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The Genesis of Mike D’Antoni’s Gravity-Based Offense

Ben Dowsett goes one-on-one with Mike D’Antoni on the genesis of gravity within his offenses over the years.

Ben Dowsett

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The term “gravity” in basketball may have been born of analytically-inclined thinking, but at its core it speaks to one of the simplest basketball themes imaginable. In the broadest possible sense, gravity is really just any force that helps pull the defense to a certain place – from the offense’s perspective, hopefully to a place that proves undesirable for defending and makes it easier to score.

To watch the modern NBA, and particularly some of the most potent offenses in the game, you’d assume this kind of basic understanding has been present for decades.

Teams like the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs base much of their offensive philosophy around manufacturing ball and player movements that will force certain reactions from the defense, then exploiting those reactions. They beautifully leverage the all-world talents of their players; just when the opposition thinks they’ve found the formula, the best of them have organic counters in place to keep them guessing. Watching one of these elite teams, it feels almost laughable to go about playing offense in basketball any other way.

Curiously enough, though, this hasn’t been anywhere close to the norm for the vast majority of the game’s history. NBA basketball has spent easily the largest chunk of its existence as a game based around mismatches and individual dominance, and huge elements of this approach still pervade the league today. My guy is simply more talented than your guy, the thinking goes; you’re either going to have to bring your guy some help while opening things up for someone else on my team, or I’m going to keep pushing that edge.

This isn’t to say there was no teamwork in prior decades of NBA basketball, or even that those approaches were necessarily bad. As recently as 10 years ago, though, the full power of ball and player movement – from all five guys, not just one or two involved in a given play – wasn’t really understood.

And then along came a guy named Mike D’Antoni.

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As a player in his youth, D’Antoni was part of the formative era of modern basketball. He played in both the American Basketball Association (ABA) and the early NBA during the mid-70s, a period where the ABA was pioneering the use of the three-point line. The NBA wouldn’t adopt the three until 1979, by which time D’Antoni was well into a successful playing career in Europe.

During his American playing days, D’Antoni took note of the way coaches and teams reacted to big structural changes like the three-point line – it was “willy-nilly a little bit,” he says now of the response he saw. Like with any big rule change, it took time for the league’s collective understanding to build about the best ways to exploit the new rules. He saw more of the same once the NBA adopted a three-point line.

D’Antoni made the transition from player to coach in the early 90s, beginning overseas. He hadn’t forgotten the impression those old ABA days had made on him. On top of that, he was influenced by one of the most popular teams in history to that point, the Showtime Lakers – not Magic’s flash or Kareem’s quiet dominance, but rather the raw speed with which the Lakers ran their opponents ragged. The seeds of NBA evolution were being planted.

After some stops in personnel and broadcasting plus a few assistant jobs, D’Antoni was hired by the Phoenix Suns in 2002 as an assistant. Partway into the 2003-04 season, he was promoted to head coach. What would follow would have more of an impact on the NBA and basketball as we know it than anyone could have predicted.

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We talked earlier about gravity as simply a fancy term for an intuitive NBA concept, and D’Antoni’s offense was the perfect example. Even as they pushed movement and spacing themes harder than anyone in the world had to that point, they weren’t thinking in those sort of terms.

“I’m not sure I ever heard the term ‘gravity’ used,” says Doug Eberhardt, a part time assistant coach and longtime confidant of D’Antoni.

Defining the word in the way it’s used in today’s game, though, is exactly what D’Antoni and his group were getting at.

“You can use all the terminology you want – ‘gravity,’ whatever you want to call it,” D’Antoni tells Basketball Insiders today. “What we just try to do offensively is take all the rules defensively, and go against them… Everything that they preach defensively, we try to do [the] opposite or try and get to a spot they don’t want to be in.”

To accomplish this, D’Antoni drew from his influences: The way Magic and his Lakers kept teams off balance with nothing but sheer speed and decisiveness; the way the entire league was still digesting and processing what the three-pointer was good for.

His system was a hybrid of these ideas, and of other styles. D’Antoni was far from the first to involve multiple players in a given action or use the theme of movement to burn the defense; think of Jerry Sloan’s use of the pick-and-roll in the 90s, for instance.

D’Antoni was, however, one of the very first to realize a concept that seems like grade school stuff to most league thinkers now: If ball and player movement have so much success pulling the defense to places where the offense prefers them, then think about how successful the O could be if the D was never in the right place to begin with.

With that theme in mind, the Seven Seconds or Less Suns were born.

Under D’Antoni, the goal is simple: Put the defense to impossible decisions. Using any and all means necessary, every second spent with the ball in D’Antoni’s system is one where players should be finding opportunities to create two-on-ones that force the opposition to decide between the lesser of two evils.

Much of the foundation for this is in the transition game, which at the time was virtually uncharted territory around the league. Sure, teams would run out on the break if they got a steal up at the top of the key and an easy numbers advantage, or if a rebound bounced long into the perfect place. A few even pushed it further. The majority of NBA offense, though, was played in a set, halfcourt format.

