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The Unintended Consequences of the 2011 CBA

The owners fought for and won major system changes in the 2011 collective bargaining agreement, but not all of these have operated as intended.

Nate Duncan

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The 2011 NBA lockout was universally hailed as an unmitigated win for the owners. They forced significant concessions from the players, reducing their percentage of Basketball Related Income from 57 percent to 50 while winning on so-called system issues as well. The players received almost no concessions in exchange. The system changes the owners fought so hard for were theoretically designed to level the competitive playing field between big and small markets while allowing teams to keep their superstars.

The only certain thing in such complex negotiations is that some unintended consequences will arise. Even the best of forecasters with carte blanche to design a system may struggle to anticipate the effects or regulation. When such regulations are the result of compromise or negotiation, they grow even more unpredictable. As a result, the 2011 CBA has resulted in some trends that may well have surprised its framers.

Small Market Teams are Less Competitive

The previous CBA featured a luxury tax* in which teams were taxed at $1 for each dollar of salary above the tax threshold. One of the key “system issues” the owners fought for in the name of competitive balance was to increase the luxury tax to far more punitive levels. Teams now must pay a minimum of $1.50 per $1 in salary over the tax, and that increases with each $5 million dollar increment, to $1.75, $2.50, $3.25, and then an additional 50 cents per $5 million after that. Teams that have paid the luxury tax four of the past five seasons add another $1 for each tax bracket, the dreaded “repeater tax.”

*Simply called the “tax” in the actual CBA.

The ostensible purpose of the more punitive tax was to preserve competitive balance by preventing large market teams from spending so much more than small market teams. However, the consequence of the more punitive luxury tax has instead been to widen the gulf between small and large markets, because under the heightened tax only the large market teams can afford to do so. Even worse, the inability or unwillingness to pay the tax has already hurt the title chances for some small market teams.

It was the case under the previous regime that the Knicks paid far more in luxury tax than any other team, with the Lakers also in the top four. But more important than that was the fact that nearly every team paid the tax at one point or another when they thought it was necessary to contend. Taxpayers included small market teams such as the Jermaine O’Neal-era Pacers, the Dwight Howard-era Magic, the early 2000s Kings, the Jazz in 2009-10 and 2010-11, the Timberwolves in their conference finals season of 2003-04, the Cavaliers in the later LeBron James era, the Spurs at various times, and many others. Only the Bobcats, Bulls, Warriors, Hornets, Sonics/Thunder, and Wizards did not pay the tax under the previous CBAs.

Why such an egalitarian distribution of taxpayers? Teams could actually afford to do it when contention warranted, or at least looked like it might. Meanwhile, under the previous two CBAs, the only contender that really hurt its chance at a title though active salary-reducing moves was Phoenix.*

*The Nash/Stoudemire era was the best of times and the blurst of times for Suns fans. Some of the moves: Did not match Atlanta’s five-year, $67 million offer for Joe Johnson (though they did get Boris Diaw and two first-rounders for him); traded Rajon Rondo to Boston to get Brian Grant off the books; traded two first-rounders, one of which became Serge Ibaka, to Seattle to get Kurt Thomas off the books; sold Rudy Fernandez to Portland for $3 million.

Contrast that distribution to the last two years. The only teams that have or will pay the tax so far are the Celtics, Nets, Bulls, Lakers, Clippers, HEAT and Knicks. Aside from the mid-market HEAT, who have a unique mindset with Mickey Arison’s ownership and their three superstars, all of these teams are in big markets.

But even more notable than who has paid the tax is who has not. Three teams that have made the conference finals in the last two seasons have made blatant tax-avoiding moves.* While the Grizzlies’ trades of Marreese Speights and Rudy Gay a year ago were not fatal to contention, the Thunder and Pacers have really hurt their title chances. The Thunder traded James Harden to Houston for players who have not even begun to match his production. Meanwhile, the Pacers dumped longer-term salary by trading Gerald Green, Miles Plumlee and a first-rounder for Luis Scola to offset Paul George’s maximum extension and the coming extension for Lance Stephenson. Those trades may be the two worst of the last two seasons. Both teams have also resisted using their mid-level exceptions, or using other trade assets to add talent despite clear areas for potential upgrades.

*It is an open question whether small-market teams cannot afford to pay the luxury tax, or simply are using the more punitive tax as an excuse. Either way, the fact remains they are not doing it so far.

In past years, those teams might have been willing to suck it up and pay the tax to maximize their title odds. Now, only the large-market teams do that.*

*Even the HEAT decided to save cash through the amnesty of Mike Miller, a player who was very important in spots to their two title runs and absolutely would have helped this year.

Superstars Are More Likely to Leave as Free Agents

Another big priority for the owners was to help teams keep superstars like LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Carmelo Anthony rather than allowing them to so easily leave for greener pastures. Class of 2003 draftees James, Bosh and Dwyane Wade all negotiated Early Termination Options (ETOs) into their rookie contract extensions. Owners like the Cavaliers’ Dan Gilbert apparently believed that seven years of team control for rookies was insufficient, so the owners negotiated for a number of key changes:

  • Maximum rookie extensions now must be at least four years, exclusive of any option years.
  • ETOs are only allowed on five-year contracts, and can only lop one year off the contract.
  • The amount a player could receive in a sign-and-trade was limited to what he could receive as a straight free agent signing with another team, namely four-year contracts with 4.5 percent annual raises rather than five-year contracts with 7.5 percent annual raises if he stayed home.
  • To avoid what happened with Carmelo Anthony’s 2011 trade from the Nuggets to the Knicks, contract extensions within six months of a trade are limited to three seasons (including the current season) with 4.5 percent annual raises rather than four seasons with 7.5 percent annual raises.

