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NBA Daily: Breaking Down The Bubble’s Race For 8th

Ben Nadeau analyzes the race for the No. 8 and 9 spots in the Western Conference – who will make the cut?

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As the NBA inched toward its inevitable rebirth, the instant drama surrounding the Western Conference’s No. 8 seed became a conversation wildfire.

Was the league rolling out the red carpet in hopes of a Zion Williamson-LeBron James showdown in the first round? Could the healthier Portland Trail Blazers make another historic run toward history? De’Aaron Fox, the Sacramento franchise cornerstone, took umbrage over a lack of Kings-related faith, while the Memphis Grizzlies had more than enough ground to protect their standing in the current hierarchy.

Three or so games in to our bubbled adventure, everything has changed – and fast.

The Pelicans, still worrisome over Williamson’s health and conditioning, played him about 15 minutes in each of their first two contests – coincidently, New Orleans went 0-2. With their backs against the wall and slowly losing traction in a muddied race, the Pelicans played the future superstar for 25 minutes, where he racked up 23 points, seven rebounds and used a personal 6-0 run to clinch a much-needed win. Not only did the victory signify an important swing in momentum for the veteran-laden squad, but it was another crushing defeat for Grizzlies, who fell to 0-3 and further loosened their once-gridlocked hold on the final playoff seed.

Long perceived to be a five-team fight for the right to face Memphis in the play-in game(s), the Grizzlies’ early struggles have now nearly opened both spots up. All the more interesting, the San Antonio Spurs have begun 2-1, alongside the Phoenix Suns’ 2-0 effort. Although invited without much media afterthought, both the Spurs and Suns – who boast two of the most reliable constants of the bunch, Gregg Popovich and Devin Booker, respectively – are within the four-game window needed to force a play-in too.

So then: Thanks to the Grizzlies’ scuffles, who’ll be the two franchises to reach that play-in showdown?

Let’s start with the Pelicans, a team that’ll be better the more Williamson is allowed on the floor, obviously. While that variable remains up in the air, New Orleans’ remaining schedule is not. They’ll finish with the Kings twice, plus winnable matchups against the Spurs, Wizards and Magic. Although that opening day loss versus Utah stings, there’s no shame in falling to the Clippers, so the opportunity is certainly still there for the Pelicans to reach Nos. 8 or 9 in the coming days.

The Spurs, following a hard-fought effort against Philadelphia on Monday, unfortunately, have a much harder path forward: Denver, Utah, New Orleans, Houston and Utah. No Magic, no Nets, no Kings, even. Just New Orleans and three teams currently fighting for ‘home court’ advantage in the first round. Of course, betting against Gregg Popovich is beyond stupid and that is a lesson some select few must re-learn every spring – but they still seem like the least likely of six to leapfrog into a spot.

Likewise, it isn’t much better for Phoenix. They’ll conclude with the Clippers, Indiana Pacers and T.J. Warren’s supernova act, Miami HEAT, Oklahoma City Thunder, Philadelphia 76ers and Dallas Mavericks. Thankfully, Mikal Bridges’ efforts in Orlando and Ricky Rubio’s trusty playmaking have served as great foils for Deandre Ayton and the aforementioned Booker. Overall, their offensive rating just cracks the top half (15th, 110.4) and their defense remains in the lower half – but stars win games and Booker fits the bill.

Even the Kings, losers to the Spurs and Magic to open their bubble campaign, get the Pelicans twice but also a downright bad Brooklyn Nets squad and a potentially-resting Los Angeles Lakers team in four of their final five games – so don’t count them out either. With their destiny firmly in hand, expect the Kings to make a run of their own. Fox put up 39 points against San Antonio before tallying just 13 versus Orlando – and, in the latter, Sacramento’s only scorer above 15 went to Harry Giles’ 23. Given the context and a very winnable schedule, the next week or so bodes well for the Kings’ hopes.

As for Portland, the squad with the most bankable 1-2 punch of the collection, have an impossibly-tough Rockets-Nuggets-Clippers-76ers run-in before ending with the Mavericks and Nets. Worse, that stretch of difficult opposition will come fast and furious – a classic three games in four days slog. But above all, their defense leaves too much to be desired, even with the return of Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins. Before the shutdown, Portland’s defense was only better than the Atlanta Hawks, Cleveland Cavaliers and Washington Wizards at 113.6 in the ratings department.

In the two games back, well, it’s actually been even worse and their putrid 132.0 defensive rating is a whopping 7 points behind the Kings’ 29th-rated unit. It’s early and the sample size is certainly small – but with only six games left, they’ll need to figure it out in the against some of the league’s best. Still, Damian Lillard is a big-moment killer – he did, after all, break up the Thunder core on his own last April – and he’s capable of hot streaks that few others are.

Lillard and Nurkic put up 30 points apiece against Boston – plus 17 from CJ McCollum and 21 notched by Gary Trent Jr. – and totaled 124 as a team… yet it still wasn’t enough. The heroics of Portland’s stars will be relentless, but if they can’t stop the opposition – they’ll come up short.

