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NBA Daily: Ranking the Free Agents – Small Forwards

Continuing Basketball Insiders’ series of Ranking The Free Agents, Spencer Davies goes in-depth on the abundance of talented wings hitting the market.

Spencer Davies

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With the weekend officially here, free agency moratorium is less than 72 hours away. More rumors are running rampant and the talks are almost ready to get started between teams and players, meaning the madness is just about set to begin.

On Wednesday, Basketball Insiders began its Ranking The Free Agents series with a breakdown of the best available point guards. An overlook of the shooting guard crop followed a day after. Now, we get to the small forward class.

While essentially half the league is hitting the open market – the list can be found here – the wings may very well be the most valuable and talented position that teams can add to the mix. Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant hold all the cards as the proverbial dominos to determine how the summer of 2019 shakes out in terms of Plan B’s and C’s.

Before getting into the actual free agent small forwards, 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.

Max Guys

Kawhi Leonard – Toronto Raptors – Last Year’s Salary: $23,114,067

If there was any question as to whether or not Kawhi Leonard was a top five player in the NBA coming into the season, he answered. Loudly. Not only did “The Klaw” prove that without a shadow of a doubt, but he performed so well that we should be discussing the fact that he could very well be the best player in the league as it stands.

It’s hard to argue against the results, isn’t it? In his first year away from the San Antonio Spurs, a determined Leonard led the Toronto Raptors to their first title in franchise history. While the regular season career-high numbers were impressive enough, look at what Kawhi did in the playoffs. It’s absolutely absurd—30.5 points, 9.1 rebounds, 3.9 assists and nearly two steals per game. Mind you, he was out on the floor averaging 39 minutes over 24 games in the postseason, too, en route to winning his second career Larry O’Brien trophy with a new team.

Where Does He Fit: Kawhi is now a two-time champion and was the focal point of those franchises as the NBA Finals MVP both times. Any team with the opportunity to add him to the fray should take a shot at doing so. As of now, the suitors who are chasing after Leonard are the Toronto Raptors, Los Angeles Lakers, LA Clippers and New York Knicks.

According to multiple reports Thursday, Kawhi will grant both Los Angeles teams meetings when free agency moratorium begins June 30 at 6 p.m. A big piece of the puzzle fell into place for the Lakers as they were unable to unload three contracts and create a maximum slot in their books. The Raptors are believed to have a real shot at re-signing him. New York is going to try and secure a meeting as well, per Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports.

New Deal: The potential of forming a devastating trio with LeBron James and Anthony Davis is hard to pass up. At the same time, it’s hard to envision a player with Kawhi’s mentality wanting to be anything other than the alpha. A one-two punch of him and Jimmy Butler with the Clippers would be quite the tandem as well.

Still, when the dust settles and all is said and done, Toronto is the team that can pay Leonard more than any other suitor due to his Bird Rights. Though 5 years/$190 million is the maximum offer, it’d be understandable for him to go short-term since his veteran teammates will be a year older. Plus, he’s only two seasons away from having 10 years of experience, meaning he could cash in on the highest tier of max salary with more increase in the cap.

Let’s say Kawhi goes back to the Raptors on a 2 year/$69 million deal with a player option in year two as ESPN’s Brian Windhorst suggested.

Kevin Durant – Golden State Warriors – Last Year’s Salary: $30,000,000

It’s a shame how the summer of Kevin Durant was spoiled by the cruelty of injuries. Before suffering a strained calf and ultimately a torn Achilles during the playoffs, the man was having yet another sensational run where he poured in over 34 points, five rebounds and close to five assists per game for the three-peat hopeful Golden State Warriors. We’ll never know how history might have shaken out being robbed of a KD vs. Kawhi matchup for the ages in the NBA Finals.

What we do know is that Golden State missed its go-to scorer badly when the team needed to answer the punches the Raptors threw at them. Durant makes things look easy when he steps onto the hardwood. His threes are deadly, his mid-range pull-ups are literally impossible to defend and he’s apt to drawing fouls inside on drives. Having the isolation ability at that size makes KD a superstar we’ll never forget. He’s only gotten more cerebral with more experience, too.

Where Does He Fit: On the Posted Up podcast with Chris Haynes, Durant said that he can’t be recruited, meaning he’s going to sign with whatever team he wants to. A report from David Aldridge even suggests he may not even take meetings with suitors—and if he does, those sit-downs will happen in New York.

