Free Agency Cometh
The 2018 NBA Agency window will come open this Sunday, and while there won’t be the huge influx of cap money we have seen in the previous two off-seasons, there will be roughly eight NBA teams with major cap money to play with, if they so choose. There will be some teams looking to land big fish with big dollar deal, but it won’t be the same kind of windfall we’ve seen in previous seasons.
While it is unlikely we’ll see some of the silly spending of season’s past, there are some names to watch as free agency opens. Here are some of the more notable guys, and what the trending belief in NBA circles is suggesting may play out.
DeMarcus Cousins – New Orleans Pelicans
New Orleans big man DeMarcus Cousins has been documenting his recovery from a January left Achilles tendon tear on social media, illustrating his process. His injury status is going to weigh big in his ability to command a huge contract offer on the open market for a couple of significant reasons. The biggest being that no one knows how the injury will impact his performance on the floor and he won’t be anywhere close to ready to workout or showcase.
The other major factor that looms over Cousins’ free agency is his rocky and tumultuous history. There are NBA teams that simply won’t consider Cousins because of his history despite having a pretty solid run with very few issues in New Orleans.
League sources peg the Dallas Mavericks as the likely suitor to set a price on Cousins, with New Orleans having the advantage regarding being able to exceed the salary cap and offer larger annual raises, even if a deal is shorter in length.
The prevailing thought in NBA circles is that Cousins may agree to an offer similar to what Philadelphia 76ers big man Joel Embiid agreed to, which is an elaborate deal with guarantee triggers and exit language if Cousins is not able to return to form.
There has been speculation about Cousins agreeing to shorter-term lower dollar deal to join a desired destination and prove himself on a winner, but league sources continue to doubt that’s what will play out.
If Cousins is genuinely[SK1] willing to accept fewer guaranteed years to re-establish himself as one of the league dominate big men, that could bode well, as the Pelicans are said to be more than willing to re-sign Cousins.
Aaron Gordon – Orlando Magic
Several weeks ago, it seemed likely that the Orlando Magic would give pause to re-signing would-be restricted free agent Aaron Gordon on a massive deal. However, with the 2018 NBA Draft in the rear-view mirror, there are more and more indications that re-signing Gordon is simply a formality.
There is a chance that one of the cap space teams makes an aggressive offer to Gordon, but with the Sacramento Kings drafting Marvin Bagley III and the Phoenix Suns nabbing DeAndre Ayton with the top picks, two of the expected suitors for Gordon seem less likely, mainly because of the role each newly drafted rookie is expected to play.
One could argue Gordon could fit in next to those guys, but league sources say with marquee rookies in hand, the odds of a max level offer to Gordon seems remote and unlikely.
Sources close to the Magic have maintained for some time that re-signing Gordon was more likely than not, offering that the only limitation would be a max-level offer. With it seeming more and more unlikely that max money is coming Gordon’s way, the notion of Gordon being back in Orlando next season seems increasingly more likely.
Chris Paul – Houston Rockets
There were reports recently suggesting that would-be Rocket’s free agent Chris Paul and management in Houston were not on the same page regarding a new contract.
While the Rockets were always precluded from offering a deal beyond Paul’s current deal, most in NBA circles believe that Paul agreed to opt-in last summer with the implied understanding Houston would make good to him this summer with a whopper of a new contract.
The problem for Paul is that ownership has changed in Houston, and while the Rockets had a history of extreme spending when it made sense, there is a belief new Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta may not be as open to what could be a massive $40 plus million final year on a max contract for Paul.
Since that story broke, sources near the situation have downplayed tensions between the Rockets and Paul, and that both were on course for a new deal.
Paul attended the NBA Award Show last night and had some fun with the notion there was a rift with the Rockets on social media. There are some realities to the contract situation, mainly that its highly unlikely anyone with cap space would offer Paul a full max offer, so why should the Rockets?
League sources see this situation playing out much as it did for Jrue Holiday and Kyle Lowry; neither got full max offers, but both got hefty new deals that shave a few million here and, in Lowry’s case, an extra year there.
