Did Bledsoe Set The Market?: As the players drafted in 2011 close in on their own deadlines to reach early contract extensions of their rookie scale deals, many around the league watched how the Eric Bledsoe restricted free agency drama played out in Phoenix closely. Bledsoe’s new five year, fully-guaranteed $70 million deal may set the bar for what some other players are looking for especially when you factor in Bledsoe’s injury history and production.
Here are the players eligible for extensions and where some of them may be headed:
2011 Draft position – Player Name (Team)
2 – Derrick Williams (Sacramento Kings)
It is unlikely that Williams is extended before the October 31 deadline for rookie scale extensions. Williams has never really lived up to his second overall pick status and while the Kings like him, they are unlikely to lock him in unless it’s a deal that’s a landslide in their favor. It’s more likely than not that Williams hits restricted free agency in July than gets a deal in October.
3 – Enes Kanter (Utah Jazz)
Like Williams, an extension for Kanter seems unlikely. The Jazz still are unsure where Kanter fits in the big picture and with a new coaching staff in place, Kanter will need to blow some people away this season or he could find himself on the trading block rather than in line for a big payday. His performance in camp could earn him a deal, but that’s unlikely given the premium placed on bigs. Kanter needs to have a solid season to land his big payday.
4 – Tristan Thompson (Cleveland Cavaliers)
Fresh off a $70 million deal with Phoenix, Thompson’s agency Klutch Sports will start in on the Cavs next. Word is there have not been any meaningful extension talks yet. It’s more likely that Thompson gets his deal next summer for a lot of reasons, but the biggest is this year Thompson could arguably cement himself into a real role with the Cavs and up his value. Given that Thompson is represented by the same agent as LeBron James, its pretty clear that unless Thompson really does poorly, he’ll get his new deal. The questions becomes how much and for how long and the answer to that might be best served after understanding where Thompson really fits into the new-look Cavs.
7 – Bismack Biyombo (Charlotte Hornets)
It is doubtful that Biyombo is extended; it’s more likely that he takes a trip through restricted free agency next summer and someone else sets his price. With so much uncertainty about the roster in Charlotte beyond this season – namely big man Al Jefferson’s pending free agency – locking in Biyombo to a larger deal doesn’t make a lot of sense.
8 – Brandon Knight (Milwaukee Bucks)
The Milwaukee Bucks like Brandon Knight, but view him as more of an off-guard. Clearly Knight’s camp uses Bledsoe’s number to re-enforce Knight as a $10-$12 million a year guard. That’s not likely a number Milwaukee buys in October, which means unless Knight’s price comes down to around the $7-$8 million a year range he’s headed to restricted free agency. The Bucks are in transition so unless an extension deal plays in their favor, they may wait out a deal for Knight.
9 – Kemba Walker (Charlotte Hornets)
If anyone’s price went up yesterday is was arguably Walker’s. Kemba put up similar numbers to Bledsoe last season and he is clearly a starting caliber guard on the rise. The question is will Charlotte ink a deal now and lock him in or do they wait and play things out in restricted free agency like Phoenix did with Bledsoe? There is risk that another team tacks an extra million or two on to the deal, much like Charlotte did with Gordon Hayward this summer. Given the similarities in their production Walker’s price likely comes in the $13-$14 million a season range today and that’s likely up a couple of million after the Bledsoe deal.
11 – Klay Thompson (Golden State Warriors)
Thompson’s camp had been talking max money before the Bledsoe deal, and with five years and $70 million being the bench mark for a top level scorer, Thompon’s position got a little stronger yesterday. The Warriors are saying all the right things about Thompson and wanting to keep him long-term, the questions is will they ink him to a max money, $16 million per year deal or will they try and get something done just under that before the October 31 deadline? If the Warriors let Thompson hit restricted free agency, it’s more likely than not that one of the 12-14 teams looking at hefty cap space put a big number on the table in July. So the issue for the Warriors is should they pay now or pay later? Like Bledsoe, the Warriors might get a near max deal done now. If Thompson has another solid season, the absolute max is more likely.
