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NBA PM: The Basketball Tournament is Back

The Basketball Tournament is back – with a $1 million prize, a 97-team field and more talent than ever.

Alex Kennedy

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The Basketball Tournament is Back

Imagine a single-elimination, high-stakes tournament similar to March Madness, except anyone could put together a team to compete. Teams could consist of NBA veterans, overseas stars, D-League players or even your next-door neighbor. Anyone over 18 years old can apply for free and then fans vote to determine which teams are in the field. Oh, and unlike the NCAA Tournament, players could earn money since the winning team would take home a large monetary prize to be split among its players.

tbtbThis was the vision that Jonathan Mugar had last year, when he founded The Basketball Tournament.

Last year was the inaugural TBT, but it was still a somewhat small affair. The tournament featured 32 teams competing for a $500,000 prize, the championship game was only available for viewing through an online stream and all of the contests were held at Philadelphia University or Boston University.

While the idea was excellent, there were still some questions that needed to be answered. Would the event be organized well and go according to plan? Would notable players want to participate in the tournament? Would there be mainstream interest from the public?

It quickly became clear that the answers were yes, yes and yes – and the tournament was a success.

With word spreading and The Basketball Tournament gaining popularity, this year’s TBT will be significantly bigger and have a much more official feel. The prize has doubled to $1 million, the field has tripled and games will be broadcast on ESPNU and ESPN. In mid-July, first-round match-ups will take place in four different cities – Atlanta, Chicago, Philadelphia and Los Angeles – and be aired on ESPNU. The championship game, which will be played on August 2 in New York, will be broadcast on ESPN.

The goal when TBT was founded was for this to be an annual tournament that grew each year – with the field and prize continuously growing – and it certainly seems to be heading in that direction.

“Last year, we were able to prove that the concept of a high-stakes, democratic tournament, with an exceptionally skilled collection of players was an entertaining event,” Mugar said. “Our partnership with ESPN, along with our market expansion, further validates that we are on the track to grow even beyond what we had hoped for in year two.”

One reason The Basketball Tournament has become popular and attracted the attention of ESPN is because it features plenty of notable players and teams.

Last year, the 2010 Cornell Sweet 16 team and the 2009 Villanova Final Four team each reunited to participate in TBT. In addition, alumni from Notre Dame, Wisconsin, Maryland, Temple, Princeton and Air Force registered teams. Notable college players like Marshall Henderson, Kenny Kadji and Matt Walsh played as well, which excited NCAA basketball fans across the country.

NBA fans also had some recognizable players to watch, with league veterans like Dahntay Jones, Hakim Warrick, Josh Selby, Smush Parker, Josh Boone, Andre Barrett, Rob Kurz and Chris Wright competing for various teams. After the tournament, some of these players starred overseas or signed back in the NBA (with Jones joining the Los Angeles Clippers), proving there was legitimate talent in last year’s field.

Many of the same recognizable players from last year will play again this July, and they’ll be joined by even more talented players in what will be a stacked tournament.

Former NBA players competing this year include Nate Robinson, Jamaal Tinsley, Mike Bibby, Jason Williams, Brian Scalabrine, Josh Selby, Hakim Warrick, Donte Green, Dominique Jones, Michael Sweetney, Royce White, Fab Melo, Jermaine Taylor, Von Wafer, Sam Young, Jamario Moon, Terrence Williams, Pooh Jeter, Damien Wilkins, Pops Mensah-Bonsu, Ike Diogu, Josh Boone, Marcus Banks, Luke Harangody, Ryan Gomes, Willie Reed, Smush Parker, Renaldo Balkman, Chris Wright, Tyshawn Taylor, Xavier Silas, Bobby Brown, Earl Barron, Sundiata Gaines, Dijon Thompson, DerMarr Johnson, Stephen Graham, Derrick Caracter, Alex Kirk, Rob Kurz, Mardy Collins, Scotty Hopson and Hamady N’Diaye.

Current NBA players cannot play due to contract restrictions, but they can still be involved in TBT. A number of notable NBA players – including Ty Lawson, Jamal Crawford, Nick Young, C.J. McCollum, Frank Kaminsky and Matt Bonner – have signed up to be a coach, general manager or booster so that they can support teams. Some, including Swaggy P, will even be on the sideline coaching their squad. A number of celebrities (to be announced later) have also agreed to be boosters, and some will be in attendance for the tournament games.

