This is the offseason of Kevin Durant as the Oklahoma City Thunder superstar is hitting free agency for the first time in his career. A lot of teams have cap space to go after him, though many believe it is likely that he will stay in Oklahoma City with Russell Westbrook and company (depending on how the postseason goes for the Thunder).
With the salary cap rising, nearly all of the contracts handed out this offseason will likely seem inflated, but that’s simply a result of the NBA’s changing financial landscape. From mediocre players, to solid rotation players and all the way up to the superstars, free agents are going to get paid serious money this offseason.
Here we are covering some underrated free agents in the class of 2016. These aren’t the top-tier free agents, but they are those that are improving and still have significant room to keep developing.
The projected salaries are just estimates since the hard numbers don’t come out until the NBA’s moratorium in early July.
Barnes is a talented forward who benefits from playing alongside the sharpshooting backcourt of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson as well as Draymond Green. This season, Barnes averaged the most minutes (30.9) and points (11.7) per game of his career. However, his overall rebounding numbers and three-point percentage have dipped.
He is a restricted free agent, meaning that the Warriors can match any offer sheet he potentially signs with another team in order to retain him. It’s possible that the Warriors may decline to match a max-offer sheet, but it is very likely that he will remain with Golden State. The question for any team that pursues him is how will he fare as one of the top offensive options while drawing a lot of defensive focus from opponents? Also, will he regress at all if he is no longer playing alongside players as good as Curry, Thompson and Green?
Barnes has four years of experience, so his max contract would be 25 percent of the salary cap, which is projected next year at $92 million, putting his contract at roughly $23 million per season.
The French swingman is finishing up his eighth year in the league and will likely be one of the second-tier players signed once Durant and others are off the market. Batum averaged a career-high in points per game (14.9) this season as the starting small forward for the Charlotte Hornets. His field goal percentages need to come up, but he is a good defender and a versatile all-around player that can fit on nearly any team. And at only 27, he is just entering his prime.
Batum has a nice role with the Hornets and fits well under head coach Steve Clifford, so it wouldn’t be surprising if he re-signs with the Hornets.
Batum is likely to receive a max-deal considering his age, versatility and the amount of money teams will have to spend. Since he has been in the league for eight years, his max contract would be 30 percent of the cap, so his max salary would be around $25.9 million, which will increase with annual raises. Other teams can only offer four years and smaller raises.
Clarkson’s role should increase next season if he returns to the Los Angeles Lakers with the retirement of NBA legend Kobe Bryant.
However, the athletic, former University of Missouri star may go elsewhere as he is a restricted free agent. His free agency is somewhat unique since he fits within the Arenas Rule, but the point is the Lakers can retain him if they choose to do so.
The likely scenario is the Lakers will re-sign Clarkson, who averaged 15.5 points per game this year and is a building block for Los Angeles. If he ends up on another team, he could likely fill in as an excellent sixth man potentially.
Clarkson is a promising young talent. He needs to work on improving his defense and being a more effective playmaker, but he has shown a lot of promise in his short NBA career.
Since the craziness of Linsanity in New York back during the 2011-12 season, Jeremy Lin has bounced around the league, but seems to have found a home in Charlotte. He has a player option to stay in Charlotte next season, though, he likely will test free agency since there is so much free agent money to go around and a lack of talent to spend it on.
Lin is only averaging 11.7 points per game as opposed to his 14.6 in New York or 13.4 in Houston, but is doing it in a reduced role, primarily coming off the bench for a more competitive team. The hype of Linsanity has worn off, but Lin has transformed himself into a legitimate NBA player, who at 27 would be a nice addition for many teams. His shooting percentages could be better, but he has shown enough development and impact this season that someone will give him a nice offer if he goes into free agency this offseason.
Fournier really took a leap forward in his second year with the Orlando Magic after being traded from the Denver Nuggets. This season, Fournier started 71 of the 79 games he played in for the Magic. His minutes per game went up (28.6 to 32.5) as did his points per game (12.0 to 15.4). What is probably most impressive and key to why he’ll be paid well this offseason is how he increased his shooting percentages. He brought his three-point percentage from 37.8 percent all the way up to 40 percent, which puts him among the better shooters in the league. His free throw percentage went up significantly as well — from 72.8 percent to 83.6 percent.
