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NBA PM: Isaiah Thomas Opens Up About Free Agency

Sacramento Kings point guard Isaiah Thomas talks about entering free agency for the first time and what his options are in this exclusive interview.

Alex Kennedy

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Isaiah Thomas Opens Up About Free Agency

Entering the 2013-14 NBA season, Isaiah Thomas wasn’t sure if he was going to be the starting point guard for the Sacramento Kings. The organization had just underwent a major overhaul, bringing in a new owner (Vivek Ranadivé), general manager (Pete D’Alessandro), head coach (Mike Malone) and potential starting point guard (Greivis Vasquez). Thomas, entering his third season after being the final pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, knew that his future was up in the air.

But Thomas is a fighter, someone who has always found a way to exceed expectations and succeed regardless of the obstacles put in his way. Upon learning that the Kings had acquired Vasquez in a three-team trade with the New Orleans Pelicans and Portland Trail Blazers, Thomas immediately drove to a Seattle gym and put himself through a rigorous workout. This became his daily routine over the summer, and he was determined to return to Sacramento as a much-improved player who could battle to keep his starting job.

When the Kings reconvened for the start of the season, it was clear that Thomas’ hard work had paid off. He thrived off of the bench early in the season and then played so well that Vasquez became expendable. The Kings traded Vasquez to the Toronto Raptors in their blockbuster deal to acquire Rudy Gay. Thomas ended up starting 54 games for the Kings, averaging 21.2 points, 6.8 assists, 3.1 rebounds and 1.2 steals. By the end of the season, Thomas wasn’t just the best floor general in Sacramento, he was one of the most productive point guards in the league. His 20.54 efficiency rating was fourth-best among all NBA point guards, behind only Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook and Stephen Curry.

“It was great, just because the work I put in,” Thomas told Basketball Insiders of his breakout season. “I felt like if I was given an opportunity, I could be one of the top guards in the NBA. I’ve said that before and people kind of looked at me sideways. But I feel like it’s all about opportunity and taking advantage of what people give you. The Sacramento Kings and Mike Malone gave me an opportunity and I just ran with it and did the things that I know how to do.”

Now, after his breakout season, Thomas is entering one of the most important summers of his life. Once the Kings extend a $2,875,131 qualifying offer to him, he’ll become a restricted free agent who is free to meet with other franchises. The Kings can match any offer that he receives, but it will be his first time being able to meet with his teams and explore their offers. The 25-year-old isn’t sure what will happen when he hits the free agency market, but he’s ready for the process.

“I’m just going to approach it with an open mind because I don’t really know what to expect,” Thomas said of free agency. “I’ve never done it and never been a part of it. I’m just going to go in with an open mind. I’ve done the best I could possibly do and I’ve controlled what I can control and that’s by going out there and giving it my all and leaving it on the floor. The rest is in God’s hands. It’s up in the air and I know everything happens for a reason. I’m going to be alright.”

Thomas understands that the NBA is a business, so he’s not sure if he’ll be back with the Kings next year.

“You never know,” Thomas said. “You’ve got to do what’s best for yourself. But at the same time, like I’ve said since day one, I love Sacramento, I love the coaching staff, I love the new ownership. They’ve done nothing but great things for me, but you never know. With this business, anything can happen.”

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Thomas admits that he reads all of the latest NBA rumors and reports on websites like Basketball Insiders and HoopsHype, but he tries not to focus on them too much

“I read the stuff, but it doesn’t bother me because I know the business of basketball,” Thomas said. “I know one guy can say one thing and it’s not even true and it’s around the whole United States; that’s just how it is. That’s why they’re called rumors. I definitely do read it because I like to stay in the loop, but they don’t bother me.”

One team that could be an intriguing option for Thomas is the Los Angeles Lakers. L.A. has just three players under contract for next season (Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash and Robert Sacre), and plenty of cap space to be active in free agency. It’s well-documented that Thomas grew up a diehard fan of the Lakers since his father is from Los Angeles, and he has idolized Bryant since he was a child. When asked what it would mean to sign an offer sheet with the Lakers, Thomas admits that it would be special.