As if fans needed any more reason to get excited, TBT incentivizes participation from supporters. Five percent of the $1 million prize goes to a fan that supported the winning team. Last year, a fan named Elizabeth Lawler won $25,000 (five percent of the $500,000 prize) after being responsible for thousands of votes for the winning team.

The first TBT exceeded all expectations and was an enormous success. Now, with even better players, more teams, a bigger prize, games taking place all across the country and ESPN’s backing, The Basketball Tournament shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon.

***

Notre Dame may have had a disappointing last-second exit from the NCAA Tournament, but the school’s fans can get behind another Fighting Irish basketball team that’s competing in a high-stakes tournament.

TBTInside2The Notre Dame Fighting Alumni – as the group of former Notre Dame players call themselves – were the winners of the first TBT last year and they are back in this year’s field to try to defend their championship. Shortly after they won their prize last year, they huddled up and chanted “BACK-TO-BACK!”

The team first came together when former Notre Dame walk-on guard Kieran Piller heard about the tournament and decided to organize a squad with his old teammates. He asked Fighting Irish alumni such as Rob Kurz, Tyrone Nash, Ryan Ayers, Tory Jackson, Torin Francis, Ty Nash, Russell Carter, Chris Thomas and Zach Hillesland. The players all agreed, but some of the players were initially skeptical.

“My immediate impression was, ‘That sounds way too good to be true,’” former NBA player Kurz said with a laugh. “But because they were playing the games directly across from where I played high school in Philadelphia, I figured even if it’s B.S. it’d be kind of fun to go back there and play together with a bunch of my college friends who I hadn’t seen or played with in years. We looked at it as a fun college reunion. Then, of course, it was legitimate and it ended up being really fun.

Notre Dame took the tournament pretty seriously compared to other teams, meeting up at Germantown Academy in Philadelphia before the event to practice and put in some plays. They knew that their chemistry would give them a huge edge, but they also wanted to be organized and have a solid game plan.

While their preparation certainly helped, their experience together was the biggest factor in their success. Their players were always on the same page and even though they hadn’t played together in years, Kurz said it was very easy to get back into a rhythm with his teammates.

Even though Notre Dame wasn’t the most talented team, they were an organized, tight-knit group that knew what they were doing. The fact that they ran plays separated them from some teams that just approached the tournament with a pick-up mentality. They also had a balanced attack, with a different leading scorer in each of their five wins.

In the championship game, the Fighting Alumni defeated a team with several former NBA players such as Dahntay Jones, Josh Boone and Andre Barrett. Despite facing such a stacked squad (that was considered the frontrunner to win the championship throughout the entire tournament), the Fighting Alumni won, 72-68, and became the first TBT champions.

“The championship game was definitely the toughest,” Kurz said. “But there was a lot of good talent throughout the whole tournament. Some players who are in the NBA this year played in the tournament last year, so it wasn’t easy.

RobKurzInside2“The fact that we won was just a blast, but more importantly we just had a great time being together again. Those guys are some of my best friends in the world and to get together again after years was great.”

The players received a ton of support from Notre Dame fans as well as their school, with head coach Mike Brey flying to the championship game and the PR department pushing fans to vote for the squad over social media.

“Everyone from Notre Dame was so excited,” Kurz said. “Before the championship game, we were getting texts from the coaching staff, our trainer and everyone who was a part of the program and the family. Everybody really got into it, especially once we went to the championship.

“In terms of fan support, Notre Dame has such a great following and people were just excited that we were a part of something cool. We actually had a great crowd [of Notre Dame fans] that showed up to the championship game. It was just a lot of fun.”

After winning the title, the cash prize was split up equally among the Notre Dame players and the group also decided to donate $40,000 to the Coaches vs. Cancer Foundation.

This year, the Fighting Alumni feel very confident entering the tournament. Because they won last year, they will get a bye until the Sweet 16. This, coupled with their chemistry and TBT experience, should give them an edge over many of the teams.