Fournier is a good shooter that could really help a lot of teams and he’s only 23 years old. He’s restricted though, so the Magic could decide to match whatever he is offered.
Bazemore has certainly come a long way from being the hilarious, arm-waving, end-of-the-bench cheerleader he once was for the Golden State Warriors. He also played well for their D-League team back in 2012-13. He then spent one season with the Los Angeles Lakers and subsequently signed a two-year contract with the Atlanta Hawks, where he has been a solid contributor.
This season he averaged 11.6 points in only 27.8 minutes per game and started 68 of the 75 games he played in, mostly at small forward but also at shooting guard.
Bazemore has really taken a step in his development and as an athletic wing. He was also very good in the Hawks’ first-round victory over the Boston Celtics. For more on Bazemore’s success and why he’ll do well this summer, check out Lang Greene’s recent article about his significant improvement.
Harkless is a restricted free agent for the Portland Trail Blazers. His numbers (6.4 points and 3.6 rebounds per game) may not jump off the page right away, but remember that he was only playing 18.7 minutes for the Blazers during the regular season. A closer look reveals why he could be very attractive to teams this summer.
Harkless is only 22 years old, has a great work ethic and has the potential to be a talented 3-and-D player (which many teams are searching for in today’s NBA). Per-36 minutes, he averaged 12.3 points, 6.9 rebounds, 1.7 assists and 1.2 steals per game, while shooting 47.4 percent from the field and 27.9 percent from beyond the arc. Those are impressive increases from last year and it displays just how much his offseason work and a change of scenery has benefited Harkless this season.
Even better, Harkless has maintained and, for the most part, improved on those numbers this postseason. He was an important part of Portland’s first-round win over the L.A. Clippers, averaging 12.7 points, 6.2 rebounds, 0.7 assists and 0.7 steals while shooting 56.4 percent from the field and 33.3 percent from three-point range. Harkless’ versatility on both ends of the court and his ability to switch at the two forward positions with Al-Farouq Aminu helped the Blazers advance (though they did get some help with Los Angeles suffering several injuries to key players).
If he can keep up his development, he’ll be a great pick-up for any team in free agency. The market is unclear for him at this point, but he has played his way into a nice salary increase this upcoming offseason.
NBA Daily: Tyus Jones Thriving in Bigger Role
Minnesota’s Tyus Jones speaks to David Yapkowitz about his growing role with the Wolves.
It was the last game of the 2016-17 NBA season. The Minnesota Timberwolves had been mathematically eliminated from playoff contention for quite some time. Their opponent that night, the Houston Rockets, had an impressive year and were on their way to the postseason.
Although the Wolves would go on to lose that game, 123-118, Tyus Jones came off the bench to have to his best game of the year. He would finish with 17 points on 66.7 percent shooting from the field, 75 percent from the three-point line, seven assists, four rebounds, two steals, and a blocked shot.
Jones had just finished up his second year in the NBA, which had gone a little bit just like his first; a few games played here and there followed by some DNP-CD’s. Rookie Kris Dunn was ahead of him on the depth chart at backup point guard for the majority of the year. That stat line he put up on the last night of the season, however, should have been a sign of things to come.
Now in his third year, and second playing under Tom Thibodeau, Jones has firmly seized the backup point guard spot. Thibodeau is notorious for playing short rotations, and along with Jamal Crawford and Gorgui Dieng, Jones has solidified himself as one of Minnesota’s most dependable reserves.
“It’s been good, I’m just trying to contribute to the team as much as possible,” Jones told Basketball Insiders. “I want to do whatever I need to do to help this team win more games.”
The Timberwolves have done just that so far. They won 31 games all of last season. This year, they already have 16 wins. They didn’t break that mark last season until mid-January. Jones’ impact on the Wolves this year has been a big reason for that.
His stats may not jump off the page; he’s averaging 3.9 points per game on 42.5 percent shooting, and 2.8 assists in about 17 minutes of play. But he’s become a reliable floor leader who is able to anchor the Wolves second unit. He’s also one of their best floor spacers at 38.2 percent from the three-point line, and he’s an improved defensive player.
