PBT Mailbag: Could Kawhi Leonard just sit out next season for Spurs?

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Submit your questions to the mailbag for next week by e-mailing pbtmailbag@gmail.com.

I haven’t been watching a lot of Summer League lately, but I have been watching all of you watch it via social media. Frankly, I just don’t get it. I went to Las Vegas last year for the event and I was not impressed. It was 100 degrees outside by breakfast, and the quality of play was, somehow, below college basketball level. I would have much preferred to stay home and watch on my couch where I have things like Doritos and a second bag of Doritos.

That’s not to say that I haven’t watched a few games here and there. I saw the Blazers beat the Jazz on Saturday, and most of the time I spent thinking about a very specific question. That is, which do you think would be longer?

  • The average running time of a Summer League Game OR
  • A video of every airball from all the NBA Summer League games combined into one long lowlight reel

Remember, Summer League rules include four 10-minute quarters, so there’s only a total of 40 minutes that we would have to fill with airballs from these games. I figure each airball highlight lasts something like four seconds, because you’d have to include the play leading up to it as well as the announcer reaction to the airball itself for it to be a worthwhile lowlight.

At four seconds apiece you’d have to have clips of 600 airballs sliced back-to-back to meet the 40 minute minimum. They played 67 games at LVSL last year, which means each game would need to average nine airballs. That’s only 4.5 per team, per game. I feel like I’ve seen at least that many this year. Maybe more, and that’s just from Trae Young.

In any case, it would be super close. The real question is, which would you rather be forced to watch: every LVSL game or every airball?

Some basketball writers don’t even get the choice, god bless them.

Let’s get to your questions.

Kate

Can Kawhi Leonard refuse to play/sit out for the Spurs next season? What ramifications could Kawhi Leonard face if he refuses to play for the Spurs next season? Can they enforce the CBA rule regarding the withholding services on him?

Kawhi Leonard has put the NBA in a tizzy, and nobody is sure whether he is trying to control his own destiny or if he’s simply gone crazy. Rumors are now swirling about whether Leonard needed to sit out for the majority of last season, and now we are talking about whether or not he would hold out for yet another if he remains in San Antonio.

The procedural answer here is that if Leonard was able to find a way to sit out and refused to play for the Spurs next season, that San Antonio would trigger the clause you are referencing in the CBA. Specifically, it means that Leonard would not satisfy the conditions of his contract and that he would not be able to become a free agent next season. Teams can also fine players for internal reasons, and no doubt the Spurs would likely move to that if they felt Leonard had drawn first blood.

However, there is very little precedent for this outside of the NBA Draft. Teams have been frustrated with players they have drafted before — Jon Barry refused to play for the Celtics in 1992 and they finally traded him halfway through his rookie season. Guys like Steve Francis have forced their way off of teams. And we all remember how Kobe Bryant was never going to play for the Charlotte Hornets, right? But that was all before those guys had ever seen an NBA court. Kawhi Leonard is a dang ol’ Finals MVP. It’s just … wild.

The real motivating factor to get Leonard on an NBA floor would be the damage he would do around the league to his reputation if he was still controlled by the Spurs and flat out refused to play for them. That kind of open, poisonous relationship with a franchise is not exactly enticing to other teams. That includes ones looking at him in free agency, especially if those same teams have major questions about whether he is actually healthy enough to be worth the big contract he’s shooting for.

Historically, teams have found a way to trade trouble players off of their franchise simply as way to get the miasma of their unhappiness out of their locker rooms. That’s the most likely case in this scenario, and I doubt we will get too far into the season with Leonard still refusing play for the Spurs. Then again, last season was completely insane when it came to Leonard and that whole dynamic, so I can’t rule it out.

Alex

Please, sir, tell me what will happen with my dear, sweet Michael Beasley. (And also what non-Celtics teams should be offering Marcus Smart.)

