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NBA DPOY Watch 2019-20: Preseason Edition

Can Rudy Gobert three-peat or will another standout defender take his crown? According to Jack Winter, here’s where the Defensive Player of the Year race stands as the regular season fast approaches.

Jack Winter

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At long last, the preseason is finally in full swing, giving basketball fans limited time to process the NBA’s drastically-altered state of play before the 2019-20 season officially tips off in a couple of weeks.

But one dynamic that was left mostly unchanged by the wildest summer of player movement in league history? The race for Defensive Player of the Year, in which a handful of familiar candidates pace the preseason pack, followed by a group of hopefuls with long track records of dominant play on that side of the ball

With an emphasis on the likelihood for team success, among many other individual factors, this is how Defensive Player of the Year stacks up as the regular season fast approaches.

6. Patrick Beverley – Los Angeles Clippers

The Clippers have more defensive talent than any team in basketball.

Not since Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen swarmed for the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s has a team featured a more dangerous pair of wing defenders than Paul George and Kawhi Leonard. Ivica Zubac was one of the best rim-protectors in basketball last season after LA stole him from the other side of Staples Center, while Moe Harkless, JaMychal Green and Rodney McGruder provide Doc Rivers with even more individual and team-wide options defensively.

But if the Clippers live up to their ceiling as a top-three this season, the presence of Beverley is poised to be the biggest reason why – as much for the tone he sets on that end of the floor as his dogged, disruptive individual defense of opposing ball handlers and primary scorers.

Beverley’s ability to capably check star wings as well as guards will make it easier for Los Angeles to get by defensively early in the season as George recovers from double shoulder surgery, and later when it comes time for Leonard to rest. He probably won’t be the Clippers’ most impactful defender due to his size limitations, but given Beverley’s rare versatility and ironclad status as a team leader, don’t be surprised if he receives the lion’s share of credit for their success on defense this season.

5. Rudy Gobert – Utah Jazz

Gobert is the two-time defending Defensive Player of the Year, and finished second to Draymond Green in 2016-17. He’s still just 27, has maintained a relatively clean bill of health throughout his career and, maybe most importantly, the Jazz enter the season as one of a handful of teams with legitimate title aspirations. Don’t forget the team that’s long caused Gobert the most problems defensively — the Golden State Warriors — are a shell of the offensive juggernaut they’ve been in recent seasons, too.

But voter fatigue is real and Utah, after ranking first and second in defensive rating over the last two years, respectively, could slide down the rankings a bit following a summer roster overhaul. Bojan Bogdanovic is underrated defensively, but not quite as good as the departed Jae Crowder. The Jazz will miss Derrick Favors both for his ability to mostly hold up defensively playing next to Gobert, and his much-improved effectiveness as a rim-protector when shifting to center. Joe Ingles, who slipped a bit in 2018-19, is a year older and Dante Exum just can’t be counted on to stay healthy.

There’s a legitimate chance that Gobert renders those factors moot, leading Utah to another top-two finish in defensive rating and thus joining Dwight Howard as the only player in league history to win three straight DPOY awards. But if the Jazz’s relative lack of continuity and quality depth causes an adjustment period, Gobert’s candidacy will take a hit almost no matter how dominant he remains.

4. Anthony Davis – Los Angeles Lakers

Let’s just put it out there: The Lakers will be better defensively than many anticipate. LeBron James will coast regardless of his teammates’ pledges to hold him accountable and Dwight Howard, newly svelte, might very well be a liability on defense at this point in his career. But Los Angeles is huge and experienced, with multiple quality perimeter defenders, and arguably no player in basketball is more capable of erasing teammates’ mistakes than Davis.

Davis would rank higher on this list if the plan was to play him at center something close to full-time. In a way, it’s unfair that Davis’ unmatched defensive versatility for a game-changing rim-protector could hurt his DPOY chances. If Gobert was on a team that planned to use two mobility-challenged seven-footers in the rotation, for instance, his struggles to chase stretch 4s and switch onto guards without negative recourse would be a huge issue for Utah.

