As the current season begins to wind down, there are plenty of teams the NBA with bright futures ahead of them. By the same token, there are many franchises that are losing direction because of injuries and unhappy superstars, and most of those teams reside in the Eastern Conference.
But who is doing things the right way in the short and long-term? Who can build off of what they’ve done this year? In the East specifically, there are two teams that come to mind.
How smart were the Philadelphia 76ers to hang on to Brett Brown? Through all of the ups and downs, through all of the roster turnover and through all of the questionable front office moves, the persistent coach has his team potentially looking at its first 30-win season in four years.
If Joel Embiid didn’t go down in late January with a meniscus tear that ended his season, there might’ve been playoff talk in the city of Brotherly Love. Before the injury, the rookie sensation was dominating in every facet of the game and was efficient about his work.
In 31 games, Embiid averaged 38 points per 100 possessions, which is still good for sixth best in the league as a whole. He was one of eight centers to attempt more than three shots from deep per game and knocked down 36.7 percent of them. The 23-year-old was also one of three big men to get to the free throw line at least seven times per game. Only Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins have averaged more.
In addition to that, he blocked 4.6 shots per 100 possessions. Prior to the injury, the Kansas product was the only player on Philadelphia with a defensive rating below 100, and he ranks second in the league to only Draymond Green among players averaging over 25 minutes per game.
It’s a shame that one of the most entertaining and talented rookies had to go down, but it’s also opened up opportunities for others to step up in his absence. Ignoring Jahlil Okafor’s sophomore slump, rookie forward Dario Saric has opened up a lot of eyes.
Proclaimed the Rookie of the Year by Embiid himself, the Croatian’s usage has skyrocketed. He’s taken the ball and ran with it. This month, he leads in points per game among rookies while attempting the most shots, and has the second-best rebound average.
Brown and his staff have also found a real diamond in the rough by experimenting with Richaun Holmes.
A raw prospect when he arrived, the sophomore center has been the aggressor in the month of March. He’s seen his playing time gradually rise over the season, but in this span he’s been playing over 25 minutes per game, and he’s taken advantage of the chance.
In his 15 games, Holmes is taking over nine shots and converting 58.2 percent of them. That’s among the best in the NBA, and places him sixth among those who have played at least as many minutes as he has.
Shawn Long, who was brought in from the D-League, has made his mark vying for a roster spot. T.J. McConnell is doing everything he can to stay on the team next season with Jerryd Bayless coming back from injury. Justin Anderson was a trade deadline acquisition from Dallas that could be a key piece moving forward.
The Sixers will have to make a decision on Robert Covington and Gerald Henderson in late June, and Sergio Rodriguez and Tiago Splitter have expiring contracts, but the offseason will be a hit for them.
No matter what, they’re getting a lottery pick in the draft that will likely be in the top 10. Philadelphia is also projected to have up to $56.9 million in cap space to spend on more talent because of the plethora of rookie contracts on the books.
What’s even more exciting? The highly anticipated debut of Ben Simmons with this growing, confident group of talent. If Embiid can get back to where he was after this latest setback, the Sixers could be talking postseason within the next couple of years and maybe even sneak in by 2018.
All they’ve got to do is “Trust the Process.”
There might not be a team in the entire NBA better positioned for long term success than the Boston Celtics.
After fighting and clawing way through key injuries throughout the beginning and middle part of their season, Brad Stevens finds himself and his team sitting atop the Eastern Conference for the first time since the Big Three Era in 2007-08.
Currently riding a four-game winning streak, the key to the Celtics’ success has been taking quality shots and getting to the free throw line. All-Star point guard Isaiah Thomas, who is knocking down 90 percent of his attempts from the stripe in March, has led this charge.
Al Horford has taken it upon himself on both ends of the floor this month. In 12 games, the big man trails only Rudy Gobert in defensive field goal percentage at the rim among centers playing above 30 minutes and defending a high volume of shots, according to SportVU data. Opponents are converting on just 47.3 percent of those shots.
Offensively, Horford ranks fourth at the position in true shooting percentage and effective field goal percentage for March. He’s averaging 22.3 points, 12 rebounds and 9.1 assists per 100 possessions during the month. To put those numbers in perspective, Nikola Jokic is the only other center in the league to do so, and Horford is turning the ball over much less often.
