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NBA Trade Watch: The Southeast

Buddy Grizzard outlines prospects for Southeast Division teams as the trade deadline fast approaches.

Buddy Grizzard

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The Southeast Division features the two worst teams in the NBA (the Atlanta Hawks and Orlando Magic), as well as the disappointing Charlotte Hornets and a pair of teams in the thick of the playoff race (the Miami HEAT and Washington Wizards). It’s a down year for a division that’s been pretty tough in the past.

With the NBA’s trade deadline right around the corner, here’s a look at things to keep an eye on for the Southeast.

Atlanta Hawks (11-30)

Losing former All-Stars Al Horford, Jeff Teague and Paul Millsap in the space of two seasons has been more than the Atlanta Hawks could overcome. The result will almost certainly be the first missed playoffs since the season before Atlanta drafted Horford. Atlanta’s 10 consecutive playoff appearances trails only the Spurs (20). And with the Grizzlies and Clippers also in danger of missing the postseason, it could be the Rockets and Warriors sharing second place with six consecutive appearances each if they make it.

And the Hawks might not be done bleeding talent.

Dennis Schroder may not be long for Atlanta. The mercurial point guard is nearly impossible to guard, but he isn’t a leader. It’s hard to believe that a player who frequently dresses down teammates when they make mistakes, then goes out and shoots a two-pointer at the buzzer in a game the Hawks trailed by three, understands accountability. Schroder is known for his after-hours lifestyle, which resulted in a battery arrest in September.

Notable Ending Contracts:

Marco Belinelli — $6,606,060

Ersan Ilyasova — $6,000,000

Dewayne Dedmon — $6,000,000 ($6.3 million player option)

Mike Muscala — $5,000,000 ($5 million player option)

Malcolm Delaney — $2,500,000 ($3,125,000 qualifying offer)

Luke Babbitt — $1,471,382

Names Worth Talking About:

The name most worth talking about for the Atlanta Hawks is Trae Young. The Hawks are being outscored by 6.2 points per 100 possessions with Schroder on the court, a net rating that is worse than any other Hawk with at least 600 minutes this season except Marco Belinelli (-9.2). Young could be a generational talent. Schroder is an offensive-minded point guard who doesn’t make his teammates better.

Hawks GM Travis Schlenk was part of the Warriors front office that drafted Stephen Curry in 2009, then made the momentous decision to trade Monta Ellis and build around Curry in March of 2012. Young gets compared to Curry because of the absurd range on his shot, but he’s leading the nation in both scoring and assists. If his game translates to the NBA level, he’ll be a nightmare to guard in the pick and roll. Getting value for Schroder could be difficult due to the off-court issues.

Another player to keep an eye on is Kent Bazemore, who turns 29 in July. With Atlanta building a young core, Bazemore will likely be in his 30s by the time the Hawks are ready to make a run to the playoffs. One team to watch regarding Bazemore is the New Orleans Pelicans, which signed small forward Solomon Hill to a four-year, $52 million deal in 2016 only to lose him to a hamstring injury that has prevented him from playing this season.

Biggest Area of Need at the Deadline:

The Hawks need to get whatever assets it can for players on expiring contracts or player options. Among expiring contracts, Ersan Ilyasova has started nearly 400 games and has the best on-court net rating of any Hawk with at least 700 minutes. Belinelli’s name gets thrown around, but as mentioned, he hasn’t been good.

Dewayne Dedmon has also struggled and been slowed by injury. His nearly 44 percent shooting from three on 32 attempts this season after attempting only one three in his first four seasons has been a shock. Dedmon has a player option and could test free agency this summer, which makes it difficult for the Hawks to get value by trading him before the deadline. Luke Babbitt had excellent on/off numbers as a starter for the HEAT last season but hasn’t made much of a dent in Atlanta.

Basketball Insiders senior writer Michael Scotto reported Thursday that the Hawks are seeking high second round picks for the expiring veterans. The Raptors and Rockets are contenders currently in position to pick high in the second round, according to NBADraft.net.

