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This Summer’s Most Creative NBA Deals

Salary cap guru Eric Pincus looks at some of the most creative contracts signed this summer.

Eric Pincus

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The initial barrage of free agency is complete.  While a few stragglers remain, most of the impact free agents are off the board.

LeBron James has yet to re-sign with the Cleveland Cavaliers, but that’s presumed to be fait accompli.  Kevin Durant has relocated to the Golden State Warriors.  The Los Angeles Lakers quickly locked in Timofey Mozgov.

Some teams still have spending power, like the Boston Celtics – who are still hoping to make a blockbuster trade – or the Brooklyn Nets with almost $19 million left in cap space.

A few franchises managed to stay above the NBA’s record $94 million salary cap, including the Los Angeles Clippers, Toronto Raptors and Cavaliers.

The Oklahoma City Thunder are in an either/or situation, presently over but capable of dropping under by as much as $14.4 million.

Of the many completed deals, a number jump out as particularly creative:

Short-Term Rondo

The Chicago Bulls invested in Rajon Rondo, but with a relatively cheap escape clause.  The veteran point guard will earn $14 million for the coming season, then $13.4 million for 2017-18 – but only $3 million of that second year is guaranteed.  Should the Rondo experiment go south, the Bulls can cut him, stretching out his salary over three season at $1 million apiece.

Rondo could also prove to be a trade asset, should a team want to come off a more expensive salary, looking for a cheap partially-guaranteed player to acquire and cut to clear cap space.

James Harden Renegotiate and Extend

The Houston Rockets had hoped to make a bigger splash in free agency than Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson, but the team is happy with their summer acquisitions.  More importantly, the team used their available cap space to restructure Harden’s contract from $16.8 million for 2016-17, to a maximum salary of $26.5 million – locking in an additional year (or two, giving Harden a player option for 2019-20) for their generosity.

The mechanics of Houston’s move was covered in May.  The Utah Jazz still have just about enough cap room to do the same with forward/center Derrick Favors.

Moving Quickly Under Pressure

The Brooklyn Nets gave significant offers to restricted free agents Tyler Johnson and Allen Crabbe.  Both the Miami HEAT and Portland Trail Blazers, respectively, opted to match – but they made sure to use up as much cap room as possible before they did.

The HEAT rushed to add in Derrick Williams, James Johnson, Wayne Ellington, Willie Reed, Luke Babbitt (via trade) and Udonis Haslem.

The Blazers made sure they locked in Evan Turner, Jake Layman and Festus Ezeli, before using Crabbe’s Bird Rights (with just a $2.7 million cap hold) to match his deal starting at $18.5 million.

Ezeli on the Cheap

While the Lakers gave Mozgov $64 million over four years, the Blazers landed Ezeli with a scant two-year deal worth $15.1 million.  Ezeli’s second season at $7.7 million is only guaranteed for $1 million – potentially one of the best bang-for-the-buck contracts signed this summer.

Arenas Rule Offers

The Nets were not successful luring Johnson away from Miami, but their offer – which would have hit their books at a flat $12.5 million a year for four seasons – will cost the HEAT $5.6 million and $5.9 million over the first two years, then $19.2 million each over the final two.

Johnson was a restricted free agent with Early Bird Rights, making him an Arenas-rule free agent.

The Detroit Pistons also made a similar, albeit smaller, Arenas-rule offer to Boban Marjanovic.  The San Antonio Spurs didn’t have Early Bird Rights for Marjanovic, and not enough cap room to match.  The second-year center will earn $21 million over three years in Detroit.

Lakers’ Checkmark Contracts

Whether or not the Lakers invested wisely in Luol Deng, Jordan Clarkson and Mozgov is subjective, but the team clearly has an eye on cap room next summer.

The Lakers gave the trio of signings higher salaries for 2016-17, which then descend a year before rising again in seasons three and four.  The team could have nearly $32 million in cap space next summer.

Los Angeles also used their cap room to add on a couple of second-round picks, and a veteran reserve point guard in Jose Calderon from the Chicago Bulls.

The team has held off on signing Tarik Black, Marcelo Huertas and second-overall pick Brandon Ingram, keeping an eye on what could be $13.6 million in cap room (assuming the team also waives and stretched Nick Young).

