Well, this has certainly been difficult.
As we enter week two of however many weeks (or months) it will take for the world’s on-switch to be flipped up by a metaphorical finger, the game of basketball is sorely missed. There’s an unknown within all of this, which makes it even harder to grasp.
But those three sentences will be the only negative spin I’ll be putting on this forward-moving piece. As Benny Nadeau astutely illustrated our current situation in these times, he also kicked off Basketball Insiders’ Free Agent series with the Northwest Division, so that’s what we’re here to continue along with the Central…sans the Mad Max references.
Before we get started, let’s just get this out of the way: If you’re looking for “sexy” names on this list, you won’t find many of them. What you will see are players who have burst onto the scene as recently as this season — perfect timing for a free agent market that is going to be scarce in star-level talent, yet plentiful in complementary and secondary pieces that can help complete a puzzle if the fit is right.
Improbable, But Not Impossible
Andre Drummond, Cleveland Cavaliers – Player Option – $27,950,198
This first name contradicts everything that was typed in the introduction. Drummond is a two-time All-Star center and a sexy name. He is bar-none the best rebounder in the NBA and has been consistent since he stepped foot in the league. He works wonders in the pick-and-roll game and provides a forceful presence on the interior. He’s a much-improved ball-handler in open floor opportunities and can start a fastbreak with ease. He’s even shown *signs* — heavy emphasis on the asterisks — of expanding his range to the perimeter.
With all that said though, is Drummond willing to walk away from $28.7 million in 2020? Contending teams that he’d likely prefer won’t have all that much money to spend this upcoming offseason. In addition, the league is trending towards versatility as opposed to the traditional type of big man, which he fits the mold of. Would a franchise gamble a pricey long-term future on a player whose positioning is seemingly fading away?
There’s a lot of questions here: Cavaliers’ general manager Koby Altman has said on the record that he’d consider Drummond a play for both now and later. At 26 years old, he’s just now entering his prime. His options could be limited whenever things start back up again, so it might be wise to take the money, skip free agency now and figure things out in 2021.
Otto Porter Jr., Chicago Bulls – Player Option – $27,250,576
Porter is in the same boat as Drummond when it comes to his contract. The difference is that he hasn’t played much at all this year due to a left foot injury. It’s a shame because of the productive season he put together when the Washington Wizards sent him to Chicago last season. Since his return, he’s registered respectable numbers as a starter on both ends of the floor.
Wings are in high demand these days, so Porter fits the bill pretty much on any team. The issue is that he won’t make close to what he does now on a new deal, especially after such an injury. Don’t bet on Porter opting out of the last year of his current deal.
Diamonds In The Rough?
Christian Wood, Detroit Pistons – Unrestricted – $1,645,357
When the Pistons blew it all up around the trade deadline to change course, Wood was poised to be the primary beneficiary. Simply put, the 24-year-old big man has lived up to his end of the bargain.
Wood not only finally got a chance to show what he could do on the floor consistently, but he made sure that people would take notice in the process. Having played 51 games combined in the previous three seasons of his career, he found a place to dominate in Detroit. Over a career-high 62 games this season, he has posted his best numbers so far as well — 13.1 points and 6.3 rebounds with a 65.9 true shooting percentage. However, those statistics pale in comparison to what’s happened since the deadline.
Since Drummond was dealt away, Wood’s boasted 22.8 points and 9.9 rebounds per game. He’s knocking down 40 percent of his shots from distance, while giving Detroit a block and nearly a steal each night. This take-off is well-timed considering his free-agent status and young age. Wood is set to make the well-deserved big bucks with few bigs to compete against in the market.
Kris Dunn, Chicago Bulls – Restricted – $5,348,007
If you’re looking for a player to lock up ball-handlers on the outside, Dunn is your guy. While teams might have a slight hesitation to give him a ton of money because of his offensive limitations, it’s clear that the Providence product is a load to handle as a defensive matchup. His length is extremely bothersome as his long arms help him poke away steals and deflect the ball in passing lanes.
The Bulls are allowing 6.8 more points per 100 possessions with Dunn off the floor, ranking in the 91st percentile, according to Cleaning The Glass. His impact on that end alone makes him a sought-after piece for any team that wants to bring in a true perimeter defender – a skill set that almost all coaches thirst after to stop an opposing offense from execution. It remains to be seen whether Chicago extends the qualifying offer and if he accepts that. Even so, another organization may pay him more money than the Bulls would be willing to match due to the development of Coby White and their commitment to Zach LaVine and Tomas Satoransky.
Jordan McRae, Detroit Pistons – Unrestricted – $1,645,357
With injuries overloading the Wizards and a season taking a downturn, McRae took the wheel and put it into overdrive. In a 10-game stretch from Dec. 28 to Jan. 15, the veteran swingman became the anchor of Washington’s bench bunch and didn’t disappoint. He averaged a hair under 20 points and 5 rebounds while converting 45.1 percent of his threes during the span.
