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NBA Daily: 8 Free Agents – Central Division

Spencer Davies continues Basketball Insiders’ Free Agent series with a look at the best names coming out of the Central Division.

Spencer Davies

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Well, this has certainly been difficult.

As we enter week two of however many weeks (or months) it will take for the world’s on-switch to be flipped up by a metaphorical finger, the game of basketball is sorely missed. There’s an unknown within all of this, which makes it even harder to grasp.

But those three sentences will be the only negative spin I’ll be putting on this forward-moving piece. As Benny Nadeau astutely illustrated our current situation in these times, he also kicked off Basketball Insiders’ Free Agent series with the Northwest Division, so that’s what we’re here to continue along with the Central…sans the Mad Max references.

Before we get started, let’s just get this out of the way: If you’re looking for “sexy” names on this list, you won’t find many of them. What you will see are players who have burst onto the scene as recently as this season — perfect timing for a free agent market that is going to be scarce in star-level talent, yet plentiful in complementary and secondary pieces that can help complete a puzzle if the fit is right.

Improbable, But Not Impossible

Andre Drummond, Cleveland Cavaliers – Player Option – $27,950,198

This first name contradicts everything that was typed in the introduction. Drummond is a two-time All-Star center and a sexy name. He is bar-none the best rebounder in the NBA and has been consistent since he stepped foot in the league. He works wonders in the pick-and-roll game and provides a forceful presence on the interior. He’s a much-improved ball-handler in open floor opportunities and can start a fastbreak with ease. He’s even shown *signs* — heavy emphasis on the asterisks — of expanding his range to the perimeter.

With all that said though, is Drummond willing to walk away from $28.7 million in 2020? Contending teams that he’d likely prefer won’t have all that much money to spend this upcoming offseason. In addition, the league is trending towards versatility as opposed to the traditional type of big man, which he fits the mold of. Would a franchise gamble a pricey long-term future on a player whose positioning is seemingly fading away?

There’s a lot of questions here: Cavaliers’ general manager Koby Altman has said on the record that he’d consider Drummond a play for both now and later. At 26 years old, he’s just now entering his prime. His options could be limited whenever things start back up again, so it might be wise to take the money, skip free agency now and figure things out in 2021.

Otto Porter Jr., Chicago Bulls – Player Option – $27,250,576

Porter is in the same boat as Drummond when it comes to his contract. The difference is that he hasn’t played much at all this year due to a left foot injury. It’s a shame because of the productive season he put together when the Washington Wizards sent him to Chicago last season. Since his return, he’s registered respectable numbers as a starter on both ends of the floor.

Wings are in high demand these days, so Porter fits the bill pretty much on any team. The issue is that he won’t make close to what he does now on a new deal, especially after such an injury. Don’t bet on Porter opting out of the last year of his current deal.

Diamonds In The Rough?

Christian Wood, Detroit Pistons – Unrestricted – $1,645,357

When the Pistons blew it all up around the trade deadline to change course, Wood was poised to be the primary beneficiary. Simply put, the 24-year-old big man has lived up to his end of the bargain.

Wood not only finally got a chance to show what he could do on the floor consistently, but he made sure that people would take notice in the process. Having played 51 games combined in the previous three seasons of his career, he found a place to dominate in Detroit. Over a career-high 62 games this season, he has posted his best numbers so far as well — 13.1 points and 6.3 rebounds with a 65.9 true shooting percentage. However, those statistics pale in comparison to what’s happened since the deadline.

Since Drummond was dealt away, Wood’s boasted 22.8 points and 9.9 rebounds per game. He’s knocking down 40 percent of his shots from distance, while giving Detroit a block and nearly a steal each night. This take-off is well-timed considering his free-agent status and young age. Wood is set to make the well-deserved big bucks with few bigs to compete against in the market.

Kris Dunn, Chicago Bulls – Restricted – $5,348,007

If you’re looking for a player to lock up ball-handlers on the outside, Dunn is your guy. While teams might have a slight hesitation to give him a ton of money because of his offensive limitations, it’s clear that the Providence product is a load to handle as a defensive matchup. His length is extremely bothersome as his long arms help him poke away steals and deflect the ball in passing lanes.

The Bulls are allowing 6.8 more points per 100 possessions with Dunn off the floor, ranking in the 91st percentile, according to Cleaning The Glass. His impact on that end alone makes him a sought-after piece for any team that wants to bring in a true perimeter defender – a skill set that almost all coaches thirst after to stop an opposing offense from execution. It remains to be seen whether Chicago extends the qualifying offer and if he accepts that. Even so, another organization may pay him more money than the Bulls would be willing to match due to the development of Coby White and their commitment to Zach LaVine and Tomas Satoransky.

