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NBA Daily: Early Winners and Losers of NBA Free Agency

Shane Rhodes looks at winners and losers so far in the NBA’s free agency process.

Shane Rhodes

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The NBA offseason continues to intrigue. From an active draft, the league quickly moved into a free agency period that started with a bang. LeBron James made the move to Los Angeles, the Golden State Warriors managed to improve the best roster in basketball and over $1 billion in contracts have been signed.

There are still plenty of free agents left on the board. But who are the winners so far? The losers? Let’s take a look.

Winners:

Los Angeles Lakers

When you land the biggest fish in the pond, of course you are going to come away a winner. The Los Angeles Lakers did just that when they snagged the biggest name on the market, LeBron James.

Not only did they get him, but the Lakers got a long-term commitment from the King — three seasons and a fourth player-option — and, while they were quickly upstaged by another squad (more on that later), they instantly transformed their roster into a contender. While another year with just the kids would certainly have made the Lakers an interesting team, James’ arrival vaults them into the upper echelon of teams, even in the brutal Western Conference.

With James in the fold, not only will the LakeShow find its way back to the postseason, but they are now primed to attract numerous big-name players in the summer of 2019; Jimmy Bulter, Klay Thompson and Kyrie Irving are just a few of the names that could find themselves on the open market. Outside of James, the Lakers have maintained their financial flexibility this offseason, signing numerous players to one-year deals, and they should easily be able to carve out another max-contract roster spot alongside him.

DeMarcus Cousins and the Golden State Warriors

If the Lakers won the first day of free agency, the Warriors were definitely the day two victors.

Coming off back-to-back titles and three in four seasons, the Warriors didn’t need to do anything to their roster, outside of retaining some of their own free agents (which they also did). With a foursome of Stephen Curry, Thompson, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green, they likely would have walked their way back to the Western Conference Finals.

But complacency can often lead to an undesirable outcome.

And so the Warriors front office, being the forward-thinking group that they are, went out and signed the best center in basketball, DeMarcus Cousins.

For just taxpayer midlevel exception, this is a no-brainer for Golden State. While Cousins is coming off a torn Achilles, the Warriors are more than equipped to deal with his injury as well as his volatile personality and he represents a low risk, very high upside reward for the team. If he can return to even 60 percent of the player he was pre-injury, he is an upgrade, something that should scare every team trying to win the Larry O’Brien Trophy.

If things don’t work out, Cousins can easily be moved off the roster and the team will still dominate.

Likewise, this is a smart move for Cousins. The big-man can take all the time in the world on his rehab. Cousins can rebuild his value and look to cash in big next offseason all while winning a ring for his troubles. It’s a win-win.

Oklahoma City Thunder

Last offseason the Oklahoma City Thunder made a gamble, trading two still-developing, promising players in Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis to the Indiana Pacers for a potential one-year rental of Paul George. Sam Presti and Co. bet on themselves, on the culture they had built in Oklahoma City, that they could do enough to keep George around long term.

And they did.

One year later, and George and the Thunder have agreed to a long-term commitment, keeping him in Oklahoma City for at least the next three seasons (four with a player-option).

Had George left, the Thunder would have been left in an awkward position. With Russell Westbrook as their lone star they could remain competitive. But, as we saw two seasons ago, they wouldn’t be much to reckon with come playoff time. With George sticking around, the Thunder can compete now and could look to attract more talent to pair with their dynamic duo, both now and in the future.

And, while Oklahoma City has a massive tax bill staring them in the face, that is something that can be dealt with (and already is, according to Adrian Wojnarowski and Royce Young of ESPN). And, if they could do it over, the Thunder would likely foot the bill again if it meant keeping George long term.

Boston Celtics

The Boston Celtics have done nothing of note during the free agent period, yet they still managed to come away winners.

With James off to LaLa Land, the Eastern Conference is Boston’s for the taking. After coming minutes from an NBA Finals berth, they will return All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward to the starting lineup. The market for restricted free agent Marcus Smart has all but dried up, effectively deflating the value of his next contract and keeping him more affordable for a team with its back up against the salary cap.

