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Who Are the Keepers: Toronto Raptors

Nate Duncan breaks down the Toronto Raptors’ roster and figures out who their keepers are in the wake of their unexpected success this year.

Nate Duncan

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The 2013-14 season has been notable for the number of teams in a clear rebuilding mode. 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.

Today we look at perhaps the most intriguing team in the league approaching the trade deadline, the Toronto Raptors. The Raptors appeared to have few long-term pieces coming into the season. Deposed general manager Bryan Colangelo had bequeathed little long-term flexibility on replacement Masai Ujiri. After the Raptors started the year looking like an also-ran even in the terrible Eastern Conference, Ujiri traded small forward Rudy Gay, center Aaron Gray and power forward Quincy Acy to Sacramento for point guard Greivis Vasquez, power forward Patrick Patterson, small forward John Salmons and center Chuck Hayes. The plan appeared to be to let Toronto’s younger players grow into larger roles while shopping Toronto’s remaining veterans and gleaning a top 2014 draft pick.

But a funny thing happened after the trade: the Raptors started playing really well. Since the Gay trade on December 8, the Raptors have a plus 5.1 point differential and a 23-12 record. In that time frame, Toronto ranks ninth in offense, fifth in defense and fourth in overall scoring margin per 100 possessions. Sporting a 28-24 overall record, they are the clear favorite for the third seed in the East. One would think a first-year general manager would be ecstatic at turning a lottery team into the third seed in the conference while simultaneously dumping long-term salary. Clearly, Ujiri is to be lauded for doing so. But on the other hand, the team’s success may well have made his long-term mission far more complicated. Fans of Toronto’s perpetually downtrodden franchise would likely bristle at any moves that hurt a team on track for a long-awaited playoff berth—and they might be right to bristle, given the way the team has played the last two months. There is some possibility that this performance could be real, and the Raptors should be looking to add to this core.

Yet despite their statistical success, it is hard to see this core competing for a championship sans superstar.* What’s worse, the Raptors’ success this year hurt their chances of acquiring such a player in the draft. In this context, identifying the keepers on the Raptors is especially difficult. Despite their success this year, they are in some ways closer to a lottery team in terms of the timeline for the keepers on their roster. Indeed, there are few three seeds in history that one would even write this analysis for.

*Toronto may be more likely than some teams to underperform their regular season results in the playoffs due to the fact that their bench has been a key to their post-Gay success, an advantage that is mitigated in the playoff crucible as starters play more minutes for opposing teams.

That said, being fourth in the league in net rating with a team that is young enough to provide internal growth in the coming years is no joke. While retaining free agent point guard Kyle Lowry is a risk because he may bolt after the season, it is also a risk to trade him and not find out what this team may become. This is especially so since Lowry is unlikely to return much in trade due to his free agent status. After much thought, I believe the best course of action is to keep this team together through the playoffs and find out how good it actually is. While the answer to that question is likely “a distant third in the East,” there are enough indicators to make it worthwhile to explore the possibility that the upside may be higher. It will be much easier to determine how to approach the offseason armed with more information than the 35 games since the Gay trade.

Buy His Jersey:

DeMar DeRozan
Age: 24
Contract: 4 years, $38,000,000, includes player option for 2016-17

DeRozan’s rookie extension, which kicked in this year, was initially panned by most analysts. But he has lived up to that contract so far this year. While he still has a slightly below average .522 True Shooting Percentage, he is still a valuable player because he soaks up 28 percent of Toronto’s possessions with a low 9.1 percent turnover rate. The Raptors have outscored opponents by 7.2 points per 100 possessions in DeRozan’s minutes since the Gay trade, and he has amassed an 18.2 PER on the year that ranks fifth among shooting guards. With that position in particular experiencing a dearth of star players, DeRozan is even more valuable. While he was lumped in with Toronto’s albatross contracts when Ujiri took office, DeRozan has proved worth his salary so far in 2013-14. He is just beginning his prime and has proved very durable so far in his career. He should be around for the long haul.