Charlotte Hornets (15-24)

Things look grim for the Hornets, which currently sit five games out of the eighth playoff seed in the East. However, the team will play seven of the next eight at home. This gives Charlotte a chance to show improvement ahead of the deadline and help the front office decide if it should be buyers or sellers.

Notable Ending Contracts:

Michael Carter-Williams — $2,700,000

Johnny O’Bryant — $1,524,305

Names Worth Talking About:

Tim Bontemps of the Washington Post wrote a speculative piece suggesting that the Hornets should trade Kemba Walker to jump-start a rebuild and help the team avoid future luxury tax penalties. Most of the roster is under contract through next season and Charlotte, as currently constructed, would be a tax team in 2018-19. That will be a tough pill for Michael Jordan to swallow if his team misses the playoffs again this season.

If the Hornets actually make Walker available, half the league would likely register interest. Trading Walker wouldn’t just trigger a rebuild, it would tear the Hornets down to the studs. Charlotte is 13.4 points per 100 possessions worse whenever Walker is out of the game, an impact that is double that of any other player. Kemba Walker is the Charlotte Hornets. It’s hard to imagine the fan backlash if such a move was executed.

Biggest Area of Need at the Deadline:

Charlotte’s top six players, including Walker, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Dwight Howard, Marvin Williams, Nicolas Batum and Jeremy Lamb, have been solid all season. All six have posted a positive on-court net rating. But from there, the bench falls off a cliff, ranging from Cody Zeller’s -3.6 to Malik Monk’s -14.6. Michael Carter-Williams and Johnny O’Bryant are the only expiring contracts, but they’ve posted a -7.4 and -9.5 net rating, respectively. The Hornets need any bench help they can get, but will have trouble making moves due to the cap. Backup point guard continues to be the biggest issue, with neither Carter-Williams nor Monk making a positive impact.

Miami HEAT (24-17)

After an 11-13 start, during which the HEAT barely resembled a team ready to build on last season’s near playoff run, Miami has gone 13-4 and rocketed to fourth in the East. That’s a lot more like last season’s team, which closed the season 30-11, only to miss the playoffs on a tiebreak. The problem is that, unlike the HEAT of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, these HEAT are decidedly lacking in star power. Miami has taken the intriguing route of spending over the cap on a group of overachievers in a way that could limit the team’s ceiling.

Notable Ending Contracts:

Wayne Ellington

Names Worth Talking About:

People are talking about HEAT center Hassan Whiteside. A lot. Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald wrote Wednesday that he spoke to two NBA scouts who speculate the HEAT could get a late lottery pick for Whiteside. That strains credulity. What team in possession of a lottery pick is so desperate for a center that it would trade for one who has been made virtually obsolete by Bam Adebayo and Kelly Olynyk?

As the HEAT have surged, Whiteside’s impact has been marginal. He’s playing just 25.8 minutes per game, his fewest since the 2014-15 season. And in a league where the traditional center is fast becoming fossilized, ESPN’s Zach Lowe notes that Whiteside is shooting just 42 percent on post-ups, which ranked 43rd out of 52 players with at least 50 attempts.

The real name worth talking about is Wayne Ellington, who is shooting 41 percent on over seven three-point attempts per game. He’s the only notable Miami player on an expiring contract, and that status puts the HEAT in a tough position. Miami has most of its roster under contract through next season, which places it in luxury tax territory. The HEAT outscore opponents by 2.8 points per 100 possessions with Ellington on court, a team-best net rating by more than two full points. The team may have to dangle Ellington in trade talks in hopes of getting an asset back since it will be extremely difficult to retain him past this season.

Biggest Area of Need at the Deadline:

Aside from getting something significant in return for Ellington, the best result for Miami would be to move off one of its larger contracts to subdue the salary cap issues and add flexibility. Moving Whiteside would accomplish this, assuming the HEAT took significantly less salary back, but it would leave the team without a proven rim protector. Such an outcome seems unlikely, as does getting a significant return for Justise Winslow, whom the Celtics reportedly pursued with a chest of draft picks during the 2015 draft but has yet to develop into an impact player.