They’re expected to bring back all of their key contributors and may add some talented pieces. Luke Harangody and Tim Abromatis traveled to the TBT championship game last year to support the Fighting Alumni from the stands, and it’s possible they may play this year. Kurz feels that this Fighting Alumni squad is even better than last year’s, and they’ll be more prepared because they’re going to practice for a full week this time in advance of the tournament.

“Our roster may have a couple of additions; we’re going to put some guys on the roster who are still playing at a really high level in Europe and guys who played in the NBA, so I think we’re going to have an even better team this year honestly,” Kurz said. “We’re all going to Notre Dame the week before the tournament to practice and play pick-up. We’re in the Chicago bracket, so it’s not far away and that gives us a chance to be on campus and prepare.”

While Kurz likes Notre Dame’s chances, he knows that being the last team standing out of the 97-team field will be difficult. He expects there to be some loaded teams with $1 million on the line.

“I’ve heard that it’s going to be even tougher this year – that a lot of talented players are entering,” Kurz said. “The competition will be intense, and I know that the tournament is going to be 10 times bigger this year. I can’t even tell you how many people have told me that they’re trying to enter a team this year. Even my former agent is thinking of putting a team in. I mean, with $1 million on the line, there are going to be a ton of people trying to get involved.”

***

One new team that is getting involved – and following the Notre Dame Fighting Alumni model – is the Syracuse Alumni squad.

This Syracuse team features Donte Green, Hakim Warrick, Eric Devendorf, Demetris Nichols, Rick Jackson, Baye Moussa Keita, Josh Pace and Brandon Reese among others. The program’s former basketball manager Kevin Belbey had the idea, ran it by Jim Boeheim (who was all for it) and then contacted the players to see who could participate.

Syracuse has a very talented roster that is currently the No. 1 ranked team in the Northeast region, and they lead all registered TBT teams in fan votes. Green and Warrick both played several years in the NBA, and some of Syracuse’s other players have had successful careers overseas.

“We’re a confident bunch because we have a lot of experienced guys who played in the NBA, played overseas and played in college, but we know that a lot of teams will be talented,” Devendorf said. “We’re confident, but we’re going in with the mindset that we have to play hard. You can lose at any time [in a single-elimination tournament].”

Like the Notre Dame team, Syracuse’s squad has strong chemistry. All of the players have an in-depth understanding of Boeheim’s system, which they’ll use throughout the tournament.

“I think the chemistry is a huge edge for teams like us and Notre Dame,” Devendorf said. “It’s great that all of our players come from the same team and played for the same coach – Jim Boeheim – so we all know the system. We don’t have to go over anything or learn anything new because guys already know what’s expected of them and what they need to do. Knowing each other and coming from the same system is definitely an advantage for us.”

Another advantage is that the Syracuse squad may play a 2-3 zone, according to Devendorf, which would make them even tougher to match up against. The 2-3 zone can cause trouble for collegiate opponents who spend significant time preparing for it, so just imagine how tough it would be to face in a tournament like this.

“If we want to switch to a 2-3 zone, we’re capable of doing of that,” Devendorf said. “No problem.”

Devendorf is planning to get everyone together on Syracuse’s campus in early June to practice. It’ll also give the team a chance to bond and catch up with one another before they head out for the competition.

“We’ve all kept in touch throughout the years; just to get this whole group of guys back together is really exciting and it’s going to be a great time,” Devendorf said.

Syracuse fans are equally excited about the reunion and have given the squad a ton of support. Within hours of the team being registered on TBT’s website, they received hundreds of votes to be included in the field. Fortunately for those fans, it sounds like the Syracuse Alumni team will try to participate in TBT every summer going forward.

“I think it’d be a really good idea to make this something we do annually,” Devenforf said. “It would be a way for us all to catch up every summer.”

While Notre Dame and Syracuse are receiving a lot of attention because of their talented rosters and early registration, other college programs are planning to put together rosters too.

Several other schools that will be involved are Connecticut (which may have a star-studded team), Indiana, Virginia, Oklahoma, Florida Gulf Coast (led by Dunk City stars Sherwood Brown, Brett Comer and Chase Fieler), Saint Louis (with Jordair Jett and Willie Reed), La Salle, Cornell (which played last year, bringing together their 2010 Sweet 16 team), Xavier, Drexel, Colorado and Temple – giving this even more of a March Madness feel.

When $1 million is on the line, there’s bound to be a ton of interest and talented teams ready to play.

