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NBA Daily: Free Agent Watch – Day 1

Free Agency has finally arrived, and after the first day, Matt illustrates why this one is already one for the books.

Matt John

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“It’s the most wonderful time of the year!
With those millions in writing,
And All-Stars combining to give hope or fear!
It’s the most wonderful time of the year!”

Seriously though, for junkies like us, the NBA offseason is basically the holidays. People always talk about how they can’t stand all the pressure, all the buildup for when we see the next twist of the offseason. But let’s be honest. We love it. Even if things don’t always turn out the way we wanted it to, we love all the thrills and anxieties that manifest themselves from free agency.

Leading up to the 6:00 EST starting line, this summer was hyped up to be as epic as it could ever be thanks to its deep class of stars on the open market. It hasn’t even been a full day yet, and it’s already lived up to the hype. Best of all, we still have lofty cliffhangers that have yet to be resolved.

About the whole “tampering” debacle

If you’ve been paying attention since the start of all of this, you would know that a fair amount of these deals that have been agreed to this summer were reportedly done before free agency officially began. It’s pretty obnoxious to see that teams are clearly talking to players before they are permitted to, and it makes seem as though the rules aren’t being enforced.

To be fair, the rules against tampering are like the drinking age. Legally you’re not supposed to take a sip of alcohol until you’re 21, but how many people who drink actually waited until they were of age to do so? Point being is that this is a rule that NBA teams bend as much as they can.

The NBA can do all it can to change this. They can make the rules stricter. They can hand out harsher punishments. Honestly, though, the league’s best move may be just to let things be the way they are. You know how they say any press is good press? Everyone tunes into the NBA offseason as much as they can, so this kind of attention is only good for the NBA. There’s no need to ruin something that is clearly profitable.

It’s a shame that tampering still happens quite often no matter what the NBA tries to do to get rid of it, but that’s what makes it fun.

Now, onto the real plot lines everybody wants to read about.

A new contender has emerged

After receiving the worst hand it could have possibly imagined not too long ago, this team has swiftly built itself into a squad that won’t be messing around with anyone this upcoming season. Before it was just a pipedream, but now, a title can definitely be in play for these guys. That’s right, the Utah Jazz have now taken the next step into title contention.

Oh wait, did you think this writer was talking about Brooklyn? We’ll get to them, but for now, let’s talk about the team who, as a result from Day 1 of Free Agency, will definitely be a contender next season.

Crap, was that a spoiler?

After suffering their second consecutive gentleman’s sweep at the hands of the Houston Rockets, Jazz executive vice president Dennis Lindsey swore to fans that some major changes were in order. Utah doesn’t exactly have the best reputation as a free agent destination and didn’t have exactly top-notch assets, so many were interested to see what major changes they could orchestrate.

Now, after the season ended only two months ago, Lindsey and the Jazz have lived up to their promise and then some. Utah has pounced on every opportunity that presented itself for the team to get better. If that sounds ludicrous to you, let’s go over the checklist for what the Jazz needed to improve themselves this offseason.

  1. Get another scorer/playmaker to take some of the heavy offensive burden off of Donovan Mitchell — Traded for Mike Conley – Check
  2. Get a floor spacer/complementary scorer who can be paired up in the frontcourt with Rudy Gobert — Signed Bojan Bogdanvoic – Check
  3. Get a back-up big who can replace Derrick Favors with his energy and rebounding — Signed Ed Davis – Check

On paper, this is the best Jazz team assembled since the Deron Williams days, and if things break their way, they could be seeing success much similar to the Malone/Stockton days. The Jazz were once an adorable little train that could. Now they’re a freight train at full throttle with no brakes to speak of.

Brooklyn has created a… new super team?

If you think this writer doesn’t approve of all the moves Brooklyn has made up to this point, you’re dead wrong. Brooklyn just hauled in Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and DeAndre Jordan. All on discounts too. In the process, they added a solid 3&D wing in Garrett Temple as well as traded D’Angelo Russell and a few others to open up roster spots for ring-chasers.

