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NBA Daily: Ranking the Free Agents – Small Forwards

Continuing Basketball Insiders’ series of Ranking The Free Agents, Spencer Davies goes in-depth on the abundance of talented wings hitting the market.

Spencer Davies

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With the weekend officially here, free agency moratorium is less than 72 hours away. More rumors are running rampant and the talks are almost ready to get started between teams and players, meaning the madness is just about set to begin.

On Wednesday, Basketball Insiders began its Ranking The Free Agents series with a breakdown of the best available point guards. An overlook of the shooting guard crop followed a day after. Now, we get to the small forward class.

While essentially half the league is hitting the open market – the list can be found here – the wings may very well be the most valuable and talented position that teams can add to the mix. Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant hold all the cards as the proverbial dominos to determine how the summer of 2019 shakes out in terms of Plan B’s and C’s.

Before getting into the actual free agent small forwards, 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.

Max Guys

Kawhi Leonard – Toronto Raptors – Last Year’s Salary: $23,114,067

If there was any question as to whether or not Kawhi Leonard was a top five player in the NBA coming into the season, he answered. Loudly. Not only did “The Klaw” prove that without a shadow of a doubt, but he performed so well that we should be discussing the fact that he could very well be the best player in the league as it stands.

It’s hard to argue against the results, isn’t it? In his first year away from the San Antonio Spurs, a determined Leonard led the Toronto Raptors to their first title in franchise history. While the regular season career-high numbers were impressive enough, look at what Kawhi did in the playoffs. It’s absolutely absurd—30.5 points, 9.1 rebounds, 3.9 assists and nearly two steals per game. Mind you, he was out on the floor averaging 39 minutes over 24 games in the postseason, too, en route to winning his second career Larry O’Brien trophy with a new team.

Where Does He Fit: Kawhi is now a two-time champion and was the focal point of those franchises as the NBA Finals MVP both times. Any team with the opportunity to add him to the fray should take a shot at doing so. As of now, the suitors who are chasing after Leonard are the Toronto Raptors, Los Angeles Lakers, LA Clippers and New York Knicks.

According to multiple reports Thursday, Kawhi will grant both Los Angeles teams meetings when free agency moratorium begins June 30 at 6 p.m. A big piece of the puzzle fell into place for the Lakers as they were unable to unload three contracts and create a maximum slot in their books. The Raptors are believed to have a real shot at re-signing him. New York is going to try and secure a meeting as well, per Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports.

New Deal: The potential of forming a devastating trio with LeBron James and Anthony Davis is hard to pass up. At the same time, it’s hard to envision a player with Kawhi’s mentality wanting to be anything other than the alpha. A one-two punch of him and Jimmy Butler with the Clippers would be quite the tandem as well.

Still, when the dust settles and all is said and done, Toronto is the team that can pay Leonard more than any other suitor due to his Bird Rights. Though 5 years/$190 million is the maximum offer, it’d be understandable for him to go short-term since his veteran teammates will be a year older. Plus, he’s only two seasons away from having 10 years of experience, meaning he could cash in on the highest tier of max salary with more increase in the cap.

Let’s say Kawhi goes back to the Raptors on a 2 year/$69 million deal with a player option in year two as ESPN’s Brian Windhorst suggested.

Kevin Durant – Golden State Warriors – Last Year’s Salary: $30,000,000

It’s a shame how the summer of Kevin Durant was spoiled by the cruelty of injuries. Before suffering a strained calf and ultimately a torn Achilles during the playoffs, the man was having yet another sensational run where he poured in over 34 points, five rebounds and close to five assists per game for the three-peat hopeful Golden State Warriors. We’ll never know how history might have shaken out being robbed of a KD vs. Kawhi matchup for the ages in the NBA Finals.

What we do know is that Golden State missed its go-to scorer badly when the team needed to answer the punches the Raptors threw at them. Durant makes things look easy when he steps onto the hardwood. His threes are deadly, his mid-range pull-ups are literally impossible to defend and he’s apt to drawing fouls inside on drives. Having the isolation ability at that size makes KD a superstar we’ll never forget. He’s only gotten more cerebral with more experience, too.

Where Does He Fit: On the Posted Up podcast with Chris Haynes, Durant said that he can’t be recruited, meaning he’s going to sign with whatever team he wants to. A report from David Aldridge even suggests he may not even take meetings with suitors—and if he does, those sit-downs will happen in New York.

Using our brains, that last sentence certainly indicates that the Knicks and Brooklyn Nets—the two franchises in The Big Apple—have a good chance of landing KD on a long-term deal. Prior to the injury, the Lakers would’ve made sense (they’re in win-now mode). Considering the max slots the Clippers have, that’s also a real contender in the picture. Even the Dallas Mavericks are expected to make a pitch. Forgetting the chance that the Warriors have—they can offer him the highest dollar amount over the highest number of years—would be foolish, too.

