Domantas Sabonis

Associated Press

NBCSports.com’s 50 best players in 5 years: Paul George, Kevin Durant, players 30-26

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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 50-4645-41, 40-36 and 35-31. These are players 30-26 on our list.

30. Paul George

The fact that we’re even talking about Paul George being on an NBA court — let alone a guy who finished third in the MVP voting last season — is a testament to modern medicine and his work ethic in rehab. His Team USA leg injury five years ago could have ended his career. Now that career has come back home to Southern California where he and Kawhi Leonard have completed the transformation of the once laughing stock Clippers into title contenders (and probably favorites heading into the next season).

George is a complete player on both ends in his prime now, but with a game that should age well so that he is still a significant contributor at age 34 in 2024. Last season he scored 28 points a game for the Thunder, shooting 38.6 percent from three, grabbing 8.2 rebounds a game, dishing out 4.1 assists per night, plus being one of the better and more physical wing defenders in the NBA. If those numbers slip some in the next half-decade, he’s still contributing a lot. It’s his play on that defensive end of the court that, while it likely will drop off some in five years, keeps him high on this list — George is going to be a guy a coach can throw at the other team’s best perimeter player in 2024 and still get results. That skill matters.

The biggest factor in the equation about how good George will be in 2024 is health — George had surgery on both shoulders this offseason, and he has certainly had injuries in his past. Fluky ones, but injuries nonetheless. How well will his body hold up and lets him play his old-school style game will determine his value.

But in five years, George is still going to be good. Maybe very good. And he’s going to help some franchise win a lot of games.
—Kurt Helin

29. Kevin Durant

At times in the last couple of years, Kevin Durant seemed bored. He was a great player who joined a great team and made it even more dominant. There was little perceived suspense in the championship chase. Many just ceded the title to the Warriors. So, Durant worked on expanding his individual game, tinkering with different skills.

That luxury is gone now.

Durant is on the wrong side of 30 and has a torn Achilles. He left Golden State and his multi-star supporting cast for the Nets. Neither individual nor team success will come so easily.

In the next five years, Durant has a chance to reshape his legacy. He’ll never completely shake taking the easier route to a title with the Warriors. But if he plays a leading role in a Brooklyn championship, even with Kyrie Irving also starring, that’d prove he can elevate a team to that level.

By 2024, he’ll almost certainly be well past his prime. If Durant’s history of injuries compound, he could be finished well before this. But even with the torn Achilles likely accelerating his downfall, he’s declining from an extremely high peak. His shooting, handles, size and fluidity give him a chance to age gracefully.
—Dan Feldman

28. D'Angelo Russell

One year ago, would D’Angelo Russell have made this list? Maybe, he would have been in consideration, but if he did, he certainly would not have been this high up on it.

That’s the kind of leap Russell’s game made last season, one large enough that the Golden State Warriors were comfortable offering him the four-year max this summer (the most they could do in the Kevin Durant sign-and-trade). Russell earned his max averaging 21.1 points and dishing out seven assists per game while shooting 36.9 from three last season in Brooklyn. Numbers that made him an All-Star. His game is all about hesitation, starts and stops that throw defenders off, combined with fantastic court vision that lets him find the open big man rolling to the rim or the open shooter in the corner. Last season his assist percentage went up and his turnover percentage dropped.

However, what really changed last season is Russell’s shots started to fall. In particular, he shot a lot better from floater range and from three — now he was a threat to score, not just pass, and it opened everything up.

Russell also matured as a person, setting the stage for him to be a leader in Brooklyn and the kind of player other teams want in their locker room. The Laker version of Russell was not that guy. He’s grown up, he and his game have matured, and Russell should take Kenny Atkinson to dinner because the professionalism and slow-and-steady growth Russell learned in Brooklyn got him that max contract.

