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NBA PM: The ‘Shop – Rivalries & Best Big Men

In this edition of The ‘Shop, Justin Rowan stops by to discuss Cavs vs. Warriors, the future of the Knicks and Nets, and the best big man in the Western Conference.

Jabari Davis

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Allow us to welcome you back into The ‘Shop for another week of entertaining (and maybe a bit enlightening) NBA talk. Our Jabari Davis and Lang Greene will be joined by Justin Rowan (Fear The Sword, Hoops Habit and Press Basketball) for this week’s conversation.

Jabari: Great to have you with us this week, Justin. We certainly appreciate you taking the time to stop in for a few Reggie Miller lines and a Dwight Howard faux-hawk. We’ll kick things off in your neck of the woods with the Cavs and start by asking for your gut reaction to the Kyle Korver deal? Was it enough to make you believe the Cavs are the clear-cut team to beat or were you already comfortable with stating that given the way their last four meetings have gone?

Justin: Thanks for having me. My gut reaction to the Korver deal is that it’s another steal for David Griffin. Everybody knows what Korver can do and how seamless the fit should be, but it also gives the team the ability to address other issues via trade, free agency, or on the buyout market.

I still think the Warriors are the favorite heading into the Finals. They’re still figuring things out, but they’re likely the most talented team ever assembled. However, unlike last season I think the Cavs have a much better chance at winning. Last season took a tremendous amount of luck with injuries and a suspension to win, whereas this season these teams appear to be on much more even footing.

Lang: Welcome to the mix. Appreciate the time, bro. I’ll simply say this. To be the man, you’ve got to beat the man. Salute to Ric Flair. The Cleveland Cavaliers absolutely walked through the fire last season to get their hands raised in victory versus the Golden State Warriors. And since then there has been no shortage of folks talking about Draymond’s suspension, Andrew Bogut’s injury and whether or not Stephen Curry was at full strength.

But I’ll say this, when the Warriors dispatched Cleveland back in 2015, I didn’t hear any of this stuff last season when the Warriors were on their way to 73 wins. I didn’t hear about Kevin Love being injured. Crickets about Kyrie Irving being hurt in game one of the Finals. Heck, Matthew Dellavedova was hospitalized for dehydration during the series. No one put an asterisk on Golden State’s win. But Cleveland’s epic 3-1 come-from-behind series win has all types of asterisks placed on it – at every turn.

Right now, I still favor Cleveland. I tend to lean toward teams that have won together. Teams that have been through that fire and persevered through the stormy weather. Golden State’s original core has too … but they also have a new member in the fold in Kevin Durant. When (or if) the chips are down, how will everyone react? I am looking forward to Part III. Hopefully neither side will have an excuse come the end of June.

Justin: Oh I definitely get that. In my opinion the Finals should be 1-1, just in the opposite order they happened. The Cavs have the pieces to disrupt the Warriors and come away with their second title. Now that the season series is over, it’ll be interesting to see what chess moves are made by each team before the seemingly inevitable June showdown.

Jabari: After the way the Dubs beat the brakes off the Cavs last night, I definitely understand you being hesitant to say Cleveland is the clear-cut favorite, Justin. That said, can we all acknowledge LeBron’s “this isn’t a rivalry” talk is total nonsense? I know we are skipping all types of steps and presuming general team health in ways we really shouldn’t when it comes to professional sports, but barring anything crazy happening, we are headed for a third consecutive matchup in the Finals. The players can “act” like it doesn’t matter whether they square off once again, but we can all tell they want Round 3, can’t we? Also, Justin, is there an EC team you see that can really challenge the Cavs along the way? Are we going to pretend the Raptors finally have enough?

Justin: Hahaha. For the record, I was saying for about a week that the Warriors would win by at least twenty. I think what LeBron is doing with the rivalry talk is playing mind games with his own team. He’s constantly trying to enforce a mindset that the Warriors are the better team and that they must keep pushing to get to that level. He understands the dangers of becoming complacent or overconfident. Hell, that was a big part of why the Warriors lost last year.

I’m still out on the Raptors as a legitimate threat to the Cavs. They simply don’t have the defensive personnel to combat the Cavs. If you look at the player tracking data, Jonas Valanciunas is worse defensively than Enes Kanter in many key areas. The issue is they don’t have many alternatives. They also don’t have a secondary playmaker, meaning if you put length on Lowry they’ll fall apart. Which is a big part of why they’re 1-8 against the Cavs, Warriors, Spurs, Rockets, and Clippers this season.

If anybody is going to give the Cavs a hard time, it would be Milwaukee, assuming Middleton returns. They have the length to bother the Cavs and force a tough series like round one against Detroit. While that series was a sweep, it was a much closer series on a game to game basis than the six-game series against the Raptors. Milwaukee has the ability to turn a series into a slugfest

Lang: Justin makes a very good point. Like I said last week, no one is beating the Golden State Warriors in a track meet. It just isn’t happening. And no one is beating the Cleveland Cavaliers in a series out East unless they turn it into a flat out, pier six brawl (slugfest). From what I can see, there isn’t a team out in the East that has the mental toughness and grit to do it in a seven game series.

