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NBA AM: The 2015 Free Agent Wish List

As many as 21 NBA teams could dip below the projected 2015 $67.3 million salary cap, and as many as 11 of them could have $18 million or more to play with; who are they targeting?… Is Michele Roberts in over her head? Seems that way.

Steve Kyler

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The Free Agent Wish List:  While NBA free agency is miles away for most teams, there is an ever-growing sense that some of the projected cap teams already have their eye on a few targets. As things stand today, as many as 21 NBA teams could dip below the projected 2015 $67.3 million salary cap, and as many as 11 of them could have $18 million or more to play with in the market, depending on how they handle their options and cap holds.

While free agent targets are always subject to change, here are some of the names league and team sources peg as prime free agent targets for the major cap players this summer:

Philadelphia 76ers – Best Case $35.41 million

Despite eating JaVale McGee’s contract for next season as part of a buyout, the 76ers will again sit atop the NBA in the most cap space department. They’ll have a few draft picks that eat into that number, but the Sixers are poised to have the most cash to spend and surprisingly, next season might be when they spend some of it.

There is a sense that the Sixers are going to look at some of the promising young free agents, especially some of the guys hitting restricted free agency – Jimmy Butler (Chicago), Tobias Harris (Orlando) and Reggie Jackson (Detroit). There also is a sense that the 76ers could be one of the teams that makes a pass at Greg Monroe.

The problem for the 76ers in free agency is that they are so far away from competing for anything that it’s hard to imagine a free agent chooses them when there are potentially so many other options available in July.

Maybe it’s good news that the Sixers are going to explore free agency; they have the cash to make some crazy offers, the question is will they get anyone with it?

New York Knicks – Best Case $27.69 million

The Knicks have a laundry list of guys they’d love to sign, the top being Memphis big man Marc Gasol. The odds that Marc is leaving Memphis are pretty low, so the next tier includes Detroit big man Greg Monroe, Butler from Chicago and Harris from Orlando.

The dark horses for the Knicks are Dallas’ Rajon Rondo, Cleveland’s Kevin Love, Portland’s LaMarcus Aldridge and Detroit’s Reggie Jackson.

With likely less than $27 million to play with, the Knicks won’t get to two max offers, so it’s likely one max offer between $15.9 million and $19 million – depending on the player’s service years in the NBA – and one more between $8 million to $10 million to another.

As much as Knicks fans were hoping for a huge swing in free agency, the Knicks won’t have the cash to make two max offers, which means they may not get two gems in July, rather maybe a gem and a half and solid draft pick. That’s still better than most, but there looks to be a lot of cap cash out there this year, so the Knicks will have competition.

Detroit Pistons – Best Case $26.47 million

The Pistons are going to have cash to play with. You might not realize it because they have two of the bigger names in the 2015 Free Agent class in Jackson and Monroe, but the Pistons hold Bird Rights on both and could simply carry their respective cap holds into free agency, spend their free agent cash and then sign those Bird Righted players and exceed the cap.

As things sit today, the Pistons have guaranteed money to Josh Smith ($5.4m cap hit from buyout), Brandon Jennings ($8.34m), Jodie Meeks ($6.27m), Kentavious Caldwell-Pope ($2.89m), Andre Drummond ($3.27m) and Spencer Dinwiddie ($845k). All in all, that’s roughly $27 million in firm commitments, and they have a partial guarantee of $400k on Anthony Tolliver, Cartier Martin has a player options worth $1.27m and a cap hold on Jackson worth $5.5 million. They will likely carry five incomplete roster charges worth $525K each, for a grand total of $39.695 million if Monroe walks away.

Without Monroe’s cap hold of $10.4 million, the Pistons could have as much as $27.6 million in free cash to play with before having to ink Jackson, which they could do after reaching the cap line and then exceed it with Jackson’s deal.

Plug Monroe’s hold into the equations and the Pistons have $17.2 million to play with and can then exceed the cap to max out Monroe and Jackson if they choose to.

With $27 million to play with, the Pistons become max offer sheet players for virtually the entire class; Butler, Harris, Rondo or even Gasol. If Monroe opts to stick around, the list of options shrinks a little as the Pistons wouldn’t have a max offer slot, but $17 million is nothing to sniff at – that’s real money in a market that could have a lot of veteran supporting players.

