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NBA Sunday: Danny Ainge’s Tough Decision

In 2003, Joe Dumars chose locker room harmony over the best prospect. What will Danny Ainge do?

Moke Hamilton

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If there’s one thing you’ve gotta credit the Boston Celtics for, it’s this: they always seem to be just one or two pieces away from winning the NBA’s Eastern Conference.

Antoine Walker and Paul Pierce had the team in contention on an almost annual basis, and Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, for the most part, did the same. Since moving on from Pierce and Garnett a few years ago, the Celtics were supposed to be rebuilding.

Instead, behind Isaiah Thomas and one of the most inspiring postseason performances we have seen in some years, the NBA universe is wondering whether the Celtics have what it would take to shock the world.

It sounds like a good problem to have, but truth is, the unintended consequence of the overachieving Celtics has put both president of basketball operations Danny Ainge and Thomas in an impossible predicament.

By virtue of the Celtics owning the rights to the 2017 pick belonging to the Brooklyn Nets, Ainge has to decide whether to fully commit himself to Thomas as the team’s lynchpin. Before such an inspiring season (and postseason), the prevailing sentiment was that the Celtics would be wise to use what may end up being the first overall pick on either Markelle Fultz or Lonzo Ball.

Today? The decision has become much more difficult.

For Thomas, no matter what happens from here, he will forever be linked to Fultz and Ball. If the Celtics commit to him and trade a pick that could have amounted to either of them, assuming they fulfill their potential, anything less than a championship would be a Scarlett letter that Thomas would wear the rest of the way.

Interestingly enough, the scenario is precisely what transpired with Stu Jackson, Otis Thorpe and Joe Dumars.

For Ainge, one can only hope that the ending is as happy.

* * * * * *

About 20 years ago, the Vancouver Grizzlies were just finishing up their second NBA season. With a combined 29 wins, they seemed to be a clear step behind Canada’s other expansion team—the Toronto Raptors. Out West, however, the Grizzlies had bigger concerns than just their Canadian counterparts.

Across the country in Ontario, the Raptors had lucked into three 20-something-year-olds who each had high hopes for the future: Damon Stoudemire, Marcus Camby and Shawn Respert. The Grizzlies, on the other hand, had the impressive Shareef Abdur-Rahim, as well as Bryant “Big Country” Reeves.

General manager Stu Jackson thought it wise to add a few veterans to his young core, and with it being a poorly kept secret that former NBA Champion Otis Thorpe had fallen out with head coach Doug Collins, Jackson pounced. He agreed to trade a future first round pick to the Detroit Pistons in exchange for Thorpe. This wouldn’t vest until 2003, when it was only protected if it happened to be first overall. So, when the Cleveland Cavaliers won the draft lottery that year, it meant that the Grizzlies had won the right to the second pick. That, of course, also meant that they had to fork it over to the Pistons.

Hindsight is 20/20, of course, and faulting Jackson for failing to be able to see the future is, at the very least, unfair.

For Joe Dumars, however, the same can’t be said.

Having spent his entire 14-year career as a member of the Pistons, Dumars and Thorpe were teammates when Thorpe was traded in 1997. But having emerged as the son of the franchise, Dumars would eventually win the front office in 2000, after his playing career had ended. It was on Dumars’ watch that the Pistons received that second overall pick in the 2003 NBA Draft—one of the deepest in history.

At the time, the Pistons had recently installed Rick Carlisle as their head coach and had just lost to Jason Kidd and his New Jersey Nets in the Eastern Conference Finals. The year before, they lost to the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference semifinals, so they had obviously been showing signs of progression.

With Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Clifford Robinson, Ben Wallace and two impressive youngsters named Mehmet Okur and Tayshaun Prince, the Pistons truly believed themselves to be one or two pieces away from becoming a championship team. When you’re that close, drafting a player like LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh or Chris Kaman—all top-flight players—could be disruptive.

Young players with promise want to come into the league and prove their mettle. No player wants to be remembered in the same light as Michael Olowokandi, Marcus Fizer, Kedrick Brown or Dajuan Wagner.