And Kurz believes this is only the start. He envisions The Basketball Tournament becoming a national phenomenon in the near future.

“It’ll keep growing,” Kurz said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that this will blow up. Think about it: there’s $1 million on the line for this year’s tournament and it’s only the second year. What is it going to be next year, after people have the chance to see it on ESPN and ESPNU? It’s going to grow exponentially every year.

“The money – and the tournament itself – will only get bigger from here.”

Full Disclosure: Alex Kennedy has become a booster for the South Region’s TeamBDB, which features Josh Selby, Dominique Jones, Jermaine Taylor, Willie Reed, Aquille Carr and Durand Scott among others. For more information about their team, click here.

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 Daily: The NBA Ten Years Ago

With the 2018-2019 season on the horizon, Basketball Insiders’ Matt John takes a trip down memory lane to look at where the league was ten years prior.

Matt John

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It’s time to take a trip down memory lane – all the way back to 2009.

It was a different time then. The country’s first black president was inaugurated, Swine Flu was petrifying the nation and Justin Bieber was an innocent teenager just trying to make a name for himself. It was a time to be alive, particularly for NBA junkies.

There were some interesting storylines going on in the NBA, like the somewhat growing concern of ballplayers preferring to play overseas after Josh Childress went to Greece. Or the Seattle Supersonics switching cities to become the Oklahoma City Thunder under certain circumstances. However, the 2008-2009 season overall served as a transitional year for the players.

Some of the NBA’s youngest stars such as LeBron James, Dwight Howard and Carmelo Anthony were achieving success, as individuals and in the team setting. They were becoming the present face of the league while established veterans – such as Allen Iverson, Tracy McGrady and Vince Carter – were becoming the past. Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade had already shown themselves as two of the bright young stars in the league, and Kevin Durant was right around the corner. The 2008-2009 season was when the new generation of young NBA stars started making its mark.

Having said that, looking back at today, what should the 2008-2009 season be remembered the most for? Well, several things.

The NBA Champion

As you probably remember, the Los Angeles Lakers won their 15th NBA title in 2009.
The LakeShow deserved it. Detractors will make excuses – which I’ll get to – but the Lakers were a well-crafted team that was difficult for every team in the league to stop. Ten years later, only one question remains about them: Would they have worked as well in today’s NBA?

There’d be little reason for them not to. They had a top-10 NBA talent of all-time still at the top of his game in Kobe Bryant. However, while Kobe may have been their best player, the dirty little secret about the 08-09 Lakers was that their frontcourt was what made them tough to stop. They had one of the best offensive centers in the league in Pau Gasol, one of the NBA’s most versatile players ever in Lamar Odom and a promising young big in Andrew Bynum. The one commonality between these three: None of them were floor spacers.

Back then, stretching the floor wasn’t as much of a necessity as it is now. Also, teams didn’t value small ball nearly as much as they do now. Could that Lakers frontcourt have broken the trend, or would the league’s shooting evolution have limited their effectiveness? We’ll honestly never know, but it’s something worth pondering.

If X Team(s) Had Just Been Healthy…

Every season has that one team that many wonder what would have been had a certain player not gotten hurt. In 2009, the obvious injury to turn to was Kevin Garnett’s. The Celtics that year looked as good as ever until Garnett went down with a season-ending knee injury.

Boston did well without him, but Garnett’s injury left fans with unfulfilled desires. Perhaps the Celtics could have won it all had Garnett been available, but his injury was on them. Reportedly, the organization knew Garnett had bone spurs in his knee before the season started and played him hoping he’d be fine. Had they been more cautious, maybe they’d have 18 banners right now. This shows that when you’re a contender, you should take proper precautions for when the real games begin.

Besides, the Celtics weren’t the ones victimized the most by injuries. The ones that came the closest to beating the Lakers were, and that team was the Houston Rockets.

Many forget that the Rockets were expected to be title contenders leading up to that season. They had Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming leading the way, but after they stole the player formerly known as Ron Artest from the Kings, expectations were sky high in H-Town.

It didn’t take long for things to go south. McGrady’s knee was so troublesome that it knocked him out by mid-season. Hope was not lost, though. The Rockets managed to snag the fifth seed in the Western Conference without T-Mac and even advanced to the second round.

