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Anthony Davis’ last chance at $24 million contract boost

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AUBURN HILLS, Michigan – Anthony Davis – not yet showered and with a horde of media waiting to interview him – sat patiently while a trainer wrapped ice around his leg in the post-game locker room. As Davis rose to handle his obligations at hand, a Pelicans staffer announced the team’s first bus would leave the arena shortly.

“Oh, I’m on that,” Davis said.

“No, you’re not,” the staffer quickly retorted.

The Anthony Davis bandwagon hasn’t surged forward quite as quickly as many hoped.

A season that began with MVP talk and playoff plans has devolved into reduced expectations for Davis and New Orleans. The postseason appears to be little more than a pipedream for the 22-33 Pelicans. But an important question remains for Davis: Will he make an All-NBA team, triggering the Derrick Rose Rule and an additional $24 million in salary?

When Davis signed his contract extension last summer, it seemed inevitable. Most outlets, including this one, simply described his extension as worth $145 million. Even today, Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports called him “the $145 million man.” But for Davis to earn that much, he’d have to meet one of the Rose-rule conditions during his first four seasons:

  • Win MVP
  • Get voted starter of two All-Star games
  • Make two All-NBA teams (first, second or third)

Davis cruised to the latter two honors last season, his third in the leauge. He led Western Conference frontcourt players in All-Star votes, finishing third overall – closer to first-place Stephen Curry than fourth-place Kobe Bryant. Davis also made the All-NBA first team, receiving first-team votes on 119 of 129 ballots and second-team votes on the other 10.

It seems a little silly that alone didn’t qualify Davis for the Rose rule, but the categories run independently. Checking one in each box doesn’t satisfy the requirement. It’s two voted All-Star starts or two All-NBA teams, not one of each.

With the Pelicans off to a slow start, Davis received fewer than a third of the All-Star votes he got last season. He finished ninth in Western Conference frontcourt voting – behind Zaza Pachulia and Enes Kanter.

That gives Davis one final chance to trigger the Rose rule: Make an All-NBA team this season.* If he doesn’t, his salary projects to fall by more than $4 million next season and more than $24 million over the five-year extension.

*Davis could win MVP, but he obviously won’t do that without an All-NBA selection.

“All this stuff that everybody’s talking about, money-wise and contracts – I just go out there and play,” Davis said. “That’s not my M.O. ‘If I don’t make this team or don’t do this then I lose money.’ I mean, if you do what you’re supposed to do, all that stuff will take care of itself.”

Undoubtedly, Davis has played well this season, averaging 23.6 points, 9.9 rebounds, 2.2 blocks and 1.3 steals per game.  His 59-point, 20-rebound game yesterday – the one that had so much media waiting to speak to him in the Pistons’ visiting locker room – acted as a re-coming-out party. Davis answered question after question, smiling after his historic performance long after the first bus departed.

But Davis still suffers from outsized expectations. What he’s doing, as great as it is, often doesn’t seem like enough.

That’s not fair one bit.

Davis’ All-NBA chances shouldn’t be judged against by his prior seasons, but against his peers this season. And in that regard, Davis gets a boost for his chances, because he has plenty of peers.

Though Davis has started 53 of 55 games at power forward, he has spent 55% of his minutes at center (defined as playing without Omer Asik, Alexis Ajinca or Kendrick Perkins). So, Davis reasonably could make an All-NBA team at either forward or center, increasing his chances of landing on one.

How does he stack up? Here are a few all-in-one numbers for a baseline:

Win shares

Forwards:

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Centers:

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PER-based Estimated Wins Added

Forwards:

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Centers:

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Real Plus-Minus Wins

Forwards:

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Centers:

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To recap these “catch-all” stats: Davis ranks ninth, third and 12th among forwards; fourth, first and seventh among centers. He must finish top-six among forwards or top-three among centers in All-NBA voting to trigger the Rose rule.

