NBA free agency winners and losers (plus some teams on the bubble)

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We’ve reached the point in the summer where the big move are made, and now teams are mostly just rounding out their rosters. There could still be a Carmelo Anthony trade, or maybe an unexpected shoe drops, but rosters are basically set now.

Who won the summer? Who lost? Let’s take a look at the list.

Winner: Oklahoma City Thunder. One year ago Kevin Durant walked, and despite the contract extension last summer and the MVP this summer, the risk of Russell Westbrook following him out the door in 2018 was real enough that OKC needed to do something bold. Such as trade for Paul George. It was a master stroke by Sam Presti that should vault Oklahoma City into the top half of the West. The Thunder made good moves in the rest of the rotation, too, bringing back Andre Roberson and getting Patrick Patterson on a steal of a deal. The risk here is that George is a free agent next summer with eyes on the Lakers, and Westbrook has not signed an extension past this season (there’s no reason for him to, he doesn’t make more money sooner doing it) — both could walk next summer. Still, it’s a gamble the Thunder had to take, because if those two bond and thrive, if this team wins enough, they both might stay. It’s all a roll of the dice by the Thunder, but a good one.

Winner: Minnesota Timberwolves. Tom Thibodeau is in a distinctly good mood walking around Las Vegas Summer League — and he should be. With the addition Jimmy Butler at the two, plus adding Jeff Teague, Taj Gibson, and Jamal Crawford, the Timberwolves have gone from “we’re going to be good in a few years” to “we’re going to be a playoff team next season and potentially a contender in a couple of years.” Minnesota still has the borderline All-NBA big man Karl-Anthony Towns, who is still improving, and Andrew Wiggins. They need to start thinking about affording this all when Towns and Wiggins come off their rookie deals, but the Timberwolves are poised to be a force.

Loser: New York Knicks. There was a positive: They dumped Phil Jackson before he could ruin the team’s free agent summer. That should make the relationship with face-of-the-franchise Kristaps Porzingis better. However, turns out the Knicks didn’t need Jackson to have a bad summer. If an owner is going to let go of the guy at the top of basketball operations days before free agency starts, he had better have a quality “Plan B” in place and ready to go. New York eventually talked to David Griffin about coming on board, but he wisely wanted his own people in place and full autonomy over the roster, and the Knicks balked at that so he walked away. Steve Mills has stepped into the top job, and his one big move was to overpay to get Tim Hardaway Jr. — four years, $71 million for a guy who can shoot, but is not a good shot creator for others and is a minus defensively. In a tight market, they overpaid. The Knicks are adrift and trying to trade Carmelo Anthony, but finding that a challenge (Houston still is there, but the Rockets don’t want to give back much as they want to contend). I feel bad for Knicks fans, it’s hard to see how they get out of this cycle.

On the bubble: The Los Angeles Clippers. Normally if the team’s best player leaves, that team falls instantly into the loser’s bracket — and the Clippers lost Chris Paul to the Rockets. But Los Angeles salvaged their summer somewhat by keeping their talisman player in Blake Griffin, trading for Danilo Gallinari, and doing better than anyone should have hoped in a shotgun trade with Houston (Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell are good young rotation players, plus Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams can help right now). If Griffin and Gallinari can stay healthy for 70+ games each (no given), Los Angeles should be in the mix for one of the final playoff slots in the West. From there, they can start to formulate how to rebuild on the fly, but they will not bottom out.

Winner: Gordon Hayward and the Celtics. It’s almost always smart business to zig when everyone else zags — while much of the talent in the NBA went west to line up against the Warriors, Hayward went East, joined up with the Celtics and will go at LeBron James and the Cavaliers (a team showing cracks in the walls). For Hayward, he made the bold and smart basketball move. For the Celtics, they got their man and with Isaiah Thomas and Al Horford on the roster, plus the emerging Jaylen Brown and rookie Jayson Tatum (both who have looked good in Summer League), the Celtics are poised to be a threat to Cleveland this year and be the team to beat in the East in a couple of years. It’s not hard to picture a Boston/Minnesota Finals in our future in a few years.

Winner: The Trail Blazers’ Twitter Account. These remain still the best Tweets of the Summer, after the Blazers’ were involved in a trade where they got cash back.

