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The ‘Shop: PG Heirarchy and The Karl Conundrum

In this week’s edition of ‘The Shop, the guys discuss George Karl’s comments, top East PGs, CLE-GS, etc.

Jabari Davis

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Welcome back to The ‘Shop for this week’s discussion. Jabari Davis and Lang Greene continue their NBA conversation with a few new topics from the headlines and are joined today by Josh Eberley of Hoop Mag (NBA.com) and Press Basketball:

Jabari: I hope the holiday treated you and the families well, Josh and Lang. Hopefully, a whole lot better than former NBA head coach George Karl is treating some of his ex-players with some of the excerpts coming from his upcoming book, ‘Furious George’ set to be released on January 10, 2017. “Tell-all” books are nothing new and, given the fact that Karl appears to have fizzled out of the NBA rotation of viable coaching candidates, I guess this should come as no shock.

My biggest issue with it wasn’t the fact that he went out of his way to heavily criticize some of the very players that helped him become the coach with the fifth-most wins in NBA history over the second half of his coaching career. My problem with it was the way in which he decided to personally attack these players using coded (and in some cases blatantly prejudiced) language to add the type of tone that was likely used to specifically sell books. Essentially, this has the feeling of selling the very people out that he experienced some of his greatest professional heights with, while tacking on the type of language and rhetoric that could only have been added to specifically hurt those individuals OR for the positive monetary benefits that can come from sensationalist commentary. First, did you have an issue with Karl’s decision to specifically call out Carmelo Anthony and Kenyon Martin by essentially calling them “fatherless” and criticizing them for things completely out of their control? Second, does this feel like a “final act” for Karl as a member of the NBA sidelines or could you see a path where he would be trusted by NBA players enough to be placed in charge at some point moving forward?

Josh: I love tell-all books, I really do. We’re all NBA junkies and of course I want the behind-the-scenes tour! That said, Karl didn’t have to take it there. Nothing he said about Carmelo Anthony’s game was unfair, it’s not stuff we all haven’t heard before on Twitter or wherever. But adding in his doctor’s notes on the impact of not having a father was probably out of line and overall unnecessary.

Karl put himself in a bad situation here; people will discredit him based on his lack of tact. The truth is there’s probably some great stuff in that book. Even if you hate the guy (as many players seem to), he was an NBA coach for a lot of years. I hope people can sort through the B.S. while still enjoying the nuggets, not for Karl, but for your own NBA fandom.

Oh, Karl is done. Who in the hell would ever want to play for this guy? Boogie, Melo, Martin, Allen, Iguodala, etc. Have all blasted the man. Now he’s writing a book throwing crap on the most prestigious players to ever suit up for him? Even if some of the strictly basketball-related criticism is fair, no one wants to play for a guy who’s going to crap on them publicly and privately.

Lang: What’s up Hoop Freaks? Strong welcome to J.E. I appreciate you stopping through, my man. Let’s rock.

When guys are trying to sell books, especially in today’s climate, I already know there will be some juicy nuggets to bring in readers. George Karl just followed the normal procedure for someone heading into retirement not looking for another check. I might be taking a different approach on this, but Karl has coached some guys that most in his profession would be shaking in their boots to lead. Let’s run down some names for the Freaks: Allen Iverson, DeMarcus Cousins, Rajon Rondo, Kenyon Martin, J.R. Smith, Carmelo Anthony, Vin Baker, Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp, JaVale McGee, Ty Lawson, Chris Andersen, Reggie Evans, Julius Hodge, J.R. Reid, Sam Cassell and Anthony Mason. I mean, I can go on but you get the point.

My goodness. Most of the guys on this list are just headstrong alpha males without any off-court baggage. But some of these guys were (or are) dealing with alcohol issues and drug issues. Some were just blatantly immature and still are to this day. One of the guys got shot in the middle of the season for goodness sake. Quite a few were known to give their other coaches fits during their careers.

I found his criticism to be out of line, but maybe the man was just fed up after having to play the “bigger man” all these years while keeping things internal.

Lastly, the fatherless talk is definitely loaded in code. Make no mistake, it plays to an audience that have preconceived notions of young minority multi-millionaires. However, fatherless households in minority communities is without a doubt a big issue – a huge issue. I don’t want to dismiss that nugget, but I also feel Karl wasn’t trying to “lend a hand” or “raise awareness” when he was going after ‘Melo and Kenyon. Last thing, the exponential growth of fatherless households since the 1960s has increased in all ethnic groups in America. Just to be clear.

