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NBA Sunday: Chicago Bulls Are Still Legit

Derrick Rose believes the Bulls can win the championship this year. He may be correct, writes Moke Hamilton.

Moke Hamilton

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Chicago Bulls Are Still Legit

For almost as long as we can remember, the Eastern Conference has been thought to be a two-horse race between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Atlanta Hawks. But with the return of Derrick Rose, the Chicago Bulls are hoping to emerge as a third contender.

Them doing so is not outside of the realm of possibility, and it is especially possible if you ask Derrick Rose his opinion.

“Who knows?” Rose asked rhetorically to BullsTV after he played his first home game at the United Center since February 23.

“The [Mavericks] team that won a couple years ago, nobody knew they were going to win the championship until they did it,” Rose said. “I think that we got the same talent that they had and we still got the same mission from the beginning of the year. We want to win a championship. It seems like we’re getting close.”

A few weeks ago, the thought of the Bulls competing for all of the marbles this year seemed laughable. To Rose’s credit, though, at one point, the same could have been said for Nowitzki’s Mavericks.

But with Rose’s return to the lineup, their continuance as a plus-defensive team, the emergence of Jimmy Butler and re-emergence of Pau Gasol, are the Bulls really to be counted out?

If there is one thing that Tom Thibodeau should have taught you over the years, it is that a team wit him at the helm should never be discounted.

* * *

Before the season began—before Rose’s torn meniscus and rumors of Thibodeau’s demise—more than a few people chose the Bulls to win the Eastern Conference this year. Those that made such a prediction did so based on the belief that Rose would be healthy enough to be a difference maker. They also did so out of a belief that Thibodeau would continue to maximize the talent that he has been given and that he would continue to have his team be amongst one of the top defenses in the National Basketball Association.

As the season draws to a close, despite the Bulls entering the final week of play with no chance of finishing the season higher than the third seed in the conference, those beliefs have proven to be valid.

Under Thibodeau, this season, Jimmy Butler has become an All-Star contributor while Pau Gasol has reverted into one. Both Aaron Brooks and Nikola Mirotic have given the Bulls positive contributions, as well.

As a unit, the Bulls are still formidable on the defensive end, ranking in the top 10 in the league in points allowed (98.1) and 11th in point differential (+2.7). They are fourth in the league in field goal percentage allowed (43.7) and are third in the league in defending the three-point line, allowing their opponents to hit just 33.7 percentage of their looks from behind-the-arc.

In other words, at their core, although they have collectively regressed from the 62-win team they were back in 2011, the Bulls are still a formidable defensive team. The major difference with them this season, is they are offensively potent, as well. Gone are the days where they struggle to score points.

Last season, the Bulls ranked dead last in the league in points per game (93.7) and the year prior, in 2012-13, they were tied for last with the Philadelphia 76ers. Obviously, advanced statistics could paint a rosier picture of the offensive ineptitude of the club, but the overall truth with the Bulls was that they were a roster that was wholly dependent on earning wins by making games ugly and grinding them out. They simply lacked offensively gifted personnel.

The same cannot be said for the team’s current incarnation. While they may have regressed defensively, they are much improved offensively. That balance may go a longer way toward winning big. In the Eastern Conference, the Bulls are still a team that is capable of pulling off a shocking upset. That, of course, is if the two best players on the roster can find some sort of sustained health and if they can contribute highly.

And unfortunately, that remains a big “if.”

* * *

Vince Carter, Allen Iverson, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James were certainly amongst the most exciting players to observe on an NBA court. They would seemingly defy death and gravity, at will. Selling out arenas and causing collective gasps were routine.

Few, if any, though, have ever been capable of sucking the life out of an arena full of 20,000 quite like Derrick Rose.

What was most amazing to witness about Rose, even early on in his career—before he became a solid shooter and a cerebral floor general—was his explosive athleticism. What made Rose so dramatic to observe was the fact that he could literally explode like a Lamborghini, seemingly accelerating from 0-60 in four seconds. Splitting a double-team at the top of the key, taking two dribbles and floating a finger roll over the outstretched arms of a defender?

