With professional basketball on the horizon, all eyes have turned toward Orlando – but here, we’re trying to peer into the future too.
Frankly, the news of pending basketball seems small in comparison to some other important issues. The planet-wide pandemic and sweeping protests have turned everybody’s day-to-day routines on their head – but, obviously, for one group, it has done so in awful and disproportionate ways.
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Or try this: If you finish this article and come away having learned something, donate something of your own: Time, supplies, a tough conversation — whatever. Consider it a trade, do whatever it takes. Make a difference, even if it’s a small one.
Yesterday, Matt John dug into the next steps for the Northwest Division – what will become of this surprisingly successful Oklahoma City roster? Where will Mike Conley Jr. fit moving forward for Utah? But the Southwest is an awfully crowded collection of franchises, one in which all five teams are involved in July’s restart. Although some of them should certainly fair better than others, stocked by MVP candidates, up-and-comers and veteran-led rosters, there’s plenty to ponder beyond this summer.
Many didn’t know what the NBA would look like if and when it returned – but now that they have, the same question and logic applies to the forthcoming muddied and rapid-fire offseason too. Blow it up or keep it together? Cut costs or go all-in? Although the restart shouldn’t be used to draw any consequential decisions, it may inform front offices of the best way forward — even if it may be a painful direction.
In the spirit of revving up the ol’ crystal ball prediction machine, here comes the Southwest Division.
Houston Rockets: Did the James Harden + Russell Westbrook experiment work?
And what needs to happen to make another season more successful?
As mentioned in the Rockets’ X-Factor piece, the fit of Russell Westbrook has always been a suspect one. Despite all the assumed pitfalls, it was ultimately a plunge worth taking in lieu of Chris Paul’s massive deal – but will anything come of it? In this current iteration, built entirely around James Harden and a system that nearly propelled him to back-to-back MVP awards, the Rockets have hoisted up three-pointers like they’re going out of style for years and years.
However, that becomes a bit dicier as a team-wide mantra when the new point guard has struggled from there for over a decade. Westbrook’s best-ever mark is 34.3 percent (2016-17), which would stand as a career-low for his backcourt partner. Former key shooters like Eric Gordon and Danuel House have regressed from deep, while they’ve missed Gerald Green entirely. Compounded by their decision to deal the up-and-coming Clint Capela for wing defense and more shooting, the Rockets now run with P.J. Tucker as the starting center.
If Houston struggles at all to re-acclimate in Orlando, they could pay a pretty hefty first-round price. And if they flame out quickly during the Golden State Warriors’ now infamous down year – then what is the real ceiling of this redesigned roster? Any potential departure of Westbrook would be marred by the same criteria that brought him to the Rockets in the first place – the price and years left on a big contract. This iteration is one that runs awfully hot-and-cold — they’re part of the NBA elite. But those off-nights, against the more powerful and consistent Western Conference, are seeding killers.
Logical progression might suggest that the best way forward is a structure reset — find a real center, build for more balance, etc – but it might not be possible. Harden, of course, is used to doing the impossible – and he’ll need to in July.
If the Rockets can’t make combination work – both in the short- and long-term – they’ll have more questions than answers with very little influence in changing them. Houston has rolled the dice significantly on this pairing, now it needs to improve… or else.
Dallas Mavericks: Are Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzinigs fully healed and healthy?
Will they need another star to truly compete?
This sentiment assumes that Luka Doncic cannot transcend rosters – hell, he’s already done that in Dallas over a season-plus. But in the Western Conference, it’ll take more than just a perennial MVP candidate to top that massive hierarchy. That’s also why they moved for an injured Kristaps Porzingis last year and re-signed him before the Latvian ever played a game – Batman needed a Robin.
Over 51 games for Dallas, Porzingis has averaged 19.2 points and 8.5 rebounds over 31 minutes – numbers that saw a healthy boost during the contests in which Doncic missed out in early February. Recovering from ACL injuries are no joke, so the Mavericks were rightfully careful not to push Porzingis too quickly, even frequently scheduling rest days in 2020. Alongside Doncic, the international duo could make waves as a lower-seeded opponent down in Orlando. But if they get matched up with the Los Angeles Lakers or Clippers, a year of great growth may end swiftly.
