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The Shop: Porzingis, Posers & Posters

Jabari Davis and Lang Greene are joined by BBallBreakdown’s James Holas for this week’s barbershop conversation.

Jabari Davis

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Alright folks, thanks for joining us back in The ‘Shop for another discussion. Allow us to welcome in James Holas, a writer, podcaster and analyst for BBALLBreakdown, Blazers Edge and PressBasketball.com.

Jabari: Thanks for joining us today, James. Having finally gotten the chance to see and appreciate what Kristaps Porzingis looks like in person, I think it’s necessary to start things off with him. I’ve kept tabs on his progress and watched a quarter or half here and there, but last Sunday night was really something else. Not to be a prisoner of the moment, because I would like to see D’Angelo Russell at full strength when they square off at MSG on February 6, but Porzingis was the best player on the court (26 points, 12 rebounds and seven blocks) at Staples Center for at least that night.

The Knicks are rolling right now (11-5 in their last 15), Porzingis is continuing to develop and impress, Derrick Rose is back in the mix and looking as good as he’s looked in years, Carmelo Anthony is at least buying into positive run they’re on… so why is Uncle Phil ruffling feathers and seemingly poking the bear with his readdressing of previous comments at LeBron, while seemingly taking jabs at Carmelo and his offense?

James: Man, I’m just glad I got invited to the big boy’s table today! First of all, let’s pump the brakes on New York “rolling.” Looking inside the numbers gives us a different perspective. Wins are wins and 11-5 looks dandy, but over the last 15 games, the Knickerbockers sit at a decent ninth in offensive rating, but a gross 24th in defensive rating, per NBA.com. Their -1.6 net rating over that span would be 18th in the league for the season. Good wins over the likes of Detroit and Charlotte are diminished by losses to the woeful Wiz and lowly Suns. They haven’t exactly faced a Murderer’s Row: beating up on the Timberwolves (27th in defensive rating the last 15 games) and this iteration of the Hawks (26th in offensive rating over this same 15-game span) ain’t “rolling.”

Now, on to Phil Jackson. The Zen Master is adding another layer of drama to the always tumultuous Knicks saga. The franchise is like a VH1 celebrity; even when things are going well, they somehow have to get themselves in the headlines for some nonsense. Phil Jackson has a long history of stirring the pot. It’s mind boggling- the guy JUST SAID how wrong he was for speaking on other teams’ players, but he can’t help himself.

Phil is known as a Machiavellian manipulator, a strategist who’ll needle even his own guys to gain an advantage. But in the case of LeBron, the Cavs are miles ahead of the Knicks; there’s no advantage to poking at the King unless he thinks getting his squad drubbed by 32 at the Garden could be some sadistic motivation for NY. The only answer I have for why Phil is stirring the pot is “Because he’s Phil.”

Lang: My man J-Holla is in the building. We’ve both been at this for a minute now, but this is the first I believe we’re linking on a project – directly. Welcome and respect to you my brother.

Let’s get to it. Kristaps Porzingis, in my opinion, has a higher career trajectory than D’Angelo Russell at this point; a seven-foot guy pulling off crossover pull-up jumpers from outside the three-point line? Check. Three-point range. Check. Handles? Check. Ability to grab 15+ boards on any given night? Check. He is plain ridiculous. Don’t get me wrong, I think Russell has high growth potential, as I’ve said countless times, but despite being more gifted than Jordan Clarkson, Lou Williams or Nick Young he hasn’t done much to truly separate himself from them this season. This would be equivalent to Porzingis splitting time with Lance Thomas in New York. We’ll see if D’Angelo can change my mind when the Lakers invade MSG.

James nailed Phil Jackson. I just can’t get behind Phil’s statements on LeBron’s crew. The comments had too many undertones from an ugly era in our nation’s history for my taste. But let me add this about his needling of Carmelo Anthony. I absolutely love it. The Knicks haven’t beaten many elite teams and his meddling is just a way to ensure guys are staying humble. Phil is needling Carmelo because he wants his franchise player to change his game for two reasons:

1. To start compensating for the effects of Father Time because, make no mistake, Carmelo has lost a bit of zip off his fastball.

2. He understands the Knicks’ future truly rests on the shoulders of Porzingis. Period. By the time the Knicks are title contenders, if it happens, Carmelo will be the face of the franchise, but Porzingis will be the actual workhorse.

