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NBA Daily: Free Agency Watch – Days 2-3

As we enter the third day of NBA Free Agency, Drew Maresca assesses the major moves we’ve seen since the start.

Drew Maresca

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NBA Free Agency started six hours earlier than it has in years past in 2019, with a start time of 6 p.m. EST on June 30. And boy did it pay dividends for fans. Rather than staying up late or getting caught up on free agent happenings the first thing in the morning, fans were instead treated to a primetime bonanza of free agent activity this year.

Basketball Insiders’ Matt John did a splendid job of outlining all major happenings from day one, which saw the construction of a new super-team, the next phase of development in Utah and lots of questions around what constitutes tampering to the NBA league office.

As we entered day two, we saw the narratives shift from top players signings to secondary players securing their deals and processing additional information about day one signings.

But there are plenty of questions left unanswered. So without further ado, let’s jump into the more noteworthy happenings since July 1.

Maybe New York’s 2019 Free Agency Wasn’t So Bad After All

The Knicks have been the laughingstock of the league long enough to know when they’re the butt of the joke. And this free agency period started off no different. They missed out on Kevin Durant. And Kyrie Irving. And Kemba Walker. And D’Angelo Russell. And pretty much everyone else that the media identified as targets of the Knicks.

They instead walked away from the first day of free agency with Julius Randle (3-year/$63 million), Taj Gibson (2-year/$20 million), Bobby Portis (2-year/$31 million) and Reggie Bullock (2-year/$21 million) — and they added Elfrid Payton (2-year/$16 million) and Wayne Ellington (2-year/$16 million) on July 1. New Yorkers were displeased.

But reports emerged midday on Monday confirming that all but Randle’s contract featured team options after the first season. That means that the salary cap flexibility that the Knicks carved out for 2019 free agency could be available again come next summer. The Knicks can spend the better part of 2019-20 assessing their five signees and finding out which ones are worth hanging onto long term. They can also trade any of them who increase in value and/or become redundant – all the while, maintaining flexibility to make a run at free agents next year. And sure, next year’s free agent class is projected to be weak; however, if Kawhi Leonard returns to Toronto on a one-plus-one, that changes the entire narrative.

While this may not be the solution the Knicks (or Knicks fans) wanted, it preserves hope  – which is more than it looked like they would end up with on Sunday evening.

The Clippers Are Remaining Patient

Kawhi Leonard is an enigmatic fellow. He marches to the beat of his own drum. He does not seek out attention. He does not trash talk. He is essentially the antithesis of the modern basketball player. And yet, he has been at the center of the basketball universe since approximately April.

Leonard is currently an unrestricted free agent; and despite being arguably the most sought-after free agent this summer, he has not yet made a decision regarding where he will play in 2019-20.

One thing seems fairly certain, though: Leonard will play in either Los Angeles or Toronto. He will allegedly take meetings with the Clippers, Lakers and Raptors this week in L.A. Where he’ll end up is anyone’s guess; however, his deliberate approach is delaying lots of other free agent decisions – most notably for the Clippers.

The Clippers entered free agency pegged as a major destination given their ability to offer two-max contracts. And yet, they have only signed Patrick Beverly (3-year/$40 million), guaranteed Lou Williams contract in advance, took on Moe Harkless as part of a bigger sign-and-trade (receiving a future first-round pick for their troubles) and signed Rodney McGruder (3-year/$15 million). All of which has not hurt their ability to offer Leonard a max contract.

Harkless is a nice player, as is McGruder, but the Clippers are clearly all in on Leonard. They have already spent much of the first two days of free agency waiting for Leonard before moving on any other major decisions, and they will probably wait a few more.

Leonard represents a return to relevance for the Clippers. His signing will shift the balance of power for the entire NBA. But like the Knicks, the Clippers should be cautious about who they sign if Leonard opts for a different employer. Owner Steve Ballmer’s regime will be tested if Leonard passes and their best course of action is to remain patient – for an entire season.

But the Knicks can attest that keeping your cross-town rival from getting a player of Leonard’s caliber is just as important as getting him yourself – at least from a PR standpoint. So it’s full steam ahead for the Clippers until they hear otherwise from Leonard.

Miami Gets Jimmy Butler, But Can’t Add Much Else

Jimmy Butler turned down a full max deal with the 76ers. Butler made it clear that he wanted to join the Miami HEAT shortly after the start of free agency. After some false starts that involved the Dallas Mavericks, the HEAT finally reached an agreement that three other teams and the signing of Butler to a 4-year/$142 million deal.