Jonas Valanciunas
Age: 21
Contract: Rookie Contract, expires 2016.

Much was expected of the Lithuanian after a dominant Summer League, but he has been a mild disappointment in nearly all areas. His 14.7 PER is a little below average, and his league-average True Shooting percentage is also below expectations. He has not been particularly effective defending the rim either, a disappointment considering his enormous size and reasonable quickness for his position. Overall, the Raptors have been 6.4 points/100 worse defensively in Valanciunas’ minutes since the Gay trade, although the offense has ticked up by 3.1 points/100 when he plays.

That said, Valanciunas is clearly a keeper. He has two more years on his rookie deal and is only 21. Given his physical profile and tools, he should develop into an upper-echelon center. If he does not appear on that path in two years, the Raptors will have an interesting decision to make on how much to pay him. But all indications right now is that he is part of the plan for the future, and rightly so despite the somewhat disappointing results this year.

Maybe, It Depends

Amir Johnson
Age: 26
Contract: 2 years, $13,500,000, last year $5 million guaranteed.
Projected New Contract: 3-4 years, $7-11 million AAV

Despite a slight decline in his box score statistics (mostly his rebounding rate), Johnson may be having his best season. He has been a key to the Raptors’ excellent post-Gay defense, allowing opponents to shoot only 46.1 percent on the 7.4 field goals per game he contests around the basket. He has also started to flash three-point range this season; although he shoots only 26 percent from out there on 1.2 attempts per game his 43.7 percent midrange shooting makes one believe he could eventually be a threat out there. His shooting has also allowed him to play with Valanciunas as a power forward, and he is mobile enough to stay with most fours defensively. The only question regarding Johnson’s long-term future in Toronto is the fact that his contract expires at the end of next season.

Kyle Lowry
Age: 27
Contract: $6,210,000.
New Contract: 2-4 years, $7-11 Million AAV

Lowry really is the fulcrum of the Raptors’ team-building conundrum. He is a free agent this summer, and his ultimate fate in Toronto will be the bellwether for the direction of the franchise. The bulldog point guard out of Villanova is having a career year and absolutely should have made the All-Star team, but there are major questions about whether he can sustain this performance going forward and how much he will cost to retain.

A long-term deal in Toronto at over $10 million per year could kill any cap flexibility the Raptors may have in the future after Ujiri did such great work to remove the millstones on the roster. Plus, he could be just good enough to prevent them from obtaining a superstar in the draft, but exiting his prime and well overpaid once players like DeRozan, Valanciunas and Ross enter theirs (and the latter two require extensions).

Lowry could also leave in free agency, although it seems unlikely any of the teams with cap space would pay him eight figures over a four-year deal. Perhaps the ultimate outcome will be a Paul Millsap-type two-year, $20 million or so deal that would enable the Raptors to lock two more years at a fair price without killing their future. Much of course depends on how the Raptors do in the playoffs and whether it appears this team could potentially contend with internal improvement alone. If, as is likely, that is not the case, then Ujiri may have to swallow hard and let Lowry go.

Patrick Patterson
Age: 24
Contract: Rookie Contract, expires 2014.
Projected New Contract: 3-4 years, $3-7 Million AAV.

Patterson has been excellent with Toronto in advance of restricted free agency, sporting a 58 TS% and hitting 43.9 percent of his threes on the way to an 18.5 PER. He too has been a key for Toronto’s bench success, with a 9.5 net rating. His floor spacing clearly opens up the offense, as the Raptors score at a rate that would rank fourth best in the league with him on the floor. Meanwhile, they have also defended at a top three rate in his minutes.

Patterson has clearly been a big part of the team’s success since his arrival, but as a restricted free agent could easily be overpaid. Some team may really value his shooting and passable defense and rebounding at the four as he enters his prime and decide to overpay, in which case the Raptors will have a very difficult decision to make. One thought for keeping Patterson is that he can play big minutes as a third big man alongside either Johnson or Valanciunas, both of whom can play center while he stretches the floor at power forward. His free agency will certainly be an interesting litmus test of how much the new breed of NBA general managers really values shooting.

