After a shortened roller-coaster regular season and playoffs that have been defined by injuries to star players, the NBA Finals matchup is finally set. The Phoenix Suns are back in the Finals for the first time since 1993 and the Milwaukee Bucks are making their first appearance since 1974. The two will face off in a battle for the Larry O’Brien Trophy with Game 1 on Tuesday night.
The matchups are salivating, especially at the point guard position with Jrue Holiday trying to lock down Chris Paul. The contrasting styles of opposing centers will be intriguing to watch as Deandre Ayton goes toe-to-toe with Brook Lopez. The duel between Mikal Bridges and Khris Middleton is another juicy individual matchup that will also be fun to watch. How does Phoenix defend Giannis Antetokounmpo?
Then there are the storylines, headlined of course by Paul finally reaching the Finals after 16 years of trying. After years of being on the hot seat, can Mike Budenholzer make the necessary adjustments to finally get this team over the hump? After signing his supermax deal, can Antetokounmpo finally add a championship to go along with his MVP accolades? The Bucks went all-in to acquire Holiday before the season, and it could pay off with just four more victories.
After missing the playoffs the last ten seasons, Phoenix has made it all the way to the Finals. The last time they were there, Charles Barkley, Dan Majerle, Kevin Johnson and Danny Ainge lost to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in six games. Oddly enough, the Suns had the ninth-best defensive rating that season, and the ninth-best this season.
Torrey Craig is a big reason why Phoenix has been elite on that end of the floor. Ironically enough, he played for both of these teams this season.
After three solid seasons with the Denver Nuggets, Craig hit free agency and ultimately chose the Bucks. He signed his contract just before Thanksgiving but rarely saw the floor. For whatever reason, Budenholzer did not have him in the rotation and the situation just never worked out. On March 18 the Bucks traded Craig to the Suns for cash considerations. It helped facilitate their trade with the Houston Rockets the very next day when they acquired PJ Tucker.
Tucker was a highly-coveted man prior to the trade deadline, and Milwaukee was enthralled with landing the gritty defender. In a way though, they strengthened Phoenix’s defense by elevating their own. Appearing in just 18 games for the Bucks, Craig has played in 32 games for the purple and orange. His minutes on the floor have been extremely valuable, as he was relied upon to defend Paul George in their six-game series with the Los Angeles Clippers.
Paul George was 3-of-12 (25%) with two turnovers when guarded by Torrey Craig in the Western Conference Finals. pic.twitter.com/2CockabuCm
— Evan Sidery (@esidery) July 1, 2021
The Craig transaction is the only roster move Phoenix has made since February. It seems like highway robbery now, but Milwaukee does boast an incredibly talented defensive unit. Both Antetokounmpo and Holiday were named to the All-Defensive First Team and Lopez has always been a great rim protector. Only Rudy Gobert blocked more shots on average during the playoffs, and he was recently named the Defensive Player of the Year for the third time. Add Tucker and Middleton to those three and you have the makings of an elite defense.
The Suns may not have one or two elite defensive players like the Bucks, but they have a bunch of outstanding defenders in their own right. Bridges is considered one of the best two-way players in the league and Paul is a solid defender when committed. Both received votes for the All-Defensive team this season with Bridges just narrowly missing the cut. The defensive improvement of guys like Ayton and Jae Crowder have bolstered their chances of winning this postseason. Crowder is the only player from either team that has ever appeared in a Finals game.
While Craig has played a limited role off the bench, Tucker has been logging heavy minutes as a starter for the Bucks. He has made a living from the corners of the court, leading the league in three-point shooting from that area in two of the last three seasons. His accuracy was a large factor in their series with the Atlanta Hawks but his defensive skills were in full effect in their battle with the Brooklyn Nets.
Kevin Durant’s return from injury this season was one of the best stories of the year. He proved once again that he is arguably the best all-around player on the planet, and quite possibly the greatest offensive weapon the game has ever seen. His one-on-one matchup with Tucker was the highlight of that series with the two former Texas Longhorns squaring off on nearly every possession.