The Lakers don’t have that problem with Davis. Of course, he’s the one who publicly announced his desire to play power forward, too, a preference that will ripple through lineup constructions for the season’s duration. Like his trade demand from the New Orleans Pelicans last February erased his All-NBA consideration, that development factors into Davis’ likelihood of winning DPOY – given both his decreased defensive impact at power forward and the likely team-wide fallout of that reality.

It’s a testament to Davis’ incredible combination of length, quickness, explosiveness and sense of timing that he’s such a viable candidate anyway. In a vacuum, there’s a case to be made that he’s the best defensive player in basketball.

3. Giannis Antetokounmpo – Milwaukee Bucks

The ongoing chorus of James Harden defenders decrying Antetokounmpo’s MVP victory over the Houston Rockets superstar conveniently overlooks one significant aspect of his case. Antetokounmpo finished a strong second in DPOY last season, earning 20 more first-place votes than Paul George, even reaching the First Team All-Defense for the first time in his career too.

The Bucks could be even better on defense this season than a year ago, somehow, when they ranked first in defensive rating. Antetokounmpo’s on-court rating of 101.8 was Milwaukee’s best among nine players who notched at least 1,000 minutes during the regular season as well.

There’s a possibility the gap between his on- and off-court defensive ratings narrows a bit in 2019-20. Robin Lopez is a big upgrade over the Bucks’ previous backup centers, and another year in Mike Budenholzer’s system – with largely the same personnel – should lead to better communication and fewer breakdowns. Regardless, Antetokounmpo will be among the league leaders in combined steals and blocks again this season and continue to prove himself as not just an imminently looming, highlight-reel off-ball defender, but a switch-proof isolation stopper to boot.

2. Myles Turner – Indiana Pacers

After his gradual progress stalled in a disappointing 2017-18 campaign, Turner re-established himself as a key two-way building block for the Pacers last season. It wasn’t improvement offensively that sparked his early-career turnaround, but Turner suddenly developing into one of the most impactful defenders in basketball – and a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate for the foreseeable future.

He finished fifth in the voting last season, an impressive showing for a newcomer to the DPOY race that played in relative anonymity for a non-contender and rarely on national TV. The bet here is that he substantially improves on that showing in 2019-20, with the basketball world taking more appropriate notice of his all-around defensive influence.

Turner led the league in both blocks and blocks per game last season, but ranked ninth in defensive field goal percentage at the rim against among players who challenged at least five such shots. With another year of understanding and further increased mobility this season, that latter metric should more closely align with the former ones.

A potential mitigating factor: Indiana starting Domantas Sabonis upfront. Can the Pacers, a quiet third in defensive rating last season, duplicate that effort playing two traditional big men major minutes? There’s a reason to believe so, but none loom larger than Turner continuing to rise up the ranks of basketball’s truly elite defenders.

1. Joel Embiid – Philadelphia 76ers

It seems like Embiid’s time.

The Sixers’ status as one of the league’s best defenses has been tethered to his on-court presence since his abbreviated rookie season, never to a greater extent than in last year’s playoffs. Philadelphia’s defensive rating with Embiid on the floor during the postseason was 93.0, a number that vaulted all the way up to 120.1 when he was on the bench – a 27.1 point discrepancy that more than doubled Jimmy Butler’s second-highest mark on the team.

The 76ers signed Al Horford with that dynamic specifically in mind. They’ve been rotating in replacement-level backups for Embiid since 2016-17, and now have the luxury of sliding another elite defensive big man down to center when he’s sidelined by rest, injury or load management.

Embiid’s DPOY resumé could theoretically take a hit by Philadelphia proving much stingier when he’s not on the court. But this team has a chance to rank among the best defenses in modern NBA history in large part due to that possibility, one for which Embiid will undoubtedly receive the most credit should it come to fruition.

Horford is a far different defender than Embiid, too. Opponents’ share of shots from the restricted area ticked up 3.1 percent with Embiid on the bench last season, further evidence of his case as the league’s preeminent rim-protector. Expect a similar difference this year; Horford’s effectiveness as a defender is more about all-court versatility than sovereignty in the paint.

Embiid should also be more comfortable on those rare occasions when he’s tasked with stepping outside to the perimeter after losing 25 pounds over the offseason. No player in basketball over the past three years has come out of nowhere for more jaw-dropping weak-side and chase-down blocks. With improved mobility and overall conditioning, expect those highlights to come even more frequently in 2019-20.