After splitting the first two games with the Lakers, Yao’s broken foot in Game Three of the conference semi-finals put the final nail in the coffin. The Rockets still fought until there was no fight left in them, as the Lakers eliminated them in seven games. The Rockets pushed the eventual NBA champs to the brink despite losing both T-Mac and Yao. If there’s one team that was robbed of their potential that doesn’t get enough credit, it’s the 2008-2009 Rockets.

The Deal That Could Have Changed So Much

If you thought the Chris Paul trade to the Lakers could have altered the entire landscape of the NBA, wait until you hear about this nixed trade that happened in 2009. On Feb. 18, New Orleans agreed to trade Tyson Chandler to Oklahoma City for Joe Smith and Chris Wilcox. Basically, the then-Hornets were dumping Chandler to the Thunder. That was until Chandler’s “turf toe” raised enough red flags to convince OKC to rescind the trade.

After all that’s happened since then, it’s amazing wondering what could have been. The Thunder were one of the league’s worst teams when they traded for Chandler, so who knows what they would have done with him that season. His presence could have impacted whether they got James Harden in the draft that year. Serge Ibaka came over the following season, so imagine what he and Chandler would have looked like together. Trading for Chandler would have meant that he wouldn’t make it to Dallas, which probably meant no title for the Mavericks in 2011. It also would have meant the Thunder trading Jeff Green for Kendrick Perkins would be nixed, too.

So much could have been different had OKC rolled the dice with Chandler. Maybe they wouldn’t have lost Durant. Maybe they would’ve formed a dynasty. Maybe LeBron nor the Warriors wouldn’t have won any titles this decade. All of that could have come from one rescinded trade. It’s understandable that the Thunder didn’t want to take the risk with Chandler’s toe, but at times like those, the potential outweighs the risk.

Pull The Plug! Or Don’t!

One of the seasons more prominent storylines was the fall of the Detroit Pistons. After being among the Eastern Conference’s powerhouses for several years, Detroit’s downfall came when they agreed to swap Chauncey Billups and Antonio McDyess for Allen Iverson.

While the Denver Nuggets reaped all the benefits from this deal, Detroit crumbled from one of the top seeds to the eighth seed in the conference. In hindsight, the Pistons underestimated how much Billups had left in the tank and overestimated how good their opponents were. When you consider that the Orlando Magic was the reigning Eastern Conference Champion at the time – and the Pistons beat the Magic the previous year in a five-game playoff series – maybe the Pistons would have had a chance.

When you have a window of opportunity, even if the outlook isn’t great, you take advantage of it until you can’t anymore. The Pistons instead folded early and have never recovered since. This trade would have been forgivable had the Pistons used the cap space they got from Iverson’s expiring deal wisely.

Instead, they used it on Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva the following summer. Woof.

“Success Is Fleeting”

It was mentioned earlier that Dwight Howard and Carmelo Anthony were achieving success both for themselves and for their teams. Both played in the ideal situations for them.

Howard played for a team that had reliable shooters who spread the floor along with smart playmakers who could run the pick and roll with him. Howard may have been a shot-blocking terror, but he also benefited from having agile defenders on the wing. Howard’s dominating presence down low made it difficult for defenses to figure out who to cover, which helped the Magic power their way to the NBA Finals.

Anthony played for a team that had an MVP candidate for a starting point guard in Chauncey Billups. “Mr. Big Shot” knew exactly where to find Anthony which greatly helped ‘Melo’s efficiency as a scorer. Carmelo also played for a team whose frontcourt finally got past its injury issues. With everything going Denver’s way, they had one of their most successful playoff runs in years, pushing the Lakers to six games in the Western Conference Finals.

When the Magic and the Nuggets went on their playoff runs in 2009, Anthony was only 25 while Howard was 23. Making it that far into the playoffs is terrific when you’re that young, but little did they know, that was far as they would get in their primes.

Looking at where they are at now, Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard will more likely than not be Hall-of-Famers, but they’ll be remembered for being two superstar talents who could have done so much more in their careers had their hubris not gotten in the way. As their careers unfolded, both infamously burned bridges because things had to be done their way, which in turn, hurt their opportunities for success.

