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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.

Naïve. 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, naïve.

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

Update: Eric Bledsoe Trade Talks

Michael Scotto updates the ongoing Eric Bledsoe trade saga.

Michael Scotto

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The sun has set on the 2017-18 season for Phoenix three games into the year.

The Suns fired head coach Earl Watson and promoted Jay Triano as the team’s interim head coach, as ESPN first reported. The Suns suffered an embarrassing 124-76 loss in the home opener against the Portland Trail Blazers. The final straw came during a 130-88 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on the road to drop the team to 0-3.

Then things went from bad to worse rapidly after a tweet from guard Eric Bledsoe.

General manager Ryan McDonough spoke with Bledsoe. Bledsoe told McDonough he was at a hair salon with a girl and the tweet wasn’t related to the Suns. McDonough didn’t believe that to be true and said the 27-year-old guard “won’t be with us going forward.”

Bledsoe spoke with McDonough and owner Robert Sarver privately several weeks ago. During that conversation the desire for a change was expressed, a league source told Basketball Insiders.

Since then, Phoenix has discussed trades involving Bledsoe around the league, sources told Basketball Insiders. In addition, Tyson Chandler has continued to be shopped by the Suns during that time.

Trade talks have rapidly picked up since Bledsoe’s desire to be traded was made public.

The Suns and Denver Nuggets have discussed a trade of Eric Bledsoe for Emmanuel Mudiay and other pieces, league sources told Basketball Insiders.

Nuggets forward Kenneth Faried has emerged as part of the trade package with Mudiay, league sources told Basketball Insiders.

Denver has shopped Faried for years. The 27-year-old forward is owed $12.9 million this season and $13.7 million next season. Mudiay is owed $3.4 million this season and $4.3 million next season. Mudiay will then become a restricted free agent if given a qualifying offer in the summer of 2019. For more information on Denver’s salary cap situation, click here.

The Suns also spoke to the New York Knicks and asked for No. 8 overall pick Frank Ntilikina and Willy Hernangomez in exchange for Bledsoe. The Knicks are not interested in that package, however.

Kyle O’Quinn is a candidate to be traded. Several teams have called the Knicks expressing interest in O’Quinn. New York wants to retain Hernangomez for the foreseeable future despite a lack of playing time early in the season. It’s also worth noting Hernangomez is a close friend of Kristaps Porzingis. Ntilikina is currently the point guard of the future in New York.

In addition, New York would need to add a salary filler to make the trade work financially. For more information on New York’s salary cap situation, click here.

The Milwaukee Bucks have also expressed interest in trading for Bledsoe, according to the New York Times. The Los Angeles Clippers and Portland Trail Blazers also have interest in Bledsoe, according to Amico Hoops.

Bledsoe is owed $14.5 million this season and $15 million next season before entering unrestricted free agency in the summer of 2018.

Bledsoe has averaged 18.8 points, 6.0 assists, 4.8 rebounds, and 1.6 steals per game with Phoenix. In addition, Bledsoe shot 45 percent from the field, 34 percent from downtown, and 81 percent from the foul line.

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NBA

NBA PM: Greek Freak Off to an MVP-Caliber Start

Giannis Antetokounmpo is the Bucks’ MVP and looks primed to be in the actual MVP race this season.

James Blancarte

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The NBA season is officially underway. Although each team has only played a few games so far, it has helped illuminate where many teams and players are in their development. For example, last night’s game in Oklahoma City gave a glimpse into how the Thunder will handle a late-game situation now that the team has three previous number one options. In the final minute, Russell Westbrook scored two of the Thunder’s last three baskets and assisted Carmelo Anthony on the final basket just before Andrew Wiggins hit a game-winning buzzer beater from well beyond the arc.

After three games, Giannis Antetokounmpo’s individual development has been one of the most exciting storylines to follow. A number of positive and far-reaching questions can be asked of Giannis. What is the ceiling for him? Can a player of his considerable talents continue to improve after winning Most Improved Player last season? Remember, Giannis was drafted in 2013 and is still only 22 years old.

When told in August that although he could win most valuable player, he could not also win most improved player as well, he responded with a simple, yet telling response.

“Why not?” Antetokounmpo responded.

While he continued to be lighthearted and moved on to the next topic, it’s fair to ask, “why not?” when it comes to Giannis. Through three regular season games, he is averaging 38.3 points, five assists, 9.7 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game. These averages will likely regress to more sustainable numbers as the season continues. For now, however, his averages are in elite territory. In addition, his ability to impact the game is already getting to the point where LeBron James may be the only other player who can similarly fill up the stat lines while physically terrorizing opponents on both the offensive and defensive end of the court.

When asked who the “biggest freak in the NBA” is, Giannis elaborated that it was James due to his ability to impose himself on the game.

