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NBA Power Rankings: Nuggets back on top, Celtics, Pacers climbing fast

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For the second time this season, Denver moves to the top of the power rankings, holding off the healthy and improving Warriors. At the other end of the scale, the Bulls are the new occupants of the cellar.

 
Nuggets small icon 1. Nuggets (21-9, last week No. 6).. Mention Denver as a potential Western Conference Finalist and the question is quickly thrown back: “Is this team for real?” If you’re looking for a sign how about this: The Nuggets are 12-3 against teams over .500, best record in the NBA. Think a contender needs a star? Nikola Jokic is pushing his way into the fringe MVP conversation. Denver has won four in a row (on a homestand) but now have 7-of-11 on the road, where it is just 8-6 this season. Too bad no Nuggets on Christmas, just so we could see Jokic do more things like this.

 
Warriors small icon 2. Warriors (21-10, LW 4). The Warriors are still coasting through the regular season, as evidenced by their disinterested loss to the Raptors a week ago (when Toronto was on a back-to-back and without Kawhi Leonard). Have your doubts about the depth and everything else if you want, but when Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, and Draymond Green are on the court together they are +12.8 points per 100 possessions. The Warriors will flip the switch when it matters. Like Christmas Day against LeBron James and the Lakers.

 
Bucks small icon 3. Bucks (20-9, LW 1). The Bucks have won 4-of-5, but the one loss was a blowout to the Pacers and it raised some concerns. At the top of the list right now is Khris Middleton, who is shooting 31.5 percent overall and 26.7 percent from three over those last five games. The Bucks need him to get right because Giannis Antetokounmpo and friends got the Christmas Day game they wanted, at noon in Madison Square Garden against the Knicks.

 
Raptors small icon 4. Raptors (23-9, LW 3). Toronto has some of the most impressive wins of the NBA season… and just as many baffling losses. Recently, the Raptors won back-to-back games on the road against the Clippers and Warriors without their best player — Toronto is 7-1 without Leonard this season — then dropped games at Portland and Denver. Both of those losses were without Kyle Lowry (thigh contusion) and it speaks to how crucial he is for this team to thrive. Overall the Raptors have dropped 4-of-6 and have an interesting test against the red-hot Pacers Wednesday night.

 
Celtics small icon 5. Celtics (18-11, LW 8). Boston’s offense was on fire — even with Marcus Smart in the starting lineup — during their eight-game win streak (which ended in Detroit last weekend). This was a bottom five offense for much of the start of the season but in the last nine games (including the Detroit loss) the Celtics had a 120.6 offensive rating and shot 40.4 percent from three. With Gordon Hayward moved to the bench and Al Horford surprisingly looking a step slower, much of the offensive load has fallen on Kyrie Irving, and he has been up to the task.

 
Pacers small icon 6. Pacers (20-11, LW 9). Indiana had won seven in a row and turned heads, at least before a surprising home loss to Cleveland Tuesday. While much of the Pacers’ run has come against a soft spot in the schedule, they knocked off the Bucks and Sixers in this stretch, and they have outscored opponents by 9.7 per 100 possessions in their last eight (including Tuesday’s loss), second best in the NBA. December win streaks are not harbingers of playoff success, but ignore the Pacers at your own peril. This team can play.

 
Thunder small icon 7. Thunder (19-10, LW 2). Who leads OKC in scoring, three point shooting percentage, PER, and has been the team’s MVP this season? Paul George. Not that guy with the MVP trophy at home, the other star. George is averaging 24.9 points per game and his play has got him in the early All-NBA team discussion. The Thunder have 7-of-9 coming up on the road (where they are 7-7 this season) and that includes a Christmas Day game at Houston.

 
Sixers small icon 8. 76ers (20-12, LW 5). A couple of rough losses last week (Pacers and Nets) with Jimmy Butler on the sidelines. That is less about Butler and more about how this team lacks quality depth, they are not getting consistent quality play out of guys like Furkan Korkmaz and Wilson Chandler (Philly misses the guys it traded to get Butler – still a good trade, but there were sacrifices). Fun prime-time Christmas Day showdown with the Celtics.

