Free Agency Preview: Top 21 unrestricted free agents

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These are the guys everybody is talking about.

The players on the top of this list can reshape a franchise and move them into contender status. Even farther down they are players who can play critical roles for teams next season, pushing them up the ladder in the NBA.

These are the players who are true, unrestricted free agents and can go to any team that can afford to pay them. Or, they can choose to stay right where they are and make a little more money.

Here is our list of the top 21 unrestricted free agents this summer, and it starts with an obvious choice:

1. LeBron James (Cleveland Cavaliers). The biggest domino on the board, until he makes a move a lot of other decisions by teams and players will be held up. There is a lot of buzz around the league that LeBron wants to come to Los Angeles, but he doesn’t want to come alone — can the Lakers convince the Spurs to make a trade with them for Kawhi Leonard? Will Paul George come to LA with LeBron? LeBron wants assurances before he pulls the trigger, but that puts the Lakers on a tight timeline, they have to figure it out before LeBron feels compelled to turn to other options (including possibly staying in Cleveland). Until we know what happens with LeBron, a lot of other dominos will not fall.

2. Kevin Durant (Golden State Warriors). He is technically a free agent so we have to list him here, but Durant is not going anywhere, he is all in on the Warriors. Him becoming a free agent only means is he’s not taking a big discount for the team again.

3. Paul George (Oklahoma City). In Oklahoma City, they are convinced he is staying. In Los Angeles, they are convinced he is coming. George says he hopes his decision will make the most people happy, but his call may hinge what LeBron does. There is a lot of buzz he could take a one-plus-one deal with the Thunder, keeping his future options open, but Los Angeles is still on the table (with Philadelphia trying to get a foot in the door).

4. Chris Paul (Houston Rockets). CP3 is expected to stay with the Rockets, it’s all but a lock. Does Houston want to give a 33-year-old a five-year contract? Not ideally, they’d like to trim a year off that, but they will pay the price to keep him in Houston to keep a contender together.

5. DeMarcus Cousins (New Orleans). The Pelicans would like to keep him, a few teams including Dallas would like to steal him away. His decision comes down to this: how many guaranteed years will a team give Cousins coming off a torn Achilles? Will teams give him a second guaranteed year? A third if he meets minutes requirements in year two? Whoever offers the most security will land him. That’s probably the Pelicans, but after their playoff run without him they are more willing to move on if another team comes in over the top.

6. DeAndre Jordan (Los Angeles Clippers). It is possible he will not be a free agent, instead opting-in to the last year of his contract with the Clippers ($24.1 million) and then trying to force a trade. Either way, he’s likely on the move, the Clippers trading for Marcin Gortat is a sign they expect Jordan to be in a different uniform next season. However he becomes available, Jordan may be the best defensive paint protector/rim running center in the league. He needs to be paired with a strong point guard/ball handler to be the most effective, but he could help a lot of teams.

7. J.J. Redick (Philadelphia 76ers). He’s not going to get the $23 million he got last season from the Sixers, but he’s going to draw interest because he’s the kind of shooter teams could use (42 percent from three last season), he’s a tireless worker on the offensive end, a solid team defender, and the kind of professional, veteran presence teams want in the locker room. Philly wants to keep him, but the Sixers are big game hunting and may not have the money to retain him.

8. Trevor Ariza (Houston Rockets). He was a key part of Houston’s run to the Western Conference Finals, but he plans to capitalize on that and meet with multiple teams. He can shoot the three, is a versatile and switchable defender, and plays a high IQ game. There are going to be several teams interested, but his camp has denied he’s looking for $50+ million that was reported.

9. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (Los Angeles Lakers). While everyone was focused on the Lakers’ young stars, KCP was having a solid season — 13.4 points and 5.2 rebounds a game, shooting 38.7 percent from three, and playing strong defense. He took a one-year, $17.8 million contract with the Lakers hoping to show his value and get paid more (like a max) on the back end. He may not find everything he wants in this tight free agent market, but he will get paid.

10. Will Barton (Denver Nuggets). One of the better sixth men in the NBA last season (he finished fourth in the voting), he averaged 13.4 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 4 assists per game. He’s not providing much of anything on defense, but the rest of his game provides real value. He reportedly turned down four-years, $42 million before last season from the Nuggets, he will want more than that after a strong season.