D’Antoni made running the break a cornerstone of his system, and flipped the league’s transition principles on their heads while doing it.

“What’s the natural reaction of the defense when you’re in any transition? You’ve been taught since you’re little that you run to the basket, and protect from the basket out,” Eberhardt says.

Not against D’Antoni’s Suns, you don’t.

“On transition [defense], they want to run back into the paint and pack,” D’Antoni says. “Well, then we’re going to shoot threes.”

Instead of running to the basket in transition, bigs were told to stay outside and keep the lane clear for cutters. Instead of hitting the free-throw line extended and cutting inside for a possible layup or dunk, wings were taught to space directly to the corners – the furthest distance away from where the defense naturally wanted to run. Once teams adjusted to that? Hit them with the counter.

“They don’t want to be out hugging the three, because then you give up layups,” D’Antoni says. “They don’t want to be not giving up layups, because then you’re giving up threes. We’re trying to make it so where they have no choice but to not have an answer.”

They may not have been using the term, but think back to our broad definition of gravity – isn’t that exactly what it’s getting at? The fast break is the easiest way to force a defense into a numbers disadvantage; a numbers disadvantage is the easiest way to force the defense into a decision with no good answers. As Eberhardt puts it: “The gravity comes when you realize who the guy is that you have to cover.”

At first, things may have been a tough sell. Not only were D’Antoni and his staff preaching new concepts, they were the type that required both a physical and a mental commitment. Guys were running more than they ever had before, and while they did it they were being asked to remember principles that ran directly contrary to what many had learned coming up.

Superstar Steve Nash quickly bought in, something D’Antoni credits to this day for helping bring things along. But he readily admits the idea wasn’t universally popular – even certain assistants on his own staff were doubtful.

It’s much harder to argue with results, though, as he quickly found out. In his first full season at the helm, the Suns started a blistering 31-4. They averaged an unbelievable 110 points per game during this stretch, a mark they’d maintain for the full season while just five of the 29 other teams in the league would even crack 100.

“It made it an easy sell at that point,” D’Antoni reflects. “‘Hey, this works.’ And then the players were excited, all of them were averaging career-highs and stuff. So it sold itself in that sense.”

When the pure transition opportunities weren’t there, the layers of D’Antoni’s offense kicked in. The Suns’ secondary transition game may have been just as vital to their success as the actual fast breaks themselves, in fact – they actually never led the league in fast break point metrics, a distinction that was always reserved for the Nuggets and their high altitude back then.

With most other teams at that point, though, a fast break that didn’t materialize led to a reset, then a halfcourt play. For the Suns, there was no reset. The speed and decisiveness of the offense continued to flow.

A big piece of this secondary transition was the drag screen, or a pick the big man sets immediately upon entering the halfcourt (remember, D’Antoni’s bigs were told to stay out of the lane in transition to keep space open). Instead of coming up from behind or to the side of his target from his post down inside the paint, the big man would run the floor and, if the Suns’ transition attack hadn’t already generated a bucket, he would often immediately set a high pick for Nash or another ball-handler before ever entering the key.

Once again, the prevailing theme is keeping the defense off balance. Imagine you’re Nash’s defender, and you’ve just sprinted back down the court and narrowly prevented an easy look in transition. You don’t get a rest: Boom, before you’ve even set yourself and found everyone’s place on the court, you’re running into a seven-footer’s chest and Nash is walking into another deadly two-on-one.

Teams just weren’t ready for this sort of decisiveness. The Suns were playing at a speed that’s fast even for today’s game, which has mostly incorporated D’Antoni’s transition principles – per the tracking site inpredictable.com, they averaged a league-low 13.5 seconds elapsed per offensive possession in 2004-05. That’s a big difference from the league average of 14.8 seconds in 2016-17 and actually dead even with the 16-17 Warriors, the league’s fastest offensive team. If it wasn’t the fast break itself that killed you, it was the secondary action that flowed directly from it.

Even the possessions that mostly resembled traditional NBA halfcourt sets were littered with bits of D’Antoni’s dogma. He ran startlingly few actual diagrammed plays, with a much larger emphasis on the kind of heady “flow” that’s become more and more popular today.

“In the old NBA, a lot of times you just called plays out like, ‘Okay, we’ll call 44 because it’s time John touches the ball,’ or ‘Now we’re going to run 65,’” D’Antoni says now. “How that became the old NBA mantra – I hated that. Players would say, ‘I’m not getting any touches.’ I hate that.

“By having energy, we would tell the guys: ‘If you have energy, you run the floor, you cut at the right times, all that, the ball will find you and you’ll have a career-high.’”

D’Antoni’s battle cry in the locker room while hammering home these principles was simple: “The ball will find energy.” He didn’t teach plays; he taught concepts, then he trusted the best in the world at their craft to execute them.

One such concept is the “bottom-side screen.” Big men in pick-and-roll plays have their own form of gravity – the way they roll to the hoop, the threat of the lob or the layup, and perhaps most importantly in D’Antoni’s eyes, the way they set their screens.

