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NBA Daily: Free Agency Watch – Days 2-3

As we enter the third day of NBA Free Agency, Drew Maresca assesses the major moves we’ve seen since the start.

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NBA Free Agency started six hours earlier than it has in years past in 2019, with a start time of 6 p.m. EST on June 30. And boy did it pay dividends for fans. Rather than staying up late or getting caught up on free agent happenings the first thing in the morning, fans were instead treated to a primetime bonanza of free agent activity this year.

Basketball Insiders’ Matt John did a splendid job of outlining all major happenings from day one, which saw the construction of a new super-team, the next phase of development in Utah and lots of questions around what constitutes tampering to the NBA league office.

As we entered day two, we saw the narratives shift from top players signings to secondary players securing their deals and processing additional information about day one signings.

But there are plenty of questions left unanswered. So without further ado, let’s jump into the more noteworthy happenings since July 1.

Maybe New York’s 2019 Free Agency Wasn’t So Bad After All

The Knicks have been the laughingstock of the league long enough to know when they’re the butt of the joke. And this free agency period started off no different. They missed out on Kevin Durant. And Kyrie Irving. And Kemba Walker. And D’Angelo Russell. And pretty much everyone else that the media identified as targets of the Knicks.

They instead walked away from the first day of free agency with Julius Randle (3-year/$63 million), Taj Gibson (2-year/$20 million), Bobby Portis (2-year/$31 million) and Reggie Bullock (2-year/$21 million) — and they added Elfrid Payton (2-year/$16 million) and Wayne Ellington (2-year/$16 million) on July 1. New Yorkers were displeased.

But reports emerged midday on Monday confirming that all but Randle’s contract featured team options after the first season. That means that the salary cap flexibility that the Knicks carved out for 2019 free agency could be available again come next summer. The Knicks can spend the better part of 2019-20 assessing their five signees and finding out which ones are worth hanging onto long term. They can also trade any of them who increase in value and/or become redundant – all the while, maintaining flexibility to make a run at free agents next year. And sure, next year’s free agent class is projected to be weak; however, if Kawhi Leonard returns to Toronto on a one-plus-one, that changes the entire narrative.

While this may not be the solution the Knicks (or Knicks fans) wanted, it preserves hope  – which is more than it looked like they would end up with on Sunday evening.

The Clippers Are Remaining Patient

Kawhi Leonard is an enigmatic fellow. He marches to the beat of his own drum. He does not seek out attention. He does not trash talk. He is essentially the antithesis of the modern basketball player. And yet, he has been at the center of the basketball universe since approximately April.

Leonard is currently an unrestricted free agent; and despite being arguably the most sought-after free agent this summer, he has not yet made a decision regarding where he will play in 2019-20.

One thing seems fairly certain, though: Leonard will play in either Los Angeles or Toronto. He will allegedly take meetings with the Clippers, Lakers and Raptors this week in L.A. Where he’ll end up is anyone’s guess; however, his deliberate approach is delaying lots of other free agent decisions – most notably for the Clippers.

The Clippers entered free agency pegged as a major destination given their ability to offer two-max contracts. And yet, they have only signed Patrick Beverly (3-year/$40 million), guaranteed Lou Williams contract in advance, took on Moe Harkless as part of a bigger sign-and-trade (receiving a future first-round pick for their troubles) and signed Rodney McGruder (3-year/$15 million). All of which has not hurt their ability to offer Leonard a max contract.

Harkless is a nice player, as is McGruder, but the Clippers are clearly all in on Leonard. They have already spent much of the first two days of free agency waiting for Leonard before moving on any other major decisions, and they will probably wait a few more.

Leonard represents a return to relevance for the Clippers. His signing will shift the balance of power for the entire NBA. But like the Knicks, the Clippers should be cautious about who they sign if Leonard opts for a different employer. Owner Steve Ballmer’s regime will be tested if Leonard passes and their best course of action is to remain patient – for an entire season.

But the Knicks can attest that keeping your cross-town rival from getting a player of Leonard’s caliber is just as important as getting him yourself – at least from a PR standpoint. So it’s full steam ahead for the Clippers until they hear otherwise from Leonard.

Miami Gets Jimmy Butler, But Can’t Add Much Else

Jimmy Butler turned down a full max deal with the 76ers. Butler made it clear that he wanted to join the Miami HEAT shortly after the start of free agency. After some false starts that involved the Dallas Mavericks, the HEAT finally reached an agreement that three other teams and the signing of Butler to a 4-year/$142 million deal.

The Blazers were operative in the deal, taking back Whiteside and sending Meyers Leonard to Miami. They also shipped Harkless to the Clippers. The 76ers received Josh Richardson back from Miami.

