With just one week to go before the 2017 NBA Draft lottery, all but six of the NBA’s 30 teams already have their sights set on this summer’s free agent class. Even more so than the draft, free agency, from a macro standpoint, is the quickest way for a team to change their fortunes.
As Rudy Gay has decided to opt out of the final year of his contract with the Sacramento Kings—a move he was quite wise to have made—this summer’s crop of free agents just got a lot more interesting.
Having gone down with a torn Achilles tendon earlier this season, Gay immediately became a topic of conversation. Sure, general managers have necessarily been making it rain on free agents the past few years, but being on the wrong side of 30 and coming off of an injury that has claimed the athleticism of quite a few of his predecessors presented some risk.
Apparently, it wasn’t great enough.
Gay now joins a crop of free agents that includes a few aging contributors including Paul Millsap, Kyle Lowry and Chris Paul. What makes Gay more interesting than those three, aside from the fact that we will learn the extent to which his market value is impacted by his injury, is that he the most likely of the group to switch teams this summer. Prior to the injury, it became public knowledge that Gay wanted out of Sacramento. Between he and DeMarcus Cousins, the prevailing thought was that he would have been traded first. Though that ultimately wasn’t the case, it seems a long shot that he will return to the Kings. Similar to Rajon Rondo, Gay may even be amenable to signing a short-term contract in a situation where he will get minutes and touches and hit the market again next summer. For that reason, copious amounts of cap space (or a lack thereof) may be less of a hindrance to winning his services than it would be under normal circumstances.
So where would make sense?
Get ready to hear about the Celtics a lot this summer. Aside from being one of the final six teams left with a chance to win the NBA Finals, the Celtics could have as much as $40 million under the cap available to spend this summer. Brad Stevens, no doubt, prefers his players to be a tad more hard-working and pass-happy than Gay has shown himself to be over the course of his career, but in spurts and primarily for the purpose of providing offense off of the bench, Gay could fit in well with Boston’s second unit. That obviously assumes he would be amenable to such a situation.
Armed with what may turn out to be the top overall pick in the 2017 draft, odds are, the Celtics will have their sights set on a splashier acquisition, but Gay may not be a bad alternative.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Russell Westbrook is phenomenal, but he isn’t capable of carrying a team all by himself, not anywhere meaningful, anyway. Although it remains to be seen what kind of mobility Gay still has, at the very least he presents another offensive weapon that opposing defenses would have to respect. He would give Westbrook some much-needed firepower and may even help assuage the concerns that Westbrook may have related to whether or not other high profile players would be willing to commit to Oklahoma City.
For Gay, the move would make sense for two simple reasons: first, with a few plus-defenders on the team, his defensive ineptitude could be protected; all he’d have to worry about is scoring. Secondly, the game would be made pretty simple for him. With Westbrook’s incredibly high usage rate, Gay wouldn’t have to work incredibly hard to find shots and scoring opportunities.
The most difficult part for the Thunder, however, would be the actual acquisition. Unless Gay were willing to settle for the midlevel exception, by virtue of the $90 million that Thunder have committed next season to Westbrook, Enes Kanter, Victor Oladipo and Steven Adams, the financing becomes tricky, especially considering the club’s desire to re-sign Andre Roberson.
While a sign-and-trade remains a possibility (and a good one), receiving Gay in such a transaction would have cap ramifications that could prove limiting for Oklahoma City. Still, for the organization, the move would be worth contemplating.
Los Angeles Clippers
Assuming the Clippers re-sign both Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, Gay could make some sense for the team that will be heavily in pursuit of Carmelo Anthony this summer. Finding a trade that’s agreeable to the New York Knicks will be an obstacle for Doc Rivers, and if he’s truly committed to his core, Gay could probably be had at a lesser cost. Blake Griffin’s inability to remain healthy over the long haul of the season has made it somewhat obvious that the Clippers could use a contingency scorer, as the lack of one had a lot to do with their flaming out against the Utah Jazz earlier this postseason.
Unlike the Thunder, though, any hope of Gay landing in Los Angeles would almost certainly rest on his willingness to sign with the club via a cap exception. Receiving a player in a sign-and-trade deal subjects the receiving team to a hard cap during the receiving season, meaning that the Clippers would probably have trouble fitting Paul, Griffin, J.J. Redick, Luc Mbah a Moute and Marreese Speights under the threshold if a hard cap was in effect.
The fit is there in Los Angeles, but the mechanics make it a long shot.
With the salary cap expected to land somewhere in the $102 million range, there will be quite a few teams with spending power this summer. If Gay values winning, though, a few of those teams may not be as appealing as some others. In the end, the option of signing a short-term deal would make some sense, but for a 32-year-old player whose long-term health is in doubt, it would be a risky proposition.
