Connect with us

NBA

The Boston Celtics and Analytical Blind Spots

Ben Dowsett explains why the Boston Celtics haven’t played as well as projection models predicted.

Ben Dowsett

Published

on

The Boston Celtics entered this season as a token guinea pig for what’s become a yearly game of tug-of-war between “analytics” people and “old-school” members of the business – a microcosm of which side is “winning.” As silly as this practice has always been (since the incredible majority of real NBA movers and shakers aren’t split along such contrived party lines and use some combination of all information available to them), the Celtics were honestly something of a perfect proxy for the Twitter wars that seem to build around a couple players or teams every year.

Many numerically-inclined observers viewed Boston as the team that differed most from popular consensus for preseason expectations. Where more traditional analysts saw a pretty similar team to last season, a well-coached outfit that wouldn’t be an easy nightly out but wouldn’t make any serious waves in the East, many predictive models saw a budding power. The Celtics were projected in the high-40 win range by multiple popular projection systems, including at fivethirtyeight and Nylon Calculus, two of several models that had them as a top-three seed in the conference.

Roughly a quarter of the way into the season, the mathematicians are coming up short – but not by as much as the raw standings would indicate, and perhaps not in the ways some would expect. The factors that led many analysts to project gaudy totals have held true in some cases, but have fallen well short in the ones that may define the larger picture.

Much of what drove the positive end of projections was depth. The Celtics entered the year with a minimum of nine guys on the roster who did well in at least one major predictive metric, and this aggregation drove the way models viewed them. And in a broad sense, this has been at least partly correct. Boston may only be 14-11 and occupying the same seventh seed they ended up with last season, but their underlying metrics indicate a stronger cumulative team – the Celtics are seventh in the NBA for adjusted net rating, per basketball-reference.com, and sixth for both margin of victory and the same site’s Simple Rating System (averages point differential and strength of schedule).

Depth is nothing if used incorrectly, and the Celts may only be keeping things close due to coach Brad Stevens. A regular chess master at work, Stevens is already one of the best in the game at identifying the exact niche his players will best occupy, then fitting them into it in concert with game context and situational awareness. A quick glance at his most frequently used lineups on the year reveals the degree to which he’s been comfortable mixing and matching – you have to go scroll down to Boston’s ninth-most used five-man unit to find one that’s been outscored per-possession on the year, but nine different players are present in at least one of these top eight groups.

Finding even a minor misuse of talent on Boston’s roster is a chore. Isaiah Thomas operates optimally with the ball frequently in his hands and savvy screeners on the floor; he plays most in these exact alignments (Marcus Smart’s injury shook things up a bit here, to be fair). Kelly Olynyk has defensive limitations; he almost never sees time in units that could expose these to too great an extent. Shoot, Stevens has made a near-capable swingman out of Evan Turner, written off in many NBA circles more than once over the last few years.

The Celtics play smart ball that leverages their advantages and works to minimize their weaknesses. Their percentage of assisted baskets is among the highest in the league, a nod to Stevens’ precise scheme that does its best without anything even approximating a true offensive centerpiece. They’re not a good rebounding team overall mostly due to personnel, but crash the offensive glass smartly and selectively – they “chase” the sixth-highest percentage of their own misses in the league, per Nylon Calculus data, but allow the fourth-fewest transition points against, a sign that they’re conscious of the trade-off and not being destroyed by it.

Boston is a bad shooting team, plain and simple. They’re dead last in the league for shooting percentage on open jumpers outside 10 feet (no defender within four feet), per NBASavant, even trailing the Philadelphia 76ers. There’s only so much Stevens, or any coach, can do to mitigate this, though he has his team at a defensive level one can hardly imagine possible for this group of players, which helps a lot.

The shooting issues, and really any areas of individual deficiency up and down the roster, are where cracks started to form in the predictive analysis of the team. Models can account for the fact that the Celtics don’t cumulatively have great shooting, of course, but it’s much tougher for them to define the way specific pieces will combine in ways that can help make up for that kind of issue elsewhere. It’s the entire crux of many folks’ issue with the numbers revolution in the first place: You can never totally quantitatively account for the way a group of pieces fits together.

The common line of thought goes that Boston hasn’t hit pay dirt until they land a true star, but this is backward. In reality, the question ought to be, “Can the Celtics beat star-driven teams?” Can the unique makeup of their roster that saw so many projections high on them be effectively molded into an incarnation that can challenge the LeBrons, Stephs and Durants of the league?

