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Young Moe Harkless Set For Big Pay Day

Free agent Moe Harkless just turned 23 years old, but has experience and versatility that teams love.

Alex Kennedy

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It’s easy to forget that Portland Trail Blazers forward Moe Harkless just turned 23 years old last month. He was the second-youngest player in his draft class, so he still has untapped potential despite the fact that he’ll be entering his fifth NBA season when the 2016-17 campaign gets underway.

In fact, Harkless is even younger than some of prospects in this year’s NBA draft – including A.J. Hammons, Michael Gbinije, Sheldon McClellan, Gary Payton II and Dorian Finney-Smith among others.

“Sometimes I forget the fact that I’m only 23 years old. Like, this year, I was younger than two of the rookies on our team,” Harkless told Basketball Insiders with a laugh. “There are some guys in this draft class who are a little bit older than me. When people bring that stuff to my attention, it’s just crazy to think about. I know I still have so much room to grow and get better still.”

This combination of upside and NBA experience will make Harkless an attractive target for potential suitors in July. He is a restricted free agent now that the Blazers officially extended a $4,045,894 qualifying offer, meaning they can match any offer sheet he receives from another team.

This summer will see the salary cap spike from $70 million to an unprecedented $94 million (thanks to the NBA’s new television rights deal). That’s excellent news for a player like Harkless, who should have no shortage of potential suitors on July 1 thanks to his versatility and continued development. In addition to the Blazers, the Detroit Pistons, Washington Wizards, Chicago Bulls, Los Angeles Lakers and Dallas Mavericks have already expressed interest in Harkless, according to sources close to the situation.

“The main things I’m looking for are being in a situation where I’m comfortable, where there’s a winning culture and where there’s playing time,” Harkless said. “The money is kind of whatever. I mean, every guy wants as much money as possible, but I’m more looking to be in a good situation where I can be happy and win games.

“Honestly, I’m at a weird stage because I don’t know what to expect. I’ve never been in this situation before. I’m excited about going through it, but I don’t know what’s going to happen. And I haven’t even asked what it’s going to be like, because I just want to experience it for myself. I’m really looking forward to it and I can’t wait for the process to start. It’s kind of like being recruited to a college. That was exciting for me, and now I’m looking forward to see how this goes.”

Few players get to test the market at such a young age, and the timing is perfect for Harkless since he’s coming off of a strong campaign in which he thrived individually and helped Portland make an improbable postseason run. Blazers head coach Terry Stotts put Harkless in positions to succeed and Harkless responded by producing down the stretch of the regular season and in the playoffs.

Over the last year and a half, it was interesting to watch Harkless make the transition from wide-eyed youngster to two-way difference-maker on a team that advanced to the Western Conference Semifinals and stole a game against the 73-win Golden State Warriors (as well as forcing overtime against them in Game 4).

Harkless’ transformation from the kid who used to dump bags of Skittles into the shoes of unsuspecting Orlando Magic teammate Elfrid Payton to the man who wants to defend every opposing team’s star has been encouraging (particularly for Portland, assuming they can keep him).

With the Magic, Harkless was still adjusting to the NBA, developing his game and growing his confidence – which is understandable given his age and the situation he was thrust into. It also didn’t help that former head coach Jacque Vaughn didn’t always utilize Harkless correctly. Coach Vaughn would often have Harkless stand in the corner waiting for a pass rather than being more aggressive and moving without the ball. Vaughn also tried some strange techniques, such as benching him for extended periods of time with no explanation other than wanting to see how Harkless would react.

Orlando eventually traded Harkless to Portland for a second-round pick that will never be conveyed (so they got nothing), which also frustrated some players on the team. Harkless was known for getting along with everybody; he cracked jokes and hung out with Victor Oladipo, helped bring the quiet Elfrid Payton out of his shell (even if he had to step on some Skittles in his Nikes along with the way) and brought Kyle O’Quinn to his offseason workouts at the IMG Academy so they could train together and strengthen their friendship. Teammates also described him as the kind of player who would get frustrated if someone was prioritizing individual achievements over the team’s success. Not to mention, Harkless was always welcoming of any new player, media member, employee or fan he came into contact with, flashing his smile and making them feel comfortable.

Harkless’ former teammates were upset to see him go, but they loved watching him flourish with the Blazers and show what he could do on the postseason stage.

“Moe was great in the locker-room,” Elfrid Payton told Basketball Insiders. “Despite the way he was utilized, he never let that stop his work ethic. He was always ready when his number was called, kind of how he was in Portland during these playoffs. It was great to see him play well on that stage.”