One can’t help but wonder if the success they had in 2009 played a role in their egos. Whether it did or not, young players coming into the league need to know that maintaining success in the NBA is not a given no matter how good you are. You never know when the glory days will be taken away from you.

The 2008-2009 season was remembered for many other things as well. LeBron had finally taken the reins as the league’s indisputable best player, a label he still has yet to relinquish, as he went on to win his first MVP award. It was also the one and only year we got the closest resemblance to a full season from the injury-plagued Greg Oden. Hilariously, it was also the year when we realized that maybe fans had a little too much power in all-star voting, as Iverson and McGrady were voted in as starters purely on reputation.

There are many other reasons to remember the 2008-2009 season. Ten years from now, what will the 2018-2019 season be remembered for?

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NBA Daily: Six Breakout Players To Watch – Central Division

With LeBron James in Los Angeles, the Central Division will be looking for a few players to break out and make a name for themselves in 2018-19 — here are Ben Nadeau’s top six candidates.

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While the Central Division likely won’t feature any of the Eastern Conference’s biggest powerhouses, there are plenty of franchises here with postseason aspirations. In order for those teams to rebuild or reach new heights, they’ll need a cast of different characters to ascend into bigger, more important roles. Out in Indiana and Milwaukee, two darkhorse contenders, it’ll take more than just Tyreke Evans and Brook Lopez in order to challenge the likes of Gordon Hayward and Joel Embiid — but who fits the bill?

For Detroit and Chicago, the pressure will be on to avoid a lottery-bound fate once more by leaning on two up-and-comers — no matter the massive difference in their contracts. But Cleveland will undoubtedly have the toughest task of all: Replacing LeBron James. With each franchise staring down a difficult benchmark, breakouts must come in all shapes and sizes, by veterans, new arrivals and budding stars alike — so what will this season bring?

Whether through an opening in the rotation or an offseason acquisition, these are six of the Central Division’s strongest candidates to leave a lasting mark in 2018-19.

Bobby Portis — Chicago Bulls

The Bulls’ fourth-year man is a solid, if not unspectacular, contributor whenever he gets regular playtime. Last year, Portis suffered an immediate setback following his preseason scuffle with former teammate Nikola Mirotic, but he bounced back stronger than ever. The forward made good on his uptick in minutes and nearly posted career numbers across the board thanks to his relentless motor and desire to compete. Averaging 13.2 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.7 assists on 47.1 percent from the floor, Portis frequently excelled as a change of pace rebounder off the bench.

This season, he’ll have an even bigger opportunity to shine. With Lauri Markkanen sidelined until November at the earliest, it looks like Portis will earn significant minutes and maybe even a legitimate shot at the starting power forward position. In his first start of the preseason on Wednesday, Portis dropped 20 points, six rebounds, two assists, two steals and a block in just 21 minutes. If he comes off the bench, Portis could become an underrated Sixth Man of the Year candidate. But even if he just starts until Markannen’s return, he’ll be well on his way toward earning a lucrative offer sheet in restricted free agency next summer.*

*Portis is eligible to sign an extension until Oct. 15

Zach LaVine — Chicago Bulls

For a hot minute, it looked like Zach LaVine might end up in Sacramento during his own trip to the restricted free agency pool this summer. Ultimately, he’s staying in Chicago to the tune of $78 million over the next four years — which, officially, will put the pressure of an entire franchise squarely on his shoulders. Naturally, the high-flyer will not be alone, joined once again by Kris Dunn, the aforementioned Portis and Markkanan, plus newcomers Jabari Parker and Wendell Carter Jr., but LaVine will deservedly receive grander-than-ever expectations.

He struggled after returning from his torn ACL in January — but before he got injured, LaVine was on the cusp of a breakout with the Minnesota Timberwolves. Through 47 games in 2016-17, LaVine was averaging 18.9 points, 3.4 rebounds and 3.1 assists on 45.9 percent from the floor. With all that in the rearview mirror — the injury, the trade, the contract — LaVine will have a clear path forward for the first time in years. Certainly, LaVine’s defense still needs work, but given the Bulls’ presumed fate outside of the postseason and their unproven collection of talents, there’s a stellar chance that the hyper-athletic scorer will make his big leap now that he’s back at full health.

Pat Connaughton — Milwaukee Bucks

By far, Pat Connaughton has the least spectacular case on this page — but when the opportunity comes knocking, it’s best not to ignore the call.