“The things [James] does, the veteran leadership he brings to the team, how big he is, how quick, how strong,” Giannis stated. “And at the end of the day, how smart he is. He can put his team in the right spots, make the right decision.”

In Saturday night’s game against the Portland Trail Blazers, Giannis willed his team to victory. It was Giannis demonstrating how big, strong and smart he was, putting his team on his shoulders and carrying them to an impressive win.
With less than a minute left in a close game, Giannis closed in with a well-timed double team on Damian Lillard and came away with a clean steal. The steal got the Bucks the ball back and Giannis was fouled, which put him on the free throw line. Unfortunately, he came up short on both attempts and the Bucks remained a point behind.

Despite missing the free throws, Giannis came up huge on the very next play. Giannis took on C.J McCollum one-on-one at the top of the key and created yet another steal. He then leaked out to receive the pass for a breakaway dunk that quickly gave the Bucks the lead with 11.4 seconds remaining.

On the next play, when Jusuf Nurkic set a high screen and roll, he received the pass on the roll and headed to the basket. Giannis’ primary responsibility was the shooter in the corner and yet he read the action correctly and was ready and waiting at the rim for Nurkic. Giannis times Nurkic’s shot perfectly and rejected him at the rim, which effectively ended the game in favor of the Bucks.

Giannis’ ability as defensive Swiss Army Knife was instrumental in the Bucks’ close win over Portland. In addition, Giannis has also made further improvements in an area of his that has received a lot of attention over the years. He continues to shoot a below average three-point percentage for his career (27.6) and has had a rocky start to this season as well (16.7). It’s likely that Giannis’ three-point shooting will be a significant limitation in his game for the foreseeable future. However, over his career, Giannis has shown an ability to improve his shooting percentage on two-point shots consistently, especially shots from 0-3 feet and 3-10 feet, per basketball-reference. As Giannis has gotten stronger and more explosive, he has developed a strong desire to attack opponents off the dribble and absorb contact at the rim. Whether he blows by his opponent outright or scores through opponents at the rim, Giannis has developed into an offensive force that few players in the league could hope to slow down.

In addition to his scoring, Giannis continues to display his unique ability to handle the ball in transitions and run the Bucks’ offense in the half court as a point forward. This sort of ability separates Giannis from the other elite wings in the league who don’t have the skill or vision to act as a primary playmaker. Giannis is doing much of what he did last year, but seems more aggressive and physically dominant through the first three games of this season. That sort of improvement of course puts Giannis in the MVP discussion (though it is incredibly early in the season to even start this sort of discussion).

Giannis was recently asked about his ability to win the MVP and wasn’t shy about his desire to win the prestigious award.

“I’m going to be one of the players that hopefully dominates the game. But I’ve got to still make sure that my team wins, that my teammates get better,” Giannis stated. “I’ve set the goal since the last game against Toronto last year, at the playoffs. I want to be the MVP this year.”

What helps solidify Giannis’ ability to be such a strong MVP candidate is also what makes his team less dangerous. The Bucks are woefully dependent on their star and, at least for now, lack the necessary depth to be a true contender in the East.

Through three regular season games, it’s clear that the Bucks will only go as far as Giannis can take them. And that is the key to Giannis’ budding MVP campaign. Let’s take a look at last year’s top five MVP candidates. Last year’s winner, Westbrook, has two new star-caliber players (Paul George and Carmelo Anthony) to share the spotlight, and the ball, with. James Harden is sharing the ball with Chris Paul, who is currently struggling with a knee injury. LeBron James and the Cavaliers are almost exclusively concerned with the postseason. Kawhi Leonard is similarly crucial to the San Antonio Spurs on offense and defense but has lingering health concerns and has yet to play this season. Finally, Isaiah Thomas is coming off a major hip injury and is not projected to play until January.

With so much uncertainty, Giannis has the opportunity to continue to draw attention as not only the most important player on the Bucks but perhaps the most valuable player in the league. Giannis’ early play this season indicates that this is possible. Despite his early-season outburst, Giannis is giving deference to LeBron James — though he admits he hopes to reach James’ level at some point in the future.

“Definitely [James is] the best player in the NBA. For a few years to come,” Giannis stated. “But I think a lot of players are getting better. Even myself. And hopefully one day we can get to that spot from him.”

Perhaps Giannis will take the spot as the best player in the NBA as early as this season. Considering how dominant he has been so far this season, it’s fair to ask “why not?”

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NBA

Wright Primed To Take Next Step With Raptors

Third year Utah alum Delon Wright is showing flashes of what he can do in an expanded role for Toronto.

Spencer Davies

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Backup point guards are essential to a team’s success.

They’re the floor generals of the second unit. They create for themselves to score. They collapse defenses in order for the others to get opportunities.

