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Suns, Spurs Miss Play-In, But Prove They Belong

Drew Maresca reviews the in-bubble performances of the Suns and Spurs.

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On a night when Damian Lillard took center stage – and delivered, again – the Phoenix Suns and San Antonio Spurs learned they’d been bumped from playoff contention.

The Suns entered the bubble with a sub-par 26-39 record. They’d experienced setbacks throughout the season that hurt their chances at the playoffs, including an eight-game losing streak in December. Still, there was plenty to look forward to for Phoenix fans as their beloved Suns prepared to enter the bubble in mid-July: A new coach who is viewed positively around the league (Monty Williams); the surprising play rookie Cameron Johnson, which must have been incredibly satisfying for the Suns after receiving heavy criticism for making the draft pick in June 2019; the development of young big-man Deandre Ayton, who quietly averaged an impressive 18.4 points, 11.5 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game in just his second season in the league; and, of course, the continued rise of superstar guard Devin Booker.

But still, little was expected of the Suns in the bubble – after all, they had won only 32 percent of their games against bubble teams in 2019-20 prior to the resumption of play in late July. But hold the phone, the Suns rattled off seven convincing wins in the bubble against elite competition and set themselves up to possibly qualify for the first play-in game in NBA history. And after securing another win against the Dallas Mavericks on Thursday, the Suns were ready for the playoffs.

Unfortunately, Thursday night was, as it always is, Dame Time. The Trail Blazers beat the Nets in a thrilling and closely contested game, punching their ticket to the playoffs and, simultaneously, ensuring that the Suns would miss out. But the Suns’ future is glowing, even if they did come up short.

Ricky Rubio was a major bright spot this season, as he was a part of six of the team’s seven best lineups in 2019-20 –  all of which were +10 or more in total. Mikal Bridges’s play was also encouraging, as he averaged 12.6 points per game on 38.7 percent three-point shooting through the team’s first seven games in the bubble. Johnson was already a pleasant surprise entering Orlando, but he also continued to prove himself. Johnson, who is a mature rookie at 24-years-old, averaged 13 points and six rebounds per game on 35.9 percent shooting from deep. Ayton has proven a lot, too. He must continue to improve on his defensive decision-making, but he showed he is more than capable.

And then, last but not least, there’s Booker – someone who will inevitably be named to the All-Bubble First Team. Booker played like a man on a mission, averaging 30.5 points and six assists per game with pretty incredible shooting splits at 50.3/31.3/94. But Booker did more than just put up mind-boggling numbers– he made major, Dame-like statements, including a moment-of-the-bubble game-winner.

While it must be disappointing to have won out and still fail to qualify for the playoffs, the Suns now know how good they can be. Between Booker’s brilliance, Rubio’s calming presence, Johnson’s surprising transition to the NBA and Ayton anchoring it all on the block, the Suns can build on it whenever the 2020-21 season begins.

The San Antonio Spurs also missed the playoffs by an extremely slim margin, ending a 22-year playoff steak – the longest current streak in North American major sports. Their fight to advance to a play-in game ended on Thursday night, too, with a loss to the Jazz.

The Spurs are the gold-standard of the NBA: Five championships in the last 21 seasons, possibly the best coach of all-time and at least two first-ballot Hall of Famers (Tim Duncan and David Robinson). Further, their system made average players good and good players great. But when Kawhi Leonard demanded a trade in 2018, it was widely assumed that the Spurs run had come to an abrupt end.

Instead, the Spurs quickly and quietly reloaded their arsenal. DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge are All-Stars in their own right, and they’ve been more than capable of leading a team to the playoffs. But the Spurs’ organization demands more. As expected, DeRozan and Aldridge were the 2019-20 leaders in minutes played and points per game – yet the two former All-Stars were assumed to be too little to help the Spurs advance deep into the playoffs, and so it appeared that the time to rebuild was at hand.

So the results of the current season weren’t too surprising as of July. Prior to the play stoppage, San Antonio was 27-36 and even Popovich was looking forward to next season.

”Each team has a goal here,” Popovich recently said to reporters prior to resuming the season in Orlando. ”Some teams are confident they’re a step away from winning an NBA championship. Other teams just want to be in the playoffs. Some teams are concerned mainly with development. If we play well enough to get into the playoffs, that would be great. But my goal is development right now.”