“We really emphasize the energy that the big puts in the last three steps going into a pick-and-roll,” D’Antoni says of a screening scheme that continues to this day. “Where he hits the defense on the pick-and-roll – it has to be the bottom side. You want the defense to go over the top and start chasing the point guard.”

What happens when the defense goes over? You guessed it, another two-on-one. More decisions for the defense, and no great answers. “We’ve got guys good enough that it’s, ‘Once you give me a half-step, I’m taking it. I’m gone,’” D’Antoni says.

The emphasis on screen-setting was never about the action itself. Rather, it was about the speed, the precision and the ultimate result of what you were being asked to do – how your pick spatially influenced the defenders in the play to the benefit of the offense.

“The old sayings, you know, ‘Hold your pick, hit the guy,’ all that – we tried to discourage [that],” D’Antoni tells me. “We put more emphasis and more premium on, how do you get into the pick? The speed. How fast do you get out of the pick? And then the angle that you set it.”

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As D’Antoni moved through further coaching spots over the years on his way to his current job in Houston, these kinds of little details became more important to maintain an edge. The NBA has long been a copycat league, and others had quickly begun to pick some of the lowest-hanging fruit from D’Antoni’s general theme. Teams ran in transition a bit more opportunistically, looking for chances to catch the defense off-balance. When they played a D’Antoni squad, they were more prepared for what was coming.

The exploits became more granular, but they were still there – and they still all traced back to that theme of gravity.

For instance, D’Antoni has often asked that his spot-up shooters spacing the floor do so from several feet behind the three-point line, rather than just a step or two back. The league took notice during his first year in Houston when guys like Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson would almost comically exaggerate the gap, but it was actually a well-practiced D’Antoni staple from years prior.

“The original reason Mike wanted them to stop up in that area was so they had the opportunity to catch and step in,” Eberhardt says. When guys like Gordon and Anderson, who can simply make those deep shots at a high clip without stepping in, are on the floor, it’s an even bigger edge. “It makes a huge impact, because the defense has that couple extra steps they now have to close out.”

Another scheme that was present in earlier iterations but really gained steam in Houston is the super-high screen. A common tactic for slowing the D’Antoni transition machine quickly became opponents pressing Nash or other ball-handlers further up the court to disrupt their pace, often a halfcourt press or even further.

When that happened, D’Antoni simply had his screening big come way further out beyond the key to set the pick, even as far as halfcourt. A two-on-one is still a two-on-one no matter where it is on the court, and it’s still going to force exploitable rotations from the defense. Virtually any defense silly enough to press up on James Harden in Houston today is going to get this treatment, and chances are Harden is going to use those couple extra steps to make them pay for it. Even when a team isn’t pressing, the Rockets will sometimes intentionally run high pick-and-rolls that start even further up the floor to give Harden a bigger runway. None of this is going away with Chris Paul, already an elite practitioner of the super-high screen, now in the fold.

Finally, of course, there’s the raw volume of threes being taken in D’Antoni’s offense. His Phoenix squads always took plenty, but perhaps weren’t the outlier many remember: They were actually only first in per-possession three-point attempts twice in his four full years with the Suns, and even these years were by relatively thin margins.

Fast forward to today, and the gap between D’Antoni and everyone else is much larger. His Rockets attempted an incredible 39 threes per-100-possessions for the 2016-17 season, miles ahead of second-place Cleveland at just 34. The Warriors are virtually synonymous with the three in today’s game, but Houston took nearly 33 percent more attempts than them on a per-possession basis.

To hear Eberhardt tell it, though, those same Warriors may have simply galvanized D’Antoni to realize the true destiny of his offensive approach.

“Even a coach like that has second thoughts,” Eberhardt says. It’s easy to second-guess yourself when even your own assistants are doubting you. “[But] with Golden State winning and how the league was bending to his philosophy, now he’s gone full-throttle shooting the three.”

True to form, this isn’t an adjustment where just one part of the equation is considered. Three is more than two, but that’s not the only reason D’Antoni is again the league’s biggest outlier in an important area. Once again, he’s exploiting what he knows the defense’s expectations will be.

Just one NBA team in 2016-17 was in the league’s top five for both shots attempted at the rim and conversion percentage on these shots: The Rockets. And while the credit here often falls to longtime GM Daryl Morey and his Moreyball approach that totally cuts out midrange shots, this interplay is another D’Antoni mainstay.

Think about the trickle-down effect of some of what we’ve talked about: Guys spacing out to several feet beyond the three-point line, then actually making shots from there; D’Antoni’s team firing away threes at a ridiculous rate even for a league that’s historically obsessed with them; wings spacing out to the corner three in transition, rather than running for layups. As a defender going against this attack, what kind of effect does that create?

If you said gravity, good work. All that emphasis on threes and extreme versions of spacing will get you some points organically, sure, but more than that, they’ll pull the defense further from the hoop. What D’Antoni was doing with his seemingly ass-backwards transition spacing in Phoenix a decade ago is now working in reverse – teams are so conditioned to track his team’s threes that they’re willing to leave the vital real estate near the basket wide open.