The Lakers do have an unnamed trade target in mind, but are also preserving space for another opportunistic Calderon-like deal.

Additionally, Los Angeles chose to give Clarkson a $50 million contract over four years, instead of letting the third-year guard find an Arenas-rule offer, which would have nearly doubled the salary cap hits in the third and fourth years of his contract.

Warriors Clearing Room for Durant

While it can be important to plan for future cap space, the Warriors showed that room can be generated on the fly.

To land Durant, the team shed a number of free agents, including Harrison Barnes and Ezeli, but the key move was finding a taker for Andrew Bogut in the Dallas Mavericks.

Conley Got Paid

Hats off to the Memphis Grizzlies for giving Mike Conley the biggest contract in NBA history.  Right or wrong, it was a bold, unprecedented move with Conley benefiting from the unique economic circumstances of the summer.

Conley’s has an early termination option on his final season (2020-21) and, should he decide to finish his contract, “only” $22.4 million of his $34.5 million is guaranteed.  Conley can lock in that full salary if he played in 55 games in either of the 2018-19 or 2019-20 seasons.

Ramping Guarantees

Both the Mavericks and HEAT got a bit extreme in the guarantees with rookies Dorian Finney-Smith and Rodney McGruder, respectively.

Finney-Smith has $100,000 of his three-year rookie deal locked in, but will get $150,000 if he can last to opening night, then $200,000 by Dec. 15.  His salary for 2017-18, should he get through his various cut-down dates this year, has a similar schedule.

McGruder has even more milestones to get through, starting at a similar $100,000.  He then steps up to $150,000 on Aug. 1, $300,000 by Miami’s first game and $400,000 on Dec. 1.

Both Finney-Smith and McGruder will earn minimum salaries over their three-year, $2.5 million deals.  Both will be fully guaranteed for 2016-17 on the league-wide cut-down date of Jan. 10.

Rookies on Three-Year Deals

The New Orleans Pelicans have agreements with a number of free agents, but have held off on signing, making sure the franchise has the cap room first to ink Cheick Diallo (33rd overall pick) to a three-year deal.

The Houston Rockets made sure they had enough room to agree to a three-season contract with Chinanu Onuaku (37th pick).

In most cases, teams should have cap room to sign at least one rookie free agent for three years instead of two, establishing Full Bird Rights before inking their summer’s free agent haul.

The Warriors could have with Pat McCaw (38th pick), but either neglected to or McCaw’s agent wasn’t open to a longer contract.

Kings Win with Afflalo, Tolliver

Sacramento signed Arron Afflalo to a two-year, $25 million contract.  Anthony Tolliver will earn $16 million over the same period.

Afflalo only has $1.5 million of his 2017-18 salary locked in, while Tolliver’s is slightly higher at $2.0 million.

Should the Kings look to package the pair in trade, the combined outgoing salary of $20.5 million, guaranteed for just $3.5 million combined, might be especially attractive to other teams in trade.

Honorable Mention

The Cavaliers paid $200,000 to the Milwaukee Bucks to generate a trade exception for Matthew Dellavedova, which they immediately used to take on Mike Dunleavy from the Bulls – enabling Cleveland to keep their $9.6 million trade exception for Anderson Varejao, which doesn’t expire until Feb. 18.

Cap room isn’t all about free agency.  The Jazz were able to add on George Hill and Boris Diaw with cap room via trade, although the team did give up the 12th pick in June (Taurean Prince) to the Atlanta Hawks to bring on Hill (from the Indiana Pacers in a three-team deal).

Finally, the Philadelphia 76ers signed a favorable deal with Gerald Henderson, who will earn $9 million flat for two straight years, but his second season is only $1 million guaranteed.

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Bruce Brown Thriving As Nets’ Small Ball Center

Brooklyn has thrived with Bruce Brown playing minutes as a small ball center – and what started out as an experiment may just change the Nets’ championship aspirations for the better.

Ariel Pacheco

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The Brooklyn Nets’ trade for James Harden has proven to be worth it so far. However, their depth and size were seriously hurt as a result of the deal – so the Nets have been forced to get creative with the limited options they have. 

Enter: Bruce Brown.