This is where they’ve been underwhelming to this point, and where it becomes realistic to wonder about placing a team like this in the same category as some of the elite teams, or even close. A collection of good to great talent is nice, but only five guys can be on the NBA court at one time – in a more specific context with a smaller sample, that depth starts to matter much less than the advantage a guy like LeBron brings over any of the five Boston can put on the floor.

A few games shouldn’t define this theme, but some recent results have given opponents of the predictive models a lot of ammo. The Celts were the more disciplined and often better team in a process-driven sense Tuesday night against the Cleveland Cavaliers, but were still run off the court by a group with a level they just couldn’t get to. Losses to the Golden State Warriors (by five) and the San Antonio Spurs (by three) in the last couple weeks have seen similar trends. The Celtics have underachieved their Pythagorean win expectation by two already on the year – a sign that they’ve lost a couple games their overall point differential indicates they should have won. Boston is 9-1 against sub-.500 teams and just 5-11 versus winning ones.

Look, this isn’t any kind of condemnation of any predictive modeling, or these models in particular. Their creators would all be quick to say that nothing in their projections was so outlandish as to suggest the Celtics were title contenders, or that they should regularly be butting heads with the elite teams in the league and coming out on top. As the smart statisticians they are, the makers of the above-noted models even went to lengths to note the possibility of this sort of gap between projections and reality. It’s also still easily early enough for small sample to be mentioned.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the way Danny Ainge has assembled this team, especially given that his greatest assets in the chest aren’t even on-court ones. The Celtics would be as well-positioned as any team in the league if, say, DeMarcus Cousins became available for a gigantic package. This current iteration is by no means the final result of the work Ainge and his team have done in recent years.

Still, should some of these underlying trends continue over a longer stretch with the current group, they’re a convenient reminder to all of us that basketball is much more than a collection of assets that accumulates to one final tally. The models can struggle with items like chemistry and roles, among other details. While there’s a gigantic chasm between this reality and the “analytics are useless” garbage only clowns are still spewing, it’s good to be reminded every now and then that even the most expertly curated stat-based analysis will have blind spots.

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

Advertisement




Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

NBA

NBA Daily: 8 Free Agents – Pacific Division

David Yapkowitz ventures west to continue Basketball Insiders’ Free Agent series with the Pacific Division.

David Yapkowitz

Published

on

Basketball is postponed indefinitely, and while there’s no exact timetable on when the NBA season may or may not start up again, there is certainly plenty to still talk about.

This week at Basketball Insiders, we’ve got you covered. Regardless of what ends up happening with the season, free agency is certainly going to be a major talking point. Now, there isn’t much star power that will be available this offseason, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t players here or there that could move the needle a bit for some teams.

Moving right along with our free agent series, here’s a look at some of the top free agents that could be available in the offseason.

Difference Makers

Montrezl Harrell, Los Angeles Clippers – Unrestricted – $6,000,000

Admittedly, it’s hard to envision a scenario where Montrezl Harrell isn’t in a Clipper uniform. His career has exploded since arriving in Los Angeles, and he’s an integral piece to any championship hopes the Clippers have. He’s good enough to start for many other teams, and he often finishes games.

There’s no doubt that he’s lined himself up for a nice payday. There will be other teams interested in his services. The Clippers will need to be prepared for the offers he’ll receive. He’s a legit double-double threat who doesn’t need the ball in his hands to be effective. He’s an improved defender and incredibly mobile.

Clippers owner Steve Ballmer has said he’s willing to open up his wallet for a contender. This will be his first major test in keeping the core of this group together. Harrell’s role is part of what makes the Clippers so dangerous, and they can’t afford to lose him.

Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers – Player Option – $27,093,018

Davis is another player whom it’s difficult to see leaving his current team. There are only a few teams projected to have cap space this summer, and none of them are anywhere close to being the contending team Davis wants. Nonetheless, he’s been adamant about exercising his player option and entering free agency.

He declined an extension with the Lakers back in January, but that’s not something to read too much into. He is eligible to sign for more money as an unrestricted free agent than if he would’ve signed the extension.

One team, however, that is projected to have cap space is the New York Knicks. If you recall, when Davis initially released a short list of teams he wanted to be traded to, the Knicks were on that list. His hometown Chicago Bulls should have space as well. Don’t hold your breath on him leaving the Lakers, but stranger things have happened.