Orlando Magic (12-30)

Victor Oladipo’s emergence with the Pacers has left the Magic organization with egg all over its face. The team drafted a young core, panicked, tried to leapfrog into the playoffs with veterans, and now sits a half game ahead of the league-worst Atlanta Hawks. There’s no way to sugar coat this: The Magic are years away from putting a competitive product on the floor and will have to go back to building through the draft.

Notable Ending Contracts:

Shelvin Mack — $6,000,000 ($6 million non-guaranteed in 2018-19)

Mario Hezonja — $4,078,320

Arron Afflalo — $1,471,382

Names Worth Talking About:

Things might have been different if Elfrid Payton had popped early. With Aaron Gordon emerging as one of the league’s exciting young players and center Nikola Vucevic — out of nowhere — shooting over 34 percent on 140 three-point attempts, Orlando might have had something with a stud point guard and a do-over on the Oladipo trade. As it stands, despite Payton shooting a career-best 37.5 percent from three, the Magic are being outscored by nine points per 100 with him on the floor.

Vucevic has the best net rating among Magic with at least 500 minutes, and one of the league’s more team-friendly contracts with just over $12 million on the books this season and just under $13 million next. But it may be too late to get anything significant for him. Meanwhile, Evan Fournier’s flat $17 million guaranteed for three seasons starting this season with a player option in the fourth is prohibitive for a player not known for his defense. And let’s not even talk about Bismack Biyombo, who sports a team-worst -15.4 net rating and is guaranteed $17 million this season and next with a player option after.

Biggest Area of Need at the Deadline:

Where to begin? The Magic need everything. There’s a decided lack of defensive identity after Orlando traded Oladipo, a two-way wing (among the league’s most precious commodities). Jonathon Simmons has played the most minutes on the team but his -9.4 net rating is worse than anyone but Biyombo. The team declined its option on Mario Hezonja so it likely can’t get anything for him. He’ll probably emerge as a rotation player for a less dysfunctional franchise after he hits free agency this summer.

Washington Wizards (23-18)

The Wizards are spent into the luxury tax and in full win-now mode. John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter and Ian Mahinmi are all locked up through at least the 2019-20 season. Marcin Gortat, Markieff Morris, Tomas Satoransky and Kelly Oubre are fully guaranteed through next season. Injuries and inconsistency have been a factor, and fifth in the East just doesn’t feel good enough for a team that aspires to contend.

Notable Ending Contracts:

Jason Smith — $5,225,000 ($5.45 million player option)

Jodie Meeks — $3,290,000 ($3.45 million player option)

Tim Frazier — $2,000,000

Names Worth Talking About:

Mahinmi has played only 571 minutes, but his +4.6 net rating is fourth on the team and some small comfort after the team invested major dollars in him. There’s almost no chance another team would take his contract, but at least the Wizards are performing well when he’s available. Marcin Gortat likewise appears to be a player few if any teams would be interested in.

Mike Scott has been a pleasant surprise with 9.4 points per game, which is good for sixth on the team. Washington only signed him to a one-year, veteran’s minimum deal, so he can test free agency after the season with the Wizards facing a cap crunch.

Biggest Area of Need at the Deadline:

Backup point guard Tim Frazier’s -6.7 net rating is a team worst and Jodie Meeks is next at -3.8. Jason Smith has played only 160 minutes. None has trade value. The Wizards’ biggest need is depth and an upgrade at backup point guard. But with the team’s cap situation and lack of assets, it’s going to be very tricky to get anything done.

With the Southeast Division’s competitive teams lacking cap space and lesser teams short on attractive trade assets, this could be a ho-hum deadline in Dixie. That is unless the Hornets go crazy and make Walker available, or another unexpected piece suddenly comes on the market. The league is still coming to terms with the hangover from the cap explosion of recent seasons. And with cap levels set to remain relatively flat in coming seasons, deadline deals will be harder to execute than in recent years.

