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Free Agency Preview: Top 10 restricted free agents

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Jeremy Lin. Isaiah Thomas. Chandler Parsons.

All good players, albeit with flaws, but ones teams saw as potentially part of the long-term future for their teams. However, when they came up as a restricted free agent another team valued them more, came in with a big offer, and the team where they had been playing chose not to match it. That’s how Dallas snatched Parsons away from the Houston, while Houston did the same thing to get Lin from New York. Kings fans loved second-round pick Isaiah Thomas but team management wasn’t willing to pay to keep him.

This is what restricted free agency is: First round picks with enough flaws they and the team couldn’t reach a deal on an extension, or a second round pick or undrafted player who had a team option on the end of their contract.

The team that has the player’s rights can keep him — they have the right to match any offer. That’s why it’s restricted. Just sometimes they do not.

Who are the guys at the top of the restricted free agency food chain? Here’s our list. (Note, come back tomorrow for our list of the top unrestricted free agents, such as LeBron James and Chris Paul.)

1. Clint Capela (Houston Rockets). Rockets Grand Poobah Daryl Morey has made it clear he will match any offer and bring Capela back — as he should. Capela averaged 13.9 points, and 10.8 rebounds a game (with a 24.5 PER), plus was a crucial part of the Rockets starting lineup and switching defense (because he can handle himself on the perimeter fairly well, plus protect the rim). The Rockets were 4 points per 100 better with him on the floor, and he was a big part of their playoff run. He’s going to get near a max salary and while there are certainly other teams that would like him (he’d be a perfect fit in Dallas) the Rockets will match anything and keep him in-house.

2. Aaron Gordon (Orlando Magic). There are times Gordon looks like a sure-fire franchise cornerstone player (usually the first half of the season), the prototype modern NBA four. Then there are times he looks pedestrian. Last season before the All-Star Game, Gordon averaged 18.4 points per game, hitting 34.6 percent from three and with a true shooting percentage of 54.7 (above the league average). Then after the All-Star break he had his problem with his shot, scoring 16 a night, hitting 31.6 percent from three and a 49.3 true shooting percentage. He can defend the three but performs offensively better as a four. Talking to teams around the league, they expect the Magic will match any offer, but another team who believes in the high-flying Gordon may try to poach him with a max deal (it would probably take that to get Orlando to balk, and the new management team may well match that anyway).

3. Julius Randle (Los Angeles Lakers). The Lakers like Julius Randle and how he’s developed into a bull of a player — he’s strong, attacks the basket, and can be the definition of “bully ball” as he pushes his way to the rim. Randle averaged 16.1 points and 8 rebounds a game last season, with an efficient PER of 19.9. He’s also a guy a number of teams are eyeing because they think he can be gotten — if the Lakers spend their cap space on two max free agents (which is the goal, landing both LeBron and Paul George) then they will not have the money to match an offer to Randle. Dallas has been linked to him, but they are looking at bigger name targets and may only come around on Randle if they strike out there; however, other teams could come in quicker with a Randle offer to try to force the Lakers’ hand (Indiana?).

4. Marcus Smart (Boston Celtics). The definition of the kind of player with flaws who ends up on the restricted free agency list: Smart is one of the better defensive two guards in the NBA, he can cover point guards and wings with anybody. He can switch, he plays with a high motor and gets loose balls, he can get steals. But on the other end of the court, you can help off him and not guard him on the perimeter, daring him to shoot. Boston values him in the $12-$14 million a year range, he thinks he deserves more than that. If another team agrees with him and comes in with a big offer in the higher teens, it will be interesting to see if Danny Ainge lets a key emotional part of his young team walk.

5. Fred VanVleet (Toronto Raptors). He just came in third in the Sixth Man of the Year voting because he was the face and emotional leader of the best bench unit in the NBA last season. VanVleet has said he wants to return to Toronto, and Raptors head man Masai Ujiri has called keeping him one of the team’s highest priorities. The question is at what price? Likely at least $10 million a year, maybe a couple million more than that. If another team comes in hot and goes higher than that the Raptors may have to rethink their position, but that’s not likely. It’s hard to picture a deal not getting done.

