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.”

Rumor: Indiana coach Nate McMillan is on hot seat

Indiana coach hot seat
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Last season, Indiana’s Nate McMillan finished fourth in Coach of the Year voting, taking a team that lost star Victor Oladipo after just 36 games and still got them into the playoffs. McMillan is going to get COY votes again this year for much the same reason — his teams play good defense and overachieve.

Indiana coach Nate McMillan is also on the hot seat.

It’s surprising, and it’s just a rumor, but ESPN’s Jeff Van Gundy and Zach Lowe had this conversation on a recent episode of The Lowe Post podcast (hat tip PacersTalk.net).

Van Gundy: “I had two people come up to me since I’ve been here [in the NBA restart bubble] and say, ‘Nate McMillan’s in trouble.’”

Lowe: “It’s been the hottest rumor all season… What you’ve heard in Orlando’s been going around all season…

“Let me be clear: It’s just a rumor. I don’t know if it’s true. When you talk to people around the Pacers, they say, ‘It’s not true’ or ‘Where you’d hear that from?’”

Maybe management wants a more modern offense, the Pacers are bottom eight in both three pointers attempted and pace. Overall, Indiana’s offense is middle of the pack (18th in the league), which is not bad considering it was without Oladipo for most of the season (and he was playing his way into shape when he returned and was not at an All-NBA level).

It’s hard to imagine that the Pacers would make a change this offseason, which will be short and give a new coach less time to ramp up a program. Plus, does owner Herb Simon want to pay two coaches? The finances of the league are helping other coaches keep their jobs.

More than all that, McMillan doesn’t deserve to be fired.

Not that “deserved” has had much to do with NBA coaches keeping their jobs in the past.

 

Phoenix Suns, a perfect 4-0 in the bubble, are growing and thinking playoffs

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The last time Devin Booker walked off the court as a winner in four consecutive games, these were the opponents: Hampton, Cincinnati, West Virginia and Notre Dame.

That is, until now.

Booker and the Phoenix Suns – the team that came to the NBA restart at Walt Disney World with the worst record in the Western Conference and the second-worst record of the 22 teams in the field – are perhaps the best story of the bubble.

They’re 4-0 at Disney, breathing real life into playoff hopes that basically were nonexistent when the season was suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic on March 11. It’s the team’s first four-game winning streak since December 2018; Booker missed one of those games, so it’s his first run of four wins in a row since helping Kentucky make its Final Four run in 2015.

“It definitely feels like a tournament, a big AAU tournament, the March Madness tournament,” Phoenix’s Cameron Payne said Friday. “That’s something I never even got a chance to be in, but hey, I’ll take this.”

The Suns started their bubble run with a win over Washington and followed that with victories against three playoff-bound teams – first Dallas, then the Los Angeles Clippers (both of those games being 117-115 finals, the win over the Clippers sealed by a Booker buzzer-beater) and next a 114-99 victory Thursday over Indiana.

A team that had a stretch of four wins in 20 games during November and December, then a run of four wins in 15 games during January and February, got to the bubble and are now 4-for-4.

The Suns are riding a 10-year playoff drought, the second-longest current one in the NBA, but now they’re thinking big and for good reason.

“Well, you know, this is in the fledgling stages, for sure,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “We’ve got a lot more work to do. And there’s a process that we’ve kind of gotten ourselves involved in and we’re going to stick to that. So, fun? I don’t have time to have fun right now. It’s always good to win, but I’m working right now. And I want guys to understand, it’s fun when you win – but then you’ve got to turn the page and get right back to work.”

Williams understands the reality for the Suns right now. They entered Friday 1-1/2 games out of ninth place and the play-in series that will decide the last postseason berth in the West. And while the 4-0 start has been noteworthy, even an 8-0 mark in the seeding games wouldn’t guarantee the Suns a trip to that play-in round.

The Suns play Miami on Saturday, then finish the regular season against Oklahoma City, Philadelphia and Dallas.

“I’ve been in five years now and haven’t had that much success,” Booker said. “But, you know, I’m working hard every day to turn that narrative and change that narrative. We have a good bunch in here to do it. A lot of young players mixed with some veteran presence and it’s a good look for us. So, we’re going to keep our head down, keep working.

“I don’t think anybody here is worried about 4-0. We still have plans and goals for this team to reach and 4-0 wasn’t it.”

Booker is averaging 28 points in the four games. Deandre Ayton, another big piece of the young Suns’ core, is averaging 18.3 points and 9.3 rebounds. There are six players averaging double figures in all, including Payne, who is shooting 53% from 3-point range in his first four games with the Suns.

“We definitely feel good,” Payne said. “We’re not here for no reason.”

Report: NBA players bypassing ‘snitch’ hotline to call Adam Silver directly

NBA commissioner Adam Silver
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No NBA players have been diagnosed with coronavirus in the bubble. And they want to keep it that way. A championship and a lot of money are on the line.

That means preventing players from having close contact with anyone outside the bubble. And, in case someone contracts coronavirus, wearing masks (intact masks) to prevent a wider outbreak.

The NBA set up a hotline – quickly dubbed the “snitch” hotline – for players to report violations.

Chris Haynes of TNT:

Players have been circumventing that process. Sources informed me that multiple players are personally calling commissioner Adam Silver to issue their complaints with things they’re seeing in the bubble.

Adam Silver is accessible to players – particularly the president of the union.

I’m not sure about tattling straight to the top boss when there are other protocols in place. Are hotline calls not resulting in changed behavior?

Either way, it’s important for the NBA to keep players safe – both for their health and the league’s revenue (about half of which goes to players in salary). So, cut Chris Paul anyone calling Silver a break. They’re at least trying to help. And so far, violations inside the bubble have led to reminders, not harsher discipline.

Zion Williamson sitting out Pelicans-Wizards (rest)

Pelicans big Zion Williamson
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The Pelicans have been one of the NBA’s most disappointing teams in the bubble. New Orleans has gone 1-3 at Disney World and fallen to 13th in the Western Conference.

Still (barely) hanging in the race to make the play-in, the Pelicans must face the Wizards without Zion Williamson.

Pelicans:

The Pelicans are treating Williamson carefully – and they should. He’s their 20-year-old franchise player with major health concerns.

But New Orleans still has its highest ceiling now with Williamson on the floor. He’s an offensive force. His interior scoring and gravity create efficient looks for himself and teammates.

Williamson has been woeful defensively, and the Pelicans have bigs – Derrick Favors and Jaxson Hayes – to take Williamson’s minutes. New Orleans can go small, too.

The Pelicans should still beat Washington, even without Williamson. Ideally, this will have Williamson ready for a closing stretch against the Spurs, Kings and Magic without sacrificing today’s game.

Yet, this is really just proof New Orleans isn’t as ready to launch as it appears during Williamson’s most exciting moments. His availability remains murky. His team has run hot and cold. I wouldn’t assume a win over the Wizards – though it’s a game the Pelicans need to preserve their fading playoff hopes.