indiana Pacers and T.J. Warren’s supernova act, Miami HEAT, Oklahoma City Thunder, Philadelphia 76ers and Dallas Mavericks. Thankfully, Mikal Bridges’ efforts in Orlando and Ricky Rubio’s trusty playmaking have served as great foils for Deandre Ayton and the aforementioned Booker. Overall, their offensive rating just cracks the top half (15th, 110.4) and their defense remains in the lower half – but stars win games and Booker fits the bill.

Even the Kings, losers to the Spurs and Magic to open their bubble campaign, get the Pelicans twice but also a downright bad Brooklyn Nets squad and a potentially-resting Los Angeles Lakers team in four of their final five games – so don’t count them out either. With their destiny firmly in hand, expect the Kings to make a run of their own. Fox put up 39 points against San Antonio before tallying just 13 versus Orlando – and, in the latter, Sacramento’s only scorer above 15 went to Harry Giles’ 23. Given the context and a very winnable schedule, the next week or so bodes well for the Kings’ hopes.

As for Portland, the squad with the most bankable 1-2 punch of the collection, have an impossibly-tough Rockets-Nuggets-Clippers-76ers run-in before ending with the Mavericks and Nets. Worse, that stretch of difficult opposition will come fast and furious – a classic three games in four days slog. But above all, their defense leaves too much to be desired, even with the return of Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins. Before the shutdown, Portland’s defense was only better than the Atlanta Hawks, Cleveland Cavaliers and Washington Wizards at 113.6 in the ratings department.

In the two games back, well, it’s actually been even worse and their putrid 132.0 defensive rating is a whopping 7 points behind the Kings’ 29th-rated unit. It’s early and the sample size is certainly small – but with only six games left, they’ll need to figure it out in the against some of the league’s best. Still, Damian Lillard is a big-moment killer – he did, after all, break up the Thunder core on his own last April – and he’s capable of hot streaks that few others are.

Lillard and Nurkic put up 30 points apiece against Boston – plus 17 from CJ McCollum and 21 notched by Gary Trent Jr. – and totaled 124 as a team… yet it still wasn’t enough. The heroics of Portland’s stars will be relentless, but if they can’t stop the opposition – they’ll come up short.

In the end, even guessing at Nos. 8 and 9 is a fool’s errand. The Bubble has provided shock after shock already – and the added hurdle of rested players for locked-in seeds are soon to come – but six teams will be whittled down to two before long. Despite the slow start, Memphis remains in the driver’s seat – if they can pick up a win on Wednesday versus a seriously-slumping Jazz side, it’ll go a long way toward clinching their place.

And they’d better hope so: If they don’t, they’ll need to hope for some load management with the Thunder, Raptors, Celtics and Bucks to end the mini-campaign. It’s one of the tougher schedules left in the Western Conference, but their cushion, no matter how rapidly it is shrinking, is still reason to believe they’ll limp into the do-or-die scenario.

As for the second spot, it still feels like the Pelicans’ to lose. Between Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball, JJ Redick, Brandon Ingram and, duh, Williamson, there’s too much firepower here to completely struggle through an easier-than-most schedule.

But, sure, bet against Gregg Popovich, Damian Lillard, De’Aaron Fox and Devin Booker at your own risk – conventional wisdom suggests that at least one of them will crash the party, no matter how unlikely it seems today.

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NBA

NBA Daily: The Bubble’s Biggest Dark Horses

With the NBA’s restart underway and the postseason around the corner, Shane Rhodes looks at a few teams that could make some noise and prove the league’s biggest dark horse title contenders.

Shane Rhodes

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It’s official: basketball is back.

It may have taken 142 days, but the NBA has returned and seeding games are underway in Orlando. Better yet, and while the heightened intensity of these first few games may make it seem like we’re already there, the postseason is just around the corner.

But what are the playoffs going to look like, exactly? Aside from the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers, the field is wide open — even teams that struggled during the regular season have a real chance to make some noise.

In fact, the lead up to the postseason has afforded those teams a clean slate, a fresh start and the opportunity to tweak with the formula that failed them in the regular season.

Of course, some rosters are simply too depleted to make any noise. But others, if they can pivot and put their best foot forward, have the chance to emerge as dark horse title threats.

So, which teams have the best chance to come out of nowhere, surprise everyone and, just maybe, punch their ticket to the NBA Finals?

Philadelphia 76ers

The regular season wasn’t exactly kind to the 76ers. And, staring down a 10-24 road record pre-restart, the move to Orlando may only prove worse for them.

But their talent is undeniable, and there’s too much of it on the roster to just cast the team aside.

