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NBA Sunday: Should the Hornets Re-Sign Al Jefferson?

Al Jefferson can’t stay healthy, but with a $90 million salary cap coming, he may still cash in.

Moke Hamilton

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Without question, the economics of the National Basketball Association are shifting. For the 2015-16 season, the league’s teams are operating under a $70 million salary cap, and all but five of the league’s teams are operating with payrolls of at least that amount.

With the expected cap spikes over the coming years, for today’s young superstar, a deal such as the five-year, $145 million extension that Anthony Davis signed this past summer will become more commonplace and the scale of salaries that we have become accustomed to over the course of the 2005 and 2011 collective bargaining agreements will soon become defunct.

The “new” midlevel salary will be somewhere in the realm of $10 million per year, while journeymen and those serving as 11th or 12th men can reasonably expect to earn sums in the realm of $5 million per annum.

What is most important to ponder about the new era of NBA economics—one wherein each team will be required to spend at least 90 percent of whatever the salary cap ends up being—is how it will affect the salary structure of some players who have battled with injury and those who have seemingly seen their best days pass them by.

Specifically, it will be interesting to see exactly what the Charlotte Hornets do with Al Jefferson.

* * * * *

For many years, Kevin Durant has dominated the headlines and the imaginations of anyone who has thought about what July 2016 is going to look like. Aside from Durant, though, a number of other high-profile free agents will hit the market and they will do so with a cap that is expected to land somewhere within the $88 million to $91 million range.

Al Horford, Nicolas Batum, Joakim Noah, Andre Drummond, Harrison Barnes, Jamal Crawford, Roy Hibbert, Mike Conley, Hassan Whiteside, Ryan Anderson, Rajon Rondo and Bradley Beal are but a few AndreDrummondInsiderOnly1of the players that will join the aforementioned Durant and Jefferson on the free agent market, and they will do so in a situation where the majority of the league’s teams have tons of cap space to spend. The jump from a $70 million cap to an estimated $88 million cap would represent the biggest single-season dollar increase to the salary cap and would represent a single-season growth of 25.7 percent. One would have to go back to July 1995 to find a comparable situation.

Consider that, by virtue of what is expected to be one of the largest cap increases by percentage in league history, even a team that operated at the $70 million cap in 2015-16 could have $15 million to $20 million to spend in free agency. Even more so, a mechanism in the collective bargaining agreement requires that all teams spend at least 90 percent of the amount of the salary cap on its payroll, meaning that teams will not only have a lot of money to spend, they will be required to spend it.

If you were Michael Jordan and the Charlotte Hornets, would you spend it on Al Jefferson?

* * * * *

This past summer, scores of NBA followers were surprised to learn that Greg Monroe had opted to join the Milwaukee Bucks over some of his other reported suitors. A young big man choosing a smaller market team is not something that we see often, but many seem to have forgotten that long before Monroe made that decision, Jefferson did, as well.

After deciding that it was in his best interest to take his talents elsewhere, Jefferson signed a three-year, $41 million contract with the Hornets in July 2013, and was thought to be a vital cog in the team’s rebuilding project. In his first year with the team, Jefferson teamed up with Kemba Walker and Gerald Henderson and, with 21.8 points and 10.8 rebounds per game, helped the Hornets double their win total from the previous season (21 wins in 2012-13 versus 43 wins in 2013-14) and led the team to its first playoff appearance in four years.

Many, including myself, thought that the Hornets were a team on the rise, but their 2014-15 season saw the team’s win total from the prior year reduce by 10. That can easily be explained by the fact that Jefferson and Walker missed 17 and 20 games, respectively, and the Hornets struggled mightily to incorporate Lance Stephenson.

After effectively replacing Stephenson with Nicolas Batum, though, it was again thought that the Hornets had become a stronger team and the sky seemed to be the limit for the 2015-16 season. With the team going 14-8 over its first 22 games, things seemed to be shaking out nicely, but after going 3-8 over their past 11 games, the Hornets will enter play on January 3 at 10th in the Eastern Conference.

Even worse is the fact that Jefferson is expected to be out for approximately six weeks after undergoing surgery to repair the lateral meniscus in his right knee.

Suddenly then, when you think about it, you will realize that the one constant over the course of Jefferson’s 11-year career has been an inability to play at a consistently high level. It appears, in retrospect, that Jefferson has always seemed to either be injured, or returning from injury. Over the course of his entire career, he has managed to play in as many as 75 games only four times and, in each of his four career stops, has had at least one season where he has missed about 20 games.

Like Joakim Noah of the Chicago Bulls, Jefferson’s effectiveness as a player cannot be discounted. In the evolving basketball world marked by three-point shooting big men and open space, he is a throwback who does most of his damage and dirty work in the paint. Jefferson is a rare breed in today’s game—a big man who makes his money operating on the low box and one who can be entrusted with carrying and orchestrating an offense from there.