Using our brains, that last sentence certainly indicates that the Knicks and Brooklyn Nets—the two franchises in The Big Apple—have a good chance of landing KD on a long-term deal. Prior to the injury, the Lakers would’ve made sense (they’re in win-now mode). Considering the max slots the Clippers have, that’s also a real contender in the picture. Even the Dallas Mavericks are expected to make a pitch. Forgetting the chance that the Warriors have—they can offer him the highest dollar amount over the highest number of years—would be foolish, too.

New Deal: Wherever KD heads to, it’s going to be on a long-term deal. He’s looking to cash in for the biggest payday of his career after being in the NBA for over a decade. He’s not in the greatest of places with Golden State at the moment, though there could be an agreement where he rehabs in that familiar environment on a Supermax deal, waiting to be moved in a Warriors sign-and-trade later down the road.

Just because that is a possibility doesn’t mean it will happen. The damage may have already been done. Because of that broken relationship, it’s plausible to see Durant going elsewhere. We’ll say he signs a 4-year/$164 million max contract with the LA Clippers.

Near Max Guys

Khris Middleton – Milwaukee Bucks – Last Year’s Salary: $13,000,000

Coming off his first All-Star appearance, Khris Middleton has more than earned his shot at making the big bucks. With his knockdown three-point shot and length on the defensive end, he’s considered one of the top two-way players in the association. It’s especially impressive because of the gradual rise from second-round pick to Eastern Conference Champion in seven years.

Where Does He Fit: Middleton is entering the heart of his prime, so there are plenty of teams that should be vying to add a consistent player that will provide scoring and lock up the opposition’s best scorers. The problem is that those organizations with max money are going to be after “the big fish” in the pool, namely Leonard and Durant.

Now, if you’re a team like the Mavericks, it makes sense to dole out the dough because of the talent you already have. The same goes for the Indiana Pacers, who ESPN’s Bobby Marks says could throw some hefty money at Middleton on the long term. Still, the Bucks have made it a top priority to bring Middleton back into the fold to keep their championship contender in Milwaukee growing.

New Deal: As soon as Bucks general manager Jon Horst presents a secure, lucrative contract offer, Middleton won’t hesitate to take it. Expect the two to agree to a 5-year/$175 million deal just below the max.

Tobias Harris – Philadelphia 76ers – Last Year’s Salary: $14,800,000

For a player as talented and team-first as any in the NBA, it’s perplexing that Tobias Harris has played for five different teams over his 8-year career. This is a man that quite literally is the prototype of modern day basketball. He stretches the floor, draws attention out on the perimeter and can confidently stroke the three, while also keeping defenders on their toes due to his dribble-drive ability.

Where Does He Fit: Like Middleton, the upstart Harris is in the sweet spot of his career. The advantage he has over the Bucks’ All-Star, however, is his size. There’s a versatility with Tobias as a stretch four and also as a traditional small forward. Insert him into just about any lineup and he’ll fit. Keep in mind, he could be the consolation prize that teams go after if they strike out on Kawhi or KD.

As specified by The Athletic’s Shams Charania, the Brooklyn Nets, Dallas Mavericks, Denver Nuggets, Memphis Grizzlies, Minnesota Timberwolves, New Orleans Pelicans and Sacramento Kings have all expressed interest. The Philadelphia 76ers can offer the most money and want to retain him, but it doesn’t mean they’ll pony up a max contract offer that Harris desire.

New Deal: The Nets could have an abundance of dollars left over if Durant doesn’t come along with, allegedly, Kyrie Irving. Because the Sixers could be reluctant to offer what would be a tertiary option on their team max money, let’s say Brooklyn swoops in with a full on 4-year/$141 million that Harris can’t pass up.

Harrison Barnes – Sacramento Kings – Last Year’s Salary: $24,793,702

When ESPN reported that Harrison Barnes had declined his $25 million player option to enter free agency, there were many left with their head scratching. One, that’s a lot of money to leave on the table. Two, it’s probably a significant gamble with such a forward-heavy market.

With this said, he did compliment the Kings’ young core nicely in the 28 games post-trade deadline. The efficiency was clearly there and he knocked down a career-best 40.8 percent of his threes with the team. Prior to being moved to Sacramento, he had also improved his skills on the block as a post-up player.

Where Does He Fit: Harrison offers the same versatility as Harris but with less aggressiveness and not as much consistency. If there’s a team out there that wants to give Barnes a maximum contract to be “the guy” it would be risky. As for an organization looking for a solid veteran addition and a great person in the locker room, he’d be ideal.