11. Tyreke Evans (Memphis Grizzlies). Memphis screwed up not trading him at the deadline, now they will lose him for nothing in free agency. One of the bounce-back players of the year (and possibly a Sixth Man candidate if he had stayed healthy, he played in just 52 games), Evans averaged 19.4 points per game and had a PER of 21.1 last season. He’s going to make a lot more than the $3.3 million the Grizzlies got him for last summer when his stock was down, the question is how many years will teams offer?

12. Thaddeus Young (Indiana Pacers). He has yet to decide if he will be a free agent, opting-out of the $13.7 million he is owed next season, although he is expected to. Defensively the Pacers leaned on Young, who is long and switchable doing a good job on the perimeter. He does the little things on the court. Offensively he can finish inside and works well in transition, but his shot is inconsistent. At age 30, another guy that may struggle to get a longer-term deal from teams, but one of them will step up to try to grab him.

13. Derrick Favors (Utah Jazz). One of the more interesting free agents in that he’s not a modern NBA big — he can’t really space the floor and he isn’t a high-flying rim protector — but he has value as a big man who can do a lot of things fairly well. He can shoot from the midrange, he plays within himself, and on defense he is well positioned and can use his length and size to bother shots in the paint. Will any team value him as much as the Jazz?

14. Avery Bradley (Los Angeles Clippers). He had a down season last campaign: He didn’t fit in the Detroit offense and struggled with turnovers, then his chance to redeem himself after being traded to the Clippers was cut short by injury. He was scoring points last season, but he wasn’t efficient. Some GM is going to look past this most recent campaign and remember that a year ago Bradley was considered one of the better two-way guards in the NBA. The Clippers want him back but other teams (including the Memphis) will make a run at him.

15. Isaiah Thomas (Los Angeles Lakers). Nobody in the NBA has seen their stock fall — and lost more money — in the past year than Thomas. The Brinks truck is not backing up to his house. The combination of the hip injury/surgery that sidelined him for the first half of last season, and perceived attitude problems in Cleveland that helped lead to a trade, will have teams hesitant. That said, a year ago he was an All-NBA player, one team will take a chance he can find something close to that again. Would he accept a sixth man role?

16. Luc Mbah a Moute (Houston Rockets). He was a key part of the Rockets’ regular season defensive success — the team was 4.2 points per 100 possessions better on defense when he was on the court last season. He’s a switchable wing defender, plus he shot 36.4 percent from three. At age 31 he’s not getting a long deal, but the Rockets want to bring him back and other teams will try to steal him. Mbah a Moute will have options.

17. Rajon Rondo (New Orleans Pelicans). His play was okay during the regular season, but he picks it up in big games and the playoffs, and was an important part of the Pelicans’ late-season run. He can play with Jrue Holiday in a backcourt as needed. He still has flaws (his shot is at the top of that list) but he fits well with a playoff team looking for veteran backcourt help. He brings competitiveness and a high IQ game.

18. Dwight Howard (Charlotte Hornets/Brooklyn Nets). He’s not a free agent yet — he will get traded to Brooklyn on July 6, and the sides are already talking buyout. Most around the league expect Howard will be on the market this summer — but who is buying? He was solid for the Hornets last season averaging 16.6 points and 12.5 rebounds a night, but he’s old school wanting touches in the post, his defense isn’t what it used to be, and he hasn’t been popular with teammates in a long time. In a limited role, he could help a team, if he accepts it.

19. Wayne Ellington (Miami Heat). Every team could use more shooting, and Ellington shot 39.2 percent from three last season — he’s going to have suitors. He’s one of the best knock-down shooters in the game. The challenge is he doesn’t bring much defense, rebounding, or anything else, but if a team is looking for a sniper Ellington can be their guy.

20. Brook Lopez (Los Angeles Lakers). While we don’t think of him as a modern NBA center, he has learned to shoot the three (34.5 percent) and took 41 percent of his shots from deep last season. Plus, he’s an efficient scorer around the basket, hits the boards hard, and uses his size and length to defend the paint. He’s got value, even if his role is somewhat limited, and there will be multiple teams with interest.