Key Pieces

Dario Saric, Phoenix Suns – Restricted – $3,481,916

Saric is in an interesting situation. He was once touted as being part of “The Process” in Philadelphia, but now he’s become more of an afterthought in the league. The Suns have the option to tender a qualifying offer which would make him a restricted free agent and give Phoenix the option to match any offer.

He’s a useful player who could help a number of teams. A mobile big perfect for small ball offenses who shoots the three at a decent percentage. He had fallen out of the rotation in Phoenix earlier in the season, but prior to the NBA being put on hold, he had managed to work his way back into the lineup.

He’s still relatively young at 25 years old. There will most likely be interest around the league. It’s up to Phoenix to decide how much they’re willing to invest in him — and if they potentially have his replacement already on the roster in someone like Cam Johnson.

Bogdan Bogdanovic, Sacramento Kings – Restricted – $8,529,386

Bogdanovic drew some heavy interest at the trade deadline, and the Kings rebuffed any offer. They clearly see him as one of their core players. He was having a solid year, especially during the second half of the season when he was placed in the starting lineup.

He’s a combo guard who can play a little small forward as well. He’s a good shooter and a willing passer. The Kings have already let it be known that they intend to match any offer he receives. That’s not to say other teams would be dissuaded from making an offer.

A big part of the Dewayne Dedmon deal with the Atlanta Hawks was having an eye towards clearing up potential cap space to re-sign Bogdanovic. To show that they’re on the right path, the Kings must re-sign him and match any offer he gets.

Marcus Morris, Los Angeles Clippers – Unrestricted – $15,000,000

Morris has fit right in with the Clippers since arriving at the trade deadline from the New York Knicks. He gives them another scoring threat as well as a solid defensive presence. Before the trade, he was enjoying a career-year in New York and had other teams willing to trade for him.

Depending on what happens with Harrell, could Morris be priced out of the Clippers range? The Clippers have also let it be known that they would like to re-sign Morris as well, but part of that might depend on what other offers are out there.

Morris can help a lot of teams, and the Clippers would definitely be better with him than without. But they shouldn’t break the bank on him if that’s what it’s going to take in order to re-sign him.

Aron Baynes, Phoenix Suns – Unrestricted – $3,481,986

Not a lot of fuss was made when the Boston Celtics traded Baynes to Phoenix last summer. But when Deandre Ayton was suspended at the beginning of the season, not only did Baynes step in to fill the void, he was also on his way to earning a solid payday in the offseason.

He’s a tough, physical player who plays strong defense and is active on the glass. This season, in particular, he showed off a new ability to shoot from three-point range. Unfortunately for him, he suffered injury problems and then saw his role decreased when Ayton returned to the lineup, putting a damper on his production.

It’s hard to tell if any potential contract offer would be hindered based on his performance in the second half of the season, or if teams will look at his early play as evidence of what he could do with extended minutes and more of a defined role. Ayton is the future though at center for the Suns, and unless Baynes is willing to sign for less and play a backup role, the Suns should allow him to walk.

Potential Bargains

Kent Bazemore, Sacramento Kings – Unrestricted – $19,269,662

Bazemore is due around $19 million this season. It’s highly likely he doesn’t get a contract that big this offseason. He was talked about as a potential buyout candidate after the trade deadline, but Sacramento opted to keep him.

His overall production has gone down from when he initially signed his deal with the Atlanta Hawks, but that doesn’t mean he’s not still a serviceable player. In 21 games with the Kings, he put up 10.3 points per game while shooting 38.6 percent from three.

He can help a team, especially a playoff contender, off the bench. At this point, the Kings have younger options at his position and will need to re-sign Bogdanovic. He could end up being a steal for a team.

Harry Giles, Sacramento Kings – Unrestricted – $2,578,800

Giles was once one of the most highly touted prospects in the country. Unfortunately for him, he suffered injury setbacks and hasn’t quite been able to carve out a role in the NBA. His time with the Kings has marred by setbacks, and the team declined his fourth-year option before the season began.

As per the CBA, the Kings are limited in only being able to offer Giles a one-year, $4 million contract. Other teams are free to offer whatever they want. When he was given playing time after the trade deadline, he finally looked like he was turning the corner and becoming a productive NBA player, and then the season was put on hold.

