The NBA Playoffs are approximately halfway finished. There continues to be a strong chance for another Golden State Warriors versus Cleveland Cavaliers Finals rematch. Along the way, a few contenders and challengers have been eliminated.
After suffering a major defeat, it’s normal for a star player to wonder (usually privately) whether he can win a championship with his team. We all know for a fact that Kevin Durant went through that process.
Different players are motivated by different things. Some prioritize rings, others prioritize money and some just want an opportunity to prove they belong in the NBA. Under the Collective Bargaining Agreement, teams generally can offer their own players substantially more money than other teams to convince their players to re-sign. Despite this inherent advantage, here are a few players that may be on the move after suffering playoff defeat recently.
Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors
The 2017 NBA Playoffs have not been kind to the Toronto Raptors. Star point guard Kyle Lowry suffered a sprained ankle in the third quarter of Game 2 in the Eastern Conference Semifinals match up with the Cavaliers. Count the injured ankle as one of many things that did not go the Raptors’ way in the playoffs. With and without Lowry, the Raptors didn’t have any answer to LeBron James and the Cavaliers, resulting to a four-game sweep.
The failure to win a single game against the Cavaliers is made worse by the fact that the Raptors made it to the Eastern Conference Finals last year and won two games against the Cavaliers. After being retooled for the purpose of being able to defeat the Cavaliers, with the additions of forward Serge Ibaka and forward P.J. Tucker, the Raptors failed to win a single game. The Raptors will have to answer many questions this offseason, especially in regards to Lowry.
Lowry will reportedly pass on his option to play out the final year of his contract. Like other potential free agents on this list, if Lowry were to leave, he would likely give up some salary to do so. After coming up short against the Cavaliers again, Lowry has to decide if he is going to return to the Raptors or perhaps pursue greener pastures elsewhere.
Paul George, Indiana Pacers
The Indiana Pacers are another franchise facing several important questions going into this summer. Proof of these uncertain times can be found in the recent departure of Team President Larry Bird. The most important question is what to do with forward Paul George. Unlike Lowry, George is the highest paid player on his team and is under contract for the 2017-2018 season. So what’s the problem? The problem lies with the Pacers continued inability to achieve team success anywhere close to their two runs to the Eastern Conference Finals in the 2013 and 2014 NBA Playoffs.
It’s hard to blame George for the Pacers being swept in four games by the LeBron James-led Cavaliers. George averaged playoff career highs in points (28.0), assists (7.3), rebounds (8.8), three-point shooting and minutes (43.0) per game. It’s not clear that the team is on track for continued team success and George has stated that he wants to play for a winning team. The organization might come to the conclusion that they don’t want to allow George to eventually leave and look to trade him while they still can.
Gordon Hayward, Utah Jazz
Unlike every other player on this list, forward Gordon Hayward and his team are still in the playoffs. In fact, reaching the Western Conference Semifinals has to be considered a successful outcome for a franchise that has not reached this point since the 2010 season. In addition, Hayward is having an amazing postseason run. Hayward has increased his scoring (24.0), despite being the primary target for opposing defenses. Hayward is playing well and made it back to the playoffs after not appearing in the postseason since his rookie year. So why would Hayward consider taking his talents elsewhere?
Hayward goes into the offseason with a player option this offseason. He is healthy, in the prime of his career and can call the shots this offseason. There have been a couple of stretches where the Jazz looked like they could compete with the Warriors in the semifinals, however, they face the prospect of being swept in Utah tonight against a very dominant Golden State team. Long term, the Warriors are set to continue terrorizing the Western Conference.
Perhaps Hayward might see greener pastures in the Eastern Conference. The Boston Celtics have tremendous roster flexibility and Head Coach Brad Steven coached Hayward at Butler (as has been pointed out more than a few times). The familiar relationship and potentially easier path in the playoffs present potential allure. In addition, Hayward has attempted to jump ship before. As a restricted free agent in 2014, Hayward signed a max contract with the Charlotte Hornets, which the Jazz matched. With the ability to sign elsewhere without any restrictions, Hayward holds his own fate and that of the Jazz in his hands.
Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers
The Los Angeles Clippers’ playoff run came to an end on April 30 as the team fell to the Utah Jazz. The loss capped off a series that came down to a final elimination game and standout performances from stars on both teams. However, any realistic hopes the Clippers had of making a deep playoff run came to an end on April 21 when forward Blake Griffin suffered a toe injury that would require surgery and keep him out for the remainder of the playoffs.
Griffin has a player option for next year. Count this as one of many uncertainties for the Clippers as point guard Chris Paul and shooting guard J.J. Redick each have the right to sign elsewhere this offseason as well. There has been speculation that Redick is the most likely player to depart and perhaps for good reason after another disappointing playoff performance for Redick.