It was commonplace.

Gliding through the air, absorbing contact, contorting his body and finding a way to finish? No problem. His only rival with regard to his aerial agility is still Russell Westbrook, and before those two, the closest comparison was an in-prime Stephon Marbury, and he wasn’t really that close.

Because of physical and mental injury, that Rose has not been seen in quite a few years. And in the NBA, when you find yourself hoping to witness a reversion for so long, odds are, it is time to kiss the memories goodbye. In general, we as optimistic observers tend to hold on to memories and hopes for a bit too long. The gross majority of times, if it hasn’t come back within a year or two, it’s not coming back.

But with Rose, you simply cannot discount the possibility. Not yet, and especially not if you observed him on April 11.

On the same night that Butler made his return to the lineup due to a calf injury, Rose was playing in his third game since February 23. After having undergone his third knee surgery in less than three years, the hope for Thibodeau and his Bulls is that Rose could be somewhere near 100 percent and give the Bulls an opportunity to fulfill the potential that many across the league see in them.

On April 11, Rose did so much more.

Against the pesky Philadelphia 76ers, it was Rose who took the game over late and looked almost like his former self in the process.

For perspective, it was just one game and it also happened to be against one of the worst teams in the entire league. However, what was most inspiring to witness on the part of Rose was his confidence. He consistently attacked his defenders off the dribble and beat them more times than not. He finished strongly around the basket with each hand and seemed to be able to move and cut with more fluidity than he was able to prior to the meniscus surgery that he underwent back on February 27.

In the end, in just 29 minutes, he turned in what may be one of his finer efforts of the entire season. All things considered, that is amazing. 22 points, six rebounds, eight assists and zero turnovers are not normally eye-popping numbers for Rose, however, consider the following:

It was only the second time all season long that Rose has amassed at least six rebounds and six assists in the same game.

It was just the third time all season long he ended a game with zero turnovers.

It was the fifth time all season long he attempted at least seven free throws.

Granted, the race is not for the swift. One game will not make or break a player or his season. But for Rose to show that type of in-game impact, for him to do it so quickly after his return and for him to do it so sharply—it is certainly something worth watching as the Bulls enter the final week of the regular season in a dead heat with the Toronto Raptors for the third seed in the Conference.

“I’ve been out for a long time, so every game I play is going to be a plus for me,” Rose told CSN Chicago after the impressive effort.

“Coming out, playing hard, trying to go into the playoffs strong with a groove and it’s paying off—all my hard work is paying off. I can’t wait to see how I play when I put everything together.”

And for Rose, that’s what it is all about. Mediocrity has never been his aim nor his aspiration. For as long as we can remember, Rose has been enamored with the challenge and the potential of bringing the Bulls their first championship since Michael Jordan hung it up in January of 1999.

“I feel better but at the same time, I know that this is only one game. I put this one behind me already and it’s on to the next game,” Rose said.

Yes, and on to the playoffs. The charge toward championship greatness continues.

* * *

As the Bulls close out their season, there are quite a few question marks. Aside from Rose, the other major one is Joakim Noah, who, this season, has seemed to regress mightily.

It has become commonplace for Noah to arrive at the playoffs beaten and battered. Although his performance in the first round of the 2013 NBA Playoffs was awe-inspiring, the Bulls would prefer if Noah did not have to take on the responsibility of helping them win a playoff series while operating on one good foot, which is exactly what he did back in 2013. It was at the expense of the Brooklyn Nets.

Entering this season, the organization thought it wise to limit Noah to 32 minutes per game in an attempt to keep him fresher for the playoffs. Noah has missed 13 games this season, most recently for what has been reported as knee soreness. Over the course of the season, the former All-Star has let his frustration be known. The Bulls have lost some games while Noah sat idly on the bench, mostly due to concerns over his long-term health and a want to not exceed his minutes restriction.

Partially as a result, he has averaged just 7.2 points, 9.6 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game. While those numbers are still impressive, they are far from the 12.6 points, 11.3 rebounds and 5.4 assists he averaged over the course of the 2013-14 season.