Unfortunately for the owners, they also decided to limit contract extensions in an effort to save them from themselves. Under the previous CBA, teams gave out ludicrous eight-figure per year extensions to veteran players like Richard Hamilton and Stephen Jackson long before they were due to become free agents. In an effort to curb this, the new CBA limited any extensions for veterans (i.e., players not coming off rookie contracts) to four years, including the current season. Because the “current season” in this instance continues until June 30, the longest extension that can ever be given before a player becomes a free agent is three years.

As a result, it makes almost no sense for any decent player who is not coming off a rookie contract to extend before becoming a free agent, because the player can receive a five-year new contract from his current team.* Even if he signs elsewhere, he can still get a four-year contract with another team rather than only three years had he extended.

*A player who has been in the league eight years, including the last four with the same team, can also get a no-trade clause if he becomes a free agent and re-signs a new contract with his prior team. This is not possible with an extension.

Thus, much of the work the owners did to deter free agents from leaving was undone by taking the best method for retaining players–preventing them from becoming free agents in the first place–out of the owners’ hands. To date, only Andrew Bogut and Kobe Bryant (who was encouraged by the Over-36 rule) have signed veteran extensions in the nearly three seasons of the new CBA.

Consider the case of Dwight Howard. Had the Lakers been able to offer him a four- or even three-year maximum extension upon his arrival in Los Angeles in the summer of 2012, he very well might have taken it, especially considering he was recovering from major back surgery at the time and the Lakers appeared to have assembled a superteam. Instead, due to the limitations on extensions he was essentially forced to wait and become a free agent, the Lakers imploded, and Howard left for Houston.

Mediocre Teams Cannot Get Anything For Their Stars

Now, consider the fact that shorter contract lengths and extensions mean that all players, including superstars, are going to be free agents more often. Moreover, players are generally closer to becoming free agents than they were under the previous regime. Unfortunately for mediocre teams with superstars, this means both that they are more likely to lose such players in free agency and that they cannot get as much for them in trade even if they are sure to leave.

Consider the case of the Timberwolves and Kevin Love, who can be a free agent in the summer of 2015. Even if they come to the realization that he is likely to leave, Minnesota cannot expect much return because a potential trade partner has no guarantee he will stay either. It still makes sense for Love to become a free agent rather than extend, and only the best teams can be confident that a player like Love would choose to re-sign. Even that can go awry, as we saw with the Lakers and Howard. In past years, a small-market team with a ton of assets like the Jazz could offer picks or young players to the Wolves after working out an extension with a player like Love. Now, they would be fools to trade much for him knowing he will be a free agent.

Trading Season is Much More Boring

All of the above factors combine to make trades a lot less interesting than in past years. In addition to the disincentive to trade or trade for superstars, the new CBA restricts cash payments in trades to only $3 million per season rather than $3 million per transaction, while the punitive luxury tax makes cost-controlled first-round picks too valuable to trade for a mere rental of a free agent-to-be. This year’s trade deadline proved this to be the case. Not a single first-round pick changed hands, and no stars did either.

Nate Duncan is an NBA analyst and attorney. He writes regular features for Basketball Insiders and chats weekly at 11 Eastern on Tuesdays.

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NBA AM: Some More NBA Odds And Ends

The first training camps open tomorrow and the balance on Monday, so there are a few topics to get into.

Steve Kyler

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It’s Time To Play

For most NBA players, they have been back in their home markets for most of September, as NBA teams typically ask their players to start filtering in just after Labor Day, mainly to get settled and start getting into the game-day routine of being in the building and back in their environments. Training Camps for most of the league will open on Monday, September 25, however the two teams playing exhibition games in China—the Timberwolves and Warriors—will open camp tomorrow. There are a few notable pieces of news floating around NBA circles that are worth commenting on, so let’s jump into it.

Will The Knicks Pull The Trigger?

As more and more New York Knick players start to fill their practice facility in Tarrytown, there is an ever-present elephant in the room, and that’s the future of Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony. Last week, there were reports that Knicks personnel had attended some of Anthony well-publicized pick-up games and that they seemed to be weighing the fact that Anthony might need to be brought to training camp.

The venerable Frank Isola of the New York Daily News suggested yesterday that a deal between the Knicks and the Houston Rockets still might be possible before camp opens officially saying “Anthony’s camp is cautiously optimistic that a deal will be struck before Monday.”

While that may be the case on the Melo side of the fence, league sources continue to say there has been no movement on a deal with the Knicks and the Rockets. The big hurdle is the Rockets are not willing to add anything more to an offer than they have and that a deal centered on Rockets forward Ryan Anderson is not appealing to the Knicks.

