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NBA PM: Will Horford Leave Atlanta in Free Agency?

Al Horford’s impending free agency isn’t making many headlines, but his decision may affect the league’s landscape.

Lang Greene

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Where Will Al Horford Ultimately Land?

Although mainstream attention has gradually started to arrive, the Atlanta Hawks in many ways are still seeking a certain level of national respect. After all, this is a franchise currently positioned to secure a playoff berth for the ninth consecutive season. The Hawks’ run has included the development of multiple All-Stars, survival of an ownership change, front office leadership shakeups and numerous head coaches.

The Hawks, amid all of the change in their organization, have been the textbook definition of steady. But steady has led to just one Eastern Conference Finals appearance over the previous eight playoff campaigns and numerous disappointing postseason eliminations.

If the Hawks have been steady over the past eight and a half seasons, their rock has been three-time All-Star center Al Horford anchoring the middle.

Horford was selected by the franchise with the third overall pick of the 2007 draft and has never missed the playoffs since entering the league after racking up two national championships at the University of Florida. The team’s selection of Horford, and his productive play, has helped erase some of the bad taste from the franchise’s previous two first-round missteps in 2005 and 2006 (Marvin Williams and Sheldon Williams, respectively).

But as the wins continue to rack up, there’s an uncertainty quietly lingering over the franchise.

Horford is in the final season of his current deal and is set to become an unrestricted free agent at season’s end. Although this isn’t Horford’s first tangle with the free agency process, this will be the veteran’s first opportunity to truly test the market without the Hawks being able to match any offer sheet he receives.

Sure, the Hawks can offer more money than other teams and a fifth year on a potential new contract. But as we’ve seen in recent cases such as Dwight Howard and LaMarcus Aldridge, when a player wants to evaluate if the grass is greener in today’s market, they will do so.

The question: What are Horford’s priorities (and what is his thought process) as he approaches free agency?

From an information standpoint, the Hawks run one of the tightest ships in the business in terms of keeping things in-house so there are very few leaks. Before the start of training camp, President of Basketball Operations and Head Coach Mike Budenholzer consistently stated the importance of Horford’s presence in the team’s long-term plan. That is the public stance the Hawks have given and it won’t change because Horford is indeed critical to their process.

But is Horford in it for the long haul? That will be the subject of plenty of debate since Horford has consistently brushed off talks of free agency so that the issue doesn’t become an in-season distraction.

Here’s the thing.

Players want to win and compete at a high level. The Hawks have never missed the playoffs since Horford arrived to town.

Players want a solid front office structure and coaching staff to work under. The Hawks have one of the strongest infrastructures in the league.

Players want to team up with other talented guys in a system that highlights their individual strengths. The Hawks have All-Star talent around Horford and Budenholzer’s system has helped expand the center’s game.

At the end of the day, it’s natural for players to take free agency visits and hear pitches from other teams. The individual should do their due diligence, listening to what teams have to say and considering their ideas.

But are there any teams out there that could realistically compete with the Hawks to land Horford’s services?

Yes.

With the salary cap increasing significantly this summer, more than 15 franchises (not factoring in cap holds) could have upwards of $20 million in cap space to target marquee free agents.

From lottery-bound teams looking to make a splashy move like the Los Angeles Lakers to squads that feel they are just one or two veteran pieces away from contending like the Boston Celtics, the market will be crowded with suitors possessing significant bankroll.

So far this season, Horford is averaging 15.5 points, 7.1 rebounds and three assists in 39 appearances, while connecting on a career-best 39 three pointers (he had hit 21 total threes in his career prior to this season). Those numbers, on the surface, won’t jump off the box score into your lap. However, the addition of Horford to any team on the verge of contention could push that franchise over the hump.

With the Hawks tight lipped and Horford focused on the current campaign, the future of the center remains uncertain. But you have to wonder when the smoke clears, will the big man remain “True to Atlanta.”

Lang Greene is a senior NBA writer for Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA for the last 10 seasons

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The Flimsiness of Narratives

It doesn’t take much for a player’s narrative to take a drastic turn. That’s certainly been the case for Brandon Ingram and Ben Simmons, writes Matt John.

Matt John

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To begin this segment on narratives, let’s travel back to the 2016 NBA Draft. Remember what the narrative was for that particular class around that time?

It was labeled as top-heavy. Very top-heavy. It was supposed to be a two-man draft. Only two prospects in that draft were projected to be potentially special talents in the NBA: Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram. While the prospects below them were labeled as more of a crapshoot, Simmons and Ingram were believed to be a cut above the rest.

Simmons was deemed a future superstar the second he hit the national stage in Australia, while Ingram garnered attention during an impressive freshman campaign at Duke. Needless to say: Whichever franchise got those two were getting a marquee building block.

Almost four years later, the narrative on the draft has definitely changed.