For what it’s worth, Noah played about 37 minutes per game in 2012-13 and 36 minutes per game in 2013-14. This season, he has played right around 30 minutes per game. That has been by design.

Now, as the Bulls charge toward the playoffs, the minutes restrictions for both Rose and Noah will be lifted.

So long as Butler and Gasol continue to perform at a high level, the ways things look at this very moment, for a change, the Bulls may be getting their house—and health—in order at the right time.

The San Antonio Spurs have shown us in recent weeks that getting hot at the right time can change everything with regard to how you are perceived come playoff time. And recall that the 1995 Houston Rockets won the NBA Finals at the sixth seed, having had to win each of their four playoff series without home court advantage.

Heading into the postseason, these are amongst Thibodeau’s reminders to his club.

* * *

Yes, the Hawks and the Cavaliers have seemed destined to meet in the Eastern Conference Finals for as long as we can remember. However, if the Bulls end up with the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference, they will have an opportunity to battle the Washington Wizards in a rematch of last year’s first round playoff series. As the fourth seed, the Bulls would take on the Raptors and then, if seeds held, the Hawks. Although they would be the underdog in perhaps each series, that would be based on the assumption that neither Rose nor Noah could rediscover their greatness and effectiveness.

If that assumption is incorrect, though—if they are—What then?

Could they, in fact, channel the 1995 Rockets or the 2011 Mavericks?

With Rose on the floor playing meaningful minutes, if he continues to progress, and if Noah’s minutes restriction proves to have been a wise investment, it is quite possible.

For a change, the Bulls may be getting their house in order at the right time.

For so long, the conference has seemed a two horse race, but if Rose is correct—if things break right—the Hawks and the Cavs may have to make way.

The Bulls are charging, and if they truly have a head of steam, there’s no telling where they will be stopped.

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NBA Daily: Free-Agent Watch: Centers

Drew Maresca continues Basketball Insiders’ Free Agent Watch by discussing the robust class of centers set to hit the market.

Drew Maresca

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The NBA is returning incredibly soon, but it definitely won’t be the same – at least not initially.

While most aspects of the game will hopefully return to normal as soon as next season – and other fun surprises like the return of Jamal Crawford and Michael Beasley to the Brooklyn Nets (the latter of whom is still in negotiations) will bring some unexpected joy to an otherwise nerve-wracking situation –  the long-term financial implications of COVID-19 are very real. Immediately, players will sign lesser deals due to an assumedly smaller salary cap and teams with multiple max contracts on their books will struggle to surround their star players with the support they need to compete.

With that being said, Basketball Insiders is identifying the best free agents at each position with the new and unique realities facing NBA teams in mind. Today we turn out attention to the men in the middle. The center position has changed dramatically since the 1990s, when having an elite big man was practically a necessity. But the definition of “elite” has changed drastically between that era and this one. Historically, big men hunkered down in the post — they were burly and physical, blocked shots and grabbed rebounds. What they did not do was stretch the floor, handle the ball or defend guards like many at the position do today.

So let’s dive into the best centers available in free agency.

Marc Gasol, Toronto Raptors – Unrestricted – $25,595,7500

Gasol will be an unrestricted free agent following this season. And, from the surface, his prospects wouldn’t seem great; Gasol missed considerable time in 2019-20, playing in only 36 games due to a hamstring injury, which resulted in career lows in scoring, rebounds and blocks per game.

That said, there’s still some room for optimism – and it’s squarely rooted in his weight.

Gasol has slimmed down quite a bit since COVID-19 forced the NBA to shut down in mid-March. Returning lighter and more fit should allow him to move more seamlessly with the team on the court and further leverage his athleticism. It should also enable him to stay on the floor for longer stretches, another positive as Gasol’s presence on the court has often been positive for the Raptors; of Toronto’s six lineups that logged 100 or more minutes, Gasol is in all three that are at least +10 and didn’t play at all in the other three (which were -4.1, -10 and +3.1, respectively).

