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NBA AM: The 2015 Free Agent Wish List

As many as 21 NBA teams could dip below the projected 2015 $67.3 million salary cap, and as many as 11 of them could have $18 million or more to play with; who are they targeting?… Is Michele Roberts in over her head? Seems that way.

Steve Kyler

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The Free Agent Wish List:  While NBA free agency is miles away for most teams, there is an ever-growing sense that some of the projected cap teams already have their eye on a few targets. As things stand today, as many as 21 NBA teams could dip below the projected 2015 $67.3 million salary cap, and as many as 11 of them could have $18 million or more to play with in the market, depending on how they handle their options and cap holds.

While free agent targets are always subject to change, here are some of the names league and team sources peg as prime free agent targets for the major cap players this summer:

Philadelphia 76ers – Best Case $35.41 million

Despite eating JaVale McGee’s contract for next season as part of a buyout, the 76ers will again sit atop the NBA in the most cap space department. They’ll have a few draft picks that eat into that number, but the Sixers are poised to have the most cash to spend and surprisingly, next season might be when they spend some of it.

There is a sense that the Sixers are going to look at some of the promising young free agents, especially some of the guys hitting restricted free agency – Jimmy Butler (Chicago), Tobias Harris (Orlando) and Reggie Jackson (Detroit). There also is a sense that the 76ers could be one of the teams that makes a pass at Greg Monroe.

The problem for the 76ers in free agency is that they are so far away from competing for anything that it’s hard to imagine a free agent chooses them when there are potentially so many other options available in July.

Maybe it’s good news that the Sixers are going to explore free agency; they have the cash to make some crazy offers, the question is will they get anyone with it?

New York Knicks – Best Case $27.69 million

The Knicks have a laundry list of guys they’d love to sign, the top being Memphis big man Marc Gasol. The odds that Marc is leaving Memphis are pretty low, so the next tier includes Detroit big man Greg Monroe, Butler from Chicago and Harris from Orlando.

The dark horses for the Knicks are Dallas’ Rajon Rondo, Cleveland’s Kevin Love, Portland’s LaMarcus Aldridge and Detroit’s Reggie Jackson.

With likely less than $27 million to play with, the Knicks won’t get to two max offers, so it’s likely one max offer between $15.9 million and $19 million – depending on the player’s service years in the NBA – and one more between $8 million to $10 million to another.

As much as Knicks fans were hoping for a huge swing in free agency, the Knicks won’t have the cash to make two max offers, which means they may not get two gems in July, rather maybe a gem and a half and solid draft pick. That’s still better than most, but there looks to be a lot of cap cash out there this year, so the Knicks will have competition.

Detroit Pistons – Best Case $26.47 million

The Pistons are going to have cash to play with. You might not realize it because they have two of the bigger names in the 2015 Free Agent class in Jackson and Monroe, but the Pistons hold Bird Rights on both and could simply carry their respective cap holds into free agency, spend their free agent cash and then sign those Bird Righted players and exceed the cap.

As things sit today, the Pistons have guaranteed money to Josh Smith ($5.4m cap hit from buyout), Brandon Jennings ($8.34m), Jodie Meeks ($6.27m), Kentavious Caldwell-Pope ($2.89m), Andre Drummond ($3.27m) and Spencer Dinwiddie ($845k). All in all, that’s roughly $27 million in firm commitments, and they have a partial guarantee of $400k on Anthony Tolliver, Cartier Martin has a player options worth $1.27m and a cap hold on Jackson worth $5.5 million. They will likely carry five incomplete roster charges worth $525K each, for a grand total of $39.695 million if Monroe walks away.

Without Monroe’s cap hold of $10.4 million, the Pistons could have as much as $27.6 million in free cash to play with before having to ink Jackson, which they could do after reaching the cap line and then exceed it with Jackson’s deal.

Plug Monroe’s hold into the equations and the Pistons have $17.2 million to play with and can then exceed the cap to max out Monroe and Jackson if they choose to.

