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Ten things learned on wildest day in NBA history

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Insane.

Sunday ended up being the wildest, most frenzied day in NBA history — 48 contracts and $3.1 billion worth of frenzied. Seriously, that is how much money was agreed to in one eight-hour window on Sunday. And that is with a big contract or two left hanging out there.

It was too much to absorb, but after taking a deep breath, here are the 10 things we learned on the first day of NBA Free Agency

1) Kevin Durant wanted to play with his friends more than anything and with that Brooklyn thought it won the day…

Who is the King of New York now?

All season long Durant was linked to the Knicks — some around the league thought it was a done deal — and midway through the year suddenly Kyrie Irving was in the same rumors and joining the same party.

Then Brooklyn swooped in and got them both. The Brooklyn Nets — the team that had the worst record in the league two years ago — landed Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. Let that sink in. It wasn’t about chasing more rings with the Warriors or moving to the biggest brand in the biggest market, it was Durant and Irving going where they wanted so they could play together as friends.

Speaking of friends, Durant and Irving both took slightly less than the max so the Nets could drastically overpay Durant’s good friend DeAndre Jordan (four years, $40 million).

Durant likely doesn’t play next year coming off a torn Achilles, but the Nets will still have a playoff team. We’ll see if Jordan ends up taking minutes away from up-and-coming Jarrett Allen. He shouldn’t, but politics sometimes win out in these things.

In a couple of years, the Nets could be a contender out of the East.

2) …But then Jimmy Butler was signed-and-traded to Miami, and Philadelphia’s day of moves made it the East favorite.

When the first reports of Jimmy Butler wanting to go to Miami came up, it was greeted with a lot of “how are they going to make that work?” Giving up the talented Josh Richardson is how. Miami and Philadelphia worked out a sign-and-trade that shook the league (but they need a third team, ideally to take on Goran Dragic, to make it all work out. They are expected to be able to iron that out).

Miami gets a star they have coveted and who is a great cultural fit in Butler. There is still a lot of roster building to do in South Beach but Butler, Justise Winslow, and Bam Adebayo is an excellent place to start.

Philadelphia replaces Butler with Josh Richardson — not as good, but not dramatically worse, younger, and cheaper — and that was just one of the smart moves they made on Sunday. They retained Tobias Harris on a max $141 million contract. Then they signed Al Horford as a free agent to a four-year, $109 million contract.

The Sixers’ starting five is now Ben Simmons, Richardson, Harris, Horford, and Joel Embiid. That is the best starting five in the East and keeps them in the mix as serious title contenders. Add a little depth — they also retained Mike Scott — and the Sixers will be tough to beat.

3) Golden State kept Klay Thompson and added D’Angelo Russell, but had to let Andre Iguodala go. That team is interesting.

The award for “least surprising thing to happen when free agency opened” goes to Klay Thompson and the Golden State Warriors, who reached the expected five-year, $190 million max contract extension. Without any drama.

The Warriors were saving the drama for a sign-and-trade with the Brooklyn Nets that brings D’Angelo Russell to Golden State on a max four-year, $117 million contract. Russell, a pick-and-roll, ball dominant point guard is an interesting fit next to Stephen Curry, but it gives the Warriors another talented player as they try to adapt to Kevin Durant’s departure and Thompson missing most of the season due to his ACL injury. Curry, Russell, and Draymond Green should be able to get the Warriors to the playoffs (and Russell is a good trade asset if the Warriors decide to go that route).

That sign-and-trade for Russell will ultimately send Iguodala to Memphis to make room under the cap. That move is a punch to the gut for the players on that team. Iguodala is an admired leader.

(By the way, now the real drama is Green’s contract next summer. Will the Warriors give him the full max of five-years, $204? Will Green take the four-years, $157 another team can offer? He doesn’t fit everywhere, he fits the Warriors, but do they want to pay him that kind of money.)

4) Meanwhile, Kawhi Leonard is taking his time, leaving Lakers/Raptors/Clippers dangling on the hook.

While everyone else was moving at light speed on Sunday, Kawhi Leonard was laying low. He met with no teams. He will get to that over the coming days and then make his decision. Good for him, don’t rush the big decisions.