The last couple months of the season would’ve been huge for Giles’ contract outlook. If he would’ve maintained that level of play, there would be no doubt he would have earned himself a new contract. For now, he’s going to have to hope that will be enough. He’s still extremely talented and extremely young. It’s not going to break the bank to sign him and any team looking to take a flier on a potential low-risk, high-reward player, this is their opportunity.

Continue Reading

NBA

NBA Daily: 8 Free Agents – Atlantic Division

Drew Maresca continues Basketball Insiders’ Free Agent series with a look at the best free agents from the Atlantic Division.

Drew Maresca

Published

on

To say the events of the past three or so weeks were irregular would be the understatement of the year. And during an already tragic year for the NBA, the league made the tough choice to postpone the season, prior to government intervention, on Wednesday, Mar. 11.

In the two-plus weeks since the COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent shutdowns, players have continued to entertain the league’s fans in creative and interactive ways. But watching our favorites play Call of Duty is no substitute for NBA action. Considering the remainder of the 2019-20 season isn’t a given at this point, Basketball Insiders has instead shifted its focus on the next guaranteed league-wide event – free agency.

Ben Nadeau covered the best free agents from the Northwest Division on Tuesday, while Spencer Davies identified the best free agents available from the Central Division yesterday. Next, let’s shift our focus to the Atlantic Division.

The Atlantic Division’s class is lacking true star power. There is no Anthony Davis, Mike Conley or Paul Milsap, either – and most of the established talent in the Atlantic is locked up well beyond 2020. But what the division lacks in established free agents, it makes up for in promise. A number of the following players are younger guys who have yet to fulfill their full potential and there might even be a few future All-Stars listed below.

So, for the next five or so minutes, forget about everything going on outside and dive into a rundown of the best free agents the Atlantic Division has to offer.

Most Likely To Be Priced Out Of His Current Team

Fred VanVleet, Toronto Raptors – Unrestricted – $9,346,153

Without question, VanVleet will be the most sought-after free agent from the Atlantic Division this offseason, whenever that is.

VanVleet turned 26 years old last month and was originally signed by the Raptors after going undrafted in 2016. He’s accumulated approximately $20 million in career earnings. While that’s better than more than 99% of us, his next contract will probably feature two commas and eight zeroes – that’s the kind of money most of us can’t fathom. And while there should be at least one more big payday for VanVleet after this one, the uncertainty of recent events might convince himself to secure his family sooner rather than later.

All indications point to VanVleet’s satisfaction with Toronto, too. He had this to say about his impending free agency last October in an interview on Sportsnet’s Tim & Sid: “But, I mean, I’ve been on record about how I feel about this place,” the fourth-year guard said. “This organization knows how I feel about this place. So in a perfect world, we know what would happen.”

But in light of the volatility in global financial markets, does Toronto still believe that it can successfully build a contender around VanVleet and Pascal Siakam, knowing that it might be impossible to add more top-tier talent?

VanVleet is arguably the best point guard prospect in the 2020 class. While some teams will feel like paying more than $25 million per season for VanVleet is overkill given his height and limited athletic ability – others will see his season-to-season development, scrappiness and clutch play as more than worth it.

Most Likely To Look Elsewhere Due To Coaching Change

Joe Harris, Brooklyn Nets – Unrestricted – $7,666,667

Harris’s situation is similar to VanVleet’s. Harris was the 33rd overall selection in the 2014 NBA Draft by way of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Despite being in the league for two more years than VanVleet, they’ve made approximately the same total amount in career earnings.

Harris’ star has also never been brighter, except for maybe last season. He posted career highs in points (13.9), rebounds (4.3) and minutes per game (30.9) in 2019-20. He also shot a more-than-respectable 41.2 percent on 5.9 three-point attempts per game this season, down from a ridiculous 47.4 percent in 2018-19. And he did all this inside the flow of the offense.

So why would the Nets let Harris leave, you ask? They won’t, if it is up to them. Harris is an unrestricted free agent, so where he plays next year and beyond is entirely up to him.

Why, then, might Harris explore leaving the Nets, a team with whom he would almost certainly compete for a championship next season? He probably wouldn’t have – until Mar. 7, when the Nets mutually parted ways with head coach Kenny Atkinson. Atkinson was the Nets coach for Harris’ entire tenure with the team, while the latter was a huge supporter of the former.