What’s more, Gasol’s a great passer, an excellent defender (he allowed the tenth fewest points per touch last season) and his three-point shooting has continued to improve dramatically (he shot 40.2% on 3.5 three-point attempts in 2019-20 – second among centers in the entire league behind only Karl-Anthony Towns).

Gasol isn’t the modern and mobile “point center,” but adding bits and pieces of that style to his game has surely made him a valuable asset on the open market, even at the age of 35 and despite the lackluster regular season. He’ll have eight games plus the playoffs to prove that he’s healthy and ready to contribute — if Gasol can step back up, he should be in line for a nice payday.

Hassan Whiteside, Portland Trail Blazers – Unrestricted – $27,093,018

Whiteside was meant to be a stop-gap for the Trail Blazers. Portland’s plan was always to bide their time until Jusuf Nurkic was able to return from a compound fracture of his left tibia and fibula.

But the 31-year-old put forth such an impressive 2019-20 campaign that, while it’s highly unlikely the team recants their dedication to Nurkic, Whiteside has almost certainly secured himself a major deal for next season.

Just look at Whiteside’s 2019-20 output so far; he improved essentially each month, which culminated in 19.6 points, 14.8 rebounds and 5 blocks per contest across five games in March. Further, Whiteside connected on 57.1% of his three-point attempts – even if he only launched seven all year. If Whiteside can convert threes at that rate – even at such a limited volume – he remains a threat who defenders must cover all the way to the three-point line.

To put Whiteside’s season in context, he secured a career high in points per game, led the league in blocks per game (3.1) and is the second-leading rebounder in the entire NBA. Not bad, right? It may not come from Portland, but Whiteside would certainly seem to be in line for a raise, and a big one at that. And, given his age, don’t be surprised to see him jump at potentially his last chance to cash in big.

Dwight Howard, Los Angeles Lakers – Unrestricted – $3,500,000

Howard signed a one-year, non-guaranteed deal with the Lakers last summer. Expectations were relatively low, especially considering he was a last-minute signing; Howard was signed in August after DeMarcus Cousins suffered a knee injury.

But expectations and reality are not always aligned. Despite his age — Howard turned 34 last December — and the lack of actual playtime to go around with Anthony Davis and JaVale McGee soaking up most of the time at the five, Howard managed an impressive bounce-back season. In 62 games, Howard averaged 7.5 points, 7.4 rebounds and 1.2 blocks while hitting 73.2 percent of his shots and playing strong defense in just over 19 minutes per game.

Per-36, those numbers look even better: 14.1 points, 13,8 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per-36 minutes.

It could be tough for the Lakers to re-sign Howard, as they have about $75 million in guaranteed contracts next year before inking Davis to a massive new deal. That said, and while Howard will be competing with veterans like DeMarcus Cousins for a roster spot, he’s built a strong case for himself – especially if he’s willing to take another discount and continue to accept more of a reserve role.

Andre Drummond, Cleveland Cavaliers – Player Option — $28,751,774

The Cavaliers traded for Drummond for pennies on the dollar. Less than that, even.

In exchange for Brandon Knight, John Henson and a future second-round pick, the Cavaliers netted a two-time All-Star and the NBA’s leading rebounder in each of the last three seasons. It’s not like there was a major downtick in his play this season, either; in 2019-20, Drummond averaged 17.7 points and 15.3 rebounds per game.

But it’s not all sunshine and roses in Cleveland.

Drummond’s situation with the Cavaliers appears to be pretty open-and-shut. He’s been quoted as saying that he will exercise his $28.7 million player option, adding nearly $30 million in salary to Cleveland’s 2020-21 salary cap. But, just because Drummond said it doesn’t make it a guarantee. The Cavaliers could attempt to negotiate a long-term deal, bringing down their 2020-21 cap hit and guaranteeing Drummond more total dollars to appease him.

But there are a few questions that must be addressed before offering Drummond anything beyond next season. Firstly, does Cleveland believe that he’s versatile enough to play center in the modern NBA? Drummond shot just 28.6% on three-point attempts this season and he’s a sub-50% career free-throw shooter. Do those deficiencies outweigh Drummond’s strong contributions elsewhere (i.e. his scoring, rebounding and defense)?