12 – Alec Burks (Utah Jazz)
Burks isn’t a likely candidate for an extension unless it’s on the cheap. This will be a big season for Burks to prove not only that he’s a bona fide starter, but that he’s worth investing in. With a new staff and a lot of competition for minutes Burks is going to have to stand out in a major way or he could not only be headed towards restricted free agency, he could be trade bait. The Jazz have some duplication and could look to carve out bigger roles for rookies like Dante Exum and Rodney Hood, both of which could see time at the two spot.
13 – Markieff Morris (Phoenix Suns)
This one is interesting, because Markieff is the one worth investing in, but the Morris twins have already floated the notion that they are a package deal. Phoenix likes Markieff, a lot, and doing an extension makes sense for the Suns, but only at the right price. As we saw with Eric Bledsoe, the Suns might let this flow into restricted free agency if only to see how he progresses. There is a thought that Markieff might emerge as a starter and that’s a totally different price for a player than a borderline starter, which is what he is today. The right price for Markieff might be the $9 million per year guys like Taj Gibson got in early extensions. However, with Bledsoe getting $14 million will the price go up appreciably or will the Suns reach a package deal and trim the annual cost on Markieff a little lower by getting something done with Marcus?
14 – Marcus Morris (Phoenix Suns)
As mentioned above there is a sense that both Morris twins want to stay together and do their deals as a package deal. Amusingly during the draft process in 2011, most thought Marcus would be the more dominating NBA prospect, however Markieff was drafted higher and it seems Markieff has emerged as the guy with starter’s potential. Marcus could likely earn more on a another team and carve out his own role somewhere else, but if the goal is to stay with his brother, he may have to take less to achieve that.
15 – Kawhi Leonard (San Antonio Spurs)
If Bledsoe got five years and $70 million, there is almost no scenario in which Kawhi Leonard doesn’t get max money or awfully close to it. The question is do the Spurs lock it now and keep things running smoothly, or do they let the possibility of restricted free agency seep into their locker room? The Spurs did a new deal with Tony Parker to close that door for him, so it seems inevitable that Leonard will get his deal before the October 31 deadline. Leverage for the team sort of goes out the window when a guy helps lead them to a championship and is named Finals MVP.
16 – Nikola Vučević (Orlando Magic)
This one is interesting because the Magic may be better suited waiting the season out and seeing how their team comes together, especially after giving Channing Frye four years and $32 million. Word is the numbers being kicked around with Vucevic are closer to four years and $40-$45 million; it’s unclear if that’s a deal that’s going to get done before the deadline. Vucevic is a heck of an offensive player, but he really leaves a lot to be desired on the defensive end. The Magic have the cash for the foreseeable future to pay Vucevic, so this isn’t a cap space issue. It’s a valuation issue and given how much the fans like Vucevic it might be foolish to not make a deal, especially if the Magic can get something done that gives them flexibility like a team option along the way.
17 – Iman Shumpert (New York Knicks)
It’s unlikely that Shumpert gets an extension. All the right things are being said by both Shumpert and the Knicks, but reaching an extension before the deadline is not expected. For Shumpert to have a real future with the Knicks he is going to have to prove he can be that big point guard Phil Jackson loves in the triangle. He’ll have to be a facilitator and knock down shots. If Shumpert can’t play the one for head coach Derek Fisher than he is battling for minutes with Tim Hardaway Jr and JR Smith and he may lose that battle as both are likely better two guards in the triangle than he is. For Shumpert’s part, he’s put in the work. He lived at IMG Academy in Bradenton for most of the summer and really tuned up his body, handle and jump shot. Shumpert will get his chance, but he has a lot to show before a new deal in New York becomes realistic.
