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NBA Daily: Breaking Down The 76ers’ Road Struggles

After dropping four straight away games last week, the Philadelphia 76ers fell to 9-19 on the road. The gargantuan split between that and their 25-2 home record leaves the door open for questions regarding their fit and playoff feasibility. Quinn Davis breaks down their entire road schedule so far to identify the changes that need to be made going forward.

Quinn Davis

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The Philadelphia 76ers are the NBA’s greatest enigma.

At home, the Sixers are a powerhouse. Their 25-2 record speaks for itself, but that number still fails to encapsulate their impressiveness in their own arena. The 20-point drubbings of the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers, the teams with the best record in each conference, add a little context. As does the 30-point rout against the Miami HEAT back in November.

Outside the Philadelphia city limits, though, the team has looked downright feeble. Their 9-19 road record, while fittingly bad, also lacks context. For that, look no further than the 30-point beatdown dished by the same HEAT team, or the 20-point waxing handed to them by the Boston Celtics.

To say the Sixers have been two different teams is an understatement. They have been playing two different sports.

How does this wide of a gap come to be? Is it simply an effort issue, as some believe, or is there something more going on here? To best answer that question, Basketball Insiders did a little research on all 28 of these road games, broken into stretches. The statistics are taken from the Cleaning the Glass game logs unless otherwise noted.

The First Two Weeks

Record: 3-3

For the first stretch of road games, the Sixers had moderate success. The started the season 3-0 on the road with wins over the lowly Atlanta Hawks and Detroit Pistons, and then a wild win in Portland that saw them come back from down 21 late in the game.

They did lose Joel Embiid to a suspension and Ben Simmons to a shoulder injury in this stretch, so the ywent 0-3 to close out a west coast road trip against the Phoenix Suns, Utah Jazz and Denver Nuggets.

Each of those games was hard-fought, however, and came down to the wire. The Sixers put themselves in a position to win against good opponents.

In summation, the first two weeks of road games went about as you would expect given the circumstances. The Sixers went 3-3 in this stretch, with four of those games and all three losses coming without one of their two best players. They probably should’ve lost in Portland, but it can be argued they should have won in Denver. The effort level in these games was not of much concern and there was no reason to set off any panic signal just yet.

The Rest of November

Record: 2-3, 5-6 overall

While the effort level may have sufficed over the first two weeks of road contests, it did not continue. The Sixers went down to Orlando after a two-game homestand and were trounced by the Magic 112-97. It is notable that this was the second night of a back-to-back and without Joel Embiid yet again, but that still does not excuse the low energy level that becomes clear on the stat sheet.

The Sixers only attempted 17 shots at the rim and 13 free throws in this game. You can credit the Magic defense for some of that, but a team with Ben Simmons and Al Horford playing should be able to carve out a little more space inside. They also rarely go out in transition in this game, something that should’ve been a priority with a Simmons-centric lineup. This can be chalked up as the team’s first truly worrisome road performance.

The Sixers then lost a very tight game on the road in overtime to the Oklahoma City Thunder. This was also the first game they lost on the season with the full starting lineup available. They followed that tight loss up by taking care of business against the Cavaliers in Cleveland.

The next road game came up north against the Toronto Raptors. The Raptors, who have had a lot of success defending the Sixers dating back to last season, shut them down again and most notably held Embiid scoreless.

Not only did the Raptors stifle Embiid, but they also kept the Sixers out of the paint and out of transition as a team. The Sixers were able to keep it close by going 15-for-38 on threes and outrebounding the Raptors by 11. The Sixers received a lot of criticism for this loss and rightfully so, but the Raptors’ defense also deserves credit here. This one should go in the outplayed by a good team column, rather than lack of effort.

The Sixers would close out their November road schedule by eking out a six-point over the New York Knicks. While the margin is concerning, a win is a win. The team imposed their will in that one, getting to the charity stripe for 40 attempts.

That brought the team to 5-6 on the road. A mediocre record for a team with title aspirations, but given the context of only two of those losses coming at full strength and only being truly blown out once at the hands of Orlando, it wasn’t so bad.