Terrence Ross
Age: 22
Contract: Rookie Contract, expires 2016.

As a former dunk champion and owner of a 51-point game, Ross might have one of the louder 11.5 PERs in league history. That said, not much has changed for Ross in his second year. He shoots a few more threes and is up to almost 40 percent on those, but he still never gets to the basket or the line in the halfcourt. He has by far the worst net rating (+2.8 points/100) of any of the Raptors’ main players since the Gay trade, and the worst defensive rating as well.

That said, Ross can shoot and can jump, and is only 22. The question is whether his ceiling is Gerald Green, or something more. He is under his rookie contract through 2016, so the Raptors have plenty of time to find out. But thus far is appears that stardom may not be in the cards, and he could certainly be traded if a deal for a better-defending veteran on the wing opens up in the next couple years.

Coach Dwane Casey

Casey is in the last year of his contract, but the way he has coached a team with average defensive talent to a number four league ranking in defense since the Gay trade is very impressive. If the Raptors had won all year at their post-Gay pace, he would be a leading candidate for Coach of the Year. He got a raw deal in Minnesota once upon a time, coaching one of the last Kevin Garnett teams to a .500 record and solid defensive showing before being fired. The team promptly went 12-30 under Randy Wittman after he was axed.

Casey has shown enough this season to prove he is an asset to the organization. One would think he would be retained, but Lionel Hollins can tell you that success in the last year of a contract is no guarantee of a return when new management is in place.

Don’t Get Too Attached

John Salmons
Age: 34
Contract: 2 years, $14,583,000, last year $1 million non-guaranteed.

Salmons is finally reaching the end of his horrendous contract signed with Milwaukee in the summer of 2010 after the much-loved Fear the Deer campaign. Considering his 9 PER this year, Toronto will surely cut him this summer to save approximately $6 million.

Landry Fields

Age: 25
Contract: 2 years, $12,500,000.

Fields’ three-year, $21 million contract signed in the summer of 2012 might be the absolute worst in the NBA right now. He has played only 274 minutes on the year with a 7.6 PER. His solid rookie year is looking like one of the great fluke seasons in NBA history.

Chuck Hayes

Age: 30
Contract: 2 years, $11,681,250.

Hayes is wildly overpaid under the full mid-level deal he was given by Sacramento immediately post-lockout in 2011, but he remains a player who is more than the sum of his box score parts. At the very least, he will forever star in every video tutorial graduate assistants compile for undersized post defenders.

Steve Novak
Age: 30
Contract: 3 years, $10,945,948.

Novak was the cost of doing business for getting Andrea Bargnani off Toronto’s books (and inexplicably picking up a first-round pick in the process from New York). He can shoot like crazy, but with a 5.8 percent total rebound percentage and three blocked shots on the season really doesn’t do the “four” part of the stretch four position. He is barely in the rotation and it only figures to get worse from here.

Tyler Hansbrough
Age: 28
Contract: 2 years, $6,509,235, last year non-guaranteed.

The story for Psycho-T has been much different this year than last, when he was part of the Pacers’ bench unit that single- (or perhaps five-) handedly lost the Eastern Conference Finals. In contrast to his terrible on/off numbers last year, since the Gay trade he has a better net rating than all but one Toronto starter. His True Shooting percentage is a career high by four points, as he has lowered his usage rate and increased his efficiency. Hansbrough’s activity has been much better defensively to the tune of the best post-Gay defensive rating on the team at 90.6 points/100. The next (and last) year of Hansbrough’s contract is only guaranteed for $1 million. While he might be worth the extra $2.3 million it would take to keep him in a vacuum, the Raptors have three superior free agents in Lowry, Patterson and Vasquez. With Hayes also under contract, paying so much for a fourth or fifth big man likely is not the most efficient use of that money. Whether he stays next year or not, the one-time college player of the year is not part of the Raptors’ long-term plans.

