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Head to Head: Riskiest 2016 Free Agents

Which 2015-16 free agents carry the most risk? Alex Kennedy, Tommy Beer and Jesse Blancarte discuss.

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With the salary cap set to rise as a result of the NBA’s new television deal coming into effect next offseason, there is sure to be a lot of action next summer when free agency starts up. Whether it is because of age, decline or having a history of being a disruptive presence, some of the upcoming free agents carry more risk than others. On today’s Head to Head, Tommy Beer, Alex Kennedy and Jesse Blancarte discuss which free agents they think carry the most risk for teams in free agency.

Rajon Rondo

Before the Boston Celtics traded Rajon Rondo to the Dallas Mavericks last December, Boston had been having internal discussions for years about whether they should trade away Rondo or re-sign him to a big contract and rebuild around him. Eventually Danny Ainge decided to part ways with Rondo before he hit free agency, opting to make sure Boston received assets in return for the point guard instead of taking the chance that they would lose him for nothing. The Celtics ended up sending Rondo to Dallas in exchange for Brandan Wright, Jae Crowder, Jameer Nelson, two draft picks and a trade exception.

Rondo won a championship with the Celtics in 2008, when he was just 22 years old. His game continued to blossom as he took more control of the reins in the years following Boston’s championship run. He led the league in steals in 2009-10 and then led the NBA in assists in back-to-back seasons (2011-12 and 2012-13). However, a string of serious injuries limited him to 53 games or fewer in three straight seasons.

Worse yet, the 2014-15 season was an absolute train wreck for Rondo. He struggled mightily in Dallas. The Mavericks were hoping that Rondo would be the piece that made the Mavs legit contenders. Instead, Rondo played poorly and fell out of favor with head coach Rick Carlisle. He averaged fewer than 10 points per game for the first time since his rookie season, and fewer than eight assists per game for the first time since 2007-08. In the process, Rajon also became the first player in NBA history shorter than 6’6 to shoot below 40 percent from the free-throw line over the course of a full season. Eventually, Rondo found himself locked in Carlisle’s doghouse and Dallas actually sent him home in the middle of their playoff series versus the Houston Rockets.

As a result of his disappointing play and issues both on and off the court, the big payday Rondo was hoping for vanished. He was forced to settle on a one-year deal from Sacramento.

However, Rondo has exceeded all expectations during his first two months with the Kings. He currently leads the league in assists by a wide margin, averaging 11.3 assists per contest. He is also shooting a solid 45.8 percent from the floor and a respectable 35.5 percent from three-point territory. His Kings teammates (specifically DeMarcus Cousins) have already started pressing the Sacramento front office to lock him up long-term.

Still, signing Rondo certainly carries plenty of risk. Yes, he’s playing well right now, but will that continue once he locks up a long-term contract? We have already seen his immaturity lead to a suspension earlier this season after he directed a derogatory and offensive term toward an official.

And, although his assist numbers are impressive, his defensive inadequacies are troublesome. Consider this: the Kings allow opponents to score 109.5 points per 100 possessions when Rondo is on the floor. They allow only 102.9 points per 100 possessions when he is off the court. In addition, Sacramento is only slightly more efficient offensively when Rondo is playing (105.1 vs. 104.8). Thus, his net rating is -6.2, which is a major issue.

It’s also worth noting that Rondo will be 30 years old in February, so some teams may be hesitant to give him a lucrative long-term deal.

When Rondo once again hits free agency this summer, he will have plenty of interested suitors. However, when you factor in the potential downside versus the considerable cost, Rondo is likely not worth the hefty investment it will take to secure his services.

 – Tommy Beer

Deron Williams

When Deron Williams became a free agent last offseason, it was a no-brainer for the Dallas Mavericks to sign the veteran point guard to a bargain deal. They were desperately trying to add impact players after a disappointing summer and they managed to land Williams on a $5,378,974 contract (with a player option for the second season).

While Williams had shown signs of decline in recent years, he has actually exceeded expectations in Dallas. Through 26 games, he has averaged 14.8 points, 5.8 assists, 3.3 rebounds and 1.2 steals. Those numbers are still down from his prime years, but he has been a pleasant surprise and helped Dallas climb to the fifth seed in the Western Conference.

