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NBA Daily: Ranking the Free Agents – Shooting Guards

Basketball Insiders continues its series examining the free agent class of 2019 by position. To start, Jordan Hicks looks at the best available shooting guards on the market.

Jordan Hicks

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

In continuing where Drew Maresca left off with top point guard targets, we will now take a look at the top 10 shooting guards that are headed to free agency.

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.

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.

Without further ado, here are the shooting guards that are sure to make the biggest splashes in free agency.

Max Guys

Klay Thompson – Golden State Warriors – Last Year’s Salary: $18,988,725

Klay Thompson is arguably the best shooting guard this free agency, period – and he certainly has an argument for best in the league. Not only is he historically one of the best shooters the league has ever seen, but he’s also been one of the most important – if not the most important – defenders on his team.

He’s shot a career 41.9 percent from three-point range on seven attempts per night. Before Kevin Durant buddied up with Golden State, Klay’s shooting was relied upon nightly. The past three seasons it seems like he’s only had to swoop in and be the savior every third or fourth game. Regardless, he has immense talent in multiple areas on the court and his services could essentially be used on any team in the league.

If you have forgotten just how lethal Klay has the ability to be, just look up the record for most points in a quarter. To save you some time – it’s Thompson. 37 points to be exact. If a single team scored 37 per quarter that’d be 148 points per game. That’s pretty good if you didn’t know already.

To the dismay of Thompson, he wasn’t named to an All-NBA team this season, so he isn’t eligible for the Supermax contract. Despite whatever team he lands with, however, fully expect Klay to get a max deal. He isn’t worth anything less.

Where Does He Fit: Like previously mentioned, Thompson could fit on literally any roster. He is quite honestly the best three-and-D player in the league and the standard by which all others should be judged. Before the playoffs began – and more-or-less through the first two rounds – there were rumors going around the Klay was getting sick of his role with the Warriors and would consider seeking other options.

Pre-injury Klay was thought to be interested in signing with a different team. His ACL tear has led many to believe he will stay at home and finish his career off with the Warriors. They can offer him an extra year and more guaranteed money. Not many players have the ability to garner a max deal the summer after tearing their ACL, but Klay is one of the few.

New Deal: Thompson will sign a 5 year/$190 million and stay with the Warriors. Pending other free agent decisions, the Warriors will bank on their new arena to help fill the incredible, imminent debt sure to be left by the luxury tax bill. Klay should hopefully be back by next March at the latest ready to help Golden State go after yet another title.

Jimmy Butler – Philadelphia 76ers – Last Year’s Salary: $20,445,779

Jimmy Buckets has already declined his player option for the 2019-20 season, which by all accounts was a smart move. He would’ve made just a hair under $20 million, but we all know he is more valuable than that. You might find a few people who would argue his personality and locker room antics negate his worthiness for a max deal, but those few are wrong. Jimmy Butler is the second best shooting guard available this summer, and he most certainly merits a max contract.

While his three-point shooting can be streaky, he’s still a career 34.1 percent from deep. He didn’t earn his nickname by accident; he’s the kind of player that can get you a bucket when one is sorely needed. He has an excellent mid-range game, has the athleticism to get around above-average defenders and can finish at the rim with the best of them.

Butler’s real value is found on the other end, though. As good as he is on offense, Butler’s tenacity on defense is where his true skills lie. He’s long, quick, gets into passing lanes and frustrates the best offensive players.

And please, let’s not forget the beginning of the season where Butler took the third-stringers and wiped the remaining Minnesota starters all over the court in the practice heard ’round the world.

Where Does He Fit: Butler fits quite well in his current situation with Philadelphia. There were reports early on there that he wasn’t happy with his lack of touches, but those rumors never quite grew to anything much more than, well, rumors. Out of him and Tobias Harris, Butler clearly gives you the better chance at a title – mainly due to his contributions on both ends. The Lakers, Clippers and Knicks are all teams with cap space that will certainly try and go after Butler. The Lakers could use someone with better shooting, though.

Recent reports have surfaced saying the Rockets are interested in Butler, but their cap situation is too tricky to bring anyone else on, so it would have to be via sign-and-trade. The Rockets would likely have to give up part of their core to get Butler, so we shall see how that situation plays out.

New Deal: Many teams will call, but Butler will probably sign a 5 year/$190 million deal with the 76ers. They give him the best chance at a title and the most guaranteed money to boot.

Near Max Guys

J.J. Redick – Philadelphia 76ers – Last Year’s Salary: $12,250,000

For someone who is turning 35 this upcoming season, you wouldn’t expect them to be garnering near max dollars. J.J. Redick has had quite an interesting career arch. He struggled heavily with injuries and didn’t really have much of an impact during his first eight-or-so seasons. He found his first home with the Clippers and now – it seems – his second with the 76ers.