“For me, having a little bit bigger role this year, it’s what I wanted,” Jones told Basketball Insiders. “I’m just trying to make the most of it and take advantage of it.”
Jones has definitely taken advantage of his new role. Starting point guard Jeff Teague missed four games last month due to a sore right Achilles tendon. Aaron Brooks started in place of Teague for the first game he missed, but Jones was the starter for the next three.
In his first ever career start on Nov. 26 in a win over the Phoenix Suns, Jones had nine points on 50 percent shooting, four rebounds, seven assists, seven steals, and two blocks. The following game, albeit in a loss to the Washington Wizards, he finished with 12 points, four rebounds, and seven assists. In his final start before Teague returned, a win over the New Orleans Pelicans, he had his best game of the season with 16 points on 66.7 percent shooting, four rebounds, six assists, and four steals.
“It was a dream, I’m just trying to make the most of it,” Jones told Basketball Insiders about being a starter. “Once again, take advantage of the opportunity and just do my role.”
Although Jones only spent one season playing college basketball before entering the NBA draft, it was the program he attended that’s allowed him to make a seamless transition. He played at Duke under Mike Krzyzewski during the 2014-15 season, winning a national championship alongside fellow NBA players Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow, and Quinn Cook.
“It’s the best program in the country. Coach K is the best coach, arguably ever, to coach the game,” Jones told Basketball Insiders. “There’s nothing comparable on the college level, playing at Duke. They’re the brightest lights, so that helps prepare you for the next level.”
The Wolves are a team that hasn’t made the playoffs in over a decade. It was the 2003-04 season, to be exact. This year, however, they are hoping to change that. They currently sit in fourth place in the Western Conference, fighting for the right to host a playoff series in the first round.
“We’re trying to make the playoffs, that’s our goal right now,” Jones told Basketball Insiders. “Each year, we’re trying to get better. We’re still trying to take that next step. This organization hasn’t been to the playoffs in a number of years.”
With Jones playing a pivotal role, the Wolves’ playoff drought looks like it will be coming to an end very shortly.
NBA Most Valuable Player Watch — 12/12/17
Dennis Chambers updates the latest MVP watch rankings.
The NBA season is coming in hot on Christmas Day games, and before we know it the new year will arrive as well. As the second half of the season starts to come into sight, more stability among the league’s MVP candidates will prevail.
By now, most of the frontrunners for the award have staked their claim of consistent dominance over the last eight weeks of the NBA season.
For our list here at Basketball Insiders, the same names make up our ladder from the last MVP race installment. A slight juggling of the order is the only new wrinkle. Thus far, these individuals have put themselves ahead of the pack.
A full season in the NBA is a long race, but through the first few laps, these are the MVP leaders.
6. Steph Curry (Last Week: 3)
Coming in at No. 3 on the last list, Steph Curry sees a bit of a tumble in the standings. Unfortunately for Curry, he’s suffering from a sprained ankle that is going to cause him to miss some time. Fortunately for the Golden State Warriors, they’ve won three straight games without their star point guard.
This doesn’t discredit the type of season Curry is having, or his brilliance on the court when he’s healthy, but the fact that the Warriors have enough firepower to sustain his absence damages his claim to the most “valuable” player throne.
Nevertheless, for the Warriors to truly fulfill their championship potential, Curry needs to be healthy and playing. Otherwise, the Warriors aren’t as lethal as they could be.
Barring a complete meltdown from his ball club, Curry’s spot will likely continue to drop slightly as he sits on the bench watching his team win games without him.
Almost the exact opposite of Curry, the Philadelphia 76ers don’t seem to have a prayer at winning basketball games that Joel Embiid sits out of. Luckily for the city of Philadelphia, though, that hasn’t been nearly frequent of an occurrence as past seasons.
The on/off numbers for Embiid are staggering. On both ends of the court, no less. Without their big man, the Sixers’ offensive rating drops off by more than five points and their defensive rating sees a 10-point spike in favor of their opponents.
In short, it’s worse for the Sixers when Embiid is tweeting rather than playing.
After missing back-to-back games over the weekend, Embiid’s value became more apparent to the Sixers. Among a myriad of injuries, Embiid’s was felt the heaviest as his team posted a defensive rating of 111.6 to the Cleveland Cavaliers and then a 130.2 the next night to the New Orleans Pelicans.