“Moe is a true teammate who cares about winning,” said current New York Knicks big man Kyle O’Quinn, who played with Harkless in Orlando. “He’s a hard worker who’s always trying to add to his game and he’s open to play any position that’s asked of him. He can be a ‘3-and-D’ guy, especially since he can guard positions one through four.”

While Harkless was initially disappointed to leave his friends, the familiarity of Orlando and the up-and-coming Magic organization, it soon became clear that the move was a blessing in disguise.

In Portland, he found a talented head coach in Stotts and they succeeded once they got on the same page. Harkless realized that he could leave his fingerprints all over every game by being a two-way threat on a legitimate playoff team.

“I think he’s a great coach and he’s done a great job with the team,” Harkless said of Stotts. “Playing for him, he put me in a lot of different situations to succeed, especially later on in the year, and I really appreciated that. In my opinion, I think he should’ve won Coach of the Year.”

He continued to add muscle and strengthen his reputation as a versatile defender, so his skill set and swagger were catching up with his intimidating combine measurements of 6’9 with a 7’0 wingspan and 37-inch vertical. He also embraced that ‘3-and-D’ role and believes the way the league is shifting is great for an individual with his skill set.

“I think it’s perfect for a guy like me, who can do a lot of different things on the court,” Harkless said. “The way that the league is transitioning, it’s kind of like a position-less game where a lot of teams are starting to go small. There will obviously always be big guys out there, but even the bigs need to be more versatile now and need to be able to switch onto guards and things like that. Being a guy who can play multiple positions and defend multiple positions, I love it. I’m excited about it.”

This season, Harkless averaged 6.4 points and 3.9 rebounds per game. But when Coach Stotts increased Harkless’ playing time, his production spiked as well. In April, Harkless averaged 11.8 points, 6.5 rebounds, 1.5 steals and one block in 28.7 minutes per game (while shooting 37.5 percent from three-point range on nearly three attempts per game).

In his 14 games as a starter throughout the season, Harkless averaged 11.9 points, 6.6 rebounds, 1.2 steals and one block in 26.9 minutes. Much like he had done in Orlando with consistent playing time, Harkless made the most of his opportunity. His per-100-possession numbers – 17.1 points, 9.6 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.2 steals – back this up. Throughout the season, he scored in double figures on 23 occasions.

After the All-Star break, when Harkless’ minutes increased from 17.2 to 21.6 per game and he was moved into the starting lineup for 11 contests, the Blazers started playing some of their best basketball. They finished the campaign winning 17 of their final 28 games. Perhaps most telling is that Portland’s best starting unit of the season consisted of Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Al-Farouq Aminu, Harkless and Mason Plumlee. The lineup had a +19.1 net rating, taking advantage of the versatility and two-way effectiveness of Harkless and Aminu (along with Plumlee doing the dirty work and, of course, Lillard and McCollum’s terrific one-two punch on the offensive end).

A big reason for Harkless’ growth can be attributed to the fact that this was his first time on a team that expected to win every night when they entered the arena. The Magic never won more than 25 games while Harkless was in Orlando, as the team was going through a lengthy rebuilding effort. But in Portland, Harkless was paired alongside an All-Star in Lillard, the league’s Most Improved Player in McCollum, the Coach of the Year runner-up in Stotts and veterans like Chris Kaman, Mason Plumlee, Ed Davis and Gerald Henderson among others who instilled confidence in the group. This supporting cast was excellent for Harkless’ maturation, and the Blazers managed to win 44 games and secure the fifth spot in the intensely competitive Western Conference.

Come playoff time, the young swingman stepped up even more, as his averages increased to 11 points and 5.1 rebounds in just 24.7 minutes while playing terrific defense and knocking down 34.1 percent of his three-point attempts (on four attempts per game). Without Harkless, upsetting the L.A. Clippers in the first round would’ve been a much tougher task. In Portland’s four-straight victories to advance past the Clippers, Harkless scored in double figures in each game. He contributed 55 points and 27 rebounds over that four-game span while shooting 51.2 percent from the field and 35.3 percent from three-point range (while playing very solid defense).

Looking at Harkless’ postseason as a whole, he scored in double figures in eight of 11 playoff games. His per-100-possession stats in the playoffs were very solid: 22.2 points, 10.3 rebounds and 1.8 steals. That would be impressive for any player, but especially for a kid making his postseason debut and battling star-studded contenders like the Clippers and Warriors on the NBA’s biggest stage.

