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NBA Sunday: Reggie Jackson is a Keeper

James Harden’s departure is not the type of history that the Thunder should allow to repeat with Reggie Jackson.

Moke Hamilton

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Let’s play make believe.

You’re a standout free agent who has played 10 years in the league. Let’s say you’re 29 years old and seeking a maximum contract.

You get the meeting you coveted with the team of your dreams and have an opportunity to ask the owner one question before you sign on the dotted line and commit yourself to spending the next four years with this franchise.

What do you ask?

My question would be simple.

Do you value winning a championship more than your bottom line?

I wonder if Kevin Durant asked general manager Sam Presti that question and I wonder if he was able to pose it to Clay Bennett.

And if they told him that winning was the most important thing, I wonder how they can look at him with a straight face as the team seemingly repeats their James Harden history with Reggie Jackson.

So, I ask you, winning, or greenbacks?

Players are posed with this dilemma all the time, thanks to the NBA’s new (albeit soon expiring) economic model that encourages them to accept less than their market value so that their team, in theory, can spend elsewhere in pursuit of championship glory.

If the Thunder followed that edict, they would have re-signed Harden when they had the opportunity and be poised to overthrow the San Antonio Spurs this year (if they hadn’t, by this point).

Instead, as I have been told, the Thunder drew a line in the sand with Harden, putting their budget above keeping one of the three players responsible for the team winning the Western Conference in 2012. Just imagine, four months after having what appeared to be one of basketball’s upstart, homegrown, potential dynasties, the Thunder willingly broke it up because they were not willing to pay Harden the maximum allowable under the collective bargaining agreement.

Some may call it business. I’ll call it dumb.

The Thunder traded Harden and received a package centered around Kevin Martin. Martin played 77 games for the team in 2012-13 before being signed-and-traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves in a maneuver that saw the Thunder take back no immediate salary on its ledger.

As part of the Martin trade, the Thunder also received future draft picks, one of which became Steven Adams. Already, we know that Adams is talented enough to be a starter in this league and he is just another of the many bright spots for the Thunder’s scouting department.

All that appears to mean, though, is that there will be yet another youngster with whom the Thunder must decide to either invest or divest.

After the Harden fiasco, can someone please explain what in the world are they doing with Reggie Jackson?

As it stands, the Thunder have until October 31 to reach an extension agreement with him, otherwise, the team can make him a restricted free agent in July 2015. With Jackson’s emergence since the team traded Harden and his admirable performance during the 2013 playoffs where he started in the absence of Russell Westbrook, the bottom line is this: a team that wishes to win a championship in today’s NBA simply cannot afford to continue to allow young talent to walk out through the door.

Granted, there may be some long-term concerns over how well Jackson and Westbrook would mesh in the backcourt for the Thunder, especially as full-time starters. There are also concerns about whether or not, like Harden, Jackson is content with willingly taking on a permanent, third-fiddle role behind Westbrook and Durant.

But, like Harden, if the Thunder open up their checkbook, they could have a player that they seem to need, and one whom they especially need now due to the extended absence of Durant.

In all likelihood, you will see Thanksgiving turkey and pumpkin pie before you see Durant on an NBA floor once again, only furthering the apparent need to re-sign Jackson.

Yet still, here we are, Jackson is unsigned, just like Harden was.

It’s deja-vu, all over again.

——

Odds are, if you own an NBA franchise, it is because you are an astute businessman and understand simple concepts such as risk-reward and return on investment. Invariably, front offices and NBA players and agents will have financial arguments and disagreements—it comes with the territory. However, what we do often see in this league is the success of a front office causing hubris.

Case in point: deep down inside, the reason why the Thunder are willing to play hard ball with Jackson is probably because they see him as a career sixth man who effectively plays both ends of the floor. They probably see him as an important part of their team’s culture and identity, but they probably do not see him as a diamond in the rough. They do not see him as irreplaceable. 

Just like they didn’t see that in James Harden. Whether they were correct or not still remains to be seen, but they certainly have not achieved as highly since Harden was dealt to Houston.

