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NBA Daily: 8 Free Agents – Southeast Division

Shane Rhodes continues Basketball Insiders’ Free Agent series with a look at the best names coming out of the Southeast Division.

Shane Rhodes

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It may seem like it, but, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the NBA world never truly stopped turning, even Bodog Canada is still running.

Yes, in a time of some much-needed, sports-related distraction, the play has been put on hold. But the Association has continued to chug along as the draft and free agency still loom large.

At this point, a resumed season and or expedited postseason would seem more likely than not. But, if the remainder of the 2019-20 season is forgone, players and teams must continue to prepare for that worst-case scenario. And that’s exactly what they’ve done, albeit under awkward circumstances given recent living and travel constraints; players have had to get creative with workouts, while teams have been forced to adopt a much more film-centric approach to the draft.

With that in mind, Basketball Insiders has continued to work as well. In recent days, we’ve looked at several players, spanning the Northwest, Central, Atlantic and Pacific divisions, that could hit the open market once the world gets back on track. Today, we’ll look at the Southeast Division.

It may not be the cream of the free-agent crop, but there are plenty of players coming out of the Southeast that should garner serious interest and that could make a serious impact next season, either with their current team or elsewhere.

Best of the Bunch

Davis Bertans, Washington Wizards — Unrestricted — $7,000,000

While he wasn’t moved, Bertans was a hotly contested commodity at the trade deadline. That won’t change come free agency.

The 6-foot-10 Latvian is the new “normal” for the NBA power forward — a long-armed sharpshooter that can open up the paint rather than bog it down. And, in a league where frontcourt spacing is at a premium, Bertans is set to earn a nice new deal as one of the best shooters, regardless of position.

In 54 games with the Wizards, Bertans shot a blistering 42.4 percent from beyond the arc on nearly nine attempts per game. He set career marks in points (15.4), rebounds (4.5), three-pointers made (3.7) and attempted (8.7) per game, among other stats.

Those numbers are impressive in their own right and should need no qualifier. But, just to drive the point home, Bertans is just one of five in NBA history to play at least 50 games and shoot at least 40 percent on eight or more three-point attempts per game. He would also be the only player on that list to spend the majority of his time at the four-spot.

Even among a “sexier” group of free agents, Bertans’ skillset and potential fit with a variety of different contenders would have him at or near the top of plenty of free agent lists. So, in a relatively weak class, expect his camp to try and break the bank.

And don’t expect it to take very long. Washington may push hard to keep him to appease Bradley Beal, but the sheer amount of potential interest could leave the Wizards out in the cold.

Evan Fournier, Orlando Magic — Player Option — $17,150,000

After six seasons, 2020 may be the year Fournier and the Magic part ways.

Fournier has been on Orlando’s chopping block for what seems like forever; going back to 2016, the Magic have just never seemed committed to the Frenchman. Staring at a second-consecutive eighth-place finish in the East and an inevitable shake-up coming this summer, why would that attitude change now?

Likewise, for Fournier, the Magic have struggled to sustain success during his tenure. In the midst of a career year, a career-high 18.8 points per game to go along with strong shooting and competent defense, a contract comparable to his $17,150,000 option shouldn’t be out of the question, nor should Fournier lack for suitors; why wouldn’t he test the waters?

So, what exactly does a potential team get in Fournier? A talented offensive guard and arguably the best available (pending DeMar DeRozan’s player option) in this free-agent class.

Fournier isn’t going to carry an offense, but any interested teams should already have an established star to pair him with. Think of him as a potential Khris Middleton to Team X’s Giannis Antentokounmpo; a talented player in his own right, but one that would buttress a team’s top option rather than shoulder the load himself (something he has been tasked with in Orlando).

Should he indeed look to leave the Sunshine State, the Atlanta Hawks and Toronto Raptors could prove perfect candidates for Fournier’s services. Likewise, any aspiring up-and-coming squads that are looking to add a veteran while keeping the roster relatively young could do worse than the 27-year-old.

Serviceable Veterans

Goran Dragic, Miami HEAT — Unrestricted — $19,217,900

At 33-years-old, 2020 is probably Dragic’s last chance to earn a sizable, long(ish)-term contract. And, with rumors that the HEAT only plan to offer a one-year (albeit bloated) deal, it may come with a team other than Miami.

Regardless of the team, Dragic should continue to provide above-average offense next season and, amid a resurgence after an injury-riddled 2019, he should earn a pretty penny doing so. Even with a move to the bench, Dragic has continued to produce. In 54 games (53 off the bench) he averaged 16.1 points, 3.1 rebounds and 5.1 assists to go along with a 37.7 three-point percentage, his best clip since 2016.