As the math illustrates, there is a dark horse in 2015 free agent race and it might be the Pistons.

Portland Trail Blazers – Best Case $25.57 million

The Blazers are not in the same boat as the Pistons, simply because the cap holds their free agents have against the cap. LaMarcus Aldridge has a $17.695 million hold, Wes Matthews has a $10.868 million hold and Robin Lopez has a $9.187 million hold. A quick run of the math and that’s $37.75 million in cap holds to existing guys and another $23.073 million in guaranteed commitments. Combined, that’s $60.82 million.

The Blazers will have some cap space, likely closer to $6.4 million, unless they start renouncing guys.

That’s also not accounting for Joel Freeland’s $7.5 million hold, which is far more than he’s really worth to the team, so either the Blazers sign him quickly to a lower number or renounce him outright.

The prevailing thought is Aldridge is signing a new max deal this summer, and that can be the last transaction they complete so they can exceed the cap with Aldridge’s deal. The questions is what are Matthews and Lopez worth going forward and does either unrestricted free agent opt for greener pastures or different teams?

If either walks, their respective cap hold becomes usable space, so is $17.345 million in space worth more than Matthews is?

At $6.4 million, the Blazers are fringe cap players at best. With $17.345 million, they could be players and still exceed the cap to keep Aldridge and Lopez.

While on the surface it looks like the Blazers have space, the only way they get there is to renounce someone or have someone walk away from them.

Atlanta Hawks – Best Case $25.513 million

The Hawks have two cap holds that matter: unrestricted free agents Paul Millsap ($12.35m) and DeMarre Carroll ($3.175). Add those number to $39.276 million in guarantees and the Hawks have closer to $54.801 million against the cap, or about $12.44 million to play with.

It’s unlikely they lose Millsap to free agency since the Hawks can give him a max valued contract. Millsap doesn’t have full Bird Rights, but his Early Bird rights get him to the max level.

Carroll is a different story, as he too is an Early Bird free agent, but only eligible to receive 175 percent of his $2.44 million 2014 salary, which works out to $4.27 million in an exceed the cap scenario. Unless the Hawks opt to use cap space to re-sign him, they don’t have the same luxury as they do with Millsap, where they can do his deal last and push over the cap.

The Hawks have had eyes on an elite small forward type and there is a sense that Carroll might be out in July for economic reasons, meaning the Hawks may have his cap hold out of the way and maybe $15 million in space to play with.

That’s not enough to get into the Leonard or Butler game, but might be enough to get into the Harris game or pursue guys like Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton or Golden State’s Draymond Green.

The Hawks may have to fend off suitors for Millsap, but there is a sense that Paul is happy in Atlanta and wants to stay long-term.

Dallas Mavericks – Best Case $24.61 million

On paper the Mavericks could have cap space, but in reality they may not get anywhere close.

The Mavericks have two big cap holds to deal with, the first being Tyson Chandler ($20.64m) and the second Rajon Rondo ($16.44m). If the Mavericks want space, they have to do a deal with at least Chandler first and sign him to a new deal significantly less than his hold or they have nothing to work with.

Rondo is expected to demand a max contract, which league sources say he’s unlikely to get in a full offer kind of way, suggesting a team might go max dollars on a smaller-year deal. Dallas has said they want to keep him and see him as a long-term fit; however, there is real doubt that’s a smart move.

The big wrinkle for the Mavericks is Monta Ellis, as sources close to the situation believe Ellis will opt out of his deal this summer and seek a new multi-year deal based on his current play.

Given everything the Mavericks have to work around, it’s hard to imagine Dallas is a cap player unless they say no thanks to both Chandler and Rondo – in that scenario they could have a lot to play with and deal with Ellis after they sign free agents.

Boston Celtics – Best Case $22.57 million

The Celtics have a ton of cash and are geared up to use it. Target number one is Kevin Love. Target number two is Greg Monroe.

Sources close to the process say the Celtics plan to swing for the proverbial fences this summer including runs at Gasol, Leonard and Butler too.

With a roster jammed with young guys, there is also a sense that Boston would be open to a sign-and-trade if they can get someone to take an offer as a means to avoid to the matching game and potentially open up more space.

