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NBA AM: After Being Swept, What Is Next?

Three more teams entered the offseason this weekend after being swept in the playoffs. What is next for each team?

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The Sweeps Are In:  While the Dallas Mavericks and Milwaukee Bucks avoided being swept, there were three other teams that were not so fortunate. While making the playoffs is often good financially for a team, failing to compete and win even a single game often is a bad sign that usually accompanies change. As some teams start clearing out lockers and calling it an offseason today, here are some things to watch from each situation.

New Orleans Pelicans

The message from ownership in New Orleans was make the postseason or else. The narrative all season was that if the team wasn’t in the postseason, there would be changes to the front office and the coaching staff. The team made the playoffs, but failing to win even a single game many not stop the inevitable. Current general manager Dell Demps and head coach Monty Williams have been on the job since 2010 and have amassed a 173-221 (.439) record – not exactly world beaters in the Western Conference.

It’s unclear where ownership falls on the current state of things, but as they say: once you start talking about divorce, one becomes almost inevitable.

The Pelicans also have a number of roster situations to consider. The first being persuading big man Anthony Davis to sign a maximum contract extension; that becomes harder if the franchise up ends itself with a coaching and management change. Davis is eligible to sign an early extension, which would start in 2016, or he can wait out the season and hit restricted free agency in 2016. Either way, his next deal will be based on the first year of the new NBA television contract so monetarily there is nothing gained from not doing a deal unless he wants to squeeze the organization a little.

Davis has repeatedly characterized his pending extension talks in a somewhat negative way, this week saying: “When that time comes, you are going have to deal with it and make tough decisions.” Not exactly the giddy-to-sign-on tone the Pelicans would hope he’d have when a potential $140 million is on the line.

The Pelicans also have two key would-be free agents, the biggest being center Omer Asik. The word is Asik would like to be back in New Orleans, but has every intention of shopping for his best deal so it will be up to New Orleans to pony up a real offer. Big men come at a premium and given how well Davis played off of Asik this season, it might foolish not to resign him. Asik finished the final year of his last contract with a cap value of $8.34 million, but was paid in cash a sum closer to $15 million because of how his original deal was structured with the Houston Rockets. Asik is expected to command something close to what Washington Wizards big man Marcin Gortat received this past summer – five years $60 million. It will be interesting to see if the Pelicans bite at that kind of price tag.

Norris Cole, who was acquired at the trade deadline, will likely be a restricted free agent assuming the Pelicans issue his $3.03 million qualifying offer. Cole is said to be looking for his big payday and a chance to have a more defined role, even if it means stepping backwards in the win-loss column. The Pelicans have been ravaged at the point guard spot with injuries over the last two seasons, so keeping Cole might matter; however, if the bidding on Cole gets north of $6-8 million, the Pelicans may have no choice but to pass.

The Pelicans have a couple of tradable players. Eric Gordon is likely picking up his player option worth $15.51 million for next season, the final one on his deal. As the trade deadline gets closer next season, that number is going to be mean increasingly less to an acquiring team and as Gordon proved in the playoffs, when he’s healthy he’s still a formidable player.

The Pelicans have never seemed to get the most out of guard Jrue Holiday and that might make him expendable in trade, especially if retaining Cole becomes a priority. Holiday has endured several serious injuries since landing in New Orleans that may or may not impact his return in trade.

The Pelicans are looking at roughly $61.16 million in contract commitments next year, which gives them a small amount of cap space to play with if they let Asik and potentially Cole walk. Making offseason trades is the most likely means to significantly improve the team.

It will be an interesting offseason for the Pelicans; there are a lot of items to attend to.

Boston Celtics

The Celtics were playing with house money in the postseason. They had won enough games to get in, but were in no way the battled-tested sort of team that could win a series; however, they made a couple of games in the series against the Cleveland Cavaliers a little closer than anyone would like. It’s unfortunate that the series ended in controversy, especially with Kevin Love and Kelly Olynyk getting tangled up on a 50-50 play that resulted in Love dislocating his shoulder. That will unfortunately mare what should be seen as an impressive season for a team that was supposed to be rebuilding.

The Celtics have some business to attend to, namely their own free agents and continuing to cull out the veterans on the roster.

