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NBA Daily: Ranking The Free Agents – Centers

Basketball Insiders has examined the best potential free agent signings at each position ahead of free agency. James Blancarte assesses the free agent centers hoping to sign new deals.

James Blancarte

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Basketball Insiders recently started a new series detailing the top free agents by position as a primer for the free agency period beginning on July 1.

Let’s get caught up. Drew Maresca covered point guards, Jordan Hicks shooting guards. Then, Spencer Davies detailed small forwards and Ben Nadeau wrote about power forwards.

First, a look at what the salary cap numbers project to be. The NBA’s salary cap is expected to jump from $101 million to $109 million this offseason. Based on that, here are the projected numbers for max contracts:

$27,250,000 for players with 0-6 years of experience

$32,700,000 for players with 7-9 years of experience

$38,150,000 for players with 10+ years of experience

In addition, the mid-level exception for teams in the first year is expected to be $9,246,000, while the taxpayer MLE is expected to be $5,711,000 and the room MLE is expected to be $4,760,000.

If you want a full list of players in the pool, feel free to refer to this page for a list of all the notable free agents-to-be.

Max Guys

Al Horford – Boston Celtics – Last Year’s Salary: $28,982,710

The Boston Celtics have been executing a multi-year plan that is on the verge of veering off-course. Al Horford declining his player option for next season and signing with a new team is another unexpected development. Horford is already 33 and on the backside of his prime. He is also properly recognized as a player that meshes well with other players, is a solid defender, strong outside shooter and a positive veteran presence. The need for a player to help turn a potential contender into a juggernaut helps ensure Horford will likely get a max contract.

With free agency frenzy hitting its zenith, speculation has mounted as to which team will be employing Horford’s services. Shane Rhodes covered potential Al Horford landings spots. The Mavericks have been spoken of as a potential destination as well as the New Orleans Pelicans and Los Angeles Clippers. As of June 29, Horford added a few Pelicans players offering a hint he might be headed to the suddenly very interesting New Orleans roster, although there is pushback as to whether this is a realistic possibility.

Where Does He Fit: Multiple contenders and would be contenders should and potentially will pursue Horford. The latest talk is of a large offer from the Sacramento Kings, the Philadelphia 76ers and the Dallas Mavericks with the Los Angeles Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers as remote possibilities. Most recent reports from Keith Smith are that Horford and the Celtics are working toward a return to Boston.

New Deal: 4 years/ $164,000,000 to the Boston Celtics

Near Max Guys

Nikola Vucevic – Orlando Magic – Last Year’s Salary: $12,750,000

Nikola Vucevic is a talented free agent center who doesn’t get as much attention as other players in higher profile markets. In addition, his strengths can resemble successful centers of a bygone era. He likes to post up with his back to the basket and is an effective scorer down low. Those skills come along with an ability to shoot the ball from the perimeter, to make decisions with the ball in the high post plus who can move the ball and is a capable defender who is quick enough with his feet.

Adding Vucevic would be a big move for any team needing an injection of talent and lacking option down low. Unfortunately for the rest of the league, it is being reported that Vucevic and the Orlando Magic are closing in on a deal that would see Vucevic return to Orlando.

Where Does He Fit: Teams striking out on their first options would do well to sign the talented big man but that possibility appears to be out the window as he is expected to re-sign with Orlando, according to Shams Charania.

New Deal: 4 years/$100 million to return to the Magic.

Above Mid-Level Guys

Jonas Valanciunas – Memphis Grizzlies – Last Year’s Salary: $15,460,675

The tale of Jonas Valanciunas is a less mentioned part of the upheaval that the Toronto Raptors went through last season. Just about any move will look like a good one when the end result is a championship and the trade that saw the Raptors give up Valanciunas in exchange for Marc Gasol is one of them. Valanciunas has played well throughout the years and demonstrated upside but has also underperformed at times including key moments in past playoffs.

Valanciunas declined his play option earlier this month. He is in his prime (27 years old) and could make a lot of money with a new team on his next contract. However, that possibility appears remote as it appears he will be returning on a three-year contract worth $45 million, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Where Does He Fit: Valanciunas would have fit well with a team that can use a boost at center to complement a well put together roster. Since he is returning to the Grizzlies, he can provide a veteran presence down low for the young roster.

New Deal: 3 years/$45 million to return to the Grizzlies

Dewayne Dedmon – Atlanta Hawks – Last Year’s Salary: $7,200,000

Dewayne Dedmon has had a bumpy ride on his professional journey having played for multiple G-League and various NBA teams on his way to the Atlanta Hawks. With the Hawks, Dedmon has been best able to demonstrate his abilities as a capable two-way player. As a member of the Hawks, Dedmon also demonstrated a newfound three-point shot that improved in both volume and efficiency in his second year with the Hawks.

Where Does He Fit: Recent reports link him as a secondary option for the Kings should they strike out on the Horford sweepstakes. Since Horford’s destination is still very much unclear, a Kings-Dedmon marriage looks like an increasingly real possibility, according to Sam Amick.