19 – Tobias Harris (Orlando Magic)
Like Vucevic, the Magic may be best suited waiting out the season and seeing what comes together before investing in any of their players. Harris isn’t going to command crazy money, likely something in the $7-$9 million per year range. If that sounds excessive, keep in mind that Harris averaged 14.6 points and seven rebounds a game last season with 36 starts. Chandler Parsons averaged 16.6 points and 5.5 rebounds per game on 74 starts and landed a three year, $45 million deal. Harris is not viewed around the league like Parsons was, but impact scorers like Harris have gotten paid this summer. It’s believed that Harris would do a reasonable deal with Orlando to remove the burden of pending free agency, but his biggest payday might come as a restricted free agent after posting a strong season. The issue for Harris is there is a logjam at his position and if he falls out of favor for any reason his stock could decline. Harris is happy in Orlando, so there is room for a deal, but from a business point of view it may be better for all parties to see what the season brings.
22 – Kenneth Faried (Denver Nuggets)
Last summer Faried had told a group of players he was going to get a max extension. At the time that seemed laughable. Today, that seems a lot more realistic. Faired erupted late last season for the Nuggets and backed that up with a stellar showing for Team USA in the FIBA World Cup. If the Nuggets don’t get a deal done before the deadline, there is a real chance they will find themselves in a bidding war with a couple of the teams that will have more than $20 million in possible cap space next summer. It seems unlikely that Faried doesn’t get a max level offer as a restricted free agent, so do the Nuggets try and shave a little bit off a deal now, or do like they did with Ty Lawson and get Faried to defer a little cash down the road in exchange for a deal today. Lawson’s deal got done because he was willing to help the Nuggets out in the cash flow department. If Faried is willing to do the same, a deal likely gets done before the deadline and you can expect the deal to be north of $75 million.
24 – Reggie Jackson (Oklahoma City Thunder)
Jackson is an interesting one too. He wants to be a starter and there was talk all summer that Russell Westbrook may see a lot more time at the two guard spot with Jackson running the point. That lineup solved a lot of problems during the playoffs, and it would solve Jackson’s biggest hurdle of commanding a starter’s contract. The next part is will the Thunder do a deal before the deadline? With Bledsoe setting the ceiling for guards at likely $70 million, is Jackson worth $60 million and will the Thunder pay it? The Thunder are not opposed to extensions, in fact they are usually pretty aggressive in getting that discussion going so that contracts are not a distraction during the season. The smart money says Jackson gets his new deal and it’s a hefty agreement. The Thunder can’t afford to let another talented guard walk away and with Kevin Durant’s free agency just around the corner, locking guys in for a title run again makes the most sense both in the short term and the long term.
28 – Norris Cole (Miami HEAT)
Given where the HEAT are as a team, it’s more likely that Norris hits restricted free agency. The HEAT re-signed Mario Chalmers, so overpaying Cole might not be in the plans. This is likely a case of reaching a reasonable deal in an extension or waiting until July and seeing how the season plays out and what the market believe Norris is worth. Like some on this list, a strong showing could really change the financial landscape for Cole. He would be wise to wait it out rather than taking what his perceived value is today.
29 – Cory Joseph (San Antonio Spurs)
It’s highly unlikely that Joseph gets a deal before the deadline, unless it’s a landslide in San Antonio’s favor. Joseph hasn’t emerged enough yet to justify an extension, unless it’s on the cheap, which his camp may look at. The smart money says Joseph is a restricted free agent next season and both sides play it from there.
30 – Jimmy Butler (Chicago Bulls)
Butler is in a tough spot. He had a stellar season two years ago, which is likely a lot closer to his norm, but he posted a ho-hum season last year, logging a ton of minutes while playing through some nagging injuries that clearly affected his offensive game. The Bulls have been at the table, so there is a desire to get something done, but much like the Bulls did with Taj Gibson, they are trying to lock Butler in on the cheap side. For Butler, he could get a deal today if he wanted to sign one, but it would be based off what his value was last season, not on what his potential is going forward. Do you bet on yourself that you can get healthy and return to your norm, or do you take the security of a deal now? Butler could go either way. There are a number of teams that are going to have cap space, and if Butler logs a solid season he could see a $10-$12 million a year payday through restricted free agency. The Bulls like Butler a lot, especially on the defensive side of the ball. He may have to come into camp and prove that his offensive numbers can return to what they were two seasons ago and maybe he gets his deal. Both sides are talking, but to think that something is close really comes down to Butler and what kind of season he thinks he can have.