Loser: Dan Gilbert, Cavaliers owner. The Cavaliers themselves are not losers — they will bring back the best team in the East from last season, and while Boston got better much fo the rest of the conference got weaker, setting up a chance to get LeBron James and an older roster to get rest and peak during the playoffs. But Gilbert’s unwillingness to pay the going rate — and give reasonable autonomy — to one of the better GMs in the game in David Griffin hurt his team this summer and opened the door further to the best player in the game leaving in a year. Griffin talked to Chauncey Billups, a guy who will be a team president somewhere in the future, but again he lowballed him on pay and Billups wasn’t sold on the working environment. Sense a pattern here? There are cracks in the walls in Cleveland, and it all falls right at the feet of Dan Gilbert.

On the bubble: Sacramento Kings. The Kings summer was not a disaster — they brought in George Hill, Zach Randolph, and Vince Carter to mentor an interesting group of youth such as De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Heild, Skal Labissiere, Willie Cauley-Stein, and Justin Jackson. With that, the Kings are not going to be one of the worst teams in the NBA and they have good role models in house. It’s also not what I would have done because, first, they are not going to make the playoffs with this team in a deep West. For me, one veteran or so makes sense, but I would have played the kids heavy minutes this season and taken the losses because they have their 2018 first-round pick (but not 2019), preserve the cap space, then go into what will be a much tighter free agent market next summer and get veterans. That would have required patience that the Kings rarely show. And all that said, what the Kings did this summer was not a disaster, they will be okay.

Winner: James Harden and the Rockets. I can give you 228 million reasons James Harden is a winner. The man got paid — and he deserves it. Also, you have to love what the Rockets did getting Chris Paul and starting the Game of Thrones rush in the West. It’s fair to question how CP3 and Harden will mesh, or how much better Carmelo Anthony would make them, but the bottom line is this was one of the four best teams in the NBA last season and they added Chris Paul. The Rockets may be next in line for the throne in the West (should the Warriors stumble for whatever reason), and that’s a good place to be.

Winner: Golden State Warriors. I don’t love putting the defending NBA champs and head-and-shoulders best team in the league on this list, it’s just the rich getting richer, but I have no choice. They killed the off-season. They locked up Stephen Curry. They retained Kevin Durant — and he took $9.5 million less than his potential max, the Warriors also were able to retain Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, David West, and Zaza Pachulia. To that they added a good draft pick in Jordan Bell, a shooter in Nick Young (who could blossom there ala JaVale McGee), and they stole underrated Omri Casspi, who fits perfectly into their style. The Warriors just keep doing things right.

On the bubble: New Orleans Pelicans. Their one big move was expected: they overpaid Jrue Holiday to keep him in house. They had no choice, they didn’t have the cap space to replace him. This team is going to make the playoffs in a deep West — and keep DeMarcus Cousins next summer as a free agent — or there is going to be a top-to-bottom house cleaning in basketball operations. The entire organization seems to be acting like it’s on pins and needles. It all comes down to how the gambit of pairing Anthony Davis and Cousins works out (and plenty of people around the league are not sold it will).

Loser: Utah Jazz. It pains me to put them here because they did everything right, it just wasn’t enough. They lost Gordon Hayward and will take a step back. Utah is not terrible and has pieces to retool around — Rudy Gobert remains one of the best centers in the game, guys like Alec Burks and Rodney Hood are good, and Ricky Rubio can run the show — but it’s all not the same without Hayward.

Winner: Denver Nuggets. This team just missed out on the playoffs a year ago, mostly because their defense wasn’t good enough, then they went out and traded out Danilo Gallinari for Paul Millsap — an upgrade, far more durable, and a guy who will give them something on defense. They have a quality young core with Nikola Jokic (why have they not locked him up with an extension yet?), Jamal Murray and others, and the Nuggets look like a playoff team if healthy. After the disastrous Brian Shaw years, the Nuggets have rebuilt their team culture and roster into something quite good.

Nets GM says he’s unsure if Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving would return for playoffs (don’t bet on it)

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The idle hands of time forced by the NBA’s coronavirus hiatus has lead to everything from conspiracy theories to outright fantasies about the future of the NBA when play returns.

One of the favorites: the delay allows Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving to return when the NBA playoffs start, and the Brooklyn Nets become the most dangerous seven seed ever and a potential contender.

When asked about that idea Wednesday in a conference call, Brooklyn GM Sean Marks took the diplomatic “there’s no way we can know” approach.

