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NBA AM: Looking In On The Key Free Agents

This should be the biggest spending summer in NBA history, but there may not be as many top players to spend money on as you think.

Steve Kyler

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The Free Agency Riddle

There’s almost no question that July 1 in the NBA this summer is going to be manic and chaotic. As things stand today, there looks to be more than $1.09 billion in money available under the salary cap. That’s an important distinction because NBA teams need to spend at least 90 percent of the salary cap. While there is not a punitive penalty for teams that do not spend, there are some mechanisms in place that get sticky for teams that do not meet the minimum salary floor, especially with the NBA projected to fall more than $375 million short as a league in what they are required to pay the players in salary and benefits as part of the contracted revenue share.

The calculus the NBA and the players agreed on in the Collective Bargaining Agreement assumes most teams will be over the salary cap and likely under the luxury tax; however with so many teams falling way below the cap this summer, very few teams will get meaningfully over the cap, and that’s going to create a huge short-fall that will get paid to the players in a lump sum check, and that money will come from the teams that do not spend – further motivating teams to spend the windfall in cap space they are projected to have.

As things stand today, more than 26 teams will have ample cap space, meaning the ability to get to at least one maximum salary slot. There are a handful of teams that can get to two maximum salary slots, which equates to more than $45 million in usable cap space per team.

Current NBA projections put the 2016-17 salary cap in the $92 million range; however, that number does not get locked in until the final accounting for the season is done and certified by both the NBA and the Players Association.

Assuming the cap stays at $92 million, which most league insiders expect may be slightly higher, the maximum salary tiers for players projects to be something like this: $21.6 million for players with up to six years of NBA experience, $25.9 million for those with seven to nine years of NBA experience, and $30.2 million with 10 or more years in the league.

The other notable is that players with some level of Bird Rights can receive 7.5 percent annual increases if they stay with their respective home teams. That number drops to 4.5 percent if they leave for another market.

It’s also important to point out that while the NBA salary cap projects to go up more than 28 percent this summer, it also projects to go up another 20-plus percent next summer.

That’s meaningful for the handful of players finishing their ninth NBA season like Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant, Atlanta’s Al Horford and Memphis’ Mike Conley, as all three could earn substantially more money as a 10-year player next summer.

As things stand today, there are more than 270 players that could be in the 2016-17 NBA Free agent pool depending on how many options are picked up or declined. Of those players, there are about 40 that most in the NBA would consider significant, meaning the land grab for talent on July 1 could be incredibly hard to predict given how many teams have money and how quickly teams may need to act to ensure they come out of all of this with players.

With all of that in mind, let’s look at what we know about the top of the list:

Kevin Durant

The biggest free agent fish in the pond is Thunder star Kevin Durant. While there have been a lot of reports that say Durant would do this and Durant would do that, sources close to the process say that Durant has been very aggressive with his inner circle that he was not going to talk about free agency with any of them until after the Thunder season ended. This is meaningful because reports prior to the end of the Thunder season are not based on anything Durant has said, and he’s been clear that his camp was not talking.

The prevailing belief around the Thunder is that Durant is more inclined to stay in OKC for one more season than seriously explore life on another team. That said, league sources say the Warriors and the Spurs are planning big pitches to Durant if he’ll take meetings – as most expect he will.

Durant is one of those players that is financially motivated to take a shorter-term deal, not only because of the ballooning cap, but because he’ll cross over to the 10-year experience tier next summer.

The final wrinkle in the Durant puzzle is his connection to teammate Russell Westbrook. While some see their on-court bickering and try to make that a negative, the connection Durant and Westbrook share is real and its meaningful. The belief in NBA circles is that Durant will sign a one-and-one deal with the Thunder and give the situation one more year. Durant will get the benefit of the new salary jump this year and have the ability to re-up next summer at an even higher rate. Staying for one more year also allows Durant to see what Westbrook and teammate Serge Ibaka do with their free agency in 2017. It also allows Durant the chance to see the Thunder through to the potential end without regrets.