Despite that abysmal record, the 76ers proved they could dominate with their collective head in the game — their 29-2 record at home was the best in the NBA. They sport a stingy defense and two of the NBA’s best on that end with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Meanwhile, their size — Raul Neto and Zhaire Smith are the only two on the roster shorter than 6-foot-5 — should give them an advantage in almost any situation.

It may even make them the best potential matchup for the top-dog in the Eastern Conference, the Bucks.

Yes, they are a bit of a clunky fit on offense. But Embiid and Simmons represent two of the brightest young stars — they can make it work, adjusting as needed on a series-to-series basis. Paired with Tobias Harris, Al Horford and Josh Richardson, among others, they shouldn’t lack for help, either.

An early-season favorite to at least make the Eastern Conference Finals, Philadelphia no doubt disappointed this season — for some reason, it just didn’t click for them. It may never.

But on paper, the 76ers have enough talent to compete with anyone. If they can fit the pieces together and hit their stride in the first round, don’t be surprised if they go on a lengthy postseason run.

Oklahoma City Thunder

Currently the sixth seed out West, can the Thunder even be considered a dark horse?

But since they never should have been there in the first place – most definitely.

With Paul George gone to Los Angeles and Russell Westbrook to Houston last summer, nobody expected Oklahoma City to be relevant in 2020. With an aging star in Chris Paul — who, at the time, looked like he wanted nothing to do with the team — and a bunch of players that looked more like trade bait than contributors, they looked dead in the water and stocked up on draft picks.

And yet, here they are, giant slayers in position to snag a top-four seed.

Paul, in a bounce-back year, has elevated the entire roster. Steven Adams and Danilo Gallinari, quality veterans in their own right, have been strong, uber-efficient contributors. Dennis Schroder has emerged as one of the league’s best sixth-men, while Sam Presti’s diamond-in-the-rough, Luguentz Dort, has grown from a raw defensive specialist into a surprise starter and arguably their best defender.

And, most importantly, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander seems to have leaped toward stardom. The Canadian guard was a stud as a sophomore, averaging 19.3 points, six rebounds and 3.3 assists on strong shooting splits.

They don’t have a legit star to carry them — Paul, despite the resurgence, isn’t the player he once was and Gilgeous-Alexander isn’t quite there yet. But come the postseason, it may not matter. The Thunder are one of the most balanced teams in the NBA; they spread it out on offense — Gallinari, Gilgeous-Alexander, Paul and Schroder averaged at least 17 points for the season — and are a top 10 defensive unit returning one of the league’s best on that end in Andre Roberson.

It’ll be ugly, for sure, but the Thunder don’t care. They’ll scratch and claw their way to wins as they have the whole season. They may not make the Finals, but they are a lock to make life difficult for some other team(s) looking to bring home the Larry O’Brien trophy.

Portland Trail Blazers

Portland has yet to punch their ticket to the big dance, and they have a long road ahead of them before they can. But should they sneak in, they may prove the most dangerous team in the postseason.

Just a season ago, the Trail Blazers were a top-four seed and, despite the loss of Jusuf Nurkic, a Western Conference Finals participant. Unfortunately, it all seemed to come crashing down in the regular season. Already at a disadvantage without Nurkic at the center spot, the team lost Zach Collins to a major shoulder injury just three games into the season and, later, Rodney Hood to a torn left Achilles.

Had the season gone on as scheduled, no one would have blamed the Trail Blazers for throwing in the towel. An ugly 29-37 before the shutdown, there just wasn’t much the team could do to bolster their postseason odds.

But now they’ve been gifted a second chance. The stoppage in play allowed every team to rest and recuperate, yes, but arguably no team benefited more from that time than Portland — and teams are starting to take notice.

The threat presented by Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum is obvious. But with the roster back near 100 percent health, the team may pose a legitimate threat to the Western Conference crown. Collins’ presence on defense was sorely missed, to say the least. Nurkic, meanwhile, has played as if he hadn’t missed the last year and change. In two bubble games, the Bosnian Beast has averaged 24 points, nine rebounds, five assists, two steals and 3.5 blocks.

Both players should significantly alleviate the burden placed on Lillard’s shoulders as well, further enabling him to crush opposing defenses.

At the moment, the Trail Blazers are the Western Conference’s ninth seed, just two games back of the Memphis Grizzlies for the eighth spot. If they remain within four games, Portland could earn themselves a play-in and potentially jump the Grizzlies (or whomever the eighth seed might be) and steal the last spot in the postseason.

And if they force their way in? The NBA better watch out.

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