Yes, Phil is setting up the Knicks to be destroyed by the Cavs in a potential playoff series. But I also think he’s trying to light a fire under Carmelo, who has typically bought his “can” when going head to head versus Bron-Bron.

Jabari: I can’t even lie, while I have absolutely NO dog in the fight, part of me is pulling for the Knicks to somehow stay healthy enough to make a deep run so that we can get some type of showdown in order to make things a bit more interesting come April and May. Speaking of fun matchups, how good did that come-from-behind win by Minnesota on the road in Chicago feel to Tom Thibodeau? Not just because it must be nice to get a win your first time back into a building as a coach after being fired 16 months earlier, but also because his team really needed to start finding a way to win ball games in general.

Was this all about winning one in a big moment for your coach, or do you guys think a game like that can be the springboard this young group has needed in order to get going?

James: If this was a CBS special I’d say it was both, and the Wolves would rip off a crazy win streak and all would be well in Minnesota. But I’m gonna be the Darryl Downer by pointing out how the Timber Pups threw up on their shoes the very next game by letting the Rockets erase a 12-point lead in a little over two minutes to hang an L on them.

Reality is, the Bulls aren’t very good. Since the nice 8-4 start, Chicago is 5-9 in its last 14. If you’re a believer in net rating (the difference between a team’s offensive rating and defensive rating) being a bellwether of team performance, well, Chi-Town’s -3.6 net rating is good (bad?) for 20th in the league in that 14-game span.

And there’s no magic formula that will lower Thibs’ blood pressure over these Wolves; young teams take time. Not days or months, but teams need years to gel and learn. I was swimming against the grain all summer about Minnesota; I respect Thibs as a coach, but he stepped into a fully formed playoff team in his start with Chicago, this Wolves team still is learning to totter around and you can’t expect them to run with the big dogs yet.

So yeah, I’m sure nabbing a win over Chicago might have earned a smirk from Coach Thibs and some strutting in the Wolves locker room, but now it’s back to the grind for Minnesota

Lang: After years of talking to guys around the league, one narrative holds true and that’s how much trust is gained when guys overcome adversity together. Everyone can high five, wave towels and make dance moves together when you’re winning by 20 points a night, but it’s when you have to dig deep, go into that dark place and overcome adversity when you look at the guys next to you in the foxhole and start believing in them. I’m not sure the Chicago game does it alone, but it is games like those where guys typically gain that belief, that trust and that needed cohesion to get to the next level.

Jabari: Fair enough, and I tend to agree with each of your points on the Wolves, although I will openly acknowledge that my prediction of them winning more games than OKC is looking dumber and dumber with each passing week, so, perhaps, I was doing a bit of wishful thinking!

Alright, just a couple more topics before we get out of here for the day. Let me get your “They LIED to us” leaders in the paint at this point. So far, I have the Pacers (is the George Hill for Jeff Teague swap the actual culprit?), Blazers (with the Western Conference being a bit down so far to start the year, their slippage is even more suspect), Wizards (are they turning it around or setting their fans up for further heartbreak?) and Minnesota (we’ve covered this). Which teams do you guys have and in what order?

Lang: You know who lied to me, man? The Miami HEAT. They’re not on your list, but I have to include them here. When you turn your nose up at TWO future Hall of Famers, you better believe in what you’re doing. I get Chris Bosh’s health situation, but letting Dwyane Wade walk in free agency over a couple lousy million dollars is haunting the team. I love Pat Riley and the “mafia” he’s built down on South Beach over the years. He consistently gets mentally tough and high-character guys – dudes willing to leave it all on the court, dudes who put it all on the line. But Riley haggled D-Wade over a few million then turned around and matched the Brooklyn Nets’ $50 million offer sheet on Tyler Johnson.

Factor in Wade’s departure with Bosh’s absence due to his health and it elevated Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside into leading role positions neither were equipped to handle – as of now. Whiteside has the potential to be a franchise-leading man, but he’s still pretty green … playing behind Bosh and Wade provides air cover during tough times.

Remember, this team was one game away from the Eastern Conference Finals last season. One. Game. Away. Now they’re headed to the lottery with a first class ticket.

James: Can we get the Orlando in there too? Toss big bills at Bismack Biyombo, bring in Serge Ibaka, still scraping the bottom of the barrel.

But from this list, I think the Pacers are at the top, at least for me. I have a lot of faith in Paul George’s talents, and while I knew that essentially swapping George Hill for Jeff Teague was a downgrade, I underestimated how much Hill’s defensive chops masked Monta Ellis’ ineptitude.

