Kevin Durant is not coming to New York City. Neither is LeBron James. Consequently, the Knicks are not going to be transformed into a legitimate championship contender this summer.
Consider for a second just how far the Knicks (who have averaged 28 wins per season over the last three years) are from approaching even the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference. Think about the enormous gap between the Knicks and the Toronto Raptors, for instance. Then remember how the Raptors were simply outclassed by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals. And over the first two games in the NBA Finals, we have watched the defending-champion Golden State Warriors absolutely dominate those same Cavs.
The logical corollary here is that the Knicks are not simply one piece away from contender status. As a result, Phil Jackson and Steve Mills should take a big picture approach to the 2016 offseason. In short, target only “value” contracts. The worst-case scenario is not failing to significantly upgrade the roster this summer. No, the worst-case scenario would be overpaying marginal talent and inefficiently committing cap space that will hamstring the franchise in the future.
Thus, maxing out Mike Conley would be a mistake. Ditto for Dwight Howard.
As I have written previously, the Knicks are not going to win a title with Carmelo Anthony as their best player. If and when the Knicks are great again, it will be with a roster built around Kristaps Porzingis. Thus, searching for a quick fix this summer makes little long-term sense. Due to the salary cap spike (the salary cap FLOOR will be north of $82 million), there is going to be a ton of teams with money chasing a limited number of players. The Knicks’ best course of action would be shopping shrewdly this summer and saving their allowance money for next July, when the greatest point guard crop in free agency history hits the open market.
Nonetheless, even without signing one of the elite, top-tier players, Phil Jackson can craftily construct a foundation that puts New York back on the road to relevancy. And make no mistake, the Knicks need to improve their guard play if they want to improve next season and going forward.
With that in mind, here’s a realistic wish list of free agent guards for the Knicks to consider:
Matthew Dellavedova, 25, Restricted free agent:
The Knicks need a defensive-minded point guard in the worst way. Jose Calderon got cooked on a consistent basis last season, leaving the Knicks’ backline defenders exposed and often out-of-position and/or in foul trouble. Improving their perimeter defense is simply a prerequisite if New York hopes to improve. The Knicks could also use an infusion of aggressiveness/nastiness, which Delly also brings to the table. In addition, he’s an underrated long-distance shooter. Dellavedova was one of just 10 players in the NBA last season to attempt at least 200 three-pointers and shoot 41 percent or better from the behind the arc. At just 25 years old, he’s entering the prime of his career.
Seth Curry, 25, Restricted free agent:
It’s always dangerous to get too excited about relatively meaningless games played late in a lost season, but Steph’s younger brother showed some intriguing upside for Sacramento in April. Over the final 10 games of the 2015-16 season, Curry averaged 15.5 points and 4.1 assists per contest, while shooting 47.4 percent from the floor, 49.2 percent from three-point territory and 90 percent from the free-throw stripe. His last name alone may bump up his sticker price, but he’s the type of young shooter the Knicks should consider investing in.
Ty Lawson, 28, Unrestricted free agent:
Just two short seasons ago, Lawson was one of only three players in the entire league to average at least 15 points and nine assists per game (Chris Paul and John Wall were the other two). However, his career and personal life bottomed out last year. His off-court transgressions (two DUI’s) and his remarkably poor play on the court mean he’ll be a major gamble for any team that signs him this summer. For a Knicks team that likely needs to get lucky somewhere along the line, would Phil Jackson consider rolling the dice? In theory, he’d be an excellent fit in new coach Jeff Hornacek’s up-tempo offense. The downside is obvious, and Phil may be particularly hesitant considering he’s made bringing in ‘high character’ players a priority.
Courtney Lee, 30, Unrestricted free agent:
Lee is a versatile, effective defender who can also knock down threes (38.4 percent for his career). Three-and-D wings – as Lee recently referred to himself in this Basketball Insiders article – are extremely valuable in today’s NBA. If the Knicks can get him at the right price, he’d be a solid, necessary upgrade.