PJ Tucker knew Kevin Durant would be an all-time great when Durant was a junior in high school. Great insight from Tucker on guarding Durant in the playoffs: pic.twitter.com/LGFC34M4u2
— Ian Begley (@IanBegley) June 18, 2021
The sensational performances from Durant were a reminder that he is still a nightmare for the other 29 teams. It was also a reflection on Tucker, and the value he adds to this team. Without him taking on the challenge of guarding Durant, the Nets likely win that series even without Kyrie Irving and James Harden at full strength.
Both of these teams have faced offensive juggernauts this postseason. The Suns had to deal with LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Nikola Jokic and Paul George. The Bucks extinguished the likes of Jimmy Butler, Durant, Harden, Irving, Trae Young and Bogdan Bogdanovic, who they nearly traded for before the season began.
Now it will be up to Tucker to slow down Devin Booker. Phoenix will need Craig to spend time guarding Antetokounmpo and Middleton. Neither assignment will be easy, but these guys wouldn’t have it any other way. There is something refreshing and invigorating about players that want that challenge.
Tucker and Craig certainly won’t be a matchup to watch in this series. In fact, neither will probably ever guard the other. What is truly enjoyable to watch though is them stepping up to the challenge of defending the other team’s top offensive weapon. It is a luxury that every coach would love to have, especially under these circumstances.
Over the past several years the game has shifted to elite offenses, but perhaps this year will prove once again that defense still wins championships.
Grizzlies trade Jonas Valanciunas to Pelicans for Eric Bledsoe, Steven Adams
According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Andrew Lopez, the New Orleans Pelicans are shipping guard Eric Bledsoe, center Steven Adams, the Nos. 10 and 40 picks of the 2021 NBA Draft, and two future first-round picks to the Memphis Grizzlies for center Jonas Valanciunas and the Nos. 17 and 51 picks of this week’s upcoming draft. So, the Pelicans are giving up the Lakers’ 2022 first-round pick. Valanciunas, the 29-year-old veteran center, averaged 17.1 points, 12.5 rebounds, and 1.8 assists per game in 62 games played throughout the 2020-21 season. He also shot 59 percent from the field. The seven-foot Lithuanian also ranks fourth overall in true shooting percentage (.616) among active players. On July 11, 2019, Valanciunas signed a three-year, $45 million contract with the Grizzlies. He is set to earn $4 million next season.
Additionally, in 71 games played last season, Bledsoe averaged 12.2 points, 3.4 rebounds, and 3.8 assists. The six-foot-one guard also shot 42.1 percent from the field in the 2020-21 season. On November 23, 2020, as part of a four-team trade, Bledsoe and Adams were traded to the Pelicans from the Oklahoma City Thunder, along with two future first-round picks and the right to swap two additional first-round picks. Last season, in 71 games played, Bledsoe averaged 12.2 points, 3.4 rebounds, and 3.8 assists. His field goal percentage was 42.1 percent as well. The 11-year veteran is set to earn $18,125,000 in the 2021-22 season. Before he was traded to New Orleans, on March 4, 2019, the guard signed a four-year, $70 million extension. He earned his first All-Defensive second-team selection in the 2019-20 season.
The Grizzlies and Pelicans have agreed on a trade to send Jonas Valanciunas, 2021 Nos. 17 and 51 picks to New Orleans for Steven Adams, Eric Bledsoe, 2021 picks Nos. 10 and 40 and a protected 2022 first-round pick via the Lakers, per @wojespn pic.twitter.com/q7ZoqzpJjt
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) July 26, 2021
Moreover, in 58 games played last season, Adams averaged 7.6 points, 8.9 rebounds, and 1.9 assists per game. The six-foot-eleven center ranks fifth among active players for effective field goal shooting percentage (.591). The eight-year veteran also ranks third in offensive rebounding percentage, with an active statistic of 14 percent. On November 23, 2020, the same day Adams was traded to the Pelicans, he signed a two-year, $35 million extension. For next season, he is projected to earn $17,073,171. To add to this trade news, the Grizzlies and Pelicans are swapping second-round picks in this year’s draft, too. Referencing NBA.com’s “Consensus Mock Draft” article, with the No. 10 pick of the draft, the Pelicans were originally expected to draft either Josh Giddey or Davion Mitchell at this number. However, plans have now changed.
