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NBA Daily: The Best One-Year Contract Signings of 2018

Spencer Davies looks at several of this summer’s best one-year signings from both a player and team perspective.

Spencer Davies

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Short-term contracts are a beautiful thing in the NBA. While it doesn’t necessarily mean that a player is going to be a part of a franchise for the long haul, it does mean that player is going to give it his all to earn a payday in the following offseason.

There are multiple reasons for somebody to sign a one-year deal. Maybe it’s a “show ‘em, prove it” type of situation. Perhaps it’s a veteran whose career is winding down but still has a desire to play the game and teach those who are younger.

Whatever the case may be, it’s a beneficial tool for both the provider and the recipient. Teams don’t have to be hooked on for long-term money at first, and if they like a guy enough, they can come to terms at a later time if desired.

Let’s look at this summer’s one-year signees and their respective situations. For the purpose of this article, we’re only going to mention players going to new teams, not ones who are coming back (e.g. Rudy Gay, J.J. Redick, etc.)

Isaiah Thomas – Denver Nuggets ($2,029,463)

The case of Thomas is proof that nothing in this league is guaranteed. From an MVP candidate on the brink of earning a maximum contract to sustaining a devastating hip injury, to being traded twice in one season, to signing a veteran’s minimum deal this offseason—the fall was not a graceful one.

Still, this contract will help accomplish two things. One, it will give the Nuggets a backup floor general they’ve desperately lacked over the last few years. Two, it will allow Thomas to get some sort of momentum back headed into 2019 free agency. He can still score and get to the rack. A summer of healing—physically and mentally—should only help that.

Anthony Tolliver – Minnesota Timberwolves ($5,750,000)

This is a flat-out steal of a signing for the Wolves. While Tolliver isn’t getting any younger at 33 years old, he is one of the most underappreciated veteran forwards in the league. He had a fine season with the Detroit Pistons one year ago, knocking down a career-best 43.6 percent of his triple tries.

His best quality, however, is the way he defends. We all know how much Tom Thibodeau loves his hard-nosed, experienced players. With the Wolves losing Nemanja Bjelica to the Sacramento Kings in free agency, there’s an opening at the backup four position behind Taj Gibson, and Tolliver fits into it perfectly.

Elfrid Payton – New Orleans Pelicans ($3,000,000)

There’s a homecoming in the Bayou. A former Rajun Cajun from Louisiana-Lafayette, Payton will likely be as comfortable as he ever has in the NBA. Let’s not forget how talented the 24-year-old maestro is. He’s the definition of an all-around point guard, which should help him in the long run as the game requires all-around play.

As Rajon Rondo and DeMarcus Cousins headed west, the Pelicans nabbed Payton and Julius Randle to re-tool. Payton should serve well as not only Jrue Holiday’s backup, but could also see action on the floor along with him depending on how Alvin Gentry wants to tinker with his rotation. It’s a new team, new haircut and new life for the fifth-year guard.

Mario Hezonja – New York Knicks ($6,500,000)

Like Payton, Hezonja is another former Orlando Magic first-round draft pick who hasn’t quite panned out, but has looked solid when given ample playing time. Year three was a big jump for all intents and purposes, considering his first two seasons in the NBA were a flop. He was able to step up when others were injured, providing production for a depleted bunch that needed it—and carved out a bigger role because of it.

Enter Hezonja on a Knicks team that is down its superstar Kristaps Porzingis for potentially most, if not all, of the upcoming season. They’re going to need somebody to help score the basketball next to Tim Hardaway Jr. and promising rookie sensation Kevin Knox. It’ll be interesting to see how Hezonja fills that void and how he responds to playing in the Big Apple.

Trevor Ariza – Phoenix Suns ($15,000,000)

The rebuild is officially underway in the desert. There are a new coach, a new roster and a new set of young talent eager to gain experience at the professional level, and Ariza is there to set the tone of a championship mindset right from the get-go. With one touch of pen to paper, he became the highest-paid player for the 2018-19 season on the roster, and maybe the most important.

Having been a part of many playoff teams in the span of his 14-year career, Ariza’s locker room presence will help new head coach Igor Kokoskov establish a winning culture right off the bat. He’s a guy who’s “been there, done that” in almost every situation since he’s been in the league, so he knows how things work on and off the floor. Between Ariza and Tyson Chandler, the inexperienced Suns will have plenty of advice.