Jordan McRae, Detroit Pistons – Unrestricted – $1,645,357

With injuries overloading the Wizards and a season taking a downturn, McRae took the wheel and put it into overdrive. In a 10-game stretch from Dec. 28 to Jan. 15, the veteran swingman became the anchor of Washington’s bench bunch and didn’t disappoint. He averaged a hair under 20 points and 5 rebounds while converting 45.1 percent of his threes during the span.

McRae drew interest at the trade deadline and ultimately ended up with the Denver Nuggets. With those rotations already set and his free agency pending, McRae requested a buyout and landed with the blown-up Pistons to increase his role. Through four games, there have been struggles on his end. Still, there should be no overlooking how well he played for D.C. when they needed him most. Ultimately, McRae should definitely make a decent amount of money, much more than the minimum, for the first time in his career.

Shaquille Harrison, Chicago Bulls – Restricted – $1,620,564

Yes, there is another Bulls guard on this list. If you can’t tell, there’s kind of a logjam in head coach Jim Boylen’s rotation. The 26-year-old displays the grit and tenacity that old school generals love, while also satisfying his role on the offensive end of the floor. He’s been on a shooting tear in the month of March and is positionally versatile with his 6-foot-7, 190-pound frame. It might be a small sample size, but there’s a team that could find a steal in Harrison if Chicago elects not to match a deal pending on what the team does with that qualifying offer decision.

Proven Bigs

Tristan Thompson, Cleveland Cavaliers – Unrestricted – $18,539,130

After spending the entirety of his career with the wine-and-gold thus far, could Thompson be going elsewhere? With plenty of different frontcourt talent, the Cavaliers have decisions to make. The aforementioned Drummond situation and Kevin Love entering his final season of a lucrative contract make this scenario an uncertain one. But never say never when it comes to him staying in Northeast Ohio…

However, Thompson’s camp reportedly wanted the veteran center to be dealt in February even before Cleveland acquired Drummond from the Pistons, so a split may just happen. As the front office and coaching staff figure out what will happen with that triangle, let it be known that Thompson has been the consummate professional. There has been no complaining, pouting or anything close to the sort as his role slightly diminished. In fact, he’s even outplayed the starters as the commander of the second unit and has finished games strongly in front of Drummond on multiple occasions.

The likely scenario you might see play out is a sign-and-trade between whatever team decides to bring him in and the Cavaliers. It’s wishful thinking on Cleveland fans that have grown to love his tenacity and grit to expect him to return to the city again. Thompson deserves a chance at one more big payday though, and if that’s what he ultimately wants to do, it probably won’t come from Koby Altman and company.

Robin Lopez, Milwaukee Bucks – Player Option – $4,767,000

We’ve all gotten the chance to see the Lopez twins team up (albeit not together) and it’s been awesome. There was a time when these two were limited in their skill sets as big bodies in the post to defend, often working with their back to the basket. While they still do that now, their versatility has gradually improved with each season.

Now in Milwaukee, Robin Lopez has followed his brother’s lead by hitting a career-best 34.4 percent of his shots from deep. Even more so, since the All-Star break, he is 13-for-25 from distance. It’s a rise identical to Brook’s when he started knocking shots down with ease in both Brooklyn and Los Angeles.

Depending on what Robin desires in his next salary and what the Bucks want to give him as a backup, this may only be a one-year thing. After all, he was a starter for three solid years with the Bulls before taking a heavily diminished role behind Brook. It will be interesting to see how that shakes out – at 31 years old, chances at a long-term deal aren’t going to be there often.

Obviously, there will be more than these eight players in the free-agent market coming out of the Central.

Veterans with plenty left to give like Brandon Knight, John Henson, Wesley Matthews (PO) and Justin Holiday should garner attention from contending teams that seek experience and playing the right way. Those that need a shooting boost should look no further than Langston Galloway and Svi Mykhailiuk (TO), who are hitting 40 percent of their triples. Pat Connaughton brings just about everything to the table with his athleticism and defensive prowess. If waived prior to their guarantee dates, T.J. McConnell and Ersan Ilyasova deserve a look to bring a punch off the bench.

There are also opportunities to gamble on young talents such as restricted free agents Sterling Brown, Alize Johnson, Denzel Valentine and unrestricted big man Ante Zizic.

Again, these mostly aren’t the names that were included in the crazy offseason we had one year ago, but they’re guys that can contribute if they find the right home. Not all of them are going to be paid handsomely, nor will they all secure their future. Unfortunately, that’s the name of the game. Of those players mentioned, you could see some “show ‘em, prove ‘em” short-term contracts to boost their value heading into 2021.