While injuries often seemed like they were derailing Boston’s promise last season, things, for now, appear to be breaking in their favor this time around.

Losers:

Washington Wizards

The Washington Wizards are not in a great place.

The roster has been topped out, the majority of their cap tied into John Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter Jr. While James’ reign over the Eastern Conference is over, is that trio good enough to reach the NBA Finals? Good enough to challenge the likes of the Celtics, the Philadelphia 76ers, or even the Toronto Raptors?

Probably not.

While they were able to move Marcin Gortat off the roster, his replacement, Dwight Howard, isn’t exactly the BEST lockerroom presence. And, while he impressed last season — Howard averaged 16.6 points and 12.5 rebounds, both his best since the 2013-14 season — he isn’t the type of player that he used to be. He certainly doesn’t put the Wizards over the top.

With few means to improve their team outside of short-term, low-cost contracts, the Wizards look the part of a team that won’t make much noise come playoff time. Short of some major roster manipulation, expect a season similar to their 2017-18.

Houston Rockets

The Houston Rockets made the move they needed to make and retained Chris Paul.

And that’s about all they’ve done.

After a franchise-best 65 wins a season ago, the Rockets appear to be resting on their laurels. While keeping Paul was of paramount importance, it is hard to see them improving on the team they ran out on the court last season.

Houston has already lost a steady contributor in Trevor Ariza and they continue to play around with restricted free agent Clint Capela. In the meantime, their main competition, Golden State, has improved while another team, the Lakers, has risen up to challenge them for Western Conference supremacy.

Cousins, if right, can cause major problems for Houston defensively. James and the problems he poses are evident. And the Lakers are now another team the Rockets will have to fight back before facing off with Golden State.

Unless something changes between now and the beginning of the season, it’s looking more and more like the Rockets could struggle to push the Warriors as much as they did last season.

New Orleans Pelicans

The New Orleans Pelicans find themselves in a poor, yet familiar, position.

With Cousins and Rajon Rondo gone, the Pelicans are missing two key contributors from last season’s squad. While they added Elfrid Payton and Julius Randle, they are, at best, in the same spot they were last season. And, with much of the Western Conference improving this offseason, that doesn’t bode well for their playoff chances.

And that doesn’t bode well for their relationship with Anthony Davis.

While the chatter around the All-NBA forward had quieted down in recent months due to the Pelicans success last year, that could all come flooding back should they falter next season. And while Davis has affirmed and reaffirmed his commitment to New Orleans time and time again, at some point a player has to stop and think about what is best for them and their future.

If the Pelicans continue along this path, Davis’ future may no longer be in New Orleans. A free agent in 2021, Davis could look to take that future into his own hands.

LeBron James

James is a winner because he is where he and his family are happy and where they want to be.

In terms of basketball, however? James is a loser.

The Lakers seem content to burn a year of James and have made a series of head-scratching moves. While they have maintained their cap flexibility for next offseason, they have signed or retained numerous non-shooters; Rondo, JaVale McGee, Lance Stephenson, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. James has proven that a team that surrounds him with shooters can dominate, so they aren’t exactly the best fits.

They also have failed to pair James with a second superstar. And while James, going on 34 years old, can still carry the team to the postseason, he is no match for the Warriors alone. There are intriguing talents on the roster — Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Lonzo Ball, etc. — but none of them are on the same level as Kawhi Leonard and stars the Lakers could potentially go after.

James can only be at the peak of his powers for so long. And the Lakers waiving the white flag before the season even starts probably isn’t the best feeling for the King.

Not everyone can have a successful offseason — things out of a team’s control can have adverse effects on their future success. Still, with plenty of offseason left to go, many of these teams and or players could find themselves in a different position, good or bad, come October. Either way, the 2018-19 NBA season is shaping up to be one of the most fun in recent memory.

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NBA Daily: Luguentz Dort – A Different Kind of Point Guard

Shane Rhodes

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The point guard position is a clearly-defined one – perhaps the most defined – in the modern NBA.