Losing to LeBron James or Kawhi Leonard would be of no immense shame, especially in the midst of the weirdest NBA season ever. But matched at 40 wins with Oklahoma City and Houston, the Mavericks will have work to do in the loss column if they’d like to move up the ladder at all. Assuming that the quarantine has done nothing to negatively change the health of their stars, they’ll have two ready-to-go 20 point scorers — but will that be enough?
After that pair, Dallas’ best scorer is Tim Hardaway Jr. at 15.8 points per game – but as an up-and-down shooter, he’s had plenty of off-nights to go with the explosiveness. With 17 games in 2019-20 with 11 points or less, that probably won’t get it done against a balanced Denver roster, much less an LA-based superteam. In a strange COVID-19 landscape, both on the trade market and in free agency, who knows what upgrades or replacements will even exist in the next modified offseason.
Doncic is an incredible, still-improving superstar – but we’re about to find out just how good he can be.
San Antonio Spurs: Is it time, at long last, to blow it up and start over?
Is there any reason to ponder Gregg Popovich’s future?
The Spurs, although trekking down to Orlando, have a tough mountain to climb to reach the No. 8 seed – again, just to play the Lakers.
It’s a task that became even harder when LaMarcus Aldridge underwent season-ending surgery a few weeks ago. But if we’ve learned anything over the last two decades, it’s wise not to bet against Gregg Popovich. Of course, the legendary coach has led San Antonio to the postseason in every single campaign since 1997-98. At 27-36, the odds aren’t great – but the soon-to-be Hall of Famer has done more with less before.
He’s still got DeMar DeRozan. The Spurs still have Dejounte Murray, Derrick White and a wisened Rudy Gay as well. There’s even the potential to just unleash Lonnie Walker and see what happens – for better or worse. Losing Aldridge hurts, perhaps a bit too much, but Popovich is still Popovich.
Regardless of their slim chances next month, there’s still speculation about the head coach’s future in general. 71 years of age is no spring chicken, a stance only fueled further by recent attempts to elevate responsibilities for assistant coaches like Becky Hammon and Tim Duncan. Naturally, the Spurs are synonymous with Popovich until he decides differently – but once his historic postseason streak is officially struck down, where does a potentially rebuilding team go from there?
Would they try to move on from a near-expiring DeRozan contract? What about an aging Aldridge that only has $7 million guaranteed in 2020-21? If they miss the playoffs and deal with the tough reality of a rebuild, could they – finally, truly, actually – take that path? Even if Orlando goes swimmingly, this is a franchise that might look vastly different the next time basketball begins, whenever that is.
New Orleans Pelicans: How much Zion Williamson is too much?
Which players tested positive for COVID-19 and will their availability change in Orlando?
Look, obviously, most everybody would like to see Zion Williamson against the Lakers in a seven-game series. Undoubtedly, the NBA didn’t want to erase that possibility either.
Beyond Williamson, the Pelicans have the tools and roster to make a real go of it too — Jrue Holiday, Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, etc. But the biggest question of all is where the former No. 1 overall pick stands in terms of health and conditioning. Pushing a postseason berth at the risk of another serious injury wouldn’t be worth it – so surely the New Orleans front office has been pondering minute allocations since the stoppage in March.
If Williamson is in better shape than ever, watch out. . . but the Pelicans certainly have a responsibility to protect their franchise cornerstone beyond this odd restart.
On Tuesday, Andrew Lopez of ESPN noted that the Pelicans had three of the 16 recently positive COVID-19 tests. While young athletes can recover from the virus – and David Griffin has said he expects everybody to go to Florida – the pandemic has been anything but predictable.
Both DeAndre Jordan and Spencer Dinwiddie announced that they’d tested positive too. In Jordan’s case, he was immediately opting out of the restart, while Dinwiddie wants to recover in time but has some worrying symptoms to deal with first – including a fever and chest tightness. Without guarantees of perfect health here on out in the Pelicans’ trio of cases, that could have plenty of impact in their play-in chase.
