One dozen NBA free agents to watch (not named Howard or Paul)

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Chris Paul is going to stay a Clipper. Dwight Howard is going to do whatever it is Dwight Howard is going to do.

But those two are not the only guys who became free agents at the stroke of midnight and we ventured into Monday.

Here are a dozen other newly minted free agents worth watching during this free agent period.

• Josh Smith: He’s one of the best players in what is generally considered a down free agent class — 17.5 points and 8.4 rebounds a game. Nobody doubts that he is a good player, one that annually just misses the  All-Star cut line. The issue for him as a free agent is simply his shot selection. This chart pretty much sums it up.

source:

Smith is very effective around the rim but loves his jump shot. Too much. Also, Smith wants a max contract. He likely doesn’t get it, the question is what will a team pay? He can be amazing if the fit is right, and that team will get some nights of good defense. The Detroit Pistons want him and another 4-5 teams are said to be interested. The question is, at what price? How much tax are you willing to pay for Smith and his penchant for jumpers?

• Andre Iguodala: Part of the glue that led Denver to 57 wins. It’s not so much the 13 points a game and the 5.7 rebounds, it’s the strong perimeter defense and the impressive finishing in transition. He has versatility. He’s the ultimate glue guy. He opted out of the $16 million to get the security of a long-term deal. But as our own Dan Feldman pointed out, the team that gives him four years (and one will) may regret that decision in a few years.

• J.R. Smith: He’s the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year and a gunner without a conscience. He is perfect off the bench — he comes in and brings energy and shooting. But he is anything but consistent. The Knicks have only his Early Bird rights and are limited with what they can offer; the most is just above the league average salary (so a little over $5 million a year for at least two years). It is possible another team swoops in, the Suns, Bucks and Pistons are reportedly interested.

• Andrew Bynum: He is the real test of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement: How much are teams willing to pay a guy that two seasons ago was one of the top three centers in the league (if not the best outright), but missed all of last season with a knee injury that is chronic? Under the old CBA somebody would have overpaid, but now… There are real questions about his passion for the game, but some team will take a gamble (two or three years at $9 million per?). You can bet that contract will have an out that they can cut him and not pay him if he can’t play due to a preexisting knee condition.

• Monta Ellis: He reportedly turned down two years, $24 million and he is going to regret that. Ellis is an old school volume scorer — he scores a lot of points and shoots a lot of shots. Don’t expect efficiency (41.6 percent shooting overall last year, 28 percent from three). The new breed of NBA GM doesn’t want a guy like Ellis and he is going to find a more shallow market than expected. That said, the Hawks and Mavericks are both reportedly interested.

• David West: The steady forward who was a key to the Indiana Pacers success (within one game of the NBA Finals) is not expected to sign anywhere but Indiana. The Pacers will make a fair offer of around $10 million per season, but this is going to be a short-term deal, likely just a couple years. West is 33, he’s not getting four years.

• J.J. Redick: His half a season in Milwaukee taught him he wanted out of Milwaukee. He’s one of the best pure shooters in the league and has worked to improve other parts of his game (for example, his defense is better than you think). He’s going to get a nice contract from someone who needs a two who can space the floor.

• Kyle Korver: Another pure shooter in this draft, he’s older than Redick and not quite as well rounded, but when it comes to shooting threes he is good. The early buzz is the Nets want and are in the lead to get him.

• Kevin Martin: The final sharpshooter on our list — he shot 42.6 percent from three last season for Oklahoma City, a team that could draw attention away from him. He has a very efficient offensive game, but he’s not going to give you much defense. He has a role in this league as the No. 3 guy on a good team, but we’ll see who steps up to pay him.

• Al Jefferson: He is a genuine NBA big man who scored 17.8 points and added 9.2 rebounds per game last season for the Jazz. He’s age 28 and in his prime, so he should be expecting a big contract. And he’s going to get a big contract. But he’s a defensive liability on the pick-and-roll and really does his work in the post and on the boards and not much else. Someone is going to pay him then be frustrated.

• Paul Millsap: He is a restricted free agent, meaning the Jazz can match any offer. It’s going to be interesting, he is a guy who comes in with almost but not quite All-Star numbers — 14.6 points on 49 percent shooting with 7.1 rebounds a game. He’s solid and efficient, a poor man’s David Lee kind of guy. He’s the kind of guy that a GM could decide he needs after missing out on his first choice and puts up a good offer that will leave the Jazz in a pickle.

• Brandon Jennings: Another restricted free agent (the Bucks can match) who is going to get the kind of offer that will leave the Bucks in a tough spot. He’s a score first point guard (he did have 6.5 assists per game, to be fair) but he doesn’t score efficiently. He shot under 40 percent last season and he struggles to finish in the paint, which makes that amazing first step and quickness less frightening. I got the feeling someone is going to offer him a lot of money in hopes his game grows.

• O.J. Mayo: Another guy who can score (15.3 points per game) but doesn’t do it efficiently and had Rick Carlisle so frustrated last year he called him out on a couple of occasions. He can score so he will land somewhere, but he’s not loved by GMs. The advanced stats teams are not going near Mayo but somebody will and they will get what they get with him.

James Harden on his struggles shooting: “Who cares?”

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A couple of years ago, could anyone have imagined James Harden not only saying he’s willing to give up scoring to do the little things to win but then actually doing it?

That’s exactly what Harden has done through five games against Golden State, and it’s why his Houston team is up 3-2.

Harden has struggled with his shot the past two games: He has shot 16-of-47 overall the past two games (34 percent) but also 3-of-23 from three. Yet he has done a good job setting up others. In Game 5, in particular, he did a better job getting into the middle of the paint, opening up passing lanes when the defense collapsed on him. He’s also worked hard on the defensive end, played Stephen Curry reasonably well, and been a solid team defender.