Onward to Christmas

Record: 2-2, 7-8 overall

The Sixers entered December looking like a pretty formidable team. Undefeated at home with some impressive beatdowns, they seemed like a tough out in the playoffs.

After a few more home wins, the Sixers took to the team bus once again, this time heading south down I-95 to Washington D.C. to play the Wizards, who were near the bottom of the East standings. The Sixers laid what was probably their second true egg of the season in this one, falling 119-113. They were without the services of Josh Richardson in this one, who had recently pulled his hamstring.

A sign of weak effort, the Sixers transition defense was horrid in this game. They allowed the Wizards to score 1.5 points per play after live rebounds. The Wizards shot eight more free throw attempts than the Sixers, nabbed five more offensive rebounds and won the turnover battle 21-11. All of that combined led to the Sixers dropping one to a weaker team while shooting 48 percent from three.

After this, the Sixers returned home for three more wins before heading up north to face the Celtics. Before this game, Embiid had a quiet night against the Nuggets, which prompted the ire of Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal. The criticism seemed to light a fire, as Embiid dominated the Celtics in Boston, leading the Sixers to their best road win.

It wasn’t just Embiid who came to play. The Sixers, who were without Al Horford in this game, outrebounded the Celtics by 12, took four more free throws and only turned the ball over 11 times. They also shot 50 percent from three.

The three-point shooting is an outlier, but the rest of those statistics are replicable based on the personnel if the effort is there.

Two games later, the Sixers did not replicate that effort. They fell by 20 points in Brooklyn to the Nets, who were without Kyrie Irving. The Sixers were without Joel Embiid themselves and unable to get anything going offensively.

They only attempted 15 shots at the rim and 17 free throws, compared to the Nets’ 44 attempts and 18 free throws. They shot 5-for-26 from three as well, en route to an offensive rating of 87.8.

The Nets, starting a lineup featuring Taurean Prince as the nominal 4-man, outrebounded them by 13, which included 12 offensive rebounds. The effort culminated in the Sixers’ third true egg-lay of the season.

The Sixers went back out on the road right before Christmas to play the Pistons in Detroit and actually took care of business in this one. They dominated the glass, won the turnover battle and played solid transition defense.

Heading into the Christmas showdown with the Bucks, the Sixers were 7-8 on the road, with only one of those losses coming while at full strength. Three of the losses could be largely attributed to effort issues.

The Disney on Ice Trip From Hell

Record: 0-4, 7-12 overall

When Disney on Ice rolled into the Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia was feeling good about its basketball team. The Sixers had just dominated the best team in basketball on Christmas Day, putting the league on notice in regards to how good they could be.

Rather than feed off of the momentum from that win, the Sixers sputtered. At full strength, they could barely muster any offense against the Magic in Orlando. The effort statistics seemed to be there. The rebounding battle was tight, transition defense was not an issue and the Sixers attempted more free throws than the Magic. In this game, some bad shooting and a good Magic defense held them to 97 points in a one-point loss. The game ended with Horford missing an open three to win at the buzzer.

The very next night, the Sixers stayed in Florida to play the HEAT. The team lost another tight one, falling by one point in overtime. Similar to the Magic game, the Sixers rebounded well and attacked the paint, but were unable to seal the deal late. In fact, Tobias Harris missed a dunk late that would’ve put the Sixers up five. Embiid followed that miscue up by allowing himself to get stripped with the Sixers up three with less than 20 seconds left. The ensuing fastbreak led to a Tyler Herro three-pointer to tie the game.

With two winnable games lost, the Sixers marched on to Indiana for a New Year’s Eve Matinee and got roasted by the Pacers. Embiid missed this one, so the Sixers were once again not at full strength, but it was unlikely his presence would have made any difference. The Pacers shot 55 percent deep while the Sixers shot 15 percent. Perhaps the holiday had something to do with it, but this was another laid egg on the road.

After that beatdown, the Sixers headed to Houston where they were handled by the Rockets. They once again shot very poorly from three and had difficulty keeping the rockets out of the paint defensively. It wasn’t a debacle like the Pacers game, but it was the culmination of a four-game road losing streak that dropped the team to 7-12 on the road.

