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NBA Daily: Ranking The Free Agents – Power Forwards

All week, Basketball Insiders has examined the best potential free agent signings at each position ahead of free agency. Ben Nadeau assesses the free agent power forwards hoping to sign new deals.

Ben Nadeau

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Basketball Insiders has recently started a new series detailing the top free agents by position as a primer for the free agency period beginning on July 1.

As a short recap, or if you’re looking for more pre-research, we’ve got you covered. Drew Maresca grabbed the point guards, then Jordan Hicks hit up the shooting guards a day later. On Friday, Spencer Davies went into the available small forwards — which now brings us to this point.

Before getting into the actual free agents, here’s a look at what the salary cap numbers project to be. The NBA’s salary cap is expected to jump from $101 million to $109 million this offseason. Based on that, here are the projected numbers for max contracts:

$27,250,000 for players with 0-6 years of experience

$32,700,000 for players with 7-9 years of experience

$38,150,000 for players with 10+ years of experience

In addition, the mid-level exception for teams in the first year is expected to be $9,246,000, while the taxpayer MLE is expected to be $5,711,000 and the room MLE is expected to be $4,760,000.

If you want a full list of players in the pool, feel free to refer to this page for a list of all the notable free agents-to-be.

Max Guys

Kristaps Porzingis* – Dallas Mavericks – Last Year’s Salary: $5,697,054

Needless to say, this category both begins and ends with the Latvian unicorn, an insanely unique power forward that the Knicks had to ship off ahead of an oncoming trade demand. Although Porzingis himself has floated the idea of accepting the qualifying offer — a move that would make him unrestricted in 2020 — the Mavericks seem absolutely committed to keeping him around. Of course, Porzingis is currently in the latter-end stages of ACL recovery but the talents are undeniable. The last time he was healthy, the seven-footer was averaging 22.7 points, 6.6 rebounds and 2.4 blocks on 39.5 percent from three-point range. So being paired with Luka Doncic for the next decade, that’s a seriously dangerous core.

As reported, the Dallas appears ready to offer Porzingis the full five-year max worth $158 million — and, more, that the generational talent will accept it.

Naturally, it is worth noting the active rape allegations against Porzingis — although quiet currently  — but it will not impact his free agency at this point in time.

Where Does He Fit: Everywhere, but Dallas will keep him.

New Deal: We’ll say 5 years/$158 million with the Mavericks.

Near Max Guys

Julius Randle – New Orleans Pelicans – Last Year’s Salary: $8,641,000

In March, this writer looked hard at Randle’s career-year and discussing his impending major payday — at long last, it’s almost here. Randle was surplus in the offseason that brought LeBron James to Los Angeles, so, instead of signing a long-term deal, the power forward bet on himself in a big way. Randle averaged 21.4 points, 8.7 rebounds and 3.1 assists on 52.4 percent from the floor in New Orleans, a team that openly struggled with Anthony Davis’ mid-season trade request. He’ll have no shortage of suitors this summer — although those with the available money that Randle commands will be chasing bigger fish — Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, etc. — during the opening week of free agency.

Where Does He Fit: The amount of teams that could use a bullish, high-scoring power forward is not a short one, although the Brooklyn Nets, New York Knicks, Dallas Mavericks and Chicago Bulls are all reportedly interested in his services.

New Deal: The Knicks, after missing out on Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, move to a Plan B that includes young, potential-laden players like Randle. In New York, Randle grabs a well-deserved 4-year/$72 million deal and joins forces with Mitchell Robinson, Kevin Knox and RJ Barrett. All things considered, it’s a nice fallback plan for the Knicks.

Above Mid-Level Guys

Nikola Mirotic – Milwaukee Bucks – Last Year’s Salary: $12,500,000

Although his numbers bounced a bit after joining the Eastern Conference-leading Bucks in February, Mirotic has put himself in the crosshairs of a big offseason. Prior to that deal, Mirotic was thriving with the Pelicans, just like Randle, to the tune of 16.7 points, 8.3 rebounds and 2.7 three-pointers per game on 36.8 percent from deep. In today’s NBA, Mirotic is not a unicorn by any means, but the stretch four is a position that every legitimate contender will chase this summer.

At 28 years-old, the Montenegran will be looking for a juicy, long-term deal and the Bucks have plenty of other big free agent concerns on their plate — Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez and Malcolm Brogdon in particular.

Given Giannis Antetokounmpo’s swift rise to MVP status, it would behoove the Bucks to keep surrounding him with elite shooters and Mirotic fits the bill. But with all that other business taking precedence, it wouldn’t be surprising to see another team in need of shooting attempt a scoop on the 6-foot-10 flamethrower.

Where Does He Fit: Again, everywhere, especially teams that can make up for his defensive deficiencies like the Bucks or the rumored Utah Jazz.