Russell will be in his prime in 2024, at age 28, and those shooting and passing skills should be heightened. He could use to become a guy who is grittier on defense (he still gets hung up on picks) and more willing draw contact when he drives, but Russell is an All-Star point guard living up to the promise of being the No. 2 pick. In his prime, he’s going to win some team a lot of games in 2024.
—Kurt Helin

27. Jaylen Brown

What stood out watching Jaylen Brown when USA Basketball training camp came to Los Angles last week was that he was playing freely and aggressively. Like the Jaylen Brown of a couple of seasons ago, the one from the conference finals playoff run, not the cautious guy hesitating and looking to find his space at the start of last season.

Brown was among the numerous young players who struggled in Boston last season when Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward returned and changed the dynamic. Rather than take the expected leap forward in his third season, Brown’s start slow — 40 percent shooting overall and 25 percent from three the first 20 games — eventually cost him his starting spot. Brown had to adapt to coming off the bench.

Brown adjusted to that role and by the end of the season and was one of Boston’s few bright spots — after the All-Star break he averaged 13.8 points per game with a 59 True Shooting Percentage.

Brown may have found his groove again, but this is still a team with Marcus Smart starting at the two and Jayson Tatum and Gordon Hayward on the wing, all ahead of Brown on the depth chart. Brown is going to have to earn his run on this roster.

Was the reason for Brown’s plateau last season the chemistry issues around Irving? If so, will the “put his arm around you and run with you” style of leadership Kemba Walker brings to Boston help Brown make the leap we expected a season ago? Or, were expectations of Brown as an All-Star player too high?

This coming season will start to give us our answer. However, watching him this summer, Brown looks like a guy ready to take that step up. The NBCSports prognosticators believe Brown is going to come close to reaching his ceiling now, not fading away, which is why he is this high on the list.
—Kurt Helin

26. Myles Turner

Myles Turner feels poised for a breakout season. At least in the eyes of fans. While he has gone underappreciated nationally the folks at USA Basketball saw what Turner had become and put him on Team USA this summer.

Here’s what I like best about Turner (and Pacers/USA fans should, too), when I asked him about his game in five years, personal goals and getting a brighter spotlight, he always tied that back to team success.

“With the whole world watching (the FIBA World Cup) it’s a chance for me to go out and show a little bit of what I can do, but it’s not about that,” Turner told NBCSports.com in Los Angeles, while USA Basketball trained there. “It’s about sacrifice at this point. We’re here, you’ve got to sacrifice. You’re not going to be able to play 30 minutes a game, shoot the ball 20 times a game, you have to come out here and play within a role.”

In his role with the Pacers Turner made a leap last season. He led the NBA in blocked shots at 2.7 per game and had more blocks (199) than the entire Cleveland Cavaliers team (195). Plus Turner shot 38.8 percent from three. He evolved into an All-Star level center and a guy who was fifth in Defensive Player of the Year voting (that award voting always seems to be about a year behind what is happening on the court).

The Pacers’ big man is just 23 and in the past couple of seasons has found his rhythm in Indiana, in a rotation with Domantas Sabonis. Turner said he sets his goals one season at a time, but he’s set his sights high.

“Defensive Player of the Year is a big goal of mine, I want to obtain that by any means necessary,” Turner said. “All-Stars, obviously, that’s on everybody’s list of things to do. And just getting out of the first round of the playoffs, I’ve been in the league four years now and been to the first round every year.”

Turner’s defense is his calling card, but what gets him into the All-Star games and on All-NBA teams will be continued improvement in his offense — keep knocking down threes, take fewer long twos (although he hit a respectable 41.1 percent of them) and improve his passing to rack up assists as defenses start to adjust to him.

In five years, when Turner is at his peak at age 28 in 2024, he could be one of the top few centers in the NBA. An anchor of a very good team — one that makes deep playoff runs. Nothing needs to change, stay on the course he is on and the recognition — and wins — will come.
—Kurt Helin

Pacers deconstruct playoff team to build similar-level playoff team

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NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

The 2018-19 Pacers built a strong identity.

They were balanced and persistent despite relying on numerous players with expiring contracts. Indiana won 48 games, showing no signs of internal strife while deal with Victor Oladipo‘s injury. In a situation where many players would’ve turned toward individual goals, the Pacers stuck together.