If you’re reading this, seeing the odds of the Nets as 66-1 as NBA champions and thinking “that’s not a bad bet” let me help you out:

Save your money. Spend it on a takeout dinner from a struggling local restaurant, that will help far more people than giving away your money to a casino. Marks saying it’s too early to tell is the GM being diplomatic and deferential to his stars. They are not returning this year, something NBC Sports has heard from sources, plus it just makes sense. Let’s get into why.

The second part of that Tweet, the idea that rehab has been slowed a little because of facilities being closed, is one reason not to expect KD and Irving.

That ties into the bigger issue: Injuries often occur when players find the load on them and their activity level spiked. Sports science has shown leaps in stress levels on muscles leads to fatigue and more injuries, that returns need to be ramped up slowly (why you see minutes limits on guys when they first come back). Durant and Irving are the faces of the Nets franchise and they need both of them to be contenders. So are the Nets going to take those guys, who have missed extended time due to injuries, and throw them straight into an NBA playoff game with that intensity? Let’s politely say that kind of return has not worked well for Durant in the past. Two weeks or so of a condensed training camp will not be enough to have them ready for playoff basketball.

On another note, Marks said the suspension of the league also has brought to a stop the Nets search for their next head coach after Kenny Atkinson was let go.

The front office will pick the next coach, but if that “blue chip, veteran” coach does not get a thumbs up from Durant and Irving, the interview is over.

Regional TV challenges with moving NBA season to a mid-December start

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Before the COVID-19 pandemic forced the NBA to think about playing games deep into the summer, that idea was already on the table. At the Sloan Sports Analytic Conference hosted by MIT, Atlanta Hawks CEO Steve Koonin proposed moving the NBA to a mid-December start. Essentially, Koonin wants to move the entire NBA schedule back by two months. Currently the NBA regular season starts in mid-October.

Koonin’s idea is to move away from the NFL season as much as possible. He said at the time “Relevance equals revenue. We’ve got to create the most relevance, and the revenue will fix itself.”

Under Koonin’s proposal, the NBA schedule would tip-off in mid-December and the NBA Finals would wrap up in August. Koonin’s hope is that with less competition from the NFL, the NBA ratings would go up. He said “A big piece is you don’t have to reinvent the wheel to enhance ratings. Sometimes, moving away from competition is a great way to grow ratings.”

This is far from the first time a proposal has been floated to move the start of the NBA season. Many suggest that casual fans don’t really care about the NBA until Christmas anyway. That’s when the NFL season is winding down and the NCAA football season is just about wrapped up. Currently, the NBA season overlaps with the NFL season, including the NFL playoffs, by three-and-a-half months from mid-October through January.

The NBA, and the NHL, have the winter months of February and March mostly to themselves. In mid-March, the NCAA gets the shine for the NCAA Tournament, but that’s only for a few days a week.

Starting in late-March/early-April, the NBA shares the sports calendar with MLB. Baseball’s Opening Day usually comes two-to-three weeks ahead of the NBA Playoffs.

By getting clear of the NFL, the NBA avoids a ratings monster that now dominates Sundays, Monday nights and Thursday nights. In addition, the NBA would avoid college football’s foothold on Saturdays. Overlapping more with the less-popular MLB could give the NBA a ratings boost.

Yet, it’s with MLB that a seemingly overlooked challenge lies for pushing back the NBA schedule.

While the focus generally lies on the NBA’s nationally televised games on ABC, ESPN and TNT, the vast majority of games are broadcast on regional sports networks or RSN’s. The national TV contracts pull in billions of dollars to be sure, but the RSN deals make up a big portion of the television pie as well.

When you remove games broadcast on NBATV, which usually pick up an RSN feed, the best NBA teams generally play between 20 and 30 games on national TV. That leaves over 50 games to be broadcast by the RSN. And those RSN’s pay tens of millions of dollars to do so.

Unfortunately for the NBA, many of those RSN’s pay tens of millions to also broadcast games for the region’s MLB team as well.