However, if you think that means it’s smooth sailing for Brooklyn from here on out, you’re dead wrong. Durant is currently recovering from an Achilles tear he suffered merely weeks ago. Missing the entire season is very much in the realm of possibility. Even if say he comes back the next season fully healthy, he’ll be 32. Without Durant, Brooklyn is a solid team, but not a contender. If he’s not the Kevin Durant we know and love when he gets back, then they definitely won’t be a contender. Giving him a near-max contract is a risk, but since it’s KD, it’s a much safer risk than most.

It doesn’t just end with him. Kyrie Irving has proven himself to be a negative in the locker room. DeAndre Jordan hasn’t played like DeAndre Jordan in two years. That can both be remedied now that they are playing in a situation they obviously prefer to be in. Something to consider – they were in good situations before they grew tired of them. For the Nets’ sake, hopefully, history doesn’t repeat itself.

The return of the sign and trade

Remember when signs-and-trades were rare? Especially nowadays? Not many players agree to those kinds of deals anymore, but after Day 1 of Free Agency, the sign-and-trade has had itself a little bit of a renaissance.

And these agreements haven’t been over minor roster tweaks. These deals have actually been involved with some of the most important players that were on the market. Since the bell rang at 6, we’ve seen S&T’s involving Kevin Durant, Jimmy Butler and Kemba Walker – just to name a few.

Due to the sign and trade, the following has happened:

  • The Warriors have brought in a whole new dimension to their team with D’Angelo Russell aboard.
  • The Nets could afford to bring in all the targets they wanted and cheaper than the market value that was placed on them.
  • The Celtics now have their new star point guard to replace their previous one.
  • The HEAT have now (hopefully) found new life with their newest face of the franchise in Jimmy Butler, who was a sizable upgrade compared to what they had.
  • The Sixers (hopefully) found good value for a player in Josh Richardson, who was leaving anyway and opened space to pay for another star.
  • The Hornets didn’t lose their star player for nothing and have their point guard of the future in Terry Rozier (…hopefully).

Many thought the sign-and-trade was dead. As we can see, it’s alive and well.

Teams have gotten knocked down, but not out

Among all that was gained in Day 1, plenty was lost.

Golden State lost Kevin Durant. Philadelphia lost Jimmy Butler and JJ Redick. Boston lost Kyrie Irving and Al Horford. Milwaukee lost Malcolm Brogdon.

Even with that, teams re-tooled in order to keep their status.

  • To make up for their loss of Durant, the Warriors added D’Angelo Russell.
  • To make up for their loss of Butler and Redick, the Sixers added Horford and Josh Richardson.
  • To make up for the loss of Irving and Horford, Boston added Kemba Walker.
  • To make up for their loss of Brogdon, the Bucks brought their core guys back plus added Robin Lopez.

There are still questions with both what they lost and they gained, but some appreciation is in order that even though they probably would have preferred otherwise, they have weathered the storm.

Indiana is a better example of this. In the last day or so, the Pacers have lost Darren Collison, Thaddeus Young and Bojan Bogdanovic, all of whom combined are a major net loss for them. However, the team has added a young scorer in TJ Warren, a solid rotation player in Jeremy Lamb and the ideal complement for Victor Oladipo, Malcolm Brogdon.

Perhaps the best example of this is New Orleans. David Griffin has been as savvy as ever this offseason in the face of his new franchise losing arguably its most talented player ever. We don’t need to list off everything he acquired for Anthony Davis because you already know. In free agency, he’s made smart moves that boost the team and doesn’t drag it down financially.

The Pelicans did not have reliable spacing leading up to the free agency. To aid that, they gave Redick a fairly manageable two-year deal worth $26 million. The Pelicans also needed some frontcourt help even with the addition of Zion Williamson. Without sacrificing much, they acquired the criminally underrated Derrick Favors from Utah.