Greivis Vasquez

Age: 27
Contract: Rookie Contract, expires 2014.
Projected New Contract: 1-3 years, $2-3 Million AAV

General Greivis has now started at point guard for two NBA teams, and both could not trade him out of that role fast enough. While he runs the offense and has excellent vision, he is so bad defensively that he cannot really be a full-time starter. But he is a reasonable option as a higher-end backup who can step in and start in a pinch, and has been valuable in Toronto after D.J. Augustin, Julyan Stone and Dwight Buycks proved unable to provide competent backup point guard play. Vasquez may not be in Toronto for long, however, as he is a restricted free agent this summer and the money for his potential new contract may be needed elsewhere.

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 Daily: Ivica Zubac Rounding Into Form For Clippers

David Yapkowitz writes about Ivica Zubac and his strong bubble performances for the Los Angeles Clippers – is he the key for a deep postseason run?

David Yapkowitz

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The Los Angeles Clippers have no shortage of star power. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George form one of the most dangerous duos in the NBA, and both Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell are averaging close to 20 points a game each while coming off the bench.

But there is one player on the roster who might be the team’s X-Factor, one player who could hold the key to being able to withstand the imposing frontline of the Los Angeles Lakers – and that’s Ivica Zubac.

Zubac was once a Laker before he was casually tossed aside to the Clippers at last season’s trade deadline. He had shown flashes of his capabilities with the Lakers but spent most of his first couple of seasons in the league with the Lakers’ G League affiliate. Upon his arrival to the Clippers, he immediately became a key player and has since settled into the starting center role.

His arrival to the NBA’s restart bubble in Orlando was initially held up as he had tested positive for COVID-19. He has since joined the team after a mandatory quarantine period and is looking ready to help the team as they gear up for a playoff run.

He admitted that although he only experienced mild symptoms from the virus, he still felt winded and not quite up to speed as he tried to ease himself back into regular game flow.

“It’s much better, it’s much better than when I got here. I can feel it getting better with each practice, each game,” Zubac said on a recent conference call with media.

“After I first started getting back in shape, after I was cleared, I felt like I was out of shape. My chest was a little tighter when I would do some stuff. But I feel great right now. I don’t feel anything. I’m getting back into shape, I’m almost there. It’s going to take some more time.”

Zubac feeling like his old self again has been evident with each passing game. He started slow, only finishing with two points and three rebounds against the Lakers while being outworked by Anthony Davis. Against the New Orleans Pelicans, he looked a bit better, especially with his effort on the glass.

In the Clippers’ third game of the restart against the Phoenix Suns, Zubac put up 18 points and 12 rebounds while shooting 77 percent from the field. He followed that up with his best bubble game to date with 21 points on a perfect 10-for-10 shooting and 15 rebounds against the Dallas Mavericks.

Zubac equated his increased production with gradually regaining his conditioning and mobility and getting the feel again for regular game speed.

“I’m getting the feel, I’m starting to remember what guys like, what are the best spots on the court for me. My conditioning is getting better each practice, each game,” Zubac told media after the Mavericks game. “I’m feeling like I can stay on the floor for a while, I can run the floor, I can fight in the post with guys, I can rebound. Everything with my conditioning getting back, I can get on another level in every aspect of my game.”

Before his performance against the Mavericks, Zubac had a pretty solid game against the Suns – but the center was obviously still readjusting to his teammates and being able to make the right reads and be in the correct spots on the floor. He played solid defense on Deandre Ayton, but he also ended up having a costly turnover late in the game that set up Devin Booker’s eventual game-winner.

Following the Suns game, Clippers head coach Doc Rivers had mentioned there were a few areas that Zubac could use improvement in, and he was much more effusive in his praise after his performance against the Mavericks.

“He was phenomenal. We talked about it, he did all the things we needed, he really ran the floor, that didn’t show up statistically, but what it did, it created space, it created mismatches,” Rivers told media after the game.

“I loved that our guys were looking for him. I thought his rebounding was fantastic. Really coming off the way we ended the game the other day with Zu, then coming back, playing like that, that was fantastic for his confidence.”