New Deal: Mirotic could receive offers in the range of $13 million according to Jordan Brenner of The Athletic. Again, we’ll need to wait and see on a number of other conclusions before Mirotic becomes a priority, but the Bucks should remain the favorites for a 3-year/$39 million contract.

Bobby Portis* – Washington Wizards – Last Year’s Salary: $2,494,346

Bobby Portis wants as much as $16 million per year, according to The Athletic’s Tony Jones and Fred Katz, but the market is still very murky for the young forward. For their efforts, the Wizards have tendered a qualifying offer to Portis, thus making him restricted this offseason, but they’re not expected to match a huge offer.

The 24-year-old averaged 14.2 points and 8.1 rebounds per game between two teams in 2018-19, continuing his ascent up the positional ladder. As an added bonus, Portis has improved his three-point shot along the way too, even hitting on 1.7 three-pointers on an excellent 40.3 percent clip.

That type of consistent rise might be worth investing in for a team that strikes out big, but wants to add a piece with potential nonetheless.

Where Does He Fit: The Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers, Utah Jazz, Milwaukee Bucks and New York Knicks all have interest in the rangy Portis, as reported by Chase Hughes of NBC Sports Washington. Additionally, the Knicks may increase their interest – a la Randle — should their Plan A goes sideways.

But if Favors moves on in Utah — or returns on a much, much smaller deal — Portis seems like an intriguing marriage, although his defense leaves much to be desired.

New Deal: Portis won’t quite reach his $16 million per year asking price, but the Mavericks will come close with a deal near 4 years/$52 million.

Derrick Favors** – Utah Jazz – Last Year’s Salary: $16,900,000

Favors, a long-time consummate piece for the steadily-growing Jazz, has a $17 million deal set for 2019-20 — but the Jazz have until July 6 to guarantee it. If not, Favors will become unrestricted — in fact, reported by Shams Charania of The Athletic, he will field interested calls when free agency opens just in case. Favors, who turns 28 next month, averaged 11.8 points and 7.4 rebounds per game and paired perfectly with Rudy Gobert, a two-time Defensive Player of the Year.

Where Does He Fit: Favors is a high-percentage forward that rebounds well, so although he wouldn’t command another $16 million-plus deal, there will be a market with little question. The nine-year veteran is the type of defender that can help transform a unit without eating up offensive possessions either. He won’t drag defenders away from the hoop, but he’s excellent at shutting down the opposition at the rim — so expect many, many teams to kick the tires.

New Deal: If the Lakers opt for depth over star status with that new-found cap space, Favors would be a fantastic option for Los Angeles. With Anthony Davis’ injury history and LeBron James’ need to rest up more often, Favors provides no-nonsense defense and strong rebounding at a reduced cost. If he doesn’t stay with Utah, it’s feasible to see Favors to the Lakers on a 2-year/$24 million agreement.

Thaddeus Young – Indiana Pacers – Last Year’s Salary: $13,764,045

The perennially-underrated Young hits free agency as a will-be targeted piece for many on-the-edge franchises. It’s not difficult to see how Young, a strong scorer with range and a big-time motor, could find a home across most of the league. As a highly-regarded team player, Young averaged around 12 points and 6 rebounds over 81 games in back-to-back seasons for the upstart Pacers. But with Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner developing nicely, the need to bring Young back has certainly lessened with Indiana in search of a valuable point guard instead.

Young is not a standout at any one thing, but he’s averaged 10 or more points in every campaign since 2008 and has a nose for tough, clutch baskets — often just when the Pacers needed it the most. Favors is the better defender, so expect the former to grab a slightly bigger deal, but Young won’t be far behind.

Where Does He Fit: Need a locker room guy? Hello, Phoenix. Need to plug some holes? The Boston Celtics sure make sense there. Hell, if the Jazz end up waiving Favors and need a new plan, Young would thrive in Utah, too.

New Deal: For this exercise, Young does the trick for a suddenly-thin Boston frontcourt at 2 years/$22 million.

Jabari Parker – Washington Wizards – Last Year’s Salary: $20,0000

Even with the tough injuries Parker has suffered over the years, it’s hard to believe that we’re here with the talented 24-year-old. After signing a two-year deal worth a whopping $20 million per season with the Chicago Bulls last summer, Parker dipped in and out of the rotation before he was traded with Bobby Portis to Washington. Parker can undoubtedly score, but he’s far removed from the campaign in which he averaged 20 points and 6.2 rebounds per game back in 2016-17 — still, it may be a worthy endeavor. The Wizards declined their option on year two of that aforementioned deal, but there’s mutual interest to negotiate a new one, reportedly.

Where Does He Fit: Parker fits well on a roster like Washington, a place where the expectations are low and their playoff chances are stuck in fifth gear. They’ve got Bradley Beal, obviously, but beyond that, the Wizards don’t have any choice but to keep looking for solutions that do work. Parker’s not a shooter with consistent range yet, unfortunately, but teams like Cleveland, Miami, Minnesota, Memphis and Charlotte should all do their due diligence on the 6-foot-8 bucket-getter.

