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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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NBA

Gregg Popovich Continues To Be The Gold Standard For Leadership

There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes and Gregg Popovich.

Moke Hamilton

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There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes and the San Antonio Spurs.

Okay, let’s be honest, it’s probably not the first time that you’ve heard that one, but it also won’t be the last.

Behind the genius of Gregg Popovich, the Spurs have qualified for the NBA Playoffs 20 consecutive years. In hindsight, they appear to have been the only team to legitimately frighten the Golden State Warriors during their 16-1 playoff run last year, and this season, well, they’ve been the same old Spurs.

That’s been especially amazing considering the fact that the team has been without Kawhi Leonard. Although Popovich recently said that Leonard would return “sooner rather than later,” he himself admitted to not being certain as to what that meant.

Best guess from here is that Leonard will return within the next few weeks, but at this point, it’s entirely fair to wonder whether or not it even matters.

Of course, the Spurs don’t stand much of a chance to win the Western Conference without Leonard thriving at or near 100 percent, but even without him, the Spurs look every bit like a playoff team, and in the Western Conference, that’s fairly remarkable.

“A team just has to play in a sense like he doesn’t exist,” Popovich was quoted as saying by Tom Osborn of the San Antonio Express-News.

“Nobody cares if you lost a good player, right? Everybody wants to whip you. So it doesn’t do much good to do the poor me thing or to keep wondering when he is going to be back or what are we going to do. We have to play now, and other people have to take up those minutes and we have to figure out who to go to when in a different way, and you just move on.”

In a nutshell, that’s Popovich.

What most people don’t understand about Popovich is what makes him a truly great coach is his humility. He is never afraid to second-guess himself and reconsider the way that he’s accustomed to doing things. Since he’s been the head coach of the Spurs, he’s built and rebuilt offenses around not only different players, but also different philosophies.

From the inside-out attack that was his bread and butter with David Robinson and Tim Duncan to the motion and movement system that he built around Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, the latest incarnation of Popovich’s genius isn’t only the fact that he has survived without Kawhi Leonard, it’s what could fairly be considered the major catalyst of it.

There are many head coaches around the league that take their roles as authority figures quite seriously, and that’s why a fair number would have been threatened by one of their star players requesting that things be rebuilt in a way to maximize his potential.

So when LaMarcus Aldridge proactively sat down with his coach to discuss the ways that he felt he was being misused in the team’s schemes, it wouldn’t have come as a shock for Popovich to meet him with resistance.

Instead, he did the opposite.

“We have talked about what we can do to make him more comfortable, and to make our team better,” Popovich acknowledged during Spurs training camp.

“But having said that, I think we are mostly talking about offense. Defense, he was fantastic for us. Now, we have got to help him a little bit more so that he is comfortable in his own space offensively, and I haven’t done a very good job of that.”

Just 11 days after those comments were printed, the Spurs announced that they had signed Aldridge to a three-year, $72 million extension.

Considering that Aldridge’s first two years as a member of the Spurs yielded some poor efforts and relatively low output, the extension seemed curious and was met with ridicule.

Yet, one month later and 15 games into the season, the Spurs sit at 9-6. They’ve survived the absence of Kawhi Leonard and the loss of Jonathon Simmons.

Behind an offensive system tweaked to take advantage of his gifts, in the early goings, Aldridge is averaging 22 points per game, a far cry above the 17.7 points per game he averaged during his first two years in San Antonio.

Coincidence?

I think not.

Death, taxes and the Spurs.

So long as Gregg Popovich is at the helm, exhibiting strong leadership while remaining amazingly humble, the Spurs will be the Spurs.

Sure, Kawhi Leonard will be back—at some point.

But until then, the Spurs will be just fine.

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NBA AM: Atlanta’s Dewayne Dedmon Is Letting Shots — And Jokes — Fly

Dewayne Dedmon’s emergence has been an unexpected positive for the rebuilding Atlanta Hawks.

Buddy Grizzard

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It’s been a brutal season for the Atlanta Hawks, they’re just already 3-12 with the worst record in the Eastern Conference.

Wednesday’s franchise-record 46-point win over the visiting Sacramento Kings was a rare chance for Atlanta to have a laugh in the postgame locker room and reflect on things that have gone well, including hot shooting for the team and a potential breakout season for center Dewayne Dedmon.

The Hawks trail only the Golden State Warriors in three-point shooting at just over 40 percent. Prior to joining the Hawks, Dedmon had attempted only one three-pointer in 224 career games. As a Hawk, though, Dedmon is shooting 42 percent on 19 attempts. Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer explained after Wednesday’s game how his staff decided to encourage Dedmon to extend his range.

“You do your research and you talk to friends around the league, you talk to people who have worked with him and you watch him during warmups,” said Budenholzer. “We had a belief, an idea, that he could shoot, he could make shots. We’re kind of always pushing that envelope with the three-point line. He’s embraced it.”

Dedmon is currently averaging career-highs in points, rebounds, blocks and minutes, and set season-highs in points (20), rebounds (14) and assists (five) against the Kings. He’s also brought an offbeat sense of humor that has helped keep the locker room loose despite the struggles. It became apparent early on that Dedmon was a different type of dude.

At Media Day, when nobody approached Dedmon’s table and reporters instead flocked to interview rookie John Collins at the next table, Dedmon joined the scrum, holding his phone out as if to capture a few quotes.