With $27 million to play with, the Pistons become max offer sheet players for virtually the entire class; Butler, Harris, Rondo or even Gasol. If Monroe opts to stick around, the list of options shrinks a little as the Pistons wouldn’t have a max offer slot, but $17 million is nothing to sniff at – that’s real money in a market that could have a lot of veteran supporting players.

As the math illustrates, there is a dark horse in 2015 free agent race and it might be the Pistons.

Portland Trail Blazers – Best Case $25.57 million

The Blazers are not in the same boat as the Pistons, simply because the cap holds their free agents have against the cap. LaMarcus Aldridge has a $17.695 million hold, Wes Matthews has a $10.868 million hold and Robin Lopez has a $9.187 million hold. A quick run of the math and that’s $37.75 million in cap holds to existing guys and another $23.073 million in guaranteed commitments. Combined, that’s $60.82 million.

The Blazers will have some cap space, likely closer to $6.4 million, unless they start renouncing guys.

That’s also not accounting for Joel Freeland’s $7.5 million hold, which is far more than he’s really worth to the team, so either the Blazers sign him quickly to a lower number or renounce him outright.

The prevailing thought is Aldridge is signing a new max deal this summer, and that can be the last transaction they complete so they can exceed the cap with Aldridge’s deal. The questions is what are Matthews and Lopez worth going forward and does either unrestricted free agent opt for greener pastures or different teams?

If either walks, their respective cap hold becomes usable space, so is $17.345 million in space worth more than Matthews is?

At $6.4 million, the Blazers are fringe cap players at best. With $17.345 million, they could be players and still exceed the cap to keep Aldridge and Lopez.

While on the surface it looks like the Blazers have space, the only way they get there is to renounce someone or have someone walk away from them.

Atlanta Hawks – Best Case $25.513 million

The Hawks have two cap holds that matter: unrestricted free agents Paul Millsap ($12.35m) and DeMarre Carroll ($3.175). Add those number to $39.276 million in guarantees and the Hawks have closer to $54.801 million against the cap, or about $12.44 million to play with.

It’s unlikely they lose Millsap to free agency since the Hawks can give him a max valued contract. Millsap doesn’t have full Bird Rights, but his Early Bird rights get him to the max level.

Carroll is a different story, as he too is an Early Bird free agent, but only eligible to receive 175 percent of his $2.44 million 2014 salary, which works out to $4.27 million in an exceed the cap scenario. Unless the Hawks opt to use cap space to re-sign him, they don’t have the same luxury as they do with Millsap, where they can do his deal last and push over the cap.

The Hawks have had eyes on an elite small forward type and there is a sense that Carroll might be out in July for economic reasons, meaning the Hawks may have his cap hold out of the way and maybe $15 million in space to play with.

That’s not enough to get into the Leonard or Butler game, but might be enough to get into the Harris game or pursue guys like Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton or Golden State’s Draymond Green.

The Hawks may have to fend off suitors for Millsap, but there is a sense that Paul is happy in Atlanta and wants to stay long-term.

Dallas Mavericks – Best Case $24.61 million

On paper the Mavericks could have cap space, but in reality they may not get anywhere close.

The Mavericks have two big cap holds to deal with, the first being Tyson Chandler ($20.64m) and the second Rajon Rondo ($16.44m). If the Mavericks want space, they have to do a deal with at least Chandler first and sign him to a new deal significantly less than his hold or they have nothing to work with.

Rondo is expected to demand a max contract, which league sources say he’s unlikely to get in a full offer kind of way, suggesting a team might go max dollars on a smaller-year deal. Dallas has said they want to keep him and see him as a long-term fit; however, there is real doubt that’s a smart move.

The big wrinkle for the Mavericks is Monta Ellis, as sources close to the situation believe Ellis will opt out of his deal this summer and seek a new multi-year deal based on his current play.

Given everything the Mavericks have to work around, it’s hard to imagine Dallas is a cap player unless they say no thanks to both Chandler and Rondo – in that scenario they could have a lot to play with and deal with Ellis after they sign free agents.

