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Phil Jackson on the Hook for Carmelo’s Massive Contract

Why didn’t Phil Jackson play hardball with Carmelo Anthony? The Knicks didn’t have to give Anthony seemingly everything he asked for in negotiations.

Tommy Beer

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“As far as the money, it don’t really matter to me… My concern is to be able to compete on a high level, a championship level, coming in this last stretch of my career. I want to compete at that level. […] Any opportunity I have to build that up in New York, I’d do it. I told people all the time, always say, if it takes me taking a pay cut, I’ll be the first one on Mr. Dolan’s steps saying, ‘Take my money and let’s build something strong over here.’” – Carmelo Anthony, February 13, 2014

“Because the way things have been structured now financially for teams it’s really hard to have one or two top stars or max players, and to put together a team with enough talent, you’ve got to have people making sacrifices financially. So we hope that Carmelo is true to his word and we understand what it’s going to take, and we will present that to him at that time.” – Phil Jackson, April 23, 2014

 

Earlier this week, when it was officially announced that the Knicks had re-signed star forward Carmelo Anthony, the responses were wide-ranging and varied.

It seemed the majority of Knicks fans were both exceptionally excited and relieved when they learned the franchise’s best player since Patrick Ewing would spend the remaining prime years of his career in New York City.

However, some pundits, after factoring in the long-term impact of the massive contract and recognizing that salary cap space is such a precious commodity, panned Melo for his unwillingness to give the Knicks a more significant discount.

Over the last few months, I have used this space to express my opinion. As detailed in numerous columns, my belief was that New York would be best served to sign Anthony only if he was amenable to a contract that paid far less than the maximum; and ideally move Melo in a sign-and-trade to kick start a rebuilding process if he demanded anything close to the max.

Now, we know the full details of the Carmelo contract. Per ESPN’s Marc Stein, Anthony’s annual salary is as follows:
2014-15 season: $22,458,401 million
2015-16: $22,875,000 million
2016-17: $24,559,380 million
2017-18: $26,243,760 million
2018-19: $27,928,140 million

This sums to a grand total of $124,064,681 million.

While not the full max of $129 million, the ‘hometown discount’ Anthony accepted from the Knicks was far, far less of a pay cut than most expected, especially after Anthony went on record at the All-Star Break, loudly proclaiming his willingness to take less in order to build a championship-level team in New York.

Nonetheless, I find it difficult to be overly critical of Carmelo. Should he really be blamed for accepting an offer presented to him?

He did what so many of us would do (Dirk Nowitzki and Dwyane Wade among the notable exceptions); he accepted an extraordinary offer from his employer to continue working in a location he loves.

Would it have been a noble gesture to leave money on the table in order to facilitate the building of a more balanced roster? Sure. If Anthony took less, would the Knicks be in a much better position to snag a stud free agent in 2015 or 2016? Absolutely. Yet, one of the reasons for his greatness is that Anthony, like many illustrious athletes, possesses an unbending belief in himself and his abilities. He likely wholeheartedly believes he can put even a decent team on his back and carry that team to a title. Anthony even alluded to this concept during his discourse at the All-Star Break: “I always look at what’s going on and always feel naively I could change it and turn it around, put it on my shoulders.”

So Melo figures, ‘I’ll take the money and Phil will somehow figure out a way to get players who are good enough to keep us competitive and I’ll take us over the top.’ Although that thinking may be misguided, based on what we know of the NBA’s salary structure demanding a team’s best player’s sacrifice salary, it is commonplace among elite athletes. Thus, it’s a rational and understandable reaction to take the massive payday and assume everything else will get worked out at a later date.

Moreover, there is no reason to believe he would have received over-the-top appreciation from the fan base. Many fans don’t have the time or inclination to delve into the minutia of the salary cap and project the implications a 7.5 percent increase versus a 7.5 percent decrease. In actuality, a few extra million that could be offered to prospective free agents is a huge sum. For instance, it’s the difference between signing a player that’s worth a starting salary of $6 million, versus a player worth $9 million. Or $16 million vs. $19 million. For instance, what if the Bulls had an extra $3.5 million under the cap this summer? Would Anthony be a Bull right now?