Lance Stephenson, 25, Team Option:
Like Ty Lawson, the downside is immense, as it could be argued that an NYC homecoming might be the worst possible destination for the Brooklyn native. That said, assuming the Grizzlies don’t pick up his $9.4 million option, Stephenson could provide solid bang for the buck if he gets his act together. It looked like ‘Born Ready’ might be on the verge of flaming out of the NBA after wearing out his welcome first in Charlotte and then with the Clippers. However, Stephenson played surprisingly well for the desperate and injury-ravaged Grizzlies after being dealt to Memphis. He averaged 14.2 points and 4.4 rebounds per game in the 26 contests he played in as a member of the Grizzlies.
Evan Fournier, 23, Restricted free agent:
Fournier is one of the more talented and promising young guards set to hit the open market this summer. Last season, Fournier was one of just six NBA players to shot above 46 percent from the floor, 40 percent from three-point range and 80 percent from the charity stripe. In a league that is placing more and more of a premium on shooting, he’s obviously a valuable commodity. As a result, the Magic have intimated they will match anything that even resembles a reasonable offer. Thus, the Knicks would have to overpay to pry him for Orlando, which likely means his name should be scratched from this list.
Eric Gordon, 27, Unrestricted free agent:
Would Gordon be willing to sign a short-term “make good contract?” It might actually make sense for both parties. Such a deal would give Gordon a chance to prove that he can stay healthy (he hasn’t played more than 64 games since his rookie season in 2008-09) and then cash in with a long-term deal the following summer. For the Knicks, it would limit the investment required to purchase a risky stock.
Jeremy Lin, 28, Player Option:
He’s the type of guard the Knicks need (a penetrating point guard who can wreak havoc by getting into the paint), but too many burnt bridges between Lin and the organization makes it highly unlikely Linsanity would return to MSG. (The smart money says Lin ends up across the river in Brooklyn playing for new Nets coach Kenny Atkinson).
Tyler Johnson, 24, Restricted free agent:
Johnson had been playing surprisingly well for Miami (13.1 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.3 assists per-36 minutes) before a shoulder injury curtailed his season. He’s a solid shooter from distance, and possesses the quickness and handles to get to the front of the rim. In addition, Johnson is a gritty, plus-defender. Due to the Arenas Provision, the most teams can offer him is a salary starting at $5.6 million. If I’m the Knicks, I pony up and force the HEAT to match.
Brandon Jennings, 27, Unrestricted free agent:
Speaking about the point guard position at his introductory press conference, Jeff Hornacek said, “We have a young player that’s obviously inexperienced after his first year. He’ll get better and better. Jose [Calderon] is kind of later in his career. If we can find a middle guy to bridge those two guys, it would be good. There’s a lot of guys out there.” Jennings would seem fit that mold. He’s also shown an affinity for NYC throughout his career. Coming off a shortened campaign due to a significant Achilles injury, would Jennings be willing to sign a short deal to prove he is healthy and can still be productive?
Kent Bazemore, 26, Unrestricted free agent:
Bazemore successfully made the leap from fringe/role player to certified starter this past season, and will reap the rewards this summer. He competes and contributes on both ends of the floor and would slot in well on the wing, next to Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis in New York, but his strong play may have priced him out of the “value” range. Again, it is important to remember that the skyrocketing salary floor is going to force even the league’s most spendthrift organizations to dole out more than $82 million in guaranteed salary next season. That means a player like Bazemore will likely get offers starting at around $16 million a year.
Allen Crabbe, 24, Restricted free agent:
Crabbe played a total of just 783 minutes in his first two NBA seasons combined, but logged over 2,100 effective minutes for the Blazers in 2015-16. The numbers don’t jump out at you (10.3 points per game, 2.7 rebounds per game, 1.2 assists per game and a 12.2 PER), but he just turned 24 years old and is a versatile athlete that may be scratching the surface of his potential. The Blazers have the right to match any offer; what kind of contract would it take to scare them off?
