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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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NBA

Resurgent Clippers Climbing in the Standings

Blow up the Clippers? Not so fast, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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The NBA’s trade deadline is rapidly approaching, and one team that has appeared quite often in trade rumors is the Los Angeles Clippers. The Clippers started out the season strong, and Blake Griffin was playing like an MVP candidate. Then they hit a rough patch of injuries and slipped all the way down in the standings.

Since then, DeAndre Jordan’s name has come up in trade chatter. The Clippers were in a free-fall and their franchise center reportedly could be had for the right price. Sixth Man of the Year candidate Lou Williams has also been mentioned, as playoff contenders could certainly use his scoring prowess as they gear up for a playoff run. And our own Michael Scotto reported that the Clippers approached the Minnesota Timberwolves at one point about a deal revolving around Griffin and Karl-Anthony Towns.

However, the Clippers have done an about-face recently. They’ve won 11 of their last 15 games. They’re currently on a five-game win streak that includes wins over the Golden State Warriors (on the road) and the Houston Rockets. Those teams weren’t at full strength, but neither were the Clippers.

The point is, as the Clippers have begun to get some of their injured players back, they’re playing much better basketball. Maybe all the talk about blowing it up should be put on hold for a moment.

As it stands, they sit in seventh place in the Western Conference and right back in the playoff mix. They’re 22-21; they haven’t been over .500 since back on Nov. 5 when they were 5-4. They’re only one and a half games back of the Oklahoma City Thunder for fifth.

A big reason for this resurgence has been the return of Griffin. Griffin sprained his MCL back on Nov. 28, and he didn’t return to the lineup until Dec. 29. The Clippers went 6-8 without him. He recently missed two games due to concussion protocol, but in the games he’s played since returning, the team has gone 6-2.

In those eight games, he’s put up 19.6 points per game on 44.8 percent shooting from the field, seven rebounds, and 6.1 assists. It’s not what he was doing early in the season, but his production has been a most welcome addition to the lineup. He had one of his better games of the season against the Rockets on Monday night, with 29 points on 50 percent shooting, 10 rebounds and six assists.

Another huge reason for the Clippers’ new success has been Williams. At age 31, Williams is having a career year. He’s averaging 23.3 points per game on 45.3 percent shooting, 41.6 percent from the three-point line, and 5.0 assists, all career-highs. He’s had games of 42 and 40 points this season, and he recently dropped a career-high 50 points last week in a win over the Warriors.

And yet another catalyst in the Clippers’ turnaround has been the overall play of their bench and their rookies. Both Montrezl Harrell and Sam Dekker were almost afterthoughts at the beginning of the season. They were key pieces at times for the Rockets last season, but seemingly couldn’t get off the bench with the Clippers.

The rash of injuries forced Doc Rivers to expand the rotation, and both players have responded accordingly. Harrell has seen an increase in minutes since Griffin initially got hurt at the end of November. In the Clippers first game without Griffin on Nov. 30, Harrell had 13 points on a perfect 5-5 shooting from the field. Since then, he’s put up 10.2 points on 55.4 percent shooting. He scored a season-high 25 points last week in a win over the Sacramento Kings, and he’s become the Clippers’ most dependable big man off the bench.

Dekker has also seen an increase in playing time since the beginning of December. His numbers may not jump off the charts, as he’s averaging six points per game during that time frame. But he’s given the Clippers another three-point threat on the floor, as well as the ability to play and guard multiple positions.

They’ve also uncovered a few gems this season. Jawun Evans, who was a second-round pick, as well as two-way players such as C.J. Williams, Jamil Wilson (who has since been released), and Tyrone Wallace have all made important contributions to the team.

Evans has started in four games recently, and in those games, he’s put up 9.0 points and 4.8 assists. Since Dec. 18, C.J. has been a permanent part of the starting lineup. As a starter, he’s averaging 9.0 points on 47.5 percent shooting. He had a career-high 18 in a win over the Memphis Grizzlies on Jan. 2. On Jan. 8 he had 15 points and the game-winner against the Atlanta Hawks.