It’s difficult to see Davis passing Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard or Draymond Green at forward, but that still leaves two spots up for grabs. Davis could also top all centers, though DeMarcus Cousins leads a fairly open field that could bump down Davis.

For what it’s worth, I’d place Davis fifth at forward (behind Durant, LeBron, Leonard and Green) or first at center right now, though Davis is probably closer to securing a spot at forward than center on my mythical ballot. Center is just that wide open with Cousins, DeAndre Jordan and Andre Drummond. There’s plenty of time for Davis to rise or fall in the rankings.

The Pelicans haven’t made it any easier on him.

They’ve lost 159 player-games to injury this season – third most in the NBA, behind only Washington and Denver, according to Man-Games Lost. That’s a key reason they followed last year’s 45-37 record and their first playoff appearance in four years with a 1-11 start.

Just as the season got underway, New Orleans had fallen out of mind.

“If we were having a good year as a team, not being decimated by the injuries, I think there would be talk of him being the MVP,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said of Davis.

The nature of New Orleans’ injuries have particularly harmed Davis. Nate Robinson, Ish Smith, Norris Cole, Tyreke Evans and Jrue Holiday have started at point guard. Evans is now out for the season, and Holiday has mostly come off the bench and is just starting to play more than limited minutes. The upheaval and lack of talent at point guard matters greatly to Davis, who – for a player of his caliber – still struggles to create his own shot.

Davis has had 73.8% of his field goals assisted this season, by far the most among the dozen players averaging at least 22 points per game:

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The other end of New Orleans’ lineup hasn’t done Davis any favors, either.

The slender Davis gets worn down guarding bigger centers, so he has played considerable minutes with Omer Asik or Kendrick Perkins. But those two centers clog the paint offensively, making it much more difficult for Davis to score.

“He’s always playing against two guys,” Gentry said. “I’d like to see him guarded by one guy and not being double-teamed, but that’s not the case.”

Gentry has gotten Davis more one-on-one matchups by pairing him with Ryan Anderson, a stretch four. But Anderson struggles defensively, putting more pressure on Davis on that end.

Alexis Ajinca is New Orleans’ only other big who’s a somewhat reasonable complement to Davis on both ends of the floor. But the 7-foot-2 center center has never played more than 17.0 minutes per game in a season (12.2 this year). It just doesn’t seem he can handle a heavy workload at his size.

To be fair, it’s also difficult to find players who can both defend big centers and space the floor. That skill set puts a player on a fast track to stardom, and stars don’t come easy.

New Orleans’ record will also likely hurt him in the eyes of All-NBA voters, who often – somewhat logically, somewhat as a crutch – rely on team success when assessing individual accolades.

Whether due to injuries or roster construction, the Pelicans just haven’t positioned Davis to succeed at peak levels this season. On a superficial level, that works against Davis. But consider another point of view: He’s still incredibly productive despite these setbacks. Imagine how well he’d play in a better situation.

But Davis insists he’s thinking about none of this – the shortcomings around him, potential politicking for postseason honors or the massive payoff that could come soon.

“If you go out there and do what you’re supposed to do,” Davis said, “everything will find a way to work out.”

Timberwolves head into offseason in need of healing, with big decisions looming

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Another season of setback and tumult has mercifully ended for the Minnesota Timberwolves, this time in the strangest of ways after the NBA’s decision to resume virus-halted play with 22 teams.

The revelation of the makeshift plan immediately put the Timberwolves, who finished 19-45 for the third-worst record in the league, in offseason mode after nearly three months in limbo while the world wrestled with the COVID-19 pandemic and all NBA arenas went dark.

There was no arguing from Minnesota, where the 18 games remaining on the original schedule before the shutdown would have had little benefit as long as star center Karl-Anthony Towns was sidelined with a wrist injury.