As some of the premier teams have shown us, losing some of your best players is not an easy task, but that doesn’t mean you can’t manage without them.

The Kawhi sweepstakes are heating up

Among all the hoopla that was going on during the first day of free agency, you may have noticed that not many moves have been made by Kawhi’s top suitors: The Lakers, Clippers and of course, Raptors.

The Lakers have traded everyone not named LeBron, Anthony or Kyle to make room for Kawhi. The Raptors have only had Marc Gasol opt-in to return next season. The Clippers just now re-signed Patrick Beverley, which, according to Eric Pincus, will not financially affect their pursuit of Kawhi.

The minimal number of moves demonstrates that all three are putting all of their eggs in the Kawhi basket. It’s a shame he can’t be shared. Only one of them can have him, and as the Knicks have shown from Day 1, there’s always someone who ends up being the loser of the offseason. When the Kawhi chase is over, we’ll have two more.

Not that all will be lost for the two teams who Kawhi leaves in the dust. It’s that when he does, there will be major implications for what will happen to them next season. Plan B for all of them isn’t too promising of an outlook.

There are plenty more plot lines to choose from, like what the Knicks are doing now that they’ve missed out on Durant and Irving. Or why exactly the Kings paid $65 million combined for Trevor Ariza and Dewayne Dedmon. Or how NBA Twitter will fare now that the Lopez twins are on the same team.

So many exciting moves out there are worth analyzing in less than 24 hours time.

As this writer said, it’s the most wonderful time of the year…

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NBA Daily: Crabbe’s Arrival Brings Wolves Needed Shooting

The Minnesota Timberwolves trading for Allen Crabbe was not simply to move Jeff Teague or to create future trade possibilities, but mostly to give Robert Covington a chance at a few more clean looks. Douglas Farmer writes.

Douglas Farmer

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By trading away Jeff Teague and his $19 million expiring contract, the Minnesota Timberwolves clearly created more time for Shabazz Napier and perhaps opened a pathway to increasing the aggression from Andrew Wiggins, as seen earlier in the year. But to hear head coach Ryan Saunders tell it, acquiring Allen Crabbe from the Atlanta Hawks will help forward Robert Covington more than anyone else.

Teague’s return to Atlanta has little effect on either team’s salary cap structures moving forward. All three pieces — Teague and Crabbe, along with Treveon Graham — are on expiring contracts, and the combination of Teague and Graham out-costs Crabbe by only $2.6 million. The lack of long-term effect has created some speculation Crabbe may be a part of another deal for the Timberwolves before February’s trade deadline, but more likely, he is on hand to create the spacing Minnesota has lacked all season as it implements a modern offensive system.

That may sound counterintuitive since Crabbe is in the midst of a career-worst shooting season, hitting only 32.3 percent of his attempts from deep while taking barely half as many per game as he did the last two seasons. Combining that with Covington’s season-long struggles from beyond the arc — and adding a scuffling shooter to a scuffling shooter — seems a poor way to strengthen the league’s No. 23 offense.

Looking at Crabbe in terms of his career, though, a 38.9 percent three-point threat better fits Saunders’ thoughts.

“A lot of times you see, just for example, a pick-and-roll, the ball will be in Andrew [Wiggins]’ hands, with [Karl-Anthony Towns] the screener,” Saunders said Saturday.  “A lot of times [Covington] is in the high [quadrant]. If you put another high-level shooter in the opposite corner, defenses when they’re coming in to help on the roll, they have to make a choice between Cov and who they want to get the shot up.”

With Towns missing more than a month before this weekend, Saunders’ exact scenario has been rare of late, but the concept holds up.

As Napier spurned Gorgui Dieng’s screen and drove, he looked past Wiggins at the break and instead fired to Covington in the high quadrant just as Saunders suggested. Covington hit the contested shot, part of a recent uptick from the six-year veteran, but it was by no means the open shot a system based on spacing is supposed to provide.