McRae drew interest at the trade deadline and ultimately ended up with the Denver Nuggets. With those rotations already set and his free agency pending, McRae requested a buyout and landed with the blown-up Pistons to increase his role. Through four games, there have been struggles on his end. Still, there should be no overlooking how well he played for D.C. when they needed him most. Ultimately, McRae should definitely make a decent amount of money, much more than the minimum, for the first time in his career.
Shaquille Harrison, Chicago Bulls – Restricted – $1,620,564
Yes, there is another Bulls guard on this list. If you can’t tell, there’s kind of a logjam in head coach Jim Boylen’s rotation. The 26-year-old displays the grit and tenacity that old school generals love, while also satisfying his role on the offensive end of the floor. He’s been on a shooting tear in the month of March and is positionally versatile with his 6-foot-7, 190-pound frame. It might be a small sample size, but there’s a team that could find a steal in Harrison if Chicago elects not to match a deal pending on what the team does with that qualifying offer decision.
Tristan Thompson, Cleveland Cavaliers – Unrestricted – $18,539,130
After spending the entirety of his career with the wine-and-gold thus far, could Thompson be going elsewhere? With plenty of different frontcourt talent, the Cavaliers have decisions to make. The aforementioned Drummond situation and Kevin Love entering his final season of a lucrative contract make this scenario an uncertain one. But never say never when it comes to him staying in Northeast Ohio…
However, Thompson’s camp reportedly wanted the veteran center to be dealt in February even before Cleveland acquired Drummond from the Pistons, so a split may just happen. As the front office and coaching staff figure out what will happen with that triangle, let it be known that Thompson has been the consummate professional. There has been no complaining, pouting or anything close to the sort as his role slightly diminished. In fact, he’s even outplayed the starters as the commander of the second unit and has finished games strongly in front of Drummond on multiple occasions.
The likely scenario you might see play out is a sign-and-trade between whatever team decides to bring him in and the Cavaliers. It’s wishful thinking on Cleveland fans that have grown to love his tenacity and grit to expect him to return to the city again. Thompson deserves a chance at one more big payday though, and if that’s what he ultimately wants to do, it probably won’t come from Koby Altman and company.
Robin Lopez, Milwaukee Bucks – Player Option – $4,767,000
We’ve all gotten the chance to see the Lopez twins team up (albeit not together) and it’s been awesome. There was a time when these two were limited in their skill sets as big bodies in the post to defend, often working with their back to the basket. While they still do that now, their versatility has gradually improved with each season.
Now in Milwaukee, Robin Lopez has followed his brother’s lead by hitting a career-best 34.4 percent of his shots from deep. Even more so, since the All-Star break, he is 13-for-25 from distance. It’s a rise identical to Brook’s when he started knocking shots down with ease in both Brooklyn and Los Angeles.
Depending on what Robin desires in his next salary and what the Bucks want to give him as a backup, this may only be a one-year thing. After all, he was a starter for three solid years with the Bulls before taking a heavily diminished role behind Brook. It will be interesting to see how that shakes out – at 31 years old, chances at a long-term deal aren’t going to be there often.
Obviously, there will be more than these eight players in the free-agent market coming out of the Central.
Veterans with plenty left to give like Brandon Knight, John Henson, Wesley Matthews (PO) and Justin Holiday should garner attention from contending teams that seek experience and playing the right way. Those that need a shooting boost should look no further than Langston Galloway and Svi Mykhailiuk (TO), who are hitting 40 percent of their triples. Pat Connaughton brings just about everything to the table with his athleticism and defensive prowess. If waived prior to their guarantee dates, T.J. McConnell and Ersan Ilyasova deserve a look to bring a punch off the bench.
There are also opportunities to gamble on young talents such as restricted free agents Sterling Brown, Alize Johnson, Denzel Valentine and unrestricted big man Ante Zizic.
Again, these mostly aren’t the names that were included in the crazy offseason we had one year ago, but they’re guys that can contribute if they find the right home. Not all of them are going to be paid handsomely, nor will they all secure their future. Unfortunately, that’s the name of the game. Of those players mentioned, you could see some “show ‘em, prove ‘em” short-term contracts to boost their value heading into 2021.
Let’s hope that the season resumes as safely (and as soon) as possible. If you’re like me, you’re aching to see some hoops!
Be sure to stay tuned to Basketball Insiders as we continue our division-by-division breakdown of the upcoming 2021 free-agent class.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Goga Bitadze and Pacers assistant coach Greg Foster got into a heated discussion.
Myles Turner and multiple other players got involved to attempt to break up the confrontation. pic.twitter.com/9Xr96HmJg8
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) May 6, 2021
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
Report: Mike D’Antoni ‘leader in the clubhouse’ to become the next Pacers head coach https://t.co/42Ik5nPTyU
— NBA Central (@TheNBACentral) May 6, 2021
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.