Wallace is a relative newcomer after the Clippers cut Wilson, and he’s making a huge impression. He’s played in six games so far and scored in double-figures in all but one while shooting 52.8 percent. He had 22 points, six rebounds, and four assists in the Jan. 10 win over the Warriors.

On the injury front, the team welcomed back Milos Teodosic on Jan. 11, and since returning he’s averaging 11.0 points and 6.7 assists. DeAndre Jordan is expected to be out a couple more games after injuring his ankle on Jan. 11. Austin Rivers, who was having a career year prior to his ankle injury on Dec. 29, is supposed to be re-evaluated soon. There’s no new status on Danilo Gallinari who is out with a glute injury. Patrick Beverley is already done for the year.

These injuries have been a bit of a blessing in disguise, as they’ve allowed some of the Clippers’ young guys to get valuable experience — experience that will surely pay off if they do make a playoff run. It’s also allowed Rivers to utilize his bench more. When the others begin to make their return to the lineup, the Clippers will be that much more potent.

The Clippers still have a long road to go, and nothing is ever guaranteed in the NBA. But perhaps it’s best just to pump the breaks a little bit on all the tanking and blowing it up talk.

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G-League

NBA Daily: New Two-Way Players Worth Watching

The deadline for adding players on two-way contracts came and went on Monday, so which new signings have the potential to make a difference this season?

Ben Nadeau

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When the NBA created two-way contracts last summer, it not only produced a new path to the professional level, but it also added another intriguing wrinkle to roster building across the league. January 15th marked the deadline to sign players to two-way contracts during the 2017-18 season, so the transaction wire was mighty busy on Monday. In some instances, teams can utilize these deals to simply protect prospects as players on two-way contracts cannot be signed away by another franchise. But in other situations, these new additions could help fill some important roles and minutes for teams now currently entrenched in a playoff hunt.

Mike James was the first two-way player to make headlines while providing quality minutes within an injured backcourt for the Phoenix Suns — but that false start has recently led him to different horizons in New Orleans. While two-way players cannot compete in the postseason, there’s always the potential of a converted contract as well, just as the Milwaukee Bucks have done with Sean Kilpatrick. More than half of the NBA swapped out a two-way signee over the last 30 days, but here are five of them that could make a difference during the next few months.

Mike James, New Orleans Pelicans
With Phoenix: 10.4 points, 2.8 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 1.5 turnovers in 20.9 MPG

Mike James is the most recognizable name on the list for good reason — he’s already made it. James’ story has been well-documented at this point, but after toiling away overseas, the 27-year-old rookie wasted no time with the Suns earlier this season. In 32 games with Phoenix — including 10 starts — James averaged 10.4 points, 2.8 rebounds and 3.8 assists in 20.9 minutes per contest. In fact, James’ play was so impressive that the Suns converted his two-way contract to a one-year regular deal in December, quickly looking like he’d be a regular mainstay in the rotation. But the sudden emergence of point guard Isaiah Canaan left James as the odd-man out and he was waived, sending him back to square one in his pursuit of a permanent roster spot in the NBA.

Thankfully, James wouldn’t have to wait long as the surging Pelicans scooped him up ahead of their playoff push. The backcourt situation in New Orleans is fluid, but it could be a fruitful opportunity for James to get back on the horse. All season, the Pelicans have run with a starting combination of Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday, leaving veteran journeyman Jameer Nelson (21.9 MPG) to mop up any needed bench minutes for the point guards. Snagging the 14-year veteran off the waiver wire was a shrewd move by New Orleans, but it wouldn’t be a shock for James to leapfrog Nelson before long.

The Pelicans rank dead last in bench points (23.3) and James is the type of dynamic scorer that can keep things going without the starters on the floor.

