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NBA Daily: Stars Under The Most Pressure

With the playoffs set to begin today, Matt John takes a look at some of the marquee players who will be under the most scrutiny during the 2020 postseason.

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Do you know what was so much fun about the games we saw leading up to the Play-In Tournament? They had a playoff-like atmosphere to them. Anytime Portland, Memphis, Phoenix, or San Antonio tipped, you really felt their desperation in every second they played. The pressure grew on them with each passing game. If those regular-season games felt like the postseason, imagine what the actual postseason is going to feel like!

It’s not going to shake anyone’s world by saying that making the playoffs brings pressure amped up to 100 – and no one is exempt from it either. There’s plenty of pressure on LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard, but they’ve been through this already, so it’s nothing new to them. Giannis Antetokounmpo is under similar pressure and he isn’t as familiar as his fellow competitors, but he’s only 25 and just started playing for an actual winning team last year. Really, the pressure is more on Milwaukee as a team knowing the Greek Freak’s contract situation that will be coming up less than a year from now.

The degree of pressure varies too. For example, there won’t be nearly as much for some of our newcomers, like Luka Doncic. There will definitely be more on him as his career progresses, but no one is going to hold it over him if Dallas gets easily ousted in the first round this year. He and the Mavericks have proven all they needed to. They are way ahead of schedule, and this is just the first step in what should be an awesome new era of basketball. Better yet, who better to give them a taste of life with the big boys than playoff veterans like Kawhi Leonard and Doc Rivers?

But the following players are ones who have been around the block before; they have monkeys on their back. If they are able to shake them off, that could change their legacy for the better, but it’s going to be quite a challenge for them to do so.

James Harden

Houston has captured that rare status of being one of the most doubted teams in spite of the talent they possess yet has a roster construction so unique that no one can wholeheartedly write them off. We knew it was primarily on Harden’s shoulders to prove that the small-ball full-time strategy can work, but sadly, he’s now facing a tough foe led by a former star teammate with revenge heavily on his mind. To make it worse, he has to do it without his All-Star teammate.

But it’s a good chance to prove he’s improved his playoff chops. Having been an MVP candidate for five of the last six years, Harden doesn’t exactly have the best playoff reputation to his name. Over the last three years, he blew that series against San Antonio without Kawhi Leonard, choked away 3-2 lead against Golden State, then failed to capitalize when the Warriors lost Kevin Durant the year following,

Now Harden has to take on the biggest workload he’s had in three years with his former MVP teammate down. If there’s a time for him to prove that he can step up his game with higher stakes, now is the time to do it.

Joel Embiid

Even with all the issues that have plagued a once-promising Sixers season, Philly miraculously got the matchup they’ve wanted all season. It’s not been the most graceful season – but at least they got the best of their division rival this season, winning their series against the Boston Celtics 3-1, and now they get to face them on a neutral court. Ben Simmons’ injury alone will make them overmatched against the Celtics. That’s why this is perfect for Joel Embiid.

With this being his third go in the playoffs, this is Embiid’s chance to prove that he is the superstar. No one is denying Embiid’s talent as a player, but he still has yet to dominate a playoff series. He’s dominated individual games, but over a series against a strong opponent? Not quite. Simmons’ absence is an all-around downgrade, but we’re going to see what he looks like as the unquestioned alpha of this team.

This time, Embiid won’t have to go up against Al Horford, Aron Baynes, Marc Gasol, or Ed Davis. Instead, the best line of defense Embiid will go up against is Daniel Theis, Enes Kanter and Robert Williams III. Situations like these are when all-timers prove they are everything they were expected to be. The chips are down. The enemy has a weakness. If Embiid is the superstar we’ve talked him up to be, he has to take every advantage he can in this Boston series.

Whether they come up victorious or not, this has to be Embiid’s best series to prove he really is a franchise center. Bar none.

Kemba Walker

The pressure really is on Boston’s top four players, but there is something that puts Walker in the spotlight compared to his teammates – playoff success. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown were within minutes of making the NBA Finals two years ago. Gordon Hayward ended Lob City the year before that. Walker has been in the NBA for about a decade and, before this season, he’s made the playoffs twice.

The Double J’s progress has made Boston a sexy pick to make the finals, but what will put the Celtics in the conversation with the top contenders in the league is a playoff-ready Kemba, which is not a given.