As this thing hits the 11th hour, it will be interesting to see if the Knicks do indeed let the circus that’s going to follow Carmelo into their season. The Knicks’ new leadership has pledged to build a better culture.

To be fair, no one has even hinted at Anthony being a problem, even as bad as things got last year. Anthony is said to be in stellar shape; maybe a few preseason games get things moving with the Rockets.

Joel Embiid Still Not Cleared

As the Philadelphia 76ers prepare to open their training camp, the word from the Sixers is that Ben Simmons, last year’s top pick, is a full go and playing five-on-five pickup games daily. This year’s top pick, Markelle Fultz, is said to be in a great shape and also as full go after injuring his ankle badly during summer league play.

The question for the Sixers is Joel Embiid. Both Sixers President Brian Colangelo and head coach Brett Brown admitted that Embiid was still not clear for five-on-five play and that there would be “very hyper-conservative progression” according to Keith Pompey of The Philadelphia Daily News.

Colangelo told the Daily News that “It’s been very important to us to make it criteria-based, where he checks off certain boxes [and] can move to the next step.”

No one is suggesting that Embiid has had any setbacks after having a knee surgery last season. The Sixers view is they want to be measured on how much Embiid does in order to get him completely healthy.

The Sixers and Embiid have been talking about a contract extension, even with Embiid likely facing minutes restrictions for another prolonged period.

League sources continue to say that a deal for Embiid now would likely look a lot like the four-year $100 million package Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo signed a year ago.

“I’m cautiously optimistic that we can find common ground,” Colangelo said to the Daily News. “But it will take common ground in order for something to get done.”

The Sixers and Embiid have until mid-October to reach an agreement on an extension, or he will likely head toward restricted free agency next July.

Lottery Reform Has Traction

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski dropped last week that the NBA’s Competition Committee has asked the Board of Governors to weigh in on possible changes to the NBA Lottery system as a means to discourage deliberately losing games or fielding dreadful teams to increase the odds of landing a top-flight draft pick.

The idea that will be voted on at next week’s Board of Governors meeting would be to change the weighting formula for how picks get allocated. Currently, teams get a sliding scale of possibilities for one of the top three picks. With the team having the worst record having the best odds at the top pick. Equally, the current system only applies the lottery ball process to the top three selections.

The new plan that seems to have real support would increase the lottery process from the top three picks, to the top four picks. The odds would also be evened out giving the four worst teams fairly equally odds of landing the top pick, while also increasing the odds of every non-playoff team in landing a top-level pick. Currently, the last team to not make the playoffs has a .5 percent chance of landing the top pick. That could increase dramatically under the proposed changes.

The NBA owners explored lottery reform in 2014, and the measure was voted down 17-13. The NBA bylaws require a three-quarters majority (23 votes) to pass such a rule, and it seems there may be a few more yes votes based on where things stand today.

The Board of Governors will meet in New York on September 28. If the measure is passed, it would kick in with the 2019 NBA Season, making this year the last under the current system.

Is The NBA Combine Moving To Maryland?

There is a growing buzz in NBA circles that the NBA Draft Combine may not be held in Chicago going forward. The annual draft evaluation event has had many iterations over the years but seemed to find a home in Chicago every May.

The NBA recently sold the apparel and marketing rights to the Combine event to Under Armour and the talk in NBA circles is that the Combine would be moving to an Under Armour facility in Maryland as soon as this season.

The Combine, which took on that name after years of being simply the NBA Pre-Draft Camp, was held at Chicago’s Moody Bible College for a number of years before it moved to Orlando in 2007. After a few years in Orlando, it returned to Chicago and was re-branded the Draft Combine and was held at the Quest Multi-Sport facility in the heart of Chicago.

With Under Armour attaching itself to all things Combine (both in the NBA and the NFL), it seems they may be moving the event closer to their home base in Maryland.

The dates and location for the Combine have not been locked in yet, however a small survey of NBA executives confirmed that the talk was the Combine was moving this year.

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @MikeAScotto, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @TommyBeer, @MokeHamilton, @jblancartenba, @Ben_Dowsett, @CodyTaylorNBA, @SpinDavies, @BuddyGrizzard, @JamesB_NBA, @DennisChambers_ and @Ben__Nadeau.

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NBA PM: Utah Jazz 2017-18 Season Preview

Can the depth of the Jazz keep them in contention in a very tough Western Conference? We take a look.

Basketball Insiders

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It’s not often that a mid-tier playoff team loses its top two nightly scorers in free agency and still retains a puncher’s chance at the playoffs, especially not in the West, but the Utah Jazz could be one such team. Gordon Hayward and George Hill both went elsewhere this summer, but with arguably the game’s top defender in Rudy Gobert still in town and a smart offseason following those departures, Utah should still be squarely in the playoff picture out West.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

Utah’s worst nightmare became a reality this summer when franchise player Gordon Hayward opted to join his old college coach Brad Stevens in Boston.

Along with losing Hayward, George Hill also opted to move on from the Jazz, leaving a core that had surprised many in the NBA last season and looked poised to rattle the cages of the Western Conference’s powerhouses this year a shell of what it once was.

However, despite the losses, Utah did manage to make a deal for Ricky Rubio to assume their point guard duties. Donovan Mitchell also showed an impressive skillset in Summer League play, suggesting maybe that he could become a cornerstone in the next Jazz core.