Because he is winning and playing pretty well, expect Williams to opt out of his contract after this season and try to sign one more lucrative contract before he retires. Oftentimes, players who sign a two-year deal with a player option in the second year are planning all along to opt out and only have the player option in case they get injured.

The problem is that Williams will likely be looking for a significant raise when he hits the market this summer, and I’d be extremely hesitant to give him that pay day. Keep in mind, he’ll be a 32-year-old in July and he has a lot of wear and tear on his body (which is why he has struggled in recent seasons).

Williams has shown that he struggles if he’s asked to do too much for a team (just ask the Brooklyn Nets). He also has a reputation for being a very difficult personality, and he’s not known as a leader.

Throw in the fact that he should continue to get worse each year as he gets older, and it’s very risky to give him a multi-year deal – especially since he’ll want far more than the $5,378,974 he is earning this season due to the increased salary cap. If I was an NBA general manager, I would look elsewhere because I don’t believe Williams can sustain his production over the course of a long-term deal and he’s not the kind of veteran I’d want in my locker room.

-Alex Kennedy

Joakim Noah

Since being drafted ninth overall in the 2007 NBA Draft by Chicago, Joakim Noah has been a two-time NBA All-Star (2012-13 and 2013-14), Defensive Player of the Year (2014) and the emotional leader and defensive anchor for the Bulls. The combination of his size, mobility, intelligence, passion and determination made him one of the best all-around centers in the NBA over the last eight seasons.

Despite all of that, I would be very hesitant about signing him to a significant contract this upcoming offseason. At age 30, Noah is not a particularly old player. However, he has a lot of miles on his body and has shown signs of physical decline. Under new head coach Fred Hoiberg, Noah is playing just 22.3 minutes per game this season and has dipped in production in just about every single statistical category. In addition, Noah recently suffered a slight tear in his left shoulder that will keep him sidelined for a few weeks.

While Noah is still capable of producing valuable minutes at center, he looks to have slowed down significantly over the last season and a half. Nagging injuries and playing under Tom Thibodeau for the last several seasons seems to have taken its toll on Noah, who no longer looks like the spry defensive ace he once was. Couple in the fact that he doesn’t really have a post game to lean on moving forward and he has never had much range, and it seems clear that offering Noah a significant contract could be risky.

To clarify, if I were a general manager, I would be happy to have Noah on my team at a reasonable price . He plays hard, leads by example and is a highly experienced veteran. But considering how much free agent money there will be with the NBA’s new television deal coming into effect, and how much centers are paid, I expect Noah to be paid well above what he is producing at this point in his career.

It could be the case that Noah bounces back physically and comes close to his old self on the court, which would warrant a major contract. But at his age, with his wear and tear and the significant dip in production, I would be hesitant to offer Noah a long-term contract, despite all of his notable accomplishments.

 – Jesse Blancarte

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NBA

NBA Daily: Is Starting That Big Of A Deal?

It’s easy to conclude that a bench player should replace a starter in the lineup if the former is outplaying the latter, but Matt John explains why that may not be the best idea.

Matt John

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Of all the topsy-turvy things that have happened to the Boston Celtics this season, Jaylen Brown’s sudden decline and subsequent comeback might just be the topsiest-turviest thing of them all.

And that’s saying something.

There may not have been a starter in the league who played as badly as he did when the season began. In his first month and a half as the starting shooting guard, Jaylen averaged 11.1 points on 39.8 percent shooting from the field and 25.3 percent from three. That was quite the drop off from his numbers the previous season, where he averaged 14.5 points on 46.5 percent shooting from the field and 39.5 percent from three.

Advanced metrics showed that Brown’s struggles were hurting the Celtics too. Boston was minus-11.9 with Brown on the floor, which was the worst on the team among players who played at least 100 minutes. By December, Brown was benched in favor of Marcus Smart, where the Celtics not so coincidentally started picking things up from there.

Since his move to the bench, Jaylen has regained his footing, averaging 14 points per game on 48.4 percent shooting and 36.3 percent from three. This most recent stretch has been really encouraging for him, as he’s put up 16.4 points a night on 49.5 percent shooting and 40.5 percent from three. Best of all, his play is benefitting the Celtics, as they are plus-6.9 with him on the floor, good for third-best among players who have played 97 or more minutes behind only Al Horford and Gordon Hayward.