After that, it’s Portland; this is my “I told y’all” moment. The Blazers are a victim of their own moderate success last season, and their front office made the egregious mistake of actually wanting Evan Turner.

Ah, the Wizards. I figured John Wall’s pride, the signing of “boards & blocks” Ian Mahinmi and the more modern thinking of head coach Scott Brooks would elevate Washington back into the Eastern Conference’s upper-middle class. They’ve been a little better of late, but everything I listed doesn’t matter if your guys can barely stand to be on the court together, and your bench stinks.

And lastly, the Wolves are another of my “told ya” teams. I spent the summer shaking my head at “Minny should win 50” talk.

And let’s throw the Bulls, Lakers and Knicks in the mix for their fraudulent first couple of weeks; they had their fan bases all amped up like they were, y’know, GOOD.

Jabari: Ha! Only thing about the Lakers is while they had the unrealistic folks thinking they would automatically jump into being “back” after, like, 20 games, an overwhelming majority of the folks I interact with on Twitter understood it wasn’t going to be as simple as the old “easy button” when it comes to learning how to win. You simply don’t go from zero to 100, no matter what the song says.

Last one and it involves the dunk contest. Accepting the fact that it wouldn’t happen because of liability and injury concerns, but I’ve argued for a minute that adding a dude beneath the rim to contest the dunk for one attempt per round would take it up another level. You’d get all the stylistic dunks and all that, but then you’d also have the opportunity for some ridiculous poster shots similar to the ones recently given to each of the Lopez brothers by Jabari Parker and Larry Nance Jr.

I want a field of Aaron Gordon, Zach LaVine, Larry Nance Jr. and Terrence Ross. Big men contesting options are Rudy Gobert (because I equally enjoy him swatting cats and getting dunked on) and Hassan Whiteside (because I think he’d legit take it seriously). Tell me why it’s a crazy idea.

Lang: Jabari, you’ve been on that West Coast moonshine I see. Ha. I like the originality of the concept, but in this social media era, there’s no way these guys are going to risk their respective reputations by getting dunked on during All-Star weekend. Could you imagine the memes? Could you imagine the Vines? Could you imagine the Twitter mentions? Could you imagine the Facebook shares? The posters, the YouTube highlight packages? I could go on and on. Why risk it? Why risk getting 720’d by Zach LaVine? The fans wouldn’t want Whiteside to be successful and actually get a clean block. I can’t see it.

But what I can see …

I’ve been saying this for some time now. I would love to see old school versus new school. Take the rookies and have them go against some of the recently retired guys. I’m talking about some of the players who can still move, but can no longer put together an 82-game season. Or, splice some of the old school guys with the rookies/sophomores. Could you imagine Allen Iverson running the break with Karl-Anthony Towns? But old school versus new school is probably the better option. Some old school who may still be able to get a few buckets: Derek Fisher, Stephen Jackson, Baron Davis, Danny Granger, Shawn Marion, Amar’e Stoudemire, Kenyon Martin and Jason Richardson immediately come to mind.

James: I legitimately laughed out loud at this dunk idea; me and my boys always bring up how dope it would be if they added a defender to the dunk contest.

But Jabari, why is it a bad idea? YOU’RE TRYNA GET SOMEONE KILLED. It’s one thing to get caught slippin’ in-game: 10 men on the court, the crowd “OOOOHs,” but the game keeps rolling.

In a dunk contest? No seven-foot NBA player worth his contract is gonna stand there, one-on-one, with the world watching and Shaq, Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley waiting to clown, and let Zach LaVine embarrass them! You might see the first Belly-to-Belly Suplex during an All Star event, the big men would go to any means necessary to shut a dunk down.

Jabari: Lang, you need to come out here more often, because it AIN’T the ‘shine that we’re known for out here! Like I said, I know it won’t happen…but I’d certainly be ALL about it if they did. Just like I want them to bring back the ‘old timer’s game’ they’ve had variations of. But that’s another conversation for another week. We definitely appreciate James (@jholashoops) for joining us this week. I can assure you this won’t be his last time joining the discussion.

As always, you can tweet your thoughts to Jabari (@JabariDavisNBA) and Lang (@LangGreene).

Jabari Davis is a senior NBA Writer and Columnist for Basketball Insiders, covering the Pacific Division and NBA Social Media activity.

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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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