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?

Celtics hope return home can slow LeBron, Cavs in Game 5

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BOSTON (AP) — The Celtics expected to see a different LeBron James in Cleveland after the Cavaliers fell into a 2-0 hole to open the Eastern Conference finals

Two games and back-to-back wins later, James has reminded everyone exactly why he’s been to seven straight NBA finals.

Boston will be back in the embrace of its raucous fans at TD Garden for Game 5 on Wednesday. But a team that has thrived on youth this postseason suddenly looks disoriented without a go-to player and opposite a more veteran squad that has found a new attitude thanks to the fuel being provided by its biggest star.

“My teammates are putting me in position and wanting me to be in attack mode and trusting me to put our guys in position to be successful,” James said. “It’s not about me. It’s about the collective group, and I’m one of the byproducts of that.”

While the Cavs are certainly feeling rejuvenated, coach Tyronn Lue said it hasn’t changed their sense of urgency.

“We still gotta play,” Lue said. “We have veteran guys who have been there and know what it takes, but this is a young team, a good team that’s playing at home so experience is not going to be a factor. We have to come in there and have the same mentality that we had in Game 3 and 4.”

Two games ago, the numbers seemed all on the Celtics’ side.

They had moved to 9-0 at home during these playoffs and taken 2-0 series lead, which has been a magic number for a franchise yet to surrender such an advantage during its storied history (37-0). Over the last 96 minutes, Boston has been outscored by 39 points, has dropped to 1-6 on the road and is suddenly facing a must-win game to maintain home-court advantage.

Coach Brad Stevens said at the start of the playoffs that he believed there was value in the greenness of a young group that had several players getting their first taste of postseason basketball. He was proven right with Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown and rookie Jayson Tatum all thriving as first-time postseason starters.

Their success had the cumulative effect of masking the absences of Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. Now, the lack of an alpha like Irving capable of creating his own shot is sticking out with every 40-point game James produces.

Al Horford, Boston’s only healthy All-Star, was never a dominant scorer, but more of a facilitator who worked well in a finely tuned system.

Horford started off the series strong but his scoring and assist numbers have declined over the last two games.

Lue’s move to reinsert Tristan Thompson back into the starting lineup in Game 2 is a huge reason.

Thompson has not only helped things move better on the offensive end for Cleveland, he’s combined with Larry Nance to make things difficult on Horford. Horford had just four shots and seven points in 30 minutes in Game 3. He scored 15 points in Game 4 but was just 5-of-13 from the field with one assist.

If the Celtics are going to get back to the by-committee style that got them here, it must begin with his leadership. To that end, Horford said they’ll focus on correcting their issues, but also won’t dwell on them.

“As a group, we’re excited to be back, going back home,” he said. “Obviously we understand the challenge of it. We can’t think about the past. We just have to worry about this opportunity. We have a Game 5 at home, and we have to make the most of it.”

Cleveland is hoping James’ once quiet supporting cast continues its surge in Boston.

Kevin Love just missed his third straight double-double in Game 4 and sharpshooters JR Smith and Kyle Korver were 12 of 19 from the 3-point line in Games 3 and 4.

Korver’s efforts have stood out.

At 37 years old he was all over the court scoring in Game 4, diving for loose balls and collecting three blocks. While he anticipated being sore from all the activity, Korver said playing “fun basketball” is still propelling a guy looking for his first ring after appearing in 124 playoff games for five different teams during his 15-year career.

“There’s not many of us `03 class guys still around,” James said of Korver. “I feel like we’re just cut from a different cloth because we’ve been around for so long. We have this work ethic and you see him every day putting in the work, putting his mind, his body into it. It’s not about his age.”

 

Report: Timberwolves would dump Thibodeau before trading Karl-Anthony Towns

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In the NBA, when it comes down to a struggle between an elite player and the coach/GM, who wins? The player. A top 10 NBA player is much harder to get than a coach. If you don’t believe it’s the player go ask David Fizdale or Kevin McHale or Paul Westhead or.. I could fill up the entire NBC server with instances, you get the point.

As the tension between Karl-Anthony Towns and coach/GM Tom Thibodeau has bubbled to the surface in Minnesota, some teams have called up Thibodeau and the Timberwolves to check on KAT’s availability in a trade.

But would the Timberwolves really trade Towns? If one side is going to lose this battle, it’s Thibodeau, as ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski said on The Russillo Show (hat tip Uproxx).