But it’s bad news for the Lakers and Clippers (and Raptors, to a lesser degree). The Lakers and Clippers both have bet big on landing Leonard at this point, and both have had to sit on their hands and keep a max cap slot open as free agents are being snapped up around them. For the Lakers in particular, if they don’t get Leonard, other max players like Jimmy Butler are gone, and some of the role players they would have wanted (J.J. Redick, Patrick Beverley, Trevor Ariza, for example) are off the board, making it harder to fill out the roster around LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

5) Major League Baseball is stupid.

Did you know the MLB All-Star Game players were announced today — at 6 p.m. Eastern. The exact time that the frenzy of NBA free agency started and dominated the sports media.

The MLB runs its entire league like it’s the Knicks.

6) Utah has had a really impressive offseason.

Utah is a legitimate threat to come out of the West next season. The Jazz won 50 games last season and addressed the offensive weaknesses that have hurt them in the playoffs this summer. Utah made a massive upgrade from Ricky Rubio (now in Phoenix) to Mike Conley at the point guard spot. Then on Sunday, they added a lot more shooting to the mix in the 6’8” form of Bojan Bogdanovic — the kind of player a lot of casual fans don’t know but who has his own fans in front offices around the NBA for a reason. He averaged 18 points a game last season for the Pacers and is a great floor spacer to open up room on Donovan Mitchell (and Conley) drives.

To get Bogdanovic, the Jazz had to give up fan favorite Derrick Favors (and his $16.9 million contract), but then they did a nice job replacing a big chunk of his grit and production with veteran, solid big man Ed Daivs (and for two-years, $5 million). Favors is off to New Orleans.

Utah’s starting five next season is probably Conley, Mitchell, Joe Ingles, Bogdanovic, Rudy Gobert. With a solid bench behind them. That team is going to win a lot of games and be a postseason problem.

7) Dallas just paid Kristaps Prozingis a lot of money coming off a torn ACL.

The Mavericks really made this bet back at the trade deadline, but on Sunday they made it official by agreeing to a five-year, $158 million extension with Porzingis.

The bet is Porzingis can bounce back from his torn ACL to be an All-NBA level big man who plays 70+ games a season. Porzingis has the tools, he is a 7’3″ unicorn who can defend inside, knock down threes, and has averaged 17.8 points and 7.1 rebounds a game while shooting 36.1 percent from three. Mark Cuban dreams that Porzingis and Luka Doncic become Dallas’ new Steve Nash/Dirk Nowitzki pairing.

Dallas also locked up Dwight Powell with a new deal, as they should have.

8) James Dolan and the Knicks continue to find ways to embarrass themselves.

All season long, around the league the Knicks were seen as the frontrunner to land Kevin Durant, and he was going to bring another star player with him. Some league sources had it in an “as long as they don’t blow it” kind of place. Dolan went on the radio in New York and said, “New York is the mecca of basketball… From what we’ve heard, I think we’re going to have a very successful offseason when it comes to free agency.”

Well, Dolan blew it.

And the cross-town Brooklyn Nets swooped in and got both Durant and Irving — and Brooklyn looks like it will be the better team for a while.

Knicks gonna Knicks.

But they did land Julius Randle, which is a quality pickup fans will love. Not like Durant love, but Randle plays hard and is fun to watch.

9) Portland pays Damian Lillard like they should, hang on to Rodney Hood, also.

If Klay Thompson re-signing was the most obvious thing ever, the Trail Blazers giving Lillard a full max — five years, $195 million — was next on the list.

Lillard is an All-Star, an All-NBA player, a clutch player and one of the best guards in the NBA. More than that, Lillard is flat out one of the best guys in the league, great in the community, and loved by Portland. This was a no-brainer.

The Blazers also retained Rodney Hood, and combine that with the addition of Kent Bazemore and a healthy Jusuf Nurkic at some point next season, and this team is going to be better than this year’s squad.

10) Both Lopez brothers in Milwaukee? Robin Lopez signs with Bucks (and they re-signed Khris Middleton).

Let’s not bury the lead here — the Milwaukee Bucks maxed out and retained All-Star Khris Middleton at the wing, on a five-year, $178 million max offer sheet. Is that overpaying a little for Middleton? Yes. But they had to. He’s an All-Star who averaged 18.3 points per game last season, and he fits well with Giannis Antetokounmpo. Who they have to keep happy. So the deal gets done.

In another must-make move, the Bucks re-signed Brook Lopez at four-years, $52 million. They needed his shooting. Brook’s backup is now his brother Robin Lopez, who signed on in Milwaukee. That’s good news for everyone… who is not a mascot.