In the end, even guessing at Nos. 8 and 9 is a fool’s errand. The Bubble has provided shock after shock already – and the added hurdle of rested players for locked-in seeds are soon to come – but six teams will be whittled down to two before long. Despite the slow start, Memphis remains in the driver’s seat – if they can pick up a win on Wednesday versus a seriously-slumping Jazz side, it’ll go a long way toward clinching their place.

And they’d better hope so: If they don’t, they’ll need to hope for some load management with the Thunder, Raptors, Celtics and Bucks to end the mini-campaign. It’s one of the tougher schedules left in the Western Conference, but their cushion, no matter how rapidly it is shrinking, is still reason to believe they’ll limp into the do-or-die scenario.

As for the second spot, it still feels like the Pelicans’ to lose. Between Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball, JJ Redick, Brandon Ingram and, duh, Williamson, there’s too much firepower here to completely struggle through an easier-than-most schedule.

But, sure, bet against Gregg Popovich, Damian Lillard, De’Aaron Fox and Devin Booker at your own risk – conventional wisdom suggests that at least one of them will crash the party, no matter how unlikely it seems today.

Ben Nadeau is a Seattle-based writer in his third year with Basketball Insiders. For five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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Jazz offering Mike Conley $75 million over next three years

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According to veteran NBA reporter Marc Stein, the Utah Jazz are preparing to offer point guard Mike Conley a three-year, $75 million contract to remain with the team. Of course, the exact amount is a ballpark figure. Stein stated, “Utah has made retaining Mike Conley its top priority, league sources say, and is preparing a three-year offer said to be in the $75 million range.” The 14-year NBA veteran is a significant piece to the Jazz’s championship window, playing alongside superstar teammates, such as center Rudy Gobert and guard Donovan Mitchell. He helped the Jazz finish their regular season with the league’s best record of 52-20 (.722).

Utah went on to defeat the Memphis Grizzlies in five games in the first round of the playoffs. Though, the team lost four games to two in the conference semifinals against the Los Angeles Clippers. In the 2020-21 NBA season, Conley averaged 16.2 points, 3.5 rebounds, and six assists per game in 51 games started. Then, in the postseason, he averaged 15.3 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 7.7 assists per game. The 33-year-old also shot 44.4 percent from the field in the regular season. Last season, the 2007 fourth overall pick earned his first NBA All-Star selection.

On July 6, 2019, the Grizzlies traded Conley to the Jazz for Grayson Allen, Darius Bazley, Jae Crowder, Kyle Korver, and a 2020 first-round pick. Furthermore, the Jazz can still trade Bojan Bogdanovic and Joe Ingles this offseason, if they wanted to improve their current salary cap situation. Referencing Spotrac’s 2021-22 cap holds, Mike Conley’s cap figure is $39,344,900. Cap holds are for pending free agents. Conley earned $34,504,132 last season.

The team’s current luxury tax space is $11,173,027. In addition to the aforementioned cap figures, Mitchell and Gobert have a combined cap figure worth 51.34 percent of the team’s total salary cap. These two players’ contracts alone are consuming a huge chunk of the team’s cap. Plus, on November 23, 2020, Mitchell signed a contract extension with Utah. He is set to earn $28,103,550 next season. On December 20, 2020, Gobert signed a five-year, $205 million extension with the organization. He will earn $35,344,828 next season and $38,172,414 in the 2022-23 season.

However, if the team were to still trade Bogdanovic and possibly Ingles as well, this would clear up an additional 25.68 percent of the team’s salary cap. Bogdanovic’s future guaranteed cash amount total is $19,343,000. They are contributing role players who play together well with the team’s big three, but re-signing the most valuable players is the team’s main objective this offseason. Jazz general manager Justin Zanik might contemplate trading role players who are not worth their asking price. Competitive teams in both conferences have to trim the fat at some point.

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Jazz agree to trade Derrick Favors, first-round pick to Thunder

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First reported by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the Utah Jazz are trading power forward/center Derrick Favors and a first-round pick to the Oklahoma City Thunder for a future second-round pick. The goal here was to help reduce their tax bill. While the six-foot-eight Georgia native does not possess any notable NBA awards or honors on his basketball résumé, in the 2020-21 NBA season, Favors averaged 5.4 points, 5.5 rebounds, and a field goal percentage of 63.8 percent. The 11-year NBA veteran also recorded a free throw shooting percentage of 73.8 percent last season.

The 2020-21 Thunder finished 27-50 (.306), ranking 14th overall in the Western Conference. They could use another first-round pick. Plus, per ESPN’s Bobby Marks, this trade will put Utah $13 million below the luxury tax. On November 24, 2020, Favors signed a three-year, $29.2 million contract with the Jazz. Favors is set to earn $9,720,900 next season. This is the second time in his career he has left the Jazz.

