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NBA Daily: 8 Free Agents – Southwest Division

Spencer Davies rounds out Basketball Insiders’ Free Agent series by looking at some of the better names in the NBA’s upcoming 2020 class this offseason.

Spencer Davies

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It’s time to wrap up our Free Agent series here at Basketball Insiders!

Last week, we covered five divisions and the best players that could possibly be entering this offseason’s market. We’ll finish things off with the Southwest Division, which has perhaps some of the more intriguing names on the list compared to the others.

A Tier Above The Rest

Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans – Restricted – $7,265,485

In a class considered “weak” by many voices around the NBA, Ingram very well could be the big fish…if it can be caught. According to Chris Fedor of Cleveland.com, the Pelicans are expected to match any offer sheet that is extended his way. That’s for good reason, as the fourth-year swingman has blossomed with the Pelicans at a rapid rate.

Coming off his first All-Star campaign, Ingram’s numbers have exploded across the board as New Orleans’ first option in essentially equal the amount of playing time he had with the Los Angeles Lakers. He’s gotten much more comfortable with the three-ball and is thriving in head coach Alvin Gentry’s fast-paced offensive system. The points have come by easier and with great efficiency.

Executives seem to believe that a maximum contract is in Ingram’s future, but that won’t make Pelicans back off one of their most important franchise cornerstones moving forward. Barring an unexpected change of heart on the front office’s part, expect these two to continue their relationship and maintain a highly-talented young core in NOLA.

Elite Secondary Scorers

DeMar DeRozan, San Antonio Spurs – Player Option – $27,739,975

This situation is a tough one. Individually, DeRozan is having himself another impressive season. His 59.7 true shooting percentage is a career-best by far, and he is an absolute assassin in the mid-range game and aggressive drives to the bucket do the brunt of his damage. Unfortunately, however, this has not translated into consistent winning. The Spurs are creeping closer and closer to missing out on the playoffs for the first time in over two decades under Gregg Popovich.

Why does this matter? One, DeRozan is reportedly not too thrilled with how things have shaken out in San Antonio. Two, the impact of the coronavirus will likely lead to a decrease in the league’s salary cap, which could make it more difficult for him to turn down over $27 million next season. Leaving money on the table might not be the wisest of moves for a 30-year-old whose game — albeit mighty dangerous offensively — isn’t suited for the perimeter-oriented, efficient nature that the league covets. While it might not be the perfect match for either party, DeRozan and the Spurs will probably spend next year together.

Tim Hardaway Jr., Dallas Mavericks – Player Option – $20,025,127

Hardaway’s situation is similar logistically to DeRozan’s, yet the complete opposite in terms of his relationship with his current team. Per Sports Illustrated’s Dalton Trigg, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban foresees a long-term future with the 27-year-old in Dallas and the feeling is mutual. Again though, with a salary cap plummet, Hardaway may very well elect to exercise his player option for nearly $19 million and revisit a new deal the following offseason.

Looking at the production, Hardaway has done his part — and then some. For a player who some considered a salary dump in the Kristaps Porzingis trade with the New York Knicks, he has exceeded those expectations by becoming one of the top shooting threats in the entire NBA at a 40.7 percent clip. He’s an ideal teammate for Luka Doncic’s drive-and-kick style, while he can step up as the team’s go-to guy in stretches where he’s needed.

You Know What You’re Going To Get

P.J. Tucker, Houston Rockets – Non-Guaranteed – $17,650,000

Would the Rockets really let go of one of their most influential locker-room voices? Though unlikely, the decision might be resting on what happens with current head coach Mike D’Antoni, whose contract expires after this season. Remember that Tucker is the team’s starting small-ball five after Houston moved Clint Capela, making him an even more integral piece of its rotation. What other “role player” logs over 34 minutes on a nightly basis?

Tucker’s prowess on the defensive end is crucial to the Rockets’ success, and he’s automatic from the short corners with the opponent collapsing on their penetrating guards. As it stands, he is guaranteed $2,569,188 until July 1. If Houston decides to keep him around as Shams Charania reported, Tucker will make the full $7,969,537 for the 2020-21 campaign.

Derrick Favors, New Orleans Pelicans – Unrestricted – $17,650,000

Believe it or not, Favors is still only 28 years old and that’s with a decade of experience under his belt. He’s still got plenty left in the tank as a dependable paint presence, whether that’s as a starter or as a leader of a second unit. Boasting a 62 percent field goal percentage, he makes his mark in the post and finishes at a high rate inside. There’s definitely mileage on the tires, but there’s plenty left in the gas tank.