Let’s get back to Simmons and Ingram. Because these two were selected nos. 1 and 2 in the same draft, they will never be able to avoid comparisons to one another. Even if their skillsets have some very obvious differences, as far as overall talent goes, there are some striking similarities between the two.

Besides their same class designation and a relatively-similar height, both are oversized for the positions they play. However, those physical gifts mean that they not only outside of their regular position but instead thrive in those spots as well. Additionally, and unsurprisingly, it makes both of them two of the most versatile and unique young talents in the league.

Comparing their careers as a whole, Simmons gets the edge for now. The Aussie hit the ground running from the first moment he entered the league. Simmons has had more success both as a player and with the teams he’s played on. Today, he’s even on a team that currently has a better record than Ingram’s — by a fair margin too.

So why is it that their career trajectories appear to be going in opposite directions? At the present time, Ingram is looked at as a promising starlet whose efforts this season should be enough to, at the very least, make a case for the All-Star game. Simmons, on the other hand, seems to be everyone’s favorite scapegoat, despite making a solid case to make the All-Star Game, too.

One simple word: Progress.

With a fresh start on a new team and a clean slate of health — fingers crossed that those blood clots were a one-time thing — Brandon Ingram is living up to the billing of the second overall pick. He’s using his slender physique to abuse mismatches, his jumper is more on-point and his play-making abilities are now on full display.

Until Zion Williamson makes his debut on Wednesday, he has been the indisputable face of the suddenly-scary New Orleans Pelicans. The player that we see from Ingram today did show himself at times when he was in Los Angeles — but only in small doses. His injury issues were not on the Lakers, but with LeBron James on the team, he was thrust into a role that he wasn’t ready for. There’s always a light at the end of the tunnel, and for Ingram, it looks like he’s just about reached it.

As for Simmons, well, he has made progress from a technical standpoint. This season, he’s been able to use his physical advantages to become a much better defender. A 6-foot-10 player with his agility and great vision has all the tools to be an elite defender. Simmons was never a slouch on that end, but he’s elevated his defense well enough to get him All-NBA consideration in that department.

But, somehow, that’s also where the progress stops. Despite summer workout videos suggesting to the contrary, Simmons’ jumper is still a non-factor. Because of that, he faces more questions about his ceiling both as a player and as a pairing with Joel Embiid. Offensively, Simmons is still basically the same player he was when he first entered the league. There’s still so much to like about what he does on that end — and yet the complete lack of spacing leaves so much to be desired.

So, Simmons has improved as a player since coming into the league. He just hasn’t made the improvements that we have wanted to see from him.

The same can’t be said for Ingram

The point is: It doesn’t take all that long for a narrative to change. In this case, to many, Ingram is now the can’t-miss-blossoming-star while Simmons has stagnated — even if only just a little.

Simmons had the future-superstar label slapped on him since he entered the league — with one simple caveated-asterisk, his jumper. This was a well-dissected flaw as a prospect and, with no noticeable progress in that category, critics are on his case now more than ever.

Meanwhile, Ingram’s critics have all but disappeared. His potential has always been there, but his injury history made his future murky. For the time being, he has potential to be a perennial All-Star — most in part thanks to his clean bill of health — and he’s producing better than ever.

Still, there’s also the atmosphere that both of these players are in.

Since the 76ers don’t revolve around him primarily, nor put the best shooters around him, Simmons’ Achilles heel nearly overshadows all the beauty of his game. At this point, it’s gotten fair to wonder if Philadelphia is the right situation for him as a developing player.

That said, Ingram certainly has found the right situation for him.

Simmons was supposed to be a key cog on a title contender; Ingram was supposed to be the new face of a rebuild. There’s so much more pressure on Simmons to produce at an elite level because of the franchise’s long-term goals. New Orleans definitely has lofty expectations for the future, but not in the current year. Given Philadelphia’s shortcomings in 2019-20 thus far, someone has to be the fall guy. There’s some blame to go around, but a fair amount of it is going to Simmons.

With Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram as the latest examples, many factors in this league shape the narrative behind a player. Because the NBA always seems to live in a land of what-have-you-done-for-me-lately-isms, most forget past narratives that were once completely legitimate.

Years ago, the narrative surrounding Tracy McGrady was that he was just as good as Kobe Bryant. Not too long after, Bryant’s narrative was that he could never win without Shaquille O’Neal. Better, it wasn’t too long ago that LeBron James was perceived as a fourth quarter disappointment. In short, the story is ever-changing.

If the 76ers win the title and the Pelicans miss the playoffs, what will the narrative be for those two then? Is it going to be the same as it is now?

For now, only one thing is for sure: Narratives are — and always will be — flimsy as hell.