 
Blazers small icon 9. Trail Blazers (17-13, LW 14). Two quality wins last week (Toronto and the LA Clippers) stopped the bleeding of a 3-8 stretch. Part of the reason for the Blazers’ fast start (12-5) was the play of the Evan Turner and the bench, but that has fallen off so hard that coach Terry Stotts has gone back to keeping one of Damian Lillard or C.J. McCollum on the court at all times. You can watch those rotations in the Christmas Day nightcap, where Portland travels to Salt Lake City (the Jazz are playing better than their record indicates, that will be an interesting game).

 
Lakers small icon 10. Lakers (18-13, LW 7). For those of you tracking how well LeBron James is meshing with the young Lakers, know that L.A. is +1.9 per 100 when LeBron and Lonzo Ball share the court. When LeBron and Brandon Ingram share the court it’s just +0.5. (The best is LeBron and Josh Hart, +8.3.) Los Angeles just went 1-3 on a road trip, including ugly losses to the Wizards and Nets. The Lakers are 8-3 vs. teams over .500 and 10-10 against teams under that mark. Does that mean it’s good news they get the over .500 Warriors on Christmas Day?

 
Rockets small icon 11. Rockets (15-14, LW 21). Eric Gordon has moved into the starting lineup, James Ennis is coming off the bench, and in spite of that — Gordon has struggled and Ennis got injured — the Rockets have won four in a row, all against good teams in the West. What changed? Their defense has moved from bottom-five abysmal to league average in those wins, and in two of those games James Harden went off like a guy who wants to keep his MVP trophy. He had 50 points against the Lakers and 47 against the Pacers. Yes, he traveled on that setback everyone saw vs. Indy. Yes, he’s frustrating to play against. But Harden is an elite scorer and when he is on opponents are helpless.

 
Spurs small icon 12. Spurs (16-15, LW 19). San Antonio won 5-of-6 during its recent homestand, and we’re just going to ignore that baffling loss to Chicago (blowing a 21-point lead). The Spurs have been dominant during this stretch (best offense in the NBA, second best defense over that stretch) and they have done it with balance. That said, the loss to the Bulls was a reminder of the inconsistencies of this team. Starting Friday in Minnesota the Spurs have five games in a row against other teams fighting for playoff slots in the West.

 
Kings small icon 13. Kings (16-14, LW 18). No Marvin Bagley III for at least another week due to a bone bruise in his left knee. The rookie made headlines anyway this week when coach Dave Joerger praised Luka Doncic and some interpreted that as a shot at Bagley (when in reality it was a shot at the front office). Joerger then tried to make up for it comparing De’Aaron Fox and Bagley to Westbrook and Durant. Even when the franchise is playing well — much better than expected — and in the playoff mix, they can’t stop the petty, distracting sniping.

 
Mavericks small icon 14. Mavericks (15-14, LW 12). It’s good to see Dirk Nowitzki back on the court, but he is playing a very limited role through three games — 7.3 minutes a night, scoring 2.7 points per game and shooting a very un-Dirk like 37.5 percent. He’ll get better, but he’s not the focal point of this team any longer. Dallas has lost three straight, that despite getting J.J. Barea back from a sprained ankle. Tuesday’s loss in Denver was the start of 9-of-11 on the road, much of that against other teams in the West battle. The next few weeks could make or break their season.

 
Grizzlies small icon 15. Grizzlies (16-14, LW 11). Joakim Noah is giving Memphis between 14 and 15 minutes a night off the bench, and the defense remains solid when he is on the court (1.2 points per 100 better than when he’s off). The problem is the offense nosedives with him out there, more than 10 points per 100 worse (which is not all about Noah, the Grizzlies weak bench is all to blame). The Grizzlies have lost 5-of-6 and have three games remaining on a tough road trip through the West.

 
Clippers small icon 16. Clippers (17-13, LW 10). Losers of four in a row, all without Lou Williams, but the Clippers problems go farther back than that, they have dropped 6-of-7, the lone win in that stretch came in overtime against the Suns team without Devin Booker. While Tobias Harris is in a slump and the offense without Sweet Lou is struggling, the bigger problem is on defense where the Clippers are allowing 121 points per 100 in the last four games and 115.9 in the last 10 (both worst in the NBA). Things don’t get easier for the Clippers with their next six against teams in the playoff hunt in the West.