Additionally, there are the inevitable disruptions that playing alongside megastars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving will bring – like decreased role and increased media scrutiny. Still, Brooklyn gave him a home after he was unceremoniously dumped in the G League — so, for now, only time will tell.

Most Likely To Prefer A Fresh Start  

Allonzo Trier, New York Knicks — Restricted — $3.551,100

Judging by Trier’s body language and decreased availability in the Knicks’ locker room in 2019-20, it’s safe to assume that he was less-than-pleased in New York this season.

He entered the NBA last season as an accomplished scorer whose draft stock took a hit after testing positive for Ostarine, a performance-enhancing drug. And despite inconsistent playing time, Trier’s rookie campaign reinforced the idea that he was more prepared to score at the professional level than scouts and executives thought. He averaged 10.9 points over 22.8 minutes per game during his rookie campaign and most people around the team felt he would develop into a dependable sixth man capable of providing off-the-bench punch.

But Trier’s role changed this year and he has played in 24 of the Knicks’ 66 games and posted just 6.5 points in 12.1 minutes per game.

Trier is already 24, older than most sophomores. But he’s also played for the Knicks, whose rotations have impeded the progress of a number of other younger players in the recent past (see: Frank Ntilikina). It would be shocking if new team president Leon Rose prioritizes a long-term deal for a player that’s been out of the rotation all season when the Knicks have so many other holes to fill.

But fear not, Iso-Zo fans, someone will take a chance on Trier. And he’ll look significantly better on a playoff roster, capitalizing on the spacing that talent affords.

Most Likely To Seek One Last Payday

Serge Ibaka, Toronto Raptors – Unrestricted – $23,271,604

The Raptors are a tough team to peg. In spite of many proposing a rebuild in the days post-Kawhi Leonard, Toronto played out 2019-20 with their roster as is. As of the most recent day of the season, the Raptors were 46-18 – good for the third-best record in the entire league.

But like most great minds, team president Masai Ujiri is probably motivated by succeeding at seemingly impossible challenges – like a full-on rebuild. And this might be his best shot. The Raptors have a number of players entering unrestricted free agency, including headliners like Ibaka, Marc Gasol and Fred VanVleet.

While the VanVleet situation is probably out of the team’s control, Ibaka and Gasol are realistic returnees – so long as it’s desired by the Raptors.

Gasol fits the profile of someone that can be brought back on an inexpensive deal. He’s already 35 and would dictate far less on the open market than Ibaka. On the other hand, Ibaka is somehow only 30 and played incredibly well in 2019-20, averaging 16 points and 8.3 rebounds over 27.5 minutes per game.

While his defensive prowess isn’t what it once was, he’s still more than serviceable and makes up for any regression with three-point shooting (39.8 percent) and versatility.

With tough financial decisions ahead, the Raptors will probably let Ibaka walk without making too strong of a recruiting pitch. But what team offers him the kind of money that lures him out of Canada is anyone’s guess.

Most Likely To Leave Early To Cash In On A Weak Class

Gordon Hayward, Boston Celtics — Player Option — $32,700,690

This one is probably a stretch. Elfrid Payton is more likely to be cut loose by New York, as is Bobby Portis and Wayne Ellington. Further, Brad Wanamaker is more likely to leave Boston than Hayward. But it’s infinitely more fun to consider the possibility of Hayward fleeing Beantown, isn’t it?

This concept is complicated by two key points: Hayward won’t command anywhere near the $34 million he’ll walk away from next season, while he’s probably never been happier with a coaching staff considering coach Brad Stevens was also his college leader at Butler.

But there’s a key incentive driving this hypothetical, too –  if Hayward opts out, he can guarantee himself a multi-year contract worth more in 2020 than he’ll be able to negotiate in the competitive class of 2021. And in the eternal words of DJ Quick, if it don’t make dollars, then it don’t make sense.

It may even be the right time for Hayward to seek a new contract, too. He’s scoring 17 or more points per game for the first time since 2016-17. Better, he’s proven to be healthy, score in bunches and make players for those around him. The long-time Jazz-standout is now averaging 17.3 points, 6.5 rebounds and 4.1 assists in 33.4 minutes per game – all as he shoots 39.2 percent on three-pointers and slightly above 50 percent from the field.