New Deal: The Kings are dead set on bringing Barnes back into the fold and there hasn’t been much noise on competition to do so. Despite wanting a max offer, Sacramento could get the job done with a 4-year/$88 million deal that’s being reported by local radio host Dave Carmichael of 1140 The Drive.

Above Mid-Level Guys

Bojan Bogdanovic – Indiana Pacers – Last Year’s Salary: $10,500,000

When Victor Oladipo went down with a big-time injury, Bogdanovic stepped up his game and became the Indiana Pacers’ leading scorer. His three-point shooting chops were already impressive. But it’s his floor game and playmaking ability that really shined when he received the opportunity to expand his skill set.

Where Does He Fit/New Deal: Bogdanovic is reportedly Indiana’s “top priority” this upcoming summer. He may certainly garner interest from others. It won’t be enough to fend off the Pacers from extending a 4-year/$72 million offer that Bogie could jump at to stay.

Kelly Oubre Jr.* – Phoenix Suns – Last Year’s Salary: $3,208,630

All Kelly Oubre Jr. has ever needed is a chance to breakout and really take the next step in his career. We probably saw him play his best basketball with the Phoenix Suns in his career so far, but the best is yet to come for the talented 23-year-old. While the shot needs work, there’s a tenacity and energy about him that is simply infectious.

Where Does He Fit/New Deal: For all intents and purposes, the Suns shouldn’t let him walk. They have a brand new coaching staff headed by Monty Williams and seemed to actually have fun during the second half of the season. Most of that locker room positivity came from Oubre’s “wavy” attitude. Since it’s hard to predict what offer sheets may come, let’s go with Phoenix bringing him back on a 3-year/$50 million deal with a player option before he enters the second tier of a potential max contract situation.

Trevor Ariza – Washington Wizards – Last Year’s Salary: $15,000,000

Where Does He Fit/New Deal: Every team can use a player like Trevor Ariza. This past season wasn’t his best in terms of production and shooting. He’ll still be a solid veteran option on the wing for any team, especially a contender. Maybe a reunion with the Houston Rockets could be in the cards if they don’t find a way to get Jimmy Butler to town. A single year deal for $10.5 million should do the trick.

Rudy Gay – San Antonio Spurs – Last Year’s Salary: $10,087,200

Where Does He Fit/New Deal: Another seasoned vet on the market, Rudy Gay is coming off his best year in terms of true shooting (58.3 percent) and rebounding (6.8 per game) with the San Antonio Spurs. He feels he can still be a “big piece” and is the most like himself as he’s been since the Achilles injury set him back. The expectation is he comes back to play for Gregg Popovich and company. We’ll set the amount at 2 years/$21 million.

Mid-Level or Below Guys

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson – Brooklyn Nets – Last Year’s Salary: $2,536,898

Mario Hezonja – New York Knicks – Last Year’s Salary: $6,500,000

Darius Miller – New Orleans Pelicans – Last Year’s Salary: $2,205,000

Other Notable Free Agents

Danuel House Jr.* – Houston Rockets – Last Year’s Salary: $247,827

James Ennis – Philadelphia 76ers – Last Year’s Salary: $1,621,415

Dorian Finney-Smith* – Dallas Mavericks – Last Year’s Salary: $1,544,951

Carmelo Anthony – Houston Rockets – Last Year’s Salary: $1,512,601

Wilson Chandler – Los Angeles Clippers – Last Year’s Salary: $12,800,562

Jake Layman* – Portland Trail Blazers – Last Year’s Salary: $1,544,951

Royce O’Neale** – Utah Jazz– Last Year’s Salary: $1,378,242

Dillon Brooks** – Memphis Grizzlies – Last Year’s Salary: $1,378,242

Alfonzo McKinnie** – Golden State Warriors– Last Year’s Salary: $1,349,383

Derrick Jones Jr.** – Miami Heat – Last Year’s Salary: $1,512,601

Omri Casspi – Memphis Grizzlies – Last Year’s Salary: $1,512,601

Thabo Sefolosha – Utah Jazz – Last Year’s Salary: $5,250,000

Glenn Robinson III**** – Detroit Pistons – Last Year’s Salary: $4,075,000

Abdel Nader – Oklahoma City Thunder – Last Year’s Salary: $1,378,242

Kenrich Williams** – New Orleans Pelicans – Last Year’s Salary: $838,464

Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot – Chicago Bulls – Last Year’s Salary: $1,544,951