Jabari: I suppose we should wait for the rest of the material or perhaps a few more excerpts for additional perspective on what Karl is discussing in the book, but the first bit of information (while it will certainly snatch headlines and potentially sell some books) actually turns me off on the idea of the project, altogether.

Transitioning to a topic Josh actually brought up on Twitter, many of us came into the season with high hopes for what year-two of D’Angelo Russell might look like. The “fit” with head coach Luke Walton, his staff and the system is significantly better than last season, but Russell still hasn’t quite been able to turn the corner just yet.

Finding a consistent effort, not only on both sides of the court, but specifically when his shot is not falling, has been a challenge for Russell to this point. This is not an uncommon characteristic for young guards, but Russell was brought in under the guise of potentially being a “next-level” player among his peers and the hope has to be that he’ll at least be able to continue developing into an impact player at this level. Russell does enough on a regular basis (14.5 PPG, 4.5 APG, 3.3 RPG in 26.3 MPG) to still make you raise your eyebrows about his potential, but remains a sub-40 percent shooter from the field for the season (39.4 percent) and still turns the ball over at an alarming rate on some nights. His current Defensive Real Plus-Minus ranking is 39th among point guards that have started at least four games in 2016-17 just behind Russell Westbrook and ahead of Beno Udrih. When adjusted to determine Real Plus-Minus Wins among the same group, Russell ranks just 25th.

I’m covering him from within the market and will fully admit that I still believe he has the “it” factor that could make him special, but I’d be interested in hearing from each of you about what his potential looks like from the outside and whether he will ultimately live up to the hype many of us have placed on him?

Josh: The “it” factor is what scared me off this kid in what appeared to be a stacked draft. I remember watching him play against Arizona in the tourney and he just kept shooting and shooting. Frankly, it was ugly. He shot a woeful 3-of-19 (16 percent) while his teammates shot a combined 17-33 (52 percent). It was one game but that’s the downside of the “it” factor, it seems to come with a lack of self-awareness. His decision-making is at times, well, not ideal.

That comes off as wholly negative, but I don’t mean it to be. Not unlike Devin Booker and Justise Winslow, the hype of the class seems to drain some of the reality. The Lakers’ hot start was in spite of Russell and not because of him. Is he still incredibly talented? Absolutely. Could he still be an All-Star? Hell yeah, he could. However, his sophomore numbers leave a lot to be desired. Playing less minutes under Luke Walton than he did under Byron Scott doesn’t seem like a red flag to you?

I think he’s going to be a good player – he’s only just creeping up to 21 years old – but I don’t see him as the franchise player many hope he could be.

Lang: Way too early to say he doesn’t have “it” in my view. I remember watching Russell Westbrook during his first season and a half and thinking, “Man, this kid is going to be really good.” But I certainly didn’t see 32-11-11 type of potential.

Honestly, from the outside it seems D’Angelo might fall into the “too-cool-for-school” crowd. The jersey always looks just right, the movements textbook, picturesque jump shots when things are rolling for the Lakers, etc. But I did a YouTube search for “D’Angelo Russell hustle play” and came up with crickets.

I’m on record with you, Jabari, saying Russell has more upside than Devin Booker. This is based on “potential” and what I believe he can become. But here is the definitive D’Angelo Russell play for me up until now – from last Christmas:

Four-on-one fastbreak, two forwards on the wing (Julius Randle and Anthony Brown, I believe) and Nick Young spotting up from three. Oh, and old man Paul Pierce as the only defender on the break. Russell double dribbles after trying to go solo. But pay attention to his teammates’ reaction. Randle is in absolute disbelief. Nick Young is befuddled. The end of the Lakers’ bench is frustrated and have a mini huddle before clapping it up. Just look at Roy Hibbert and Robert Sacre.

But I say all this to say, I think the man has All-Star potential … but it’s much more than acting or looking the part. It’s about becoming that dude.

Jabari: The decreased minutes under Walton aren’t really a shock as you’ll notice everyone within the main rotation is playing somewhere right around 22-29 minutes. His minutes were also reduced for about a week following that knee injury that sidelined him for 12 games, but I anticipate them settling somewhere between 27-30 minutes by the end of the year. It seems like we are all on the same page when it comes to Russell, although, I still think he could be a star player at some point. He’s just nowhere near that place at this stage, and the jury is still out on whether he will ultimately reach it.