Unfortunately, the loss of Hayward and Hill, coupled with the heightened intensity of the West may be too much for the Jazz to overcome and could leave them on the outside looking in of the playoff picture this season.

5th place — Northwest Division

— Dennis Chambers

It’s hard to imagine the Utah Jazz getting better in the wake of losing George Hill and Gordon Hayward, but they still managed to come away from this offseason looking like a team that plans on being a pain in the rear end to every other team in the toughest division in basketball. Ricky Rubio has joined the crew, for example, and rookie Donovan Mitchell looked in Summer League like one of the steals of the lottery. There still is everything to love about Rudy Gobert, but the real question for Utah’s potential success this season is how much better Rodney Hood can be in an expanded role. Like it or not, he’s sort of the new Gordon Hayward, and those are big shoes to fill.

5th place — Northwest Division

— Joel Brigham

The Utah Jazz lost Gordon Hayward and George Hill from last season’s squad. To be sure, these are two big losses for Utah. However, the team added Ricky Rubio and have a few candidates to step in and fill the void left by Hayward. The team is still surprisingly deep but injuries have plagued Utah in recent seasons. With some better luck with health and some internal improvement from players like Rodney Hood and Dante Exum, Utah could still be a dangerous team in the Western Conference. Defense will be the foundation of this team’s success, especially with the additions of Rubio and Thabo Sefolosha. However, we can’t pretend like the loss of Hill and Hayward in particular isn’t a big deal. How Utah responds to these departures will say a lot about the character and resiliency of this young, talented squad.

4th place — Northwest Division

— Jesse Blancarte

Even after managing the loss of their two highest nightly scorers last season reasonably well, the 2017 offseason counts as a gut punch for the Jazz. Both Gordon Hayward and George Hill chose elsewhere to play their ball moving forward, gutting a core that some predicted was capable of making a conference finals appearance. The Jazz did well in their stead, trading for Ricky Rubio and making some smart signings in Jonas Jerebko, Thabo Sefolosha and Ekpe Udoh – they should once again be one of the deepest teams in the NBA. Rookie Donovan Mitchell impressed at summer league and could be ready to contribute right away off the bench, and guys like Dante Exum and Alec Burks are eager to prove their worth in vital seasons.

4th place — Northwest Division

— Ben Dowsett

I don’t think I have much of a choice but to pick the Jazz to finish as one of the two lower seeds out in the Northwest. The Thunder and the Timberwolves have each improved immensely this offseason, while I simply think that the Blazers are more talented than their .500 record last season suggests, especially with the addition of Jusuf Nurkic.

I will say this: I grossly underestimated these guys last season and didn’t expect them to escape the first round against the Clippers. I was wrong then and could certainly be wrong now, but I simply don’t think they’ll be as good. In the end, whether the Jazz can replicate last season’s success will depend in large part on whether rookie Donovan Mitchell (who lit up the summer league) and Rodney Hood are as good as everything thinks they are. Hood will be carrying a lot of weight, but if Rudy Gobert, Derrick Favors, Ricky Rubio and Thabo Sefolosha can each stay healthy, I’m pretty sure these guys still make the playoffs.

4th place — Northwest Division

— Moke Hamilton

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Rodney Hood

The argument could be made for Rudy Gobert here after a thoroughly excellent and underrated offensive year last year, but as the Stifle Tower takes the cake in our next section easily, we’ll leave him for a moment. Hood, on the other hand, badly needs the kind of breakout year Gobert had last year. He’s shown the skills to be a primary NBA scorer since he entered the league as a rookie, but his issues have always been about consistency – both in his play and his health.

Now he needs to put it together for a full season, and he needs to do so without a guy like Gordon Hayward often next to him on the wing. Hood has proven capable as a pick-and-roll ball-handler and as a spot-up shooter, so he should work well in lineups with Ricky Rubio. How he fares this year could go a long way to defining Utah’s season.

Top Defensive Player: Rudy Gobert

Not much needs to be said here. Coming off a second-place finish in Defensive Player of the Year voting and consistently ranking near the top of the league in every reliable defensive metric, Gobert is one of the league’s most complete and terrifying defenders. He’s the best rim protector in the league, and has worked hard the last couple years at adding enough mobility to his game to survive in the movement-heavy modern game. He could be in for an even bigger year defensively after Utah’s summer additions, particularly Ricky Rubio – one of the first elite-level point guard defenders Gobert will have had the chance to play with.

Top Playmaker: Ricky Rubio

Speaking of Rubio, the Jazz will look to him to fill the void filled by Hill – and when it comes to a playmaking role, to add to it. Rubio actually averaged double Hill’s per-minute assist total last year, and while some of this speaks to their respective roles, Utah will be hoping he can bring the kind of primary playmaking they’ve been without for quite a while. His pick-and-roll prowess should improve the quality of looks for bigs like Gobert, a tantalizing thought given that Gobert already led the entire league in True Shooting percentage last year. Rubio should also open up Utah’s running game a bit in transition.