But Indiana came undone this summer.

The Pacers lost four playoff starters: Thaddeus Young (signed with Bulls), Bojan Bogdanovic (signed with Jazz), Wesley Matthews (signed with Bucks) and Darren Collison (retired). Cory Joseph (signed with Kings) and Tyreke Evans (banned) also departed.

This is only the second time in since 1985 (as far back as Basketball-Reference tracks postseason starts) a team lost four players who started every playoff game the prior season.

In 1999, the Magic signed-and-traded Penny Hardaway to the Suns, traded Nick Anderson to the Kings, traded Horace Grant to the SuperSonics and traded Isaac Austin to the Wizards. Orlando was clearing salary for 2000 free agency and eventually landed Tracy McGrady and Grant Hill. Between, the Magic even went a surprisingly strong 41-41 in 1999-00 behind scrappy additions John Amaechi, Ben Wallace and Chucky Atkins and rookie coach Doc Rivers.

Indiana is making no such willing step back.

The Pacers added several helpful players this summer: Malcolm Brogdon, T.J. Warren, Jeremy Lamb, Justin Holiday and T.J. McConnell. The goal is clearly to build on consecutive 48-win seasons.

Indiana got much younger in all the roster turnover.

The big prize was Brogdon, but he came at a substantial cost. The Pacers guaranteed the 26-year-old with a history foot trouble $85 million over four years. They also sent the Bucks a first-rounder and two second-rounders in the sign-and-trade for the restricted free agent. Brogdon is a good player, but that’s a lot.

Warren arrived via trade from the Suns in a much easier call. Phoenix sent Indiana the No. 32 pick just to take the 25-year-old forward. With $35.25 million and three years left on his contract, Warren is probably slightly overpaid. But he might not be. The high second-rounder (which the Pacers flipped to the Heat for three future second-rounders) more than covers the difference.

Signing Lamb to a three-year, $31.5 million contract looks like good value. A 27-year-old wing with his offensive talent is usually much more expensive.

Another helpful wing, Holiday came even cheaper. He settled for the room exception after the market dried up.

McConnell ($3.5 million guaranteed next season, $1 million of $3.5 million guaranteed the following season) will fill a role in the backcourt. The size will depend on second-year Aaron Holiday‘s readiness for the rotation and Oladipo’s return from injury.

A healthier Oladipo was always bound to make the Pacers better. The new younger talent – including No. 18 pick Goga Bitadze – gives Indiana a chance to create something for the long haul.

Still, the Pacers had a winning formula the last couple years. They’ve disrupted it. That’s uneasy, even as there’s no guarantee the departed veterans would’ve maintained their production as they aged.

I’m also not convinced the new lineup has staying power. Indiana plans to start Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis, both players who should primarily play center. Those two work together fine for now, but they’re better off apart.

That said, the big-man pairing can also help the Pacers maintain their culture of toughness and defense. Coach Nate McMillan and work with this group.

Only Indiana’s roster has changed. The reasonable expectation for this team hasn’t.

Offseason grade: C+

The strangest All-NBA ballot

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Remember those odd All-NBA votes? Dwyane Wade, Luke Doncic, Danilo Gallinari and Andre Drummond on the second team, Marvin Bagley III on the third team.

One voter – Kennegh Lau of BesTV, a Chinese outlet – is responsible all those. His ballot:

First team

G: Stephen Curry (Warriors)

G: James Harden (Rockets)

F: Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks)

F: Kevin Durant (Warriors)

C: Joel Embiid (76ers)

Second team

G: Klay Thompson, Klay (Warriors)

G: Dwyane Wade (Heat)

F: Danilo Gallinari, Danilo (Clippers)

F: Luka Doncic, Luka (Mavericks)

C: Andre Drummond, Andre (Pistons)

Third team

G: Damian Lillard (Trail Blazers)

G: Donovan Mitchell (Jazz)

F: Marvin Bagley III (Kings)

F: Pascal Siakam (Raptors)

C: Rudy Gobert (Jazz)

A couple other standout All-NBA votes: Michelle Beadle of ESPN voted Eric Gordon third team at guard ahead of Kemba Walker, Bradley Beal, Klay Thompson, etc. Richard Walker of the Gaston Gazette voted Domantas Sabonis third-team forward ahead of LeBron James (who played more minutes than Sabonis!).