Standing at a meager 6-foot-4, Brown may be the Nets’ best option at center against certain matchups. DeAndre Jordan, the starting center now that Jarrett Allen is in Cleveland, has seen his defensive capabilities decline rather drastically since his time in Lob City. He is still an elite alley-oop threat but has some lapses with effort levels. Reggie Perry is a rookie who was the 57th overall pick isn’t ready for a heavy load of minutes just yet. Nic Claxton has shown promise but has played in just two games due to injury. 

In a win against the Golden State Warriors on Feb. 13, Brown started at center with Jordan out to injury. He finished the game with 18 points and 7 rebounds. It wasn’t the first time this season Brown spent time at the center position, but it was reflective of his ever-changing role on this Nets team. 

Brown arrived this past offseason and came thought as more of a point guard. Now that the Nets have three of the best playmakers in the NBA, his role has shifted. He is practically never counted on to initiate the offense – instead, he has become the guy who does the dirty work. Think of him as the Nets’ version of Draymond Green. 

Now the small ball option at center, Brown’s strengths have been accentuated. Offensively, he has become a screen-setter and roll man, thus forming chemistry with James Harden, and has played his way into a crucial part of the rotation. Brown’s minutes at the beginning of the season were sporadic and included four DNP’s. Now he’s an invaluable piece to the Nets’ puzzle. 

When teams trap or double James Harden or Kyrie Irving, Brown is often the outlet. He catches the ball in the middle of the floor, turns and has options available to him. Able to attack the basket or make the right pass to an open guy, Brown’s decision-making has been a positive for Brooklyn. 

Defensively, Brown is one of the few Nets players who is a consistent positive on that end. He can guard multiple positions due to his strength and often defends the opposing team’s best players. While his height will never allow for him to be a full-time center, being an option for coach Steve Nash to plug in for small ball lineups is a game-changer. 

“Bruce is remarkable, I mean, I believe he mostly played point guard last year and he’s playing – what do you want to call him our center?” Said Steve Nash, per Newsday. “He’s picking and rolling and finishing with two bigs in the lane. His willingness and ability to do that is remarkable.”

Really, that’s what has been most impressive. Brown is playing a role he has never been asked to do in the NBA and thriving. He scored a career-high 29 points against the Sacramento Kings on Feb. 23. That night, he straight-up shared minutes with Jordan, which speaks to his versatility. Wherever the Nets have needed him this season, Brown has been willing and able. 

Brown’s counting stats won’t jump off a stat sheet. He’s averaging just 7.7 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. He’s also shooting just 22.2 percent from the three-point line but he’s made a living around the basket. A look at his shot chart shows how little he operates from outside the restricted area – and due to the attention his superstar teammates garner, he usually gets open looks right near the rim.

 

He’s also often being guarded by opposing team’s big men. In a matchup against the Los Angeles Lakers, former defensive player of the year Marc Gasol guarded Brown to start the game. The role of the small ball center is not as rare as it used to be, but Bruce Brown may be the smallest guy in terms of height to fill the role. To wit, Draymond Green is 6-foot-6 and PJ Tucker is 6-foot-5. 

The Nets traded for Brown this past offseason in what looks to have been an absolute steal of a deal, giving up just Dzanan Musa and a second-round pick. Given that the inconsistent Musa is now playing overseas, it was a trade that is already providing dividends. 

But, at the end of the day, there are championship expectations in Brooklyn. While the Nets certainly have the star power to beat just about anybody, role-players who thrive in their role can often swing a game or a series come playoff time. So far, more so than nearly any other player outside of the big three, Brown’s ability to fit in wherever needed has changed the contender’s long-term outlook in a positive way.

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NBA Daily: What Should the Raptors Do at the Trade Deadline?

The Toronto Raptors are surging. Bobby Krivitsky examines whether they’ve been good enough to keep their current core intact or if they should take a different approach at the trade deadline.

Bobby Krivitsky

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After losing eight of their first 10 games to start the season, the Toronto Raptors have won 14 of their last 23 matchups, surging to fifth in the Eastern Conference.

The Raptors had to quickly recharge during a truncated offseason, get acclimated to a new setting and adjust to Aron Baynes and Chris Boucher stepping into the void left by the departures of Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka. Despite all of that, they’re scoring the 10th-most points per 100 possessions, are 13th in defensive rating and have the ninth-best net rating in the NBA.