 
Hornets small icon 17. Hornets (14-15, LW 16). Charlotte goes as Kemba Walker goes, and in the last 10 games that has not been good. Walker is shooting 33.7 percent in those 10 and 24.7 percent from three, is scoring six fewer points per game and the Hornets are getting outscored by 4.7 per game with him on the court. That said, the Hornets are 5-5 in that last 10 including wins over the Nuggets and Bucks, but they are not going to be able to sustain that level of winning — or make the playoffs — if Walker does not get his mojo back soon.

Pistons small icon 18. Pistons (14-14, 13). Detroit pulled off one of the most improbable wins of the season last Saturday: The Pistons had lost six in a row, the Celtics had won eight in a row, and yet it was Detroit’s night. That, however, is the Pistons lone win in their last eight games. The good news is the schedule eases up a little: Minnesota, Charlotte, Atlanta, an Washington are the next four. That should help Detroit get its footing back.

 
19. Timberwolves (14-16, LW 15). Since the Jimmy Butler trade, the Timberwolves are 8-3 at home but 2-4 on the road, and that includes a recent four-game losing streak. In that losing streak their defense, particularly chasing teams off the arc, came undone. That’s nothing new, the Timberwolves have a defensive rating that is 9 points worse per 100 — or, to go old school, they have given up 9.5 more per game — away from Target Center. The concern about that is starting Friday in San Antonio the Timberwolves are back on the road for 6-of-7, they can’t afford to slide farther down the standings in the West.

 
Pelicans small icon 20. Pelicans (15-16, LW 17). Despite Anthony Davis playing like an MVP and Julius Randle beasting on everyone, the Pelicans are treading water — their last 10 games have gone win, loss, win, loss, etc. The Pelicans offense has been a little better than average, their defense about average, during that stretch, but the Pelicans just can’t string together wins and they remain 12th in the West (1.5 games back of the eight seed). No team is being more active and aggressive heading into the trade deadline, management wants to impress Davis and prove he can win in the Big Easy before what will be a big summer for him.

 
Jazz small icon 21. Jazz (14-17, LW 20). This feels to low for how the Jazz look on paper and with their point differential, but then again they have lost 4-of-5. Utah has been the unluckiest team in the NBA this season, they have the point differential of a 17-14 team (according to Cleaning the Glass, which means stats without garbage time included). Utah has played the toughest schedule in the NBA so far and it shows. It doesn’t get easier this week with the Warriors, Thunder, and the Trail Blazers twice, once on Christmas Day.

 
Nets small icon 22. Nets (14-18, LW 24). The scrappy, never-say-die Nets are winners of six in a row (with wins over the Raptors, Sixers, and Lakers in there). They’ve done it with an elite offense (117.6 points per 100 possessions in the streak, third best in the NBA) covering up for a still bottom 10 defense. Great move signing Spencer Dinwiddie to an extension, he’s the kind of tough, smart player that epitomizes the Nets.

 
Magic small icon 23. Magic (14-15, LW 23). No team gets to the free throw line less than Orlando, their free throw rate of 15.3 is worst in the league. Which is interesting in that the team drives the lane 41.3 times per game, right about the middle of the pack (18th in the league), the Magic just don’t draw contact. That was some ugly basketball played in Mexico City last week, but the Magic won both games there so it looked pretty to them.

 
Heat small icon 24. Heat (13-16, LW 22). Miami has hung on without Goran Dragic, who missed 12-of-14 with knee soreness (the Heat went 6-6) but can they sustain that over the next couple of months now that he is out with knee surgery? The Heat are -5.8 per 100 without Dragic, almost all of that drop coming on the offensive end. Also, now Pat Riley and the Heat will become the target of other teams thinking the Heat will be sellers at the deadline.

 
Wizards small icon 25. Wizards (12-19, LW 25). Washington went out and got Trevor Ariza, the kind of solid wing presence on the court and professional off of it that management hopes can turn the season around, but it feels like they could have gotten more than that for Kelly Oubre. Nothing sums up the Wizards’ season better than an impressive win at home against LeBron and the Lakers where John Wall is engaged and dropping 40, then turning around and losing to the Hawks. Ariza is not going to fix that.

