The 2013-14 season has been notable for the number of teams with no real hopes of contention. The first step in a rebuilding process, and one that must continue as long as the rebuild does, is to take stock of what talent the team has. There is one major question that should dominate the inquiry: Which of these players will be a part of our next good team? The player’s skill, age, contract and fit all enter into this discussion, as well as a realistic understanding of when the team can hope to be competitive again. This can generally be defined as the date a team’s young core is collectively projected to provide the greatest production. Finally, teams also need to consider the need to maintain flexibility rather than locking up a mediocre core.
The players are split into three different categories: “Buy His Jersey,” “Maybe, It Depends” and “Don’t Get Too Attached.” Players in the “Buy His Jersey” category are those who almost certainly should be in the team’s long-term plans, unless they are absolutely blown away by a trade offer for a superstar. Such players must either be under team control for quite a while longer on a cheap contract, or project to be a championship-level starter or better once their contract ends. The “Maybe, It Depends” category is reserved for players who have shown some promise, but are not necessarily locks to still be in town when the team is next ready to compete. It all depends on how these players develop and their contract situation. Many players in this category are on rookie contracts; once those end, they can become relative albatrosses if re-signed for more than their production would warrant. “Don’t Get Too Attached” is for players who are very unlikely to be a part of franchise’s next good team. In some cases it is because these players have demonstrated that they aren’t very good and don’t really have the potential to improve. But even solid players can appear on this list due to their age, contract status or fit.
The Atlanta Hawks have made the playoffs since 2007-08, but in none of those years did they have a realistic chance of winning the championship. In the summer of 2012, newly hired GM Danny Ferry began the process of dismantling those teams, trading away Joe Johnson’s enormous contract to the Brooklyn Nets. A year later, Ferry made no attempt to re-sign power forward* Josh Smith, instead replacing him with a short-term two-year, $19 million contract for Paul Millsap. Ferry also re-signed Kyle Korver and matched the Milwaukee Bucks’ offer to point guard Jeff Teague. Before Al Horford suffered a torn pectoral muscle on December 27, Atlanta was chugging along toward the de rigueur middle seed and second-round noncompete. Now the Hawks are desperately clinging to the eighth playoff seed, but they do so while maintaining flexibility and assets for the future.
*Yes, Joe Dumars, he’s a power forward.
Ferry now presides over a roster without any bad contracts (Teague’s four-year, $32 million deal comes closest), but the long-term plan appears murky. Without knowing that plan, determining the Hawks’ target date is difficult indeed. They tried the cap space route with hopes of signing Chris Paul and Dwight Howard in the offseason, but never appeared to be serious contenders for their services. With only an outside chance of luring a marquee free agent, Atlanta’s options are to 1) continue signing value free agents and hope to unearth a star drafting in the teens, or 2) blow up the roster entirely and accumulate future assets while Philips Arena lies fallow for a few years of losing. I do not envy Ferry the difficulty of this choice, nor the ultimate unpalatability of either option.
Buy His Jersey
Contract: 2 years, $24 million
Projected New Contract: 3-5 years, $10-13 million Average Annual Value (AAV)
Horford’s second pectoral injury in three season is a bit concerning, but he remains the franchise cornerstone. Aside from shooting midrangers he does nothing spectacularly, but everything well. His contract remains a solid value for a versatile lower-level All-Star player. The Hawks would be unlikely to get fair trade on a value or talent basis were he shipped out.
That said, Horford is very clearly a complementary player who in turn requires his own special complement, all the more so now that Smith toils in Detroit. Horford is somewhat miscast as a center, but was able to backline above-average defenses with Smith. Especially as he ages, Horford really needs a jumping jack center beside him to boost the Atlanta defense to championship levels. It is possible that 2013 16th pick Lucas Nogueira and his 7’5 wingspan could be that player in time, but he is raw, skinny, and missed most of the year for his Spanish league team with severe knee tendinitis.
Horford’s lonely status in the Buy His Jersey category highlights the problem for Atlanta. He remains the Hawks’ best player by a considerable margin, but he is also the team’s best asset. If Ferry concludes contention is unlikely in the next few years, Horford may be traded before his contract expires in 2016.
Maybe, It Depends
Contract: 3 years, $17.2 million
The relative hype of Korver’s NBA record three-point streak has highlighted his best season at age 32. While his shooting should contribute to far more graceful aging than most players, and his declining contract should mirror his production, it is hard to see Korver as a part of the next Atlanta contender. With the burgeoning value of shooting around the league, Korver would very likely glean a first-rounder or decent developmental prospect this offseason.
