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The Extra Pass: The All-Value Team

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The Extra Pass is a new daily column that’s designed to give you a better look at a theme, team, player or scheme. Today, we’ll put together a squad featuring some of the league’s most valuable contracts. 

Signing players to any substantial contract during the offseason free agency period is like tap dancing through a minefield — the chances of overpaying for a player or being stuck with a crippling long-term contract is very, very high. Those brave souls that have tried to build a team with above mid-level but below max players have more often than not put their teams on the treadmill of mediocrity.

Still, those players get signed every year, usually by teams who have false illusions of grandeur. That’s how Drew Gooden goes to the Bucks for $7 million dollars a year, or how Ben Gordon gets $58 million over five seasons with the Pistons.

The best value contracts in the NBA are players on their rookie deals, and super-duper stars like LeBron James and Kevin Durant for however much you’re allowed to give them. That’s generally how it works.

But for the sake of this exercise, we’re leaving off those max stars and any player still on a rookie deal to identify some of the real bargains pulled this offseason. Here’s my All-Value Team:

Jason Kidd$3 million a year – 17 PER – 8th in the NBA in true shooting percentage

Everyone laughed when the Knicks signed the 39-year-old aging point guard to a 3-year deal, but Kidd just keeps on adapting and producing. It might be surprising that the Knicks have a 23-12 record, but it’s even more stunning when you consider that Kidd has been their third best player in terms of net plus/minus, PER, and win shares. That’s some incredible bang for the ol’ buck, especially when you consider that Kidd is shooting 44 percent from behind the arc and turning the ball over pretty infrequently (4.2 assists to 1.3 turnovers a game). With pure scorers like Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith on the roster, Kidd has turned himself into the perfect sidekick — a mistake-free, spot-up shooting fiend. He’s a whole new player.

Honorable Mentions: Andre Miller and Kyle Lowry

Matt Barnes $854,389 a year – 17.9 PER –  4th in the NBA in effective field goal percentage

Here’s the story. Barnes was playing pickup ball one day at the Clippers training facility, and apparently, he was really tearing it up. Chris Paul was in attendance, and he asked Barnes who he was playing for. Much to Paul’s surprise, he found out Barnes was still available as a free agent. So CP3, being the go-getter that he is, immediately ran upstairs to the front office and told the Clippers brass to go sign Barnes right away. That turned out to be a pretty good move, eh? Barnes was the 15th man added to the roster and was treated like an afterthought with Caron Butler and Grant Hill already on the roster, but he’s quickly become the most integral piece of “A Tribe Called Bench” — the nickname for the Clippers second unit that has been destroying benches (and starters) with no impunity. Barnes ranks 13th in the league in plus/minus, using his brilliant cuts off the ball and instincts in transition to give the Clippers the glue guy they’ve lacked for years.

Honorable Mentions: Ray Allen, J.R. Smith, Jamal Crawford

Carl Landry $4 million a year – 18.4 PER – Leads Golden State in win shares per48 minutes

How did everyone forget about this guy? How could a player with such a proven history of being an effective scorer — even on horrible teams — fall in the laps of the Warriors for below the mid-level exception? Whatever the reason was, it sure seems silly now. Landry has proven to be a physical, hard-nosed player that hits the offensive glass (17th in offensive rebounding percentage), gets to the foul line a bunch (20th in the NBA), and shoots the ball incredibly well (9th in True Shooting Percentage). Landry and Lee working the high-low game in Golden State’s smallball lineup (Jack-Curry-Thompson-Lee-Landry) has been truly beautiful basketball. If Landry keeps this up and doesn’t get 6th Man of the Year consideration, we should all riot.

Honorable Mentions:  Thabo Sefolosha and Mike Dunleavy

J.J. Hickson $4 million a year – 20 PER – 3rd in the NBA in total rebounding percentage

What a strange journey. After being tagged as the guy Cleveland wouldn’t acquire Amare Stoudemire for, Hickson has had somewhat of a resurgence with Portland. While he’s still an awful, undersized defender at 6-foot-9, Hickson has helped account for his shortcoming elsewhere by becoming one of the best rebounders in basketball. Hickson is 3rd in total rebounding percentage this season, trailing only Anderson Varejao and Reggie Evans. Hickson’s glass eating mentality and decent scoring instincts (9th in field goal percentage) have helped the Blazers fill the gap at center while Meyers Leonard figures the game out. With Hickson next to LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum, the Blazers very quietly have one of the best offensive frontcourts in basketball.