While it’s possible a pitch from the Warriors or the Spurs sways Durant away, the belief around the league is that Durant is not going anywhere this summer. That could very well change next summer.

Mike Conley

The narrative all season around Conley was that he was staying in Memphis. However, sources close to Conley’s camp said recently that Conley is more open to new situations than anyone in Memphis would be comfortable with. The narrative from those sources is that Conley is concerned that the Grizzlies cannot add enough to the roster to get them seriously into championship status and if that does not happen, he’s not willing to tie his career to Memphis in the long-term.

Like Durant, Conley is financially motivated to give Memphis one more year – as he too becomes a 10-year player in 2017. Doing a shorter term deal would allow Conley to let the Grizzlies add more to the roster, without the long-term commitment.

The fact that Conley likely meets with other teams is going to create some buzz, especially with teams like the Knicks and the Rockets said to covet Conley significantly.

The dark horse in the Conley race is the Spurs. More than a few league insiders have pegged the Spurs as having more than a passing interest in Conley as a free agent and, much like with Durant, they are prepared to break apart some of their core to lock in another high level player.

The smart money says Conley is back in Memphis, however it’s far from the lock that it seemed four months ago when the idea of Conley leaving was laughable within his circle.

Hassan Whiteside

The HEAT have a big problem when it comes to retaining Whiteside. Because the HEAT signed Whiteside to a two-year deal, they do not have full-Bird rights on Whiteside this summer and will have to fit any deal worth more than 175 percent of his previous salary under the salary cap. This gets compounded because HEAT star Dwyane Wade carries a $30 million cap hold that basically erases any salary cap space the HEAT would have, meaning the HEAT have to sign Wade’s deal first and fit Whiteside into whatever is left. As things stand today, the HEAT could get to about $40 million in cap space, but that figure has to account for Wade’s new deal and whatever is paid to Whiteside. While Whiteside was drafted in 2010, he only has two full years of NBA experiences, which sets his maximum possible starting salary at $21.6 million. The HEAT can make that work with a little help from Wade.

The problem for Miami is that while they can keep Wade and Whiteside, they’d lose the ability to keep almost anyone else and would have no means to add to the team beyond the room exception and minimum deals.

The wrinkle for Miami is that Whiteside has not earned serious money in the NBA yet and will turn 27 next Monday, so this is his chance to lock in his future and those around him say he’s not open to much flexibility.

The narrative around Whiteside has been that he’d like to stay in Miami. He’s comfortable there, has had success there and they can pay him the most money of any team in the league. Assuming that’s the offer from the HEAT, there is a better than average chance he signs a new deal. If the HEAT try to play games, sources close to the situation say Whiteside will go shopping.

There is a sense that Whiteside is one of the top names on the Lakers’ wish list of free agents, with the Celtics also interested. The problem with trying to peg either as having some edge over the other neglects that Whiteside could be the most obtainable free agent in the class and likely gets a lot of interest beyond those two suitors.

League sources said this weekend that Whiteside is getting a full max deal – the question is will it be from the HEAT or someone else?

Harrison Barnes

There is no pending free agent that’s more polarizing right now than Barnes. So despite how you may feel personally about Barnes, there’s a reality to his situation: Barnes is getting a max offer. The question is will the Warriors match it?

Sources close to the Warriors say they are absolutely planning to return the entire team and if that means matching a crazy offer sheet, the Warriors a prepared to do that.

The wrinkle for the Warriors is Kevin Durant. If Durant says “yes” to a free agent deal, all bets are off and much of this Warriors team will get scrapped including Barnes. If Durant says “no thank you,” the band stays together.

As silly as that may seem, there is a unique window the Warriors have that few teams experience. Without a roster break-up for Durant, the Warriors will not be a salary cap team this summer, meaning the money they would pay to Barnes is only available to Barnes. It’s not dollars they could spend on any other player and given the ballooning cap, it would not impair the Warriors in anyway going forward to pay Barnes.