NBCsports.com’s 50 best players in 5 years: Players 35-31

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What is the NBA going to look like in five years? Who will be the game’s best players? The All-Stars, the guys on the cover of 2K24, the guys with signature shoe deals?

As a fun summer project, the NBA team at NBCSports.com put our heads together, pulled out our crystal balls, and tried to project forward who would be the 50 best players in the NBA in five years — in the summer of 2024. We took into account a player’s age, his potential ceiling and how likely he is to reach it, injury history, and more. The team working on this included Dan Feldman, Tom Haberstroh, Rob Dauster, Tommy Beer, Steve Alexander, and Kurt Helin (and thanks to Tess Quinlan and Mia Zanzucchi for the design help).

There were plenty of disagreements (and we don’t expect you to agree with all of our list), but here it is.

Here is the link to players 50-46, 45-41, and 40-36. These are players 35-31 on our list.

35. Caris LeVert

Caris LeVert was an unheralded recruit who originally signed with Ohio of the Mid-American Conference. The last first-round pick from the MAC? Chris Kaman in 2003. Only after Ohio’s coach left, LeVert instead went to Michigan. He arrived in Ann Arbor at 6-foot-5, 165 pounds. A redshirt appeared obvious.

But LeVert forced his way into the lineup as a freshman. As a sophomore, he developed into an All-Big Ten second-teamer.

At one point during that season, Brian Cook of MGoBlog brought up a shortcoming: LeVert wasn’t attacking the rim and drawing fouls enough.

“But, like, wait a week and he’ll be better,” Cook quipped.

It barely registered as a joke. LeVert was improving that rapidly.

Unfortunately for LeVert, his career has since been dominated by significant injuries. The latest was a dislocated foot early last season. Before that, LeVert was generating plenty of Most Improved Player buzz.

LeVert is a skilled wing. He can shoot, handle and pass. It’s the package, coupled with his fluidity and 6-foot-7 size, that can lead to stardom (though maybe only low-end stardom, because LeVert isn’t particularly explosive).

But LeVert must fill out his still-thin frame and avoid injuries. That’d also help his defense, which isn’t as stout as his length suggests it could be.

LeVert has the work ethic. he has a good developmental infrastructure around him with the Nets. He just must stay healthy long enough to put everything together.
—Dan Feldman

34. Lauri Markkanen

There are stretches of games when Lauri Markkanen’s play makes this ranking look too low. For example, last February he averaged 26 points and 12.2 rebounds a game, getting buckets inside and knocking down a couple of threes a game. For a month, Markkanen looked like the future All-Star and cornerstone of the Bulls the Chicago front office believes he will be.

The question is, can he reach that ceiling consistently? He’s only 22, but he has yet to come anywhere near that. In Markkanen’s final 10 games of last season — before he was shut down due to extreme fatigue and a bout of a rapid heart rate — he averaged 15.5 points per game on 40.1 percent shooting overall, 30 percent from three, and 7.7 boards a game. He was pretty average. Markkanen also has missed 27 percent of the Bulls games in his two seasons due to injuries (to be fair, those were fluke things, like his sprained elbow, not chronic things that would lead one to think of him as injury prone).

Markkanen is capable of more. If Markkanen can become a more consistent offensive force and better on the defensive end — he’s not a bad defender, he’s okay, but with his length and athleticism he should be a better rim protector — he can take over the role as the alpha on the Bulls. They need him to. Zach LaVine can go get buckets, but he is not a No. 1 option guy. Markkanen can be. Markkanen has the potential be an All-Star level player and the franchise cornerstone the Bulls need him to be. The question remains, can he reach that level and stay there?
—Kurt Helin

33. Damian Lillard

It’s been assumed that by the end of his most recent contract that Damian Lillard won’t be the player the Portland Trail Blazers need any longer. He’s already 30 years old, and the common refrain has been that point guards at or near six feet tall don’t age gracefully.

But like anything else, we must take both historical examples and understanding that we are in a new era of NBA basketball into consideration. This era is one where guys like Lillard are pioneering a 3-point shot that has stretched the limits of spacing on an NBA floor. Because of that, it’s entirely possible that Lillard ends up being more like late stage Jason Kidd then late-stage Chris Paul.