But future hypothetical scenarios and salary scarifies are often lost on the average fan. Look at what happened with LeBron James. When he signed with the Miami HEAT back in 2010, he took far, far less money than he could have and signed a deal that paid him a starting annual salary of just $14.5 million (or roughly $8 million less than Melo’s starting salary). LeBron was still intensely vilified. Granted, the nonsense of “The Decision” had a lot to do with it. But, even after the uproar of ‘The Decision’ died down, it was rarely even mentioned that The King made significant financial sacrifices in hopes of capturing the crown. Despite making winning a priority over a pay day, LeBron was lampooned as a loser who joined Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh because he needed help to win a ring

Thus, at the end of the day, I have a tough time heaping blame on Anthony.

However, on the flip side of the coin, I have been genuinely surprised at how little flack Phil Jackson has received. Even in those published pieces knocking Melo for making a cash grab, Jackson has escaped unscathed. As the newly installed President of Basketball of Operations, Jackson’s first big decision was incredibly important. He held the reins as the Knicks approached a franchise-altering fork in the road.

Personally, I find more far more fault in Jackson’s decision-making process than Anthony’s. Carmelo simply accepted an offer that was presented to him.

But why did Jackson feel he needed to present Anthony a $124-million offer?

And not only did Anthony get north of $124 million, he also got a no-trade clause in the contract, a player option for the fifth and final season and a 15 percent trade-kicker. Anthony got nearly everything he could have hoped for. Did Jackson and Dolan draw a line in the sand anywhere?

In the months, weeks and days leading up to this franchise-defining moment, Jackson said all the right things.

“When I take his word, he’s the one who opened that up, that it wasn’t about the money… So I challenged him on that, because I wanted our fans to see he’s a team player, that he was going to do what’s best to get our team ahead farther and faster,” Jackson proclaimed to reporters back in June.

“I’m all about moving forward,” Jackson said of the Anthony situation shortly after the season ended. “Just deal with what is and move forward. If it’s in the cards, ‘Man, are we fortunate.’ If it’s not in the cards, ‘Man, are we fortunate.’ We’re going forward anyway.”

He referenced the consistent success of Tim Duncan and the Spurs, and cited the recent example of James, Wade and Bosh taking less to play together in Miami.

Moreover, it seemed he was cognizant of both the ‘pros’ of retaining the team’s best player, and the ‘cons’ of agreeing to a contract that could very well become an albatross a few years down the line.

According to Jackson’s own stated logic, there was no need to give in to Anthony if he wasn’t willing to make substantial sacrifices and meet the Knicks halfway.

Thus, when the details of the contract were announced, it was somewhat shocking.

In the end, it seems Jackson, owner Jim Dolan and the Knicks’ front office completely caved and gave in at nearly every turn. When reports surfaced last week that New York had presented multiple offers to Melo, one of which was an offer at the full max, it seemed implausible. However, that report certainly looks accurate now.

The question I keep coming back to is this: What prevented Jackson from playing hardball with Anthony?

A crucial component to this whole conversation is acknowledging the fact that the Knicks had no serious competition for Carmelo, as no team could offer anything close in terms of financial compensation. Because they possessed his ‘Bird Rights,’ the Knicks were in the driver’s seat all along.

The Lakers supposedly piqued Melo’s interest, but the most they could offer was $95.9 million over four seasons.

The Bulls were considered prohibitive favorites at one point, as adding Anthony would likely have vaulted them to the top of the Eastern Conference. However, due to cap constraints, the maximum amount of money they could have presented to Anthony would have been approximately $73 million.

Just because the Knicks were able to pay him $33 million dollars more than any other team in the NBA, doesn’t mean they were required to offer him $28 million more than any other team.

Clearly, New York had the upper hand in negations, but they never seemed to play that hand.

Why not offer Anthony a four-year, $98 million contract?

In an open letter to Knicks fans on his website shortly after announcing he returned to the Knicks, Anthony explained he intended to return to NYC along, that his “heart never wavered” and that he is a “New York Knick at heart.”

Why not challenge Anthony to have his actions match his words?

If Jackson offered $98 million over four years, that would still be over $2 million more than any other team in the NBA could submit, and $15 million more than the Bulls could bid.

Thus, if Melo was truly dead set on returning to New York, he would have the option of doing so and still receiving a very fair wage (nearly $100 million over four years would ensure he remained one of the NBA’s highest paid players). Additionally, this would allow New York to maintain flexibility and cap space, which would have enabled Jackson to continue building a balanced roster around his superstar.

If Anthony insisted on securing a five-year deal, then Jackson could have offered $110 million over five seasons. Again, it’s far more guaranteed money than Melo could have received anywhere else.