“It would mean a lot,” Thomas said of receiving an offer sheet from the Lakers. “Not even just the Lakers, but just to have other teams trying to get you, it means you’re wanted. Like I’ve said in interviews before, I just want to be wanted. I want to be wanted for being 5’9 and I want to be wanted for being a scoring point guard. That’s all that I can say. If that’s the Lakers, I’d be happy. If that’s the Kings, then I’d be happy. I just want to be wanted and I want to win.”

As Thomas prepares for free agency on July 1, he’s going to reach out to a number of his veteran friends around the NBA so that he has an idea of what to expect when the circus begins.

“I haven’t [talked to any veterans yet], but I’ll probably reach out to a few guys, especially the older guys that have been through it,” Thomas said. “I’ve been just chilling and trying to relax and not think about it too much.”

One player who Thomas will discuss his decision with is Los Angeles Clippers guard Jamal Crawford, who is his mentor and one of his closest friends. Thomas and Crawford have known each other for years since they grew up in the same area. They even share the same agent, Andy Miller, and Thomas flew to Los Angeles to be in attendance for the ceremony when Crawford won this season’s Sixth Man of the Year award. Crawford is confident that Thomas will be highly coveted this summer and continue to thrive in the NBA.

“Isaiah is someone who has earned everything; he’s never had anything given to him,” Crawford said. “People said he was too small or that he wouldn’t make it to the NBA or that he couldn’t be a young star in the NBA, but he has done it. He’s a guy who is constantly working and constantly asking questions to get better. He has everyone’s respect. I couldn’t be more proud of him, and I know the best is yet to come for him. He’s one of the best free agents on the market this summer.”

As Crawford pointed out, Thomas has only been in the NBA for three seasons and it certainly seems that his best basketball is still ahead of him. Thomas agrees with this sentiment, and says that he feels he could someday be an All-Star in the NBA if he continues to work hard and lands in the right situation.

“I have a lot [of goals],” Thomas said. “I want to be an All-Star; I’ve always said that when given an opportunity, I can showcase that I can play at a very high level and numbers don’t lie. I think the next thing in my career is just winning, and winning takes care of all of the individual success. I know with the numbers that I have, if I lead a team to wins then those accolades will come. I’m just going to continue to work and continue to try to reach my goals and win. … I feel like I’ve gotten a lot of better in the last few years. I was watching actually film of my rookie year a few weeks ago and I was like, ‘I didn’t even look good!’ I felt like I wasn’t even that good. The jump that I’ve made, I think it’s going to happen every year just because of the work I’ve put in. I’m ready for every opportunity that’s thrown at me. I’m ready to show the world that I can play at a high level. This summer, I’m going to keep working too. I’m continuing to work on shooting, but also working on my off-hand passing and learning how to pass through traffic. I just want to keep getting better at being a passer and making my teammates better.”

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While Thomas must weigh his free agency options and prepare for whatever happens next, he is happy with his current situation in Sacramento, where he has earned a key role as a significant contributor, gained chemistry with his teammates and grown comfortable with the city.

The Kings only managed to win 28 games last season, but they were competitive on most nights and they have a promising core that features Thomas, Gay, DeMarcus Cousins, Ben McLemore and whoever they select with the No. 8 pick in this draft. With Gay opting into the final year of his contract, it does take away some of Sacramento’s cap flexibility but it does leave open the possibility that the Kings may be able to keep their squad intact next year. If that’s the case, Thomas believes they can make some noise in the Western Conference and possibly qualify for the playoffs.

“Assuming we all come back, I think we can be very talented,” Thomas said of the Kings. “I think a lot of people in the league know how talented we can be. The jump we made this year, it didn’t translate to wins, but we were ahead in almost every game that we played in. We don’t know how to win yet. We have to figure out how to win close games. But I think with this core group of guys, we can better our games and then make it to the playoffs.”