At the one, you are either an elite shooter (both inside and on the perimeter), ala Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard, an elite passer, ala Chris Paul, Ben Simmons and Russell Westbrook, or some combination of the two.

Luguentz Dort doesn’t exactly fit that bill.

The 20-year-old combo-guard out of Arizona State University didn’t shoot the competition out of the gym – Dort managed a field goal percentage of just 40.5 and hit on a meager 30.7 percent from downtown. And he wasn’t exactly the flashiest passer, as he averaged just 2.3 assists per game in his lone season with the Sun Devils.

He’s different. But, according to Dort, he has what it takes to run the point at the next level.

“I know that I can become a really good leader on the court and create for my teammates,” Dort said at the 2019 NBA Draft Combine.

Confidence and an “I-will-outwork-you” competitive attitude are at the center of Dort and his game. Those two aspects drive the engine that has made Dort one of the more intriguing prospects in the back end of the first round. He may not be the most talented player in this class, but Dort is hyper-competitive and can out-hustle anyone on any given night.

“When I play,” Dort said, “I’m really going at people to let them know it’s not going to be easy.”

There is a hunger in Dort – a desire to win that is evidenced in his game. An aggressor on both offense and defense, Dort’s motor is always going. His primary selling point is his defensive ability; built like an NFL defensive end, Dort can bring energy and effort to any defense. He has more than enough speed to stick with smaller guards on the perimeter and more than enough strength to bump with bigger forwards in the paint.

Dort has also shown a knack for jumping passing lanes to either deflect passes or outright steal the ball; Dort was fourth in the Pac-12 as he averaged 1.5 steals per game and 1.9 per 40 minutes.

Dort has made it a point to put that defensive ability and intensity on full display for potential suitors. At the Combine, Dort said he wanted to show teams “how tough I play on defense” and “how hard I play and the type of competitor I am.”

Offensively, Dort is an impeccable cutter. At Arizona State, Dort averaged 1.289 points per possession on cuts, according to Synergy Sports. When he goes to the rim, Dort used his size and power to his advantage in order to get to the basket and either drop it in the bucket or draw a foul. He isn’t Irving with the ball in his hands, but Dort can make a move with the ball to create space as well.

Dort isn’t a superb passer, but he has a solid vision and can make, and often made while at Arizona State, the right pass as well.

But can Dort overcome the inconsistencies that plagued him at Arizona State? Dort was, at times, reckless with the ball in his hands. Whether he drove into a crowd just to throw up an ill-fated shot attempt or forced an errant pass, Dort’s decision-making must improve. His shooting is suspect and his touch around the rim – two skills critical to the modern point guard – weren’t exactly up to snuff either.

There were lapses on the defensive end as well. Sometimes Dort would fall asleep off the ball or he would be too aggressive one-on-one. If he is too handsy or unaware, NBA veterans will take advantage of every chance they get against him.

But, according to Dort, he has worked on those issues.

“My decision making got a lot better,” Dort said. “My shot, my free throws, everything. I really worked on all that this season.”

But in order to truly make an impact at the next level, he’ll have to continue to work and refine those skills further.

More work has never been an issue for Dort. However raw he may appear, he has the look of and the work-ethic required of NBA-caliber talent. Dort’s ultimate goal for the Combine, other than draw interest from NBA teams, was simple: “learn about everything, get feedback and go back to Arizona and continue to work on my game.” Whether or not teams view him as a point guard, shooting guard or something else entirely is a matter for debate, but, standing at just over 6-foot-4, 222 pounds with a 6-foot-8 wingspan and high motor, Dort has the versatility and ability to stick at, and is willing to play, a variety of different spots on the floor.

“I want to play any position a team would want me to play,” Dort said.

He may not be the prototypical point guard, but with that kind of willing, team-first attitude, Dort, at some point or another, is almost certain to make it to and have an impact at the next level.

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NBA Daily: Brandon Clarke Working From The Ground Up

Because of the unusual path he’s taken to get here, Brandon Clarke has established himself as one of the more unique prospects in the 2019 NBA Draft, writes Matt John.