The Blazers were operative in the deal, taking back Whiteside and sending Meyers Leonard to Miami. They also shipped Harkless to the Clippers. The 76ers received Josh Richardson back from Miami.

But what’s left for Miami to build around? The HEAT cannot get below the salary cap ($109.14 million) despite possessing a number of player options.. They can try to get creative with Goran Dragic’s contract – after all, they own most of their future first-round picks (except for 2021, which is ironically owed to Phoenix from the Dragic trade); they only own one of their next five second-round picks. So depending on who they’re looking to add, they might have to attach multiple first-round picks (again). And depending on the return, that equation shifts from creative to crazy.

But Butler turns 30 in September.  The HEAT clearly don’t want to waste his prime years. They should consider any upgrades to their roster – even if it means going deeper into debt. Because why else bring in the star if you weren’t planning on surrounding him with talent? Butler, Meyers Leonard and Justise Winslow is a nice start. Kelly Olynyk is a good role player. Dion Waiters is Dion Waiters. But if that’s your team (plus Dragic), you’re going to struggle to get out of the first-round.

The Golden State Warriors Attempt To Retool Around Their Original Core

Klay Thompson resigned with the Warriors for 5-years/$190 million. But Thompson will miss most of next season due to a knee injury suffered in game five of the NBA Finals. Steph Curry is signed through 2022 and Draymond Green is eligible following the 2019-20 season. So it appears as though the Warriors will build around its original core.

And it looks like they’ve begun doing so. Yes, they lost Kevin Durant to Brooklyn. But shortly after that deal was announced, news leaked that Durant-to-Brooklyn would be part of a larger sign-and-trade deal that included D’Angelo Russell signing a 4-years/$117 million deal with the Warriors, which cost the Warriors Andre Iguodala and a future first-round pick and also included the Memphis Grizzlies.

Russell represents a capable fill-in for Klay Thompson while he recovers from knee surgery. Russell and Steph Curry can both thrive on and off the ball; so while it’s a step back from Thompson given his defense, shooting and overall synergy with his teammates, Russell can power an offense and provide shooting and playmaking in a way that Thompson can’t. And after Thompson returns, the Warriors can either trade him for a more appropriate player or keep him around to see how the three could work together.

The Warriors also received Shabazz Napier and Treveon Graham in the sign-and-trade, but rerouted the two to Minnesota.

Furthermore, the Warriors signed former Sacramento Kings big man Willie Cauley-Stein for an unconfirmed amount. They also re-signed Kevon Looney to a three-year/$15 million deal.

So the 2019-20 Warriors roster is beginning to take shape. Free agency is still only three-and-a-half day old and it will be interesting to see who else the Warriors are able to add. But the Warriors are well over the cap (approximately $140 million in salary commitments for 2019-20), so they’ll have to be patient and grab minimum salary guys looking to either play with a winner or in the new San Francisco arena.

The Other Shoe Has Begun To Drop

(More than) qualified role players traditionally sign with contending teams for a discount. This allows them to compete for a championship and gets the team above average, veteran talent. This year, that philosophy remains unchanged

Yesterday evening, we saw three names come off the list of qualified role players: Wilson Chandler (1-year deal with the Brooklyn Nets), Jared Dudley (1-year/ $2.6 million with the Los Angeles Lakers) and Jeff Green (1-year/$2.5 million deal with the Utah Jazz).

The aforementioned players can all still play a relatively big role on a contender. Dudley was last seen brilliantly defending Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid in the first-round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. He brings leadership, grit and a very high basketball IQ.

Chandler and Green may do less of the dirty work, but they can both shoulder more of the offensive load. Chandler had a down year in Los Angeles in 2018-19, but he’s still only 32. And Green – also 32 –has always been seen as an ultra-versatile, albeit slightly passive, forward. He’s best when playing next to an alpha; but when he is, he can be quite effective. So much so that his signing prompted Dwyane Wade to take to Twitter in a rant questioning why Green has signed three straight minimum deals considering his skill set.

What’s more noteworthy than who has been signed, is where they’re going, though: Brooklyn, L.A. and Utah – three places not seen as key free agent destinations as recently as last year. Clearly, players are more concerned with who is on their new team’s roster than they are with the destination and/or region to call their new home. We’ll almost certainly see more of these bargain signings are free agency drags on. Which teams will sign discounted deals and with whom they’ll sign them will be key.