The presence of Coach Malone is another reason why Thomas enjoys Sacramento. The point guard and head coach became very close throughout the course of last season. Thomas believes that bond is very important, and he loves that they have a strong relationship.

“Our relationship is great,” Thomas said of his bond with Coach Malone. “Since day one, he kept it 100 percent real with me. In the exit meeting, he said, ‘Man, you turned me into the biggest Isaiah Thomas fan.’ He was the first guy that really let me be me and embraced me for being me. I can’t say enough about him, he’s a guy that knows a lot about basketball and has great knowledge of the game. This whole coaching staff, they do their part. I can honestly say that they do their part and they work so hard. They come in every single day ready to work.”

In several weeks, Thomas will have a better idea of what his future holds. This is the second consecutive summer that he is surrounded by uncertainty, but with a breakout season behind him and the opportunity to secure a lucrative new contract looming, the situation is much more promising this time around.

Get the 2014 NBA Draft Issue of Basketball Insiders Magazine. The magazine can be purchased in three ways: You can buy it on the web, and the magazine will work on all devices. | You can buy it from the iTunes app store (for Apple users) | You can buy it from the Google Play store (for Android users). Get yours today!

Blatt Will Face Former Team in NBA Debut

When David Blatt makes his debut as the Cleveland Cavaliers’ new head coach, he’ll be matching up against familiar faces. The Cavaliers will open their 2014-15 preseason against Maccabi Tel Aviv, the team that Blatt just left after four seasons, on October 5 as part of a Euroleague US Tour 2014.

“I couldn’t think of a better-scripted story than starting this new chapter in my life with a friendly game against my Maccabi Tel Aviv family,” Blatt said.

Maccabi Tel Aviv , the reigning Euroleague champions, will also take on the Brooklyn Nets during the Euroleague US Tour on October 7.

With Blatt leaving to take the Cavaliers job, his former assistant Guy Goodes will take over as the team’s head coach. Goodes has been learning under Blatt in recent years, and he’s looking forward to taking on his mentor in this preseason contest.

“It will definitely be an interesting game,” Goodes said. “David obviously knows Maccabi’s playbook inside and out, but the team is geared up to face our friend and mentor and will be coming out there to win. Knowing David, it’s what he would demand of us.”

This will be the fifth time in nine years that Maccabi Tel Aviv represents the Euroleague against an NBA squad during the league’s preseason festivities.

Over the years, Maccabi has played 20 games against NBA clubs, winning five. In 2005, Maccabi became the first European team to beat an NBA squad on its home court by defeating the Toronto Raptors, 105-103, in the Air Canada Center.

Maccabi’s US Tour 2014 will follow two games against national Brazilian champion Flamengo as part of the Intercontinental Cup competition.

For more on Blatt, check out this in-depth profile that features a breakdown of his coaching philosophy as well as quotes from NBA executives and his former players.

 

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA Saturday: Kuzma Is The Main Attraction In Los Angeles

Kyle Kuzma, not Lonzo Ball, is the rookie in L.A. that is turning heads around the NBA.

Dennis Chambers

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Out in Los Angeles, there is a dynamite rookie first-round pick lighting it up for the Lakers, invoking memories of the days when the purple and gold had homegrown stars.

That’s Kyle Kuzma. He was the 27th pick in the NBA Draft. Twenty-five picks after Lonzo Ball, the rookie that first sentence would have presumably been about had it been written three months ago.

Ball’s early season struggles are well-noted. He’s missing shots at an all-time bad clip for a rookie, his psyche seems a bit rattled, and he isn’t having the impact most Lakers fans would have hoped he would from the jump.

All of that has barely mattered, though, in large part to the show Kuzma has been putting on just 16 games into the 2017-18 season. In Friday night’s loss to the Phoenix Suns, Kuzma put up 30 points and 10 rebounds for the Lakers, the most by an NBA freshman so far this year. That performance was Kuzma’s sixth 20-point game of the young season, another rookie best. And to top it all off, Kuzma was the first rookie to reach the 30-point, 10-rebound plateau since none other than Magic Johnson, back in February of 1980.