This is an evolving story, undoubtedly, but will it dent the postseason momentum New Orleans has on their side? Only time will tell.
Memphis Grizzlies: Would a veteran star elevate the roster in 2020-21 or should the team keep growing organically?
The Memphis Grizzlies have been the surprise team of the season out westward, led by Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr., Brandon Clarke, Dillion Brooks and a cast of supporting players, both young and old.
But the franchise is fast approaching a fork in the road – should they push their stack toward the middle of the betting table? Or will they continue to let their budding stars grow? Outside of the newly-re-signed Anthony Tolliver, the bit work of Gorgui Dieng, Jae Crowder and Solomon Hill have played key minutes in Memphis’ successes, but none are part of the long-term plan.
The one massively contributing veteran stalwart has been Jonas Valanciunas, who has averaged 14.9 points and 11.2 rebounds in just 26.3 minutes per game – an underrated factor in the squad’s rapid climb. At 27-years-old, the Lithuanian will earn $29 million between 2020-22, so it’ll hardly be a cap killer should the right move arise during the offseason.
Adding a star player in the offseason could push them up over the top as an eventual contender – but who will be available and at what price? The Grizzlies have rebuilt tremendously, so they must be careful about attempting to skip steps in the process. It might be tempting to ship off a player or two for a win-now option – however, we’ve seen that be the dagger in up-and-coming rosters time and time again.
Ultimately, of all the teams in the Southwest Division, the Grizzlies have one of the rosiest outlooks right now. Nobody in the core is aging out, the window is just beginning to open, the current stars are bright already and everybody remains as healthy as one might be during a worldwide pandemic. The Rockets, Mavericks and Spurs own fascinating questions for their stars and roster-wide makeup – but the Pelicans and Grizzlies appear to be next-up contenders, all they must do is wait it out without getting hasty.
Easier said than done.
After the Orlando seeding games conclude in August, we’ll likely have a much better picture of where these five franchises stand, both today and down the road.
Until then, the crystal ball will have to do.
NBA Daily: Free Agent Watch – Centers
Drew Maresca continues Basketball Insiders’ Free Agent Watch by discussing the robust class of centers set to hit the market.
The NBA is returning incredibly soon, but it definitely won’t be the same – at least not initially.
While most aspects of the game will hopefully return to normal as soon as next season – and other fun surprises like the return of Jamal Crawford and Michael Beasley to the Brooklyn Nets (the latter of whom is still in negotiations) will bring some unexpected joy to an otherwise nerve-wracking situation – the long-term financial implications of COVID-19 are very real. Immediately, players will sign lesser deals due to an assumedly smaller salary cap and teams with multiple max contracts on their books will struggle to surround their star players with the support they need to compete.
With that being said, Basketball Insiders is identifying the best free agents at each position with the new and unique realities facing NBA teams in mind. Today we turn out attention to the men in the middle. The center position has changed dramatically since the 1990s, when having an elite big man was practically a necessity. But the definition of “elite” has changed drastically between that era and this one. Historically, big men hunkered down in the post — they were burly and physical, blocked shots and grabbed rebounds. What they did not do was stretch the floor, handle the ball or defend guards like many at the position do today.
So let’s dive into the best centers available in free agency.
Marc Gasol, Toronto Raptors – Unrestricted – $25,595,7500
Gasol will be an unrestricted free agent following this season. And, from the surface, his prospects wouldn’t seem great; Gasol missed considerable time in 2019-20, playing in only 36 games due to a hamstring injury, which resulted in career lows in scoring, rebounds and blocks per game.
That said, there’s still some room for optimism – and it’s squarely rooted in his weight.
Gasol has slimmed down quite a bit since COVID-19 forced the NBA to shut down in mid-March. Returning lighter and more fit should allow him to move more seamlessly with the team on the court and further leverage his athleticism. It should also enable him to stay on the floor for longer stretches, another positive as Gasol’s presence on the court has often been positive for the Raptors; of Toronto’s six lineups that logged 100 or more minutes, Gasol is in all three that are at least +10 and didn’t play at all in the other three (which were -4.1, -10 and +3.1, respectively).