Embiid has had an argument as the best defender in basketball for a while now but hadn’t quite reached the apex. The gap between them is negligible if he’s not already Gobert’s equal as a rim-protector, plus there’s ample reason to believe he isn’t done improving both physically and mentally.

There will be several extremely strong contenders for DPOY. When all is said and done, though, none will boast the blend of individual dominance and team success needed to best Embiid.

Also under consideration: Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors; Paul George, Los Angeles Clippers; Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors; Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics; Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic

Check back all season long for updates on Basketball Insiders’ Postseason Awards Watch. Even better, click here for the preseason MVP Watch.

Jack Winter is a Portland-based NBA writer in his first season with Basketball Insiders. He has prior experience with DIME Magazine, ESPN, Bleacher Report, and more.

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The Career Evolution of Vince Carter

At the height of his game, the man known as Half Man, Half Amazing was must-see TV. Now in his 22nd year in the NBA, Vince Carter is proving his worth as he elevates one of the brightest young teams in the league. Chad Smith writes.

Chad Smith

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The Atlanta Hawks have quietly become the darling team of the NBA. After three excellent years of drafting, the Hawks appear to be headed in the right direction. The dynamic duo of John Collins and Trae Young is one that every team would love to have, but it goes deeper than that for Atlanta.

Kevin Huerter, De’Andre Hunter, and Cam Reddish are all part of the sensational young core that the Hawks have put together over the past few years. Balancing that youth and inexperience can be difficult as many veteran players would rather get the playing time or join an established championship contender.

Mentoring young players is not the most desired role for many guys in the league. It takes a special breed of player to accept and savor the opportunity to shape the next wave of stars.

Not only has Vince Carter taken on that role, he has excelled in it. The fifth overall pick from the 1998 draft is the last remaining active player from the 1990s era. In fact, Carter is set to become the first player in NBA history to play in four different decades, should he see the floor after December 31st.

Carter is entering his 22nd season which breaks a tie with Kevin Garnett, Dirk Nowitzki, Robert Parish, and Kevin Willis for the most in league history. Parish, Willis, and Nat Hickey are the only three players that have ever appeared in an NBA game at 43 or older. Vince will turn 43 years old on January 26.

Often referred to as Vinsanity, Air Canada, and Half Man Half Amazing during his career, Carter was one of the most athletic guys to step on the hardwood. He knows that he is a far cry from the spry shooting guard that made his NBA debut on February 5, 1999. The eight-time All-Star has learned a lot in his time, and he is now able to pass it along to the younger generation.

The art of teaching is one thing, but doing it while also keeping your own body prepared to play is another. Carter has played for eight different organizations and three of them in the last three seasons. After stops in Memphis and Sacramento, the veteran landed in Atlanta last year where he played 76 games. He is not just sitting on the bench or just there to be a presence in the locker room. Carter has played an average of 71 games per season over the last seven years.

The average age of the Hawks roster is 23.72 years without counting Carter. Adding him brings that up almost a full year. What he means to this team cannot be measured by analytic data or eye-popping statistics. His savvy experience and professionalism are two of the reasons Atlanta wanted him back this year, along with his production on the floor.

Carmelo Anthony is a name that is brought up quite often. Many people question why a team still has not signed the popular ten-time All-Star. Unlike Carter, Anthony has been unwilling to make the sacrifices and accept the role that he is given. Not only has Vince embraced it, but he has found value in contributing in a variety of areas.

It is very fitting that Carter has decided to spend the final season of his illustrious career as a tutor. He doesn’t want the farewell tour that many other stars have had in recent years. Known to many as the guy who dunked over a 7-foot-2 defender and shut down an entire dunk contest, Carter views himself as a guy that owes it to the game to give back.

Carter spent the first seven years of his career in Toronto, where his 23.4 points per game average is still the highest in franchise history.  He played 403 games with the team and led them to their first playoff series win in 2001 where they came up one win short of the Eastern Conference Finals. Carter had the opportunity to head back to Canada last season, in pursuit of a title – which they captured. He could have done it, and everyone would have understood the move. He stated that he would only consider it if the organization “wants and feels they need my services.”