That’s why everyone needs to continue watching Jaylen Brown and his situation so carefully. By virtue of the treasure trove of picks Ainge has assembled for what was expected to be a long rebuild in Boston, he used the third overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft on Brown. Brown played 17.2 minutes per game during his rookie year and has played 8.3 minutes per game during the playoffs.

The safe money says that Brown wants to play more, and it’s probably only a matter of time before that request becomes a tad more forceful.

The politics of the NBA locker room, particularly as they relate to young players wanting to fulfill their promise, is one of the more underreported things in the league.

It was exactly for that reason that, in 2003, Dumars went against the prevailing sentiment and opted against drafting the “no brainer” pick with the second selection of the 2003 draft—Carmelo Anthony.

Opting against drafting Anthony was easy enough to understand, but considering the Pistons were playing 36-year-old Cliff Robinson 35 minutes per night, it stood to reason that the team could use a young post player. Either Bosh or Kaman would have made all the sense in the world.

Instead, not wanting to disturb the harmony in his locker room, Dumars opted to select an unknown European project player named Darko Milicic. Milicic, it was thought, could be brought along slowly. The throne would be his in the future, and he would be fine with waiting.

Meanwhile, in a draft that featured at least 18 difference-making players who enjoyed outstanding careers, at the top of the draft, the Pistons whiffed. Although Milicic would go on to have a respectable 10-year career in the NBA, he never came close to fulfilling the expectations that amounted from being selected second overall in a draft that has featured nine NBA All-Stars and four All-NBA team members.

As fate would have it, Dumars would eventually land Rasheed Wallace during the 2003-04 season, and Wallace would go on to be the missing piece for the Pistons. The club would win the NBA Finals in 2004 and come within one game of repeating in 2005, as they would eventually lose the Finals the next year, in seven games, to the San Antonio Spurs.

Still, the Pistons serve as a fine example of a scenario seldom seen in the NBA—one where the rich have the means to get richer.

What on earth is a general manager to do with a top-three draft pick when he has a team that seems to be one or two pieces away?

What on earth is the GM to do when the draft class is especially loaded?

These are the questions Danny Ainge must answer.

And based on what we have seen from Isaiah Thomas the past few weeks, he has made the decision as tough as humanly possible.

Behind door number one, Ainge has Isaiah Thomas and the player that he nets from trading his incoming lottery pick for him. In that scenario, Ainge would need Thomas and the unknown player to amount to more than the player that is drafted with the pick. Behind door number two, Ainge would do the unthinkable—trade Thomas to the highest bidder. He would then have to turn his team over to the rookie point guard he would draft and Jaylen Brown and firmly set his sights on becoming the Eastern Conference’s next power after LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers have run their course.

Either way, at this point, it’s difficult to imagine Thomas and either Fultz or Ball harmoniously splitting minutes in the backcourt. After what Thomas has done for these Celtics, it’s too difficult a decision to make.

For Ainge, the best case scenario would probably be trading the incoming lottery pick to the Chicago Bulls for Jimmy Butler. With Thomas and Al Horford, the Celtics would cement themselves as the conference’s other top dog with the Cavaliers.

One way or another, though, assuming the Celtics pick in the 2017 draft falls where it’s supposed to, Thomas will forever be linked with Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball.

Another 20 years from now, it’ll be interesting to see whether we discuss them in the same way we today remember Otis Thorpe, Carmelo Anthony, Stu Jackson and the 2003 NBA Draft.

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NBA Daily: Second-Round Draft Steals to Watch

Several possible second round picks have a chance to make an impact at the NBA level, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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The NBA Draft is upon us this week. The hopes and dreams of many basketball players will become reality. Each year there are players who are drafted in the second round who end up outperforming their draft selection spot.

A premium has been placed on draft picks in recent years. Even second round picks have become extremely valuable. For a team like the Golden State Warriors whose payroll might limit their ability to sign quality rotation players (veterans taking discounts to win a ring notwithstanding), smart drafting has seen them scoop up steals like Patrick McCaw and Jordan Bell. Both those players have emerged as key rotation guys on a championship team, and both were taken in the second round.