New Deal: Parker’s got a next-to-no chance of receiving the same financial amount from last summer — but the structure might be similar. Memphis takes the dive at a 2-year/$20 million agreement, plus that all-important team option for year two once again.

Mid-Level or Below Guys

Ed Davis – Brooklyn Nets – Last Year’s Salary: $4,449,000

Davis was a beacon of shining light in Brooklyn, often gobbling up rebound after rebound as the Nets surprised everybody. Although he wasn’t a starter and much of the highlight-reel plaudits went to Jarrett Allen, Davis was, as always, one of the most valuable players on the roster for Brooklyn. He outpaced Rondae Hollis-Jefferson as the Nets’ best defender by rating (102.2) and had 32 outings with 10 or more rebounds in just 17.9 minutes per contest. When Davis left the Trail Blazers as surplus last summer, Portland fans rioted. Wherever Davis goes, he’s well-loved.

And if he took a discount to play for Brooklyn last year, he’s probably won’t do it again, per Michael Scotto of The Athletic.

The most the Nets can offer, via Bird Rights, is around two years at a total of $11 million.

Where Does He Fit: Whew, the flexibility! If the Nets snuck a fast one past the NBA last summer, the secret is definitely out now: Ed Davis, without a doubt, makes your team better. He, too, should be an option for just about everybody — but the Lakers should be the first to make that call. The Clippers, Jazz, Pelicans, Celtics and more, the list goes on as most franchises could use a rebounder like Davis.

New Deal: After bouncing around the league for much of his nine-year career, Davis can settle in with the Nets. He continues to fill a very real need, but until Jarrett Allen gets bigger and stronger — as well as the recently-drafted Nic Claxton — the Nets will need somebody like Davis. If he likes the opportunity for consistent minutes on a likely playoff-bound team, Davis could take the 2-year/$11 million offer and stay put.

Marcus Morris – Boston Celtics – Last Year’s Salary: $5,375,000

The Morris-wrapped enigma has been tough to nail down as of late, but he was an essential piece of that deep Boston roster. Over the last two years, Morris has done well both as a starter and off the bench alongside Al Horford and company. Notably, Morris has made one-plus three-pointer per game in every season since 2012 but also made a career-best 1.9 on 37.5 percent last year. When the Celtics were going through their mid-season slump, Morris didn’t mince words in the locker room and was key in righting the ship — so what team wouldn’t love a veteran like that?

Where Does He Fit: Morris may be Mirotic-lite from three-point range, but he’s a much better defender. The 6-foot-9 forward can play in a featured role or thrive as an energy piece off the bench. The Lakers need shooting, while the Kings need some new veterans to steer the likes of Marvin Bagley III and Harry Giles towards their respective next steps. With a nearly non-existent frontcourt, however, it might make sense for Morris to stick around in Boston too.

New Deal: Deep shooting and solid defense would be worth the mid-level exception/2-year partnership for the young and fast Sacramento Kings.