New Deal: Wherever KD heads to, it’s going to be on a long-term deal. He’s looking to cash in for the biggest payday of his career after being in the NBA for over a decade. He’s not in the greatest of places with Golden State at the moment, though there could be an agreement where he rehabs in that familiar environment on a Supermax deal, waiting to be moved in a Warriors sign-and-trade later down the road.

Just because that is a possibility doesn’t mean it will happen. The damage may have already been done. Because of that broken relationship, it’s plausible to see Durant going elsewhere. We’ll say he signs a 4-year/$164 million max contract with the LA Clippers.

Near Max Guys

Khris Middleton – Milwaukee Bucks – Last Year’s Salary: $13,000,000

Coming off his first All-Star appearance, Khris Middleton has more than earned his shot at making the big bucks. With his knockdown three-point shot and length on the defensive end, he’s considered one of the top two-way players in the association. It’s especially impressive because of the gradual rise from second-round pick to Eastern Conference Champion in seven years.

Where Does He Fit: Middleton is entering the heart of his prime, so there are plenty of teams that should be vying to add a consistent player that will provide scoring and lock up the opposition’s best scorers. The problem is that those organizations with max money are going to be after “the big fish” in the pool, namely Leonard and Durant.

Now, if you’re a team like the Mavericks, it makes sense to dole out the dough because of the talent you already have. The same goes for the Indiana Pacers, who ESPN’s Bobby Marks says could throw some hefty money at Middleton on the long term. Still, the Bucks have made it a top priority to bring Middleton back into the fold to keep their championship contender in Milwaukee growing.

New Deal: As soon as Bucks general manager Jon Horst presents a secure, lucrative contract offer, Middleton won’t hesitate to take it. Expect the two to agree to a 5-year/$175 million deal just below the max.

Tobias Harris – Philadelphia 76ers – Last Year’s Salary: $14,800,000

For a player as talented and team-first as any in the NBA, it’s perplexing that Tobias Harris has played for five different teams over his 8-year career. This is a man that quite literally is the prototype of modern day basketball. He stretches the floor, draws attention out on the perimeter and can confidently stroke the three, while also keeping defenders on their toes due to his dribble-drive ability.

Where Does He Fit: Like Middleton, the upstart Harris is in the sweet spot of his career. The advantage he has over the Bucks’ All-Star, however, is his size. There’s a versatility with Tobias as a stretch four and also as a traditional small forward. Insert him into just about any lineup and he’ll fit. Keep in mind, he could be the consolation prize that teams go after if they strike out on Kawhi or KD.

As specified by The Athletic’s Shams Charania, the Brooklyn Nets, Dallas Mavericks, Denver Nuggets, Memphis Grizzlies, Minnesota Timberwolves, New Orleans Pelicans and Sacramento Kings have all expressed interest. The Philadelphia 76ers can offer the most money and want to retain him, but it doesn’t mean they’ll pony up a max contract offer that Harris desire.

New Deal: The Nets could have an abundance of dollars left over if Durant doesn’t come along with, allegedly, Kyrie Irving. Because the Sixers could be reluctant to offer what would be a tertiary option on their team max money, let’s say Brooklyn swoops in with a full on 4-year/$141 million that Harris can’t pass up.

Harrison Barnes – Sacramento Kings – Last Year’s Salary: $24,793,702

When ESPN reported that Harrison Barnes had declined his $25 million player option to enter free agency, there were many left with their head scratching. One, that’s a lot of money to leave on the table. Two, it’s probably a significant gamble with such a forward-heavy market.

With this said, he did compliment the Kings’ young core nicely in the 28 games post-trade deadline. The efficiency was clearly there and he knocked down a career-best 40.8 percent of his threes with the team. Prior to being moved to Sacramento, he had also improved his skills on the block as a post-up player.

Where Does He Fit: Harrison offers the same versatility as Harris but with less aggressiveness and not as much consistency. If there’s a team out there that wants to give Barnes a maximum contract to be “the guy” it would be risky. As for an organization looking for a solid veteran addition and a great person in the locker room, he’d be ideal.

New Deal: The Kings are dead set on bringing Barnes back into the fold and there hasn’t been much noise on competition to do so. Despite wanting a max offer, Sacramento could get the job done with a 4-year/$88 million deal that’s being reported by local radio host Dave Carmichael of 1140 The Drive.

Above Mid-Level Guys

Bojan Bogdanovic – Indiana Pacers – Last Year’s Salary: $10,500,000

When Victor Oladipo went down with a big-time injury, Bogdanovic stepped up his game and became the Indiana Pacers’ leading scorer. His three-point shooting chops were already impressive. But it’s his floor game and playmaking ability that really shined when he received the opportunity to expand his skill set.

Where Does He Fit/New Deal: Bogdanovic is reportedly Indiana’s “top priority” this upcoming summer. He may certainly garner interest from others. It won’t be enough to fend off the Pacers from extending a 4-year/$72 million offer that Bogie could jump at to stay.