Embiid Injury to Present Day

Record: 2-7, 9-19 overall

After the four-game losing streak, the Sixers regrouped with a win at home over the Oklahoma City Thunder, but lost their star center to a dislocated finger. The Sixers would go 2-3 in their five road games without Embiid.

The first two of these came against the Mavericks and Pacers. The Mavericks made short work of the Sixers, just as they did in Philadelphia before Christmas. It’s safe to say the effort wasn’t there in this one. The Mavericks outrebounded the Sixers handily and got to the free-throw line at a much higher rate. The Sixers also shot 23 percent from deep compared to the Mavericks 40 percent.

Two days later in Indiana, the Sixers put forth a much better effort, but fell in a tight one to the Pacers. They actually had a lead in the fourth quarter but were unable to generate any offense down the stretch. They did do a solid job of defending and controlling the glass.

Almost a week later, the Sixers went back on the road for three straight games against the New York Knicks, Brooklyn Nets and Toronto Raptors. The Sixers eked one out against the Knicks and then put together one of their best road efforts of the season against the Nets. The Sixers defense’ took over the game in that one, racking up steals down the stretch to seal a victory.

The last road game without Embiid came up in Toronto, where the Sixers ran into a tough Raptors team that controlled the paint. The Sixers took a ton of threes in this game and hit 40 percent of them, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the lack of scoring around the basket.

The Sixers kept that game close for most of the contest and did a good job of getting out in transition. The Raptors just outplayed them in this one.

After this, the Sixers came home for a big win over the Lakers before heading back out on the road for their most recent four-game trip. The Sixers would be without Richardson for this trip, as he pulled his other hamstring a week earlier. Embiid would also be playing with a heavily taped left hand.

It started in Atlanta, where the Sixers were outrebounded by a very small Hawks team. They were also unable to guard Trae Young all night. This one could be attributed to lack of effort on the defensive end as the Hawks had their way with the Sixers interior.

After letting that one slip, the Sixers embarked on a brutal three-game stretch which just recently concluded against the Celtics, HEAT and Bucks. They lost all three.

In terms of effort, the games against Celtics and HEAT were sorely lacking. Both games were not close. The defense was especially bad in Miami, where the Sixers gave up 138 points per 100 possessions. In both the Celtics and HEAT games, the Sixers allowed those teams to control the paint and get to the free-throw line.

The game against the Bucks saw a much better defensive effort, but one that wasn’t good enough to overthrow the team with the league’s best record. The offense floundered in this one as the Sixers could not get into the paint yet again.

Now that we’re all caught up, here are the key takeaways from the road struggles.

The Sixers have played eight games on the road with their full starting lineup available, in those games, they are 4-4. Three of those losses came on the Disney on Ice road trip, and all of them were within one score late in the game except for the loss to the Rockets.

The road struggles truly became an issue post-Christmas, as the Sixers are 2-11 on the road since then. Before Christmas, the Sixers were 7-8 on the road and 4-1 when the full starting lineup played.

A lack of effort played a large role in at least seven of the losses. The first Magic game, the Wizards game, the first Nets game, the first Pacers game, the Mavericks game and the most recent Celtics and HEAT games. The rest of the games, the effort level was at least high enough to not show up on the stat sheet.

The Sixers as a team are shooting much better at home on the road, as most teams do. The issue is that when the shots are not falling, the defense seems to slip. The Sixers go from a league-best 101.9 defensive rating at home to a middling 110.8 on the road. The key for the Sixers going forward will be bringing their defensive mindset with them to other arenas.

Basketball Insiders asked head coach Brett Brown about this after a recent game at home against the Grizzlies.

“I think it’s human nature, sadly,” Brown said. “It’s the great challenge coaches go through, if teams always let their offense dictate their defense, it means they’re really not that good of a team and they’re not going to be playing that long. The connection is real and it’s a human nature thing. It’s easier to play defense when you’re happy and scoring, and it’s tougher when you’re grinding it out. But grinding things out equals May and June. That’s the miss that I am on as it relates to stuff going on on the road with us.”

Brown is right, the offense will only become more of a grind as the playoffs begin. If this team has any chance of advancing into June, they will need to commit to the defensive end even when the offense isn’t working.

Basketball Insiders asked Horford the same question.