 
Suns small icon 26. Suns (7-24, LW 30). Winners of three in a row, and they “won” the trade with the Wizards, too (although there were no real winners in that deal, except maybe for Memphis for not being a part of it). Kelly Oubre will be more engaged and play hard in a contract year for the Suns, plus he can still be traded before the deadline (just not in a package with other players, has to be alone). Phoenix could have held on to Austin Rivers and tried to find a trade for him as well, but they decided to let the guard walk and save some money on the buyout.

 
Cavaliers small icon 27. Cavaliers (8-23, LW 28). Kevin Love is out until January, Tristan Thompson remains in street clothes, and the most interesting thing around the Cavaliers right now is J.R. Smith trade watch. There has not been a lot to celebrate in Cleveland this season, so they joy of the Cavaliers after Larry Nance’s tip-in to beat the Pacers was fun to see. Plus, what a great play.

 
Knicks small icon 28. Knicks (9-23, LW 27). In his last five games, four of them starts, Kevin Knox has averaged 19.4 points per game, is shooting 41.7 percent from three, and is grabbing 6.8 rebounds per game. His confidence is growing. The Knicks have lost 7-of-8 but because they’re the Knicks can see them Christmas Day as they try to slow down Antetokounmpo and the Bucks. Good luck with that.

 
Hawks small icon 29. Hawks (7-23, LW 26). No team in the NBA is playing faster than the Hawks, who averaged 106.6 possessions per game (a full possession faster than the second place Kings). Play fast, play poor defense, turn the ball over too much and things happen like giving up 144 points to the Nets. Three point line, imaginary four point line, it doesn’t matter — Trae Young continues to struggle with his shot from beyond the arc.

 
Bulls small icon 30. Bulls (7-24, LW 29). The Bulls have lost 11-of-13 with an offense in that stretch scoring less than a point per possession (worst in the league by far in that time). Now Jabari Parker has been benched and Zach LaVine is out injured, that’s not going to help the Bulls offense (it could be good for their defense, however. With Lauri Markkanen and Bobby Portis healthy and playing well, Parker moves onto the trade block but it will be interesting to see what Chicago can get for him (Parker has a team option for $20 million, making him valuable for a team looking to clear cap space and willing to send Chicago picks/young players).

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Marcus Smart headline All-Defensive teams

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NBA teams scored more points per possession this season than ever.

But a few players stood out for slowing the offensive onslaught.

The All-Defensive teams (first-team votes, second-team votes, voting points in parentheses):

First team

Guard: Marcus Smart, BOS (63-19-145)

Guard: Eric Bledsoe, MIL (36-28-100)

Forward: Paul George, OKC (96-3-195)

Forward: Giannis Antetokounmpo, MIL (94-5-193)

Center: Rudy Gobert, UTA (97-2-196)

Second team

Guard: Jrue Holiday, MIN (31-28-90)

Guard: Klay Thompson, GSW (23-36-82)

Forward: Draymond Green, GSW (2-57-61)

Forward: Kawhi Leonard, TOR (5-29-39)

Center: Joel Embiid, PHI (4-72-80)

Also receiving votes: Danny Green, TOR (19-28-66); Patrick Beverley, LAC (14-20-48); Myles Turner, IND (1-37-39); P.J. Tucker, HOU (1-36-38); Pascal Siakam, TOR (0-24-24); Derrick White, SAS (4-7-15); Russell Westbrook, OKC (2-5-9); Jimmy Butler, PHI (2-5-9); Chris Paul, HOU (1-5-7); Robert Covington, MIN (1-3-5); Paul Millsap, DEN (0-5-5); James Harden, HOU (2-0-4); Al Horford, BOS (0-4-4); Kevin Durant, GSW (0-4-4); Malcolm Brogdon, MIL (1-1-3); Josh Richardson, MIA (0-3-3); Kyle Lowry, TOR (0-3-3)
Stephen Curry, GSW (1-0-2); Thaddeus Young, IND (0-2-2); Anthony Davis, NOP (0-2-2); Ben Simmons, PHI (0-2-2); Donovan Mitchell, UTA (0-2-2); Derrick Favors, UTA (0-2-2); Joe Ingles, UTA (0-2-2); Jaylen Brown, BOS (0-1-1); Kyrie Irving, BOS (0-1-1); Ed Davis, BRK (0-1-1); Gary Harris, DEN (0-1-1); Nikola Jokic, DEN (0-1-1); Andre Drummond, DET (0-1-1); Andre Iguodala, GSW (0-1-1); Jordan Bell, GSW (0-1-1); Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, LAC (0-1-1); Mike Conley, MEM (0-1-1); Kyle Anderson, MEM (0-1-1); Bam Adebayo, MIA (0-1-1); Khris Middleton, MIL (0-1-1); Brook Lopez, MIL (0-1-1); Terrance Ferguson, OKC (0-1-1); Damian Lillard, POR (0-1-1); De’Aaron Fox, SAC (0-1-1); Ricky Rubio, UTA (0-1-1); Bradley Beal, WAS (0-1-1)