The Celtics also have the pieces to move off money if they can get two guys to commit verbally.

The Celtics’ cap situation is pretty straight forward, as they have a couple of major cap holds that they are likely to renounce: Brandon Bass ($10.35m), Jonas Jerebko ($8.5m) and Luigi Datome ($2.275m).

The sense is that the Celtics may do a new deal with Brandon Bass at a significantly lower value than his cap hold, while Jerebko and Datome are renounced.

The Celtics have $40.406 million in guaranteed contracts and will likely carry three incomplete charges worth about $1.5 million, so in real money the C’s may have almost $25 million to play with. That’s enough for a max offer to almost anyone, hence why the Celtics have high hopes on a marquee name.

San Antonio Spurs – Best Case $22.27 million

The Spurs opted not to do an extension with Kawhi Leonard in order to keep their cap space open this summer. Leonard carries a cap hold of $7.235 million, so even if the Spurs give him a max deal, they can do that last and exceed the cap.

The big challenge for the Spurs is the status of Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili, who both carry big cap holds: $15.542 million for Duncan and $10.5 million for Ginobilli.

Other notables in the cap hold department are Danny Green ($7.647m), Marco Belinelli ($3.735m) and Cory Joseph ($5.058m). In terms of guaranteed money, the Spurs have $34,159 million. So the questions for the Spurs is who stays and who goes as it relates to usable space?

If Duncan calls it a career, so likely does Ginobili.

The Spurs have a target list and it includes many of the same names other teams like – Gasol being the biggest of the bunch.

The Spurs’ plan to be at Gasol’s doorstep at 12:01 on July 1, with the offer to be part of the future of the Spurs.

The Spurs were also believed to be the team with the most interest in Monroe last summer.

So who the Spurs hang on to rights-wise might also be tied to how free agents answer their overtures.

LA Lakers – Best Case $19.45 million

And then there’s the Lakers. They could have more than the $19 million mentioned above, assuming they do not pick up the $9 million option on Jordan Hill.

Here is how the math works: The Lakers have four players under guaranteed contracts – Kobe Bryant ($25m), Nick Young ($5.219m), Julius Randle ($3.123m) and Ryan Kelly ($1.724m), so that’s $35.07 million in firm commits. The Lakers will carry what looks to be nine incomplete roster charges for $4.725 million which gives you a grand total of $39.8 million or about $27.5 million.

That assumes not picking up the option on Hill, Ed Davis not excercising his option to stay and the Lakers passing on Robert Sacre, Jordan Clarkson (doubtful) and Tarik Black.

That also does not include a roster charge for the draft pick, which we’ll call $4.5 million as a place holder.

So real money, let’s peg the Lakers at $22.1 million to play with, that’s enough for one serious max contract to an established veteran like Monroe, Rondo or Love – and all three are said to be willing to meet with the Lakers this summer.

The Lakers could also be the team that sets the price on Butler, Harris and makes things interesting for Middleton in Milwaukee.

There has been talk of Marc Gasol; however, that’s viewed as a long shot. The Lakers could try to tempt LaMarcus Aldridge out of Portland, but that’s, again, another long shot.

The Lakers are also linked to Jackson in Detroit and even Brandon Knight in Phoenix.

In short, there isn’t a free agent name the Lakers haven’t been linked to; the problem is they may not have the cap cash to get more than one of them.

Important to note that best case projections, unless defined differently, account for all guaranteed money owed next season and do not account for cap holds, incomplete cap charges or draft picks.

In Over Your Head:  I am going to start here… I don’t know Michele Roberts, the new executive director of the NBA Players Association. I have never met her, never stood in the same room with her. I have never seen her at a game or an NBA event I have covered.

I don’t think that distinction makes either one of us unique, only that I only know what others have told me about her, and apparently all she knows about me is what she’s gleaned from the few random encounters she has had in NBA locker rooms with people who do what I do.

However, like many things since taking the job of overseeing the players’ side of things for the union, she continues to illustrate over and over how little she knows about the topics she comments on, and how little care she has for what’s gotten all of us – the sport, the players and the media – to this point.

Her first foray into uncharted and uninformed territory was the notion that the NBA shouldn’t have a salary cap.