“First of all, getting to the playoffs was just an amazing experience,” Harkless said. “That’s what we worked all year for and, when you’re playing for a championship, it’s an opportunity that everybody dreams about. Being able to go to the playoffs and play for something so precious like an NBA championship is an amazing feeling. We won our first playoff series this year, and I don’t even know how to explain what that feels like. And the best part is that we won at home. It was just amazing. The level of intensity and focus in the playoffs is just so much higher since you’re playing the same team over and over so you know their plays, what each player is trying to do and all of that. I can’t really put it into words, but the feeling is just crazy.”

Harkless’ Portland teammates have welcomed him with open arms and see how important he is to the squad.

“Moe is one of those teammates who’s just special to me,” Lillard told Basketball Insiders. “I have so much respect for him as a person, but to watch him work through not playing and then be rewarded for that [hard work] was awesome. He changed our season.”

“Moe was very valuable to our team last season,” McCollum added. “His versatility and relentlessness were some of the main reasons we were able to have success down the stretch. He battled through being in and out of the rotation early on in the season, and then came up huge for us when we needed him the most.”

Harkless picked a good time to break out. Many players entering the market this summer are looking to make over $10 million per year. While the casual observer may think that’s unrealistic for Harkless, remember that teams are paying based on potential and what kind of contributor a player can become rather than who they are today. Think about Charlotte Hornets swingman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist earning $13 million per year despite his lack of a jump-shot and some of his injury concerns. And that was before the salary cap soared.

Those who paid close attention saw that Harkless made huge strides this year.

With a better-defined role in his first year with the Blazers, his True Shooting percentage jumped nearly 10 full points, showing he was playing much more efficiently. Also, he posted his best rebounding season by percentage since entering the league, and he lowered his turnover rate even while increasing the share of Blazers possessions he used while on the floor.

But perhaps most impressive was his improved ability to finish at the rim. During his final year in Orlando, Harkless shot 59 percent within three feet of the hoop; this year, he shot 66 percent within three feet. Last year, he shot 4.5 attempts per-36-minutes within five feet and hit 56.5 percent. This year, he shot 5.8 attempts per-36-minutes within five feet and hit 62 percent. Put simply, he played well over double the minutes, attempted more shots near the basket per minute and hit at a higher clip.

This is a vital part of his development and one that was aided by his efforts to bulk up during the 2015 offseason. He told Basketball Insiders that his weight for the 2015-16 season was between 220 and 225 lbs. while in previous years with the Magic he fluctuated between 210 and 215 lbs. Not only did he seem visibly bigger, he said that he felt much stronger and the added weight helped his confidence.

Harkless is no longer the scrawny teenager trying to find his way in the NBA. Now, he’s a confident veteran who knows he can hold his own against anyone, making a big impact on both ends of the court even when he’s staring down the best players in the world.

The 6’9 forward loves guarding the opposition’s best player. In the Blazers-Warriors series, he took on Klay Thompson, whose field goal percentage dropped by 23 percent from Game 1 to Game 2 after Harkless took on the assignment to guard him. During the year, Harkless also spent time guarding LeBron James, who had just 12 points (below his 25.3 season average). He guarded Chris Paul, who had 16 points and four assists in 34 possessions guarded by Harkless (below his season averages of 19.5 points and 10 assists). He also spent significant time on Kevin Durant, James Harden, Paul George, Draymond Green and Carmelo Anthony among others, showing his defensive versatility (which is valued in today’s switch-everything, position-less NBA).

“Moe was huge for us,” Ed Davis said. “He wasn’t getting consistent minutes in the beginning of the year, but once Coach Stotts started playing him more, he was our X-Factor.”

Harkless does a lot of things that are just now starting to show up on the stat sheet. For example, the NBA just started tracking hustle plays for this year’s postseason and Harkless’ 1.8 deflections per game put him in the top 30 – tied with players like Stephen Curry, Hassan Whiteside and Andre Drummond (even though he played far fewer minutes than them).

ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus metric – which parses an individual player’s cumulative contribution to their team while controlling for teammate and opponent quality along with an additional box score element – reveals some interesting info too. Harkless’ RPM ranked above fellow upcoming free-agent forwards such as Harrison Barnes, Kent Bazemore, Jeff Green and Matt Barnes among others.

With that said, he did have a number of traditionally impressive box-score performances this season too. In a February victory over the Houston Rockets, he posted 19 points (on 8-11 shooting from the field), 13 rebounds and two steals in 28 minutes. In an April win over the Sacramento Kings (when Harkless was really picking up momentum), he had 20 points, 16 rebounds, two assists and two steals in 33 minutes.