Matching an offer sheet includes getting the lower annual raises and the shorter-term deal, both of which are meaningful to the Warriors.

It’s possible a team like the Lakers or the Magic construct an unfavorable contract structure to try and steal Barnes away, but the reality is a shorter deal like the two-plus-one structure that Chandler Parsons signed with Dallas wouldn’t be nearly as bad for the Warriors as it was for the luxury tax skirting Rockets a few seasons ago.

The smart money says Barnes is back in Oakland next season, even at max money, mainly because the Warriors can pay that without consequence to anything they are planning. The only wrinkle is the Warriors’ pursuit of Durant. If that pitch gets life, there may be a window for someone else. But the truth of the matter is, that’s not very likely.

Nic Batum

Like Barnes, opinions on the contract value for Batum vary among fans; however, in NBA circles, there is little doubt Batum is going to get a max deal and it sounds more likely than not that it will be with the Charlotte Hornets.

There are a few teams that have planted seeds with Batum – the Knicks would do a deal in a heartbeat but can’t get to the $25.9 million in space they would need to offer a max deal to Batum without dumping off salary cap cash.

The Raptors are said to have serious eyes for Batum, but like the Knicks, they can’t get to $25.9 million in cap space without making two significant cap dump trades.

If things don’t go fluidly with the Hornets, there is always a chance that Batum moves on but the narrative around him is that he’s really happy in Charlotte and feels like head coach Steve Clifford is the right coach for him. Assuming the team ponies up the dollars, which they absolutely can do without much issue, it seems more likely than not that Batum is staying where he is.

DeMar DeRozan

This may be the easiest free agent synopsis to write. Say it with me: DeRozan is re-signing in Toronto.

Both sides want to do a new deal. The Raptors are prepared to pay DeRozan and unless something goes terribly wrong over the next four weeks, he’ll be back with the Raptors on a new max deal.

There were reports suggesting DeRozan would look at other situations, but sources close to his camp say it’s going to be a short process for DeMar.

Drummond, Beal and Clarkson

There are three notable soon-to-be restricted free agents and while they have the option of seeking offer sheets, it’s unlikely that any of them would.

Detroit’s Andre Drummond passed on a contract extension last summer mainly to help the Pistons create cap space this summer. Had Drummond done a deal in October, his new contract would hit the Pistons’ cap on the first day of free agency. By opting to wait, Drummond’s $8.180 million cap hold gives the Pistons some cap space to play with in July and then exceed the cap to re-sign him to his max deal. This one is basically cap management and it’s unlikely Drummond even takes a meeting with another team.

Washington’s Brad Beal is in a similar situation. While his $14.236 million hold is higher than Drummond’s, it’s still less than the $21.5 million max salary Beal will receive after the Wizards finish their free agent shopping. This one is also mostly cap management. There is no sense that the Wizards are going to play games with Beal; they simply needed to wait to maximize their salary cap space.

Lastly is the Lakers’ soon-to-be free agent Jordan Clarkson. Unlike Drummond and Beal, Clarkson is a little harder to poach because of his status as a Gilbert Arenas rule player. Sometime ago, a rule was put in place in the Collective Bargaining Agreement for second-round picks like Clarkson that limit what another team can offer in salary. The Lakers and Clarkson have had talks on a new deal and it seems more likely than not that the Lakers are going to pay Clarkson quickly and settle the situation.

It’s possible Clarkson’s camp seeks an offer sheet, simply to set more favorable terms, but the odds of Clarkson being anywhere but the Lakers next year are extremely small.

Over the next few weeks, we will try to spend more time on the pending free agent market, but as a handful of agents pointed out during Pro Days this past weekend, this will not be a normal free agency where there is a lot of early information on what players and NBA teams are doing. There will be something of a Wild West mindset and a lot of teams are keeping their wish list close to the vest to try and keep something of an advantage.

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @AlexKennedyNBA, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @SusanBible @TommyBeer, @MokeHamilton , @jblancartenba and @CodyTaylorNBA .