Throughout the season, Zubac has been a player that doesn’t need the ball in his hands to be effective. He does have a soft touch around the rim and can establish a strong position in the post, but he does a lot of damage when he’s rolling to the rim, cutting and moving without the ball and catching lobs from his teammates.

He’s also a good rebounder who gets points off of offensive putbacks, and he’s a solid defender who acts as the team’s interior defensive anchor. He’s also usually on the bench at the end of games when Harrell is in with the starters. But depending on potential matchups, perhaps against the Denver Nuggets and Nikola Jokic, or even the Lakers and Davis, Zubac could find himself finishing some games.

What is certain though, is he’s proving his importance to the team and he’s showing that come playoff time, he could end up being the X-factor. He knows that his teammates are going to look for him and he’s ready for that.

“It’s just communication on the floor, knowing what Kawhi and P.G like, knowing how to get a better angle on a screen, just the plays we run, got to have a better understanding what’s good at the time. It’s mostly communication on the floor,” Zubac said. “It feels great to get rewarded by my teammates after doing all the hard work.”

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Free Agency Update: Changes In The Bubble

Drew Maresca explores the free agency implications of the first week of play in the bubble as the NBA continues its return to post COVID-19 play.

Drew Maresca

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Free agency is always a fun time for the NBA and its fans, but particularly so in 2020. Most free agents have usually earned their next deal by the 65th game of any given season – but this year is far from typical. Instead, the NBA has returned, sans its eight worst teams, meaning that competition is consistently better. And with limited competition for our attention, every game is a major event that draws more eyes and has a greater effect on the paydays of to-be free agents.

We’re still only three or four games into the official return of the NBA, but there have already been some changes to how we perceive some players. Take T.J. Warren, for example, who’s averaging over 39.7 points per game through three contests. Or Michael Porter Jr., who looks more like the focal point of a team than a player in his first year of professional action.

This article will focus explicitly on the changes in perception of free agents to-be as a result of their play in the bubble in Orlando.  We understand that the players listed below can still hurt their standings and that teams rate free agents differently. While the sample size is small, we’ve seen deals made based on an equally small body of work (e.g., Jerome James to the New York Knicks).

One caveat to keep in mind is the unprecedented fiscal challenges facing the NBA and its club in 2020. Not only will the COVID-19 pandemic inevitably hurt the 2020-21 salary cap, but there’s also still a conclusion to be had with the preseason China situation.

With all of that in mind, let’s explore the players that have made the loudest cases for a payday come this offseason.

The Stars

Mike Conley Jr., Utah Jazz – Player Option

Conley Jr. has a player option for 2020-21 – but he played poorly enough through March, relative to what we’ve come to expect from him, that it was more than reasonable to assume he would opt-in at $34.5 million.

But wait, there’s a chance that Conley does us all a favor and makes free agency 2020 more interesting. Conley’s averaged 19.8 points and 5.8 assists per game, way, way up from 13.8 points and 4.3 assists per game prior to the stoppage in March. If Conley keeps this going – and especially if he performs well in the playoffs – he might want to test the market considering the lack of elite talent that’s anticipated to hit it – assuming he’s unhappy in Utah, that is.

Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans – RFA

Ingram’s looked similar to the guy we saw in 2019-20 before the play stoppage – he’s averaging 23.5 points and 7.5 rebounds per game when playing 30 or more minutes. While he was less effective in a loss against the Clippers (14 points and two rebounds in 24 minutes), he’s demonstrated growth in how decisively he makes his move and how seamlessly he then scores on the move.

Ingram was probably going to get max offer as of the All-Star break – especially after reaching his first All-Star team at 22 – but COVID-19 probably altered the ability for teams to dole out lucrative deals. But then play resumed and Ingram picked up right where he left off – and with a confidence to use it liberally. Ingram is nearly a lock for a max deal now.