Because Harkless does have so much untapped potential, it’s these glimpses of brilliance that will make a potential suitor very tempted to enter a bidding war for him. With the direction the league is shifting, Harkless could be a perfect “3-and-D” player or even bring more to the table if he continues to hone his skills. His jump-shot must continue to improve, but he knows that and he’s working on it a ton this offseason while training in California and Florida.

“I feel like I still have so, so, so much room to improve – and I’m talking about every part of my game,” Harkless said. “And you’ve seen me work out in the offseason, I work on literally everything. I feel like I can just keep improving on every part of my game, and I’m still just the same hard-working kid that I’ve always been. I’m looking forward to getting better. Now that I’ve been to the playoffs and experienced what it feels like, I want to get back more. It’s made me even hungrier.”

When asked about this Blazers team, Harkless says that he believes a lot of their success comes from their off-court relationships and chemistry.

“We were always around each other because this was a really close group of guys,” Harkless said. “The chemistry on this team was excellent and I think that’s a reason why we were able to be so good. We all enjoyed playing with each other and had fun with each other, so I think that really helped us too. I think when everyone likes each other and is always together, it helps a lot. It makes it easier to play together.

“We’d all go to the movies together, for example. Dame would throw skate parties and we’d all go to the skating rink. Dame would have everyone over to his house, or invite everyone on the team out for dinner on the road. Stuff like that, it definitely helps because your close, your chemistry is better and it translate onto the court because you’re on the same page and, if you do have to yell at each other or something, nobody takes it personally because you all get along. All of that plays a role in chemistry and culture, and I think Dame did a great job this year of bringing guys together.”

He has also grown to appreciate the unique city of Portland.

“It’s different; that’s what I tell everyone when they ask me about it. I love the city – there’s really good food, it’s beautiful (especially during the summertime) and the fans are amazing,” Harkless said. “I would say the fan base is one of the best in the league. Even when I was in Orlando, I’d say that. I hated coming to Portland because it was one of the toughest arenas to play in. Now, having that fan support and seeing the diehards, it’s awesome. They roll with us no matter what, when we were losing in the beginning to the fun ride later in the season. It was cool and I really liked being in Portland. The organization is first-class and I’ve enjoyed my time there for sure.”

Now, however, Harkless knows that it’s time to make a business decision. He has already been traded more than once in his NBA career, and he knows that nothing is guaranteed in this league. While he’d love to be back in Portland, he’s weighing all of his options and entering this process like a professional.

“I love Portland, but there are a lot of other great organizations and I also understand that the NBA is a business,” Harkless said. “I’m going to lean on my agents, so they can do what’s best for me.”

 

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA Daily: Towns, Wolves Prepared To Take Next Step

Tom Thibodeau and Karl-Anthony Towns look back on a successful season and gaining meaningful experience in the postseason.

Spencer Davies

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For the first time since 2004, the Minnesota Timberwolves made the NBA Playoffs.

Sure, the exit was early and the experience was short-lived, but the way the younger players and team finished out spoke volumes to head coach Tom Thibodeau.

“I told the players, I said, ‘I’m very proud of what you did,’” he said following the Wolves’ loss to the Houston Rockets in Game 5.

“To get out of the hole that we were in, to win 47 games, to get into the playoffs after 14 years of not being in the playoffs, to do it in a very tight playoff race, to finish one game out of the fourth spot—it’s a major jump from where we were two years ago.”

It all started with the final stretch of the year and the winner-take-all matchup between the Wolves and the Denver Nuggets where it was win or go home.

“I think it’s huge,” Thibodeau said of how Minnesota closed out. “I think the last month of the season was really good for us because of how tight the race was. In many ways, it was similar to playoff experience.

“And then having the final game of the season mean so much, whether you were gonna get in or not get it in, that had a Game 7 feel to it. I thought that that helped us going in.”

For Karl-Anthony Towns, his first taste of the postseason was valuable to building his character as a professional.

“I’ve learned a lot, especially in these playoffs,” Towns said. “You understand a little bit of the difference between the regular season and postseason. We haven’t been there in like 14 years, so there’s experience that needed to be garnered and we wanted to take that next step. We came up short, but we’re very confident in ourselves leading up to next year.”

Towns was especially grateful for his teammates and their teachings throughout the season. He mentioned the likes of Jimmy Butler, Jeff Teague, Jamal Crawford and Taj Gibson for the advice they gave him.