But the Spurs almost made Popovich eat his words, as they went 5-2 in the bubble without Aldridge and Bryn Forbes. They ultimately missed out — but as much as the playoffs would have been a great learning experience for the young team, bubble play boasted a playoff-like atmosphere in which every game counted. And the youngsters answered the bell.

Derrick White was the major breakout star of bubble play for the Spurs. The former D2 star outperformed all expectations by averaging 18.9 points, 5.1 assists and 4.3 rebounds over the seven games in the bubble (he sat out the final loss against Utah). He shot a scorching 39.3 percent from deep and eclipsed the 20-point mark in five of those contests too. Not bad for the second-to-last pick in the first round way back in 2017.

Dejounte Murray might not be the team’s only – or even main – backcourt star, but he proved that he can still be a major contributor alongside another lead guard. Paired with White, Murray averaged 12.6 points, 6.0 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 1.4 steals per game – and the duo displayed a defensive prowess that would be hard to duplicate.

But it’s more than just those two. There’s also Lonnie Walker, the aggressive second-year wing and a fearless slasher with elite athleticism. Considering his youth and lack of experience, Walker was impressive in the bubble, averaging 11.3 points on 40 percent three-point shooting.

However, the most surprising breakout came from rookie Keldon Johnson. Johnson – who appeared in just six of the team’s 63 games prior to the stoppage – averaged  14.1 points and 5.0 rebounds in just 26 minutes per game in the bubble. And what’s more, he set a career-highs in points three separate times – against the 76ers (15), Nuggets (20) and Rockets (24) – and he eclipsed the 20-point mark three times, as well.

Eight teams from each conference qualify for the playoffs every season. It’s not uncommon for good teams to miss out. But don’t bet on the Suns or Spurs missing out again. Even with all of the talent out in the Western Conference, it’s hard to justify betting against either after watching both overachieve in the weird and pressure-filled Orlando bubble.

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Mavericks are expected to pick up Willie Cauley-Stein’s $4.1 million option

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Per ESPN’s Tim MacMahon, the Dallas Mavericks are planning to pick up center Willie Cauley-Stein’s $4.1 million option for the 2021-22 NBA season. The deadline is tomorrow. Last season, in 53 games played, the seven-foot big man averaged 5.3 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. The sixth-year player also shot 63.2 percent from the field last season.

On July 8, 2019, Cauley-Stein signed a two-year, $4.46 million contract with the Golden State Warriors. Then, on January 25, 2020, Cauley-Stein was traded to the Mavericks for a 2020 second-round pick. If everything goes smoothly, the 27-year-old center is set to earn $4.1 million next season. The 2015 sixth overall pick’s contract consumes less than three percent of the team’s total salary cap.

This news comes right after Dallas received center Moses Brown from the Boston Celtics. Brown is a seven-foot-two, 2019 undrafted player out of UCLA. In 2021, Brown was named to the All-NBA G League First Team and All-Defensive Team. On March 28, 2021, the 21-year-old center signed a four-year, $6.8 million contract with the Thunder.

However, on June 18, 2021, the Oklahoma City Thunder traded Brown, Al Horford, and a 2023 second-round pick to the Celtics for Kemba Walker, a 2021 first-round pick, and a 2025 second-round pick. With Boston, Brown was set to earn $1,701,593 next season. Of course, the Mavs’ organization is finalizing a trade to send Josh Richardson to the Celtics as well. In other news, today is Mavs’ owner Mark Cuban’s 63rd birthday.

Referencing Spotrac’s 2021-22 luxury tax totals, the Mavs’ current luxury tax space is $52,326,531. The 2021 NBA salary cap maximum is $112,414,000. Their current cap space is $27,595,632. Cauley-Stein’s contract is recognized as a club option, not a player option or guaranteed money. Richardson’s deadline is also tomorrow, so because he is getting traded to Boston, the team will not collect his $11,615,328 player option.

Plus, Jalen Brunson’s deadline is also August 1st. His guaranteed value is $1,802,057. Leading into the 2021-22 season, Kristaps Porzingis has the highest cap figure on the team, which is an amount worth $31,650,600, consuming 22.73 percent of the team’s total salary cap. At the moment, Porzingis is a popular name in trade rumor articles. Bettors and NBA analysts are predicting a possible trade to the Brooklyn Nets, Sacramento Kings, or Philadelphia 76ers.