And if Boston is unwilling to spend because it understands future needs like Jayson Tatum must be met, the situation between Hayward and the Celtics can become contentious.

Most Likely To Split For A More Defined Role

Glen Robinson III, Philadelphia 76ers — Unrestricted – $1,882,867

Dust-ups happen and teams and players do their best to publicly make nice afterward for the greater good. Basketball Insiders’ own Spencer Davies broke the news in February that Robinson III was confused with his role in Philadelphia.

The 76ers are well-stocked at the wing position and, as a 26-year-old journeyman, Robinson III certainly knows that he’ll only get so many opportunities to cash out in the NBA. The Athletic recently reported that Robinson III is not ruling out a return to the Warriors despite the presence of Andrew Wiggins, and he’ll obviously explore other situations, too. Already though, his time in Philadelphia looks like a thing of the past.

Robinson III finally broke double-figures in scoring this season at 11.8 per game. He also set career highs in assists (1.6 per game) and rebounds (4.3), while hitting a career-best 48.6 percent from the field. Wherever he signs, Robinson III will be a relatively-inexpensive and serviceable bench player who could develop into a regular part of a rotation.

Most Likely To Chase The Biggest Opportunity

Alec Burks, Philadelphia 76ers — Unrestricted — $2,320,044

Burks is the most established of the remaining free agents on this list. He averaged 10.7 points per game this season — but he’s proven he can do more, like the year he put up 16.1 over 48 games with Golden State in 2019-20. Burks is an inconsistent defender, but he’s shown flashes of competency on that side as of late. Still, what he adds offensively typically outweighs his defensive limitations.

Burks has been set back by a series of injuries and he’s already 28 years old, so it’s unlikely he’ll expand past much more than he’s done thus far. But that’s more than enough for a number of contending teams in need of scoring off the bench.

He can always fall back on Philadelphia given their need for depth, but his scoring punch should enable a deal beyond the likes of that franchise can afford. If he’s stuck between offers, Burks will probably go with whichever team offers him the biggest role.

Maurice Harkless, New York Knicks — Unrestricted — $11,011,236

The eight-year NBA veteran has averaged 7.2 points, 3.7 rebounds and 1 steal per game throughout his entire career. Beyond that, Harkless’ per-36 numbers are surprisingly consistent year-to-year, which, long story short, means that you know what you’re getting in the established wing.

But that’s not a bad thing as Harkless is an above-average defender. He’s long and versatile, possessing the ability to switch in most pick-and-roll scenarios. Further, Harkless doesn’t require touches, but he can score when needed.

The February trade that landed Harkless in New York probably threw a wrench in his already up-in-the-air plans. He didn’t spend enough time with the Knicks to gauge the rotations, while it’s assumed that the coaching and overall roster will undergo a major revamp this offseason regardless. In that case, Harkless will probably leave New York and he’ll have a number of suitors.

The Atlantic Division’s free agents might lack star power, but there are some big-time role players available. Some will walk with big money, whereas others will be forced to settle for less than they’d hoped — but that’s what free agency is all about right, isn’t it?

Regardless of who gets what, we can all agree that the world is a better place when basketball is being played. Stay tuned as Basketball Insiders continues our free agent series tomorrow.

Continue Reading

NBA

NBA Daily: 8 Free Agents – Central Division

Spencer Davies continues Basketball Insiders’ Free Agent series with a look at the best names coming out of the Central Division.

Spencer Davies

Published

on

Well, this has certainly been difficult.

As we enter week two of however many weeks (or months) it will take for the world’s on-switch to be flipped up by a metaphorical finger, the game of basketball is sorely missed. There’s an unknown within all of this, which makes it even harder to grasp.

But those three sentences will be the only negative spin I’ll be putting on this forward-moving piece. As Benny Nadeau astutely illustrated our current situation in these times, he also kicked off Basketball Insiders’ Free Agent series with the Northwest Division, so that’s what we’re here to continue along with the Central…sans the Mad Max references.

Before we get started, let’s just get this out of the way: If you’re looking for “sexy” names on this list, you won’t find many of them. What you will see are players who have burst onto the scene as recently as this season — perfect timing for a free agent market that is going to be scarce in star-level talent, yet plentiful in complementary and secondary pieces that can help complete a puzzle if the fit is right.