Teams have until October 31 to reach extensions on rookie scale contracts. If teams do not reach a deal, they will have the option to restrict a players’ free agency with a qualifying offer.
If you are curious what those numbers look like, checkout the Basketball Insiders salary database.
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NBA Daily: Ivica Zubac Rounding Into Form For Clippers
David Yapkowitz writes about Ivica Zubac and his strong bubble performances for the Los Angeles Clippers – is he the key for a deep postseason run?
The Los Angeles Clippers have no shortage of star power. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George form one of the most dangerous duos in the NBA, and both Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell are averaging close to 20 points a game each while coming off the bench.
But there is one player on the roster who might be the team’s X-Factor, one player who could hold the key to being able to withstand the imposing frontline of the Los Angeles Lakers – and that’s Ivica Zubac.
Zubac was once a Laker before he was casually tossed aside to the Clippers at last season’s trade deadline. He had shown flashes of his capabilities with the Lakers but spent most of his first couple of seasons in the league with the Lakers’ G League affiliate. Upon his arrival to the Clippers, he immediately became a key player and has since settled into the starting center role.
His arrival to the NBA’s restart bubble in Orlando was initially held up as he had tested positive for COVID-19. He has since joined the team after a mandatory quarantine period and is looking ready to help the team as they gear up for a playoff run.
He admitted that although he only experienced mild symptoms from the virus, he still felt winded and not quite up to speed as he tried to ease himself back into regular game flow.
“It’s much better, it’s much better than when I got here. I can feel it getting better with each practice, each game,” Zubac said on a recent conference call with media.
“After I first started getting back in shape, after I was cleared, I felt like I was out of shape. My chest was a little tighter when I would do some stuff. But I feel great right now. I don’t feel anything. I’m getting back into shape, I’m almost there. It’s going to take some more time.”
Zubac feeling like his old self again has been evident with each passing game. He started slow, only finishing with two points and three rebounds against the Lakers while being outworked by Anthony Davis. Against the New Orleans Pelicans, he looked a bit better, especially with his effort on the glass.
In the Clippers’ third game of the restart against the Phoenix Suns, Zubac put up 18 points and 12 rebounds while shooting 77 percent from the field. He followed that up with his best bubble game to date with 21 points on a perfect 10-for-10 shooting and 15 rebounds against the Dallas Mavericks.
Zubac equated his increased production with gradually regaining his conditioning and mobility and getting the feel again for regular game speed.
“I’m getting the feel, I’m starting to remember what guys like, what are the best spots on the court for me. My conditioning is getting better each practice, each game,” Zubac told media after the Mavericks game. “I’m feeling like I can stay on the floor for a while, I can run the floor, I can fight in the post with guys, I can rebound. Everything with my conditioning getting back, I can get on another level in every aspect of my game.”
Before his performance against the Mavericks, Zubac had a pretty solid game against the Suns – but the center was obviously still readjusting to his teammates and being able to make the right reads and be in the correct spots on the floor. He played solid defense on Deandre Ayton, but he also ended up having a costly turnover late in the game that set up Devin Booker’s eventual game-winner.
Following the Suns game, Clippers head coach Doc Rivers had mentioned there were a few areas that Zubac could use improvement in, and he was much more effusive in his praise after his performance against the Mavericks.
“He was phenomenal. We talked about it, he did all the things we needed, he really ran the floor, that didn’t show up statistically, but what it did, it created space, it created mismatches,” Rivers told media after the game.
“I loved that our guys were looking for him. I thought his rebounding was fantastic. Really coming off the way we ended the game the other day with Zu, then coming back, playing like that, that was fantastic for his confidence.”