No one would have guessed that Redick would have a career-high 18.1 points per night in his age 34 season. He was tied for seventh in the league at eight three-point attempts per night and played a critical role on a 76ers team that struggled to find spacing all year. For a team that has unbelievable talent in Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris and Jimmy Butler, it’s amazing just how important Redick is.

Where Does He Fit: Redick is not headed to a team with a younger core. He likely has one to two good years left in him. The Lakers need shooting and may be able to offer him enough money to lure him out of Philadelphia. The 76ers have Early Bird Rights and can offer him up to $21 million.

New Deal: Redick will likely stay in Philadelphia for somewhere around 2 years/$32 million. Many reports have surfaced about how much he loves it there. That deal isn’t near max, but Redick is more focused on titles than money.

Above Mid-Level Guys

Danny Green – Toronto Raptors – Last Year’s Salary: $10,000,000

Green is coming off one of his best seasons to date. For one, he won another NBA championship. He shot 45.5 percent from three off 5.4 attempts per night – the former being a career high and the latter almost matching one. He hasn’t appeared to lose much athleticism with age and is still a very talented defender. He’ll be turning 32 this season and still appears to have a few good years left towards another run at a title.

Where Does He Fit: Like Thompson, Green is about as ideal a role player as you’d want (although Thompson is clearly much more than a role player). Green is your prototypical three-and-D player, and he proved his immense value during the season with Toronto. Going to whoever offers him the most money makes the most sense, but he’d fit in incredibly well with the Utah Jazz, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Los Angeles Clippers. But in all honesty, you name a team and he’d help them improve.

New Deal: Green recently appeared on The Breakfast Club and discussed his desire to return to Toronto. The Raptors have no reason to let Green walk, so Danny should sign a 3 year/$45 million deal to stay in Canada. A caveat to this, however, is if Kawhi Leonard leaves in free agency. If he leaves, Toronto may not prioritize keeping Green – and he may hear offers from other teams in a similar range.

Jeremy Lamb – Charlotte Hornets – Last Year’s Salary: $7,488,372

Lamb just had a career year – highs in points, rebounds, steals and almost assists. His usage increased quite a bit, and with that came a slight decrease in efficiency. Nothing too alarming, but that could be one of the reasons he won’t garner anything near a max offer sheet. He’ll inject an offensive boost to whatever team signs him. And if his two game-winners against Toronto late last season pull any weight, he might get a few extra dollars on that contract.

Where Does He Fit/New Deal: Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak has recently stated his desire to keep the team under the tax threshold. If they bring back Kemba Walker, signing Lamb to a new deal likely won’t happen. The Rockets have expressed their interest, and Lamb is the kind of player they may be able to get. Houston could nab Jeremy Lamb for 3 years/$25 million thanks to the MLE.

Rodney Hood – Portland Trail Blazers – Last Year’s Salary: $3,472,888

There was a time in Hood’s career where a near max deal was certainly in play when he was averaging 17 points a night for the Jazz at just 25 years old. Partially due to his streaky play – as well as the surprise emergence of one Donovan Mitchell – Hood found himself traded, released and then picked up by the Portland Trail Blazers last season.

Where Does He Fit/New Deal: Hood played incredibly well for Portland in the playoffs averaging nearly 10 points per game on an impressive 46.8 percent from the field and 35.3 percent from three. He’s only 26 and still has time to further develop his game. Portland trading for Bazemore could be a sign that they won’t be able to use their MLE to lock up Hood, so look for Hood to garner multiple offers from a handful of teams looking to add scoring such as the Lakers, Nets, Mavericks and Heat. Let’s say he goes to the Mavericks for 3 years/$30 million.

Terrence Ross – Orlando Magic – Last Year’s Salary: $10,500,000

Terrence Ross balled out this year. He had career highs in points, rebounds, assists and nearly a career-high effective field goal percentage at 53.4 percent. He was one of the more important players that led the Magic back to the playoffs for the first time in quite a few years. Ross is only 27, so he’s sure to garner plenty of attention on the market.

Where Does He Fit/New Deal: The Magic have made it clear they want to keep their core together – as long as it makes sense. Many teams will likely offer Ross decent offer sheets, teams that need offense such as the Pelicans, Pistons and even the next door neighbor Miami Heat. Ross might ultimately stay with the Magic on a short term, 2 year/$35 million deal.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope – Los Angeles Lakers – Last Year’s Salary: $12,000,000

Pope hasn’t helped himself much since leaving Detroit. His efficiency has dropped, his scoring has dropped and his defense – once his strong suit – hasn’t made much noise either. Still, his ability to score has to intrigue multiple franchises looking for someone who can create offense. He made $12 million last year and will likely get less than that. Pope finished the season on a high-point, so that could help him get a few extra digits in his contract.

Where Does He Fit/New Deal: Teams love players who can score, but with the emergence and importance of the three-ball, they want someone who can do so efficiently. Pope, just 25 years old, has proven he can be efficient in the past, but he hasn’t been in the league long enough to make teams certain it’ll last. The Knicks might strike out on getting two max-level players, so they could be scrambling to sign others guys to help put points on the board. Pope signs with New York on a 2 year/$20 million deal.

