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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.

Doc Rivers: I told Steve Ballmer, if Kawhi Leonard signed with Lakers, Clippers moving to Seattle

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We know what happened: The Clippers traded for Paul George, signed Kawhi Leonard and became championship favorite.

But at one point, Clippers coach Doc Rivers thought the George trade with the Thunder would fall through and Leonard could sign with the Lakers.

Rivers, via Arash Markazi of the Los Angeles Times:

“The day of the trade at 12 noon the deal was off,” Rivers said. “I was at home in Malibu and Lawrence called me and told me, ‘It looks like he’s either going to Toronto or the Lakers.’ The Lakers part just threw me over. I told him that can’t happen. … I remember I kept telling him, ‘We cannot allow that to happen!’

“I actually told Steve jokingly that if that happens, we’re moving the team to Seattle. It was a joke, but I was actually serious about it. I really believed that.”

Kawhi Leonard cost us the SuperSonics returning!

I don’t know how serious Rivers really was. Leonard joining LeBron James and Anthony Davis on their cross-arena rival would’ve been disastrous for the Clippers.

I’m convinced Ballmer will keep the franchise in Los Angeles. Ballmer’s ties to Seattle through Microsoft are well-established, and he previously tried to buy the Kings to move them to Seattle. But I can’t see him moving the Clippers from such a prime market, especially after going so far to get a new arena built in L.A. At every turn, he has maintained he’ll keep the team in Los Angeles.

Then again, Ballmer also phrased that guarantee as, “I will die owning the L.A. Clippers.” Now, he’s open to changing the nickname. Hmmm…

To be clearer than Rivers: That’s a joke I’m not actually serious about don’t really believe.

Stephen Curry responds to Kevin Durant: We all want to iso, but I’d rather win titles

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After the Warriors lost to the Jazz in December, Steve Kerr said his team didn’t move the ball enough. Kevin Durant said Golden State passed too much.

That public disagreement sure looks more significant now. Not only did Durant leave for the Warriors, he cited offensive style as a reason.

Durant, via J.R. Moehringer of the Wall Street Journal:

“The motion offense we run in Golden State, it only works to a certain point,” he says. “We can totally rely on only our system for maybe the first two rounds. Then the next two rounds we’re going to have to mix in individual play. We’ve got to throw teams off, because they’re smarter in that round of playoffs. So now I had to dive into my bag, deep, to create stuff on my own, off the dribble, isos, pick-and-rolls, more so than let the offense create my points for me.” He wanted to go someplace where he’d be free to hone that sort of improvisational game throughout the regular season.

Stephen Curry clearly viewed things differently.

Curry, via ESPN:

“Well, I don’t really care what plays we ran,” Curry said. “We won two championships. And at the end of the day, we had a lotta talent and there was an expectation of us figuring out how to balance all that. And we talked a lot about it throughout the three-year run. It wasn’t always perfect, but I think in terms of, you know, the results and what we were able to do on the floor, that kinda speaks for itself. We all wanna play iso-ball at the end of the day in some way, shape or form. But I’d rather have some championships, too.”

There’s truth to what Durant said. Defenses tighten deep in the playoffs, both because good defensive teams are more likely to advance and scouting committed to a single opponent tends to favor the defense. At that level, elite isolation scorers like Durant are particularly valuable. They can render schemes moot.

The Warriors learned that the hard way in the 2016 NBA Finals. They lost to the Cavaliers, who turned up their defense that postseason. Golden State scored fewer points per possession in its series against Cleveland than the Pistons did in the first round against the Cavs.

Adding Durant made the Warriors’ offense nearly unstoppable in every round. They leaned on their movement-heavy system when possible then turned to Durant isolations in moments of need.

Assessing playoff output is tricky because of varying opponents. But in three years with Durant, Golden State faced nine teams that played multiple postseason series. Eight of those teams had their worst defensive series against the Warriors, each by at least 2.6 points per 100 possessions. Only the 2019 Trail Blazers fared worse defensively against another team. They allowed just 0.2 more points per 100 possessions against the Nuggets than against Golden State.

Of course, Durant missed last season’s Western Conference finals against Portland. His absence was a big reason the Warriors’ didn’t meet their usual offensive standards.

Still, Golden State’s base offense was elite. Infallible? No. But it won multiple big playoff series before Durant arrived. He just took the Warriors to an even higher level.

Though he sometimes chafed at how the Warriors played, Durant also did his part to fit with them. He played his part in running Kerr’s preferred style.

It just seems Durant no longer wanted that safety-valve role. He holds immense respect for individual scoring as a skill. He’ll have a better chance to spread his wings in Brooklyn.

Durant will have a harder time winning a title without the incredible supporting cast he left behind. Curry might have wanted to point that out.

But everyone did their part in Golden State the last few years. That’s why they won those championships.

76ers once again overhaul around Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons

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NBC Sports’ 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

Can Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons coexist?

While I’ve wondered about that question, the 76ers have charged ahead with the pairing. Embiid and Simmons are the givens. The surrounding players change. In just two seasons, J.J. Redick, Robert Covington, Dario Saric, Markelle Fultz, Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris have cycled through as starters.

The latest supporting starters: Harris, Al Horford and Josh Richardson.

This might be the last chance to find a trio that works.

Philadelphia has taken advantage of Embiid’s and Simmons’ low rookie-scale salaries, which was always a selling point of The Process. A roster loaded with cheap young players created a window to add more-expensive talent. Then, with everyone already in place, NBA rules generally allow teams to keep their own players.