The second question for Cleveland has more to do with his timeline rather than his play. Do the Cavaliers want to further invest in players on a different timeline to that of much of their young core (Collin Sexton, Darius Garland, Dante Exum, Kevin Porter Jr., etc.)? Drummond is set to turn 27 later this year and, while surrounding youth with a veteran leader is definitely the right move, Cleveland already has two of those veteran personalities in the locker room in Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson.

That said, while Love is signed through 2022-23, Thompson — a similar player to Drummond — is set to hit unrestricted free agency at the end of the season.

Cleveland’s strategy as of this past February’s trade deadline didn’t appear entirely cohesive — they resisted trading Thompson (and could now lose him for nothing) only to add Drummond to the fold. And, going forward, it looks as if they have two options: either overwhelm their roster with mismatched talent and try to let it work itself out, or they can surrender Thompson now or Drummond next season. We’ll know which direction they prefer very soon.

DeMarcus Cousins, Los Angeles Lakers – Unrestricted – $3,500,000

Last we checked, Cousins was working his way back from a torn ACL suffered just prior to the start of the 2019-20 season. Cousins’ stats were very good, but not quite great; the former Golden State Warrior averaged 16.3 points and 8.2 rebounds per game in 30 games last season, still hobbled in his recovery from a ruptured Achilles tendon. Before that, Cousins was averaging 25.2 points and 12.9 rebounds per game, shooting an impressive 35.4% on three-point attempts while bullying opponents at the rim (63.1%).

So, is a team willing to gamble on Cousins bouncing back to that form? It will have to wait until next season, as Cousins has stated his intent to sit out the NBA’s restart in Orlando, but the answer is probably yes, but for the right price.

Cousins was (and probably still is) an uber-talented player. But, like Howard this season, he may have to take a backseat-type deal before he can truly bounce back and earn his next big payday.

Whatever Cousins does is, ultimately, up to him, but, whether with the Lakers or another squad, it would seem wise for Cousins to ride the wave next season with a squad that could go the distance. Rather than rush himself back and risk another potential injury, Cousins could slowly work his way back and show teams that he can still get it done at a high level before hitting the market next offseason looking to cash in.

The return to basketball is inevitable. Of course, not everyone is happy with it, but that won’t stop teams from taking advantage of the remaining games in order to scout players and absorb new information. There are opportunities for players to secure future contracts, while other players will probably play their way into retirement and or out of the league. The 2020 free agent period will probably be the most chaotic version of itself, ever, and, while it may be a little rough for the front offices, it’ll be all the more fun for us to cover and watch.

And it’ll all be here in just a few short months.

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NBA Daily: Malachi Richardson Has Learned What It Means To Be A Pro

Spencer Davies catches up with Malachi Richardson about his participation in The Basketball Tournament, spending a season overseas and what it will take to get back to the NBA.

Spencer Davies

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At this time last year, Malachi Richardson had just come off a championship-winning season with the Toronto Raptors, and he was set for a five-game Summer League stint with the Golden State Warriors.

One year later, the matured 24-year-old swingman is competing for Boeheim’s Army in The Basketball Tournament to showcase his talents, ultimately poised to earn his way back into the NBA after a season overseas.

“I miss playing and being on the court with teammates to find ways to work together and win,” Richardson told Basketball Insiders. I’ve been training hard at Impact with Joe Abunassar this offseason to perfect my game. It’s going to be fun.”

Sporting a slimmed-down frame — he’s lost 17 pounds — Richardson scored 15 points and grabbed three rebounds in his TBT debut, a win over Men of Mackey. The Syracuse alum will take on Team Sideline Cancer this weekend.

Despite his short stay at ‘Cuse, playing for the Orangemen holds a special place in Richardson’s heart. It was where he capitalized on his McDonald’s All-American high school status and put it into action on a national collegiate stage for a top program, making him an attractive prospect at the NBA level. In June 2016, the Charlotte Hornets took the talented wing with the No. 22 pick.

“I wouldn’t change anything about my process,” Richardson said of his decision to enter the draft as a freshman. “Our Final Four run at Syracuse was special and I often reflect on how fun the game was for me at the time.