What’s more, Gasol’s a great passer, an excellent defender (he allowed the tenth fewest points per touch last season) and his three-point shooting has continued to improve dramatically (he shot 40.2% on 3.5 three-point attempts in 2019-20 – second among centers in the entire league behind only Karl-Anthony Towns).
Gasol isn’t the modern and mobile “point center,” but adding bits and pieces of that style to his game has surely made him a valuable asset on the open market, even at the age of 35 and despite the lackluster regular season. He’ll have eight games plus the playoffs to prove that he’s healthy and ready to contribute — if Gasol can step back up, he should be in line for a nice payday.
Hassan Whiteside, Portland Trail Blazers – Unrestricted – $27,093,018
Whiteside was meant to be a stop-gap for the Trail Blazers. Portland’s plan was always to bide their time until Jusuf Nurkic was able to return from a compound fracture of his left tibia and fibula.
But the 31-year-old put forth such an impressive 2019-20 campaign that, while it’s highly unlikely the team recants their dedication to Nurkic, Whiteside has almost certainly secured himself a major deal for next season.
Just look at Whiteside’s 2019-20 output so far; he improved essentially each month, which culminated in 19.6 points, 14.8 rebounds and 5 blocks per contest across five games in March. Further, Whiteside connected on 57.1% of his three-point attempts – even if he only launched seven all year. If Whiteside can convert threes at that rate – even at such a limited volume – he remains a threat who defenders must cover all the way to the three-point line.
To put Whiteside’s season in context, he secured a career high in points per game, led the league in blocks per game (3.1) and is the second-leading rebounder in the entire NBA. Not bad, right? It may not come from Portland, but Whiteside would certainly seem to be in line for a raise, and a big one at that. And, given his age, don’t be surprised to see him jump at potentially his last chance to cash in big.
Dwight Howard, Los Angeles Lakers – Unrestricted – $3,500,000
Howard signed a one-year, non-guaranteed deal with the Lakers last summer. Expectations were relatively low, especially considering he was a last-minute signing; Howard was signed in August after DeMarcus Cousins suffered a knee injury.
But expectations and reality are not always aligned. Despite his age — Howard turned 34 last December — and the lack of actual playtime to go around with Anthony Davis and JaVale McGee soaking up most of the time at the five, Howard managed an impressive bounce-back season. In 62 games, Howard averaged 7.5 points, 7.4 rebounds and 1.2 blocks while hitting 73.2 percent of his shots and playing strong defense in just over 19 minutes per game.
Per-36, those numbers look even better: 14.1 points, 13,8 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per-36 minutes.
It could be tough for the Lakers to re-sign Howard, as they have about $75 million in guaranteed contracts next year before inking Davis to a massive new deal. That said, and while Howard will be competing with veterans like DeMarcus Cousins for a roster spot, he’s built a strong case for himself – especially if he’s willing to take another discount and continue to accept more of a reserve role.
Andre Drummond, Cleveland Cavaliers – Player Option — $28,751,774
The Cavaliers traded for Drummond for pennies on the dollar. Less than that, even.
In exchange for Brandon Knight, John Henson and a future second-round pick, the Cavaliers netted a two-time All-Star and the NBA’s leading rebounder in each of the last three seasons. It’s not like there was a major downtick in his play this season, either; in 2019-20, Drummond averaged 17.7 points and 15.3 rebounds per game.
But it’s not all sunshine and roses in Cleveland.
Drummond’s situation with the Cavaliers appears to be pretty open-and-shut. He’s been quoted as saying that he will exercise his $28.7 million player option, adding nearly $30 million in salary to Cleveland’s 2020-21 salary cap. But, just because Drummond said it doesn’t make it a guarantee. The Cavaliers could attempt to negotiate a long-term deal, bringing down their 2020-21 cap hit and guaranteeing Drummond more total dollars to appease him.
But there are a few questions that must be addressed before offering Drummond anything beyond next season. Firstly, does Cleveland believe that he’s versatile enough to play center in the modern NBA? Drummond shot just 28.6% on three-point attempts this season and he’s a sub-50% career free-throw shooter. Do those deficiencies outweigh Drummond’s strong contributions elsewhere (i.e. his scoring, rebounding and defense)?
