Five must-watch players when NBA free agency opens Thursday night

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Big-name, game-changing players are about to become NBA free agents: James Harden, Zach LaVine, Bradley Beal.

Boring.

All three will quickly re-sign with their current teams (Beal and LaVine for the max, the only interesting question about Harden is how much of a discount he takes to stay in Philly). The action is elsewhere in 2022 NBA free agency, which opens at 6 p.m. Eastern on June 30 (Thursday).

Here are five players that are must watch as free agency opens — not all are free agents, but all could be on the move to new teams. All five are the unknown, the wild cards, not situations that are predetermined long before free agency opens. Check them out.

1) Deandre Ayton

Former No. 1 picks almost always get a max contract extension off their rookie deal — since 2008, only two have not (Anthony Bennett, Markelle Fultz).

Deandre Ayton is about to be the third — despite him averaging 17.2 points and 10.2 rebounds a game last season as the starting center on a team that had the best record in the NBA, a team that went to the NBA Finals the year before. The Suns don’t want to pay him the max. They didn’t last summer when they didn’t put a max extension offer on the table, and they didn’t after this season ended with a frustrated coach Monte Williams playing Ayton just 17 minutes in a close-out game and when asked why said, “it’s internal.” It looked like Ayton was done in Phoenix.

However, the market has not been kind to Ayton. There have not been teams falling over themselves to offer Ayton the max. The Suns would be open to a sign-and-trade (it would keep Phoenix out of the luxury tax, and never forget Robert Sarver still owns this team) but that has yet to materialize either. There was a time Detroit was thought to be the frontrunner to pay Ayton big money, only to watch them draft Jalen Duren and start using their cap space to take on Knicks contracts so they could throw big money at Jalen Brunson (the Pistons racked up draft picks for their troubles). Ayton’s other prospects appear to have died on the vine as well. Portland decided to stick with Jusuf Nurkic. Toronto has been mentioned. Atlanta may be the most typical: They are interested but don’t want to give Ayton the max, and their focus has been elsewhere.

Can Ayton find a max offer on the market? Can he find a sign-and-trade deal that gets him face-savingly close to the max and out of Phoenix? Ayton has said he is under-utilized in Phoenix and can do so much more on offense, but is there a team willing to give him a chance to prove it? There probably should be — he was a 17-and-10 guy who may be inconsistent but is a quality center — but the value of more traditional centers in the league continues to drop.

Or are Ayton and the Suns going to strike some kind of keep-the-marriage-together shorter-term deal where nobody is really happy? Ayton’s situation is the most wide-open in free agency, and it feels like anything is possible.

2) John Collins

Not a free agent, but is anybody going to trade for a bouncy 24-year-old forward who averaged 16.2 points and 7.8 rebounds a game, shot 36.4% from 3, and can block some shots? Atlanta has been trying hard to trade Collins since the February deadline and through this NBA Draft, yet he is still a Hawk.

There have been nibbles — the Kings and Celtics at least talked with the Hawks about trades on some level — but no bites. The Spurs preferred Danilo Gallinari and draft picks over Collins (because Collins would have helped them win more now, and that’s not the goal in San Antonio).

Collins has four years and $102 million left on his contract — no small amount, but not out of line with what he brings to the table. This isn’t an anchor of a contract and, again, he is just 24.

It’s tempting to say “I’d be shocked if Collins is still a Hawk a week from now,” but I said the exact same thing on draft night, yet here we are. Will some team that strikes out on its free agent forward wish list put together a trade package for Collins? Atlanta is listening, the phones are open.

3) Miles Bridges

Along with Ayton, Bridges is at the top of this year’s restricted free agent class — and like Ayton, Bridges is struggling to get a max offer from anywhere (despite reports the Hornets would be hesitant to match a max offer for luxury tax reasons).

Hornets GM Mitch Kupchak dampened Bridges’ market by saying they would keep him. Add into the mix that Bridges was just arrested for felony domestic abuse this week and teams may be hesitant to make an offer (we don’t know the details of that case or how it could impact his free agency).

Bridges is an athletic wing, a solid and improving wing defender who took a leap forward last season and was in the mix for Most Improved Player, averaging 20.2 points and 7 rebounds a game. He plays well off LaMelo Ball — the Hornet should want to lock him up and keep him happy (hence Kupchak’s comment). He’s not a consistent 3-point shooter yet, but he’s improving.

Indiana and Memphis have been rumored to have interest in Bridges, but whether that leads to an offer is another question. Detroit also has been rumored as a potential team trying to poach Bridges — they just saw Jerami Grant get traded and create a hole on the wing — but they have focused their cap space elsewhere (specifically, taking on contracts the Knicks want to dump). Is there another surprise suitor for Bridges, or will he have to figure out something with the Hornets that is less than what he had hoped?