6. Jabari Parker (Milwaukee Bucks). Is there a team out there willing to gamble that Parker can get back to his old form? He’s an incredibly versatile scorer, but he has had two ACL surgeries now, and when Parker came back last season he was solid to good, but not the 20-point-a-game guy he had been before. That scoring made up for his poor defense in the past. The Parker/Giannis Antetokounmpo pairing is not the frontline cornerstone of the future in Milwaukee, but they would like to keep him. A number of teams, including Sacramento, have been linked to him, but to get him away from the Bucks a team is going to have to come in with a big offer. That money may not be out there for Parker right now.

7. Zach LaVine (Chicago Bulls). He’s got a world of potential, but his game is based on athleticism and he is coming off an ACL surgery, then had to be shut down last season with knee tendonitis. If he can get back to his old form and improve his defense, LaVine would be one of the better young two-guards in the league, a guy Chicago wanted in the Jimmy Butler trade. But will he? The injury and questions may keep teams from coming in with the max or near-max offer it would likely take to poach him away from Chicago, but as teams strike out on other options it’s something to watch. Most likely LaVine and the Bulls find some middle ground and get a deal done.

8. Jusuf Nurkic (Portland Trail Blazers). For a couple of seasons now, he has been the inside to the Damian Lillard/C.J. McCollum outside in Portland, and last season he averaged 14.3 points, and 9 rebounds a game with a very efficient 19.2 PER. However, he’s not consistent, and with the growing emergence of Zach Collins the Trail Blazers may want to consider what they are willing to spend on Nurkic. That said, there are rumors around the league that Portland and Nurkic have a handshake deal in place already, it just can’t be signed until July 6. Maybe. But if a team was looking for a solid big man they could potentially steal with a healthy contract, Nurkic could suddenly find himself with options.

9. Kyle Anderson (San Antonio Spurs). “Slo-mo” is a crafty pick-and-roll ball handler and a long, switchable defender, he’s got an unorthodox game that fits well with what the Spurs will do, but would it work as well with another team? He averaged 8 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 2.7 assists this past season. Where he fits in with the Spurs ties into the bigger questions about the Spurs direction and what happens with Kawhi Leonard, but in a tight financial market is there another team that has the resources to come in hard and get Anderson? The two sides likely will work out a deal to keep him a Spur, but it’s something to watch.

10. Rodney Hood (Cleveland Cavaliers). No player has cost himself as much money in the past year as Hood. He went into last season as the expected go-to scorer of the Utah Jazz, and by the end of the season couldn’t get off the bench in Cleveland. Throw in some malcontent moments in the locker room, and teams will be hesitant. That said, 6’8” players who can score and defend are limited, so there will be interest (New Orleans is one rumor), and while the Cavaliers may want to keep him they will be focused on the LeBron situation to start free agency, and that outcome will dictate their moves after. A team may be able to slide in their and get Hood away from them.

Out of game, shoeless LeBron James waves towel on court near play (video)

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LeBron James wasn’t about that NBA-rulebook life last night.

Not only did he get away with a comically blatant travel, he – ostensibly out of the game – later wandered onto the court during play. He got pretty close to the action, waving his towel in celebration of consecutive Kyle Kuzma blocks.

And LeBron was wearing only socks on his feet. He had already given his shoes away to young fans – with 4:20 left! Sure, the Lakers were up 19 on the Jazz, but that’s a lot of time remaining. What a kind and totally disrespectful gesture, a real do-it-all move.

Restless-late-in-a-blowout LeBron is the best LeBron.

Three Things to Know: Lakers make defensive statement in back-to-back road wins

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Lakers make a defensive statement in back-to-back road wins in Denver, Utah. After winning 10 games in a row against the softest part of their schedule, the calendar flipping to December was supposed to start a real test for the Lakers. No more playing hard for 24 minutes and getting a victory, no more sloppy quarters leading to a comeback win — the Dallas Mavericks made that clear on Sunday.