Worth A Gamble?

Josh Jackson, Memphis Grizzlies – Unrestricted – $7,059,480

De’Anthony Melton, Memphis Grizzlies – Restricted – $1,416,852

Ben McLemore, Houston Rockets – Non-Guaranteed – $2,028,594

This trio here is a prime example of young talent shining with an organization that took a chance on each of them. Be it underwhelming in their previous stint or simply not being a fit elsewhere, things didn’t work out originally for any of these guys. Yet in the NBA, all it takes is an opportunity. With a second (and in McLemore’s case, third or fourth) chance to prove their worth on this stage, these players have flourished in different ways.

Jackson spent the majority of his time in the G League with the Memphis Hustle, where he was to earn his way back up to the NBA. He followed through on this plan and has since joined the Grizzlies’ rotation on a permanent basis. It’s a small sample size to justify a big-time payday — and his past behaviors off the floor might cause some teams to be hesitant — but Jackson should drive interest from teams that lack wings and have money to spend. With a strong support system and cultural structure helping him mature, rolling the dice on Jackson could pay huge dividends.

Melton came along with Jackson in a trade with the Phoenix Suns, and he turned out to be the more immediate boost to the team. It took until December for the second-year guard to become a fixture in Memphis head coach Taylor Jenkins’ rotation — but when he received the opportunity, he took it and ran with it. Traditional numbers don’t particularly suggest the true difference he has made, so let’s go to the advanced ones.

According to Cleaning The Glass, the Grizzlies are 11.1 points per 100 possessions worse with Melton off the floor, putting him in the 96th percentile among his NBA peers. He is a heady defender and has a knack for making the right play on the offensive end of the floor — a true team-first guy. He’ll be a restricted free agent this summer, so we’ll see what teams go after him and if Memphis will match whatever offers are thrown his way.

The Rockets gave McLemore a shot to prove himself in the first half of the season, and he didn’t let them down. In order to play for that team, you’ve got to be able to shoot — and he answered the bell, specifically in a stretch from December to February where he knocked down 43 percent of his triples over a 40-game span. One would have to surmise that the arrival of Robert Covington has stunted his role a bit now, however. That shouldn’t take away from the fact that there clearly is something there still with the former 2013 No. 7 overall pick. He’s not a superstar by any means, but a 27-year-old scoring wing that’s rediscovered himself could prove to be a steal. Of course, that’s if Houston waives him prior to June 30.

The rest of the bunch is full of older veterans on expiring deals: Courtney Lee, E’Twaun Moore, J.J. Barea, Tyson Chandler, Thabo Sefolosha, Jeff Green, DeMarre Carroll, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marco Belinelli. Younger players such as Bryn Forbes and Jahlil Okafor will be out there, as well as little-used swingman Bruno Caboclo.

Kenrich Williams is absolutely worth a look, though he is restricted. Frank Jackson is in the same boat with his Pelicans teammate. There’s a threesome of guys with player options — Austin Rivers, Willie Cauley-Stein and Jakob Poeltl — that will probably generate interest.

As you can see, the crop coming out of the Southwest Division might be the best of the slim pickings the league has to offer this offseason. Let’s hope that we get this resolved soon and back to hoops so it can come sooner rather than later!

Spencer Davies is a Deputy Editor and a Senior NBA Writer based in Cleveland in his third year with Basketball Insiders. Covering the league and the Cavaliers for the past five seasons, his bylines have appeared on Bleacher Report, FOX Sports and HoopsHype.

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NBA Daily: Examining Michael Porter Jr.’s Ascension

Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. is averaging over 25 points per game and looks like a future All-NBA player. Bobby Krivitsky examines Porter’s ascent and the questions that come with it.

Bobby Krivitsky

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Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. has taken his game to new heights.

In the wake of Murray’s ACL tear in mid-April, Porter’s playing time has gone from 30.6 minutes per contest to 35.7, while his shots per game have risen from 12.6 per game to 16.5. The increased responsibility has fueled his ascent. He’s knocking down 56.3 percent of those attempts. He’s taking 8.2 threes per game and making a blistering 50 percent of them. As a result, Porter’s gone from averaging 17.5 points per game to 25.1. He’s also grabbing 6.1 rebounds and blocking almost one shot per contest.