Ferry may wait to deal considering Korver is under contract for three more years, but he should also consider he is unlikely to quite repeat this performance and a high sell may be in order.
Contract: 3 years, $24 million
The Hawks swallowed hard and matched the Bucks’ offer sheet for Teague this offseason, making a Mike Conley style gamble that he might grow into the contract as he matures. After a hot start to the season, Teague has settled in as a slightly below-average starter. Of particular concern is his 27 percent shooting on threes despite shooting almost three per game. Only a solid free throw rate saves his efficiency numbers.
At this point, Ferry is in much the same situation with Teague as when he decided to match. Atlanta has no ready replacement and could not afford to lose the Wake Forest product unless they intend on Sixers-style tanking next year. Yet he remains slightly overpaid, and there is little trade market for him given the glut of point guards around the league. There are only a few teams that might find him an upgrade. As a result, Teague may be around for the longer haul. If he can combine last year’s 35 percent on threes with this year’s free throw rate, he could still live up to that contract, but at almost 26 time is a wasting.
Contract: 1 year, $ 2.4 million
Once little more than a Renaldo Balkman-style energy player, Carroll has made himself into a solid complementary performer on offense while offering solid wing defense. He has a 14.3 PER, but more importantly is hitting 38 percent of his threes while taking 42 percent of his shots from beyond the arc. The Hawks’ player development staff deserves credit for teaching and/or encouraging relatively old dogs like Carroll and Millsap to shoot threes. Of note, Carroll is 16th in the entire league in Regularized Adjusted Plus Minus (per Stats for the NBA), a plus/minus metric which purports to adjust for the quality of teammates and the opposition when a player is on the floor. Carroll’s is a value contract through next season, although he is not really a keeper with his age and 2015 expiring deal.
Rookie Contract expires 2017
Schroder was listed at 6’2”, 165 in the predraft process, and it looks an accurate weight. There was hope that Schroder could seize the backup point guard position after a strong summer league, but that fizzled immediately when the real games started. He started as the backup point guard, but lost the position to Shelvin Mack early on and only recently began playing regular minutes again. His statistics are among the worst of any player in the NBA, with a net rating of negative 14.9 points/100, a .459 true shooting percentage, and 5.9 PER.
Schroder has two marketable skills right now, namely his vision and ability to pressure the ball. Aside from those, he is not an NBA-quality player at this point. His lack of strength is a particular problem. He gets bumped off his drives by even the slightest defenders, and his only finishing move is an inaccurate quick flip shot before the defense arrives. From outside, he shoots a set shot that is not particularly versatile or accurate at this stage. Moreover, only the whimsy of opposing coaching staffs can save him from being posted up.
Schroder has talent, but he remains a lottery ticket. Counting on him as a future starting point guard would be foolish at this stage.
Don’t Get Too Attached
Contract: 1 year, $9.5 million
The former NCAA rebounding champion is having perhaps his best year in Atlanta. He has made up for declining activity on the offensive glass by blossoming into a stretch four this year through tireless work on his long-range shot. But his All-Star selection, though deserved, was more a product of a weak Eastern Conference than a marker of Millsap’s ascension to superstar status. He will never be a stopper, and his frontcourt pairing with Horford is unlikely to bear the sort of defensive fruits that might push the Hawks to new heights.
At the expiry of his contract next season, Millsap will likely move on for one more David West style payday assuming he can duplicate this year. Such a contract could make sense for a contender, but not for the Hawks at his age. As a result, he could well be traded in-season or over the summer if the Hawks conclude that next year will not bring contention. Millsap is perhaps the ultimate weathervane that will reveal when Ferry will decide to bite the rebuilding bullet, and how hard. A full season of his services on a value contract would likely fetch far more assets to that end than a move at the deadline if the Hawks are out of contention.
Restricted Free Agent
Projected New Contract: 1-3 years $1.5-2.5 million AAV
The second-year stretch four has had a breakout year of sorts, and is actually third on the team in PER on the strength of solid jump-shooting. But he really struggles to hold up defensively and on the boards against first unit players, and the Hawks get torched when he is on the floor. Moreover, he is a restricted free agent at the expiration of his two-year second round rookie deal this summer, and is nearing prime age already so we can’t expect as much improvement as you might expect from a second-year player.
