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NBA Sunday: Looking Toward Isaiah’s Free Agency

Isaiah Thomas has become a franchise player. But will he be paid like it? Moke Hamilton wonders.

Moke Hamilton

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Less than a week before the 2017 NBA Draft, in this space, we discussed how the Boston Celtics and the trading of the first overall pick in the draft was the first in a chain reaction of moves that Danny Ainge executed in an attempt to overthrow LeBron James and capture his kingdom.

With Gordon Hayward and third overall pick Jayson Tatum among those added to the core of the Celtics, there’s no doubt that the team will be stronger and more well equipped to end James’ seven-year reign atop the Eastern Conference.

Considering the drama surrounding Kyrie Irving and his reported desire to be dealt out of Cleveland, the Cavaliers now face their own set of diverging roads. Depending on whether or not they trade Irving and what kind of return they get for him if they do, it’s not out of the question for the Celtics to qualify for their first NBA Finals since 2010.

From here, of course, it appears that the Celtics are headed in the right direction. In it all, though, Isaiah Thomas continues to be the most worth watching.

* * * * * *

Many times over, you have been reminded that Thomas was selected with the 60th overall pick in the 2011 NBA Draft. He’s been traded for cents on the dollar quite a few times, but in Boston, has improbably become an NBA All-Star and a franchise-caliber talent.

The question that begs to be answered, though—and one whose answer will be revealed in short order—is whether or not the Celtics consider Thomas to be a player worthy of a maximum salary.

This coming season, Thomas will earn just $6.26 million. As it currently stands, about 435 players will earn at least a minimum salary for the 2017-18 season. Stephen Curry, LeBron James, Paul Millsap, Gordon Hayward and Blake Griffin respectively comprise the top five.

Thomas ranks 167th.

During the first three years of his career, Thomas earned a minimum salary and has since averaged about $7 million per year over each of the last three. His career earnings, over six years, total about $23 million.

As Thomas heads into the final year of his contract, it’s safe to say that everyone is rooting for him. Long before he became a household name for the way he admirably performed during last year’s playoffs, Thomas was long-regarded as a hard-working player whose rise in production was a result of plying his trade. In Boston, he has become everything that a franchise could possibly seek in one of its mainstays.

It’s just a shame that his future continues to be in question.

From Allen Iverson to Steve Nash, there is a long history of small lead guards failing to lead a team to the NBA championship. Before the Golden State Warriors, we were fed the notion by many that a “jump shooting team” or a “finesse team” wouldn’t be able to win games when it counted and walk away with all the marbles when it mattered most. That’s the way professional sports works; few teams are willing to try things that haven’t previously proved successful. Couple that with the old adage that you can’t teach size, and it becomes easy to see why big men routinely get paid while small guards often struggle to find their payday.

So, at the end of the day, the Celtics will be an interesting team to watch this season for many reasons. Ainge has done a masterful job of building his roster. He has made timely trades, drafted rotation-worthy NBA players and signed impact free agents. What he needs to decide with Thomas, though, is whether he is a part of the core that the Celtics will seemingly carry into future years in attempting to regain their place atop the Eastern Conference.

As it stands, the Celtics have seven players under contract for the 2018-19 season. Their salaries total about $86 million. That figure, however, doesn’t include team options for Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier, nor does it include any salary for Marcus Smart, who will be a restricted free agent. The options for Brown and Rozier will total about $8 million, so there’s no question that the Celtics will bring each of them back. In effect, that will give them $94 million in salary commitments to nine players, neither of which is Smart or Thomas.

For the 2017-18 season, the salary cap was set at $99 million, while the luxury tax threshold is $119 million. Assuming three percent growth, the Celtics would likely be looking at a tax threshold of about $122 million. In other words, the Celtics, with their $94 million in salary commitments, would be only $25 million to $28 million below the luxury tax threshold, and would have both Smart and Thomas unsigned. It should be noted that teams that have a payroll that exceeds the luxury tax threshold face roster restrictions. They cannot receive a player who is being signed-and-traded, nor can they pay free agents the full amount of the midlevel exception.