Through Toronto’s ups and downs this season, they’ve been able to count on Fred VanVleet. After signing a four-year, $85 million contract to remain with the Raptors, the fifth-year guard from Wichita State has once again taken his game to a higher level. He’s averaging 20 points, 6.7 assists and 4.5 rebounds — all career-bests — and eighth in the NBA with 1.7 steals per contest. It’s discomforting to imagine where this team would be if he had left.

Then there’s Pascal Siakam, who’s finally shaken off a rough second-round series against the Boston Celtics last postseason and thawed from an icy start to his 2020-21 campaign. Siakam is averaging 20.1 points, 7.5 rebounds, 4.8 assists, and 1.2 steals per game. One of the main reasons for his turnaround has been Siakam’s growth as a facilitator: those 4.8 assists represent a career-best. And, with the Raptors shifting more towards small-ball, Siakam is thriving working off a screen from guards, spotting where the defense is vulnerable and taking advantage of it.

Another crucial component of Siakam’s improvement is him playing with more energy on the defensive end. Effort can only take a defender so far, but when that individual is 6-foot-9 with a 7-foot-3 wingspan and has the strength, quickness and intelligence to guard positions one-through-five for varying amounts of time, doing so can have a significant impact on the outcome of the game.

 

 

While Siakam’s production has more of an impact on the Raptors’ ceiling than any other player on the team, Kyle Lowry, alongside VanVleet, establishes Toronto’s floor. Lowry, who turns 35 in March, is averaging 18 points, 6.5 assists, 5.5 rebounds, and 1.2 steals per game this season. He remains the heart and soul of the team. That makes it even more impressive that, despite losing him to a thumb injury during a Feb. 16 matchup against the Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto went on to win that night and again two days later, stretching their winning streak to four games (including a victory over the Philadelphia 76ers).

One major change stemming from the Raptors playing small more often is Norman Powell entering the starting lineup. He’s started his last 17 games and is averaging a team-high 21.8 points, 3.8 rebounds and 1.4 steals. During that stretch, the sharpshooting Powell is also knocking down 44.4 percent of his 6.4 threes per game and shooting 51.2 percent from the floor. Toronto has won 10 of those 17 games.

Powell gives the Raptors more offensive firepower, allows them to play faster and, when they don’t have a traditional center on the floor, has made it easier for them to switch on defense. It’s an adjustment that’s worked so well for Toronto, even in Lowry’s absence, Baynes came off the bench while DeAndre’ Bembry joined the starting lineup.

So, with the Raptors finding their footing and the March 25 trade deadline inching closer, what’s Toronto’s best course of action? That decision revolves around their plan with Lowry.

Lowry, whose $30 million deal is set to expire after the season, is interested in playing at least two more seasons at a similar value, per Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Are the Raptors willing to meet those demands, paving the way for the franchise icon to spend the remainder of his career with them? Secondly, the Raptors aren’t a title contender right now, which could lead to the two sides working together to send Lowry to a team meeting that criteria by the trade deadline, which also happens to be his 35th birthday.

If it comes to that, Pompey listed the 76ers, Miami HEAT and Los Angeles Clippers as Lowry’s preferred destinations, noting the North Philadelphia native would like to return to his roots. For the Raptors to go through with trading the six-time All-Star, it would likely take multiple first-round picks and promising young players along with any contracts included for salary-matching purposes to be expiring after this season. 

Considering Toronto’s current place in the NBA’s hierarchy, if Lowry intends to leave for a title contender or the Raptors aren’t willing to meet his contractual demands, it’s clear what they should do at the deadline. Trading Lowry isn’t going to net Toronto the return necessary to vault them into the league’s top tier, but it would still figure to serve them better in the long term, even though the Raptors’ resurgence suggests if he’s still on the team after Mar. 25th, they’re once again going to be a difficult out in the playoffs, and they could go as far as the Eastern Conference Finals.

If they want to play the long game, it would also make sense for them to trade Powell, who has an $11.6 million player option he’s likely to decline in the offseason. Granted, he’ll be 28 next season, so it’s not as if re-signing him would be short-sighted.

There’s nothing wrong with preserving the possibility Lowry never dons another team’s jersey — and parting with a franchise icon is never easy. But trading Lowry may be the best bet for the franchise’s future, while it would neither change the fact that the team will someday retire his jersey, nor would it take away from his legacy. In fact, doing right by him and giving Lowry another opportunity to compete for a title may just be the best parting gift the Raptors could give him while also strengthening their own long-term outlook.

