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NBA Daily: Free Agent Watch – Day 1

Free Agency has finally arrived, and after the first day, Matt illustrates why this one is already one for the books.

Matt John

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“It’s the most wonderful time of the year!
With those millions in writing,
And All-Stars combining to give hope or fear!
It’s the most wonderful time of the year!”

Seriously though, for junkies like us, the NBA offseason is basically the holidays. People always talk about how they can’t stand all the pressure, all the buildup for when we see the next twist of the offseason. But let’s be honest. We love it. Even if things don’t always turn out the way we wanted it to, we love all the thrills and anxieties that manifest themselves from free agency.

Leading up to the 6:00 EST starting line, this summer was hyped up to be as epic as it could ever be thanks to its deep class of stars on the open market. It hasn’t even been a full day yet, and it’s already lived up to the hype. Best of all, we still have lofty cliffhangers that have yet to be resolved.

About the whole “tampering” debacle

If you’ve been paying attention since the start of all of this, you would know that a fair amount of these deals that have been agreed to this summer were reportedly done before free agency officially began. It’s pretty obnoxious to see that teams are clearly talking to players before they are permitted to, and it makes seem as though the rules aren’t being enforced.

To be fair, the rules against tampering are like the drinking age. Legally you’re not supposed to take a sip of alcohol until you’re 21, but how many people who drink actually waited until they were of age to do so? Point being is that this is a rule that NBA teams bend as much as they can.

The NBA can do all it can to change this. They can make the rules stricter. They can hand out harsher punishments. Honestly, though, the league’s best move may be just to let things be the way they are. You know how they say any press is good press? Everyone tunes into the NBA offseason as much as they can, so this kind of attention is only good for the NBA. There’s no need to ruin something that is clearly profitable.

It’s a shame that tampering still happens quite often no matter what the NBA tries to do to get rid of it, but that’s what makes it fun.

Now, onto the real plot lines everybody wants to read about.

A new contender has emerged

After receiving the worst hand it could have possibly imagined not too long ago, this team has swiftly built itself into a squad that won’t be messing around with anyone this upcoming season. Before it was just a pipedream, but now, a title can definitely be in play for these guys. That’s right, the Utah Jazz have now taken the next step into title contention.

Oh wait, did you think this writer was talking about Brooklyn? We’ll get to them, but for now, let’s talk about the team who, as a result from Day 1 of Free Agency, will definitely be a contender next season.

Crap, was that a spoiler?

After suffering their second consecutive gentleman’s sweep at the hands of the Houston Rockets, Jazz executive vice president Dennis Lindsey swore to fans that some major changes were in order. Utah doesn’t exactly have the best reputation as a free agent destination and didn’t have exactly top-notch assets, so many were interested to see what major changes they could orchestrate.

Now, after the season ended only two months ago, Lindsey and the Jazz have lived up to their promise and then some. Utah has pounced on every opportunity that presented itself for the team to get better. If that sounds ludicrous to you, let’s go over the checklist for what the Jazz needed to improve themselves this offseason.

  1. Get another scorer/playmaker to take some of the heavy offensive burden off of Donovan Mitchell — Traded for Mike Conley – Check
  2. Get a floor spacer/complementary scorer who can be paired up in the frontcourt with Rudy Gobert — Signed Bojan Bogdanvoic – Check
  3. Get a back-up big who can replace Derrick Favors with his energy and rebounding — Signed Ed Davis – Check

On paper, this is the best Jazz team assembled since the Deron Williams days, and if things break their way, they could be seeing success much similar to the Malone/Stockton days. The Jazz were once an adorable little train that could. Now they’re a freight train at full throttle with no brakes to speak of.

Brooklyn has created a… new super team?

If you think this writer doesn’t approve of all the moves Brooklyn has made up to this point, you’re dead wrong. Brooklyn just hauled in Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and DeAndre Jordan. All on discounts too. In the process, they added a solid 3&D wing in Garrett Temple as well as traded D’Angelo Russell and a few others to open up roster spots for ring-chasers.

However, if you think that means it’s smooth sailing for Brooklyn from here on out, you’re dead wrong. Durant is currently recovering from an Achilles tear he suffered merely weeks ago. Missing the entire season is very much in the realm of possibility. Even if say he comes back the next season fully healthy, he’ll be 32. Without Durant, Brooklyn is a solid team, but not a contender. If he’s not the Kevin Durant we know and love when he gets back, then they definitely won’t be a contender. Giving him a near-max contract is a risk, but since it’s KD, it’s a much safer risk than most.