The second question for Cleveland has more to do with his timeline rather than his play. Do the Cavaliers want to further invest in players on a different timeline to that of much of their young core (Collin Sexton, Darius Garland, Dante Exum, Kevin Porter Jr., etc.)? Drummond is set to turn 27 later this year and, while surrounding youth with a veteran leader is definitely the right move, Cleveland already has two of those veteran personalities in the locker room in Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson.
That said, while Love is signed through 2022-23, Thompson — a similar player to Drummond — is set to hit unrestricted free agency at the end of the season.
Cleveland’s strategy as of this past February’s trade deadline didn’t appear entirely cohesive — they resisted trading Thompson (and could now lose him for nothing) only to add Drummond to the fold. And, going forward, it looks as if they have two options: either overwhelm their roster with mismatched talent and try to let it work itself out, or they can surrender Thompson now or Drummond next season. We’ll know which direction they prefer very soon.
DeMarcus Cousins, Los Angeles Lakers – Unrestricted – $3,500,000
Last we checked, Cousins was working his way back from a torn ACL suffered just prior to the start of the 2019-20 season. Cousins’ stats were very good, but not quite great; the former Golden State Warrior averaged 16.3 points and 8.2 rebounds per game in 30 games last season, still hobbled in his recovery from a ruptured Achilles tendon. Before that, Cousins was averaging 25.2 points and 12.9 rebounds per game, shooting an impressive 35.4% on three-point attempts while bullying opponents at the rim (63.1%).
So, is a team willing to gamble on Cousins bouncing back to that form? It will have to wait until next season, as Cousins has stated his intent to sit out the NBA’s restart in Orlando, but the answer is probably yes, but for the right price.
Cousins was (and probably still is) an uber-talented player. But, like Howard this season, he may have to take a backseat-type deal before he can truly bounce back and earn his next big payday.
Whatever Cousins does is, ultimately, up to him, but, whether with the Lakers or another squad, it would seem wise for Cousins to ride the wave next season with a squad that could go the distance. Rather than rush himself back and risk another potential injury, Cousins could slowly work his way back and show teams that he can still get it done at a high level before hitting the market next offseason looking to cash in.
The return to basketball is inevitable. Of course, not everyone is happy with it, but that won’t stop teams from taking advantage of the remaining games in order to scout players and absorb new information. There are opportunities for players to secure future contracts, while other players will probably play their way into retirement and or out of the league. The 2020 free agent period will probably be the most chaotic version of itself, ever, and, while it may be a little rough for the front offices, it’ll be all the more fun for us to cover and watch.
And it’ll all be here in just a few short months.
NBA Daily: Malachi Richardson Has Learned What It Means To Be A Pro
Spencer Davies catches up with Malachi Richardson about his participation in The Basketball Tournament, spending a season overseas and what it will take to get back to the NBA.
At this time last year, Malachi Richardson had just come off a championship-winning season with the Toronto Raptors, and he was set for a five-game Summer League stint with the Golden State Warriors.
One year later, the matured 24-year-old swingman is competing for Boeheim’s Army in The Basketball Tournament to showcase his talents, ultimately poised to earn his way back into the NBA after a season overseas.
“I miss playing and being on the court with teammates to find ways to work together and win,” Richardson told Basketball Insiders. I’ve been training hard at Impact with Joe Abunassar this offseason to perfect my game. It’s going to be fun.”
Sporting a slimmed-down frame — he’s lost 17 pounds — Richardson scored 15 points and grabbed three rebounds in his TBT debut, a win over Men of Mackey. The Syracuse alum will take on Team Sideline Cancer this weekend.
Despite his short stay at ‘Cuse, playing for the Orangemen holds a special place in Richardson’s heart. It was where he capitalized on his McDonald’s All-American high school status and put it into action on a national collegiate stage for a top program, making him an attractive prospect at the NBA level. In June 2016, the Charlotte Hornets took the talented wing with the No. 22 pick.