The second round is an opportunity to pick up overlooked young talent on cheap contracts. Sure, it’s rare to get a Manu Ginobili or an Isaiah Thomas or a Draymond Green that goes on to become an All-Star caliber player, but plenty of quality contributors can be found.

Here’s a look at a few guys who have a great chance at becoming second round steals.

1. Allonzo Trier – Arizona

Outside of DeAndre Ayton, there may not have been a more valuable player to the Arizona Wildcats last season than Allonzo Trier. He was the Wildcats second-leading scorer at 18.1 points per game. There have been questions about his supposed selfish style of play, but he’s been a solidly efficient player his three years at Arizona.

This past season as a junior, he shot 50 percent from the field and 38 percent from the three-point line. Over his three years in college, he was a 47.5 percent shooter from the field and a 37.8 percent shooter from the three-point line. He’s also an 82.3 percent shooter from the line. And he did dish out 3.2 assists this past season.

Trier is a scorer, plain and simple, an efficient one at that. Despite this, his name has failed to appear on many mock drafts. The few that actually project the second round as well have him being drafted near the end. At 6-foot-5 and 205 pounds, Trier has great size for a shooting guard in the NBA. A sixth man type scorer is probably his best projection at the next level.

2. Brandon McCoy – UNLV

The Runnin’ Rebels didn’t quite have such a noteworthy year, which might explain a little about why Brandon McCoy is flying under the radar. UNLV posted a 20-13 record and failed to make the NCAA Tournament. Despite that, McCoy managed to emerge as their biggest bright spot.

In his lone college season, he led UNLV in scoring with 16.9 points per game on 54.5 percent shooting from the field. He also pulled down 10.8 rebounds per game and was their leading shot blocker at 1.8 blocks per game. For a big man, he shot a semi-decent 72.5 percent from the free-throw line.

He has good size, he’s a legit seven-footer. He moves well on the floor and with some work, can be a very good defensive player. Part of what might be causing him to get overlooked is he doesn’t have much in terms of a mid-range game, a necessity for big men in today’s NBA game. But that can be worked on. At any rate, he can be a high energy big off the bench, good to come in and block some shots, grabs some boards and clean up around the rim. Every team could use a guy like that.

3. Devonte Graham – Kansas

One year ago, Devonte Graham’s Jayhawk teammate Frank Mason III was also being overlooked in the draft. Like Graham, the major issue working against him was his status as a four-year college player. Mason went on to be one of the bright spots for the Sacramento Kings, establishing himself as a legit NBA point guard.

This summer, Graham is looking to do the same. Mason was also a bit on the shorter side, coming in at 5-foot-11. Graham has little more size than that at 6-foot-2. He was the Jayhawks best player for most of the year, putting up 17.3 points per game while shooting 40.6 percent from the three-point line. He also dished out 7.2 assists per game.

Most mock drafts have consistently had Graham being drafted early to middle second round. Being a college senior, he has leadership abilities. He’d be perfect for any team looking for a solid point guard off the bench.

4. Chimezie Metu – USC

For much of the mock draft season, Chimezie Metu’s name appeared as a first round selection. But in recent weeks, as other names began to climb up the draft ladder, Metu it appears has fallen back into the second-round. It’s interesting though, as his skill set for a big man appears to project well in today’s NBA game.

He was the Trojans’ best player as a junior this past season. He put up 15.7 points per game on 52.3 percent shooting from the field. He pulled down 7.4 rebounds while averaging 1.7 blocked shots. Although the percentages may not reflect that, he has an improving jump shot. He’s quick and mobile defensively.

He’s got all the tools be able to guard the post as well as switch out and guard other positions if need be. With a little more work, he can be a good jump shooter. With the evolution of today’s game, Metu has the perfect build and talent to find success as a modern NBA big man.

5. Tony Carr – Penn State

Tony Carr has been a consistent second round pick in most mock drafts. There has been the occasional one here or there that had him being drafted at the end of the first-round, but the second round is most likely where he’ll hear his name called.

