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.
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.
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.
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.
Robert Williams said he would get up at 9 or 9:30 am to work out and Gordon Hayward would be finishing up his work.
On Gordon’s explosion: “He just got it back, man. He’s back.”
— Jay King (@ByJayKing) October 5, 2019
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.
Too bad @gordonhayward got injured (hopefully it's a minor injury), because he was ROLLING during the first half of last night's game against Hornets.
He got his bounce back again! Highlights: pic.twitter.com/SMSvxJZLie
— Tomek Kordylewski (@Timi_093) October 7, 2019
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.
Didn't finish it but Gordon Hayward making these moves 👀 pic.twitter.com/jM9fvojn2S
— Chris Forsberg (@ChrisForsberg_) October 6, 2019
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.