Top Clutch Player: Joe Johnson

Despite the presence of Hayward and Hill on the roster, Iso Joe was far and away Utah’s most reliable clutch option last season – and one of the most consistent in the entire league. He posted an outrageous 53-62-100 shooting line in the final five minutes of games with the score within five points, per NBA.com. For those unfamiliar with shooting lines, that means 53 percent from the field, 62 percent from three, and 100 percent from the free-throw line.

Johnson was one of Utah’s only guys capable of creating his own look consistently, a role that will only grow with Hayward no longer in the picture. His presence in crunch time lineups means at least one other well-known name is likely on the bench, but how can coach Quin Snyder leave him off the court in these moments after last year?

The Unheralded Player: Derrick Favors

Lost in a successful year and a crazy offseason was Favors, who as recently as 18 months ago was considered by many to be Utah’s best player on a team that still featured Hayward and Gobert. Favors just couldn’t get healthy last year, with a series of maladies keeping him either off the court or well below 100 percent. He’s spent the offseason working his tail off, though, plus honing a three-point shot that should keep him on the floor if spacing gets cramped with guys like Rubio and Gobert on the floor. He’s in a vital contract year, one where he has to prove he’s both healthy and skilled enough to continue making a big impact. If he’s good physically, don’t be shocked to see his name in the Most Improved conversation come midseason.

Best New Addition: Thabo Sefolosha

We could give this one to Rubio, Jonas Jerebko or even first round draft pick Donovan Mitchell, but Sefolosha gets the nod. He’s a versatile, talented wing defender who will fit right into Snyder’s schemes and provide a big upgrade at the point of attack defensively. Sefolosha has become a capable mid-30s three-point shooter, a fact that makes him a good candidate for small-ball lineups where he, Johnson or Joe Ingles plays the power forward position (these could be some of Utah’s best lineups, as they were last year). He’ll be a primary cog in some of Utah’s most versatile lineups.

– Ben Dowsett

WHO WE LIKE

1. Joe Ingles

Ingles didn’t show up for any of our sections above, but there’s a good reason for that: His best talent is likely his versatility. Jingles did a bit of everything last year: He was one of the league’s top spot-up three-point specialists (he shot 46 percent on catch-and-shoot looks, per SportVU data – in the league’s top 10); he ran pick-and-roll sets patiently and efficiently; he was perhaps Utah’s top perimeter defender, a trump card Snyder loved to use in unorthodox situations, including against point guards; he led the team in steals on the year. After signing a deserved extension in the offseason, Ingles will be counted on to continue all this while also providing his unique brand of leadership in a locker room that needs it.

2. Quin Snyder

Entering his fourth season at the helm in Utah, Snyder has consistently shown an ability to get the most out of his rosters. He’ll have another challenge this year after Utah’s offseason departures, but if anyone is up to it, it’s this guy. His defenses are consistently among the most disciplined in the league, and his offensive sets make lemonade even when there are limited lemons available. It will be fascinating to see how much, if at all, his offense changes with guys like Hayward and Hill gone and Rubio now in town.

3. Donovan Mitchell

Utah’s summer sensation was Mitchell, who was selected 13th in the 2017 Draft after a draft day trade and then lit it up at summer league. Mitchell should step right into the NBA as a plus defender, with a fantastic 6-foot-10 wingspan that sneakily makes him more than capable of checking bigger wings – he completely shut down Celtics draftee Jayson Tatum in Jazz Summer League despite giving up nearly half a foot in height. He’s a strong, energetic presence sure to endear himself to the Jazz fanbase, and already has a fantastic potential future as a shooter. If he can refine some of his decision-making and shot selection as a ball-handler over the next few years, he could be a borderline star. For now, he should fit in as a great two-way option who adds some more versatility in Utah.

4. Dante Exum

It’s put up or shut up time for Exum in Utah as he enters his fourth season, and last under his rookie contract. The Aussie has had a tumultuous developmental curve since entering the league, but after finally having a full offseason to train with Jazz coaches and get his game to a new level, the Jazz are expecting big things. Exum has the profile to play both guard spots with elite defensive chops, and he showcased an improved handle and jumper at summer league. He’ll likely enter the season without a rookie extension in place, meaning how much he can make in restricted free agency may depend on what he can show this year.

5. The Depth

Despite their offseason losses, the Jazz are once again positioned to be one of the deepest teams in the league. Guys like Sefolosha, Exum, Mitchell, Jerebko, Alec Burks, and even Raul Neto all have either played quality minutes in the NBA or shown the legitimate potential to do so, and each of these names should be coming off Utah’s bench. The Jazz will hope for better injury luck than they’ve had in recent seasons, of course, but they’re reasonably well-positioned to deal with any losses (besides Gobert) should they arise.

– Ben Dowsett

SALARY CAP 101

The Jazz dropped under the NBA’s $99.1 million salary cap to sign players like Thabo Sefolosha and Jonas Jerebko, after losing Gordon Hayward in free agency to the Boston Celtics. The team used most of their Room Exception on Ekpe Udoh, leaving just $1.1 million to spend. All three signings have non-guaranteed salary for the 2018-19 season. Prior to July, Utah acquired Ricky Rubio via trade from the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Heading into the 2017-18 season, they’re at $109.7 million in payroll with 15 guaranteed contracts (along with non-guaranteed Raul Neto and Naz Long, both of whom have long odds of making the roster). Before the start of the season, both Dante Exum and Rodney Hood are eligible for extensions. Next summer, the Jazz can get to roughly $27 million in space, assuming they cut their non-guaranteed players and let both Exum and Hood walk as free agents.

— Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

Defense and depth are the two primary strengths for this team. They’re heavy favorites to finish with a top-five defense as long as Gobert is healthy, and as we noted above, they can withstand just about any other injury for at least a short period. They’re also a stronger shooting team than people might realize – in Ingles, Hood, Johnson, Burks and likely Mitchell, they’ve got five strong spot-up shooters, at least a couple of whom should be on the floor at all times. Coaching is another strength for the Jazz, with Snyder growing more comfortable in his role each year.

– Ben Dowsett

WEAKNESSES

Gobert is a star whether people prefer to call him that or not, but Hayward’s departure did rob the Jazz of their go-to offensive option. Utah is definitely weaker when it comes to high-level creation, even with the additions they made over the offseason. They’ve traditionally been a very bad team in offensive transition as well – how much that changes this year, and whether Snyder chooses to emphasize it more, could have a large effect on where they finish the year offensively.

– Ben Dowsett

THE BURNING QUESTION

Can depth, coaching and defense offset Utah’s big summer losses and keep them in the playoff picture?

The Jazz lost nearly 40 points a night from last season when Hayward and Hill bolted town. They did a lot of great things after that point, but it’s fair to question where that production will come from and whether the additions are enough to offset it. The defense should still be excellent, but it can afford zero slippage if this is going to be a playoff team. Can Rubio and Gobert plus a healthy Favors and Hood propel Utah to something close to a league-average offense to supplement it, or will they fall closer to the bottom-10 range? This is what will ultimately define their season, and could determine whether they make the playoffs in a loaded West middle. There are a ton of variables at play in Utah this season. It’ll be fascinating to see how they play out.

-Ben Dowsett

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Cleveland Cavaliers 2017-18 Season Preview

Despite three consecutive trips to the NBA Finals, the Cleveland Cavaliers open the season with a lot of new faces. What will it mean for their quest for another title?

Basketball Insiders

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The defending Eastern Conference Champions and NBA Finals runner-ups are looking to return to the big stage in what could theoretically be LeBron James’ final season with the organization. Changes over the summer have tinkered with the roster quite a bit to make the team deeper and more versatile. With multiple assets at their disposal and a team ready for a run at another title, the Cavaliers are arguably in a better position than they were before.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

When the final buzzer sounded to end the 2017 NBA Finals, I can’t imagine LeBron James thought his starting point guard this season would be Isaiah Thomas instead of Kyrie Irving.

In fact, I don’t think anyone could have imagined that. However, here we are.

The new look Cavs will still be their familiar selves when it comes to dominating the Eastern Conference, because they still have the best player on the planet. Throw in Thomas, Jae Crowder, and now even that tantalizing Brooklyn Nets pick, and for the first time in the James Era, Cleveland may be in a decent position should James decided to take his talents elsewhere once again.

But, for this season at least, the Cavs are still the cream of the crop in the East.

1st place — Central Division

— Dennis Chambers

So, what happens if Isaiah Thomas ends up hardly playing this season? We all know that LeBron James is good enough to will any garbage dump of a roster to the playoffs, and the Cavaliers are pretty far from garbage dump status. Kevin Love is still there, after all. So are J.R. Smith, and Tristan Thompson and Iman Shumpert. They also added Derrick Rose and Jose Calderon to shore up that backcourt while Thomas heals, and nobody doubts that Jae Crowder will be an asset. I’m just not sure they’re the East’s best team without Kyrie Irving or Isaiah Thomas. Boston and Washington are going to nag at them all season long, making the Eastern Conference more wide open than it ever has been.

1st Place – Central Division

– -Joel Brigham

Nothing like a quiet offseason, right?

There never seems to be a shortage of drama in The Land, and the summer of 2017 was no exception. Kyrie Irving is gone, replaced with Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and a vital Nets 2018 pick. Thomas’ hip is a huge question mark, with no clear answers emerging about when – or if – he might be 100 percent. Loud rumors are swirling about LeBron James’ future in Cleveland once again. Meanwhile, the Warriors only got better over the summer. Most of the big questions in Cleveland won’t be answered until spring, but they’ll be a fascinating group to watch all year long. One thing to watch from the start: How does youngster Cedi Osman perform on the wing in his rookie season?

1st Place – Central Division

— Ben Dowsett

Kryie Irving is now a Boston Celtic and Isaiah Thomas and Derrick Rose now man the point guard position for Cleveland. Thomas’ hip injury is problematic and it’s not clear when, or if, he will ever make a full recovery. Rose has been inconsistent in recent seasons and is always a risk to miss time with injuries. However, Cleveland added Jae Crowder in the deal, which should be a big boost for the Cavaliers on both ends of the court. Crowder is a solid three-point shooter and a versatile defender. Crowder can plug effectively into small ball lineups and take on tough defensive assignments, which should help preserve LeBron throughout the season. The Cavaliers will miss Irving, but if Thomas can overcome his hip injury and Crowder maintains his usual level of play, Cleveland will likely be as dangerous as last season, if not more so.

