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NBA Daily: Ranking the Free Agents – Point Guards

Basketball Insiders kicks off a new series examining the free agent class of 2019 by position. To start, Drew Maresca assesses the free agent point guards hoping to sign new deals.

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ALERT: THIS IS NOT A DRILL. FREE AGENCY BEGINS IN FOUR DAYS.

With that being said, Basketball Insiders is kicking off a new series ranking the free agents by position. This first piece will rank the top 10 free agent point guards in terms of ability and the contract they will receive.

In this series, we will provide: a player summary, an overview of their 2018-19 salary, a projected 2019-20 salary and an opinion on where we feel they fit best and/or sign.

For context, here is a comprehensive list of all notable 2019 free agents.

Before getting into the actual free agents, here’s 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.

The point guard position is at least as important as any other position in basketball. And while basketball has taken strides to become more positionless, there is still significant value in having a floor general to direct the offense and maintain a preferred pace and playing style.

2019 free agency features lots of talented point guards, many of whom seem open to the idea of joining a new team.

Let’s explore the 10 best free agent points guards and project where they’ll sign and the length and value of their new contracts.

Max Guys

Kyrie Irving – Boston Celtics – Last Year’s Salary: $20,099,189

Irving is the definitive best point guard available. Everyone may not love his approach on and/or off the court, but he is the only player on his specific list of accomplishments, including leading a championship team.

Furthermore, Irving is only 26 years old and is the only point guard on the list capable of being the best player on a playoff team.

Irving made approximately $20 million last season. He chose to not opt-in to the final year of his contract, thus enabling him to enter unrestricted free agency.

He is eligible for the Supermax by Boston having been selected to an All-NBA team this season.

Where Does He Fit: The Clippers, Knicks, Lakers and Nets are all viable options – many of whom are in need of a point guard. The Nets are viewed as the favorites to land Irving, and ironically so considering the Nets could just as easily forge ahead with the younger D’Angelo Russell. But as good as Russell is, Irving is a clearly superior player at this stage of their respective careers. Irving can be cut and pasted into the Nets lineup and he instantly improves the team.

New Deal: Irving will ultimately sign with Brooklyn for 4 years/$140 million– especially following rumors that he hasn’t enjoyed living in Boston.

D’Angelo Russell* – Brooklyn Nets – Last Year’s Salary: $7,019,698

This ranking might surprise some considering that Kemba Walker is the more talented of the two and has yet to be listed. But we’re ranking free agents and not players, and since luring Walker out of Charlotte will require paying the 29-year-old the full max, Russell is the more appealing of the two.

Russell’s 2018-19 salary was the final year of his rookie deal, which netted him $7.019 million. He is due for a major raise.

Russell is only 23. He will cost approximately $23 million in his first season – significantly less than Walker’s Supermax  He will continue to improve over the course of the next few seasons, and it seems that he now understands the work and dedication required to maintain success in the NBA.

Where Does He Fit: Russell’s perfect fit is Brooklyn; but unfortunately, it seems as though the Nets are content to chase Irving. And Russell has apparently moved on quickly himself. While the Suns and Timberwolves are rumored to have interest in Russell, there is no better landing spot for the young lead guard than his former team – the Lakers. Rumors began circulating earlier this week that there is mutual interest between the two, and the Lakers are projected to have enough cap space to swing a deal.

New Deal: Russell may not fit the Lakers timeline as well as Walker, but he’ll fit in their salary cap better. Let’s say Russell signs a 4 year/$100 million deal with the Lakers.

Kemba Walker – Charlotte Hornets – Last Year’s Salary: $12,000,000

Walker is definitely a special point guard and player in the NBA. He gets buckets, makes his teammates better and operates without much of the drama that has surrounded Irving or Russell for the majority of their careers, respectively.

And Walker will probably be the second-best point guard signed this offseason in the 2019-20 season. But he is also two years older than Irving and six years older than Russell. He turned 29 last month, which means he has limited time remaining in his prime – especially for a guy listed generously as 6-foot-1; smaller guards are highly reliant on their quickness, and once that begins to wane, so too does their effectiveness.

Walker made only $12 million dollars in 2018-19 and is due for a hefty raise. Look for Walker to either cash in and sign a full max or give Charlotte a slight discount and remain with the Hornets on a five-year contract.

Where Does He Fit: While his age is prohibitive for teams looking to build around a younger core (e.g., Phoenix and Dallas), his timeline syncs up nicely with the Lakers and Celtics. Both teams would be ideal landing spots for Irving, but the Celtics are projected to have enough cap room to offer Walker a max. LA appears unable to free up enough space.

New Deal: Walker is eligible to sign a five-year, $231 million Supermax deal with Charlotte, but the allure of chasing a title will be too much to pass up. Walker may ultimately flee to the Celtics with a 4-year/$140.6 million deal.

