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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 a Deputy Editor and a Senior NBA Writer based in Cleveland in his third year with Basketball Insiders. Covering the league and the Cavaliers for the past five seasons, his bylines have appeared on Bleacher Report, FOX Sports and HoopsHype.

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NBA Daily: Ivica Zubac Rounding Into Form For Clippers

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

David Yapkowitz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Free Agency Update: Changes In The Bubble

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

Drew Maresca

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

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

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

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

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

The Stars

Mike Conley Jr., Utah Jazz – Player Option

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

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

Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans – RFA

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

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

Fred VanVleet, Toronto Raptors – UFA

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

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

 DeMar DeRozan, San Antonio Spurs – Player Option

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

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

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

The Known Commodities

Marcus Morris Sr., Los Angeles Clippers – UFA

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

Making A Case

Trey Burke, Dallas Mavericks – UFA

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

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

Jordan Clarkson, Utah Jazz – UFA

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

Reggie Jackson, Los Angeles Clippers – UFA

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

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

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

The Unknowns

Harry Giles III, Sacramento Kings – UFA

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

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

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

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

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

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NBA Daily: Breaking Down The Bubble’s Race For 8th

Ben Nadeau analyzes the race for the No. 8 and 9 spots in the Western Conference – who will make the cut?

Ben Nadeau

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As the NBA inched toward its inevitable rebirth, the instant drama surrounding the Western Conference’s No. 8 seed became a conversation wildfire.

Was the league rolling out the red carpet in hopes of a Zion Williamson-LeBron James showdown in the first round? Could the healthier Portland Trail Blazers make another historic run toward history? De’Aaron Fox, the Sacramento franchise cornerstone, took umbrage over a lack of Kings-related faith, while the Memphis Grizzlies had more than enough ground to protect their standing in the current hierarchy.

Three or so games in to our bubbled adventure, everything has changed – and fast.

The Pelicans, still worrisome over Williamson’s health and conditioning, played him about 15 minutes in each of their first two contests – coincidently, New Orleans went 0-2. With their backs against the wall and slowly losing traction in a muddied race, the Pelicans played the future superstar for 25 minutes, where he racked up 23 points, seven rebounds and used a personal 6-0 run to clinch a much-needed win. Not only did the victory signify an important swing in momentum for the veteran-laden squad, but it was another crushing defeat for Grizzlies, who fell to 0-3 and further loosened their once-gridlocked hold on the final playoff seed.

Long perceived to be a five-team fight for the right to face Memphis in the play-in game(s), the Grizzlies’ early struggles have now nearly opened both spots up. All the more interesting, the San Antonio Spurs have begun 2-1, alongside the Phoenix Suns’ 2-0 effort. Although invited without much media afterthought, both the Spurs and Suns – who boast two of the most reliable constants of the bunch, Gregg Popovich and Devin Booker, respectively – are within the four-game window needed to force a play-in too.

So then: Thanks to the Grizzlies’ scuffles, who’ll be the two franchises to reach that play-in showdown?

Let’s start with the Pelicans, a team that’ll be better the more Williamson is allowed on the floor, obviously. While that variable remains up in the air, New Orleans’ remaining schedule is not. They’ll finish with the Kings twice, plus winnable matchups against the Spurs, Wizards and Magic. Although that opening day loss versus Utah stings, there’s no shame in falling to the Clippers, so the opportunity is certainly still there for the Pelicans to reach Nos. 8 or 9 in the coming days.

The Spurs, following a hard-fought effort against Philadelphia on Monday, unfortunately, have a much harder path forward: Denver, Utah, New Orleans, Houston and Utah. No Magic, no Nets, no Kings, even. Just New Orleans and three teams currently fighting for ‘home court’ advantage in the first round. Of course, betting against Gregg Popovich is beyond stupid and that is a lesson some select few must re-learn every spring – but they still seem like the least likely of six to leapfrog into a spot.

Likewise, it isn’t much better for Phoenix. They’ll conclude with the Clippers, Indiana Pacers and T.J. Warren’s supernova act, Miami HEAT, Oklahoma City Thunder, Philadelphia 76ers and Dallas Mavericks. Thankfully, Mikal Bridges’ efforts in Orlando and Ricky Rubio’s trusty playmaking have served as great foils for Deandre Ayton and the aforementioned Booker. Overall, their offensive rating just cracks the top half (15th, 110.4) and their defense remains in the lower half – but stars win games and Booker fits the bill.

Even the Kings, losers to the Spurs and Magic to open their bubble campaign, get the Pelicans twice but also a downright bad Brooklyn Nets squad and a potentially-resting Los Angeles Lakers team in four of their final five games – so don’t count them out either. With their destiny firmly in hand, expect the Kings to make a run of their own. Fox put up 39 points against San Antonio before tallying just 13 versus Orlando – and, in the latter, Sacramento’s only scorer above 15 went to Harry Giles’ 23. Given the context and a very winnable schedule, the next week or so bodes well for the Kings’ hopes.

As for Portland, the squad with the most bankable 1-2 punch of the collection, have an impossibly-tough Rockets-Nuggets-Clippers-76ers run-in before ending with the Mavericks and Nets. Worse, that stretch of difficult opposition will come fast and furious – a classic three games in four days slog. But above all, their defense leaves too much to be desired, even with the return of Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins. Before the shutdown, Portland’s defense was only better than the Atlanta Hawks, Cleveland Cavaliers and Washington Wizards at 113.6 in the ratings department.

In the two games back, well, it’s actually been even worse and their putrid 132.0 defensive rating is a whopping 7 points behind the Kings’ 29th-rated unit. It’s early and the sample size is certainly small – but with only six games left, they’ll need to figure it out in the against some of the league’s best. Still, Damian Lillard is a big-moment killer – he did, after all, break up the Thunder core on his own last April – and he’s capable of hot streaks that few others are.

Lillard and Nurkic put up 30 points apiece against Boston – plus 17 from CJ McCollum and 21 notched by Gary Trent Jr. – and totaled 124 as a team… yet it still wasn’t enough. The heroics of Portland’s stars will be relentless, but if they can’t stop the opposition – they’ll come up short.

In the end, even guessing at Nos. 8 and 9 is a fool’s errand. The Bubble has provided shock after shock already – and the added hurdle of rested players for locked-in seeds are soon to come – but six teams will be whittled down to two before long. Despite the slow start, Memphis remains in the driver’s seat – if they can pick up a win on Wednesday versus a seriously-slumping Jazz side, it’ll go a long way toward clinching their place.

And they’d better hope so: If they don’t, they’ll need to hope for some load management with the Thunder, Raptors, Celtics and Bucks to end the mini-campaign. It’s one of the tougher schedules left in the Western Conference, but their cushion, no matter how rapidly it is shrinking, is still reason to believe they’ll limp into the do-or-die scenario.

As for the second spot, it still feels like the Pelicans’ to lose. Between Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball, JJ Redick, Brandon Ingram and, duh, Williamson, there’s too much firepower here to completely struggle through an easier-than-most schedule.

But, sure, bet against Gregg Popovich, Damian Lillard, De’Aaron Fox and Devin Booker at your own risk – conventional wisdom suggests that at least one of them will crash the party, no matter how unlikely it seems today.

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