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Hungry HEAT Destined To Be Dark Horse In East

The Miami HEAT are off to a hot start at 9-3. Jordan Hicks details why this may actually be legitimate and why the HEAT have a chance to go deep in the playoffs.

Jordan Hicks

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After Jimmy Butler was acquired by the Miami HEAT this past offseason, everyone expected them to be a solid team in the Eastern Conference. They weren’t expected to go deep in the playoffs, and very few people had them pegged as one of the league’s elite teams. But 12 games into the season, the HEAT are 9-3…and they might be — dare we say — really, really good.

The crazy part about how their team is playing together is all the moving pieces that make it work. Butler is the leader of the team — both in general and in scoring — but he’s only averaging 18.4 points. They have six guys averaging double-digit points, another at 9.7 and three more all above 7 points per game.

As a team, they are number one in the league in field goal percentage, third in three-point shooting, fifth in assists per game and first in steals per game. They are tied with the Toronto Raptors for the fourth-best plus-minus.

Looking into more advanced statistics, they are fifth in the NBA in net rating, helped greatly by their current defensive rating of 101.2. They are second in the league in assist percentage and first in both effective and true field goal percentage.

Of their nine wins, two of them came on the road against the Milwaukee Bucks and the surprising Phoenix Suns, and another came at home in the complete demolition of the Houston Rockets. Their three losses were all the road against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Lakers — three games you’d almost expect them to lose.

This isn’t a take that’s expecting you to believe the HEAT are the real deal based solely on their wins and losses up to this point in the season, but the fact they are completely taking care of business shows that Erik Spoelstra may be well on his way to one of his best head coaching seasons since the departure of LeBron James.

Just what is making this team so good? Let’s start by highlighting their stingy defense, the main driver behind their early-season success.

Butler is leading the entire NBA in steals with 2.8 per game. He is their leader on that end and a large part as to why they’re so successful. They are currently leading the NBA in steals as a team. This is great for a very obvious reason. It takes possessions away from the opposing offense and, in many cases, leads to an easy look in transition on the other end. The most efficient way to score is a wide-open dunk or layup, and fast breaks usually turn into that. The HEAT are averaging a tick under 10 steals per game, so that is plenty of looks their opponents won’t get off.

A huge breakout player for the HEAT this year is Bam Adebayo. Ever since his rookie year, you got the feeling he’d turn out to be solid, but his third season in the league finally feels like Adebayo’s time to shine. He’s averaging 13.9 points, 10.5 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.5 blocks. Guess how many other players in the NBA are putting up a similar stat line? Just one. His name is Giannis Antetokounmpo, you may have heard of him before.

In a league that is being overrun with efficient scoring, the glue guy is a key piece to any championship team that often goes unnoticed. Take Draymond Green, for example. You remember Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, and Klay Thompson, but Green played as big of a role as any of those guys in bringing rings back to Oracle. Adebayo has a chance to take an incredibly large leap this season, and some are even calling him an early candidate for the Most Improved Player award. No big deal, just HEAT-royalty Dwayne Wade.

Most impressive is where Adebayo currently sits in box plus-minus. This leaderboard is usually nestled with all the top players in the league, and Adebayo currently sits at No. 8. It’d be crazy if he stayed there all season, but the fact he’s up there already 13 games into the season is pretty impressive.

On the offensive end, things seem to be clicking on many different cylinders. As previously mentioned they have six, basically seven guys in double figures. Two of them happen to be rookies, and one of those rookies happens to be undrafted. That undrafted guy, Kendrick Nunn, is making a whole lot of noise.

He’s second in per-game scoring behind Rookie of the Year favorite Ja Morant, and he leads all rookies in steals per game. He’s first in made field goals and first in total steals, too. He leads all rookies in overall plus-minus. He’s second on the HEAT in points per game behind Jimmy Butler and second in steals per game, as well. He’s shooting well from the field as well as from behind the three, where he’s tied with Coby White for most threes made out of all rookies. He’s shooting the three at 38.4 percent which is killer for a rookie considering he’s shooting over six of them per game.