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NBA Daily: Sixth Man of the Year Watch — 1/21/20

Michael Porter Jr. has forced Mike Malone’s hand in Denver, scoring so well that the redshirt rookie must see more playing time. As a result, he enters the conversation for most-impactful bench player in the league. Douglas Farmer revisits Basketball Insiders’ Sixth Man Watch.

Douglas Farmer

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Unlike most other NBA awards, the Sixth Man of the Year can be won with only half a season’s worth of impact. That is an innate wrinkle to a conversation about players coming off the bench, anyway. So while most the league obsesses over defense, MVP-worthiness and postseason position jockeying, there’s another important award that has begun to heat up in a big way. Heading into the trade deadline and winter months can make or break many chances here, so check the standings, statistics and storyline of all mentioned below.

That said, and to kick things off, it may be unlikely, but a young player forcing his coach to play him more due to a blossoming scoring run can thus enter this conversation.

Michael Porter Jr. — Denver Nuggets

Porter has reached double digits in 7 of Denver’s last 12 games, including averaging 16.8 points in the last four games. At this point, Nuggets head coach Mike Malone has no choice but to play the redshirt rookie more often.

Porter’s emergence has included shooting 44.8 percent from three in the last 11 games, and 40.6 percent beyond the arc on the season. While his defense remains questionable — not a shock for a player in his first year — and his assist numbers are practically non-existent, Porter’s ability to stretch the floor around franchise cornerstone Nikola Jokić fills a need Denver has struggled with for years.

If he continues grabbing rebounds with the same frequency as he has of late, tracking down 14 on Monday — and 8 and 10 in a back-to-back this week — then Porter’s strengths will inarguably outweigh his weaknesses. A second-half surge filled with double-digit scoring efforts will gain notice, and deservedly so.

Derrick Rose — Detroit Pistons

Now that the Pistons are actively shopping Andre Drummond and Blake Griffin is sidelined for the year, Rose is once again the best player on an NBA team. Yet, he continues to come off the bench.

Being the best player on a team finally embracing a long-needed rebuild may be a backhanded compliment, but it is Rose’s reality, nonetheless. Across Detroit’s last eight games, he has averaged 24 points per night, cracking 20 in all of them and in 10 of the last 11. On top of that, Rose is averaging 6.3 assists per game in the last seven.

Maybe his bench role is a version of load management for one of the league’s most injury-crossed players. Perhaps it is an acknowledgment of Rose’s inefficient shooting as he has needed 18.6 shots per game to reach these recent marks. It might be the byproduct of a quiet tank. Whatever the reasoning, it keeps the Pistons’ most consistent player out of the starting lineup.

As the rebuild gains momentum, Rose’s $7.7 million deal for next season may be palatable for a team chasing a low playoff seed. Detroit cannot expect to get too much in return for the 31-year-old, but anything would probably be more than anticipated when the Pistons signed Rose.

Dennis Schröder — Oklahoma City Thunder

It’s not just that Oklahoma City is in the No. 7 spot out West or that it is five games ahead of the lottery. It’s that the Thunder are as close to the Utah Jazz at No. 4 as they are to missing the playoffs. This may not have been the rebuild expected, but it is one welcomed by the small market, and Schröder has made himself an indispensable piece of it.

His on/off rating of plus-12.8 ranks in the 97th percentile among point guards, per cleaningtheglass.com — something even more impressive when realizing backup point guards often suffer diminishing statistical returns due to the reserves they typically play with. Still, Oklahoma City outscores its opponents by 6.3 points per 100 possessions including Schröder.

He obviously benefits from playing alongside Chris Paul. Without Paul, Schröder’s net rating is minus-4.0, but when playing with the star point guard, the Thunder outscore opponents by 16.7 points per 100 possessions.

As long as Oklahoma City intends to make life miserable for the rest of the Western Conference, and indications are that will extend past this season, then keeping Schröder and Paul together is in the Thunder’s best interest, even if one of them is stuck to the bench to start games.

Lou Williams — Los Angeles Clippers

Even for the walking bucket known as Sweet Lou, averaging 24.8 points across a six-game span the last couple of weeks stood out. He shot 53.8 percent from the field during the stretch, including 50 percent from beyond the arc. Career 35.0 percent 3-point shooters are not supposed to find stretches that scorching.

Unless, of course, they are Lou Williams.

What may have stood out even more, though, were the 37 assists Williams dished out in those six games. That fits right in line with his season average of 6.2 assists per game, but that marked career-high remains the most surprising part of yet another stellar season from the 14-year veteran.

Montrezl Harrell — Los Angeles Clippers

Naturally, many of those Williams-tossed assists continue to land in Harrell’s hands. By just about every advanced metric, Harrell has been the second most important player to the Clippers’ season, behind only Kawhi Leonard — Paul George’s extended absence admittedly colors this gauge. Los Angeles is better on both ends of the court with Harrell involved than with him on the bench. Only Leonard’s absences are more noticeable on both ends, statistically speaking.