Taj Gibson – Minnesota Timberwolves – Last Year’s Salary: $14,000,000

DeMarre Carroll – Brooklyn Nets – Last Year’s Salary: $15,4000

Kevon Looney – Golden State Warriors – Last Year’s Salary: $1,512,601

Jordan Bell* – Golden State Warriors – Last Year’s Salary: $1,378,242

JaMychal Green – Los Angeles Clippers – Last Year’s Salary: $7,666,667

Zach Randolph – Sacramento Kings – Last Year’s Salary: $11, 692,308

Noah Vonleh – New York Knicks – Last Year’s Salary: $1,512,601

Kenneth Faried – Houston Rockets – Last Year’s Salary: $683,661

Mike Scott – Philadelphia 76ers – Last Year’s Salary: $4,320,500

Other Notable Free Agents

Ryan Anderson** – Miami HEAT – Last Year’s Salary: $20,421,546

Daniel Theis* – Boston Celtics – Last Year’s Salary: $1,378,242

Luc Mbah a Moute – Free Agents – Last Year’s Salary: $4,320,500

Dante Cunningham – San Antonio Spurs – Last Year’s Salary: $2,487,000

Maxi Kleber* – Dallas Mavericks – Last Year’s Salary: $1,378,242

Richaun Holmes – Philadelphia 76ers – Last Year’s Salary: $1,6000,520

Dragan Bender – Phoenix Suns — Last Year’s Salary: $4,661,280

Marquese Chriss — Cleveland Cavaliers – Last Year’s Salary: $3,206,160

Markieff Morris – Oklahoma City Thunder — Last Year’s Salary: $427,288

Cheick Diallo — New Orleans Pelicans – Last Year’s Salary: $1,544,951

Georges Niang** – Utah Jazz – Last Year’s Salary: $1,512,601

Jonas Jerebko – Golden State Warriors – Last Year’s Salary: $1,512,601

Lance Thomas – New York Knicks – Last Year’s Salary: $7,119,650

Michael Beasley – Free Agents – Last Year’s Salary: $3,500,000

Jeff Green – Boston Celtics – Last Year’s Salary: $1,512,601

Trey Lyles* – Denver Nuggets – Last Year’s Salary: $3,364,249

Anthony Tolliver – Minnesota Timberwolves – Last Year’s Salary: $5,750,000

Mike Muscala – Los Angeles Lakers – Last Year’s Salary: $5,000,000

Darrell Arthur – Denver Nuggets – Last Year’s Salary: $7,464,912

Jarell Martin* – Orland Magic – Last Year’s Salary: $2,416,222

Udonis Haslem – Miami Heat – Last Year’s Salary: $1,512,601

Sam Dekker – Washington Wizards – Last Year’s Salary: $2,760,095

Amir Johnson – Philadelphia 76ers – Last Year’s Salary: $1,512,601

Henry Ellenson**** – New York Knicks – Last Year’s Salary: $341,831

Quincy Acy – Free Agents – Last Year’s Salary: $85,458

Tyler Lydon – Denver Nuggets – Last Year’s Salary: $1,874,640

Chris Boucher** – Toronto Raptors – Last Year’s Salary: $457,418

Ivan Rabb** – Memphis Grizzlies – Last Year’s Salary: $1,378,242

Alize Johnson** – Indiana Pacers – Last Year’s Salary: $838,464

Duncan Robinson** – Miami Heat – Last Year’s Salary: $9,474

Ray Spalding – Phoenix Suns – Last Year’s Salary: $184,746

Isaiah Hartenstein** – Houston Rockets – Last Year’s Salary: $838,464

Yante Maten** – Miami Heat – Last Year’s Salary: $18,948

Gary Clark** – Houston Rockets – Last Year’s Salary: $596,873

*Qualifying Offer (If made and accepted, the player becomes a restricted free agent)

**Non-Guaranteed Contract (If the player is waived by his current team before the contract becomes fully guaranteed, he becomes an unrestricted free agent)

***Player Option (The player has the choice of whether to opt-in for another year with his current team or opt-out to become an unrestricted free agent)

****Team Option (The team has the choice of whether to pick up a player for another year or opt-out to have him become an unrestricted free agent)

Although this position isn’t as star-studded as the others, there are plenty of notable pieces worth adding. There are potential-laden youngsters and hard-working veterans to be hard — but most of these names won’t come off the board until the big shopping is done and dusted. Tomorrow, our series will wrap up just ahead of free agency opening, so be sure to stay tuned into Basketball Insiders.

Ben Nadeau is a Seattle-based writer in his second year with Basketball Insiders. For five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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Could Gordon Hayward Officially Be ‘Back?’

Following what had to be a frustrating season, Gordon Hayward is showing signs of being the Hayward of old. Matt John examines what looks different about Gordon and what impact that could have on the Boston Celtics.

Matt John

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Let’s not dwell on Gordon Hayward’s injury from two years ago. You probably saw it, and if you didn’t, first of all, consider yourself lucky; and second, you probably know what happened.

Instead, let’s talk about what happened this past season with Gordon. In hindsight, maybe we should have seen his struggles coming. What happened back on opening night in 2017 would be quite the hurdle for anyone to get over one year later, but in Hayward’s case, it may have been worse for him than anyone could have expected.

Hayward entered the summer of 2018 hoping to get back into his old routine, but after experiencing serious discomfort, Gordon opted to get another surgery at that time to remove the screws in his ankle. Little did everyone know, the second surgery was a major setback for the former All-Star. All of his plans he had got pushed back to the fall, which – long story short – meant that Hayward had little time to prepare for the start of last season.

That should have been the red flag that maybe the Celtics weren’t getting the old Gordon back to start. It’s tough because since they were paying him handsomely, they wanted to get him involved as much as possible on a team that wanted a championship. Unfortunately, it was clear through the first couple of months that he was both not back to normal and would take time to get up to speed.

It was nobody’s fault. Fate threw both the Celtics and Gordon some unfair and unexpected twists.

Did he get better as the season went on? Uh… sure? Every so often we got flashes of the old Hayward, but they were few and far between. Another problem was that Gordon was on a team filled with one too many guys who needed both minutes and touches. Force-feeding him minutes when he was still in recovery over talented players at full health was a frustrating ordeal for everyone.

Hayward ended the regular season on a promising stretch and followed that up with a solid outing against the very short-handed Pacers in the first round of the playoffs. His progress halted when Boston faced Milwaukee the following round. Everything fell apart for the Celtics when that series ended, but Hayward’s disappearance specifically made any remaining optimism surrounding his comeback follow suit. Being outplayed by Pat Connaughton, who was making barely over five percent of his salary, would do that to him.