Matt John

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When the draft time comes along, teams who have the higher picks usually look for guys who have the highest ceiling. Because of this, they usually decide to take players on the younger side because they believe those who have less experience have more room to improve.

This puts Brandon Clarke at a slight disadvantage. Clarke is 22 years old – and will be 23 when training camp rolls around – and only just recently came onto the scene after an excellent performance for Gonzaga in March Madness this season.

Competing for scouts’ attention against those who are younger and/or deemed better prospects than him would be quite the challenge, but because of what he’s been through, said challenge didn’t seem to faze him one bit at the combine.

“It was a different path for me,” Clarke said. “ I’m 22 and there are some guys here that are only 18 years old. With that being said, I’m still here.”

The Canadian native has clearly had to pay his dues to get to where he is. Clarke originally played for San Jose State, a school that had only been to the NCAA Tournament three times in its program’s history – the most recent entry being 1996 – whose last alum to play in the NBA was Tariq Abdul-Wahad. Props to you if you know who that is!

Playing under a program that didn’t exactly boast the best reputation wasn’t exactly ideal for Clarke. In fact, according to him, it was disheartening at times.

“There were definitely times that I felt down,” Clarke said. “When I first went there, I was kind of freaking out because I was going to a team that had only won two or three games prior to me getting there.”

No tournament bids came from Brandon’s efforts, but the Spartans saw a spike in their win total in the two seasons he played there. The team went from two wins to nine in his freshman year, then went from nine wins to fourteen his sophomore year. Clarke’s performance definitely had a fair amount to do with San Jose State’s higher success rate, but the man praised the program for the opportunity it gave him.

“We did some really big things for that college so I’m really grateful for the stuff I could do for them,” Clarke said.

After spending two years at SJS, Clarke then transferred to Gonzaga where he redshirted for a year before getting himself back on the court. When he did, he put himself on the map.

Clarke dominated in his lone year with the Bulldogs, averaging 16.9 points and 8.6 rebounds – including 3.1 offensive boards – as well as 3.1 blocks and 1.2 steals per game. The man clearly established himself as a high-energy small-ball center at 6-foot-8 ¼ inches, and it paved the way for Gonzaga to get a one-seed in the NCAA Tournament and go all the way to the Elite Eight.

Brandon loved the experience with the Bulldogs, both for the opportunity they gave him and for what he was able to do for them on the court.

“It was a great year,” Clarke said. “I got to play with some of the best players in the country… It was everything that I ever dreamed of. I’m going to miss it a lot. From a personal standpoint, I was just really blessed that I was able to block shots… I felt that I was really efficient too and I really helped us on the offensive end taking smart shots.”

Both his age and the small sample size, unfortunately, go hand in hand so that it’s hard to pinpoint where exactly Brandon Clarke will be taken in the draft. The latest Consensus Mock Draft from Basketball Insiders has all four contributors disagreeing where he will be selected, ranging from being picked as high ninth overall to as low as 21st.

Where he will get selected will all depend on who trusts what could be his greatest weakness – his shotty jumper.

In a league where spacing is so very crucial to consistent success, Clarke’s inability to space the floor hurts his stock. His free throw shooting at Gonzaga saw a drastic improvement from San Jose State, as he went from 57 percent to almost 70. That’s not as much of a liability but not much of a strength either. His three-point shooting in that time took a dive in that time, going from 33 percent to almost 27, which definitely does not help.

To be a hotter commodity at the draft, Clarke had to prove he could shoot the rock from anywhere, which is what he set to do at the combine.

“That is my biggest question mark,” Clarke said. “I’ve been working really hard on it. So I’m hoping that they can see that I can actually shoot it and that I have made lots of progress on it, and that they can trust me to get better at it.”

The journey that Clarke has been on to get to where he is had made him all the wiser as a player. With him expected to enter the NBA next season, he had a simple yet profound message to aspiring young ballers everywhere.

“Trust yourself. Trust your coaches. Trust everybody around you that you love… Make the best out of the situation that you are in.”

