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NBA AM: Can The NBA Avoid A Lockout In 2017?

The NBA and NBPA are expected to meet this month to start dicussing a new labor deal. Could a lockout be prevented?

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Making A Deal?:  Call it wishful thinking, being naive or simply forgetting how contentious labor talks usually end up being, but there is a growing sense that a lockout in 2017 – when both sides could opt-out of the current labor deal – could be avoided with an early deal.

Before we dig into specifics, there is one thing worth saying: The current labor deal won’t last beyond 2017. There are too many details that need to be addressed for that to happen, but what is possible at this point is to believe that a newly constructed deal could be reached without the bloodshed of a lockout.

The Players’ Association and the NBA are expected to meet formally this month to set the stage for a new deal, with a goal of reaching a new deal well in advance of the current deadline dates. There is a sense that the players would like to see a new deal in place as soon as next season, which may be too much to wish for.

So what needs to be addressed?

Revenue Split

The wise and astute Larry Coon often points out in our debates over the labor deal that the revenue split between the players and the owners is all that really matters. From that, everything else happens – and if the split of revenue is right, all the things that get complained about go away. Where the details matter is when the split is too small.

During the last round of negotiations, the NBA marched the revenue split way back, getting the final revenue share to a guaranteed 50 percent of Basketball Related Revenue (BRI). This includes a provision of “plus or minus 60.5 percent of the amount by which revenues exceed/fall short of projections,” with defined limits of no less than 49 percent and no more than 51 percent of BRI.

This is where the players feel like they lost the most ground and this is the area that has to be walked upwards to reach a deal, according to those close to the players’ line of thinking.

For the sake of discussion, let’s call the current revenue split 51 percent. Getting that number to 53 percent likely gets a deal done, or close to done. While two percentage points seems like a reasonable concession, keep in mind that the total BRI for the 2014-15 season was $4.840 billion. Two percent of that figure is $96 million that would come from the owners’ share to the players’ share. That is not an insignificant figure, especially as the BRI swells with the addition of the new NBA media rights deal and the new Nike apparel deal, which could increase BRI by as much as 20 percent next year.

So let’s assume for a moment that BRI does jump 20 percent that puts 2016 BRI at $5.808 billion, and that two percent figure jumps to $116.1 million.

That’s money currently contracted to the owners, so that level of concession won’t come easy. But as talks begin, that’s where everything starts.

If both sides can reach a deal on revenue, the rest falls in line pretty easily.

Recalculate Minimums and Rookie Scale

While there has been a lot of talk about how much the NBA salary cap will jump up next year, there are some numbers that will remain unchanged, such as a the rookie salaries scale, the NBA minimums and the value of cap exceptions. All of those amounts are scheduled out through the 2020-21 season and none of those figures accounted for a huge spike in the salary cap.

If unchanged, rookie-scale salaries will become the biggest bargains in basketball and, as a percentage of overall cap, exception based contracts will also become value deals.

One of the reasons the Players Association would like to fast track a deal is to address these inequities and a large number of players fall into one of these pre-set buckets, so resetting the math on rookie scale, NBA minimums and exceptions is deemed important.

Age Limit

The NBA desperately wants the NBA’s minimum age limit increased to two years removed from your graduating class and a minimum age of 20. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has labeled this a top priority for him, and it’s something the players will have to address to reach a deal.

This is a losing proposition for the players. While on a fundamental principal basis, the players don’t want any restrictions at all, no one involved in the process believes that the players would give up something in negotiations to fight the direction this is headed.

Collective Bargaining is a give and take process. One side wants something, the other side trades something they want in exchange for what the other side wants.

The problem with this format is the NBA removes everything from the table when they go about crafting a new deal, which has been a source of contention with the players in previous deals.

With a blank slate, the NBA then changes what each things will cost the players in compromise. A 53 percent revenue split happens if contracts are not guaranteed. Contracts can be guaranteed, but length must be shortened.

In this format, the rookies always lose because what it would cost the players to fight for a move simply isn’t worth it to the existing players, which means a “Two and Through” age limit is far more likely than not.

D-League Salaries

From a players’ point of view, the D-League isn’t their problem. They don’t want to see a dime of the player revenue redirected to the D-League. However, there is a growing sense that the Players Association has to help the players in the D-League and there could be a horse trade of sorts to be had.

While committing any NBA BRI money to the D-League is a non-starter for the players, there could be good will gained if in exchange for say a “Two and Through” age limit, that owners, from their share, commit to better and more robust funding of the D-League.

Currently, there are 228 D-League roster spots playing under a fixed tiered salary system. Players that have NBA experience are deemed A Tier players and earn $25,500 per season. B Tier players earn $19,000 and C Tier players earn $13,000 per season.

While some NBA teams have figured out ways to augment those values through non-guaranteed NBA training camp deals, there is a sense that with D-League games being part of the new media rights deal, getting the owners to increase funding to the D-league is possible and could be a negotiating point.

Maximum Contracts

Again as a fundamental principal, the Players Association is opposed to anything that artificially suppresses contract values and earning potential, especially for those players sitting at the very top of the food chain.

With players like Chris Paul and LeBron James holding top level positions with the Players Association, there is a sense that addressing the maximum contract concept will happen.

Over the years, there was a sense that owners are not as in love with maximum contracts as you might think and that they would be willing to change that system in exchange for removing guarantees from contracts.

There is also a sense that the current maximum contract format doesn’t give nearly enough incentive for players to remain with the current team. These are all concepts that likely get discussed.

The realities of a max deal are that every player dreams of being able to secure one, but the largest swath of players in the NBA will never get close to one.

The rank and file in the NBA have concerns about there being no middle class in the NBA, and while the Players Association is led by the top earners, it will be interesting to see if maximum contracts get any serious attention.

From a public point of view, new leadership on the players’ side has said they are opposed to maximum limits. The question is how much are they willing to give up to change the system?

As of today, there are 517 players with contract money owed to them for the 2015-16 season. Of that group, 35 players are set to earn more than $15 million. There are 441 players set to earn $10 million or less next season. Of that number, 354 players will earn $5 million or less, and of that number, 259 players will earn $2.5 million or less next season.

So while addressing the idea of a maximum capped salary seems like a popular narrative, it is a negotiating point that effects the fewest number of players.

Reaching a labor deal is never easy, because there can be, at times, an adversarial approach that new leadership with the Players Union hopes to avoid. If cooler heads prevail, and an understanding that money lost in a labor fight usually affect the players more than the owners, a deal without lost games is possible. Time will tell if it’s probable.

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @AlexKennedyNBA, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @SusanBible @TommyBeer, @MokeHamilton , @JCameratoNBA, @iamdpick, @jblancartenba and @CodyTaylorNBA .

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

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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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.

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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.

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

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.

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