From ESPN’s Bobby Marks, the trade will not be finalized until August 6th, and this is because of the annual salaries of these said players. Free agency will begin on August 2, 6:00 p.m. (EST). Furthermore, per Spotrac’s 2021-22 NBA salary cap table, next season’s luxury tax threshold is $136,606,000. The team’s current available luxury tax space is $22,555,195. The Pelicans and Grizzlies have a salary cap maximum of $112,414,000. Brandon Ingram, Bledsoe, and Adams had a combined cap percentage of 39.2 percent. Considering that Bledsoe and Adams are traded away, this will clear up $35,198,171 of dead cap space.
Yesterday, CBS Sports reported the news pertaining to Lonzo Ball’s desire to remain in New Orleans. With extra cap space, the team is expected to re-sign the 23-year-old guard. Likewise, for the Grizzlies, the teams has a luxury tax space of $37,019,952. Their current cap space is $8,321,229. As stated before, the transactions have not yet been finalized. The Grizzlies’ outgoing cap is now $14 million, but from the contracts of Adams and Bledsoe, they are bringing in $35,198,171.
NBA Trade Rumors: Jazz considering trade offers for Bojan Bogdanovic, Joe Ingles, Royce O’Neale, and No. 30 pick of the 2021 NBA Draft
Per one interesting announcement from Bleacher Report’s Jake Fischer, the Utah Jazz are open to trading forward Bojan Bogdanovic, forward-guard Joe Ingles, small forward Royce O’Neale, and the No. 30 pick of the 2021 NBA Draft. Fischer stated, “The Utah Jazz are known to be one of the few teams actually searching to move playoff-tested talent. Retaining Mike Conley is an offseason priority, sources said, and the Jazz have held numerous discussions with teams around the league about offloading salary to create for Conley in free agency.” Point guard Mike Conley is set to become a free agent this offseason. Though, general manager Justin Zanik will aim to re-sign the 33-year-old guard in the coming weeks. Conley earned $34.5 million in the 2020-21 season.
“League personnel most often mention Joe Ingles as the Jazz wing to watch, and Bojan Bogdanovic and Royce O’Neale are also considered available for trade as Utah narrows its focus towards building a contender around Donovan Mitchel. The Jazz are also open to discuss trading their No. 30 pick, sources said.” In the 2020-21 season, in 72 games played, Bogdanovic averaged 17 points, 3.9 rebounds, and 1.9 assists per game. On May 1, 2021, in the team’s 106-102 victory over the Toronto Raptors, the six-foot-seven Croatian scored a season-high 34 points, shooting 12-for-22, and he finished his performance with four rebounds and four assists as well. On July 7, 2019, he signed a four-year, $73 million contract with the Jazz.
In 67 games played last season, Ingles averaged 12.1 points, 3.6 rebounds, and 4.7 assists per game. The six-foot-eight forward is set to earn $14 million in the 2021-22 season. Plus, among the mentioned players, Royce O’Neale has contributed the least. In 71 games played last season, he averaged seven points, 6.8 rebounds, and 2.5 assists. On January 19, 2020, the forward signed a four-year, $36 million extension with the team. He will earn $8.6 million next season. According to The Athletic, in the team’s seventh workout for draft prospects, they viewed Quentin Grimes, David Duke, Matt Mitchell, and a few other players. In the first round, if the team chooses not to draft any of the players they are holding workouts for, the organization will trade the No. 30 pick.
Just for a reminder, retrieved from Spotrac, the 2021-22 NBA luxury tax threshold is $136,606,000. Utah’s active roster cap is $133,284,695, the maximum cap is $112,414,000, and the current cap space is $72,990,215. Furthermore, center Rudy Gobert currently has the highest guaranteed contract on the team. On December 20, 2020, Gobert signed a five-year, $205 million extension with the organization. Gobert is set to earn $35.3 million in the coming season, whereas Donovan Mitchell will earn $28.1 million. Gobert and Mitchell combined consume 47.6 percent of the team’s salary cap. For the upcoming 2021-22 season, the Jazz have a guaranteed total of $129,719,453. Based on the team’s future outlook, the Jazz will have to make a trade or two in order to retain their star players. This should go without saying.