His timing couldn’t be better, as the playoffs are just around the corner. Brown playing his best basketball of the season could really help the Celtics’ chances. So one question remains – why not put him back in the starting lineup?

It would make sense. The uptick in Brown’s production has coincided with the diminishment of Marcus Morris’ production.

Morris and Brown have come from opposite ends this summer. While Brown has worked his way up after falling so far down, Morris has descended quite a bit since his brilliant start.

“Mook” was playing the best basketball of his career when the season began. In fact, he was one of the few positives in a season that started as underwhelmingly mediocre as the Celtics had. Through the first two-and-a-half months, Morris was playing like a borderline all-star.

In that time, Morris averaged 15.5 points on 50.1 percent shooting and 44.1 percent from three. The Celtics were plus-5.5 with Morris on the floor, with all of the positivity coming from the offensive end, where the offense was plus-11.6 with him on the floor, second only to Kyrie Irving.

Since then, Morris’ production has tailed off. There was bound to be some regression in Marcus’ case, but since the all-star break, he’s playing what could very well be the worst basketball he’s played since becoming a Celtic.

Since the return from the All-Star break, Morris has averaged 13.1 points on 40 percent shooting from the field and 27 percent from three. The Celtics are minus-17.1 with him on the floor during that span. In other words, he’s hurting them badly on both ends.

So, subbing the slumping Morris for the thriving Brown in the starting lineup would seem like an obvious move to make. The Celtics could do it, and no one would bat an eye, but in this time of the season, it wouldn’t be smart to mess with the lineups this late into the season, or more specifically, it wouldn’t be smart to mess with what’s been working for Brown.

Though it took longer than Boston would have liked, Jaylen Brown has found his stride with the second unit this season. Even if Morris has struggled over the last month or so, taking Brown out of a situation where he’s playing at his best and putting him back into a lineup where he struggled could mess up his mojo. It’s unlikely that Brown will be coming off the bench through the duration of his career, but this season, he was meant to play in the second unit.

There are certain players who, despite having the talent to be a starter, are put in the NBA for the sole purpose of ruling over the second unit. Jamal Crawford and Jason Terry fit that certain mold, but there may not be a player that fits that description better than Lou Williams.

At the age of 32, Williams has already done enough to cement his status as one of the best microwave scorers of all time. The 13,135 points that Williams has scored in his NBA career is good for No.194 among all-time points scored. Last week, he surpassed Dell Curry for the No. 1 all-time scorer off the bench. That is impressive whether he started or not. However, if Lou had been a starter for his entire career, those numbers wouldn’t have as much meaning as they most definitely do as a sixth man.

It’s not as much about having as high scoring numbers in his case. It’s more about the purpose of what those numbers do for his team. Williams’ scoring abilities off the bench give his teams an edge that a fair amount of second units don’t have. His impact offensively is so strong that, like Brown over the past month, he usually winds up finishing games. That’s why having guys like Williams or Brown off the bench is important – They bring an advantage.

Another example would be Williams’ teammate, Montrezl Harrell. Doc Rivers, who has a very solid case for Coach of the Year, has elected to start then-Clipper Marcin Gortat and recently acquired big man Ivica Zubac over Harrell at center this season despite it being very clear that Harrell is his best player in the frontcourt.

He does this because Harrell gives LA an edge in the second unit much like Williams does with the energy he brings to the court. Harrell influences the game so much that again, like Williams, he’s usually out there finishing games as well. His skill set makes him a perfect fit in the second unit, and he could very well be Lou’s best competition for Sixth Man of the Year.

Those are examples of players who could be starters if their team wanted them to. They just play better when they come off the bench, but are there players who – despite being a starting-caliber player – are not a good fit in their starting lineup?

As it turns out, Derrick Favors is one such player. It’s been a much-debated controversy in Utah now about whether Favors should be starting in the frontcourt alongside Rudy Gobert for the Jazz. Honestly, those two aren’t bad together, but they play so much better when they pair up with a floor spacer in the frontcourt instead of each other.

