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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.

James Harden, Rockets again leave Jazz in the dust

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After turning the ball over late in the fourth quarter, James Harden meandered near halfcourt as the Jazz pushed for a fastbreak layup. But that put him in perfect position to receive a long inbound pass after Utah scored. Harden caught the ball and whipped it ahead Kenneth Faried, who dunked to give Harden a triple-double-clinching assist.

You’ll have to forgive Harden for not hustling back on defense. He did most of his heavy lifting far earlier.

By late in the first quarter, Harden created 28 points (17 scored, 11 assisted) to the Jazz’s 13 total points. The Rockets never looked back.

Houston crushed Utah 118-98 in Game 2 Wednesday to take a 2-0 series lead. It seems the Jazz – who lost Game 1 by 32 points and a 4-1 second-round series in this matchup last year – have no answer for the Rockets, particularly Harden.

Harden finished with 32 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists. He was a game-high +24.

Here are the best-of-seven series with the most-lopsided first two games. The 2-0-leading teams that won the series are in red. The 2-0-leading teams that lost the series are in blue. This Houston-Utah series is in silver. This Bucks-Pistons series is in cream.

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Teams that outscored their opponents by at least 50 in the first two games have never lost a best-of-season series. The Rockets, +52, might have built an insurmountable advantage.

Especially the way the Jazz guard Harden. They’re trying to overplay him but wind up just giving him lanes into the paint. The talented guard is picking them apart.

Until Utah solves that, secondary matchups won’t matter. Houston is content winning through its superstar.

Bucks wallop Pistons. Again.

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The Pistons fought harder. Luke Kennard moved into the starting lineup and provided a spark. Detroit defended more actively.

But the result was largely the same: A Bucks blowout.

Milwaukee routed Detroit 120-99 in Game 2 Wednesday. Following a 35-point Game 1 victory, the Bucks have outscored the Pistons by 56 points in the series. Every team to outscore its opponent by at least 50 in the first two games of a best-of-seven series has won it.

Here are the best-of-seven series with the most-lopsided first two games. The 2-0-leading teams that won the series are in green. The 2-0-leading teams that lost the series are in red. This Milwaukee-Detroit series is in cream.

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The Pistons can’t stop Giannis Antetokounmpo (26 points, 12 rebounds and four assists). With Kennard (Detroit-high 19 points) starting for defensive specialist Bruce Brown, the Pistons also couldn’t contain Eric Bledsoe (27 points). Khris Middleton (24 points) provided his usual steady production.

Meanwhile, without Blake Griffin, Detroit lacks a difference-making star. Andre Drummond (18 points and 16 rebounds) had nice individual moments but was -32 (another terrible plus-minus for him).

The Pistons are just overwhelmed by the superior Bucks, and it’s hard to see that changing.

Kyrie Irving torches Pacers for 37 points in Celtics win

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In what had been a tight game, the Pacers built a four-point lead over the Celtics with four minutes left in the third quarter. From there:

Irving scored 37 points and dished seven assists, leading Boston to a 99-91 Game 2 win Wednesday. The Celtics now lead the first-round series 2-0. Teams that have won the first two games of a best-of-seven series at home have won the series 93% of the time.

The Pacers just can’t muster enough offense – not against this sound Boston defense. Indiana went nearly nine scoreless minutes in the fourth quarter. Even after ending that drought, the Pacers’ final five possessions: miss, miss, miss, turnover, turnover.

This is why the Celtics got Irving. His ability to create shots sets them apart in these slogging playoff games.

Jayson Tatum added 26 points. But Al Horford struggled while playing through illness. Marcus Morris shot 0-for-8. Jaylen Brown didn’t really get going.

This wasn’t the prettiest game for Boston, but because of Irving, it was a win.

LeBron James named one of TIME’s 100 most-influential people

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LeBron James couldn’t even influence the Lakers into the playoffs.

But as a businessman and philanthropist, his reach is only growing.

LeBron remains the NBA’s biggest star. He’s still an elite player (when healthy), and his name resonates with casual fans and even non-fans. Add his off-court interests – more accessible to him in Los Angeles – and his importance can’t be denied.

That’s why LeBron made TIME’s 2019 list of 100 most-influential

Warren Buffett wrote about LeBron:

I’ve been impressed with his leadership skills, his sharp mind and his ability to stay grounded. People in LeBron’s position get tugged in different directions and have a lot of chances to make bad decisions. He’s kept his head, and that’s not easy.

There is so much on LeBron’s plate – production, acting, his school, even basketball. His ability to handle it all is incredible.

Having such varied interests might not lend itself to LeBron dominating on the court. But it makes him even more deserving of this list.