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The Underrated Players: Pacific Division

David Yapkowitz continues The Underrated series on Basketball Insiders with the Pacific Division.

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While there’s still no word on when, or if, the 2019-20 NBA season may resume, we’re doing our best here at Basketball Insiders to provide you with fresh content to help keep you occupied as you navigate from your bedroom to your living room and back again.

This week, we’ve delved into the world of the underrated. With a division by division breakdown, we’ve identified a few players around the league who may not have received the praise they deserve. It could be for a variety of reasons: maybe their team is in a small market or their team isn’t doing so well, record-wise.

Whatever the reason may be, these players deserve their proper due. Here’s a look at some of those underrated players in the Pacific Division.

Richaun Holmes, Sacramento Kings

Holmes is a player that’s flown under the radar for the majority of his five-year NBA career. During his time with the Philadelphia 76ers, Holmes emerged as one of the best backup centers in the league. A low maintenance player who doesn’t need the ball in his hands to be effective. He brings energy, he brings defense, he brings rebounding and he can finish at the rim.

The Kings signed Dewayne Dedmon to a big contract to be their starting center, but he was quickly supplanted in the rotation by Holmes. This season, Holmes had started in more games (33) than his first four years combined (24). He’s put up career numbers in scoring (12.8), rebounding (8.3) and shooting percentage (65.4 percent). The Kings just might have found their starting center for the next couple of years.

Ivica Zubac, Los Angeles Clippers

The Clippers have a ton of offensive and defensive weapons on their team, a big part of why they were considered a title favorite. But the one player who sometimes gets lost in the media shuffle is Zubac. While his more popular teammates are often inundated with post-game media scrums, it’s not uncommon to see Zubac doing one-on-one interviews with reporters.

While Montrezl Harrell usually finishes games at center, he and Zubac give the Clippers a strong tandem. Zubac is better equipped at handling bigger centers defensively. He’s a strong presence on the glass. And for a guy who is a little way down the pecking order in terms of offensive touches, he makes the most of his opportunities and is efficient. He moves well without the ball and is often the recipient of a Kawhi Leonard or Paul George lob pass.

Deandre Ayton, Phoenix Suns

By what little attention Ayton gets in media circles compared to others in his draft class, you’d think he was some kind of a bust. He was only the No.1 pick in the 2018 draft and he’s had a fantastic start to his NBA career. He averaged a double-double as a rookie (16.3 points and 10.3 rebounds), making a case in his own right for 2018-19 Rookie of the Year.

He was unfortunately suspended to start this season but, once he made his return to the court, Ayton picked up right where he left off. He’s upped his numbers to 19.0 points per game and 12.0 rebounds. He’s also shown himself to be a much improved defensive player in year two and has displayed solid court awareness in terms of recognizing when to pass and making the right play. Ayton also has good on-court chemistry with Devin Booker, and the two should make for a formidable inside out duo in PHoenix for the considerable future.

Marquese Chriss, Golden State Warriors

In a year that has been marred with injuries and mounting losses for the Warriors, Chriss has been one of the lone bright spots. It’s been a testament to his work ethic as well as being able to find a role that suits him. A former lottery pick, Chriss was written off before the season began and was on the verge of washing out of the league entirely.

But, Chriss has revived his career in Golden State. He’s transformed from a power forward to more of a center, and he’s shown to be active around the rim and is adept at finishing lobs. He’s shown much better awareness and feel offensively when he’s in the paint. He’s set himself up nicely to be one of the players who maybe sticks around for the long haul on the Warriors roster.

Chriss may not turn into the rim-running lottery pick the Suns once pegged him for, but he should prove a solid addition going forward for the Warriors.

Jordan Poole, Golden State Warriors

With the mounting injuries, this season has proven more so about development for Golden State than it has winning games, about playing the young guys and seeing who is capable of making an impact. While Poole didn’t get off to the best start, his rookie season certainly picked up as it went along.

After a brief stint in the G League, Poole returned to the Warriors as a different player. He displayed a much better shooting touch and better decision making both on and off-ball. He was projected to be an NBA shooting guard, but he looks much better as a backup point guard. Before the season was put on hiatus, he had one of his best games of the year with 17 points on 60 percent shooting against the Clippers.

Jevon Carter, Phoenix Suns

Carter is a bulldog of a player. A tough, defensive-minded guy who fit right in with the old “Grit ‘N Grind,” culture that was around in Memphis when he was first drafted by the Grizzlies. He didn’t play much as a rookie last season, hampered at times by injury.

But when he did get minutes, Carter looked like a solid NBA player.

Now with Phoenix, Carter has proved the beneficiary of an increased role. His numbers may not jump off the stat sheet, but he’s a steadying presence with the second unit and a defensive pest. The Suns already have their go-to guys in Ayton Devin Booker, and others. Now in Carter, with his no-nonsense approach, they may have their perfect fit defensive counterpart.

And that should wrap up a handful of the most overlooked players from the Pacific. If you haven’t already, make sure to check out our write up on the Atlantic, Central, Northwest and Southeast, and stay tuned for the rest of Basketball Insiders’ Underrated series.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lakers Need More Than Big Three

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Jazz offering Mike Conley $75 million over next three years

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

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

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

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

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

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