Near Max Guys

Terry Rozier* – Boston Celtics – Last Year’s Salary: $3,050,390

Rozier took a step back in 2018-19. But he still put up relatively strong numbers – he ended the season averaging 14.6 points, 6.2 rebounds and 4.6 assists per 36 minutes. And he can still hang his hat on his 2018 NBA Playoffs performance.

Where Does He Fit: Rozier just turned 25 years old and he should be a main target of teams like the Knicks, Pacers, Suns and Bulls. Rozier made only $3 million in 2018-19, and he is eligible for a significant raise. He rejected a deal last year that would have paid him $12 million per year.

New Deal: It sounds as if Rozier’s camp is excited about going to Indiana in a starting point guard role; Rozier and Pacers star Victor Oladipo share an agent. His contract with the Pacers could come somewhere in the neighborhood of 3 years/$45 million.

Above Mid-Level Guys

Ricky Rubio – Utah Jazz – Last Year’s Salary: $14,975,000

It feels like Rubio has been in the NBA forever. But in reality, Rubio is still only 28 years-old. This will be his first go-round in unrestricted free agency. Rubio’s coming off of a nice season in which he averaged 12.7 points and 6.1 assists per game.

Where Does He Fit/New Deal: Rubio’s 2018-19 salary was $14.9 million. The Suns have become the favorites for Rubio’s services next season. As previously noted, the Suns have only $14 million in cap space. Be on the lookout for Rubio signing with Phoenix for 3 years/$50 million.

George Hill** – Milwaukee Bucks – Last Year’s Salary: $19,000,000

Hill was an important part of the Bucks’ rotation He is an above average defender and shooter. And he doesn’t command many touches, nor does he disrupt continuity or chemistry. But he is also 33-years-old, which will limit the teams that chase him in free agency.

Where Does He Fit/New Deal: Hill made $19 million last season. His contract technically runs through 2020-21, but his contract allows the Bucks to buy him out for only $1 million if it’s completed prior to July 2. The Bucks will waive Hill and offer him a longer-term deal starting at less than what would otherwise be a $19 million cap hit. Look for Hill to re-sign with Milwaukee for 2 years/$26 million.

Tyus Jones* – Minnesota Timberwolves – Last Year’s Salary: $2,444,053

Jones had a breakout year of sorts in 2018-19. He set the NBA record with a 6.9-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. Furthermore, he’s coming off a season in which he set career highs in points, assists and rebounds per game. And he’s only four years into his career. Having just turned 23 bodes well for Jones, as he should continue to improve over the next few years.

Where Does He Fit/New Deal: Jones made $2.444 million in 2018-19. He can go out and sign an offer sheet as a restricted free agent, forcing the Timberwolves’ hand. Or they can reach an agreement quickly. Either way, Jones should command a contract in the range of 4 years/$40million. And we’ll expect him to re-sign with Minnesota given his relationship with Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Wolves head coach Ryan Saunders.

Patrick Beverley – Los Angeles Clippers – Last Year’s Salary: $5,027,028

Beverley is the quintessential point guard if you’ve already got a lead ball-handler and/or scorer. He is among the best defensive point guards in the league. He’s also an antagonist who is completely unafraid of literally anyone – including Kevin Durant, as was evidenced in the 2019 playoffs. Beverley turns 31 this July, but that shouldn’t deter interested teams.

Beverley made $5 million in 2018-19. He certainly proved his worth this past post-season, again. While he’s unlikely to get too much more, he is likely to receive a longer-term contract considering the market he’s created for himself.

Where Does He Fit/New Deal: Lots of teams are interested in Beverley, which bodes well for the Chicago native, including the Bulls, Mavericks and 76ers; but he fits in with Dallas the best. Assuming the Mavericks maintain the requisite space, a deal with Dallas for 2 years/$22 million might be the best option.

T.J. McConnell – Philadelphia 76ers – Last Year’s Salary: $1,600,520

McConnell definitely played himself into a handsome contract. He had a great playoff run, and his nagging defense was noteworthy in the playoffs against the Nets and Raptors.

Where Does He Fit/New Deal: The 27-year-old  made only $1.6 million in 2018-19. There are rumors of mutual interest between the Suns and McConnell. If the Suns strike out on Russell, Beverley and Rozier, they could turn their attention to McConnell,. But the 76ers also still need his services and they will be over the cap if they re-sign Butler and Harris (while unable to exceed it to sign others whose bird rights they do not possess).  McConnell could just ultimately sign with Philadelphia for 3 years/$30 million.