Observations:

  • This voting could foreshadow a tight Defensive Player of the Year race. The three finalists for that award – Rudy Gobert, Paul George and Giannis Antetokounmpo – each received a high majority of votes, but not unanimity, at their positions. Or Gobert could just cruise to another victory.
  • I have no major complaints about the selections. I would have put Danny Green (who finished fifth among guards) on the first team, bumped down Eric Bledsoe and excluded Klay Thompson. I also would have give second-team forward to P.J. Tucker (who finished fifth among forwards) over Kawhi Leonard. Here are our picks for reference.
  • P.J. Tucker came only one voting point from the second team. If he tied Kawhi Leonard, both players would have made it on an expanded six-player second team.
  • Leonard hasn’t defended with the same verve this season. He remains awesome in stretches, particular in the playoffs. But his effort in the regular season didn’t match his previous level. Defensive reputations die hard.
  • It’s a shame Thaddeus Young received only two second-team votes. My general rule is you can complain about a lack of votes for only players you picked, and I didn’t pick Young. But he came very close to P.J. Tucker for my final forward spot, Young had a stronger case than several forwards ahead of him.
  • James Harden got two first-team votes. Did someone think they were voting for All-NBA? Stephen Curry also got a first-team vote. Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard got second-team votes. Nikola Jokic got a second-team vote. Kevin Durant got a few second-team votes. There’s plenty of All-NBA/All-Defensive overlap with other frontcourt players. There could easily be an incorrectly submitted ballot.
  • But that still leaves a second Harden first-team vote with no other plausible explanation. Someone must really love steals, guaring in the post and absolutely no other aspects of defense.
  • Jordan Bell got a second-team vote at forward. He’s a decent defender, but someone who played fewer minutes than Dirk Nowitzki, Bruno Caboclo and Omari Spellman this season. Bell also primarily played center. Weird.

Eight players/teams, hundreds of millions of dollars and one high-stakes All-NBA vote

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NBA award votes were cast at least 40 days ago. The regular season being judged ended even before that. After rounds of high-level playoff basketball, it’s easy to lose interest in these honors.

But All-NBA selections – which the league plans to release this week – can’t be overlooked.

They could determine the fates of several players and franchises.

In 2011, the NBA began allowing a higher max salary for certain young players. The Collective Bargaining Agreement got updated in 2017 to allow certain veterans to earn super-max salaries. The most common route to eligibility: Making an All-NBA team.

Here are eight players and teams with a lot riding on these results:

Kemba Walker, Hornets

The Hornets haven’t given Kemba Walker a playoff-series victory. They haven’t given him an All-Star teammate. They didn’t even give him Marc Gasol before the trade deadline.

But they can potentially give him a super-max contract.

It might be a necessary tool to retain the greatest player in franchise history.

A year-and-a-half ago, Walker said he’d be “devastated” if Charlotte traded him. A couple months ago, a rumor emerged Walker was likely to leave in free agency. This has gone south quickly.

Yet, don’t rule out Walker re-signing – especially if the Hornets can offer him a super-max contract projected to be worth $221 million over five years. That’s far larger than Walker’s projected max if leaving, $140 million over four years.

Heck, if he doesn’t make an All-NBA team, Walker might even return for his regular max, projected to be $190 million over five years.

That begs the question: How badly do the Hornets want Walker back? Their outlook is bleak either way.

Keeping Walker would make them far more competitive in the short term but carry serious downside risk with the 29-year-old point guard. Maxing out, let alone super-maxing out, Walker would also force Charlotte to clear salary unless Michael Jordan is willing to make an unprecedented trip into the luxury tax. So, a lackluster roster would get even further depleted.