Throughout the season, Zubac has been a player that doesn’t need the ball in his hands to be effective. He does have a soft touch around the rim and can establish a strong position in the post, but he does a lot of damage when he’s rolling to the rim, cutting and moving without the ball and catching lobs from his teammates.
He’s also a good rebounder who gets points off of offensive putbacks, and he’s a solid defender who acts as the team’s interior defensive anchor. He’s also usually on the bench at the end of games when Harrell is in with the starters. But depending on potential matchups, perhaps against the Denver Nuggets and Nikola Jokic, or even the Lakers and Davis, Zubac could find himself finishing some games.
What is certain though, is he’s proving his importance to the team and he’s showing that come playoff time, he could end up being the X-factor. He knows that his teammates are going to look for him and he’s ready for that.
“It’s just communication on the floor, knowing what Kawhi and P.G like, knowing how to get a better angle on a screen, just the plays we run, got to have a better understanding what’s good at the time. It’s mostly communication on the floor,” Zubac said. “It feels great to get rewarded by my teammates after doing all the hard work.”
Free Agency Update: Changes In The Bubble
Drew Maresca explores the free agency implications of the first week of play in the bubble as the NBA continues its return to post COVID-19 play.
Free agency is always a fun time for the NBA and its fans, but particularly so in 2020. Most free agents have usually earned their next deal by the 65th game of any given season – but this year is far from typical. Instead, the NBA has returned, sans its eight worst teams, meaning that competition is consistently better. And with limited competition for our attention, every game is a major event that draws more eyes and has a greater effect on the paydays of to-be free agents.
We’re still only three or four games into the official return of the NBA, but there have already been some changes to how we perceive some players. Take T.J. Warren, for example, who’s averaging over 39.7 points per game through three contests. Or Michael Porter Jr., who looks more like the focal point of a team than a player in his first year of professional action.
This article will focus explicitly on the changes in perception of free agents to-be as a result of their play in the bubble in Orlando. We understand that the players listed below can still hurt their standings and that teams rate free agents differently. While the sample size is small, we’ve seen deals made based on an equally small body of work (e.g., Jerome James to the New York Knicks).
One caveat to keep in mind is the unprecedented fiscal challenges facing the NBA and its club in 2020. Not only will the COVID-19 pandemic inevitably hurt the 2020-21 salary cap, but there’s also still a conclusion to be had with the preseason China situation.
With all of that in mind, let’s explore the players that have made the loudest cases for a payday come this offseason.
Mike Conley Jr., Utah Jazz – Player Option
Conley Jr. has a player option for 2020-21 – but he played poorly enough through March, relative to what we’ve come to expect from him, that it was more than reasonable to assume he would opt-in at $34.5 million.
But wait, there’s a chance that Conley does us all a favor and makes free agency 2020 more interesting. Conley’s averaged 19.8 points and 5.8 assists per game, way, way up from 13.8 points and 4.3 assists per game prior to the stoppage in March. If Conley keeps this going – and especially if he performs well in the playoffs – he might want to test the market considering the lack of elite talent that’s anticipated to hit it – assuming he’s unhappy in Utah, that is.
Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans – RFA
Ingram’s looked similar to the guy we saw in 2019-20 before the play stoppage – he’s averaging 23.5 points and 7.5 rebounds per game when playing 30 or more minutes. While he was less effective in a loss against the Clippers (14 points and two rebounds in 24 minutes), he’s demonstrated growth in how decisively he makes his move and how seamlessly he then scores on the move.
Ingram was probably going to get max offer as of the All-Star break – especially after reaching his first All-Star team at 22 – but COVID-19 probably altered the ability for teams to dole out lucrative deals. But then play resumed and Ingram picked up right where he left off – and with a confidence to use it liberally. Ingram is nearly a lock for a max deal now.
Fred VanVleet, Toronto Raptors – UFA
VanVleet started off his time in the bubble with a solid performance (13 points and 11 assists), but he really showed out in his second game against the Miami HEAT. VanVleet led the Raptors to a win against Miami with a career-high 36 points. And then he got right back to being Mr. Consistent for Toronto by posting 21 points and 10 assists in a win against Orlando.