“Learned a lot from them,” Towns said. “Especially going through the experiences we had to go through this year. “We went through a lot of adversity. We’ve had injuries, tough schedule, tough last stretch to get in the playoffs. Found a way to scratch out wins and put ourselves in this position.

“We’re very blessed that every single day we went to work, we got to see each other and fight. I couldn’t ask for any better teammates. To be able to be out here with these guys is a true blessing. I’m honored to be able to work with them every day and learn from them.

“It’s an amazing thing when you look back at the season to realize the narrative that was almost written for us. To get to this point is almost storybook—having to go through so many obstacles.”

Unfortunately, though, the Wolves’ playoff life only lasted five games against the league’s top-seeded Rockets. However, there is a silver lining in the grander scheme of things.

Playing against an experienced team with two of the best in the game today—James Harden and Chris Paul—Minnesota can come to understand why that brand of basketball has led to such a great product on the floor and apply it to themselves.

“I’ve been around both of those guys,” Thibodeau said. “They’re great talents. They can hurt you a lot of different ways. They hurt us with the pass [Wednesday]. With our young guys, we talk about the importance of trusting the pass.

“When you watch the veteran teams, you can see that that’s what they do. They’ll make the right play. The game will tell you who’s gonna get the shots. They’re not worried about their shots. They’re worried about the team getting good shots. We have to get to that. The defensive part of it is something that we have to continue to work on.”

Thibodeau continually pointed out the change in how the organization has handled its business top to bottom.

“Everything matters and that’s how you improve,” he said. “That’s why I felt that I was very proud of this team.

“When you come out of the hole that we were in, when you have to change the entire culture of an organization—there’s gonna be steps that you have to take along the way. It’s a tough league. The Western Conference is loaded. It’s hard to get wins in this league and I think you have to understand that, so you also have to understand the commitment that needs to be made to be a great team.”

So taking the lessons learned from this series, what is the next step for the Wolves?

“Just continue to build,” Thibodeau said. “We need to have another strong summer, have to have a strong fall. We need to have everyone make a commitment to continue to improve and learn.

“It never ends. That’s the thing about this league. You’re always gonna be challenged. If you have the good fortune to win it, when the next season starts, you start at zero again. You’ve got to prove yourself again. That’s why it’s so important to work every day. You have to prepare yourself for this.”

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NBA Daily: Is The NBA Heading Towards An Epic Off-Season?

With so many elite players heading towards less than expected post-season exits, is the NBA heading towards an epically chaotic off-season? Steve Kyler looks at some of the situations to watch.

Steve Kyler

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Heading Towards An Epic Off-Season?

With the first round of the 2018 NBA Playoff teeing up what could be some early exits for some of the bigger names in basketball, there is a growing sense that major change could be heading towards the NBA this offseason. While the odds that everyone that might be unhappy or exiting early are really moved is pretty slim, it does present some interesting options to watch.

Here are a few of them:

LeBron and the Cavaliers

With LeBron James reminding the basketball world to stop underestimating him, the specter of his future in Cleveland still isn’t any clearer. The prevailing thought among NBA insiders and executives is that LeBron will be gone at season’s end unless the Cavs get to and compete in the NBA Finals. Seeing how the Cavs support players are playing against the Pacers, it’s hard to imagine they can get to the Finals, but LeBron is LeBron, and he has been beyond special (again).

There have been so many reports suggesting that LeBron would meet with this team or has interest in that team that it seems redundant to talk about any of them with any seriousness.

Sources close to the situation in Cleveland have been really adamant all year that unlike previous points in LeBron’s career when he could exit, he genuinely won’t entertain the ideas. He dismisses his teammates when they might talk about it, he dismisses and thanks fans and media when they bring it up, but there is a real sense that LeBron is singularly focused on the task at hand and won’t consider his future until the season is over.

There are some realities to the situation, too. LeBron’s kids are entering the AAU world and building foundational relationships that LeBron is deeply committed to. There are a hundred reasons not related to basketball for LeBron to remain in Cleveland beyond this season. However, almost no one in the NBA world believes that going to happen without a championship run (win or lose).

The prevailing thought from outside the Cavaliers is that LeBron forces a trade rather than walking away. Much like his good friend Chris Paul, LeBron can choose to opt into his final contract year and push his way to a team with existing stars – like Houston. The fact that teams like the Lakers and even the Philadelphia 76ers could sign him outright in free agency gives him some leverage. The question remains would the notoriously icy relationship with Cavs ownership, block any chance at an amicable divorce as the Clippers got with Paul?

