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NBA AM: Is Kevin Love Headed To The Lakers?

Are reports of Kevin Love heading the Lakers in July, legit? Doesn’t seem like it….

Steve Kyler

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Love And The Lakers?:  Yesterday, long-time NBA writer Sam Smith dropped a column over at Bulls.com suggesting a large number of “possibilities.” One of them was that Lakers guard Kobe Bryant could opt for a win-now situation and force a trade versus the dreadful rebuild he is surrounded with in LA. This comes after Kobe himself said he wasn’t going anywhere and that with his “no-trade” clause in his contract he was staying where he was.

The second one, and the one that’s caused the biggest commotion, was the notion that Cavaliers forward Kevin Love would be opting out of his contract in July and strongly considering the Lakers in free agency.

This is hardly a new storyline, as the idea of Love heading to LA has been popular among the fan base and the media for years. The problem is while the story doesn’t imply that it’s a done deal, that’s how it’s being read mainly because many, especially those in LA, are hoping for a major free agent to do exactly what Smith is suggesting: jump ship to the Lakers.

Now before the dream is completely ruined, let’s look at the facts.

Love has one more year remaining on his contract after this one. It’s a player option, so he can choose to become a free agent in July if he wants to. He is not obligated to stay in or to opt out; it’s entirely his choice.

Love has made it pretty clear to all involved that he’d be opting out in July and signing a new long-term deal, which is one of the key reasons the Timberwolves traded him. There were reports when the Cavs trade went down that Love and the Cavaliers had already thoroughly discussed what a new contract would likely need to look like and all parties agreed on that idea. Neither side can make a firm commitment to each other beyond what’s written, but according to all accounts Cavs forward LeBron James played middleman on this and made sure that Love knew exactly what the Cavs would offer him in July, just as the Cavs knew exactly what Love was thinking before they traded for him.

You can say “wink-nod” and that’s likely a good characterization. The Cavs knew when they traded for Love what was going to need to happen to keep him.

So let’s talk about Love.

Carefully and artfully, Love has stayed mostly non-committal about his future beyond his current deal. He has said all the right things about Cleveland, the Cavs and the opportunity in front of him. However, he has a back door if this doesn’t go as he wants it to.

Sources close to Love on the business side were somewhat puzzled by the Smith report, saying that leaving Cleveland has never been discussed. Love is in the middle of several endorsement transactions and all of them are built around the idea of him being in Cleveland and playing with LeBron.

That doesn’t mean anything more than Love and his partners are planning around the exposure the Cavs are currently getting, and all of those kinds of deals account for Love having options in July. However, if he has hinted to anyone that he’s headed to the Lakers, he hasn’t told any of his business partners that are crafting advertising campaigns around him about it.

That’s not in and of itself anything special, as most business partners are in the dark on free agency until that gets closer, mainly because they don’t have to be involved. It is notable in the context of the idea that “he’s decided.” That seems to be the furthest from where things are at now.

According to the same source who is talking with Love routinely, he seems fairly happy with what’s going on around him in Cleveland. The chance to play on a big stage and compete for a championship is very appealing to him. While Love does have options in July, it does not seem like he plans to do anything more than cash in on what’s likely going to be his most successful season as a pro. Now if things go toxically bad in the coming months, or he becomes marginalized in the process, maybe he looks for a new situation, but it seems highly unlikely that Love is going anywhere in July.

The lone caveat here is a lot of people thought the same thing about James this time last year and he is back in Cleveland, so you can never say never. However in this case, the story doesn’t seem to line up with the facts.

Disabled Player Exceptions:  The LA Lakers were awarded a Disabled Player Exception for rookie Julius Randle, who broke his leg during the first game of the season and will miss the balance of the season. The DPE, as it’s commonly called, is worth $1.5 million and can be used by the Lakers to sign or trade for a replacement player with a salary valued around $1.5 million. The exception cannot be used in combination with other exceptions or roster players, but is a significant asset for the Lakers to add to the team.

This particular DPE must be used by March 10, so there is no urgency for the Lakers to use it. Equally, the Lakers roster currently stands at 15 players, so to use the DPE they would have to clear a roster spot by either trading away a player for nothing in return or cutting someone from the roster to create room.

As news of the Randel DPE surfaced, questions regarding the status of guard Steve Nash surfaced. Like Randle, Nash has been ruled out for the season due to nerve issues in his back with many under the belief that the Lakers had applied for DPE on Nash’s contract too.

The problem there is that the Lakers have been somewhat vague on Nash’s status going forward and it’s unclear if the Lakers have indeed applied for a DPE on Nash.

Equally, the NBA’s process for awarding DPE’s is extremely subjective. They look at each situation independently and while the Lakers and Nash may say he is finished for the season, an independent doctor has to agree with that assessment and then the NBA has to rule if this situation merits awarding of an additional salary cap asset.

The NBA tends to be conservative in awarding teams assets on things that may or may not be cut and dry. Randle for instance has a broken leg and it happened in the first game of the season, that’s almost as black and white as you can get. However, Nash’s situation is far murkier. Nash has had injury issues for last two years, and there was talk that the Lakers were going to use the Collective Bargaining Agreement’s “stretch” provision on Nash to release him and spread his contract payments over the next three seasons, however they opted to keep him. He is now being ruled out for the year. Should the Lakers get a $4.5 million DPE as a result?

Laker fans would say absolutely. Nash has been a bad penny since the day he arrived. Getting a $4.5 million DPE is a solid trade asset. The problem is some would argue that’s exactly why the Laker’s didn’t “stretch” Nash this summer, opting to eat his final contract year hoping to get a DPE for their efforts.

This will come down to what did the Lakers know, and when did they know it and is Nash legitimately done. The DPE is designed to allow a team to replace a player who was going to play. If the Lakers knew Nash couldn’t play this year that might block the award of a DPE. It’s a subjective process.

That concept might not sit well with fans, but the league doesn’t give you an asset today for something you knew was broken last year. So again, what did the Lakers know and when did they know it?

With the Randle DPE in place, it’s expected that Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak is going to be pressed on Nash’s status and whether he did actually apply for the DPE. Kupchak has been vague on this subject, despite being much more direct about Randle.

It’s also important to point out that if the Lakers haven’t applied for a Nash DPE yet, they can do that at any point.

If the Lakers do not gain a DPE on Nash, all is not lost. Nash is in the final year of his contract and is scheduled to earn $9.7 million, which could be a sizable trade chip especially closer to the trade deadline in February when the Lakers will have paid roughly 70 percent of the deal.

The Nash situation seems like it is still playing out, with a lot of details still to be determined.

Landing the Randle DPE gives the Lakers some options, and it seems they are going to weigh them, so don’t expect anything immediate on the Laker front with that new asset.

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, @JabariDavisNBA , @NateDuncanNBA , @MokeHamilton , @JCameratoNBA and @YannisNBA.

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.

Bobby Krivitsky

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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.

Drew Maresca

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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

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.

Matt John

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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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