Stanley Johnson – New Orleans Pelicans – Last Year’s Salary: $3,940,402

Corey Brewer – Sacramento Kings – Last Year’s Salary: $2,000,000

Justin Anderson* – Atlanta Hawks – Last Year’s Salary: $2,516,048

Luol Deng – Minnesota Timberwolves – Last Year’s Salary: $1,512,601

Theo Pinson* – Brooklyn Nets – Last Year’s Salary: $4,737

Mitch Creek* – Minnesota Timberwolves – Last Year’s Salary: $9,474

Wesley Johnson – Washington Wizards – Last Year’s Salary: $6,134,520

Quincy Pondexter – San Antonio Spurs – Last Year’s Salary: $1,512,601

James Nunnally – Houston Rockets – Last Year’s Salary: $76,326

Malcolm Miller** – Toronto Raptors – Last Year’s Salary: $457,418

Jemerrio Jones** – New Orleans Pelicans – Last Year’s Salary: $52,108

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

**Non-Guaranteed Contract (If player is waived by current team before 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)

As you can plainly see, the small forwards hold a lot of power in the direction the summer could go. It’ll be interesting to see how the offseason plays out and what new teams we may see come together before one of the most wide-open seasons we’ve seen in years regarding championship contenders.

Be sure to check out the rest of our Ranking The Free Agents series before Sunday arrives.

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

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NBA Daily: Grading The Offseason – Atlanta Hawks

Matt John continues Basketball Insiders’ “Grading The Offseason” series by analyzing the Atlanta Hawks.

Matt John

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Grading The Offseason - Atlanta Hawks

In case you haven’t been following along, Basketball Insiders has been running a new series called “Grading the Offseason.” So far, we’ve visited the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Chicago Bulls and the New York Knicks.

This go-round, we take a look at the baby Hawks that reside in the ATL. Things are looking up in Hotlanta. After kicking off a rebuild a mere two years ago, it looks like a new and promising era of Hawks basketball is forming before our eyes.

It may be a while before they see the playoffs again, but Atlanta has something to build off of here. The future may be bright for the Hawks, but how they handle that future depends on how they handle themselves over these next few offseasons.

How did they do in this one? Well, let’s take it from the top.

Overview

Seeing as they were in year two of a rebuild, not much was expected from the Hawks this season. Mike Budenholzer bolted for Wisconsin. Dennis Schroder was traded for Carmelo Anthony, who was promptly waived. The Hawks had now moved on from its previous “star-less” era.

The real headline coming into the season was the new kid in town, Trae Young. Hawks GM Travis Schlenk swung for the fences on draft night when he traded away the draft rights to Luka Doncic for Young plus an additional first-round pick from Dallas. Everyone was divisive on Young coming into the draft. The consensus on him was that he was a high-risk/high-reward player because of his inconsistent freshman season at Oklahoma.

Trading him for Doncic, who may have been the most hyped foreign prospect possibly ever, was a gamble for the ages. For a while, it looked like that gamble was going to come up snake eyes.

While Doncic was drawing oohs and aahs from the crowd from the very start, Young’s NBA career started a little rough. From October to January, Young put up a respectable 16.5 points and 7.3 assists per game, but doing so on 41/30/80 splits when he was taking 14 shots in almost 30 minutes a night? Not too pretty.

But his fortunes changed once February rolled around. With a slight uptick in minutes, Trae started finding his groove. From there on out, he averaged 23.2 points and 9.2 assists per game on 43/36/85 splits, highlighted by 49/16/8 stat line in a quadruple overtime victory over the Bulls on March 1.

Did that change anything? Not really. The Hawks were still one of the worst teams in the league, but the team could pride itself on that it was fun to watch the youngsters go to work.

Young wasn’t the only one having all the fun. John Collins throughout the season established himself as one of the NBA’s most promising bigs, averaging a near 20/10 on the season while showing a somewhat progressing three-point shot (almost 35 percent). Young and Collins together made for one of the most exciting alley-oop pairs in the league.

The centerpiece to the Hawks’ next generation seemed to have arrived, but the team may have also brought in its reinforcements as well. Kevin Huerter’s sharpshooting garnered some recognition for the All-NBA rookie teams. DeAndre’ Bembry showed progress in his third year. Omari Spellman showed he could stroke it from three as well as a nose for the ball.