4) Collin Sexton

The wildest card on the board — it’s unclear what the market will be for Sexton, what teams might step up and make a genuine offer, and if the Cavaliers would match it or just wave goodbye as they put their arm around Darius Garland.

Sexton can get buckets — he averaged 24.3 points per game two seasons ago. However, he’s not a good defender, not a great passer, and his dominant style frustrated teammates. Add to that he missed all but 11 games last season due to a torn meniscus. There are many question marks, but there is always room for a scorer in the league.

Some teams picture Sexton more in a sixth man role — would he accept that and the payday that comes with it (around $18 million a year)? Does he want to start, and if so, what teams want him in that role?

There have been a lot of teams rumored to be interested — Pacers, Knicks, Pistons, Wizards — but none that have him as a top priority. Sexton is another restricted free agent, the Cavaliers can match any offer, which could lead to a sign-and-trade. But where and for how much are among the mysteries for the wildest card on this list.

5) Rudy Gobert

It’s no secret that Danny Ainge and the Utah Jazz have listened to offers for Rudy Gobert, but their asking price — an All-Star (or future All-Star) young player plus picks and enough salary to match for tax reasons — has other teams backing away. Talks cooled around the draft.

Will they heat up again now? The Bulls have long been considered a frontrunner (with a deal based around Nikola Vucevic), but nothing has been solid yet. Minnesota gets mentioned as a landing spot because new team president Tim Connelly wants to put a defensive big man next to Karl-Anthony Towns, but again no deal appears close (would the Jazz want D'Angelo Russell back in a deal?).

All that on top of the fact Gobert has four years and $170 million remaining on his max contract extension and it’s tough to put together a good trade for the three-time Defensive Player of the Year. The Jazz will try, but new coach Will Hardy may have to figure out a way to get more out of the Gay/Donovan Mitchell pairing.

He’s worth watching, though, because a lot of teams could use a Gobert.

Reports: Kyrie Irving demands trade before Feb. 9 deadline

New York Knicks v Brooklyn Nets
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Kyrie Irving‘s agent tried to spark contract extension talks with the Nets recently, but Brooklyn felt no rush to dive into those talks, and the offer they did make — not for a full four years and filled with guarantees for Irving to meet — increased Irving’s frustration with the organization. The Nets, wisely, wanted to see more out of Irving before talking about the future, while Irving has felt everything with Brooklyn has been conditional.

Irving responded with a bombshell, demanding a trade before the Feb. 9 deadline. Shams Charania of The Athletic was first with the news, but Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN and Chris Haynes of Bleacher Report have since confirmed it.

 

So much for a quiet trade deadline.

There are so many angles to this bombshell, but the sense of Irving feeling disrespected by Nets management and ownership is not new. Charania added this detail in his story at The Athletic:

The Nets recently offered Irving an extension with guarantee stipulations, according to league sources, an offer which was declined.

Irving wants a four-year, full max extension, no stipulations, Charania reports. That’s also what he wanted when he pushed for a contract extension with the Nets last summer, but after a couple of seasons of disruptions and him missing a lot of games due to his COVID vaccination status, the Nets were not interested in cementing their relationship long-term (Irving did look around for a new home, but that went nowhere).

The disruptions carried over into this season when Irving was suspended for what became eight games due to a Tweet promoting an antisemitic documentary. Through all this, the Nets fired Steve Nash as coach.

Whatever has happened off the court, when Irving has been on the court he has been his elite playmaking self, averaging 27.1 points, 5.1 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game. Fans voted him in an All-Star starter, and he has carried the Nets while Kevin Durant has been out.

While the Nets don’t want to give away Irving in a trade, if he’s gone this summer as a free agent they need to find a deal to get something in return (and ideally keep their status as a potential, maybe fringe, contender in the East). The Nets are not wrong that all the places Irving would want to go as a free agent will require a sign-and-trade, which gives Brooklyn some leverage. Irving has some leverage here, too: If Team X comes up with a trade the Nets like but Irving lets it be known he won’t re-sign there as a free agent, it limits what teams will offer.

When checking with league sources,  the first name on everyone’s lips are the Lakers, with a package centered around Russell Westbrook and both of the Lakers’ unprotected future picks (a trade that was discussed last summer). The Lakers likely have to sweeten that pot a little with another young player. Adding Irving to the mix with LeBron James and Anthony Davis does make the Lakers a threat to come out of a West with no dominant team, and Los Angeles might be willing to extend or re-sign Irving to a longer deal, they are all in on winning now.

Other teams that come up in conversations are the Heat (a team looking for point guard help and a spark, but does Irving fit the Miami team culture?), the Mavericks need another star next to Luka Dončić, and the Clippers are always active and aggressive at the trade deadline. Shams Charania of The Athletic reports the Suns are interested. Other teams looking to make the leap up to contender status may try to throw their hat in the ring. Considering Irving’s reputation as a challenge for coaches and front office staff, it will be interesting to see how many teams are interested in Irving’s extensions/contract demands.