The last time Walker made the playoffs was 2016 and his production as the leader was all over the place. One night he was putting up 34 points, the next he was putting up 14 – but the fact that Kemba failed to show up for the biggest game of the season was not a good look.

There’s no need to mention his balky knee. He’s looked fine thus far, so there should be nothing holding the point guard back from giving Boston his all. We could very well see the All-NBA Walker when the playoffs come, but we may also see the one that couldn’t get out of the starting block in much weaker Eastern Conference from 2016.

Paul George

George may very well have the best playoff resume out of everyone on this shortlist – yet, he hasn’t been out of the first round since 2014. In that time, he’s broken his leg, separated his shoulder, watched his All-Star caliber teammates see their careers vanish at the drop of a dime, etc. Some of his playoff failures over the last six years are on him, but not all of it.

Now, he’s on the best team he’s been on since the 2013-14 Indiana Pacers. This season, Paul George has been about as good as Paul George could be. His numbers are substantially down from when he was making a legitimate MVP bid last season, but the pressure will be on him to bring the Clippers their first championship. But there’s a little extra spice to it too.

Kawhi Leonard left a picture-perfect situation up north to play for his hometown, believing that George would be right there by his side to form one of the better 1-2 punches in all of the NBA. We know Leonard will be at his best come playoff time, but he couldn’t do it alone in Toronto and he certainly won’t be able to do it alone in Los Angeles. The pressure isn’t on George only to help L.A. win. He also has to prove that Leonard made the right decision.

Beyond that, there are plenty of others that’ll face the music this week as well. With the Jazz competing with Philadelphia for the most dysfunctional playoff team of the year, and in the wake of losing their best shooter for the season, Donovan Mitchell’s the undisputed carrier of fates in Utah.

Anthony Davis will face the most pressure he’s ever had throughout his entire career. Teams are going to dare him to beat them while they do everything to blanket LeBron – that can be explained in more detail right here.

Jimmy Butler will be going through George-like pressure when Miami makes its playoff run. He could have stayed with the 76ers and been their go-to guy on a championship-caliber team, but instead, he elected to be the man on his own team.

A lot is going to unfold from now until October. When everything does, we’re going to see exactly what these guys are all made of. They better make the best of it, because next season, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry and Kyrie Irving are all coming back into the picture.

Matt John is a staff writer for Basketball Insiders. He is currently a Utah resident, but a Massachusetts native.

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Grizzlies trade Jonas Valanciunas to Pelicans for Eric Bledsoe, Steven Adams

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According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Andrew Lopez, the New Orleans Pelicans are shipping guard Eric Bledsoe, center Steven Adams, the Nos. 10 and 40 picks of the 2021 NBA Draft, and two future first-round picks to the Memphis Grizzlies for center Jonas Valanciunas and the Nos. 17 and 51 picks of this week’s upcoming draft. So, the Pelicans are giving up the Lakers’ 2022 first-round pick. Valanciunas, the 29-year-old veteran center, averaged 17.1 points, 12.5 rebounds, and 1.8 assists per game in 62 games played throughout the 2020-21 season. He also shot 59 percent from the field. The seven-foot Lithuanian also ranks fourth overall in true shooting percentage (.616) among active players. On July 11, 2019, Valanciunas signed a three-year, $45 million contract with the Grizzlies. He is set to earn $4 million next season.

Additionally, in 71 games played last season, Bledsoe averaged 12.2 points, 3.4 rebounds, and 3.8 assists. The six-foot-one guard also shot 42.1 percent from the field in the 2020-21 season. On November 23, 2020, as part of a four-team trade, Bledsoe and Adams were traded to the Pelicans from the Oklahoma City Thunder, along with two future first-round picks and the right to swap two additional first-round picks. Last season, in 71 games played, Bledsoe averaged 12.2 points, 3.4 rebounds, and 3.8 assists. His field goal percentage was 42.1 percent as well. The 11-year veteran is set to earn $18,125,000 in the 2021-22 season. Before he was traded to New Orleans, on March 4, 2019, the guard signed a four-year, $70 million extension. He earned his first All-Defensive second-team selection in the 2019-20 season.