Look, Alex. We know you love your sweet little B-Easy. But sometimes you can’t always stay with your favorite players. Sometimes you need to let them be free, and send them to a farm upstate. In this case, that farm is located on a team in a lower-division Russian league. Not in the fun, tricycle-riding bear part of Russia, either. More like the waiting in line for black bread before you go back into the iron ore pit part of Russia.

Seriously though, it seems like we talk about Beasley being a reclamation project a lot and perhaps that’s because he’s still just 29 years old. However, not a lot of teams have cash to throw around and Beasley will be a minimum salary player. He’s going to end up on a team that doesn’t matter, or the Lakers.

Smart should get more looks from teams, although he’s not a likely candidate to end up anywhere but Boston and a few select places because of the cap crunch and because taking his qualifying offer isn’t the best choice. There are going to be so many guys on the market in 2019 and there are still some teams that can offer a Smart a deal now. Taking his qualifying offer and becoming a free agent next year is one route, and obviously there will be many suitors for him next summer. However, he’s not likely on the top of the priority list for many teams and more and more guys seem to be angling for 2019. He could end up in a flooded market, getting the same money next summer as he can right now but having played one year at a reduced salary.

The Kings do make a lot of sense but perhaps that’s because of their track record with wing players. Vlade and the boys seem to stockpile a bunch of guys who have one NBA talent they think they can transform into an elite skill. Smart is already an elite basketball player, and adding him to the Kings along with Marvin Bagley Jr. would help solidify them and make them more legit as they build for the future. It’s boring, but that’s the best answer.

Jeremy

Do you think Tony Parker wore puka shells in 2005?

Let’s do some quick back-of-the-napkin math. Parker was born in 1982, which makes him too old to have seen the first wave of puka shell popularity in the 70s. That means he would have had to get into them when they made a comeback in the late 90s and early 2000s.

Adam Sandler was wearing puka shells as Pip in Airheads, which filmed in 1993. Parker would have been 12 at the time Airheads came out in 1994, and he would have been in high school when the necklace hit peak popularity between 1998 and 2002. You also have to realize that Parker grew up in France, with a completely different fashion wave which might not have been tainted by puka shell culture. Looking at my own middle school yearbook, it’s obvious the U.S. was heavily influenced by BIG PUKA, but you have to guess those classy Frenchies probably ducked some of our American trends.

By 2005 Parker would have been 23, and no self-respecting young adult would be caught dead wearing puka shells. Plus, I feel like by 2005 things had really shifted.

The real question is: Did Tony Parker wear a trucker hat in 2005? You tell me, Jeremy. You tell me.

Nick

Does Jake Layman have a nickname? If not, it should definitely be “Jumpin’ Jake”

I honestly don’t understand the obsession about Jake Layman that Portland Trail Blazers fans have. I mean, I understand what it is, I’m just not allowed to type why they like him.

In any case, as nice a guy as Layman might be, I don’t think you can give a nickname to a player who doesn’t have an impact on the floor. The guy averaged exactly one point per game last season for the Blazers.

Yes, because Portland decided not to renew the contract of Pat Connaughton it’s possible that Layman takes up more minutes this year and we see more of what he can do. But in the meantime, I’m just not ready to give him a nickname just yet. At least not a positive one. Guys who come off the end of the bench usually have negative nicknames, which I’m not in the business of giving.

IF Layman actually produces this season for Portland, here are my top picks:

  1. Yung Kitzhaber
  2. Slayman
  3. Dunkin’ Douglas (middle name)
  4. Eric Judy
  5. Thrillard (nobody else has taken this one I think)
  6. King Jake
  7. Dr. Buckets, Esq.
  8. White Hot

John

Is Sean Marks a top 5 executive?

Considering what he had to work with after taking over from Billy King and formed a team foundation using only cap space or late picks, I think the Nets are closer to relevance than people realize. Agree?

Bob Myers, Daryl Morey, Danny Ainge, RC Buford, Dell Demps, Sam Hinkie (legacy).

