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NBA AM: The Philadelphia 76ers’ Master Plan

The Philadelphia 76ers aren’t doing anything, other teams haven’t done, they are just more transparent about it…

Steve Kyler

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Stop Already:  Sometimes in sports, the media generates an idea. That idea resonates with the fan base and however unrealistic that idea might be, it becomes fact or at least fact in the eyes of the general public.

It happens with trade rumors. It happens with rumored fights in the locker room, coaches on the hot seat – you name the speculative topic and as soon as it gains an ounce of support from the fans, that’s how it is. True or not.

The Philadelphia 76ers are tanking. They are deliberately losing games. Really?

Is that really what’s happening in Philadelphia or is that simply the narrative that makes the most sense to those on the outside?

Why else would the 76ers field a roster that has almost no chance to win? Why else would the 76ers continue to take chances on draft picks that are a little dinged up or are planning to stay in Europe for a year or two instead of drafting proven guys who are ready to play?

Before we get into why, let’s rewind to how we got here.

Under Doug Collins a few years ago, the 76ers were a playoff team. They had guys that could play and were scrappy. The problem is that squad was just talented enough to be the eighth seed in the East. They were basically capped out with an average team that likely wasn’t ever going to get appreciably better. They were not a free agent destination and the kinds of contracts they had to trade were not going to return a transcendent star.

When Josh Harris and his group bought the 76ers in 2011 they naively believed they could hire a known coach, toss some money at the roster and they could compete for a championship. They found out the hard way that was not how things worked in the NBA.

Rather the muddle around the bottom of the playoff picture, the 76ers decided the best way to build a team that truly mattered and had staying power was to rip it all the way down to the ground and start over.

General Manager Sam Hinkie explained how the process would go, how much time it would take and the strategy they would employ. Ownership signed off on it.

The idea at the time, and it remains somewhat true today, is that the 76ers’ cupboard was basically empty. They had a couple of good players, but they had leveraged themselves to the point that nothing they had would matter.

So in comes the so-called tanking. The idea in Philly is to grow assets. If you have watched the Sixers’ process, the have used their cap space as middlemen to secure draft picks. They have cycled through dozens of would-be talents from anywhere they could find them trying to search for guys that matter. They have drafted guys with a lot of upside, hoping to find that transcendent star they knew they could never get in free agency.

Most of the draft picks were about the long-term not the short, because in the NBA teams have a window in which they can reasonably compete. Even if you gave the 76ers the four best guys from each of the last two draft classes they still couldn’t compete with the likes of Chicago or Cleveland.

Look at the Washington Wizards, they languished as a below average team for several years after drafting John Wall number one overall in 2010. Last year Wall and his Wizards made the postseason. This year they are extremely competitive. It took four years.

The Oklahoma City Thunder, who at the time were the Seattle Sonics, drafted last year’s MVP Kevin Durant second overall. They were bad for almost four more years before they sniffed at the playoffs.

There are no shortcuts and the 76ers know it. They knew it when they decided to tear the team down.

The problem for the 76ers isn’t that they have ripped the team down to rebuild it. The Orlando Magic have done the same thing post-Dwight Howard. The problem is the 76ers were way out in the open about it. The Magic at least trotted out some veterans to make fans feel like they were trying. The 76ers simply aren’t masquerading their intentions to use these games to grow their guys.

It is obvious that winning is not the main goal. These last few seasons were transition years and the future was all that really mattered. That too is not new. Teams have done that before as well.

In the build up to the free agent class of 2010, teams were jockeying for cap space at any cost in order to get a shot at LeBron James. They were trading for terrible contracts in order to have space. Teams will do it again in 2016 for a shot at Kevin Durant and his pending free agency.

What the Sixers are doing is far from unique. It’s just so far out in the open that fans, and more importantly the media have an issue with it. It’s that media driven view that the Sixers are somehow doing something wrong, that has driven this notion that the Sixers are willfully losing games. The losing is a by-product of a bigger concept. That concept is the 76ers are growing assets.

Had the Sixers drafted four of the top five players in the 2014 NBA Draft and played them all this season how many more wins would the team have?