Walker leaving would invite other problems, namely the loss of the team’s best player. The capped-out Hornets would have no mechanism to adequately replace him. They’d be heading into a year of purgatory then rebuilding from near rock bottom.

It’s hard to see Walker settling for the regular max if he’s eligible for the super max. But if Walker misses All-NBA and constrains Charlotte’s offer, the regular max could be enough.

Walker seems to take pride in representing the Hornets and living in Charlotte. He also appears fed up with the franchise’s losing.

These opposing forces will pull at him this summer.

A giant bag could soothe everything. Or its absence could be the final straw.

Karl-Anthony Towns, Timberwolves

Karl-Anthony Towns signed a five-year contract extension last fall that projected to be worth $158 million or $190 million.

Why the $32 million difference? It depends whether Towns makes All-NBA this season.

Eventually, he pushed to trigger that extra money.

Towns averaged 28-13-4 after the All-Star break, up from 23-12-3 prior. Minnesota didn’t suddenly start winning more. But Towns posted shiny numbers.

The Timberwolves would love if Towns maintained that urgency. For all his talent, he has too often failed to assert himself on the court.

But they also might quietly like if he misses All-NBA this season. With Andrew Wiggins already on a max contract, paying Towns an extra $6 million or so per year would further squeeze flexibility.

Towns still looks like he’d be worth the super-max over the next five years. But he could be a bargain at the regular max.

Klay Thompson, Warriors

The near-consistent expectation since the season began: Golden State will sign Klay Thompson to a max contract this summer. If the Warriors offer any less, he’d take it as a sign of disrespect and explore the market.

That implies Thompson will demand the super-max if eligible for the projected five-year, $221 million contract (up from a projected $190 million over five years with the regular max). The difference could be quite costly for Golden State.

If they re-sign Kevin Durant, waive and stretch Shaun Livingston and fill their roster with minimum players, the Warriors’ projected luxury tax depending on Thompson’s contract type:

  • Regular max: $128 million
  • Super max: $161 million

Considering Thompson’s salary, this All-NBA vote could cost Golden State an additional $38 million next season alone.

Of course, Durant might not stay. If he leaves, the Warriors could even avoid the dreaded repeater tax altogether.

But the issue looms next year, when Draymond Green will be up for a big raise. There’s no easy way maintain a championship contender without it getting very expensive.

Thompson’s All-NBA status will go a long way toward determining just how much it costs Golden State to remain elite.

Bradley Beal, Wizards

Washington knows the danger of offering the super-max to someone who has made only one All-NBA team and won’t hit free agency for another two years. John Wall is the poster child for the super-max gone wrong. His extension hasn’t even taken effect yet, and his contract is arguably the NBA’s worst.

You think Bradley Beal is willing to let that become his problem?

Beal stepped up while Wall was injured and earned serious All-NBA consideration. Beal is extolling his loyalty to the Wizards. Even as he says he wouldn’t rush to sign the super-max if offered, Beal sounds ready to get paid.

Washington should be reluctant. A projected $193 million over four years is a lot of money for a player of his caliber, and it could doom the franchise for years. A super-max extension would also prohibit the Wizards from trading Beal for one year, taking him off the market while his value remains high. Plus, with Wall already on the books, Washington has less margin for error.

I can’t imagine it’d go over well with Beal if the Wizards spurned him because Wall got overpaid first – especially considering the history of friction between those two.

Yet, it’d be incredibly risky for Washington to commit so much to Beal now. There’d be only a narrow path for Beal to lead the downtrodden team to meaningful winning next season. All the while, he’d be ineligible to be traded. Longer term is hazier, which is treacherous uncertainty when someone could get paid so much.

If Beal makes All-NBA, there’s a good case the Wizards shouldn’t offer him a super-max extension. If they don’t offer him the super-max extension, there’s a good chance he’ll resent it.

Where this all leads: If Beal makes All-NBA, that could prompt Washington to trade him.

That wouldn’t be just an unintended consequence of the super-max. It’d be the exact opposite of the super-max’s intended design.

Maybe Beal won’t make All-NBA, which would create its own set of complications. Beal would be just two years from unrestricted free agency, and a non-super-max extension seems unlikely. But at least doors would be open.