Honorable Mentions: Jermaine O’Neal and Jason Smith

Andray Blatche – $854,389 a year – 23.7 PER – 8th in the league in PER

Just like the Knicks did with J.R. Smith, the Nets got the knucklehead discount on Andray Blatche this offseason. After wearing out his welcome in Washington in a serious way, the Nets were the only team really brave enough to take on a reclamation project, and the talented 26-year-old big man has rewarded them by playing his butt off. Blatche is 8th in the league in offensive rebounding percentage, 16th in total rebounding percentage, and 17th (!) in usage percentage. The last stat is particularly interesting — it’s not very often you’ll see an offense sculpted around a player making the league minimum, but Blatche has proven worthy of the touches, averaging nearly 20 points per 36 minutes on career-high percentages across the board. Thanks to the great play of Blatche and Brook Lopez, the Nets can firmly stake claim to having the best center rotation in the NBA. Who could have predicted that?

Raptors’ DeMar DeRozan becomes bona fide star just in time for Toronto All-Star Game

Toronto Raptors' DeMar DeRozan (10) celebrates scoring during his team's 101-81 win over Miami Heat during an NBA basketball game in Toronto on Friday, Jan. 22, 2016. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP)
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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – DeMar DeRozan admits he’s a terrible planner.

“Don’t ask me, are we going to go to dinner next week and what time?” the Raptors wing said. “Because I don’t know. You’ve got to ask me an hour before. … A hour before I’m hungry, I decide.”

That blind spot makes it easier for DeRozan to focus on the task at hand, especially with so much – Sunday’s All-Star game in Toronto, an opportunity for playoff redemption and a max contract in free agency – ahead of him.

DeRozan, already an All-Star and two-time 20-point-per-game scorer, is having his best season by a decent margin. His Raptors are 35-17 and looking increasingly capable of challenging the Cavaliers for the Eastern Conference title many already handed Cleveland.

And it’s because DeRozan never got too comfortable with what he already accomplished nor too caught up in what he could accomplish. Calling himself the “most mellowest person,” DeRozan just tries to stay in the moment.

Toronto coach Dwane Casey credited DeRozan for working on one aspect of his game each offseason, including “just handling the ball in the post and not throwing it in the fourth row” when they first worked together. But saying DeRozan polished only one skill since last year would be selling him far too short.

DeRozan has transformed his offensive game, becoming more effective than ever.

Start with his ability to get to the basket. That had long been a strength, but DeRozan has taken it to another level this year. He ranks seconds in the NBA in drives per game (11.6):

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And third in free-throw attempts per game(8.3):

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How does someone so mellow find the aggression to play a style that generates so much contact?

“I grew up different from a lot of people,” said DeRozan, a Compton native. “I grew up in an aggressive area. I had an aggressive lifetime for a long time. I just felt like, I’ve seen a lot of stuff and did a lot of stuff at a young age that make you mellow now, but once you grow up in that aggressive nature, it’s just always going to stick with you.”

DeRozan said he found a difference balance in his life at USC, where he spent only one year, as he hilariously told teammate Kyle Lowry.

DeRozan’s one year in college helped make him the No. 9 pick in the 2009 NBA draft, but he entered the league with one glaring deficiency: outside shooting. DeRozan made just six three pointers at USC – and even fewer, four and five, his first two NBA seasons.

Still not quite to league average, DeRozan has at least become a credible threat beyond the arc this season, shooting a career-high 33.7%:

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These shots at the rim and from beyond the arc are coming at the expense of long 2s. After peaking at 36.5% three years ago and remaining a far-too-high 33.8% last year, DeRozan is taking just 24.4% of his shots between 16 feet and the 3-point arc:

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For someone who declared just last year, “I don’t care about analytics at all. I could give a hell about them,” his game has sure become more analytically friendly.

The previous two years, DeRozan had the second-lowest true shooting percentage among 20-point scorers – ahead of only Kobe Bryant last season and LaMarcus Aldridge the season prior. Now, DeRozan’s true shooting percentage (54.8) is above league average for the first time since his rookie year, which – not coincidentally – was the only time his usage percentage fell below league average.

There’s a tradeoff between volume and efficiency, and DeRozan was on the wrong end of it. He was increasing his scoring by taking more bad shots.

His improved efficiency hasn’t come with shifting the shooting burden to less-capable teammates, either. DeRozan’s usage percentage (29.7) is a career high and ranks above Carmelo Anthony‘s, Kevin Durant‘s and John Wall‘s.

The turnaround is all the more stunning considering how limited DeRozan looked as an inefficient gunner.

A whopping 74.5% of his long 2s were assisted in 2010-11. That number fell 47.5% last season, which look more ridiculous if not for the great height from which it fell. For perspective, Isaiah Thomas – another player on both the drives and free-throw attempts leaderboard – has just 34.2% of his long 2s assisted.

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Essentially, DeRozan was taking too many bad shots – and needed help getting them.

This year, DeRozan looks much more in control with the ball in his hands. Only 26.8% of his long 2s are assisted, not that he’s taking that many shots from that range, anyway.