“I think their owner would trade management/the coach before he would trade Karl-Anthony Towns. I don’t think they would allow that. I just don’t believe they’d allow that kind of decision. And I don’t know that they’d want to trade him… he’s Karl-Anthony Towns, they’re not moving him, Towns is eligible for his extension this summer. You know Jimmy Butler… it’s more of a question of Andrew Wiggins. That to me would be, if someone was going to get moved — and I’m not saying anyone’s going to get moved — I think Andrew Wiggins is the one you’re going to look at first. Because you don’t have to make a decision on Towns and Jimmy Butler and one of those guys having to take less on an extension, because you can’t have three [max] guys.”

To be clear, Thibodeau isn’t going anywhere this summer (unless he makes some kind of a power play move, like trying to trade Towns). The Timberwolves improved by 16 games last season and made the playoffs for the first time since 2004 — that was a step forward. Maybe not as big of one as some wanted/expected, but it wasn’t the kind of season that gets a coach/GM fired.

There’s also an odd dynamic in this with Jimmy Butler — he is Thibodeau’s guy. Butler has his back, and he can be a free agent in a couple of years, so if Minnesota wants to keep him then keeping the coach matters.

As for trading Wiggins, that is something to keep an eye on. Even if it’s not likely. After a disappointing 2017-18 season, there has been buzz around the league about the Timberwolves testing the market for Wiggins. The problem is Wiggins’ five-year, $148 million fully guaranteed contract kicks in next season — few teams want to take that on. To move Wiggins, Minnesota will have to take back bad contracts and/or send out sweeteners with him. Demand will not be high, despite Wiggins’ potential.

As Wojnarowski noted, both Butler and Towns have new contract coming up in the next couple of seasons, and both are clear max players. It puts Minnesota in a tight spot with the cap. They will be looking for some relief.

Just remember, if it comes down to Thibodeau or Towns, the player always wins. Especially a young, on-the-rise player.

Boston vs. Houston Finals? In 2-2 series, team with home court wins 80% of time

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Game 1 of the NBA Finals will see the Boston Celtics at the Houston Rockets starting May 31.

Or, at least that’s what the historic odds favor.

Most fans (and media/analysts) expect the Finals will still be Cleveland vs. Golden State, those are the two proven teams. However, as our own Dan Feldman noted, historically in a 2-2 series the team with two home games wins four out of five times.

Tuesday night, Houston looked every bit the kind of team that can stand up to the defending champion Warriors. Down 10 entering the fourth quarter, Houston’s improved ball-pressure defense wore down a Golden State team and took Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson (and in the fourth Stephen Curry) out of their rhythm. The Warriors couldn’t get the shots they wanted, didn’t get to the rim, went 0-of-6 from three and 3-of-18 overall in the fourth quarter. They looked like they were replaying the final games of the 2016 NBA Finals again (just with Durant). Meanwhile, Chris Paul was efficient and James Harden made plays that got Houston the comeback win. It was the kind of victory that can define a championship run.

Still, they need two more wins against a Warriors team that is loaded with All-Stars and has been to three straight Finals for a reason. Golden State believes it has another gear, now it needs to find it.

Out East, Boston heads home for Wednesday night’s game — the Celtics are 9-0 in the postseason and 22.4 points per 100 possessions better than on the road. Boston’s young role players have just been vastly superior on the parquet on both ends of the court. Plus, while the Cavaliers won Game 4, the Celtics won the last three quarters and seemed to find some defensive setups and plays that work for them.

Cleveland, however, has LeBron James.

Finally, we’ve got the kind of playoff drama we have wanted out of these conference finals.

Dikembe Mutombo to receive Sager Strong Award

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NEW YORK (AP) — Hall of Fame basketball player Dikembe Mutombo will receive the Sager Strong Award at this year’s NBA Awards show.

The award is named for longtime Turner Sports sideline reporter Craig Sager and presented annually to an individual who has been a trailblazer while exemplifying courage, faith, compassion and grace.

Mutombo’s honor was announced Tuesday by the NBA and Turner.

The four-time Defensive Player of the Year created the Dikembe Mutombo Foundation to improve conditions for people in his native Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the Biamba Marie Mutombo Hospital has treated nearly a quarter of a million people since opening in 2007.

He will receive a colorful suit jacket, the kind Sager fashioned during his years on air before dying of leukemia. The award will be presented on June 25 in Santa Monica, California.

Former New Orleans coach Monty Williams was last year’s inaugural recipient.