Evan Turner, 27, Unrestricted free agent:
The former number two overall pick had been relatively disappointing since entering the league, but seemed to turn the corner a bit and played the best ball of his career last season in Boston. He posted a career-high 13.6 PER, coupled with a 51.3 True Shooting percentage. His game isn’t aesthetically pleasing, but he often finds ways to chip in on both offense and defense. Still, it requires a leap of faith to assume he won’t revert back to the inefficient and frustrating player he was for the majority of NBA tenure. He’s been linked to the Knicks recently, but it sounds like the most likely scenario is a return to Beantown.
Jordan Clarkson, 24, Restricted free agent:
Clarkson would be an ideal fit in many ways – a young, athletic guard with considerable upside. However, because he is subject to the Arenas Provision, it is extremely unlikely that the Lakers let him leave L.A.
E’Twaun Moore, 27, Unrestricted free agent:
If you are looking to add guard depth to round out your roster without breaking the bank, Moore is the type of player you look at. He carved out a valuable role in the Bulls’ rotation last season, thanks in large part to his remarkable accuracy from behind-the-arc — Moore shot 45.2 percent from three-point range last season. However, it should be noted that Moore’s previous career-best mark was 37.8 percent back in 2011-12.
Other potential targets: Joe Johnson, D.J. Augustin, Jamal Crawford, Gerald Henderson, Manu Ginobili, Kevin Martin, Randy Foye and Leandro Barbosa.
NBA Daily: Examining Michael Porter Jr.’s Ascension
Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. is averaging over 25 points per game and looks like a future All-NBA player. Bobby Krivitsky examines Porter’s ascent and the questions that come with it.
Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. has taken his game to new heights.
In the wake of Murray’s ACL tear in mid-April, Porter’s playing time has gone from 30.6 minutes per contest to 35.7, while his shots per game have risen from 12.6 per game to 16.5. The increased responsibility has fueled his ascent. He’s knocking down 56.3 percent of those attempts. He’s taking 8.2 threes per game and making a blistering 50 percent of them. As a result, Porter’s gone from averaging 17.5 points per game to 25.1. He’s also grabbing 6.1 rebounds and blocking almost one shot per contest.
At the time of Murray’s injury, the Denver Nuggets were in fourth place in the Western Conference. They remain there now, 9-4 in his absence, and they boast the eighth-highest net rating in the NBA.
The only way for the Nuggets to fall from fourth would be if they lost their four remaining games and the Dallas Mavericks won their final five contests because the Mavericks have the tiebreaker since they won the season series. On the more realistic end of the spectrum, Denver sits just 1.5 games back of the Los Angeles Clippers, who occupy the third seed in the West. The Nuggets won their season series against the Clippers, meaning they’d finish in third if the two teams ended the regular season with the same record.
There’s a bevy of questions surrounding Porter’s recent play that need to be asked but cannot get answered at the moment. That starts with whether this is anything more than a hot streak. While it’s impossible to say definitively, it’s reasonable to believe Porter can consistently and efficiently produce about 25 points per game. He was the second-ranked high school prospect in 2017 and entered his freshman year at Missouri firmly in the mix for the top pick in the 2018 NBA draft. That was thanks in large part to his offensive prowess as a 6-10 wing with a smooth shot that’s nearly impossible to block because of the elevation he gets when he shoots.
A back injury cost him all but 53 minutes of his collegiate career and caused him to fall to the 14th pick in the draft. He ended up in an ideal landing spot, going to a well-run organization that’s also well aware of its barren track record luring star players looking to change teams, making it vital for the Nuggets to hit on their draft picks.
Porter’s first year in the NBA was exclusively dedicated to the rehab process and doing everything possible to ensure he can have a long, healthy and productive career. Last season, finally getting a chance to play, he showed off the tantalizing talent that made him a top prospect but only took seven shots per game while trying to fit in alongside Nikola Jokic, Murray, Paul Millsap and Jerami Grant.