“Coach has talked about that. He’s told us that, regardless of how it’s going, we need to have that defensive mindset and that toughness to stay together,” Horford noted. “At times we haven’t been as consistent as we need to, but earlier in the year, I thought we were really, really good at that. It’s something that we need to continue to do regardless of whether shots are going in or not, we have to defend and rebound.”

Horford’s comment about the Sixers being better at that earlier in the year lines up with the numbers. As mentioned, the road struggles really became jarring after Christmas.

Given the record with the full roster, it may be too early to sound the panic button just yet. If the team continues to lack a defensive edge on the road, though, Philadelphia could be staring down the barrel of a first-round exit.

If this group is able to make the mental changes required to become as good defensively on the road as they are at home, then all the talk of the Sixers being built for the playoffs may come to fruition.

Quinn Davis is a contributor for Basketball Insiders. He is a former collegiate track runner who currently resides in Philadelphia.

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NBA Daily: Reacting To Bubble Headlines

Almost two weeks into the Bubble, Matt John gives his own take on some of the bigger headlines that have sprung up.

Matt John

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All of a sudden, we are almost at the end of Week Two inside the Bubble. We’ve actually had some pretty epic games, wouldn’t you say? We’ve also had some telling and high stakes games too. Now that our regular season is finally at its end, things are taking shape a little. Because of that, we’re seeing some major stories hit the newsstands over the past 11 days.

Instead of repeating last week’s formula, let’s focus on reacting to some of the more recent headlines we have seen since the

“Something Might Be Wrong With The Lakers!”

In their last seven games, the Los Angeles Lakers have gone only 3-4 and, upon deeper examination, they’ve only come up victorious twice since beating their crosstown rivals on Jul. 30. Since the Bubble commenced, they’ve put up the second-lowest offensive rating in the league – scoring 103 points per 100 possessions, only .1 points ahead of Washington. Additionally, they have the lowest net rating among teams that have clinched a playoff spot at minus-5.6.

LeBron James specifically has not looked like himself. Even when the Lakers beat the Clippers, he didn’t put up the best stat line – and since then, he hasn’t played at the same MVP-caliber pace. In his seven games, he’s averaged 22.8 points on 45/33/63 splits while coughing up 3.2 turnovers. Even at 35, we all know that’s a far cry from the numbers he was putting up during his MVP-worthy campaign.

Maybe he and the Lakers are mailing in the rest of the season, or maybe there is something more to these recent unwelcome struggles.

Do you know what the big conclusion to draw from this is? Yawn. If you know James, then you know that reports like these aren’t anything we haven’t seen before. We all should have gotten the picture with the King by now. No matter who he plays for, no matter how good his team is and no matter how much worse this episode looks compared to the last one, every year there’s always going to be some sort of drama going on. And how much does this impact LeBron’s team when the going gets tough? Nil.

It’s part of the LeBron deluxe package. There are going to be concerns. There are going to be questions. There are going to be doubts. That’s what it’s been like for the past 10+ years with any team led by the likes of LeBron James. The Lakers, as fantastic as they have been, were going to face it eventually. It just happened to be with the playoffs around the corner.

No matter because, with the exception of last year, LeBron’s teams have always made their way through the fire as he carried them over the hump. There’s no reason to think it won’t be the same with LA. Besides, how much did the Lakers honestly have to prove in the Bubble? There were really only two tasks at hand for them once the hiatus ended.

1. Beating the Clippers: Mission Accomplished
2. Getting the No. 1 seed in the loaded Western Conference: Mission Accomplished

After that, what else was there to play for? The drama could very well play into the playoffs, but LeBron’s been through this merry-go-round enough times that he practically owns a timeshare in it.

The Lakers are going to be fine, and you probably already knew that. What everyone needs to realize is that this is a regular occurrence for LeBron-led squads. We should have gotten so used to it by now that it would have been more shocking if the season had ended drama-free for the boys in purple and gold.

But Danny Green shooting only 7-for-25 from three-point land? That might be something to be concerned about.

“Nate McMillan Is On The Hot Seat”

This little tidbit came from a podcast last week between Jeff Van Gundy and Zach Lowe. While we have yet to determine the level of heat on such a rumor, let’s go over McMillan’s tenure as head coach of the Indiana Pacers.