But Embiid is already on his max contract extension, and Simmons just signed a max contract extension that will take effect next year. The flexibility is vanishing.

One last time, the 76ers made the most of it. They signed-and-traded Butler for Richardson and let Redick walk in free agency. That left enough cap space to sign Al Horford (four years, $109 million with $97 million guaranteed) and use Bird Rights to re-sign Tobias Harris (five years, $180 million).

That’s a lot of deliberate disruption for a team that was already good and rising.

The big question: Did it make Philadelphia better?

I just don’t know.

As fond as I am of Butler, I understand all the reasons to be wary of offering the 30-year-old a huge contract. But moving on from him to give a huge deal to a 33-year-old Horford? That’s curious. Then again, Philadelphia also added Richardson – a solid replacement for Butler on the wing – in the process.

The 76ers will miss Butler’s shot creation. He often took over their offense in the clutch during the playoffs. Harris can pick up some of the slack, but that still looks like a hole.

At just 27, Harris is young for a player who has already been in the league so long. That’s a big reason it was worth Philadelphia signing him to a sizable long-term contract.

Horford’s deal could age poorly, but he’s a winner still playing quality all-around basketball. If nothing else, the 76ers removed Embiid’s best defender from the rival Celtics.

Philadelphia filled its bench with several value signings – Mike Scott (room exception), James Ennis (minimum), Kyle O'Quinn (minimum), Furkan Korkmaz (minimum), Raul Neto (minimum) and Trey Burke (partially guaranteed minimum). However, sometimes teams need production more than cost-effectiveness. The 76ers’ bench struggled last season, and they devoted minimal resources to upgrading.

In the draft, Philadelphia traded the Nos. 24 and 33 picks for No. 20 pick Matisse Thybulle. That’s a costly move up, especially for a player I rated No. 34. Worse, it seemingly happened because Boston snuffed out the 76ers’ interest in Thybulle then leveraged them. That’s small potatoes, though.

Simmons (No. 9 on our list of the 50 best players in 5 years) and Embiid (No. 11 on our list of the 50 best players in 5 years) will likely define this era for Philadelphia. Embiid is on his way to becoming one of the NBA’s very best players. Simmons is so good, giving him a max extension was a no-brainer.

But they were already in place.

Harris, Horford and Richardson will define this offseason. I just can’t tell whether they made the 76ers’ promising future even brighter or slightly dimmer.

Offseason grade: C

Michelle Roberts says if you don’t like player movement blame owners, too

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Last summer was one of the wildest offseasons in NBA history, maybe the wildest, and the headline was player empowerment. Anthony Davis pushed his way to the Lakers, Paul George forced his way out of Oklahoma City to go to the Clippers and join Kawhi Leonard, which soon had Russell Westbrook joining his old teammate James Harden in Houston. It led to frustration by some owners and changes in how the NBA will handle tampering.

Except, by choice is not how most players change teams. While AD or George has the leverage to make a power play — because of their exceptional talent — most of the time players are traded because the owner/team has all the power and can uproot players for whatever reason (basketball reasons sometimes, saving money other times). The stars have free agent options, rotation players much less so in that system.

Michelle Roberts, executive director of the National Basketball Players’ Association, wants you to remember that it’s not just player power that has led to the increase in player movement, as she told Mark Spears of The Undefeated.

Michele Roberts, told The Undefeated that she believes there is a “double standard” between how stars are viewed when they decide to move on compared with when franchises choose to make a major transaction, adding that team owners “continue to view players as property.”

“If you want to be critical of one, be critical of both,” Roberts said from the NBPA’s offices in Manhattan. “Those of us who made decisions to move, it’s really astounding to even consider what it feels like to be told in the middle of your life you are going to have to move. But that’s the business we’re in. …

“No one seems to spend a lot of time thinking about what it’s like to make those kinds of moves completely involuntarily. You volunteer to play or not play. But, yeah, if it’s still the case that if you think you’ve got to suck it up, player, then, hell, you’ve got to suck it up, team.”

She’s right. From Chris Paul to Blake Griffin, plenty of big stars have been moved against their will. The door swings both ways, but in those cases most fans tended to see why and like what the teams did. Those fans like it less when players do the same thing.

There’s also a classic labor vs. management angle to all this, which has political overtones.

For my money, how one views player movement tends to be part generational and part where you live.

Older fans remember days — or, at least think they remember days — when players stayed with teams for much or all of their career. It’s understandable, fans form a bond with players and want them to stay… while they’re still good and useful, after that fans beg ownership to get the “dead weight off the books.” Players before the late 1980s stayed with teams because they didn’t have a choice — for Bill Russell in the 60s or Larry Bird and Magic Johnson in the 1980s, free agency was not an option. And for every Kobe Bryant that did stay with a team, there were a lot more Wilts and Shaqs, who were traded several times and played with multiple teams.

Younger fans (generally, nothing is universal) are okay with the player movement, sometimes are more fans of a player than a team, and like the action and buzz of all the trades.

Location matters because if you’re in Oklahoma City there’s reason to not like what George did and the era of player empowerment. New Orleans fans can feel the same way (although part of that case is the “supermax” contract that owners wanted but really forced up the timeline on teams and players to make a decision on paying stars). But fans in Los Angeles or wherever players ultimately choose to go will feel differently. Fans want what’s best for their team, but there is no way in the star culture of the NBA to wash away the lure of big markets or of teaming up with another elite player.

The NBA dynamic is different from the NFL’s (for now), but it’s not changing. LeBron James helped usher in an era of player empowerment and it’s the new reality for the NBA, one the best franchises will adapt to rather than fight.