Given Paul’s injury history, it may be hard for him to find an offer better than Houston is going to make, which is why league sources doubted the idea that he’d be anywhere but Houston next season.
Julius Randle – Los Angeles Lakers
The LA Lakers look to be the center of the free agent universe this summer, with what will likely be the most available cap space to offer, should they choose to renounce player rights.
For Lakers forward Julius Randle, this could be telling and important. League sources have said it is likely the Lakers will issue the required Qualifying Offer to secure Randle as a restricted free agent. The problem for Randle is the Lakers can and likely would pull that offer if they get the sense they need the cap space.
There has been a long-running belief that the Dallas Mavericks are more than prepared to set an aggressive free agent price on Randle, one that would make it nearly impossible for the Lakers to match and add two max-level free agents.
The lynchpin in all of this is Randle. While teams can make an offer, Randle is under no obligation to accept it, although he would run the risk of a team offering that money to someone else.
The prevailing thought around Randle is that his first choice is to be back with the Lakers, but he understands the situation and may be willing to give the Lakers a day or two into the process before he makes a decision.
What’s been said a few times is that Randle is not going to miss his window to secure his long-term future waiting on the Lakers, so there is a timing factor to all of this.
While Randle can verbally accept another team’s offer, he can’t physically sign it until July 6. The Lakers would have three days from receipt of the signed offer to decide to match or not match. So there is some time for all of it to play out if a major free agent like LeBron James takes his time deciding.
Paul George – Oklahoma City Thunder
It was recently announced that Oklahoma City Thunder free agent Paul George was going to chronicle his free agent process in a behind-the-scenes way in a three-part series.
In early May there was a growing vibe that George might be leaning more towards a return to the Thunder than making his expected jump to the Lakers.
The narrative around that talk was that Paul has for the first time in a while had a supporting cast with other proven stars that didn’t require him to carry the full burden of the franchise. Despite getting bounced early in the post-season, the talk emanating from the situation was George believed the Thunder could be special, especially if they were able to get their players back healthy.
That was the talk in early May.
Now that the dust has settled, and the emotions of the season are in the rearview, there are more and more players that have been in George’s world saying the pendulum has swung back to the Lakers, and that signing a long-term max deal in LA with the Lakers seems more likely than not.
The Thunder are said to be open to structuring a deal in whatever way makes sense for George, including a one-and-one if he genuinely wants to try and make the Thunder work.
Its far from a lock that George is signing with the Lakers, but it does seem its more likely the Lakers or Thunder than any third team or scenario.
LeBron James – Cleveland Cavaliers
Let’s be real about LeBron James’ future: No one really knows. If you talk to enough people, you will hear some very convincing arguments and opinions, but no one really knows.
In previous years when James was pondering his future, there were at least credible rumblings about his interest; this time around, none of it is coming from James’ side of the fence.
Word from NBA teams hoping to get a meeting is that the process will be very closed and very private. LeBron is unlikely to take many if any face to face meetings. There was talk of some conference calls if James wants to do that, but that most of the offers and situations would flow through James’ agents and he would make his decision.
No one is expecting a quick decision from James, and most teams are more than ready to wait out the process for a shot at the franchise changing talent that James is both on and off the court.
One thing that continues to surface regarding James is the understanding that regardless of what team he chooses, that team will be rebuilding around James in a win-now scenario. The idea of James playing mentor and teacher to a roster full of young guys for a year or two is misplaced.
The teams that would comment about James (and some wouldn’t touch it even on background) said no matter where he landed the next job, that front office would have to be ready to assemble an immediate contender, at whatever cost.
That may not sit well with fans of teams loaded with promising youth, but that’s the reality of getting in business with James, and that doesn’t look to be changing this go around either.
As we get closer to the opening of the floodgates, Basketball Insiders will have you covered with minute by minute coverage of all the deals the rumors, news and deals that get agreed to in our annual NBA Free Agency Diary. It will drop on Friday and be updated all the way through the moratorium.