“I wouldn’t change anything about my process,” Richardson said of his decision to enter the draft as a freshman. “Our Final Four run at Syracuse was special and I often reflect on how fun the game was for me at the time.
“Being a one-and-done put me at an advantage to be able to learn the business side of basketball early, so that I learned what it will really take for me to have a long NBA career.”
Richardson was traded a couple of weeks later to the Sacramento Kings, where he spent the beginning portion of his career. He appeared in 22 games during his rookie season, and the minutes in those were scarce.
However, he took advantage of G League assignments with the Reno Bighorns. In 11 games, Richardson averaged over 21 points and 4 rebounds per game, nailing 46 percent of his threes. Things were looking up heading into his sophomore season.
Richardson received an uptick in minutes and even earned his first four starts with the Kings, but it wasn’t for long. Sacramento dealt him at the 2018 trade deadline to the Raptors. He’d spend the next year-and-a-half with Toronto; again, he made the most impact in the G League, this time with the Raptors 905.
“The G-League is great for young guys, especially on teams that may not have as much opportunity for you to get on the floor with the NBA team,” Richardson said. “It gave me a chance to stay sharp so if I did get an opportunity on the NBA floor, I would be ready.”
The silver lining in the situation? An NBA title. During his time up north, Richardson was a part of a championship organization and had a great mentor in Danny Green. The lessons he picked up along the way can’t be replaced.
“On and off the court,” Richardson said. “Being a champion and a player that has made a name for himself as a specialist in the league he definitely helped me figure out what I can potentially be for a team.
“Being with the Raptors showed me what it takes to win at a high level in the NBA. From film, scouting reports, taking care of your body with treatment. And just coming in each day mentally prepared. From day one, it was clear that the goal was to win a championship, and being young in that locker room has put me at a serious advantage today.”
When last July’s summer league concluded, Richardson didn’t receive a training camp invite. He ended up signing with Hapoel Holon of the Israeli Premier League through mid-December. Next up was a move to Italy to join Vanoli Cremona in Lega Basket Serie A.
For the first time in his career, he was traveling from country-to-country and making a living overseas. Luckily, his loved ones were along for the ride and made the transition that much easier.
“Coming home to my son and family every day after a game or practice helped me grow because it’s made me leave the different obstacles of a professional athlete at the door,” Richardson said.
“My son looks at me as daddy. I can’t come home after a long day and not interact with him. He made me forget about a lot of the tough days at the gym as soon as I step in the door.”
Unfortunately, in late January, Richardson suffered a fractured hand and was subsequently released a couple of weeks afterward. By the same token, he took advantage of the opportunities and his hard work showed. In 21 total games (12 starts) between the two teams, Richardson averaged over 11 points and nailed a pro-career-best 43.9 percent of his threes.
“Playing overseas was a great experience for me. Being able to see the world and experience the different types of play styles was important for my growth as a player.”
While Richardson’s embryonic career has not been as straightforward as your usual typical first-round pick, hindsight is always 20-20. He’s determined to show his development as a player and a person.
“I’ve learned what it means to be a pro,” Richardson said of his improvements. “Just finding ways to make the most of my body and what I can do to be effective on the court. These were things that I did not take as seriously as I should have the first time around.”
Mental preparation is a facet Richardson is no longer taking for granted. He understands that the NBA is a business, and if you’re not at the top of your game, it can be a harsh one. So he’s going to continue to use his time wisely, mainly perfecting his craft in the gym.
“The different things I need to do basketball-wise that lets me know I’m locked in and ready to play and practice at a high level,” Richardson said.
“Scoring the ball is one thing I think I can do with the best of them, and I’m working on becoming a more complete player. I’m a better passer now and a better defender. Learning as a professional, not just a basketball player, has helped my game grow.”
An NBA return is the goal.
In the meantime, Richardson will look to add another trophy to his collection in TBT.
“I am really putting in the work with this offseason to be ready for whatever comes my way. I hope to get a chance to work out for some teams this offseason and earn a chance to get a roster spot in camp,” Richardson said. “My family has been an amazing support system for me and I’ve been locked in with my workouts, taking care of my body and waiting for the right call to show what I’ve accomplished this past year.”