In Carter’s mind, his job was to focus on helping develop Atlanta’s young squad.

The 1998-1999 Rookie of the Year has played many roles over the course of his career. He has gone from a rim-attacking superstar to a solid perimeter scorer. The two-time All-NBA wing has always been a high-flying scorer, even in the latter stage of his career. He has a wealth of knowledge and perspective that he can offer to Atlanta’s rising stars.

Speaking with USA Today’s Dan Wolken, Carter elaborated on his role with the young Hawks players.

“I want these guys to understand their importance,” Carter said. “This is the foundation of what you want to be a part of in a couple of years. So, okay, after two weeks maybe we lost four in a row. Are you tired of losing? Let’s fix the problem. Let’s fix our approach. Let’s go a little harder, whatever the case may be, that’s what we’re trying to change, which will hopefully roll over.”

After winning five more games last year than they did the previous season, the Hawks aim to continue their upward trajectory. They may not be anything like the 60-win team from 2014-2015 that made it to the Eastern Conference Finals, but they could very well get there in a few years. Developing the talent they have will be vital to their future.

Lloyd Pierce is entering his second year as head coach after spending four seasons as an assistant in Philadelphia. He knows how Carter operates, and how he is able to get through to the rest of the team. Pierce played with Steve Nash at Santa Clara, where he learned how to get a barometer of the team chemistry. He stresses “staying connected” with each other, through high-fives and individual presentations – a concept he carried over from Philadelphia.

Coach Pierce stresses having a nurturing culture that is built upon team and player development. Carter has been leading the charge in both of those areas since the start of last season.

Carter needs to play in 19 games this season to join the exclusive 1,500 game club. Parish, Nowitzki, John Stockton, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar are the only guys to have played more games. The only other players currently on a roster inside the top 40 in games played are Joe Johnson (30th), and Pau Gasol (38th). We know that Father Time is undefeated, but no player has made more use of his time than Carter has.

Carter may never get the title that so many star players yearn for, but he knows that will not define him. Carter would rather prepare the young stars for a better opportunity to earn a ring than chase one himself. That is the epitome of being a role model and a mentor.

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Should The Knicks Pick Up Options On Young, Unproven Talent?

The Knicks have three young players whose third- and fourth-year options must be decided on before Nov. 1. Should they pick them up or continue amassing salary cap space in hopes of chasing Anthony Davis? Drew Maresca analyzes the pros and cons of hanging on to young talent for another year.

Drew Maresca

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NBA teams face all kinds of decisions and, of course, most major decisions teams face have underlying financial implications. Naturally, Oklahoma City would have loved to re-sign Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka following the 2012 season, but the prospect of paying the luxury tax seemed too prohibitive to ownership and general manager Sam Presti.

And like most other teams, the Knicks have plenty of big financial decisions to make very soon – namely, whether or not to offer long-term extensions or merely pick up their respective team options.

For context, teams must decide on rookie-scale extensions by Monday, Oct. 21 — the night before the beginning of the season — and they need to weigh fourth-year options for players with two years of experience and third-year options for those that signed their rookie deals last year by Oct. 31. Rookie deal third-and fourth-year options are still affordable enough that it makes sense to pick up most team options regardless if a player plays a major role or not – and if they do, the option becomes all-the-more affordable.

Now, most lottery picks see their third and fourth-year team options picked up. But the Knicks are in the unusual position of having to decide on all three prior to any of them demonstrating consistency or overly-productive play. The three currently eligible for extensions or team options are Frank Ntilikina, Dennis Smith Jr. and Kevin Knox. None have set themselves apart as a long-term starter. None of them are seen as a complete player. And each has his own well-documented limitations – but still, do the pros outmeasure the cons?

Ntilikina is a rock-solid defender — butut his production on the offensive end has been inconsistent and unreliable. He shot a mere 28.7 percent on three-point attempts last season with a 39.5 percent effective field goal percentage. Unfortunately, he has proven to be a non-factor in terms of scoring the ball consistently and he disappears entirely at times.