When it was over, one question remained. Would Gordon Hayward ever be Gordon Hayward again?

The man who just two seasons before was coming off of the best one of his career, averaging 22 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.5 assists on 47/40/84 splits? The man who while leading an excellent Jazz team, was a shoo-in All-Star and garnered serious all-NBA consideration during that time? The man who the Celtics traded down from the first overall pick, as well as the long-tenured Avery Bradley, to make room for him money-wise?

We can’t really answer that at the current moment since we’re only entering the beginning of preseason. But since the start of training camp, all reports about Hayward have been encouraging to say the least.

It started with Enes Kanter, who played with Hayward for over three years in Utah. At media day, Kanter stated that not only was Gordon back to where he was, but that he would “shock the world” as well.

Then, Robert Williams III followed it up with similar sentiment.

Danny Ainge sounded optimistic as well about Hayward coming back to his normal self, but he tried to temper both his and everyone else’s excitement. The buzz around the Celtics as training camp started was all the same – Gordon Hayward was back to normal.

But talk is talk. As great as all of this sounded for Boston, everyone needed to see for themselves if Hayward was back to his old self. In his first preseason game against Charlotte, he only played briefly because of an elbow injury, but when he was on the floor, it looked like the believers would have their faith rewarded.

Of course, it’s just one game. Worse, it’s one preseason game, an exhibition that means nothing for just about everyone except the guys who are trying to make the roster. But for Hayward, this definitely looked different for two reasons. First, the fluidity. If you compare how he moved on the floor during that game to how he looked at this exact time a year ago, you can see the difference.

When he started out last year, Gordon ran like he had ankle bracelets attached to his feet. Maybe it’s the added leg spandex, but from the looks of things, Hayward is moving much as he did before his injury. He was never an elite athlete, but Gordon’s specialty was how crafty he was on his feet. If that has returned, then his ceiling should be right back where it was when he first came to Boston.

Second, his confidence. Among all of Hayward’s issues from last season, one of them was that he never figured out what his role was for the Celtics. The overabundance of talent, combined with his recovery both physically and mentally, made it hard for Gordon to know what he was supposed to do.

Now, Kyrie Irving is gone. Al Horford is gone. Marcus Morris is gone. Terry Rozier is gone. On the one hand, the Celtics don’t have nearly as high of expectations. On the other, less could be more for them. With those four gone, there’s more room for Hayward to stretch his legs and play his game. That’s going to take having faith in himself, which Gordon showed he might just have again.

In that one preseason game, Hayward drove to the basket, made quick decisions and played within the team’s concept. Even when he missed a bunny, seeing Gordon drive to the basket without hesitation is something we saw him do only on occasion last season as opposed to pre-injury when he’d do it all the time.

So if Hayward is 100 percent as he’s clamored up to be, one question remains: What should we expect of him? Even with all the team lost, Boston still has plenty of scoring with Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and even Enes Kanter if we’re really including their best scoring options.

Because of that, expecting Gordon to put up the same scoring numbers he did in Utah may be unrealistic. Where Gordon could really make up for the Celtics is in his passing. The Celtics made up about as well as they could have from Kyrie’s departure by adding Kemba, but Al Horford is a different story.

Replacing all that Al Horford could do is downright impossible because he’s a big who can do pretty much everything. Hayward can’t replace that because Al’s got a few inches and, hence, can play taller positions. What Gordon can do – now that he’s expected to have a bigger role – is replace Al’s playmaking abilities.

Hayward’s always been a good passer; it’s why he’s a good fit in Brad Stevens’ offense. Last season, he still put up around the same assist numbers that he did in Utah despite a significant dip in minutes. Now that he’ll have a bigger role, and the Celtics offense will want to remain in motion, Hayward can be the playmaker in the offense that Al was. Gordon can’t do all the things that Horford can, but he can make up some of the difference with Horford’s departure on passing alone.

When it comes down to it, Gordon should not have a repeat performance of last season. Instead, we should see a more accurate version of the player the Celtics had in mind when they rolled out a max deal back in 2017.

The Celtics are going to have a lot of questions to answer as this season goes on. If that one preseason game is a sign of what’s to come from Gordon Hayward, they can rest easy knowing he won’t be one of them.

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Collins, Whiteside Appear Mismatched During Blazers’ Preseason Opener

Zach Collins and Hassan Whiteside started up front for the Portland Trail Blazers on Tuesday — but after just one preseason game, it’s clear they’re still a long way from proving that partnership’s staying power, writes Jack Winter.