Andrew Wiggins is far from the superstar capable of taking over games that he was billed to be. He may become that in time, but he is not that guy today. Jabari Parker looks like the most NBA ready rookie, as he was billed to be in the draft process, but is still shooting 41 percent from the field. Would either of those guys really have made the 76ers title contenders? Playoff contenders?

It’s easy to say the 76ers wasted draft picks, but the truth is even had they drafted the top five guys it wouldn’t have mattered this season. It simply takes time for players to learn and grow into the NBA game, so if it’s going to take time why not draft the guys you believe have the best long-term future? That’s what the Sixers did in drafting Joel Embiid and drafting Dario Saric who is in Europe this season.

Rebuilding is a tough and painful process, but if you rewind back to what the team was in 2011, and what the team looks to be in 2017, things look a lot brighter for the 76ers.

They’ll have four or five elite level young guys. They’ll have a small mountain of trade assets and they will have played through the toddler years with their draft picks.

That’s how you become a franchise with staying power. That’s how you get to the position of competing for the top of the playoff board and not the last chair at the bottom.

Is that tanking or is that re-building?

Not sure if you have ever had to endure a remodel of your home while you were still living in it. It’s a messy, annoying and painstaking process. However if you plan it out right, you end up with something better on the other side.

That’s exactly what the 76ers are doing. They are growing assets. Losing isn’t the goal, it’s the by-product with the goal of being significantly deeper and better in 2017 and 2018 when the window would be open for the Sixers to be like Toronto or Washington or even Chicago – a deep team filled with young guys that know how to play with each other.

Until then, pardon the mess, the 76ers are in the process of upgrading for a brighter tomorrow.

Your Favorite Rookie:  If you stand in front of Orlando Magic rookie Elfrid Payton’s locker long enough he’ll look up at you with a sheepish smile and say “Hey, do you need me?”

He’ll stop what he’s doing and make eye contact, and eagerly answer your questions.

Sounds basic enough; sounds like something everyone would do, however that’s not even remotely true with your average NBA rookie.

However, Payton is far from your average NBA rookie. Payton is a kid from the small town of Gretna, LA population 17,736. He proudly wears the fleur-de-lis tattooed on his shoulder. He played basketball at John Ehret High School in Jefferson Parish and went onto Louisiana–Lafayette. To say he’s a kid from Louisiana is a perfect description.

The fact that he is starting for the Magic in his rookie year is somewhat impressive. Sixteen months ago most people didn’t know his name, let alone that he could play NBA caliber basketball.

Payton, who was the 10th overall pick in the 2014 Draft is leading the rookie class in assist per game 6.4 per content. That’s enough for 14th best in the NBA, 11th best among point guards. It’s hard to believe Payton’s only played two weeks of regular season basketball.

“It feels like it’s been more than two weeks to be honest,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “I’m getting a lot of late game experience and coach is letting me make plays down the stretch. Right now I’m just trying to help my team win and I’m getting a lot of help from not only the veterans but also the young guys to keep my confidence up.”

Payton’s finding his way, although he looks like a seasoned veteran at times, picking apart the opposition and finding his teammates with passes some veteran guards can’t make. It wasn’t that long ago Payton was wheeling and dealing in college, but he understands what it takes at this level.

“It’s different because the players are betters so the atmosphere becomes more intense,” Payton said. “Because of that you have to be more precise and go that extra mile to make a play.”

Behind his sheepish grin is a lot of confidence. Payton’s ability to plug right in hasn’t been a surprise to him.

“To be honest with you everyone from the coaching staff to the front office has a lot of faith in me,” Payton said. “I have confidence in myself and I worked really hard just to get in this position. I’m still working hard so it’s just paying off for the most part.”

Payton said he’s still trying to adjust to the attention he’s getting, especially as he continues to get minutes as a starter.

“You can’t pay attention to any of that,” Payton said. “You have to have tunnel vision which is crazy to say because I’m a point guard but you just have to focus on what’s important which is getting better and winning games.”

The 20-year-old point guard has fit right in with the Magic’s young core and that’s helped the adjustment process considerably.

“Just having so many guys that have been through the things that I’ve been through is such a big help,” Payton said. “On top of that, the veterans on this team have been great in helping us younger players get through the learning process too.”