Whatever his decision, Dragic would likely emphasize winning as he’s made the postseason just three times in his 14-year career. Even on a one-year deal, Miami may be his best bet in that regard, though teams with prior interest — the Dallas Mavericks, mainly — could serve to lure him away.

That said, should an up-and-coming roster offer him a starting opportunity (a la Ricky Rubio and the Phoenix Suns a season ago) along with a large enough salary or more in terms of long-term security, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Dragic jump at it.

Jeff Teague, Atlanta Hawks — Unrestricted — $19,000,000

A Teague addition isn’t going to inspire much confidence in any fanbase. Nor is he going to move the needle much toward title contention.

But at 31, Teague is still capable of solid production from the point guard spot, especially as a passer. In 59 games split between the Hawks and the Minnesota Timberwolves, Teague averaged 10.9 points, 5.2 assists and shot 43.6 percent from the field and 36.8 percent from three. A season ago, while he was limited to just 42 games, Teague averaged more than eight assists.

So, while he may not “wow” many teams, it’s clear there’s some potential there. Ideally, Teague would slot into a reserve role on a contender, an assist man and outside shot coming off the bench, but could also serve as a nice stopgap or bridge option for a team assessing their future at the position — think the New York Knicks, Detroit Pistons, etc. Likewise, Teague is a quality leader and role model that almost any team would benefit from bringing in.

It just probably won’t be in Atlanta.

Of course, with Vince Carter expected to retire, the Hawks could always elect to bring Teague back to maintain that veteran presence in the locker room. But, with Trae Young locked in as Atlanta’s starter amidst a bevy of other talented young guards on the roster, the fit is just a bit too awkward.

Potential Bargains

Jae Crowder, Miami HEAT — Unrestricted — $7,815,533
Meyers Leonard, Miami HEAT — Unrestricted — $11,286,515
Kelly Olynyk, Miami HEAT — Player Option — $12,667,885

Crowder has bounced around the NBA, having played for six teams in his eight seasons. But, at every stop, he’s proven at least a capable contributor and, more importantly, to have a team-first attitude.

His stats don’t jump out of the boxscore — 10.4 points, 6.1 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.2 steals across 58 games between the Memphis Grizzlies and Miami — but Crowder is without a doubt a crucial building block. He may not win you the Larry O’Brien trophy, but the energy and passion that he can bring to the table go a long way in competing for one. Better yet, Crowder should make that impact for little in terms of compensation.

As for Leonard, any team priced out of the Bertans bidding should look to make him a top target. Aside from the fact that he’ll cost next to nothing in comparison, Leonard has proven a capable marksman in his own right; a career 39.2 percent three-point shooter, Leonard shot 42.9 percent from deep on 2.4 across 49 games with Miami. Like Crowder, Leonard is also a we-before-me personality and could prove a capable leader in a locker room in need of one.

He’s capable enough on the defensive end that he won’t kill you on a regular basis and athletic enough that, when his confidence is there, he can make a serious impact on offense. Should Leonard get lost in the shuffle as the HEAT look to pair a third star with Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler, expect another team to scoop him up quickly.

Now, should a team swing-and-miss on Bertans and Leonard, Olynyk may have what they’re looking for

Like Leonard, Olynyk can knock it down from distance and should prove a capable reserve wherever he may find himself next season. Unlike Leonard, however, Olynyk has a player option for next season, one that he may not be able to pass up. If a team is interested enough, they’ll need to convince him to pass on more than $13 million next season. It’s not unthinkable, should an interested party promise Olynyk more than the 18 minutes per game he averaged with the HEAT this season, but they would need to strike the right balance between pay and play.

The Unlikely Reclamation Project

Nicolas Batum, Charlotte Hornets — Player Option — $25,565,217

Let’s just get this out of the way: Batum is probably spending one more season in Charlotte.

Through two seasons, the Batum-Hornets relationship looked promising, as the forward averaged 15 points, 6.2 rebounds, 5.5 assists and a steal per game. After that… you know the rest. A combination of coaching changes, injury and just general poor play has turned the formerly productive Batum into the world’s highest-paid cheerleader.

With more than $27 million left on the table, it would be hard to fault Batum for sticking out the last year of his deal. He won’t — or at least he shouldn’t — find anything close to that number on the open market, even more reason to opt-in.

That said, should he catch wind of a potential opportunity, would Batum be willing to walk away? While an opt-out may be out of the question, it wouldn’t be a total shock to see Batum opt-in, force Charlotte into a buyout and jump at a fresh start.