As for the front office in Oklahoma City, when you become good at something—scouting and drafting players in this case—your confidence may eventually get the better of you. If you are Presti and the Thunder, your drafting acumen may have you believe that, deep down inside, you can scour the ranks and find another player to play the role of Jackson. If you did feel that way, you wouldn’t necessarily be incorrect. Logic would be on your side considering the Thunder have consistently scored with their draft picks. Aside from the obvious Durant and Westbrook selections, we can immediately cite Harden, Jackson, Adams and Serge Ibaka as positive statistics.

The problem with that approach, however, is two-fold.

The first and most basic is time. The clock is ticking on both Durant and Westbrook. Because they rose up as contenders at such an early age, it is difficult to believe that Durant and Westbrook are only each about 26 years old. Health permitting (which is a whole different story, all together), the two should have a long period of time with which they can compete for championships. However, as the Thunder have seen first hand, injuries can have a way of disturbing that.

In the NBA, tomorrow is not promised.

If a team has the goods and the personnel, the best course of action is to lock up the pieces that you have, put your chips in the middle of the table and go for it.

It is true, in the grand scheme of things, Jackson may be a replaceable player—it may not be too difficult to draft a player who has his virtues with a mid-to-late first round pick.

However, seldom do we see NBA players walk into the league and light it up from the very beginning. There have been exceptions to this rule, but even Durant himself took a few years to come into his own. Kobe Bryant spent the first two years of his career coming off the bench, mind you.

In other words, if you are the Thunder and you are depending on finding the third (or fourth) cog of your championship dreams to come to you via the draft, odds are, you will be waiting for him to mature as a professional, for at least a few years.

Do Durant and Westbrook have the time? Do they have that patience? Could they stomach losing Jackson after also losing Harden? Seeing a talented teammate walk away is a gut-punch to any NBA superstar who hopes to win a championship. Players know when their teams have taken a step back and losing Harden, for the Thunder, was a major step back. Two years later, they are still looking to replicate their success.

The second issue is alpha-male syndrome.

One striking similarity between both Harden and Jackson is that they both want to be starters in the NBA, and they both have the talent to be starters. Asking a young player to sacrifice himself, his livelihood, his legacy and his personal goals is a difficult thing, and it is especially difficult for a player who is entering the league to fulfill what he believes is (or can be) his destiny. From the day a player is drafted, he is thinking about life after his rookie contract. The dream and goal for most players entering the league is to secure a five-year, maximum extension when they are eligible.

Being drafted to a team like the Thunder or Spurs gives you zero chance at fulfilling that. Some young players who think that highly of themselves and their potential may have trouble accepting that and putting their team first. It may cause locker room disharmony; it has in the past.

For a youngster coming into the league—one who is playing for his family’s financial security and is in a career with a finite time limit—asking him to subjugate his personal want to be great is a big ask and drafting him, even if he has the talent, is a big risk. In fact, the elevated talent makes him an elevated risk.

In the end, finding a player that has both the personality-type and the necessary talent level to both play that third fiddle role but simultaneously be good enough to be the third best player for a championship team—that is quite difficult.

The Thunder found that player in Harden, who was willing to remain in Oklahoma City, and they seem to have found another in Jackson. The prevailing belief amongst their front office is probably that they can continue to find those players.

Maybe they are correct, but thinking so is a gamble and frankly, it’s a gamble that the Thunder need not and would be wise to not make.

——

Even as the Thunder enter the 2014-15 season with Durant on the sidelines and LeBron James back in Cleveland, an opportunity at a championship awaits. The Los Angeles Clippers, Portland Trail Blazers and Golden State Warriors are amongst the teams out West that will attempt to topple the San Antonio Spurs. Doing so will be no easy task, but doing so will require a hefty investment in terms of acquiring and retaining talent. If you want to win in this increasingly competitive league—especially as a Western Conference team—you’ve simply gotta open up your checkbook.

The NBA is full of young players who are either getting paid (Chandler Parsons comes to mind), soon to be getting paid (think of Kyrie Irving) or will be getting paid (Damian Lillard).

Jackson may not be of their caliber, but he is certainly a keeper.

Unfortunately, as some teams become more successful, they attempt to cut costs while maintaining the same level of success. The Miami HEAT did just that by amnestying Mike Miller and effectively replacing the traded Joel Anthony with Greg Oden. How’d that work out?

The two aforementioned players could have potentially been the difference between the HEAT accomplishing the three-peat and James opting to return for his final year in Miami.