In any event, toss Gay’s name into the mix for those who will hit the market this summer. He certainly will make for an interesting case study.
Cavs Woes Reason For Concern, But Not Dismissal
Spencer Davies takes a look at the Cavs’ issues and why we shouldn’t count them out just yet.
The Cleveland Cavaliers are the classic case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
When they’re on, they look like the defending three-time Eastern Conference Champions. When they’re off, they look like an old team that’s worn down and, at times, disinterested—and it gets ugly.
Take this past three weeks for example. After going on a tear of 18 wins in 19 games, the Cavs have dropped eight of 11 and are falling fast. Two of those three victories in that stretch were decided by four points or less against bottom-of-the-barrel teams in the East.
So what happened? For one, the schedule got significantly tougher. Beyond just the level of competition, Cleveland has been on the road for a long while. Nine of the games in this recent down period have been away games. The only time they’ve been home was for a quick second in mid-December and a short stay for New Years.
You’ve got to think about how that affects a psyche, not only from an on-court standpoint but also in regard to spending time with loved ones and family. LeBron James brought attention to his own homesickness on Christmas Day while he was in the Bay Area instead of in Northeast Ohio to celebrate the holidays. If it gets to him, you know it’s got to get to the other players as well. These guys are human beings with lives, and the rigors of travel can wear differently on people. Luckily for them, seven of their next nine games will be at Quicken Loans Arena.
With that being said, everybody in the NBA goes through it, so it’s no excuse for how flat the Cavs have been. Anybody on the team will tell you that, too. However, when you’re figuring out rotations and re-implementing players who had injuries, it’s not easy. This is exactly why nobody should envy Tyronn Lue.
He’s being asked to make room in his rotations and adjust on the fly as Cleveland gets guys back. When they went on that month-long run, the reason they had success was that the second unit really clicked. Dwyane Wade found his niche as the maestro of the bench bunch along with any mixture of Kyle Korver, Jeff Green, Cedi Osman, Channing Frye, and Jae Crowder. Lue had found the perfect group to spell LeBron James and company.
But then, Tristan Thompson came back and, with all due respect, it messed with their flow. The spacing is no longer there for Wade or Green to penetrate because the paint is clogged. It makes it easier on opposing defenses to just stick to Korver because there aren’t any other threatening shooters on the floor (besides Osman, maybe). Worst of all, the change basically kicked Frye—who has a plus-14 net rating, according to Cleaning The Glass—out of the rotation completely.
Deciding who plays and when is a tough job. Derrick Rose is set to come back soon. Iman Shumpert is coming along as well. Lue likes a 10-man rotation, but there are at least 12 players who deserve to be on that court. We already know Rose is expected to commandeer the second unit in Wade’s absence on back-to-backs. As for if Shumpert remains in Cleveland, who knows? It’ll be interesting to keep an eye on how this situation is managed moving forward.
Isaiah Thomas, on the other hand, is somebody the Cavs have been waiting on to return since the season started. Despite LeBron being LeBron and Kevin Love having as great of an offensive year as he’s ever had on the team, the starting unit lacks an extra punch. Thomas can be that shot in the arm, and he proved that in his debut at home against Portland and on the road in Orlando. There are two snags that both he and the team are going to hit before the 29-year-old returns to his All-Star form: 1) He’s got to get his legs under him to regain the consistency in his game and 2) His teammates are going to have to adjust to playing with him.
These are not easy things to do. Remember, aside from Jae Crowder, there is nobody on Cleveland’s roster that has played with Thomas before. Add in that he’s trying to re-discover his own game and that makes for a pretty bumpy road, at least out of the gate.
Start here—put Thompson in the starting lineup. As poor of a fit he’s been on the bench, he has shown promising signs of a developing chemistry with Thomas. It’s only been four games, but he loves having a partner in the pick-and-roll game. That’s clearly where you’ll get the most production out of him and how he can thrive. He’ll provide hustle, second chance opportunities, and a semi-decent big that can at least bother some of the competition’s drives to the basket. Sliding Love over to the four might change his game a little bit, but you can still get him going in the post before giving him chances as a shooter to work him outside-in.
The resulting effect helps the second unit as well. They’ll get one of either J.R. Smith or Crowder, depending on who would be relegated there. Both of those guys can use a spark to get them going. Because of Crowder’s familiarity with Thomas, let’s say Smith gets kicked out. Maybe that gets him out of the funk he’s in? It also allows for Frye, who hasn’t seen more than 20 minutes in a game since December 4, to get re-acclimated to a group he truly helped on both ends of the floor earlier in the year.
