Top 10 most interesting NBA free agents to watch

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Lockout? You mean those months last year we didn’t have basketball as owners fought to put constraints on themselves because when it comes time to bid for free agents they don’t trust themselves to be rational?

What lockout? Less than 48 hours into the 2012 summer free agent frenzy owner rationality has gone the way of the Dodo. They are once again throwing money around like they are buying hotels to put on Broadway and Park Place. Unless you thought Omer Asik is totally worth $25 million.

Here are the top 10 most interesting free agents to watch this summer. These are not just the 10 best players on the market, but rather the guys who will make owners forget everything they said during the lockout. The guys it will be fun to watch. There is no Tim Duncan on here — he’s a free agent but he will re-sign with the Spurs. Smart, but not interesting. Below are the guys who make free agency fun.

1) Deron Williams. Part of the fun of following free agents is the “anything can happen” factor. Not here. It’s Brooklyn or Dallas. But he is on top of the list because he is the best player available this year — there are maybe 10 true franchise players in the NBA and he is one. You can build a contender around him. He will radically alter the situation of the team that gets him and the team that doesn’t.

2) Eric Gordon. He is a restricted free agent — the Hornets can, and if they are smart will, match any offer for him. But he is meeting with everyone — Pacers, Rockets, Suns, Blazers — trying to get someone to offer him a max deal (four years, $84 million). We’ll see. He’s the best young two guard in the league and if a team is looking to steal Gordon a max offer is what it may take.

3) Steve Nash. Yes he is 36 years old and has had long-term back issues. But he remains one of the best pure point guards in the game, a master of the pick-and-roll. On the right team he can take them from good to great. A guy who sells tickets, who brings in sponsors. The bar has been set — Toronto offered $12 million a year for three years. The Knicks and other teams are trying to find sign-and-trade deals that will get near that number and lure Nash to a better team.

4) O.J. Mayo. He’s interesting to watch because he’s a two guard who can score but is a guy who wants a bigger role than the one he had in Memphis as option number three, or four, at times five. While a lot of guys on this list want to go to contenders, if Mayo does that he will be in the same spot. The Celtics are interested, as are the Nets and Suns. Wherever he lands the new start should do him good.

5) Roy Hibbert. How valuable is an All-Star center? The Trail Blazers have reportedly already offered the young All-Star center a max deal. True quality centers are hard to come by and come at a price. The only question is will the Pacers match it? My question is how do they not? They are average without him.

6) Ray Allen. He will turn 37 next month, but one of the best pure shooters the game has ever seen can still do what he does best — he shot 45 percent from three last year. Boston has reportedly offered him $6 million a year to come back. The Miami Heat have made him a priority but can offer only half that — but they are much closer to a ring than the Celtics. Especially if they have Allen (you saw in Game 5 of the finals what the Heat look like when guys knock down threes around LeBron and Wade). So, what matters most to Ray Allen?

7) Jason Terry. The veteran two guard can light it up as a starter or coming off the bench. Pretty much every team that needs a shooting guard has come calling — the Clippers, the Celtics (although they have one in Avery Bradley), Grizzlies and Suns that we know of. Terry’s people reportedly told the Mavericks they would be given the option to match any offer and keep him, but how much does a retooling Mavericks team want to spend on him? Look for him to get about $5 million a year for three years (he is 34).

8) Jamal Crawford. If Jamal Crawford can find his stroke from a couple years ago when he was Sixth Man of the Year he brings another very valuable two guard to the market. The 76ers, Suns, Clippers, Celtics and Pacers have all reached out in the opening day of free agency. Crawford opted out of a $5 million deal for next season with the Blazers, he’s going to want more than that and more years.

9) Jameer Nelson. Orlando is focused on trading their best player away and trying to jump-start the rebuilding process there. But they are also about to lose their second best player to free agency in Nelson, a quality point guard. Nelson walked away from $8 million next season to hit the market, he likely will not make that much per year but can get a multi-year deal and some security. The Lakers have expressed interest, but they can’t offer much ($3 million a year for three years). Nelson is the guy a lot of teams will turn to second or third, after they lose out on guys like Nash and Williams. If Nelson is patient, the market will come to him.

10) Ersan Ilysova. Not a household NBA name but the best stretch four on the market — he shot 45.5 percent from three last season and grabbed 8.8 boards per game. In the right system he has real value. The Bucks may want to keep him if they are smart, but the Spurs, Cavaliers, Raptors and Nets reportedly all have some interest. The Spurs are a very interesting fit for him. But we’ll have to see about the money.

DeMarcus Cousins ejected after elbowing Russell Westbrook in head

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DeMarcus Cousins‘ history of flagrant fouls certainly didn’t help him here, but if anyone elbows a guy in the head, he’s going to get tossed.

And that’s what Cousins did here.

Midway through the third quarter in New Orleans, Cousins blocked a putback attempt by Russell Westbrook, then grabbed the rebound. Westbrook tried to reach in across Cousins’ body for the steal, and Cousins cleared out space with his elbow — right to Westbrook’s head. Cousins walked around saying “no, no, no” afterward, and he likely thinks the officials had it out for him here because he was just getting a guy off him, but we go back to the original point — elbow a guy in the head, get tossed. The league is cracking down on blows above the neck. Westbrook did not leave the game.

The Pelicans went on to come from 19 down to win the game 114-107, behind 36 points and 15 boards from Anthony Davis.

Damn, Paul George with the in-game bounce pass alley-oop to Jerami Grant

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The game has been close (as of midway through the third quarter), but that didn’t stop Oklahoma City from putting on a show in New Orleans.