Whatever direction this goes expect the Irving trade rumors to fly for the next six days.

 

Damian Lillard reportedly to take part in 3-point contest All-Star weekend

Atlanta Hawks v Portland Trail Blazers
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The All-Star Saturday night 3-point contest has passed the Dunk Contest in watchability because the stars still do it. Look at this year’s Dunk Contest, there are some interesting athletes involved, and maybe it becomes a memorable event. Still, there will be no Ja Morant, Zion Williamson, or Anthony Edwards (the way that Jordan, Kobe, and other greats took part in the contest back in the day).

However, the stars turn out for the 3-point contest. This year, that starts with Damian Lillard, according to Chris Haynes of Bleacher Report and TNT.

The coaches selected Lillard as one of the All-Star Game reserves, he was already headed to Salt Lake City. This is Lillard’s third time in the 3-point Shootout.

Over the coming week, expect a lot more big names to jump into the 3-point contest — the best shooters in the game want to do this event (Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson have each done it multiple times, although whether they will this year is unknown).

All-Star Saturday night: Come for the 3-point Shootout, hang around for the Dunk Contest.

Lakers reportedly exploring Westbrook trade in talks with Jazz

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This feels like a “let’s leak this so our fan base thinks we’re trying” report rather than something that will come close to happening.

The Lakers have re-engaged the Jazz in Russell Westbrook trade talks, reports Chris Haynes at Bleacher Report.

The Los Angeles Lakers and Utah Jazz have had exploratory conversations centered around star guard Russell Westbrook, league sources tell Bleacher Report. However, the Lakers are said to be in communication with most teams to sift through the most reasonable and logical options available.

If the Lakers couldn’t pull off a trade like this over the summer, what has changed now?

The Lakers would be more than happy to move on from Westbrook and bring in more shooting and depth, but this is Danny Ainge they’re dealing with — the price would be both the 2027 and 2029 first-round picks, likely unprotected. The Jazz would send back some combination of Mike Conley, Malik Beasley, Collin Sexton, Jordan Clarkson and Kelly Olynyk — do any three of those players make the Lakers title contenders this season? Are the Lakers willing to give up those two picks to be a team that could make the second round of the playoffs?

Now, if the Raptors get in the trade game, would the combination of Fred VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr. get the Lakers to surrender Westbrook and both picks? John Hollinger at The Athletic says that scenario is floating around, although everyone continues to wait to see if the Raptors are going to jump into the trade market with both feet.

The smart money is on the Lakers making a smaller move close to the trade deadline, likely involving Patrick Beverley and some second-round picks. Something similar in size to the Rui Hachimura trade, although the Lakers want — or at least are going to project they want — to hunt bigger game.

The Lakers continue surveying the market for premium shooting. Detroit Pistons sharpshooter Bojan Bogdanović remains a principal target, but there is league-wide skepticism on whether the Pistons are really willing to unload the nine-year veteran. It’s been reported that it would take at least an unprotected first-round pick to get the Pistons’ attention.

The belief within the Lakers’ organization is that they need to make at least one more move by the Feb. 9 trade deadline to give themselves a legitimate shot at competing for a championship, sources say.

Road wins over the Knicks and Pacers have the Lakers thinking they are a player away from contending? Los Angeles is unquestionably better with Davis back, and there is reason for some level of optimism in a flat Western Conference. But we’re talking “we can make the playoffs” optimism, there is still a chasm between these Lakers and contending — the gap between their second and third-best players (and the rest of the roster) is just too great.

Still, look for some kind of Lakers trade at the deadline. They are one of the more active teams out there. Just don’t expect it to be Westbrook.

Dončić leaves game with heel contusion, could miss games

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Luka Dončić was in control — he scored 21 points in the first quarter — and the Mavericks were cruising to a win.

Then Dončić went for a dunk, Brandon Ingram slid in for the block from behind, and Dončić hit the ground. Hard.

Dončić tried to stay in, but after one more play went back to the locker room and did not return due to what the team called a heel contusion. He could miss a game or two of the upcoming Mavericks’ five-game road trip — which starts with a nationally televised game Saturday in Golden State — according to Jeff Stotts of In Street Clothes.

There likely will be more information from the team over the next 24 hours.

How much the Mavericks need Dončić was on display the rest of this game. The Pelicans stormed back and might have had a chance to tie the game with 3.4 seconds left when a blown call by the referees — Ingram blocked an inbounds pass but was ruled out of bounds in doing so, when he wasn’t — robbed them of that opportunity. Larry Nance Jr. took his shot at the officials for that.

With this win, the Mavericks moved into fourth place in the West (ahead of the Clippers, who fell to the Bucks Thursday).