Unfortunately, like Noah, Jefferson doesn’t exactly seem to be an ironman and, at 30 years old, players with mileage do not typically get healthier. Jefferson stands to earn $13.5 million this season before becoming a free agent this summer and he, Noah, Roy Hibbert and Jamal Crawford will represent a category of players who may benefit from being in the right place at the right time. In each of their own right, one could reasonably question whether these players have already peaked and whether and to what extent they can contribute to winning at a high level in the NBA today.

In the end, though, don’t be surprised if, in this market, each of those four end up cashing in on bigger paydays than one would have thought reasonable.

* * * * *

With Jefferson sidelined for the next six weeks, there is simply no telling where the Hornets will be once he returns from injury. However, the team will have to make a decision on whether to move forward with him, and if so, what his worth to them is.

It’s a very interesting thought to ponder, as our ideas of what type of value certain players bring will have to undergo a necessary reevaluation due to the league’s changing economic climate.

What is Al Jefferson worth? Has he already peaked? Can he help take the Hornets where they want to go?

Those are all difficult questions—I’m just happy that I don’t have to answer them.

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Cavs Woes Reason For Concern, But Not Dismissal

Spencer Davies takes a look at the Cavs’ issues and why we shouldn’t count them out just yet.

Spencer Davies

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The Cleveland Cavaliers are the classic case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

When they’re on, they look like the defending three-time Eastern Conference Champions. When they’re off, they look like an old team that’s worn down and, at times, disinterested—and it gets ugly.

Take this past three weeks for example. After going on a tear of 18 wins in 19 games, the Cavs have dropped eight of 11 and are falling fast. Two of those three victories in that stretch were decided by four points or less against bottom-of-the-barrel teams in the East.

So what happened? For one, the schedule got significantly tougher. Beyond just the level of competition, Cleveland has been on the road for a long while. Nine of the games in this recent down period have been away games. The only time they’ve been home was for a quick second in mid-December and a short stay for New Years.

You’ve got to think about how that affects a psyche, not only from an on-court standpoint but also in regard to spending time with loved ones and family. LeBron James brought attention to his own homesickness on Christmas Day while he was in the Bay Area instead of in Northeast Ohio to celebrate the holidays. If it gets to him, you know it’s got to get to the other players as well. These guys are human beings with lives, and the rigors of travel can wear differently on people. Luckily for them, seven of their next nine games will be at Quicken Loans Arena.

With that being said, everybody in the NBA goes through it, so it’s no excuse for how flat the Cavs have been. Anybody on the team will tell you that, too. However, when you’re figuring out rotations and re-implementing players who had injuries, it’s not easy. This is exactly why nobody should envy Tyronn Lue.

He’s being asked to make room in his rotations and adjust on the fly as Cleveland gets guys back. When they went on that month-long run, the reason they had success was that the second unit really clicked. Dwyane Wade found his niche as the maestro of the bench bunch along with any mixture of Kyle Korver, Jeff Green, Cedi Osman, Channing Frye, and Jae Crowder. Lue had found the perfect group to spell LeBron James and company.

But then, Tristan Thompson came back and, with all due respect, it messed with their flow. The spacing is no longer there for Wade or Green to penetrate because the paint is clogged. It makes it easier on opposing defenses to just stick to Korver because there aren’t any other threatening shooters on the floor (besides Osman, maybe). Worst of all, the change basically kicked Frye—who has a plus-14 net rating, according to Cleaning The Glass—out of the rotation completely.

Deciding who plays and when is a tough job. Derrick Rose is set to come back soon. Iman Shumpert is coming along as well. Lue likes a 10-man rotation, but there are at least 12 players who deserve to be on that court. We already know Rose is expected to commandeer the second unit in Wade’s absence on back-to-backs. As for if Shumpert remains in Cleveland, who knows? It’ll be interesting to keep an eye on how this situation is managed moving forward.

Isaiah Thomas, on the other hand, is somebody the Cavs have been waiting on to return since the season started. Despite LeBron being LeBron and Kevin Love having as great of an offensive year as he’s ever had on the team, the starting unit lacks an extra punch. Thomas can be that shot in the arm, and he proved that in his debut at home against Portland and on the road in Orlando. There are two snags that both he and the team are going to hit before the 29-year-old returns to his All-Star form: 1) He’s got to get his legs under him to regain the consistency in his game and 2) His teammates are going to have to adjust to playing with him.

These are not easy things to do. Remember, aside from Jae Crowder, there is nobody on Cleveland’s roster that has played with Thomas before. Add in that he’s trying to re-discover his own game and that makes for a pretty bumpy road, at least out of the gate.

Start here—put Thompson in the starting lineup. As poor of a fit he’s been on the bench, he has shown promising signs of a developing chemistry with Thomas. It’s only been four games, but he loves having a partner in the pick-and-roll game. That’s clearly where you’ll get the most production out of him and how he can thrive. He’ll provide hustle, second chance opportunities, and a semi-decent big that can at least bother some of the competition’s drives to the basket. Sliding Love over to the four might change his game a little bit, but you can still get him going in the post before giving him chances as a shooter to work him outside-in.