Fred VanVleet, Toronto Raptors – UFA

VanVleet started off his time in the bubble with a solid performance (13 points and 11 assists), but he really showed out in his second game against the Miami HEAT. VanVleet led the Raptors to a win against Miami with a career-high 36 points. And then he got right back to being Mr. Consistent for Toronto by posting 21 points and 10 assists in a win against Orlando.

So ultimately, VanVleet has led the Raptors to a 3-0 (re)start, and he’s either scored a career-high or dropped 10-plus assists. James Dolan and Leon Rose are somewhere together – albeit socially distanced, we’re sure – drooling – as are all of the teams in need of a lead guard, like Detroit. VanVleet can only increase his value from here. He’s not assumed to be a max-level player, but if he plays well enough through the playoffs, it’ll be interesting to see just how high he can reach.

 DeMar DeRozan, San Antonio Spurs – Player Option

It’s hard to imagine DeRozan’s value increasing much at this point in his career. After all, he’s an 11-year veteran that has been named to the All-Star Game four times and an All-NBA team twice.

But still, there’s always been presumed limitations to his game, namely his inability to shoot three-pointers. Since being traded to San Antonio, he’s fallen out of the national spotlight a bit. As a 31-year-old capable of reaching unrestricted free agency, DeRozan is at a major inflection point in his career. He could attempt to a final big deal or snag a smaller one if the market for his services doesn’t meet expectations. Or he could just opt-in.

But DeRozan has done his part to remind everyone that he has loads of high-quality basketball left in him. He tallied 30 points on 11-for-20 shooting on Tuesday in a close loss to the 76ers and he’s averaged 22.3 points, 7.3 assists and 4.8 rebounds per game since the Spurs resumed play last Friday. While those averaged mostly coincide with what he did this season, it also represents a decent boost in assists. But more importantly, it solidifies that DeRozan should still receive a serious look as a lead star. And he’ll probably get interest from a number of teams.

The Known Commodities

Marcus Morris Sr., Los Angeles Clippers – UFA

While Morris Sr. is a known commodity, teams could use additional poor performances against him in negotiations. He’ll probably still have the option to sign for a veterans minimum or mid-level exception with a contender like the Clippers or Lakers. But if he’s eyeing another payday that pays him an annual salary equal to what he made in 2019-20, it would behoove him to make his mark on the stat book. 

Making A Case

Trey Burke, Dallas Mavericks – UFA

Burke hasn’t been overly consistent since NBA play resumed last week. But he did have a huge breakout game against the Rockets, scoring 31 points on 8-for-10 for three-pointers in only 30 minutes, while also dishing six assists.

Yes, Burke is averaging just 5.5 points in 18 minutes in the two games since, but the fact that he scored 31 in an NBA game will be enough to get looks as an off-the-bench scorer. And it’s a narrative that can be supported by his past work, too. Remember, Burke is still just 27-years-old  and he has a 42-point career-high. He’s also exploded for 30 four times and eclipsed the 20-point mark on 38 occasions in his 389 career games. So even if it’s just a reminder, it’s good to know that Burke can still get it done offensively – and teams are always looking for ways to manufacture offense.

Jordan Clarkson, Utah Jazz – UFA

Clarkson’s shot only 40 percent from the field since play resumed last Thursday, with an even worse 20 percent from three-point range. Still, scorers are as valuable as ever. It’s what made J.R. Smith so much money in this league, as well as Lou Williams and countless others – and rightfully so. Ultimately, it’s about putting the ball in the hoop. And with that being said, a franchise is going to pay Clarkson and they’ll end up paying more than they would have as of March.

Reggie Jackson, Los Angeles Clippers – UFA

Jackson has less to prove than most guys in this part of this list – but given his injury history, he does have to make a statement.

On the whole, Jackson has looked good – but not necessarily great. He averaged 12.5 points, seven rebounds and two assists in his first two contests, but he regressed in the Clippers’ most recent game against the Suns. But on a positive note, Jackson received only 23 minutes on Tuesday versus Phoenix and his 15 points on 5-for-9 shooting, eight rebounds, two assists and two steals accumulated in just 20 minutes.