Brook Lopez – Milwaukee Bucks ($3,382,000)

As mentioned in last week’s “Odd Men Out” series highlighting the central division, John Henson’s tenure in Milwaukee could be coming to a screeching halt. Mike Budenholzer is a new head coach with his own system and philosophy coming into town. The Bucks are going to be moving the basketball like a hot potato and getting shots up like it’s nobody’s business.

Lopez is going to be a beneficiary of that change. Over the last two seasons, he’s become a rather reliable three-point shooting big that can stretch the floor. Pulling out those centers to the perimeter will allow Giannis Antetokounmpo to wreak havoc in the paint and collapse opposing defenses with ease. And if they ever want to use the veteran seven-footer as a post threat, he’s a solid passer on the block, too.

Carmelo Anthony – Houston Rockets ($2,400,000)

Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. Anthony’s memorable stay with the Atlanta Hawks will be remembered forever…just kidding. But his single season with the Oklahoma City Thunder will actually go down as one of the worst in his career. Whether it was the role he was placed in, an off-shooting year, or just father time catching up, he didn’t look like the same Carmelo.

That said, the Rockets are banking on seeing him return to form. While many are writing him off already from the start, it’ll be interesting to see how playing with Chris Paul and James Harden affects Anthony’s drive. Will he play within former head coach Mike D’Antoni’s system and buy into what Houston is selling? Only time will tell, but this deal is necessary for both sides, especially with Ariza moving to the desert.

DeMarcus Cousins – Golden State Warriors ($5,337,000)

Seeing Cousins go down with an Achilles injury while he was in the midst of one of the best seasons in his career was brutal. You’d be hard-pressed to not think of the “what-if” concerning New Orleans’ run in the playoffs and the second-round exit…which was ironically courtesy of his new team, the Warriors.

Nobody likes to hear it because of Golden State’s dominance of the NBA, but this agreement makes a ton of sense. Steve Kerr has lacked a reliable offensive center for almost the entirety of his time in the Bay. It’s the one element the team has lacked to cover all bases, and now, it’s gone…kind of.

Cousins probably won’t be seeing much action in the first part of the season. It takes a good chunk of time to fully recover from an Achilles injury, and there will be no rush him on the floor. But once he is cleared, the Warriors are going to be scarier than they already were. And if he looks like his All-Star self, Boogie could be looking at a solid payday next summer.

Tyreke Evans – Indiana Pacers ($12,400,000)

It’s easy to forget what Evans did last season because it happened with the Memphis Grizzlies. They were battered and bruised from the jump. There was a controversial early coaching change. It wasn’t a good year for the franchise. But it was a good year for him.

Evans put up numbers that he hasn’t produced since his rookie season back in the 2009-10 days in Sacramento. He was the leader of the team and was quite frankly the only consistent player that the Grizzlies could depend on nightly. He stayed healthy for the most part, and sat out at the end of the season to ensure he earned a good deal in the offseason.

And so, the Pacers came calling to add another playmaker to insert next to Victor Oladipo. Evans can attack the basket, distribute and shoot like he did early in his career. His best basketball is clearly ahead of him. This is a dynamite move by Kevin Pritchard to bolster the talent and depth of this roster as Indiana looks to take advantage of a wide-open Eastern Conference.

DeAndre Jordan – Dallas Mavericks ($22,897,000)

Jordan was the last domino to fall in the era of “Lob City” in Los Angeles. With Blake Griffin getting traded to the Pistons last year and Chris Paul going to Houston the summer beforehand, it was only a matter of time until the third member of the group had to exit.

Give kudos to Jordan—he stuck it out. Through thick and thin, through the trade rumors and all of the madness, he honored his contract and 10 years with the Clippers without a peep of drama. That’s all you can ask of a player these days. Now, though, it’s ironically on to a team he negotiated with and came close to signing with three years ago, the Mavericks.

Paired with playmakers like Dennis Smith Jr. and highly-touted international rookie Luka Doncic, Jordan will be a part of a Dallas team aiming to bounce right back into the playoff picture. Harrison Barnes will likely be slotted back at small forward on the outside more, while Dirk Nowitzki should give him enough spacing to corral those offensive rebounds and jam some putback dunks. We know he’ll be catching those alley-oops every night, too.