1st Place – Central Division

— Jesse Blancarte

With Kyrie Irving’s talents having been sent to Boston, the Cavaliers enter the 2017-18 season as potentially assisting their own demise. The squad has won the Eastern Conference three years in a row, and although most would expect them to make it four, the Celtics will likely have something to say about that.

Until then, though, there probably won’t be much drama in the Eastern Conference.

Despite everything that has transpired over this offseason, the Cavs are probably entering the season as a team that has been weakened without Irving, but one that may be better equipped for long-term success. While that will depend upon the extent to which Isaiah Thomas is able to replicate Irving’s production, most of the new faces brought in to Cleveland—Derrick Rose, Jose Calderon, Jae Crowder and Jeff Green—address an area of weakness for the team.

Even if this does end up being LeBron James’ final season in Ohio, there’s no doubt he’s walking away with another division title, if not a lot more.

1st place — Central Division

— Moke Hamilton

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: LeBron James

Pointing out the obvious, the four-time MVP led the Cavaliers to their third straight championship appearance by breezing right by the East. Due to constant nagging injuries to key pieces during the season, James once again had to bear the responsibility of leading the wine and gold.

He didn’t disappoint. In his 14th year as a pro, LeBron averaged a team-high 37.8 minutes per game over a 74-game span and put up some ridiculous numbers in the process. As he’s gotten older, the 32-year-old superstar has evolved into deadly shooter beyond the arc in addition to his elite scoring ability driving to the hole. With his former right-hand man off to literal greener pastures in Boston, there should be plenty of motivation for James to continue his tear and prove that there won’t be a drop-off in his game anytime soon.

Top Defensive Player: Jae Crowder

Is there any question who takes the cake here? For a number of years now, Cleveland has desperately lacked a true wing to offer a threat on both sides of the floor. Crowder fits that bill to a tee.

Ranking 20th in ESPN’s real plus-minus system, he was an essential part of Brad Stevens’ best defensive units. In his final season with Boston, the versatile forward led the team in net rating. While Crowder was on the floor, the Celtics were 7.8 points better per 100 possessions. When he sat, that number was -3.9, which is a whopping difference of 11.7 points per 100 possessions just by whether Crowder was on the court or not. The Cavaliers have never had anybody with that kind of impact defensively at forward or any position, for that matter. His arrival might be the most important return from the Kyrie Irving trade considering the depth and impact he will provide.

Top Playmaker: LeBron James

Let’s be real—LeBron has to be in at least two categories at the top of the list. Putting it simply, the man makes everyone around him look great on the floor. His presence influences all of his teammates and it shows on the hardwood.

As the best player in the world, he has a beautiful basketball mind that allows him to make split-second decisions in an instant. James also has the physical attributes and skills to execute those thoughts going through his head. That’s a deadly combination to possess. Whether it’s scoring in isolation, feeding his guys, grabbing rebounds, playing the passing lanes, or sprinting the length of the floor for a chase-down block, LeBron is as versatile as they can possibly come.

Top Clutch Player: Isaiah Thomas

Losing Irving is a punch to the gut, but replacing him with Thomas actually gives Cleveland a slight improvement when the lights get brighter. Most NBA enthusiasts can recall a ridiculous stretch in the wintertime when the All-Star point guard was all of a sudden dubbed, “King of the Fourth.”

In crunch time, he was on a mission. The 5-foot-9 scoring assassin averaged 9.8 of his career-high 28.9 points per game in the final quarter and was relentless in getting to the free throw line, where he shot 89.3 percent. Thomas has no fear when the palms get sweaty and, once healthy, should provide some memorable moments again down the stretch.

The Unheralded Player: Channing Frye

Sample sizes matter, but statistically speaking, Frye was the only one to put forth a true shooting percentage (61.2) on par with James regarding playing the same amount of games. Always a reliable sharpshooter from deep, Frye was once again a key factor for Tyronn Lue’s second unit.

His defensive reputation must’ve played a factor in his lack of playing time deep into the playoffs and against Golden State. It certainly couldn’t have been his offensive output because he led the Cavaliers with a 51.3 three-point percentage in the postseason. Frye stepped in and started 15 games last year when the team needed him as well. The willingness of the veteran big to do his job while being a vital presence in the locker room is a testament to his professionalism.

Best New Addition: Brooklyn’s unprotected first round draft pick in 2018

There were plenty of moves over the offseason that helped Cleveland within the realm of the game itself, but if there has been a true improvement for the organization, it’s establishing a direction for the future.

Everybody is aware of the headlines and speculation regarding what LeBron will do after this season is over. The validity of these reports is unknown, but it’s clear as day that owner Dan Gilbert and general manager Koby Altman are preparing for life without their franchise darling. Acquiring a surefire top-six pick to bring in young talent in next summer’s NBA Draft is a good way to ensure a potential rebuild starts off on the right foot. And should James commit to staying, there will be a lot of value attached to such an asset for a possible big move to keep the Cavaliers a contender. Either way, it was a job well done by the front office to be proactive in case the worst scenario happens.