At the time of Murray’s injury, the Denver Nuggets were in fourth place in the Western Conference. They remain there now, 9-4 in his absence, and they boast the eighth-highest net rating in the NBA.

The only way for the Nuggets to fall from fourth would be if they lost their four remaining games and the Dallas Mavericks won their final five contests because the Mavericks have the tiebreaker since they won the season series. On the more realistic end of the spectrum, Denver sits just 1.5 games back of the Los Angeles Clippers, who occupy the third seed in the West. The Nuggets won their season series against the Clippers, meaning they’d finish in third if the two teams ended the regular season with the same record.

There’s a bevy of questions surrounding Porter’s recent play that need to be asked but cannot get answered at the moment. That starts with whether this is anything more than a hot streak. While it’s impossible to say definitively, it’s reasonable to believe Porter can consistently and efficiently produce about 25 points per game. He was the second-ranked high school prospect in 2017 and entered his freshman year at Missouri firmly in the mix for the top pick in the 2018 NBA draft. That was thanks in large part to his offensive prowess as a 6-10 wing with a smooth shot that’s nearly impossible to block because of the elevation he gets when he shoots. 

A back injury cost him all but 53 minutes of his collegiate career and caused him to fall to the 14th pick in the draft. He ended up in an ideal landing spot, going to a well-run organization that’s also well aware of its barren track record luring star players looking to change teams, making it vital for the Nuggets to hit on their draft picks. 

Porter’s first year in the NBA was exclusively dedicated to the rehab process and doing everything possible to ensure he can have a long, healthy and productive career. Last season, finally getting a chance to play, he showed off the tantalizing talent that made him a top prospect but only took seven shots per game while trying to fit in alongside Nikola Jokic, Murray, Paul Millsap and Jerami Grant.

More experience, including battling against the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, an offseason, albeit a truncated one, to prepare for a more substantial role with Grant joining the Detroit Pistons and Millsap turning 36 this year, helped propel Porter. 

But for the Nuggets, before Murray’s injury, the perception was that even though they weren’t the favorites to come out of the Western Conference, they were a legitimate title contender. How far can they go if Porter’s consistently contributing about 25 points and over six rebounds per game while effectively playing the role of a second star alongside Jokic? 

It seems fair to cross Denver off the list of title contenders. But, if Porter continues to capably play the role of a second star alongside Jokic when doing so becomes more challenging in the postseason, the Nuggets can advance past a team like the Mavericks or Portland Trail Blazers. And at a minimum, they’d have the ability to make life difficult for whoever they had to face in the second round of the playoffs.

Unfortunately, the timing of Murray’s ACL tear, which happened in mid-April, means there’s a legitimate possibility he misses all of next season. Denver’s increased reliance on Porter is already allowing a young player with All-NBA potential to take on a role that’s closer to the one he’s assumed his whole life before making it to the sport’s highest level. If the Nuggets are counting on him to be the second-best player on a highly competitive team in the Western Conference next season, it’ll be fascinating to see what heights he reaches and how far they’re able to go as a team.

Theoretically, Porter’s growth could make it difficult for Denver to reacclimate Murray. But given Jokic’s unselfish style of play, there’s room for both of them to be satisfied by the volume of shots they’re getting. Unfortunately, the Nuggets have to wait, potentially another season, but Jokic is 26-years-old, Murray 24, Porter 22. When Denver has their Big Three back together, they could be far more potent while still being able to enjoy a lengthy run as legitimate title contenders.

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NBA Daily: D’Angelo Russell Back on Track

D’Angelo Russell lost much of the 2020-21 season to injury. Drew Maresca explains why his return will surprise people around the league.

Drew Maresca

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D’Angelo Russell was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves last February, just before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the entire season. But we’ve yet to see what Russell can really do in Minnesota.

The Timberwolves acquired Russell in late February in exchange for a future first-round pick – which transitions this season if they pick later than third – a 2021 second-round pick and Andrew Wiggins.

Sidenote: For those keeping score at home, the Timberwolves currently have the third-worst record in the league with five games remaining. It would behoove Minnesota to lose as many of their remaining games as possible to keep their 2021 pick. If the pick does not transition this season, it becomes unrestricted in 2020.

Trying to turn an owed pick into an unprotected future first is usually the wrong move; but in this instance, it’s better to keep the high first-rounder this year with an understanding that your 2022 pick will probably fall in or around the middle of the lottery.