So ultimately, VanVleet has led the Raptors to a 3-0 (re)start, and he’s either scored a career-high or dropped 10-plus assists. James Dolan and Leon Rose are somewhere together – albeit socially distanced, we’re sure – drooling – as are all of the teams in need of a lead guard, like Detroit. VanVleet can only increase his value from here. He’s not assumed to be a max-level player, but if he plays well enough through the playoffs, it’ll be interesting to see just how high he can reach.
DeMar DeRozan, San Antonio Spurs – Player Option
It’s hard to imagine DeRozan’s value increasing much at this point in his career. After all, he’s an 11-year veteran that has been named to the All-Star Game four times and an All-NBA team twice.
But still, there’s always been presumed limitations to his game, namely his inability to shoot three-pointers. Since being traded to San Antonio, he’s fallen out of the national spotlight a bit. As a 31-year-old capable of reaching unrestricted free agency, DeRozan is at a major inflection point in his career. He could attempt to a final big deal or snag a smaller one if the market for his services doesn’t meet expectations. Or he could just opt-in.
But DeRozan has done his part to remind everyone that he has loads of high-quality basketball left in him. He tallied 30 points on 11-for-20 shooting on Tuesday in a close loss to the 76ers and he’s averaged 22.3 points, 7.3 assists and 4.8 rebounds per game since the Spurs resumed play last Friday. While those averaged mostly coincide with what he did this season, it also represents a decent boost in assists. But more importantly, it solidifies that DeRozan should still receive a serious look as a lead star. And he’ll probably get interest from a number of teams.
The Known Commodities
Marcus Morris Sr., Los Angeles Clippers – UFA
While Morris Sr. is a known commodity, teams could use additional poor performances against him in negotiations. He’ll probably still have the option to sign for a veterans minimum or mid-level exception with a contender like the Clippers or Lakers. But if he’s eyeing another payday that pays him an annual salary equal to what he made in 2019-20, it would behoove him to make his mark on the stat book.
Making A Case
Trey Burke, Dallas Mavericks – UFA
Burke hasn’t been overly consistent since NBA play resumed last week. But he did have a huge breakout game against the Rockets, scoring 31 points on 8-for-10 for three-pointers in only 30 minutes, while also dishing six assists.
Yes, Burke is averaging just 5.5 points in 18 minutes in the two games since, but the fact that he scored 31 in an NBA game will be enough to get looks as an off-the-bench scorer. And it’s a narrative that can be supported by his past work, too. Remember, Burke is still just 27-years-old and he has a 42-point career-high. He’s also exploded for 30 four times and eclipsed the 20-point mark on 38 occasions in his 389 career games. So even if it’s just a reminder, it’s good to know that Burke can still get it done offensively – and teams are always looking for ways to manufacture offense.
Jordan Clarkson, Utah Jazz – UFA
Clarkson’s shot only 40 percent from the field since play resumed last Thursday, with an even worse 20 percent from three-point range. Still, scorers are as valuable as ever. It’s what made J.R. Smith so much money in this league, as well as Lou Williams and countless others – and rightfully so. Ultimately, it’s about putting the ball in the hoop. And with that being said, a franchise is going to pay Clarkson and they’ll end up paying more than they would have as of March.
Reggie Jackson, Los Angeles Clippers – UFA
Jackson has less to prove than most guys in this part of this list – but given his injury history, he does have to make a statement.
On the whole, Jackson has looked good – but not necessarily great. He averaged 12.5 points, seven rebounds and two assists in his first two contests, but he regressed in the Clippers’ most recent game against the Suns. But on a positive note, Jackson received only 23 minutes on Tuesday versus Phoenix and his 15 points on 5-for-9 shooting, eight rebounds, two assists and two steals accumulated in just 20 minutes.
