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?

Coach Tyronn Lue says not to expect LeBron James to have “rest” games

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LeBron James has not missed one Cleveland Cavaliers game this season. At age 33 in his 15th NBA season, LeBron is fourth in the league in total minutes played, third in the league in minutes per game at 37, and is top 10 in the NBA in usage rate.

Don’t expect that to change.

LeBron doesn’t want to take games off — he even dominated the All-Star Game — and do you really think Lue is going to force him to sit while the Cavaliers try to adapt to a radical roster shakeup at the trade deadline? From Dave McMenamin at ESPN.

“I just think being the leader of this team, I don’t think he thinks he can take games off, because, you know, guys being hurt and going through a rough patch, and now new guys coming in,” Lue said before the Cavs’ 112-89 win over the Memphis Grizzlies on Friday. “So, I think he’s trying to lead and lead by example … I think we still got to be smart about the situation, but [the training staff] say he feels good.”

LeBron said this last month and things have not changed.

“I told you I want to play every game,” James said. “If my health continues as it is right now, then that’s what it is.”

While “load management” is a buzzword around the NBA — one ignored in Minnesota — LeBron has responded to his increased workload with an MVP level season. LeBron is averaging 26.5 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 8.9 assists per game, is shooting 35.9 percent from three, and has the highest value over replacement player in the league. (His less energized play in January likely cost him any real shot at his fifth MVP.) With the league emphasizing not resting players — particularly in nationally televised games, which the Cavaliers have a lot of — LeBron is not getting much if any rest. He wants to play in a full 82.

The only concern is will he wear down. LeBron is going to have to dominate in the playoffs for the Cavaliers to come out of the East. How much gas will LeBron have in the tank come May? There’s a reason Gregg Popovich, Steve Kerr, and a lot of other elite coaches give players a night off. That’s not going to happen with LeBron, at least not likely in a meaningful way.

Consider it something to file away and remember if the Cavaliers and LeBron look a step slower in the postseason.

Watch Kyrie Irving drop 31 on Knicks in Celtics’ win

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NEW YORK (AP) — Kyrie Irving had 31 points, nine rebounds and eight assists, leading the Boston Celtics over the New York Knicks 121-112 on Saturday for their second victory in two nights since the All-Star break.

Irving scored 15 points in a dazzling third quarter and then helped the Celtics finish it off with his passing in the fourth, highlighted by a behind-the-back dish to Jaylen Brown for a dunk that made it 115-106.

Brown had 24 points for the Celtics, who went into the break with three straight losses but came back with a victory in Detroit on Friday.

Trey Burke scored 26 points off the bench for the second straight game for the Knicks, but they couldn’t win this one after beating Orlando on Thursday to end an eight-game skid.

Irving was just 1 for 6 behind the arc in the first half but showed no lack of confidence in the third. He scored 14 straight Boston points, hitting four 3-pointers and pushing the ball right at the Knicks.

His last 3-pointer in that spurt gave the Celtics a 10-point lead, but the Knicks chipped away while he rested and it was a two-point game by the time he returned with 8:14 remaining.

Irving soon made another 3, and passed to Al Horford for a 3 that pushed the lead back to double digits.

Horford finished with 13 points and 10 rebounds.

 

Damian Lillard scores 40, hits game-winner to beat Suns (VIDEO)

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PHOENIX (AP) — Passing the ball inbounds at a critical time proved too big a challenge for the sputtering Phoenix Suns. So, Damian Lillard got one final chance.

Of course, he came through.

Lillard scored 40 points, the last two on a driving layup with nine-tenths of a second to play, and the Portland Trail Blazers rallied from 15 down in the final 7 1/2 minutes to beat Phoenix 106-104 on Saturday night, the Suns’ ninth straight loss.

Lillard called it one of his “more significant performances” of the season.

“Obviously, Damian was huge, showed his leadership, showed his talent,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said. “We overcame a horrendous shooting night for most of the night and found a way.”

Lillard, who scored 19 points in the fourth quarter, got the final chance because Phoenix’s Troy Daniels couldn’t get the ball inbounds on a five-second call that turned possession over to Portland with 20.6 seconds to play.

“We knew they didn’t have any time outs left,” Stotts said, “so we gave it a shot and made some good reads and didn’t give them any outlets.”‘

Devin Booker scored 30 points for the Suns, losers of 14 of their last 15.

His two free throws gave Phoenix its biggest lead, 93-78, with 7:26 to play. Lillard triggered the subsequent 18-4 outburst that caught the Suns at 97-97 on his 3-point play. Booker’s fifth and final 3-pointer gave the Suns a 100-97 lead with 2:19 to go. Lillard’s 3 tied it at 100 with 1:10 left.

Booker’s powerful driving basket put Phoenix up 104-102 with 33.6 seconds to go. But, after a timeout, Lillard’s step-back 15-footer tied it at 104-104 with 28 seconds left. The Suns called time out to set up the play but, on the sidelines, Daniels couldn’t get the ball inbounds for the five-second call.

“We had no timeouts. I didn’t see anybody open. If I did, I would have thrown it obviously,” Daniels said. “I’ve been in that position a lot of times, but like I said, it’s tough to be in that position when you have no timeouts. You learn from and you get it better.”

On the play, Portland’s CJ McCollum said “I just tried to take away Booker.”

“I saw how they were set up and I just guarded him normal and when I turned and saw him run toward half-court I just shaded toward him,” McCollum said.

Booker never broke open, Daniels decided not to chance it, and the last opportunity was gifted to Portland.

“There was 20 seconds left and I just wanted to make sure I got the last shot,” Lillard said. “I really just wanted to get the clock down, keep it towards half-court where it is further out and I can get downhill. I took a peek, the clock was at six and I got downhill.”

The Blazers, coming off a win at Utah the previous night, have won three straight and five of six.

The game was tied 10 times before Portland finished the first half with a 7-2 spurt take a 55-50 lead at the break.

But the Suns turned it on in the third quarter, outscoring the cold-shooting Blazers 31-16. Portland scored the first five of the second half to take its biggest lead, 60-50. But Phoenix overwhelmed the Trail Blazers 29-5 to go up 79-65 on Booker’s 3.

 

Russell Westbrook, Paul George call out Zaza Pachulia for “dirty” fall on Westbrook

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Zaza Pachulia has a reputation. The league even created a rule — the “Zaza rule”  — after he stepped under Kawhi Leonard last playoffs and twisted the forward’s ankle, ending Leonard’s playoffs and the Spurs chances.

Then Saturday night, as the Warriors pulled away in the second half and routed the Thunder, this play happened, where Pachulia fell on Westbrook’s leg.

While there was some contact, was that really enough to knock Pachulia over? It doesn’t look like it, it looks intentional, but remember Pachulia falls into a lot of guys — including Kevin Durant last season. This, however, was ugly.

After the game Westbrook and Paul George called Pachulia out.

Even the Celtics’ Kyrie Irving chipped in on this.

It will be interesting to see if the league does follow up. There is some history here.