Through a black and white scope, McMillan definitely hasn’t brought Indiana to the same heights that his predecessor Frank Vogel did when he took over as coach back in 2016. The Pacers haven’t been out of the first round since 2014 and they’ve only mustered three playoff wins since with McMillan calling the shots over the last four years. When you see things through that lens, McMillan would seem like the usual candidate.

But that’s not the case with McMillan. There’s a reason why his name has been thrown in the Coach of the Year discussion for three years running now. Let’s start with how he’s developed a reputation for player development. Think of the players that have really stood out for Indiana since they moved on from the Paul George era.
Victor Oladipo, Bojan Bogdanovic, Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon and, most recently, T.J. Warren. What do these players have in common? None of them ever reached the heights in their career that they did once they played under McMillan before coming to Indiana.

McMillan even managed to breathe life back into Lance Stephenson’s career for a year or two there. The one failure on McMillan’s part has been Myles Turner, who is still basically the same player as he was when Indiana had a total makeover back in 2017. The fact that McMillan has done this with this many players in such a short amount of time demonstrates that he knows how to put his players in the right position to succeed. Coaches like those don’t grow on trees.

Fate dealt a cruel hand with Oladipo’s knee blowing out, but McMillan certainly can’t be the fall guy for that. Again, no one knows how seriously we should take this rumor. It may be quickly swept under the rug as soon as tomorrow. It’s just that if McMillan were to be shown the door, Indiana would be making a rather puzzling decision after making pretty much all the right moves over the last three years.

“Michael Porter Jr Was Well-Worth The Wait”

There shouldn’t be much of a counterpoint to this. Michael Porter Jr has looked like the dynamic scorer many believed he could be dating back to his high school days. So much so that a fair amount of teams are probably going to second-guess passing him up in the 2018 NBA Draft. Porter’s rise in Florida has to make Denver – who was already a top team in the Western Conference before he got there – so much more optimistic about their future.

Putting up nearly 24 points on 57/46/96 splits in the Bubble has got to make the Nuggets incredibly giddy. He’s got great size for a scorer and an awesome shooting stroke. He’s also a great cutter, which means more highlight-reel assists for the Joker, too. All the Nuggets needed to complement Nikola Jokic was a go-to-scorer to get to the next level. Soon, they are going to pay Jamal Murray to be that guy, but Murray’s production, while not bad, has stayed relatively the same over the last three years. At 23, there’s still hope for him to make the leap, but now with MPJ coming into his own, the Nuggets have a safety valve in case that doesn’t happen.

Now, teams will get more game film on him, so odds are we’ll see a slump from Porter as time passes. Even with that, this shouldn’t be seen as a tease.

Porter should be a future star if he stays on the court and that’s the one hang-up. We still have to go back to the fact that 13 teams passed on him for a very real, very frightening reason. No one doubted the talent this kid had. It was his injury problems that put his future in doubt. Denver’s been meticulously careful making sure that Porter doesn’t get put on the shelf, but there’s no way of knowing if he can do this over a full season, and we won’t know for quite a while.

Injuries were what ruined Michael Porter Jr’s stock in 2018, so hold your breath. As exciting as it is to see him prove all of his doubters wrong, Brandon Roy did the same thing only 13 years ago.

With the NBA’s latest and greatest regular season bubble set to wrap up this week, there are plenty of intriguing storylines to watch. Are the Nuggets even better with Porter Jr.? Do the Lakers have what it takes?

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NBA Daily: Ivica Zubac Rounding Into Form For Clippers

David Yapkowitz writes about Ivica Zubac and his strong bubble performances for the Los Angeles Clippers – is he the key for a deep postseason run?

David Yapkowitz

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The Los Angeles Clippers have no shortage of star power. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George form one of the most dangerous duos in the NBA, and both Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell are averaging close to 20 points a game each while coming off the bench.

But there is one player on the roster who might be the team’s X-Factor, one player who could hold the key to being able to withstand the imposing frontline of the Los Angeles Lakers – and that’s Ivica Zubac.