Continuing on to another story… can we please take a moment to appreciate just how phenomenal that Cavs vs. Warriors game was from Christmas? At the same time, can I now rescind my “let’s appreciate everything else aside from CLE-GS” stance on the season and start getting geared up for an eventual showdown? I know there are a ton of great storylines continuing to play out (Westbrook, James Harden, the Spurs, the Raptors, etc.), but after seeing “Game 8” the other day, I am ALL in, once again! IF we get a Part 3 from these teams, is Cleveland actually the favorite? Even with the addition of Kevin Durant? Even though the Warriors appear to have at least figured out some of their defensive issues that plagued them in the early going?

Josh: Let’s start with the obvious: It was a great game. I won’t lie, I was in the danger zone early Christmas day. The girlfriend spent Christmas Eve with my family this year so it was Christmas at her place.

Genuine fear creeped into my heart that I’d have to record and watch later. I was at the mercy of the girlfriend’s family, spending Christmas afternoon with them for the first time. I was unsure if NBA basketball on mute during present opening would fly. (My own family has long accepted it at my place.)

*Walk in hug everybody.

“Can I help with anything, No? Great, I mean, umm, hey, would it be cool if basketball was on mute while we did this.”

*Five pairs of eyes fixate on the new guy, how can he be so bold?

“Yeah, for sure, Josh. No problem at all.”

That was my 60 yarder and it was cash, my full court buzzer-beater  – nothing but net. Watching the game later after knowing the result would’ve been horrid.

Can we take a second to appreciate 36-year-old Richard Jefferson cramming all over the Warriors? I broke taboo just once during the present opening, jumping up and down and screaming when Jefferson drove his flag six feet into Klay Thompson.

What was the question again? Are the Cavaliers the favorites in the tiebreaker series? Ha. No. Hell no. Steph Curry was hurt, Draymond Green got suspended, Andrew Bogut got hurt, three all-time plays were necessary to win in seven. The Warriors have to be the favorites still. They added a former MVP to a 73-win team. I WILL NOT LET ANYONE FORGET THIS. If the Cavaliers win again, it’s the best NBA Finals ever. There’s never been a better team on the paper than this Warriors squad, they are still coming together. Wait, just wait, for their post All-Star run. It’s going to be savage.

Lang: Josh, props for standing in the pocket with the future in-laws my man. You set the tone early so the next 10-15 years should be a breeze. I remember those early days…

Let me ask this, though. Do I hear excuses? Do I hear a bunch of “What Ifs”? I think I do. Since we’re at excuses making, what about 2015 … what if Kyrie Irving wasn’t hurt in Game 1 of the Finals? What if Kevin Love wasn’t hurt? It’s sports, man. I always wonder what if Richard Steele didn’t stop the first Meldrick Taylor versus Julio Cesar Chavez fight with two seconds remaining in the 12th round. Would Taylor have become one of the all-time greats?

But we’ll never know so all we can deal with is what’s the reality and the reality is, as Ric Flair said, “To be the man, You’ve got to beat the man.” The Cavaliers beat the Warriors. Period. This we know. Then beat them again on Christmas. Cleveland is the favorite until I see something different. This isn’t to say the Warriors aren’t going to show up with a can, because they will, but the Cavaliers – at full strength – might have their number.  

Jabari: Part of me absolutely wants to believe what Josh is saying, but what we’ve seen over the last four times the two teams have faced one another makes me hesitant to put anyone ahead of LeBron, Kyrie and a productive Kevin Love so comfortably. The elephant in the room when it comes to these Warriors is the specific way that game ended, in my opinion. Heading in, one of the more intriguing aspects of Durant deciding to join the Warriors was the idea of seeing him play within a system and alongside a group of guys that have won before. Whether it was a foul on the final sequence or not, why did that look so similar to the way things would devolve down the stretch of OKC games year after year?

Josh: I don’t know if I’d go there, not yet. Though, I’m sure somewhere Reggie Jackson is tickled by that notion. The Warriors just aren’t who they are going to be – not yet anyway. Comfort and custom are parts of this game, teams with the least changes usually thrive early in the season. If the Warriors are still falling apart in April, it’s time to bring back this idea. Remember, Durant has actually seen his shooting percentages drop four straight years come the playoffs, I’ll be watching for that this year.

Lang: Still too early to tell, but maybe the problem in OKC in late situations wasn’t Russell Westbrook.