So, probably not. Also, Marks just got hired in 2016 so he needs a longer body of work to really judge whether or not he’s a top five executive in the league. Brooklyn won eight more games last season than they did season before, which isn’t exactly a huge jump. Yes, the Nets have made a couple of good moves to build for the future. They snagged D'Angelo Russell, got rid of Timofey Mozgov, and bet big on Allen Crabbe (twice).

Next year seems like it will be a big test whether the Nets are headed in the right direction. They should have the added boost of not having LeBron in their conference, so it will be up to Kenny Atkinson to steer this team near the playoff race. Brooklyn has the ability to create a massive amount of cap space in the summer of 2019 if they renounce most of their cap holds, so whether Marks can convince players to head to New York City will be big. Until then, I’m withholding judgement.

Seriously though, go look at the list of current NBA GMs and tell me most of their fanbases don’t want to fire them out of a cannon toward a big parachute.

Alfredo

With Boogie in the Bay, the Warriors have become The Ultimate Warriors (or Team USA Warriors or Monstar Warriors). The growing fear is that the Dubs dynasty has reached Russell-Auerbach levels where they could possibly surpass a 3-peat. The only teams that want to do something about it are the Lakers and Celtics, but I have a problem with this because it paints the narrative of the two legacy teams being the only hope to save competitive basketball. In fact, the Lakers-Celtics rivalry was what gave the NBA its first taste of relevancy in the 1960s (mostly on the Laker side for their connections to Hollywood and entertainment); the rivalry once saved the league from bankruptcy and a bad image problem that would have made itself second fiddle to the NFL. It’s like saying, “If the Lakers and Celtics aren’t ruling the NBA where they’re the main draw in most of the Finals, then the NBA is ruined.” What are your thoughts on this hypocrisy between this current Warriors dynasty and the Lakers-Celtics rivalry dynasty? How do you think Warriors will fare vs. both legacy teams in the playoffs and Finals respectively? Will there never be parity in the NBA – and is that okay?

The idea that parity doesn’t exist in the NBA is just flat out wrong. Teams float to the top and fall into the bottom all the time. Parity isn’t about all 30 teams taking their turns winning the Larry O’Brien. It’s about whether teams have a field level enough to allow them to compete and complete that cycle of rising and falling.

Yes, if you look at the list of past NBA champions over the last 15 years or so, it really comes down to just a few teams. The Lakers, Spurs, Heat, Cavaliers, Warriors, and Mavericks just to name a few. But there have been seven different teams to finish atop the Eastern Conference since the 2010-11 season (four out West).

If you are using the number of teams that win championships as the measure of parity in the NBA, then perhaps you have an issue. But this talking point has only risen recently because of the seeming inevitability of the Warriors winning the championship for the next few years. While adding DeMarcus Cousins certainly seems to have an upside in the playoffs this year for Golden State, he will not be a member of that team next season, so I’m not making that the nail in the coffin for either side.

There’s no doubt that the league would prefer if the Warriors didn’t have a select few players on their roster, Kevin Durant in particular. The real issue Golden State might push into the light is players taking less than their market value to group together on one team. That may benefit some select owners, but several will likely bring up this issue during owners meetings if it continues.

If people feel exasperated because the Warriors are bound to win the championship every season, then they didn’t pay attention when LeBron James beat them just a couple years ago in the Finals. Weird stuff happens. Stars get hurt. Guys punch guys in the crotch. There’s still some variance you can expect.

Part of being a fan is being along for the ride when your team isn’t the best or doesn’t have a chance to win it all. You can learn all about how your young players will mesh together and where the future of the team is headed. Each season, 29 teams fail to win the championship. That will never change, and as long as that’s the way the season ends every year there’s no use giving up watching pro basketball. Get a grip, everybody.

You know what the best way to win a championship in the NBA is? Have someone who’s not a doofus buy your favorite team. Honestly. Knicks fans know what I’m talking about.