If Jackson continues to be a contributor to the contending Clippers, someone will overspend on him. After all, good point guards are few and far between.

The Unknowns

Harry Giles III, Sacramento Kings – UFA

Giles III only played four minutes in the Kings’ first game back against the Spurs and he didn’t fare much better over 12:55 versus the Mavericks on Tuesday. But when you’re a fringe player that had injury concerns throughout your young career, any positive outings are good – especially those that come in a contract year. Giles tallied 23 points and eight rebounds in only 20 minutes against the Orlando Magic – a significant jump from his 7.2 points and 4.2 rebounds averages this season.  And that’s probably enough to generate interest amongst a number of teams.

The Kings curiously declined Giles’ fourth-year option, making him an unrestricted free agent as of the end of this season. That’s an interesting decision because the option was relatively cheap given that he was only the No. 20 overall pick (2017). Further confusing matters is the idea that by passing on the fourth-year option, they also lost matching rights – so Giles won’t even be restricted.

To make matters worse, the Kings can’t even bid more than $3.9 million to retain his services. So the Kings ultimately wasted a first-round draft pick on Giles for a grand total of 14.5 minutes per game across 99 games – and he’ll walk before they even know what they had in him.

But this all works out nicely for Giles, who will absolutely get an opportunity elsewhere – and he’ll be paid more than he would have received in Sacramento for it. How good is still an unknown, but he’s shown enough for a team to take a flyer on considering his size, skill set and versatility. He was the No. 1 overall recruit coming out of high school according to ESPN just four short years ago.

Free agency is going to be different than ever before and, up until very recently, that was assumed to be a bad thing. But with some of the above players changing the narratives around them, it could become even more exciting than it’s been in the recent past. Add in the likes of DeMarcus Cousins, Davis Bertans, Christian Wood – and we’re looking at an under-appreciated free-agent class.

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NBA Daily: Breaking Down The Bubble’s Race For 8th

Ben Nadeau analyzes the race for the No. 8 and 9 spots in the Western Conference – who will make the cut?

Ben Nadeau

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As the NBA inched toward its inevitable rebirth, the instant drama surrounding the Western Conference’s No. 8 seed became a conversation wildfire.

Was the league rolling out the red carpet in hopes of a Zion Williamson-LeBron James showdown in the first round? Could the healthier Portland Trail Blazers make another historic run toward history? De’Aaron Fox, the Sacramento franchise cornerstone, took umbrage over a lack of Kings-related faith, while the Memphis Grizzlies had more than enough ground to protect their standing in the current hierarchy.

Three or so games in to our bubbled adventure, everything has changed – and fast.

The Pelicans, still worrisome over Williamson’s health and conditioning, played him about 15 minutes in each of their first two contests – coincidently, New Orleans went 0-2. With their backs against the wall and slowly losing traction in a muddied race, the Pelicans played the future superstar for 25 minutes, where he racked up 23 points, seven rebounds and used a personal 6-0 run to clinch a much-needed win. Not only did the victory signify an important swing in momentum for the veteran-laden squad, but it was another crushing defeat for Grizzlies, who fell to 0-3 and further loosened their once-gridlocked hold on the final playoff seed.

Long perceived to be a five-team fight for the right to face Memphis in the play-in game(s), the Grizzlies’ early struggles have now nearly opened both spots up. All the more interesting, the San Antonio Spurs have begun 2-1, alongside the Phoenix Suns’ 2-0 effort. Although invited without much media afterthought, both the Spurs and Suns – who boast two of the most reliable constants of the bunch, Gregg Popovich and Devin Booker, respectively – are within the four-game window needed to force a play-in too.

So then: Thanks to the Grizzlies’ scuffles, who’ll be the two franchises to reach that play-in showdown?

Let’s start with the Pelicans, a team that’ll be better the more Williamson is allowed on the floor, obviously. While that variable remains up in the air, New Orleans’ remaining schedule is not. They’ll finish with the Kings twice, plus winnable matchups against the Spurs, Wizards and Magic. Although that opening day loss versus Utah stings, there’s no shame in falling to the Clippers, so the opportunity is certainly still there for the Pelicans to reach Nos. 8 or 9 in the coming days.