Free agency fireworks typically taper off after the first few days. Luckily for us, , we could be in for a drawn-out free agency thanks in part to Leonard. And with lots of other players awaiting his decision before making a move, we could be in a serious holding pattern.

Either way, this has already been a historically entertaining free agency – and it’s only July 3.

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NBA Daily: The Young, Western Conference Bubble

The race for the West’s final playoff spot may seem crowded, but the last two months make it clear that two teams are already ahead of the pack.

Douglas Farmer

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We all jump to conclusions too quickly, this space and this scribe most certainly included. Three months ago, five weeks into the NBA season, the Western Conference playoff bubble looked like it would be a race between the Sacramento Kings, Phoenix Suns and Minnesota Timberwolves. That has assuredly not become the reality.

While the Kings and Suns can claim to still be in the playoff race, they would have to not only make up five-game deficits, but they would also each have to jump over four other teams to reach the postseason. The Timberwolves would delight at such challenges as they initiate a not-so-subtle tank with franchise cornerstone Karl-Anthony Towns sidelined for at least a few weeks with a fractured wrist.

Instead, the race to be swept by the Los Angeles Lakers has come down to a pair of up-and-comers, a perpetual deep threat and the NBA’s most consistent organization. Of all of them, it is the youngsters who are both currently playing the best and have the most control of their playoff hopes relative to their competition.

Between the current No. 8-seeded Memphis Grizzlies, the Portland Trail Blazers (3 games back), New Orleans Pelicans (3.5) and San Antonio Spurs (4), the next six weeks will feature eight key games. Five of those will include either the Grizzlies or the Pelicans or, in two instances, both.

That pair of matchups is still a month out, but they warrant circling already, nonetheless. Memphis and New Orleans have been playing at a high level for two-plus months now, and by the time they play two games within four nights in late March — when the basketball world is largely distracted by the NCAA Tournament — the two inexperienced teams may have completely separated from Portland and San Antonio.

After starting 1-5, 5-13 and then 10-19, the Grizzlies have gone 18-9 since Dec. 21. The Pelicans have matched that record exactly, down to the date, since starting even worse than Memphis did, bottoming out at 7-23 before finding an uptick long before Zion Williamson found the court. Winning two-thirds of your games for two months is a stretch with a sample size large enough to make it clear: Neither Memphis nor New Orleans should be dismissed in this playoff chase.

Their early-season profiles were examples of young teams sliding right back into the lottery — and there was absolutely no indication a surge was coming.

Grizzlies Pelicans
Offensive Rating 106.4 – No. 23 106.8 – No. 21
Defensive Rating 111.7 – No. 23 113.5 – No. 27

Through Dec. 20; via nba.com.

Then, for whatever reason, things changed. They changed in every way and in ways so drastically that one cannot help but wonder what could come next for the teams led by the top-two picks from last summer’s draft.

Grizzlies Pelicans
Offensive Rating 111.9 – No. 15 115.1 – No. 4
Defensive Rating 109.3 – No. 11 110.3 – No. 13

Since Dec. 21, through Feb. 23; via nba.com.

In a further coincidence of records and timing, the Blazers and Spurs have both gone 13-16 since Dec. 21.

If all four teams in the thick of things out west continue at these two-month winning rates for another month, then Portland and San Antonio will have drifted out of the playoff conversation before Williamson and Ja Morant meet for a second time. Of course, those rates would keep New Orleans a few games back of Memphis; the latter has 14 games, compared to 12, before March 21, so the gap in the standings would actually expand to an even four games.

If the Pelicans can just pick up a game or two before then, though, they have already beaten the Grizzlies twice this season. Doing so twice more that week would just about send New Orleans into the playoffs – at which point, perhaps Williamson could steal a game from LeBron James to put a finishing coda on his rookie season.

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NBA Daily: The Stretch Run — Southwest Division

David Yapkowitz finishes Basketball Insiders’ Stretch Run series with an overview of the Southwest Division.

David Yapkowitz

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We’ve hit that point in the NBA season approaching the final stretch of games before the playoffs roll around in April. The trade deadline has come and gone, the buyout market is wearing thin and most teams have loaded up and made their final roster moves in anticipation of the postseason.