Jack Winter

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It’s been proven time and again that deducing meaningful conclusions from preseason basketball is mere folly. The games are often played at barely-more-than-half-speed, while teams don’t go through extensive scouting reports or implement major schematic changes related to specific opponents. Exhibition contests are far more about players and teams simply getting their feet wet against real competition leading up to the regular season grind than anything else.

But during the Portland Trail Blazers’ preseason opener at Veterans Memorial Coliseum — where, of note, the franchise won its only championship in 1977 — it was difficult not to wonder if the hopes of bringing another title to Rose City might be mitigated by a starting frontcourt that seems mismatched.

Zach Collins and Hassan Whiteside were on the floor for tipoff against the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday, as the Blazers have planned since late July. They played just about the opening seven minutes of the first quarter and headed to the bench with Portland trailing Denver 13-11. Both Whiteside and Collins returned to action in the second quarter, but not together. Whiteside was paired with Anthony Tolliver upfront, while Collins played center in a downsized lineup that slotted Rodney Hood at the de facto power forward slot.

That first quarter stint, it turned out, would be the lone occasion Collins and Whiteside were on the floor at once.

Head coach Terry Stotts downplayed the significance of that development after the game, alluding to a minutes restriction on Whiteside and the whims of exhibition play as the reason why the Blazers’ new starting bigs saw such brief court time simultaneously.

“That was because of minutes, Hassan was limited to 12 minutes,” he told Basketball Insiders. “It was predetermined he was gonna play the first six minutes with the one group, and then the next six minutes with the second. I think during preseason you’re gonna see different matchups at the 4-5.”

Whiteside missed multiple practices last week after tweaking his left ankle, plus Portland did indeed experiment with several different combinations in the post. Stotts specifically mentioned a desire to get the tandem of Collins and Skal Labissiere some run, which he did in the third quarter, and the Blazers slid Mario Hezonja down to power forward later on as both teams went deep into their bench units.

The limits of analyzing preseason basketball don’t need further explanation. But just because there’s only so much new to be learned from it hardly means exhibition play isn’t useful for confirming offseason talking points.

For Portland, that came in the form of a newfound emphasis on pace propelled by the addition of multiple capable ball handlers. Bazemore, ultra-disruptive in his Blazers debut with a whopping seven steals, routinely pushed the ball up the floor himself — even when playing with Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Hezonja lived up to his teammates’ training-camp hype by mostly functioning as a true point forward. During his biggest and most exciting moment on the open floor, Hezonja went coast-to-coast off a defensive rebound before dumping the ball behind his head to Whiteside for a layup.

Lillard, McCollum, Anfernee Simons and even Bazemore all dribbled into pull-up jumpers after bringing the ball up the court without making a single pass.

The result was a blistering first-half pace of 112.0, nearly eight possessions more than the Atlanta Hawks’ league-leading average last season. That number suggests the Blazers were able to play fast, even with Collins and Whiteside on the floor. But a deeper dive into the advanced box score reveals that breakneck pace was owed almost solely to their second unit – especially notable given the struggles of the starters in the halfcourt.

Ignore the poor shooting for now as Portland may not play a half all season in which Lillard and McCollum combined to go 5-of-15 overall and 1-of-8 from beyond the arc. The Blazers don’t need to worry about their star backcourt misfiring on a few makable jumpers. Nonetheless, Lillard and McCollum could find it tough to find room to operate in the halfcourt when playing with Collins and Whiteside.

Like Al-Farouq Aminu in years past, defenses just won’t feel the need to guard Collins away from the ball when he’s spotted up from deep until he proves he’s a reliable three-point shooter. Making matters worse is the difficulty Whiteside has operating in a crowd, cue the video evidence:

Collins isn’t on the floor in the second clip, but Portland’s mucked-up spacing, with Hood in the dunker spot and the strong-side corner empty, make it a facsimile of what the Blazers can count on seeing this season while Collins and Whiteside are playing together. Neither is a good screener, either, with Collins hindered by his lack of girth and Whiteside’s longtime indifference to the finer points of basketball – which contributed to his demise as a building block for the Miami Heat – almost fully ingrained.

Those worries will be at least partially alleviated if Collins improves as a shooter. He sarcastically joked that he didn’t shoot any threes this summer at media day before describing all the work he put in and looked confident from range against Denver despite missing both of his attempts.

Collins’ three made jump shots from the right elbow area, meanwhile, serve as both an encouraging example of his natural perimeter touch and the spacing and efficiency pitfalls of playing him at power forward if he remains most comfortable from mid-range.

Reminder: It is far, far too early to write off the long-term viability of Collins and Whiteside as Portland’s starters in the frontcourt.

In any case, the Blazers are bound to get more comfortable offensively with them on the floor together given additional playing reps. Collins has never started at power forward before and Whiteside, as he loves to remind reporters, has never played in an offense that asks him to handle the ball on the perimeter.