Boston Celtics – Best Case $22.57 million

The Celtics have a ton of cash and are geared up to use it. Target number one is Kevin Love. Target number two is Greg Monroe.

Sources close to the process say the Celtics plan to swing for the proverbial fences this summer including runs at Gasol, Leonard and Butler too.

With a roster jammed with young guys, there is also a sense that Boston would be open to a sign-and-trade if they can get someone to take an offer as a means to avoid to the matching game and potentially open up more space.

The Celtics also have the pieces to move off money if they can get two guys to commit verbally.

The Celtics’ cap situation is pretty straight forward, as they have a couple of major cap holds that they are likely to renounce: Brandon Bass ($10.35m), Jonas Jerebko ($8.5m) and Luigi Datome ($2.275m).

The sense is that the Celtics may do a new deal with Brandon Bass at a significantly lower value than his cap hold, while Jerebko and Datome are renounced.

The Celtics have $40.406 million in guaranteed contracts and will likely carry three incomplete charges worth about $1.5 million, so in real money the C’s may have almost $25 million to play with. That’s enough for a max offer to almost anyone, hence why the Celtics have high hopes on a marquee name.

San Antonio Spurs – Best Case $22.27 million

The Spurs opted not to do an extension with Kawhi Leonard in order to keep their cap space open this summer. Leonard carries a cap hold of $7.235 million, so even if the Spurs give him a max deal, they can do that last and exceed the cap.

The big challenge for the Spurs is the status of Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili, who both carry big cap holds: $15.542 million for Duncan and $10.5 million for Ginobilli.

Other notables in the cap hold department are Danny Green ($7.647m), Marco Belinelli ($3.735m) and Cory Joseph ($5.058m). In terms of guaranteed money, the Spurs have $34,159 million. So the questions for the Spurs is who stays and who goes as it relates to usable space?

If Duncan calls it a career, so likely does Ginobili.

The Spurs have a target list and it includes many of the same names other teams like – Gasol being the biggest of the bunch.

The Spurs’ plan to be at Gasol’s doorstep at 12:01 on July 1, with the offer to be part of the future of the Spurs.

The Spurs were also believed to be the team with the most interest in Monroe last summer.

So who the Spurs hang on to rights-wise might also be tied to how free agents answer their overtures.

LA Lakers – Best Case $19.45 million

And then there’s the Lakers. They could have more than the $19 million mentioned above, assuming they do not pick up the $9 million option on Jordan Hill.

Here is how the math works: The Lakers have four players under guaranteed contracts – Kobe Bryant ($25m), Nick Young ($5.219m), Julius Randle ($3.123m) and Ryan Kelly ($1.724m), so that’s $35.07 million in firm commits. The Lakers will carry what looks to be nine incomplete roster charges for $4.725 million which gives you a grand total of $39.8 million or about $27.5 million.

That assumes not picking up the option on Hill, Ed Davis not excercising his option to stay and the Lakers passing on Robert Sacre, Jordan Clarkson (doubtful) and Tarik Black.

That also does not include a roster charge for the draft pick, which we’ll call $4.5 million as a place holder.

So real money, let’s peg the Lakers at $22.1 million to play with, that’s enough for one serious max contract to an established veteran like Monroe, Rondo or Love – and all three are said to be willing to meet with the Lakers this summer.

The Lakers could also be the team that sets the price on Butler, Harris and makes things interesting for Middleton in Milwaukee.

There has been talk of Marc Gasol; however, that’s viewed as a long shot. The Lakers could try to tempt LaMarcus Aldridge out of Portland, but that’s, again, another long shot.

The Lakers are also linked to Jackson in Detroit and even Brandon Knight in Phoenix.

In short, there isn’t a free agent name the Lakers haven’t been linked to; the problem is they may not have the cap cash to get more than one of them.

Important to note that best case projections, unless defined differently, account for all guaranteed money owed next season and do not account for cap holds, incomplete cap charges or draft picks.

In Over Your Head:  I am going to start here… I don’t know Michele Roberts, the new executive director of the NBA Players Association. I have never met her, never stood in the same room with her. I have never seen her at a game or an NBA event I have covered.