Zubac was once a Laker before he was casually tossed aside to the Clippers at last season’s trade deadline. He had shown flashes of his capabilities with the Lakers but spent most of his first couple of seasons in the league with the Lakers’ G League affiliate. Upon his arrival to the Clippers, he immediately became a key player and has since settled into the starting center role.

His arrival to the NBA’s restart bubble in Orlando was initially held up as he had tested positive for COVID-19. He has since joined the team after a mandatory quarantine period and is looking ready to help the team as they gear up for a playoff run.

He admitted that although he only experienced mild symptoms from the virus, he still felt winded and not quite up to speed as he tried to ease himself back into regular game flow.

“It’s much better, it’s much better than when I got here. I can feel it getting better with each practice, each game,” Zubac said on a recent conference call with media.

“After I first started getting back in shape, after I was cleared, I felt like I was out of shape. My chest was a little tighter when I would do some stuff. But I feel great right now. I don’t feel anything. I’m getting back into shape, I’m almost there. It’s going to take some more time.”

Zubac feeling like his old self again has been evident with each passing game. He started slow, only finishing with two points and three rebounds against the Lakers while being outworked by Anthony Davis. Against the New Orleans Pelicans, he looked a bit better, especially with his effort on the glass.

In the Clippers’ third game of the restart against the Phoenix Suns, Zubac put up 18 points and 12 rebounds while shooting 77 percent from the field. He followed that up with his best bubble game to date with 21 points on a perfect 10-for-10 shooting and 15 rebounds against the Dallas Mavericks.

Zubac equated his increased production with gradually regaining his conditioning and mobility and getting the feel again for regular game speed.

“I’m getting the feel, I’m starting to remember what guys like, what are the best spots on the court for me. My conditioning is getting better each practice, each game,” Zubac told media after the Mavericks game. “I’m feeling like I can stay on the floor for a while, I can run the floor, I can fight in the post with guys, I can rebound. Everything with my conditioning getting back, I can get on another level in every aspect of my game.”

Before his performance against the Mavericks, Zubac had a pretty solid game against the Suns – but the center was obviously still readjusting to his teammates and being able to make the right reads and be in the correct spots on the floor. He played solid defense on Deandre Ayton, but he also ended up having a costly turnover late in the game that set up Devin Booker’s eventual game-winner.

Following the Suns game, Clippers head coach Doc Rivers had mentioned there were a few areas that Zubac could use improvement in, and he was much more effusive in his praise after his performance against the Mavericks.

“He was phenomenal. We talked about it, he did all the things we needed, he really ran the floor, that didn’t show up statistically, but what it did, it created space, it created mismatches,” Rivers told media after the game.

“I loved that our guys were looking for him. I thought his rebounding was fantastic. Really coming off the way we ended the game the other day with Zu, then coming back, playing like that, that was fantastic for his confidence.”

Throughout the season, Zubac has been a player that doesn’t need the ball in his hands to be effective. He does have a soft touch around the rim and can establish a strong position in the post, but he does a lot of damage when he’s rolling to the rim, cutting and moving without the ball and catching lobs from his teammates.

He’s also a good rebounder who gets points off of offensive putbacks, and he’s a solid defender who acts as the team’s interior defensive anchor. He’s also usually on the bench at the end of games when Harrell is in with the starters. But depending on potential matchups, perhaps against the Denver Nuggets and Nikola Jokic, or even the Lakers and Davis, Zubac could find himself finishing some games.

What is certain though, is he’s proving his importance to the team and he’s showing that come playoff time, he could end up being the X-factor. He knows that his teammates are going to look for him and he’s ready for that.

“It’s just communication on the floor, knowing what Kawhi and P.G like, knowing how to get a better angle on a screen, just the plays we run, got to have a better understanding what’s good at the time. It’s mostly communication on the floor,” Zubac said. “It feels great to get rewarded by my teammates after doing all the hard work.”

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Free Agency Update: Changes In The Bubble

Drew Maresca explores the free agency implications of the first week of play in the bubble as the NBA continues its return to post COVID-19 play.

Drew Maresca

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Free agency is always a fun time for the NBA and its fans, but particularly so in 2020. Most free agents have usually earned their next deal by the 65th game of any given season – but this year is far from typical. Instead, the NBA has returned, sans its eight worst teams, meaning that competition is consistently better. And with limited competition for our attention, every game is a major event that draws more eyes and has a greater effect on the paydays of to-be free agents.