But what’s left for Miami to build around? The HEAT cannot get below the salary cap ($109.14 million) despite possessing a number of player options.. They can try to get creative with Goran Dragic’s contract – after all, they own most of their future first-round picks (except for 2021, which is ironically owed to Phoenix from the Dragic trade); they only own one of their next five second-round picks. So depending on who they’re looking to add, they might have to attach multiple first-round picks (again). And depending on the return, that equation shifts from creative to crazy.

But Butler turns 30 in September.  The HEAT clearly don’t want to waste his prime years. They should consider any upgrades to their roster – even if it means going deeper into debt. Because why else bring in the star if you weren’t planning on surrounding him with talent? Butler, Meyers Leonard and Justise Winslow is a nice start. Kelly Olynyk is a good role player. Dion Waiters is Dion Waiters. But if that’s your team (plus Dragic), you’re going to struggle to get out of the first-round.

The Golden State Warriors Attempt To Retool Around Their Original Core

Klay Thompson resigned with the Warriors for 5-years/$190 million. But Thompson will miss most of next season due to a knee injury suffered in game five of the NBA Finals. Steph Curry is signed through 2022 and Draymond Green is eligible following the 2019-20 season. So it appears as though the Warriors will build around its original core.

And it looks like they’ve begun doing so. Yes, they lost Kevin Durant to Brooklyn. But shortly after that deal was announced, news leaked that Durant-to-Brooklyn would be part of a larger sign-and-trade deal that included D’Angelo Russell signing a 4-years/$117 million deal with the Warriors, which cost the Warriors Andre Iguodala and a future first-round pick and also included the Memphis Grizzlies.

Russell represents a capable fill-in for Klay Thompson while he recovers from knee surgery. Russell and Steph Curry can both thrive on and off the ball; so while it’s a step back from Thompson given his defense, shooting and overall synergy with his teammates, Russell can power an offense and provide shooting and playmaking in a way that Thompson can’t. And after Thompson returns, the Warriors can either trade him for a more appropriate player or keep him around to see how the three could work together.

The Warriors also received Shabazz Napier and Treveon Graham in the sign-and-trade, but rerouted the two to Minnesota.

Furthermore, the Warriors signed former Sacramento Kings big man Willie Cauley-Stein for an unconfirmed amount. They also re-signed Kevon Looney to a three-year/$15 million deal.

So the 2019-20 Warriors roster is beginning to take shape. Free agency is still only three-and-a-half day old and it will be interesting to see who else the Warriors are able to add. But the Warriors are well over the cap (approximately $140 million in salary commitments for 2019-20), so they’ll have to be patient and grab minimum salary guys looking to either play with a winner or in the new San Francisco arena.

The Other Shoe Has Begun To Drop

(More than) qualified role players traditionally sign with contending teams for a discount. This allows them to compete for a championship and gets the team above average, veteran talent. This year, that philosophy remains unchanged

Yesterday evening, we saw three names come off the list of qualified role players: Wilson Chandler (1-year deal with the Brooklyn Nets), Jared Dudley (1-year/ $2.6 million with the Los Angeles Lakers) and Jeff Green (1-year/$2.5 million deal with the Utah Jazz).

The aforementioned players can all still play a relatively big role on a contender. Dudley was last seen brilliantly defending Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid in the first-round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. He brings leadership, grit and a very high basketball IQ.

Chandler and Green may do less of the dirty work, but they can both shoulder more of the offensive load. Chandler had a down year in Los Angeles in 2018-19, but he’s still only 32. And Green – also 32 –has always been seen as an ultra-versatile, albeit slightly passive, forward. He’s best when playing next to an alpha; but when he is, he can be quite effective. So much so that his signing prompted Dwyane Wade to take to Twitter in a rant questioning why Green has signed three straight minimum deals considering his skill set.

What’s more noteworthy than who has been signed, is where they’re going, though: Brooklyn, L.A. and Utah – three places not seen as key free agent destinations as recently as last year. Clearly, players are more concerned with who is on their new team’s roster than they are with the destination and/or region to call their new home. We’ll almost certainly see more of these bargain signings are free agency drags on. Which teams will sign discounted deals and with whom they’ll sign them will be key.

Free agency fireworks typically taper off after the first few days. Luckily for us, , we could be in for a drawn-out free agency thanks in part to Leonard. And with lots of other players awaiting his decision before making a move, we could be in a serious holding pattern.

Either way, this has already been a historically entertaining free agency – and it’s only July 3.

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NBA Daily: Wiggins The X-Factor for Warriors

Stephen Curry will always be the face of the Golden State Warriors, and for good reason. Draymond Green spearheads their defensive attack but the key to their postseason fate lies in the hands of a guy that many people had already given up on.

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The 2020-21 regular season was a strange one for many reasons, but especially for the Golden State Warriors. Shortly before the NBA Draft, the team’s championship aspirations took a major hit with the injury to Klay Thompson. The best backcourt in the league would not be on full display this season, but they still had two-time MVP, Stephen Curry, to put on a show.

