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.
NBA Daily: Boston’s Potential Crisis
The Kyrie drama may finally be over in Boston, but some tough decisions could be on the horizon for the Celtics, writes Matt John.
It’s hard to get a read on what exactly the Boston Celtics are going to be this upcoming season.
Losing a talent with the rap sheet that Kyrie Irving has at only 27 years old would usually spell misery for any fanbase. Yet, after all that transpired this season, there may not be a fanbase happier to see an NBA superstar in his prime walk than Celtics Nation was when Irving bolted.
Besides, the sting of his departure was mitigated by the arrival of Kemba Walker. Kemba is a slight downgrade from Kyrie, but his consistent improvement, as well as his reputation as a team player, has some believing that he may be able to produce more effectively than Kyrie did as a Celtic.
The most damaging loss the Celtics suffered from the summer is Al Horford. Horford’s all-around game was the perfect fit in Brad Stevens’ system. His floor-spacing, vision, defense, and unselfishness benefitted the team in so many ways that it would be almost impossible to replace every dimension he brought to the Celtics by himself.
Instead of finding a replacement for Horford, the Celtics thought outside of the box by bringing in Enes Kanter. Kanter can’t do everything that Horford does – comparing those two defensively alone is downright laughable – but Kanter still commands double-teams, is one of the league’s best rebounders and is joining a team that ranked 22nd in rebounds per game. It’s definitely a downgrade, but Enes has proven he can be a solid contributor.
That’s not even factoring in the other unknowns facing the Celtics this season. Jayson Tatum in year three; Jaylen Brown in year four; Gordon Hayward being two years removed from his leg injury. After a down year so difficult that pretty much everyone involved took a step back, it’s hard to say where the bar should be set for this team.
Presently, Boston’s ceiling is drastically lower than it was at this exact time a year ago. But when you consider that they won 49 games, is it delusional to think they’ll be able to exceed that win total with a seemingly lesser roster?
That will depend on whether they can solve a possible crisis that their roster as constructed could produce.
In basketball, it’s common sense that if you want to win, you put your five best players on the court when things matter most. As long as those best players can actually play together on the court. That’s the Celtics’ problem right there.
Boston’s five best players are slated to be the following:
With Kanter designated as the starting center – this may change as the season progresses – one of these five is going to start the season coming off the bench, which Brad Stevens will figure out with due time. Hayward, Brown, and Smart have all played significant minutes with the second unit recently so it shouldn’t be much of an adjustment there.
The problem is, if all five of those players play to the best of their abilities, all of them are too good to be wasting away on the bench in crunch time. But if they all are on the court to close out games, who plays center? The only one out of the five who has any experience playing the five position is Hayward, which came last year and he only played one percent of his minutes there.
Brad Stevens has always been one to experiment. He’s never been hesitant to thrust players who aren’t usually the center type into the role of the small-ball five. From Brandon Bass to Jonas Jerebko to Semi Ojeleye, Stevens can really commit to the small in small-ball.
There’s just one problem. The Celtics’ top competitors for the crown this season sports some of the best centers in the league, which include Anthony Davis, Joel Embiid, and Nikola Jokic among others. Should Boston try to use its projected best players in its crunchtime lineup, they won’t stand much of a chance. Gordon Hayward and Marcus Smart are good defenders, but they’re not that good.
Boston right now isn’t really considered a contender by most people who follow the NBA but adding the 29-year-old Walker, who is now entering the prime of his career, signaled that they aim to be one. Say Boston tries the Walker-Smart-Brown-Tatum-Hayward lineup, and it does not pan out, they may have to trade one of them in order to balance out the roster and crunchtime lineup.
Who they would ship out is the real mystery. They’re definitely not trading Kemba after they just added him. Jayson Tatum’s trade availability expired the second Anthony Davis was traded to the Lakers. Many fans are clamoring for it after a not-so-stellar comeback, but Gordon Hayward is unlikely to be traded. His contract at this moment is an albatross, and when teams trade the star free agents they lured to them shortly after said luring, it’s not a good look for the franchise, especially after what Hayward has gone through.