With his team one game from the Finals, he’s not concerned about his shot.

“Who cares?” Harden said to reporters after the game. “I’m just missing shots. But we’re winning, and I’m trying to compete on the defensive end and do other things to help my team win. But if we’ve got a guy like Eric Gordon making shots and being aggressive, who cares?”

A lot of players give that idea lip service, but in recent games Harden has backed it up.

“It’s just the shots [are] not falling, and a lot of it has to do with how hard everybody is playing,” Rockets’ coach Mike D’Antoni said. “Probably his legs aren’t the freshest things in the world. But he’s invaluable to the defense and offense.”

The Rockets are going to need more scoring from Harden to close this series out — Chris Paul is out for Game 6 with a strained hamstring, and it’s unlikely he plays if there is a Game 7. Eric Gordon will get the start and has lit it up the past couple of games (he led the Rockets with 24 points in Game 5), but more scoring and shot creation will fall on the Harden’s shoulders.

If the Rockets are going to close this series out, Harden is going to have to look every bit the presumptive MVP. The little things are great, but Houston needs him to get buckets now.

Suns’ GM says there is “overwhelming likelihood” team keeps No. 1 pick

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It takes a rare kind of courage, an extraordinary level of organizational backing, and a special kind of draft to do what Danny Ainge did a year ago trading the No. 1 pick. While a consensus had formed around Markelle Fultz as the best player in the draft, Ainge was a Jayson Tatum guy. Doubts about the top pick are common, but that alone is far from enough to trade that pick away — most GMs don’t have the job security to know if they miss on moving the pick and sliding down they will not be let go. Ainge had that, and he had his confidence in his scouting, so he made the move to trade the No. 1 pick to Philadelphia. (While it looks good now for Ainge, it’s too early to judge how that pick plays out — Fultz has barely played, we don’t know what extra pick the Celtics will get out of this, it takes time to fully judge these kinds of moves.)

This year is different. DeAndre Ayton is more of a clear No. 1, a guy with franchise changing potential. Plus Suns’ GM Ryan McDonough may not be standing on the kind of bedrock that allows for the trade of a No. 1 pick.

Recently McDonough said he’d listen to trade offers for the pick. That’s very different from trading it, as Scott Bordow of the Arizona Republic had the GM saying Friday.

Because they should do their due diligence, the Suns will look at Luka Doncic (who does have a relationship with new coach Igor Kokoskov) and Marvin Bagley III, among others. Rumors may leak, spun by agents or other teams. However, at the end of the day, good luck finding anyone around the league who thinks Phoenix will not take Ayton — who attended college in Arizona — to be the inside to Devin Booker‘s outside. It’s the smart play.

Kokoskov and the Suns have a lot of work to do to build a foundation for success with this franchise. However, that almost never starts by trading away the top pick in the draft.

Rumor: Paul George’s agent telling people client will re-sign with Thunder

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That rumor Paul George will leave the Thunder?

How about the exact opposite?

Dean Blevins of News 9:

Allegedly, apparently, Paul George plans to stay with the Thunder. I know. It’s not what people believe. But in separate conversations, I’m told P.G.’s agent has told people associated with the NBA that P.G. believes the injury loss of Andre Roberson was huge and he’s staying. Disclaimer, though: Believing everything that agents allegedly say can be dangerous to your health.

This, by Blevins’ own admission, isn’t the staunchest reporting. Nonetheless, I appreciate him sharing and contextualizing it. We can evaluate it for what it’s worth.

George is known to share his plans – though the previous example was him planning to sign with the Lakers. And he might have really believed it at the time, when he was still with the Pacers.

But throughout the season, George seemingly went out of his way to profess his affection for Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony and the Thunder. That only raised expectations in Oklahoma City of George staying, and if he leaves after doing that, he’d be inviting even more backlash. I think he’s smart enough to understand that, which is why I thought he made those especially strong pro-Thunder comments only after deciding he’d likely stay.

On the other hand, even if my assessment was correct, conditions change. The Jazz brutally exposed Oklahoma City’s flaws, and if George re-signs and Anthony opts in, the Thunder will have minimal cap flexibility to upgrade the roster. In fact, they might take a step back with the supporting cast to keep the luxury-tax bill manageable. George could see free agency as his chance to escape that mess.

Roberson was a huge loss, and if George is focused on that, that would bode well for Oklahoma City. Though Roberson was just a role player, he was pivotal to the Thunder’s defense. And his teammates had learned how to play around his offensive shortcomings. Oklahoma City didn’t have any good replacements for him on the roster. Roberson getting healthy is the clearest way for the Thunder to improve next season.

Of course, that’s predicated on George returning, too. Will he?

One last note of caution: People often believe what they want to hear. It’s easy to see someone in Oklahoma City hearing George bemoan the loss of Roberson and elevate that to George planning to re-sign, even George wasn’t going that far.

Draymond Green guarantees Warriors will beat Rockets in Western Conference finals

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Warriors coach Steve Kerr is confident despite his team trailing the Rockets 3-2 in the Western Conference finals.

Golden State forward Draymond Green goes further.

Green, via Marcus Thompson II of The Athletic:

“We still winning this,” Draymond Green said. “Book it.”

Of course, Green is confident. He’d never say he expects his team to lose.

But he didn’t need to frame it this way. He could’ve said he was just focused on the next game rather than make such a bold proclamation.

He’s taking pressure upon himself and putting his reputation on the line. If Golden State loses, especially in Game 6 at home with Chris Paul out, Green will be widely mocked.

If he and the Warriors pull through, he’ll probably deserve praise for setting a tone that helped them advance.