Kuzma’s path to the NBA was much different than Johnson’s, though, along with his rookie counterpart Ball. Those two prospects were highly-touted “superstar potential” guys coming out of the college ranks. Kuzma? Well, he was a 21-year-old junior out of Utah who didn’t make the NCAA Tournament his last year and was a career 30 percent three-point shooter as an amateur.

The knocks on Kuzma began to change during the NBA Draft process and came to a head for the Lakers when long-time scout Bill Bertka raved about his potential.

“He got all wide-eyed,” Lakers director of scouting Jesse Buss told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne. “And he said, ‘If this guy isn’t an NBA player, then I don’t know what the f— I’m looking at.'”

The Lakers took a chance on the 6-foot-9 forward who had a rare combination of a sweet shooting stroke to accompany his low-post moves that seemed to be reminiscent of players 20 years his senior.

Fast forward from draft night to the Las Vegas Summer League, and everyone could see with their own two eyes the type of player Los Angeles drafted. The numbers were startling: 21.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.4 blocks, 1.1 steals, and 48 percent from beyond the arc out in Sin City for Kuzma, all capped off by a Summer League championship game MVP.

Summer League stats should be taken with a grain of salt, but what Kuzma did in July was proved he belonged.

Through the first month of Kuzma’s rookie campaign, when the games are actually counting for something, all he’s continued to do is prove that his exhibition numbers in Vegas were no fluke.

After his 30-point outburst, Kuzma now leads all rookies in total points scored (yet still second in scoring average), is fourth in rebounds per game, third in minutes, and third in field goal percentage.

By all accounts, Kuzma is outperforming just about every highly-touted prospect that was taken before him last June, and sans a Ben Simmons broken foot in September of 2016, he would be in line for the Rookie of the Year award if the season ended today.

Following Wednesday night’s loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, head coach Brett Brown had more than a few nice things to say about Kuzma.

“He’s a hell of a rookie,” Brown told NBC Philly’s Jessica Camerato. “That was a great pick by them.”

Brown went on to commend Kuzma for being “excellent” Wednesday night, when prior to his game Friday against the Suns, Kuzma set a career-high by scoring 24 points.

For all of the praise and the scoring numbers Kuzma is bringing to the Staples Center, his Lakers team sits at just 6-10 on the season, and has been on the wrong end of a number of close games so far this year.

While that’s good for second in the Pacific division right now, behind only the Golden State Warriors, it isn’t likely that type of success (or lack thereof) will get the Lakers to the playoffs. So, despite all of the numbers and attention, Kuzma isn’t fulfilling his rookie year the way he had hoped.

“It is cool, but I’m a winner,” Kuzma told Lakers Nation’s Serena Winters. “I like to win, stats don’t really matter to me. I just try to play hard and I want to win.”

Few projected the type of impact Kuzma would have this early on in his career, and even fewer would have assumed he’d be outperforming the Lakers’ prized draft pick in Ball. But surprising people with his game is nothing new to Kuzma.

From Flint, Michigan, to Utah, to Los Angeles, Kuzma has been turning heads of those that overlooked him the entire time.

With one month in the books as the Los Angeles Lakers’ most promising rookie, Kuzma has all the attention he could’ve asked for now.

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Kelly Olynyk Strengthens the HEAT Bench

David Yapkowitz speaks to Kelly Olynyk about his early showing in Miami.

David Yapkowitz

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The past few years, Kelly Olynyk carved out a nice role for himself as an important player off the Boston Celtics bench. He was a fan favorite at TD Garden, with his most memorable moment in Celtic green coming in last season’s playoffs against the Washington Wizards in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

With Boston pushed to the limit and finding themselves forced into a Game 7, Olynyk rose to the occasion and dropped a playoff career-high 26 points off the bench on 10-14 shooting from the field in a Celtics win. He scored 14 of those points in the fourth quarter to hold Washington off.