The thinking around the deal was that Minnesota could qualify for the playoffs as soon as this season by swapping Wiggins’ contract for a young, talented lead guard in Russell. It has not played out as planned.

COVID resulted in a play stoppage shortly after the deal, robbing Russell of the opportunity to ramp up with his new team. When the NBA returned to finish the 2019-20 season, the Timberwolves failed to qualify for bubble play – and considering the US was still battling a global pandemic, Russell couldn’t easily practice with his new teammates and/or coaches.

The 2020-21 season began weirdly, too. The NBA proceeded with an abbreviated training camp and preseason. And while this impacted all teams, Russell was additionally hindered by the decision.

Ready or not, the season began. In 2020-21, Russell is averaging a near-career low in minutes per game (28.2) across just 36 games. He’s tallying 19.1 points per game on 43.6% shooting and a career-best 38.8% on three-point attempts. He’s also he’s posting a near career-best assist-to-turnover ratio (5.7 to 2.8).

Despite Russell’s contributions, the Timberwolves have failed to meet expectations. Far from the playoff squad they hoped to be, Minnesota is in contention for the top pick in this year’s draft. So what has gone wrong in Minneapolis?

Russell’s setbacks are fairly obvious. In addition to the lack of preparation with his teammates and coaches, Russell was diagnosed with a “loose body” in his knee, requiring arthroscopic knee surgery in February. As a result, he missed 27 consecutive games. Russell returned on April 5, but head coach Chris Finch revealed that he’d been on a minutes restriction until just recently.

Minnesota is clearly being cautious with Russell. Upon closer review, Russell has been restricted to under 30 minutes per game in all of his first 10 games back. Since then, Russell is averaging 31 minutes per game including an encouraging 37 minutes on May 5 in a four-point loss to Memphis.

Since returning from knee surgery, Russell is averaging 27 minutes per game across 16 games. Despite starting 19 of the team’s first 20 games, he hadn’t started in any game since returning – until Wednesday.

On the whole, Russell’s impact is about the same as it was prior to the injury, which should be encouraging to Timberwolves’ fans. He’s scoring slightly less (18.8 points since returning vs. 19.3 prior), shooting better from the field (44.9% since returning vs 42.6%% prior) and has been just slightly worse from three-point range (37.4% since vs. 39.9 prior). He’s dishing out more assists per game (6.5 since vs. 5.1 prior), too, and he posted three double-digit assist games in his last five contents – a feat achieved only once all season prior to his last five games.

Despite playing more and dropping more dimes, there’s still room to improve. Looking back to his career-bests, Russell averaged 23.1 points per game in 2019-20 in 33 games with Golden State (23.6) and 12 games with Minnesota (21.7).

But his most impactful season came in 2018-19 with the Brooklyn Nets. That season, Russell averaged 21.1 points and 7.0 assists per game, leading the Nets to the playoffs and earning his first trip to the All-Star game. He looked incredibly comfortable, playing with supreme confidence and flashing the ability to lead a playoff team.

At his best, Russell is a dynamic playmaker. The beauty of Russell is that he can also play off the ball. He has a quick release on his jumper and impressive range. His game is not predicated on athleticism, meaning he should stay at his peak for longer than guys like De’Aaron Fox and Ja Morant.

And while he’s been in the league for what feels like ever (six seasons), Russell just turned 25 approximately two months ago. Granted, comparing anyone to Steph Curry is unwise, but Curry wasn’t Steph Curry yet at 25. Former MVP Steve Nash hadn’t yet averaged double-digits (points) at 25. Twenty-five is also an inflection point for Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook. And the list goes on.

To be fair, Russell was drafted at 19 so he’s more acclimated to the league at this age than most, but his game will continue expanding nonetheless. He’ll develop trickier moves, become stronger and grow his shooting range. And a good deal of that growth should be evident as soon as next season since he’ll be fully healed from knee surgery and have a full offseason and training camp to finally work with teammates and coaches.

So while Minnesota’s 2020-21 season was incredibly bleak, their future is quite bright – and much of it has to do with the presence of Russell.

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NBA AM: Is This It for Indiana?

Following their major drop-off, Matt John explains why the Pacers trying to get back to where they were may not be the best decision.