“While we are disappointed for our team and our fans that our season is coming to an end, we understand and accept the league’s plan to move forward with 22 teams. It is important that we be a good teammate not only to the NBA, but to the other 29 teams to support the efforts to complete this season and prepare for next season in a healthy and safe manner,” president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas said on Thursday after the league’s announcement.

Whether due to injuries or trades, the repeated disruptions during the season made the assessment of 34-year-old head coach Ryan Saunders difficult. First-timers aren’t typically hired without at least some commitment from the franchise to patience, but the Wolves are 36-70 under Saunders since he replaced the fired Tom Thibodeau halfway through the 2018-19 season. No NBA jobs are ever guaranteed.

Rosas, in his season-ending statement distributed by the team, appeared to apply some pressure on what will be for the Timberwolves a critical summer – and fall, since the draft has been pushed back to Oct. 15. Rosas promised an “intensive and thorough” program to help make up for the time lost to the shutdown. He also said Saunders and the rest of the staff would be “creative, aggressive and proactive” in approaching team building and player development in the meantime.

Here are some other key angles to follow as the offseason unfolds:

HEALING FIRST: Before the Timberwolves embark on the free agency and trading period, and enter the draft with two first-round selections, they could use some time simply for healing.

The city of Minneapolis became the epicenter for a nationwide wave of protest, anger and destruction after the death on May 25 of George Floyd, the black man who was handcuffed and pinned to the street by a white police officer who pressed his knee to Floyd’s neck until and after he stopped breathing. Since then, Saunders and guard Josh Okogie have been particularly outspoken on the issue of racial justice, and they joined on Friday a group spearheaded by Minnesota Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph to distribute essential goods to community members in need in front of a grocery store that was vandalized, looted and burned last week during the worst of the violence.

All this came after the organization was mourning the loss Jacqueline Cruz-Towns, the mother of Towns who died of complications from COVID-19 on April 13.

WHEELING AND DEALING: Rosas proved in his first year on the job that he could swiftly and thoroughly change the roster, making four trades in the span of less than a month that fetched nine new players and dealt nine others elsewhere, not to mention the draft picks that swapped hands. That was more than half of the roster. The linchpin of the early February activity was D'Angelo Russell, who was acquired in a deal with Golden State that sent former cornerstone Andrew Wiggins packing.

BETTER WITH BEASLEY?: The pairing of Towns and Russell gave Rosas the potential star duo he sought. Shooting guard Malik Beasley was another key acquisition during the flurry of activity, should the Timberwolves decide to keep him. The 23-year-old averaged 20.7 points in 14 games.

“We’re big fans of Malik. We tried hard. We paid a very, very strong premium to get him here in Minnesota, but we’re excited,” Rosas said.

WHAT’S NEXT: There are six players on the roster whose contracts are set to expire, with Beasley, power forward Juancho Hernangomez and power forward James Johnson the most notable.

Johnson, who at 33 is the oldest on the team, had a productive 14-game stretch after arriving from Miami during the trading spree. He has a player option he can exercise for about $16 million next season. Hernangomez, who is only 24, will be an unrestricted free agent. The 6-foot-9, 220-pound native of Spain averaged 12.9 points in 14 games with the Wolves, after coming with Beasley in the deal with Denver.

Jonathan Isaac, Al-Farouq Aminu not expected to be back for Magic when games restart

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Jonathan Isaac was having a breakout season for Orlando. He had become a go-to defensive stopper for the Magic, a long, athletic, switchable defender averaging 2.4 blocks and 1.6 steals a game. He was going to get All-Defensive team votes this season and looked like a future Defensive Player of the Year candidate. (On offense he’s averaged 12 points and 6.9 rebounds a game, both career bests, but he is still a project.)

He hyperextended his knee and suffered a bone bruise in January, but it looks like neither he nor veteran Al-Farouq Aminu (torn meniscus) will be on the court for the Magic when games restart in July, reports Roy Parry of the Orlando Sentinel.