If Jackson continues to be a contributor to the contending Clippers, someone will overspend on him. After all, good point guards are few and far between.
Harry Giles III, Sacramento Kings – UFA
Giles III only played four minutes in the Kings’ first game back against the Spurs and he didn’t fare much better over 12:55 versus the Mavericks on Tuesday. But when you’re a fringe player that had injury concerns throughout your young career, any positive outings are good – especially those that come in a contract year. Giles tallied 23 points and eight rebounds in only 20 minutes against the Orlando Magic – a significant jump from his 7.2 points and 4.2 rebounds averages this season. And that’s probably enough to generate interest amongst a number of teams.
The Kings curiously declined Giles’ fourth-year option, making him an unrestricted free agent as of the end of this season. That’s an interesting decision because the option was relatively cheap given that he was only the No. 20 overall pick (2017). Further confusing matters is the idea that by passing on the fourth-year option, they also lost matching rights – so Giles won’t even be restricted.
To make matters worse, the Kings can’t even bid more than $3.9 million to retain his services. So the Kings ultimately wasted a first-round draft pick on Giles for a grand total of 14.5 minutes per game across 99 games – and he’ll walk before they even know what they had in him.
But this all works out nicely for Giles, who will absolutely get an opportunity elsewhere – and he’ll be paid more than he would have received in Sacramento for it. How good is still an unknown, but he’s shown enough for a team to take a flyer on considering his size, skill set and versatility. He was the No. 1 overall recruit coming out of high school according to ESPN just four short years ago.
Free agency is going to be different than ever before and, up until very recently, that was assumed to be a bad thing. But with some of the above players changing the narratives around them, it could become even more exciting than it’s been in the recent past. Add in the likes of DeMarcus Cousins, Davis Bertans, Christian Wood – and we’re looking at an under-appreciated free-agent class.
NBA Daily: Breaking Down The Bubble’s Race For 8th
Ben Nadeau analyzes the race for the No. 8 and 9 spots in the Western Conference – who will make the cut?
As the NBA inched toward its inevitable rebirth, the instant drama surrounding the Western Conference’s No. 8 seed became a conversation wildfire.
Was the league rolling out the red carpet in hopes of a Zion Williamson-LeBron James showdown in the first round? Could the healthier Portland Trail Blazers make another historic run toward history? De’Aaron Fox, the Sacramento franchise cornerstone, took umbrage over a lack of Kings-related faith, while the Memphis Grizzlies had more than enough ground to protect their standing in the current hierarchy.
Three or so games in to our bubbled adventure, everything has changed – and fast.
The Pelicans, still worrisome over Williamson’s health and conditioning, played him about 15 minutes in each of their first two contests – coincidently, New Orleans went 0-2. With their backs against the wall and slowly losing traction in a muddied race, the Pelicans played the future superstar for 25 minutes, where he racked up 23 points, seven rebounds and used a personal 6-0 run to clinch a much-needed win. Not only did the victory signify an important swing in momentum for the veteran-laden squad, but it was another crushing defeat for Grizzlies, who fell to 0-3 and further loosened their once-gridlocked hold on the final playoff seed.
Long perceived to be a five-team fight for the right to face Memphis in the play-in game(s), the Grizzlies’ early struggles have now nearly opened both spots up. All the more interesting, the San Antonio Spurs have begun 2-1, alongside the Phoenix Suns’ 2-0 effort. Although invited without much media afterthought, both the Spurs and Suns – who boast two of the most reliable constants of the bunch, Gregg Popovich and Devin Booker, respectively – are within the four-game window needed to force a play-in too.
So then: Thanks to the Grizzlies’ scuffles, who’ll be the two franchises to reach that play-in showdown?
Let’s start with the Pelicans, a team that’ll be better the more Williamson is allowed on the floor, obviously. While that variable remains up in the air, New Orleans’ remaining schedule is not. They’ll finish with the Kings twice, plus winnable matchups against the Spurs, Wizards and Magic. Although that opening day loss versus Utah stings, there’s no shame in falling to the Clippers, so the opportunity is certainly still there for the Pelicans to reach Nos. 8 or 9 in the coming days.