Curry did just that, dazzling basketball fans on a near-nightly basis. The sensational shots, ridiculous plays and high-drama situations were must-see TV that kept the Warriors in the national spotlight. To that end, Curry captured the scoring title for the second time in his career, averaging 32.0 points per game this season.

With limited options available to fill Thompson’s void, the team managed to add Kelly Oubre Jr to the roster, although it came at a steep cost. His salary is $14.4 million this season but because of Golden State’s luxury tax bill, ESPN’s Bobby Marks noted that adding Oubre would cost an additional $82.4 million, bringing their total to $134 million.

After a career year in Phoenix, Oubre struggled mightily trying to fit in with this group. Sometimes players in new situations can try to do too much at first, or sometimes pass on open shots in order to not seem selfish. Neither of these was the case for Oubre, who simply could not put the ball in the basket. His early-season shooting struggles had the Warriors pegged for the Draft Lottery.

Oubre eventually turned it around and began playing like himself. Another new face in the Bay area was rookie James Wiseman. He too struggled at the beginning of the season, which is to be expected for someone in his situation. The seven-footer from Memphis only played a handful of games in college and was trying to learn the NBA game on the fly. A season-ending injury cut short his rookie season, but he showed promise for the future.

The future is not something that Curry has on his mind. He and Draymond Green are playing to win now. That starts on Wednesday with their highly-anticipated showdown with LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the defending NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers. The league has quite the matchup to cap the new Play-In-Tournament.

Amid all of the highlight plays from Curry and all of the noise surrounding Green, one player sits in the shadows and is rarely mentioned. Andrew Wiggins was all the rage when he was selected number one overall in the 2014 NBA Draft. The former Kansas Jayhawk earned Rookie of the Year honors but ultimately struggled to find his place in Minneapolis.

After more than five seasons with the Minnesota Timberwolves, Wiggins was traded to the Warriors in February of last season. Now having played a full season in a Warriors uniform, Wiggins could be their x-factor in the postseason.

One of the knocks on Wiggins has always been his drive, and his passion to reach his full potential. He has all of the physical tools and attributes to be one of the most prolific two-way players in the league. Sometimes the effort just isn’t there, but that narrative seems to have gone out the window. Wiggins has been playing excellent on both ends of the floor, which has translated to wins for the depleted Warriors.

While many people point to his scoring slightly declining, he still scored 19 points per game despite playing the fewest minutes of his career. He finished inside the top 40 in scoring this season. The real story for Wiggins is his efficiency, which has been incredible. He shot a career-high 48 percent from the floor this season and a career-best 38 percent from three-point range. His 54 percent effective field goal percentage is also the highest of his career.

As they prepare to battle the Lakers for the 7th seed in the Western Conference, Golden State must find ways to get stops on the defensive end. Stopping the likes of James, Davis and Dennis Schroder on the perimeter will be paramount to their success. It is easier said than done, but this is where Wiggins’ value can be felt. The Toronto native will be called upon to match up against James often, with Green defending their big men.

Wiggins finished fourth in Defensive RPM (2.72) this season at his position, 21st among all players in the league. That is by far the best of his career, as he ranked 85th last season among small forwards. He also finished inside the top five in the league in terms of contested three-point shots. That is important for the Warriors going forward, should they face the Phoenix Suns or Utah Jazz in the first round. Utah was the top three-point shooting team in the league and Phoenix was seventh-best in terms of percentage.

As if facing James and Davis weren’t difficult enough, the Warriors will have their hands full no matter which opponent they face next. Both have dynamic backcourts with Mike Conley/Donovan Mitchell in Utah and Chris Paul/Devin Booker in Phoenix. Wiggins will be tasked with trying to slow them down as well. There is elite talent everywhere you look out West.

Golden State finished the regular season with a 110.1 defensive rating, which was top five in the league. They managed to do that despite having a depleted roster and having the third-highest pace (102.2) in the league. Much of the credit will go to Green and Oubre but Wiggins has been a major factor in their defensive schemes.

Curry and Green have combined to play in 235 playoff games during their careers. Wiggins has only appeared in five playoff games, so this will be a new experience for him. The pressure always goes up in the postseason, and the Play-In Tournament is no exception.

Shortly after acquiring Wiggins, Steve Kerr put All-Defense expectations on him. “Defensively, we will ask him to take on the challenge of what that position entails. Guarding some of the best players in the league and adapting to our schemes and terminology.” To his credit, Wiggins has done just that.

Wiggins will not win the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award this season. He isn’t going to win the Defensive Player of the Year either. While those accolades matter to a lot of players, Wiggins is just focused on improving and winning games. The Warriors hope to do the same as they return to postseason play.

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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.

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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.

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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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