New Deal: 3 years/$40 million to the Kings.

Brook Lopez – Milwaukee Bucks – Last Year’s Salary: $3,382,000

Two seasons ago, the Los Angeles Lakers were on the tail end of the post-Kobe Bryant, pre-LeBron James transition period. Brook Lopez held things down at the center position for a franchise in flux. For whatever reason, the Lakers did not prioritize a Lopez return and he instead signed with the Milwaukee Bucks.

With the Bucks, Lopez again proved outside shooting and veteran leadership. Although the Bucks were not able to advance to the NBA Finals, Lopez shined in key moments and, when the offense grinded to a halt, he was able to help carry the load on offense in the playoffs.

Where Does He Fit: There was briefly talk of Lopez being a secondary signing to match Leonard if he were to sign with the Clippers. A do-over with the Lakers is not impossible either. There had been talk of a mutual interest in returning to the Bucks and has just been reported by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

New Deal: 4 years/$52 million to return to the Bucks

Mid-Level or Below Guys

DeMarcus Cousins – Golden State Warriors – Last Year’s Salary: $5,337,000

Of all available players, DeMarcus Cousins is difficult to pin down. He is a talented, versatile player that can score and improve a team’s offense in a variety of ways. Cousins is also recovering his athleticism from a torn Achilles two seasons ago and likely contributed to the subsequent quad injury that left him limited in the NBA Finals. Throw in his history of being a volatile personality and a potential disrupter in the locker room, what do you get?

The answer is unclear and so is predicting the market for Cousins. Last year with the Golden State Warriors, Cousins took less money to rehabilitate his body and his image yet things remain murky. If an acceptable long-term offer is not available, perhaps Cousins signs another short term offer to try the same game plan again.

Where Does He Fit: Hard to envision where he fits best considering his play, fit and personality are not easy to pin down. Running it back with the Warriors in a down year for the franchise is a decent option. The team could use the talent boost and better play will help him re-emerge in next year’s free agent pool may be best.

New Deal: 1 year/$5 million to return to the Warriors

DeAndre Jordan – New York Knicks – Last Year’s Salary: $22,900,000

Things have not been the same the last two seasons for DeAndre Jordan. After nearly bolting for the Dallas Mavericks in the middle of the lob city era, Jordan finally joined the Mavericks for the 2018-19 season. While the pairing had long been on Jordan’s mind, the fit just didn’t come together. It is true that Jordan’s productivity in the past two seasons has only incrementally decreased in the past few years. However, his play was often uninspired and criticism emerged that he was more focused on personal statistics.

Jordan found himself as a key part of the trade package the Mavericks put together to snatch Kristaps Porzingis from the New York Knicks. With the Knicks, Jordan put up good numbers when he played but fell victim to a losing season where he was quietly benched to help ensure the best lottery odds. Jordan no longer is the defensive anchor or uber-athletic rim running center he used to be, he can still be a useful cog for a couple of teams.

Where Does He Fit: Reports link him to the Nets and Lakers. Where the marquee free agents go will dictate if Jordan ends up being part of one of these two franchises. Latest bombshell reports from Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN have him joining Irving and Durant with the Nets.

New Deal: 2 year/$5 million to play for the Nets

Willie Cauley-Stein* – Sacramento Kings – Last Year’s Salary: $4,696,875

The Willie Cauley-Stein experience has been a bumpy one for both him and the Kings. Cauley-Stein has shown flashes of potential and numbers that can lead a team to believe that he continues to possess great potential. His inconsistent play and mercurial personality may also cause hesitation. In the right situation, he could thrive.

As of yesterday, the Kings extended a qualifying offer, despite his request to allow him to move on. While the Kings may not do so, they have the ability to match any offer made to him. Teams may be wary to sign him due to the risk of being held in limbo while the Kings decide whether to match or not.

Where Does He Fit: Cauley-Stein has been linked to the Mavericks and Lakers. Both Dallas and Los Angeles offer a much-needed change of scenery. If the offer is too low, the Kings may be compelled to keep him, at least as an attractive trade asset.

New Deal: 2 year/$5 million to play for the Mavericks

Robin Lopez – Team – Last Year’s Salary: $14,357,750

Enes Kanter – Portland Trail Blazers – Last Year’s Salary: $18,622,514

Thomas Bryant – Team – Last Year’s Salary: $1,378,242

Other Notable Free Agents

JaVale McGee – Los Angeles Lakers – Last Year’s Salary: $2,393,887

Ivaca Zubac* – Los Angeles Clippers – Last Year’s Salary: $1,544,951

Frank Kaminsky – Charlotte Hornets – Last Year’s Salary: $3,627,842

*Qualifying Offer (If made and accepted, the player becomes a restricted free agent)

**Non-Guaranteed Contract (If the player is waived by his current team before the contract becomes fully guaranteed, he becomes an unrestricted free agent)

***Player Option (The player has the choice of whether to opt-in for another year with his current team or opt-out to become an unrestricted free agent)

****Team Option (The team has the choice of whether to pick up a player for another year or opt-out to have him become an unrestricted free agent)

James Blancarte is a writer for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney based in Los Angeles, California.