Moreover, in 58 games played last season, Adams averaged 7.6 points, 8.9 rebounds, and 1.9 assists per game. The six-foot-eleven center ranks fifth among active players for effective field goal shooting percentage (.591). The eight-year veteran also ranks third in offensive rebounding percentage, with an active statistic of 14 percent. On November 23, 2020, the same day Adams was traded to the Pelicans, he signed a two-year, $35 million extension. For next season, he is projected to earn $17,073,171. To add to this trade news, the Grizzlies and Pelicans are swapping second-round picks in this year’s draft, too. Referencing NBA.com’s “Consensus Mock Draft” article, with the No. 10 pick of the draft, the Pelicans were originally expected to draft either Josh Giddey or Davion Mitchell at this number. However, plans have now changed.

From ESPN’s Bobby Marks, the trade will not be finalized until August 6th, and this is because of the annual salaries of these said players. Free agency will begin on August 2, 6:00 p.m. (EST). Furthermore, per Spotrac’s 2021-22 NBA salary cap table, next season’s luxury tax threshold is $136,606,000. The team’s current available luxury tax space is $22,555,195. The Pelicans and Grizzlies have a salary cap maximum of $112,414,000. Brandon Ingram, Bledsoe, and Adams had a combined cap percentage of 39.2 percent. Considering that Bledsoe and Adams are traded away, this will clear up $35,198,171 of dead cap space.

Yesterday, CBS Sports reported the news pertaining to Lonzo Ball’s desire to remain in New Orleans. With extra cap space, the team is expected to re-sign the 23-year-old guard. Likewise, for the Grizzlies, the teams has a luxury tax space of $37,019,952. Their current cap space is $8,321,229. As stated before, the transactions have not yet been finalized. The Grizzlies’ outgoing cap is now $14 million, but from the contracts of Adams and Bledsoe, they are bringing in $35,198,171.

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NBA Trade Rumors: Jazz considering trade offers for Bojan Bogdanovic, Joe Ingles, Royce O’Neale, and No. 30 pick of the 2021 NBA Draft

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Per one interesting announcement from Bleacher Report’s Jake Fischer, the Utah Jazz are open to trading forward Bojan Bogdanovic, forward-guard Joe Ingles, small forward Royce O’Neale, and the No. 30 pick of the 2021 NBA Draft. Fischer stated, “The Utah Jazz are known to be one of the few teams actually searching to move playoff-tested talent. Retaining Mike Conley is an offseason priority, sources said, and the Jazz have held numerous discussions with teams around the league about offloading salary to create for Conley in free agency.” Point guard Mike Conley is set to become a free agent this offseason. Though, general manager Justin Zanik will aim to re-sign the 33-year-old guard in the coming weeks. Conley earned $34.5 million in the 2020-21 season.

“League personnel most often mention Joe Ingles as the Jazz wing to watch, and Bojan Bogdanovic and Royce O’Neale are also considered available for trade as Utah narrows its focus towards building a contender around Donovan Mitchel. The Jazz are also open to discuss trading their No. 30 pick, sources said.” In the 2020-21 season, in 72 games played, Bogdanovic averaged 17 points, 3.9 rebounds, and 1.9 assists per game. On May 1, 2021, in the team’s 106-102 victory over the Toronto Raptors, the six-foot-seven Croatian scored a season-high 34 points, shooting 12-for-22, and he finished his performance with four rebounds and four assists as well. On July 7, 2019, he signed a four-year, $73 million contract with the Jazz.

In 67 games played last season, Ingles averaged 12.1 points, 3.6 rebounds, and 4.7 assists per game. The six-foot-eight forward is set to earn $14 million in the 2021-22 season. Plus, among the mentioned players, Royce O’Neale has contributed the least. In 71 games played last season, he averaged seven points, 6.8 rebounds, and 2.5 assists. On January 19, 2020, the forward signed a four-year, $36 million extension with the team. He will earn $8.6 million next season. According to The Athletic, in the team’s seventh workout for draft prospects, they viewed Quentin Grimes, David Duke, Matt Mitchell, and a few other players. In the first round, if the team chooses not to draft any of the players they are holding workouts for, the organization will trade the No. 30 pick.