Jabari: The last topic for the week is related to something I actually saw Josh discussing via Twitter (@JoshEberley, @LangGreene and @JabariDavisNBA) the other day. Josh, you were talking about the great play of Kyrie Irving, John Wall and Kyle Lowry. The debate over the top point guards will rage on for another day, but I’d actually like each of you to rank these East guards in terms of which of these guys deserve to make an All-Star team aaaaand which do you think WILL make it: Irving, Wall, Lowry, Kemba Walker and Isaiah Thomas?

Lang:  Interesting question. Kyrie Irving is automatic from the standpoint of being on the East’s best team and defending champion. Isaiah Thomas has been hurt so I have him pulling up the rear, for now. I give John Wall the edge over Kemba Walker. The man has been everything to Washington and I believe Walker has a bit more help on a nightly basis. So if I were ranking right now, Kyrie then J-Dub, then Kemba and then I.T. (and that’s just because of the slight injury absence). I honestly believe Kemba, for all his goodness, will be snubbed again this season. LG out.

Josh: Kyle Lowry has been the best point guard in the East this year, I don’t think it has been close. He’s on the second-best team, he’s probably the best defender of the bunch and his shooting splits are out of this damn world.

A lot has been made of Kyrie Irving being the best he has ever been, or not developing to the level of a superstar, etc. It has been an ongoing conversation, but the simple answer is that Kyrie has been great. He’s an excellent complement to LeBron James, he’s shooting very well, the Cavaliers are winning. He should come off the bench in the All-Star game behind Lowry and Giannis Antetokounmpo, but he should be there.

It gets tricky here because everyone you listed is good enough to get in. John Wall is the next man up here, the Wizards are pushing at the right time and he’s having a career-year.

So chances are one of Isaiah Thomas and Kemba Walker are missing this year. I think it’s Walker’s turn to get in, he’s the better defensive player and they both mean similar to their teams offensively. I also don’t feel so bad because Walker was the last cut last year. Shouts to Goran Dragić, who is having a really good year but has no chance due to market coverage and team record.

Jabari: For me, Lowry has been the most consistent of the group thus far, but Kyrie will likely get voted in by the fans. As long as each of them make it, I’m fine with whichever (if any) of the other three-four candidates make it. After Wall, to Josh’s point, it could simply be a matter of which guy is up in the proverbial rotation.

Really good stuff from each of you gentlemen this week. Allow me to thank each of you for taking the time and I encourage the readers to continue providing the excellent feedback and topic suggestions in the comment section or on Twitter!

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NBA Daily: Reacting To Bubble Headlines

Almost two weeks into the Bubble, Matt John gives his own take on some of the bigger headlines that have sprung up.

Matt John

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All of a sudden, we are almost at the end of Week Two inside the Bubble. We’ve actually had some pretty epic games, wouldn’t you say? We’ve also had some telling and high stakes games too. Now that our regular season is finally at its end, things are taking shape a little. Because of that, we’re seeing some major stories hit the newsstands over the past 11 days.

Instead of repeating last week’s formula, let’s focus on reacting to some of the more recent headlines we have seen since the

“Something Might Be Wrong With The Lakers!”

In their last seven games, the Los Angeles Lakers have gone only 3-4 and, upon deeper examination, they’ve only come up victorious twice since beating their crosstown rivals on Jul. 30. Since the Bubble commenced, they’ve put up the second-lowest offensive rating in the league – scoring 103 points per 100 possessions, only .1 points ahead of Washington. Additionally, they have the lowest net rating among teams that have clinched a playoff spot at minus-5.6.

LeBron James specifically has not looked like himself. Even when the Lakers beat the Clippers, he didn’t put up the best stat line – and since then, he hasn’t played at the same MVP-caliber pace. In his seven games, he’s averaged 22.8 points on 45/33/63 splits while coughing up 3.2 turnovers. Even at 35, we all know that’s a far cry from the numbers he was putting up during his MVP-worthy campaign.

Maybe he and the Lakers are mailing in the rest of the season, or maybe there is something more to these recent unwelcome struggles.

Do you know what the big conclusion to draw from this is? Yawn. If you know James, then you know that reports like these aren’t anything we haven’t seen before. We all should have gotten the picture with the King by now. No matter who he plays for, no matter how good his team is and no matter how much worse this episode looks compared to the last one, every year there’s always going to be some sort of drama going on. And how much does this impact LeBron’s team when the going gets tough? Nil.

It’s part of the LeBron deluxe package. There are going to be concerns. There are going to be questions. There are going to be doubts. That’s what it’s been like for the past 10+ years with any team led by the likes of LeBron James. The Lakers, as fantastic as they have been, were going to face it eventually. It just happened to be with the playoffs around the corner.