Stevens is also getting the best out of his role players like Jae Crowder and Amir Johnson, who are the top two players in net rating while on the floor. Avery Bradley is pitching in almost 15 points per game since returning from his Achilles injury. Jaylen Brown is playing confidently. Things are clicking right now in Beantown.
The table is set for the future, too. Boston could go as far as winning the NBA Championship this year and will still be the team to watch in the offseason. Losing Johnson will sting, but only Jonas Jerebko and James Young will enter free agency outside of that.
They’re going to retain their core, have over $30 million in cap space and a top three pick in the NBA Draft courtesy of the Brooklyn Nets. Imagine this hypothetical scenario: The Celtics win the league title, sign somebody like Gordon Hayward to a maximum contract and add a potential franchise-changing rookie to the mix to top it off going into next season.
You might not have to imagine it, because it’s the reality of the situation. Danny Ainge is looking at a real chance to build a dynasty in Boston. Maybe this is exactly what the Celtics need to dethrone LeBron James and the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference, but who knows? With the way they’re playing now, that could happen before any of those plans goes into motion.
NBA Daily: Kawhi Leonard Would Look Good In a Knicks Uniform… In 2019
The Knicks need to take a page out of the Sixers’ book… and trust the process.
Don’t get me wrong, Kawhi Leonard and Kyrie Irving would both look great in New York Knick uniforms. Just not now.
Hey, let’s be frank—only a fool does the same thing over and over and expects different results.
Seven years ago, the Knicks the made mistake of trading their farm for a superstar caliber small forward. His name is Carmelo Anthony, and we all know how that story ended.
If you want to make the argument that Leonard is a better player than Anthony was at 27 years old, that’s your right. I won’t argue with you. But one thing that not even Max Kellerman could find a way to argue is that smart teams simply don’t trade assets for players they could ultimately end up getting for free. That’s why Paul George spent last season flanking Russell Westbrook instead of arguing with LaVar Ball.
Sure, Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka haven’t been on the job very long, but if there’s one thing they’ve already shown us is that they’re no newbies. That’s exactly why LeBron James is going to take his talents to Los Angeles in July. But we’ll save that discussion for next week.
As it stands, the Knicks have little aside from Kristaps Porzinigis going for them. With the Latvian unicorn expected to miss the majority of next season, they’ll probably have another lottery pick in the 2019 NBA Draft.
In other words, one year from now, the Knicks will have four of their own lottery picks under contract—Porzingis, Frank Ntilikina, and whichever players they will have selected in 2018 and 2019. Between now and then, the team would be best served scouring the G-League and overseas markets to find cheap help that can contribute at the NBA level.
That type of prudent management will not only help the Knicks in the long run, it will go a long way toward convincing soon-to-be free agents and player agents that Scott Perry and his staff actually know what they’re doing.
Know who will be free agents in July 2019?
If you answered Kawhi Leonard, you’re correct, but you only get partial credit.
The full answer is Kawhi Leonard and Kyrie Irving, the latter of whom has been consistently rumored as having real interest in signing with the Knicks when he’s able to test the market next July. Depending on who you ask, there does seem to be a genuine level of concern that Irving could opt to take his talents elsewhere and if Irving is truly in search of building a legacy, one could fairly conclude that there has to be some level of intrigue.
Irving grew up in the shadows of Madison Square Garden and knows better than most what winning in New York City would do for his legacy. At the end of the day, would one championship in New York make Irving a legendary figure among the likes of Kobe Bryant or LeBron James?
Maybe not, but one thing we can call agree on is that winning in a single championship in New York would do much more for Irving than winning a single championship in Cleveland or even a single title in Boston.
As it stands, fair or not, history will always look at Irving as the “other” player on James’ championship Cavaliers team even though he was the one who made the biggest shot of James’ career.
And with the success of the Celtics this past season, truth be told, Irving helping lead the Celtics to a championship with the team’s current core in place wouldn’t necessarily cement his legacy in the way it would have had we not seen Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown show signs of being franchise-caliber players.
Because Irving is a shoot-first guard, he’s (rather unfairly) earned a reputation of someone who doesn’t make his teammates better. Because of the circumstances, he’s now in a bit of a catch-22. He’ll get less of the credit than he’ll deserve if the Celtics manage to win an NBA title and more of the blame than he’ll deserve if they fail to.
Kemba Walker—the only “true” All-Star caliber New Yorker in the NBA—and Long Island product Tobias Harris will also each be free come July 2019. Jimmy Butler, Khris Middleton, Kevin Love and Nikola Vucevic, also.