What may have only been a few million dollars now could have led to many more millions later, not to mention the potential championship(s) and ensuing glory.

Had the Thunder bitten the bullet and given Harden what he wanted, they may have been champions by now.

Instead, back in 2012, fresh off the an appearance in the NBA Finals, the Thunder made an abrupt decision to irreversibly alter their core and they did it to protect their bottom line.

Now, four years later, as the clock ticks down on Jackie’s extension expiration date and the potential for him to hit the restricted free agency market in July becomes more realistic, history may very well be repeating itself.

It just happens to be the type of history that wiser men would learn from, not allow to repeat.

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Second Half NBA Story lines

With the All-Star break in the rearview, here are the key storylines to keep an eye on for the home stretch of the season.

Dennis Chambers

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The long winter has ended.

Ok, not really. But the break after All-Star weekend has finally come to a halt, and the second half of the NBA season is ready to get underway.

Each team has around 25 games remaining on the schedule. February is in its last week, and March and April will truly define how the May schedule aligns. The first leg of this season provided more than enough entertainment, combating the narrative that the regular season is a bit of a bore nowadays.

Because of some unexpected turns through the 50-plus games already played, this final stretch that will bring the regular season to a close should be more than entertaining for the fans that think the NBA season is just a six-month placeholder for the inevitable.

So, as we get ready to bounce back into action Thursday night, let’s focus on what needs to be monitored down the homestretch.

Houston Rockets can make the Finals

When the Golden State Warriors signed Kevin Durant, a narrative swept across the league that everyone not in the Bay area should just wave the white flag. Game over.

After dropping just one game through the entire postseason last year, completely decimating LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Finals, the assumptions were proved correct.

But things may be different this year.

The Houston Rockets are trying to end the Warriors’ Durant-Era dynasty before it starts. After trading for Chris Paul in the offseason, the Rockets are in a legitimate position to pose a threat to Golden State.

At the moment, the Rockets have the best offense in the NBA. But, not just for this season, for every season. Their efficiency is revolutionary and unprecedented. Their defense is improved, too. Ranking 18th in defensive rating last season, Houston is eighth this season, and proving to be competent enough on that end to get a few stops of their own against the Warriors. In fact, Houston has won two of the three meetings between the two Western Conference powerhouses so far this season.

For all of the damage Houston put on the league pre-All-Star break, and even leaping Golden State in the standings, the oddsmakers are taking notice.

Take a look at how drastically the Rockets’ odds at contending for a title have changed from the summer to present day. According to this odds tracker on Sports Betting Dime, Houston has almost entered the same realm as Golden State in the bettors’ mind.

Postseason basketball is a different beast, and Durant and Steph Curry are as formidable a tandem as any (not to mention their supporting cast), but the growing pile of statistics that says Houston has more than a puncher’s chance is becoming hard to ignore.

These last 25 or so games will be telling as to if the Rockets are truly a team that can go shot-for-shot with the mighty Warriors.

LeBron’s new teammates

The trade deadline in Cleveland was basically a mass upheaval of the roster the Cavaliers had struggled with for the first four months of the season.

Isaiah Thomas, Dwyane Wade, Jae Crowder, Iman Shumpert, Derrick Rose and Channing Frye were all shipped from The Land in hopes to bring LeBron James new players that could help him back to his eighth straight Finals appearance.

So far, so good.

The return that brought George Hill, Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr., into wine and gold gave the Cavaliers a much-needed boost heading into the All-Star break. Since the trade, Cleveland has won three straight games, the last two including a blowout victory against the Boston Celtics, and a road win in Oklahoma City.

But, before the roster turnovers, the Cavaliers were one of the league’s worst defensive units. Their lack of consistent effort on a nightly basis was beginning to spread doubt in the basketball minds across the league that the team would be equipped enough to beat the Celtics or Toronto Raptors in the postseason.

Coming out of the break, the Cavaliers will take on another playoff contender in the Washington Wizards. Another strong showing from the new-look Cavs could further the belief that the team is now in a better position to make their way to a fourth straight Finals.

As the regular season comes to its final stages, close eyes will be kept on Hood, Hill, Nance and Clarkson. They’re the key to any real postseason success Cleveland hopes to have. We know LeBron will be there at the end, at this point, and it’s worth watching to see if it teammates can join him.