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NBA Daily: Reacting To Bubble Headlines

Almost two weeks into the Bubble, Matt John gives his own take on some of the bigger headlines that have sprung up.

Matt John

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All of a sudden, we are almost at the end of Week Two inside the Bubble. We’ve actually had some pretty epic games, wouldn’t you say? We’ve also had some telling and high stakes games too. Now that our regular season is finally at its end, things are taking shape a little. Because of that, we’re seeing some major stories hit the newsstands over the past 11 days.

Instead of repeating last week’s formula, let’s focus on reacting to some of the more recent headlines we have seen since the

“Something Might Be Wrong With The Lakers!”

In their last seven games, the Los Angeles Lakers have gone only 3-4 and, upon deeper examination, they’ve only come up victorious twice since beating their crosstown rivals on Jul. 30. Since the Bubble commenced, they’ve put up the second-lowest offensive rating in the league – scoring 103 points per 100 possessions, only .1 points ahead of Washington. Additionally, they have the lowest net rating among teams that have clinched a playoff spot at minus-5.6.

LeBron James specifically has not looked like himself. Even when the Lakers beat the Clippers, he didn’t put up the best stat line – and since then, he hasn’t played at the same MVP-caliber pace. In his seven games, he’s averaged 22.8 points on 45/33/63 splits while coughing up 3.2 turnovers. Even at 35, we all know that’s a far cry from the numbers he was putting up during his MVP-worthy campaign.

Maybe he and the Lakers are mailing in the rest of the season, or maybe there is something more to these recent unwelcome struggles.

Do you know what the big conclusion to draw from this is? Yawn. If you know James, then you know that reports like these aren’t anything we haven’t seen before. We all should have gotten the picture with the King by now. No matter who he plays for, no matter how good his team is and no matter how much worse this episode looks compared to the last one, every year there’s always going to be some sort of drama going on. And how much does this impact LeBron’s team when the going gets tough? Nil.

It’s part of the LeBron deluxe package. There are going to be concerns. There are going to be questions. There are going to be doubts. That’s what it’s been like for the past 10+ years with any team led by the likes of LeBron James. The Lakers, as fantastic as they have been, were going to face it eventually. It just happened to be with the playoffs around the corner.

No matter because, with the exception of last year, LeBron’s teams have always made their way through the fire as he carried them over the hump. There’s no reason to think it won’t be the same with LA. Besides, how much did the Lakers honestly have to prove in the Bubble? There were really only two tasks at hand for them once the hiatus ended.

1. Beating the Clippers: Mission Accomplished
2. Getting the No. 1 seed in the loaded Western Conference: Mission Accomplished

After that, what else was there to play for? The drama could very well play into the playoffs, but LeBron’s been through this merry-go-round enough times that he practically owns a timeshare in it.

The Lakers are going to be fine, and you probably already knew that. What everyone needs to realize is that this is a regular occurrence for LeBron-led squads. We should have gotten so used to it by now that it would have been more shocking if the season had ended drama-free for the boys in purple and gold.

But Danny Green shooting only 7-for-25 from three-point land? That might be something to be concerned about.

“Nate McMillan Is On The Hot Seat”

This little tidbit came from a podcast last week between Jeff Van Gundy and Zach Lowe. While we have yet to determine the level of heat on such a rumor, let’s go over McMillan’s tenure as head coach of the Indiana Pacers.

Through a black and white scope, McMillan definitely hasn’t brought Indiana to the same heights that his predecessor Frank Vogel did when he took over as coach back in 2016. The Pacers haven’t been out of the first round since 2014 and they’ve only mustered three playoff wins since with McMillan calling the shots over the last four years. When you see things through that lens, McMillan would seem like the usual candidate.

But that’s not the case with McMillan. There’s a reason why his name has been thrown in the Coach of the Year discussion for three years running now. Let’s start with how he’s developed a reputation for player development. Think of the players that have really stood out for Indiana since they moved on from the Paul George era.
Victor Oladipo, Bojan Bogdanovic, Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon and, most recently, T.J. Warren. What do these players have in common? None of them ever reached the heights in their career that they did once they played under McMillan before coming to Indiana.