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Lakers Need More Than Big Three

The Lakers have their “big three” after trading for Russell Westbrook but is he the right fit in Los Angeles? The former MVP has had an incredible career but he may not be the point guard the Lakers desperately need.

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The Los Angeles Lakers have formed their three-headed monster as they pursue the franchise’s 18th championship next season. Just as the NBA Draft was getting started, the Lakers completed a deal with the Washington Wizards that landed them the 2016-17 league MVP, Russell Westbrook.

The deal sent Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell and the 21st overall pick in this year’s draft to Washington, paving the way for Westbrook to join fellow superstars LeBron James and Anthony Davis. While the Lakers added a dynamic point guard, not everyone is sold on the idea that the Lakers are the team to beat in the loaded Western Conference.

Over the past several weeks, the Lakers were rumored to be seeking perimeter shooting. Some reports had Los Angeles linked to guys like Chris Paul, Buddy Hield and DeMar DeRozan. When the dust settled, it was Washington that made the deal as Westbrook informed the front office that he preferred the Lakers as a destination.

The move is a homecoming of sorts, as Westbrook grew up in the area and spent two seasons playing at UCLA, leading the Bruins to the 2008 Final Four. He had a solid 2020-21 season, averaging 22.2 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 11.7 assists per game for the Wizards, who earned the No. 8 seed in the playoffs.

Oddly enough, this is the third straight offseason in which the 9-time All-Star has been traded. After leaving Oklahoma City, Westbrook was not able to find postseason success in Houston or Washington. Will that now change in Los Angeles?

For all of his accomplishments, Westbrook’s legacy has been defined by his play during the regular season. This past season, the point guard passed Oscar Robertson for the most triple-doubles in the history of the game. Out of his 184 triple-doubles, only 12 have come in the playoffs. By comparison, Magic Johnson has the most playoff career triple-doubles with 30, and James is next with 28. Now all three will have played for the Lakers during their careers.

The thing about triple-doubles (and this is especially the case with Westbrook) is that they don’t always translate to wins. They clearly help the team overall but some would argue that a more balanced attack is tougher to stop. History has shown that having a “big three” is almost a requirement to be considered a legitimate championship contender, but this trio in Los Angeles doesn’t exactly fit together like many of those others.

As talented and valuable as Westbrook has been over the course of his career, he needs to have the ball to be effective. His poor perimeter shooting has been the big hiccup in his game, and that is something that this Lakers team desperately needs. The problem isn’t that any of these three won’t share the ball. In fact, they had already discussed checking their egos even before this trade went down.

Westbrook has never had a problem sharing the ball. He was able to co-exist with Durant in Oklahoma City, Harden in Houston and Beal in Washington. The difference in this scenario is that he will be occupying the same space as James and Davis. The concern is efficiency. Out of 34 players to average at least 20 points per game over the last four seasons, Westbrook ranked 33rd in true shooting percentage.

When James drives to the rim or when Davis is facing a double-team inside, how confident will they be in passing out to Westbrook for a three-pointer? Better yet, how patient will they be if the shot isn’t falling? We have already seen what happened with Danny Green and Caldwell-Pope.

Now that the Lakers have assembled their trio of stars, many fans are hopeful to witness an NBA Finals matchup where James and the Lakers meet Kevin Durant, James Harden, Kyrie Irving and the Brooklyn Nets. As juicy as that series would be, the Western Conference is a gauntlet. There is no guarantee that the Lakers will make it there.

What helps their path is that the crosstown rival Clippers will likely be without Kawhi Leonard next season. The Denver Nuggets will be without Jamal Murray and the Golden State Warriors might not be the Warriors from four years ago. There is also uncertainty surrounding Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers and some potential roster changeup with the Utah Jazz.

Considering all of the top-tier point guard talent available in free agency this summer, the Lakers may have been better off trying to do a sign-and-trade. Such a scenario would have hard-capped them but after this deal, they are just $12.6 million below the hard cap with just five players on the roster. Putting together a deal for Hield is still possible, but the Lakers will have to get creative. Adding a third team to this trade, in particular, is one way to accomplish that. Again, it is possible but it will be complicated.