Connaughton played in all 82 games last season and averaged 5.4 points, two rebounds and 1.1 assists on 42.3 percent from the field — all career-bests. Of course, those 18.1 minutes per game came behind Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, one of the league’s best backcourt duos. After the Trail Blazers did not extend his qualifying offer, Connaughton was free to explore other destinations, eventually signing with the Bucks for two years and $3.4 million. For the Bucks, he’ll likely join rookie Donte DiVincenzo as the backup guards, looking to space the floor at the perimeter and set up his teammates.

Of note, Connaughton played 20-plus minutes in 37 contests and exceeded his points per game total in 25 of them. It’s a somewhat basic lens through which to examine Connaughton’s impact, but when he gets the minutes, he typically rises to the occasion. Connaughton has some serious bounce and playmaking skills that should fit seamlessly with Milwaukee’s long, athletic rotation immediately. The fourth-year professional even has some experience at small forward as well — so if he can facilitate for others, hit some open three-pointers and scrappily defend, this will be Connaughton’s best season yet.

Luke Kennard — Detroit Pistons

After an up-and-down rookie season, there are lofty expectations brewing for Luke Kennard as he heads into his follow-up campaign. At first, there was some disappointment that the sweet-shooting lefty was picked ahead of Donovan Mitchell, but as the season went on, the Detroit faithful grew fond of the former Blue Devil’s nuanced play style. Over the final 19 contests of the year, Kennard averaged 11.3 points, 3.5 rebounds and 2.5 assists, even reaching the multi-three-pointer mark in seven of those games. Assuming that his role grows under the tutelage of Dwane Casey, the reigning Coach of the Year, Kennard could be a standout sophomore in 2018-19.

Even craftier, the Pistons had planned to use Kennard at point guard during summer league, but a strained knee tempered those expectations for now. Kennard can play three positions, flexible enough to compete on both offense and defense already. His potential from three-point range is not without merit either, as Kennard averaged 19.5 points on 43.8 percent from deep during his final season in college, marking him as one of Division-I’s most elite shooters. At 6-foot-5 and just 22 years old, it looks like we’re just scratching the surface on Kennard’s budding future.

Doug McDermott — Indiana Pacers

Perhaps the most interesting case on the list is that of Doug McDermott.

Dangerously close to joining the rank of journeyman, McDermott landed a three-year deal worth $22 million in July — a contract that left many onlookers initially puzzled. But now that he’s there and entrenched in the Pacers’ preseason rotation, it’s clear what type of impact he might bring off the bench. Although Indiana will be McDermott’s fifth team since he was drafted in 2014, he’s excelled as an above average three-point shooter thus far. Sporting a career tally of 1.1 three-pointers per game on 40.3 percent, he could fill a serious void for the Pacers if they let him loose.

Between New York and Dallas last season, McDermott had 26 multi-three-pointer outings, including a blistering 5-for-7 effort against the Clippers in November. Admittedly, he’s not really a consistent contributor anywhere else, but the recent long-range renaissance means that there will always be room in the NBA for a sharpshooter like McDermott. Most importantly, then, is Indiana’s desperate need for not just bench three-point marksmanship, but shooting in general. In 2017-18, the Pacers only made nine three-pointers per game (their bench contributed a woeful total of 2.4), which left them tied for the fifth-worst mark in the entire league.

Even if McDermott doesn’t see a major uptick in volume, he’ll join the Pacers as their fourth-best three-point shooter at the very worst, only trailing Darren Collison (1.4), Bojan Bogdanovic (1.9) and Victor Oladipo (2.1) from deep. His track record may not be exhilarating on just numbers alone, but given his above-average percentages and his forthcoming opening, this may be McDermott’s biggest chance to breakout yet.

Cedi Osman — Cleveland Cavaliers

Everybody loves Cedi Osman.

Not much was expected of the 23-year-old when he joined the Cavaliers last season as an end-of-bench piece. But as the season grew longer, Osman got an honest shot at the rotation and he made the most of his unexpected fortuity. From February on, Osman tallied five or more points in 13 of his 22 appearances, even reaching double digits in six of them. During an uneventful win against the Atlanta Hawks, Osman notched 16 points, six rebounds, five assists, three steals and two three-pointers over 38 minutes — more or less, the kid can play.