Matt John

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Remember when, following the maligned trade of Paul George, the sky was the limit for the Indiana Pacers? The 2017-18 Pacers were one of the best stories in the NBA that season because they made their opponents work for their victories, and they put on a spectacle every night.

It’s hard to believe that all transpired three whole years ago. When Cleveland eliminated Indiana in a very tight first-round series, I asked if having the exciting season that they did – when many thought it would turn out the opposite – was going to benefit them in the long run. Three years later, this happens.

We were getting plenty of smoke about the Pacers’ drama behind-the-scenes beforehand, and now, we have seen the fire firsthand. More and more reports indicate that the crap has hit the fan. Indiana has seemingly already had enough of Nate Bjorkgren in only his first year as his coach. When you see the results they’ve had this season compared to the last three, it’s not hard to see why.

The Pacers have routinely found themselves in the 4-5 playoff matchup for the last three years. Sadly, despite their fight – and, to be fair, they had pretty awful injury luck the past two postseasons – they haven’t been able to get over the hump in the first round. They may not have been in the elite tier, but they weren’t slouches either. So, seeing them not only fail to take the next step but look more and more likely for the play-in is as discouraging as it gets. Especially after they started the season 6-2.

If these reports about the tensions between the players and Bjorkgren are real, then this has already become a lost season for the Pacers. It’s too late in the season to make any major personnel changes. At this point, their best route is just to cut their losses and wait until this summer to think over what the next move is.

In that case, let’s take a deep breath. This has been a weird season for everyone. Every aspect minus the playoffs has been shorter than usual since last October. Everything was shortened from the offseason to the regular season. Oh, and COVID-19 has played a role as the season has turned out, although COVID-19 has probably been the least of Indy’s problems. Let’s think about what next season would look like for Indiana.

TJ Warren comes back with a clean bill of health. Caris Levert gets more acquainted with the team and how they run. Who knows? Maybe they finally resolve the Myles Turner-Domantas Sabonis situation once and for all. A new coach can come aboard to steady the ship, and it already looks like they have an idea for who that’s going to be

Should they run it back, there’s a solid chance they can get back to where they were before. But that’s sort of the problem to begin with. Even if this recent Pacers’ season turns out to be just a negative outlier, their ceiling isn’t all too high anyway. A team that consists of Warren, Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon, and Caris Levert as their core four is a solid playoff team. Having Turner, Doug McDermott, TJ McConnell, Jeremy Lamb, and the Holiday brothers rounds out a solid playoff team. Anyone who takes a good look at this roster knows that this roster is a good one. It’s not great though.

Just to be clear, Indiana has plenty of ingredients for a championship team. They just don’t have the main one: The franchise player. Once upon a time, it looked like that may have been Oladipo, but a cruel twist of fate took that all away. This isn’t a shot at any of the quality players they have on their roster, but think of it this way.

For the next couple of years, they’re going to go up against Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving. All of whom are on the same team. For potentially even longer, they’ll be going up against the likes of Giannis Antetoukounmpo, Joel Embiid, and Jayson Tatum. With the roster they have, they could make a series interesting against any one of those teams. However, it’s a rule of thumb in the NBA that the team with the best player usually wins the series. Not to mention, they’d have to beat most of the teams those players play for to go on a substantial playoff run. That’s a pretty tall order.

There’s no joy in talking about the Pacers like this because they have built this overachieving underdog from nothing more than shrewd executive work. They turned a disgruntled and expiring Paul George into Oladipo and Sabonis. Both of whom have since become two-time all-stars (and counting). They then managed to turn an expiring and hobbled Oladipo – who had no plans to return to Indiana – into the electric Levert. They also pretty much stole Brogdon and Warren away while paying very little for either of them.

That is fantastic work. The only hangup is that, as of now, it just doesn’t seem like it will be enough. But, doubt and skepticism are things Indiana’s had thrown their way consistently since 2017. Many thought their approach to trading Paul George would blow up in their face, and since then, they’ve done everything in their power to make everyone eat their words.

Kevin Pritchard’s got his work cut out for him this summer. This season will hopefully turn out to be nothing more than performance ruined by both the wrong coaching hire and an unusual season that produced negatively skewed results. But at this point, Pritchard’s upcoming course of action this summer shouldn’t be about getting his team back to where they were, but deciding whether he can get them a step or two further than that by adding more to what they have or starting over completely.

Indiana’s had a rough go of it in this COVID-shortened season, but their disappointing play may have little to no bearing on where they go from here.

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