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Report: Dante Cunningham re-signing with Pelicans

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An intriguing battle emerged late in free agency over Dante Cunningham.

The Pelicans and Timberwolves were desperate at small forward, and Cunningham rare contributor at the position still available. New Orleans even traded a second-rounder and cash to dump Quincy Pondexter and get far enough below the hard cap to take advantage of Cunningham’s Bird Rights.

That’ll pay off.

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

It’s not the $3,106,500 Cunningham opted out of, but a $2.3 million salary beats his minimum ($2,106,470), which is all Minnesota could’ve offered.

That’s a great rate on someone who might be the Pelicans’ starting small forward, considering Solomon Hill‘s injury. Even if he plays behind Tony Allen on a team that starts small on the perimeter, Cunningham will reduce the time New Orleans must rely on also-rans.

Cunningham is probably better at power forward, but he can defend either position. He also has become a good enough 3-point shooter to credibly play small forward.

For the Pelicans, he’s a huge upgrade at a bargain price.

The NBA Draft Lottery reform we really need: A five-day, 14-team tournament

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The NBA’s Board of Governors will be voting at the end of the month on a proposal laid out by the NBA’s competition committee on whether or not to change the NBA Draft lottery, according to a report from ESPN.com.

The changes are relatively simple, per the report. The three worst teams in the NBA will each have just a 14 percent change of landing the No. 1 overall pick — down from 25 percent, 19.9 percent and 15.6 percent, respectively — while having a lower floor in regards to what pick they can get. The team with the worst record can pick fifth instead of fourth in a worst-case scenario. The team with the second-worst record can pick sixth instead of fifth.

Frankly, the NBA is being naive if they believe that this will curtail tanking within their league.

As long as there is an incentive to be bad, NBA teams are going to try to be bad the second that they realize their organization’s goals — making the playoffs, earning a top four seed, being in contention for an NBA title, whatever it may be — are not going to be met. That is particularly true for small-market teams. You need stars to win in the NBA, and if you cannot land stars through free agency or via a trade, the only way is then through the draft. The best way to amass the lottery tickets you need to have the best chance of drafting a Kevin Durant or an Anthony Davis or a LeBron James is to be bad and get a higher pick.

This lottery reform proposal does not change that fact.

This rule change would not have stopped The Process, it would just have made it more unlikely that Sam Hinkie and the 76ers landed the picks they wanted to get.

The only way to truly curtail tanking is to reward teams for winning.

And I present to you the best way to do that.

(This idea was first mentioned by the On The Ball podcast back in May. Credit them for coming up with it. Credit me for perfecting it.)

Instead of having a lottery determine who will pick first in the NBA Draft, hold a five-day, 14-team single-elimination tournament at a neutral site, an event similar to what we see with conference tournaments. The bracket would look something like this:

The schedule would be fairly simple: End the NBA’s regular season on a Sunday, start this tournament on the Tuesday and run it through Saturday, when the title game will be played. Then on that Sunday, start the NBA Playoffs, giving those teams a full week of rest while creating 13 more TV games for the league to sell.

But more than just the games, this would create the kind of buzz that we see every March during conference and NCAA tournaments. Everyone loves filling out brackets. Everyone loves mid-week afternoon sports. Doing this for hoops at the highest-level feels like a no-brainer.

The winner would earn themselves the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft. The team that loses in the final would get the No. 2 pick, and personally, I would be for setting up a third-place game to determine the No. 3 and No. 4 picks. After that, the rest of the draft would go in order of the worst record. This would more or less completely disincentivize tanking. Having the worst record in the league would not only ensure that you have the toughest road to actually getting the first pick in the draft — winning five games in five days against better teams would not be easy to do — but would lock you into nothing more than the No. 5 pick. It’s not often that franchise-changing talents are found at pick No. 5.