Would Ainge pay Thomas $25 million per year under those circumstances?

Only time will well.

* * * * * *

Most players that play for your team don’t love your team. It’s a sobering thought to many fans, but it happens to be quite true.

With Ray Allen’s defection to the Miami HEAT the most obvious example, in today’s NBA, most players understand that the NBA is a business and that a franchise will act in its own best interest. In 2016, as a member of the Memphis Grizzlies, Mario Chalmers ruptured his Achilles tendon. Because Chalmers was in the final year of his contract, the Grizzlies promptly waived him. Needing a roster spot, the decision made perfect sense, but if the Grizzlies had an $8 million team option for Chalmers for the following season, there is no doubt that they would have made the same decision.

It’s just business, after all.

Often, for a non-transcendent player, getting paid and maximizing on one’s career earning potential is a product of timeliness, performance and market conditions. Most players signed to short-term, low money contracts stay ready, perform as well as they can when presented with an opportunity and attempt to secure a long-term, lucrative contract.

That’s exactly where Thomas finds himself.

With LeBron James, Chris Paul, Paul George, DeMarcus Cousins, Carmelo Anthony, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant and LaMarcus Aldridge all potentially becoming free agents in July 2018, it’ll be interesting to see what kind of offers and market value Thomas will be able to find for himself. While Jeff Teague ($19 million) and George Hill ($20 million) signed for salaries that would seem to indicate that a $25 million per year salary would be commensurate with that Thomas brings to the table, Teague and Hill both faced market conditions that may not be the same when Thomas hits free agency next year.

Impossible to root against, there’s no question that Thomas deserves his payday. There’s also no question that, especially in the wake of Kyrie Irving’s reported desire to move on, that the Celtics are moving closer to their desired place atop the NBA’s Eastern Conference come June.

Yes, this past June, the Celtics effectively chose Thomas over Markelle Fultz. From here, though, it remains to be seen whether they choose to lock him up as a member of their core for the foreseeable future and finally proclaim him to be more than just a well-performing asset.

In Boston, Thomas has become a franchise player. And he deserves to be paid like it.

Moke Hamilton is a Deputy Editor and Columnist for Basketball Insiders.

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New Orleans Pelicans and Cliff Alexander Agree To Deal

Michael Scotto

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The New Orleans Pelicans and free agent forward Cliff Alexander have agreed to a one-year, non-guaranteed deal, a league source told Basketball Insiders.

The addition of Alexander will give New Orleans 20 players heading into training camp.

Alexander spent last season playing 40 combined games with the Erie Bayhawks and Long Island Nets in the G-League, where he averaged 15.8 points and 8.9 rebounds in 27.3 minutes per game. Alexander also shot 52 percent from the field and blocked one shot per game.

The 21-year-old forward was a McDonald’s All-American and won MVP of the Jordan Brand Classic in 2014 before attending Kansas University. Alexander played 28 games as a Jayhawk and averaged 7.1 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks in 17.6 minutes per game before declaring for the draft.

After going undrafted, Alexander played in eight games for Portland during the 2015-16 season and received a 10-day contract from the Brooklyn Nets in April.

For more information on the salary cap and roster situation for the New Orleans Pelicans, click here.

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Atlanta Hawks and John Jenkins Agree To Deal

Michael Scotto

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The Atlanta Hawks and free agent guard John Jenkins have agreed to a training camp deal, a league source told Basketball Insiders.

The addition of Jenkins will give Atlanta 20 players heading into training camp.

Jenkins drew interest from several other teams, including the Minnesota Timberwolves and Milwaukee Bucks.