Injured forwards Jonathan Isaac (knee) and Al-Farouq Aminu (knee) most likely will not be healthy enough to return…

“Not a whole lot of news there,” [Magic president of basketball operations Jeff] Weltman said when asked about the possibility of Isaac or Aminu returning. “As always, we’re going to wait and see how they respond to rehab. They’re both working very hard.

“There’s a difference of being healthy and then being safely healthy. It will have been a long, long time since those guys played and you know organizationally that we’re never going to put our guys in a position where they’re exposed to any sort of risk of injury. So that being said, we’ll just continue to see how they progress.”

Put plainly, the risk is not worth the reward. Isaac is a key part of what the Magic want to build in the future and they do not want to push him too hard to return for this handful of games.

Come July, the Magic will head down the street to the Walt Disney World resort complex in Orlando as the eighth seed in the East with a 5.5 game lead over the ninth-seeded Wizards (who will not have John Wall back). If Washington can close that gap to four games or fewer during the eight “seeding games,” then there will be a two-game play-in series between the teams, with the Magic just needing to win one of the two to advance (assuming they are still the eight seed).

After that, it’s on to the first round of the playoffs and the Milwaukee Bucks.

Isaac’s defense would be helpful against Bradley Beal and/or Giannis Antetokounmpo, but the Magic are thinking bigger picture.

Winning percentage will determine final seedings in NBA restart; regular tiebreakers used

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Heading into the NBA’s restart in Orlando, the Trail Blazers are the nine seed in the West, followed by the Pelicans and Kings. All three of those teams are 3.5 games back of Memphis for the eighth seed, however, Portland gets the nine seed because it played two more games than either New Orleans and Sacramento, went 1-1 in those two games, and that gives Portland a slightly better winning percentage (.439 to .438).

That winning percentage matters because it’s how the league will determine seeding in a situation where teams have played a different number of games, reports Tim Bontemps of ESPN.

In practical terms, this may not matter much.

In the West, if Portland and New Orleans both went 8-0 in the seeding games then winning percentage would play a role with the Blazers getting the higher seed. However, that scenario is highly unlikely. More likely is wins and losses in Orlando will decide this and other tiebreakers (New Orleans beat Sacramento in their one head-to-head meeting, but our projected schedule for those teams has them playing twice, so the head-to-head tiebreaker is still up in the air). Because of how the records shake out, tiebreakers are irrelevant to Portland — it will not tie any teams, winning percentage will decide their seed.

In the East, winning percentage is irrelevant for the playoff chase — either Washington gets within four games of Orlando hand forces play-in games for the final playoff spot, or it doesn’t and Orlando is in.

Eight teams not headed to Orlando considering mini-camps, summer games to help players

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Nine months is a long time to go without playing a basketball game.

That’s what the eight teams not going to the NBA season restart in Orlando — Atlanta, Charlotte, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Golden State, Minnesota, and New York — face. And for all of those teams except the Warriors, developing young players to be the future core of the franchise is their goal, and no games from March to December will set that effort back.

Which is why the teams are talking about “mini-camps” — think college spring football — with two teams at least playing each other during those camps, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Among the front-office ideas presented to the NBA, sources said:

• A combination of voluntary and mandatory workouts for two weeks in July.
• Regional minicamps in August that include joint practices for a period of days and approximately three televised games.

Those teams also want other “voluntary” team workouts and to start their training camps for next season earlier than the teams headed to Orlando.

The NBA isn’t going to grant teams everything on their wish list, but there should be some allowance for organized mini-camps and scrimmages/exhibitions. This would be particularly important to New York (and maybe Chicago), where a new coach will be installing a new system and trying to start a new culture.

Those eight teams missed out on 17 or so “meaningless” games with their season put on hold, games that would have meant something in terms of developing young players and giving guys key minutes. The league should — and almost certainly will — take steps to allow those off-season camps and scrimmages, helping teams get their player development programs back on track.