Tight Playoff Races

For all the talk that surrounds the lack of disparity and entertainment around the league, the playoff races in both conferences appear to be coming down to the wire.

In the West, the 10th-seed Utah Jazz is just two and a half games behind the 5th-seed Oklahoma City Thunder. In between the two clubs, Denver, Portland, New Orleans and the L.A. Clippers are all clawing for spots in the postseason.

Over their last 10 games, every team besides the Thunder is at least .500. The Jazz have won 11 straight games, the Clippers are 7-3 and surging, Denver is hoping to return Paul Millsap to their lineup soon, the Trail Blazers have the luxury of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum and while the Pelicans have lost DeMarcus Cousins, their three straight wins suggest they’re learning to live without Boogie.

That’s six teams fighting fiercely for four playoff spots. Each is deserving and well-equipped enough to make it to the postseason happen.

The West isn’t the only conference with a wild bunch at the bottom of the playoff standings. The Eastern Conference contenders also find themselves in the midst of a playoff battle post-All-Star break.

Just outside of the playoff picture at the moment, the Detroit Pistons, with new star Blake Griffin, are just four and a half games behind the 5th-seeded Indiana Pacers. Philadelphia, Miami and Milwaukee are all also vying for their spot in the playoffs.

At the moment, the Miami HEAT seems to be on the verge of being the odd man out, losing two straight before the break and seven of their last 10 games. As the Pistons begin to find new life with Griffin, they could bump Miami right out of the picture if their slide continues as games pick back up.

With a limited number of games remaining, each of these teams in both conferences cannot afford to fall into a rut. Coming down to the final weeks of the season, watching the playoff carousel develop will be entertaining and worthwhile.

In the blink of an eye, the 2017-18 regular season is almost over. Be sure to keep an eye on these unfolding storylines as the league charges towards playoff basketball.

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NBA Daily: Larry Nance Jr. Is Ready To Move On

At All-Star Weekend, Larry Nance Jr. talked about moving on from being traded, Dr. J and the love that Los Angeles still has for him.

Ben Nadeau

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At the end of the day, the NBA is a business and Larry Nance Jr. found that out the hard way when the Los Angeles Lakers traded him and Jordan Clarkson for Isaiah Thomas, Channing Frye and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 2018 first-rounder just a few weeks ago.

Naturally, Nance was due back at the Staples Center nine days later to compete in the league’s annual slam dunk contest. Although he would finish second to the Utah Jazz’s Donovan Mitchell, Nance was frequently reminded just how many fans he still has out on the West Coast.

“It’s either one of two responses,” Nance said over the weekend. “Either people don’t understand how a trade works and they ask me why I left, or, you know: ‘Larry, we miss you, come back in free agency’ and stuff like that. So, either way, they’re kinda on my side — I mean, I’m still a little bit of purple and gold.”

Over his first three seasons, Nance had become a familiar contributor for the Lakers, using his rim-rocking athleticism to carve out a steady role under two different head coaches. Before he was moved to the Cavaliers, Nance was on pace to set career-highs in points (8.6), rebounds (6.8) and steals (1.4). This statistical rise also comes in the midst of his field goal percentage jumping all the way up to 59.3 percent — a mark that would rank him fifth-highest in the NBA if he qualified.* Given the noteworthy change of scenery, his current average of 3.6 field goals per game could grow as well.

But as the Lakers prepare for a potentially crucial offseason, the front office remained committed to shedding salary ahead of free agency, where they may or may not chase the likes of LeBron James, Paul George or DeMarcus Cousins. In just three short years, Nance had quickly become a fan favorite as a jaw-dropping in-game dunker and an improving prospect on a cheap rookie contract, so his involvement at the deadline may have come as a surprise to many as it was for him.

“It’s been a week, so, no, it’s still kinda like: ‘Jeez, I gotta pick up and move right now,’” Nance said. “So, no, I’m not fully adjusted, I’m not, for a lack of a better term, over it. But it’s still fresh in my mind, it’s something that is still kind of shocking.”