I don’t think that distinction makes either one of us unique, only that I only know what others have told me about her, and apparently all she knows about me is what she’s gleaned from the few random encounters she has had in NBA locker rooms with people who do what I do.

However, like many things since taking the job of overseeing the players’ side of things for the union, she continues to illustrate over and over how little she knows about the topics she comments on, and how little care she has for what’s gotten all of us – the sport, the players and the media – to this point.

Her first foray into uncharted and uninformed territory was the notion that the NBA shouldn’t have a salary cap.

On the surface and philosophically, that sounds like something that should be talked about, but if the last two labor fights taught us anything, it’s that the NBA needs to be capped for a hundred reasons that have allowed the game to grow. I could write that one off as a rookie mistake, it’s something her constituents want to hear and it was likely a warning shot to the other side that she’s not going to accept the status quo. There is a new sheriff in town and she made it clear that she wanted change.

NaĂŻve. Mostly uninformed. But okay.

The second was attacking the notion of an age limit in the NBA.

Again, a hot button topic that gets fans excited. It’s a concept that gets your name in the press. Again, it lashes back at an established process in a philosophical way.

It completely ignores that the players as a body are not prepared to leave a single dollar on the table to fight to abolish the age limit. Rolling back the age limit is going to cost more in concessions than it is ever worth. The players historically fought the good fight out of principal, but trying to go toe-to-toe over the age limit is a losing proposition because while everyone talks about it, no one is willing to pay for it.

Again, naĂŻve.

We’d all love for it to be 72 degrees and sunny every day of the year, and philosophically that’s a great idea. Practically, the grown-ups understand that’s not remotely possible, even in Southern California.

The latest attack is on the media.

We’re easy targets. This one isn’t hard to see. But like many of the things Roberts has taken aim at, she eventually acknowledged how little she really knows or understands of the processes that got us here.

The media, in a general way, is under siege. There are more and more voices in the space. Newspapers are contracting and rolling back costs. Media outlets favor gossip and drama over hard news and facts.

Players have become indignant toward the media and have the own channels to explain themselves, whether that’s Twitter, Instagram or their own blogs.

Agent run publications like The Players Tribune give players the ability to tell their own unedited narrative of things and that’s not changing any time soon and let’s not even get into what the teams are doing with their own websites.

If there was ever a time where the voice of the people, and that’s what the media is supposed to be, is at its weakest it might be now, and Roberts took aim at the very rules that help us tell her side of the story. And when I say her side, I mean to say the players’ side.

What’s lost in Roberts’ latest rant is if she got what she originally suggested – less access for media – then there would be less media. Newspapers wouldn’t pay for beat reporters to travel with teams to be spoon fed news via press releases. There would be a ripple effect that would reduce the voices actually talking about the league to those of the media partners that paid for the right to be there and the teams themselves.

All those media impressions that make players other than LeBron James and Kevin Durant valuable to marketers would dry up, and the machine that powers the popularity monster that the NBA has become would take a monstrous step backwards and do you think that any things that would disparage the NBA would see the light of day without access?

Is that the goal for Roberts? Less?

Am I over dramatizing things? Sure, maybe a little. There will always be fan-driven blogs and small publications willing to eat whatever rules are handed down to be close enough to matter. But many of the voices that matter, the voices with power or influence, go away if there is no one to talk to. Or, worse yet, if there’s no player interviews to fill those column inches, it will be other things – like more gossip and dirty laundry.

What is lost in many of the public comments from the NBPA’s leader is how much she doesn’t know about the subjects she is going on record about.

Maybe that’s the ploy – chum up the waters into a frenzy and then come in to make a better deal.

One insider who was at the table during the last labor negotiation pointed out recently that the NBA’s stance in negotiating a labor deal is to take back everything from the previous deal. You begin negotiations with nothing at all, and the NBA and its owners force the players to trade for everything that’s important to them under brand new terms.

If the players want guaranteed contracts, they want a better revenue split. Want high contract values? They want shorter contract years.