More to the point, better seeding in this tournament would make winning a priority for every team in the league until the final day of the season, and it would make a situation like what happened with Miami on the last day of last season — when the Heat needed the Nets to beat Chicago to get the No. 8 seed in the East and the Nets decided to “rest” their best players — much more unlikely. Sure, there will still be teams that try and lose because they match up better with, say, the No. 6 seed than the No. 7 seed or situations where playoff teams will be not be playing their starters because they are locked into a spot. And this may just shift where the tanking actually happens — will teams that look like a No. 7 or No. 8 seed in the Playoffs opt to lose to get the top seed in this tournament and make a run at the No. 1 pick?

It’s possible. It certainly won’t be as rampant, which means this mostly fixes one of the biggest issues facing the NBA currently: that as many as a third of the teams in the league are actively trying to lose by the end of the year.

There would be some logistical loopholes to work through. For starters, you’d have to convince the NBA Players Union that this is actually a good idea, and making pros play five games in five days might not be the easiest thing in the world to do. The other issue would be where the games get played. Holding the event in, say, New York or Chicago or LA every year would likely ensure that all the sets in the arena are sold, but that would create a competitive advantage for the Knicks or the Bulls or the Lakers. You could hold the tournament in the arena of the team that finished the previous season with the worst record in the league, but if that is, say, Detroit or Sacramento, just how many fans are actually going to travel that far on short notice?

But those are minor details.

In the macro, eliminating tanking would make the regular season more compelling and meaningful while, in the process, potentially creating an event that will be circled on the calendar by sports fans every single year.

There is no downside.

So, Commissioner Silver, when you’re ready to talk this over, you have my number.

Three questions the Washington Wizards must answer this season

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The NBC/ProBasketballTalk season previews will ask the questions each of the 30 NBA teams must answer to make their season a success. We are looking at one team a day until the start of the season, and it begins with a look back at the team’s offseason moves.

Last Season: 49-33, advanced to the second round of the playoffs but fell in seven games to Boston.

I know what you did last summer: John Wall was dreaming big, he was trying to recruit Paul George to come to Washington. It’s a nice thought, but the Wizards never had the cap space or assets to come close to a deal for another star player. What the Wizards could do was lock up their own and make small moves to try to improve a 49-win team. Wall got a four-year, $170 million contract extension that keeps him in Washington through his prime. When Brooklyn came in with a $106 million offer for Otto Porter the Wizards matched it, not that they had much of a choice — it was match or create a massive hole in their roster (without the money to replace him with anywhere near the same quality). The Wizards got Tim Frazier for the 52nd pick to give them some needed help at the point behind Wall. Mike Scott is a bit of a gamble but a low-cost one and maybe he can be a stretch four. They picked up Jodie Meeks, who if he’s healthy can knock down shots.

THREE QUESTIONS THE WIZARDS MUST ANSWER:

1) Will there be any help off the bench this year? Last season the Wizard’s bench play was flat-out terrible. Don’t take my word for it, Marcin Gortat said they had one of the worst benches in the league. Or, think back to the playoffs when the Wizards were falling to the Celtics in Game 7 and Wall was obviously exhausted, walking back on defense, but Scott Brooks couldn’t take him out for a rest because he didn’t trust anyone off the bench for even a few minutes.

To help, Washington picked up Tim Frazier as a backup point guard this summer, he is solid and will be better than Trey Burke was last season (or Brandon Jennings, who was brought in to take Burke’s minutes mid-season because Burke was that bad). Jodie Meeks was signed this summer and can space the floor and knock down shots if he’s healthy. Mike Scott maybe plays some minutes as a stretch four.

However, what the Wizards are really counting on to help the bench this season is internal improvement. Kelly Oubre should take a step forward going into his third season, have a good one and he can push for a contract extension next summer. Tomas Satoransky was up and down as a rookie and faded as the season went on, hopefully his shot can improve and he can contribute more. Then there is Ian Mahinmi. If his knees let him — and he recently had another surgery on them — he certainly can help get some stops off the bench, providing a presence in the paint.