Carr was the best player for a Nittany Lions team that ended up winning the NIT. This past season as a sophomore, he put up 19.6 points per game and shot 43.3 percent from the three-point line. He was able to pull down 4.9 rebounds per game and he dished out 5.0 assists.

He can play both guard positions and create for himself or his teammates. There have been question marks about his athleticism and ability to defend at the NBA level, but all a team needs for him to do is come in off the bench, run the offense a bit and get a few buckets. He’s definitely capable of doing that.

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NBA Daily: Kawhi Leonard Would Look Good In a Knicks Uniform… In 2019

The Knicks need to take a page out of the Sixers’ book… and trust the process.

Moke Hamilton

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The NBA world nearly stopped last week when reports circulated that Kawhi Leonard wanted out from San Antonio.

All of a sudden, within a few days, both he and Kyrie Irving were both reportedly open-minded about taking their talents to New York.

And while either (or both) of the two would look great as Knicks uniforms, they’d look much better in orange and blue in 2019.

After all, only a fool does the same thing over and over and expects different results.

Seven years ago, the Knicks the made mistake of trading their farm for a superstar caliber small forward. His name is Carmelo Anthony, and we all know how that story ended.

If you want to make the argument that Leonard is a better player than Anthony was at 27 years old, that’s your right, but one thing that not even Max Kellerman could argue is that smart teams simply don’t trade assets for players they could ultimately end up getting for free. That’s exactly why Paul George spent last season flanking Russell Westbrook instead of arguing with LaVar Ball.

So if Leonard or Irving wants to eventually take up residence in New York City, they can prove it… Next year.

If there’s one thing the Knicks historically imprudent front office should have learned from Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka, it’s that.

This summer, after hiring David Fizdale, Scott Perry will have another opportunity to prove that the job at Penn Plaza isn’t too big for him, so it’ll be interesting to see whether he even publicly entertains the idea of attempting to make a splash this summer or whether he continues to hold steadfast to the belief that there are not shortcuts on the route to contention.

The right play for the Knicks is to follow the route that the Lakers took as it relates to Paul George—refrain from dealing valuable assets for players that you could sign for free. Danny Ainge hit home runs with Gordon Hayward and Al Horford and by essentially adding each of them to an existing core of young talent—and more importantly, refraining from acquiring either via trade—the Celtics now have an embarrassment of riches.

The Knicks don’t have those kinds of problems, and as it stands, have little aside from Kristaps Porzinigis going for them. With the Latvian unicorn expected to miss the majority of next season, they’ll probably have a lottery pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. That could be paired nicely with Porzingis, Frank Ntilikina and the ninth overall pick that they’ll have in the 2018 draft.

In other words, one year from now, the Knicks could have four of their own lottery picks under contract—Porzingis, Ntilikina, and whichever players they will have selected in 2018 and 2019. Between now and then, the team would be best served scouring the G-League and overseas markets to find cheap help that can contribute at the NBA level. Let the young guys play, let them develop and then carry them into the summer of 2019 with a clear plan in place.

That type of prudent management will not only help the Knicks in the long run, it will go a long way toward convincing soon-to-be free agents and player agents that Perry and his staff actually know what they’re doing.

If they play things right, and if the team managed to unload either Courtney Lee or Joakim Noah, they could open up the very real possibility of landing both Leonard and Irving, but instead of trading the farm for them, they’d have a realistic shot at signing them. They’d be adding them to the core instead of sacrificing it for them. Imagine that.

From where most people sit, Irving seems to have an ideal situation in Boston, and his entertaining the idea of taking his talents elsewhere seems curious, at best… But so did the choice of leaving LeBron James.

Irving has been consistently rumored as having real interest in playing in New York when he’s able to test the market next July, and depending on who you ask, there does seem to be a genuine level of concern in Boston that he could opt to take his talents elsewhere.