It’d be one thing if the Knicks were one piece away from potentially winning the Eastern Conference, but with or without Kawhi Leonard, they’re light years away.
What makes most sense for the Knicks is to continue to stay the course, manage their cap intelligently, hit home runs with each of their next two lottery picks and try to find a way to trade Courtney Lee and Joakim Noah.
Depending on what happens with Kristaps Porzingis, it’s very possible that the Knicks could find themselves with enough cap room to sign two maximum-salaried free agents. Between now and then, they’d also have the opportunity to add a free attractive young pieces that would likely go a long way toward convincing players of Leonard’s ilk to entrust his legacy to the capable hands of the front office.
In other words, if the Knicks have truly learned anything from the futility of their recent past, it’s that they should try to be more like Magic Johnson’s Lakers than like the Knicks we’ve come to know.
Believe it or not, if the Knicks play their card rights and decide to stay the course and patiently rebuild as opposed to splurging for minimal gains, the unthinkable could happen…
They may actually prove themselves worthy of the attention of a marquee free agent.
Or, in this case, two of them.
Ranking the Free Agents – Power Forwards
Basketball Insiders continues to evaluate the top free agents at each position. David Yapkowitz breaks down the power forwards.
This week at Basketball Insiders, we’re taking a look at the top free agents set to the open market in just a few weeks. We’ve already covered the point guards, shooting guards, and small forwards. Now we check in with the power forwards.
There may only be a few power forwards who can probably expect a max or near max deal this summer, but there are quite a few guys that, for the right price, can end up being difference makers on a team next season.
Before getting into the actual free agents, here’s a look at what the salary cap numbers project to be. The NBA’s salary cap is expected to jump to $101 million this offseason. Based on that, here are the projected numbers for max contracts:
$25,250,000 for players with 0-6 years of experience
$30,300,000 for players with 7-9 years of experience
$35,350,000 for players with 10+ years of experience
Max/Near Max Guys
Julius Randle* – Los Angeles Lakers – Last Year’s Salary: $4,149,242
Julius Randle is definitely in line for a bigger payday this summer. The fourth-year forward turned in his best NBA season yet and was arguably the Lakers best player for most of the year. He played in all 82 games with 49 starts.
He put up career-high numbers across the board with 16.1 points per game on 55.8 percent shooting from the field. Most of Randle’s scoring comes in the paint where his “bully” ball type game has proven quite effective. He has an improving jump shot and at 23 years old, he still has his best years ahead of him.
He will be a restricted free agent, giving the Lakers the ability to match any offer he receives, but doing so could come at the expense of signing two max-level free agents as has been the team’s plan. It’s going to be an interesting dilemma for the Lakers as Randle most likely will attract interest right away from potential suitors thus forcing the Lakers hand early on in free agency.
Aaron Gordon* – Orlando Magic – Last Year’s Salary: $5,504,420
Aaron Gordon will also most likely receive a max or near max contract his summer. Early in the season when the Orlando Magic started out hot, Gordon was playing like an All-Star and even a borderline MVP candidate.
The Magic’s play then went rapidly south, but Gordon finished the season averaging 17.6 points per game, 7.9 rebounds and 2.3 assists, all career-highs. At the beginning of the season, he displayed a much improved three-point shot. The Magic have tried him at small forward before, but he’s a natural at power forward.
Gordon is also a restricted free agent allowing the Magic to match any offer. At age 22, he should also have his best years ahead of him. For a team like the Magic, in need of talent and quality young players, re-signing Gordon is probably ideal. But it’s also important to note that the Magic have a newer front office in place, one that did not draft Gordon. It’s also possible that John Hammond and Jeff Weltman might want to shape the roster in their vision.
Above Mid-Level Guys
Jabari Parker* – Milwaukee Bucks – Last Season’s Salary: $6,782,392
Jabari Parker is perhaps one of the most interesting and intriguing names on the free agent market. A former No. 2 overall pick, as a rookie Parker looked like he was definitely part of the Bucks growing young core. Unfortunately for him, injuries struck him hard as he suffered two ACL tears during a three-year period.
This season, he struggled a bit to find a role with the Bucks. There’s no question that if he’s healthy, he’d be quite an asset to any team. He represents the new breed of power forward with a perimeter game. Prior to his injuries, he’d almost assuredly be a max contract guy. It’s a bit difficult to imagine any team willing to pay him anywhere close to that now.