21. Rudy Gay (San Antonio Spurs). He’s not the same athlete he was before his torn Achilles, but he averaged 11.5 points a game last season for the Spurs, picked his spots and shots better on offense, and played some defense. He turned down an $8.8 million player option, not sure he gets more than that next season, but a team might commit to him for more than just one season. That team may be the Spurs, who would like him back.

Watch Embiid score 47, lift 76ers past Jokic, Nuggets 126-119

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Joel Embiid won the battle of MVP candidates with 47 points and 18 rebounds as the Philadelphia 76ers extended their winning streak to seven games with a 126-119 win over Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets on Saturday.

Jokic and Embiid have finished first and second in voting for the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award over the last two seasons. Both are among the top candidates for MVP as this season hits the halfway mark, although Embiid was not named among the All-Star starters from the Eastern Conference.

“I’m used to it and it’s not the first time,” Embiid said. “I think it’s more of a motivation to go out there and try to win the whole thing. That’s the only way that I’ll get that respect.”

Jokic gave Embiid a nod for his play.

“He’s really talented,” Jokic told the Denver Post of Embiid. “Really shifty.”

James Harden had 17 points and 13 assists, and Tobias Harris scored all 14 of his points in the second half after being shut down by Denver’s defense in the first half.

“We were able to figure some things out and get some stops,” Harris said. “Guys stepping up and making shots was huge for us to cut the deficit in the fourth quarter to try and make something happen.”

Jokic had 24 points, eight rebounds and nine assists for Denver, which has lost three of its last four games. Jamal Murray chipped in 22 points and Michael Porter added 20.

“We turned it over and they just turned up the pressure on us,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “They got to the basket way too easy with their attack mentality. And we just got way too careless with the basketball.”

Embiid has scored 40 or more points nine times this season and 35 times in his career. In addition to the All-Star snub, Embiid was also given a $25,000 fine by the NBA on Friday for an on-court demonstration after-basket celebration during Wednesday night’s win over Brooklyn.

“Let’s keep offending Joel by fining him and not putting him among the All-Star starters,” Philadelphia coach Doc Rivers said sarcastically.

The Nuggets began the day with the second-best team field goal percentage at 50.7% and tops in 3-point percentage at 39.5%. In the first half, they overwhelmed Philadelphia’s perimeter defense, shooting 65.9% (29 for 44) from the floor and 10 of 17 (58.8%) from beyond the 3-point line. The hot shooting helped the Nuggets to a 73-58 lead at halftime.

Embiid started to take over toward the end of the third quarter, putting together a 16-point quarter on 5-of-6 shooting that keyed a 14-0 run that allowed the Sixers to close within 99-98 early in the fourth.

In the final quarter, Philadelphia wore down a Nuggets team playing the final game of a three-game, week-long trip. P.J. Tucker– who had switched defenively to Jokic and slowed him down in the second half- followed a Harden missed 3-pointer with a tip-in with over a minute left to stretch the lead to five. Embiid then hit a 3-pointer to restore an eight-point lead.

“I’ve always like to think I am a closer and I am,” Embiid said. “Taking the last shot or taking a last second shot with the clock ticking is fun for me. I love getting into those types of possession where you have to make the plays. That’s where you find out who is who and who is made up for those kinds of moments.”

Report: Myles Turner agrees to two-year, $60 million extension with Pacers

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Take Myles Turner off the trade market.

After months of negotiations, the Pacers and Turner have agreed to a contract extension, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

This has since been confirmed by other sources.

Turner — back playing his natural center spot this season with Domantas Sabonis in Sacramento — is having the best season of his career, averaging 17.5 points, 7.9 rebounds and 2.4 blocks a game. He has been one of the keys to a surprisingly good Pacers team this season.

That $60 million contract extension number can be a little misleading. Turner was already making $18 million this season, but because the Pacers are $24.4 million under the salary cap, they can do a re-negotiation and extension with the big man, giving him a $17.1 million bump right now (to a total of $35.1 million for this season) and extend off of that for two years, the first at $20.2 million and the second at $19.9 million, according to Shams Charania.

There had been a lot of trade interest in Turner, going back to last summer, most prominently with the Los Angeles Lakers in a swap that would have sent Buddy Hield and Turner to the West Coast for Russell Westbrook and two first-round picks. That draft pick compensation kept the deal from getting done (the Pacers wanted two unprotected first-rounders).