McMillan even managed to breathe life back into Lance Stephenson’s career for a year or two there. The one failure on McMillan’s part has been Myles Turner, who is still basically the same player as he was when Indiana had a total makeover back in 2017. The fact that McMillan has done this with this many players in such a short amount of time demonstrates that he knows how to put his players in the right position to succeed. Coaches like those don’t grow on trees.

Fate dealt a cruel hand with Oladipo’s knee blowing out, but McMillan certainly can’t be the fall guy for that. Again, no one knows how seriously we should take this rumor. It may be quickly swept under the rug as soon as tomorrow. It’s just that if McMillan were to be shown the door, Indiana would be making a rather puzzling decision after making pretty much all the right moves over the last three years.

“Michael Porter Jr Was Well-Worth The Wait”

There shouldn’t be much of a counterpoint to this. Michael Porter Jr has looked like the dynamic scorer many believed he could be dating back to his high school days. So much so that a fair amount of teams are probably going to second-guess passing him up in the 2018 NBA Draft. Porter’s rise in Florida has to make Denver – who was already a top team in the Western Conference before he got there – so much more optimistic about their future.

Putting up nearly 24 points on 57/46/96 splits in the Bubble has got to make the Nuggets incredibly giddy. He’s got great size for a scorer and an awesome shooting stroke. He’s also a great cutter, which means more highlight-reel assists for the Joker, too. All the Nuggets needed to complement Nikola Jokic was a go-to-scorer to get to the next level. Soon, they are going to pay Jamal Murray to be that guy, but Murray’s production, while not bad, has stayed relatively the same over the last three years. At 23, there’s still hope for him to make the leap, but now with MPJ coming into his own, the Nuggets have a safety valve in case that doesn’t happen.

Now, teams will get more game film on him, so odds are we’ll see a slump from Porter as time passes. Even with that, this shouldn’t be seen as a tease.

Porter should be a future star if he stays on the court and that’s the one hang-up. We still have to go back to the fact that 13 teams passed on him for a very real, very frightening reason. No one doubted the talent this kid had. It was his injury problems that put his future in doubt. Denver’s been meticulously careful making sure that Porter doesn’t get put on the shelf, but there’s no way of knowing if he can do this over a full season, and we won’t know for quite a while.

Injuries were what ruined Michael Porter Jr’s stock in 2018, so hold your breath. As exciting as it is to see him prove all of his doubters wrong, Brandon Roy did the same thing only 13 years ago.

With the NBA’s latest and greatest regular season bubble set to wrap up this week, there are plenty of intriguing storylines to watch. Are the Nuggets even better with Porter Jr.? Do the Lakers have what it takes?

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NBA Daily: Ivica Zubac Rounding Into Form For Clippers

David Yapkowitz writes about Ivica Zubac and his strong bubble performances for the Los Angeles Clippers – is he the key for a deep postseason run?

David Yapkowitz

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The Los Angeles Clippers have no shortage of star power. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George form one of the most dangerous duos in the NBA, and both Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell are averaging close to 20 points a game each while coming off the bench.

But there is one player on the roster who might be the team’s X-Factor, one player who could hold the key to being able to withstand the imposing frontline of the Los Angeles Lakers – and that’s Ivica Zubac.

Zubac was once a Laker before he was casually tossed aside to the Clippers at last season’s trade deadline. He had shown flashes of his capabilities with the Lakers but spent most of his first couple of seasons in the league with the Lakers’ G League affiliate. Upon his arrival to the Clippers, he immediately became a key player and has since settled into the starting center role.

His arrival to the NBA’s restart bubble in Orlando was initially held up as he had tested positive for COVID-19. He has since joined the team after a mandatory quarantine period and is looking ready to help the team as they gear up for a playoff run.

He admitted that although he only experienced mild symptoms from the virus, he still felt winded and not quite up to speed as he tried to ease himself back into regular game flow.