Los Angeles answered that with back-to-back road wins where their defense — led by Anthony Davis — shut down the Nuggets and Jazz. Through the two games, the Lakers allowed less than a point per possession (96.5 defensive net rating total), including holding Donovan Mitchell and Utah to 96 points (and a 97 net rating) on the second night of a back-to-back. The Jazz shot just 41 percent as a team for the game.

Mitchell, who has played at an All-Star level this season, scored 29 but on 11-of-24 shooting — the Laker defense made him work for his buckets. (Bojan Bogdanovic had another strong game for the Jazz with six threes, he has been the Utah summer signing that has worked out well.)

Los Angeles led struggling Utah by 18 at the half and cruised to a 121-96 win. In what looked like a scheduled loss before the season — the second night of a back-to-back at altitude against a good team — never felt in doubt as Davis had 26 points and LeBron James 20 and 12 assists.

The only drama was that LeBron got away with a blatant and hilarious travel and double dribble in the first quarter, one the officials somehow missed.

After the game LeBron owned it, via Dave McMenamin of ESPN.

“It was the worst thing, probably one of the worst things I’ve ever done in my career,” James said after the game… “I didn’t realize I did it until halftime. One of my coaches showed me.”

Coming into the season there were questions about how good the Lakers’ defense was going to be, with coach Frank Vogel wanting to play two bigs and more of a drop-back style of defense. That’s the style Vogel used with success back in Indiana (with peak Roy Hibbert protecting the paint) and has become in vogue again in the NBA. That includes in Utah, where Rudy Gobert has won back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year awards because he owns the paint but also because of his length and mobility tp contest and cause problems out on the perimeter.

Davis has done exactly that for the Lakers this season.

It was most evident late in the game against Denver Tuesday. On one fourth quarter play big man Nikola Jokic tried to back down Davis, put on a move and score in the post and AD just stuff blocked him. A couple of possessions later, Davis got switched onto quick guard Jamal Murray on consecutive plays and forced him into a couple of bad shots that missed.

Stretches like that are the reason the Lakers’ have the fourth-ranked defense in the NBA this season — and it is their defense that has them looking like legit title contenders. Davis is at the heart of it, although both Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee have used their mobility to be surprisingly good defenders who can contest at the arc and get back to protect the rim.

Davis’ performance has the Lakers already campaigning for him to win Defensive Player of the Year (and some in the Lakers’ media core seem eager to promote that idea). We’re just a quarter of the way into the season, and this award is one that has to be earned over a much longer stretch of ground. There are no actual frontrunners yet, and players like Gobert, the Bucks’ Greek Freak, and Boston’s Marcus Smart — among others — will be in the middle of any conversation down the line.

But make no mistake, the Lakers defense and Davis are for real. They made a statement about that the past couple of nights — and showed why their defense could carry them to a parade in June.

2) Blake Griffin steps over Giannis Antetokounmpo and tempers flare. There wasn’t much drama in the game itself between the Bucks and Pistons on Wednesday — Milwaukee blew the doors off Detroit and never looked back.

Any drama came in the third quarter when Antetokounmpo tried to back down Griffin on the left block, Detroits Bruce Brown came over to double and fouled the Greek Freak, who fell to the floor. Then Griffin stepped over him.

Khris Middleton ran over to get in Griffin’s face about the disrespect and then… well, a lot of words were exchanged. Nothing else. The officials reviewed the play, and both Brown and Middleton ended up getting technical fouls.

That’s the most drama there was in Detroit Wednesday. Antetokounmpo scored 35 points and the Bucks won by 24, extending their win streak to 13.

3) Houston “leaning toward” protesting loss to Spurs over missed James Harden dunk call. That will fail, too. Let’s start with the obvious: The referees missed the call on James Harden’s fourth-quarter dunk against the Spurs Tuesday night. The basket should have counted, and after the game the officials admitted they missed the call.

The league’s response to this has been the same as when it says officials missed a call in the Last Two-Minute reports: be transparent about it but nothing changes. Missed calls are part of the game.