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NBA Daily: Nassir Little’s Climb Back up the Draft Boards

Nassir Little’s measurements and personality shined through at the Combine, leading many to believe he may be better suited for the NBA than he was for the NCAA, writes Drew Maresca.

Drew Maresca

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From highly-touted prospect to reserve player and back, Nassir Little’s path to the pros has been an unusual one.

Little was a McDonald’s All-American and five-star prospect. And yet, he didn’t start a single game in his lone season at North Carolina.

He demonstrated the ability to take over a game at times – averaging 19.5 points per game through UNC’s first two games in the NCAA tournament. He also broke the 18-point barrier in six games this past season. But he also scored in single digits in 18 of the Tar Heels’ 36 games, resulting in him being labeled inconsistent by many professional scouts.

Luckily for Little, his skillset is highly sought after by NBA personnel. He is a 6-foot-6, 220 pound forward. He averaged 9.8 points and 4.6 rebounds per game as UNC’s sixth man, demonstrating the versatility to switch between both forward positions fairly seamlessly.

And he very well may be one of the few players better suited for the modern NBA game than he was for the NCAA.

Little told reporters at the NBA combine that much of his struggles can be attributed to the hesitancy he developed in his own game through the lack of clarity provided to him by the North Carolina coaching staff.

“The coaching staff didn’t really understand what my role was, especially on offense,” said Little. “So it created a lot of hesitancy, which didn’t allow me to play like myself.”

But Little assured reporters that he’ll look more like the five-star recruit we saw when he was a senior at Orlando Christian Prep.

“Throughout the year I didn’t feel like I played like myself. The guy that people saw in high school is really who I am as a player,” Little said. “And that’s the guy that people will see at the next level.”

Not only does Little expect to be back to his old self, he sees greatness in his future.

“I feel like I am going to come in as, like, a second version of Kawhi Leonard and be that defensive guy,” Little said. “Later on in the years, add [additional] pieces to my game.”

And while a Leonard comparison represents a tall order, Little’s physical tools have fueled discussion about his defensive potential – which has resulted in his climb back up draft boards. Little measured in with a 7-foot-1 wingspan and posted an impressive 38.5-inch vertical jump (second amongst all 2019 participants), a 3.09-second shuttle run (third) and a 3.31-second ¾ court sprint (fourth) – all of which translates perfectly to the NBA.

While his physical prowess will certainly help him gain additional visibility throughout the draft process, Little claims to possess another attribute that everyone else in the draft might not necessarily have, too.

“A lot of guys talk about skill set, everyone’s in the gym working on their skillset. But me being able to bring energy day in and day out is something a lot of guys don’t do.”

To Little’s point, he projects extremely well as an energetic, defensive pest. He is an aggressive and physical defender who has drawn comparisons to guys like Marcus Smart and Gerald Wallace – both of whom are/were known for their high-energy play and dedication on the floor. While his athleticism and potential can open doors, his personality will ensure that teams fall in love with the 19-year old forward. Little came across as extremely likable and candid, which should factor into the overall process, especially when considering that other prospects with less personality project to be more challenging to work with. Moreover, the fact that he was named to the Academic All-ACC team speaks volumes to his discipline and dedication.

Little alluded to the fact that he already sat through interviews with 10 teams as of a week ago, including one with the San Antonio Spurs, which makes the Leonard comparison all the more intriguing.

“Each team has different needs,” Little said. “But they like my [ability] to score the basketball in a variety of ways and my defensive potential to guard multiple positions, they really like that. And my athleticism to be on the court and finish plays.”

If Little is lucky, he’ll be selected by the Spurs with the nineteenth pick. And if that happens, he would be wise to pay close attention to the advice given to him by Coach Gregg Popovich – and not only because he sees similarities between himself and former Popovich-favorite, Leonard. Coach Popovich has a long history of developing lesser known draft picks into borderline stars – Derrick White being the most recent example.

Considering Little’s physical tools, academic achievements and easy-going personality, he has everything one would need to have a long NBA career. Just how successful he ends up being is mostly up to him.

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