The veterans also deserved some shoutouts. Dewayne Dedmon proved himself valuable for the Hawks. Alex Len was productive given the cheap contract he signed last summer. Kent Bazemore did what he usually does. Jeremy Lin was fine in his role as a backup before he was waived. And who can forget the guidance from good ol’ Vince Carter?

Atlanta’s 29-53 record may have qualified it for the fifth-worst record in the league, but it was clear that the seeds had been planted and a winning culture was sprouting. Many will still go back and forth on the Young for Doncic trade, but Schlenk got his guy in Trae. Lloyd Pierce has so far proven himself a worthy successor to Mike Budenholzer.

So far, things are going right in Atlanta that there really wasn’t much they could do wrong this summer. The best moves they could have made was continuing to build on the good foundation they already have.

Is that what they did? Let’s find out.

Offseason

The one ace in the hole for Atlanta in the Luka-for-Trae deal was the top-five protected 2019 pick that Dallas also agreed to trade to Atlanta. The Mavericks tried in the latter half of the season to retain the pick, but after the success the team had with Luka running the show, it was too little too late.

When draft time rolled around, the Hawks had the fifth-highest odds to get the number one pick, and Dallas’ ninth-highest odds made it appear likely that the pick would convey. While Dallas wound up forfeiting the pick to Atlanta, lady luck didn’t do the Hawks any favors. When the lottery ended, the Hawks wound up with the eighth and 10th picks in the lottery.

But that didn’t stop Atlanta from going to work. A week or so before the draft, the Hawks agreed to trade Taurean Prince and a 2012 second-rounder in exchange for Allen Crabbe, the 17th overall pick and a protected 2020 first-rounder from Brooklyn. Doing this may have helped Brooklyn open up the necessary cap space to bring in two players on max contracts, but Atlanta’s motive was more than rational – it was all about asset accumulation.

It didn’t take long for Schlenk to cash in on these newly acquired assets. On draft night, the Hawks traded the eighth pick and the 17th pick as well as the Cavaliers protected 2020 pick to New Orleans for the fourth pick, which they would use to select De’Andre Hunter and landed them Solomon Hill. With Hunter, the Hawks have a promising 3&D wing who should complement Young and Collins quite well for the near future.

Atlanta still had the 10th overall pick at its arsenal. With it, they selected Cam Reddish, another boom or bust prospect – sound familiar? With the lack of top-notch prospects in this last draft, rolling the dice with Reddish seemed worth it. When the draft ended, the Hawks came away with a prospect believed to produce right away (Hunter) and one that may take some time to groom (Reddish).

Following the draft, the Hawks offseason has been pretty ho-hum. They haven’t exactly lit the world on fire, but they haven’t made any particularly dumb moves.

The first move that was made post-draft was sending Bazemore to Portland for Evan Turner. By doing this, the Hawks are giving Baze the chance to play for a playoff contender while getting back a reliable second unit playmaker who can be a positive influence on the youngsters in the locker room. Turner’s been well-liked by teammates and coaches alike in his previous two franchises, so he should at worst only continue what Vince Carter did last season.

By acquiring Crabbe and Turner, the Hawks seemed to have formed a pattern of trading for some of the most handsomely overpaid players from the 2016 Free Agency. That only continued when the team traded Hill and Miles Plumlee for Chandler Parsons. Atlanta did this with the intent of opening up a roster spot, and if Parsons suits up for the team, then anything positive he does is a bonus.

The one quasi-peculiar move the Hawks made was trading Omari Spellman, who was solid his rookie season, for Damian Jones. The rationale behind it might be that they had too many guys who played Spellman’s position in Atlanta, compared to Golden State who is trying to find any depth it can get its hands on.

The last prominent move made by Atlanta was adding Jabari Parker on a contract much cheaper than the one he signed with the Bulls last summer. Parker may wind up being one of the better economical additions of the summer, but that’s only as long as he’s the Jabari we saw in Washington. Not the one we saw in Chicago.

Even though their state as a team hasn’t changed too drastically, the Hawks may have had the most unpredictable offseason this summer. A fair amount of the moves they made probably won’t lead to much, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that said moves, for the most part, came out of nowhere.

PLAYERS IN: De’Andre Hunter, Cam Reddish, Evan Turner, Allen Crabbe, Chandler Parsons, Jabari Parker, Damian Jones, Charlie Brown Jr. (Two-Way)

PLAYERS OUT: Dewayne Dedmon, Kent Bazemore, Taurean Prince, Omari Spellman, Miles Plumlee, Deyonta Davis, Jaylen Adams

What’s Next

The Hawks are now entering Year 3 of their rebuild. Though their roster has gone through a fair amount of turnover over the past month or so – outside of the young kids who are still hitting their potential – this roster is about the same when it comes to boasting talent as it was last year.