After another disappointing playoff and uncertain prospects regarding the team’s future, the stage is set for a potential departure by Griffin. Griffin and Paul have played together for six seasons and it continues to be clear that Paul is the unquestioned leader of the team.
If Griffin desires a chance to put past failures behind him and be seen as a star and a more defined leader, a change of scenery could be the answer.
Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls
On February 23, the Chicago Bulls traded two rotation players in forwards Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott without receiving any players in return that would offer any significant on-court contributions. The Bulls still made the playoffs based on contributions from other key players, particularly star forward Jimmy Butler.
With Butler, the Bulls have a two-way star in the mold of LeBron James or Kawhi Leonard: the best player on his team, relied on for the team’s success to an absurd degree and is the team’s best lockdown defender. In addition, he is under contract until the 2018-2019 season at which point he has a player option and the choice of whether to come back for an additional season. So why would the Bulls look to move Butler?
As stated above, the Bulls are a hard team to figure out. They can’t seem to put the pieces together to realistically contend. Yet with such a dominant core piece in Butler, they refuse to miss the playoffs and break apart the team in an effort to rebuild by acquiring assets, draft picks and younger talent from places like the D-League. Trading Butler would immediately jumpstart any such effort but that’s no certainty given Chicago’s history.
Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers
The prospect of Chris Paul leaving the Clippers may be the least likely on this list. He is the undisputed on-court leader for his team and can earn significantly more staying put. Even if Paul had shown a desire to leave, where would he go? Paul is a fierce competitor and has made it clear he wants to win. If he were to leave, it would have to be a team virtually guaranteed to be a top-tier contender.
With the recent injury to point guard Tony Parker, the San Antonio Spurs present an unexpected and interesting opportunity for Paul. Parker is out for the playoffs after suffering a torn quadricep in his left leg. In 16 seasons, Parker has never played less than 60 games and has been an important piece for the Spurs since he joined the team in 2001. However, Parker has been slowing down significantly and played a career-low in minutes (25.2) this season. Whether Parker returns from this injury and how productive he will be is unclear.
With Parker’s future somewhat in question, the Spurs make for an interesting fit for Paul. The franchise is constantly retooling while remaining extremely competitive. In addition, the Spurs are currently projected to have up to $22.9 million in cap room this offseason. With an opening at point guard and the team looking to be less dependent on Kawhi Leonard for production, it’s possible that the Spurs will look into acquiring Paul’s services.
Monte Morris: Waiting for his Chance
Nuggets two-way guard Monte Morris talks to Basketball Insiders about his time with Denver.
Monte Morris has only seen action in three NBA games with the Denver Nuggets this year. While most players who receive little playing time spend most of their time at the end of the bench cheering their teammates on, Morris’ situation is a bit different. He’s spent the majority of his rookie year in the G-League.
The NBA’s minor league has grown tremendously since it’s inception in 2001. All but four NBA teams have a G-League affiliate now. There are plans for the New Orleans Pelicans to have their own team by next season, and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has spoken about having a team in Mexico.
As part of the NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement, they expanded the partnership between NBA teams and their G-League affiliates even more by adding two-way contracts. Essentially creating a 16th and 17th roster spot, two-way players are allowed to split time between an NBA team and the G-League.
For Morris, two-way contracts are an added opportunity for players to make an NBA roster.
“It’s a good chance for guys to make a roster, especially second-round picks to get a chance,” Morris told Basketball Insiders. “With two-way contracts, I feel like they’re going to get a lot better as far as rules and things like that go. This is the first year so they’re testing it out, but it’s a good opportunity. It’s a blessing at the end of the day.”
Morris was drafted by the Nuggets with the 51st overall pick in last summer’s draft. Second round picks are not afforded the guaranteed contract stability that comes with being a first-round pick. He was tabbed for a two-way contract almost immediately after he was drafted.
He had a stellar four years of college at Iowa State, where he was one of the top point guards in the nation as a senior. He also had a strong showing in Las Vegas with the Nuggets’ summer league team.
The Nuggets were a little crowded in the backcourt to begin the season with Jamal Murray and Emmanuel Mudiay ahead of Morris in the rotation. When Mudiay was injured and out of the rotation, Mike Malone opted to go with Will Barton as the backup point guard. The Nuggets’ trade deadline acquisition of Devin Harris pushed Morris farther back on the depth chart.
“The toughest thing is just staying mentally tough, staying true to yourself, and developing your own craft,” Morris told Basketball Insiders. “Just not losing that self-confidence cause you might not play when you go up. When you come down here [G-League], take advantage of it, have fun, and keep getting better.”