He’s also using his greater control to dish a career-high 4.7 assists per game. Continuing the trend, it’s a substantive improvement. DeRozan isn’t throwing foolish passes in the hopes of upping his assist numbers. His turnovers remain characteristically low, and his assist-to-turnover ratio is a career best.

DeRozan has looked the part of a star the previous couple years. This season, he has produced like a star, too.

Lowry has watched the process unfold.

“It’s just being comfortable in your own skin,” Lowry said. “He doesn’t worry about what anybody says. He’s going to be comfortable in his own skin at all times.”

Lowry and DeRozan have developed a fun bond in their four seasons together, and it’s special they’ll represent the Raptors together in the Toronto All-Star game.

DeRozan was an All-Star in 2013, when the Raptors became good enough to warrant an All-Star but reserve-voting coaches still seemed bitter at Lowry, a superior player who’d clashed with his coaches when younger. Lowry got his first All-Star appearance last year, fans voting him a starter.

This year, both deserve to be there.

The next step is turning their individual success into team success. Despite holding home-court advantage the last two years, the Raptors were bounced in the first round – by the Nets in 2014 and Wizards in 2015. Toronto hasn’t won a playoff series since 2001, which was also the last time it produced two All-Stars (Vince Carter and Antonio Davis).

With DeRozan playing like a true star, this could be the year the Raptors break the drought.

Individual riches for DeRozan should follow.

He reportedly and logically plans to opt out of a contract that would pay him $10,050,000 next season. The upside? A max deal projected to be worth more than $145 million over five years if he re-signs or $110 million over four years elsewhere.

DeRozan always probably could have pulled at least one max offer in what will be a player-friendly market next summer. But this improvement makes it far more likely he’ll have his pick of max options, and not just from teams as desperate as the Lakers.

Despite not looking ahead often, DeRozan says he has one plan for handling free agency: Calling Lowry.

“I’m putting it on Kyle,” DeRozan said. “I don’t know. I’m going to put in on Kyle when that day comes. So, whatever he says, that’s where I’m going to go.”

So, that means DeRozan will return to the Raptors?

“At the end of the day, I’m his friend first,” said Lowry, who spurned heavy outside interest to re-sign in 2014. “He’s going to make a decision on what’s comfortable for him, and I’m going to support everything he does – just like he did for me.”

That’s very nice, but doesn’t Lowry at least hope that process leads DeRozan back to Toronto?

“At the end of the day, I’m going to support my friend – no matter what it is,” Lowry said.

There was long reason to doubt the relative emptiness of DeRozan’s numbers. But what’s clear: The people around him believe in him.

“He hasn’t reached the ceiling of his game yet,” Casey said, “and that’s the great thing about him, because he is a worker.”

Giannis Antetokounmpo sprints from behind to reject John Wall dunk (video)

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There’s a lot to like about Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Maybe his most impressive ability? How quickly he covers ground.

Report: Brooklyn Nets GM search down to finalists

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 25:  The Brooklyn Nets logo adorns center court prior to the game against the Portland Trail Blazers at the Barclays Center on November 25, 2012 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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The Brooklyn Nets remain without a general manager. With the trade deadline less than a week away. Meaning simply, when you hear rumors the next week of a blockbuster Nets trade dismiss them, they aren’t going to be doing that because they don’t have anyone in the big chair to make that call.

Someone may be in the big chair before the deadline, however. (Not soon enough to make a significant deadline deal, however.) The Nets are down to a few finalists for the job, reports Chris Broussard at ESPN.

The frontrunners are believed to be two-time executive of the year Bryan Colangelo, Denver Nuggets assistant GM Arturas Karnisovas and San Antonio Spurs assistant GM Sean Marks….

Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov told ESPN.com on Wednesday that his search committee’s first round of interviews is over, and they were in the process of compiling a short list of candidates.

Any of those men can do a good job — if they are given the space by Prokhorov and his people to make moves and rebuild the organization without meddling or pressure to do things quickly. Prokhorov says he wants a quick turnaround for his 14-40 team, but it was his pressure on former GM Billy King to put together an immediate title contender with no regard for the long term that put the Nets in the hole they are in now.

Let’s hope he and his people have learned their lessons and they let the basketball people make the basketball decisions.

Worst dunks in All-Star Dunk Contest history? We got that video.

at Verizon Center on February 5, 2016 in Washington, DC. USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.
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The All-Star Saturday Dunk Contest has brought some memorable moments — Dr. J and Michael Jordan gliding through the air, Dwight Howard in a Superman cape, Nate Robinson showing off serious hops, through last season and Zach LaVine re-energizing the event with his athletic throw downs.

But there have been some duds, too — and from some elite dunkers. Here is a highlight mix of the worst, which is almost as much fun as the best. Enjoy, then tune in for hopefully more good than bad from Toronto Saturday night on TNT when LaVine and the dunk contest return.