While the NBA season is still young, there has already been talk that Payton could be a sleeper candidate for rookie for the year. While he may not beat out the named guys drafted ahead of him, Payton is looking the part of a top rookie, however you wouldn’t know it in how he carries himself.

If you have had a chance to see him play yet, you may want to tune in. He just might become your favorite rookie.

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, @JabariDavisNBA , @NateDuncanNBA , @MokeHamilton , @JCameratoNBA and @YannisNBA.

Steve Kyler is the Editor and Publisher of Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA and basketball for the last 17 seasons.

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Second Half NBA Story lines

With the All-Star break in the rearview, here are the key storylines to keep an eye on for the home stretch of the season.

Dennis Chambers

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The long winter has ended.

Ok, not really. But the break after All-Star weekend has finally come to a halt, and the second half of the NBA season is ready to get underway.

Each team has around 25 games remaining on the schedule. February is in its last week, and March and April will truly define how the May schedule aligns. The first leg of this season provided more than enough entertainment, combating the narrative that the regular season is a bit of a bore nowadays.

Because of some unexpected turns through the 50-plus games already played, this final stretch that will bring the regular season to a close should be more than entertaining for the fans that think the NBA season is just a six-month placeholder for the inevitable.

So, as we get ready to bounce back into action Thursday night, let’s focus on what needs to be monitored down the homestretch.

Houston Rockets can make the Finals

When the Golden State Warriors signed Kevin Durant, a narrative swept across the league that everyone not in the Bay area should just wave the white flag. Game over.

After dropping just one game through the entire postseason last year, completely decimating LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Finals, the assumptions were proved correct.

But things may be different this year.

The Houston Rockets are trying to end the Warriors’ Durant-Era dynasty before it starts. After trading for Chris Paul in the offseason, the Rockets are in a legitimate position to pose a threat to Golden State.

At the moment, the Rockets have the best offense in the NBA. But, not just for this season, for every season. Their efficiency is revolutionary and unprecedented. Their defense is improved, too. Ranking 18th in defensive rating last season, Houston is eighth this season, and proving to be competent enough on that end to get a few stops of their own against the Warriors. In fact, Houston has won two of the three meetings between the two Western Conference powerhouses so far this season.

For all of the damage Houston put on the league pre-All-Star break, and even leaping Golden State in the standings, the oddsmakers are taking notice.

Take a look at how drastically the Rockets’ odds at contending for a title have changed from the summer to present day. According to this odds tracker on Sports Betting Dime, Houston has almost entered the same realm as Golden State in the bettors’ mind.

Postseason basketball is a different beast, and Durant and Steph Curry are as formidable a tandem as any (not to mention their supporting cast), but the growing pile of statistics that says Houston has more than a puncher’s chance is becoming hard to ignore.

These last 25 or so games will be telling as to if the Rockets are truly a team that can go shot-for-shot with the mighty Warriors.

LeBron’s new teammates

The trade deadline in Cleveland was basically a mass upheaval of the roster the Cavaliers had struggled with for the first four months of the season.

Isaiah Thomas, Dwyane Wade, Jae Crowder, Iman Shumpert, Derrick Rose and Channing Frye were all shipped from The Land in hopes to bring LeBron James new players that could help him back to his eighth straight Finals appearance.

So far, so good.

The return that brought George Hill, Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr., into wine and gold gave the Cavaliers a much-needed boost heading into the All-Star break. Since the trade, Cleveland has won three straight games, the last two including a blowout victory against the Boston Celtics, and a road win in Oklahoma City.

But, before the roster turnovers, the Cavaliers were one of the league’s worst defensive units. Their lack of consistent effort on a nightly basis was beginning to spread doubt in the basketball minds across the league that the team would be equipped enough to beat the Celtics or Toronto Raptors in the postseason.

Coming out of the break, the Cavaliers will take on another playoff contender in the Washington Wizards. Another strong showing from the new-look Cavs could further the belief that the team is now in a better position to make their way to a fourth straight Finals.

As the regular season comes to its final stages, close eyes will be kept on Hood, Hill, Nance and Clarkson. They’re the key to any real postseason success Cleveland hopes to have. We know LeBron will be there at the end, at this point, and it’s worth watching to see if it teammates can join him.