He was a free agent at the end of the season, and instead of coming back to the Celtics, he became a casualty of their roster turnover following Gordon Hayward’s decision to sign in Boston. Once he hit the open market he had no shortage of suitors, but he quickly agreed to a deal with the Miami HEAT, an easy decision for him.

“It’s awesome, they got a real good culture here,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “The organization is great, the city is great, the staff from the top down they do a good job here.”

Olynyk was initially the HEAT’s starting power forward to begin the season. In their opening night game, a 116-109 loss to the Orlando Magic, he scored ten points, pulled down five rebounds, and dished out three assists.

The very next game, however, he found himself back in his familiar role as first big man off the bench. In that game, a win over the Indiana Pacers, Olynyk had an even stronger game with 13 points on 50 percent shooting from the field, including 60 percent from three-point range, eight rebounds, and four assists.

Throughout the first eight games of the season, Olynyk was thriving with his new team. During that stretch, he was averaging a career-high 11.4 points per game on a career-high 55 percent shooting from the field and 60. 8 percent from downtown.

“I’m just playing, I’m just playing basketball,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “They’re kind of letting me just play. They kind of let us all just play. They put us in positions to succeed and just go out there and let out skills show.”

For a HEAT team that may not be as talented on paper as some of the other teams in the Eastern Conference, they definitely play hard and gritty and are a sum of their parts. Night in and night out, in each of their wins, they’ve done it off the contributions from each player in the rotation and Olynyk has been a big part of that. Through Nov. 16, the HEAT bench was seventh in the league in points per game with 36.6.

In a win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Nov. 5, Olynyk was part of a bench unit including James Johnson, Tyler Johnson, and Wayne Ellington that came into the game late in the first quarter. The score at that point was 18-14 in Miami’s favor. That unit closed the quarter on a 16-6 run to put the HEAT up double digits. After that game, head coach Erik Spoelstra recognized the strength of the HEAT bench.

“Our guys are very resilient, that’s the one thing you’ve got to give everybody in that locker room, they’re tough,” Spoelstra said. “This is all about everybody in that locker room contributing to put yourself in a position, the best chance to win. It’s not about first unit, second unit, third unit, we’re all in this together.”

In Boston, Olynyk was part of a similar group that won games off of team play and production from every guy that got in the game. They were also a tough, gritty team and Olynyk has recognized that same sort of fire in the HEAT locker room.

“It’s a group of hard-nosed guys that can really grind it out and play tough-nosed basketball,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “We can go a lot of places. We just got to stick together and keep doing what we do. We can compete with anybody and we just got to bring it every single night.”

At 7-8, the HEAT currently sit outside the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference. Olynyk has seen a bit of a decrease in playing time, and likewise in production. He’s right at his career average in points per game with 9.5, but he’s still shooting career-highs from the field (54 percent) and from three-point range (47.4).

It’s still very early, though, and only one game separates the 11th place HEAT from the 8th place Magic. The HEAT are definitely tough enough to fight for a playoff spot, especially with Olynyk around helping to strengthen their bench.

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Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 11/17/17

Spencer Davies updates the list of names to keep an eye on and who’s in contention for DPOY.

Spencer Davies

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We’re exactly one month into the season now, as the NBA standings have started to take shape headed into winter.

A couple of weeks ago, Basketball Insiders released its first Defensive Player of the Year Watch article to go in-depth on players that could compete for the prestigious award. Since then, there have been injuries keeping most of the household names out of the picture.

Guys like Rudy Gobert (knee) and Al-Farouq Aminu (ankle) have been or will be sidelined for weeks. Kawhi Leonard has yet to make his season debut recovering from a bothersome right quad.