For better or worse, Gordon Hayward is remaining a Boston Celtic. That leaves Smart and Brown. This is where this hypothetical crisis gets interesting. If Danny Ainge’s hand is forced to choose between the two, who does he trade?
If Ainge wants to keep the one with the highest ceiling, it’s Brown. Jaylen did not have the easiest start last season. He was so bad in fact that they benched him for Smart. Over time, Brown found his game again off the bench. As good as he was, a man of Brown’s talents should not be relegated to the bench.
If that’s not enough, remember that just the year prior, Brown was one of the most vital contributors on a team that was within inches of the NBA Finals. Eighteen points on 46/39/64 splits in 18 of what had to be the most important games of his life as a 21-year-old cemented Brown’s status as a high-upside, possible star player.
Between Brown and Smart, Brown has a higher ceiling.
If Ainge wants to keep the one who solidifies the team culture, it’s Smart. Smart may never have the scoring prowess or the reliable jumper that Brown has, but ask anyone who sets the tone for the game more, and it’s Smart.
Ever since he first walked on the court, Smart’s been one of the most intense, high-energy players in the league. His playmaking and defense inspire the Celtics to play at their best. When the Celtics’ 2018 playoff run comes up, people talk about how impressive the youngsters were, but they forget that their fortunes may not have turned out so well if Smart had not come back in time from injury.
It’s true that his love for the game puts his flaws on display, but Marcus Smart is what helped catapult the Brad Stevens era and establish a successful culture in Boston. His efforts probably won’t lead to any All-Star appearance, but they solidify him as an impact player for a championship team.
Between Brown and Smart, Smart brings more of a winning culture.
Some other components at play – Brown is in a contract year, and he should have suitors next offseason, while Smart is currently being paid $12 million (salary that could be used in a possible trade for a star player).
Now there’s the chance that none of this happens. The Celtics may go forward with the core they have right now, and maybe they have something up their sleeve that nobody knows about. There’s also the chance they may trade both Smart and Brown for an upgrade or trade someone else.
There’s obviously no way to tell what will happen at this point. However, these are the pertinent questions that the Celtics need to ask themselves as we approach the upcoming season.
High-Performance Mindfulness: Incorporating The Mental Health Resource Into The NBA
Jake Rauchbach outlines best practices and working parameters for integrating a mental health/Mental Performance resource into the coaching staff.
As NBA teams begin to integrate mental health resources into the overall working structure of their organizations, several key points should be taken into consideration so that practitioners can be most effective when working with players.
Before we dive in, it is important to note that, within the mental health spectrum, there are generally two avenues.
There is the clinical side, which focuses on diagnosing and treating behavioral disorders like depression, substance abuse and learning disabilities. There is also the applied/performance-related side, where the end goal is to improve on-court performance through techniques such as High-Performance Mindfulness.
Let’s jump in and break down some of the best practices and key considerations for successfully installing this resource within your staff:
Best Practices & Key Considerations
Player buy-in should be the number one priority. All other considerations should directly feed into facilitating and supporting this. With any sort of coaching, trust and rapport with the player are vital. The same thing holds for mental health resources/High-Performance Mindfulness coaches. Credibility and strong rapport with the player must be built.
This responsibility lies on the shoulders of the interpersonal skill-sets of the High-Performance Coach. However, much more of this responsibility resides with the decision-makers, who define the working parameters for the resource. If players do not like, trust or see value in the resource and the services offered, it is going to be very tough to make much headway. Before any substantial progress, this foundation must be in place first.
Staff Buy-In (Cooperation)
If a player senses that staff members, especially decision-makers, surrounding that player do not support or are sending mixed messages regarding the value, effectiveness, and acceptance of the mental health work, it can derail or block the initiative. When leaders within the organization outwardly support the role of the practitioner and initiative, it makes it that much easier to effectively serve the player.
In a perfect world, all levels of the organization are sending the same message to the player(s) regarding the role, value and implementation of the mental health practitioner. More realistically, outward support and clear definition of the practitioner’s role goes a long way.
- Defined Role: Clearly defining the role, will properly position the resource. It will also put players and staff members on notice regarding working parameters.