Kidd was 6-foot-4 and could play across multiple positions, but there’s a new geometry in the NBA that should aide Lillard. The dimensions of an NBA floor are being pushed to their limits as shooters get farther and farther away from the basket. As players adapt to this, passing lanes and scoring opportunities will continue to change.

With that in mind, Lillard might not be headed for a “Most Overpaid” listicle in five years the way some have assumed. Instead, Lillard could just as easily transition into a 3-point shooting, high-arc-passing veteran who annoys opponents to no end. Hell, he’s already shown he can take a step forward on defense without relying on his athleticism this postseason.

Superstar shifts are more likely to be unfortunate than successful. But Lillard is one of the most iron-willed players in the league, and he’s secure in both who he is and the cash he’s got in his pocket. If the need comes for him to find a new niche after a lost step or two, count on him to make it.
—Dane Delgado

 

32. Rudy Gobert

Rudy Gobert is underrated.

Sure, he has won the last two Defensive Player of the Year awards. But that gets him attention only at the end of the season, when people consider that award. In the midst of the action, Gobert has never even been an All-Star. By the time the playoffs start, his defense is again overlooked until the next year.

Gobert is also good offensively. Though limited on that end, he knows his strengths and plays to them. He’s an excellent finisher, screener and offensive rebounder. Importantly, he doesn’t try to do too much. That’s so underappreciated.

Of course, none of this means Gobert will belong so high on this list at age 32. He’ll likely be past his peak in 2024.

But Gobert’s present-day production is higher than most realize. That gives him room to decline and remain quite good.

We’ll soon get a sense of how the Jazz value him long-term. Next summer, Gobert will be eligible for a super-max extension. I wouldn’t give him the full projected amount ($250 million over five years). I’d hesitate to give him even the smallest-allowable super-max projection ($155 million over five years). But remember, that extension would carry him through age 34.

At 32, Gobert has a much better chance of remaining a quality center.
—Dan Feldman

31. Stephen Curry

Did I miss something? I feel like the best shooter ever deserves a higher spot on this list. If you don’t think his superhuman ability to score from far away places won’t age well, consider the careers of Reggie Miller and Ray Allen, the only two players who have made more 3-pointers than Curry has in this league. Miller was starting playoff games at age 39. Allen was starting Finals games at age 38. Oh, and Steve Nash was an All-Star two weeks after his 38th birthday.

Curry’s ranking suggests he’s at the tail end of his career, but he just increased his scoring average for the second consecutive season, averaging 27.3 points per game with pristine efficiency. After raising his scoring average to 28.2 points per game this postseason, there’s no signs of decline.

OK, the ankles. Yes, the ankles. There’s reason to worry that Curry’s wheels will deflate faster than the average NBA player, but even if Curry moves off the ball and becomes more of a spot-up shooter, I still think he’d stretch defenses to near half court. We’ve never seen a player like Curry who can launch from just about anywhere with the ball in his hands. But even if he can’t terrorize defenses with his lightning-quick handles and crab-like lateral movement, he’ll still impact the game at a high level simply by standing there beyond the arc. Just ask Miller, Allen and Nash about how that gravitational pull ages.
—Tom Haberstroh

James Harden: Media narrative contributed to Giannis Antetokounmpo winning MVP

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James Harden scored 36.1 points per game last season, the highest-scoring season since Michael Jordan. Harden’s 32-game 30-point streak was the second-longest streak ever. He scored 30 points against every team besides the Rockets.

My favorite Harden stat is just looking at the highest-scoring games of the season:

1. James Harden 61

1. James Harden 61

3. Kemba Walker 60

4. Devin Booker 59

5. James Harden 58

5. James Harden 58

7. James Harden 57

7. James Harden 57

9. LaMarcus Aldridge 56

10. James Harden 54

This was a special season.

So, why did Giannis Antetokounmpo win Most Valuable Player?

“Politics” was suggested to Harden.

Harden on 97.9 The Box:

I think the same way you think.

I think once the media, they create a narrative about somebody from the beginning of the year, I think they just take that narrative and run with it the entire year.

I don’t want to get into details. But all I can do is control what I can do, and I went out there and did what I was supposed to do at a high level. You know what I’m saying?

The season, there’s probably only a few seasons where anybody’s ever done that before.

People were tuned in onto how many points that I was going to score the next game. You know what I’m saying? It was a thing.

Harden is right. Narrative factors way too much into MVP voting.