Tight Playoff Races

For all the talk that surrounds the lack of disparity and entertainment around the league, the playoff races in both conferences appear to be coming down to the wire.

In the West, the 10th-seed Utah Jazz is just two and a half games behind the 5th-seed Oklahoma City Thunder. In between the two clubs, Denver, Portland, New Orleans and the L.A. Clippers are all clawing for spots in the postseason.

Over their last 10 games, every team besides the Thunder is at least .500. The Jazz have won 11 straight games, the Clippers are 7-3 and surging, Denver is hoping to return Paul Millsap to their lineup soon, the Trail Blazers have the luxury of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum and while the Pelicans have lost DeMarcus Cousins, their three straight wins suggest they’re learning to live without Boogie.

That’s six teams fighting fiercely for four playoff spots. Each is deserving and well-equipped enough to make it to the postseason happen.

The West isn’t the only conference with a wild bunch at the bottom of the playoff standings. The Eastern Conference contenders also find themselves in the midst of a playoff battle post-All-Star break.

Just outside of the playoff picture at the moment, the Detroit Pistons, with new star Blake Griffin, are just four and a half games behind the 5th-seeded Indiana Pacers. Philadelphia, Miami and Milwaukee are all also vying for their spot in the playoffs.

At the moment, the Miami HEAT seems to be on the verge of being the odd man out, losing two straight before the break and seven of their last 10 games. As the Pistons begin to find new life with Griffin, they could bump Miami right out of the picture if their slide continues as games pick back up.

With a limited number of games remaining, each of these teams in both conferences cannot afford to fall into a rut. Coming down to the final weeks of the season, watching the playoff carousel develop will be entertaining and worthwhile.

In the blink of an eye, the 2017-18 regular season is almost over. Be sure to keep an eye on these unfolding storylines as the league charges towards playoff basketball.

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NBA Daily: Larry Nance Jr. Is Ready To Move On

At All-Star Weekend, Larry Nance Jr. talked about moving on from being traded, Dr. J and the love that Los Angeles still has for him.

Ben Nadeau

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At the end of the day, the NBA is a business and Larry Nance Jr. found that out the hard way when the Los Angeles Lakers traded him and Jordan Clarkson for Isaiah Thomas, Channing Frye and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 2018 first-rounder just a few weeks ago.

Naturally, Nance was due back at the Staples Center nine days later to compete in the league’s annual slam dunk contest. Although he would finish second to the Utah Jazz’s Donovan Mitchell, Nance was frequently reminded just how many fans he still has out on the West Coast.

“It’s either one of two responses,” Nance said over the weekend. “Either people don’t understand how a trade works and they ask me why I left, or, you know: ‘Larry, we miss you, come back in free agency’ and stuff like that. So, either way, they’re kinda on my side — I mean, I’m still a little bit of purple and gold.”

Over his first three seasons, Nance had become a familiar contributor for the Lakers, using his rim-rocking athleticism to carve out a steady role under two different head coaches. Before he was moved to the Cavaliers, Nance was on pace to set career-highs in points (8.6), rebounds (6.8) and steals (1.4). This statistical rise also comes in the midst of his field goal percentage jumping all the way up to 59.3 percent — a mark that would rank him fifth-highest in the NBA if he qualified.* Given the noteworthy change of scenery, his current average of 3.6 field goals per game could grow as well.

But as the Lakers prepare for a potentially crucial offseason, the front office remained committed to shedding salary ahead of free agency, where they may or may not chase the likes of LeBron James, Paul George or DeMarcus Cousins. In just three short years, Nance had quickly become a fan favorite as a jaw-dropping in-game dunker and an improving prospect on a cheap rookie contract, so his involvement at the deadline may have come as a surprise to many as it was for him.

“It’s been a week, so, no, it’s still kinda like: ‘Jeez, I gotta pick up and move right now,’” Nance said. “So, no, I’m not fully adjusted, I’m not, for a lack of a better term, over it. But it’s still fresh in my mind, it’s something that is still kind of shocking.”