So maybe Roberts’ stance isn’t naivety, maybe she is proactively tossing everything and the kitchen sink on the table and making it clear that she’s rebuilding the deal under her terms too.

Maybe that explains taking on topics that are not normally on the table during a labor deal, like media access.

The problem there is we’re really not the right group to pick a fight with. As Mark Twain once said, “You never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel,” referring to the printed newspaper business.

Those words really could not be truer today.

The court of public opinion can be mean and hateful, and some journalists (myself included) write every day.

I can write about whatever I want, including the ineptitude of someone in a position of power commenting on things that they clearly do not understand.

Roberts may have been a massively successful attorney and litigator. She clearly beat out many well qualified candidates to win the job. The players I have spoken to about her believe she is the right person to help right many of the wrongs the players feel they have endured.

However, if you’re handicapping the fight at home based on the information that’s on the table, the depths of how unprepared the players may be, by way of the knowledge of their leader, might end up being massively underestimated.

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NBA

NBA Daily: What We Forgot

With the NBA season now a month old, Matt John looks into no what we have learned, but we had previously forgotten.

Matt John

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With every new NBA season, we tend to forget a few things here and there; players or teams that go through a down year are often, warranted or not, cast aside for the next best thing, only to resurface in the NBA’s collective conscience later on.

Like last season, for example, Dwight Howard was regarded as a nothing-addition for the Los Angeles Lakers, a gamble that they may have been better off not taking. However, Howard played an integral role in the Lakers’ run to the NBA title and reminded everyone that, when he plays without distractions, he’s one of the league’s fiercest around the basket.

But that’s just one example. So, who or what has been re-discovered this season? Let’s take a look.

Stephen Curry: Still Phenomenal

Nobody’s forgotten that entirely. It’s just been a while since people have seen Curry at the peak of his powers.

Sure, it was easy to be skeptical of what he was capable of coming into this season. But, with Kevin Durant gone, Curry had free reign to score and shoot as much as he desired. And, with that freedom, Curry’s put up his best numbers since 2016, his second MVP season. In 15 games, Curry’s averaged 28.2 points 5.5 rebounds and 6.1 assists and shot 45 percent from the field, 37 percent from three and 93 percent from the line. He’s reminded everyone why he’s one of the games best and that he can accomplish anything or score on anyone on any given night.

Of course, the absence of Durant, as well as the loss of Klay Thompson and others, has led to another atypical season for the Warriors. Their 8-7 has them tied for seventh in the Western Conference and, while they have certainly improved on how they looked to start the season, they have a long way to go before they’re back in title contention.

The Warriors may never again reach the heights they once knew, either before or with Durant. But, until Father Time dictates otherwise, Curry should long remain a nightmare for the opposition.

Tom Thibodeau Can Get It Done

What can you say about the New York Knicks? Unironically, a lot.

Not only have they shown themselves to no longer be the butt of the NBA’s jokes, but, compared to the last decade-plus of Knicks’ basketball, the 2020-21 season might be their brightest yet.

Julius Randle’s transition into more of a point forward-type has generated a career-year and All-Star buzz. RJ Barrett has continued to improve rapidly, while rookie Immanuel Quickley has “quickley” become a fan favorite. Most impressive of all, however, is that New York has allowed the fewest points per game (102.7) and the fourth-fewest points per 100 possessions (106.8) in the NBA.

In other words, they finally look like a competent basketball team. But what’s changed? Two words: Tom Thibodeau.

The players have bought in to Thibodeau’s scheme and, clearly, it’s had a positive effect. Of course, the disaster that was his Minnesota Timberwolves tenure made us forget just what a proven head coach Thibodeau could be, but he’s put it all together in the past and, in New York, he would seem to be doing so once again.

Of course, there is plenty left to do. The Knicks’ spacing is a joke — and a bad one at that. In fact, their entire offense could stand to see some of that energy they bring on defense; the Knicks are dead last in the NBA at 101.3 points per game.