More experience, including battling against the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, an offseason, albeit a truncated one, to prepare for a more substantial role with Grant joining the Detroit Pistons and Millsap turning 36 this year, helped propel Porter.
But for the Nuggets, before Murray’s injury, the perception was that even though they weren’t the favorites to come out of the Western Conference, they were a legitimate title contender. How far can they go if Porter’s consistently contributing about 25 points and over six rebounds per game while effectively playing the role of a second star alongside Jokic?
It seems fair to cross Denver off the list of title contenders. But, if Porter continues to capably play the role of a second star alongside Jokic when doing so becomes more challenging in the postseason, the Nuggets can advance past a team like the Mavericks or Portland Trail Blazers. And at a minimum, they’d have the ability to make life difficult for whoever they had to face in the second round of the playoffs.
Unfortunately, the timing of Murray’s ACL tear, which happened in mid-April, means there’s a legitimate possibility he misses all of next season. Denver’s increased reliance on Porter is already allowing a young player with All-NBA potential to take on a role that’s closer to the one he’s assumed his whole life before making it to the sport’s highest level. If the Nuggets are counting on him to be the second-best player on a highly competitive team in the Western Conference next season, it’ll be fascinating to see what heights he reaches and how far they’re able to go as a team.
Theoretically, Porter’s growth could make it difficult for Denver to reacclimate Murray. But given Jokic’s unselfish style of play, there’s room for both of them to be satisfied by the volume of shots they’re getting. Unfortunately, the Nuggets have to wait, potentially another season, but Jokic is 26-years-old, Murray 24, Porter 22. When Denver has their Big Three back together, they could be far more potent while still being able to enjoy a lengthy run as legitimate title contenders.
NBA Daily: D’Angelo Russell Back on Track
D’Angelo Russell lost much of the 2020-21 season to injury. Drew Maresca explains why his return will surprise people around the league.
D’Angelo Russell was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves last February, just before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the entire season. But we’ve yet to see what Russell can really do in Minnesota.
The Timberwolves acquired Russell in late February in exchange for a future first-round pick – which transitions this season if they pick later than third – a 2021 second-round pick and Andrew Wiggins.
Sidenote: For those keeping score at home, the Timberwolves currently have the third-worst record in the league with five games remaining. It would behoove Minnesota to lose as many of their remaining games as possible to keep their 2021 pick. If the pick does not transition this season, it becomes unrestricted in 2020.
Trying to turn an owed pick into an unprotected future first is usually the wrong move; but in this instance, it’s better to keep the high first-rounder this year with an understanding that your 2022 pick will probably fall in or around the middle of the lottery.
The thinking around the deal was that Minnesota could qualify for the playoffs as soon as this season by swapping Wiggins’ contract for a young, talented lead guard in Russell. It has not played out as planned.
COVID resulted in a play stoppage shortly after the deal, robbing Russell of the opportunity to ramp up with his new team. When the NBA returned to finish the 2019-20 season, the Timberwolves failed to qualify for bubble play – and considering the US was still battling a global pandemic, Russell couldn’t easily practice with his new teammates and/or coaches.
The 2020-21 season began weirdly, too. The NBA proceeded with an abbreviated training camp and preseason. And while this impacted all teams, Russell was additionally hindered by the decision.
Ready or not, the season began. In 2020-21, Russell is averaging a near-career low in minutes per game (28.2) across just 36 games. He’s tallying 19.1 points per game on 43.6% shooting and a career-best 38.8% on three-point attempts. He’s also he’s posting a near career-best assist-to-turnover ratio (5.7 to 2.8).
Despite Russell’s contributions, the Timberwolves have failed to meet expectations. Far from the playoff squad they hoped to be, Minnesota is in contention for the top pick in this year’s draft. So what has gone wrong in Minneapolis?