NBA refutes viral Reddit post claiming conspiracy to pad Jaren Jackson Jr.’s stats

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Jaren Jackson Jr. has been a defensive monster since coming back from foot surgery, something obvious by the eye test but backed up by impressive stats: 3.1 blocks and a steal a game, opposing players are shooting 44% on shots he contests and when he is on the court the Grizzlies have. 106.8 defensive rating (which would be best in the league by more than three points). He is the frontrunner for Defensive Player of the Year right now.

That led to a conspiracy theory post on Reddit about how the Memphis scorekeeper is padding Jackson’s stats, calling his numbers fraudulent. The post went viral — we all love to think we’re in on something nobody else knows — and has gotten to the point some Las Vegas sportsbooks have taken down Defensive Player of the Year betting.

The conspiracy theory does not hold water. At all.

The NBA pushed back on that theory by reminding people that all NBA stats are audited in real-time by someone watching the video in Secaucus (rebound or blocked shots being changed during a game is not uncommon because of this).

“In order to ensure the integrity of our game statistics, auditors, independent of the statisticians on-site, review all plays and stats decisions in real-time during NBA games,” NBA spokesman Tim Frank told NBC Sports. “If changes are necessary, they are made at that time or following a postgame review. All of the plays questioned in the post on Memphis games were scored consistently within the rules set forth by the NBA statisticians manual.”

Reddit has now labeled the post “Misleading.”

Another Reddit user compiled videos of the alleged stat padding incidents called out in the post, but watching them proves the NBA’s point that these were correctly assigned. For example, Jackson gets credit for steals on tipped balls, which is how steals are calculated. The video showed that many fans don’t understand the rules and definitions of what constitutes a steal or a block.

On a more fundamental level than that, the NBA now has gambling and fantasy sports partners — if there was stat padding, those entities would be on it and the first to call out the league. The league’s statistics are big business — you can bet on the number of blocks or rebounds that Jackson or other players will get — and those gambling and fantasy entities also watch the games closely.

But we’ll be talking about this conspiracy theory again when NBA awards season pops up, because people want to believe, even in the face of evidence proving they are wrong. Not that we needed basketball to teach us that lesson.

 

Report: Nuggets might consider Bones Hyland trade for defensive help

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A year ago, it felt like the Nuggets had found their long-term backup point guard in rookie Bones Hyland, a guy who could be part of the rotation when Jamal Murray returned. Except, in his second season, Hyland hasn’t taken a step forward — although his play has been better and more aggressive in recent weeks — and free agent Bruce Brown has shown he can play some backup one (even if he is more of a combo guard).

That has the Nuggets considering trading Hyland if they can get defensive help, reports Jake Fischer at Yahoo Sports.

After his name was discussed in trade conversations around last June’s NBA Draft, Denver begun gauging the trade value of second-year guard Bones Hyland, sources said…. While Hyland has two years remaining on his rookie deal, in anticipation of Brown’s next payday [Note: He is expected to opt out and test the market], plus Hyland’s upcoming second contract, has the tax-conscious Nuggets considering their options in the backcourt. Occasional clashes between Hyland and head coach Michael Malone’s old-school mentality have also been a factor in Denver’s trade dialogue, sources said.

In exchange for Hyland, the Nuggets have expressed an interest in defensive-minded frontcourt players, sources said, and will search for a player plus a first-round pick.

Brown has played his way to a bigger contract than the $6.8 million player option he has for next season, but the Nuggets are already big spenders and not looking to go deep into the tax (Nikola Jokic’s extension kicks in next season at about $46.9 million a year to start, and both Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. will make north of $33 million next season). It is possible the Nuggets let Brown walk and keep Hyland, still on his rookie contract and set to make $2.3 million next season, partly for financial reasons. Hyland is averaging 12.4 points per game and shooting 38.5% from 3, but he struggles defensively (which is where the clashes with Malone come in).

Denver has a chance to win the West this season and defense is what will decide if that happens — if the Nuggets can land another wing/forward defender, they may jump at it and worry about the backup one spot next summer. However, finding that player in a high-priced seller’s market may prove the biggest challenge — several teams are looking for that same kind of defensive help.