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Half-dozen players with especially intriguing contract-year seasons ahead

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After increasing 7%, 11%, 34% and 5% the previous four years, the NBA’s salary cap increased just 3% this year. Plus, teams were already overstocked with highly paid players signed during the 2016 – and, to an extent, 2015 – cap booms.

That meant many players signed one-year deals this offseason, allowing them to hit the market again next summer, when the cap is projected to rise 7% and many players signed in 2015 and 2016 come off the books.

The result is a deep 2019 free-agent class.

Some potential 2019 free agents, like Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, are assured max-contract offers. Even Kawhi Leonard, who missed nearly all of last season due to injury, is practically guaranteed of max offers.

But there are many more players with their future compensation in flux. Here are six players with a ton on the line next season:

DeMarcus Cousins

Cousins shocked the league by taking the Warriors’ taxpayer mid-level exception. It’s probably a one-year rental. The highest starting salary Golden State can offer him next summer through Non-Bird Rights is $6,404,400. This year will give him a chance to get healthy, show he can contribute positively to winning and expand his versatility. Cousins isn’t the perfect fit with the Warriors, and some teams are still scared off by his attitude. But, if all goes well this season, Cousins won’t be able to claim no offers next summer.

Isaiah Thomas

Thomas learned the hard way Brinks trucks typically carry an amount near his $2,029,463 minimum salary – not the nine-digit max contract he hoped for. That dream has probably passed, but Thomas can still land a lucrative contract next summer if he thrives with the Nuggets this season. First, that means getting healthy, as his hip injury still lingers. Then, the 5-foot-9 point guard must show he can still get separation and lift to get buckets. And it’d help if he meshes better with his teammates and coaches. It’s amazing how big of a hit Thomas’ value has taken in the last year, but he has proven his determination before. Will he do it again?

D'Angelo Russell

Russell entered last season as a potential franchise player for the Nets. Then, he got outplayed by Spencer Dinwiddie. Russell missed 34 games due to injury and stagnated in his growth while on the court. The shine is off the former No. 2 pick. But Russell is still just 22 and talented, and point guards tend to develop later. He could earn a huge payday, though it’ll require a major breakthrough. He and Brooklyn can technically sign an extension by Oct. 15, but that seems unlikely – especially with Dinwiddie, another pending 2019 free agent, also in the mix. Most likely, Russell becomes a restricted free agent next summer.

Tobias Harris

Harris reportedly rejected a four-year, $80 million extension from the Clippers this summer. That’s a lot of money to turn down, but the upside is there. Harris could be the Clippers’ focal point this season, especially in the starting lineup (which probably won’t include Lou Williams). Harris is just 26 and has the all-around skills and work ethic to cash in. The Clippers are aiming higher, so Harris might have to leave L.A. to get paid.

Trey Burke

The No. 9 pick in 2013, Burke gradually fell out of favor with the Jazz. He got a change of scenery with the Wizards and struggled even more in Washington than he had in Utah. Burke seemingly blamed everyone but himself. He fell out of the league until the Knicks called him up in the middle of last season. Burke flourished in New York, showing the offensive command everyone expected when he declared for the draft out of Michigan. Burke must fend off Frank Ntilikina and Emmanuel Mudiay – more recent and higher picks – at point guard, and the Knicks’ reported top target in 2019 free agency is point Kyrie Irving. But if Burke maintains his play with New York over a full season, he’ll have lucrative options somewhere.

Marcus Morris

Morris signed a four-year, $20 million extension with the Suns in 2014, taking a discount to play with his twin brother, Markieff Morris. Then, Phoenix traded Marcus to the Pistons. Marcus vowed never to let personal relationships get in the away of business again. Now with the Celtics, he’ll have his chance to maximize his earnings next summer. Marcus is a hard-nosed and skilled combo forward in a league where his versatility is increasingly valued. He’ll try to prove his worth on a stacked Boston team that has too many strong pieces to allow any individual to fully fly.

Charles Barkley says he hasn’t worn underwear in a decade (video)

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Charles Barkley can’t control everything, like whether the Magic hire him as general manager.

But he can control his underpants, as he explained on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.

Knicks stress patience, indulge impatient tendencies by stretching Joakim Noah

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NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

Knicks president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry talked a big game about patiently rebuilding – practically a foreign concept in New York.

And most of the summer, they backed up their words.

They drafted Kevin Knox No. 9 and Mitchell Robinson No. 36. They didn’t sign a single free agent to a multi-year deal. They made no win-now trade (or any trade at all).

Yet, even in the Knicks’ most patient offseason in years, they closed it with an incredibly impatient move.

New York stretched Joakim Noah, locking in a cap hit of $18,530,000 this season and $6,431,667 each of the following three years. The move opens an additional $12,863,333 in cap space next summer.

But what if the Knicks don’t need that extra room? What if they don’t attract free agents worth spending that amount then? Eating Noah’s entire $19,295,000 2019-20 salary that season, rather than splitting it over three years, is off the table.