On the surface and philosophically, that sounds like something that should be talked about, but if the last two labor fights taught us anything, it’s that the NBA needs to be capped for a hundred reasons that have allowed the game to grow. I could write that one off as a rookie mistake, it’s something her constituents want to hear and it was likely a warning shot to the other side that she’s not going to accept the status quo. There is a new sheriff in town and she made it clear that she wanted change.

Naïve. Mostly uninformed. But okay.

The second was attacking the notion of an age limit in the NBA.

Again, a hot button topic that gets fans excited. It’s a concept that gets your name in the press. Again, it lashes back at an established process in a philosophical way.

It completely ignores that the players as a body are not prepared to leave a single dollar on the table to fight to abolish the age limit. Rolling back the age limit is going to cost more in concessions than it is ever worth. The players historically fought the good fight out of principal, but trying to go toe-to-toe over the age limit is a losing proposition because while everyone talks about it, no one is willing to pay for it.

Again, naïve.

We’d all love for it to be 72 degrees and sunny every day of the year, and philosophically that’s a great idea. Practically, the grown-ups understand that’s not remotely possible, even in Southern California.

The latest attack is on the media.

We’re easy targets. This one isn’t hard to see. But like many of the things Roberts has taken aim at, she eventually acknowledged how little she really knows or understands of the processes that got us here.

The media, in a general way, is under siege. There are more and more voices in the space. Newspapers are contracting and rolling back costs. Media outlets favor gossip and drama over hard news and facts.

Players have become indignant toward the media and have the own channels to explain themselves, whether that’s Twitter, Instagram or their own blogs.

Agent run publications like The Players Tribune give players the ability to tell their own unedited narrative of things and that’s not changing any time soon and let’s not even get into what the teams are doing with their own websites.

If there was ever a time where the voice of the people, and that’s what the media is supposed to be, is at its weakest it might be now, and Roberts took aim at the very rules that help us tell her side of the story. And when I say her side, I mean to say the players’ side.

What’s lost in Roberts’ latest rant is if she got what she originally suggested – less access for media – then there would be less media. Newspapers wouldn’t pay for beat reporters to travel with teams to be spoon fed news via press releases. There would be a ripple effect that would reduce the voices actually talking about the league to those of the media partners that paid for the right to be there and the teams themselves.

All those media impressions that make players other than LeBron James and Kevin Durant valuable to marketers would dry up, and the machine that powers the popularity monster that the NBA has become would take a monstrous step backwards and do you think that any things that would disparage the NBA would see the light of day without access?

Is that the goal for Roberts? Less?

Am I over dramatizing things? Sure, maybe a little. There will always be fan-driven blogs and small publications willing to eat whatever rules are handed down to be close enough to matter. But many of the voices that matter, the voices with power or influence, go away if there is no one to talk to. Or, worse yet, if there’s no player interviews to fill those column inches, it will be other things – like more gossip and dirty laundry.

What is lost in many of the public comments from the NBPA’s leader is how much she doesn’t know about the subjects she is going on record about.

Maybe that’s the ploy – chum up the waters into a frenzy and then come in to make a better deal.

One insider who was at the table during the last labor negotiation pointed out recently that the NBA’s stance in negotiating a labor deal is to take back everything from the previous deal. You begin negotiations with nothing at all, and the NBA and its owners force the players to trade for everything that’s important to them under brand new terms.

If the players want guaranteed contracts, they want a better revenue split. Want high contract values? They want shorter contract years.

So maybe Roberts’ stance isn’t naivety, maybe she is proactively tossing everything and the kitchen sink on the table and making it clear that she’s rebuilding the deal under her terms too.

Maybe that explains taking on topics that are not normally on the table during a labor deal, like media access.

The problem there is we’re really not the right group to pick a fight with. As Mark Twain once said, “You never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel,” referring to the printed newspaper business.

Those words really could not be truer today.

The court of public opinion can be mean and hateful, and some journalists (myself included) write every day.

I can write about whatever I want, including the ineptitude of someone in a position of power commenting on things that they clearly do not understand.

Roberts may have been a massively successful attorney and litigator. She clearly beat out many well qualified candidates to win the job. The players I have spoken to about her believe she is the right person to help right many of the wrongs the players feel they have endured.