No matter because, with the exception of last year, LeBron’s teams have always made their way through the fire as he carried them over the hump. There’s no reason to think it won’t be the same with LA. Besides, how much did the Lakers honestly have to prove in the Bubble? There were really only two tasks at hand for them once the hiatus ended.

1. Beating the Clippers: Mission Accomplished
2. Getting the No. 1 seed in the loaded Western Conference: Mission Accomplished

After that, what else was there to play for? The drama could very well play into the playoffs, but LeBron’s been through this merry-go-round enough times that he practically owns a timeshare in it.

The Lakers are going to be fine, and you probably already knew that. What everyone needs to realize is that this is a regular occurrence for LeBron-led squads. We should have gotten so used to it by now that it would have been more shocking if the season had ended drama-free for the boys in purple and gold.

But Danny Green shooting only 7-for-25 from three-point land? That might be something to be concerned about.

“Nate McMillan Is On The Hot Seat”

This little tidbit came from a podcast last week between Jeff Van Gundy and Zach Lowe. While we have yet to determine the level of heat on such a rumor, let’s go over McMillan’s tenure as head coach of the Indiana Pacers.

Through a black and white scope, McMillan definitely hasn’t brought Indiana to the same heights that his predecessor Frank Vogel did when he took over as coach back in 2016. The Pacers haven’t been out of the first round since 2014 and they’ve only mustered three playoff wins since with McMillan calling the shots over the last four years. When you see things through that lens, McMillan would seem like the usual candidate.

But that’s not the case with McMillan. There’s a reason why his name has been thrown in the Coach of the Year discussion for three years running now. Let’s start with how he’s developed a reputation for player development. Think of the players that have really stood out for Indiana since they moved on from the Paul George era.
Victor Oladipo, Bojan Bogdanovic, Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon and, most recently, T.J. Warren. What do these players have in common? None of them ever reached the heights in their career that they did once they played under McMillan before coming to Indiana.

McMillan even managed to breathe life back into Lance Stephenson’s career for a year or two there. The one failure on McMillan’s part has been Myles Turner, who is still basically the same player as he was when Indiana had a total makeover back in 2017. The fact that McMillan has done this with this many players in such a short amount of time demonstrates that he knows how to put his players in the right position to succeed. Coaches like those don’t grow on trees.

Fate dealt a cruel hand with Oladipo’s knee blowing out, but McMillan certainly can’t be the fall guy for that. Again, no one knows how seriously we should take this rumor. It may be quickly swept under the rug as soon as tomorrow. It’s just that if McMillan were to be shown the door, Indiana would be making a rather puzzling decision after making pretty much all the right moves over the last three years.

“Michael Porter Jr Was Well-Worth The Wait”

There shouldn’t be much of a counterpoint to this. Michael Porter Jr has looked like the dynamic scorer many believed he could be dating back to his high school days. So much so that a fair amount of teams are probably going to second-guess passing him up in the 2018 NBA Draft. Porter’s rise in Florida has to make Denver – who was already a top team in the Western Conference before he got there – so much more optimistic about their future.

Putting up nearly 24 points on 57/46/96 splits in the Bubble has got to make the Nuggets incredibly giddy. He’s got great size for a scorer and an awesome shooting stroke. He’s also a great cutter, which means more highlight-reel assists for the Joker, too. All the Nuggets needed to complement Nikola Jokic was a go-to-scorer to get to the next level. Soon, they are going to pay Jamal Murray to be that guy, but Murray’s production, while not bad, has stayed relatively the same over the last three years. At 23, there’s still hope for him to make the leap, but now with MPJ coming into his own, the Nuggets have a safety valve in case that doesn’t happen.

Now, teams will get more game film on him, so odds are we’ll see a slump from Porter as time passes. Even with that, this shouldn’t be seen as a tease.

Porter should be a future star if he stays on the court and that’s the one hang-up. We still have to go back to the fact that 13 teams passed on him for a very real, very frightening reason. No one doubted the talent this kid had. It was his injury problems that put his future in doubt. Denver’s been meticulously careful making sure that Porter doesn’t get put on the shelf, but there’s no way of knowing if he can do this over a full season, and we won’t know for quite a while.

Injuries were what ruined Michael Porter Jr’s stock in 2018, so hold your breath. As exciting as it is to see him prove all of his doubters wrong, Brandon Roy did the same thing only 13 years ago.