Both figures are a far cry from the 102.9 rating the team records with Embiid on the floor.
Much like Curry, the Sixers will need Embiid on the court moving forward to live their best life. So long as he is resting on back-to-backs, or sitting with back soreness, the Sixers won’t be as fortunate as the Warriors to pull out wins.
Masked Kyrie joined Untucked Kyrie this season as another alter ego capable of taking the NBA and Twitter by storm on a nightly basis.
Irving, despite suffering an injury to his face that forced him to wear a protective mask a la Rip Hamilton, still has the Boston Celtics atop the league standings with his MVP campaign so far this season. Over Irving’s last 10 games, he’s averaging 25.8 points on 53 percent shooting from the field and 44 percent from beyond the arc. Over the course of that same span, the Celtics are 7-3.
Just to strengthen his already solid MVP claim, the Celtics went into Chicago Monday night to play the Bulls without Irving, as he sat out of the game with a quad contusion. All the league’s best team preceded to do was lose 108-85 to the league’s worst team.
At this point in the season, MVP candidates have their statistics in place. As viewers and fans, we really get to see the difference they make on their teams during the games that they aren’t playing, and Monday night for the Celtics was a microcosm of Irving’s season-long importance to the success of their team.
The Greek Freak is still putting up absurd numbers, keeping him right in the conversation for Most Valuable Player. On top of his gaudy production, the Milwaukee Bucks are starting to pile up some wins as well.
Winning six of their last seven games — the only loss coming to the Celtics where Antetokounmpo put up 40 points, nine rebounds, and four assists — the Bucks currently hold a 15-10 record and the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference.
It’s been well-documented up to this point how effective Antetokounmpo is for Milwaukee from a numbers standpoint. If he can really start translating those performances into wins over good teams, the narrative of him winning the award may begin to revert back the dominance it held over the first few weeks of the season.
As it currently stands, though, Antetokounmpo is ahead of the rest of the pack before a pretty sizeable gap at the two spots above him.
After having his Cavaliers’ 13-game win streak snapped by an unconscious Victor Oladipo, LeBron James returned to business as usual by defeating the shorthanded Sixers without Kevin Love by his side. He did so in typical Year 15 fashion, posting 30 points, 13 rebounds, 13 assists, and three steals.
No big deal.
That’s the mantra for James’ 15th year in the NBA: Do it all, and do it well. He doesn’t have the supporting cast that many projected coming into this season, and Irving is out doing his thing in Boston. But for the King of the NBA, after a month of rough basketball, he seems to be figuring it all out for his club and putting them in the positions they need to be in to be successful.
Since the start of Cleveland’s winning streak up until the game against Philadelphia, James is averaging 27.5 points, 9.3 rebounds, 8.5 assists, 1.4 steals, 1.1 blocks, 55 percent shooting from the field and 44 percent shooting from beyond the arc.
His team is 14-1, Irving is in Boston, and Isaiah Thomas is on the bench.
Year 15 may very well end with James getting MVP number five.
The only man standing between James and his fifth MVP is the man who’s setting the league on fire trying to get his first.
James Harden is recreating his stellar season from a year ag but improving it, somehow. Harden’s averages are incredible: 32 points, 9.5 assists, 5.1 rebounds, 40 percent from downtown, and a 31.6 player efficiency rating.
Not to mention he’s led the Houston Rockets to a 21-4 record, and looks to be a real threat at knocking off the Golden State Warriors.
What Harden is doing on the defensive end is what is brining his game, and his MVP case, to the next level. Harden is posting his lowest defensive rating is four years and coming up big on D in crunch time situations.
On Monday night against the Pelicans, Harden came up with a clutch steal with under a minute to go (his sixth of the night) to extinguish a New Orleans rally and put the icing on his 26-point, 17-assist performance.
LeBron may be having an MVP season, even by his standards, but Harden’s performance this year thus far is keeping the King at arms length of the MVP crown.
NBA DAILY: What Is Really Wrong With The Thunder?
The Thunder continue to struggle to string together wins. What’s the problem in OKC?