But Portland certainly wouldn’t be the first team to stagger a pair of starters after the first and third quarters, and their new priority of increased pace clearly makes Hood, Hezonja or even Tolliver a better stylistic fit at power forward than Collins – before accounting for their superior ability to stretch the floor, too.

If the Trail Blazers want to remain true conference contenders, they’ll need to figure out their new on-court intricacies sooner rather than later — thankfully, the preseason is the perfect playground to do so.

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NBA

Five Breakout Players to Watch — Southeast Division

The Southeast Division is full of young, on-the-cusp players. A number of them could easily have breakout seasons in 2019-20, and that could have long-term implications on the division — and the entire league. Drew Maresca writes.

Drew Maresca

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The Southeast Division saw its fair share of new additions this offseason. And while there is less established talent within the division than there is in the Atlantic or Pacific, there is plenty of youth on the precipice of breaking out.

With the NBA season right around the corner, Basketball Insiders’ breakout players series is underway. With that in mind, let’s examine five players poised to have breakout years in the Southeast Division. We’ll skip past those that are mostly established; to say a guy like Trae Young, John Collins or Terry Rozier is “primed for a breakout year” is a stretch since the first two are no brainers and the latter already had his coming out party two seasons ago – albeit, with a good amount of regression last year.

Let’s instead focus on guys on the cusp on stardom who haven’t yet received national attention for their performances. And with that being said, we’ll jump in.

Miles Bridges – Charlotte Hornets

Bridges is dangerously close to stardom. He is a walking highlight reel and appears ready to take on a significantly larger role in the Hornets’ offense considering the loss of Kemba Walker in free agency.

But a few things are holding him back from reaching his fullest potential. The first is shooting. Bridges is a career 32.5 percent three-point shooter; however, he told reporters on Hornets Media Day that he aspires to shoot 38 percent from deep this season. In his preseason debut last Sunday, Bridges’ performance looked quite similar to his career average from beyond the arc (33.3 percent on three attempts), but he also notched an impressive 12 points and 10 rebounds in 23 minutes — in which time he posted a plus-8 in a Hornets’ loss. If Bridges can extrapolate that production across heavier minutes throughout the season, his 2019-20 campaign should be quite strong.

The second item holding Bridges back is defense. Historically, Bridges is viewed a capable but inconsistent defender. He is 6-foot-7 and 225 poundswith a 6-foot-9 wingspan. And he boasts an impressive (approximately) 40-inch vertical. Much of Bridges’ growth must come from an improved understanding of schemes and responsibilities. His on-ball defense was mostly fine (for a rookie), but he looked lost and relied on others to direct him too often last season. He posted a defensive rating of 112 and a defensive plus-minus of .5. For context, Hasaan Whiteside led the league in defensive rating with a 99.0 and Leonard posted a 105, while Rudy Gobert led the league in defensive plus-minus with 5.1 and Leonard posted a 0.7.

But it’s not like the Hornets’ coaching staff lacks confidence in Bridges’ defense. In fact, Bridges told reporters at media day that head coach James Borrego recently told him that he has the potential to become “a Kawhi-like defender” who can switch screens across all positions. If Bridges can grow into that a Leonard-like defender and improve on his three-point shooting, he will become a perennial All-Star and, possibly, a household name.

Justise Winslow – Miami HEAT

Expectations were pretty high for the 10th overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft. So much so, that Danny Ainge and the Boston Celtics allegedly offered six drafts picks — four of which were first-rounders— in exchange for the Hornets’ ninth overall pick with an eye on the Duke product. But the Hornets badly wanted Frank Kaminsky, leaving the HEAT with Winslow. Last season could almost, sort-of be considered a breakout year; Winslow averaged 12.6 points, 5.4 rebounds and 4.3 assists, and played even better than that from Dec. 8 and on after an injury to Goran Dragic opened the door for him to slide into the starting point guard role.

But if last season might be considered a semi-breakout season, 2019-20 will leave no doubt. Winslow is big and athletic, especially for a point guard (listed at 6-foot-7, 225 pounds). And after catching a bad rap regarding his long-range accuracy earlier in his career, he first improved his three-point percentage in 2017-18 (38 percent on 1.9 attempts per game) and then began shooting more at a very similar percentage last year (37.5 percent from three-point range on 3.9 attempts per game).

Winslow just needed a little more time to iron out the kinks in his game and the freedom to play on the perimeter – both of which he’s now had. Winslow told Basketball Insiders last April in the final game of the season that “playing a more natural perimeter position was a better fit for me more than small ball forward.” And now with Jimmy Butler on board in Miami, and another offseason in the books to work on the limited short comings he has left, he should get even more of the notoriety that he rightfully deserves.

Bam Adebayo – Miami HEAT

With Hassan Whiteside’s inclusion in the four-team, Jimmy Butler trade, a path has been cleared for Adebayo. Yes, the HEAT also returned Myers Leonard, but the HEAT appear poised to give the starting nod to Adebayo, so long as he doesn’t muck it up.