One distinct difference though is that Parsons, Crabbe, Turner and Len are all expiring this season, which could affect how motivated they are to play at their best this season. It could become a real question if any of the aforementioned players finish the season in Atlanta should the Hawks either stay the same or take another leap forward.

The Hawks have plenty of young talent with high enough ceilings to get them there that it honestly wouldn’t be surprising if they did. They are also young and inexperienced enough that it wouldn’t surprise anyone if no progress is made. Considering that they were showing progress towards the end of last season should make fans a whole lot more excited for what’s in store this season.

This will be a year in which the Hawks will get to see what works and what doesn’t. What might be the best part about this rebuild going on for Atlanta is that there really is no pressure on the Hawks right now to produce right away.

The goal for Atlanta should have been to add talented players who will only add to its youth movement and adding veterans who will only continue the winning culture the Hawks have established.

From the looks of things, they did just that.

Offseason Grade: B+

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NBA Daily: Grading the Offseason – New York Knicks

Drew Maresca continues Basketball Insiders’ “Grading The Offseason” series by taking a look at the New York Knicks.

Drew Maresca

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The NBA offseason is dramatically different than it was as recently as a decade ago. In the past, the offseason began following the conclusion of the NBA Finals. And save for a few exciting happenings (e.g., the NBA Draft), the sports world moved on to other items of interest.

But presently, the first half of the summer is still very much the NBA’s. Until mid-July, that is. With the NBA finally ready to enter a lull in activity, we can safely begin assessing teams’ offseason moves. And with that, Basketball Insiders continues its “Grading the Offseason” series.

Spencer Davies kicked things off by assessing the Cleveland Cavaliers and David Yapkowitz graded the moves made by the Chicago Bulls. Next up is possibly the most polarizing team in the league – the New York Knicks.

Overview

The Knicks entered 2018-19seaason with low expectations. However, there was hope for the future with 7’3” unicorn-esque center (Kristaps Porzingis), their three rookies (Kevin Knox, Mitchell Robinson and Allonzo Trier) and a boatload of projected cap space on the books.

Fast forward to the Summer of 2019 and the Knicks are in a surprising spot relative to last year. Their assumed core of the future was dealt a blow when it became clear that Porzingis wanted out of New York, resulting in a trade to Dallas. And while they failed to land a major free agent – despite freeing up the cap space for two max free agents – there is actually reason for optimism for the Knicks.

Offseason

Despite finishing the 2018-19 season with the worst record in the NBA, the new lottery structure led to the Knicks landing the third overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. Fortunately, the third pick in the draft was a no-brainer regardless of who was making the selection. RJ Barrett – guard/forward from Duke – is a talented scorer and playmaker who will instantly become the best Knick at drawing fouls and creating off the dribble. Barrett can struggle with his efficiency and other aspects of his game, but he will show flashes of greatness throughout the upcoming season.

But that’s not all the Knicks did on draft night. As I discussed last week, the Knicks traded up in the second round to select Ignas Brazdeikis, a forward from Michigan. Brazdeikis entered NBA Summer League with a lot of questions around him, most notably his lack of foot speed and athleticism, and he answered them in a big way.

Brazdeikis proved he can contribute to an NBA team immediately. His shot-making, shooting ability, strength and motor all shined through in many of the team’s Summer League games. The Knicks may have hit another home run in the second-round, which makes them two-for-two in as many years (Mitchell Robinson was selected by the Knicks with the 36thoverall pick in 2018).

Speaking of Robinson, he flashed his potential throughout Summer League, too. He demonstrated good progress, posting 13.8 points, 10.6 rebounds and 3.4 blocks in 25 minutes per game — and winning first-team All-Summer League honors. Robinson has a lot to prove this season, as expectations have changed dramatically for the 21-year-old, but at least the Knicks have their center of the future.

Free agency didn’t go quite as well for the Knicks. Many experts felt that the team had a good chance at signing Kevin Durant and a second major free agent. But the Knicks struck out on superstar free agent signings.

And what’s more, the Knicks signed a number of players shortly after the start of free agency, which prevented them from absorbing unwanted salary in exchange for future picks (e.g., the Los Angeles Clippers received a future first-round pick for taking back Maurice Harkless from the Portland Trail Blazers). The narrative quickly became that the Knicks failed at free agency.