Abdoulaye

What about a trade of Moe Harkless and Meyers Leonard for Serge Ibaka? Damian Lillard and CJ Turner need a traditional frontcourt. Al-Farouq Aminu needs to play at the 3. A starting five of Lillard, CJ, Evan Turner, Ibaka, Jusuf Nurkic with a bench of Seth Curry, Wade Baldwin, Gary Trent, Aminu, Caleb Swanigan and Zach Collins looks decent.

Ibaka would also bring the best of Nurkic as he plays better with a traditional PF like he did with Noah Vonleh. Small ball is good if you only have one of Dame and CJ or if you don’t face a talented big.

I’m not sure this trade moves the needle for either team. Toronto is working on developing a young wing in OG Anunoby already, so Harkless would sort of clog that up. Leonard doesn’t seem to have a lot of additional value for the Raptors at this juncture.

Meanwhile Ibaka isn’t necessarily a valuable trade asset. He was a negative box plus-minus for a very good Raptors team last year, which sort of shows on paper what some people saw while watching him on the floor last year in Toronto.

I also think your overall assessment of the Blazers roster is a bit off. First, Portland doesn’t play small ball. Small ball is what the New Orleans Pelicans used to sweep Portland in the first round. If anything, they play too “big” for some of their Western Conference foes as it is.

Aminu is not a bench player, and he is best while playing the four position. That’s been the case for some time, and of course it is much better when the Blazers have a another 3-point shooter next to him like Harkless or Allen Crabbe. It also helps when the Aminu isn’t ice cold from 3-point range, but at this point he will be a constant yo-yo player from that spot on the floor.

I have been saying that the Blazers need to take a big swing in order to prove to Lillard that they are willing to compete in the West, but I’m not sure that Ibaka is that guy. The reality is the Portland Trail Blazers are stuck where they are until something comes available for Neil Olshey.

In the meantime, I’m excited to read 17 more clickbait articles about how the Blazers are going to trade Lillard to the Lakers. Love them clicks, boy.

See y’all next week.

Submit your questions to the mailbag for next week by e-mailing pbtmailbag@gmail.com.

5 up, 5 down: Is LeBron going to the Lakers wack, meaningless, or great?

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5 Up, 5 Down is a column featuring the best and worst from the NBA.

We haven’t published this column for some time as we have been gone sunning ourselves outside in the beautiful NBA offseason. But now we are back, and LeBron James is rightly on the West Coast. His decision to join the Los Angeles Lakers felt all but inevitable, and even if it doesn’t quite have the basketball impact many are hoping for when it comes to the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets, it’s still the biggest story of the summer.

It seems like LeBron coming to California is a big deal, but if we are to believe that he doesn’t have a real chance of tipping the Warriors or rockets in the postseason, I’m not sure it actually has an appreciable difference on how we view the regular season. The Lakers always get talked about — as does James — so combining them is almost becomes more of an ease of access thing for NBA media.

I kid, of course, but if we have to seriously listen to people pontificate all season about why LeBron can’t make the NBA Finals this year with a roster that includes JaVale McGee and Lance Stephenson, that’s another thing. No doubt some of us are headed that way no matter what, so I suppose we should just tuck in for the ride.

So without further ado.

5 Up

Kawhi isn’t a Laker

As with most Millennials, I am firmly in the camp of players having more control over their destiny in the NBA. But something about this Kawhi Leonard thing … just isn’t right.

It all started a while back when we heard rumors about Leonard drinking nothing but alkaline water, which is something that only gets sold on Instagram promoted feeds and in the types of grocery stores where the hot bar is $15.99 a pound. That seemed harmless enough, but we really haven’t talked about how Leonard and his “people” keep pushing him into a direction away from the league’s best franchise.

Set aside all of the weirdness with Tony Parker and how the Spurs managed his injury over the course of last season: it now it seems like there might always be serious distance created by those advisors between Leonard and whatever team he may be on.

