Brandon Ingram
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Brandon Ingram blooming ahead of restricted free agency

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Was Brandon Ingram even open to signing a contract extension worth less than the max last offseason?

“Absolutely not,” Ingram said.

And that’s about as far as negotiations went with the Pelicans.

It was a daring stance from Ingram. He missed the end of last season with a blood-clot issue, drawing comparisons to Chris Bosh’s career-ending situation. Ingram had an up-and-down first three seasons with the Lakers. And he was joining a new team in New Orleans, where No. 1 pick Zion Williamson was the main draw. Considering Ingram’s uneven fit with LeBron James, questions swirled about how Ingram would complement Williamson.

“I have expectations for myself that are a little bit higher than everybody else’s,” Ingram said.

Good thing he didn’t settle.

Having an unprecedentedly strong season for someone entering restricted free agency, Ingram will almost certainly get a max contract this summer – maybe even a super-max.

Modern restricted free agency began with the 1999 Collective Bargaining Agreement, which set a standard timeline for first-round picks:

  • Sign four-year rookie-scale contract
  • Play first three seasons
  • Negotiate contract extension
  • If no extension is signed, enter restricted free agency after fourth season

For second-round picks and undrafted players whose contracts end, they can be made restricted – meaning their prior team has the right to match any offer sheet – after each of their first three seasons.

Most successful first-round picks get an extension after their third season. Ben Simmons, Jamal Murray and Pascal Siakam signed max rookie-scale extensions last offseason.

Now, Ingram is proving he belongs on that level.

Ingram’s 24.9 points per game this season are the most – by far – by someone entering modern restricted free agency:

Brandon Ingram

That alone would probably fetch Ingram a max contract – which projects to be worth $167 million over five years from New Orleans or $124 million over four years on an offer sheet elsewhere. Points draw attention on the market.

Ingram isn’t just a volume scorer, though. He has made major strides in his all-around game, becoming a Most Improved Player candidate and an All-Star.

The only players to make an All-Star team entering modern restricted free agency:

Ingram could do even better by making an All-NBA team, which would make him the first super-max-eligible restricted free agent. (Drummond also made an All-NBA team in 2016, but that was when different super-max criteria existed.) A super-max contract projects to be worth $200 million over five years.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Kawhi Leonard look like All-NBA locks. That leaves two openings.

Jimmy Butler, Pascal Siakam, Khris Middleton and Jayson Tatum are also All-Star forwards. Fellow All-Stars Bam Adebayo and Domantas Sabonis are bigs who play some forward. Paul George will be in the mix if he’s healthier the rest of the season. Jaylen Brown could also get consideration at either forward or guard.

So, the odds are against Ingram in a crowded field. But even putting himself in the race is such an achievement.

This breakout year comes just as outside expectations were beginning to fade.

Ingram was a highly rated recruit who drew Kevin Durant comparisons. Ingram starred at Duke, one of college basketball’s most prestigious programs. One of the NBA’s most prestigious franchises, the Lakers drafted him No. 2. The hype grew and grew.

But the production didn’t quite match.

Ingram’s lankiness resembled Durant’s. The shooting ability wasn’t close. Ingram showed flashes on the ball, a role he could rarely fill with LeBron in Los Angeles. Then, Anthony Davis requested a trade, and the Pelicans hired David Griffin, who – working as a TV analyst – had effusively praised Ingram.

“I knew I was going to be in the center of everything,” Ingram said.

The Lakers sent Ingram to New Orleans in the Davis deal. Suddenly, Ingram was on a new team just as his extension window was opening.

But his blood-clot issue loomed over talks.

“I understood everything that went on with the contract and everything, because they wanted to know if I was going to be extremely healthy, if something was going to come back,” Ingram said. “Once I figured out the reason why they didn’t want to do the extension, we didn’t go any further with it. I knew it was not going to be the number we wanted.”

It can be unnerving to play without long-term security. But Griffin’s prior comments reassured Ingram. A report of the Pelicans’ sustained commitment to re-signing the forward has only added more belief.

Ingram has spent most of the season looking like a franchise player.

“My success is bigger than this year,” Ingram said before All-Stars were named. “I look forward in trying to be an All-Star, trying to be a superstar, trying to be a leader of the team, trying to be the best teammate, trying to be everything I can to be the best basketball player that I can be.”

Of course, New Orleans had another franchise player – Williamson – waiting in the wings. Now, the Pelicans have two players who’d each be the envy of many teams around the league.

If William and Ingram can flourish together.

It’s too early to make any sweeping conclusions. The teams to pair an All-Star with a No. 1 pick rookie in the last 20 years:

  • 2020 Pelicans: Brandon Ingram & Zion Williamson
  • 2018 76ers: Joel Embiid & Markelle Fultz
  • 2014 Cavaliers: Kyrie Irving & Anthony Bennett
  • 2008 Trail Blazers: Brandon Roy & Greg Oden
  • 2007 Raptors: Chris Bosh & Andrea Bargnani
  • 2005 Magic: Grant Hill & Dwight Howard
  • 2003 Rockets: Steve Francis & Yao Ming
  • 2002 Wizards: Michael Jordan & Kwame Brown
  • 2001 Nets: Stephon Marbury & Kenyon Martin

None of those duos won even a single playoff series together.

But Williamson is so tantalizing, and Ingram is just 22. Their shared future appears bright.

Williamson has been particularly dangerous at center, where he gets more spacing around him. Ingram hasn’t played much in those lineups. But he looks like a ready fit – which wasn’t the case entering the season.

Ingram is shooting 40% on 3-pointers, up from 33% in prior years. That outside shooting might be unsustainable. This still isn’t a large sample. But Ingram is also shooting 86% on free throws, up from 66% in prior years. That suggests a genuine improvement in his shooting stroke. There’s room for Ingram to regress from beyond the arc and still spread the floor.