NBA Daily: Free Agent Watch – Power Forwards
Matt John continues Basketball Insiders’ Free Agent Watch by examining the power forwards that could potentially be hitting the market this summer.
Welcome back to Basketball Insiders’ Free Agent Watch series! We’re now making our way to the frontcourt players that could see a new team when the new NBA season starts in December.
On paper, the power forwards have the deepest pool of free agents talent-wise. Although, a few of these players on this list are mentioned because they potentially could hit the market. Common sense would say otherwise. Case in point — take a look at the first guy mentioned here.
Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers – Player Option – $28,751,775
Yeah, we *technically* had to include Davis in here because he could *technically* hit the open market, and he *technically* is listed as a power forward since he plays the majority of his minutes at that spot — 62 percent this season alone, which was his highest since 2014-15. His free agency (if he becomes one) should be pretty straightforward.
Whether he opts in or not, expect Davis back with the Lakers. LeBron James and the Lakers gave up a lot to get him to Hollywood. The Lakers will be damned if they’re going to let him go after they’ve had their best season since 2011, and LeBron will be damned if he’s going to let him go because as much as he’s defied father time; he’s only got so many years left at the top. The two of them have made up the NBA’s best pairing this season. If that breaks up, it’ll be pretty much impossible to find an adequate replacement.
Considering all the drama that led up to the Lakers acquiring Davis, it would take a 99-yard hail mary pitch against the Legion of Boom to get him off the Lakers. This is the best team that Davis has been on his entire career by far, and when you have LeBron taking a lot of responsibility off your shoulders on a team vying for a championship, there’s not a whole lot of incentive to leave. Unless you’re Kyrie Irving.
That’s where the real question lies. Davis will definitely stay on the Lakers for as long as LeBron is right there with him, but how long will that be? LeBron will be on the books for two more years after this season, and everyone knows of his plans to play with his son Bronny in the near future. Should LeBron go leave to take part in the family business, Davis’ future with the Lakers goes up in the air. LA doesn’t have to worry about that for another two years — and those two years should be prosperous — but it’s something they should keep in the back of their minds. Especially if there’s fire to these “return-to-hometown-Chicago” rumblings.
Montrezl Harrell, Los Angeles Clippers – Unrestricted – $6,000,000
When you have a championship window, you have to do everything you can to keep it open, even if it means paying more than what a guy is worth. People give Dan Gilbert so much grief for what he paid LeBron’s supporting cast in Cleveland, but give the guy credit. He knew he had an opportunity that he could not afford to let slip through his fingers. Now, Steve Ballmer has a similar predicament with Harell’s free agency coming up.
Harrell has easily been one of the league’s best bargain contract players over the past couple of years. Not many teams have bigs averaging 18/7 off the bench. The Clippers are the only team to have such a player while paying him chump change. They may no longer have that luxury when he hits the open market.
Kawhi Leonard and Paul George create a championship window that needs to have as few holes as possible. Letting Harrell walk will create one that cannot easily be filled. His energy on both sides of the floor makes him an absolute terror to deal with any opponent they go up against. He’s also going to be their best bet against Anthony Davis in what feels like an inevitable conference finals date with their crosstown rival.
Having both his bird rights and a limited market will help the Clippers in the negotiating room, but we’ve seen guys leave good teams for less money because they felt insulted by the deal they were offered. This is the chance for the Clippers to show that they truly are committed both to Harrell and the window they have.
Paul Millsap, Denver Nuggets – Unrestricted – $30,000,000
Millsap is the last of a dying breed in the NBA — a pure power forward. Because of the league’s versatility, we see more and more small forwards playing a fair amount of time at the four because they are multi-faceted enough to do so. Millsap impressively has been able to stay productive at the four even as the league has embraced this change. Even more so, the teams he’s been on have pretty much always been good.
At 35 years old, it’s clear Millsap is on his last legs. Although his per-36 stats look just about as good as they were during the height of his prime both in Utah and Atlanta, Denver’s decreased his minutes for a reason. At the same time, there’s a reason why Denver opted to pick up his $30 million team option last summer.