“Certain positions, maybe we have guys at a significantly lower percentage than Cov that [defenses] heavily shade to Cov,” Saunders said. “So I think it’ll really help Cov.”

Saunders tried to be political — not the only time in the availability, as he danced around criticizing some poor calls in Friday’s loss at the Indiana Pacers — but even the coachspeak made the reality clear. The Timberwolves do not have shooting on the roster, and they know it; that has only further hampered the shooting they do have in Covington.

Crabbe’s career mark would rank third on Minnesota’s roster this season, behind only Towns’ 40.6 percent and Dieng’s 39.2. Of Timberwolves attempting at least three 3’s per game, only Towns and Covington are shooting better than even Crabbe’s current 32.3 percent. (That excludes Jake Layman, who has appeared in only 14 games due to a sprained toe.)

Whether Crabbe spots up in the corner or at the break, a la Wiggins above, or Covington does so with Crabbe at the top, the Minnesota newcomer will offer much better shooting than has been available through the first half of the season. Even if it is not in a pick-and-roll situation, an added shooter will give Napier both a better chance to find a marksman and better spacing to get to the rim.

Despite no genuine complementary shooters, Covington has already begun to change his season’s tide. Through the year’s first 32 games, he was shooting only 33.7 percent from beyond the arc on a little under five attempts per game. Those would both be his second-worst career marks for a season.

Something shifted in the new year. In the last nine games, Covington has hit 39.5 percent of his threes on over eight attempts per game. Those would both be career-highs for a season.

All along, a significant portion of Covington’s attempts has been contested. His shooting motion may as well have become a default pump fake, welcoming a defender and then popping.

“Cov has always been a tough shot maker,” Saunder said. “Some guys have that.”

If Crabbe’s arrival has the intended effect, Covington may not need to prove that skill as often moving forward.

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NBA Daily: Gary Clark Hopes To Stick In Orlando

David Yapkowitz chats with Orlando Magic forward Gary Clark about his time in Houston and showing what he’s capable of in the duration of his 10-day contract.

David Yapkowitz

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Life on a non-guaranteed contract in the NBA can be a little bit stressful. Players have to work just a little bit harder and be just a little more efficient than everyone else. They’ve got to do about their daily grind with the thought they can be cut at any moment in the back of their minds.

Sometimes there isn’t any advance warning. They could have put in all the necessary work and gone above and beyond what was asked of them, but still end up being cut. It’s no fault of their own and they may be left wondering where they went wrong.

There are also contract deadlines they need to be cognizant of. Depending on the roster outlook at various points in the season, teams may have to make quick decisions regarding contracts. The first major hurdle players have to overcome is the initial opening night roster deadline. Once they make it past that, they’re still not out of the woods just yet.

The next deadline is in early January when all contracts become guaranteed for the remainder of the season. After impressing the organization enough last season to make the Houston Rockets’ opening night roster out of training camp, Gary Clark didn’t survive this season’s January deadline.

He played a key role at times for the Rockets as a rookie, but found himself on the outside looking in this season. Houston had three players on non-guaranteed contracts: Clark, Ben McLemore and Isaiah Hartenstein. Clark kind of knew his time in Houston was coming to an end when he was the only one of the three who was on the bench most of the time.

“I kind of expected it, just knowing how the basketball world works when it comes down to trigger dates and stuff like that with contracts. Being a guy that wasn’t playing much at that time, I figured it was kind of between me and two other guys, the three of us,” Clark told Basketball Insiders. “That week, I was the only one that wasn’t playing out of us three. It was obvious what the business decision had to be, but you just take it for what it is and keep going forward.”

Clark didn’t remain a free agent for long. Just a couple of days after being cut by the Rockets, the Orlando Magic signed him to a 10-day contract. An injury to Jonathan Isaac precipitated a need for additional help on the wing and in small ball situations as the Magic find themselves entrenched in playoff positioning in the Eastern Conference.