Wesley Matthews – Indiana Pacers – Last Year’s Salary: $512,746

Matthews made more money last year than the above salary shows. He was bought out by the New York Knicks and ended up with the Pacers after Indiana needed someone to fill the injured Victor Oladipo’s void. He played okay for Indiana, but he just hasn’t found the same level of play since leaving Portland six seasons ago. Still, Matthews has the ability to help many teams in the league, especially in a bench role.

Where Does He Fit/New Deal: Matthews is 32, has a torn achilles in his past and definitely doesn’t move as quickly as he used to. It’s hard to say who would be interested in Matthews, but it’s likely going to be a playoff team who doesn’t end up landing a max guy. Look for teams like Philadelphia, both Los Angeles teams or potentially the Nets or Bucks to go after Matthews. Ultimately, the Bucks may see a few key guys leave, so signing Matthews to a 2 year/$12 million contract would help.

Mid-Level or Below Guys

Austin Rivers – Houston Rockets – Last Year’s Salary: $922,943

Rivers found himself as a legitimate sixth man on Houston this past season and actually played fairly well in the playoffs. Per Tim McMahon of ESPN, Austin Rivers had the highest individual net rating in the Rockets-Warriors series at plus-18.5 per 100 possessions. Pretty impressive for a player who hasn’t clearly played up to the hype coming out of college. There will be teams interested in Rivers come free agency time, but any deals with him will happen after a handful of dominos fall first.

Where Does He Fit/New Deal: Rivers will probably end back with the Rockets. Houston won’t find anyone better than Rivers using their MLE, so they’ll bring back the player who already has chemistry with the team. He’ll sign for 2 years/$9 million, preserving some of the MLE for Houston to use on other targets.

Other Notable Free Agents

Seth Curry – Portland Trail Blazers – Last Year’s Salary: $2,795,000

Tomas Satoransky* – Washington Wizards – Last Year’s Salary: $3,129,187

Reggie Bullock – Los Angeles Lakers – Last Year’s Salary: $2,500,000

Wayne Ellington – Detroit Pistons – Last Year’s Salary: $2,383,076

Alec Burks – Sacramento Kings – Last Year’s Salary: $11,536,515

Jonathon Simmons** – Washington Wizards – Last Year’s Salary: $6,000,000

Iman Shumpert – Houston Rockets – Last Year’s Salary: $11,011,234

J.R. Smith** – Cleveland Cavaliers – Last Year’s Salary: $14,720,000

Vince Carter – Atlanta Hawks – Last Year’s Salary: $2,393,887

Pat Connaughton**– Milwaukee Bucks – Last Year’s Salary: $1,641,000

Alex Abrines* – Oklahoma City Thunder – Last Year’s Salary: $5,455,326

Justin Holiday – Memphis Grizzlies – Last Year’s Salary: $4,384,616

Nik Stauskas – Cleveland Cavaliers – Last Year’s Salary: $2,161,886

Kyle Korver**– Utah Jazz – Last Year’s Salary: $7,560,000

Jamal Crawford – Phoenix Suns – Last Year’s Salary: $1,512,601

Lance Stephenson – Los Angeles Lakers – Last Year’s Salary: $4,449,000

Dwayne Bacon** – Charlotte Hornets – Last Year’s Salary: $1,378,242

Sterling Brown** – Milwaukee Bucks – Last Year’s Salary: $1,378,242

Garrett Temple – Los Angeles Clippers – Last Year’s Salary: $8,000,000

Gerald Green – Houston Rockets – Last Year’s Salary: $1,512,601

Sindarius Thornwell** – Los Angeles Clippers – Last Year’s Salary: $1,378,242

Wayne Selden* – Chicago Bulls – Last Year’s Salary: $1,544,951

Patrick McCaw* – Toronto Raptors – Last Year’s Salary: $964,104

Furkan Korkmaz – Philadelphia 76ers – Last Year’s Salary: $1,740,000

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

David Nwaba* – Cleveland Cavaliers – Last Year’s Salary: $1,512,601

Troy Daniels – Phoenix Suns – Last Year’s Salary: $3,258,539

*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)

There are plenty of good role players to go around in this deep pool of shooting guards. This list is quite top heavy so any team dreaming of an ideal two-guard will likely need to settle for a solid role-guy and look for their star player in another position. Whatever two teams are lucky enough to lock in Butler and Thompson long term will be very pleased as either of those shooting guards gives you a high chance of winning playoff games.

Look for Basketball Insiders to continue their saga on upcoming free agents by positions as there are still the threes, fours, and fives! Until then, start preparing now for the upcoming madness that is the free agency period.

Jordan Hicks is an NBA writer based out of Salt Lake City. He is a former college athlete and varsity sports official. Find him on Twitter @JordanHicksNBA.

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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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