— Spencer Davies

WHO WE LIKE

1. Kevin Love

It’s amazing how little love (no pun intended) a consistent double-double player like Love gets from people. He’s coming off a great season with the organization and seems extremely comfortable with his teammates, on and off the court. Entering his fourth year with Cleveland, it’s now apparent he’ll be even more involved as a focal point of the offense with new personnel. Lue has told reporters he expects Love to have potentially his best campaign since joining the Cavaliers. The team is going to run a lot of sets through the 29-year-old big man. As far as how much time at center he’ll see with Tristan Thompson holding it down, that’s up in the air. But if Crowder has enough synergy with LeBron, we might get a glimpse of Love at the five in the starting unit eventually.

2. Koby Altman

When the franchise announced it was parting ways with then-general manager David Griffin, there were a lot of question marks about what in the world the Cavaliers were going to do. After a drawn-out process, they found somebody in-house to help clean things up. Altman has done yeoman’s work in making this Cavaliers team better in free agency under difficult constraints. Through one-year veteran minimum deals, he was able to bring in three respectable players that are proven at this level. The rookie executive also completed a blockbuster deal that changed the direction of the organization and kept it a contender in the same breath. If this summer is an indication of what’s to come with Altman in charge, things are looking up for Cleveland if they need to make more moves.

3. J.R. Smith

Earlier this summer, Basketball Insiders ran a series of sleepers throughout each division. Smith was number one on the docket for the Central. Due to injuries and missing training camp over contract discussions, last season was a bit of an anomaly for the fan favorite. Until the playoffs, he never really got into the groove everyone had been used to seeing. Going into this year, Smith has a clean bill of health and is ready to get back to his usual self. Expect him to let it fly more often when he touches the ball.

4. Cedi Osman

The 22-year-old Turkish sensation is the crown jewel of the Cavaliers’ draft in 2015. Based on potential alone, he’s already one of the more exciting pieces of the future. Recently in the EuroBasket tournament, he made waves as one of the more athletic and aggressive wings in the field of FIBA talent. Osman is a highly touted, raw talent who is expected to be a versatile, two-way wing with size and thrives in the open floor. Nobody’s really sure about how much playing time he’ll see in his rookie year, but he’s definitely somebody to keep an eye on.

5. Jeff Green

Before Crowder came into the picture, it was assumed Green would be the one backing up James at the small forward position. Now that there’s a little more depth at forward, it should allow all three men to flourish in their roles. Green may not have had the best time in Orlando, but he never was really a good fit there. As a part of a championship-caliber squad, Green can provide a boost off the bench as a solid defender and a veteran that can space the floor. He’ll help in transition, too.

— Spencer Davies

SALARY CAP 101

The Cavaliers are deep into the luxury tax with at least $135.6 million invested in 17 players. Edy Tavares is non-guaranteed but $456,529 of Kay Felder’s $1.3 million is locked in. As a repeat-tax offender, Cleveland is looking at in the neighborhood of $50 million in penalties. While the Cavs have $2.6 million of their Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception left, along with multiple trade exceptions ($5.8 million the largest), the additional tax burden may inhibit further spending. The franchise is clearly in win-now mode but for how long, given LeBron James can opt out his contract after the season?

Without James, even if Iman Shumpert opts out of his $11 million deal next summer, the Cavs won’t have any significant spending power under the projected salary cap of $102 million. Additionally, Isaiah Thomas will be looking for a sizable raise as an unrestricted free agent next July.

— Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

The Cavaliers are one big collection of players that thrive from the three-point line and in fast break situations. Lue is a huge proponent of playing with pace and puts more of an emphasis on the offensive side of the floor. They take and make efficient shots at a high clip. The acquisitions made over the summer have really bolstered the depth of the team as well, and it should allow starters to get a breather without worrying about falling into a hole. There’s a ton of rotational combinations possible now, which should serve well in dealing with different matchups.

— Spencer Davies

WEAKNESSES

Point guard is a huge question mark at this point and we’ll get to that next. Other than that, Cleveland needs to improve defensively as a unit. The new additions should help, but ranking in the bottom 10 of the NBA in defensive rating won’t cut it trying to dethrone the Warriors. A below league-average free throw percentage of 74.8 won’t get the job done, either.

— Spencer Davies

THE BURNING QUESTION

Can Derrick Rose fill the void of Isaiah Thomas until he’s healthy?

The concerns surrounding the short and long-term health of Thomas are very real. During the introductory press conference, reporters were hammering away at Altman and the player himself about a timetable for a return to the court. The truth is, the Cavaliers are going to take their time to ensure he’s 100 percent before joining the team, whenever that may be.

Until then, it’s on Rose to be the starting point guard. There has been a lot of chatter about how he won’t be able get the job done and numbers don’t tell the real story about his true value. Critics can have their opinions about him, and adjusting to a new system will likely take getting used to. But consider this—has he ever experienced being teammates with a player the caliber of LeBron James? The answer is no. We’ve known for almost his entire career that “The King” makes players around him better, so who says can’t he do the same for Rose? Playing with championship-caliber teammates on a team that has won a title can do wonders for a career.

Lue certainly understands the former MVP’s finishing abilities underneath and success in the mid-range pull-up game should help open things up in certain sets. The one-on-one defense leaves a lot to be desired because of those knee injuries, but as far as him being a stopgap starting point guard goes, there shouldn’t be too much to worry about for the Cavaliers. All you have to do is ask Thomas.

— Spencer Davies

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