However, if you’re handicapping the fight at home based on the information that’s on the table, the depths of how unprepared the players may be, by way of the knowledge of their leader, might end up being massively underestimated.

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, @iamdpick, @jblancartenba, @johnzitzler, @CodyTaylorNBA, @MaryStevensNBA and @YannisNBA.

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NBA

NBA Rookie of the Year Watch – May 6

With the regular season winding down, Tristan Tucker offers his latest Rookie of the Year ladder, with three outstanding freshman performances leading the pack.

Tristan Tucker

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With the NBA season winding down, there is limited left time for rookies to make their cases for the Rookie of the Year award. In all, three rookies are leading the charge and will likely be named the top three rookies of the season. Without further ado, let’s take a look at how the race has changed over the last few weeks.

1. Anthony Edwards, Minnesota Timberwolves (Previous: 1)

Rookies shouldn’t be able to do what Anthony Edwards can do. Edwards is still just a teenager, but he possesses some of the best natural talent the NBA has seen. Furthermore, there aren’t many rookies that have quite seen the game-by-game improvement that Edwards has shown.

On the year, Edwards is averaging 18.9 points, 4.7 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game while shooting 41 percent from the floor and 32.8 percent from three. But to take a look at his improvement, Edwards’ numbers before and after the All-Star break paint the picture.

Before the All-Star break, Edwards averaged 14.9 points and 2.5 assists per game while shooting 37.1 percent from the floor and 30.2 percent from deep in 36 games. In the 30 games since then, Edwards is shooting a much better line of 44.7/35.2/75.2 and is averaging 23.7 points and 3.2 assists per game.

In his most recent 42-point outburst, which tied his career-high, Edwards broke the franchise record for most threes made in a game by a rookie. There’s a consensus in Minnesota that this won’t be the last record the rookie breaks.

2. LaMelo Ball, Charlotte Hornets (Previous: Not Ranked)

Ball’s previous “not ranked” placement wasn’t a dig at him but instead an unfortunate testament to when the league thought he was out for the season with an injury. And then, miraculously, Ball returned just in time for a likely Charlotte postseason appearance. Because of his return and ensuing excellent play, Ball is penciled into one of the top two slots to end the year.

Although he likely missed too much time to be named Rookie of the Year, Ball’s first season is something to behold. On the year, Ball is averaging 15.9 points, 5.9 rebounds, 6.1 assists and 1.6 steals and is a team leader for an exciting Hornets squad. Furthermore, Ball proved to be a much better three-point shooter than most thought he would be, connecting at 37.3 percent.

Ball is still over 100 days from turning 20-years-old and he’s already one of Charlotte’s best players. 

3. Tyrese Haliburton, Sacramento Kings (Previous: 2)

The timing of Haliburton’s injury is unfortunate, as it quickly followed the loss of De’Aaron Fox that all but sealed Sacramento’s postseason hopes. However, Haliburton showed that the franchise has much to look forward to with his explosive and competent play.

While Haliburton had some up-and-down moments and didn’t get the starting opportunities of Ball and Edwards, he still had a fantastic year. Since his injury will likely take him out for the remainder of the regular season, Haliburton finished the year averaging 13 points per game. To go along with his fantastic scoring, Haliburton blossomed as a polished playmaker, averaging 5.3 assists per night.

In the five games he started at point guard without Fox in the rotation, Haliburton averaged a fantastic 17 points, 8.2 assists and 1.6 steals per game. Once they reach their respective peaks, Fox and Haliburton have the talent to hang with the best of the backcourts in the NBA.

If that wasn’t impressive enough, Haliburton showed a great shooting form with fantastic results. The guard out of Iowa State shot 47.2 percent from the floor to go along with a 40.9 percent clip from three on over five attempts per game. While Haliburton isn’t likely to come away with the award, he certainly showed that several teams made mistakes in passing on him.

4. Saddiq Bey, Detroit Pistons (Previous: 3)

Bey won’t end up in the top three of voting for the Rookie of the Year award, but he still set his name in the record books. Bey’s been a historically good three-point shooter, currently connecting at a 37.9 percent clip from deep on 6.4 attempts per game.