There is little doubt the direction and focus of the Cavaliers change pretty dramatically if LeBron exits the team, meaning inflated cap-killing deals wouldn’t get it done. But, as we saw last season in the Paul situation, there are creative ways to meet the salary cap requirements of a trade that might not need to include big ugly contracts that linger on the books long after LeBron is gone.

All of this may be a bit premature, especially considering how consistent and adamant the talk from LeBron’s world has been, and if he can get his team where he wants to be it could all be moot. However, if there was ever a game-to-game pendulum hanging over a franchise, the future of LeBron James is a very real one in Cleveland.

Paul George and the Thunder

When the agent for Paul George notified the Indiana Pacers that his client would not be signing a new deal in Indiana, it was a foregone conclusion George would eventually end up in Los Angeles with the Lakers. Then the unexpected happens, and George was traded to Oklahoma City.

At the time of the trade, no one believed the move was anything more than a rental for the Thunder and a “dare to be great” move meant to lock up Russell Westbrook to a long-term deal. The idea that George would stay was at best laughable, but then he started to tell people publicly and privately how much he liked the situation. He would talk about how much fun it was to have two other star-level players to share the season with and how the Thunder organization was so impressive.

There was a stretch of several months where the sense in NBA circles was that George would seriously consider staying for another season and allow Carmelo Anthony to finish his deal and the Thunder to add more players in free agency and build a real contender. While that remains a possibility, the way the Thunder season has played out over the last couple of months and how funky things have gotten is pointing toward George moving on.

There is still a window of hope that the Thunder can advance and make some noise, but most in NBA circles see George heading to his personal dream situation in L.A. with the Lakers or looking at the Philadelphia 76ers.

It’s far from decided, but it seems more likely than not that this postseason run turns out to be exactly what it looked like when the trade was consummated, a one-season dare to be great rental.

Kawhi Leonard and the Spurs

The San Antonio Spurs season is officially in the books, and the focus of the team is shifting toward fixing the painfully obvious rift between the team and its very best player, Kawhi Leonard.

Leonard has been away from the team rehabbing what is actually a pretty serious injury. While some have tried to be dismissive of whether or not Leonard could have played, medical experts all over the sports world have weighed in on exactly what quadriceps tendinopathy means (you should read this one). It is a pretty scary injury for a player facing the possibility of missing out on a $219 million contract extension.

Knowing exactly how the injury could play out, there is zero reason for anyone to have expectations that Leonard should have played, regardless of what the team’s medical staff may have determined. The risk to Leonard’s future was too great, especially if he was still having pain and discomfort.

The big issue was the disconnection between Leonard and the team. While it is easy to say Leonard wants out or that he wants a new team because the optics of all of this were and are so bad.

However, in a recent conversation with a former NBA player who went through something similar as Leonard, we posed the rather insightful questions: “What drove Leonard a normally tight knit team guy away?”

Was it the medical and coaching staff pushing him to play? Was it his veteran teammates that were in the swan song days of their Spurs career? Was he embarrassed that he couldn’t get right physically?

This particular player went through something similar where he had a pretty serious injury, and his veterans would give him grief about not wanting to play through pain. So, the story with Leonard resonated with him. This player was absolutely clear that he didn’t have any insight into what was going on, just wondered why no one was asking that question – What drove Kawhi away?

Sources around the situation have been pretty clear that the Spurs feel like they can repair the relationship, mainly because they can offer the so-called Super Max contract extension.

They plan to meet with Leonard and see where his head really is and will make decisions from there. There is no doubt that NBA teams would line up for the chance to get Leonard in trade. There is also a reality that Leonard is eligible for free agency in July 2019 and wouldn’t gain any real benefit from extending with a new team, especially considering the Super Max extension isn’t available from any team other than the Spurs.

There is no doubt that the Spurs and Leonard will be front and center in the rumor mill, right up until they either extend him or trade him.

There is a risk for any team obtaining him in trade, but given what he has become as a player, there is surely a title contender willing to take the risk.

The HEAT and Hassan Whiteside

It seems the marriage between the Miami HEAT and center Hassan Whiteside is on the rocks in a pretty significant way. The HEAT explored their options at the trade deadline and entertained a deal with the Milwaukee Bucks, but the teams stayed their respective courses.

With Whiteside’s role diminishing in favor of rookie Bam Adebayo and veteran big man Kelly Olynyk, there is a growing sense that not only are the HEAT looking for an exit, so is Whiteside.