“Being a one-and-done put me at an advantage to be able to learn the business side of basketball early, so that I learned what it will really take for me to have a long NBA career.”

Richardson was traded a couple of weeks later to the Sacramento Kings, where he spent the beginning portion of his career. He appeared in 22 games during his rookie season, and the minutes in those were scarce.

However, he took advantage of G League assignments with the Reno Bighorns. In 11 games, Richardson averaged over 21 points and 4 rebounds per game, nailing 46 percent of his threes. Things were looking up heading into his sophomore season.

Richardson received an uptick in minutes and even earned his first four starts with the Kings, but it wasn’t for long. Sacramento dealt him at the 2018 trade deadline to the Raptors. He’d spend the next year-and-a-half with Toronto; again, he made the most impact in the G League, this time with the Raptors 905.

“The G-League is great for young guys, especially on teams that may not have as much opportunity for you to get on the floor with the NBA team,” Richardson said. “It gave me a chance to stay sharp so if I did get an opportunity on the NBA floor, I would be ready.”

The silver lining in the situation? An NBA title. During his time up north, Richardson was a part of a championship organization and had a great mentor in Danny Green. The lessons he picked up along the way can’t be replaced.

“On and off the court,” Richardson said. “Being a champion and a player that has made a name for himself as a specialist in the league he definitely helped me figure out what I can potentially be for a team.

“Being with the Raptors showed me what it takes to win at a high level in the NBA. From film, scouting reports, taking care of your body with treatment. And just coming in each day mentally prepared. From day one, it was clear that the goal was to win a championship, and being young in that locker room has put me at a serious advantage today.”

When last July’s summer league concluded, Richardson didn’t receive a training camp invite. He ended up signing with Hapoel Holon of the Israeli Premier League through mid-December. Next up was a move to Italy to join Vanoli Cremona in Lega Basket Serie A.

For the first time in his career, he was traveling from country-to-country and making a living overseas. Luckily, his loved ones were along for the ride and made the transition that much easier.

“Coming home to my son and family every day after a game or practice helped me grow because it’s made me leave the different obstacles of a professional athlete at the door,” Richardson said.

“My son looks at me as daddy. I can’t come home after a long day and not interact with him. He made me forget about a lot of the tough days at the gym as soon as I step in the door.”

Unfortunately, in late January, Richardson suffered a fractured hand and was subsequently released a couple of weeks afterward. By the same token, he took advantage of the opportunities and his hard work showed. In 21 total games (12 starts) between the two teams, Richardson averaged over 11 points and nailed a pro-career-best 43.9 percent of his threes.

“Playing overseas was a great experience for me. Being able to see the world and experience the different types of play styles was important for my growth as a player.”

While Richardson’s embryonic career has not been as straightforward as your usual typical first-round pick, hindsight is always 20-20. He’s determined to show his development as a player and a person.

“I’ve learned what it means to be a pro,” Richardson said of his improvements. “Just finding ways to make the most of my body and what I can do to be effective on the court. These were things that I did not take as seriously as I should have the first time around.”

Mental preparation is a facet Richardson is no longer taking for granted. He understands that the NBA is a business, and if you’re not at the top of your game, it can be a harsh one. So he’s going to continue to use his time wisely, mainly perfecting his craft in the gym.

“The different things I need to do basketball-wise that lets me know I’m locked in and ready to play and practice at a high level,” Richardson said.

“Scoring the ball is one thing I think I can do with the best of them, and I’m working on becoming a more complete player. I’m a better passer now and a better defender. Learning as a professional, not just a basketball player, has helped my game grow.”

An NBA return is the goal.

In the meantime, Richardson will look to add another trophy to his collection in TBT.

“I am really putting in the work with this offseason to be ready for whatever comes my way. I hope to get a chance to work out for some teams this offseason and earn a chance to get a roster spot in camp,” Richardson said. “My family has been an amazing support system for me and I’ve been locked in with my workouts, taking care of my body and waiting for the right call to show what I’ve accomplished this past year.”