The 26-year-old guard began his career in Atlanta after the Hawks selected him 23rd overall out of Vanderbilt in the 2012 draft. For his career, Jenkins has averaged 5.1 points in 12.8 minutes per game while shooting 45 percent from the field overall and 36 percent from beyond the arc.

For more information on Atlanta’s salary cap and roster situation, click here.

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NBA

Golden State Warriors 2017-18 Season Preview

The Golden State Warriors remain the cream of the NBA crop, even after several franchises went all in this offseason. Can anyone really beat the Warriors in a seven-game series? We look at the Warriors in this final NBA season preview.

Basketball Insiders

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After losing to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2015-16 NBA Finals, the Golden State Warriors were highly favored to win the 2016-17 championship with the offseason addition of Kevin Durant. In the Warriors’ third straight Finals match up with Cavaliers, Golden State, with plenty of help from Durant, over-matched Cleveland in last season’s NBA Finals. This year, with Durant taking a pay cut, the team did a masterful job of bringing back just about all of the key players from last year’s championship run. Now the team is primed to wreak havoc on the league once again.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

It’s almost comical at this point how the best team in basketball keeps getting better.

After adding Kevin Durant last summer, and then completely decimating the entire NBA, including LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, all the Golden State Warriors did was go out and add two players in Omri Casspi and Nick Young who almost perfectly fit their brand of “you’re not out-shooting us” basketball.

The powers of the NBA all shuffled around their rosters this season in hopes of trying to assemble some type of “anti-Warriors” remedy, and when it’s all said and done, those moves will be all for naught. Expect Golden State to ride their legendary roster to another NBA title.

1st place – Pacific Division

– Dennis Chambers

What do you need me to say about the Warriors that you don’t already know? Two of the best five players in the league are on the roster, as well as arguably the top defensive player in the league and a cast of reserves that fit perfectly with the superstars running the show. Even JaVale McGee is shooting three pointers now. The Warriors are unstoppable and in some ways even better than the team that won a championship a few months ago. It’s going to be a long season for every other team in the league. They’re all playing for second place.

1st Place – Pacific Division

– Joel Brigham

The road to the NBA Finals obviously goes through Oakland, especially after the club managed to re-sign JaVale McGee, Zaza Pachulia, Andre Iguodala, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant. Nick Young will give the team some additional firepower, but they probably don’t even need it.

So long as these guys stay healthy, they’ll probably find their way to their fourth consecutive NBA Finals, and with the Clippers having lost Chris Paul, the Warriors should have a relatively easy time winning the Pacific Division for the fourth straight year.

I’m usually longer-winded than that, but I’m not sure much else needs to be said about the Warriors.

1st place – Pacific Division

– Moke Hamilton

At this point, what’s really left to say? The Warriors had arguably the best basketball team ever assembled last season, and that was while dealing with minor role concerns and dealing with Kevin Durant’s midseason injury. Then they went out and improved this offseason, adding the likes of Omri Casspi and Nick Young as perfect end-of-roster pieces. Combine that with what most would expect will be even better fit and chemistry across the roster this season, and the Warriors stand head and shoulders above the rest of the league even with several squads making big power moves to try and bridge the gap. Anything but a third title in four years will fail to do justice to the incredible, historical talent on this roster.

1st Place – Pacific Division

– Ben Dowsett

The best team in the NBA went out and retained key players and signed Omri Casspi and Nick Young to round out the roster. As has been the case for several years now, the Warriors enter the upcoming season with the most overall talent, improved chemistry, good health and every ingredient necessary to win an NBA championship. Several other contenders pulled off some impressive moves to try and bridge the gap between themselves and the Warriors, but Golden State still holds the advantage against every other team in the league. So long as the Warriors are playing up to their potential, or anywhere near it, the other contenders are out of luck. Unless the Warriors face some serious injuries this upcoming season or some internal discord, we should expect them to win their third championship in four seasons.