“It’s much better, it’s much better than when I got here. I can feel it getting better with each practice, each game,” Zubac said on a recent conference call with media.

“After I first started getting back in shape, after I was cleared, I felt like I was out of shape. My chest was a little tighter when I would do some stuff. But I feel great right now. I don’t feel anything. I’m getting back into shape, I’m almost there. It’s going to take some more time.”

Zubac feeling like his old self again has been evident with each passing game. He started slow, only finishing with two points and three rebounds against the Lakers while being outworked by Anthony Davis. Against the New Orleans Pelicans, he looked a bit better, especially with his effort on the glass.

In the Clippers’ third game of the restart against the Phoenix Suns, Zubac put up 18 points and 12 rebounds while shooting 77 percent from the field. He followed that up with his best bubble game to date with 21 points on a perfect 10-for-10 shooting and 15 rebounds against the Dallas Mavericks.

Zubac equated his increased production with gradually regaining his conditioning and mobility and getting the feel again for regular game speed.

“I’m getting the feel, I’m starting to remember what guys like, what are the best spots on the court for me. My conditioning is getting better each practice, each game,” Zubac told media after the Mavericks game. “I’m feeling like I can stay on the floor for a while, I can run the floor, I can fight in the post with guys, I can rebound. Everything with my conditioning getting back, I can get on another level in every aspect of my game.”

Before his performance against the Mavericks, Zubac had a pretty solid game against the Suns – but the center was obviously still readjusting to his teammates and being able to make the right reads and be in the correct spots on the floor. He played solid defense on Deandre Ayton, but he also ended up having a costly turnover late in the game that set up Devin Booker’s eventual game-winner.

Following the Suns game, Clippers head coach Doc Rivers had mentioned there were a few areas that Zubac could use improvement in, and he was much more effusive in his praise after his performance against the Mavericks.

“He was phenomenal. We talked about it, he did all the things we needed, he really ran the floor, that didn’t show up statistically, but what it did, it created space, it created mismatches,” Rivers told media after the game.

“I loved that our guys were looking for him. I thought his rebounding was fantastic. Really coming off the way we ended the game the other day with Zu, then coming back, playing like that, that was fantastic for his confidence.”

Throughout the season, Zubac has been a player that doesn’t need the ball in his hands to be effective. He does have a soft touch around the rim and can establish a strong position in the post, but he does a lot of damage when he’s rolling to the rim, cutting and moving without the ball and catching lobs from his teammates.

He’s also a good rebounder who gets points off of offensive putbacks, and he’s a solid defender who acts as the team’s interior defensive anchor. He’s also usually on the bench at the end of games when Harrell is in with the starters. But depending on potential matchups, perhaps against the Denver Nuggets and Nikola Jokic, or even the Lakers and Davis, Zubac could find himself finishing some games.

What is certain though, is he’s proving his importance to the team and he’s showing that come playoff time, he could end up being the X-factor. He knows that his teammates are going to look for him and he’s ready for that.

“It’s just communication on the floor, knowing what Kawhi and P.G like, knowing how to get a better angle on a screen, just the plays we run, got to have a better understanding what’s good at the time. It’s mostly communication on the floor,” Zubac said. “It feels great to get rewarded by my teammates after doing all the hard work.”

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Free Agency Update: Changes In The Bubble

Drew Maresca explores the free agency implications of the first week of play in the bubble as the NBA continues its return to post COVID-19 play.

Drew Maresca

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Free agency is always a fun time for the NBA and its fans, but particularly so in 2020. Most free agents have usually earned their next deal by the 65th game of any given season – but this year is far from typical. Instead, the NBA has returned, sans its eight worst teams, meaning that competition is consistently better. And with limited competition for our attention, every game is a major event that draws more eyes and has a greater effect on the paydays of to-be free agents.

We’re still only three or four games into the official return of the NBA, but there have already been some changes to how we perceive some players. Take T.J. Warren, for example, who’s averaging over 39.7 points per game through three contests. Or Michael Porter Jr., who looks more like the focal point of a team than a player in his first year of professional action.