We’re still only three or four games into the official return of the NBA, but there have already been some changes to how we perceive some players. Take T.J. Warren, for example, who’s averaging over 39.7 points per game through three contests. Or Michael Porter Jr., who looks more like the focal point of a team than a player in his first year of professional action.

This article will focus explicitly on the changes in perception of free agents to-be as a result of their play in the bubble in Orlando.  We understand that the players listed below can still hurt their standings and that teams rate free agents differently. While the sample size is small, we’ve seen deals made based on an equally small body of work (e.g., Jerome James to the New York Knicks).

One caveat to keep in mind is the unprecedented fiscal challenges facing the NBA and its club in 2020. Not only will the COVID-19 pandemic inevitably hurt the 2020-21 salary cap, but there’s also still a conclusion to be had with the preseason China situation.

With all of that in mind, let’s explore the players that have made the loudest cases for a payday come this offseason.

The Stars

Mike Conley Jr., Utah Jazz – Player Option

Conley Jr. has a player option for 2020-21 – but he played poorly enough through March, relative to what we’ve come to expect from him, that it was more than reasonable to assume he would opt-in at $34.5 million.

But wait, there’s a chance that Conley does us all a favor and makes free agency 2020 more interesting. Conley’s averaged 19.8 points and 5.8 assists per game, way, way up from 13.8 points and 4.3 assists per game prior to the stoppage in March. If Conley keeps this going – and especially if he performs well in the playoffs – he might want to test the market considering the lack of elite talent that’s anticipated to hit it – assuming he’s unhappy in Utah, that is.

Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans – RFA

Ingram’s looked similar to the guy we saw in 2019-20 before the play stoppage – he’s averaging 23.5 points and 7.5 rebounds per game when playing 30 or more minutes. While he was less effective in a loss against the Clippers (14 points and two rebounds in 24 minutes), he’s demonstrated growth in how decisively he makes his move and how seamlessly he then scores on the move.

Ingram was probably going to get max offer as of the All-Star break – especially after reaching his first All-Star team at 22 – but COVID-19 probably altered the ability for teams to dole out lucrative deals. But then play resumed and Ingram picked up right where he left off – and with a confidence to use it liberally. Ingram is nearly a lock for a max deal now.

Fred VanVleet, Toronto Raptors – UFA

VanVleet started off his time in the bubble with a solid performance (13 points and 11 assists), but he really showed out in his second game against the Miami HEAT. VanVleet led the Raptors to a win against Miami with a career-high 36 points. And then he got right back to being Mr. Consistent for Toronto by posting 21 points and 10 assists in a win against Orlando.

So ultimately, VanVleet has led the Raptors to a 3-0 (re)start, and he’s either scored a career-high or dropped 10-plus assists. James Dolan and Leon Rose are somewhere together – albeit socially distanced, we’re sure – drooling – as are all of the teams in need of a lead guard, like Detroit. VanVleet can only increase his value from here. He’s not assumed to be a max-level player, but if he plays well enough through the playoffs, it’ll be interesting to see just how high he can reach.

 DeMar DeRozan, San Antonio Spurs – Player Option

It’s hard to imagine DeRozan’s value increasing much at this point in his career. After all, he’s an 11-year veteran that has been named to the All-Star Game four times and an All-NBA team twice.

But still, there’s always been presumed limitations to his game, namely his inability to shoot three-pointers. Since being traded to San Antonio, he’s fallen out of the national spotlight a bit. As a 31-year-old capable of reaching unrestricted free agency, DeRozan is at a major inflection point in his career. He could attempt to a final big deal or snag a smaller one if the market for his services doesn’t meet expectations. Or he could just opt-in.

But DeRozan has done his part to remind everyone that he has loads of high-quality basketball left in him. He tallied 30 points on 11-for-20 shooting on Tuesday in a close loss to the 76ers and he’s averaged 22.3 points, 7.3 assists and 4.8 rebounds per game since the Spurs resumed play last Friday. While those averaged mostly coincide with what he did this season, it also represents a decent boost in assists. But more importantly, it solidifies that DeRozan should still receive a serious look as a lead star. And he’ll probably get interest from a number of teams.