If he makes All-NBA, suddenly there’d be a lot of pressure on the Wizards to commit one way or the other on him. Not an ideal situation, especially for a team without a general manager.

Anthony Davis, Pelicans

Anthony Davis made a trade request.

David Griffin has indicated he might not honor it.

That’s probably a combination of hope and bluff. Griffin obviously wants Davis in New Orleans, but if Davis remains intent on leaving, it’s tough to keep him. However, by announcing a plan to sell Davis on the Pelicans over the next year, Griffin improves his trade leverage.

Of course, Griffin might actually follow through and keep Davis into 2020 free agency. That plan becomes much more tenable (or improves the viability of Griffin’s bluff) if Davis makes an All-NBA team this year.

The Pelicans can already offer Davis a super-max extension this offseason. But if Davis makes All-NBA this season or next, they could also re-sign him to a super-max contract in 2020 free agency. The extension or fresh contract would have the same terms – projected to be five years, $235 million.

That’s a lot more than Davis’ projected max with other teams in 2020 ($156 million over four years).

If Davis misses All-NBA this season and next, New Orleans would still have a financial advantage in its 2020 offer for Davis (projected max of $202 million over five years). Davis could still qualify for the super max with the Pelicans in 2020 free agency by making All-NBA next season.

But that’s obviously a smaller guaranteed edge without him clinching super-max eligibility this season. It’d be incredibly risky for the Pelicans to keep him into 2020 free agency without knowing they’d have the bigger upper hand.

It’s probably too risky to keep him, anyway.

Davis has said the extra money won’t sway him. His trade request affirms that.

But people change their minds.

More money only helps.

Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers

Lillard will make an All-NBA team, but the playoffs would always go a long way toward answering questions that remained.

Would Portland commit now to paying Lillard a projected $193 million from ages 31-34? Would Lillard lock into team control for six more years?

After the Trail Blazers’ run to the Western Conference finals, the answer is clear: Yes.

This is the designated-veteran-player extension everyone should be watching. If it doesn’t work with Lillard – an excellent player and even better leader – it could prompt changes in the next CBA.

Nikola Vucevic, Magic

I see six centers as legitimate All-NBA candidates: Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, Rudy Gobert, Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Davis and Nikola Vucevic. Vucevic’s case is surprisingly strong.

Among those six, Vucevic ranks second in real-plus-minus-based wins, third in PER-based estimated wins added, fourth in win shares and fourth in value over replacement player.

Plus, there are the factors that shouldn’t matter, but often do. Vucevic has the narrative of working his way into first being an All-Star in his eighth season and ending Orlando’s six-year playoff drought. There will definitely be no voter fatigue with him.

I don’t expect Vucevic to make All-NBA, but I also wouldn’t be shocked if, as voters researched their picks, he holds up well. If he gets on some ballots and many voters are divided on other candidates, it’s possible for Vucevic to sneak onto the third team.

Even if that happened, though, is it possible he’d actually get a super-max contract?

It’s hard to see the Magic – whose front office inherited, rather an acquired, Vucevic – paying him that much. He’s 28 and has made the All-Star team only once. Orlando barely snuck into the playoffs in the East with him. He had a very fine season, but that doesn’t mean his long-term trajectory has completed changed.

I’d be quite surprised if the Magic gave him a regular-max contract (projected to be $190 million over five years). A super-max contract (projected to be $221 million over five years)? That’s barely even imaginable.

But the super-max salary could be useful on a short-term deal in Orlando. The Magic will have only moderate flexibility this summer anyway if Vucevic leaves. A one-year contract at the super-max salary of $39 million (up from $33 million without an All-NBA selection) could make sense for both sides if Vucevic gets big multi-year offers from other teams.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks

Giannis Antetokounmpo seems happy in Milwaukee.

The Bucks can secure him in 2020.

Antetokounmpo is too inexperienced to sign a veteran-super-max extension this offseason. But because he made All-NBA last year and will certainly make it again this year, he’ll already clinch eligibility to next year sign a super-max extension projected to be worth $250 million over five years.