But perception and reality are not always one and the same. Ultimately, the Knicks were able to attach a second-year team option and/or signed free agents to one-year deals for six of their seven free agent acquisitions (with the seventh free agent being Randle, for whom the Knicks own a third-year option).

This means that very little – if any salary – is guaranteed beyond 2019-20, making all of the aforementioned players attractive additions to contenders come the trade deadline – many were likely attractive as of June 30, but most contenders didn’t have the requisite cap space to sign players like Portis, Payton or Morris after making major investments in superstars.

All of the Knicks free agent additions can contribute at a relatively high level – save for Bullock, whose health is still in question following a recent back surgery — for both the Knicks as well as a contending team down the line. And the Knicks can liquidate most of their roster and free up significant cap space to chase the likes of Anthony Davis and others in 2020 if so desired – and they may even get themselves additional assets in the process. So the Knicks’ 2019 free agency period could be viewed very differently at this time next year (or 2021), depending on if they are able to convince a star player or two to join their young core.

PLAYERS IN: RJ Barrett, Ignas Brazdeikis, Julius Randle, Taj Gibson, Bobby Portis, Reggie Bullock, Elfrid Payton, Wayne Ellington and Marcus Morris

PLAYERS OUT: Kadeem Allen, Mario Hejonza, Noah Vonleh, Luke Kornet, Emmanuel Mudiay, DeAndre Jordan, Lance Thomas, Henry Ellenson and Billy Garrett

What’s Next?

The Knicks’ offseason is probably over considering they added nine players and will return six – with one exception being potentially working on a reunion with the recently-waived Lance Thomas.

The Knicks signed seven quality free agents who can all hypothetically be traded for assets or waived following the 2019-20 season. They also added two NBA-quality rookies, both of whom should carve out a role on the team. The team’s challenge will be picking a direction. Scott Perry recently scoffed at the notion that Knicks will tank in 2019-20. Thus, they may hang onto most of their signees for the entire season in hopes of getting their young nucleus playoff experience.

While playoff experience is great for any young player, it will be challenging for David Fizdale and the rest of the coaching staff to carve out a rotation that features all of the team’s young players. The Knicks will have to create lineups very deliberately, pairing youth with veterans so they don’t experience too much falloff when shifting from one lineup to another.

Another unresolved item remains: Frank Ntilikina. Rumors circulated in the lead up the 2019 NBA Draft that the Knicks were going to trade their former lottery pick, but Ntilikina remains with the team. Ntilikina’s time in New York might be nearing an end unless he shows significant improvement early this season. It is worth mentioning that Ntilikina showed up earlier in the offseason on social media sporting a smoother and more natural-looking shooting form.

One final improvement the Knicks will look to build on is their leadership. Credibility trickles down from the very top of an organization. While James Dolan has made questionable decisions over the years, the rest of the Knicks’ management is operating more thoughtfully than it has in years.

The team’s leadership and coaching staff remained entirely intact for the first time in what feels like decades – the Knicks have had five coaches (six tenures) and three Presidents (four tenures) in the past eight seasons. And while players win games, they are attracted to situations that appear stable and supportive. The Knicks and Scott Perry, Steve Mills, and David Fizdale began laying the foundation for this type of situation. They now need to demonstrate progress on the court to take the next step and possibly start to build themselves up as a free agent destination (outside of simply being the Knicks). Lastly, they need Dolan and the team to remain out of the news for negative reasons as much as possible, such as being in the news for a lawsuit against the City of Inglewood around contractual issues pertaining a new Clippers arena.

This wasn’t the offseason that Knicks fans were hoping for, but it wasn’t the disaster some portray it as either. The Knicks have the means to take a positive step forward this season and set the stage for bigger things in the future.

Offseason Grade: B-

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NBA

NBA Daily: Brandon Clarke Wins Big In Vegas

Jordan Hicks had the chance to catch up with Summer League MVP Brandon Clarke, who discussed his transition into becoming a pro, his play during the tournament and skills he’s been working on.

Jordan Hicks

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No player had a better Summer League than Brandon Clarke of the Memphis Grizzlies.

Not only did his team win the Las Vegas Summer League championship, but Clarke was the Finals MVP and MVP of the tournament. In six games of action, he averaged 14.7 points, 9.8 rebounds, 2 assists and 1.8 blocks. He dropped 15 points, 16 rebounds, four assists, and three blocks in the championship game. He was dominant on both sides of the ball throughout the tournament. and there wasn’t really anyone playing that was capable of stopping him.