This article will focus explicitly on the changes in perception of free agents to-be as a result of their play in the bubble in Orlando.  We understand that the players listed below can still hurt their standings and that teams rate free agents differently. While the sample size is small, we’ve seen deals made based on an equally small body of work (e.g., Jerome James to the New York Knicks).

One caveat to keep in mind is the unprecedented fiscal challenges facing the NBA and its club in 2020. Not only will the COVID-19 pandemic inevitably hurt the 2020-21 salary cap, but there’s also still a conclusion to be had with the preseason China situation.

With all of that in mind, let’s explore the players that have made the loudest cases for a payday come this offseason.

The Stars

Mike Conley Jr., Utah Jazz – Player Option

Conley Jr. has a player option for 2020-21 – but he played poorly enough through March, relative to what we’ve come to expect from him, that it was more than reasonable to assume he would opt-in at $34.5 million.

But wait, there’s a chance that Conley does us all a favor and makes free agency 2020 more interesting. Conley’s averaged 19.8 points and 5.8 assists per game, way, way up from 13.8 points and 4.3 assists per game prior to the stoppage in March. If Conley keeps this going – and especially if he performs well in the playoffs – he might want to test the market considering the lack of elite talent that’s anticipated to hit it – assuming he’s unhappy in Utah, that is.

Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans – RFA

Ingram’s looked similar to the guy we saw in 2019-20 before the play stoppage – he’s averaging 23.5 points and 7.5 rebounds per game when playing 30 or more minutes. While he was less effective in a loss against the Clippers (14 points and two rebounds in 24 minutes), he’s demonstrated growth in how decisively he makes his move and how seamlessly he then scores on the move.

Ingram was probably going to get max offer as of the All-Star break – especially after reaching his first All-Star team at 22 – but COVID-19 probably altered the ability for teams to dole out lucrative deals. But then play resumed and Ingram picked up right where he left off – and with a confidence to use it liberally. Ingram is nearly a lock for a max deal now.

Fred VanVleet, Toronto Raptors – UFA

VanVleet started off his time in the bubble with a solid performance (13 points and 11 assists), but he really showed out in his second game against the Miami HEAT. VanVleet led the Raptors to a win against Miami with a career-high 36 points. And then he got right back to being Mr. Consistent for Toronto by posting 21 points and 10 assists in a win against Orlando.

So ultimately, VanVleet has led the Raptors to a 3-0 (re)start, and he’s either scored a career-high or dropped 10-plus assists. James Dolan and Leon Rose are somewhere together – albeit socially distanced, we’re sure – drooling – as are all of the teams in need of a lead guard, like Detroit. VanVleet can only increase his value from here. He’s not assumed to be a max-level player, but if he plays well enough through the playoffs, it’ll be interesting to see just how high he can reach.

 DeMar DeRozan, San Antonio Spurs – Player Option

It’s hard to imagine DeRozan’s value increasing much at this point in his career. After all, he’s an 11-year veteran that has been named to the All-Star Game four times and an All-NBA team twice.

But still, there’s always been presumed limitations to his game, namely his inability to shoot three-pointers. Since being traded to San Antonio, he’s fallen out of the national spotlight a bit. As a 31-year-old capable of reaching unrestricted free agency, DeRozan is at a major inflection point in his career. He could attempt to a final big deal or snag a smaller one if the market for his services doesn’t meet expectations. Or he could just opt-in.

But DeRozan has done his part to remind everyone that he has loads of high-quality basketball left in him. He tallied 30 points on 11-for-20 shooting on Tuesday in a close loss to the 76ers and he’s averaged 22.3 points, 7.3 assists and 4.8 rebounds per game since the Spurs resumed play last Friday. While those averaged mostly coincide with what he did this season, it also represents a decent boost in assists. But more importantly, it solidifies that DeRozan should still receive a serious look as a lead star. And he’ll probably get interest from a number of teams.