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NBA Daily: Free Agent Watch – Power Forwards

Matt John continues Basketball Insiders’ Free Agent Watch by examining the power forwards that could potentially be hitting the market this summer.

Matt John

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Welcome back to Basketball Insiders’ Free Agent Watch series! We’re now making our way to the frontcourt players that could see a new team when the new NBA season starts in December.

On paper, the power forwards have the deepest pool of free agents talent-wise. Although, a few of these players on this list are mentioned because they potentially could hit the market. Common sense would say otherwise. Case in point — take a look at the first guy mentioned here.

Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers – Player Option – $28,751,775

Yeah, we *technically* had to include Davis in here because he could *technically* hit the open market, and he *technically* is listed as a power forward since he plays the majority of his minutes at that spot — 62 percent this season alone, which was his highest since 2014-15. His free agency (if he becomes one) should be pretty straightforward.

Whether he opts in or not, expect Davis back with the Lakers. LeBron James and the Lakers gave up a lot to get him to Hollywood. The Lakers will be damned if they’re going to let him go after they’ve had their best season since 2011, and LeBron will be damned if he’s going to let him go because as much as he’s defied father time; he’s only got so many years left at the top. The two of them have made up the NBA’s best pairing this season. If that breaks up, it’ll be pretty much impossible to find an adequate replacement.

Considering all the drama that led up to the Lakers acquiring Davis, it would take a 99-yard hail mary pitch against the Legion of Boom to get him off the Lakers. This is the best team that Davis has been on his entire career by far, and when you have LeBron taking a lot of responsibility off your shoulders on a team vying for a championship, there’s not a whole lot of incentive to leave. Unless you’re Kyrie Irving.

That’s where the real question lies. Davis will definitely stay on the Lakers for as long as LeBron is right there with him, but how long will that be? LeBron will be on the books for two more years after this season, and everyone knows of his plans to play with his son Bronny in the near future. Should LeBron go leave to take part in the family business, Davis’ future with the Lakers goes up in the air. LA doesn’t have to worry about that for another two years — and those two years should be prosperous — but it’s something they should keep in the back of their minds. Especially if there’s fire to these “return-to-hometown-Chicago” rumblings.

Montrezl Harrell, Los Angeles Clippers – Unrestricted – $6,000,000

When you have a championship window, you have to do everything you can to keep it open, even if it means paying more than what a guy is worth. People give Dan Gilbert so much grief for what he paid LeBron’s supporting cast in Cleveland, but give the guy credit. He knew he had an opportunity that he could not afford to let slip through his fingers. Now, Steve Ballmer has a similar predicament with Harell’s free agency coming up.

Harrell has easily been one of the league’s best bargain contract players over the past couple of years. Not many teams have bigs averaging 18/7 off the bench. The Clippers are the only team to have such a player while paying him chump change. They may no longer have that luxury when he hits the open market.

Kawhi Leonard and Paul George create a championship window that needs to have as few holes as possible. Letting Harrell walk will create one that cannot easily be filled. His energy on both sides of the floor makes him an absolute terror to deal with any opponent they go up against. He’s also going to be their best bet against Anthony Davis in what feels like an inevitable conference finals date with their crosstown rival.

Having both his bird rights and a limited market will help the Clippers in the negotiating room, but we’ve seen guys leave good teams for less money because they felt insulted by the deal they were offered. This is the chance for the Clippers to show that they truly are committed both to Harrell and the window they have.

Paul Millsap, Denver Nuggets – Unrestricted – $30,000,000

Millsap is the last of a dying breed in the NBA — a pure power forward. Because of the league’s versatility, we see more and more small forwards playing a fair amount of time at the four because they are multi-faceted enough to do so. Millsap impressively has been able to stay productive at the four even as the league has embraced this change. Even more so, the teams he’s been on have pretty much always been good.

At 35 years old, it’s clear Millsap is on his last legs. Although his per-36 stats look just about as good as they were during the height of his prime both in Utah and Atlanta, Denver’s decreased his minutes for a reason. At the same time, there’s a reason why Denver opted to pick up his $30 million team option last summer.