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NBA Daily: Tyronn Lue is the Right Coach for the Clippers
Is Lue the right coach for the Los Angeles Clippers? David Yapkowitz thinks so.
When Doc Rivers was first hired by the Los Angeles Clippers in 2013, the expectation was that he would be the one to guide the franchise into respectability. A laughingstock of the NBA for pretty much their entire existence, marred by bad coaching, bad management and bad ownership, Rivers was supposed to help change all of that.
For the most part, he did.
Rivers arrived from the Boston Celtics with the 2008 championship, and he helped the Celtics regain their standing as one of the NBA’s elite teams. The Clippers were a perennial playoff contender under him and were even in the conversation for being a possible championship contender. The Lob City Clippers led by Chris Paul and Blake Griffin certainly were talked about as being a title contender, and this season’s group led by Kawhi Leonard and Paul George were definitely in the mix as well.
Not only did Rivers steady the team on the court though, but he was also a very steadying presence off the court. He guided the franchise through the Donald Sterling controversy and he was a positive voice for the team as they navigated the bubble and the ongoing charge for social reform in the country.
But when things go wrong with a team, the coach is usually the one who ends up taking the fall. While Rivers did bring the Clippers to a level of respectability the franchise has never known, his record was not without blemishes. Most notably was his team’s inability to close out playoff series’ after holding three games to one on advantages two separate occasions.
In 2015, the Clippers had a 3-1 lead over the Houston Rockets only to squander that lead and lose Game 7 on the road. In Game 6, their shots stopped falling and neither Paul nor Griffin could do anything to halt the Rockets onslaught.
This season, in an incredibly similar fashion, the Clippers choked away a 3-1 lead over the Denver Nuggets and ended up getting blown out the second half of Game 7. Just like before, the offense stalled multiple games and neither Leonard nor George could make a difference.
There were also questions about Rivers’ rotations and his seeming inability to adjust to his opponents. In the end, something had to change, and whether it’s right or wrong, the coach usually ends up taking the fall.
Enter Tyronn Lue. Lue, like Rivers, is also a former NBA player and has a great deal of respect around the league. He came up under Rivers, getting his first coaching experience as an assistant in Boston, and then following Rivers to the Clippers.
He ended up joining David Blatt’s staff in Cleveland in 2014, and when Blatt was fired in the middle of the 2015-16 season, Lue was promoted to head coach. In the playoffs that year, Lue guided the Cavaliers to victory in their first 10 playoff games. They reached the Finals where they famously came back from a 3-1 deficit against the 73-9 Golden State Warriors to win the franchise’s first championship.
The Cavaliers reached the Finals each full year of Lue’s tenure as head coach, but he was let go at the start of the 2018-19 season when the team started 0-6 after the departure of LeBron James.
In the 2019 offseason, Lue emerged as the leading candidate for the Los Angeles Lakers head coaching job, before he ultimately rejected the team’s offer. After rejoining Rivers in LA with the Clippers for a year, he once again emerged as a leading candidate for multiple head coaching positions this offseason before agreeing to terms with the Clippers.
Following the Clippers series loss to the Nuggets, many players openly talked about the team’s lack of chemistry and how that may have played a factor in the team’s postseason demise. Adding two-star players in Leonard and George was always going to be a challenge from a chemistry standpoint, and the Clippers might have secured the perfect man to step up to that challenge.
During his time in Cleveland, Lue was praised for his ability to manage a locker room that included James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. In Game 7 against the Warriors, Lue reportedly challenged James at halftime and ended up lighting a fire that propelled the Cavaliers to the championship.
Lue’s ability to deal with star egos isn’t just limited to his coaching tenure. During his playing days, Lue was a trusted teammate with the Los Angeles Lakers during a time when Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant weren’t seeing eye to eye. He also played with Michael Jordan during Jordan’s Washington Wizard days.
Now, he’ll be tasked with breaking through and leading the Clippers to a place where no Clipper team has ever been before. He’ll be expected to finish what Rivers was unable to accomplish and guide the Clippers to an NBA championship.