You’d think that, at the very least, Jackson could have said: “Okay Melo, we are willing to pay you nearly $30 million more than anyone else can, but we need you give us some concessions in regards to a trade kicker and a no-trade clause.”

Who were the Knicks bidding against? Why give in to Anthony’s demands? Carmelo claims to love New York; make him prove it. (Ironically, signing at a substantial discount would also likely be beneficial to his legacy, as the team would be able to build a better supporting cast around him. And creating a lasting legacy by constructing a winner in NYC would produce incredible ancillary and financial benefits…)

Again, the ‘worst case scenario’ wasn’t actually all that bad. If Anthony left, all was NOT lost. In fact, it could be argued that while the Knicks would have had to take a gigantic step back in the short-term if Anthony signed elsewhere, it might actually put New York on a path that ultimately proved more successful over time. In other words, losing Melo for nothing might be favorable to signing a deal that would guarantee nearly $28 million to a 34-year-old Carmelo Anthony in 2018-19. The Knicks would have had to suffer through next season, but would then enter the summer of 2015 armed with a lottery pick and oodles of cap space to spend on a free agent crop flush with stars.

For those that argue the Knicks wouldn’t be able to attract free agents without a stud like Anthony already in the fold, in a counter-argument I’d present the Lakers’ inability to land any notable free agents this summer as ‘Exhibit A.’ The Lakers are one of the most well-respected organizations in all of sports, with a nearly unparalleled track record of success. In addition, they have one of the greatest guards in NBA history, Kobe Bryant, under contract for the next two seasons. Kobe is obviously a question mark as he works his way back from a major injury, but no one would be all that surprised if Bryant is among the league’s leading scorers next season. Still, every big name free agent steered clear of L.A., despite the fact they had plenty of cap space and could offer max contracts. Instead, the Lakers ended up settling and spending nearly $40 million to re-sign Nick Young and Jordan Hill.

I’d contend that although fellow great players undoubtedly respect Kobe as an all-time great, the fact that Kobe is making $48.5 million over the next two seasons deterred other stars from joining him in Hollywood. Players today are well aware of the ramifications of limited cap space. If Kobe had re-signed for a more reasonable amount, other players would be more eager to accept a max deal from the Lakers. It’s not just great players that attract free agents; it’s great talent and cap-friendly contracts.

Circling back to New York, based on his comments last month, it appeared Jackson had come to a similar, logical conclusion: If we get Carmelo to sign for a fair contract, then it benefits us to keep him as our franchise cornerstone going forward. However, if Anthony demands more than we are comfortable offering, then we can let him walk and we’ll still be in fine shape going forward.

Even from a public relations standpoint, I’d argue it’s safe to assume most Knicks fans wouldn’t be furious at Jackson and the Knicks if Anthony did leave under such conditions. Even if most fans wanted New York to keep Carmelo, it wouldn’t be a stretch to appreciate the fact Jackson had operated with the best intentions of the organization in mind. Jackson has been open and honest with the public his entire career and he could plainly explain his rationale through forthright conversation with the media. The myth that New York fans wouldn’t embrace rebuilding is patently false. The Knicks were terrible for most of the 2000s and Madison Square Garden was still sold out on a regular basis. The Knicks were terrible last season (with Melo) and MSG still played to over 95 percent capacity. In my opinion, Knicks fans would embrace a rebuilding effort if they saw that a concrete and sensible plan was in place.

As I have posited previously, extreme trepidation toward trusting the Knicks’ front office to successfully navigate free agent waters was understandable prior to Jackson arrival. However, with Phil calling the shots (instead of Dolan or CAA, etc.), the chances of the Knicks completely striking out in free agency would likely be decreased.

A common counterargument from the “keep Carmelo at all costs” camp is that free agency is too much of a crapshoot and it’s unlikely that New York would be able to reel in a player on par with Anthony no matter how far below the cap they got. Well, the fact of the matter is that the Knicks would not necessarily have to sign a player better than Anthony in order for them to improve their overall roster. With mountains of cap space, the Knicks could construct a “team” that was far more balanced and not reliant on a single scorer.

When Phil was brought to New York, Knicks fans looked forward to future decisions being made based strictly on what’s best for the long-term success of the franchise, as opposed to bringing in big names to sell tickets and jerseys. Knicks fans were hoping that Jackson would sanitize away the stink of previous regimes. In year’s past, there were rumors around the league that the Creative Artists Agency was running the Knicks. Ironically, the way the Anthony contract negations (or lack thereof) played out, it ends up looking like a sweetheart deal for one of CAA’s biggest clients.