Millsap is definitely not going to see anywhere near the kind of contract he got from the Nuggets back in 2017, but there is going to be a lot of interested parties in his services once the season ends. He’s among those players that aren’t very flashy on the court nor anything spectacular in one area, but just a good fundamental basketball player all-around. He’s a good veteran presence in the locker room, and maybe he won’t put up the All-Star numbers he once could; but as it stands, if all you’re asking him is to be a rotation big on a playoff contender, he’ll do that for you.

Denver has the advantage both because of both its competitors’ lack of available funds and the team having Millsap’s bird rights. Returning to the Nuggets seems like the most obvious path, but Millsap does have to ask himself if he can win with them with what amount of prime he has left.

Serge Ibaka, Toronto Raptors – Unrestricted – $23,271,605

It’s tough to describe where Ibaka is in his career right now. He’s no longer the shot-blocking terror that he was during his time in Oklahoma City — from 3.7 blocks a game in 2011-12 to 0.8 this season — so when you hear stuff like that, you think he’s past his prime. Then you look at his numbers on the offensive end — 16/8 on 52/40/75 splits, some of his best numbers ever — and you would think he hasn’t lost a step.

The contract Toronto gave Ibaka back in 2017 may have been a bit of an overpay — who wasn’t overpaying in 2017? — but he has done what the Raptors have asked of him. He brought veteran experience, still blocks a shot or two, and spaces the floor for them most of the time. He doesn’t have the highest basketball IQ, but he knows what he can do well and sticks to it.

As far as where he goes after this season is quite the mystery. Toronto has been as awesome as a reigning champ who lost its best player could be, but even they have to wonder if it’s worth it to keep the whole band together for another run when Ibaka, Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol are all starting to get up there age-wise. The Raptors could really go either way, and there wouldn’t be a wrong answer. Masaji Ujiri has proven time after time that he knows what he’s doing.

Whoever gets Ibaka knows what they are getting. Besides the skills that have already been listed above, they are getting a champion. That can count for a lot in a playoff run.

Marcus Morris, Los Angeles Clippers – Unrestricted – $15,000,000

Not every player gets to go through what Morris did this season. He got paid a ton of money to play for a team that was bad enough to trade him to a contender willing to pay a high price for him, and now he gets a golden opportunity to showcase his talents for a payday. His odds of getting one took a hit for reasons that were out of his control, but still. This could not have worked out any better for Morris.

Now he’s on the Clippers, where he is the overqualified third wing to spell Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, as well as be a body to throw at LeBron. His three-point percentage took a bad spill once arriving in LA, but before that he was shooting a blistering near-44 percent from three in New York. Morris is a career 36.7 percent three-point shooter, so asking him to shoot that hot from three is placing unfair expectation, but if he can be a reliable shooter from that department, the Clippers will have no regrets for what they spent on him.

Considering the other Clippers who will be hitting free agency this summer, the odds of Morris coming back to LA seem slim on paper, but who knows how the low salary figures will impact free agency. Morris has proven that he is a valuable two-way wing that can play gritty defense as well as score the ball.

Buyer beware, though — Marcus Morris is in the Russell Westbrook mold of players that will not adapt to the system. The system adapts to guys like him. It doesn’t matter if he’s got the likes of Kawhi or PG-13 on his side. If the basketball is in his hands, his first instinct is to score. If you’re bringing him in, you have to know what you’re paying for. There’s much more good than bad to Mook, but the bad is still something that can’t be overlooked.

Marvin Bagley III, Sacramento Kings – Team Option – $8,963,640

“Uh…. what” you may ask? It’s true. Even as the second overall pick in the draft, Bagley’s rookie deal is structured to have a team option for his third year with the team for… some reason. To be honest, this is really brought up more for being a fun fact than anything else.

Because, even if Bagley has paled in comparison to some of his fellow 2018 draftees thus far — Luka Doncic, Trae Young, Jaren Jackson Jr., Shai Gilgeous-Alexander — Sacramento would be absolutely insane to let him go knowing the kind of potential he has… right?

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