Celtics forward Brandon Bass is arguably the biggest free agent of the bunch. He told Basketball Insiders’ Jessica Camerato last night that he’d like to be back, but hasn’t received any indications from the Celtics yet on where they view him. Celtics president Danny Ainge has said a few times this season that he’d like Bass back, but it’s time to do a new deal and we’ll see what the market offers Bass.

Forward Jonas Jerebko is in a similar boat, entering unrestricted free agency in July. The Celtics have said they would like to retain Jerebko too; however he is free to explore his options and unless the Celtics put a big number on the table, they may lose him to free agency.

The Celtics also have the option to restrict the free agency of Jae Crowder with a $1.1 million qualifying offer, something they are expected to do. Crowder may not command a huge contract this summer, but he will likely get a sizable raise over the $915,000 he earned last season. Word is the Dallas Mavericks may get into the bidding on Crowder so things may get interesting.

Gerald Wallace remains the lone veteran contract Boston would like to move and sources say the Celtics would be willing to part with one of the half dozen or so first-round draft picks they have amassed to move him this offseason. Wallace will be entering the final year of his contract and is owed $10.1 million.

The Celtics, as things stand today, have $45.67 in salary commitments next season, which could equate to roughly $21 million in cap space depending on how they manage their own free agents. One interesting thing to note is that Boston could seriously be in the mix for the aforementioned Love, as Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports wrote yesterday.

The C’s are expected to be aggressive in free agency, so it will be interesting to see how hard they try and move off cap luggage and increase their usable cap space.

Toronto Raptors

Heartbreaking is the only way to describe the Raptors’ postseason. After a decent regular season that had its fair share of bumps, the Raptors simply failed to compete in the playoffs, leaving Raptors president Masai Ujiri with a lot of issues to ponder.

The Raptors turned away mid-season trades hoping that this group was as special as they seemed at times. However, when the pressure was applied, everything came apart.

Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry is said to be nursing a sore back and without their All-Star point guard leading the way, the Raptors regressed in virtually every way, casting a huge cloud of doubt on the offseason.

The Raptors have several would-be free agents, the biggest being sixth man Lou Williams. Williams has said repeatedly that he wants to be back; however, with the Raptors needing to institute significant change, is Williams a priority? Williams was this season’s Sixth Man of the Year.

Reserves Landry Fields, Chuck Hayes and possibly Tyler Hansbrough are all expected to be renounced, leaving Amir Johnson as the last free agent to consider. Johnson has been solid for the Raptors, so this one may come down to price tag.

The Raptors have $49.04 million in firm salary commitments for next season, which could equate to roughly $19.94 million in useable cap space. Johnson has a cap hold worth $10.5 million while Williams has a hold of $8.17 million, so to get cap space both either need to sign for less than their hold or be renounced outright.

The bigger elephant in the room is the status of head coach Dwane Casey. He signed a three-year extension worth roughly $11.25 million last May that would carry him through the 2016-17 season; however, the final year of that deal is a team option. So in essence the Raptors owe Casey one more fully guaranteed year, which likely means his status as a head coach gets looked at too.

Like the Pelicans, the Raptors have some soul searching to do, mainly because the postseason exposed the numerous flaws of the team all in one neat little four-game package.

The Milwaukee Bucks and Dallas Mavericks staved off elimination and the dreaded sweep this weekend, but both face elimination in their respective Game 5 matchups. The Bucks return to Chicago tonight for an 8 p.m. tip off against the Bulls, while the Mavericks return to Houston on Tuesday for an 8 p.m. tip against the Rockets.

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Steve Kyler is the Editor and Publisher of Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA and basketball for the last 17 seasons.

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NBA Daily: Wiggins The X-Factor for Warriors

Stephen Curry will always be the face of the Golden State Warriors, and for good reason. Draymond Green spearheads their defensive attack but the key to their postseason fate lies in the hands of a guy that many people had already given up on.

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The 2020-21 regular season was a strange one for many reasons, but especially for the Golden State Warriors. Shortly before the NBA Draft, the team’s championship aspirations took a major hit with the injury to Klay Thompson. The best backcourt in the league would not be on full display this season, but they still had two-time MVP, Stephen Curry, to put on a show.

Curry did just that, dazzling basketball fans on a near-nightly basis. The sensational shots, ridiculous plays and high-drama situations were must-see TV that kept the Warriors in the national spotlight. To that end, Curry captured the scoring title for the second time in his career, averaging 32.0 points per game this season.