Growing up in the shadows of Madison Square Garden, the young guard knows better than most what winning in New York City would do for his legacy. At the end of the day, would one championship in New York make Irving a legendary figure among the likes of Kobe Bryant or LeBron James? Probably not. But one thing we can call agree on is that winning in a single championship in New York would do much more for Irving than winning a single championship in Cleveland or even a single title in Boston.

As it stands, fair or not, history will always look at Irving as the “other” player on James’ championship Cavaliers team, even though he was the one who made the biggest shot of James’ career.

And with the success of the Celtics this past season, truth be told, Irving helping lead the Celtics to a championship with the team’s current core in place wouldn’t necessarily cement his legacy in the way it would have had we not seen Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown show signs of being franchise-caliber players.

Because Irving is a shoot-first guard, he’ll continue to unfairly carry the reputation of being someone who doesn’t make his teammates better. He’s no Steve Nash, but he is truly special. Just don’t tell the national media that.

Because of the circumstances, he’s now in a bit of a catch-22. He’ll get less of the credit than he’ll deserve if the Celtics manage to win an NBA title and more of the blame than he’ll deserve if they fail to.

Still, even if Irving and/or Leonard end up elsewhere, the summer of 2019 will feature other free agents including Kemba Walker—the only “true” All-Star caliber New Yorker in the NBA—and Long Island product Tobias Harris. Jimmy Butler, Khris Middleton, Kevin Love and Nikola Vucevic, too.

Going from Leonard and Irving to Walker and Butler might seem like a sad story of riches to rags, but one could very easily make the argument that adding two high-quality All-Star caliber starters to a core featuring Porzingis, Ntilikina and two lottery picks would do more to make the Knicks contenders than unloading the cupboard in an attempt to bring one in.

If that sounds like exactly what the Celtics did, that’s because it is. The Lakers, too. There’s a reason why they’re the most winningest franchises in NBA history, it would seem.

One thing we know for sure in the NBA: there will always be marquee free agents. The Knicks just need to do a better job of being able to attract them.

So this summer, if Perry wants to continue to earn favor with Knicks fans with even half a brain, the best thing to do might actually be to do nothing.

In other words, if the Knicks have truly learned anything from the futility of their recent past, it’s that they should try to be more like Magic Johnson and Danny Ainge. 

So if word eventually gets to Perry that Leonard’s interest in the team is real, and if Irving decides that he wants to take up residence in his backyard to try to succeed where Patrick Ewing, Stephon Marbury and Patrick Ewing fell short, Perry’s response should be simple.

“Prove it.”

Either would look great in a Knicks uniform, but they’d look much better in a Knicks uniform in 2019.

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Ranking the Free Agents – Power Forwards

Basketball Insiders continues to evaluate the top free agents at each position. David Yapkowitz breaks down the power forwards.

David Yapkowitz

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This week at Basketball Insiders, we’re taking a look at the top free agents set to the open market in just a few weeks. We’ve already covered the point guards, shooting guards, and small forwards. Now we check in with the power forwards.

There may only be a few power forwards who can probably expect a max or near max deal this summer, but there are quite a few guys that, for the right price, can end up being difference makers on a team next season.

Before getting into the actual free agents, here’s a look at what the salary cap numbers project to be. The NBA’s salary cap is expected to jump to $101 million this offseason. Based on that, here are the projected numbers for max contracts:

$25,250,000 for players with 0-6 years of experience
$30,300,000 for players with 7-9 years of experience
$35,350,000 for players with 10+ years of experience

Max/Near Max Guys

Julius Randle* – Los Angeles Lakers – Last Year’s Salary: $4,149,242

Julius Randle is definitely in line for a bigger payday this summer. The fourth-year forward turned in his best NBA season yet and was arguably the Lakers best player for most of the year. He played in all 82 games with 49 starts.

He put up career-high numbers across the board with 16.1 points per game on 55.8 percent shooting from the field. Most of Randle’s scoring comes in the paint where his “bully” ball type game has proven quite effective. He has an improving jump shot and at 23 years old, he still has his best years ahead of him.