Porter’s rise may have pushed the Nuggets past the Clippers in the standings for the moment, but Harrell has a substantial lead on him in the race for this piece of Sixth Man hardware.

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NBA Daily: Trade Targets – Pacific Division

David Yapkowitz takes a look at what teams and names are generating buzz in the Pacific Division in Basketball Insiders’ Trade Targets series.

David Yapkowitz

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The NBA Trade Deadline is a couple of weeks away. Here at Basketball Insiders, we’ll be breaking down which teams should be looking to make a move and which players could — and maybe should — have a new uniform by February.

In the Pacific Division, the Los Angeles Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers have established themselves as being among the league’s elite. That doesn’t necessarily mean they should stand pat as they both could stand to improve their rosters.

The Phoenix Suns and Sacramento Kings are both entrenched in a battle with five other teams for the eighth spot in the Western Conference. Realistically, the Suns have a much better chance as they are not too far behind the Memphis Grizzlies, who currently hold the eighth spot. But Sacramento is only two games back in the loss column. There could be a player out there who can bolster their playoff chances, but is it worth it?

The Golden State Warriors are clearly out of the playoff picture, and they have some veterans on the team who they could move to playoff contenders and perhaps net a draft pick.

Here’s a look at the teams and players in the Pacific Division who could be active leading up to the trade deadline.

1. Los Angeles Lakers – $120,604,780

Relative to the rest of the league, the Lakers are middle of the pack when it comes to team salaries. Not bad for a team widely considered to be one of the favorites to contend for a title. Outside of last night’s debacle in Boston, they’ve been playing very well and recently had a big road win against the Oklahoma City Thunder without LeBron James or Anthony Davis.

There isn’t anyone on the team whom they should move necessarily. Kyle Kuzma has had his name come up in trade rumors, but the Lakers should keep him if possible. What the team needs is a point guard who can break down defenses and hit the open shot. If they can trade for one and manage to keep Kuzma, the better. They should inquire about D.J. Augustin in Orlando; he certainly fits the bill.

2. Dario Saric – $3,481,986

Saric was part of the big draft-day trade that netted the Minnesota Timberwolves the sixth overall pick (Jarrett Culver) in the draft. He had shown a lot of promise to that point and looked to be a nice addition to Phoenix’s young core. He’s since seen inconsistent minutes in the rotation and doesn’t quite appear to be in the Suns’ future plans. He’s since returned to the starting lineup, but the Suns will have to make a decision on him.

He probably has some value around the league as a stretch big man who crashes the glass and could certainly help some teams. He’s still only 25 years old. The Suns are knocking on the door for the eighth spot in the West, and perhaps Saric could be part of a package that nets them a player to solidify their playoff hopes. It’s worth a shot for a team that could certainly benefit from a postseason appearance.

3. Los Angeles Clippers – $130,766,746

The Clippers went all-in on a championship run for this season and have the payroll to back it up. Injuries have given them an inconsistent lineup throughout the season, but when they have been healthy, they’ve definitely looked the part.

Where they could stand to improve is also by looking to add a true point guard who can handle the ball and run the offense. Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams are great at what they do, but neither is a true point in that sense. They should also inquire about Augustin, and since you never know what Sacramento is going to do, they should place a call about Cory Joseph as well.

4. Dewayne Dedmon – $13,333,334

It’s public knowledge by now that Dedmon wants out of Sacramento. He was recently fined by the league for publicly stating that. He was initially thought of as being a great pickup for the Kings this past summer, but he’s fallen in and out of the rotation and his numbers have been down across the board.

He can certainly help quite a few teams out there. To this point, he’s been a solid stretch big who protects the paint and rebounds well. His former team, the Atlanta Hawks, has been mentioned as a possible landing spot. He’s probably a prime candidate to be moved at the deadline, but you never know with the Kings.

5. Alec Burks – $1,620,564

In a season that’s now become a developmental one for all the young players on the Warriors’ roster, Burks stands out as one of the lone healthy veterans who has turned in a solid campaign thus far. He’s dealt with injury issues in the past, but has proven to be healthy and able to be a solid perimeter scorer off the bench.

His name has come up already in trade chatter, and he could certainly help some playoff teams looking for instant offense in the second unit. The Warriors probably can’t expect too big a return for him, maybe a second-round draft pick. Or they could opt to keep him and see how he’ll fit next season when everyone is healthy. But if they’re looking to free up more minutes to play the youth, he’s a likely candidate to be moved by the deadline.

As the days leading up to the trade deadline continue to pass, more and more trade chatter will likely emerge. Rumors run rampant this time of year, and it’s important to remember that they are just that, rumors. Ultimately we won’t know until the deadline is actually here, but it doesn’t look like the Pacific Division will have any earth-shattering moves this trade deadline.

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