Another day, another impossible decision for a team facing Mike D’Antoni’s offense. His players won’t always make the shots, of course, and they may not even make the right decisions about which shots to take.

But in a game with thousands and thousands of offensive possessions every year, gravity’s pull starts to make a real difference. No basketball mind has more thoroughly plumbed the depths of this concept, or done so with as much success. You’ll forgive D’Antoni for a singular, fleeting moment of bravado.

“Somebody’s going to be open,” D’Antoni tells me. “If you [do] it right, somebody’s going to be open. We don’t always get it right in a sense of picking out the right guy. But I truly believe: You cannot guard it. Period.”

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.

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NBA Daily: Free Agent Watch – Small Forwards

Ben Nadeau continues Basketball Insiders’ Free Agent Watch by checking in on a thin small forward class.

Ben Nadeau

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With professional basketball on the horizon, all eyes have turned toward Orlando – but here, we’re trying to peer into the future too.

Frankly, the news of pending basketball seems small in comparison to some long-overdue changes. The planet-wide pandemic and sweeping protests have turned everybody’s day-to-day routines on their head – but, obviously, for one group, it has done so in awful and disproportionate ways.

If you can donate, consider doing so. If you can’t donate, educate yourself. Even if you donate, continue to read, learn and listen.

Or try this: If you finish this article and come away having learned something, donate something of your own: Time, supplies, a tough conversation — whatever. Consider it a trade, do whatever it takes. Make a difference, even if it’s a small one.

We’re approaching the halfway point in our examination of potential upcoming free agents – today, the ball keeps on rolling with the small forwards.

Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans – Restricted – $7,265,485

Across all positions, Brandon Ingram will be a top option for any franchise with oodles of cap space and a need for consistent scoring. Even then, Ingram seems destined to stay in New Orleans, no matter the cost.

Since he arrived from Los Angeles a year ago, Ingram has quickly turned into the type of stone-cold No. 1 option that can transform a roster. The 6-foot-7 youngster averaged 24.3 points, 6.3 rebounds and 4.3 assists in 2019-20, numbers that eventually netted Ingram his first-ever All-Star Game appearance. And now, the budding star will likely see any forthcoming offer matched.

Paired with Zion Williamson, the Pelicans have developed an ideally dynamic and flexible duo to carry them into the next half-decade and beyond. With more volume and efficiency from three-point land, Ingram is evolving at a ridiculous rate – all right at home in New Orleans’ high-tempo offense. Capped off by a 49-point stunner back in January, it’s clear that future All-Star berths are just his floor.

Although the salary cap is sure to suffer after the stoppage, the 22-year-old’s future paycheck certainly won’t – he’s that good.

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

Before Hayward even potentially hits free agency, he’s made waves within the NBA’s restarted bubble. On a call last week with Boston media, Hayward announced that he’d leave Orlando should his wife go into labor – whether or not the Celtics are still in the postseason.

The news seems to have passed through the Northeast without major drawback – although, surely, let’s revisit if the franchise is in Eastern Conference Finals when he departs – but could that be the end of the road in Boston? It’s nobody’s fault, of course, but the arrival of Hayward hasn’t gone as planned – and now, both the franchise and player are likely stuck at a hard fork in the road.

Hayward, naturally, has the easier, initial decision: Does he want to opt-in for $30 million-plus? On the surface, that’s a no-brainer. Getting paid a small fortune and competing for a championship is achievable NBA paradise – currently, he’s got it. But after that season, Hayward would be unrestricted, 31 years old and playing fourth fiddle to Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.

If Hayward is concerned with his overall fit with Boston – while the Celtics themselves must give careful consideration to how it’ll all work money-wise with Walker and Brown re-upped, alongside glue guy Marcus Smart – then opting out and securing a new multi-year deal might be on the table.

Given his injury history and any presumptive salary cap fluctuations, however, reaching the $30 million range seems far out of his reach. Either way, Hayward, finally, appears to be healthy and confident again, even averaging 17.3 points, 6.5 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game. The Celtics’ will surely miss the scorer should he leave the bubble, but this partnership is likely to last at least another year.

Danilo Gallinari, Oklahoma City Thunder – Unrestricted – $22,615,559

After entering the season as potential trade bait for a Thunder roster that had just lost Paul George and Russell Westbrook, Gallinari fulfilled his status as a go-to scorer and all-around menace. The Italian played so well that Oklahoma City kept the veteran at the trade deadline even though he’s about to hit unrestricted free agency.

At the time of the shutdown, the Thunder were 40-24 and owners of the No. 5 postseason seed. Much of the attention was given toward the rise of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, but Gallinari has been a healthy revelation too. Ultimately, keeping the core together for this run was worth it, even if he doesn’t land back in the midwest this offseason.