Morris has definitely done his part to stand out in the G-League. The Nuggets are without a sole affiliate, so they’ve used the Houston Rockets G-League team, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, to get Morris additional experience. In 36 games with the Valley Vipers, he’s put up 18.2 points per game on 47.8 percent shooting from the field, 35.6 percent from the three-point line, 4.6 rebounds, 6.6 assists, and 1.8 steals.
He believes that if called upon, he can be a major contributor for the Nuggets. There are certain aspects he can bring to the team and he thinks it’s possible for him to play with Murray in the backcourt together.
“I think I can bring energy off the bench. I feel like me and Jamal Murray, the way the game is going you can play small ball. I feel like I can bring pace to the game and play defensively,” Morris told Basketball Insiders. “I like getting after it when I’m up there with those guys on defense and getting guys open shots. I know we got a lot of scorers, my goal would be getting everybody their shots.”
Morris has been able to show he can produce at the NBA level, even if it’s a small sample size. On Feb. 9, only the second game he’s played in with Denver, he scored ten points on 4-5 shooting from the field, dished out six assists, and nabbed three steals against the Rockets.
Players on two-way contracts are allowed a maximum of 45 days with the NBA team. Those days are not solely game days; they include practices and travel days as well. Once those 45 days are up, NBA teams have the option of converting a two-way contract to a standard NBA deal provided they have roster space.
If a player uses up the 45 days and does not have their contract converted, they go back to the G-League. They can rejoin their NBA team once the G-League season ends but are not able to play in the playoffs.
For now, Morris is just biding his time, waiting for his opportunity. He’s staying ready for when the Nuggets might need him. In the meantime, he’ll continue to take advantage of what the G-League has to offer.
“It’s definitely a good starting point. It’s just all about how guys attack it on and off the court,” Morris told Basketball Insiders. “It’s just being a pro and not losing confidence in your ability when you go up and don’t play. You just got to be ready, you’re really one injury away, one call away to step on and have to play.”
Middleton, Bucks Aiming To ‘Lock In’ As Season Comes To Close
Spencer Davies catches up with Milwaukee Bucks swingman Khris Middleton in a Basketball Insiders exclusive.
Basketball Insiders had the chance to chat with Khris Middleton about the direction of the Milwaukee Bucks as the season comes to a close.
You guys won three out of four before you came into Cleveland. What was working during that stretch?
Just being us. Doing it with our defense, playing fast-paced offense. Just trying to keep teams off the three-point line. We haven’t done that. We didn’t do that [Monday] or two games ago, but it’s something we’ve just gotta get back to.
With the offense—it seems like it’s inconsistent. What do you think that’s got to do with mostly?
Just trying to do it by ourselves sometimes. Standing, keeping the ball on one side of the floor. We’re a better team when we play in a fast pace. And then also in the half court, when we move the ball from side-to-side it just opens the paint for everybody and there’s a lot more space.
For you, on both ends you’ve been ultra-aggressive here in the last couple weeks or so, does that have to do with you feeling better or is it just a mindset?
I’ve been healthy all year. Right now, it’s the end of the season. Gotta make a push. Everybody’s gotta lock in. Have to be confident, have to be aggressive. Have to do my job and that’s to shoot the ball well and to defend.
Have you changed anything with your jumper? Looking at the past couple months back-to-back, your perimeter shooting was below 32 percent. In March it’s above 45 percent.
I feel like I got a lot of great looks earlier this year. They just weren’t falling. Right now, they’re falling for me, so I have the same mindset that I had when I was missing and that’s to keep on shooting. At some point, they’re gonna go down for me.
Is knowing that every game at this point means more an extra motivator for you guys?
Definitely. We’re basically in the playoffs right now. We’re in a playoff series right now where we have to win games, we have to close out games, in order to get the seeding and to stay in the playoffs. Each game and each possession means something to us right now.
Is it disappointing to be in the position the team is in right now, or are you looking at it as, ‘If we get there, we’re going to be alright’?
I mean, we wish we were in a better position. But where we’re at right now, we’re fine with it. We want to make that last push to get higher in the seeding.
Lots of changes have gone on here. Eric Bledsoe came in two weeks into the season. You had the coaching change and lineup changes. Jabari Parker’s been getting situated before the postseason. How difficult does that make it for you guys to build consistency?
Yeah, it was tough at first. But I think early on we had to adjust on the fly. We didn’t have too many practices. There was a stretch where we were able to get in the film room, get on the court, and practice with each other more.
Now it’s just at a point where we’re adding a lot of new guys off the bench where we have to do the same things—learn on the fly, watch film. We’re not on the court as much now, but we just have to do a great job of buying in to our system, try to get to know each other.
