Kurt Helin

NBA Free Agency Preview: Top five centers

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We’ve gone over the point guards, shooting guards, small forwards, and power forwards. Now it’s time for the big guys in the paint.

There are some talented players in this group but they all come with questions. They are all gambles. What teams will make the smart plays and what teams will overpay is going to be fascinating to watch over the coming weeks. Here is our list of top centers.

1) Andre Drummond (restricted). Just 22 and the second best all-around center in the league (behind DeMarcus Cousins). He’s technically a free agent but he did the Kawhi Leonard move of not taking his extension last season so the Pistons would have more cap room to make moves. Now they will max him out and he will take it.

2) Hassan Whiteside. He has gone from a guy who couldn’t stick in Sacramento due to a lack of work ethic and maturity, through playing overseas in places such as Lebanon, to coming back to Miami and leading the league in blocks. He’s going to get a $22 million a year max contract, which is amazing for a guy who has never even made $1 million in a season before. Can he handle it? A lot of teams including Dallas, New York, and the Los Angeles Lakers think he can and will chase him hard. Miami is in the driver’s seat, he wants to stay with the Heat, but they are chasing Kevin Durant and have to pay Dwyane Wade, it’s a financial tightrope walk for Pat Riley at the start of free agency.

3) Dwight Howard. Despite what his legions of Twitter-based critics think, Dwight Howard can still play: He averaged 13.7 points a game on only 8.5 shot attempts last season, added 11.8 rebounds a night, and is a decent defender. He’s not the same player after the back surgeries, but he’s good. The questions teams have are about everything off the court — he’s left a wake of fired coaches and damaged organizations behind him — and how long they really want to be committed to a center with back problems. He’s a No. 3 option who should be focused on defense, but he doesn’t want to accept that role. That said, when teams strike out on Whiteside, Howard’s agent will get a lot of calls.

4) Pau Gasol. At age 36, Gasol was an All-Star last season who put up numbers for the Bulls — 16.5 points and 11 rebounds a game. His high IQ game and passing can help any offense. However, there are declines in efficiency that are not going to get better with age, and he defends like a Spanish matador at this point. The Spurs are reportedly interested and that fit makes sense, but the Knicks and a number of other teams will give Gasol a lot of options.

5) Joakim Noah. He’s great in the locker room and he’s still fierce on the defensive end, but at 31 years old his body has started to betray him and teams need to be concerned about how much he can play (and if they can limit his minutes). There is going to be a lot of interest in Noah, and that starts in New York, which already acquired his buddy Derrick Rose.

Bonus: Bismack Biyombo. The fact he’s going to get a contract in the $20 million a year range shows how important rim protection is and how desperate teams are to obtain it. Biyombo has little offensive game to speak of, but teams want his defense that much. He’s not sticking in Toronto, and once teams strike out on Hassan Whiteside Biyombo’s agent will get a lot of calls.

Others of note: Al Jefferson, Zaza Pachulia, Festus Ezeli (restricted), Ian Mahinmi, Donatas Motiejunas (restricted), Timofey Mozgov, Marreese Speights

Reports: Kevin Durant to meet with Thunder Thursday, Spurs Saturday

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The Kevin Durant sweepstakes will start before free agency officially tips off when midnight turns the calendar to July 1.

Durant will meet with the Thunder on Thursday — something he can do before July 1 because he is technically still a member of the team. Every other team gets to make their pitches Friday and Saturday. Chris Broussard of ESPN has the details.

Durant, who is currently in Los Angeles filming a TV commercial, will fly to Oklahoma City with agent Rich Kleiman on Wednesday night for the meeting, sources said….

Durant will then fly to New York to meet with the remaining five teams on his list over the first few days of July. His first meeting on the morning of July 1 will be with the Golden State Warriors.

Besides the Thunder and Warriors, the teams that have meetings set are the Spurs, Clippers, Heat, and Celtics. The Knicks are expected to get a chance to pitch Durant as well. Marc Stein adds some details.

After leaks come out about how every team did well with their pitch — you can bet KD’s team learned the lesson of negative leaks after what happened with LaMarcus Aldridge and the Lakers last season — Durant will want to make his decision relatively quickly. He’s not going to drag this out (his decision could impact some players farther down the ladder, but there will not be a bottleneck like years past).

He can sign a deal on July 8 when the moratorium on signings ends (no team can sign a free agent to more than a minimum contract before that date), then he is off to Asia for a quick promotional tour. By July 18 Durant will be in Las Vegas for the start of Team USA’s training camp for the Rio Olympics.

Kyrie Irving plans to remind Warriors on Olympic team who has a new ring

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With the NBA Finals hanging in the balance, Kyrie Irving was isolated on Stephen Curry and proceeded to drain a three pointer over him. That was the ballgame (well, after Stephen Curry couldn’t knock down a shot over Kevin Love to equalize). Cavaliers win.

Next month, Irving heads to the U.S. Olympic team training camp (which starts in Las Vegas and tours the USA before going to Brazil in August for the Games). He will be joined there by three Warriors — Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and Harrison Barnes.

Guess what topic is going to come up?

Kyrie admitted there will be trash talk while on ESPN’s Mike & Mike show Tuesday.

As there should be, Irving earned the right. His team won, and he was the second best player on a championship team, (Anyone trying to sell Irving as Finals MVP is just trying to gin up a talking point for their radio show or whatever, no thinking person who watched the games could vote for anyone but LeBron James.)

Irving can talk all he wants, so long as he hits Thompson with a pass at the three point line when the latter is open.

As expected, LeBron James reportedly opts out of Cavaliers deal. Will re-sign with team.

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This is less news than a housekeeping item.

As has been expected to happen since before this season ever started — long before he led the Cleveland Cavaliers to an NBA title — LeBron James has opted out of his contract with the Cleveland Cavaliers, LeBron’s agent told Chris Broussard at ESPN. He’s dropping a $24 million contract to sign a $30 million one for next season — and you can bet it’s a one-year contract because he can make more the year after that.

Finals MVP LeBron James will not exercise his player option with the Cleveland Cavaliers for the 2016-17 season, according to his agent, Rich Paul….

Though he has opted out, James can re-sign with the Cavaliers and said last week he has no intentions of leaving Cleveland again.

He’s not leaving Cleveland, at least not yet. He will sign another one-plus-one deal with the Cavaliers so he can make more money while doing a victory tour with the Cavs, who will be heavy favorites to make it back to the Finals out of the East.

What will he do in the summer of 2017, when the salary cap is expected to jump another $13 million at least? He’ll sign a larger deal, likely for the full five-year max, and may consider options outside of Cleveland.

But for now he’s going to stay a Cavalier, this is all just a formality.

Report: Utah making point guard Trey Burke available in trades

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With Dante Exum was out injured last season, the Utah Jazz still had point guard Trey Burke come off the bench behind Raul Neto. Then later on Utah went out and got point guard Shelvin Mack to take up minutes, allowing them to reduce Burke’s role further.

Now the Jazz have Exum coming back and just traded for George Hill — they don’t need Burke’s score-first game at the point anymore. So they are testing the trade market for him, reports Marc Stein of ESPN.

Burke averaged 10.6 points per game with a below-average 50.7 percent true shooting percentage. The bigger issue is he looks to create for himself and doesn’t set others up (2.3 assists per game).

Some team looking for a third point guard could do a lot worse. I doubt Utah can get much more than a second rounder for the former Michigan star (unless a team has its own inexpensive contract it wants to dump).