Paul George had the ball on a 2-on-0 fast break and decided to throw the playground bounce-pass alley-oop, which Jerami Grant got up and finished with authority. This could be one of the dunks of the year.

We’re going to see that highlight for a while.

Jusuf Nurkic’s agent says big man wants to stay in Portland this summer

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Last season, after his trade from frustrated backup big in Denver to new starter in Portland, there was a honeymoon — the Blazers went 14-6, their defense was better, and Nurkic was a big man setting big picks for quick guards in Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum.

This season the honeymoon is over, things have been up and down, but far from time to say the marriage should end, as he is a free agent next summer. Nurkic is the only real starting center on the roster (even if coach Terry Stotts left him on the bench in the fourth quarter in favor of Ed Davis a few games back). Nurkic is averaging 14.6 points and 7.2 rebounds a game, and the Blazers’ defense is 1.5 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court. However, his effort level has been up and down, and his shot is off, with a true shooting percentage of just 49.4, and he is shooting just 56.6 percent in the restricted area.

Nurkic wants to stay in Portland, his agent told Ben Golliver in a story at Sports Illustrated (that story is worth the read for the Nurkic origin story, which is amazing).

“I feel like the Blazers are very happy with Jusuf and Jusuf is very happy there,” Tesch, the agent, told The Crossover by telephone this week. “We had some [extension] talks but we decided to play it out this year and engage in talks again in July. He has already proven that he can help the team. There is a fit for Jusuf in Portland and he’s looking to stay there long-term.”

The two sides talked extension before the season, but Portland understandably wanted to make sure there was more to this relationship than just a honeymoon. It gave Nurkic a chance to drive up his asking price.

Portland and Nurkic likely will find a long-term deal next summer because it just makes sense for both sides. There are not a lot of teams with max free agent money next summer (4-6, I was told by an insider), or a lot of money to spend in general, and both DeAndre Jordan and DeMarcus would be centers on the market who rank ahead of Nurkic. Portland will offer more than other free agent destinations, if not as much as Nurkic dreamed of, and they will find common ground.

But there is a lot of season to play out before then. The Blazers feel like a team that should be better than its record so far, and Nurkic is part of that untapped potential. If things change, that’s good for Nurkic — and the Blazers.

Celtics look to push win streak to 16 vs. Mavs

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DALLAS (AP) — The Boston Celtics aren’t yet halfway to the NBA record for consecutive victories, a mark the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers still hold, but at 15 in a row, they are in rare territory.

Since 1946-47, there have only been 35 instances of a 15-game win streak or longer. And of all the legendary Celtics teams, this squad already holds the franchise’s fifth-longest win streak. A victory Monday night against the Dallas Mavericks, who are an NBA-worst 3-14 overall and 2-8 at American Airlines Center, would tie the 1964-65 Boston team’s 16-game win streak.

If the Celtics (15-2) get the win, they would climb closer to the 1959-60 team’s 18-game win streak, and then comes the club mark of 19 in a row accomplished by the 2008-09 team.

This version of the Celtics has to be considered the most unexpected to string together so many wins. The team has a slew of new players, starting with guard Kyrie Irving, and Boston lost another prized newcomer, forward Gordon Hayward, in the season opener.

After starting 0-2, Boston hasn’t lost. Yet, it’s not exactly as if the Celtics are steamrolling the league. For the Mavericks, who are coming off snapping the Milwaukee Bucks’ four-game win streak Saturday, the fact that Boston has actually had to rally to get a handful of its wins must be seen as an opportunity to steal a decision.

In fact, four of the Celtics’ victories during the streak have come after Boston trailed by 16 points, including a 110-109 win against the Atlanta Hawks on Saturday.

“Most of us have never been on a winning streak like this,” Irving said following the win over Atlanta. “I don’t know if we even know how to pay attention to all the hoopla that goes on in terms of the excitement of it. I just think that every single game we take it as a challenge.”

Irving has been accepting that challenge with tremendous success after asking to be traded away from Cleveland, where he won one title with LeBron James and lost twice in the NBA Finals to the Golden State Warriors.

He closed out those same Warriors last week, scoring 11 of the last 15 points in the final 4:21. The clutch play has Irving already being talked about as an MVP candidate.

“He’s so good in those moments that you want to give him the appropriate amount of room,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens told the Boston Globe about Irving. “Maybe it’s finding a matchup. Maybe it’s creating a two-man game with Al (Horford).”

Irving will be a major test for Mavs rookie point guard Dennis Smith Jr., who has displayed some tremendous flashes while also showing he is a green 19-year-old with one season of college ball under his belt.

Dallas, one of the league’s lowest-scoring offensive teams, is relying heavily on Smith and Harrison Barnes to carry the load. Dirk Nowitzki, 39, has dropped off significantly, averaging just 10.3 points a game, his lowest output since his rookie season in 1998-99.

Unlike the Celtics, Dallas has lost its share of games by being unable to close out games late. On Saturday, the Mavericks won a rare game going away, blitzing the Bucks with a franchise-tying 19 3-pointers. Guard Wesley Matthews said he thinks all the hard work is starting to pay off.

The history-chasing Celtics will put that claim to test.

“We can actually see everything that we’ve been trying to do come together, and hopefully that just carries the momentum into the off day where everybody’s feeling good,” Matthews said after Dallas’ victory. “We’ve got another tough battle Monday against Boston, who is the hottest team in the league right now, but it’s another opportunity for us.”