- Embed Resource in Coaching Staff: The highest probability for success is by having the resource sit on the bench during the game, ideally right between the player rotation. This is ultra-effective in improving performance and halting performance issues straight away as they arise during the game.
- The Dallas Mavericks, the Temple University Men’s Basketball Program, and Ironi Ness-Ziona Basketball Club of the Israeli Super League (FIBA Europe Cup) have all employed this set-up with success. Embedding a High-Performance Coach reinforces credibility and shows players that the team means business regarding the integration of the mental side of the game within the overall team dynamic.
- Direct Line of Communication: A direct line of communication from the mental health resource/performance coach to the decision-makers within the organization is vital. The mental and emotional responses of athletes are illogical and often unpredictable. So is the performance improvement of the player. It is very rarely a straight line up. A clean and clear feedback loop from the mental health expert to the decision-makers make this job much easier.
- Expert feedback presented consistently is a must, ideally in weekly or bi-weekly meetings. Confidentiality is always a major consideration. However, performance results and projective performance trajectories of a player are different than confidential information. When it comes to player performance, results, trajectories and player progression can be shared and must be put into context.
In High-Performance Mindfulness, there should be measurables, or metrics, showing the improvement for the player. Performance coaches should be judged by the tangible production they can facilitate for a player or set of players. In a results-based business such as professional basketball, showing the value add via statistical improvement is important. This is especially true in a growth space such as Mental Performance.
Finding a way to do this so that it does not infringe upon the domains of other coaching staff members is also a consideration. However, not acknowledging that Mental Performance has the potential for improving statistical on-court performance would be missing the point.
There is a gestation period that exists in High-Performance Mindfulness Coaching. Just like any other type of coaching, there is a period between the implementation of the work and the actual production improvement results. Understanding this will provide clarity and context.
There are just some of the best practices for helping jump-start your mental health and High-Performance Mindfulness initiatives at the NBA and professional basketball level.
The application of the mental health and High-Performance Mindfulness resources within the NBA and professional basketball is a little like the wild west right now. Through trial and error, organizations will see what works and what doesn’t within the context of their given situation.
One thing is for sure, though: This space is growing and growing fast, and decision-makers better have foundational understanding for how to give this initiative the best probability for success.
NBA Daily: Grading The Offseason – Denver Nuggets
James Blancarte continues Basketball Insiders’ “Grading The Offseason” series by examining the Denver Nuggets’ deep roster.
James Blancarte continues Basketball Insiders’ “Grading the Offseason” series analyzing the Denver Nuggets.
Throughout the offseason, Basketball Insiders has been taking a look at each respective franchise’s roster after the draft, offseason signings and trades. In doing so, we look to analyze and determine how each team did as they prepare for next season and beyond.
There are numerous strategies teams can take when it comes to the future. Some teams look to acquire various assets in exchange for taking on players with undesirable contracts. Having cleared up cap space, other teams use the offseason targeting free agents with the hope of making a big leap going forward. This offseason was one for the ages with a few teams willing to take huge risks and spend a treasure trove of assets to build an instant contender. Successful teams oftentimes resist the urge to make any major additions or subtractions and take a bet on internal growth and continuity.
And that leads us to the Denver Nuggets. Denver is fresh off a playoff run that nearly saw the franchise return to the Western Conference Finals. Some teams in big markets seem to come away with the biggest free agents. This offseason, Denver mostly did not come up with any top-tier acquisitions. However, with the talent and youth of their key players, the Nuggets shouldn’t be concerned. A year older, more mature and with the benefit of continuity, the Nuggets again enters the upcoming season as a Western Conference contender.
Last year, the Nuggets jumped up to second place in the west after finishing in ninth the prior two seasons. With that jump, Denver finally returned to the postseason, ending a five-season playoff drought. Jumping up seven seeds is an impressive season-to-season jump not often seen in the NBA. However, many Nuggets followers would argue that the team had been better than their prior results and the jump shouldn’t come across as a major surprise.
Credit the Nuggets’ investment and patience in their core players for last year’s results. The team has allowed their franchise star Nikola Jokic to fully explore his talents as his minutes, effectiveness and usage have increased year-to-year. Alongside Jokic, the team has seen significant development and improve play from Gary Harris and Jamal Murray.