Improbable, But Not Impossible

Andre Drummond, Cleveland Cavaliers – Player Option – $27,950,198

This first name contradicts everything that was typed in the introduction. Drummond is a two-time All-Star center and a sexy name. He is bar-none the best rebounder in the NBA and has been consistent since he stepped foot in the league. He works wonders in the pick-and-roll game and provides a forceful presence on the interior. He’s a much-improved ball-handler in open floor opportunities and can start a fastbreak with ease. He’s even shown *signs* — heavy emphasis on the asterisks — of expanding his range to the perimeter.

With all that said though, is Drummond willing to walk away from $28.7 million in 2020? Contending teams that he’d likely prefer won’t have all that much money to spend this upcoming offseason. In addition, the league is trending towards versatility as opposed to the traditional type of big man, which he fits the mold of. Would a franchise gamble a pricey long-term future on a player whose positioning is seemingly fading away?

There’s a lot of questions here: Cavaliers’ general manager Koby Altman has said on the record that he’d consider Drummond a play for both now and later. At 26 years old, he’s just now entering his prime. His options could be limited whenever things start back up again, so it might be wise to take the money, skip free agency now and figure things out in 2021.

Otto Porter Jr., Chicago Bulls – Player Option – $27,250,576

Porter is in the same boat as Drummond when it comes to his contract. The difference is that he hasn’t played much at all this year due to a left foot injury. It’s a shame because of the productive season he put together when the Washington Wizards sent him to Chicago last season. Since his return, he’s registered respectable numbers as a starter on both ends of the floor.

Wings are in high demand these days, so Porter fits the bill pretty much on any team. The issue is that he won’t make close to what he does now on a new deal, especially after such an injury. Don’t bet on Porter opting out of the last year of his current deal.

Diamonds In The Rough?

Christian Wood, Detroit Pistons – Unrestricted – $1,645,357

When the Pistons blew it all up around the trade deadline to change course, Wood was poised to be the primary beneficiary. Simply put, the 24-year-old big man has lived up to his end of the bargain.

Wood not only finally got a chance to show what he could do on the floor consistently, but he made sure that people would take notice in the process. Having played 51 games combined in the previous three seasons of his career, he found a place to dominate in Detroit. Over a career-high 62 games this season, he has posted his best numbers so far as well — 13.1 points and 6.3 rebounds with a 65.9 true shooting percentage. However, those statistics pale in comparison to what’s happened since the deadline.

Since Drummond was dealt away, Wood’s boasted 22.8 points and 9.9 rebounds per game. He’s knocking down 40 percent of his shots from distance, while giving Detroit a block and nearly a steal each night. This take-off is well-timed considering his free-agent status and young age. Wood is set to make the well-deserved big bucks with few bigs to compete against in the market.

Kris Dunn, Chicago Bulls – Restricted – $5,348,007

If you’re looking for a player to lock up ball-handlers on the outside, Dunn is your guy. While teams might have a slight hesitation to give him a ton of money because of his offensive limitations, it’s clear that the Providence product is a load to handle as a defensive matchup. His length is extremely bothersome as his long arms help him poke away steals and deflect the ball in passing lanes.

The Bulls are allowing 6.8 more points per 100 possessions with Dunn off the floor, ranking in the 91st percentile, according to Cleaning The Glass. His impact on that end alone makes him a sought-after piece for any team that wants to bring in a true perimeter defender – a skill set that almost all coaches thirst after to stop an opposing offense from execution. It remains to be seen whether Chicago extends the qualifying offer and if he accepts that. Even so, another organization may pay him more money than the Bulls would be willing to match due to the development of Coby White and their commitment to Zach LaVine and Tomas Satoransky.

Jordan McRae, Detroit Pistons – Unrestricted – $1,645,357

With injuries overloading the Wizards and a season taking a downturn, McRae took the wheel and put it into overdrive. In a 10-game stretch from Dec. 28 to Jan. 15, the veteran swingman became the anchor of Washington’s bench bunch and didn’t disappoint. He averaged a hair under 20 points and 5 rebounds while converting 45.1 percent of his threes during the span.

McRae drew interest at the trade deadline and ultimately ended up with the Denver Nuggets. With those rotations already set and his free agency pending, McRae requested a buyout and landed with the blown-up Pistons to increase his role. Through four games, there have been struggles on his end. Still, there should be no overlooking how well he played for D.C. when they needed him most. Ultimately, McRae should definitely make a decent amount of money, much more than the minimum, for the first time in his career.