Outside of the need to make a move at the deadline, the Cavs can figure this out. It’s understood that they’re the fourth-worst defensive team in the NBA, but they’ve gone through these kinds of ruts at this time of year, specifically since LeBron came back. There might not be statistical evidence backing up the claim of any improvement, but the track record speaks for itself.
The panic button is being hit, but pump the brakes a bit. This isn’t anything new. The pieces are a little different and things look as bad as they ever have, but in the end, the result will likely be the same.
NBA Daily: Zach LaVine Has Solid Debut With Bulls
Zach LaVine put together a solid performance for the Bulls in his first game back from injury.
The Chicago Bulls are turning a corner this season. Zach LaVine is healthy after completing a year of rehabilitation from an ACL injury. LaVine’s return comes at a critical moment. The team is 13-7 over the last twenty games. Many of the wins in this stretch are over current competitors for a potential spot in the playoffs. This includes wins against the Charlotte Hornets (in overtime), the Philadelphia 76ers and three wins (one in overtime) against the New York Knicks. The stretch of winning ties into the return of forwards Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic. Having these key players back and winning this many games recently has changed the dynamics of what had been shaping up to be a losing season.
LaVine played in his first game of the season on Saturday and hit three of four three-point baskets while scoring 14 points in 19 minutes played. LaVine described how he felt physically and about the team’s recent run.
“I thought I did pretty good. I was tired as hell at first. But, we got the win,” LaVine said. “We’re going to keep this thing going.”
The team went into this season having parted ways with their franchise player, Jimmy Butler, in a trade that was derided by many for being lopsided. The trade netted the Bulls LaVine, point guard Kris Dunn and the sixth pick in the 2017 draft in exchange for Butler and the number 16 pick. The trade also allowed Butler to be reunited with coach Tom Thibodeau in Minnesota. For the Bulls, Dunn has greatly improved from the poor play of his rookie season in Minnesota. In addition, the Bulls selected Lauri Markkanen, whom has already displayed some serious talent and potential. Now with LaVine in the lineup, the Bulls can see the total value of the trade on the court.
So, where do the Bulls now stand? According to FiveThirtyEight, as of January 14, the Bulls are projected as having a three percent chance of making the playoffs with a projected record of 32-50. This is a jump from less than one percent (essentially zero percent) back on December 11, 2017. Still, three percent is not the most reassuring projection.
In addition, the recent shift to winning basketball also puts Chicago’s 2018 draft pick in a more precarious position. On December 6, 2017, the Bulls were 3-20 and were on pace to have one of the worst records in the league, if not the worst. Now every win moves the pick further away from a likely top three or even a potential number one pick and moves it closer to a top-10 selection or even middle of the first-round pick.
At the moment, the team is 16-27, good enough for 12th place in the Eastern Conference behind the Hornets, Knicks, 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks for the eighth and final spot in the playoffs. Being 6.5 games back and having seven more losses than the Bucks means the Bulls will need to continue winning at a high rate to make up the difference in the time left in the season.
LaVine didn’t hold back when it came to expressing his optimism regarding the team’s potential.
“I think we can make a push for this thing,” LaVine said. “That’s our job to do. That’s our job to do that,”
LaVine isn’t paying much attention to skeptics who still don’t believe the Bulls have much change to win anything meaningful this season.
“You know, we can’t control outside thoughts or anything,” LaVine said. “We’re ball players, we go out there and try to win every competition. You know, I think we’re good. I think we’re going to be good.”
In LaVine’s absence, Mirotic and Portis (despite their offseason scuffle) have emerged as two of the team’s best players. In addition, center Robin Lopez has done an admirable job keeping up his effort all season long while fulfilling his role as a veteran leader for the team. Lopez described the atmosphere on the team as positive recently in an interview with Joel Brigham of Basketball Insiders.
Despite the reason for optimism, it must be noted that the franchise might make another big trade that would diminish the team’s ability to be competitive this season. Despite his recent on-court success, reports are that Mirotic would like to be traded and that the Bulls asking price is a first-round pick.
Until such a move occurs, the Bulls appear poised to maintain their recent rate of success. Every win could cost the Bulls what could be a top overall pick in 2018. Regardless, the Bulls are surely feeling better about the results of the Butler trade, especially after LaVine’s impressive Chicago debut.
NBA Daily: Lopez’s Enjoys “Old Guy” Role on Young Team
Robin Lopez is the old man on a very young Chicago Bulls team, but he says the camaraderie is a big reason why he’s happy there, and why the team is overachieving so much this year.
When the Chicago Bulls started the season 3-20, nobody was surprised that they stunk. Everything was fine. They were supposed to stink. That was the entire reason they traded away Jimmy Butler for younger players in the first place. They wanted got their rebuild underway in earnest. (more…)