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NBA Daily: Don’t Forget About Romeo Langford

Once a top-five high school recruit, Romeo Langford has yet to make an impact in his brief NBA career.

Dylan Thayer

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As a highly-touted high school prospect, Romeo Langford found himself at the fifth spot in the 2018 ESPN Top 100. His play earned him a spot in the 2018 McDonald’s All-American Game among big-name recruits such as Zion Williamson, and after a very successful high school career, the five-star shooting guard decided to take his talents to Indiana over both Kansas and Vanderbilt. 

Langford’s time as an Indiana Hoosier was short-lived as he only spent one year with the team before declaring for the draft. He played in thirty-two games despite tearing a ligament in his thumb. His shooting percentages reflected this injury as he shot a meager 27.2 percent from three and 44.8 percent from the field, per Sports-Reference. Both of these percentages were not reflective of the electric, efficient scorer he was at New Albany High School. 

Selected with the No. 14 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft by the Boston Celtics, there was a lot to be excited about. For starters, the Celtics were able to draft a player just inside the lottery who many thought would be a top-five pick before the 2018-19 NCAA season. They were also able to get a resilient player that grinded through his injury and was still able to pace the BIG 10 in freshman scoring with 16.5 points per game. The potential with a healthy Langford is there, and that’s what led to him being a Boston Celtic.

During a 2019 interview with Boston.com, Celtics head coach Brad Stevens spoke highly of their rookie. 

“If they would have been more on the national radar, and he would have not hurt his thumb, he probably would have been even more discussed,” Stevens said at the Celtics practice facility. “He’s a guy we were all well aware of before his first game at IU.”

If it was not clear by this quote, big things were expected from the former Indiana Mr. Basketball. 

Unfortunately, his first season on the Celtics was not much of one to write home about. Across 32 games, he managed to average only 2.5 points with 1.3 rebounds in 11.6 minutes per game, often finding himself with Boston’s G League affiliate, the Maine Red Claws.

This should not be a big indicator of how things will end up for Langford though – as flourishing Charlotte Hornets star Terry Rozier was also an afterthought off the Celtics’ bench in his first season, even though many people saw his future potential. In a Feb. 7th matchup with the Atlanta Hawks, Langford made the most of a starting opportunity, dropping 16 points on 5-for-11 shooting, including 2-for-5 from three-point range, and 3 blocks. Later, he would then undergo season-ending surgery to repair the scapholunate ligament of his right wrist during the team’s playoff run in the bubble.

As the 2020-21 season heads towards the All-Star break, Langford has yet to suit up as he still is recovering from surgery. But according to a report by NESN, Langford should be healthy enough to return following the pause. 

This then leaves the question: where does Langford fit on the Celtics roster, if at all? Amidst a disappointing start to the season, many fans and people around the Celtics have begun to sound the alarm. When the owner even comes out to 98.5 The Sports Hub and acknowledges the fact that the young Eastern Conference finalists are not currently a contender, there should be plenty of reason to panic.

The Celtics’ troubles have been all over the place this season, but the one that seems to be the most glaring is the lack of explosive scoring outside of Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. There has been some great play off the bench by Payton Pritchard and Robert Williams, but players like Grant Williams, Jeff Teague and Semi Ojeleye have struggled to be consistent factors. 

As the Celtics continue to look for splashes in the trade market, there is a lot of uncertainty around Langford’s future as the team now seems to lack tradable assets outside of the core. 

Despite his long injury, Langford is still a much more desirable piece than Javonte Green or Grant Williams. Moving on from Jeff Teague may be a route that the Celtics opt to take as well because he has failed to make much of an impact off of the bench, and this would open up playing time to test out a 100 percent healthy Langford. 

Langford could bring a great burst of energy off the bench for the Celtics if healthy, and so exciting to see how he fits alongside the outstanding rookie point guard in Pritchard. With Langford on the second unit, it would open up the floor for Tatum as he would have another solid scorer to kick the ball out to. 

Could Langford end up being the guy that fixes the bench scoring problem for the Celtics? Only time will tell, but based on his high school and collegiate careers, he very well might be 𑁋 if he’s still on the team past the deadline.

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