Smith Jr. can absolutely get buckets. His athleticism is a major positive and he’s a better defender than most people believe. But Smith Jr. has efficiency problems, too. In 2018-19, Smith Jr. shot only 32.2 percent on three-pointers and 63.5 percent from the free-throw line — both are far below what teams expect from a starting guard. Worse, those season totals are better than what he demonstrated in two and a half months in New York. Beyond that, his assist-to-turnover ratio (2.07) was below the league average for point guards last season.

Knox is younger and has less experience, so he deserves a little extra slack. Still, there are a number of knocks on Knox – specifically around defense and efficiency. According to cleaningtheglass.com, Knox’s assist percentage was in the sixth percentile among players at his position and his turnover percentage was in the tenth percentile. Somehow, he posted an equally horrid defensive rating and effective field goal percentage. Knox has lots of potential, but he also needs to make major improvements and make better decisions with the ball and on defense.

Re-signing any of the three to long-term deals is probably out of the question from a timing standpoint as there are only three days left to do so. And there’s probably limited desire to do so, anyway. But what about their third- and fourth-year options, should the Knicks pick them all up? The answer is simple – yes, and without hesitation, but let’s explore why:

The options for Smith Jr., Ntilikina and Knox are set at $5.68 million, $6.176 million and $4.58 million, respectively.

While the 2020 free agent class appears limited compared to recent seasons – there are no sure-fire All-Stars other than Anthony Davis –  the Knicks maintained salary cap flexibility thanks to creative team options and one-year signings that cover literally every signing made this past offseason. So picking up all of the aforementioned options represents a commitment of more than $16 million, which will eat into the aforementioned flexibility they smartly invented just recently.

Well, yes — but there should be more space to use. However, the Knicks can’t know exactly where the salary cap will land next season – and it could end up significantly lower than previous estimates due to the current NBA-China beef – but the options represent three contributors to the roster, all of whom they can control for at least one more season. And remember, New York doesn’t have too much depth.

Beyond their young core. Smith Jr., Ntilikina and Knox will all play a role for the team. Looking back to last season, they played 21.0, 29.02 and 28.8 minutes per game as Knicks last season, individually. Those numbers should go up in 2019-20, and paying between $4.5 and $6.2 million apiece to play such large roles is mostly impossible elsewhere.

Thusly, approximately $16 million is a bargain for three contributors — but that becomes all the more obvious when we consider that the average salary was $6.38 million in 2018-19 – more than any of the individual option years. At 21, 21 and 20 years old, these three players should all take leaps forward in their respective development, meaning their salaries could become even more of a bargain than they are now. Further, the salary cap is $109 million this season and none of those options would represent even six percent of the 2019-20 cap.

Even if the Knicks played it frugally and declined their options in favor of cap savings, what would the Knicks even do with them? We’ve already established that the class is less-than-stellar; but what’s more, who’s to say any would be attracted to Madison Square Garden, anyway? The Knicks have had limited (and small) success(es) in free agency. That’s not to say they should give up. But it’s their reality and it’s on them to change it.

New York has suffered major culture setbacks in recent years that landed them exactly where they are. In reverse chronological order, there’s been: The public fallout of them being burned by 2019 free agents, Kristaps Porzingis asking to be traded, James Dolan having Charles Oakley escorted out of Madison Square Garden and all of the damage done by Phil Jackson (e.g., the “posse” fiasco and his public, passive-aggressive war with Carmelo Anthony). That only takes us back through 2014 and ignores the Isiah Thomas-era and the fact that they’ve won one playoff series in the past 18 years.

Having said all that, and despite what Presidential candidate Andrew Yang thinks, there’s finally a light at the end of the tunnel. But from a cost-efficiency standpoint, as well as to continue building a positive perception league-wide, the Knicks must pick up all three options. Ultimately, they’ll be better for in both the short- and long-term.

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NBA Daily: Hield, Kings Both Have Room To Bargain

Buddy Hield understandably feels as if he’s worth more than the Kings have offered him, but that doesn’t mean he’s worth more than that to Sacramento, specifically. Douglas Farmer writes.

Douglas Farmer

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The emotion in Buddy Hield’s voice Wednesday night made it clear his words were not a negotiating ploy. When the fourth-year shooting guard said he would find someplace else to play if the Sacramento Kings did not properly respect him in contract negotiations, he was sincere.