Nance, for his worries, is now a key member of the James-led Cavaliers, a franchise that has won 11 more games than the Lakers and sits in third place in the Eastern Conference. While the Cavaliers will likely have to go through the Boston Celtics or Toronto Raptors to reach their fourth consecutive NBA Finals, James himself has reached the championship series every year since the 2009-10 postseason. With the Cavaliers’ maniacal mid-season reboot — which also brought in Rodney Hood, George Hill and the aforementioned Clarkson — they could be poised for an encore performance.

Since he was acquired by Cleveland, Nance and the Cavaliers are 3-0 and, just like that, much of the lingering narrative has been reversed. As the Cavaliers look to further stabilize their season, Nance figures to play a large part down the stretch, particularly so as All-Star Kevin Love continues to rehab from a broken hand.

Still, Nance knows that the Cavaliers will certainly face some speed bumps along the way.

“It’s a learning process, obviously we started out super fast, but there will be a learning process,” Nance stated. “Just like there is with every team and every new group, so we’ll figure it out and we’ll get past it [for the] playoffs.”

But before he makes his first-ever postseason appearance, Nance returned to Los Angeles in an attempt to capture a slam dunk title, something his father — Larry Nance Sr. — did in the inaugural competition way back in 1984. In that contest, the older Nance famously upset Julius Erving and Dominique Wilkins to take home the crown in a nine-person field. On Saturday, Nance paid homage by changing into a retro Phoenix Suns uniform to execute his father’s signature dunk — the rock-the-cradle throwdown that won it all 34 years ago.

“For me, [his highlights were] like normal kid Sesame Street or Barney or something. I was watching his clips when I was growing up, so, yeah, I see it all the time,” Nance recalled.

But when asked what he remembers the most about those distant memories, the second generation son decidedly kept it in the family.

“The fact that he beat Dr. J,” Nance said. “Dr. J is normally thought of as almost like the dunk inventor, kinda brought the dunk contest back — but, really, [I remember] my dad.”

Although Nance couldn’t replicate his father’s success in the contest, his emphatic, springy dunks indicated that the 6-foot-9 skywalker could be an event staple for years to come. In one of the best dunks all night, Nance pulled off the rare double tap — a jam so technically difficult, that he immediately told the judges to look at the jumbotron to make sure they understood what exactly he had just pulled off.

Nance, for his original acrobatics, earned a perfect score of 50.

Earlier that day, Nance discussed the difficulty in standing out amongst a field of explosive guards.

“I think the guys that are taller and longer have a different skill-set than smaller guys,” Nance said. “Obviously, if the smaller guys do something, it looks super impressive because they got to jump a little bit higher, or it looks like they got to jump higher.

“There are ways for bigger guys to look good and I think I’ve got that hammered out.”

For now, Nance doesn’t know if he’ll return to the dunk contest next season after his narrow two-point loss to Mitchell. Instead, Nance wants to focus on helping the Cavaliers in their hunt for the conference’s top seed and, of course, with James, anything is possible. But it’s fair to say that Nance, who nearly pulled down a double-double (13 points, nine rebounds) in his second game with Cleveland, has gone from a rebuild to a legitimate contender in a flash.

“At the same time, I can’t wait for all this to be done with so I can just get back to learning how to gel and mesh with my new team,” Nance said.

From the West Coast to the Midwest, Nance is clearly ready to make some waves once again.

* * * * * *

*To qualify, a player must be on pace for 300 made field goals. As of today, Nance is on pace for 252.6.

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NBA

Updating the Buyout Market: Who Could Still Become Available?

Shanes Rhodes examines the buyout market to see which players could soon be joining playoff contenders.

Shane Rhodes

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While it may not be as exciting as the NBA Trade Deadline, another important date is approaching for NBA teams: the Playoff Eligibility Waiver Deadline.

March 1 is the final day players can be bought out or waived and still be eligible to play in the postseason should they sign with another team. As teams continue to fine-tune their rosters, plenty of eyes will be on the waiver wire and buyout market looking for players that can make an impact.

So who could still become available?

Joakim Noah, New York Knicks

This seems almost too obvious.

The relationship between Joakim Noah and the New York Knicks hasn’t been a pleasant one. Noah, who signed a four-year, $72 million contract in 2016, has done next to nothing this season after an underwhelming debut season in New York and has averaged just 5.7 minutes per game.