There are outlier votes for every award. You can dig through all the results here. Massimo Lopes Pegna of La Gazzetta Dello Sport (an Italian newspaper) apparently submitted his All-NBA team as his All-Defensive team (though it doesn’t exactly match his actual All-NBA team). Beyond that, these votes aren’t necessarily wrong. The consensus isn’t always right.

But All-NBA voting has taken heightened importance with its super-max connection. Hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake. Ballots like Lau’s will increase scrutiny on the system.

That’s an overreaction. There are 100 voters so no single ballot carries too much importance. Again, it’s OK for someone to stray from the consensus.

It’d still be good to reconsider the salary incentives of All-NBA, though. The players who had the best regular seasons – my All-NBA criterion – aren’t necessarily the ones who deserve the highest salaries in years to come. It’s a flawed link, and that goes far beyond Lau’s ballot.

Clippers’ Lou Williams won second-straight, third overall Sixth Man of Year Award

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The Clippers bench play this season was the reason they made the playoffs (and pushed the Warriors to six games in the first round). Montrezl Harrell blossomed into his own as part of that.

However, it was Lou Williams who made it all work, which is why he won his second straight (and third overall) Sixth Man of the Year Award on Monday night. He garnered 96 of the 100 first-place votes.

Williams spoke from the heart about second chances and his faith in himself.

“Four years ago, I thought I was done, like I was coming to the end of my career,” Williams said.

Williams averaged 20 points a game and he is still one of the better bucket getters in the NBA, an isolation master. What he did better this year, however, was playmaking, dishing out 5.4 assists per game. His teammate Montrezl Harrell — the NBA’s best energy big off the bench last season who finished third in the Sixth Man voting — was the biggest beneficiary of those passes.

Indiana’s Domantas Sabonis came in second in the voting, with Spencer Dinwiddie of the Nets third and Terrence Ross of Orlando fifth. Here is the voting breakdown.

How 2019 NBA Draft impacted what happens in free agency

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The NBA Draft already had a league-changing impact on free agency.

Or, to be more accurate, the NBA Draft Lottery did. When the Lakers moved up to get the No. 4 pick, it sweetened the offer enough to make the Anthony Davis trade happen. That changed the plans of the Lakers and Pelicans — and to a degree the Celtics, Knicks, and anyone else who thought they had a shot at Davis — heading into the draft and free agency.

That said, many of turning point moments coming this July were completely unaffected by what happened in the Draft. Let’s take a look.

WHAT CHANGED

• The Lakers traded for Davis and now it’s about rounding out the roster. Los Angeles might have landed Davis anyway — his agent, Rich Paul, could not have pulled more levers to try to make that happen (as an agent should for his client) — but the Lakers getting the No. 4 pick put the offer over the top. At the draft, the Lakers also picked up second-rounder Talen Horton-Tucker, who has potential but is not ready to contribute much in the coming season. Now for the Lakers it becomes about how to best build out the roster around Davis and LeBron James: Clear the cap space and chase one more star, such as Kemba Walker; or, use that money to land three players (give or take) in the $7 million to $10 million range to go around the three quality rotation players the Lakers already have (meaning chase players such as Trevor Ariza, Danny Green, J.J. Redick, and others in that range).