The Known Commodities

Marcus Morris Sr., Los Angeles Clippers – UFA

While Morris Sr. is a known commodity, teams could use additional poor performances against him in negotiations. He’ll probably still have the option to sign for a veterans minimum or mid-level exception with a contender like the Clippers or Lakers. But if he’s eyeing another payday that pays him an annual salary equal to what he made in 2019-20, it would behoove him to make his mark on the stat book. 

Making A Case

Trey Burke, Dallas Mavericks – UFA

Burke hasn’t been overly consistent since NBA play resumed last week. But he did have a huge breakout game against the Rockets, scoring 31 points on 8-for-10 for three-pointers in only 30 minutes, while also dishing six assists.

Yes, Burke is averaging just 5.5 points in 18 minutes in the two games since, but the fact that he scored 31 in an NBA game will be enough to get looks as an off-the-bench scorer. And it’s a narrative that can be supported by his past work, too. Remember, Burke is still just 27-years-old  and he has a 42-point career-high. He’s also exploded for 30 four times and eclipsed the 20-point mark on 38 occasions in his 389 career games. So even if it’s just a reminder, it’s good to know that Burke can still get it done offensively – and teams are always looking for ways to manufacture offense.

Jordan Clarkson, Utah Jazz – UFA

Clarkson’s shot only 40 percent from the field since play resumed last Thursday, with an even worse 20 percent from three-point range. Still, scorers are as valuable as ever. It’s what made J.R. Smith so much money in this league, as well as Lou Williams and countless others – and rightfully so. Ultimately, it’s about putting the ball in the hoop. And with that being said, a franchise is going to pay Clarkson and they’ll end up paying more than they would have as of March.

Reggie Jackson, Los Angeles Clippers – UFA

Jackson has less to prove than most guys in this part of this list – but given his injury history, he does have to make a statement.

On the whole, Jackson has looked good – but not necessarily great. He averaged 12.5 points, seven rebounds and two assists in his first two contests, but he regressed in the Clippers’ most recent game against the Suns. But on a positive note, Jackson received only 23 minutes on Tuesday versus Phoenix and his 15 points on 5-for-9 shooting, eight rebounds, two assists and two steals accumulated in just 20 minutes.

If Jackson continues to be a contributor to the contending Clippers, someone will overspend on him. After all, good point guards are few and far between.

The Unknowns

Harry Giles III, Sacramento Kings – UFA

Giles III only played four minutes in the Kings’ first game back against the Spurs and he didn’t fare much better over 12:55 versus the Mavericks on Tuesday. But when you’re a fringe player that had injury concerns throughout your young career, any positive outings are good – especially those that come in a contract year. Giles tallied 23 points and eight rebounds in only 20 minutes against the Orlando Magic – a significant jump from his 7.2 points and 4.2 rebounds averages this season.  And that’s probably enough to generate interest amongst a number of teams.

The Kings curiously declined Giles’ fourth-year option, making him an unrestricted free agent as of the end of this season. That’s an interesting decision because the option was relatively cheap given that he was only the No. 20 overall pick (2017). Further confusing matters is the idea that by passing on the fourth-year option, they also lost matching rights – so Giles won’t even be restricted.

To make matters worse, the Kings can’t even bid more than $3.9 million to retain his services. So the Kings ultimately wasted a first-round draft pick on Giles for a grand total of 14.5 minutes per game across 99 games – and he’ll walk before they even know what they had in him.

But this all works out nicely for Giles, who will absolutely get an opportunity elsewhere – and he’ll be paid more than he would have received in Sacramento for it. How good is still an unknown, but he’s shown enough for a team to take a flyer on considering his size, skill set and versatility. He was the No. 1 overall recruit coming out of high school according to ESPN just four short years ago.

Free agency is going to be different than ever before and, up until very recently, that was assumed to be a bad thing. But with some of the above players changing the narratives around them, it could become even more exciting than it’s been in the recent past. Add in the likes of DeMarcus Cousins, Davis Bertans, Christian Wood – and we’re looking at an under-appreciated free-agent class.

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