Russell’s setbacks are fairly obvious. In addition to the lack of preparation with his teammates and coaches, Russell was diagnosed with a “loose body” in his knee, requiring arthroscopic knee surgery in February. As a result, he missed 27 consecutive games. Russell returned on April 5, but head coach Chris Finch revealed that he’d been on a minutes restriction until just recently.
Minnesota is clearly being cautious with Russell. Upon closer review, Russell has been restricted to under 30 minutes per game in all of his first 10 games back. Since then, Russell is averaging 31 minutes per game including an encouraging 37 minutes on May 5 in a four-point loss to Memphis.
Since returning from knee surgery, Russell is averaging 27 minutes per game across 16 games. Despite starting 19 of the team’s first 20 games, he hadn’t started in any game since returning – until Wednesday.
On the whole, Russell’s impact is about the same as it was prior to the injury, which should be encouraging to Timberwolves’ fans. He’s scoring slightly less (18.8 points since returning vs. 19.3 prior), shooting better from the field (44.9% since returning vs 42.6%% prior) and has been just slightly worse from three-point range (37.4% since vs. 39.9 prior). He’s dishing out more assists per game (6.5 since vs. 5.1 prior), too, and he posted three double-digit assist games in his last five contents – a feat achieved only once all season prior to his last five games.
Despite playing more and dropping more dimes, there’s still room to improve. Looking back to his career-bests, Russell averaged 23.1 points per game in 2019-20 in 33 games with Golden State (23.6) and 12 games with Minnesota (21.7).
But his most impactful season came in 2018-19 with the Brooklyn Nets. That season, Russell averaged 21.1 points and 7.0 assists per game, leading the Nets to the playoffs and earning his first trip to the All-Star game. He looked incredibly comfortable, playing with supreme confidence and flashing the ability to lead a playoff team.
At his best, Russell is a dynamic playmaker. The beauty of Russell is that he can also play off the ball. He has a quick release on his jumper and impressive range. His game is not predicated on athleticism, meaning he should stay at his peak for longer than guys like De’Aaron Fox and Ja Morant.
And while he’s been in the league for what feels like ever (six seasons), Russell just turned 25 approximately two months ago. Granted, comparing anyone to Steph Curry is unwise, but Curry wasn’t Steph Curry yet at 25. Former MVP Steve Nash hadn’t yet averaged double-digits (points) at 25. Twenty-five is also an inflection point for Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook. And the list goes on.
To be fair, Russell was drafted at 19 so he’s more acclimated to the league at this age than most, but his game will continue expanding nonetheless. He’ll develop trickier moves, become stronger and grow his shooting range. And a good deal of that growth should be evident as soon as next season since he’ll be fully healed from knee surgery and have a full offseason and training camp to finally work with teammates and coaches.
So while Minnesota’s 2020-21 season was incredibly bleak, their future is quite bright – and much of it has to do with the presence of Russell.
NBA AM: Is This It for Indiana?
Following their major drop-off, Matt John explains why the Pacers trying to get back to where they were may not be the best decision.
Remember when, following the maligned trade of Paul George, the sky was the limit for the Indiana Pacers? The 2017-18 Pacers were one of the best stories in the NBA that season because they made their opponents work for their victories, and they put on a spectacle every night.
It’s hard to believe that all transpired three whole years ago. When Cleveland eliminated Indiana in a very tight first-round series, I asked if having the exciting season that they did – when many thought it would turn out the opposite – was going to benefit them in the long run. Three years later, this happens.
Goga Bitadze and Pacers assistant coach Greg Foster got into a heated discussion.
Myles Turner and multiple other players got involved to attempt to break up the confrontation. pic.twitter.com/9Xr96HmJg8
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) May 6, 2021
We were getting plenty of smoke about the Pacers’ drama behind-the-scenes beforehand, and now, we have seen the fire firsthand. More and more reports indicate that the crap has hit the fan. Indiana has seemingly already had enough of Nate Bjorkgren in only his first year as his coach. When you see the results they’ve had this season compared to the last three, it’s not hard to see why.