At Some Point It Just Doesn’t Work
The Oklahoma City Thunder continue to be middling, despite having the star level talent it takes in the NBA to be exceptional. With the clock ticking in the wrong direction, is it more likely that this combination of players won’t work, or is there something bigger at play worth considering?
Before we dive too far into this, keep in mind the Thunder have played their 26th game, and are just a half a game out of the eighth spot in the West. Equally, they are also three and a half games behind the fourth-seeded Minnesota Timberwolves, so the sky is far from falling. In fact, they have won four of their last six games, including wins over the Spurs and Timberwolves, which only makes the Jekyll and Hyde of all of this even more frustrating.
All of that said, what’s really wrong with the Thunder? Here are some thoughts:
Not Enough Touches
The Oklahoma City Thunder are dead last in the NBA in touches per game as a team at 384. To contrast that number, the Philadelphia 76ers lead the league in touches at 480.9 touches per game.
Thunder guard Russell Westbrook accounts for 94.4 touches per game, while forward Carmelo Anthony accounts for 61.3 touches with swingman Paul George bringing in 56.0 touched per game. Those three players account for 211.7 of the Thunders 384 touches per game.
That’s not as bad as you would think watching the Thunder play, but what it does illustrate is that neither Anthony or Paul are getting the volume of touches both are used to getting before joining the Thunder. It’s also why neither seems to be able to get into a rhythm on a game to game bases. They have had their moments individually, but it been far from consistent.
It’s more than fair to say that the Thunder offense isn’t generating enough touches to maximize what George and Anthony bring to the table. When the Miami HEAT brought their “Big Three” together, one of the biggest challenges they faced was how to generate the touches to get all their guys in a rhythm and rolling.
That seems to be the biggest part of the problem with the Thunder.
Russ Has To Be Russ
When you look at the Thunder’s “convincing wins” those wins in which they look like an elite team in the NBA, Russell Westbrook plays like last year’s MVP.
The problem for the Thunder is it seems Russell is trying to get other players, specifically Anthony, often to the detriment of his team and his own game. When Westbrook puts his head down and plays his game, the Thunder tend to come out on top.
Westbrook never seemed to have this problem playing with Kevin Durant, and maybe that’s why Durant opted to leave, but Westbrook seems to be trying too hard to get others going.
Where’d Offense Go?
The Thunder continue to talk about how good they are defensively, and that’s a real thing. They are currently the ranked second in the NBA’s defensive rating category. They rank second in point allowed per 100 possessions at 103, just behind league leader Boston at 101.6 points per 100 possessions.
There is no doubt their defense is keeping them in games, but what’s killing them is the long stretches of sub-par offense, many times in the fourth quarter where their offense comes to a grinding halt.
Some have suggested that head coach Billy Donovan simply isn’t creative enough for the construct of this roster. Looking at the stats this far into the season, there may be something to the idea that the Thunder, offensively, just are not creative enough to maximize the potential of their star players.
It’s Not A Selfish Problem
The easy answer on the Thunder is to say they are simply selfish players. There is enough historical evidence on Anthony and Westbrook to support the idea, however, if you really look at the Thunders’ games, it’s actually the opposite. Westbrook likely isn’t selfish enough; it’s likely why he’s struggling from the field on the season.
Part of the offensive problem may be Westbrook’s shooting. His averages this season is markedly down from a year ago—39.6 percent this season from the field versus 42.5 percent last season. Westbrook is also 31.1 percent from three this year versus 34.3 percent from three last season.
But Westbrook is not alone, George is tying his second worst season from the field at 41.8 percent shooting. Anthony is having his worst year as a pro from the field at 40.4 percent.
All three are producing some of their lowest efficiency ratings of their careers, so it’s not just one guy doing so much more than the other. None of them are playing particularly well together.
It’s easy to look at the Thunder and label them one thing or the other; there are enough polarizing personalities on the roster to draw the labels. The truth of the matter is the Thunder just are not very good or efficient offensively, and until they find a way to make that part work, they will likely continue to be middling.
That’s going to make things fairly tough on the Thunder front office, because come the February 9th NBA Trade Deadline, the Thunder may have to cut bait on some players before they potentially lose them in free agency for nothing. The trade deadline is only about 60 days away, believe it or not.
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