Nance, for his worries, is now a key member of the James-led Cavaliers, a franchise that has won 11 more games than the Lakers and sits in third place in the Eastern Conference. While the Cavaliers will likely have to go through the Boston Celtics or Toronto Raptors to reach their fourth consecutive NBA Finals, James himself has reached the championship series every year since the 2009-10 postseason. With the Cavaliers’ maniacal mid-season reboot — which also brought in Rodney Hood, George Hill and the aforementioned Clarkson — they could be poised for an encore performance.

Since he was acquired by Cleveland, Nance and the Cavaliers are 3-0 and, just like that, much of the lingering narrative has been reversed. As the Cavaliers look to further stabilize their season, Nance figures to play a large part down the stretch, particularly so as All-Star Kevin Love continues to rehab from a broken hand.

Still, Nance knows that the Cavaliers will certainly face some speed bumps along the way.

“It’s a learning process, obviously we started out super fast, but there will be a learning process,” Nance stated. “Just like there is with every team and every new group, so we’ll figure it out and we’ll get past it [for the] playoffs.”

But before he makes his first-ever postseason appearance, Nance returned to Los Angeles in an attempt to capture a slam dunk title, something his father — Larry Nance Sr. — did in the inaugural competition way back in 1984. In that contest, the older Nance famously upset Julius Erving and Dominique Wilkins to take home the crown in a nine-person field. On Saturday, Nance paid homage by changing into a retro Phoenix Suns uniform to execute his father’s signature dunk — the rock-the-cradle throwdown that won it all 34 years ago.

“For me, [his highlights were] like normal kid Sesame Street or Barney or something. I was watching his clips when I was growing up, so, yeah, I see it all the time,” Nance recalled.

But when asked what he remembers the most about those distant memories, the second generation son decidedly kept it in the family.

“The fact that he beat Dr. J,” Nance said. “Dr. J is normally thought of as almost like the dunk inventor, kinda brought the dunk contest back — but, really, [I remember] my dad.”

Although Nance couldn’t replicate his father’s success in the contest, his emphatic, springy dunks indicated that the 6-foot-9 skywalker could be an event staple for years to come. In one of the best dunks all night, Nance pulled off the rare double tap — a jam so technically difficult, that he immediately told the judges to look at the jumbotron to make sure they understood what exactly he had just pulled off.

Nance, for his original acrobatics, earned a perfect score of 50.

Earlier that day, Nance discussed the difficulty in standing out amongst a field of explosive guards.

“I think the guys that are taller and longer have a different skill-set than smaller guys,” Nance said. “Obviously, if the smaller guys do something, it looks super impressive because they got to jump a little bit higher, or it looks like they got to jump higher.

“There are ways for bigger guys to look good and I think I’ve got that hammered out.”

For now, Nance doesn’t know if he’ll return to the dunk contest next season after his narrow two-point loss to Mitchell. Instead, Nance wants to focus on helping the Cavaliers in their hunt for the conference’s top seed and, of course, with James, anything is possible. But it’s fair to say that Nance, who nearly pulled down a double-double (13 points, nine rebounds) in his second game with Cleveland, has gone from a rebuild to a legitimate contender in a flash.

“At the same time, I can’t wait for all this to be done with so I can just get back to learning how to gel and mesh with my new team,” Nance said.

From the West Coast to the Midwest, Nance is clearly ready to make some waves once again.

* * * * * *

*To qualify, a player must be on pace for 300 made field goals. As of today, Nance is on pace for 252.6.

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Updating the Buyout Market: Who Could Still Become Available?

Shanes Rhodes examines the buyout market to see which players could soon be joining playoff contenders.

Shane Rhodes

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While it may not be as exciting as the NBA Trade Deadline, another important date is approaching for NBA teams: the Playoff Eligibility Waiver Deadline.

March 1 is the final day players can be bought out or waived and still be eligible to play in the postseason should they sign with another team. As teams continue to fine-tune their rosters, plenty of eyes will be on the waiver wire and buyout market looking for players that can make an impact.

So who could still become available?

Joakim Noah, New York Knicks

This seems almost too obvious.

The relationship between Joakim Noah and the New York Knicks hasn’t been a pleasant one. Noah, who signed a four-year, $72 million contract in 2016, has done next to nothing this season after an underwhelming debut season in New York and has averaged just 5.7 minutes per game.