In a perfect world, the Lakers could have worked with Toronto on a sign-and-trade for Kyle Lowry. Even though Lowry is older than Westbrook, the current window for Los Angeles to win with this group is closing fast. Lowry would be cheaper and a much better fit overall. His durability, toughness, defense and high basketball IQ would pay dividends for the Lakers. Adding in the fact that he is a much better shooter, one has to wonder why the Lakers wouldn’t pursue this route instead.

Westbrook is still going to help this team. He is a tremendous asset for them in the regular season, especially when James is on the bench or unable to play. Having another floor general on the court to generate offense is something they have not had since James arrived. If Los Angeles can land some above-average shooting to the roster, Westbrook could flourish in this role.

With James sliding to the power forward position and Davis playing more at center, the key for Los Angeles will be to surround these guys with shooters. The Lakers ranked 21st in three-point percentage and 25th in makes last season. Expect the organization to be busy when free agency starts next week. Targets will include guys like Duncan Robinson, JJ Redick, Norman Powell, Evan Fournier, Doug McDermott, Bryn Forbes, Patrick Mills, Reggie Bullock, Kendrick Nunn and Alec Burks.

Obviously, the Lakers are counting on their individual talent and figuring out the rest later. It likely means the end for Dennis Schröder. Can Alex Caruso fit in and where does this leave Talen Horton-Tucker? The rest of the roster is in limbo, but the star players and the front office both feel confident that they will land the other pieces that they need to raise another banner next summer.

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Jazz offering Mike Conley $75 million over next three years

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According to veteran NBA reporter Marc Stein, the Utah Jazz are preparing to offer point guard Mike Conley a three-year, $75 million contract to remain with the team. Of course, the exact amount is a ballpark figure. Stein stated, “Utah has made retaining Mike Conley its top priority, league sources say, and is preparing a three-year offer said to be in the $75 million range.” The 14-year NBA veteran is a significant piece to the Jazz’s championship window, playing alongside superstar teammates, such as center Rudy Gobert and guard Donovan Mitchell. He helped the Jazz finish their regular season with the league’s best record of 52-20 (.722).

Utah went on to defeat the Memphis Grizzlies in five games in the first round of the playoffs. Though, the team lost four games to two in the conference semifinals against the Los Angeles Clippers. In the 2020-21 NBA season, Conley averaged 16.2 points, 3.5 rebounds, and six assists per game in 51 games started. Then, in the postseason, he averaged 15.3 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 7.7 assists per game. The 33-year-old also shot 44.4 percent from the field in the regular season. Last season, the 2007 fourth overall pick earned his first NBA All-Star selection.

On July 6, 2019, the Grizzlies traded Conley to the Jazz for Grayson Allen, Darius Bazley, Jae Crowder, Kyle Korver, and a 2020 first-round pick. Furthermore, the Jazz can still trade Bojan Bogdanovic and Joe Ingles this offseason, if they wanted to improve their current salary cap situation. Referencing Spotrac’s 2021-22 cap holds, Mike Conley’s cap figure is $39,344,900. Cap holds are for pending free agents. Conley earned $34,504,132 last season.

The team’s current luxury tax space is $11,173,027. In addition to the aforementioned cap figures, Mitchell and Gobert have a combined cap figure worth 51.34 percent of the team’s total salary cap. These two players’ contracts alone are consuming a huge chunk of the team’s cap. Plus, on November 23, 2020, Mitchell signed a contract extension with Utah. He is set to earn $28,103,550 next season. On December 20, 2020, Gobert signed a five-year, $205 million extension with the organization. He will earn $35,344,828 next season and $38,172,414 in the 2022-23 season.

However, if the team were to still trade Bogdanovic and possibly Ingles as well, this would clear up an additional 25.68 percent of the team’s salary cap. Bogdanovic’s future guaranteed cash amount total is $19,343,000. They are contributing role players who play together well with the team’s big three, but re-signing the most valuable players is the team’s main objective this offseason. Jazz general manager Justin Zanik might contemplate trading role players who are not worth their asking price. Competitive teams in both conferences have to trim the fat at some point.

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