Despite the incredible campaign, Gallinari’s injury history should be a red flag for any franchise ready to hand out a lucrative deal. Since 2008, Gallinari has played 70 or more games just twice (2009-10, 2012-13) and can struggle to return once he goes down. In any case, regardless of any past ailments, he’s handled back-to-back career seasons – first in Los Angeles with the Clippers and now, obviously, with the Thunder.

At 19.2 points, 5.5 rebounds and 3.1 three-pointers on 41 percent from deep, he’s been an excellent fit with Chris Paul and the young roster – but at 32 years old, is there still room to grow over a new multi-year deal?

After Ingram and Hayward, both of whom may not even hit the open market, Gallinari is the crown jewel of available small forwards, so watch this space.

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

Understandably, Dario Saric has become a bit of an afterthought. And that’s unfortunate because the Croatian is still useful – he just needs to find his right team.

At 26, Saric is no longer a spring chicken, but his multi-positional playmaking on the cheap will surely elevate a playoff-ready roster down the line. The 6-foot-10 forward is mobile for his size but struggled to fit next to Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton, two touch-gobbling scorers. Saric has a unique NBA skillset and he often does the little things right – but his below-average three-point percentage has hurt him.

For a brief moment, Saric had fallen out of the rotation in early February, but his all-out effort and flexibility made him tough to leave out for too long. While Kelly Oubre Jr. has not been entirely ruled out of the Orlando bubble, Saric is the ready-made replacement for the starting lineup. As the forward will likely become a restricted free agent in the offseason, these upcoming games are vastly important to prove he belongs in Phoenix.

Carmelo Anthony, Portland Trail Blazers – Unrestricted – $2,159,029

Last but not least, there’s Carmelo Anthony.

After being booted from the league for a year, the future first-ballot Hall-of-Famer has been a solid, reputable source of scoring for Portland. At 15.3 points per game, it’s not Anthony’s most high-tallying performance – duh – but it’ll be enough to secure him another gig in 2020-21. At 36, he’s still a decent option, even if efficiencies may often tell another story.

His stints with Oklahoma City and Houston withstanding, Anthony can still score. And in the NBA these days, that’s worth a stab. Anthony will no longer demand multi-year contracts or salary cap-sponging money, so he’s a low-risk, medium-reward type of player at this point. What team couldn’t use that? The legend has excelled in big moments and brings boatloads of experience – so whether he lands in a veteran-laden locker room or one that needs his guidance hardly matters now.

Bring back Carmelo Anthony in 2020… or else.

With the bubble close to resuming, we’re still unsure if two of the top players on this board are even available. Does Hayward’s eventual leave of absence impact his decision? Would the Celtics look to retain him if he opts out? And, more importantly, is there even more than two seconds of consideration before New Orleans matches whatever max offer sheet Ingram signs? Surely, if a franchise misses out on these two – if they’re out there at all – then the small forward market shrinks tinier than it already is.

Gallinari and beyond, we’ll just have to see how the season of one thousand plotlines and twists continues to unfold.

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NBA Daily: Free Agent Watch – Shooting Guards

Matt John continues Basketball Insiders’ Free Agency tracking series by taking a look at the notable shooting guards potentially hitting the market this summer.

Matt John

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Welcome back to Basketball Insiders’ Free Agency Tracker. We’ve already gone over the top point guards entering free agency this season. Now we’re taking a look at their backcourt counterparts- the shooting guards.

To be honest, this crop of free agents period isn’t exactly a loaded one compared to years’ past. The shooting guards don’t have a great free agency class, but they are among the deeper positions in free agency. There aren’t currently any elite ones potentially going on the free market — DeMar DeRozan once was considered elite, but not now — but there are some shooting guards out there who can make a difference in a playoff series.

What’s odd is that among the highest-paid shooting guards that could go on the market are in similar situations for different reasons. Let’s start with the two best at the respective position that could potentially hit the open market once the season concludes.

DeMar DeRozan, San Antonio Spurs — Player Option — $27,739,975
Evan Fournier, Orlando Magic — Player Option — $17,000,000

How can a no-win situation get worse? Ask DeMar DeRozan. It was already tricky enough for him to decide what to do with his player option. He can either stay in San Antonio, whose present is a sinking ship that DeRozan is not reportedly happy to be on, or he can risk losing millions of dollars by playing the field in an offseason with hardly any teams to offer the contract a player of his caliber would demand.

And that was before COVID-19 dismantled the league’s salary cap. DeRozan is one of the league’s premier bucket-getters, and the evolution in his all-around game offensively doesn’t get the credit it deserves. Sadly for him, there are two things he’s not particularly good at that the NBA needs from max contract players now more than ever: shooting and defense.

DeRozan got away with this during his days as a Raptor because he was one of their top dogs on a well-crafted team built for him to thrive. But, since moving to San Antonio, being at the forefront of the Spurs’ downfall over the last two years has made his blemishes stand out now more than ever. Because his style of play grows more and more outdated by the day, both sides seem prepared to move on from each other. Unfortunately for both of them, in an upcoming, uncertain free agency period where available money will be scarce, it may not be the best idea for DeRozan to walk away from upwards of $28 million.