With the NBA’s latest and greatest regular season bubble set to wrap up this week, there are plenty of intriguing storylines to watch. Are the Nuggets even better with Porter Jr.? Do the Lakers have what it takes?

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NBA Daily: Ivica Zubac Rounding Into Form For Clippers

David Yapkowitz writes about Ivica Zubac and his strong bubble performances for the Los Angeles Clippers – is he the key for a deep postseason run?

David Yapkowitz

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The Los Angeles Clippers have no shortage of star power. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George form one of the most dangerous duos in the NBA, and both Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell are averaging close to 20 points a game each while coming off the bench.

But there is one player on the roster who might be the team’s X-Factor, one player who could hold the key to being able to withstand the imposing frontline of the Los Angeles Lakers – and that’s Ivica Zubac.

Zubac was once a Laker before he was casually tossed aside to the Clippers at last season’s trade deadline. He had shown flashes of his capabilities with the Lakers but spent most of his first couple of seasons in the league with the Lakers’ G League affiliate. Upon his arrival to the Clippers, he immediately became a key player and has since settled into the starting center role.

His arrival to the NBA’s restart bubble in Orlando was initially held up as he had tested positive for COVID-19. He has since joined the team after a mandatory quarantine period and is looking ready to help the team as they gear up for a playoff run.

He admitted that although he only experienced mild symptoms from the virus, he still felt winded and not quite up to speed as he tried to ease himself back into regular game flow.

“It’s much better, it’s much better than when I got here. I can feel it getting better with each practice, each game,” Zubac said on a recent conference call with media.

“After I first started getting back in shape, after I was cleared, I felt like I was out of shape. My chest was a little tighter when I would do some stuff. But I feel great right now. I don’t feel anything. I’m getting back into shape, I’m almost there. It’s going to take some more time.”

Zubac feeling like his old self again has been evident with each passing game. He started slow, only finishing with two points and three rebounds against the Lakers while being outworked by Anthony Davis. Against the New Orleans Pelicans, he looked a bit better, especially with his effort on the glass.

In the Clippers’ third game of the restart against the Phoenix Suns, Zubac put up 18 points and 12 rebounds while shooting 77 percent from the field. He followed that up with his best bubble game to date with 21 points on a perfect 10-for-10 shooting and 15 rebounds against the Dallas Mavericks.

Zubac equated his increased production with gradually regaining his conditioning and mobility and getting the feel again for regular game speed.

“I’m getting the feel, I’m starting to remember what guys like, what are the best spots on the court for me. My conditioning is getting better each practice, each game,” Zubac told media after the Mavericks game. “I’m feeling like I can stay on the floor for a while, I can run the floor, I can fight in the post with guys, I can rebound. Everything with my conditioning getting back, I can get on another level in every aspect of my game.”

Before his performance against the Mavericks, Zubac had a pretty solid game against the Suns – but the center was obviously still readjusting to his teammates and being able to make the right reads and be in the correct spots on the floor. He played solid defense on Deandre Ayton, but he also ended up having a costly turnover late in the game that set up Devin Booker’s eventual game-winner.

Following the Suns game, Clippers head coach Doc Rivers had mentioned there were a few areas that Zubac could use improvement in, and he was much more effusive in his praise after his performance against the Mavericks.

“He was phenomenal. We talked about it, he did all the things we needed, he really ran the floor, that didn’t show up statistically, but what it did, it created space, it created mismatches,” Rivers told media after the game.

“I loved that our guys were looking for him. I thought his rebounding was fantastic. Really coming off the way we ended the game the other day with Zu, then coming back, playing like that, that was fantastic for his confidence.”

Throughout the season, Zubac has been a player that doesn’t need the ball in his hands to be effective. He does have a soft touch around the rim and can establish a strong position in the post, but he does a lot of damage when he’s rolling to the rim, cutting and moving without the ball and catching lobs from his teammates.

He’s also a good rebounder who gets points off of offensive putbacks, and he’s a solid defender who acts as the team’s interior defensive anchor. He’s also usually on the bench at the end of games when Harrell is in with the starters. But depending on potential matchups, perhaps against the Denver Nuggets and Nikola Jokic, or even the Lakers and Davis, Zubac could find himself finishing some games.

What is certain though, is he’s proving his importance to the team and he’s showing that come playoff time, he could end up being the X-factor. He knows that his teammates are going to look for him and he’s ready for that.