In two-man lineups, Favors and Gobert are a plus-1.4 together. Defensively, the two of them are great together, giving up 98.3 points per 100 possessions. Alas, they only score 99.7 points per 100 possessions. Compare their two-man lineup to one with either Joe Ingles or Jae Crowder.

Favors and Ingles: +6.1
Favors and Crowder: +2.6
Gobert and Ingles: +4.5
Gobert and Crowder: +4.1

To be clear, Favors is good enough to be a starter. He just might not have the best frontcourt partner to be paired with.

When you take all of this in, it’s fair to say that to a certain extent, starting is overrated because it has no bearing on who plays the most minutes. What’s most important really is who finishes the game. Sometimes it’s the starters while at other times, it’s one or two bench players. It all comes down to who is the most reliable.

Because of this, in the Celtics’ case, the more accurate conclusion is that Brown should be getting more minutes than Morris rather than he should be replacing him in the starting lineup. That is, if he keeps this up.

No matter what Boston decides to do, one final question must be brought to our attention – Does anyone else think it’s an odd coincidence that Brown’s and Morris’ productions both started trending in opposite directions after the two of them got into that skirmish back in January?

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March Madness

NBA Daily: Four Prospects Ready To Rise In NCAA Tournament

Every March brings a collection of mock draft risers ahead of combine season, but there are four names worth your attention this spring, writes Ben Nadeau.

Ben Nadeau

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Ah, it’s almost that time of year, folks.

With conference tournaments set to wrap up this weekend, and Selection Sunday not far behind, the mental preparations for the big dance have already begun. Each season, like clockwork, a group of players seemingly raise their stock amongst fans ahead of workouts and the combine. Last season, of course, the largest beneficiary of the bright spotlight was Villanova’s Donte DiVincenzo. During the NCAA Championship, DiVincenzo torched Michigan for 31 points on 5-for-7 from long range — then once he measured out well, it was all but settled. In a matter of two months, DiVincenzo had gone from a near-lock to return to college to a potential lottery selection.

But as Basketball Insiders’ Steve Kyler pointed out alongside his most recent mock draft, importantly, it was a combination of everything that vaulted DiVincenzo into the cultural forefront. With much of the collegiate sphere transfixed, rightfully, on Zion Williamson’s return to Duke, plus his renewed efforts with top prospects Cam Reddish and R.J. Barrett, most of the collective draft class has just slipped on by. So although scouts may have a handle on the NCAA’s very best prospects, there are plenty of other cases worth adding to join to the pre-tournament hype conversation.

Given that March Madness kicks off on Tuesday, there’s no better moment to investigate the portfolios of some potential risers. Again, a stellar showing in the tournament won’t do it alone — but, regardless, these are four players that could do a ton of damage between now and the NBA Draft in June.

Eric Paschall, Villanova

Speaking of DiVincenzo, the Wildcats have sent a handful of players to the NBA over the last three years and senior Eric Paschall appears to be next in line. The 6-foot-8 forward bided his time alongside stars like Mikal Bridges and Jalen Brunson, but the former All-Tournament selectee has bloomed as Villanova’s main man. Over 32 contests, Paschall has averaged 16.7 points, 6.2 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 2.1 three-pointers per game, helming his now-depleted squad to 23 wins.

Although he hasn’t collected the same awards that Brunson did last year, NBA teams tend to love ready-to-contribute Wildcats, no matter their age.

Paschall will be 23 once his rookie year begins in the fall but he’s got big-game confidence and oodles of experience already. On Thursday, Paschall scored 20 points and 10 rebounds to pace No. 25 Villanova past Providence in Big East Tournament play. There are some concerns over his pro-level fit as a power forward, but his massively improved three-point conversion mark will definitely have scouts back on board.

Of note, Paschall was unanimously named to the All-Big East First Team and he’s currently heating up ahead of another deep Villanova run. Paschall’s fantastic put-back helped the Wildcats force overtime against Xavier on Friday, while his clutch three-pointer and subsequent free throws then iced it.

Jaxson Hayes, Texas

Texas’ newest rim-protecting impact player is the 6-foot-11 Jaxson Hayes — a well-executing shot blocker and walking highlight reel… sound familiar? While the comparisons to Jarrett Allen are simply unavoidable at this point, Hayes has been a worthy target alone based on his slow, but steady improvement throughout the 2018-19 campaign. Through 32 games, the freshman has averaged 10.1 points, 5.1 rebounds and 2.2 blocks on 72.8 percent from the field. Those standout numbers — blocks and field goal percentage — rank as 23rd and second-best in Division I, respectively.