Milwaukee is going to be a live dog against anyone come playoff time, make no mistake, but the problem with Milwaukee right now is nobody knows how Khris Middleton will return to action. Will he return ready to play 28-32 minutes a night and give 17-19 points per contest? Or will his comeback from injury mirror Chandler Parsons’ long road to recovery down in Memphis – slow and plodding. Still getting back into game shape versus the Cavaliers during “money” time isn’t an island you want to be on.  The other issue I have with Milwaukee is their lack of offensive firepower outside of Giannis and Jabari Parker.

The Raptors don’t have enough defense and Boston is too – sorry, I didn’t do this on purpose – green. What I am looking forward to is hopefully a series between Toronto and Boston. I’ve heard it various times how ticked off some of the Raptors were that people automatically had Boston leapfrog them this past summer by adding Al Horford.  The battle for #2 in the East is like a right of passage. Remember when Indiana and New York would have absolute wars just to get served up to the Chicago Bulls in the next round? Ha.

Justin: Boston still freaks me out with their lack of rebounding. When you get to the playoffs and each possession matters more, that’s the type of thing that can kill you. Isaiah Thomas has hit some huge shots in the fourth quarter this season, but those shots would feel a lot greater to me if it was coming from behind, rather than stopping the bleeding as they blow another lead. A Raptors-Celtics series would be fantastic, but if I had to make a bold prediction I’d say there’s a 50/50 chance one of those teams collapses in the first round. Toronto almost lost in game seven to Indiana last season, while this Boston roster can’t seem to make it past the opening round.

Jabari: Milwaukee was my sleeper team in the EC heading into the season, but that Middleton injury killed that noise. Whether he comes back for the final playoff push (or not), I agree that isn’t the ideal time to attempt to make a run at dethroning the defending champs and I wouldn’t anticipate them putting everything together on the spot. I feel like we all wanted to continue proclaiming just how much of a “genius” Brad Stevens is, so we ‘hoped’ the addition of Horford would have even more of an impact. The truth is, Isaiah Thomas is their best player and while I want to see him on the All-Star team, his exploits (tremendous as they’ve been) won’t likely be enough to knock off one of the top teams.

Before we transition out West for a bit, what’s going on with Brooklyn and why can’t they seem to turn things around? I know we laugh at the Sixers and other perennial losers, but it feels like we give Brooklyn a pass because they “act” like they are trying to win each offseason by bringing in free agents. Let me get each of you to put on your GM hats on for a few moments and tell me how you would turn things around with the Nets. Blow it up, entirely? Make another run at putting together the cap space to lure a couple free agents the way they attempted to about five years ago? You tell me.

Justin: I think they get a pass now because they just brought in Sean Marks. I loved what they did this summer of trying to snag restricted free agents with big offer sheets. While those deals were matched, it was a smart strategy I expect them to use next summer. As for what I would do, I’d try to shop Brook Lopez in an effort to get some young talent. I’d want at least one legitimate building block in return, otherwise I’d probably stay put. But their options are incredibly limited due to the situation the previous regime put them in. They need young talent desperately.

Lang: I believe Brooklyn is getting a pass for the moment because there aren’t many signs of dysfunction. Toward the end of the old regime, you were dealing with the remnants of acquiring Joe Johnson’s contract and the sudden decline of Deron Williams as an elite player (after paying him tons). If you also factor in the “all-in” trade for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce (and please don’t forget the Jason Kidd power grab drama), you have all of the necessary ingredients for the soup the New York media loves – drama and noodle.

So out goes the old GM and old coaching staff. For all of the mistakes Brooklyn made in recent years, the new GM and coach were well received by the media. Then the team swings for the fences in restricted free agency to get immediately better. But Miami and Portland matched. If you have the media praising the hires just a few months ago, I wouldn’t expect too many hit pieces right now – especially devoid of DRAMA.

Jabari: You guys make some good points about the Nets, and I suppose we have to give the current regime some time to get things together, but I just wonder why we never hear much about them when the discussion about rebuilding franchises take place. So, in an effort to completely alienate that market, let me shift the focus to the Knicks for a moment. Justin, let me get you to speak to what they should do with Carmelo Anthony. I realize he has the no-trade clause, but it certainly appears like those conversations are taking place behind the scenes … and quite publicly. Lang, feel free to respond to that, but let me also get you to comment on the best possible options for ‘Melo if they elect to move him.

Justin: I think Melo believes he will outlast Phil in New York. It doesn’t sound like he is going to be waiving his no-trade clause. While he shoulders some blame, I think the organization has failed him more than he’s failed them. If it wasn’t for the Noah contract, they wouldn’t be in such a bad spot.