“It’s just communication on the floor, knowing what Kawhi and P.G like, knowing how to get a better angle on a screen, just the plays we run, got to have a better understanding what’s good at the time. It’s mostly communication on the floor,” Zubac said. “It feels great to get rewarded by my teammates after doing all the hard work.”

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Free Agency Update: Changes In The Bubble

Drew Maresca explores the free agency implications of the first week of play in the bubble as the NBA continues its return to post COVID-19 play.

Drew Maresca

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Free agency is always a fun time for the NBA and its fans, but particularly so in 2020. Most free agents have usually earned their next deal by the 65th game of any given season – but this year is far from typical. Instead, the NBA has returned, sans its eight worst teams, meaning that competition is consistently better. And with limited competition for our attention, every game is a major event that draws more eyes and has a greater effect on the paydays of to-be free agents.

We’re still only three or four games into the official return of the NBA, but there have already been some changes to how we perceive some players. Take T.J. Warren, for example, who’s averaging over 39.7 points per game through three contests. Or Michael Porter Jr., who looks more like the focal point of a team than a player in his first year of professional action.

This article will focus explicitly on the changes in perception of free agents to-be as a result of their play in the bubble in Orlando.  We understand that the players listed below can still hurt their standings and that teams rate free agents differently. While the sample size is small, we’ve seen deals made based on an equally small body of work (e.g., Jerome James to the New York Knicks).

One caveat to keep in mind is the unprecedented fiscal challenges facing the NBA and its club in 2020. Not only will the COVID-19 pandemic inevitably hurt the 2020-21 salary cap, but there’s also still a conclusion to be had with the preseason China situation.

With all of that in mind, let’s explore the players that have made the loudest cases for a payday come this offseason.

The Stars

Mike Conley Jr., Utah Jazz – Player Option

Conley Jr. has a player option for 2020-21 – but he played poorly enough through March, relative to what we’ve come to expect from him, that it was more than reasonable to assume he would opt-in at $34.5 million.

But wait, there’s a chance that Conley does us all a favor and makes free agency 2020 more interesting. Conley’s averaged 19.8 points and 5.8 assists per game, way, way up from 13.8 points and 4.3 assists per game prior to the stoppage in March. If Conley keeps this going – and especially if he performs well in the playoffs – he might want to test the market considering the lack of elite talent that’s anticipated to hit it – assuming he’s unhappy in Utah, that is.

Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans – RFA

Ingram’s looked similar to the guy we saw in 2019-20 before the play stoppage – he’s averaging 23.5 points and 7.5 rebounds per game when playing 30 or more minutes. While he was less effective in a loss against the Clippers (14 points and two rebounds in 24 minutes), he’s demonstrated growth in how decisively he makes his move and how seamlessly he then scores on the move.

Ingram was probably going to get max offer as of the All-Star break – especially after reaching his first All-Star team at 22 – but COVID-19 probably altered the ability for teams to dole out lucrative deals. But then play resumed and Ingram picked up right where he left off – and with a confidence to use it liberally. Ingram is nearly a lock for a max deal now.

Fred VanVleet, Toronto Raptors – UFA

VanVleet started off his time in the bubble with a solid performance (13 points and 11 assists), but he really showed out in his second game against the Miami HEAT. VanVleet led the Raptors to a win against Miami with a career-high 36 points. And then he got right back to being Mr. Consistent for Toronto by posting 21 points and 10 assists in a win against Orlando.

So ultimately, VanVleet has led the Raptors to a 3-0 (re)start, and he’s either scored a career-high or dropped 10-plus assists. James Dolan and Leon Rose are somewhere together – albeit socially distanced, we’re sure – drooling – as are all of the teams in need of a lead guard, like Detroit. VanVleet can only increase his value from here. He’s not assumed to be a max-level player, but if he plays well enough through the playoffs, it’ll be interesting to see just how high he can reach.

 DeMar DeRozan, San Antonio Spurs – Player Option

It’s hard to imagine DeRozan’s value increasing much at this point in his career. After all, he’s an 11-year veteran that has been named to the All-Star Game four times and an All-NBA team twice.

But still, there’s always been presumed limitations to his game, namely his inability to shoot three-pointers. Since being traded to San Antonio, he’s fallen out of the national spotlight a bit. As a 31-year-old capable of reaching unrestricted free agency, DeRozan is at a major inflection point in his career. He could attempt to a final big deal or snag a smaller one if the market for his services doesn’t meet expectations. Or he could just opt-in.