Amile Jefferson, Minnesota Timberwolves
G-League: 18 points, 13.1 rebounds, 1.1 steals and 2.1 turnovers in 34.1 MPG

At long last, somebody grabbed G-League star Amile Jefferson and now the Minnesota Timberwolves are set to reap the benefits. Just a few days after dropping 29 points at the G-League Showcase, Jefferson joins a crowded frontcourt — but his high motor could be an interesting option in spot minutes moving forward. Collegiately, Jefferson started 100-plus games over five years for the Duke Blue Devils and went undrafted despite averaging 10.9 points and 8.4 rebounds as a senior. Jefferson’s bright debut has seen him tally a healthy 18 points and a league-leading 13.1 rebounds per game, but his defense-first mentality is what might earn him some court time in the coming weeks.

Head coach Tom Thibodeau has a reputation for molding elite defenses — he reached the top five in defensive rating for four consecutive seasons back in Chicago — but he hasn’t quite reached that level in Minnesota. The Timberwolves have certainly looked better in that regard as of late, but their 106.4 rating on defense puts them in the bottom half of the NBA. For a young team looking to compete with the juggernaut powers of Golden State and San Antonio this spring, tuning up the defense remains an absolute must.

Additionally, the Timberwolves’ starters average 35 minutes per game, above and beyond the highest number in the league right now. If Jefferson can provide strong defensive minutes and allow players like Karl-Anthony Towns and Taj Gibson to grab some extra rest down the stretch, he’ll be a welcomed addition to this playoff-bound roster.

Markel Brown, Houston Rockets
G-League: 17.2 points, 35.8 three-point percentage, 4.2 rebounds and 1.5 turnovers in 31.4 MPG

Unlike many of the names on this list, Markel Brown has plenty of NBA experience already. After the Brooklyn Nets drafted Brown with the No. 44 overall selection in 2014, the hyper-athletic rookie started 29 games for an injury-riddled squad. Brown would eventually become a roster casualty and later joined Russian outfit Khimki for one season, but he’s always remained a player to keep an eye on. During his best moments, Brown was a stat-stuffing machine and he once racked up 10 points, 11 rebounds, two assists, two steals and four blocks with zero turnovers in 45 minutes of play as a rookie.

Athletic as they come, Brown showed defensive promise with the Nets, but he struggled to consistently convert from deep and his 29.7 three-point percentage over two seasons ultimately cost him his roster spot. Thankfully, Brown appears to have turned the corner and has made 2.9 three-pointers per game at a 35.8 percent clip over 22 contests with the Oklahoma City Blue. Of course, the Rockets attempt a staggering 43.6 three-pointers per game, nearly 10 more than the second-place Nets, so Brown could feel right at home here.

If Brown can bring some hard-nosed defense and contribute to Houston’s downtown barrage, there’s some definite potential in this two-way signing.

Xavier Munford, Milwaukee Bucks
G-League: 23.9 points, 46.5 three-point percentage, 5.3 assists and 3.6 turnovers in 35.8 MPG

As of publishing, the Milwaukee Bucks are one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the NBA, only knocking down 34.9 percent of their attempts. And at 23-20, the Bucks’ dismal showing from deep has been just one of many shortcomings for a team many expected to take the next step this season. Khris Middleton has led the way for Milwaukee with 1.9 three-pointers per game, but his 34 percent clip is his lowest mark since his rookie season. Furthermore, the only rostered player to surpass two made three-pointers per game is Mirza Teletovic (2.1), but he’s been sidelined since November due to knee surgery and the unfortunate reemergence of pulmonary emboli in his lungs once again.

Needless to say, the Bucks need some shooting help in the worst way — enter: Xavier Munford, one of the G-League’s best three-point assassins. The 6-foot-3 guard has been an absolute revelation for the Wisconsin Herd, tallying 23.9 points, 4.8 rebounds and 5.3 assists on a league-leading 46.5 percent from three-point range. Truthfully, it’s surprising that Munford hadn’t found a home before the deadline, but he’s been gifted the perfect opportunity now. Even in spot minutes, Munford could provide the Bucks with something they’ve sorely missed through the first half of the season.