The resulting effect helps the second unit as well. They’ll get one of either J.R. Smith or Crowder, depending on who would be relegated there. Both of those guys can use a spark to get them going. Because of Crowder’s familiarity with Thomas, let’s say Smith gets kicked out. Maybe that gets him out of the funk he’s in? It also allows for Frye, who hasn’t seen more than 20 minutes in a game since December 4, to get re-acclimated to a group he truly helped on both ends of the floor earlier in the year.

Outside of the need to make a move at the deadline, the Cavs can figure this out. It’s understood that they’re the fourth-worst defensive team in the NBA, but they’ve gone through these kinds of ruts at this time of year, specifically since LeBron came back. There might not be statistical evidence backing up the claim of any improvement, but the track record speaks for itself.

The panic button is being hit, but pump the brakes a bit. This isn’t anything new. The pieces are a little different and things look as bad as they ever have, but in the end, the result will likely be the same.

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NBA Daily: Zach LaVine Has Solid Debut With Bulls

Zach LaVine put together a solid performance for the Bulls in his first game back from injury.

James Blancarte

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The Chicago Bulls are turning a corner this season. Zach LaVine is healthy after completing a year of rehabilitation from an ACL injury. LaVine’s return comes at a critical moment. The team is 13-7 over the last twenty games. Many of the wins in this stretch are over current competitors for a potential spot in the playoffs. This includes wins against the Charlotte Hornets (in overtime), the Philadelphia 76ers and three wins (one in overtime) against the New York Knicks. The stretch of winning ties into the return of forwards Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic. Having these key players back and winning this many games recently has changed the dynamics of what had been shaping up to be a losing season.

LaVine played in his first game of the season on Saturday and hit three of four three-point baskets while scoring 14 points in 19 minutes played. LaVine described how he felt physically and about the team’s recent run.

“I thought I did pretty good. I was tired as hell at first. But, we got the win,” LaVine said. “We’re going to keep this thing going.”

The team went into this season having parted ways with their franchise player, Jimmy Butler, in a trade that was derided by many for being lopsided. The trade netted the Bulls LaVine, point guard Kris Dunn and the sixth pick in the 2017 draft in exchange for Butler and the number 16 pick. The trade also allowed Butler to be reunited with coach Tom Thibodeau in Minnesota. For the Bulls, Dunn has greatly improved from the poor play of his rookie season in Minnesota. In addition, the Bulls selected Lauri Markkanen, whom has already displayed some serious talent and potential. Now with LaVine in the lineup, the Bulls can see the total value of the trade on the court.

So, where do the Bulls now stand? According to FiveThirtyEight, as of January 14, the Bulls are projected as having a three percent chance of making the playoffs with a projected record of 32-50. This is a jump from less than one percent (essentially zero percent) back on December 11, 2017. Still, three percent is not the most reassuring projection.

In addition, the recent shift to winning basketball also puts Chicago’s 2018 draft pick in a more precarious position. On December 6, 2017, the Bulls were 3-20 and were on pace to have one of the worst records in the league, if not the worst. Now every win moves the pick further away from a likely top three or even a potential number one pick and moves it closer to a top-10 selection or even middle of the first-round pick.

At the moment, the team is 16-27, good enough for 12th place in the Eastern Conference behind the Hornets, Knicks, 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks for the eighth and final spot in the playoffs. Being 6.5 games back and having seven more losses than the Bucks means the Bulls will need to continue winning at a high rate to make up the difference in the time left in the season.

LaVine didn’t hold back when it came to expressing his optimism regarding the team’s potential.

“I think we can make a push for this thing,” LaVine said. “That’s our job to do. That’s our job to do that,”

LaVine isn’t paying much attention to skeptics who still don’t believe the Bulls have much change to win anything meaningful this season.

“You know, we can’t control outside thoughts or anything,” LaVine said. “We’re ball players, we go out there and try to win every competition. You know, I think we’re good. I think we’re going to be good.”

In LaVine’s absence, Mirotic and Portis (despite their offseason scuffle) have emerged as two of the team’s best players. In addition, center Robin Lopez has done an admirable job keeping up his effort all season long while fulfilling his role as a veteran leader for the team. Lopez described the atmosphere on the team as positive recently in an interview with Joel Brigham of Basketball Insiders.

Despite the reason for optimism, it must be noted that the franchise might make another big trade that would diminish the team’s ability to be competitive this season. Despite his recent on-court success, reports are that Mirotic would like to be traded and that the Bulls asking price is a first-round pick.

Until such a move occurs, the Bulls appear poised to maintain their recent rate of success. Every win could cost the Bulls what could be a top overall pick in 2018. Regardless, the Bulls are surely feeling better about the results of the Butler trade, especially after LaVine’s impressive Chicago debut.

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NBA Daily: Lopez’s Enjoys “Old Guy” Role on Young Team

Robin Lopez is the old man on a very young Chicago Bulls team, but he says the camaraderie is a big reason why he’s happy there, and why the team is overachieving so much this year.

Joel Brigham

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When the Chicago Bulls started the season 3-20, nobody was surprised that they stunk. Everything was fine. They were supposed to stink. That was the entire reason they traded away Jimmy Butler for younger players in the first place. They wanted got their rebuild underway in earnest. (more…)

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