He will be a restricted free agent, giving the Lakers the ability to match any offer he receives, but doing so could come at the expense of signing two max-level free agents as has been the team’s plan. It’s going to be an interesting dilemma for the Lakers as Randle most likely will attract interest right away from potential suitors thus forcing the Lakers hand early on in free agency.

Aaron Gordon* – Orlando Magic – Last Year’s Salary: $5,504,420

Aaron Gordon will also most likely receive a max or near max contract his summer. Early in the season when the Orlando Magic started out hot, Gordon was playing like an All-Star and even a borderline MVP candidate.

The Magic’s play then went rapidly south, but Gordon finished the season averaging 17.6 points per game, 7.9 rebounds and 2.3 assists, all career-highs. At the beginning of the season, he displayed a much improved three-point shot. The Magic have tried him at small forward before, but he’s a natural at power forward.

Gordon is also a restricted free agent allowing the Magic to match any offer. At age 22, he should also have his best years ahead of him. For a team like the Magic, in need of talent and quality young players, re-signing Gordon is probably ideal. But it’s also important to note that the Magic have a newer front office in place, one that did not draft Gordon. It’s also possible that John Hammond and Jeff Weltman might want to shape the roster in their vision.

Above Mid-Level Guys

Jabari Parker* – Milwaukee Bucks – Last Season’s Salary: $6,782,392

Jabari Parker is perhaps one of the most interesting and intriguing names on the free agent market. A former No. 2 overall pick, as a rookie Parker looked like he was definitely part of the Bucks growing young core. Unfortunately for him, injuries struck him hard as he suffered two ACL tears during a three-year period.

This season, he struggled a bit to find a role with the Bucks. There’s no question that if he’s healthy, he’d be quite an asset to any team. He represents the new breed of power forward with a perimeter game. Prior to his injuries, he’d almost assuredly be a max contract guy. It’s a bit difficult to imagine any team willing to pay him anywhere close to that now.

The Bucks have the option to match any contract offer he gets as he is a restricted free agent. It’s conceivable that they would do so as it will probably take a massive offer to pry Parker away from the Bucks. It’s unlikely that any team is willing to go that high.

Thaddeus Young** – Indiana Pacers – Last Season’s Salary: $14,796,348

Thaddeus Young could be another intriguing power forward on the free agent market. The thing with Young is he has a player option he could choose to exercise and become a free agent. Never an All-Star, Young has been a steady and dependable player his entire career.

His numbers were a bit under his career averages this season. He put up 11.8 points per game on 48.7 percent shooting from the field and he pulled down 6.3 rebounds. Nevertheless, he remained an important part of the Pacers rotation, especially on the defensive end.

Should he hit the open market, there likely wouldn’t be any shortage of suitors.

Derrick Favors – Utah Jazz – Last Season’s Salary: $12,000,000

Ed Davis – Portland Trail Blazers – Last Season’s Salary: $6,352,531

Montrezl Harrell* – Los Angeles Clippers – Last Season’s Salary: $1,471,382

Mid-Level Or Below Guys

Mike Scott – Washington Wizards – Last Season’s Salary: $1,471,382

Ersan Ilyasova – Philadelphia 76ers – Last Season’s Salary: $357,454

Trevor Booker – Indiana Pacers – Last Season’s Salary: $332,516

David West – Golden State Warriors – Last Season’s Salary: $1,471,382

Nemanja Bjelica* – Minnesota Timberwolves – Last Season’s Salary: $3,949,999

Kevon Looney – Golden State Warriors – Last Season’s Salary: $1,471,382

Mike Muscala** – Atlanta Hawks – Last Season’s Salary: $5,000,000

Amir Johnson – Philadelphia 76ers – Last Season’s Salary: $11,000,000

Channing Frye – Los Angeles Lakers – Last Season’s Salary: $7,420,912

Quincy Acy – Brooklyn Nets – Last Season’s Salary: $1,709,538

*Qualifying Offer (If made, the player becomes a restricted free agent.)
**Player Option (The player has the choice of whether to opt-in for another year with his current team or opt-out to become an unrestricted free agent.)

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