Accolades aren’t anything new to Clarke. In his lone year at Gonzaga where he transferred to after playing two years at San Jose State, Clarke was First Team All-West Coast Conference, WCC Defensive Player of the Year and WCC Newcomer of the Year. His play during Summer League could have very well earned Clarke significant minutes for the upcoming season.

So why did Brandon Clarke drop so low in the draft? Many had him pegged as a sure-fire lottery selection, but to the surprise of many dropped all the way down to 21 before Memphis traded up to get him.

Most point to the fact that he’s the size of a traditional wing in the NBA, but plays the four or even the five. He stands 6-foot-8 and matches that with a 6-foot-8 wingspan. In college, length doesn’t matter nearly as much as it does in the NBA. Still, after the way he showed out in Las Vegas, many teams are likely scratching their heads wondering why on earth they didn’t pick him up.

Due to the nature of the trade, Clarke wasn’t able to join the Grizzlies until it became official after July 6th.

“It’s getting off all the rust that I kind of had on me,” Clarke said. “Like I’ve said previously, it was tough at the start because I couldn’t practice, I couldn’t really do much with the team, but now I can play again and get used to playing team basketball.”

The rust wasn’t as obvious to the onlooker. There wasn’t really a single game during the 10-day event where Clarke looked fatigued, but his play definitely improved as the tournament went on.

The semi-final game against the New Orleans Pelicans was a tough matchup and eventually went into overtime. Clarke sealed the win with a go-ahead dunk in the closing seconds. When asked about the end of that game compared to a big, close college game, Clarke responded: “It felt pretty similar. The crowd really got kind of loud there in the end. I feel like it was pretty similar to what I’d feel in a big-time college game.”

Shortly after, Clarke was asked about his desire to actually win the tournament.

“It’s just basketball,” he said. “Every time that I play basketball I want to win so I think that we all feel that as a team. Even though it’s not a real NBA tournament, well it is, but it’s not [versus] the big-time NBA dudes. We all still want to win.”

He wasn’t just messing around, either. Clarke went back the following day and led his team to a W.

One thing that really differentiates Clarke from most other rookies drafted in the first round is his age. A lot of players that get drafted early on are younger. Teams draft them as projects based on their playing profile, size, abilities, etc. Clarke – thanks in part to his two years with San Jose State and one redshirt year with Gonzaga – will turn 23 this fall.

When asked if his age gives him an advantage, Clarke agreed.

“Yeah, I would probably say so. If I was playing right now and I was only 18 or 19 I could see why it would be tougher,” he said. “But me being almost 23, I feel like I played in many games that were just like this one tonight.”

There’s no doubt that Clarke’s large volume of collegiate experience will give him an advantage during the long NBA season. He’s played against high-level talent for three seasons in total and had almost four years to develop his various skill sets.

Clarke talked a bit about the process of ending his college career, the draft, and then summer league.

“It’s been a long journey really,” he said. “Lot’s of workouts, lot’s of time put in. But I’m here playing, it’s been super fun and I’m just really happy to get this feel of what NBA games are actually like. Just trying to get that feel back and get better at playing team basketball for the Grizzlies.”

Clarke could truly be considered the ultimate anomaly in today’s NBA. Sure, he’s super athletic, smooth around the rim, and has elite finishing abilities (he led the NCAA in field goal percentage last season). But he’s a big trapped in a wing’s body. There’s one skill that, if developed, could really bring his game to the next level.

“My shooting. That’s been something I’ve been working on a lot. If I can add that to my game I feel like I’ll be a much, much better player,” Clarke said. “There’s just so much I’ve added, but I’d probably say shooting is the biggest part and there’s still lot’s of steps I need to take.”

The fact that Clarke understands that already puts him ahead of the pack. Many players spend too much time developing skills that won’t give them longevity in the league. Clarke really has almost a complete package skills-wise, but becoming a better shooter would take his game so far.

The Memphis Grizzlies are 100 percent in rebuild mode. They have special pieces in Jaren Jackson Jr. and Ja Morant, but don’t sleep on Brandon Clarke. He could very easily emerge as a central piece to any success the Grizzlies have down the road.

Athleticism aside, it is clear that Clarke has all the intangibles of a great leader, and that alone could pay huge dividends to both himself and the Grizzlies organization in the seasons to come.

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