Still, at 8-8, New York is no longer a doormat and, given the last few seasons, that’s probably the best they could’ve hoped for. Rome wasn’t built in a day and the Knicks won’t be either, but the franchise looks like they may have finally turned a corner toward relevance.

Maturity Issues Loom Large

Like the Knicks, the Cleveland Cavaliers have been another NBA-darling this season. And again, like New York, their players have bought in; head coach J.B. Bickerstaff has everyone playing with energy on defense and, while their offense hasn’t quite reached the same level, they’re competing to the best of their ability.

Of course, the progress of Kevin Porter Jr. could have been the cherry on top of it all. But that ship has sailed.

After an outburst directed toward general manager Koby Altman, Cleveland has since moved on from the young forward. Of course, the Cavaliers knew Porter came with baggage when they selected him with the last pick of the first round in the 2019 NBA Draft, but his potential was salivating and Cleveland had hoped they could help him grow — not only as an NBA player, but as a person. There have been success stories in the past, troubled players that have come in and shut out the noise and become both respectable characters and NBA players. DeAndre Jordan, a former lottery talent, dropped in his own draft due to similar concerns, but overcame those issues and has since gone on to play a long career.

Unfortunately, it just hadn’t gone that way with Porter and the Cavaliers, as the noise became too much to bear for a team with a long road back to relevancy. It’s reminded everyone just how hard it can be, both as a player and as their team, to deal with those issues and, regardless of the talent or potential, the headache sometimes just isn’t worth the risk.

Luckily for Porter, it’s not too late; a fresh start with the Houston Rockets should do him wonders. And, hopefully, the Rockets can help him overcome that baggage, his maturity issues and whatever else he may be dealing with.

But even if they don’t or can’t, Porter must wake up and seize his opportunity while he still can; if he sees another falling out in Houston, there’s no telling if he’ll ever get another chance elsewhere.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Three Trade Targets for the New York Knicks

Drew Maresca explores three restricted free agents-to-be who the Knicks should explore adding via trade before the March 25 trade deadline.

Drew Maresca

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Often the NBA’s biggest flop, the New York Knicks have been significantly better-than-expected to start the 2020-21 season. They’ve won eight of their first 16 games and have surrendered the fewest points per game on the season, placing them squarely in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

That said, they’re not out of the woods yet; with much of the season left to play, the Knicks are devoid of any meaningful offensive weapons. Additionally, the roster features a number of high-quality veterans whose deals are set to expire, the kind of players that contenders like to fill out their rotations with down the stretch, so the roster could look much different at the end of the year than it does now.

So, the Knicks are expected to be active on the trade front, again – no surprise there. But this year could be among the last in which the Knicks are sellers at the deadline. And, while moving some of those veterans for future assets is smart, the Knicks may also want to look at players they can add to bolster that future further.

Of course, New York shouldn’t go all-in for Bradley Beal — they’re not there yet — but there are a number of restricted free agents to-be that would fit both their roster and timeline nicely.

But why give away assets to acquire someone that the team could sign outright in just a few months? It may sound counterintuitive to add a player that’s about to hit free agency, restricted or otherwise, but procuring that player’s Bird rights, an exception in the NBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement that allows teams to go over the salary cap to re-sign their own players (not to mention offer them an extra contract year and bigger raises), can be key to securing a player’s services and building a long-term contender.

Further, the 2021 free agent market isn’t might not live up to expectation, with many presumed free agents already agreed to extensions. So, with that in mind, which players should the Knicks pursue via trade prior to the March 25 trade deadline?

John Collins, Atlanta Hawks

Collins’ production is down this season, but that has nothing to do with his ability. A 23-year-old stretch-four who’s shooting 35% on three-point attempts, Collins is big, athletic, can score the ball (16.7 points per game this season) and is a great rebounder (7.5 per game). He also connects on 80% of his free-throw attempts.

Despite those impressive stats, Collins was even more productive last season, averaging 21.6 points on better than 40% three-point shooting and collecting 10.1 rebounds per game.