The Rockets are now leaning toward filing a protest of the game, according to multiple reports. We’ll see if they actually go through with it (this could be a lot of noise to make their star happy). If the Rockets do file a protest, it probably fails, too, but from the Rockets’ perspective it at least forces the league to rule on the issue.

First things first: The idea put forward that the league would step in and overturn the game outcome and just hand the Rockets a win was — to use the word of some around the league (not directly involved in the case) — “absurd.” The league would never do that. Let us never speak of that idiocy again.

The Rockets’ protest — if they actually file it — is a longshot. The bar is incredibly high. A successful protest requires proof of a  misapplication of a rule that seriously inhibited Houston’s chance to win a game. Meaning, just saying the crew got the call wrong is not enough. Houston’s protest would hinge on the idea that coach Mike D’Antoni wasn’t given a fair chance to protest the call because of how the referee crew handled the situation. The lead official said after the game D’Antoni didn’t call for a coach’s challenge within 30 seconds, as the rule demands, so there could be no challenge to the call.

The Rockets have a point here. We can be honest and say the referee crew should have handled this better.

However, remember the bar for a protest is the misapplication of a rule that seriously inhibited Houston’s chance to win a game. Back in 2008, the league ordered the Hawks and Heat to replay the final 51.9 seconds of a game because the scorer’s table incorrectly said Shaq had fouled out of the game and forced him to sit when in reality he had just five fouls. That scorers’ table error could have changed the end of a game. In the Rockets case, the referees missed a call but proving the referees misapplied the challenge rule and that’s why the Rockets lost (in a game with nearly 8 minutes left) is a tough sell.

We’ll see if Houston goes through and files this, or if all the bluster is just a PR move to keep an angry Harden happy and show they have his back.

Giannis Antetokounmpo scores 35, Bucks’ winning streak reaches 13 with rout of Pistons

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DETROIT (AP) — Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 35 points to lift the Milwaukee Bucks to their 13th consecutive victory, 127-103 over the Detroit Pistons on Wednesday night.

The last time the Bucks had a longer winning streak than this was when they won 16 in a row spanning the end of the 1972-73 season and the beginning of 1973-74. They also had a 13-game run shortly after that 16-game streak ended.

Milwaukee had won its previous two games by 41 and 44 points, and the Pistons had won their previous two by 34 and 33. This one wasn’t close either. The Bucks have dominated Detroit of late.

Milwaukee won all eight matchups with the Pistons last season – four in the regular season and four in the first round of the playoffs. The Bucks also beat Detroit last month in their first meeting of 2019-20.

The Bucks went on a 13-2 run late in the second quarter to lead 57-39, and although Detroit closed within 11 at the half, the Pistons never made a major run during the final two quarters. Antetokounmpo scored 12 points in the third quarter, and Milwaukee led 92-72 after three.

Andre Drummond had 23 points and 14 rebounds for Detroit. That included a monster dunk over the Greek Freak.

Khris Middleton had 17 points for the Bucks.

There were six technical fouls in the game, and there were words exchanged during a couple mild altercations. The first involved Antetokounmpo and Detroit’s Blake Griffin after those two collided around midcourt in the second quarter.

In the third quarter, Antetokounmpo fell to the ground after being fouled, and then Griffin stepped over him. Middleton came over to confront Griffin. Three technicals were assessed after that.

 

LeBron James blatantly, obviously travels, referees miss it and don’t make call

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Another day, another “how did they miss that?” call in the NBA. At least this one is not going to lead to a protest.

LeBron James blatantly traveled when bringing the ball up the court during the first quarter against the Jazz, and the officials completely missed it.

There was a double-dribble in there by LeBron, too, if we’re going to be sticklers for the rules. Which clearly we are not.

After the game LeBron owned it, via Dave McMenamin of ESPN.

“It was the worst thing, probably one of the worst things I’ve ever done in my career,” James said after the game… “I didn’t realize I did it until halftime. One of my coaches showed me.”

The reaction of Bojan Bogdanovic is maybe my favorite part, he’s incredulous.

This play did not impact the game, the Lakers ran away from Jazz early and went on to win 121-96 behind 26 points from Anthony Davis.