After an altercation between himself and Knicks head coach Jeff Hornacek at practice, Noah isn’t expected to return to the team. At this point, the best thing for both sides seems likely a clean break; there is no reason to keep that cloud over the Knicks locker room for the remainder of the season.

Noah may not help a playoff contender, but he should certainly be available come the end of the season.

Arron Afflalo, Orlando Magic

Arron Afflalo isn’t the player he once was. But he can still help any contender in need of some shooting.

Afflalo is averaging a career-low 12.9 minutes per game with the Orlando Magic this season. He is playing for just over $2 million so a buyout wouldn’t be hard to come by if he went asking and he can still shoot the basketball. A career 38.6 percent shooter from long distance, Afflalo can certainly get it done beyond the arc for a team looking to add some shooting or some depth on the wing. He doesn’t add the perimeter defense he could earlier in his career, but he could contribute in certain situations.

Vince Carter, Sacramento Kings

Vince Carter was signed by the Sacramento Kings last offseason to play limited minutes off the bench while providing a mentor for the Sacramento Kings up-and-coming players. And Carter may very well enjoy that role.

But, to a degree, the old man can still ball — certainly enough to help a contender.

Carter is 41-years-old, there is no getting around his age, but he can still provide some solid minutes off the bench. Playing 17.1 minutes per night across 38 games this season, Carter has averaged five points, 2.2 rebounds and 1.3 assists while shooting 35.3 percent from three-point range. Combining all of that with his playoff experience and the quality of leadership he brings to the table, Carter may be an ideal addition for a contender looking to make a deep playoff run.

Zach Randolph, Sacramento Kings

Like Carter, Zach Randolph was brought in by the Kings to contribute solid minutes off the bench while also filling in as a mentor to the young roster. Unlike Carter, however, Randolph has played much of the season in a starting role — something that is likely to change as the season winds down.

Randolph has averaged 14.6 points, seven rebounds and 2.1 assists in 25.6 minutes per game; quality numbers that any team would be happy to take on. But, in the midst of a rebuild, the Kings should not be taking minutes away from Willie Cauley-Stein, Skal Labissiere and (eventually) Harry Giles in order to keep Randolph on the floor.

As he proved last season, Randolph can excel in a sixth-man role and would likely occupy a top bench spot with a team looking to add rebounding, scoring or just a big to their rotation down the stretch.

Wesley Matthews, Dallas Mavericks

Wesley Matthews remains one of the most underrated players in the NBA. He provides positional versatility on the floor and is a solid player on both sides of the ball.

So, with Mark Cuban all but saying the Mavericks will not be trying to win for the remainder of the season, Matthews is likely poised for a minutes dip and seems like an obvious buyout candidate. Matthews, who has a player option for next season, has averaged 12.9 points, 3.2 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.2 steals this season across 34.1 minutes per game this season.

If Cuban is true to his word, both parties would be better served parting ways; the Mavericks can attempt to lose as many games as possible while Matthews can latch on to a team looking to win a title. It’s a win-win.

Isaiah Thomas, Los Angeles Lakers

Isaiah Thomas’ three-game stint with the Los Angeles Lakers before the All-Star break looked much like his short tenure with the Cleveland Cavaliers: up-and-down. Thomas shined in his Laker debut, putting up 25 points and six assists in just over 30 minutes.

He then followed that up with three points and two assists, and seven points along with five assists in his second and third games with the team, respectively.

Thomas needs time to get himself right before he can start playing his best basketball. Re-establishing his value is likely his top priority.

But will he be willing to come off the bench for a team that won’t be making the postseason?

With Lonzo Ball close to returning, Thomas will likely move to the Laker bench. Adamant in recent years that he is a starting guard in the NBA, Thomas may be more inclined to take on that role for a team poised to make a deep playoff run — there is no shortage of teams that would be willing to add Thomas’ potential scoring prowess while simultaneously setting himself up for a contract and, potentially, a starting role somewhere next season.

Other Names to Look Out For: Channing Frye, Shabazz Muhammed, Kosta Koufos

There are still plenty of players that can make an impact for playoff-bound teams should they reach a buyout with their current squads. And, as the Postseason Eligibility Waiver Deadline approaches, plenty of teams out of the running will move quickly in order to provide their guys an opportunity to find their way to a contender.

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