But the Hawks rotation has become increasingly crowded this year. They added Danilo Gallinari and rookie big man Oneyeka Okongwu, the sixth overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, to the frontcourt this offseason, while Collins was already vying for minutes with Clint Capella, who Atlanta added via trade last season. Cam Reddish, a second-year wing who is versatile enough to play some power forward, has also stolen some of Collins’ potential minutes.

So, as much as the Hawks seem to like Collins, he may be a luxury they can do without. He’ll obviously demand a relatively high-priced contract. The fact that Atlanta and Collins failed to reach an extension last summer would also seem to make a reunion less likely; would the Hawks invest so heavily in him now that they have three players at the position signed through at least the 2022-23 season? Further, could they invest even if they wanted to at this point? The Hawks are already committed to more than $100 million next season and, with Trae Young and Kevin Huerter extensions on the horizon, they might be hard-pressed to scrounge for the cash Collins would want in a new deal.

He won’t come cheap, for sure. But, while Julius Randle fans may not love the idea of bringing in his replacement, Collins is simply a better long-term solution.

Lonzo Ball, New Orleans Pelicans

The point guard position has been a sore spot for the Knicks for some time. And while Ball might not be the franchise cornerstone that many hoped he’d become, adding a young player with his upside is clearly a positive move.

Granted, Ball is inherently flawed. His jump shot appeared to be much improved last season and he’s showcased a significantly improved shooting form from years past. But he’s struggled in the new season, shooting only 28% on three-point attempts (down from 37.5% last season). In fact, he’s struggled on the whole on the offensive side of the ball, posting just 11.9 points and 4.4 assists per game (a career-low). He’s also missed some time with knee soreness and moved to more of an off-the-ball role as new head coach Stan Van Gundy has put the ball in the hands of Brandon Ingram more and more.

But, with New York, Ball would step into a significant role immediately. For his career, Ball is a net-positive player and, despite his shooting woes, has posted a positive VORP every year he’s been in the league, save for this season. He’s an above-average defender and, while he does need to ball in his hands, he doesn’t necessarily need to take shots to be effective.

Ball may never become the All-World caliber guard many pegged him as before the 2017 NBA Draft, but he’s better than any other option currently at the Knicks disposal. And, best of all, his trade value is arguably as low as it’s ever been. So, while the Pelicans won’t just give him away, New York should do what they can to acquire him for a reasonable price.

Devonte’ Graham, Charlotte Hornets

Last but not least, the surprise from the 2018-19 rookie class. Graham is possibly the hardest sell on this list, but it’s not for a lack of talent.

Graham burst onto the scene last season, posting an impressive sophomore campaign of 18.2 points and 6.4 assists per game. Unfortunately, those numbers have taken a drastic dip this season with the arrival of Gordon Hayward and the highly-touted rookie LaMelo Ball in Charlotte. Likewise, Graham’s struggles through the Hornets’ first 10 games limited his opportunities further.

That said, he would appear to be done slumping, as he’s connected on 43% of his attempts from deep in the team’s last two games.

But his efficiency wouldn’t be the main challenge when constructing a Graham trade. Instead, some in New York could be concerned with lack of size – Graham is only 6-foot-1 – and his inability to act as a facilitator at the guard spot.

But Graham is talented, plain and simple. In fact, he’s the exact kind of talent the Knicks should be looking to add right now. More specifically, Graham shot 37.3% on three-point attempts last season; the Knicks rank 21st in three-point percentage so far this season.

The Knicks could ultimately sit tight, swap a few veterans for future draft picks and rest assured that they’ve made enough progress by simply adding coach Tom Thibodeau. But they could and should be aggressive while they can. If New York can add one or more the players mentioned, they may not only build a brighter future, but improve on what the team could do this season. Either way, the Knicks look to be on a good trajectory, but every move they make from here on out can and will affect how quickly they make the leap from laughingstock to respectable contender.

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NBA

NBA AM: The Utah Jazz Are Showing Continuity Is Key

Is Utah’s early success an indicator of things to come? Between Donavon Mitchell, a stingy defense and hot three-point shooting, they may just be the real deal.