He never deserved this. He gave his all to Toronto to put them on the map. He did his best to fill in the void left by Kawhi Leonard in San Antonio. He’s being punished when all he did was show his utmost loyalty to begin with. That’s one of the worst non-injury fates a basketball player can endure. Not many players in NBA history have had to go through a decision as tough as DeRozan will — stay with a team you don’t have a future with, or potentially take a massive pay cut?

Should DeMar DeRozan leave San Antonio? Of all the rhetorical questions in the NBA right now, this is definitely among the rhetorical-est. Then, there’s Fournier.

2016 really was a different time. Back when pretty much every team thought they could do no wrong no matter who they added. When you look at the moves the Magic made at that time — and they made some bad ones — they definitely were one of those teams. Among all the ill-advised moves they made, Evan Fournier was one of those guys that was paid just right for his services. Paying $85 million over five years for a complementary scorer such as he is an adequate price. It’s really quite astounding that he was given a fair pretty deal when you see what other players were paid then.

Now he’s got the option to pocket $17 more million or test the open market. The salary cap falling off a cliff will probably make the decision easier for him than it would have in any other year of free agency. That’s a shame because this season’s easily been his best as a pro — averaging almost 19 points on 47/41/82 splits — but with the lack of funds available, there’s really no reason for him to risk leaving that money on the table, and being in Orlando isn’t a bad situation… right?

Really, it’s his long-term prospects that he has to think about. At 27 years old, Fournier is now entering his prime as a player. His career has been a fun story to watch unfurl because he was originally viewed as a throwaway asset when he was first traded to Orlando six years ago. We’ve seen pretty much ever since that’s definitely not the case with him, but Fournier’s contributions have led to five playoff games in Orlando. He has to ask himself if it’s worth it to stay as a secondary scorer on the most average team in the entire league.

In a normal offseason, DeRozan and Fournier would similarly opt-out but for different reasons. DeRozan would opt-out to find another team that has better use for him, while Fournier would opt out looking for a deserved raise — but because the money they are looking for isn’t going to be around, expect the opt-in.

There is another pair of highly-paid shooting guards who, much like DeRozan and Fournier, are in similar situations but are in completely different stages in their career.

Tim Hardaway Jr., Dallas Mavericks — Player Option — $18,975,000
Nicolas Batum, Charlotte Hornets — Player Option — $27,130,435

There is literally just one similarity between these two players. Even before COVID-19 hit, they were going to take that player option because there was no way either of them was getting that kind of cash on the open market (thankfully, the salary cap hangover from the insanity of 2016 and 2017 is almost over). Besides that, these two couldn’t be more different.

Putting all money aside, Tim Hardaway Jr. has been awesome for the Mavericks this year. At least for what they’ve asked of him. As the designated third wheel next to Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis, Hardaway has thrived in his new role. His numbers dropped just as they were expected to — from 19 points to 16 — but the man is putting up his best effective field goal percentage (55.4) and best true shooting percentage (58.1), which has no doubt come from both playing with Luka and under Rick Carlisle.

A man of Hardaway’s talents is tailored more for being the complementary scorer on a rising playoff team like Dallas rather than being the top dog for a young team looking for direction like the New York Knicks. It’s amazing how anyone with eyes can see that except the Knicks themselves. Of course, guys can just score and it means absolutely nothing, but Hardaway actually has the best net rating in Dallas, as the Mavericks are plus-6.1 when he’s on the floor. Not bad for someone who was supposed to be a throw-in from the Kristaps Porzingis trade.

Literally the biggest problem with his game right now is that he’s being paid more than he’s worth and…that’s about it. It may sound ridiculous, but there is such a thing as being so overpaid that it makes you underrated. That’s exactly what Hardaway is. Of course, Dallas would probably prefer to have the cap space, but at least they overpay for someone who actually does something for them on the court. Charlotte can’t say the same with Nicolas Batum.

It’s not Batum’s fault that Charlotte basically paid him like a franchise player back in 2016. If money like that is on the table, how can you say no? At the height of his game, Batum was arguably the league’s best glue player. His lanky arms and skinny physique make him somewhat of an all-around terror in all phases of the game — defense, shooting, rebounding, and oddly enough, passing. Or at least it did back when Charlotte played him consistent minutes.

Batum’s impact has died a slow and painful death in Charlotte that over the last two years, he’s basically just been accumulating healthy scratches. Even after the team waived Marvin Williams and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Batum hasn’t managed to play one single minute in the NBA since Jan. 24. Over 22 games, he’s put up 3.6 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 3 assists a.k.a. stats that make you scream, “WHAT HAPPENED TO YOU, NICOLAS BATUM?!”

Maybe playing in the league for 12 years has taken its toll on Batum’s body, but the veteran forward is only 31. That’s why there might be a light at the end of the tunnel for both him and the Hornets — besides the fact that he’ll be off their payroll this time next year. With him likely to opt-in, we might get to see the old Batum resurface with the new contract coming up. Whether he does or doesn’t, the quicker the Hornets move away from this era of basketball for them, the better.