Just for a reminder, retrieved from Spotrac, the 2021-22 NBA luxury tax threshold is $136,606,000. Utah’s active roster cap is $133,284,695, the maximum cap is $112,414,000, and the current cap space is $72,990,215. Furthermore, center Rudy Gobert currently has the highest guaranteed contract on the team. On December 20, 2020, Gobert signed a five-year, $205 million extension with the organization. Gobert is set to earn $35.3 million in the coming season, whereas Donovan Mitchell will earn $28.1 million. Gobert and Mitchell combined consume 47.6 percent of the team’s salary cap. For the upcoming 2021-22 season, the Jazz have a guaranteed total of $129,719,453. Based on the team’s future outlook, the Jazz will have to make a trade or two in order to retain their star players. This should go without saying.

NBA Analysis Network reported a few days ago that a potential Jazz-Knicks trade target is Bojan Bogdanovic. Greg Patuto proposed the Knicks receiving Bogdanovic, while the Jazz would receive Kevin Knox II, and the Nos. 19 and No. 32 picks of the 2021 NBA Draft. Now, this could still happen at some point during this draft week, but then again, sports bettors and fans alike understand that these news reports could be just rumors. The most intelligent, unforthcoming general managers know not to leave bread crumb trails for the media, especially leading into the offseason. They will do everything necessary to protect their foolproof plans.

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Raptors, Pacers, Timberwolves, Kings, and Cavaliers among teams showing interest in Ben Simmons

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According to Jake Fischer of Bleacher Report, five teams have shown interest in pursuing Ben Simmons from the Philadelphia 76ers. Fischer reported, “Cleveland, Indiana, Minnesota, Sacramento, and Toronto all showed interest in acquiring the runner-up for Defensive Player of the Year.” Furthermore, the teams are wanting Simmons to change position from point guard to forward. “Multiple executives from those teams, when contacted by Bleacher Report, mentioned their excitement at incorporating Simmons as a play-making forward—not at the point guard position he’s played in Philadelphia.” The six-foot-eleven guard averaged 14.3 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 6.9 assists in the 2020-21 NBA season. This might sound fine for a young rookie, but as a five-year player, these aforementioned statistics were career lows.

However, the 25-year-old also earned his third NBA All-Star selection and second All-Defensive first-team selection last season. After a less than mediocre performance in his third postseason of his NBA career, the majority of 76ers’ fans would agree that it’s now time for Simmons to have a change in scenery. With a regular season record of 49-23 (.681), the No. 1 ranked 76ers in the Eastern Conference entered the conference semifinals as favorites over the Atlanta Hawks. Leading into this series, some NBA analysts were predicting Philadelphia to prevail four games to two. The 2016 first overall pick was expected to limit Trae Young in scoring and rally his team from point deficits, but none of this ever manifested.

Pertaining to postseason averages, Simmons had a playoff series-low of 9.9 points and 6.3 rebounds per game in the conference semifinals against the Hawks. This lackluster showing proved to be a more significant downfall for the superstar, considering Simmons had only five points, eight rebounds, and 13 assists in Game 7 versus the Hawks. In the 2019-20 season, he averaged 2.1 steals per game, leading all other players in the league. Moreover, Simmons currently ranks sixth in the NBA for active player triple-doubles (32). With a total of 32 career triple-doubles, he ranks 13th on the all-time list, tied with Clippers’ guard Rajon Rondo.

On July 16, 2019, Simmons signed a five-year, $169.65 million contract extension with the 76ers. He is set to earn $30.5 million in the 2021-22 season. Among these teams interested in Simmons, Cavs’ Kevin Love has the fourth largest contract guarantee of $91.4 million. Love is due to earn $31.3 million next season, and the 13-year veteran’s contract consumes 26 percent of the team’s salary cap. He could be traded this offseason. Timberwolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns has a contract guarantee of $130.8 million. The 25-year-old Wolves center will earn $31.6 million in the upcoming season.

Plus, Kings’ 2017 first-round pick De’Aaron Fox has a guaranteed contract of $171.1 million. Fox will earn $28.1 million next season. To add to that, Raptors’ Pascal Siakim has a contract guarantee of $131.4 million. Not to mention, reported by Yahoo Sports via trade rumors yesterday, the Golden State Warriors are a potential trade partner for Toronto. The Warriors could make a move on Siakim, clearing up space on the Raptors for Simmons. Per Spotrac, the 2021-22 season cap maximum is $112,414,000. In the coming weeks, one of these said five teams might make a substantial trade offer to the 76ers’ organization that they cannot refuse.

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