Let’s hope that the season resumes as safely (and as soon) as possible. If you’re like me, you’re aching to see some hoops!

Be sure to stay tuned to Basketball Insiders as we continue our division-by-division breakdown of the upcoming 2021 free-agent class.

Spencer Davies is a Deputy Editor and a Senior NBA Writer based in Cleveland in his third year with Basketball Insiders. Covering the league and the Cavaliers for the past five seasons, his bylines have appeared on Bleacher Report, FOX Sports and HoopsHype.

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NBA Daily: Is Stephen Curry the MVP?

Given the prolific season Stephen Curry is having, despite the Golden State Warriors being ninth in the Western Conference, does his impact make him the Most Valuable Player in the NBA this season?

Bobby Krivitsky

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In the aftermath of Klay Thompson suffering an Achilles tear that ended his season before it began, no one would have blamed Stephen Curry for prioritizing his preservation through the 2020-21 campaign.

Instead, despite the Golden State Warriors lacking the necessary talent to become a title contender, Curry’s doing everything in his power to get them into the playoffs.

The two-time league MVP is on pace to win the scoring title for the second time in his career. In a recent road loss against the Boston Celtics, Curry put up 47 points, becoming the second player in Warriors history to score 30 or more points in 10-straight games, joining Wilt Chamberlain. 

In his last 11 contests, Curry’s averaging 40 points on shooting splits that aren’t supposed to be possible at the game’s highest level. Even though he’s hoisting 14.3 attempts from beyond the arc per game, he’s making them at a 49.7 percent clip. He’s taking 23.4 shots from the field but still seeing the ball go through the hoop 54.1 percent of the time.

The context of how Curry’s producing those prodigious numbers makes them even more impressive. He is the only scoring threat on Golden State who defenses need to concern themselves with — stop Curry, win the game; it’s that simple, at least in theory it is.

 

Another layer of what makes Curry’s prolific scoring so impressive is the energy he’s exerting to do so. According to NBA.com’s tracking data, Curry’s running 1.43 miles per game on offense, which is the sixth-most league-wide. And what that figure doesn’t fully capture is that while Curry has a lightning-quick release and is masterful at creating the sliver of daylight he needs to get his shot off, it takes a significant amount of energy to do that once, let alone throughout a game.

Even though Curry’s already the greatest shooter of all time, he’s taken the most lethal part of his game to new heights. From 2015 when the Warriors won their first NBA championship to 2019, a stretch in which they reached the finals every year, step-back threes accounted for just eight percent of Curry’s shooting profile from beyond the arc. But this season, Curry knew it would be more challenging to create shots for himself, which is why he’s doubled that figure to 16 percent and he’s knocking down 51.5 percent of his step-back threes, per NBA.com.

Curry’s also putting more pressure on opponents from further away from the hoop than he has in years past. According to NBA.com, from 2015 through 2019, five percent of his threes came from 30 to 40 feet. This season, shots from that distance account for 10 percent of his three-point attempts. Just like when defenses double team him out of a pick-and-roll, Curry forcing teams to defend him from further out is another way for him to create 4-3 opportunities for his teammates.

 

After that loss against the Celtics, Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said Curry’s “at the peak of his powers.” Though he’s not just putting his talents towards individual production, he is the primary reason Golden State’s firmly in the play-in tournament. The Warriors currently reside ninth in the Western Conference. They’re one game behind the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies and two back of the seventh-ranked Dallas Mavericks. 

As impressive an individual season as Curry’s having and as vital as he’s been to his team’s success this season, the reality is the Warriors haven’t won at a high enough level for him to win Most Valuable Player honors for the third time in his career. Currently, Nikola Jokic is the leading MVP candidate. While it’s fair to point out the Denver Nuggets aren’t even in the top three in the Western Conference, Jokic ranks first in player efficiency rating, win shares, box plus/minus and value over replacement player. He’s averaging 26.4 points, 11.1 rebounds, 8.8 assists and 1.4 steals per game. 

If Jokic misses enough of Denver’s remaining games, someone could usurp him for the right to win MVP. In that scenario, Curry would have a chance to become the NBA’s Most Valuable Player for a third time, but he’d have to sway voters from giving it to Joel Embiid. Embiid’s in the midst of a career season, ranking second in player efficiency rating, eighth in win shares and fourth in box plus/minus. He’s averaging 29.9 points, 11.2 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game while leading the Philadelphia 76ers to the best record in the Eastern Conference.