The Spurs, following a hard-fought effort against Philadelphia on Monday, unfortunately, have a much harder path forward: Denver, Utah, New Orleans, Houston and Utah. No Magic, no Nets, no Kings, even. Just New Orleans and three teams currently fighting for ‘home court’ advantage in the first round. Of course, betting against Gregg Popovich is beyond stupid and that is a lesson some select few must re-learn every spring – but they still seem like the least likely of six to leapfrog into a spot.
Likewise, it isn’t much better for Phoenix. They’ll conclude with the Clippers, Indiana Pacers and T.J. Warren’s supernova act, Miami HEAT, Oklahoma City Thunder, Philadelphia 76ers and Dallas Mavericks. Thankfully, Mikal Bridges’ efforts in Orlando and Ricky Rubio’s trusty playmaking have served as great foils for Deandre Ayton and the aforementioned Booker. Overall, their offensive rating just cracks the top half (15th, 110.4) and their defense remains in the lower half – but stars win games and Booker fits the bill.
Even the Kings, losers to the Spurs and Magic to open their bubble campaign, get the Pelicans twice but also a downright bad Brooklyn Nets squad and a potentially-resting Los Angeles Lakers team in four of their final five games – so don’t count them out either. With their destiny firmly in hand, expect the Kings to make a run of their own. Fox put up 39 points against San Antonio before tallying just 13 versus Orlando – and, in the latter, Sacramento’s only scorer above 15 went to Harry Giles’ 23. Given the context and a very winnable schedule, the next week or so bodes well for the Kings’ hopes.
As for Portland, the squad with the most bankable 1-2 punch of the collection, have an impossibly-tough Rockets-Nuggets-Clippers-76ers run-in before ending with the Mavericks and Nets. Worse, that stretch of difficult opposition will come fast and furious – a classic three games in four days slog. But above all, their defense leaves too much to be desired, even with the return of Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins. Before the shutdown, Portland’s defense was only better than the Atlanta Hawks, Cleveland Cavaliers and Washington Wizards at 113.6 in the ratings department.
In the two games back, well, it’s actually been even worse and their putrid 132.0 defensive rating is a whopping 7 points behind the Kings’ 29th-rated unit. It’s early and the sample size is certainly small – but with only six games left, they’ll need to figure it out in the against some of the league’s best. Still, Damian Lillard is a big-moment killer – he did, after all, break up the Thunder core on his own last April – and he’s capable of hot streaks that few others are.
Lillard and Nurkic put up 30 points apiece against Boston – plus 17 from CJ McCollum and 21 notched by Gary Trent Jr. – and totaled 124 as a team… yet it still wasn’t enough. The heroics of Portland’s stars will be relentless, but if they can’t stop the opposition – they’ll come up short.
In the end, even guessing at Nos. 8 and 9 is a fool’s errand. The Bubble has provided shock after shock already – and the added hurdle of rested players for locked-in seeds are soon to come – but six teams will be whittled down to two before long. Despite the slow start, Memphis remains in the driver’s seat – if they can pick up a win on Wednesday versus a seriously-slumping Jazz side, it’ll go a long way toward clinching their place.
And they’d better hope so: If they don’t, they’ll need to hope for some load management with the Thunder, Raptors, Celtics and Bucks to end the mini-campaign. It’s one of the tougher schedules left in the Western Conference, but their cushion, no matter how rapidly it is shrinking, is still reason to believe they’ll limp into the do-or-die scenario.
As for the second spot, it still feels like the Pelicans’ to lose. Between Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball, JJ Redick, Brandon Ingram and, duh, Williamson, there’s too much firepower here to completely struggle through an easier-than-most schedule.
But, sure, bet against Gregg Popovich, Damian Lillard, De’Aaron Fox and Devin Booker at your own risk – conventional wisdom suggests that at least one of them will crash the party, no matter how unlikely it seems today.