The challenge for the HEAT is Whiteside has regressed a lot since inking his max deal, a deal that including his player option has two years and some $52.5 million remaining on it.

The HEAT faces some additional pressures by way of the Tyler Johnson contract. The HEAT matched the offer sheet the Brooklyn Nets gave Johnson back in July 2016, and that deal balloons from $5.8 million this season to $19.24 million next season. As things stand today, the HEAT have $119.9 million in guaranteed salaries, putting them a few million under that expected $123 million 2018-19 luxury tax line.

Finding a new home for all of Whiteside’s contract may be a tough deal to make, but it seems as the HEAT season comes to an end, he is more likely to be moved than not.

The Trail Blazers

The Portland Trail Blazers had a pretty impressive run after the All-Star break in February. However, all that magic came to crashing halt after being swept out of the Playoffs at the hands of the streaking hot New Orleans Pelicans.

The questions surrounding the Blazers is what’s next?

The narrative out of Portland is no one is going to panic and overreact, but it seems fair to question the security of president Neil Olshey and even head coach Terry Stotts.

Equally, it’s fair to wonder what the roster will look like at the draft and into free agency.

Will the Blazers, who have historically been very aggressive around the draft, look to cash out roster players for picks? Will owner Paul Allen green light buying more picks, especially in the second round when cash can get you additional draft assets?

The Blazers have done a pretty good and consistent job of downplaying the idea of trading either of the Blazers cornerstone guys in Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. There is no doubting that one of those guys could net a king’s ransom in trade, as both are elite level guards that are under long-term contract as both have three more fully guaranteed years remaining on their deals.

There is no question change is coming in Portland, the question becomes how significantly. Like the HEAT, the Blazers are facing some tough cap decisions, especially with guard Shabazz Napier and big man Jusuf Nurkic hitting free agency and the Blazers sitting on $110.4 million in salary commitments for next season.

The fact that no one has been fired (as of this morning) bodes well for the leadership remaining intact; the question is how aggressively will the roster change for a team that failed pretty miserably in the postseason?

The Wizards

The Washington Wizards are not done yet, but after last night’s loss, the inevitable seems to be getting closer.

There is a growing sense in NBA circles that however special Wizards guards John Wall and Brad Beal can be together (they have their moments), the team isn’t nearly as dominant as many have hoped.

Maybe that’s a result of Wall’s injuries, or maybe the match just isn’t going to work.

The narrative around the team is that they are not going to consider breaking up the duo, but that won’t stop some teams from testing the Wizards resolve. The fact that both Wall and Beal are locked up long-term makes them fairly desirable in trade because of the security and team control that comes with their deals.

As things stand today, the Wizards have $115 million in committed salary for next season, giving them almost no wiggle room to be aggressive in free agency.

Unless the Wizards can find a home for some of their money, they may be handcuffed to this roster, which makes the idea of trading off one of their alpha guards at least something to entertain.

Without a trade, it seems unlikely the Wizards can do much to reshape who they are, and with a first round playoff exit, how soon will it be before the personality issues bubbling below the surface erupt into something difficult to come back from?

Over the coming weeks we’ll be digging more into the various NBA trade and free agency situations on the horizon, so stay tuned.

In case you missed it…

The latest Basketball Insiders Podcast covers a lot of this and more, so if you missed out, take a listen.

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Boston’s Young Trio Rises to the Occasion

The Boston Celtics accelerated their youth movement to compete in the first round of the 2017-18 NBA playoffs, writes Mike Yaffe.

Mike Yaffe

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With a stifling 92-87 victory in game five of the NBA Playoffs, the Boston Celtics are one victory away from advancing to the second round. In that contest, they held the Milwaukee Bucks to 36.8 percent shooting from the field and out-rebounded them by a substantial 50-37 margin.

It wasn’t supposed to happen like this.

The Celtics entered the campaign with veteran acquisitions Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward expected to lead them to the conference finals and beyond. After Hayward’s gruesome injury in the season opener, Irving proved that he was more than capable of being productive outside of LeBron James’ shadow. But then Irving himself was sent to IR with a knee issue, and the team ultimately settled into the playoff bracket as a two-seed behind the Toronto Raptors.

Due to his extended absence, Hayward had already become an afterthought as the team seemed to be dominant enough with Kyrie running the point. But without (arguably) their two best players, a potential upset was in the making for the Milwaukee Bucks.

Instead, the Celtics have a 3-2 series lead, with the home team winning each time. And if that trend continues, Game 7 would be played at the friendly confines of TD Garden and Boston would advance to play the Philadelphia Sixers, who have already eliminated the Miami HEAT themselves.