The Spurs, following a hard-fought effort against Philadelphia on Monday, unfortunately, have a much harder path forward: Denver, Utah, New Orleans, Houston and Utah. No Magic, no Nets, no Kings, even. Just New Orleans and three teams currently fighting for ‘home court’ advantage in the first round. Of course, betting against Gregg Popovich is beyond stupid and that is a lesson some select few must re-learn every spring – but they still seem like the least likely of six to leapfrog into a spot.

Likewise, it isn’t much better for Phoenix. They’ll conclude with the Clippers, Indiana Pacers and T.J. Warren’s supernova act, Miami HEAT, Oklahoma City Thunder, Philadelphia 76ers and Dallas Mavericks. Thankfully, Mikal Bridges’ efforts in Orlando and Ricky Rubio’s trusty playmaking have served as great foils for Deandre Ayton and the aforementioned Booker. Overall, their offensive rating just cracks the top half (15th, 110.4) and their defense remains in the lower half – but stars win games and Booker fits the bill.

Even the Kings, losers to the Spurs and Magic to open their bubble campaign, get the Pelicans twice but also a downright bad Brooklyn Nets squad and a potentially-resting Los Angeles Lakers team in four of their final five games – so don’t count them out either. With their destiny firmly in hand, expect the Kings to make a run of their own. Fox put up 39 points against San Antonio before tallying just 13 versus Orlando – and, in the latter, Sacramento’s only scorer above 15 went to Harry Giles’ 23. Given the context and a very winnable schedule, the next week or so bodes well for the Kings’ hopes.

As for Portland, the squad with the most bankable 1-2 punch of the collection, have an impossibly-tough Rockets-Nuggets-Clippers-76ers run-in before ending with the Mavericks and Nets. Worse, that stretch of difficult opposition will come fast and furious – a classic three games in four days slog. But above all, their defense leaves too much to be desired, even with the return of Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins. Before the shutdown, Portland’s defense was only better than the Atlanta Hawks, Cleveland Cavaliers and Washington Wizards at 113.6 in the ratings department.

In the two games back, well, it’s actually been even worse and their putrid 132.0 defensive rating is a whopping 7 points behind the Kings’ 29th-rated unit. It’s early and the sample size is certainly small – but with only six games left, they’ll need to figure it out in the against some of the league’s best. Still, Damian Lillard is a big-moment killer – he did, after all, break up the Thunder core on his own last April – and he’s capable of hot streaks that few others are.

Lillard and Nurkic put up 30 points apiece against Boston – plus 17 from CJ McCollum and 21 notched by Gary Trent Jr. – and totaled 124 as a team… yet it still wasn’t enough. The heroics of Portland’s stars will be relentless, but if they can’t stop the opposition – they’ll come up short.

In the end, even guessing at Nos. 8 and 9 is a fool’s errand. The Bubble has provided shock after shock already – and the added hurdle of rested players for locked-in seeds are soon to come – but six teams will be whittled down to two before long. Despite the slow start, Memphis remains in the driver’s seat – if they can pick up a win on Wednesday versus a seriously-slumping Jazz side, it’ll go a long way toward clinching their place.

And they’d better hope so: If they don’t, they’ll need to hope for some load management with the Thunder, Raptors, Celtics and Bucks to end the mini-campaign. It’s one of the tougher schedules left in the Western Conference, but their cushion, no matter how rapidly it is shrinking, is still reason to believe they’ll limp into the do-or-die scenario.

As for the second spot, it still feels like the Pelicans’ to lose. Between Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball, JJ Redick, Brandon Ingram and, duh, Williamson, there’s too much firepower here to completely struggle through an easier-than-most schedule.

But, sure, bet against Gregg Popovich, Damian Lillard, De’Aaron Fox and Devin Booker at your own risk – conventional wisdom suggests that at least one of them will crash the party, no matter how unlikely it seems today.

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