Last year saw the two-man game between Jokic and Murray take off to a new level. Their intuitive and fluid two-man game created a foundation on offense that the team thrived on. Throw in a full season of Paul Millsap and the team became that much more dangerous. The year prior, the Nuggets acquired the multi-skilled Millsap but an injury kept him out much of the year and prevented the team from gelling fast enough to get back into the playoff picture. With a full season of Millsap in addition to the team’s young core, the Nuggets were able to hit another level.
The Nuggets should be lauded for their ability to draft, acquire and develop young talent. This past season saw second-year guard Monte Morris join the rotation and establish himself as another key contributor. Malik Beasley, a first-round pick for Denver in 2016, also had his best year so far and started in 18 games. Longtime mainstay Will Barton did struggle with injury last season. With his explosiveness somewhat limited, Barton didn’t have the same overall impact he has had in year’s past.
The Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers matchup in the semifinals produced fireworks. Denver came out of the wrong end of an unbelievable quadruple-overtime game. Losing that marathon game could have easily been the kind of loss that a team doesn’t recover from in a close matchup. Instead, the Nuggets came back and even led the series 3-2. Despite going toe-to-toe, the Nuggets came up just short in the final quarter of game seven.
Unlike a few other teams this year, there is no splashy star acquisition and that is just fine. Having come so close to making the Conference Finals and having already seen year-to-year growth from multiple key contributors, slow and steady may still win the race for the Nuggets. Jokic is arguably a top-10 player and is a realistic MVP candidate entering this upcoming season. Also, Jamal Murray was signed to a five-year, $170 million extension. Murray is an emerging talent and has the skill to be a dynamic offensive force in the future.
Just because the Nuggets didn’t sign or trade for a top-tier free agent doesn’t mean they would never consider it. There have been murmurs at times about whether Denver would or should pull the trigger and use their wealth of young talent to acquire a potentially available star like Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal. That speculation never seemed to amount to much and the team opted for a few smaller transactions.
On June 29, Denver exercised their team option to keep Millsap for $30 million for the 2019-20 season. Again, Millsap played well last season and helps make the Nuggets more versatile on both ends of the floor.
The Nuggets also acquired forward Jerami Grant by jumping into the Thunder fire sale of assets that started with the Paul George trade. In exchange for a 2020 first-round pick, the Nuggets picked up a versatile and capable defensive forward to help round out their deep roster.
There are a few other minor transactions to take note of. The Nuggets closed the book on Trey Lyles, who has been in the team’s big man rotation for the past few years. In spot play, he contributed at times but didn’t make an overall impact sufficient to justify the continued investment.
Denver has a deep roster and will need to stay flexible and figure out their best rotations next season. Barton will be looking to re-establish himself. Juan Hernangómez, who can play on the wing or as a small-ball four, will again be trying to find a permanent place in the rotation. Center Mason Plumlee formed a towering two-man front-court tandem that allowed Jokic to play from the perimeter, in addition to his backup center minutes. Plumlee may be wary of Jerami Grant, who could usurp some of those frontcourt minutes alongside Jokic.
PLAYERS IN: Jerami Grant, P.J. Dozier, Tyler Cook, Vlatko Cancar
PLAYERS OUT: Isaiah Thomas, Trey Lyles, Tyler Lydon, Brandon Goodwin, Thomas Welsh
Finishing second in the west, being a quarter away from the Conference Finals and bringing back the same squad of up and coming players should make the Nuggets a near lock to be a top-shelf team again. Continued development from many of their young players and an MVP season from Jokic could easily place them in the top-tier of the Conference again.
Unfortunately, the Nuggets will have to contend with newly minted contenders in the Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers. Add a stellar offseason for the Utah Jazz and the possibility that the James Harden-Russell Westbrook experiment could succeed and there are at least four other realistic contenders for the top two spots in the west.
Simply holding the two spot will be quite the challenge. However, the Nuggets have the benefit of youth, player development and continuity. Few teams can tout continuity as a major asset the way Denver can. This upcoming season will be an interesting test to see how important continuity is in an always-improving Western Conference.
Offseason Grade: B+