While that isn’t the best news for fans and the league at the moment, it’s likely that those players will be just fine and return with the same impact they’ve always made. In the meantime, there are opportunities for others to throw their names in the hat as elite defenders. With new names and mainstays, here’s a look at six healthy candidates.

6) Joel Embiid

Trusting the Process in Philadelphia was worth the wait. As polished as the seven-footer is with the ball in his hands on offense, he might be even more dangerous as an interior defensive presence.

One of ten players in the NBA averaging at least a block and a steal per game, Embiid makes a world of a difference for in limiting opponents. Through 14 games, the Philadelphia 76ers are allowing just 96.4 points per 100 possessions with him playing. Furthering that, he’s the only one on the floor who dips the team’s defensive rating below 100 and has the second-highest Defensive Real Plus-Minus rating (3.03) in the NBA.

5) Kristaps Porzingis

Like Embiid, it’s been an incredible season for the one called The Unicorn. Before the season started, Porzingis stated it was a goal of his to accomplish three things—an All-Star game appearance, Most Improved Player, and Defensive Player of the Year.

So far, he’s on the right track. Outside of being the league’s third-highest scorer (28.9 points per game), the Latvian big man is hounding and deterring shot attempts nearly every time inside. According to SportVU data, Porzingis is allowing his opponents to only convert 35.1 percent of their attempts at the rim, which is the lowest by far among his peers seeing at least four tries per game. Oh, and when he’s off the floor, the Knicks have a 112.4 defensive rating, which is 9.3 more points per 100 possessions than with him on.

4) Nikola Jokic

At the beginning of the season, it looked like the same old story with the Denver Nuggets defense, but their intensity has stepped up on that end of the floor for the past couple of weeks. Playing next to new running mate Paul Millsap has taken some getting used to, but it seems like the two frontcourt partners have started to mesh well.

Though it might not have been the case a season ago, the Denver Nuggets are a net -12.4 per 100 possessions defensively without Jokic on the court as opposed to a team-best 100.1 defensive rating with him on. A huge knock on the Serbian sensation last year and before then was his inability to defend. He’s still got things to work on as a rim protector with his timing, but the progress is coming. He’s seventh in the league in total contested shots (168) and has been forcing turnovers like a madman. Averaging 1.6 steals per game, Jokic has recorded at least one takeaway in all but two games.

3) Draymond Green

In the first DPOY watch article, the Golden State Warriors had been better off defensively with Green sitting. That right there should tell you how much we can really put into data in small sample sizes. It’s changed dramatically since that point in time.

Without Green playing, the Golden State Warriors have a defensive rating of 105.4 as opposed to 98.4 on the same scale with him on the floor. His matchups are starting to grow weary of driving on him again, as he’s seen less than four attempts at the basket. Currently, in DRPM, he ranks eighth with a 2.60 rating.

2) Al Horford

The Boston Celtics are still the number one team in the NBA in defensive rating. Horford is still the straw that stirs the drink for Brad Stevens. If you didn’t see that watching that knockdown, drag-it-out game against the Warriors on Thursday, go back and watch it.

He has the highest net rating on the team among starters and is leading the team by altering shots and grabbing rebounds with aggressiveness we haven’t seen since he played for the Atlanta Hawks. Ranking fourth in Defensive Box Plus-Minus and in DRPM, Horford is continuing to make his presence felt.

1) DeMarcus Cousins

Dominance is the word to describe Cousins’ game. With a month-long absence of Gobert, he has a real chance to show fans and voters that his defensive side of him is no façade.

Next to his partner Anthony Davis, Boogie has kept up the physicality and technique of locking up assignments. The third and final member of this list averaging at least a block and steal per game, Cousins is at the top of the mountain in DRPM with a 3.13 rating.

The New Orleans Pelicans significantly benefit with him on the hardwood (102.3 DRTG) as opposed to him on the bench (112.7 DTRG). He’s one of six players in the league seeing more than six attempts at the rim, and he’s allowed the lowest success percentage among that group. He’s also contested 193 shots, which is the second-most in the NBA.

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