The rookie out Villanova currently sits at 11th all-time for three-pointers made as a rookie, tied with Edwards, with 155. However, Bey needs just 14 more threes to jump all the way up to third all-time. With six games remaining in Detroit’s schedule, there’s even more opportunity for Bey to make history.

5. Jae’Sean Tate, Houston Rockets (Previous: 4)

While there weren’t many bright spots for a Rockets season filled with turmoil, the team’s rookies and sophomores looked impressive. From Kevin Porter Jr. to Kenyon Martin Jr. to Tate, this team boasts some of the most underrated young talent in the league.

Tate in particular had an outstanding rookie season that is now likely over due to his entry into the health and safety protocols. If this truly is the end of the year for Tate, he wrapped up the year averaging 11.2 points, 5.4 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.3 steals per game while shooting 51.3 percent from the field.

Since Basketball Insiders’ last rookie ladder, Tate averaged 12.9 points and upped his offensive production to 3.9 assists per game.

Tate is the ultimate hustle player and is a glue guy that championship contenders need to take it to the next level. Look for the Rockets to be much more competitive next season under a good coach in Stephen Silas and a potential top pick to join a talented young corps.

6. Immanuel Quickley, New York Knicks (Previous: NR)

Like Bey, Quickley quickly became one of the best shooters in the draft class, but also offered promising guard play for a competitive Knicks squad. Because of stellar performances up and down the roster, the Knicks look likely to return to the postseason for the first time since 2012-13.

While Quickley stagnated a bit toward the middle and end of his rookie season, he still held down the backup guard spot for New York. On the year, Quickley is averaging 11.7 points and 2.1 assists per game while shooting 39.7 percent from downtown.

Ultimately, the Rookie of the Year race is going to come down to the wire between Edwards and Ball. For a 2020 rookie class that originally looked bleak, these rookies have vastly altered that perspective. Even though much is left to be determined for the eventual award winner, one thing is certain: the league is in good hands.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Torrey Craig Relishing Role in Phoenix

The NBA trade deadline was busy as a number of high-profile players were moved. One name that went under the radar was Torrey Craig, who is making a major impact in his new home as the Phoenix Suns battle for the best record in the league.

Chad Smith

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The last time the Phoenix Suns played in a playoff game, Deandre Ayton was 11 years old. Not only is Phoenix back in the postseason, but they will also be one of the top seeds in the loaded Western Conference.

The emergence of the Suns as a championship contender may have started in the Orlando bubble last season. Chris Paul saw something he liked and has mentioned that numerous times as to why he wanted to play in Phoenix. His arrival solidified their aspirations, but this team is much more than just the future Hall-of-Fame point guard.

The pieces in Phoenix fit like a puzzle. Devin Booker is still the key player that opposing teams have at the top of their scouting report. Ayton has continued his development, which has been aided by Paul’s tutelage. Mikal Bridges has exploded onto the scene as one of the best young, two-way players in the league. Like every championship-contending team, there are valuable role players that fill out the roster.

Dario Saric and Frank Kaminsky have been excellent additions throughout the season. Cameron Johnson continues to play a solid role and reclamation projects like Cameron Payne and Jevon Carter have given this team a much-needed boost of energy off the bench. They have made it difficult for Monty Williams to even find minutes for solid veterans such as E’Twaun Moore and Langston Galloway.

Jae Crowder has been one of the best offseason acquisitions in the league. He has missed the last eight games with a sprained right ankle, which has opened the door of opportunity for others. Torrey Craig has taken this opportunity and flourished.

Crowder has always played for winning teams over the course of his career, and Craig appears to be following suit. After going undrafted out of USC Upstate, he signed a two-way contract with the Denver Nuggets in the summer of 2017. That turned into a multi-year contract before he joined the Milwaukee Bucks as a free agent this past offseason. On March 18, the Bucks traded Craig to the Suns in exchange for cash and a trade exception.

Denver’s defense suffered when Craig left and for whatever reason, he did not see the floor much in Milwaukee. Given ample opportunity, he seemed like he would be a perfect fit in their system. Even after battling through a groin injury and a broken nose, it just didn’t work out in Milwaukee.