Notice there is a lot of betting on health and players developing, still if a couple of those bets pay off the bench will be less of a black hole than a season ago. However, it’s likely still going to be a weakness and the Wizards will lean heavily on a strong starting backcourt of Wall and Bradley Beal.

2) Can the Wizards play more consistent defense? For the month of January last season, the Wizards had the sixth best defense in the NBA allowing 103.5 points per 100 possessions, and not so coincidentally they went 12-4 that month. After the All-Star break last season, the Wizards were the fourth worst defense in the NBA, allowing 110.7 points per 100 possessions (worse than the Kings without DeMarcus Cousins, worse than the tanking Suns, and worse than the Knicks). They were just above .500 in that stretch.

The Wizards are capable of good defense, but they don’t bring it night in and night out. This is a team that is by far at its most dangerous when Wall is leading them in transition, but for the best running teams (including the current Warriors) that starts with stops and steals on the defensive end. If Washington gets more stops, Wall gets out in transition more often, and the Wizards are just better.

With most of the same players back in the same system, an improved defense will be more about focus and effort than some dramatic change. Coach Scott Brooks has to get through to them and get them focused on that end.

3) Is Kelly Oubre ready to step up? Earlier in this preview we talked about how the Wizards are banking on internal development to push them past the 50-win mark and deeper into the playoffs. The biggest question here is Kelly Oubre. There was a time when some around the Wizards thought he could develop into a guy who would push Otto Porter and give them more wing options, but last season Oubre played 20 minutes a night scoring 6.3 points and pulling down 3.3 rebounds a contest. He shot 28.7 percent from three and had a single digit PER of 9.1. His defense gives him some value (he can defend pretty well on the wing), but last season he was still a slightly below average NBA player.

This is his third year and the Wizards are counting on him to take a big step forward. Do it, and he can start to push for a contract extension next summer, but he’s got a lot to prove first. If he’s going to be a quality 3&D guy in the NBA, he has to shoot better than the 28.7 percent he did from deep last season. His defense can get him on the court, but he needs to score more consistently to stay there. In theory, and improved Oubre could play in a small lineup with Porter and Morris, and that would have potential. But Oubre has to be more of an offensive threat for any of that to work.

It’s a tight market recently, and teams are not paying on potential the same way they used to. Oubre needs to show he’s ready for the next step, then the rest of it will fall in line for him.

Timberwolves ace Jimmy Butler trade… then made some other moves

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NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

From the moment former Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau took over the Timberwolves, Minnesota was involved in Jimmy Butler trade rumors. But, as of last year, Chicago reportedly wouldn’t budge without receiving Andrew Wiggins, and I didn’t think that was enough for the Bulls. Since, Butler has only improved and Wiggins moved closer to a max salary that will diminish his value. A deal seemed unlikely.

Then, suddenly the Timberwolves traded for Butler – without surrendering Wiggins. A team bound to improve around Karl-Anthony Towns and Wiggins is now set to clobber a 13-year playoff drought.

Butler is a star in his prime who’s locked up for two more seasons at an affordable salary. The price to land him – Zach LaVine (injured and up for a contract extension), Kris Dunn (ineffective as a relatively old rookie) and moving down from the No. 7 to No. 16 pick – was absurdly low. By dropping only nine spots rather than give up the No. 7 pick entirely, Thibodeau just stunted on his old bosses.

That fantastic trade started a busy offseason in Minnesota, but the rest of it wasn’t nearly as inspiring. (To be fair, how could it be?)

Going from Ricky Rubio (two years, $29.25 million remaining) to Jeff Teague (three years, $57 million with a player option) at point guard wasn’t ideal in a vacuum. But Teague’s shooting was important considering Butler and Wiggins form a sketchy wing pairing on 3-pointers and Thibodeau insists on playing two traditional bigs. Plus, the Timberwolves got a first-rounder a first-rounder from the Jazz for Rubio.