Mid-Level or Below Guys

Delon Wright – Memphis Grizzlies – Last Year’s Salary: $2,536,898

Wright has been serviceable for most of his four-year career, but his breakout took place in Memphis following a trade from Toronto at the 2019 deadline. Wright averaged 12.2 points, 5.4 rebounds and 5.3 assists in his nearly 31 minutes per game over 26 games with Memphis. Wright is also 27-years-old and still has most of his prime ahead of him.

Where Does He Fit/New Deal: Wright’s contract for 2018-19 was $2.536 million. He, too, will get a significant raise. He probably won’t take home quite as much as McConnell, but it will be close. Look for Wright to sign with the Magic– who were interested in acquiring him at the deadline – for 3 years/$27 million.

Shaun Livingston** – Golden State Warriors – Last Year’s Salary: $8,307,692

Livingston has been an important piece of the Warriors’ championship teams. He has also been a seemingly perfect teammate, playing his role perfectly and not asking for anything more than he’s been given.

Where Does He Fit: Livingston’s length and high basketball IQ have made him irreplaceable in Oakland – and his role will likely grow next year when the Warriors move to San Francisco considering the injuries and/or departures or Durant and/or Klay Thompson, and the team’s lack of salary cap space. The Warriors will need the 34-year-old-to-be, and would struggle to replace him considering they’re already over the cap.

New Deal: Livingston made $8.3 million in 2018-19. His re-signing with Golden State is probably the most predictable move of all the projections on this list. He will likely sign a one year/$8 million deal with the Warriors– after alluding to possibly even retiring in an interview with NBC Sports in October 2018 and re-affirming that he’s close to being done with our own Spencer Davies this past winter.

Derrick Rose – Minnesota Timberwolves – Last Year’s Salary: $1,512,601

Rose had something of a resurgence in 2018-19. He notched a career high of 50 points last October, playing strongly beyond his career night, too. He averaged 18 points, 4.3 assists and 2.7 rebounds per game – which represents a better season than he’s had since 2015-16.

Rose didn’t make much last season, which is a bargain considering the season he posted. He may not get a long-term deal, but he will most certainly command significantly more than $2 million.

Where Does He Fit/New Deal: Rose fits in nicely with a number of teams. He can still provide scoring punch off the bench, with his best fit being with Indiana or Chicago. While Indiana is probably the better landing spot, Chicago will be in serious need of help at the point guard spot. And it is there that Rose could reunite with his hometown team that drafted him on a one year/$10 million contract.

Other Notable Free Agents

Darren Collison – Indiana Pacers – Last Year’s Salary: $10,000

Elfrid Payton – New Orleans Pelicans – Last Year’s Salary: $3,000,000

Cory Joseph – Indiana Pacers – Last Year’s Salary: $7,945,000

Rajon Rondo – Los Angeles Lakers – Last Year’s Salary: $9,000,000

Emmanuel Mudiay* – New York Knicks – Last Year’s Salary: $4,294,480

Shabazz Napier** – Minnesota Timberwolves– Last Year’s Salary: $1,942,442

Quinn Cook* – Golden State Warriors – Last Year’s Salary: $1,544,951

J.J. Barea – Dallas Mavericks – Last Year’s Salary: $3,710,850

Ish Smith – Detroit Pistons – Last Year’s Salary: $6,000,000

Trey Burke – Dallas Mavericks – Last Year’s Salary: $1,795,015

Frank Jackson** – New Orleans Pelicans – Last Year’s Salary: $1,378,242

Yogi Ferrell** – Sacramento Kings– Last Year’s Salary: $3,000,000

Shaquille Harrison** – Chicago Bulls – Last Year’s Salary: $1,311,265

Jerian Grant* – Orlando Magic – Last Year’s Salary: $2,639,314

Frank Mason** – Sacramento Kings– Last Year’s Salary: $1,378,242

Shelvin Mack – Charlotte Hornets – Last Year’s Salary: $1,512,601

Ryan Arcidiacono** – Chicago Bulls – Last Year’s Salary: $1,349,383

Raul Neto – Utah Jazz – Last Year’s Salary: $2,150,000

Tim Frazier – Milwaukee Bucks – Last Year’s Salary: $196,553

Jeremy Lin – Toronto Raptors – Last Year’s Salary: $487,109

Isaiah Thomas – Denver Nuggets – Last Year’s Salary: $1,512,601

Raymond Felton – Oklahoma City Thunder – Last Year’s Salary: $1,512,601

Michael Carter-Williams – Orlando Magic – Last Year’s Salary: $59,820

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

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

The 2019 free agent class is filled with point guard talent. Lots of teams will add a new floor general. And lots of point guards will get paid. This particular free agent class boasts an even breakdown of established point guards and unproven floor generals.

Still, some teams will miss out on their desired point guard and will be forced to turn to Plan B, C or even D. Either way, the madness begins this Sunday at 6 pm EST.

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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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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.

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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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