In Hayes’ best performance yet, the big man pulled down 15 points, six rebounds and five blocks during a mid-season victory over rival Oklahoma. Earlier this month, Hayes was named the Big 12 Freshman of the Year, an honor recently bestowed upon Trae Young, Josh Jackson and Myles Turner. Along with Allen and Turner, Haynes joins Mohamed Bamba as highly-rated former Longhorns with huge professional-level projections — that’s not bad company to keep.

Unfortunately, at 16-16, Texas now faces an uphill battle to even reach the big dance. Much worse, Hayes played just 14 minutes before leaving the game with an injury during their loss to No. 3 Kansas in the Big 12 Tournament on Thursday. Head coach Shaka Smart said he hoped “it’s not extremely serious” but a status update has not been revealed as of publishing. However, as an athletic leaper and instinctual defender, Hayes remains one of the top long-term projects, injured or not.

And with moments like these, it won’t be long until the country takes notice as well — even if he’s sadly done for the season now.

Tre Jones, Duke

Of the names on this list, Tre Jones’ line is certainly the least jaw-dropping — 8.9 points, 5.4 assists and 2.1 steals — but he’s been the fourth mouth to feed behind the Blue Devils’ trio of future top five picks. Still, Jones has been a steadying force for the star-studded side, even seeing a healthy uptick in the three weeks that Williamson was sidelined. During Duke’s slim loss to North Carolina a week ago, Jones chipped in with nine points, five rebounds, seven assists and two steals.

With Williamson back in the lineup versus Syracuse on Thursday, Jones dropped 15 points and eight assists — which, long story short, proves the court general is good no matter who is on the floor. While those statistics aren’t enough to push Jones into lottery territory, the 19-year-old point guard has some promising upside for a team with less ball-dominating assets already.

Although head coach Mike Krzyzewski‎ dreams of a sophomore year return, Jones’ laser-sharp distribution and above-average defense will make him a popular name this spring. Jones’ 3.73 assist-to-turnover ratio is third-best in the entire nation and his ability to drop picture-perfect passes to Duke’s sky-walking dunkers has made them appointment viewing all season.

And if you’re feeling some slight déjà vu right now, that’s for good reason. Back in 2014-15, Tyus Jones, Tre’s older brother, was an electric playmaker for a Blue Devils team that won it all. But if you see Tre knocking down important, pressure-laden shots like Tyus once did, don’t be surprised — that clutch gene still runs in the family.

Jaylen Nowell, Washington

This foursome has covered nearly every corner of the scouting conundrum checklist thus far: Hayes? Too raw. Paschall? Too old. Jones? Too underutilized. While those are all things that front offices may eventually look past when drafting those three in June, Jaylen Nowell falls into zero of those buckets.

Nowell is 19 years old, just won Pac-12 Player of the Year and seems poised to lead Washington to their longest tournament run in over a decade. Heading into the postseason, Nowell is leading the Huskies in points (16.5), assists (3.1) and three-point percentage (44.9), while the guard is their runner-up in rebounds (5.4) and steals (1.2) too. Uncoincidentally, Washington’s 25 wins are the most the college has finished with since Isaiah Thomas led them to 26 and the Sweet 16 in 2009-2010.

In 2018-19, Nowell has topped 18 or more on 15 separate occasions, including a massive 26-point, six-rebound effort against the likely No. 1 overall-seeded Gonzaga Bulldogs. Nowell is an incredible dribbler and the sophomore has put plenty of talented defenders on skates — but he’s also been largely hidden in a subpar conference this season. Fundamentally strong, Nowell has shot below 40 percent in just five of Washington’s 32 games so far.

Consistent and reliable, he’ll be their go-to star in the NCAA tournament without a doubt. Before long, the rest of the country will recognize him as one too.

Zion Williamson has been deservedly tough to look away from this season — but collegiate basketball’s biggest showstopper has robbed onlookers of some other incredible narratives as well.