For one, he’ll have to change the Clippers offensive attack. This past season, the Clippers relied too much on an isolation heavy offense centered around Leonard and George. That style of play failed in the playoffs when after failing to adjust, the Clippers kept taking tough shot after tough shot while the Nuggets continued to run their offense and get good shots.
With the Cavaliers, Lue showed his ability to adjust his offense and work to his player’s strengths. In the 2018 Playoffs, Lue employed a series of off-ball screens involving Love and Kyle Korver with James reading the defense and making the correct read to whoever was in the best position to score.
When playing with James, the offense sometimes tends to stagnate with the other four players standing around and waiting for James to make his move. Lue was able to get the other players to maintain focus and keep them engaged when James had the ball in his hands. Look for him to try and do something similar for when either Leonard or George has the ball in their hands.
He’s already got a player on the roster in Landry Shamet who can play that Korver role as the designated shooter on the floor running through off-ball screens and getting open. Both Leonard and George have become efficient enough playmakers to be able to find open shooters and cutters. That has to be Lue’s first task to tweak the offense to find ways to keep the rest of the team engaged and active when their star players are holding the ball.
The defensive end is going to be something he’ll need to adjust as well. The Clippers have some of the absolute best individual defensive players in the league. Leonard is a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, George was a finalist for the award in 2019 and Patrick Beverley is a perennial All-Defensive Team selection.
When the team was locked in defensively this season, there wasn’t a team in the league that could score on them. The problem for them was they seemingly couldn’t stay engaged on the defensive end consistently enough. The other issue was Rivers’ inability to adjust his defense to his opponent. Against the Nuggets, Nikola Jokic had a field day whenever Montrez Harrell was guarding him.
Lue’s primary task will be to get this team to maintain their defensive intensity throughout the season, as well as recognize what matchups are and aren’t working. Both Ivica Zubac and JaMychal Green were more effective frontcourt defenders in the postseason than Harrell was. Look for Lue to play to his team’s strengths, as he always has, and to trot out a heavy dose of man-to-man defense.
Overall, Lue was the best hire available given the candidates. He’s got a strong rapport among star players. He’s made it to the finals multiple times and won a championship as a head coach. And he already has experience working with Leonard and George.
Given the potential free agent status of both Leonard and George in the near future, the Clippers have a relatively small window of championship contention. Lue was in a similar situation in Cleveland when James’ pending free agency in the summer of 2018 was also a factor. That time around, Lue delivered. He’ll be ready for this new challenge.
NBA Daily: The Lakers’ Third Scorer Is By Committee
The Los Angeles Lakers have a whole unit of third scoring options – and that’s why they’re one win from an NBA Championship.
One of the biggest questions surrounding the Los Angeles Lakers once the NBA bubble began was who was going to pick up the mantle of being the third scoring option.
Even before the 2019-20 season began, it was obvious that LeBron James and Anthony Davis would be the primary offensive weapons, but every elite team with championship aspirations needs another player or two they can rely on to contribute on the offensive end consistently.
The obvious choice was Kyle Kuzma. In his third year in the NBA, Kuzma was the lone member of the Lakers’ young core that hadn’t been shipped elsewhere. His name had come up in trade rumors as possibly being included in the package to New Orleans for Davis, but the Lakers were able to hang on to him. He put up 17.4 points per game over his first two seasons and had some questioning whether or not he had All-Star potential.
For the most part this season, he settled into that role for much of this season. With Davis in the fold and coming off the bench, his shot attempts dropped from 15.5 to 11.0, but he still managed to be the team’s third scorer with 12.8 points per game.
But here in the bubble, and especially in the playoffs, the Lakers’ role players have each taken turns in playing the supporting role to James and Davis. Everyone from Kuzma to Alex Caruso, to Dwight Howard, to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, to Markieff Morris and even Rajon Rondo have had games where they’ve given the team that additional scoring boost.
Earlier in the bubble, James himself said they need Kuzma to be the team’s third-best player to win, but Kuzma himself believes that it’s always been by committee.