Restricted Free Agent
Projected New Contract: 1-2 years, $1-3 million AAV
It somehow seems that Mack has been around forever, but he is still relatively young. He has proved an adequate backup point guard this year after Schroder proved unequal to the task early on, with a 13.7 PER in 19.9 minutes per game. Mack too is a restricted free agent, and could even glean an Eric Maynor-style contract in free agency which the Hawks would likely be wise not to match. He still lacks the athleticism to improve much beyond his current level unless he can become an elite shooter.
Projected New Contract: 1 year, veterans’ minimum
Brand started the year well, but has been stretched far too thin once Horford went down. With Millsap and Antic injured on the Hawks recent miserable road trip, Brand conclusively proved he can no longer play over 30 minutes per night. Though he still remains smart enough to hold his own as a second unit big, he lacks the quickness to play four and the explosion to play five at his height. Brand’s contract expires after the season and one would posit he is unlikely to be in Atlanta’s plans going forward.
Rookie Contract Expires 2016
This has been a lost season for Jenkins as he struggled through 13 miserable games, tried to rehab, and finally succumbed to back surgery in February. He will miss the remainder of the season. The 23rd overall pick in 2012 out of Vanderbilt showed some encouraging signs as a shooter off the bench in his rookie year, but he probably lacks the height, length, athleticism, or defensive mentality to ever be more than a bench gunner even when healthy. The Hawks have guaranteed his contract for next year, but seem unlikely to pick up his fourth-year option after that unless he can prove he is healthy and effective in camp next year.
Restricted Free Agent
Projected New Contract: 1 year veterans’ minimum
Hopes were high for Ayon coming off a spectacular performance for Mexico in the FIBA Americas over the summer, but alas he has been unable to stay healthy. He has played only 26 games this year and is out for the rest of the season with a shoulder injury. He will be a restricted free agent over the summer should the Hawks extend him a qualifying offer, and he may still be able to catch on as a fifth big man somewhere on the strength of his rebounding and effort.
Contract: 1 year, $1.25 million team option
The 6’11, 260 lbs Macedonian has a surprisingly outside-oriented game, launching 58 percent of his shots from beyond the arc at a decent usage for a shooting specialist. He hits 38 percent from out there as a true stretch five. Antic provides little rim protection and is a below-average rebounder, but considering his shooting he holds up well enough in traditional center duties to be a useful bench big man. At his age, Antic is unlikely to be part of the next Hawks contender, but he is a solid value contract and is under team control through 2015, after which he will be a restricted free agent. Antic is precisely the type of player the Hawks should look to move for future assets, although it is hard to see anyone parting with a first-rounder for him.
Contract: Rookie minimum, team options through 2016
The Hawks’ second round pick was signed mid-season as the big man injury crisis grew, but they probably would have been better off trying someone like Carroll at power forward. Muscala has a -17.2 net rating and 6.8 PER. He gets freight-trained in the post and does nothing offensively to make up for it. Little indicates he has an NBA future at this point.
Contract: 1 year $5.45 million
The former Sixers draftee was once one of the league’s best bench scorers, but he has struggled to return to form following a torn ACL. He has been out of the rotation the last few games as Coach Mike Budenholzer has gone with Mack, Schroder, and Cartier Martin off the bench instead. Williams takes almost half his shots from three now and hits a respectable 36 percent. He also gets to the line at a reasonable rate, but will need to return his 40 percent two-point shooting to respectable levels to become a valuable contributor again. It is appearing less likely that will be in Atlanta.
NBA Sunday: Kristaps Porzingis Sure Looks Ready To Be The Franchise
The Knicks hope Kristaps Porzingis can become their franchise. Thus far, he seems up to the challenge.
He stood in front of his mentor, isolated, just like they used to do in practice.
He’d seen the jab steps before and the head fakes—they were nothing new. And when Carmelo Anthony mustered the acceleration he still has in his 33-year-old legs to drive around Kristaps Porzingis, Anthony knew he had the 7-foot-3 Latvian big man beat.
Anthony triumphantly rose to the basket and delicately attempted his right-handed layup. Before he knew what hit him, though, Anthony’s shot had been sent to the free throw line.
The message was clear—Kristaps had taken the torch.
“It was fun,” Porzingis said about his confrontation with Anthony. “We went at it in practices a lot and one-on-one after practices.
“It was a lot of fun knowing what he was going to do and try to stop him.”
The Oklahoma City Thunder were much closer to the NBA Finals than the Knicks were last season, and removing Anthony from the Knicks and pairing him with Russell Westbrook and Paul George gives the Thunder a triumvirate that can at least conceivably challenge the Golden State Warriors. They are perhaps the only team in the entire league with enough firepower and defensive pieces.