Curry ranks sixth in player efficiency rating, seventh in win shares and is second in both box plus/minus and value over replacement player. He has a case for MVP, but Jokic and Embiid are capping off career seasons while leading their respective teams to a higher level of success. Yes, their teams are more talented and there probably isn’t enough weight put on how valuable an individual is to his team, but the reality is the MVP typically goes to the best player on a top team. Furthermore, that argument also applies to Jokic, who’s the lone All-Star on a team with a better record.

Not naming Curry this season’s Most Valuable Player doesn’t mean his prolific production isn’t appreciated. Nor should it get taken as a sign elevating his team, somehow finding ways to become a more dangerous shooter and investing as much energy as he has into a season that won’t end with a championship isn’t garnering respect from the NBA community. That includes fans whose favorite team doesn’t reside in the Bay Area.

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NBA Daily: The Lakers’ Path Back to the NBA Finals

In the wake of Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Bobby Krivitsky examines the Los Angeles Lakers’ path back to the NBA Finals.

Bobby Krivitsky

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It’s been 15 games since a high ankle sprain sidelined LeBron James. 

With the Western Conference standings congested and Anthony Davis already out due to a right calf strain and a re-aggravation of his right Achilles tendinosis, the Los Angeles Lakers faced the threat of a fall that would require their participation in the play-in tournament.

However, the Lakers have fought admirably in the absence of their two stars, going seven and eight. As a result, their fall in the standings has been painless, going from third at the time of James’ injury to now occupying fifth place in the West.

The primary reason the Lakers have been able to tread water without their two stars is they’ve remained stingy on defense. Since James’ injury, they have the fourth-best defensive rating in the league. That’s despite facing four teams who rank in the top five in offensive rating and six of the categories’ top-10 members.

Right now, the Lakers are 2.5 games ahead of the sixth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers, with a 4.5-game cushion between them and the Dallas Mavericks, who are seventh in the conference. That should be a large enough gap to keep Los Angeles out of the play-in tournament, but the two teams are going to converge for a two-game series starting Thursday. For the Lakers, getting swept would re-open the possibility of having to compete in the play-in tournament.

Fortunately for them, even splitting that series would make it unlikely the Mavericks finish ahead of the Lakers in the standings. And help might be on the way for the Lakers: Davis may soon rejoin the lineup, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, meaning there’s a distinct possibility he’s active for at least one of those two matchups. As for James, he’s on track to return in three weeks.

While Los Angeles’ stars are getting closer to making their returns, the Denver Nuggets got dealt a more severe blow when Jamal Murray tore his ACL in a recent game against the Golden State Warriors. Denver is 10-2 since acquiring Aaron Gordon at the trade deadline and looked the part of a legitimate title contender prior to Murray’s injury. 

Denver is fourth in the West, 1.5 games ahead of Los Angeles. But even if the Nuggets have home-court advantage, they’re the preferable opening-round opponent, not just for Los Angeles, but any team with a legitimate chance at the fourth or fifth seed.

Fortunately for the Lakers, that’s the place in the Western Conference pecking order where they’re most likely to finish this season. So long as the Nuggets don’t freefall in Murray’s absence, Los Angeles will likely start the playoffs against an opponent that’s gone from having the potential to present the greatest challenge to the defending champions’ quest to get back to the Finals to becoming a desirable first-round matchup.

After that, the Lakers may have to get past the Utah Jazz and or the Los Angeles Clippers to make a return trip to the NBA Finals. The former has the best record in the league this season, but locking horns with the defending champions in a best of seven series is a far more challenging and potentially rewarding proving ground.

The Jazz have a deep, reliable rotation, they have the best net rating in the NBA, they’re in the top five in points for and against per 100 possessions, and they’re attempting the most threes per game, but also rank in the top five in three-point shooting percentage. However, the Lakers would have the two best players in a series against Utah. Usually, an opponent doesn’t overcome that disadvantage.  

As for the Clippers, Rajon Rondo has quickly proven to be an impactful acquisition. Los Angeles is seven and one with him in the lineup, generating the highest net rating in the league during that span. Last season, the Lakers saw first-hand how impactful playoff Rondo can be. Now, the Clippers are hoping he can bring structure to their offense, something they sorely lacked last postseason and was at the forefront of them blowing a 3-1 series lead over the Nuggets. Doing so would go a long way towards maximizing the production of a team that has the talent to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy for the first time in franchise history.