Munford can get hot and stay hot too, perhaps best exhibited by the Player of the Week honors he earned two months ago after nailing 17 of his 24 attempts (70.8 percent) from three over a four-game period. It won’t come that easy at the NBA level, but Munford is an elite shooter on a poor-shooting team — so if his chance arises, this could be a quality signing for the Bucks.

James Webb III, Brooklyn Nets
G-League: 11.6 points, 36.6 three-point percentage, 6.7 rebounds and 1.6 turnovers in 27.3 MPG

The Nets are likely the only team on the list that won’t be headed to the postseason this year, but the addition of James Webb III is certainly an interesting one nonetheless. Before going undrafted in 2016, Webb III was a standout at Boise State, where he averaged 15.8 points and 9.1 rebounds per game. In spite of shooting just 24.8 percent from three-point range in that final collegiate season, Webb III has put together back-to-back seasons at 36 percent in the G-League. Naturally, this is where Webb III can make an impression with the chuck-em-up Nets.

In his second year at the helm, head coach Kenny Atkinson has his young roster shooting more three-pointers than ever. While backcourt players like Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris and Caris LeVert have all seen improvements from deep this season, the Nets still badly need a stretch four to open things up when Quincy Acy and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson aren’t on the floor. The latter, despite his best efforts, hasn’t turned into a consistent three-point shooter and Hollis-Jefferson still sports a subpar 24.1 percent career average from behind the arc.

Acy has been one of Brooklyn’s more recent G-League successes, plucking him away from the Texas Legends just over a year ago on a ten-day contract. Over 71 games for the Nets, Acy has become a valuable contributor in the Nets’ rotation and he’s currently averaging a career-high 19.3 minutes and 1.4 made three-pointers per game. Still, Acy is as streaky as shooters come and when he’s not chipping in from three-point range, the Nets really suffer. After Acy, there’s only Tyler Zeller, Timofey Mozgov and Jarrett Allen for three-point options in the frontcourt — so much for replacing Brook Lopez, right?

If Webb III can impress the coaching staff, he could have long-term potential on this three-point happy roster of castaways.

Breaking through from the G-League to the NBA is never easy, but these five players have taken the next big step in their professional careers. There’s no guarantee that two-way players will be given an opportunity to shine, but there’s still potential in all of these signings. Whether teams are looking to navigate injuries, rest their starters or uncover a diamond in the rough, two-way contracts have offered something new for both players and front offices alike.

Now it’s up to James, Jefferson, Brown, Munford and Webb III to make the most of their respective chances and hopefully stick around for good.

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NBA

NBA Most Valuable Player Watch — 1/17/18

Dennis Chambers updates the latest MVP watch rankings.

Dennis Chambers

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It’s been two weeks since we last checked in on the Most Valuable Player race in our beloved National Basketball Association.

Since then, the leader, James Harden, hasn’t played a minute of basketball. The man behind him, LeBron James, somehow having a career-year in his 15th go-around, even more surprisingly hasn’t completely blow Harden’s chances out of the water due to his Cleveland Cavaliers’ struggles as of late.

Steph Curry is back and better than ever for the Golden State Warriors, bolstering his chances at a third MVP award, while simultaneously hurting his teammate Kevin Durant’s chances.

Giannis Antetokounmpo is still a freak of the Greek variety, and DeMar DeRozan continues to be a master of the midrange.

Halfway through the NBA season, this race is getting as fun as ever. Let’s get into the current standings.

  1. Kyrie Irving

Since last checking in, Kyrie Irving hasn’t necessarily been knocking it out of the park with his performance, but the Boston Celtics are still winning, so that counts for something.

Despite being stuck in an obvious shooting slump over the last two weeks (36 percent from the field and 24 percent from beyond the arc), Irving has led the way to four straight Boston wins, along with a big come from behind victory against the Philadelphia 76ers over in London.