In the end, Mark Cuban and Rick Carlisle get the guy that they’ve wanted all along—and Jordan gets paid along with an opportunity to really cash in a year from now.

As you can see, there’s a lot of value to these one-year contracts for both sides. We’re going to witness the best out of these players as they chase after the real prize next summer in a growing, stacked class of free agents.

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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Reviewing the Nurkic Trade: Denver’s Perspective

The Denver Nuggets have been on a miraculous run this postseason, but that doesn’t mean that they’re infallible. Drew Maresca reviews the 2017 trade that sent Jusuf Nurkic from Denver to Portland.

Drew Maresca

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The Denver Nuggets are fresh off of a 114-106 win over the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, pulling within three wins of the franchise’s first trip to the NBA Finals. But what if I told you that the Nuggets’ roster could be even more talented by acting more deliberately in a trade from three years ago?

While Denver won on Tuesday night, they lost a nail bitter on Sunday – for which most of the blame has been pointed at a defensive breakdown by Nuggets’ center Mason Plumlee, who was procured in the aforementioned 2017 trade. What did it cost Denver, you ask? Just Jusuf Nurkic and a first-round pick.

Nurkic was a 2014-15 All-Rookie second team member. He played 139 games over 2.5 seasons in Denver, averaging 7.5 points and 5.9 rebounds in approximately 18 minutes per game. He showed serious promise, but Denver had numerous reasons to pursue a trade: he’d suffered a few relatively serious injuries early in his career (and he’s continued to be injury-prone in Portland), butted heads with head coach Michael Malone and – most importantly – the Nuggets stumbled on to Nikola Jokic.

The Nuggets eventually attempted a twin-tower strategy with both in the starting line-up, but that experiment was short-lived — with Jokic ultimately asking to move to the team’s second unit.

The Nuggets traded Nurkic to the Portland Trail Blazers in February 2017 (along with a first-round pick) in exchange for Plumlee, a second-round pick and cash considerations. Ironically, the first-round pick included in the deal became Justin Jackson, who was used to procure another center, Zach Collins – but more on that in a bit.

As of February 2017, Plumlee was considered the better player of the two. He was averaging a career-high 11 points, 8.1 rebounds and 4.0 assists through 54 games – but it was clear that at 27, he’d already maximized his talent.

Conversely, Nurkic was only 23 at the time of the trade with significant, untapped upside. In his first few seasons with Portland, Nurkic averaged 15 points and 9.8 rebounds per game, while establishing himself as a rising star. As noted above, injuries have continued to be a problem. Nurkic suffered a compound fracture in his tibia and fibula in March 2019, forcing him to miss a majority of this current campaign. The COVID-19-related play stoppage in March gave Nurkic extra time to get his body right, and he returned to action in July inside the bubble.

And he did so with a vengeance. Nurkic demonstrated superior strength and footwork, and he flashed the dominance that Portland hoped he would develop, posting eight double-doubles in 18 contests. He averaged 17.6 points and 10.3 rebounds per game and while his play dipped a bit in the playoffs – partially due to a matchup with first-team All-NBA star Anthony Davis – he still managed 14.2 points and 10.4 rebounds in the five-game series. So it’s fair to say that Nurkic is still on his way toward stardom.

But the Nuggets are in the conference finals – so all’s well that ends well, right? Not so fast. To his credit, Plumlee is exactly who Denver expected him to be. He’s averaged 7.5 points and 5.5 rebounds per game in three seasons with Denver since 2017 – but to be fair, Plumlee is asked to do less in Denver than he had in Portland. Still, it’s fairly obvious that they’re just not that comparable.

Plumlee is a good passer and an above-average defender that’ll compete hard and isn’t afraid to get dirty – but he has limitations. He doesn’t stretch the floor and he is a sub-par free throw shooter (53.5 percent in 2019-20). More importantly, he’s simply not a major offensive threat and his repertoire of moves is limited.

High-level takeaway: Defenses tend to game plan for opponents they view as major threats – Nurkic falls into this category. Other guys pack the stat sheet through putback attempts, open looks and single coverage alongside the guys for whom opposing defenses game plan – that’s a more appropriate description of Plumlee.