The Bucks have the option to match any contract offer he gets as he is a restricted free agent. It’s conceivable that they would do so as it will probably take a massive offer to pry Parker away from the Bucks. It’s unlikely that any team is willing to go that high.
Thaddeus Young** – Indiana Pacers – Last Season’s Salary: $14,796,348
Thaddeus Young could be another intriguing power forward on the free agent market. The thing with Young is he has a player option he could choose to exercise and become a free agent. Never an All-Star, Young has been a steady and dependable player his entire career.
His numbers were a bit under his career averages this season. He put up 11.8 points per game on 48.7 percent shooting from the field and he pulled down 6.3 rebounds. Nevertheless, he remained an important part of the Pacers rotation, especially on the defensive end.
Should he hit the open market, there likely wouldn’t be any shortage of suitors.
Derrick Favors – Utah Jazz – Last Season’s Salary: $12,000,000
Ed Davis – Portland Trail Blazers – Last Season’s Salary: $6,352,531
Montrezl Harrell* – Los Angeles Clippers – Last Season’s Salary: $1,471,382
Mid-Level Or Below Guys
Mike Scott – Washington Wizards – Last Season’s Salary: $1,471,382
Ersan Ilyasova – Philadelphia 76ers – Last Season’s Salary: $357,454
Trevor Booker – Indiana Pacers – Last Season’s Salary: $332,516
David West – Golden State Warriors – Last Season’s Salary: $1,471,382
Nemanja Bjelica* – Minnesota Timberwolves – Last Season’s Salary: $3,949,999
Kevon Looney – Golden State Warriors – Last Season’s Salary: $1,471,382
Mike Muscala** – Atlanta Hawks – Last Season’s Salary: $5,000,000
Amir Johnson – Philadelphia 76ers – Last Season’s Salary: $11,000,000
Channing Frye – Los Angeles Lakers – Last Season’s Salary: $7,420,912
Quincy Acy – Brooklyn Nets – Last Season’s Salary: $1,709,538
*Qualifying Offer (If made, the player becomes a restricted free agent.)
**Player Option (The player has the choice of whether to opt-in for another year with his current team or opt-out to become an unrestricted free agent.)
NBA Daily: Four International Prospects Worth Stashing
While much of the international buzz has fallen on Luka Dončić, there are four other overseas prospects worth keeping your eye on.
Without fail, mock drafts come and go all spring with little mention of potential international draftees. It makes perfect sense. Not every overseas athlete can get the buzz of Real Madrid’s Luka Dončić — or, in most cases, even that of Élie Okobo and Džanan Musa, two international prospects with decent chances of going in the first round next week. Still, would it surprise you to know that seven international draftees were taken in the second round in 2017? Or that 2016 went one better and reached eight? In fact, 2015 saw 10 foreign-born prospects get selected after pick No. 30 — so this is a trend, not an aberration.
Granted, a handful of those draftees haven’t and will not ever play meaningful NBA minutes — but the point still very much stands. However, outside of those aforementioned three — Dončić, Okobo and Musa — even the most-educated of fans would be hard-pressed to rattle off four more transatlantic options. Luckily, Basketball Insiders has your back. Memorize these easily-digestible profiles to impress your friends and family during the NBA Draft — you can thank us later.
Isaac Bonga, Germany — Fraport Skyliners
Age: 18 — Height: 6-foot-9 — Position: SG/SF
Last Mock Rank: No. 39 to Philadelphia
By most accounts, Bonga will be drafted next week — so, admittedly, he’s not the deepest cut on this list. But if the German isn’t on many casual radars just yet, he should be soon enough. His statistics are hardly remarkable — Bonga averaged just six points, three rebounds and 2.3 assists per game in 2017-18 — but his physical measurements project him as a difference-maker. Standing at 6-foot-9, the 18-year-old talent has some legitimate playmaking abilities already. Of course, overseas highlight reels have proven to be misleading time and time again — but watch this timestamped move from last summer’s FIBA U19 Basketball World Cup and try not to get too excited.