If this is the year the battle of LA takes place in the postseason, it figures to be a slugfest. Still, the Clippers have their doubters after last year’s meltdown in the playoffs. There’s also a large contingency who are skeptical about how far the Jazz can go in the postseason, given their lack of a top-tier superstar. Despite the validity of those concerns, both teams can beat the Lakers in a best of seven series. That no longer appears to be the case for the Nuggets, which is a shame for them and people who want to see the best possible matchups in the playoffs. But Murray’s injury, as unfortunate an occurrence as it is, makes it easier for the Lakers to get through the gauntlet that is the Western Conference and have a chance to claim an 18th championship, which would break their tie with the Boston Celtics for the most titles in NBA history.

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NBA AM: The Play-In Game – West

With the season winding down, Ariel Pacheco takes a look at how the play-in tournament is shaping up in the Western Conference.

Ariel Pacheco

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With the regular season’s end in sight, teams are making their last push to make the playoffs in what has been a condensed season. But the new play-in tournament is providing more teams than ever a chance at a coveted playoff spot.

Here is what the new play-in tournament will look like: Teams that finish with the Nos 7 and 8 seeds will face off against each other. The winner of this game will be No. 7. The Nos. 9 and 10 seeds will also play and the winner will play the loser of the first game. The winner of this game will be the No. 8 seed. 

The play-in tournament provides intrigue and adds pressure on teams in both conferences to finish in the top six and avoid the play-in altogether. The Western Conference, in particular, is shaping up to have a rather exciting finish. There are a number of teams who could find themselves fighting for their playoff lives in this year’s tournament – all below in tiers.

Teams Likely To Avoid Play-In

Portland Trail Blazers (32-24)
Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: 8
Games Against Teams Over .500: 12
Games Against West: 11

The Trail Blazers are currently the sixth seed in the West meaning, for now, they are safe from the play-in tournament. However, they are just two games above the Mavericks from possibly dropping down a place. They’re the team most likely to secure that sixth seed because they have more talent than the teams below them – hello, Dame – and they also have an elite offense. However, the defensive concerns are very real and if they were to slip, it would likely be because of their struggles on that side of the ball.

Likely Play-In Teams

Dallas Mavericks

Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: 9
Games Against Teams Over .500: 5
Games Against West: 8

On paper, the Mavs have a really easy schedule as the season winds down. They have just five games against teams over .500 and two against the Los Angeles Lakers, who may be without their two stars for those games. However, they are just 10-12 this season against sub .500 teams and are coming off a disappointing loss to the Sacramento Kings. There’s still a pretty good chance they get the sixth seed and avoid the play-in, but it also wouldn’t be surprising to see them in it as well.

Memphis Grizzlies
Games Left: 17
Home Games Left: 7
Games Against Teams Over .500: 8
Games Against West: 12

The Grizzlies are often overlooked, but they are about as well-coached as any other team in the NBA. It is likely they will be in the play-in game, but don’t be surprised if they are able to sneak into the sixth seed. They lost last year’s play-in game in the Bubble to the Blazers, so they do have experience in this type of setting. They may be getting Jaren Jackson Jr. back soon which should help. 

Golden State Warriors
Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: 9
Games Against Teams Over .500: 6
Games Against West: 13

The Warriors are getting just other-worldly performances from Stephen Curry on an almost nightly basis at this point. However, they continue to struggle to win games, in large part due to the struggles when he sits on the bench. Their schedule is pretty light to close the season, which bolsters their chances. The talent on this team isn’t great, but Curry’s play should be enough to get them in the play-in tournament. 

San Antonio Spurs
Games Left: 17
Home Games Left: 6
Games Against Teams Over .500: 12
Games Against West: 7

The Spurs have struggled of late, especially after the All-Star break. Their defense has dropped off badly, but if there’s any reason to be positive, it’s that they are still coached by Gregg Popovich and their young guys continue to show improvement. They have been really good on the road this season and a majority of their games are on the road. It won’t be easy, but the Spurs should find themselves in the play-in tournament.

Outside Looking In

New Orleans Pelicans
Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: 6
Games Against Teams Over .500: 9
Games Against West: 11

The Pelicans have been hit with the injury bug of late, but their inconsistent play this season continues to be a huge problem. Their defense continues to bleed three-pointers and while point Zion Williamson has worked, there just isn’t enough shooting to maximize him just yet. It seems unlikely the Pelicans make a late-season run to the play-in game.

Sacramento Kings

Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: 8
Games Against Teams Over .500: 8
Games Against West: 14

The Kings are the least likely team to make the play-in tournament. Their defense is still problematic and they just recently ended their 9-game losing streak. It’ll take a huge late-season push and the Kings just haven’t shown that they are capable of putting it all together for a long enough stretch. 

The play-in tournament adds a new layer of competition that will bring excitement at the end of the season. Be sure to check out how the play-in tournament is shaping up in the Eastern Conference.

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