Another factor working in Ingram’s favor: His confidence. He says that never waned, even when he didn’t get his desired extension.

“You go out and play the game the right way and you just go out just and playing and just playing with your teammates and having fun, winning basketball games and putting up the numbers or whatever,” Ingram said, “everything takes care of itself.”

Pacers All-Star Domantas Sabonis has 20 and 11, leads Pacers past Blazers

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INDIANAPOLIS — Domantas Sabonis had 20 points and 11 rebounds to lead the Indiana Pacers to a 106-100 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers on Thursday night.

Malcolm Brogdon had 17 points, eight assists, and six rebounds while T.J. Warren and Victor Oladipo scored 15 points each for the Pacers, who have four of their last five.

CJ McCollum had 28 points and eight assists, Gary Trent Jr. had 20 points, and five rebounds, and Hassan Whiteside had 18 points and 16 rebounds for the Trail Blazers, who have lost five of six.

The Pacers were able to hold off the Blazers’ late push.

After Brogdon made a jumper to give Indiana a 103-93 lead with 1:54 remaining, Portland went on a 7-0 run. McCollum’s floater made it 103-100 with 30 seconds to go.

Myles Turner drilled a 3-pointer with 9 seconds remaining to seal it.

The Trail Blazers went on a 10-1 run late in the first half to push ahead.

McCollum made a 3-pointer to give Portland a 42-40 lead with 3:13 to go in the second quarter. After a free throw by Oladipo, McCollum made another three and then a fadeaway to put the Trail Blazers in front 47-41.

Portland led 49-43 at halftime.

Report: Magic and Pistons talked trading for Nets Spencer Dinwiddie

(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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Leading up to the NBA trade deadline, at least two NBA teams talked about making a trade for Brooklyn Nets guard Spencer Dinwiddie. SNY’s Ian Begley reports that the Detroit Pistons and Orlando Magic had internal discussions about trading for Dinwiddie.

Dinwiddie started his NBA career with Detroit before being traded to the Chicago Bulls. After being waived following his only training camp with the Bulls, Dinwiddie signed later that season with the Nets.

That signing has proven to be one of the best finds of Sean Marks’ diamond mining process in Brooklyn. With the Nets, Dinwiddie has become a key rotation player. Last December, Brooklyn inked Dinwiddie to a three-year contract extension that started with this season.

This past summer, Dinwiddie was a key part of the recruiting process to bring free agent Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving to Brooklyn. Dinwiddie did that recruiting even though the addition of Irving cost him a spot in starting lineup.

Oddly enough, it’s the presence of Irving on the roster that could lead Marks to consider trading Dinwiddie. With Irving, Durant and Caris LeVert, that’s three players who need the ball a lot. And there is a lot of overlap in position there as well. With a hole at power forward, Begley posited that a Dinwiddie for Aaron Gordon swap might make sense for both Brooklyn and Orlando.

While no trade agreement was reached prior to the deadline, it’s possible that either Detroit (who projects to have $34 million in cap space this summer and needs to add talent) or Orlando (who needs offensive creators) could engage Brooklyn in trade talks this summer. It’s much easier to make a deal that involves big salaries in the summer when teams have more roster flexibility.

Report: Joel Embiid out at least one week with shoulder sprain

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NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Serena Winters reports that Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid will be out at least one week due to a sprained left shoulder.

Embiid underwent further evaluations Thursday after being injured the previous night in a game at the Cleveland Cavaliers. Those evaluations showed no structural damage. Embiid will be re-evaluated in one week.

That timeline makes it likely that Embiid will miss the entirety of the Sixers upcoming west coast trip, including games against both Los Angeles teams. Embiid’s absence, combined with that of Ben Simmons, will make it hard for Philadelphia to improve upon their woeful 9-21 road record.

With Simmons out due to an impingement in his back, and Embiid joining him on the sidelines, the 76ers have returned Al Horford to the starting lineup. Horford started with regulars Tobias Harris and Josh Richardson, and fill-ins Glenn Robinson III and Shake Milton in Philadelphia’s home victory over New York on Thursday. That group is likely to continue to open games for Brett Brown until he gets his All-Star duo back in the lineup.

Report: Clippers would like to re-sign Montrezl Harrell and Marcus Morris as free agents

(AP Photo/Ben Margot)
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The Los Angeles Clippers will have to focus on building their roster around Kawhi Leonard and Paul George moving forward. They locked up several role players to long-term contracts over the summer, but face two critical free agent situations this offseason with Montrezl Harrell and Marcus Morris. Jovan Buha of The Athletic reports that the Clippers would like to re-sign both players.

Harrell has blossomed into a Sixth Man of the Year candidate while with the Clippers, and will be one of the better big men on the market this summer. Only six to seven teams project to have cap space this summer, but all of them have a need for a player like Harrell. That means LA will likely need to pony up this summer to keep their reserve big man.

The Clippers likely face the same sort of situation with Morris. They acquired him at the trade deadline and gave up a first-round pick to do so. With several picks and swap rights pending to the Oklahoma City Thunder from the Paul George trade last summer, that was a heavy price for Los Angeles to pay.

With the team capped out and lacking draft picks moving forward, LA has little ability to replace either Harrell or Morris if they leave. On the other hand, it could push the Clippers deep into the luxury tax if they retain both Harrell and Morris. Steve Ballmer has the deepest pockets in the NBA, but every owner has their limits. In the end, everything might come down to just how the Clippers season ends. Winning a title, or at least making the NBA Finals, would make it a lot easier to pay to keep the team together.