Michael Jordan lost 1997 MVP to Karl Malone due to voter fatigue. In 2011, everyone was so mad about The Decision, voters picked Derrick Rose (and Dwight Howard) over LeBron James for MVP. Those results didn’t reflect what actually happened on the court.

As Houston started slow last season, Antetokounmpo became MVP favorite. That early inclination probably had an anchoring effect for final voting.

The most important step in eliminating biases is acknowledging biases. I have railed for years against letting narrative affect award voting. I think MVP should honor the player who had the best season. Nothing more, nothing less. When analyzing candidates, I make a concerted effort to separate superfluous factors like narrative.

I favored Harden a huge chunk of the season. I entered my final review expecting to pick Harden. But I ultimately landed on Antetokounmpo.

Antetokounmpo was excellent offensively – not as good as Harden, but close enough to offset the massive defensive difference. Caught up in Harden’s scoring brilliance, I hadn’t properly appreciated Antetokounmpo’s defense until late in the process.

Harden had a great year. It was widely judged to be the second-best year in the entire NBA. He should be proud of that.

It’s unsurprising he answered this way, though. After all, he he has been enabled by a general manager who once said Harden’s previous runner-up MVP finishes meant maybe the award shouldn’t exist at all.

Kings’ De’Aaron Fox: ‘I don’t crave to be in a big market’

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De'Aaron Fox was the breakout star of the Kings’ breakthrough season. The future looks bright in Sacramento.

But we’ve seen this story play out so many times. A young player excels in a small market then eventually moves to a more desirable destination. LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George.

Will Fox be different?

Fox, via Corban Goble of ONE37pm:

“I don’t crave to be in a big market,” he says. “After last season, there was a buzz in Sacramento. Everyone in Sacramento is a Kings fan. If we start making the playoffs, or if we become a championship contender, the entire city is going to go nuts. That’s the difference between a big market and a small one.”

I’m glad Fox is happy in Sacramento. He had minimal say in getting there. The Kings picked him in a draft that gives teams massive control over top young prospects. That he landed somewhere he likes so much was largely coincidental. He could’ve easily wound up with Boston, Phoenix, Orlando, Minnesota or any other team picking in that range.

Some of this is Fox’s attitude. I suspect he would’ve found joy nearly anywhere. Now, he’s with the Kings and feeling positively about them.

They’ll have to continue to keep him happy as he approaches free agency. Unrestricted free agency is still several years away. A lot can change between now and then.

But Sacramento ought to feel good about Fox’s outlook now.

Damian Lillard on leaving Trail Blazers for super team: ‘We would win it, but what is the challenge or the fun in that?’

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Kevin Durant left for the Warriors for many reasons. LeBron James left for the Heat for many reasons. Anthony Davis and Paul George forced their way to Los Angeles for many reasons.

Those are life-altering moves. Nobody does something so consequential for a single purpose.

But whether or not it intended, each of those stars took an easier route to a championship. That’s just the reality.

Damian Lillard, on the other hand, has done so much to elevate himself then pull up the Trail Blazers with him. Lillard has often touted his loyalty to Portland. He showed it by signing a super-max extension that locks him in through 2025.

Lillard, via Adam Caparell of Complex:

“To leave, what did I invest all this time for just to leave, you know?” he says. “If I go play with three other stars, I don’t think that many people would doubt that I could win it. We would win it, but what is the challenge or the fun in that?”

I disagree with Lillard’s certainty about winning a title if he teamed with other stars. Not every perceived super team has won. A championship still must be earned. It’s not easy.

But it would be easier.

It also probably wouldn’t be as rewarding.

Durant has admitted winning a championship with Golden State didn’t fill the void he thought it would. Maybe for other reasons, but it’s easy to see the Warriors’ talent advantage as a reason. He joined a title contender and made it even better. He didn’t build that team. Perhaps, a championship with the Nets would mean more to him.

Lillard is less likely to win a title by staying Portland. I think he knows that. He enjoys the city, and the $196 million he projects to earn on his four-year extension doesn’t hurt, either.

But if Lillard ever wins a championship with the Trail Blazers, it would be so gratifying. That’s what he’s chasing.

Lillard made clear he’s not criticizing stars who chose an alternate path. He’s doing what’s right for him, just as they did what was right for them.

His quest should earn him plenty of fans. For everyone who disliked Durant joining Golden State because it offended their sensibilities of how a title pursuit should work, Lillard is a great foil.