The other rookie standout, Tyler Herro, is averaging 13.3 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. He’s a great spot-up shooter, but is capable of creating his own looks, too. Of the rookies on the roster, he’ll likely be the better shooter in the long run, and he’s shown every bit of why he deserved to be drafted in the lottery at No. 13.

The HEAT have many other players contributing in diverse ways, some big and some small. Meyers Leonard is shooting over 60 percent from three on two attempts per night. Justise Winslow was pacing the team in nightly plus-minus before his concussion. Goran Dragic — a savvy veteran who is somehow glossed over in this group — is scoring 16 per game on very efficient marks. One could go on and on about all the talent this Miami team has deep on its roster.

Listen, there is still an eternity left before the playoffs start, and Jimmy Butler has shown previous incapabilities of putting the team first. But the HEAT seem to be off to an incredibly productive start. Most wouldn’t pencil them in as a championship team, but with all the parity in the league today, they absolutely have an argument to be considered the top dark horse.

The Miami HEAT have plenty of pieces to make a deep run in the playoffs. Apart from Butler, they are definitely lacking a superstar or two, but they make up for it with early-season continuity, solid coaching and overall execution on both ends of the floor. With all the talent on their roster at almost every poisition, don’t be surprised if the HEAT end up coming out of the East.

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NBA Daily: Philadelphia Castoffs Finding Success Elsewhere

After failing to make it with the Philadelphia 76ers, three players have stood out by gaining traction with new franchises as solid contributors. Chad Smith sheds some light on how these individuals have changed the narrative of their careers.

Chad Smith

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Trust The Process.

That was the slogan that the Philadelphia 76ers plastered on billboards and etched into the minds of their fans. They stressed patience to their fan base and were transparent about the entire plan. The tanking of not just games — but seasons — delivered the Sixers’ front office what they so desired: draft picks.

More valuable than cash considerations and better than expiring contracts, the draft picks offered an unknown quantity. Hope and potential for greatness were the selling points for their dynamic plan. It was easy to convince anyone and everyone that would listen. At the time, it appeared to be a solid plan, so long as everyone could stomach the losing.

While the exciting element of a draft pick is the unknown, that has also proven to be a double-edged sword. If selecting the right talent was easy, Michael Jordan would have never worn a Chicago Bulls uniform. Kevin Durant would have never played in Seattle and the Detroit Pistons probably would have rather had one of Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony or Chris Bosh instead of Darko Milicic.

Maybe that wasn’t the plan, though. Perhaps the plan was just to get as many bites out of the apple as possible and hope to strike gold on a couple of the picks. If indeed that was the plan, it would be difficult to argue that it didn’t work. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are already All-Star players and the faces of the franchise.

Philadelphia finally molded into a playoff team during the 2017-2018 season. The organization quickly went to work on tweaking the roster, trying to find the right pieces to fit this puzzle together. But outside of its two cornerstones over the past five years, there were three notable players that were labeled as busts or clearly were not going to make it with the Sixers. And many wondered if these guys would even still be in the league in the coming months.

These guys needed a fresh start. They needed a reset button on their careers. Now, they appear to be in the right environment with the right people bringing out the best in them. They have thrived in their new roles and, ultimately, have changed the narrative of their careers.

Markelle Fultz, Orlando Magic

The most obvious success story seems to be playing out right before our eyes. The Sixers selected Fultz with the No. 1 overall pick in 2017, but it turned sideways very quickly. After captivating college basketball fans at Washington, expectations were extremely high as he prepared for his rookie season.

The Orlando Magic have been starving for a star point guard for quite some time. They took a gamble on the 21-year old, and it is paying off in a big way. Fultz being used as a combo guard alongside a strong and youthful roster seems to be an ideal fit. He is getting to the basket and finishing strong. He is also knocking down his free throws (82 percent) and collecting steals (1.3 per game) at a high rate.