Ariel Pacheco

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The Utah Jazz are riding high on a seven-game winning streak, hotter, at this point, than all hell. 15 games into the season, the Jazz have been the third-best team in the Western Conference. The key for them has been continuity as they have 11 guys who were on last year’s team. The only addition they made to their rotation this offseason was Derrick Favors, who was with the team for nine seasons before a one-year departure. 

Quinn Snyder is widely regarded as one of the best coaches in the league, and he’s showing why this season. The Jazz are currently in 7th in both offensive and defensive rating. Beyond that, there are only three teams who can say they are top 10 in both: The Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Lakers and the Phoenix Suns. Often, teams that finish in this select category are historically serious contenders. 

Moreover, the Jazz have been on a shooting tear. Using Gobert’s rolling ability to collapse opposing defenses and find open shooters, Utah’s offense is clicking right now. It’s worked tremendously too, considering the Jazz have attempted and made the most three-pointers of any team this season – and hitting on 40.3 percent as a team. Royce O’Neale, Donovan Mitchell, Jordan Clarkson, Joe Ingles and Mike Conley are all shooting above 40 percent; while Bojan Bogdanovic is almost there at 37.8.

Basically, the Jazz are just shooting the ball at a ridiculously well rate right now and good ball movement has propelled them. 

Mitchell seems to have taken another jump in his development, although it is subtle, and his growth as a playmaker has benefitted everyone. He’s made teams pay for overhelping, often initiating the ball movement that has led to open looks. He’s also taking fewer mid-range jumpers, converting those attempts into three-pointers. The budding star’s play has been more consistent overall, and he’s been effective out of the pick-and-roll. 

Mike Conley’s improved play this season has been needed – now he’s settled and red-hot. Coming off a disappointing season last year, there were questions as to whether he was declining. While it’s safe to say he’s no longer the guy he was in Memphis, this version of Conley is still a good one. He looks a lot more comfortable in his role and the Jazz are reaping the benefits. In a contract year, Conley is averaging 16.3 points and 6.3 assists per game while shooting 41 percent from three.

Jordan Clarkson is a strong candidate for Sixth Man of the Year, fitting in perfectly as the Jazz need his scoring and creation off the bench – even leading the league in such scorers from there. But the Jazz’s bench is more than just Clarkson though, as they’ve gotten strong minutes from Joe Ingles, Georges Niang and Derrick Favors too. They’re a solid group that plays both ends of the court, and all fit in nicely with the starters as well. 

Sorely needed, however, Bojan Bogdanovic’s return has helped tremendously. He gives them another big wing who can shoot and is a scoring threat, and before he got hurt last season, he was averaging 20 PPG. While he isn’t at that level this season, he gives them another reliable scoring option that they badly need. Better, it also allows Ingles to remain on the bench, where his playmaking ability can really thrive.

The Jazz have been playing stylistically a little bit different this year and it has worked. They don’t run often but when they do, they have been potent. Playing at the same pace as last season, Utah is scoring almost five more points per game in transition. Additionally, they are taking six more threes a game too. This all amounts to a 6.1 net rating, which is good for fourth-best in the NBA. 

Lastly, their defense has been impossible for teams to penetrate, inviting opponents to try and finish over Rudy Gobert in the paint. Gobert is a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate for a reason – his presence alone almost assuredly guarantees his team will be a top 10 defense, which the Jazz are. Favors’ addition has helped stabilize the defense when Gobert sits, which was a major issue last season. Overall, they are just a very disciplined defense that makes teams earn their points, rarely committing cheap fouls.

As it stands today, the Utah Jazz are solidifying themselves as one of the best teams in the Western Conference. It remains to be seen if the hot shooting is sustainable, but the way they are generating those open looks seems to be. The defense is legit, and if they can remain healthy there’s reason to believe that this team can continue to compete at this level. The Utah starting lineup has outscored opponents by 58 points, but they’ve also had one of the best benches in the league – needless to say, the Jazz’s continuity has been a big part of their early success.

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