Since joining the Suns, Craig is getting plenty of minutes and making the most of them. In April, he averaged more than 18 minutes per game and shot the ball with high efficiency. Not known as a great shooter, he hit 39 percent of his three-pointers and shot 51 percent overall from the floor. Against the Brooklyn Nets, he scored 20 points and grabbed 14 rebounds. On Sunday against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Craig poured in 18 points, 10 rebounds and 2 blocks in a starting role where he went 8-10 from the floor.

Craig’s greatest strength is his defense, and he is well aware of that. One thing Phoenix has been lacking is the wing player that can defend the premier players in the league. It takes a special skill set to defend the likes of LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Luka Doncic, etc. He has the size, athleticism and the little things that can’t be taught. With Crowder out and Bridges still needing to add more muscle, Craig’s role is crystal clear.

It often takes players time to get acclimated to new situations. They have new teammates and learning the ins and outs of the system can be a tough task. Meeting the demands of leaders like Paul can be tantalizing as well. To his credit, Craig has fit like a glove, doing everything asked of him and doing it well. This seemingly small transaction at the trade deadline could pay major dividends for the Suns.

Six regular-season games remain for Phoenix, who will have one of the top two seeds in the Western Conference. Playoff basketball is much different than the regular season, as the defensive temperature goes up a few notches. Game planning and defensive schemes play a large role in the outcome of playoff games, which makes Craig even more valuable.

While the Suns are capable of scoring with anyone, it is their defense that makes them elite. They currently have the second-best net rating in the league, the sixth-best defensive rating and are seventh in opponents scoring. Their team defense is incredible but individually, they have sensational defenders at every position. Phoenix currently has four players in the top 30 of Defensive RPM with Ayton and Paul both inside the top ten.

Another thing this Suns team lacks is playoff experience. Aside from Paul and Crowder, none of the players on this roster have many postseason games under their belt. Craig has played in 33 postseason games in his career and brings valuable experience to this young team. With his improved shooting, he is another weapon that Monty Williams can use in these high-pressure games.

Craig wasn’t drafted when he finished his college career. He played overseas for three years, waiting on his next opportunity. He joined the G-League and finally got called up to help the Nuggets. In his first career game, Denver put him on Jrue Holiday in the closing seconds of the game. Craig blocked his potential game-winning shot and Denver won the game in overtime.

Sometimes it takes people more time to notice the blessings they have been given. Phoenix is fully cognizant of the player they have in Craig. Monty knows, Paul and Booker know and, soon, the rest of the league will realize just how good he is.

It’s been a long journey for Craig, but he could reach the top of the mountain very soon. The Suns have some big plans, and he is a key part of them.

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NBA

NBA AM: Defensive Player Of The Year Watch

Rudy Gobert would appear to be the front runner for Defensive Player of the Year. But should he be? A few players have made it quite the interesting race — and Dylan Thayer lays out exactly who.

Dylan Thayer

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The postseason is almost here as the NBA regular season winds down to its last couple of weeks. At this point, it is obvious to tell whether a team is going to make the playoffs or head for an appearance in the NBA draft lottery. What hasn’t been obvious thus far though is who is going to win the MVP award, but it looks to be between Nikola Jokic, Damian Lillard and Joel Embiid. The DPotY award has been one that most could agree belongs to Rudy Gobert for the season he is having. The official site of the NBA however does not agree with this notion. Anyways, let’s jump right into our eighth edition of the Defensive Player of the Year Watch for Basketball Insiders!

1. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz (Previous: 1)

It’s too late to displace Rudy Gobert from this position in these rankings because his season has been that good. While the Utah Jazz are destined to finish amongst the top of the Western Conference, Gobert will also finish at the top of this award’s final tally, even if he somehow isn’t the winner. Without the center from France, the Jazz defense would be out of sorts, as just his presence around the rim is enough to ward off the opposing offense. Just ask the Spurs.

And while he did get completely crossed out of his shoes by Devin Booker recently, it is a season-long award, so don’t hold that against him. For the majority of the season, he has held firm in key defensive stats such as defensive rating, defensive win shares and blocks per game. He ranks second in all three categories, per NBA Advanced Stats 𑁋 101.4 defensive rating, 0.181 defensive win shares and 2.8 blocks per game. These are key indicators that he has been having a monster season, along with the Jazz being one of the best teams in the league. As things continue to unfold, expect Gobert to come out of the season as the DPotY. 

2. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers (Previous: 2)

The seven-foot-three center for the Philadelphia 76ers has had a memorable season under Doc Rivers. The hiring of the new coach made a big impact on the Sixers’ future and helped Embiid take his game to even higher levels. The Sixers have looked like a title contender throughout the season, thanks to great defense from their two stars. Embiid holding down the paint and Simmons being a pest on and off the ball around the perimeter. His defensive rating is fifth among qualified starters with a rating of 105.6, to go along with 1.4 blocks and 1.0 steals per game. Averaging more than a block and steal per game puts Embiid in elite company defensively, as P.J. Washington and Bam Adebayo are the only other centers putting up similar numbers. Embiid should be a finalist for this award for the impact and effect he leaves on the defensive end of the floor for the Sixers every game.

3. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers (Previous: N/A)

Simmons has been severely disrespected on this list many times, so now is the time to give him the recognition he deserves. As the number two offensive option for the Sixers, the defensive end is a different story, as Simmons brings a lot of energy to the defensive unit. Statistics aside, he has been a complete machine on defense wreaking havoc on his opponents. Whether it’s sending a Charlie Brown three flying into the stands or picking off an inbound pass intended for Coby White and taking it to the basket to ice the game, he has been having one of the best defensive seasons across the NBA. The advanced stats back up the claim as he ranks fifth in defensive win shares with 0.142. He’s also third in the league in steals per game with 1.7 per game to go along with 0.6 blocks per game. His play on defense has raised eyebrows everywhere, and he should be in the running for the DPotY award.

4. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks (Previous: 5)

The Greek Freak has been having another historical season, even though he hasn’t gotten the credit he truly deserves. This happens when you have insane statistical seasons the past few years though, some people stop paying attention. Antetokounmpo should be recognized for the impact he has on winning for the Milwaukee Bucks, especially on the defensive end. Antetokounmpo averages 1.3 blocks and 1.2 steals per game at the power forward position and is always someone opposing players have to think about when they’re on offense. He also ranks seventh in defensive win shares (0.139) and eighth in defensive rating (106.3), so the advanced metrics also show just how valuable he is to have. While he may not win the award this year, even though he is the reigning DPotY, he should still be in the conversation as one of the game’s elite defenders.

5. Jimmy Butler, Miami HEAT (Previous: Honorable Mention)

The leader of the Miami HEAT has been having another phenomenal season on defense as the HEAT gear up for the playoff run. He has been a thief on defense as he leads the league in steals with 2.1 per game. Butler is so quick to display his elite defensive IQ as he is always there to jump the passing lane or attack a ballhandler at his vulnerable dribbling moments. Butler also ranks in the top 10 in defensive win shares with 0.138. It is clear that with him, Bam Adebayo, and the newly-acquired Victor Oladipo, that the HEAT are going to be a defensive nightmare for opposing teams this postseason.

Honorable Mention: Mike Conley, Utah Jazz (Previous: 4)

The game tape doesn’t jump off the screen to represent Conley’s case for the award, but as the season comes to an end, it is clear that Conley has played a huge role on the Jazz defense. Opposing teams not only have to worry about the Stifle Tower in the middle of the Jazz defense, but they also have to worry about the pesky point guard looking to steal the ball at any moment. Conley’s season has been remarkable as his improved play has been a catalyst of the improved play out of Utah. The advanced statistics give Conley a big lift and vaulted him into these rankings, as they are just too hard to ignore when he’s been at the top all season. Conley leads the league in both defensive rating (99.9) and defensive win shares (0.181), as well as the 1.4 steals per game he posts for the season.

The running for the DPotY is coming to an end. It looks like the center for the Utah Jazz, Gobert, is going to be the winner, but anything is possible. The Simmons for DPotY movement has begun to make waves on Twitter, so maybe he comes up and wins the award. It is the NBA and nothing is completely assured, so don’t be surprised if the winner isn’t who you thought it would be. Here’s to another great NBA regular season despite all of the obstacles that were faced during the pandemic. Stay tuned for the next edition of the rankings!

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