Heading into tonight’s game in Toronto, Fultz is averaging just under 11 points and 3.1 assists per game. He had an effective field goal percentage of 42 percent in his 33 total games as a member of the 76ers. Through 13 games this season, he’s upped that to 51.4.

Both Embiid and Simmons missed their entire first season in Philly and turned into All-Stars. This small sample size is just that, but things are definitely trending in the right direction for Fultz to develop into the caliber of player everyone thought he would be when he was drafted. The mental hurdle has been cleared, and his confidence seems to have been been restored.

Jahlil Okafor, New Orleans Pelicans

The 2015 NBA Draft had some exceptional talent. Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell went just before Okafor, but many people thought that was a mistake. While the former third overall pick won’t ever reach the same pinnacle as those two in his career, he has been a tremendous success story nonetheless over the past two years.

After three seasons of below-average production in Philly, Okafor was traded to the Brooklyn Nets where he was seeking a fresh start. His 26-game stint there did not yield positive results, and it appeared as though the promising big man’s future was near the end. In the summer of 2018, Okafor signed a minimum salary contract with the New Orleans Pelicans. He remains on a partially-guaranteed deal, but is outperforming that so far this season.

With so many athletic wings and a bevy of guards in New Orleans, Okafor has found the perfect role as the man in the middle. No longer seeming rushed, the big man is patient with the ball and has the ability to finish himself or find the open guy on the perimeter. He is much more efficient shooting the ball and is averaging 1.1 blocks per game.

Despite suffering an ankle injury that has him temporarily sidelined, Okafor has been playing well. With the absence of rookie sensation Zion Williamson, New Orleans has needed his solid play to keep the train rolling. He won’t be what many had envisioned him becoming after leaving Duke, but Okafor has carved out a nice role for himself in the league.

Richaun Holmes, Sacramento Kings

Another member of Philly’s 2015 draft class has found his opportunity in a different zip code. Despite playing 156 games for the Sixers, Holmes was never really given the opportunity to become a vital role player for the team. He started just 20 of those games and played less than 17 minutes a night. With so many injuries in Sacramento, that opportunity has come for him, and he has stepped up and excelled in his new role.

The overall numbers for Holmes have risen quite a bit, but the blocks are what stand out the most. Through 13 games this season, the active big man is averaging nearly as many blocks per game (1.4) as the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Rudy Gobert. He is averaging career-high numbers in virtually every statistical category.

The former second-round pick has always been known as an energy guy, and he is thriving off of that on this young and hungry Kings squad. His rebounding has been tremendous, especially on offense. Sacramento ranks in the top half of the league in second-chance points, largely due to Holmes being so active on the glass.

Whereas many of the trades that the 76ers executed involved more talent coming back in return, this one was different. Philly traded Holmes to the Phoenix Suns in the summer of 2018 for $1 million. Nearly a year later, Holmes signed a two-year deal with the Kings for $9.77 million. Consider that money well-earned by Holmes, and well spent by Sacramento.

For every Embiid and Simmons that comes along, there are guys like Michael Carter-Williams, Nerlens Noel and Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot. What is important for these guys is to embrace a fresh start and a different role with a new team.

By doing so, they can assure themselves of a future in the league as opposed to watching from the sidelines.

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NBA Daily: DPOY Watch – 11/19/19

A familiar name is back at the top of the Defensive Player of the Year rankings with established contenders and youthful upstarts nipping at his heels.

Jack Winter

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A month into the regular season, the race for Defensive Player of the Year remains fluid. Even as longtime contenders and preseason favorites further assert their will defensively, a group of position-less wings and dogged guards are making a major impact on that side of the floor, too.

More or less, it comes down to one simple question still: Can anybody dethrone Rudy Gobert and his tenacious, defensive unit-leading prowess?

Here’s where Defensive Player of the Year stands as December quickly approaches.