Shaquille Harrison, Chicago Bulls – Restricted – $1,620,564

Yes, there is another Bulls guard on this list. If you can’t tell, there’s kind of a logjam in head coach Jim Boylen’s rotation. The 26-year-old displays the grit and tenacity that old school generals love, while also satisfying his role on the offensive end of the floor. He’s been on a shooting tear in the month of March and is positionally versatile with his 6-foot-7, 190-pound frame. It might be a small sample size, but there’s a team that could find a steal in Harrison if Chicago elects not to match a deal pending on what the team does with that qualifying offer decision.

Proven Bigs

Tristan Thompson, Cleveland Cavaliers – Unrestricted – $18,539,130

After spending the entirety of his career with the wine-and-gold thus far, could Thompson be going elsewhere? With plenty of different frontcourt talent, the Cavaliers have decisions to make. The aforementioned Drummond situation and Kevin Love entering his final season of a lucrative contract make this scenario an uncertain one. But never say never when it comes to him staying in Northeast Ohio…

However, Thompson’s camp reportedly wanted the veteran center to be dealt in February even before Cleveland acquired Drummond from the Pistons, so a split may just happen. As the front office and coaching staff figure out what will happen with that triangle, let it be known that Thompson has been the consummate professional. There has been no complaining, pouting or anything close to the sort as his role slightly diminished. In fact, he’s even outplayed the starters as the commander of the second unit and has finished games strongly in front of Drummond on multiple occasions.

The likely scenario you might see play out is a sign-and-trade between whatever team decides to bring him in and the Cavaliers. It’s wishful thinking on Cleveland fans that have grown to love his tenacity and grit to expect him to return to the city again. Thompson deserves a chance at one more big payday though, and if that’s what he ultimately wants to do, it probably won’t come from Koby Altman and company.

Robin Lopez, Milwaukee Bucks – Player Option – $4,767,000

We’ve all gotten the chance to see the Lopez twins team up (albeit not together) and it’s been awesome. There was a time when these two were limited in their skill sets as big bodies in the post to defend, often working with their back to the basket. While they still do that now, their versatility has gradually improved with each season.

Now in Milwaukee, Robin Lopez has followed his brother’s lead by hitting a career-best 34.4 percent of his shots from deep. Even more so, since the All-Star break, he is 13-for-25 from distance. It’s a rise identical to Brook’s when he started knocking shots down with ease in both Brooklyn and Los Angeles.

Depending on what Robin desires in his next salary and what the Bucks want to give him as a backup, this may only be a one-year thing. After all, he was a starter for three solid years with the Bulls before taking a heavily diminished role behind Brook. It will be interesting to see how that shakes out – at 31 years old, chances at a long-term deal aren’t going to be there often.

Obviously, there will be more than these eight players in the free-agent market coming out of the Central.

Veterans with plenty left to give like Brandon Knight, John Henson, Wesley Matthews (PO) and Justin Holiday should garner attention from contending teams that seek experience and playing the right way. Those that need a shooting boost should look no further than Langston Galloway and Svi Mykhailiuk (TO), who are hitting 40 percent of their triples. Pat Connaughton brings just about everything to the table with his athleticism and defensive prowess. If waived prior to their guarantee dates, T.J. McConnell and Ersan Ilyasova deserve a look to bring a punch off the bench.

There are also opportunities to gamble on young talents such as restricted free agents Sterling Brown, Alize Johnson, Denzel Valentine and unrestricted big man Ante Zizic.

Again, these mostly aren’t the names that were included in the crazy offseason we had one year ago, but they’re guys that can contribute if they find the right home. Not all of them are going to be paid handsomely, nor will they all secure their future. Unfortunately, that’s the name of the game. Of those players mentioned, you could see some “show ‘em, prove ‘em” short-term contracts to boost their value heading into 2021.

Let’s hope that the season resumes as safely (and as soon) as possible. If you’re like me, you’re aching to see some hoops!

Be sure to stay tuned to Basketball Insiders as we continue our division-by-division breakdown of the upcoming 2021 free-agent class.

Continue Reading
Advertisement
Advertisement
Online Betting Site Betway
Advertisement
American Casino Guide
NJ Casino
NJ Casino

NBA Team Salaries

Advertisement

CloseUp360

Insiders On Twitter

NBA On Twitter

Trending Now