While Irving continues to put up dazzling performances, his slip as of late, coupled with the fact that Brad Stevens and Co. have found ways to win without him, have caused Irving to lose a bit of footing in the most recent update of the MVP race.

  1. DeMar DeRozan

Over the last two weeks, DeMar DeRozan has continued to put the Toronto Raptors on his back. Granted, the Raptors are just 4-3 during that span, but with one loss coming to the Golden State Warriors 127-125 after giving up 81 points in the first half. DeRozan was also left without Kyle Lowry for two of those contests.

With the continued evolution of DeRozan’s skill set, this season has been the star shooting guard’s best chance at an MVP trophy. Improved shooting from downtown turns DeRozan into a more modern version two-guard without sacrificing the midrange prowess that makes him nearly impossible to guard.

Toronto has morphed into arguably the second-best overall team in the entire league. With impressive showings on both ends of the court that result in top 10 ratings, the Raptors are quickly becoming the biggest threat to the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Eastern Conference crown. None of that would be possible without the big steps DeRozan has made in his game this season.

  1. Giannis Antetokounmpo

The Greek Freak’s drop in the current rankings aren’t necessarily an indictment of his play, but more of a tipped cap to how strong Steph Curry has come on since returning from injury.

That being said, Antetokounmpo is still very much a part of the MVP race with his 28.3/10.1/4.5 averages. As Milwaukee clings to a bottom half playoff spot — their 23-20 record and 7th place standing is just a three-game advantage over the Sixers, who are currently out of the playoff picture — Antetokounmpo will need to continue to put the Bucks on his back as he’s done throughout his breakout season so far.

While his season has been more than impressive and certainly puts him on the radar across the league as one of the best players in the NBA, Antetokounmpo is still getting lost in the shuffle behind the top-tier contenders due to his team’s lack of dominant success.

  1. Steph Curry

What a return it’s been for Steph Curry. Since last checking in on our MVP standings, Curry has played in six games for the Warriors and sat out one. Golden State is 6-1 in that seven-game span, and I don’t need to spell it out for you which game they lost.

During his return, Curry is averaging 30.8 points, seven assists, nearly six rebounds and two steals per game, while also shooting 45 percent from three-point land.

His on/off rating for the Warriors is higher than any of his teammate’s, even Durant. The Chef is the Warriors’ main catalyst on offense, and despite their star-studded cast, when he isn’t on the court you can tell the difference.

I’ve always been one to say that because they’re both on the same team, it would be hard for either Curry or Durant to win this award, but given the absurd affect Curry has been having on his team’s success and offensive continuity, he’s forced himself right into the conversation. Should he keep it up at this current pace for the second half of the season, he may be the favorite.

  1. James Harden

James Harden has missed the last seven games, and the Houston Rockets are 3-4 in that time frame. Granted, one loss is to the Warriors, a team the Rockets hope to be able to compete against when at full strength.

While being sidelined, Harden’s importance to Houston’s sustained success has become more apparent than it was was before he went down with an injury. His numbers, were his season to end today, would be MVP-caliber if not for the number of games played. But it’s hard to keep a grasp on a lead when you’re not participating, which explains Harden’s drop on the ladder this time around.

Once The Beard returns, however, fully expect him to be right back in the thick of claiming his first ever MVP award.

  1. LeBron James

Since Harden’s injury, LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers haven’t necessarily set the world on fire to their best player a clear distance in the MVP race.

Amid a serious slump that has the rest of the league questioning if this Cavs team is capable of returning to a fourth straight NBA Finals appearance, James is currently searching for his fifth MVP award. While there has been a slight dip in The King’s numbers over the last few games, with the slump and the reintegration of Isaiah Thomas to the squad, he’s still been on the court and dominating in his 15th year. Until Harden can return to put up a fight, James is the current frontrunner despite the recent decline. His full-season body of work, this late in his career, speaks for itself.

But with Curry hot on his trail, Harden set to return, and his team floundering more and more by the day, James’ chances to win his latest award are currently at their bleakest point.

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