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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.

Bobby Krivitsky

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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.

Drew Maresca

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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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NBA AM: Is This It for Indiana?

Following their major drop-off, Matt John explains why the Pacers trying to get back to where they were may not be the best decision.

Matt John

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Remember when, following the maligned trade of Paul George, the sky was the limit for the Indiana Pacers? The 2017-18 Pacers were one of the best stories in the NBA that season because they made their opponents work for their victories, and they put on a spectacle every night.

It’s hard to believe that all transpired three whole years ago. When Cleveland eliminated Indiana in a very tight first-round series, I asked if having the exciting season that they did – when many thought it would turn out the opposite – was going to benefit them in the long run. Three years later, this happens.

We were getting plenty of smoke about the Pacers’ drama behind-the-scenes beforehand, and now, we have seen the fire firsthand. More and more reports indicate that the crap has hit the fan. Indiana has seemingly already had enough of Nate Bjorkgren in only his first year as his coach. When you see the results they’ve had this season compared to the last three, it’s not hard to see why.

The Pacers have routinely found themselves in the 4-5 playoff matchup for the last three years. Sadly, despite their fight – and, to be fair, they had pretty awful injury luck the past two postseasons – they haven’t been able to get over the hump in the first round. They may not have been in the elite tier, but they weren’t slouches either. So, seeing them not only fail to take the next step but look more and more likely for the play-in is as discouraging as it gets. Especially after they started the season 6-2.

If these reports about the tensions between the players and Bjorkgren are real, then this has already become a lost season for the Pacers. It’s too late in the season to make any major personnel changes. At this point, their best route is just to cut their losses and wait until this summer to think over what the next move is.

In that case, let’s take a deep breath. This has been a weird season for everyone. Every aspect minus the playoffs has been shorter than usual since last October. Everything was shortened from the offseason to the regular season. Oh, and COVID-19 has played a role as the season has turned out, although COVID-19 has probably been the least of Indy’s problems. Let’s think about what next season would look like for Indiana.

TJ Warren comes back with a clean bill of health. Caris Levert gets more acquainted with the team and how they run. Who knows? Maybe they finally resolve the Myles Turner-Domantas Sabonis situation once and for all. A new coach can come aboard to steady the ship, and it already looks like they have an idea for who that’s going to be

Should they run it back, there’s a solid chance they can get back to where they were before. But that’s sort of the problem to begin with. Even if this recent Pacers’ season turns out to be just a negative outlier, their ceiling isn’t all too high anyway. A team that consists of Warren, Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon, and Caris Levert as their core four is a solid playoff team. Having Turner, Doug McDermott, TJ McConnell, Jeremy Lamb, and the Holiday brothers rounds out a solid playoff team. Anyone who takes a good look at this roster knows that this roster is a good one. It’s not great though.

Just to be clear, Indiana has plenty of ingredients for a championship team. They just don’t have the main one: The franchise player. Once upon a time, it looked like that may have been Oladipo, but a cruel twist of fate took that all away. This isn’t a shot at any of the quality players they have on their roster, but think of it this way.

For the next couple of years, they’re going to go up against Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving. All of whom are on the same team. For potentially even longer, they’ll be going up against the likes of Giannis Antetoukounmpo, Joel Embiid, and Jayson Tatum. With the roster they have, they could make a series interesting against any one of those teams. However, it’s a rule of thumb in the NBA that the team with the best player usually wins the series. Not to mention, they’d have to beat most of the teams those players play for to go on a substantial playoff run. That’s a pretty tall order.

There’s no joy in talking about the Pacers like this because they have built this overachieving underdog from nothing more than shrewd executive work. They turned a disgruntled and expiring Paul George into Oladipo and Sabonis. Both of whom have since become two-time all-stars (and counting). They then managed to turn an expiring and hobbled Oladipo – who had no plans to return to Indiana – into the electric Levert. They also pretty much stole Brogdon and Warren away while paying very little for either of them.

That is fantastic work. The only hangup is that, as of now, it just doesn’t seem like it will be enough. But, doubt and skepticism are things Indiana’s had thrown their way consistently since 2017. Many thought their approach to trading Paul George would blow up in their face, and since then, they’ve done everything in their power to make everyone eat their words.

Kevin Pritchard’s got his work cut out for him this summer. This season will hopefully turn out to be nothing more than performance ruined by both the wrong coaching hire and an unusual season that produced negatively skewed results. But at this point, Pritchard’s upcoming course of action this summer shouldn’t be about getting his team back to where they were, but deciding whether he can get them a step or two further than that by adding more to what they have or starting over completely.

Indiana’s had a rough go of it in this COVID-shortened season, but their disappointing play may have little to no bearing on where they go from here.

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