Honorable Mention: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks; Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics; Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors; Patrick Beverley, Los Angeles Clippers; Jevon Carter, Phoenix Suns

5. Jonathan Isaac – Orlando Magic

Only Anthony Davis has more combined steals and blocks than Isaac’s 45. His individual defensive performance against the Dallas Mavericks on Nov. 6, when he collected five steals and six blocks, is arguably the season’s most impressive.

Isaac, at 6-foot-11 with long arms and an increasingly sturdy frame, simply makes plays the vast majority of defenders can’t, even when the box score doesn’t recognize them. His activity, quickness and instincts routinely allow him to be two places at once defensively. He’s among the game’s most switchable defenders, and there may not be a better help-and-recover player in all of basketball.

It’s not just steals either as both blocks and the ever-important eye test support Isaac’s nascent case for Defensive Player of the Year.

Isaac is the Magic’s only starter with a negative net defensive rating. Better, Orlando — a franchise that goads opponents into more two-point jumpers than any team in the league — forces 5.4 percent more mid-rangers than average with Isaac on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass. He’s top-three in defensive field goal percentage allowed at the rim, too, an ode to both his mastery of verticality and penchant for highlight-reel blocks.

Isaac is realizing his potential as a game-changing, all-court defensive force in his third NBA campaign. He’s probably not a big enough name to garner legitimate consideration for hardware this season, but that doesn’t mean he won’t be worthy of it – or fail to emerge as a perennial DPOY candidate going forward.

4. Bam Adebayo – Miami HEAT

Adebayo’s modest on-off numbers defensively almost certainly aren’t what they would be if the HEAT weren’t subject to so many key contributors coming and going early in the season. Jimmy Butler missed the first three games of 2019-20, and Justise Winslow has been sidelined by a concussion since Nov. 7 after sitting out two earlier games due to back spasms. Derrick Jones Jr. has played in just four games while dealing with nagging groin and hip injuries.

Through it all, Adebayo has been the linchpin holding Miami together on defense. His rare versatility allows Erik Spoelstra to pair him with offensive-oriented bigs like Kelly Olynyk and Meyers Leonard upfront as well. Ultimately, the HEAT have been at their best defensively during the brief time he’s spent at center – a lineup configuration we’re more likely to see when Winslow and Jones return from injury.

Among the numerous attributes that make Adebayo special defensively is his equal penchant for highlight-reel plays and more unspectacular, nuanced ones, both of which make a major impact. He has a keen sense of timing and angles as a pick-and-roll helper, prodding at ball handlers with active hands while splitting the difference between them and the roller.

Adebayo isn’t an elite rim-protector and the statistics say as much. But preventing attempts around the rim is just as valuable as affecting them and the HEAT surrender 9.1 percent fewer shots in the restricted area with Adebayo on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass – the league’s second-biggest discrepancy among high-minute bigs.

As the season continues, don’t be surprised if Adebayo fades from the DPOY conversation. Miami is loaded with quality defenders, and his numbers-based case may grow accordingly thin as Spoelstra gets full use of his planned rotation. Adebayo’s influence, though, will remain obvious to anyone watching the HEAT regardless.

3. Joel Embiid – Philadelphia 76ers

The Sixers have quietly been among the league’s most disappointing teams, going just 3-5 after winning their first five games of the regular season. But don’t chalk those struggles up to Embiid, who has nipped at his turnover rate and made strides from beyond the arc while remaining Philadelphia’s defensive panacea.

On a roster stacked with stellar defenders like Al Horford, Ben Simmons and Josh Richardson, Embiid’s net on-off defensive rating of -11.3 is easily a team-best among regulars. His individual rim-protecting numbers are still lagging behind career norms, though team-wide data suggests Embiid has been as big a deterrent around the basket as ever.

Why? His rare blend of size, timing and understanding as the last line of defense, which Embiid puts on display in the clip below. Covering for multiple mistakes by Tobias Harris, he first cuts off Cedi Osman’s middle drive despite being in ICE position, then recovers for an effective contest at the basket when his teammate gets beaten backdoor.