Kelly Oubre Jr.* – Phoenix Suns – Last Year’s Salary: $3,208,630

All Kelly Oubre Jr. has ever needed is a chance to breakout and really take the next step in his career. We probably saw him play his best basketball with the Phoenix Suns in his career so far, but the best is yet to come for the talented 23-year-old. While the shot needs work, there’s a tenacity and energy about him that is simply infectious.

Where Does He Fit/New Deal: For all intents and purposes, the Suns shouldn’t let him walk. They have a brand new coaching staff headed by Monty Williams and seemed to actually have fun during the second half of the season. Most of that locker room positivity came from Oubre’s “wavy” attitude. Since it’s hard to predict what offer sheets may come, let’s go with Phoenix bringing him back on a 3-year/$50 million deal with a player option before he enters the second tier of a potential max contract situation.

Trevor Ariza – Washington Wizards – Last Year’s Salary: $15,000,000

Where Does He Fit/New Deal: Every team can use a player like Trevor Ariza. This past season wasn’t his best in terms of production and shooting. He’ll still be a solid veteran option on the wing for any team, especially a contender. Maybe a reunion with the Houston Rockets could be in the cards if they don’t find a way to get Jimmy Butler to town. A single year deal for $10.5 million should do the trick.

Rudy Gay – San Antonio Spurs – Last Year’s Salary: $10,087,200

Where Does He Fit/New Deal: Another seasoned vet on the market, Rudy Gay is coming off his best year in terms of true shooting (58.3 percent) and rebounding (6.8 per game) with the San Antonio Spurs. He feels he can still be a “big piece” and is the most like himself as he’s been since the Achilles injury set him back. The expectation is he comes back to play for Gregg Popovich and company. We’ll set the amount at 2 years/$21 million.

Mid-Level or Below Guys

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson – Brooklyn Nets – Last Year’s Salary: $2,536,898

Mario Hezonja – New York Knicks – Last Year’s Salary: $6,500,000

Darius Miller – New Orleans Pelicans – Last Year’s Salary: $2,205,000

Other Notable Free Agents

Danuel House Jr.* – Houston Rockets – Last Year’s Salary: $247,827

James Ennis – Philadelphia 76ers – Last Year’s Salary: $1,621,415

Dorian Finney-Smith* – Dallas Mavericks – Last Year’s Salary: $1,544,951

Carmelo Anthony – Houston Rockets – Last Year’s Salary: $1,512,601

Wilson Chandler – Los Angeles Clippers – Last Year’s Salary: $12,800,562

Jake Layman* – Portland Trail Blazers – Last Year’s Salary: $1,544,951

Royce O’Neale** – Utah Jazz– Last Year’s Salary: $1,378,242

Dillon Brooks** – Memphis Grizzlies – Last Year’s Salary: $1,378,242

Alfonzo McKinnie** – Golden State Warriors– Last Year’s Salary: $1,349,383

Derrick Jones Jr.** – Miami Heat – Last Year’s Salary: $1,512,601

Omri Casspi – Memphis Grizzlies – Last Year’s Salary: $1,512,601

Thabo Sefolosha – Utah Jazz – Last Year’s Salary: $5,250,000

Glenn Robinson III**** – Detroit Pistons – Last Year’s Salary: $4,075,000

Abdel Nader – Oklahoma City Thunder – Last Year’s Salary: $1,378,242

Kenrich Williams** – New Orleans Pelicans – Last Year’s Salary: $838,464

Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot – Chicago Bulls – Last Year’s Salary: $1,544,951

Stanley Johnson – New Orleans Pelicans – Last Year’s Salary: $3,940,402

Corey Brewer – Sacramento Kings – Last Year’s Salary: $2,000,000

Justin Anderson* – Atlanta Hawks – Last Year’s Salary: $2,516,048

Luol Deng – Minnesota Timberwolves – Last Year’s Salary: $1,512,601

Theo Pinson* – Brooklyn Nets – Last Year’s Salary: $4,737

Mitch Creek* – Minnesota Timberwolves – Last Year’s Salary: $9,474

Wesley Johnson – Washington Wizards – Last Year’s Salary: $6,134,520

Quincy Pondexter – San Antonio Spurs – Last Year’s Salary: $1,512,601

James Nunnally – Houston Rockets – Last Year’s Salary: $76,326

Malcolm Miller** – Toronto Raptors – Last Year’s Salary: $457,418

Jemerrio Jones** – New Orleans Pelicans – Last Year’s Salary: $52,108

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

**Non-Guaranteed Contract (If player is waived by current team before 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)

As you can plainly see, the small forwards hold a lot of power in the direction the summer could go. It’ll be interesting to see how the offseason plays out and what new teams we may see come together before one of the most wide-open seasons we’ve seen in years regarding championship contenders.

Be sure to check out the rest of our Ranking The Free Agents series before Sunday arrives.

Spencer Davies is a Deputy Editor and a Senior NBA Writer based in Cleveland in his third year with Basketball Insiders. Covering the league and the Cavaliers for the past five seasons, his bylines have appeared on Bleacher Report, FOX Sports and HoopsHype.

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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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