It doesn’t just end with him. Kyrie Irving has proven himself to be a negative in the locker room. DeAndre Jordan hasn’t played like DeAndre Jordan in two years. That can both be remedied now that they are playing in a situation they obviously prefer to be in. Something to consider – they were in good situations before they grew tired of them. For the Nets’ sake, hopefully, history doesn’t repeat itself.

The return of the sign and trade

Remember when signs-and-trades were rare? Especially nowadays? Not many players agree to those kinds of deals anymore, but after Day 1 of Free Agency, the sign-and-trade has had itself a little bit of a renaissance.

And these agreements haven’t been over minor roster tweaks. These deals have actually been involved with some of the most important players that were on the market. Since the bell rang at 6, we’ve seen S&T’s involving Kevin Durant, Jimmy Butler and Kemba Walker – just to name a few.

Due to the sign and trade, the following has happened:

  • The Warriors have brought in a whole new dimension to their team with D’Angelo Russell aboard.
  • The Nets could afford to bring in all the targets they wanted and cheaper than the market value that was placed on them.
  • The Celtics now have their new star point guard to replace their previous one.
  • The HEAT have now (hopefully) found new life with their newest face of the franchise in Jimmy Butler, who was a sizable upgrade compared to what they had.
  • The Sixers (hopefully) found good value for a player in Josh Richardson, who was leaving anyway and opened space to pay for another star.
  • The Hornets didn’t lose their star player for nothing and have their point guard of the future in Terry Rozier (…hopefully).

Many thought the sign-and-trade was dead. As we can see, it’s alive and well.

Teams have gotten knocked down, but not out

Among all that was gained in Day 1, plenty was lost.

Golden State lost Kevin Durant. Philadelphia lost Jimmy Butler and JJ Redick. Boston lost Kyrie Irving and Al Horford. Milwaukee lost Malcolm Brogdon.

Even with that, teams re-tooled in order to keep their status.

  • To make up for their loss of Durant, the Warriors added D’Angelo Russell.
  • To make up for their loss of Butler and Redick, the Sixers added Horford and Josh Richardson.
  • To make up for the loss of Irving and Horford, Boston added Kemba Walker.
  • To make up for their loss of Brogdon, the Bucks brought their core guys back plus added Robin Lopez.

There are still questions with both what they lost and they gained, but some appreciation is in order that even though they probably would have preferred otherwise, they have weathered the storm.

Indiana is a better example of this. In the last day or so, the Pacers have lost Darren Collison, Thaddeus Young and Bojan Bogdanovic, all of whom combined are a major net loss for them. However, the team has added a young scorer in TJ Warren, a solid rotation player in Jeremy Lamb and the ideal complement for Victor Oladipo, Malcolm Brogdon.

Perhaps the best example of this is New Orleans. David Griffin has been as savvy as ever this offseason in the face of his new franchise losing arguably its most talented player ever. We don’t need to list off everything he acquired for Anthony Davis because you already know. In free agency, he’s made smart moves that boost the team and doesn’t drag it down financially.

The Pelicans did not have reliable spacing leading up to the free agency. To aid that, they gave Redick a fairly manageable two-year deal worth $26 million. The Pelicans also needed some frontcourt help even with the addition of Zion Williamson. Without sacrificing much, they acquired the criminally underrated Derrick Favors from Utah.

As some of the premier teams have shown us, losing some of your best players is not an easy task, but that doesn’t mean you can’t manage without them.

The Kawhi sweepstakes are heating up

Among all the hoopla that was going on during the first day of free agency, you may have noticed that not many moves have been made by Kawhi’s top suitors: The Lakers, Clippers and of course, Raptors.

The Lakers have traded everyone not named LeBron, Anthony or Kyle to make room for Kawhi. The Raptors have only had Marc Gasol opt-in to return next season. The Clippers just now re-signed Patrick Beverley, which, according to Eric Pincus, will not financially affect their pursuit of Kawhi.

The minimal number of moves demonstrates that all three are putting all of their eggs in the Kawhi basket. It’s a shame he can’t be shared. Only one of them can have him, and as the Knicks have shown from Day 1, there’s always someone who ends up being the loser of the offseason. When the Kawhi chase is over, we’ll have two more.

Not that all will be lost for the two teams who Kawhi leaves in the dust. It’s that when he does, there will be major implications for what will happen to them next season. Plan B for all of them isn’t too promising of an outlook.

There are plenty more plot lines to choose from, like what the Knicks are doing now that they’ve missed out on Durant and Irving. Or why exactly the Kings paid $65 million combined for Trevor Ariza and Dewayne Dedmon. Or how NBA Twitter will fare now that the Lopez twins are on the same team.

So many exciting moves out there are worth analyzing in less than 24 hours time.

As this writer said, it’s the most wonderful time of the year…

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NBA

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

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

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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