Everywhere you look, the people surrounding Osman can’t stop gushing about his love for the game, his desire to get better and the impact he may have this season. During his two Las Vegas Summer League contests, Osman exploded for 20 points, eight rebounds, 4.5 assists, 2.5 steals and one block per game — a salivating preview most definitely. Although the team is undoubtedly Kevin Love’s now, he’ll need some backup and Osman — a grinder, slasher and do-it-all-glue-guy — has the skill-set to take a leap in 2018-19 and beyond.

Needless to say, there are some intriguing storylines developing in a freshly LeBron-less landscape. Can the mid-tier teams join the conference’s current royalty? Can the division’s two lottery members reach the postseason conversation? Surely, if anything, the Cavaliers won’t make their fifth straight NBA Finals — but can the efforts of Osman keep them from falling out of the playoff race completely? Answers will come sooner rather than later, but all these teams will need some breakout players to help lead the way this season.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Can Timberwolves Repair Relationship With Butler?

Is a change in heart possible for Jimmy Butler when it comes to staying with the Minnesota Timberwolves? Shane Rhodes examines.

Shane Rhodes

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After a long offseason hiatus, Jimmy Butler returned to the Minnesota Timberwolves on Wednesday.

It probably didn’t go as Tom Thibodeau and his coaching staff had hoped.

Butler was fired up as soon as he stepped onto the court with his teammates. According to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN, it was the first time he’s done so since the Timberwolves were eliminated by the Houston Rockets back in April. However, Butler wasn’t fired up to be on the floor with them, but to show them what he can do and that they need him.

Butler, in an outburst that may or may not have been staged for an interview, dominated the floor and challenged all he could, per Wojnarowski. He went at teammates, coaches and front office personnel. As the frustrations over his September trade request (and lack of an actual trade) boiled over, Butler pushed his teammates and, while he may have initially stunned them, energized them in the process.

Ironically, that’s one of the major things Butler was brought to Minnesota to do in the first place; push Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, among others, and make them better.

But where do Butler and the Timberwolves go from here? Whether this was a one-time stunt, a last-ditch effort to get his teammates to match his effort and intensity or simply a way to force management to make a move, Butler is still unhappy with the team.

Butler reportedly won’t miss any regular season games, and Thibodeau may just be happy to have him back in the building, but how long can things go on like this before it all blows up? Can a strained player-franchise relationship potentially on the brink of collapse even be fixed?

Butler, to put it short, doesn’t think so.

In an interview later Wednesday evening with ESPN’s Rachel Nichols, Butler further elaborated on the flare-up. Among the talk of passion, heart, appreciation and other factors that led to his eventual trade request, Butler put it bluntly.

“It’s not fixed,” Butler said. He added that it could be, though, in the end, he doesn’t think it will be.

But why not? If the roster goes into the season energized and if Towns and Wiggins practice and play with the passion and heart that Butler is looking for, there is no doubt that Butler’s feelings toward the team and thoughts on a trade may shift.

On paper, and with Butler in the fold, the Timberwolves have the talent to be one of the best teams in the NBA. They certainly afford Butler the best opportunity to win games right now. Barring the blockbuster of all blockbuster trades, there isn’t another team with an established star of Towns’ caliber and high-level role players that Wiggins, Taj Gibson, Anthony Tolliver, Jeff Teague and others that Butler could turn to.

The Miami HEAT, who continue to pursue Butler despite numerous trade disruptions, have similar issues that forced Butler’s hand in the first place. Hassan Whiteside, namely, has a questionable motor and intensity and – as arguably the best player Erik Spoelstra’s squad has to offer  – it may, at the very best, be a lateral move for Butler.

If Butler is all about winning, and those previous criteria are met, it would almost make more sense to work things out in Minnesota rather than continue to seek a trade.

Of course, Towns, Wiggins and the others could just as easily go about their business as usual while Butler further isolates himself from the team before an eventual departure via trade or otherwise.

Either way, it is clear that the Butler-Timberwolves saga will be the storyline to watch in the early days of the season until some outcome is achieved. That outcome, whether it be realized in Minnesota or elsewhere, could have the potential to alter the playoff landscape as we know it.

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