Millsap is definitely not going to see anywhere near the kind of contract he got from the Nuggets back in 2017, but there is going to be a lot of interested parties in his services once the season ends. He’s among those players that aren’t very flashy on the court nor anything spectacular in one area, but just a good fundamental basketball player all-around. He’s a good veteran presence in the locker room, and maybe he won’t put up the All-Star numbers he once could; but as it stands, if all you’re asking him is to be a rotation big on a playoff contender, he’ll do that for you.
Denver has the advantage both because of both its competitors’ lack of available funds and the team having Millsap’s bird rights. Returning to the Nuggets seems like the most obvious path, but Millsap does have to ask himself if he can win with them with what amount of prime he has left.
Serge Ibaka, Toronto Raptors – Unrestricted – $23,271,605
It’s tough to describe where Ibaka is in his career right now. He’s no longer the shot-blocking terror that he was during his time in Oklahoma City — from 3.7 blocks a game in 2011-12 to 0.8 this season — so when you hear stuff like that, you think he’s past his prime. Then you look at his numbers on the offensive end — 16/8 on 52/40/75 splits, some of his best numbers ever — and you would think he hasn’t lost a step.
The contract Toronto gave Ibaka back in 2017 may have been a bit of an overpay — who wasn’t overpaying in 2017? — but he has done what the Raptors have asked of him. He brought veteran experience, still blocks a shot or two, and spaces the floor for them most of the time. He doesn’t have the highest basketball IQ, but he knows what he can do well and sticks to it.
As far as where he goes after this season is quite the mystery. Toronto has been as awesome as a reigning champ who lost its best player could be, but even they have to wonder if it’s worth it to keep the whole band together for another run when Ibaka, Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol are all starting to get up there age-wise. The Raptors could really go either way, and there wouldn’t be a wrong answer. Masaji Ujiri has proven time after time that he knows what he’s doing.
Whoever gets Ibaka knows what they are getting. Besides the skills that have already been listed above, they are getting a champion. That can count for a lot in a playoff run.
Marcus Morris, Los Angeles Clippers – Unrestricted – $15,000,000
Not every player gets to go through what Morris did this season. He got paid a ton of money to play for a team that was bad enough to trade him to a contender willing to pay a high price for him, and now he gets a golden opportunity to showcase his talents for a payday. His odds of getting one took a hit for reasons that were out of his control, but still. This could not have worked out any better for Morris.
Now he’s on the Clippers, where he is the overqualified third wing to spell Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, as well as be a body to throw at LeBron. His three-point percentage took a bad spill once arriving in LA, but before that he was shooting a blistering near-44 percent from three in New York. Morris is a career 36.7 percent three-point shooter, so asking him to shoot that hot from three is placing unfair expectation, but if he can be a reliable shooter from that department, the Clippers will have no regrets for what they spent on him.
Considering the other Clippers who will be hitting free agency this summer, the odds of Morris coming back to LA seem slim on paper, but who knows how the low salary figures will impact free agency. Morris has proven that he is a valuable two-way wing that can play gritty defense as well as score the ball.
Buyer beware, though — Marcus Morris is in the Russell Westbrook mold of players that will not adapt to the system. The system adapts to guys like him. It doesn’t matter if he’s got the likes of Kawhi or PG-13 on his side. If the basketball is in his hands, his first instinct is to score. If you’re bringing him in, you have to know what you’re paying for. There’s much more good than bad to Mook, but the bad is still something that can’t be overlooked.
Marvin Bagley III, Sacramento Kings – Team Option – $8,963,640
“Uh…. what” you may ask? It’s true. Even as the second overall pick in the draft, Bagley’s rookie deal is structured to have a team option for his third year with the team for… some reason. To be honest, this is really brought up more for being a fun fact than anything else.
Because, even if Bagley has paled in comparison to some of his fellow 2018 draftees thus far — Luka Doncic, Trae Young, Jaren Jackson Jr., Shai Gilgeous-Alexander — Sacramento would be absolutely insane to let him go knowing the kind of potential he has… right?