This isn’t last summer; the free-agent frenzy won’t be nearly as exciting. That said, and most fans would agree, any basketball action would be welcome right about now — a scratch for that incessant itch that has lingered since the NBA put the season on pause. While we hope that play can resume as quickly and safely as possible, we at Basketball Insiders also hope that, in the meantime, our continued coverage can serve as a nice reprieve to everyone.

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NBA Daily: Is Stephen Curry the MVP?

Given the prolific season Stephen Curry is having, despite the Golden State Warriors being ninth in the Western Conference, does his impact make him the Most Valuable Player in the NBA this season?

Bobby Krivitsky

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In the aftermath of Klay Thompson suffering an Achilles tear that ended his season before it began, no one would have blamed Stephen Curry for prioritizing his preservation through the 2020-21 campaign.

Instead, despite the Golden State Warriors lacking the necessary talent to become a title contender, Curry’s doing everything in his power to get them into the playoffs.

The two-time league MVP is on pace to win the scoring title for the second time in his career. In a recent road loss against the Boston Celtics, Curry put up 47 points, becoming the second player in Warriors history to score 30 or more points in 10-straight games, joining Wilt Chamberlain. 

In his last 11 contests, Curry’s averaging 40 points on shooting splits that aren’t supposed to be possible at the game’s highest level. Even though he’s hoisting 14.3 attempts from beyond the arc per game, he’s making them at a 49.7 percent clip. He’s taking 23.4 shots from the field but still seeing the ball go through the hoop 54.1 percent of the time.

The context of how Curry’s producing those prodigious numbers makes them even more impressive. He is the only scoring threat on Golden State who defenses need to concern themselves with — stop Curry, win the game; it’s that simple, at least in theory it is.

 

Another layer of what makes Curry’s prolific scoring so impressive is the energy he’s exerting to do so. According to NBA.com’s tracking data, Curry’s running 1.43 miles per game on offense, which is the sixth-most league-wide. And what that figure doesn’t fully capture is that while Curry has a lightning-quick release and is masterful at creating the sliver of daylight he needs to get his shot off, it takes a significant amount of energy to do that once, let alone throughout a game.

Even though Curry’s already the greatest shooter of all time, he’s taken the most lethal part of his game to new heights. From 2015 when the Warriors won their first NBA championship to 2019, a stretch in which they reached the finals every year, step-back threes accounted for just eight percent of Curry’s shooting profile from beyond the arc. But this season, Curry knew it would be more challenging to create shots for himself, which is why he’s doubled that figure to 16 percent and he’s knocking down 51.5 percent of his step-back threes, per NBA.com.

Curry’s also putting more pressure on opponents from further away from the hoop than he has in years past. According to NBA.com, from 2015 through 2019, five percent of his threes came from 30 to 40 feet. This season, shots from that distance account for 10 percent of his three-point attempts. Just like when defenses double team him out of a pick-and-roll, Curry forcing teams to defend him from further out is another way for him to create 4-3 opportunities for his teammates.

 

After that loss against the Celtics, Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said Curry’s “at the peak of his powers.” Though he’s not just putting his talents towards individual production, he is the primary reason Golden State’s firmly in the play-in tournament. The Warriors currently reside ninth in the Western Conference. They’re one game behind the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies and two back of the seventh-ranked Dallas Mavericks. 

As impressive an individual season as Curry’s having and as vital as he’s been to his team’s success this season, the reality is the Warriors haven’t won at a high enough level for him to win Most Valuable Player honors for the third time in his career. Currently, Nikola Jokic is the leading MVP candidate. While it’s fair to point out the Denver Nuggets aren’t even in the top three in the Western Conference, Jokic ranks first in player efficiency rating, win shares, box plus/minus and value over replacement player. He’s averaging 26.4 points, 11.1 rebounds, 8.8 assists and 1.4 steals per game. 

If Jokic misses enough of Denver’s remaining games, someone could usurp him for the right to win MVP. In that scenario, Curry would have a chance to become the NBA’s Most Valuable Player for a third time, but he’d have to sway voters from giving it to Joel Embiid. Embiid’s in the midst of a career season, ranking second in player efficiency rating, eighth in win shares and fourth in box plus/minus. He’s averaging 29.9 points, 11.2 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game while leading the Philadelphia 76ers to the best record in the Eastern Conference.