But DeRozan has done his part to remind everyone that he has loads of high-quality basketball left in him. He tallied 30 points on 11-for-20 shooting on Tuesday in a close loss to the 76ers and he’s averaged 22.3 points, 7.3 assists and 4.8 rebounds per game since the Spurs resumed play last Friday. While those averaged mostly coincide with what he did this season, it also represents a decent boost in assists. But more importantly, it solidifies that DeRozan should still receive a serious look as a lead star. And he’ll probably get interest from a number of teams.

The Known Commodities

Marcus Morris Sr., Los Angeles Clippers – UFA

While Morris Sr. is a known commodity, teams could use additional poor performances against him in negotiations. He’ll probably still have the option to sign for a veterans minimum or mid-level exception with a contender like the Clippers or Lakers. But if he’s eyeing another payday that pays him an annual salary equal to what he made in 2019-20, it would behoove him to make his mark on the stat book. 

Making A Case

Trey Burke, Dallas Mavericks – UFA

Burke hasn’t been overly consistent since NBA play resumed last week. But he did have a huge breakout game against the Rockets, scoring 31 points on 8-for-10 for three-pointers in only 30 minutes, while also dishing six assists.

Yes, Burke is averaging just 5.5 points in 18 minutes in the two games since, but the fact that he scored 31 in an NBA game will be enough to get looks as an off-the-bench scorer. And it’s a narrative that can be supported by his past work, too. Remember, Burke is still just 27-years-old  and he has a 42-point career-high. He’s also exploded for 30 four times and eclipsed the 20-point mark on 38 occasions in his 389 career games. So even if it’s just a reminder, it’s good to know that Burke can still get it done offensively – and teams are always looking for ways to manufacture offense.

Jordan Clarkson, Utah Jazz – UFA

Clarkson’s shot only 40 percent from the field since play resumed last Thursday, with an even worse 20 percent from three-point range. Still, scorers are as valuable as ever. It’s what made J.R. Smith so much money in this league, as well as Lou Williams and countless others – and rightfully so. Ultimately, it’s about putting the ball in the hoop. And with that being said, a franchise is going to pay Clarkson and they’ll end up paying more than they would have as of March.

Reggie Jackson, Los Angeles Clippers – UFA

Jackson has less to prove than most guys in this part of this list – but given his injury history, he does have to make a statement.

On the whole, Jackson has looked good – but not necessarily great. He averaged 12.5 points, seven rebounds and two assists in his first two contests, but he regressed in the Clippers’ most recent game against the Suns. But on a positive note, Jackson received only 23 minutes on Tuesday versus Phoenix and his 15 points on 5-for-9 shooting, eight rebounds, two assists and two steals accumulated in just 20 minutes.

If Jackson continues to be a contributor to the contending Clippers, someone will overspend on him. After all, good point guards are few and far between.

The Unknowns

Harry Giles III, Sacramento Kings – UFA

Giles III only played four minutes in the Kings’ first game back against the Spurs and he didn’t fare much better over 12:55 versus the Mavericks on Tuesday. But when you’re a fringe player that had injury concerns throughout your young career, any positive outings are good – especially those that come in a contract year. Giles tallied 23 points and eight rebounds in only 20 minutes against the Orlando Magic – a significant jump from his 7.2 points and 4.2 rebounds averages this season.  And that’s probably enough to generate interest amongst a number of teams.

The Kings curiously declined Giles’ fourth-year option, making him an unrestricted free agent as of the end of this season. That’s an interesting decision because the option was relatively cheap given that he was only the No. 20 overall pick (2017). Further confusing matters is the idea that by passing on the fourth-year option, they also lost matching rights – so Giles won’t even be restricted.

To make matters worse, the Kings can’t even bid more than $3.9 million to retain his services. So the Kings ultimately wasted a first-round draft pick on Giles for a grand total of 14.5 minutes per game across 99 games – and he’ll walk before they even know what they had in him.

But this all works out nicely for Giles, who will absolutely get an opportunity elsewhere – and he’ll be paid more than he would have received in Sacramento for it. How good is still an unknown, but he’s shown enough for a team to take a flyer on considering his size, skill set and versatility. He was the No. 1 overall recruit coming out of high school according to ESPN just four short years ago.

Free agency is going to be different than ever before and, up until very recently, that was assumed to be a bad thing. But with some of the above players changing the narratives around them, it could become even more exciting than it’s been in the recent past. Add in the likes of DeMarcus Cousins, Davis Bertans, Christian Wood – and we’re looking at an under-appreciated free-agent class.

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