On to the wrench thrown in by Zach Collins’ involvement. Statistically, Collins is about as effective as Plumlee – he averaged 7 points and 6.3 rebounds through only 11 games in 2019-20 due to various injuries – and he possesses more upside. The 22-year-old is not as reliable as Plumlee but given his age and skill set, he’s a far better option as a support player playing off the bench. He stretches the floor (36.8 percent on three-point attempts in 2019-20), is an above-average free throw shooter (75 percent this season) and is a good defender. Looking past Nurkic for a moment, would the Nuggets prefer a 22-year-old center that stretches the floor and defends or a 30-year-old energy guy?

Regardless of your answer to that question, it’s hard to argue that Nurkic should have returned more than Plumlee, definitely so when you factor in the first-round pick Denver included. There is obviously more at play: Denver was probably considering trading Nurkic for some time before they acted – did they feel that they could increase his trade value prior to the trade deadline in 2016-17? Maybe. Further, Nurkic and his agent could have influenced the Nuggets’ decision at the 2017 deadline, threatening to stonewall Denver in negotiations.

Had Nurkic been more patient or the Nuggets acted sooner before it became abundantly clear that he was on the move, Denver’s roster could be even more stacked than it is now. Ultimately, the Nuggets have a plethora of talent and will be fine – while it appears that Nurkic found a long-term home in Portland, where he owns the paint offensively. Denver can’t be thrilled about assisting a division rival, but they’re still in an enviable position today and should be for years to come.

But despite that, this deal should go down as a cautionary tale – it’s not only the bottom feeders of the league who make missteps. Even the savviest of front offices overthink deals. Sometimes that works in their favor, and other times it does not.

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NBA Daily: They Guessed Wrong

Matt John reflects on some of the key decisions that were made last summer, and how their disappointing results hurt both team outlooks and players’ legacies.

Matt John

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It doesn’t sound possible, but did you know that the crazy NBA summer of 2019 was, in fact, over a year ago? Wildly, in any normal, non-pandemic season, it all would have been over three months ago and, usually, media days would be right around the corner, but not this time. The 2019-20 NBA season is slated to end sometime in early to mid-October, so the fact that the last NBA off-season was over a year ago hasn’t really dawned on anyone yet. Craziest of all, even though there will still be an offseason, there technically won’t be any summer.

Coronavirus has really messed up the NBA’s order. Of course, there are much worse horrors that COVID-19 has inflicted upon the world – but because of what it’s done to the NBA, let’s focus on that and go back to the summer of 2019. It felt like an eternity, but the Golden State Warriors’ three-year reign had finally reached its end. The Toronto Raptors’ victory over the tyranny that was the Hamptons Five – as battered as they were – made it feel like order had been restored to the NBA. There was more to it than that though.

Klay Thompson’s and Kevin Durant’s season-ending injuries, along with the latter skipping town to join Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn meant two things.

1. Golden State was down for the count
2. Brooklyn’s time wasn’t coming until next year.

A one-year window was open. Even if neither Golden State nor Brooklyn posed the same threat that the former did when it had Kevin Durant, those were two contenders out of commission. If there was a time to go all in, it was in 2019.

Milwaukee certainly seemed to go all in. For the most part.  Malcolm Brogdon’s departure seemed a little odd since he was arguably their best non-Giannis playmaker when they were in crunch time. Not to mention there was nothing really stopping the Bucks from keeping him except for money. Detractors will call out Milwaukee for electing to cheap out by not keeping Brogdon and hence, avoiding the luxury tax. However, there’s more to it than that.

Milwaukee thought it had enough with the core it had on its roster. Coming off the best season they had put up since the eighties, they believed the franchise built the right team to contend. There was an argument that keeping Brogdon may have been overkill with their guard depth – let’s not forget that Donte DiVincenzo did a solid job in Brogdon’s role as the backup facilitator. This would have been more defensible had it not been for Milwaukee picking the wrong guy to let go. That was the indefensible part- electing to keep Eric Bledsoe over Brogdon.

Bledsoe wasn’t necessarily a bad investment. No one’s complaining about an almost 15 point average on 47/34/79 splits or playing individual defense tight enough to get named on the All-Defensive second team. By all accounts, Bledsoe earns his keep. That is until the playoffs. Bledsoe’s postseason woes have been a weight ever since he first entered Milwaukee, and this postseason was more of the same.

Bledsoe’s numbers dwindled to just 11.7 points on 39/25/81 splits, and Milwaukee getting ousted in five games at the hands of Miami made his struggles stand out even more than it had ever been. Bledsoe may be the better athlete and the better defender, but Brogdon’s all-around offensive savvy and his only slight dropoff defensively from Brogdon would have made him a bit more reliable.