With limited options available to fill Thompson’s void, the team managed to add Kelly Oubre Jr to the roster, although it came at a steep cost. His salary is $14.4 million this season but because of Golden State’s luxury tax bill, ESPN’s Bobby Marks noted that adding Oubre would cost an additional $82.4 million, bringing their total to $134 million.

After a career year in Phoenix, Oubre struggled mightily trying to fit in with this group. Sometimes players in new situations can try to do too much at first, or sometimes pass on open shots in order to not seem selfish. Neither of these was the case for Oubre, who simply could not put the ball in the basket. His early-season shooting struggles had the Warriors pegged for the Draft Lottery.

Oubre eventually turned it around and began playing like himself. Another new face in the Bay area was rookie James Wiseman. He too struggled at the beginning of the season, which is to be expected for someone in his situation. The seven-footer from Memphis only played a handful of games in college and was trying to learn the NBA game on the fly. A season-ending injury cut short his rookie season, but he showed promise for the future.

The future is not something that Curry has on his mind. He and Draymond Green are playing to win now. That starts on Wednesday with their highly-anticipated showdown with LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the defending NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers. The league has quite the matchup to cap the new Play-In-Tournament.

Amid all of the highlight plays from Curry and all of the noise surrounding Green, one player sits in the shadows and is rarely mentioned. Andrew Wiggins was all the rage when he was selected number one overall in the 2014 NBA Draft. The former Kansas Jayhawk earned Rookie of the Year honors but ultimately struggled to find his place in Minneapolis.

After more than five seasons with the Minnesota Timberwolves, Wiggins was traded to the Warriors in February of last season. Now having played a full season in a Warriors uniform, Wiggins could be their x-factor in the postseason.

One of the knocks on Wiggins has always been his drive, and his passion to reach his full potential. He has all of the physical tools and attributes to be one of the most prolific two-way players in the league. Sometimes the effort just isn’t there, but that narrative seems to have gone out the window. Wiggins has been playing excellent on both ends of the floor, which has translated to wins for the depleted Warriors.

While many people point to his scoring slightly declining, he still scored 19 points per game despite playing the fewest minutes of his career. He finished inside the top 40 in scoring this season. The real story for Wiggins is his efficiency, which has been incredible. He shot a career-high 48 percent from the floor this season and a career-best 38 percent from three-point range. His 54 percent effective field goal percentage is also the highest of his career.

As they prepare to battle the Lakers for the 7th seed in the Western Conference, Golden State must find ways to get stops on the defensive end. Stopping the likes of James, Davis and Dennis Schroder on the perimeter will be paramount to their success. It is easier said than done, but this is where Wiggins’ value can be felt. The Toronto native will be called upon to match up against James often, with Green defending their big men.

Wiggins finished fourth in Defensive RPM (2.72) this season at his position, 21st among all players in the league. That is by far the best of his career, as he ranked 85th last season among small forwards. He also finished inside the top five in the league in terms of contested three-point shots. That is important for the Warriors going forward, should they face the Phoenix Suns or Utah Jazz in the first round. Utah was the top three-point shooting team in the league and Phoenix was seventh-best in terms of percentage.

As if facing James and Davis weren’t difficult enough, the Warriors will have their hands full no matter which opponent they face next. Both have dynamic backcourts with Mike Conley/Donovan Mitchell in Utah and Chris Paul/Devin Booker in Phoenix. Wiggins will be tasked with trying to slow them down as well. There is elite talent everywhere you look out West.

Golden State finished the regular season with a 110.1 defensive rating, which was top five in the league. They managed to do that despite having a depleted roster and having the third-highest pace (102.2) in the league. Much of the credit will go to Green and Oubre but Wiggins has been a major factor in their defensive schemes.

Curry and Green have combined to play in 235 playoff games during their careers. Wiggins has only appeared in five playoff games, so this will be a new experience for him. The pressure always goes up in the postseason, and the Play-In Tournament is no exception.

Shortly after acquiring Wiggins, Steve Kerr put All-Defense expectations on him. “Defensively, we will ask him to take on the challenge of what that position entails. Guarding some of the best players in the league and adapting to our schemes and terminology.” To his credit, Wiggins has done just that.

Wiggins will not win the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award this season. He isn’t going to win the Defensive Player of the Year either. While those accolades matter to a lot of players, Wiggins is just focused on improving and winning games. The Warriors hope to do the same as they return to postseason play.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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