“We don’t have a third scorer, that’s not how our offense is built. Our offense is really AD and Bron, and everyone else plays team basketball,” Kuzma said on a postgame media call after Game 4 of the Finals. “We’ve had a long season, hopefully by now, you’ve seen how we play. Everyone steps up at different times, that’s what a team does.”
On this particular night, when the Miami HEAT got a pregame boost with the return of Bam Adebayo and wealth of confidence from their Game 3 win, it was Caldwell-Pope who stepped up and assumed the mantle of that third scoring option.
He finished Game 4 with 15 points on 50 percent shooting from the field and 37.5 percent from three-point range. He also dished out five assists and grabbed three rebounds. Perhaps his most crucial moments of the game came late in the fourth quarter with the Lakers desperately clinging to a slim lead and the Heat not going away.
He hit a big three-pointer in front of the Miami bench with 2:58 to go in the game, and then followed that up with a drive the rim and finish on the very next possession to give the Lakers some breathing room.
Caldwell-Pope has been one of the most consistent Lakers this postseason and he’s been one of their most consistent three-point threats at 38.5 percent on 5.3 attempts. He was actually struggling a bit with his outside shot before this game, but he always stayed ready.
“My teammates lean on me to pick up the energy on the defensive end and also make shots on the offensive end…I stayed within a rhythm, within myself and just played,” Caldwell-Pope said after the game. “You’re not going to knock down every shot you shoot, but just staying with that flow…Try to stay in the rhythm, that’s what I do. I try not to worry about it if I’m not getting shots. I know they are eventually going to come.”
Also giving the Lakers a big offensive boost in Game 4 was Caruso who had a couple of easy baskets at the rim and knocked down a three-pointer. He’s become one the Lakers best off the ball threats as well, making strong cuts to the rim or drifting to the open spot on the three-point line.
He’s had his share of games this postseason when it’s been his turn to step up as the Lakers additional scoring threat. During Game 4 against the Houston Rockets in the second round, Caruso dropped 16 points off the bench to help prevent the Rockets from tying the series up. In the closeout Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals against the Denver Nuggets, he had 11 points and finished the game in crunch time.
For him, it’s about staying ready and knowing that the ball is eventually going to come to whoever is open. When that happens, it’s up to the role players to take that pressure off James and Davis.
“Our third star or best player is whoever has the open shot. We know what AD and LeBron are going to bring to the table every night. They’re going to get their attention, they’re going to get their shots,” Caruso said after the game.
“It’s just about being ready to shoot. We have two of the best passers in the game, if not the best, so we know when we are open, we are going to get the ball. We have to be ready to do our job as soon as the ball gets to us.”
And if the Lakers are to close out the series and win the 2020 NBA championship, head coach Frank Vogel knows that it’s going to take a collective effort from the rest of the team, the way they’ve been stepping up all postseason.
“We need everybody to participate and contribute, and we’re a team-first team,” Vogel said after the game. “Obviously we have our two big horses, but everybody’s got to contribute that’s out there.”
NBA Daily: Alex Caruso: The Lakers’ Unsung Hero
The Los Angeles Lakers are two wins from an NBA championship and Alex Caruso is just happy to play his role and contribute.
Alex Caruso has technically been an NBA player for three years now, but this season is his first on a regular NBA contract.
After going undrafted out of Texas A&M in 2016, he began his professional career as with the Philadelphia 76ers in summer league. He managed to make it to training camp with the Oklahoma City Thunder but was eventually cut and acquired by their the G League team, the Blue.
In the summer of 2017, he joined the Los Angeles Lakers for summer league, and he’s stuck with the team ever since. A strong performance in Las Vegas earned him the opportunity to sign a two-way contract with the Lakers for the 2017-18 season, meaning he’d spend most of his time with the South Bay Lakers in the G League.
The Lakers re-signed him to another two-way contract before the 2018-19 season. Restricted to only 45 days with the Lakers under his two-way contracts, Caruso played in a total of 62 games over those two years.
It wasn’t until the summer of 2019 that the Lakers finally signed him to a standard NBA contract worth $5.5 million over two years. And he’s become a key player off the Lakers bench, especially in the playoffs.