The upper echelon of the 2017-18 NBA Playoffs has been comprised of teams that have been primarily built through either the draft (Golden State, Philadelphia) or via free agency and trades (Houston, Cleveland), but the Celtics have discovered through attrition that they have been well-stocked via both channels.

Here’s a look at the three rising stars who have stepped up their game for the Boston Celtics, both down the stretch and in the first round of the 2017-18 NBA Playoffs:

Terry Rozier

Rozier was taken 16th in the 2015 NBA Draft. In similar fashion to mid-round picks Kelly Oubre Jr. (Washington Wizards) and Delon Wright (Toronto Raptors), the former Louisville Cardinal was expected to provide organizational depth behind a backcourt rotation that already included Avery Bradley, Isaiah Thomas and Marcus Smart.

Buried on the roster, Rozier started zero games his first two seasons and averaged just 1.8 PPG as a rookie, which marginally improved to 5.5 PPG as an NBA sophomore.

After the Celtics traded Bradley to the Detroit Pistons, Rozier was given the opportunity to earn additional minutes since Kyrie Irving was taking IT’s spot in the starting lineup. He rewarded Boston’s confidence by averaging 10.1 PPG in 64 games as a reserve this season, which was well above his previous contributions. But when thrust into a starting role, Rozier’s potential was unleashed, as his scoring rose to 15.1 PPG in 16 such games while adding 5.1 assists per contest (up from 2.3 per game off the bench).

In the opening playoff series, Rozier has continued to improve upon his regular season numbers, averaging 16.1 PPG and 6.6 APG to date. While it probably helped his cause that he’s been facing a Bucks team that was bottom-third in the regular season in both field goal and three-point percentages allowed, his confidence may also have been buoyed by an ongoing feud with veteran Eric Bledsoe.

Jaylen Brown

As one of the spoils from the blockbuster trade with the Brooklyn Nets that unloaded the contracts of aging vets Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, the Celtics selected Brown with the number three pick in the 2016 NBA Draft. As a one-and-done player at Cal, he averaged 14.6 PPG as a freshman and was viewed as a potential franchise cornerstone that could help the team rebuild.

To their dismay, Brown’s rookie numbers (6.6 PPG) weren’t much better than what Rozier produced that season, and the pundits were left to wonder whether the freshman phenom would ever live up to his draft status.

Like Rozier, Brown’s promise came to fruition this season, as he averaged 14.5 PPG in 70 starts in a swingman-like role; his defensive rating of 100.3 was among the league’s best as well.  In the playoffs he too has stepped up his play, thanks to a 30-point outburst in game two and 21.8 PPG overall in this series.

The return of Marcus Smart for game five provided a nice boost, but the Celtics would not be ahead in this series without Brown’s stellar play on both ends of the court.

Jayson Tatum

The aforementioned Nets deal continued its lopsided return for the Celtics, as they had the top overall selection in the 2017 NBA Draft. But instead of taking Markelle Fultz (the consensus top player at the time), they traded down with the Philadelphia Sixers and opted for Tatum at number three instead.

While Fultz was expected to be a can’t-miss prospect, the Celts’ selection of Tatum was also called into question with the likes of De’Aaron Fox and Josh Jackson still available.

As we now know, Fultz is finally showing signs of life after spending his rookie season dealing with a shoulder injury and correcting a shooting flaw. While both Jackson and Fox have had their moments for their respective lottery-bound teams, it’s debatable whether either of them would’ve had a similar impact to what Tatum has done.

Without Gordon Hayward, Tatum’s development timeline was shifted into overdrive, and unlike his aforementioned teammates, he didn’t have an opportunity to watch from the bench. Thrust into the first five, the former Blue Devil produced 13.9 PPG in 80 starts and finished eighth overall in three-point percentage (.434).

As important as his offensive production has been, the Celtics may have profited even more from Tatum’s prowess on defense. He finished the regular season fourth overall in Defensive Win Shares thanks to a 100.3 defensive rating (tied with Brown). His ability was on display in game five, as the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo was limited to only 16 points, which was well below his season average of 26.9 PPG.

The Boston Celtics entered the 2017-2018 season with a “win now” roster that was comprised of proven veterans. But with Al Horford as the last man standing from that group, the team has ridden their draft-day trifecta of Rozier, Brown and Tatum to the precipice of a first-round series win. Time will tell if the team is capable of advancing much further, but they are poised for a bright future regardless of how it plays out in the short-term.

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