Curry ranks sixth in player efficiency rating, seventh in win shares and is second in both box plus/minus and value over replacement player. He has a case for MVP, but Jokic and Embiid are capping off career seasons while leading their respective teams to a higher level of success. Yes, their teams are more talented and there probably isn’t enough weight put on how valuable an individual is to his team, but the reality is the MVP typically goes to the best player on a top team. Furthermore, that argument also applies to Jokic, who’s the lone All-Star on a team with a better record.

Not naming Curry this season’s Most Valuable Player doesn’t mean his prolific production isn’t appreciated. Nor should it get taken as a sign elevating his team, somehow finding ways to become a more dangerous shooter and investing as much energy as he has into a season that won’t end with a championship isn’t garnering respect from the NBA community. That includes fans whose favorite team doesn’t reside in the Bay Area.

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NBA Daily: The Lakers’ Path Back to the NBA Finals

In the wake of Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Bobby Krivitsky examines the Los Angeles Lakers’ path back to the NBA Finals.

Bobby Krivitsky

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It’s been 15 games since a high ankle sprain sidelined LeBron James. 

With the Western Conference standings congested and Anthony Davis already out due to a right calf strain and a re-aggravation of his right Achilles tendinosis, the Los Angeles Lakers faced the threat of a fall that would require their participation in the play-in tournament.

However, the Lakers have fought admirably in the absence of their two stars, going seven and eight. As a result, their fall in the standings has been painless, going from third at the time of James’ injury to now occupying fifth place in the West.

The primary reason the Lakers have been able to tread water without their two stars is they’ve remained stingy on defense. Since James’ injury, they have the fourth-best defensive rating in the league. That’s despite facing four teams who rank in the top five in offensive rating and six of the categories’ top-10 members.

Right now, the Lakers are 2.5 games ahead of the sixth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers, with a 4.5-game cushion between them and the Dallas Mavericks, who are seventh in the conference. That should be a large enough gap to keep Los Angeles out of the play-in tournament, but the two teams are going to converge for a two-game series starting Thursday. For the Lakers, getting swept would re-open the possibility of having to compete in the play-in tournament.

Fortunately for them, even splitting that series would make it unlikely the Mavericks finish ahead of the Lakers in the standings. And help might be on the way for the Lakers: Davis may soon rejoin the lineup, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, meaning there’s a distinct possibility he’s active for at least one of those two matchups. As for James, he’s on track to return in three weeks.

While Los Angeles’ stars are getting closer to making their returns, the Denver Nuggets got dealt a more severe blow when Jamal Murray tore his ACL in a recent game against the Golden State Warriors. Denver is 10-2 since acquiring Aaron Gordon at the trade deadline and looked the part of a legitimate title contender prior to Murray’s injury. 

Denver is fourth in the West, 1.5 games ahead of Los Angeles. But even if the Nuggets have home-court advantage, they’re the preferable opening-round opponent, not just for Los Angeles, but any team with a legitimate chance at the fourth or fifth seed.

Fortunately for the Lakers, that’s the place in the Western Conference pecking order where they’re most likely to finish this season. So long as the Nuggets don’t freefall in Murray’s absence, Los Angeles will likely start the playoffs against an opponent that’s gone from having the potential to present the greatest challenge to the defending champions’ quest to get back to the Finals to becoming a desirable first-round matchup.

After that, the Lakers may have to get past the Utah Jazz and or the Los Angeles Clippers to make a return trip to the NBA Finals. The former has the best record in the league this season, but locking horns with the defending champions in a best of seven series is a far more challenging and potentially rewarding proving ground.

The Jazz have a deep, reliable rotation, they have the best net rating in the NBA, they’re in the top five in points for and against per 100 possessions, and they’re attempting the most threes per game, but also rank in the top five in three-point shooting percentage. However, the Lakers would have the two best players in a series against Utah. Usually, an opponent doesn’t overcome that disadvantage.  

As for the Clippers, Rajon Rondo has quickly proven to be an impactful acquisition. Los Angeles is seven and one with him in the lineup, generating the highest net rating in the league during that span. Last season, the Lakers saw first-hand how impactful playoff Rondo can be. Now, the Clippers are hoping he can bring structure to their offense, something they sorely lacked last postseason and was at the forefront of them blowing a 3-1 series lead over the Nuggets. Doing so would go a long way towards maximizing the production of a team that has the talent to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy for the first time in franchise history.

If this is the year the battle of LA takes place in the postseason, it figures to be a slugfest. Still, the Clippers have their doubters after last year’s meltdown in the playoffs. There’s also a large contingency who are skeptical about how far the Jazz can go in the postseason, given their lack of a top-tier superstar. Despite the validity of those concerns, both teams can beat the Lakers in a best of seven series. That no longer appears to be the case for the Nuggets, which is a shame for them and people who want to see the best possible matchups in the playoffs. But Murray’s injury, as unfortunate an occurrence as it is, makes it easier for the Lakers to get through the gauntlet that is the Western Conference and have a chance to claim an 18th championship, which would break their tie with the Boston Celtics for the most titles in NBA history.