1st Place – Pacific Division

– Jesse Blancarte

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Stephen Curry/Kevin Durant

Don’t knock me for not clearly choosing a single player here. The individual excellence of both Stephen Curry and Durant cannot be stated enough. While Curry’s statistics did take a bit of a step back from the year prior, he still led the way for the Warriors last season. Last year, Curry led the team in points per game (by a slim margin), three-pointers made, assists and usage percentage. Keep in mind, Durant was excellent but Curry still commanded the offense for the most part. However, Durant was right on Curry’s heels and in the playoffs actually slightly surpassed Curry in points per game. In addition, Durant remains as tough to cover one-on-one as anyone in the league. Regardless, both players are unbelievable individual talents and would easily be the top offensive player on just about any other team.

Top Defensive Player: Draymond Green

For the foreseeable future, Draymond Green has this category on lockdown for the Warriors. Green uses a combination of length, strength, timing and sneaky athleticism to smother his opponents. Green’s versatility allows him to guard a range of positions in the post and switch to guard guards and forwards on the wing effectively as well. His versatility is the lynchpin of the Warrior’s vaunted death line up that uses Green at center and brings Iguodala off the bench to close games. Last year’s Defensive Player of the Year race came down to Green and Utah center Rudy Gobert. In the end, Green’s versatility as well as his ability to guard the rim effectively made him the top choice in voters’ minds. Expect Green to be in the running for Defensive Player of the Year this upcoming season as well.

Top Playmaker: Stephen Curry

When the Warriors added Durant to the roster, many wondered, even for a team as unselfish as the Warriors, how would Stephen Curry and Durant manage to share the ball? That question was answered when Curry took a step back and allowed Durant’s individual offensive brilliance to shine. Curry’s points per game dropped (30.1 to 25.3) as did his usage percentage (32.0 to 29.2). Curry’s individual excellence continued regardless as he remained the Warriors’ top distributor (followed closely by Draymond Green). In addition, Curry garners so much attention that his simple presence on the court creates more room for teammates to operate. Curry’s ability to pull up from virtually anywhere on the court and willingness to make the extra pass to teammates makes him a nightmare to cover and the Warriors’ top playmaker.

Top Clutch Player: Kevin Durant/Stephen Curry

Once again, you could give this award to either of the Warrior’s two best offensive players. Curry dominates most of the advanced statistics when breaking down clutch play, defined as the last minutes of a game within 5 point or less, per nba.com. However, based on Durant’s size, length and ability to get off a shot in isolation, he makes for an excellent clutch player in just about any situation. Either is an extraordinary option and their play in crunch time continues to be critical to their championship fortunes.

The Unheralded Player: Klay Thompson

Klay Thompson is a phenomenal talent who does a number of things well. He’s an unbelievable three-point shooter and defends elite point guards to alleviate the pressure on Curry. For a team with two elite offensive players, having Thompson as your third option on offense is just unfair to the rest of the league. Thompson lights up the league with his ability to hit outside shots without needing to dominate the ball. Don’t just count on Thompson to score as he takes pride in his defense and his ability to lockdown on defense.

Best New Addition: Omri Casspi

Overall, the Warriors have had an unbelievable stretch of luck when it comes to injuries, which will hopefully rub off on Omri Casspi this season. With his length, versatility and the ability to stretch the floor, he can slide into either forward spot. His addition strengthens the team’s ability to survive the grind of the regular season and lessen the minutes of the starters. Casspi fills a lot of needs for several teams that are looking to challenge the Warriors, so simply keeping him away from those teams is an added benefit to his signing.

– James Blancarte

WHO WE LIKE

1. Steve Kerr

Steve Kerr continues to be the perfect coach for this team. He helps to keep the players focused on their individual roles within the larger team structure and has so far prevented major dissension and discord. Kerr took the team that Mark Jackson previously coached and helped to transform the team into champions. Credit is deserved for his part in successfully orchestrating the move of former All-Star Iguodala to a bench role and meshing Durant’s individual brilliance with the Warriors’ pre-existing, pass-happy offense. Kerr has missed significant time due to his botched spinal surgery, but if he can manage his health, count on Kerr to keep the Warriors a well-oiled machine.