One thing on draft night made the timing of the Lakers’ moves clear: With the Pelicans trading the No. 4 pick to Atlanta, is Davis trade will be executed on July 6. The floated of pushing the trade itself back to July 30 to create more Lakers’ cap room to sign players will not happen with another trade now hinged on the Laker/Pelican deal going through. That was agreed to before the trade, if the Pelicans moved the No. 4 pick then the Davis deal got done the first chance it was allowed (July 6). That means the Lakers will have between $24 million and $32 million in cap space. One part of the equation is if Davis waives his $4 million trade bonus. For the Lakers to have the full $32 million in cap space, they need to trade Isaac Bonga, Mo Wagner, and Alex Caruso into cap space somewhere and get them off the L.A. books. Expect the Lakers to pull that off in the coming weeks.

• Boston made trades on draft night, but of the slow build, not grand, variety. Kyrie Irving‘s disenfranchisement with Boston — the city, his young teammates, Brad Stevens, clam chowder, pretty much everything — blew up Danny Ainge’s plans. Trading for Davis was off the table, Al Horford isn’t sticking around for this, and the Celtics aren’t quite back to square one there is a reset. Boston made a couple of trades on draft night and ended up with a nice haul of young players — Romeo Langford, Grant Williams, Carsen Edwards, Tremont Waters, and the Bucks’ 2020 first-round pick (protected). Danny Ainge will have a new plan, and he has some cap space this summer, but there will be no panic moves.

• The Knicks are on the Plan C. Or D. Or E. Maybe all the way to R at this point. The Knicks dream summer? Win the lottery and get Zion Williamson and pair him with Durant and Irving (or maybe Kemba Walker). Now? They will still chase Durant and remain the reported frontrunners, but there are more teams seriously in the mix, and Durant will not play next season as he rehabs anyway. The Knicks want a meeting with Kawhi Leonard, but they are a longshot to land him. Next season in New York may be about seeing how just drafted R.J. Barrett fits with Kevin Knox and Mitchell Robinson. It’s not the summer Knicks fans dreamed about.

• What are the Pacers planning? No doubt center Goga Bitadze was the top player on the Pacers’ draft board when they took him No. 18, but it raises a question: What is the plan in Indiana? There have been rumors of them wanting to go with either Myles Turner or Domantas Sabonis at center, not the platoon we saw last season, and Bitadze gives them some cover for it. The Pacers want to sign or trade for one more good playmaker to go next to Victor Olaidpo, and with Mike Conley now in Utah one target is off the board. Ricky Rubio at the point is a top target, but they have the room to be bolder. They are a team to watch.

WHAT DID NOT CHANGE

• Kawhi Leonard will tip the balance of power. No one decision this summer will change the landscape of the NBA like Leonard’s — whatever team he chooses instantly becomes a title contender. While the Lakers and Knicks want to get meetings (and may, nobody knows what Leonard’s process will be, exactly) I have heard from sources for almost a year now that those two teams were not mix in a meaningful way, and numerous others have reported that as well. This is a two-team race: Stay with the Raptors and be the favorites in the East, come back to Los Angeles and be a Clipper, turning a 48-win team into a contender. While speculation is rampant, nobody knows which way Leonard himself is leaning, and he has not tipped his (giant) hand. Whatever he chooses, it tips the balance of power between the conferences.

Kevin Durant has to decide where he wants to do his rehab, and eventually play. Durant is a kingmaker just like Leonard, but not in quite the same way because he will miss most or all of next season recovering from his torn Achilles. The Warriors are in the mix, but the Nets (theoretically with Kyrie Irving), Knicks (they also would like to play the Irving card), Clippers, Lakers, and others would like meetings and a chance to make their case. What does Durant want? Not to be recruited. After that, nobody knows because nobody knows how the injury changed his mindset.

• Kyrie Irving has to decide if he wants to go to Brooklyn, the Nets have to decide if they want Irving without Durant. Irving is not the same level of franchise player that Durant and Leonard are — his leadership reputation took a serious hit this past season — but he is still an All-NBA level guard who makes a team much better. The Celtics wanted him for his play and to help win Anthony Davis over after the trade but that plan blew up. The Nets remain the frontrunners to land him, but some in the organization wonder if they want him without Durant. They probably sign him either way — Irving is an elite player, not just bait — but the Nets aren’t the same with just him replacing D'Angelo Russell.