After an altercation between himself and Knicks head coach Jeff Hornacek at practice, Noah isn’t expected to return to the team. At this point, the best thing for both sides seems likely a clean break; there is no reason to keep that cloud over the Knicks locker room for the remainder of the season.

Noah may not help a playoff contender, but he should certainly be available come the end of the season.

Arron Afflalo, Orlando Magic

Arron Afflalo isn’t the player he once was. But he can still help any contender in need of some shooting.

Afflalo is averaging a career-low 12.9 minutes per game with the Orlando Magic this season. He is playing for just over $2 million so a buyout wouldn’t be hard to come by if he went asking and he can still shoot the basketball. A career 38.6 percent shooter from long distance, Afflalo can certainly get it done beyond the arc for a team looking to add some shooting or some depth on the wing. He doesn’t add the perimeter defense he could earlier in his career, but he could contribute in certain situations.

Vince Carter, Sacramento Kings

Vince Carter was signed by the Sacramento Kings last offseason to play limited minutes off the bench while providing a mentor for the Sacramento Kings up-and-coming players. And Carter may very well enjoy that role.

But, to a degree, the old man can still ball — certainly enough to help a contender.

Carter is 41-years-old, there is no getting around his age, but he can still provide some solid minutes off the bench. Playing 17.1 minutes per night across 38 games this season, Carter has averaged five points, 2.2 rebounds and 1.3 assists while shooting 35.3 percent from three-point range. Combining all of that with his playoff experience and the quality of leadership he brings to the table, Carter may be an ideal addition for a contender looking to make a deep playoff run.

Zach Randolph, Sacramento Kings

Like Carter, Zach Randolph was brought in by the Kings to contribute solid minutes off the bench while also filling in as a mentor to the young roster. Unlike Carter, however, Randolph has played much of the season in a starting role — something that is likely to change as the season winds down.

Randolph has averaged 14.6 points, seven rebounds and 2.1 assists in 25.6 minutes per game; quality numbers that any team would be happy to take on. But, in the midst of a rebuild, the Kings should not be taking minutes away from Willie Cauley-Stein, Skal Labissiere and (eventually) Harry Giles in order to keep Randolph on the floor.

As he proved last season, Randolph can excel in a sixth-man role and would likely occupy a top bench spot with a team looking to add rebounding, scoring or just a big to their rotation down the stretch.

Wesley Matthews, Dallas Mavericks

Wesley Matthews remains one of the most underrated players in the NBA. He provides positional versatility on the floor and is a solid player on both sides of the ball.

So, with Mark Cuban all but saying the Mavericks will not be trying to win for the remainder of the season, Matthews is likely poised for a minutes dip and seems like an obvious buyout candidate. Matthews, who has a player option for next season, has averaged 12.9 points, 3.2 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.2 steals this season across 34.1 minutes per game this season.

If Cuban is true to his word, both parties would be better served parting ways; the Mavericks can attempt to lose as many games as possible while Matthews can latch on to a team looking to win a title. It’s a win-win.

Isaiah Thomas, Los Angeles Lakers

Isaiah Thomas’ three-game stint with the Los Angeles Lakers before the All-Star break looked much like his short tenure with the Cleveland Cavaliers: up-and-down. Thomas shined in his Laker debut, putting up 25 points and six assists in just over 30 minutes.

He then followed that up with three points and two assists, and seven points along with five assists in his second and third games with the team, respectively.

Thomas needs time to get himself right before he can start playing his best basketball. Re-establishing his value is likely his top priority.

But will he be willing to come off the bench for a team that won’t be making the postseason?

With Lonzo Ball close to returning, Thomas will likely move to the Laker bench. Adamant in recent years that he is a starting guard in the NBA, Thomas may be more inclined to take on that role for a team poised to make a deep playoff run — there is no shortage of teams that would be willing to add Thomas’ potential scoring prowess while simultaneously setting himself up for a contract and, potentially, a starting role somewhere next season.

Other Names to Look Out For: Channing Frye, Shabazz Muhammed, Kosta Koufos

There are still plenty of players that can make an impact for playoff-bound teams should they reach a buyout with their current squads. And, as the Postseason Eligibility Waiver Deadline approaches, plenty of teams out of the running will move quickly in order to provide their guys an opportunity to find their way to a contender.

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