2. Nick Young

Nick Young is a player that has had an up-and-down career. Credit Young for carving out a relatively successful career as a journeyman three-point shooting wing. Keeping Young focused and unlocking his full range of talents has been difficult for many organizations. The Warriors are up next and will give the 11th year pro an opportunity to do what he does best — knocking down three-pointers. As a career 37.6 percentage three-point shooter, Young will have a chance to get more open looks from distance than he has previously in his career. Like JaVale McGee, Young will also have a chance to transform his reputation if he proves to be a disciplined, effective contributor to a championship team.

3. Jordan Bell

What’s the perfect piece for a rebuilding team in need of young talent to build around? Jordan Bell, selected with the 38th pick in this year’s draft), is just that sort of player. The Warriors acquired the pick from the Chicago Bulls for cash consideration. The Bulls loss is the Warriors gain as hopes are high for the young talent from the University of Oregon. The Warriors will take their time with the 6-foot-9 forward and hope that he will build on and develop his defensive talents and one day be a reliable contributor for Golden State.

4. Shaun Livingston

Shaun Livingston is many years removed from the knee injury that nearly ended his professional career. While Livingston has played for nine teams in his career, he continues to be loyal to the Warriors, the team with which he has experienced the most success post-injury. Livingston continues to do whatever the team requires as he slides into either guard slot when needed and provides reliable production from the bench. Opposing backup point guards often get caught being posted up by the lengthy 6-foot-7 guard. Count Livingston as another essential cog who will do whatever it takes to help the Warriors win at all costs.

– James Blancarte

SALARY CAP 101

The Warriors are a major spender at $135.4 million in guaranteed salary, resulting in at least $32 million in luxury taxes. Golden State used its Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception to sign Nick Young at $5.2 million for a season. Having re-signed on one-year deals, Zaza Pachulia, David West and JaVale McGee can block any trades.

Before November, the Warriors need to decide on 2018-19 team options for Kevon Looney and Damian Jones. Next summer, Kevin Durant can opt out again but now the team has his Early Bird Rights and the ability to give him a raise in the $35 million range. The Warriors seem willing to pay for a winner but for how long as luxury taxes grow progressively as the team gradually becomes a repeat offender?

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

This team continues to have everything you could want in a modern NBA team. An electric point guard who is nearly unstoppable, a 3-and-D wing with a killer three-point shot, an unstoppable one-on-one player who can score from anywhere, a dominant and flexible defensive forward who can play center and a defensive wing who is a great glue guy. That’s just the five players that are normally used to close out games. The rest of the roster has a number of key contributors ready to do whatever the team needs. Oh, and they also have a great coach to keep everyone on the same page. With all the pieces a team could want, expect the Warriors to again push a possible record-breaking pace in the regular season on their way to the playoffs and likely the Finals.

– James Blancarte

WEAKNESSES

The easiest answer here is none. Eventually the injury bug might hit the Warriors but for now they have everything they could want to continue their excellent play. Perhaps some players may lose a sense of urgency in the regular season after breaking records and dominating the last few seasons, though that seems unlikely. On paper, this team is not afflicted by any major weaknesses.

– James Blancarte

THE BURNING QUESTION

Can anyone stop the Warriors?

Other teams continue to make moves to get better. On September 23, the Oklahoma City Thunder traded agreed to terms on a deal to acquire Carmelo Anthony from the New York Knicks. With that move, count the Thunder, Houston Rockets, San Antonio Spurs, Boston Celtics and the Cavaliers as the biggest potential obstacles in the Warriors’ path to repeat. One of these teams may beat them, but the Warriors are the heavy favorites and the team most likely to win the championship next year.

– James Blancarte

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