“We’ll see if they’ll have me here,” Hield said. “Feels home to be here. I love Sacramento, but if they don’t feel I’m part of the core … if they don’t want to do it, then after that, I’ll look for somewhere else to go.”

The Kings have until Monday to reach an agreement on a rookie-scale extension with Hield, who is eligible for a four-year deal north of $130 million or a designated-player extension of five years and $170 million.

But Hield may not be looking for those outlandish numbers. Per Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports, Hield is looking for a contract of about $110 million, while Sacramento has offered only $90 million across four years.

“It’s not always about less than the max, it’s just something that’s reasonable and is not an insult,” Hield said. “If we respect each other on that level, we’ll come to that agreement.”

Hield shot 42.7 percent from deep last season on 7.9  attempts per game while averaging 20.7 points. He may not necessarily be worthy of a max contract, but his is a valued skill set in the modern NBA. Combine that with the weak 2020 free agent class, and Hield has some ground to dig in upon at the bargaining table. If an extension is not agreed to, Hield would not be free to go wherever he wishes next summer, but he would be free to pursue that which might force the Kings’ hand as a restricted free agent.

Of wings expected to hit the market next summer, Hield would be joined by Otto Porter, Joe Harris and, possibly, Hield’s current teammate, Bogdan Bogdanović (also restricted). It really could be that shallow of a shooting pool. Gordon Hayward is likely to pick up his $31.2 million player option with the Boston Celtics, while DeMar DeRozan and the San Antonio Spurs are reportedly in discussions. Meanwhile, Caris LeVert has already signed a new deal with the Nets.

That market vacuum could drive up Hield’s summertime price, though Sacramento could still match any offer. If the Kings would match ties into the exact reasons they are risking alienating a core player in the first place. Sacramento has returned to respectability — both in the standings and in perceived approach — by building through the draft. But their bill is almost due.

Hield, Bogdanović, point guard De’Aaron Fox and forward Marvin Bagley are all approaching paydays in the next few seasons. The Kings are almost certainly going to make massive offers to Fox and Bagley in 2021 and 2022, respectively, and those contracts will tie up Sacramento’s books for much of the 2020s. The additional $5 million per year sought by Hield could preclude other moves when combined with Fox’s and Bagley’s deals.

The Kings’ ground is strengthened by holding Bogdanović’s restricted rights, as well. If they lose Hield, they will still have a starting-quality shooting guard to play alongside Fox in Bogdanović. He may not have hit 602 threes in his first three seasons in the league as Hield has, but Bogdanović is currently at 263 through two years, hardly anything to readily dismiss.

Even though Bogdanović will not cost as much as Hield — pondering a $51.4 million, four-year extension — keeping both pieces of the shooting duo may prove too costly for Sacramento owner Vivek Ranadivé. At which point, Hield’s raw emotions Wednesday night may foreshadow Ranadivé’s decision.

Where could Hield go, if for no other reason than to drive up his price?

Any discussion of 2020 free agents must include the Atlanta Hawks, who could have as much as $79.1 million in cap space. Hield would fit both their roster timeline and its general construction, though they did just snag both De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish in the 2019 draft. Hield’s minutes would come from the same pool as theirs, making this pairing a bit redundant.

There would be no such conflict with the Dallas Mavericks, whose centerpieces currently miss a wing with range from deep. The Mavericks would lack the space to sign Hield if Tim Hardaway Jr. opts into his $19 million player option, but that could simply precede a sign-and-trade with the Kings. There are certainly ways to make the space necessary should Dallas owner Mark Cuban want to.

If Hield wanted to be a part of another group that is “getting the team back to where it needs to be,” the Memphis Grizzlies would be a situation very similar to Sacramento’s. Forward Jaren Jackson Jr. will see his first big contract begin in 2022 and this year’s No. 2 overall pick Ja Morant should follow that trend a year later. The Grizzlies, however, do not have an exceptional shooter to pair with their young duo. If nothing else, Memphis could drive up the price on Hield to compromise the Kings’ cap space moving forward.

Those possibilities, among others, give Hield practical reason to stand his ground for what he feels he’s worth, while Sacramento’s long view may make it think twice. As emotional and blunt as he was, Hield understands these realities.

“Some people will get the max and some people won’t get the max,” he said. “That’s how it works.”

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