So no, the Knicks may not be hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy anytime soon, but at the very least, the franchise seems to be in good hands—the big, soft hands of Porzingis.
As young NBA players come into their own and attempt to fulfill the lofty expectations that everyone has of them, the third year is the charm, almost invariably. And in that that year, a young player can’t control the other pieces that are around him—that’s why they shouldn’t be judged by their team’s wins and losses.
In that third year, a young player also can’t really control the frequency of his injuries. The simple truth is that many 21 or 22-year-old players simply lack the hardened bones of a fully grown adult that most men become after the age of 25.
But what the young player can prove is that he is prepared to shoulder the burden and take the fight to anyone who stands before him. Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks epitomizes this ideal better than any other young player in the league. He is absolutely fearless and it’s a pleasure to watch.
So is Porzingis.
Since the influx of European-born players began about 20 years ago, we have seen our fair share of “soft” European players. His talent aside (which is considerable), Porzingis has proven to be anything but, and that by itself can help players go a very long way.
In what must have felt like the longest summer ever, Porzingis saw the franchise that drafted him undergo an overhaul that resulted in a light beaming so brightly on him, you would have thought the third-year forward was starring in a Broadway musical.
Say what you want about Porzingis, but he has already done all that he can to notify everyone that have anything to do with the Knicks that his bony shoulders aren’t indicative of the weight he’s capable of carrying.
And in Oklahoma City, against his mentor, Porzingis did the heavy lifting.
“I saw energy,” head coach Jeff Hornacek said after his team’s opening night loss.
“He was great moving. He played 38 minutes, and maybe last year that would be a struggle. He would maybe get tired, and get some silly fouls, but even toward the end on that 37th or 38th minute, he was still up hollering, moving, blocking shots and getting rebounds, so he had a great game and we expect a lot more of that from him.”
Being a Knicks fan is something that nobody should wish on their worst enemy. The franchise has made scores of maneuvers that lacked wisdom and seemingly gone out of its way to alienate people beloved by the franchise. On top of it all, Knicks tickets are among the highest in the entire league.
Fans as passionate and dedicated as Knicks fans deserve a team they can be proud of and a front office that dedicates itself to putting winning ahead of petty feuds and politics.
The hiring of Scott Perry may signify just that.
So when the Knicks traded Carmelo Anthony and ended up getting back 10 cents on the dollar for his value, everyone should have prepared for a long season in New York City.
Coming in, Knicks fans once again found themselves in the unenviable predicament of having to talk themselves into believing that Ramon Session, Michael Beasley and Tim Hardaway were capable of giving this team feel good moments. And while they certainly are, they will surely pale in comparison to the amount of losses that the club accrues along the way.
If there’s one thing the Philadelphia 76ers have taught everyone, however, it’s that the losses don’t necessarily need to be in vain.
So heading into this season, what Knicks fans should have been looking forward to and hoping for is nothing more than the installation of a culture that’s marked by effort, communication and selfless basketball—the hallmarks of the Golden State Warriors.
Aside from that, yes, they should have also come in with the hope that Kristaps Porzingis would take an appreciable step forward and prove himself to truly be a capable franchise cornerstone.
To this point, from the way he holds his head highly, despite a win or a loss, and the way he competes to the best of his abilities, despite his limitations. For now, it’s really all that could reasonably be asked of him.
When it was all said and done—when Porzingis looked the Knicks’ past in the eyes after the Thunder had soundly defeated his New York Knicks—Carmelo Anthony probably told him that he was proud of him and that he wished him all the luck in the world.
He probably told him to continue to work on his game and hone his craft and to block out the background noise.
And above all else, Carmelo probably told Kristaps that he believes he is capable of being his successor.
With his nodding head and serious demeanor, Porzingis, in all his glory, listened intently. Even more so, he believed every word.
It doesn’t take all day to figure out whether the sun is shining—it’s an adage that remains as true in basketball as it does on a May Day in New York.
For Porzinigis, the bright sky and the beaming sunlight—he’s basking in it all. Not only has he becomes the Knicks’ franchise by default, he believes he’s capable of shouldering the burden.
In this town, that’s more than half the battle.
Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal
The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.
It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.
Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.
There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.
Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.
Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.
That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.
Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.
At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.
It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.
One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.
NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind
Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.
When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.
“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.
Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.
That didn’t last long.
“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”
With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.
As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.
After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.
In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.
“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”
Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.
“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”
Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.
“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”
After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.
Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.
“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”
All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.
“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”