Here at Basketball Insiders, we’re taking a look at each team — division by division– at what they need to do to get ready for the playoffs, or lack thereof. Looking at the Southwest Division, this was a division that used to be one of the toughest in the league.

It still is for the most part. The Texas triangle of the Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs was no joke and hell for opposing teams on a road trip. Those are still a couple of formidable teams, but with the exception of the Rockets, it’s not quite near the level of yesteryear.

The Memphis Grizzlies and New Orleans Pelicans are a pair of young, up-and-coming teams that will give you 100 percent every night. While Memphis sits firmly in the eighth spot in the Western Conference, the Pelicans are on the outside looking in. Here’s a look at how each team might fare in the stretch run.

The Houston Rockets have been the best team in the Southwest all season long, and all that remains for them is playoff positioning. They currently sit in fourth place in the West, giving them home-court advantage in the first round, but they could just as easily slip a bit with the Utah Jazz essentially tied with them record-wise in the standings and the Oklahoma City Thunder a mere two games back.

The Dallas Mavericks have taken a huge leap this season behind Luka Doncic, who is rapidly becoming one of the best players in the league. They currently sit in seventh place in the West and a return to the postseason is in the cards for the Mavericks.

The rest of the teams in the Southwest is where things get a little interesting. The Grizzlies have been one of the surprises of the season, as they’ve defied expectations and are firmly entrenched in the playoff race out West. They have a three-game lead on the Portland Trail Blazers and a four-game lead on the San Antonio Spurs.

Out of the Grizzlies’ final 26 games, 15 of them come against teams over .500, more than either the Blazers or the Spurs. 14 of those final 26 are also on the road, again, more than the Blazers or the Spurs. They also play both the Spurs and Blazers one more time this season. If the Grizzlies end up making the playoffs, it will be very well earned.

The Spurs are knocking on the door, and they have one more game against the Grizzlies which could prove to be very meaningful. This is a team that has been one of the standard-bearers in the league for success over the past decade. Their streak of playoff appearances is in serious jeopardy.

They’ve won two of their last three games, however, and out of their final 26 games, 15 of those are at home, where they are 14-12. Based on how the Grizzlies are playing though, a close to .500 record at home probably isn’t going to cut it. They’re going to need to pick it up a bit over the next month if they want to keep their playoff streak intact. A lot can happen between now and then, and the Grizzlies do have a tough remaining schedule, but it looks as if San Antonio will miss the playoffs for the first time in 22 years.

The final team in the Southwest is the Pelicans, boosted by the return of prized rookie and No.1 draft pick Zion Williamson. Prior to the start of the season, the Pelicans were looked at as a team that could possibly contend for the eighth seed in the West. Then Williamson got hurt and things changed.

But the team managed to stay afloat in his absence, and as it stands, they’re only three-and-a-half games back of the Grizzlies with 26 games left to play. Out of the bottom three teams in the division, it’s the Pelicans who have the easiest schedule.

Out of those 25 games, only seven of them come against teams over .500. They are, however, just about split with home and away games. New Orleans is 8-2 over their past 10 games, better than the Grizzlies and Spurs. If Memphis falters down the stretch due to its tough schedule, and the Pelicans start gaining a little bit of steam, things could get interesting in the final few weeks.

In all likelihood, the Pelicans probably won’t make the playoffs as not only do they have to catch up to the Grizzlies, but the Spurs and Blazers as well. But it certainly will be fun to watch them try.

There are some big storylines in the Southwest Division worth following as we begin the final run to the postseason. Can the young Grizzlies defy expectations and make a surprise return to the playoffs? Will the Spurs get their playoff streak snapped and finally look to hit the reset button after nearly two decades of excellence? Can the Pelicans, buoyed by Williamson’s return, make a strong final push?

Tune in to what should be fun final stretch in the Southwest.

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NBA Daily: The Stretch Run — Southeast Division

With the All-Star Break behind us, the final stretch of NBA games has commenced. Quinn Davis takes a look at a few teams in the Southeast Division that have a chance at making the dance.

Quinn Davis

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Well, that was fast.

With the NBA All-Star break in the rearview, there are now fewer than 30 games to play for all 30 NBA teams. In other words, time is running out for certain teams to improve their seeding in the conference.

Here at Basketball Insiders, we will be looking at a certain subset of teams that are right on the border of making or missing the playoffs. In this edition, the focus will be on the Southeast Division.