Clark joined the Magic for their current west coast road trip, and he’s immediately been inserted into the rotation. Head coach Steve Clifford has been impressed so far by what he’s seen from Clark, and he’s eager to see how Clark responds while playing on a 10-day contract.

“He can shoot and he’s got good toughness. I think he’s got a good feel for how to play,” Clifford told reporters after a recent game against the Clippers. “I want to see what he can do. We need somebody at that spot that’s skilled like that.”

Clark had his best game of this three-game stretch in his first game with the Magic, a big win over the Los Angeles Lakers. He had 10 points off the bench on 4-for-6 shooting from the field, including 2-for-4 from the three-point line. He didn’t score against the Los Angeles Clippers, but he pulled down four rebounds and gave the team an all-around toughness on the court.

In the Magic’s most recent game against the Golden State Warriors, he shot well again, hitting two of his three attempts — including one from the three-point line. Clark’s early role in Orlando has been similar to what he brought in Houston. That’s a wing who can space the floor and play some power forward in small-ball situations.

“Just bringing some energy and knocking down shots. Being versatile defensively, being able to switch on multiple guys if need be, and use my athleticism,” Clark told Basketball Insiders. “Knocking down shots is one thing, but my activity on the glass on both ends has been solid.”

When Isaac went down, the Magic lost one of the best defensive players in the NBA this season. Isaac was certainly a candidate for First Team All-Defense and had even played his way into the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year. Bringing some of that same defensive effort is something that Clark can definitely do.

He was a standout defensive player while in college at Cincinnati. He was a two-time AAC Defensive Player of the Year and displayed a similar skill-set to Isaac in being able to guard multiple positions. In his early stint with the Rockets, he showed his ability to defend at the NBA level as well.

In his first couple of games with the Magic, he saw himself opposite players like LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard. It’s the defensive end of the floor where he feels he can make a solid impact.

“I think this team gives me an opportunity as a young guy to show that I’m capable of doing that,” Clark told Basketball Insiders. “The times that I did get those opportunities, I think I did solid against those guys. It’s going to come, when the opportunity comes I’ll be ready for it.”

While Clark started out as a rotation player as a rookie in Houston, he eventually hit the rookie wall and saw himself sent down to the Rio Grande Valley Vipers in the G League for seasoning. This season, he found himself on the end of the bench but saw some opportunity when Danuel House Jr. went down with an injury.

Although his role was a bit inconsistent, Clark believes he learned some things with the Rockets that will help him in his professional journey. One of the biggest takeaways for him is being able to communicate effectively with the rest of the team, especially when you’re unfamiliar with the team’s plays.

“It’s communication no matter what,” Clark told Basketball Insiders. “I don’t know most of the stuff that guys run or fully know all the schemes, but just being able to talk on the floor on both offense and defense and be there for guys and guys being there for me as well.”

This stint with Orlando is nothing new to Clark in terms of having to prove himself. The Magic have two options once his 10-day runs out. They either release him or sign him to another 10-day. If he makes it past the second 10-day, the Magic have to sign him for the remainder of the season or release him.

No matter what happens, Clark is confident that he’s shown enough both with the Rockets and the Magic to prove that he belongs in the NBA.

“I think any guy that comes from a trade or being waived struggles to make the transition like I’m going through. I can’t be too high or too low in this stint that I’m here, or in the 10-day,” Clark told Basketball Insiders. “I think I did enough in Houston to show my versatility and my ability to knock down shots. I think in the long haul, what I bring to the table is good enough to be here.”

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NBA Daily: Ricky Rubio Raising Expectations in Phoenix

The momentum train in Phoenix may have slowed down, but the Suns are still rolling along nicely. There has been a myriad of changes since last season, but one acquisition, in particular, has been invaluable to the franchise’s major turnaround.

Chad Smith

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When Ricky Rubio signed a three-year contract with the Phoenix Suns for $51 million in July, it was immediately deemed an overpay. The point guard was rumored to be headed to Indiana, but the Suns simply made him a better offer. The offseason addition quickly paid off for the Suns, who were one of the darling surprise teams in the first couple months of the season.