Just as Anthony demanding $124 million and all the added incentives makes sense, so does Dolan wanting to keep Melo regardless of his ultimate price tag. Dolan desperately wanted Anthony back in 2011, and pulled the trigger on the trade that brought him here. As long as Anthony is in a New York uniform, the Knicks will likely remain competitive every year he is on the roster. He’s that good. A healthy Melo means consistently solid TV ratings on the MSG network, along with tickets and jersey sales spiking.

Keeping Carmelo is definitely the safer play, but does it cap the Knicks’ ultimate upside. That is the tough question Jackson had to answer.

It’s possible, given his advanced age and relative inexperience, that Jackson had no interest in undertaking a challenging and precarious rebuilding project.

Either way, what his motivations were, the die has been cast. Eventually we will find out if Jackson made the correct call.

Tommy Beer is a Senior NBA Analyst and the Fantasy Sports Editor of Basketball Insiders, having covered the NBA for the last nine seasons.

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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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NBA Daily: Breaking Down The Bubble’s Race For 8th

Ben Nadeau analyzes the race for the No. 8 and 9 spots in the Western Conference – who will make the cut?

Ben Nadeau

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As the NBA inched toward its inevitable rebirth, the instant drama surrounding the Western Conference’s No. 8 seed became a conversation wildfire.

Was the league rolling out the red carpet in hopes of a Zion Williamson-LeBron James showdown in the first round? Could the healthier Portland Trail Blazers make another historic run toward history? De’Aaron Fox, the Sacramento franchise cornerstone, took umbrage over a lack of Kings-related faith, while the Memphis Grizzlies had more than enough ground to protect their standing in the current hierarchy.

Three or so games in to our bubbled adventure, everything has changed – and fast.

The Pelicans, still worrisome over Williamson’s health and conditioning, played him about 15 minutes in each of their first two contests – coincidently, New Orleans went 0-2. With their backs against the wall and slowly losing traction in a muddied race, the Pelicans played the future superstar for 25 minutes, where he racked up 23 points, seven rebounds and used a personal 6-0 run to clinch a much-needed win. Not only did the victory signify an important swing in momentum for the veteran-laden squad, but it was another crushing defeat for Grizzlies, who fell to 0-3 and further loosened their once-gridlocked hold on the final playoff seed.

Long perceived to be a five-team fight for the right to face Memphis in the play-in game(s), the Grizzlies’ early struggles have now nearly opened both spots up. All the more interesting, the San Antonio Spurs have begun 2-1, alongside the Phoenix Suns’ 2-0 effort. Although invited without much media afterthought, both the Spurs and Suns – who boast two of the most reliable constants of the bunch, Gregg Popovich and Devin Booker, respectively – are within the four-game window needed to force a play-in too.

So then: Thanks to the Grizzlies’ scuffles, who’ll be the two franchises to reach that play-in showdown?

Let’s start with the Pelicans, a team that’ll be better the more Williamson is allowed on the floor, obviously. While that variable remains up in the air, New Orleans’ remaining schedule is not. They’ll finish with the Kings twice, plus winnable matchups against the Spurs, Wizards and Magic. Although that opening day loss versus Utah stings, there’s no shame in falling to the Clippers, so the opportunity is certainly still there for the Pelicans to reach Nos. 8 or 9 in the coming days.

The Spurs, following a hard-fought effort against Philadelphia on Monday, unfortunately, have a much harder path forward: Denver, Utah, New Orleans, Houston and Utah. No Magic, no Nets, no Kings, even. Just New Orleans and three teams currently fighting for ‘home court’ advantage in the first round. Of course, betting against Gregg Popovich is beyond stupid and that is a lesson some select few must re-learn every spring – but they still seem like the least likely of six to leapfrog into a spot.

Likewise, it isn’t much better for Phoenix. They’ll conclude with the Clippers, Indiana Pacers and T.J. Warren’s supernova act, Miami HEAT, Oklahoma City Thunder, Philadelphia 76ers and Dallas Mavericks. Thankfully, Mikal Bridges’ efforts in Orlando and Ricky Rubio’s trusty playmaking have served as great foils for Deandre Ayton and the aforementioned Booker. Overall, their offensive rating just cracks the top half (15th, 110.4) and their defense remains in the lower half – but stars win games and Booker fits the bill.