So in case you were wondering, the highest-paid shooting guards to hit free agency are probably going to opt-in. Others who play the same position are primed to get their first payday in the NBA. There actually aren’t too many shooting guards entering restricted free agency, but the best ones who are are names you should be familiar with.

Bogdan Bogdanovic, Sacramento Kings — Restricted — $9,000,000
Malik Beasley, Minnesota Timberwolves — Restricted — $1,958,379

There’s really not much to say about Bogdanovic’s free agency that we didn’t already know. He’s one of the league’s premier hybrid playmaker/scorers among NBA second units. Unless there’s something going on behind closed doors, there shouldn’t be anything stopping the Kings from paying him what he wants this offseason. Especially now that they’ve offloaded Dewayne Dedmon and Trevor Ariza from their cap. Seriously, why did they bring those guys in again?

The only detail worth questioning is: How much will they give him? Bogi certainly deserves more money, but the lack of cap room going around may limit how much money interested parties are willing to offer for him. The Kings should show him how much they value what he does, but both his restricted free agency and the lack of money give Sacramento more leverage than they are used to. Bogdanovic should stay a King, but we know what the Kings are and are not capable of.

Then, there’s Beasley. Beasley correctly bet on himself when he demanded the Nuggets to trade him to a team willing to give him the minutes he wanted. Since going to Minnesota, he’s putting up excellent numbers that you never thought you’d see from him — nearly 21 points on 47/43/75 splits are sensational numbers for a midseason addition who honestly didn’t cost much to get.

The only two hangups from this situation are that Beasley played this well for 14 games and his contributions didn’t lead to much; the Timberwolves went 4-10 in that span. Now that their season is over, they have to decide if his play was enough to earn him the payday that he clearly wants.

Again, restricted free agency gives teams more leverage, but the Timberwolves might very well be onto something with their midseason shakeups. There’s not a whole lot of avenues for them to get better, so perhaps the best plan for them from here on out is to see what they have here.

There are definitely some other notable free-agent shooting guards this coming offseason:

  • Joe Harris’ sharpshooting should attract plenty of suitors, but the cap crunch will probably prevent any unforeseen departure from Brooklyn. Ditto for E’Twaun Moore seeing how New Orleans also has his bird rights.
  • Tony Snell has no business being on a rebuilding team like Detroit, but no one’s going to pay him the $11 million that the Pistons will if he opts in.
  • Wes Matthews and Austin Rivers have been among the NBA’s best economical additions this past season. Typically guys like them don’t come cheaply the next year, but it might not be up to them.
  • Avery Bradley and Rodney Hood are more than likely going to opt-in both because of the cap crunch and their seasons ending prematurely.
  • Until they can’t shoot the rock anymore, guys like Kyle Korver and Marco Belinelli will be in the NBA. With who is anyone’s guess, but their jumper is a weapon that every NBA team will want.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Free Agent Watch – Point Guards

Shane Rhodes starts off Basketball Insiders’ new “Free Agent Watch” series, looking at the best free agent point guards set to hit the market this summer.

Shane Rhodes

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We’re in the home stretch!

It’s July, and the NBA is set to reconvene in just 26 days — of course, those may be the longest 26 days in recorded history, but the wait is sure to be worth it. Soon enough, Adam Silver will have crowned the next NBA champions.

Of course, the postseason should come-and-go in an instant, with an infinitely condensed offseason set to follow — and unfortunately, just as the season has, the draft, training camp and free agency are sure to feel the restrictions of COVID-19. With that in mind, we here at Basketball Insiders are taking another look at the coming offseason, specifically at the soon-to-be free agent class position-by-position.

Today, our first entry in our Free Agent Watch, we’ll look at the point guards. Let’s jump in.

Fred VanVleet, Toronto Raptors — Unrestricted — $9,000,000

Even with the salary cap expected to dip next season, don’t expect it to keep VanVleet to get anything less than his due.

Just 26 years old, VanVleet is cruising into his prime and has already proven himself an essential fixture on a championship-caliber roster — don’t expect his services to come cheap, and don’t expect him to sit on the open market for long. With VanVleet, however, it isn’t so much about how much he may earn, but where he may earn it. The former undrafted free agent has seemingly made a home in Toronto, but the Raptors face a number of other pressing financial issues in addition to VanVleet’s upcoming free agency.

Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, vital in their own right to Toronto’s championship run a season ago, are also set to hit the market. Meanwhile, Pascal Siakam’s contract extension — worth more than $30,000,000 per year through the 2023-24 season — is set to start next season as well. Do Masai Ujiri and Co. see VanVleet as a star to pair with Siakam in the long term, or would the Raptors opt instead to re-sign Gasol and Ibaka (or at least attempt to) in order to maintain a more balanced roster?

Only time will tell. Either way, and in spite of the current global financial downturn, expect VanVleet to get paid rather handsomely — certainly more so than any other point guard expected to hit the market — come free agency.