Does this team feel like it has unfinished business based on what happened last year?
Definitely. Last year, we felt like we let one go. Toronto’s a great team. They’re having a hell of a season this year, but I feel like we let one go. This year’s a new year—a little add of extra motivation. We’ve been in the playoff position before, so hopefully, we learn from it when we go into it this year.
Would you welcome that rematch?
I mean, we welcome anybody man. We showed that we compete with any team out here. We can’t worry about other teams as much. We just have to be focused on us.
What has to happen for you guys to achieve your full potential?
Lock in. Just play as hard as we can, play unselfish, and do our job out there night-in, night-out.
NBA Daily: Raptors Look To Fine-Tune The Defense
The Toronto Raptors’ defense had a letdown against the Cavaliers, but has been outstanding overall.
The Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors engaged in an offensive shootout on Wednesday that could be a playoff preview. The Cavs protected home court with a single-possession, 132-129 victory. Afterward, the Raptors spoke about the types of defensive adjustments the team needs to make as the postseason rapidly approaches.
“That’s how a playoff game would be,” said DeMar DeRozan, who missed a three at the buzzer that could have forced overtime. “This is a team we’ve been playing against the last two years in the postseason. Understanding how we can tighten up things defensively, how to make things tougher for them [is key].
“[It’s] little small things that go a long way, and not just with them … with every team.”
Raptors coach Dwane Casey concurred with DeRozan that fine-tuning of the defense is needed. He also pointed out that, with young contributors such as center Jakob Poeltl and power forward Pascal Siakam on the roster, defensive experience against the league’s best player, LeBron James, is something they will have to gain on the fly.
“I don’t think Jakob Poeltl played against him that much, and Siakam,” said Casey. “This is their first time seeing it. I thought Jak and Pascal did an excellent job, but there are certain situations where they’ve got to read and understand what the other team is trying to do to them.”
Poeltl was outstanding, leading the bench with 17 points and tying for the team lead in rebounds with eight. Casey praised the diversity of his contributions.
“I thought he did an excellent job of rolling, finishing, finding people,” said Casey. “I thought defensively, he did a good job of protecting the paint, going vertical. So I liked what he was giving us, especially his defense against Kevin Love.”
Basketball Insiders previously noted how the Raptors have performed vastly better as a team this season when starting point guard Kyle Lowry is out of the game. Much of that is due to Fred VanVleet’s emergence as one of the NBA’s best reserve point guards. VanVleet scored 16 points with five assists and no turnovers against Cleveland. It’s also a reflection of how good Toronto’s perimeter defense has been up and down the roster.
According to ESPN’s defensive Real Plus-Minus statistic, three of the NBA’s top 15 defensive point guards play for the Raptors. VanVleet ranks seventh while Lowry is 12th and Delon Wright is 14th. Starting small forward OG Anunoby ranks 16th at his position.
The Raptors also rank in the top five in offensive efficiency (third) and defensive efficiency (fifth). Having established an identity as a defensive team, especially on the perimeter, it’s perhaps understandable that Lowry was the one player in the visiting locker room who took the sub-standard defensive showing personally.
“It was a disgraceful display of defense by us and we’ve got to be better than that,” said Lowry. “We’ve got to be more physical. They picked us apart and made a lot of threes. We’ve got to find a way to be a better defensive team.”
Lowry continued the theme of fine-tuning as the regular season winds down.
“I think we’ve just got to make adjustments on the fly as a team,” said Lowry. “We can score with the best of them, but they outscored us tonight. We got what we wanted offensively. We’re one of the top teams in scoring in the league, but we’re also a good defensive team.”
Lowry was clearly bothered by Toronto’s defensive showing, but Casey downplayed the importance of a single regular-season game.
“We’ve got to take these games and learn from them, and again learn from the situations where we have to be disciplined,” said Casey. “It’s not a huge thing. It’s situations where we are that we’ve got to learn from and be disciplined and not maybe take this step and over-help here. Because a team like that and a passer like James will make you pay.”
While the Raptors continue to gain experience and dial in the fine defensive details, Casey was insistent that his players should not hang their heads over falling short against Cleveland.
“Hopefully our guys understand that we’re right there,” said Casey.
The Raptors host the Brooklyn Nets tonight to open a three-game home stand that includes visits from the Clippers Sunday and the Nuggets Tuesday. After that, Toronto visits the Celtics March 31 followed by a return to Cleveland April 3 and a home game against Boston the next night. With three games in a row against the other two top-three teams in the East, the schedule presents plenty of opportunities for the Raptors to add defensive polish before the playoffs begin.