Even the Kings, losers to the Spurs and Magic to open their bubble campaign, get the Pelicans twice but also a downright bad Brooklyn Nets squad and a potentially-resting Los Angeles Lakers team in four of their final five games – so don’t count them out either. With their destiny firmly in hand, expect the Kings to make a run of their own. Fox put up 39 points against San Antonio before tallying just 13 versus Orlando – and, in the latter, Sacramento’s only scorer above 15 went to Harry Giles’ 23. Given the context and a very winnable schedule, the next week or so bodes well for the Kings’ hopes.

As for Portland, the squad with the most bankable 1-2 punch of the collection, have an impossibly-tough Rockets-Nuggets-Clippers-76ers run-in before ending with the Mavericks and Nets. Worse, that stretch of difficult opposition will come fast and furious – a classic three games in four days slog. But above all, their defense leaves too much to be desired, even with the return of Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins. Before the shutdown, Portland’s defense was only better than the Atlanta Hawks, Cleveland Cavaliers and Washington Wizards at 113.6 in the ratings department.

In the two games back, well, it’s actually been even worse and their putrid 132.0 defensive rating is a whopping 7 points behind the Kings’ 29th-rated unit. It’s early and the sample size is certainly small – but with only six games left, they’ll need to figure it out in the against some of the league’s best. Still, Damian Lillard is a big-moment killer – he did, after all, break up the Thunder core on his own last April – and he’s capable of hot streaks that few others are.

Lillard and Nurkic put up 30 points apiece against Boston – plus 17 from CJ McCollum and 21 notched by Gary Trent Jr. – and totaled 124 as a team… yet it still wasn’t enough. The heroics of Portland’s stars will be relentless, but if they can’t stop the opposition – they’ll come up short.

In the end, even guessing at Nos. 8 and 9 is a fool’s errand. The Bubble has provided shock after shock already – and the added hurdle of rested players for locked-in seeds are soon to come – but six teams will be whittled down to two before long. Despite the slow start, Memphis remains in the driver’s seat – if they can pick up a win on Wednesday versus a seriously-slumping Jazz side, it’ll go a long way toward clinching their place.

And they’d better hope so: If they don’t, they’ll need to hope for some load management with the Thunder, Raptors, Celtics and Bucks to end the mini-campaign. It’s one of the tougher schedules left in the Western Conference, but their cushion, no matter how rapidly it is shrinking, is still reason to believe they’ll limp into the do-or-die scenario.

As for the second spot, it still feels like the Pelicans’ to lose. Between Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball, JJ Redick, Brandon Ingram and, duh, Williamson, there’s too much firepower here to completely struggle through an easier-than-most schedule.

But, sure, bet against Gregg Popovich, Damian Lillard, De’Aaron Fox and Devin Booker at your own risk – conventional wisdom suggests that at least one of them will crash the party, no matter how unlikely it seems today.

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NBA Daily: The Bubble’s Biggest Dark Horses

With the NBA’s restart underway and the postseason around the corner, Shane Rhodes looks at a few teams that could make some noise and prove the league’s biggest dark horse title contenders.

Shane Rhodes

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It’s official: basketball is back.

It may have taken 142 days, but the NBA has returned and seeding games are underway in Orlando. Better yet, and while the heightened intensity of these first few games may make it seem like we’re already there, the postseason is just around the corner.

But what are the playoffs going to look like, exactly? Aside from the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers, the field is wide open — even teams that struggled during the regular season have a real chance to make some noise.

In fact, the lead up to the postseason has afforded those teams a clean slate, a fresh start and the opportunity to tweak with the formula that failed them in the regular season.

Of course, some rosters are simply too depleted to make any noise. But others, if they can pivot and put their best foot forward, have the chance to emerge as dark horse title threats.

So, which teams have the best chance to come out of nowhere, surprise everyone and, just maybe, punch their ticket to the NBA Finals?

Philadelphia 76ers

The regular season wasn’t exactly kind to the 76ers. And, staring down a 10-24 road record pre-restart, the move to Orlando may only prove worse for them.

But their talent is undeniable, and there’s too much of it on the roster to just cast the team aside.