Milwaukee guessed wrong when they opted to extend Bledsoe before the postseason last year when they could have waited until that very time to evaluate who to keep around. Now they face a hell of a lot more questions than they did at the end of last season – questions that may have been avoided had they made the right choice.

Now they could have kept both of them, yes, but it’s not totally unreasonable to think that maybe their approach with the luxury tax would have worked and maybe they would still be in the postseason right now had they gone with the homegrown talent. And just maybe, there wouldn’t be nearly as much of this Greek Freak uncertainty.

The Houston Rockets can relate. They got bruised up by a team that everyone thought Houston had the edge on going into the series and then crushed by the Lakers. Now, Mike D’Antoni is gone. The full-time small ball experiment likely did not work out. Since the Rockets emptied most of their assets to bring in Russell Westbrook and Robert Covington, there may not be a route in which they can become better than they presently are.

The mistake wasn’t trading for Russell Westbrook. The mistake was trading Chris Paul.

To be fair, most everybody severely overestimated Chris Paul’s decline. He’s not among the best of the best anymore, but he’s still pretty darn close. He deserved his All-NBA second team selection as well as finishing No. 7 overall in MVP voting. OKC had no business being as good as they were this season, and Paul was the driving force as to why.

For all we know, the previously-assumed tension between Chris Paul and James Harden would have made its way onto the court no matter what. Even so, Houston’s biggest obstacle in the Bay Area had crumbled. If they had just stayed the course, maybe they’re still in the postseason too.

To their credit, none of this may have happened had it not been for the Kawhi Leonard decision. Had he chosen differently, the Thunder never blow it up, and Houston might have very well been the favorite in the Western Conference. Instead, the Rockets took a step back from being in the title discussion to dark horse. But at least they can take pride knowing that they weren’t expected to win it all – the Clippers can’t.

Seeing the Clippers fall well short expectations begs the question if they too got it wrong. The answer is, naturally: of course not. They may have paid a hefty price for Paul George, but the only way they were getting Kawhi Leonard – one of the best players of his generation – was if PG-13 came in the package. As lofty as it was, anyone would have done the same thing if they were in their shoes. They didn’t get it wrong. Kawhi did.

On paper, the Clippers had the most talented roster in the entire league. It seemed like they had every hole filled imaginable. Surrounding Leonard and George was three-point shooting, versatility, a productive second unit, an experienced coach – you name it. There was nothing stopping them from breaking the franchise’s long-lasting curse. Except themselves.

Something felt off about them. They alienated opponents. They alienated each other. At times, they played rather lackadaisically, like the title had already been signed, sealed, and delivered to them. The media all assumed they’d cut the malarkey and get their act together – but that moment never really came. They had their chances to put Denver away, but even if they had, after seeing their struggles to beat them – and to be fair Dallas too – would their day of destiny with the Lakers have really lived up to the hype?

Even if it was never in the cards, one can’t help but wonder what could have happened had Kawhi chosen to stay with the team he won his second title with.

Toronto was the most impressive team in this league this season. They still managed to stay at the top of the east in spite of losing an all-timer like Leonard. That team had every component of a winner except a superstar. They had the right culture for a championship team. Just not the right talent. The Clippers were the exact opposite. They had the right talent for a championship team but not the right culture. That’s why the Raptors walked away from the postseason feeling proud of themselves for playing to their full potential while the Clippers writhed in disappointment and angst over their future.

In the end, everyone mentioned here may ultimately blame what happened to their season on the extenuating circumstances from the pandemic. The Bucks’ chemistry never fully returned when the Bubble started. Contracting COVID and dealing with quad problems prevented Westbrook from reviving the MVP-type player he was before the hiatus. As troubling as the Clippers had played, the extra time they would have had to work things out in a normal season was taken away from them.

For all we know, next year will be a completely different story. The Rockets, Bucks, and Kawhi may ultimately have their faith rewarded for what they did in the summer of 2019 – but that will only be mere speculation until the trio can change the story.

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Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards

Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.

David Yapkowitz

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We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.

The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.

With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.

The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.

Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old

Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.

He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.

Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.

Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old

Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.

He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.

Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.

Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old

Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.

He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.

One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.

Honorable Mentions:
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old

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