Even if he were to waive his NTC, a fair return for Melo would prevent you from picking in the top 7 or 8. The only way this team is going to truly improve is via free agency. I’d like to see them move Kristaps to the five and Melo to the four. But it seems anytime the organization makes some progress they get in their own way. Don’t forget, Toronto traded Lowry to the Knicks for pennies on the dollar only to have Dolan veto the deal at the last minute.

Lang: The best thing for both parties would have been not agreeing to that five-year deal to begin with. Melo had other options on the table that made better “basketball” sense. But he dedicated himself to the New york Knicks rebuild and also secured another 20-25 million for his trouble with the fifth year in the deal. Without Melo, Phil Jackson could have started a ground up rebuild in New York from a fresh canvas. I don’t always suggest hitting rock bottom, but the Knicks would be an exception. But Phil decided to play it safe. Now they’re both stuck with each other through the good and mostly bad. They both have had exit hatches and didn’t use them.

Jabari: You’re probably right about ‘Melo outlasting PJ in New York, Justin. Lang can tell you, I actually thought Phil would be out of there after a couple years, but that was before I remembered this was an ownership group that would probably still have Zeke in the front office in some capacity if it weren’t for all the legal issues from about a decade ago (let Google be your friend). I also agree the difficulty in getting a fair return is what might cause him to stick around.

Taking it out West for a bit, what is the answer with the Clippers at this point? I asked if they should seriously consider blowing things up prior to the year, but I think we all settled on the idea of making one last run with this group as currently constituted. Now, with Chris Paul out for the next 6-8 weeks and with Blake Griffin still “a week or two” away from returning, is it time to reconsider the idea before the trade deadline?

Justin: I’m all for the Clippers making one last run, but at this point they may need to find the gypsy that cursed them. They’re such a snake-bitten franchise that it just seems like they can never get a real chance to show what they can do.

If they were to blow it up, one interesting destination for Griffin would be Toronto. It would change the feel of the Eastern Conference and could present the Cavaliers with a legitimate threat. Beyond having tons of depth, the Raptors also possess the Clippers first-round pick this season. Something that would be very desirable should they detonate their roster.

Lang: The Clippers’ core ceiling was probably reached when they blew that big lead in the Western Conference Semifinals to the Houston Rockets a few years back. Playing Tuesday afternoon point guard, it’s easy to look back in hindsight and see all of the early warning signs. DeAndre Jordan attempted to bounce in free agency (which resulted in the Clippers’ whole contingent commandeering his house) and Blake Griffin has spent the past two seasons battling injuries — so has the normally durable Chris Paul. The team desperately needs a small forward and Doc Rivers has failed year in and year out, as an executive, to lure one into town. Nothing against Paul Pierce (too old) and Wesley Johnson (not skilled enough) but they aren’t capable of handling 30+ minutes. Doc Rivers trying to use his son, Austin, as a small forward was another warning sign.

But even after all of that, I still don’t think any of the top seeds would want to face them in first-round of the playoffs. That would be a potential No. 2 seed dropping to say sixth, seventh or eighth. Paul and Griffin fully healthy are live dogs versus any team in the league

Jabari: I think you hit it on the head, Lang. They’ve been a very exciting brand of basketball for the past five years, but are simply too top-heavy, which causes them to be worn down and oft-injured by the time we get to the playoffs. That idea of moving Blake to the Raptors is really intriguing, but leaves me feeling like Ricky Watters…”for WHO, for WHAT??” Keeping it with a somewhat related topic, give me your choice(s) for the top centers in the conference. Always a matter of preference, but I still have Boogie as my top center even though DeAndre Jordan is a player I’ve come to REALLY appreciate as he’s continued rounding out his game.

Justin: Boogie is definitely the center with the most dominant resume, but the well-rounded game of Gasol still makes me lean his direction. I wouldn’t put Gasol in my list of top 10 players and would likely put cousins there, yet I’d still pick him over any center right now if I was heading into a playoff series.

Jabari: You know something, the Gasol mention is great and a strong point. Boogie as an individual player is probably the most talented of that group, but Gasol’s overall impact is significantly more noticeable. Obviously, being able to play for a strong organization helps, but we have seen multiple playoff runs where Gasol was clearly the “straw that stirred the drink” when it came to Memphis. And that’s no slight or disrespect to Mike Conley or even ZBo (back in the day). We’ll let Lang chime in as the voice of reason on the topic as he wraps things up for us this week, but allow me to thank you for joining us again this week, Justin!

Lang: Bee-oh-oh-Gee-Eye-EEEE. No question. From a talent standpoint, the man is insane. Wears his heart on his sleeve a bit too much to this day even though he has matured greatly. But if I’m talking best center … DMC is my guy … for now. LG Out.

******

As always, we appreciate all of your feedback about these discussions and encourage you to either leave it in the comment section directly below or via Twitter: @JabariDavisNBA and @LangGreene.

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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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