As of the 2020, here are the markets that share an RSN for both NBA and MLB games:

  • Atlanta Hawks and Atlanta Braves – Fox Sports South/Fox Sports Southeast
  • Brooklyn Nets and New York Yankees – YES Network
  • Charlotte Hornets and Atlanta Braves – Fox Sports Southeast
  • Chicago Bulls and Chicago White Sox – NBC Sports Chicago
  • Cleveland Cavaliers, Cleveland Indians and Cincinnati Reds – Fox Sports Ohio
  • Dallas Mavericks and Texas Rangers – Fox Sports Southwest
  • Detroit Pistons and Detroit Tigers – Fox Sports Detroit
  • Golden State Warriors and San Francisco Giants – NBC Sports Bay Area
  • Houston Rockets and Houston Astros – AT&T SportsNet Southwest
  • Los Angeles Clippers and Los Angeles Angels – Fox Sports Prime Ticket/Fox Sports West
  • Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Dodgers – Spectrum SportsNet
  • Memphis Grizzlies and Atlanta Braves – Fox Sports Southeast
  • Miami Heat and Tampa Rays – Fox Sports Sun
  • Milwaukee Bucks and Milwaukee Brewers – Fox Sports Wisconsin
  • Minnesota Timberwolves and Minnesota Twins – Fox Sports North
  • Orlando Magic and Miami Marlins – Fox Sports Florida
  • Philadelphia 76ers and Philadelphia Phillies – NBC Sports Philadelphia
  • Phoenix Suns and Arizona Diamondbacks – Fox Sports Arizona
  • Sacramento Kings and Oakland A’s – NBC Sports California
  • San Antonio Spurs and Texas Rangers – Fox Sports Southwest
  • Toronto Raptors and Toronto Blue Jays – Sportsnet
  • Utah Jazz and Colorado Rockies – AT&T SportsNet Rocky Mountain

All told, only eight NBA franchises don’t share an RSN with an MLB team.

It’s not a challenge for RSN to move a handful of games to an alternate channel for a handful of weeks in late-March/early-April. In addition, the early part of the baseball season regularly features day games that wrap hours in advance of the NBA game that evening.

When you start talking about RSN’s choosing how to handle months of overlap, months that baseball has had to themselves for years, things get messy. Not every television provider offers the alternate channels. Some contracts have specific language on when, if and how often their games can be bumped.

Moving the NBA calendar to run December-August vs October-June has a lot of pitfalls. It will involve negotiation between the NBA and NBPA as well. Some prominent players, like Damian Lillard, don’t like the idea of giving up the warm summer months to play basketball. You also have the challenge of attendance in arenas during the nicest parts of the year weather-wise. Some fans may not want to be inside on beautiful spring and summer evenings.

However, this will ultimately come down to TV and their money. And the RSN’s will have just as large a say in that process as the major networks.

Mark Cuban backs off belief NBA season could resume in mid-May

Mavericks owner Mark Cuban
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Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has backed off his belief that the NBA season could resume in mid-May. In appearance on ESPN’s Get Up, Cuban said, “I have no idea” when the NBA could resume the 2019-20 season.

Last month Cuban said he thought a return to play could happen as soon as mid-May. That timeline likely included the NBA Finals being played in late-July, after the two-month suspension of play.

Cuban’s Mavericks were on the verge of making the NBA playoffs. That would have been the Mavs first postseason appearance after a three-year absence. Dallas hasn’t advanced out of the first round since winning the NBA championship in 2011.

Cuban also added about returning to play: “I mean, I haven’t had any conversations where anybody discusses an actual date.”

The NBA season has been suspended since Wednesday, March 11. That night games in Oklahoma City and Sacramento were postponed after players and officials were tested for coronavirus. The league was already prepared to play games without fans present, but suspended operations after positive COVID-19 tests.

Four Nets players who tested positive for COVID-19 showing no symptoms

Kevin Durant
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On a conference call with the media Wednesday morning, Brooklyn Nets general manager Sean Marks shared some good news. The four Nets players who had tested positive for coronavirus are no longer showing symptoms.

Kevin Durant was one of the four Nets to come forward and say he had tested positive for COVID-19. Durant said at the time that he was feeling fine, but this report clarifies that he’s now clear of symptoms. Durant has been out for the entirety of the 2019-20 season as he rehabs from the torn Achilles’ he suffered during the 2019 NBA Finals.

Over a dozen NBA players tested positive for coronavirus since mid-March. About half of those players have been identified. Multiple reports have surfaced over the last two weeks of players being cleared of symptoms.

Marcus Smart of the Boston Celtics was recently cleared of COVID-19 after a positive test. Reports are that he plans to donate his blood plasma to National COVID-19 Convalescent Plasma Project for research on the blood of those recovered from coronavirus.