NBA Analysis Network reported a few days ago that a potential Jazz-Knicks trade target is Bojan Bogdanovic. Greg Patuto proposed the Knicks receiving Bogdanovic, while the Jazz would receive Kevin Knox II, and the Nos. 19 and No. 32 picks of the 2021 NBA Draft. Now, this could still happen at some point during this draft week, but then again, sports bettors and fans alike understand that these news reports could be just rumors. The most intelligent, unforthcoming general managers know not to leave bread crumb trails for the media, especially leading into the offseason. They will do everything necessary to protect their foolproof plans.
Raptors, Pacers, Timberwolves, Kings, and Cavaliers among teams showing interest in Ben Simmons
According to Jake Fischer of Bleacher Report, five teams have shown interest in pursuing Ben Simmons from the Philadelphia 76ers. Fischer reported, “Cleveland, Indiana, Minnesota, Sacramento, and Toronto all showed interest in acquiring the runner-up for Defensive Player of the Year.” Furthermore, the teams are wanting Simmons to change position from point guard to forward. “Multiple executives from those teams, when contacted by Bleacher Report, mentioned their excitement at incorporating Simmons as a play-making forward—not at the point guard position he’s played in Philadelphia.” The six-foot-eleven guard averaged 14.3 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 6.9 assists in the 2020-21 NBA season. This might sound fine for a young rookie, but as a five-year player, these aforementioned statistics were career lows.
However, the 25-year-old also earned his third NBA All-Star selection and second All-Defensive first-team selection last season. After a less than mediocre performance in his third postseason of his NBA career, the majority of 76ers’ fans would agree that it’s now time for Simmons to have a change in scenery. With a regular season record of 49-23 (.681), the No. 1 ranked 76ers in the Eastern Conference entered the conference semifinals as favorites over the Atlanta Hawks. Leading into this series, some NBA analysts were predicting Philadelphia to prevail four games to two. The 2016 first overall pick was expected to limit Trae Young in scoring and rally his team from point deficits, but none of this ever manifested.
Raptors, Wolves, Cavs, Pacers and Kings have all showed interest in acquiring Ben Simmons, per B/R's @JakeLFischer
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) July 25, 2021
Pertaining to postseason averages, Simmons had a playoff series-low of 9.9 points and 6.3 rebounds per game in the conference semifinals against the Hawks. This lackluster showing proved to be a more significant downfall for the superstar, considering Simmons had only five points, eight rebounds, and 13 assists in Game 7 versus the Hawks. In the 2019-20 season, he averaged 2.1 steals per game, leading all other players in the league. Moreover, Simmons currently ranks sixth in the NBA for active player triple-doubles (32). With a total of 32 career triple-doubles, he ranks 13th on the all-time list, tied with Clippers’ guard Rajon Rondo.
On July 16, 2019, Simmons signed a five-year, $169.65 million contract extension with the 76ers. He is set to earn $30.5 million in the 2021-22 season. Among these teams interested in Simmons, Cavs’ Kevin Love has the fourth largest contract guarantee of $91.4 million. Love is due to earn $31.3 million next season, and the 13-year veteran’s contract consumes 26 percent of the team’s salary cap. He could be traded this offseason. Timberwolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns has a contract guarantee of $130.8 million. The 25-year-old Wolves center will earn $31.6 million in the upcoming season.
Plus, Kings’ 2017 first-round pick De’Aaron Fox has a guaranteed contract of $171.1 million. Fox will earn $28.1 million next season. To add to that, Raptors’ Pascal Siakim has a contract guarantee of $131.4 million. Not to mention, reported by Yahoo Sports via trade rumors yesterday, the Golden State Warriors are a potential trade partner for Toronto. The Warriors could make a move on Siakim, clearing up space on the Raptors for Simmons. Per Spotrac, the 2021-22 season cap maximum is $112,414,000. In the coming weeks, one of these said five teams might make a substantial trade offer to the 76ers’ organization that they cannot refuse.
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