This move was met with criticism because heading into free agency, the biggest need for Phoenix was perimeter shooting. Notoriously known as a guard that can’t shoot the ball, Rubio has shown over the past two seasons that is a false narrative. Rubio is shooting over 41 percent from the floor and 34 percent from distance — those are both near career-highs for the 29-year old floor general.

Some of that can be attributed to the spacing that has opened up with the additions of Dario Saric and Aron Baynes, and, of course, the franchise’s best player, Devin Booker. The other part though is the work that Rubio has put in during the summer and over the course of the season. After six entertaining years in Minnesota and a couple of seasons in Utah, Rubio has truly excelled in Monty Williams’ system.

After a rough month of December, the Suns have been much better as of late. They have won four of their last five games, including last night’s contest in Boston. Rubio, in particular, has been stuffing the stat sheet. In New York City on Thursday night, Rubio served up 25 points, 8 rebounds, 13 assists and 4 steals. Better, he was 10-for-18 from the floor including 3-for-5 from downtown.

Now in his ninth year in the league, Rubio’s 13.6 point scoring average is a career-high. The points are what people will take notice of, but it is his distribution that should be getting the attention. Rubio is averaging a career-high 9.4 assists per game, which ranks second in the league behind only LeBron James. This is what is has been fueling the turnaround in Phoenix.

There is something to be said for shot creation, but also the effectiveness being paired with Booker. The notion early on was that it wouldn’t work because they both need the ball. It is this exact reason though that both are having more success this year. Booker no longer has to handle the ball for the bulk of possessions and create shots for himself and for others. The duo has been lethal in transition. Only LeBron and Giannis Antetokounmpo have scored more fast-break points than Booker this season.

Last season Booker had the third-highest usage rate (32.9) in the league, behind only James Harden and Joel Embiid. Through 41 games this season, Booker now ranks 19th in that category. Booker has been reaping the rewards in a lot of areas. His scoring is still right where it was last year, but his efficiency is up tremendously. In the 38 games that he has played this season, Booker is shooting 51 percent from the floor which is nearly five percent higher than any of his previous four seasons.

The pace (9th) and offensive rating (14th) have vastly improved with Rubio running the point. The emergence of Kelly Oubre Jr has been building for a couple of years now, but Rubio has brought out the best in him. Surrounding him with capable shooters in the form of big men has helped as well. Both Baynes and Saric have thrived in their roles, and rookie Cameron Johnson has been a solid contributor in that regard.

Amid all of this happening, keep in mind that the Suns have been doing all of this essentially without their franchise big man Deandre Ayton. The No. 1 overall pick in 2018 has played just 11 games this season due to his 25-game suspension. He exploded for his first 20-20 game on Thursday in New York, posting 26 points and 21 rebounds. He was perfect from the free-throw line but he has surprisingly only taken 17 attempts this year.

Perhaps the best quality of Rubio’s presence is just how contagious his style of play has become. Last season the Suns ranked 20th in team assists — and this year they are second in the league. Once everyone is able to see the ball move and they can trust that their teammates will keep moving the ball to find the open man, it really puts pressure on the defense. San Antonio has been notorious for this style of play, while Brad Stevens has been doing the same thing in Boston.

When the ball moves where it is supposed to, great things happen.

The road ahead doesn’t look pretty for Phoenix. Now they will face San Antonio twice, Indiana, Memphis, Dallas, Oklahoma City and Milwaukee. They also have matchups with Houston, Denver and the Los Angeles Lakers before the All-Star break.

Realistically, the Suns could be well out of the playoff picture at that point — but considering where they have been for the past few years, the season could still be considered a success. They could have more wins by the break than they have won in total for each of the last four seasons. Williams is building something special in the desert and most of it began with the acquisition of something they have been missing for several years: A quality starting point guard.

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