He played with them from the 2010-11 season to the 2018-19 season, before he was traded to the New Orleans Pelicans on July 7, 2019 for a 2021 second-round pick and a 2023 second-round pick. For the 2022-23 season, he has a player option of $10,183,800. The Jazz plan to also re-sign Mike Conley, so this was somewhat of a drastic move to help clear up cap space. On July 6, 2019, Conley was traded by the Memphis Grizzlies to the Jazz, in exchange for Grayson Allen, Darius Bazley, Kyle Korver, and a 2020 first-round pick.

Moreover, scoring-wise, the 33-year-old point guard has not lived up to his performances from his last few seasons on the Grizzlies, but the Jazz need all the help they can get. Jazz general manager Justin Zanik will make it a top priority to re-sign Conley here soon. Conley earned $34,504,132 in the 2020-21 season.

According to Spotrac, Conley has a cap figure of $39,344,900. Center Rudy Gobert and shooting guard Donovan Mitchell have a combined percentage of 47.61 percent of Utah’s total salary cap. On December 20, 2020, Gobert signed a five-year, $205 million extension with the team. He will earn $35,344,828 next season.

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Wizards, Lakers agree to Russell Westbrook and Three-Player Trade Deal

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The Los Angeles Lakers have agreed with the Washington Wizards to acquire Russell Westbrook in a three-player trade, sending Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and the No. 22 pick in Thursday’s 2021 NBA Draft to the Wizards. According to ESPN, the Wizards are also giving up their 2024 and 2028 second-round picks as well. During last night’s draft, at pick No. 22, the Lakers sent Wildcats’ center Isaiah Jackson to the Pacers via the Wizards. At pick No. 15, the Wizards drafted Gonzaga forward Corey Kispert. In the second round, at pick No. 31, the Milwaukee Bucks traded NBA G League player Isaiah Todd to the Wizards via the Pacers.

On Thursday, Harrell decided to pursue his $9.7 million player option for next season. Yesterday, rumors surfaced across social media regarding a possible Lakers-Kings trade involving Harrell. Despite the outlandish predictions and mindless speculation from fans over these last couple of days, this trade move could work out great for both teams. Having said that, one person’s prediction is as good as anyone’s. The Lakers needed an accurate shooter. Westbrook might not be the missing piece.

Additionally, Westbrook is a 9-time NBA All-Star and three-time assists leader. In his MVP season back in the 2016-17 season, over the course of 81 games, he averaged a career-high 31.6 points, 10.7 rebounds, 10.4 assists, and 1.6 steals per game. On Twitter, Westbrook tweeted, “I’m blessed to have been a part of such a stand up organization. It didn’t take long to make a home in DC, and I will forever be grateful and appreciative of my experience with the organization. Thank you!”

In the 2020-21 NBA season, Caldwell-Pope averaged 9.7 points, 2.7 rebounds, and 1.9 assists per game in 67 games started for the Lakers. The 28-year-old shooting guard will make $13 million next season. As for Kuzma, in 68 games played last season, he averaged 12.9 points, 6.1 rebounds, and 1.9 assists per game. Kuzma is set to earn $13 million next season. For Harrell, in 69 games played last season, he averaged 13.5 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 1.1 assists per game. The six-foot-seven power forward/center is also a six-year player. Instead of having one or two notable super stars, the Wizards having several contributing players might work out better in their favor.

Last season, in 65 games played in his only season spent on the Wizards, Westbrook averaged 22.2 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 11.7 assists. The 32-year-old point guard finished the 2020-21 season with 38 triple-doubles, ranking first in the league and second highest in his own playing career. Westbrook also surpassed Oscar Robertson last season for the most all-time assists; Robertson accumulated 181 triple-doubles in 14 seasons. Now, the two-time NBA scoring champion has 184 career triple-doubles, the most all-time for any player. Furthermore, this is Westbrook’s fourth team in his NBA career.

He is the fifth former MVP in league history to play on four different teams over the course of four seasons or less, adding to the existent list of Bob McAdoo, Allen Iverson, Shaquille O’Neal, and Derrick Rose. Moreover, on December 2, 2020, Westbrook was traded by the Houston Rockets to the Wizards for John Wall and a 2023 first-round draft pick. He is set to earn $44.2 million in the upcoming season. His player option for the 2022-23 season is $47 million. This trade deal will not be official until August 6th.

Per Bovada’s NBA Futures odds, the Lakers now have +300 odds of winning their eighteenth championship in the 2021-22 season. This is a move from 4/1 odds before the trade, leaping the Milwaukee Bucks and Golden State Warriors, and they now have the second best odds behind the Brooklyn Nets (+250). Westbrook also has the best odds of leading the league in assists next season, with first place odds showing EVEN. He is ahead of James Harden (+150), Trae Young (+450), and Luka Doncic (+600). With +6600 odds, he also ranks 19th in the NBA for next season’s MVP odds, trailing Lakers’ teammates such as James (+1200) and Davis (+2800).

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