Despite not getting much of an early opportunity, Caruso continued to put in the work in anticipation of when his number would finally be called. He always was confident that it would come.
“It’s been the story of my career, no matter what level I’m at, the more time I have on the court, the better I’ve gotten,” Caruso told reporters after the Lakers eliminated the Denver Nuggets. “I’ve been waiting for an opportunity, I was two years on two-ways…finally I played well enough to get a contract, and over the course of the year it’s the same thing, anytime I can get out there on the court, I get better.”
Caruso’s stats may not jump off the page, he put up 5.5 points per game this season on only 41.2 percent shooting from the field, 33.3 percent from three-point range, 1.9 assists and 1.9 rebounds, but his impact has gone far beyond statistics.
His playoff numbers are up slightly at 6.8 points on 43.6 percent shooting to go along with 2.9 assists and 2.3 rebounds, but he’s become an invaluable member of the team’s postseason run. The defensive intensity and energy he brings to the court have been instrumental in playoff wins.
In this postseason alone, he’s seen himself matched up defensively with Damian Lillard, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and one of the bubble’s breakout stars in Jamal Murray. Each time, he hasn’t backed down from the challenge and has even provided solid man to man defense on each of them.
“Looking and diving into the basketball aspect, series by series, just finding different ways that I know I can be effective, watching past games against opponents, just knowing their tendencies,” Caruso said on a recent media call. “The defense and the effort thing is something I’m always going to have. You can see that in the regular season when I might be more excited on a stop or defensive play on somebody than the rest of the team in game 45 or 50 in the season.”
While his main contributions have been his defense and his hustle, he’s found ways to be effective on the offensive end as well. While not shooting particularly well from three-point range percentage-wise in the playoffs at only 26.9 percent, he’s hit some timely ones during Laker runs to either pull closer to their opponent or to blow the game open.
He’s also been able to get the rim off drives and get himself to the free-throw line, and he’s made strong cuts off the ball to free himself up for easy layups. Playing with the second unit, he’s played a lot of off-ball with Rajon Rondo as the main facilitator, or with LeBron James as the only starter on the floor.
“For me, I think it’s about being aggressive. At any time I can put pressure on the paint whether it’s to get to the rim to finish or to draw fouls or make the defense collapse and get open shots for teammates, that’s really an added benefit for us to have multiple guys out on the court,” Caruso said.
“So whenever I’m out there with Rondo or with LeBron, to not have the sole focus be on one of them to create offense for everybody, it makes us a lot more balanced.”
The trust that Lakers head coach Frank Vogel and the rest of the team have in Caruso has been evident this whole postseason. Perhaps no bigger moment came for him than in Game 6 against the Nuggets in the Western Conference Finals when Vogel left him on the court to close out the game.
He’s also become one of the team’s vocal leaders on the court during gameplay, on the sidelines in the huddle and the locker room. On a team with a lot of strong personalities, Caruso’s ascendance as a locker room leader is something that just comes naturally for him. It’s something he’s done his entire basketball career.
“Being vocal has always been easy for me. Outside of this team, I’ve usually been one of the leaders on the team, one of the best players on my team growing up at different levels of basketball. Being vocal is pretty natural for me,” Caruso said.
“I got the trust of my teammates, they understand what I’m talking about. I say what I need to say and it doesn’t fall on deaf ears. I’m really competitive and if there’s something I think needs to be said, I’m going to do it. I leave no stone unturned to get the job done.”
Now in the NBA Finals, as the Lakers seek to win their first championship since 2010 and No. 17 overall, Caruso has reprised his role as a defensive irritant and glue guy who makes winning plays. For the team to win this series, they need to continue to get timely contributions from him.
And with each step of the way, he’s just soaking it all up and is thrilled to be able to have this opportunity alongside some of the NBA’s best.
“It’s a journey I’ve been on my whole life just to get to this point. It’s really cool, I don’t know how to state it other than that,” Caruso said. “It’s just super cool for me to be able to have this experience. To play meaningful minutes and play well, and be on the court with LeBron in big-time moments.”