What if they need even more room? What if they can draw great free agents who command more money than New York can offer? Attaching sweeteners to trade Noah’s salary and remove it entirely is also now impossible.

The Knicks could have waited until next summer to stretch, straight waive or trade Noah. They would have had far more information then, as the stretch deadline is Aug. 31.

This move puts so much needless pressure on New York to use its cap space next summer. Though the Knicks’ reported top target, Kyrie Irving, already said he’d re-sign with the Celtics, Kevin Durant-New York rumors are swirling, and Jimmy Butler put the Knicks on his list. The Knicks project to have about $33 million in cap space next summer, including a cap hold for only Kristaps Porzingis. They could add a franchise-changing star.

But this doesn’t jibe with a patient rebuild.

Biding time until next summer, New York took fliers on Mario Hezonja (one year, $6.5 million) and Noah Vonleh (one year, minimum). But despite seemingly tepid markets for those two in free agency, the Knicks didn’t capitalize on their leverage by attaching any additional unguaranteed seasons to their contracts. That will make it extremely difficult to get value from them. If Hezonja or Vonleh break out, they’ll be in line for bigger deals next summer.

Of course, it’s more likely New York’s first-, not second-, draft players dictate the team’s future. For the first time in eight seasons, the Knicks will have three players simultaneously on rookie-scale contracts – Porzingis, Frank Ntilikina and Knox. That most-modest benchmark is a major accomplishment in New York, where quick fixes have ruled the day.

After waiving Noah, it’s hard to see the Knicks as truly committed to a new, more prudent approach.

 

Offseason grade: C-

Jimmy Butler expects, welcomes boos from Timberwolves fans

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Jimmy Butler is set to start the season playing for the Timberwolves, who open Wednesday in San Antonio then host the Cavaliers on Friday.

Jon Krawczynski of The Athletic:

Butler has thrived in adversity and chaos. That’s the story of his life. There’s no reason this saga would be any different. In fact, Butler already showed his resolve during a heated practice.

Minnesota fans are well within their rights to boo Butler. He’s not a bad guy, but in the context of sports, he has made himself a villain there by requesting a trade from the Timberwolves.

The best thing Butler can do is embrace the inevitable backlash, which it sounds as if he’s prepared for.

The bigger question: How will Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor respond? He’s reportedly still looking to trade Butler, but an embarrassing fan response at a home game could shake him into pressing harder to get a deal done.

PBT Predictions: Who makes playoffs, who makes Finals, who wins it all

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Tuesday night the NBA season tips-off and the race for the playoffs begins, the first steps of a race that runs through June with some team lifting the Larry O’Brien Trophy. We’ve already made our predictions for who will win MVP, Rookie of the Year, Coach of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year and more.

Now it’s on to the team predictions: Who’s getting in the playoffs? Who will have home-court advantage? And which team will win it all?

Here are our picks:

 

EASTERN CONFERENCE

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kurt Helin: A little odd Dan and I agree up and down the line here. Putting the Raptors second is a bet that both Kawhi Leonard is his old self and new coach Nick Nurse can diversify the offense. The Pacers could finish fourth, but I’m very high on the Bucks with Mike Budenholzer so I’ll go with them getting home court. Also, Charlotte easily could best Miami or Detroit for one of those lower playoff seeds, and I’m not counting the Cavaliers out completely.

Dan Feldman: The Bucks are rising, to the point I thought about putting them over the 76ers. The bottom of the East playoff picture is ugly (and also includes the Hornets a small step behind Detroit).

WESTERN CONFERENCE

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kurt Helin: Much like last season, I expect Golden State and Houston to be in and after that a razor-thin margin (five games or less) separating the three seed and the 10 seed. I’d have the Thunder higher but I think missing Andre Roberson the first couple months of the season is a big blow. I have the Timberwolves and Spurs missing the playoffs, but either could make it. I have Minnesota out on the assumption they trade Jimmy Butler. With the Spurs, I think the Dejounte Murray injury is a bigger blow than people realize.

Dan Feldman: The Spurs’ injuries and the Timberwolves’ [gestures at every Jimmy Butler link in the sidebar) made it easier to exclude them, but they still have a chance. So do the Clippers, Mavericks and Grizzlies. Too bad they’re all stuck in the West.

PLAYOFF PREDICTIONS:

Kurt Helin
ECF: Celtics over Raptors
WCF: Warriors over Rockets>
FINALS: Warriors over Celtics

I don’t think the Warriors are a title lock, both Houston in the West and Boston in the East have a legitimate shot to dethrone them. However, assuming health, I just can’t pick someone else.

Dan Feldman
ECF: Celtics over 76ers
WCF: Warriors over Rockets
FINALS: Warriors over Celtics
Golden State isn’t guaranteed another title by any means, but there’s no way I’m picking someone else.