The Pacers have routinely found themselves in the 4-5 playoff matchup for the last three years. Sadly, despite their fight – and, to be fair, they had pretty awful injury luck the past two postseasons – they haven’t been able to get over the hump in the first round. They may not have been in the elite tier, but they weren’t slouches either. So, seeing them not only fail to take the next step but look more and more likely for the play-in is as discouraging as it gets. Especially after they started the season 6-2.
If these reports about the tensions between the players and Bjorkgren are real, then this has already become a lost season for the Pacers. It’s too late in the season to make any major personnel changes. At this point, their best route is just to cut their losses and wait until this summer to think over what the next move is.
In that case, let’s take a deep breath. This has been a weird season for everyone. Every aspect minus the playoffs has been shorter than usual since last October. Everything was shortened from the offseason to the regular season. Oh, and COVID-19 has played a role as the season has turned out, although COVID-19 has probably been the least of Indy’s problems. Let’s think about what next season would look like for Indiana.
TJ Warren comes back with a clean bill of health. Caris Levert gets more acquainted with the team and how they run. Who knows? Maybe they finally resolve the Myles Turner-Domantas Sabonis situation once and for all. A new coach can come aboard to steady the ship, and it already looks like they have an idea for who that’s going to be
Report: Mike D’Antoni ‘leader in the clubhouse’ to become the next Pacers head coach https://t.co/42Ik5nPTyU
— NBA Central (@TheNBACentral) May 6, 2021
Should they run it back, there’s a solid chance they can get back to where they were before. But that’s sort of the problem to begin with. Even if this recent Pacers’ season turns out to be just a negative outlier, their ceiling isn’t all too high anyway. A team that consists of Warren, Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon, and Caris Levert as their core four is a solid playoff team. Having Turner, Doug McDermott, TJ McConnell, Jeremy Lamb, and the Holiday brothers rounds out a solid playoff team. Anyone who takes a good look at this roster knows that this roster is a good one. It’s not great though.
Just to be clear, Indiana has plenty of ingredients for a championship team. They just don’t have the main one: The franchise player. Once upon a time, it looked like that may have been Oladipo, but a cruel twist of fate took that all away. This isn’t a shot at any of the quality players they have on their roster, but think of it this way.
For the next couple of years, they’re going to go up against Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving. All of whom are on the same team. For potentially even longer, they’ll be going up against the likes of Giannis Antetoukounmpo, Joel Embiid, and Jayson Tatum. With the roster they have, they could make a series interesting against any one of those teams. However, it’s a rule of thumb in the NBA that the team with the best player usually wins the series. Not to mention, they’d have to beat most of the teams those players play for to go on a substantial playoff run. That’s a pretty tall order.
There’s no joy in talking about the Pacers like this because they have built this overachieving underdog from nothing more than shrewd executive work. They turned a disgruntled and expiring Paul George into Oladipo and Sabonis. Both of whom have since become two-time all-stars (and counting). They then managed to turn an expiring and hobbled Oladipo – who had no plans to return to Indiana – into the electric Levert. They also pretty much stole Brogdon and Warren away while paying very little for either of them.
That is fantastic work. The only hangup is that, as of now, it just doesn’t seem like it will be enough. But, doubt and skepticism are things Indiana’s had thrown their way consistently since 2017. Many thought their approach to trading Paul George would blow up in their face, and since then, they’ve done everything in their power to make everyone eat their words.
Kevin Pritchard’s got his work cut out for him this summer. This season will hopefully turn out to be nothing more than performance ruined by both the wrong coaching hire and an unusual season that produced negatively skewed results. But at this point, Pritchard’s upcoming course of action this summer shouldn’t be about getting his team back to where they were, but deciding whether he can get them a step or two further than that by adding more to what they have or starting over completely.
Indiana’s had a rough go of it in this COVID-shortened season, but their disappointing play may have little to no bearing on where they go from here.