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NBA

NBA AM: The Play-In Game – West

With the season winding down, Ariel Pacheco takes a look at how the play-in tournament is shaping up in the Western Conference.

Ariel Pacheco

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With the regular season’s end in sight, teams are making their last push to make the playoffs in what has been a condensed season. But the new play-in tournament is providing more teams than ever a chance at a coveted playoff spot.

Here is what the new play-in tournament will look like: Teams that finish with the Nos 7 and 8 seeds will face off against each other. The winner of this game will be No. 7. The Nos. 9 and 10 seeds will also play and the winner will play the loser of the first game. The winner of this game will be the No. 8 seed. 

The play-in tournament provides intrigue and adds pressure on teams in both conferences to finish in the top six and avoid the play-in altogether. The Western Conference, in particular, is shaping up to have a rather exciting finish. There are a number of teams who could find themselves fighting for their playoff lives in this year’s tournament – all below in tiers.

Teams Likely To Avoid Play-In

Portland Trail Blazers (32-24)
Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: 8
Games Against Teams Over .500: 12
Games Against West: 11

The Trail Blazers are currently the sixth seed in the West meaning, for now, they are safe from the play-in tournament. However, they are just two games above the Mavericks from possibly dropping down a place. They’re the team most likely to secure that sixth seed because they have more talent than the teams below them – hello, Dame – and they also have an elite offense. However, the defensive concerns are very real and if they were to slip, it would likely be because of their struggles on that side of the ball.

Likely Play-In Teams

Dallas Mavericks

Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: 9
Games Against Teams Over .500: 5
Games Against West: 8

On paper, the Mavs have a really easy schedule as the season winds down. They have just five games against teams over .500 and two against the Los Angeles Lakers, who may be without their two stars for those games. However, they are just 10-12 this season against sub .500 teams and are coming off a disappointing loss to the Sacramento Kings. There’s still a pretty good chance they get the sixth seed and avoid the play-in, but it also wouldn’t be surprising to see them in it as well.

Memphis Grizzlies
Games Left: 17
Home Games Left: 7
Games Against Teams Over .500: 8
Games Against West: 12

The Grizzlies are often overlooked, but they are about as well-coached as any other team in the NBA. It is likely they will be in the play-in game, but don’t be surprised if they are able to sneak into the sixth seed. They lost last year’s play-in game in the Bubble to the Blazers, so they do have experience in this type of setting. They may be getting Jaren Jackson Jr. back soon which should help. 

Golden State Warriors
Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: 9
Games Against Teams Over .500: 6
Games Against West: 13

The Warriors are getting just other-worldly performances from Stephen Curry on an almost nightly basis at this point. However, they continue to struggle to win games, in large part due to the struggles when he sits on the bench. Their schedule is pretty light to close the season, which bolsters their chances. The talent on this team isn’t great, but Curry’s play should be enough to get them in the play-in tournament. 

San Antonio Spurs
Games Left: 17
Home Games Left: 6
Games Against Teams Over .500: 12
Games Against West: 7

The Spurs have struggled of late, especially after the All-Star break. Their defense has dropped off badly, but if there’s any reason to be positive, it’s that they are still coached by Gregg Popovich and their young guys continue to show improvement. They have been really good on the road this season and a majority of their games are on the road. It won’t be easy, but the Spurs should find themselves in the play-in tournament.

Outside Looking In

New Orleans Pelicans
Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: 6
Games Against Teams Over .500: 9
Games Against West: 11

The Pelicans have been hit with the injury bug of late, but their inconsistent play this season continues to be a huge problem. Their defense continues to bleed three-pointers and while point Zion Williamson has worked, there just isn’t enough shooting to maximize him just yet. It seems unlikely the Pelicans make a late-season run to the play-in game.

Sacramento Kings

Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: 8
Games Against Teams Over .500: 8
Games Against West: 14

The Kings are the least likely team to make the play-in tournament. Their defense is still problematic and they just recently ended their 9-game losing streak. It’ll take a huge late-season push and the Kings just haven’t shown that they are capable of putting it all together for a long enough stretch. 

The play-in tournament adds a new layer of competition that will bring excitement at the end of the season. Be sure to check out how the play-in tournament is shaping up in the Eastern Conference.

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