In some cases, these players perform so well that they outgrow the role they provide and force their way into the starting five—on that same team or elsewhere. Just look at past examples: Darren Collison, Eric Bledsoe, Reggie Jackson, Dennis Schroder, etc. The list goes on.

Kyle Lowry was 20 years old when he was drafted late in the first round of the 2006 NBA Draft by the Memphis Grizzlies. He studied the position behind veteran guards Chucky Atkins and Damon “Mighty Mouse” Stoudamire.

But even after showing promise in his rookie season, management decided to take Mike Conley Jr. the very next year. Though the two were about even in playing time, it was clear the Grizzlies favored youth over anything else, so in 2009, Lowry was dealt with the Houston Rockets in a three-way trade at the deadline.

At this point, Lowry had started in only 30 games over two-and-a-half seasons, so the keys to the car weren’t ready for him just yet. Aaron Brooks was a unique talent that Rick Adelman loved to throw out there along with Tracy McGrady and Kevin Martin.

Brooks started all 82 games in the 2009-10 campaign and blossomed into a scoring machine. He was shooting the lights out that year, and because of that, it was tough to sit him. Lowry still took advantage of his playing time, though, with plenty of floor run. He averaged nearly 14 points and seven assists per 36 minutes.

To the misfortune of his teammate and the advantage to Lowry the next season, Brooks struggled mightily with the jump shot that made him so deadly. After 34 games, the Rockets moved him in a deal to Phoenix for Goran Dragic and a first-round pick. Dragic was on his way to carving his niche in the league, but it opened up a door for Lowry to really take hold as “quarterback” of the team.

Circumstances arose once again, however. Houston had let go of Adelman and hired Kevin McHale in June 2011. Lowry and his new head coach did not have the same rapport. He unfortunately suffered from a bacterial infection and missed out on the beginning of the season, and towards the end, the emergence of Dragic led to his demise.

That summer, the Rockets sent Lowry to the Toronto Raptors for Gary Forbes and a future first-rounder. Once again, it was a fresh start for him, but also a brand new team with a different head coach.

It didn’t take long for the man to realize his true potential there. Aside from shuffling a bit with Jose Calderon as the starter in Toronto, Lowry found a home. The jump he made between that season and the next one was impressive.

Lowry got paid after that 2013-14 season and re-signed with the Raptors for four years. He earned three All-Star appearances and—aside from the postseason disappointments—led the team to new heights with his fellow All-Star backcourt partner DeMar DeRozan.

Toronto and its star point guard agreed to a three-year, $100 million deal over the summer to keep him running the show and to honor that contract well as he has always had. But now there’s somebody behind Lowry waiting to break out, and could very well be the one who gets the torch passed to him.

Delon Wright is ready to make his mark. When he entered the league, he was a reserve behind Cory Joseph and had to observe and soak in the experience of NBA life. For some rookies, they get the chance immediately, and for the others, they have to wait their turn. In this case, it was the latter.

Playing the waiting game ended up working out well for him. In the offseason, the Raptors went out and traded Joseph for C.J. Miles due to the loss of DeMarre Carroll. It was a move that not only addressed a need for depth at the wing but also opened a door for Wright.

So here we are, two games in. The Raptors are 2-0 and have outscored their opponents by 51 points. In those combined, Wright has received 55 minutes of playing time.

Despite the competition being the rebuilding Chicago Bulls and a Philadelphia 76ers team trying to find an identity, he looks extremely comfortable. You don’t want to take too much out a sample size as small as that, but neither the numbers nor the eye test lies.

Wright has played the third-most minutes on the team thus far. He’s done a great job on both sides of the floor but has truly made a difference on the defensive end. As of now, the Raptors are only allowing 83 points per 100 possessions with him on the hardwood. When he’s not, that number blows up to 98.9 using the same scale.

Offensively he’s almost been just as good. Wright has been aggressive as a facilitator and as a shooter, putting up 13- and 14-point games early on. He dished out five assists in the season opener and nabbed five rebounds in the second game. He has a higher offensive rating than both Lowry and DeRozan.

According to NBA.com, Toronto’s net rating with him off the court (12.9) is the second lowest to his lifelong teammate Jakob Poeltl (12.8). Take it with a grain of salt because it’s one week into the season, but Wright has the best net rating in the league (37.6) among those playing at least 25 minutes per game.

Call it garbage time play or whatever you want: He has the tools to succeed. The stature is there. The intangibles are evident. It’s all about putting it together over the course of an entire season.

If the trend continues, there’s no way Casey can keep him off the floor for long. We don’t know where Wright’s career could go. It’s way too early to tell. The Raptors are likely hoping for him to be the successor after this era of basketball has come and gone.

Lowry is the man in Toronto, as is DeRozan. Nothing is changing that anytime soon. But rest assured, Wright’s primed to take a big step this year and it’s going to be fun to watch.

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