The Southeast features three teams — the Charlotte Hornets, Orlando Magic and Washington Wizards — operating in the lower-middle-class of the NBA. These three will be slugging it out over the next month-and-a-half for the right to meet the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round of the playoffs.

The two remaining teams are the Miami HEAT and Atlanta Hawks. As this is being written, the former is comfortably in the playoffs at 35-20, while the latter is comfortably gathering more ping pong balls at 16-41.

In this space, the focus will be on the three bubble teams. The Magic are currently frontrunners for the eighth seed, but the Wizards and Hornets are within striking distance if things were to go awry.

Led by head coach Steve Clifford, the Magic have ground their way to the eighth seed behind an eighth-ranked defense. Lanky wing Aaron Gordon is the standout, helping the Magic execute their scheme of walling off the paint. The Magic only allow 31.3 percent of opponent shots to come at the rim, putting them in 89th percentile in the league, per Cleaning The Glass.

Following a post-break loss to Dallas Mavericks, the Magic sit at 24-32 and three games up on the ninth-seeded Wizards. While a three-game margin doesn’t sound like much, that is a sizable cushion with only 26 games to play. Basketball-Reference gives the Magic a 97.4 percent chance to make the playoffs.

The Magic have the third-easiest remaining schedule out of Eastern Conference teams. They have very winnable games coming against the Bulls, Hornets, Cavaliers, Knicks and Pistons. They also have multiple games coming against the Brooklyn Nets, the team they trail by only 1.5 games for the seventh seed.

The Magic are prone, however, to dropping games against the league’s bottom-feeders. It can be difficult to string together wins with an offense this sluggish. The Markelle Fultz experiment has added some spark in that department, but his lack of an outside shot still leaves the floor cramped.

After a quick analysis of the schedule, the most likely scenario appears to be a 12-14 record over the last 26 games, putting the Magic at 36-46 come season’s end. A record like that should not be allowed anywhere near playoff basketball, but it would probably be enough to meet the Bucks in round one.

If the Magic go 12-14, that would leave the Wizards, fresh off a loss to J.B. Bickerstaff and the Cleveland Cavaliers, needing to go 17-11 over their last 28 games. They will need to finish one game ahead as the Magic hold the head-to-head tiebreaker.

The Wizards finishing that strong becomes even more farfetched when you consider their remaining schedule. They have the second-toughest slate from here on out, per Basketball-Reference.

The Wizards do have a trump card in Bradley Beal, who is the best player among the bubble teams in the East. He has now scored 25 points or more in 13 straight games and has been the driving force behind the Wizards staying in the race.

He has also picked up his defense a bit following his All-Star snub in an effort to silence his critics. The increased focus on that end is nice, but it would’ve been a little nicer if it had been a part of his game earlier in this season when the Wizards were by far the worst defense in the league.

Even if Beal goes bonkers, it is hard to see a path for this Wizards team to sneak in outside of a monumental collapse in Orlando. Looking at their schedule, it would take some big upsets to even get to 10 wins over their last 28. Their most likely record to finish the season is 8-20 if all games go to the likely favorites.

The Wizards’ offense has been impressive all season, but injuries and a porous defense have been too much to overcome.

The Hornets, meanwhile, trail the Wizards by 1.5 games and the Magic by 4.5 games. They have won their last three in a row to put themselves back in this race, but they still have an uphill climb.

The Hornets also may have raised the proverbial white flag by waiving two veterans in Marvin Williams and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. The goal coming into this season was never to make the playoffs, so they are likely more interested in developing young talent over these last 27 games.

If the Magic do play up to their usual levels and go 12-14, it would require the Hornets to go 18-9 to finish the season against the sixth-toughest remaining schedule in the East.

Devonte’ Graham and his three-point shooting have been a bright spot for the Hornets, but it would take some otherworldly performances from him and Terry Rozier down the stretch to put together a record like that. Basketball-Reference gives this a 0.02 percent chance of happening (cue the Jim Carrey GIF).

Barring a miracle, the eight playoff teams in the Eastern Conference are locked in place. The only questions remaining are how seeds 2-6 will play out, and whether the Magic can catch the Nets for the seventh spot.

The Wizards will fight to the end, but it is unlikely they make up any ground given the level of opponents they will see over the next six weeks. The Hornets, meanwhile, are more likely to fight for lottery odds.

At least the playoffs should be exciting.

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