Goran Dragic, Miami HEAT — Unrestricted — $17,000,450

Relative to the other guards in the free-agent crop, Dragic is old. But, even at 34, Dragic, who has transitioned to a reserve role in Miami, should continue to contribute at a high level over the next few seasons.

Dragic started just one game during the regular season, his fewest since his rookie year. That said, the reduced workload had proven a boon for his health; after a (mostly) lost 2018-19 season, in which Dragic played just 36 regular season games, he had rebounded mightily before the league was shut down. In 54 games, he averaged 16.1 points, 3.1 rebounds, 5.1 assists and shot 37.7 percent from three.

Given he’s made just three postseason appearances in his career, it wouldn’t shock anyone to see the 14-year veteran Dragic re-up with the HEAT — with Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo in the fold, Miami should find themselves in the thick of the postseason hunt over the life of Dragic’s next deal. Any other roster — and most would be more than happy to work him in — with a legitimate title shot in the next few seasons wouldn’t be much of a surprise, either.

Would an opportunity to start for around the same (or even higher) contract value persuade Dragic to join an up-and-coming roster or non-contender? It would seem unlikely, again citing his lack of postseason appearances, but it’s something to keep in mind.

Kris Dunn, Chicago Bulls — Restricted — $4,372,072

It would seem as if Dunn’s time in Chicago is over.

Coby White and Tomas Satoransky have displaced Dunn on the Bulls’ depth chart, while their presence would also preclude Chicago from matching any deal worth more than Dunn’s potential $7,091,457 qualifying offer. Meanwhile, the Bulls have a guaranteed lottery pick in a draft loaded with talent at the guard position.

So, what exactly would push Chicago to retain Dunn, or interest any team in adding him as a free agent? Elite defense.

Yes, Dunn has proven a bit limited on offense — he’s not exactly a score-first guard, and his ability as a passer isn’t spectacular, either. But Dunn is a defensive menace, a kind of player any roster looking to make noise in the postseason could take advantage of.

He may not garner the proper respect given the Bulls’ position near the bottom of the league, but Dunn made a legitimate case for an All-Defense nod in 2019; he was second to Ben Simmons in steals per game while he led all qualified players with 2.9 steals per 36 minutes.

Dunn is also more than capable of defending another team’s top offensive option and, given that he may not earn much next season, should prove a steal for any team looking to either shore up their defense or boost it to the next level.

Reggie Jackson, Los Angeles Clippers — Unrestricted — $734,025

Jackson may have the most to gain of nearly any player from the NBA’s restart.

Bought out by the Detroit Pistons back in February, Jackson was afforded the opportunity to aid the Clippers in their quest toward the NBA Finals. In doing so, he also has the perfect opportunity to recoup major value he had lost in recent seasons with Detroit.

In recent years, poor play, injury and a bad Pistons roster had relegated Jackson to the scrap heap, knocking him down from a once-promising (or breakout, even) player to an overpaid stat stuffer that didn’t necessarily help the team win games. Yes, on paper, Jackson’s Detroit tenure looked strong — 16.1 points, 2.7 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 35.4 percent three-point percentage in his four full seasons with the team.

But, when you take into account that the Pistons managed to finish with a winning percentage above .500 just once in those four seasons and never finished higher than eighth in the Eastern Conference, those stats start to feel empty.

If nothing else, Jackson needed a change of scenery and looked strong in his few games with Los Angeles prior to the shutdown. In nine games with the Clippers, Jackson averaged 9.4 points, 2.9 rebounds, 3.2 assists and shot a blistering 52.5 percent from the field and 45.2 percent from three in 19.4 minutes per game.

He certainly wasn’t going to earn anything close to the 5-year, $80,000,000 deal he signed back in 2015. That said, Jackson, 30, is young enough that — if he can turn that mini-resurgence into an even stronger postseason performance — he shouldn’t have any trouble finding a long(ish)-term deal next season (and could maybe even play himself back into a prominent role).

Jeff Teague, Atlanta Hawks — Unrestricted — $19,000,000

Teague isn’t the “flashy” move. He certainly won’t swing a series or push a team into title contention.

That said, he’s still capable of solid production. Split between the Minnesota Timberwolves and Atlanta Hawks this season, Teague averaged 10.9 points, 5.2 assists and shot 43.6 percent from the field — not great, but good enough in spot duty and limited minutes off the bench.

Teague also shot 36.8 percent from three, making him a solid addition for any team that has struggled with their shot from the outside.

That said, most interest in Teague may come in his veteran presence. A quality leader, Teague also has plenty of playoff experience, having made the postseason in nine of his 12 seasons. With Vince Carter now retired, the Hawks may opt to bring him back to serve in a similar role, albeit at a massively reduced salary.

These five may prove the best of the bunch, but the point guard group set to hit the market is deep. Expect more than a few to prove solid additions capable of some serious impact. And with that, make sure to keep on the lookout for the rest of our positional Free Agent Watch series later this week.

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