The 76ers’ opponents have attempted 7.2 percent fewer shots at the rim with Embiid on the floor, while their accuracy on those tries dips 6.1 percent, per Cleaning the Glass. Also indicative of Embiid’s rippling influence in the paint is Philadelphia’s league-worst opponent free throw rate spiking nearly 10 points when he’s sitting.

Philadelphia is too talented defensively to be anything less than elite on that end for long. And when they inevitably rise the ranks in defense from ninth, Embiid will still be the biggest reason why.

2. Anthony Davis – Los Angeles Lakers

It says a lot about the Lakers’ enviable roster of proven defenders that their opponent shot profile doesn’t align with tenets of modern basketball. Los Angeles ranks 11th in preventing shots at the rim and 20th in preventing shots from deep, while forcing only an average rate of shots from mid-range.

But what should be a recipe for mediocrity has instead yielded the league’s top-ranked defense, a ringing endorsement of the Lakers’ personnel and Frank Vogel’s ability to get a veteran team to buy in on that side of the ball.

The presence of Davis, to be clear, doesn’t affect those numbers in an overtly-positive manner. Opponents shoot fewer threes when he’s on the floor, but take more shots from the restricted area. They don’t commit turnovers at a notably higher rate, either, and actually get to the line more often. Davis’ defensive rating is 99.1, the exact same as Los Angeles’ mark with him on the bench and just a hair lower than its season-long rating.

No matter. The Lakers’ wealth of defensive talent and commitment to the scheme shouldn’t affect Davis’ DPOY candidacy to the extent a similar dynamic might others.

The statistics are there, naturally, if that’s how you want to make Davis’ case. His 38 blocks lead the league by a comfortable margin, plus more steals than any other top-tier shot-blocker save Isaac and Andre Drummond. Opponents are shooting a laughably low and league-best 30 percent against him at the rim, interior supremacy buttressed by Los Angeles coaxing a far worse shooting percentage from the restricted area with him on the floor.

Davis is a physical outlier. Other elite rim-protectors, like Embiid and Rudy Gobert, just can’t do what he does across 94 feet.

That alone doesn’t make Davis the DPOY frontrunner — but combined with his sweeping all-around effect and the Lakers’ team-wide dominance, it certainly burnishes his resumé.

1. Rudy Gobert – Utah Jazz

Gobert was second on this list two weeks ago and fifth in our preseason rankings. The assumption was that the Jazz’s overhauled personnel, including a full-time deviation from playing another big next to him, would lead to a downturn in their team-wide defensive performance, thus weakening Gobert’s chances for another DPOY award.

Wrong.

Utah owns the league’s second-stingiest defense. Its entire system is based around the premise that Gobert is waiting in the paint to challenge any would-be penetrators, letting Royce O’Neal, Mike Conley, Donovan Mitchell and more put pressure the ball in a way they otherwise wouldn’t feel comfortable.

The Jazz allow 6.9 percent fewer shots at the rim with Gobert in the game and accuracy on those attempts dips by 4.5 percent, per Cleaning the Glass. Their defensive rebounding percentage drops from a dominant 77.6 to 70.8 when he goes from the floor to the bench, with the added bonus of committing far more fouls in that scenario, too.

Gobert isn’t as versatile as Davis and less likely than Embiid to come out of nowhere for soaring weak-side blocks. But to suggest that his impact is limited to tangible and intangible rim-protection would also be remiss. It’s not often, for instance, that Karl-Anthony Towns gets embarrassed in isolation on consecutive possessions.

Look at Mitchell at the end of the clip above. No player in basketball is more prone to inspire his teammates and ignite home crowds by virtue of defense than Gobert. He plays with an arrogant edge that helps make his team’s whole greater than the sum its parts on that end — and it’s once again propelling Utah to the top of the league.

Gobert will face a steep challenge in joining Dwight Howard as the only players to ever win DPOY three times in a row. But as the first month of the regular season has made abundantly clear, any expectation he’d fall from consideration was foolish. For now, then, he’s the leader — but who might come for the back-to-back crown next?

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