A lot can change in year, including Antetokounmpo’s desire to stay in Milwaukee. But the Bucks can do their part to keep Antetokounmpo happy between now and then. That starts with advancing from the Eastern Conference finals, where Milwaukee is tied 2-2 with the Raptors. The Bucks can also pay the luxury tax to keep their strong supporting cast intact next season. Follow that with another deep playoff run next year, and Antetokounmpo seems highly likely to stay.

Still, the only certainty once Antetokounmpo makes All-NBA this year, will be in his eligibility for a super-max extension next year. His and Milwaukee’s views on it once it can actually be signed can’t be known until then.f

Kings, Pacers reportedly added to long list of Tobias Harris suitors

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It’s the biggest decision for Sixers GM Elton Brand this summer: What to do about Tobias Harris?

If Jimmy Butler decides to leave Philadelphia then it’s easy, re-sign Harris to a max or near max deal and make him the third player in the Big Three with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. Then hope the Harris who dominated his first eight games with the Sixers and showed up sometimes during the playoffs is the guy you get all season next year (to be fair, Harris was a guy who had to sacrifice a lot to fit in with all those stars, put the ball in his hands more and he will thrive).

If Butler re-signs with Philly it gets more complicated. Owner Joshua Harris had said from the start he would pay the tax to keep them both — and extend Simmons — but to do so means likely losing J.J. Redick and having a thin bench without guys such as James Ennis and Mike Scott. The question for Brand becomes can most of Harris’ production replicated by a few other players and for half the cost? Without Harris, the Sixers should be able to round out a deeper bench. That said, the Sixers gave up a lot in trading for Harris at the deadline, too much for just a rental.

Brand is going to have to make his call quickly because the list of suitors for Harris is growing. Keith Pompey at the Philadelphia Inquirer says the Kings, Pacers, Mavericks, and Jazz are all expected to come after Harris. Sacramento and Indiana are new to that list, which in the past also has included Memphis and Brooklyn.

With that many suitors, someone is going to come in at the max, which for Harris is $141 million over four years from those other teams. Philadelphia can offer $190 million over five years.

This is also a decision for Harris. The money is going to be massive wherever he lands (and will push him north of $200 million in career earnings even if he leaves), so working environment matters even more. Is he willing to sacrifice a little more on the court to be part of something potentially special in Philadelphia? Or, does he want to go to Utah where he would get a lot of touches next to Donovan Mitchell on a team that seems a player away? Same with going to Indiana to play with Victor Oladipo. Or does he want to be the star in Brooklyn or Memphis?

Harris is going to have options.

What he decides may get overlooked by some fans, but it will change the course of franchises this summer.

Kevin Durant’s business partner says KD “100 percent undecided” on free agency

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Re-sign with Golden State and continue the dynasty?

Become the latest savior in New York? Join an L.A. Clippers team that seems just a star away from being a real threat in the West?

Kevin Durant will have options as a free agent this summer, and while he has been linked to the Knicks since this season tipped off, his business partner Rich Kleiman (a New Yorker who goes to Knicks games, which has fueled that speculation) says Durant has not made any decision, speaking at a Wall Street Journal event.

Kleiman also backed Durant’s penchant for getting into it with fans on social media.

Of course Kleiman says Durant has not decided about free agency, what else is he going to say? “We’ve totally got a handshake deal in place already, I just can’t talk about it yet.” Plenty of fans may believe a deal is in place (I do not), but whatever the reality, Kleiman said exactly what he had to say about KD’s future.

Durant right now is focused on getting his calf healed by a week from Thursday, when the NBA Finals tip-off. The Warriors are going to need him against Toronto or Milwaukee, both of whom provide interesting matchup problems for Golden State.

Besides, Durant would prefer we talk about basketball games, not free agency, right now. The point of getting Durant would be to be one of the teams left standing at this point in the season in the first place. Except there are three fan bases with teams left playing and 27 thinking about next season. There is far more interest from fans league-wide about what is next, more than what is going on right now. That’s not a media creation, that is simply what fans want, what they talk about and read about. It’s the reality of today’s NBA, like it or not.

I believe Kleiman is telling the truth, Durant has not made a decision yet. KD has not shown to be the guy who makes early decisions and sticks with them in the past, he waits it out then makes his call. How he’s feeling come July 1 may well be different from today. No doubt Kleiman and Durant have talked about free agency — extensively — and they have leanings, but a final call is still a ways off.

Which means the rumors and speculation will continue.