The Known Commodities

Marcus Morris Sr., Los Angeles Clippers – UFA

While Morris Sr. is a known commodity, teams could use additional poor performances against him in negotiations. He’ll probably still have the option to sign for a veterans minimum or mid-level exception with a contender like the Clippers or Lakers. But if he’s eyeing another payday that pays him an annual salary equal to what he made in 2019-20, it would behoove him to make his mark on the stat book. 

Making A Case

Trey Burke, Dallas Mavericks – UFA

Burke hasn’t been overly consistent since NBA play resumed last week. But he did have a huge breakout game against the Rockets, scoring 31 points on 8-for-10 for three-pointers in only 30 minutes, while also dishing six assists.

Yes, Burke is averaging just 5.5 points in 18 minutes in the two games since, but the fact that he scored 31 in an NBA game will be enough to get looks as an off-the-bench scorer. And it’s a narrative that can be supported by his past work, too. Remember, Burke is still just 27-years-old  and he has a 42-point career-high. He’s also exploded for 30 four times and eclipsed the 20-point mark on 38 occasions in his 389 career games. So even if it’s just a reminder, it’s good to know that Burke can still get it done offensively – and teams are always looking for ways to manufacture offense.

Jordan Clarkson, Utah Jazz – UFA

Clarkson’s shot only 40 percent from the field since play resumed last Thursday, with an even worse 20 percent from three-point range. Still, scorers are as valuable as ever. It’s what made J.R. Smith so much money in this league, as well as Lou Williams and countless others – and rightfully so. Ultimately, it’s about putting the ball in the hoop. And with that being said, a franchise is going to pay Clarkson and they’ll end up paying more than they would have as of March.

Reggie Jackson, Los Angeles Clippers – UFA

Jackson has less to prove than most guys in this part of this list – but given his injury history, he does have to make a statement.

On the whole, Jackson has looked good – but not necessarily great. He averaged 12.5 points, seven rebounds and two assists in his first two contests, but he regressed in the Clippers’ most recent game against the Suns. But on a positive note, Jackson received only 23 minutes on Tuesday versus Phoenix and his 15 points on 5-for-9 shooting, eight rebounds, two assists and two steals accumulated in just 20 minutes.

If Jackson continues to be a contributor to the contending Clippers, someone will overspend on him. After all, good point guards are few and far between.

The Unknowns

Harry Giles III, Sacramento Kings – UFA

Giles III only played four minutes in the Kings’ first game back against the Spurs and he didn’t fare much better over 12:55 versus the Mavericks on Tuesday. But when you’re a fringe player that had injury concerns throughout your young career, any positive outings are good – especially those that come in a contract year. Giles tallied 23 points and eight rebounds in only 20 minutes against the Orlando Magic – a significant jump from his 7.2 points and 4.2 rebounds averages this season.  And that’s probably enough to generate interest amongst a number of teams.

The Kings curiously declined Giles’ fourth-year option, making him an unrestricted free agent as of the end of this season. That’s an interesting decision because the option was relatively cheap given that he was only the No. 20 overall pick (2017). Further confusing matters is the idea that by passing on the fourth-year option, they also lost matching rights – so Giles won’t even be restricted.

To make matters worse, the Kings can’t even bid more than $3.9 million to retain his services. So the Kings ultimately wasted a first-round draft pick on Giles for a grand total of 14.5 minutes per game across 99 games – and he’ll walk before they even know what they had in him.

But this all works out nicely for Giles, who will absolutely get an opportunity elsewhere – and he’ll be paid more than he would have received in Sacramento for it. How good is still an unknown, but he’s shown enough for a team to take a flyer on considering his size, skill set and versatility. He was the No. 1 overall recruit coming out of high school according to ESPN just four short years ago.

Free agency is going to be different than ever before and, up until very recently, that was assumed to be a bad thing. But with some of the above players changing the narratives around them, it could become even more exciting than it’s been in the recent past. Add in the likes of DeMarcus Cousins, Davis Bertans, Christian Wood – and we’re looking at an under-appreciated free-agent class.

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