Despite that abysmal record, the 76ers proved they could dominate with their collective head in the game — their 29-2 record at home was the best in the NBA. They sport a stingy defense and two of the NBA’s best on that end with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Meanwhile, their size — Raul Neto and Zhaire Smith are the only two on the roster shorter than 6-foot-5 — should give them an advantage in almost any situation.

It may even make them the best potential matchup for the top-dog in the Eastern Conference, the Bucks.

Yes, they are a bit of a clunky fit on offense. But Embiid and Simmons represent two of the brightest young stars — they can make it work, adjusting as needed on a series-to-series basis. Paired with Tobias Harris, Al Horford and Josh Richardson, among others, they shouldn’t lack for help, either.

An early-season favorite to at least make the Eastern Conference Finals, Philadelphia no doubt disappointed this season — for some reason, it just didn’t click for them. It may never.

But on paper, the 76ers have enough talent to compete with anyone. If they can fit the pieces together and hit their stride in the first round, don’t be surprised if they go on a lengthy postseason run.

Oklahoma City Thunder

Currently the sixth seed out West, can the Thunder even be considered a dark horse?

But since they never should have been there in the first place – most definitely.

With Paul George gone to Los Angeles and Russell Westbrook to Houston last summer, nobody expected Oklahoma City to be relevant in 2020. With an aging star in Chris Paul — who, at the time, looked like he wanted nothing to do with the team — and a bunch of players that looked more like trade bait than contributors, they looked dead in the water and stocked up on draft picks.

And yet, here they are, giant slayers in position to snag a top-four seed.

Paul, in a bounce-back year, has elevated the entire roster. Steven Adams and Danilo Gallinari, quality veterans in their own right, have been strong, uber-efficient contributors. Dennis Schroder has emerged as one of the league’s best sixth-men, while Sam Presti’s diamond-in-the-rough, Luguentz Dort, has grown from a raw defensive specialist into a surprise starter and arguably their best defender.

And, most importantly, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander seems to have leaped toward stardom. The Canadian guard was a stud as a sophomore, averaging 19.3 points, six rebounds and 3.3 assists on strong shooting splits.

They don’t have a legit star to carry them — Paul, despite the resurgence, isn’t the player he once was and Gilgeous-Alexander isn’t quite there yet. But come the postseason, it may not matter. The Thunder are one of the most balanced teams in the NBA; they spread it out on offense — Gallinari, Gilgeous-Alexander, Paul and Schroder averaged at least 17 points for the season — and are a top 10 defensive unit returning one of the league’s best on that end in Andre Roberson.

It’ll be ugly, for sure, but the Thunder don’t care. They’ll scratch and claw their way to wins as they have the whole season. They may not make the Finals, but they are a lock to make life difficult for some other team(s) looking to bring home the Larry O’Brien trophy.

Portland Trail Blazers

Portland has yet to punch their ticket to the big dance, and they have a long road ahead of them before they can. But should they sneak in, they may prove the most dangerous team in the postseason.

Just a season ago, the Trail Blazers were a top-four seed and, despite the loss of Jusuf Nurkic, a Western Conference Finals participant. Unfortunately, it all seemed to come crashing down in the regular season. Already at a disadvantage without Nurkic at the center spot, the team lost Zach Collins to a major shoulder injury just three games into the season and, later, Rodney Hood to a torn left Achilles.

Had the season gone on as scheduled, no one would have blamed the Trail Blazers for throwing in the towel. An ugly 29-37 before the shutdown, there just wasn’t much the team could do to bolster their postseason odds.

But now they’ve been gifted a second chance. The stoppage in play allowed every team to rest and recuperate, yes, but arguably no team benefited more from that time than Portland — and teams are starting to take notice.

The threat presented by Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum is obvious. But with the roster back near 100 percent health, the team may pose a legitimate threat to the Western Conference crown. Collins’ presence on defense was sorely missed, to say the least. Nurkic, meanwhile, has played as if he hadn’t missed the last year and change. In two bubble games, the Bosnian Beast has averaged 24 points, nine rebounds, five assists, two steals and 3.5 blocks.

Both players should significantly alleviate the burden placed on Lillard’s shoulders as well, further enabling him to crush opposing defenses.

At the moment, the Trail Blazers are the Western Conference’s ninth seed, just two games back of the Memphis Grizzlies for the eighth spot. If they remain within four games, Portland could earn themselves a play-in and potentially jump the Grizzlies (or whomever the eighth seed might be) and steal the last spot in the postseason.

And if they force their way in? The NBA better watch out.

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