Comparing Bonga to other size-aided court generals is weak at best, but he also boasts a seven-foot wingspan, shoots 92.1 percent from the free throw line and his on-court vision is noteworthy for a teenager. Bonga’s best individual performance of the season came against Eisbären Bremerhaven, where he notched 16 points, five rebounds, two assists, two steals and two blocks on 2-for-2 from three-point range. Given his current stature, he won’t be limited to just defending one or two positions if he bulks up over the next couple years either. There’s no guarantee that Bonga will make it professionally in America, but there are some compelling reasons to take a wait-and-see approach with this capable youngster.
Rodions Kurucs, Latvia — FC Barcelona
Age: 20 — Height: 6-foot-9 — Position: SF
Last Mock Rank: No. 37 to Sacramento
Originally, Kurucs had considered coming over last season after scoring 9.5 points per game for FC Barcelona II. Although raw, the then-19-year-old was a projected late first-rounder for much of the workout process — but he ultimately opted to head back to Spain for another year. In 2017-18, his counting statistics improved nominally, but he finally spent time with FC Barcelona, one of Europe’s top clubs. Unfortunately, that’s also where things begin to get a bit tricky.
Between his allegedly expensive buyout and Barcelona freely swapping Kurucs between their two clubs to keep him away from visiting scouts, the Latvian is now widely seen as a second-round pick across the board. He had until June 11 to withdraw his name, but — perhaps knowing that things will forever remain difficult in Spain — is just going to make the most of a bad situation. Even with his up-and-downs, Kurucs is often a crafty scorer that can go both inside and outside with the ball.
Although Kurucs has two-way potential, make no mistake, the offense is the prospect’s bread and butter. As we’ve learned in recent years, the NBA will always find room for deadeye shooters and that’s what Kurucs may eventually bring to the table. The talent is here for Kurucs but his long-term NBA future likely depends on which franchise he lands with.
Issuf Sanon, Ukraine — Petrol Olimpija
Age: 18 — Height: 6-foot-3 — Position: G
Last Mock Rank: No. 57 to Oklahoma City
Qualifying as one of the more under the radar options, Sanon is a Ukrainian baller currently playing for Petrol Olimpija in Slovenia. In 2017-18, Sanon averaged six points, 2.6 rebounds and 1.1 steals over 20.2 minutes per game and presently projects as a combo guard. Although his professional moments have offered glimpses of an NBA-worthy path, Sanon made his biggest mark last summer at the FIBA U18 European Championship. In what would become his breakout tournament, Sanon averaged 19.3 points, 6.1 rebounds and 2.7 assists over seven games.
During a slim two-point defeat to Turkey in the Round of 16, Sanon tallied 27 points, five rebounds, four assists, three steals and made three of his five attempts from deep. He’ll need to continue developing at the three-point line — he shot just 29.3 percent this season — but Sanon looks like he could be a viable 3-and-D candidate down the road. That said, like many international second-rounders, it’s unlikely that Sanon will come over for a few years at least. But if he keeps developing at this rate, drafting and stashing Sanon would be a shrewd move for any franchise.
Arnoldas Kulboka, Lithuania — Capo d’Orlando
Age: 20 — Height: 6-foot-9 — Position: F
Last Mock Rank: Unranked
Last but not least, there’s Arnoldas Kulboka — a long-ranged assassin with the numbers to back it up. In 2017-18, Kulboka went on loan to Capo d’Orlando of Serie A, a club with which he quickly found success. He was even named Best Young Player in the Basketball Champions League, a new, FIBA-led, European-wide competition. At the 2017 U19 Basketball World Cup, Kulboka averaged 13.7 points, 3.9 rebounds and two assists over seven games. As an athletic, microwavable shooter, Kulboka naturally goes through bouts of inconsistency — but when he’s on, the Lithuanian appears like a tremendous prospect. In the tournament opener against Germany, Kulboka dropped 25 points, eight rebounds and five assists on 5-for-8 from downtown. What else could you want?
On the flip side, during Lithuania’s quarterfinal defeat at the hands of Italy, Kulboka scored just five points on 1-for-15 shooting — so there’s certainly still room to improve. Given his NBA-ready range and his perfect fit in a modern offensive system, those facets alone make Kulboka worth considering. Regardless, success at the international level from an early age is not always an indicator of future achievements, that much should be obvious. But for a mid-to-late second rounder, franchises could do far worse than stashing Kulboka.
While there’s no promise that everybody on this list will even join the NBA someday, they’ve all proved that their names should be known heading into draft week. From former FIBA standouts to those with positionless potential, these four overseas standouts could be difference-makers in the forthcoming years.