“This guy’s going to be a character,” said a passing Hawks staffer.

Those words proved prophetic, as Coach Bud confirmed after Wednesday’s win.

“He brings a lot of personality to our team, really from almost the day he got here,” said Budenholzer. “I think he’s getting more and more comfortable and can help the young guys and help everybody.”

Dedmon took an unconventional path to the NBA. Growing up, his mother — a Jehovah’s Witness — forbade him to play organized sports. Once he turned 18, Dedmon began making his own decisions. He walked on to the team at Antelope Valley College, a two-year school in Lancaster, Ca., before transferring to USC and eventually making it to the league.

His personality, which formed while Dedmon forged his own path, shone through in the locker room after the Sacramento win. Asked about conversations he’s had with Budenholzer about shot selection, Dedmon turned to teammate Kent Bazemore at the adjacent locker.

“What’s the phrase, Baze? LTMF?”

“Yep,” Bazemore replied.

“Yeah, LTMF,” Dedmon continued. “Let it fly. So he told me to shoot … let it go. I’m not going to say what the M means.”

Amidst laughter from the assembled media, he explained that ‘LTMF’ is Budenholzer’s philosophy for the whole team, not just part of an effort to expand Dedmon’s game.

“Everybody has the same freedom,” said Dedmon. “So it definitely gives everybody confidence to shoot their shots when they’re open and just play basketball.”

With the injury bug thus far robbing Atlanta of its stated ambition to overachieve this season, Dedmon’s career year and team success from three-point range are two big positives.

Rebuilding or retooling can be a painful process. But with a unique personality like Dedmon helping keep things light in the locker room, Atlanta should make it through.

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Covington’s Contract Extension Adds Value On and Off the Court

Robert Covington cashed in for himself while also allowing the Sixers to potentially cash in this summer.

Dennis Chambers

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The Philadelphia 76ers are keeping their X-factor in town for the foreseeable future.

Wednesday night, hours before the Sixers were set to tip off against the Los Angeles Lakers, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Covington and Philadelphia were finalizing a contract extension for four-years and $62 million.

But what the Sixers did to preserve their financial flexibility for the future, while still rewarding Covington, was potentially what makes this deal so valuable. In addition to his current $1.57 million salary this season, the Sixers will renegotiate an additional $15 million into Covington’s salary for this year.

As Wojnarowski reported, that chunk of change the Sixers coughed up this season allows them to still have $25 million in salary-cap space next summer. Along with paying a large portion of the deal upfront, the four-year extension Covington will wind up agreeing to pays him around $45 million over the duration, as reported by The Athletic’s Derek Bodner.

For Covington, coming from his undrafted status out of Tennessee State, to being sent down to the D-League after a short stint with the Houston Rockets, to a team-friendly Sam Hinkie special four-year contract with the Sixers back in 2014, now finally culminating in a big payday as one of the NBA’s premier 3-and-D players, is nothing short of an amazing story.

It’s duly noted what Covington brings to the table for the Sixers on the court. After leading the league in deflections last season, along with his ability to guard 1-4 spots on the court, Covington secured votes in the Defensive Player of the Year race. This season, without sacrificing any of his defense (registering the same 105 defensive rating as last season), Covington is experiencing a renaissance on the offensive end.

Along with averaging a career-high 16.5 points per game, Covington is shooting an absurd 49.5 percent from deep on 7.2 attempts per game. Believe it or not, he has made more threes than Stephen Curry and is shooting a higher percentage from beyond the arc—Covington is 50-of-101 from three-point range, while Curry is 47-of-121.

It’s only the second week of November, but that is nonetheless impressive, and a testament to how on-fire Covington has been this season.

Playing along Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, and another sharpshooter like J.J. Redick gets Covington open looks. He’s learned to maximize those opportunities.

Now, with his new extension, Covington is just as big of an impact off the court, as well.

By renegotiating his salary for this season, the Sixers are left with enough money to be serious players next summer when some marquee free agents will hit the open market. It was a stroke of genius for the front office, and also a rare occurrence, as ESPN’s Bobby Marks pointed out that a move similar to this has occurred just seven times since 1998.

As reported last season, the Sixers made a significant push to acquire Paul George from the Indiana Pacers at the trade deadline. Part of that package included Covington. Although they love Covington in Philadelphia, they believed giving him up for George would have been worth it. Obviously, that didn’t pan out, but the good news now is that the Sixers will have the cap space to pursue George should he opt for free agency this summer.

It’s been no secret that George would like to test the open waters and find the best fit for himself. Although George is playing alongside the most talented players he’s ever had by his side with Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony, he is just one of many impact free agents on the market.

Covington’s brilliant extension gives Philadelphia the option to meet with a player like George, and not only offer him the promise of playing with budding stars like Embiid and Simmons, but with quality starters like Covington. And if George isn’t amenable to the possibility, someone else might be.

On a personal level, Covington embodies “the process” in Philadelphia. From his humble beginnings to now being a multi-millionaire whose efforts are being handsomely rewarded, his story is a good one. 

Not only for him, but for the Sixers, too.

Yes, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid hold the keys to the Sixers’ championship hopes, but once again, Covington is proving to be the X-factor.

This time, he’s extending his intangibles off the court as well.

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