And Adebayo appears more than ready to take the challenge head-on. He already averages 13.2 points, 10.7 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per 36 minutes through two professional seasons. And while he shot only 20 percent from three-point range last season, he shot very well from mostly everywhere else on the floor: 71.6 percent at the rim, 41.5 percent from 3-10 feet, 37.3 percent from 10-16 feet and 43.8 percent from 16 feet to the three-point line. If he can continue to stretch the floor to the mid-range (and maybe even beyond it ) he’ll open up lots of space for Butler, Winslow, Dragic and others.

And Adebayo embraces the expectations— exactly as he should.

“I wouldn’t consider it pressure,” Adebayo recently told the Miami Herald. “I would more consider it an opportunity, a big opportunity for that matter. And (I plan on) just going out there and just playing positive, staying positive and showing everybody what I can do.”

Jonathan Isaac – Orlando Magic

Isaac was drafted sixth overall in 2017. He hasn’t exactly met expectations, but there is still massive excitement around the 6-foot-10 forward in Orlando. In his second season in the league, Isaac averaged 9.6 points and 5.5 rebounds while shooting 43 percent from the field and 32 percent from three-point range — which jumped to 11.8 points and  6.2 rebounds across their final 31 games.

He put in some work with the great Tracy McGrady this offseason, which should result in at least some improvement, too. Furthermore, he is an above average (and versatile) defender whose length and instincts allow him to cover a wide range of opposing forwards and wings; Isaac finished 2018-19 ranked 17th in block percentage with an above average real defensive plus-minus of 1.02 (which is actually lower than what he posted in his rookie season). If Isaac can become a consistently above-average three-point shooter, he could enter All-Star discussions sooner than later.

Mo Bamba – Orlando Magic

Bamba was seen as the second or third best big man in the 2018 NBA Draft. Deandre Ayton mostly lived up to the hype. Unfortunately, the other two – Wendell Carter Jr. and Bamba – did not. In Bamba’s case, injuries and a loaded Orlando front court limited him to 16.3 minutes per game across only 47 games.

Still, his skill set is ideal for a modern center. The 7-foot-1 center has the potential to become a defensive force; he averaged 3 blocks per 36 minutes in his limited action last season. He shot only 55.5 percent on two-pointers and 30 percent on threes last seasons; however, the shooting range that caught scouts’ eyes has been on display in the early part of the preseason so far this year.

Bamba shot 3-for-5 from downtown on Monday night against the Pistons (posting 13 points, 8 rebounds and 2 blocks in 16 minutes), and 7-for-11 from the field on Saturday (18 points, 7 rebounds and 3 blocks in 19 minutes). While Bamba has been a backup thus far this season, look for creative ways for the Magic to deploy him throughout the season – especially if he keeps performing as he’s done through two preseason games.

Honorable Mention: Markelle Fultz – Orlando Magic

Fultz is the unfortunate position of being written off as a bust by many, while still being seen for his potential by others. And to be fair, Fultz was a huge disappointment in Philadelphia – failing to deliver after being drafted before Jayson Tatum and Donovan Mitchell will do that to a player. But the NBA loves a comeback story, and Fultz landed in a good spot to begin his with the Orlando Magic.

Fultz has done very little in 33 games across two seasons. He’s shot 26.7 percent from three-point range and only 53.4 from the free-throw line. But what’s more worrisome is his lack of confidence and the noticeable hitch he developed in both his set shot and free-throw shooting form. Rumors ran rampant about the cause of Fultz’s yips; but if three preseason games and an offseason workout video are to be trusted, he might be ready to rejoin the world as a successful basketball player.

Fultz’s shooting form looks much improved across the Magic’s first three preseasons games, and he appears more comfortable shooting the ball; while he’s missed all four three-pointers he’s attempted, he is at least 2-for-2 on free throw attempts. And while he’s missed his share of shots, he’s demonstrated confidence in launching it – which is probably the most encouraging sign yet. But he’s also flashed the athleticism and length that set him apart from other 2017 NBA Draft prospects, getting in passing lanes and pushing the ball up the floor on fast breaks. We obviously need to see more from Fultz before anointing him a contributor, but things are beginning to look up.

The bar is low for Fultz this season, and this writer believes that he’ll exceed most expectations. The Magic lack depth at point guard, so there is a real opportunity for him to earn minutes and contribute. And the Magic already picked up Fultz’s option for 2020-21; so if he plays well enough, he might even earn the starting spot for next year and beyond.

All six, except for Justise Winslow (23), are 22 years old or younger. Therefore, all still have lots of development ahead. All will also have the opportunity to contribute to their respective teams this season.

If they can do so effectively, all will carve out a spot in this league for years to come – and probably have their breakout season sooner than later.

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