Another former Bull, Taj Gibson, will bolster Thibodeau’s two-big rotation. But Minnesota already had Gorgui Dieng and Cole Aldrich (who’s overpaid and has disappointed, but can still eat up minutes) to limit the defensive burden on Towns, and No. 16 pick Justin Patton is in the pipeline. Does a 32-year-old Gibson have enough left in the tank to justify a two-year $28 million contract?

Likewise, will a 37-year-old Crawford provide value at the full room exception (two years, $8,872,400 with a player option)? The Timberwolves didn’t need another ball-handler. Butler, Wiggins and Teague can be staggered enough to handle that. Towns should be tasked with a greater offensive role, too. At least Crawford is a solid spot-up shooter, but his defense is a big minus.

Shabazz Muhammad won’t fill Minnesota’s 3-and-D void, either. But on a minimum contract, he was too talented to pass up. Dante Cunningham could help, though he’s better at power forward than on the wing, where the Timberwolves need more depth.

Thibodeau hasn’t exactly instilled faith in his ability to take this franchise into the future. But he hit a home run with the Butler trade, and that buys him leeway.

Offseason grade: A+

Pelicans trying to keep up with all the problems they’ve created for themselves

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NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

The entire operation could have cratered if Jrue Holiday left in free agency, as the Pelicans would have had only moderate cap space to replace him.

That didn’t happen.

Otherwise…

Years of roster mismanagement caught up to New Orleans, which had its meager wing depth eviscerated when Solomon Hill suffered a long-term injury. Complicating matters, the Pelicans had already hard-capped themselves by signing Rajon Rondo and Darius Miller to a combined salary above the taxpayer mid-level exception. Holiday used his leverage to get a massive contract – worth up to $150 million over five years – that pushed New Orleans close to that hard cap.

Rondo might be a decent value as a $3.3 million backup point guard. But his ego complicates the situation, and the Pelicans will start him at point guard – pushing Holiday to shooting guard, where the team’s third-best player will make less of an impact.

Miller washed out of the NBA two years ago after three seasons in New Orleans. The former second-rounder went overseas and then drew a salary above the minimum. I’m curious to see what the Pelicans see in him now.

In a pinch on the wing – where Hill, best at power forward, was already playing out of position – New Orleans sent a second-rounder and cash to the Bulls to dump Quincy Pondexter. Presumably, the injury problems that have kept Pondexter from playing the last two seasons meant he couldn’t help the Pelicans on the wing this season. Otherwise, this deal was a farce. But it allowed the Pelicans to sign Tony Allen and presumably one other player. Re-signing Dante Cunningham would help, but even he is better at power forward than small forward.

Allen is still a strong defender at age 35, but he’s a poor shooter. Rondo generally has been, too.

Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins will have to be comfortable from deep for this team to have adequate spacing. The situation behind those two stars is woeful.

New Orleans spent a lot of time picking around the edges at point guard, though. In addition to re-signing Holiday and signing Rondo, the Pelicans traded effective backup point guard Tim Frazier (on a reasonable $2 million salary) to the Wizards for the No. 52 pick. Then, New Orleans essentially dealt the Nos. 40 and 52 picks and $800,000 to move up to No. 31 for injured point guard Frank Jackson, who’s already hurt again. The Pelicans also signed Ian Clark (defends point guards, handles the ball and distributes like a shooting guard). Combo guard E'Twaun Moore returns, too.

Between Davis, Cousins, Omer Asik and Alexis Ajinca, New Orleans is paying $57,396,659 this season to players most effective at center.

Meanwhile, small forward is a wasteland.

This is not the team I’d want to send into battle during Cousins’ contract year. Lose him, and how will that color Davis’ long-term view of the franchise?

The Pelicans keep bandaging major wounds, and it’s already catching up to them. The difficult situation entering the offseason must be taken into account.

They started the summer in a jam. Then, they got jammed.

Offseason grade: C-