Whether that’s the scrappy lead guard throwing alley-oops to Williamson on the daily, a forgotten National Champion or a budding first-rounder on the opposite coastline, March Madness is shaping up to be another worthy runway for takeoff. Unfortunately, Hayes will likely miss out — even in the now-unlikely circumstance that Texas is selected — but his agile, smooth skillset as a near seven-footer will make him a sought-after interview come draft season.

Between now and April — through a mix of their tournament efforts and combine measurements — an elite group of prospects will rise up mock draft boards once again. Who will it be this year?

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NBA

NBA Daily: What’s Next for Isaiah Thomas?

Shane Rhodes breaks down the situation Isaiah Thomas faces as he is no longer in the Denver Nuggets’ rotation.

Shane Rhodes

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“That Slow Grind” seems to have ground to a halt.

Always a fighter, the former “Mr. Irrelevant” battled through stints with the Sacramento Kings and Phoenix Suns before he ended up in the ideal situation with the Boston Celtics. As he came into his own, the diminutive Isaiah Thomas positioned himself for an enormous payday. But it never came.

In the midst of a, to say the least, gutsy 2017 postseason performance, Thomas aggravated a hip injury that ended his season and has continued to affect him to this day.

The Celtics traded Thomas that summer to the Cleveland Cavaliers in exchange for Kyrie Irving (as part of a larger trade). Unable to carve out a consistent role, Thomas was then traded to the Los Angeles Lakers. There, he flashed that burst that enabled one of the most prolific offensive seasons in NBA history, but his season ended as it started; Thomas again found himself under the knife, forced to undergo surgery on his deteriorating hip.

Things still haven’t gotten better for him. With the Denver Nuggets, Thomas’ has hit the latest roadblock in what has been an uphill battle back to relevancy.

On February 13, 2019, Thomas debuted for the Nuggets to a standing ovation. From there, it took just nine games for Head Coach Mike Malone to remove him from the rotation. Now, the once great Thomas has been relegated to that of a veteran locker room presence and source of postseason experience. To his credit, Thomas has taken the change in stride, but his future NBA prospects continue to darken.

There are a number of different routes Thomas’ career could take out of Denver this offseason, but what exactly could be next for “The Little Guy?”

As he has become accustomed to, Thomas must persevere in order to continue his NBA dream and he’ll arguably have to do it somewhere other than Denver; the two just aren’t compatible. Thomas, at his best, dominated the ball while Denver, led by Malone and Nikola Jokic, run an offense based on fluidity and movement. If Thomas’ eventual goal is a return to form, or something close to it, he must find a team with an abundance of available guard minutes and one that can take the time to allow Thomas to find his footing again, a team desperate for the scoring punch that Thomas could provide once his feet are under him.

Multiple teams seem to fit that description, including the Phoenix Suns, Orlando Magic and others that lack an effective weapon off the bench.

Thomas could also, as it were, steer into the skid. His career would take a form far different than what he had always envisioned, but it may be the best and most meaningful way for Thomas to remain connected to the NBA. Were he to come to the conclusion that he may not be able to get back to the player he used to be, Thomas could embrace the role that he has found for himself and look to continue in it in the future, either in Denver or elsewhere. The wealth of experience Thomas could provide a team — both from a personal and NBA perspective — could prove invaluable to a young team faced with hardship, mounting expectations or a number of other potential problems.

Likewise, Thomas’ veteran presence and knowledge of the postseason could provide an edge to almost any contender — anything Thomas contributed outside of the locker room would be a bonus.

Thomas could also forgo both of those options and look to rebuild his value in Europe or China before coming back to the NBA as well. Assuming he can maintain his health, Thomas would almost certainly flourish overseas, as many NBA players do, and parlay that into a potential NBA contract.

Thomas, never one to back away from a challenge, would almost certainly look for an NBA opportunity before making a decision that could drastically alter his future. Since he was drafted, the 5’9 point guard has been told that he couldn’t make it in the NBA and, while the circumstances have changed, it would seem out of character for Thomas to just give in to the doubters.

Whatever he does in the end, expect basketball to be in Thomas’ future, in some way, shape or form. Through it all, his passion for the game has never wavered and, while some may see this as the beginning of the end, it would seem foolish to doubt Thomas now.

He certainly won’t be doubting himself.

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