If you are the Los Angeles Lakers or any other team looking at Leonard, I think there are several things to look at. It’s not just about his injury history, and it’s not about trying to make the right swap that keeps your roster mostly intact. It’s also examining the people that are around Leonard and what kind of things they’re going to put into his ear next.

I’m sure I will be proven wrong about all of this in 20 years when Leonard’s book comes out, but in the meantime it definitely seems like such a stark turn it’s hard to ignore the “hidden advisor” aspect of this whole thing. Plus, the NBA is not better when the Los Angeles Lakers are good. LA hasn’t won more than 40 games since 2013 and in that time the association has taken off. Don’t @ me.

Trade him to the Clippers.

DeMarcus Cousins is a Warrior

This move is all kinds of weird on paper, but it makes sense for both parties involved and I am okay with it. First, Cousins gets to try to rehabilitate not only his image as a franchise player, but his playing ability when it comes to being offered a max contract in the summer of 2019.

For Golden State, it’s worth the risk if Cousins comes back toward the end of the season and plays dominant basketball or some semblance of the way he did before his Achilles tear. That makes Golden State even more ridiculous, and perhaps pushes us toward the league finding a way to stop guys taking discounts in their primes to load up on one team.

Plus, if you are a Warriors hater there is like a 30% chance that DeMarcus will torpedo the Golden State locker room.

All the weirdo guys the Lakers signed

We all agree that every Lakers signing works toward the goal of creating a reality show and not an NBA team, right? Next year will not be about basketball for LeBron James. What a Lakeshow.

Paul George staying in OKC

Every single person cannot go to the Lakers, and as the Thunder moved towards trying to keep their own players it only made sense that they were going to offer Paul George a massive contract like the one he signed.

The Thunder will be able to duck some of their luxury tax filings with the Carmelo Anthony move, but still Oklahoma City will carry a massive cap figure as they battle for a middle place finish in the Western Conference. It sort of reminds me about those early 2000s Portland Trail Blazers teams that were always over the luxury tax and getting walloped by the Lakers or the Spurs in the playoffs. It’s truly a beautiful thing to watch a ownership group set a bunch of money on fire for a Game 5 elimination in the second round.

Good for George, and too bad for the Thunder. They won’t have a lot of maneuvering space and I’m not sure getting back Andre Roberson will be enough to counteract the rest of the improvements made in the Western Conference this offseason.

Chris Paul has a gigantic contract

If you are a Rocket hater you should probably love the Chris Paul contract. It’s massive, and although it keeps Houston in contention for the next couple of years alongside the Golden State Warriors, it also means that the Rockets will be laden with Paul’s contract as he continues to age.

Remember, Paul is a player who had knee surgery a decade ago and there are serious doubts about whether he can make it through an entire season — or postseason — without taking on a serious injury.

Houston can play beautiful basketball when they are in the regular season. But in the playoffs this year, they became the same old story. Watching James Harden and Paul use gamesmanship to grab 35 fouls per quarter was boring as hell, and I’m not going to root for it. The regular season Rockets are fun, but the postseason version isn’t. Paul’s decline is likely coming soon, which should save us from having to watch Playoff Houston for too much longer.

5 Down

LeBron James is a Laker

This was both the wackest way possible for LeBron James to end his tenure in Cleveland while simultaneously being the most obvious.

The supposition here, especially with the current Lakers roster, is that James is waving the white flag against the Warriors and the Rockets, allowing them to take over the basketball side of the postseason while he takes on more of a brand focus. That’s fine, and Los Angeles certainly is a good place to do that. There is no arguing that, it’s just that now that James is in LA it’s going to make Lakers fans feel as though their team is relevant again.

Let’s be clear: not even good teams in the NBA are relevant. The Lakers aren’t a good team, even with James on them. There is an 80% chance LA is a complete tire fire next year, which will be fun to watch if you aren’t from Glendale. I’m not saying the Milwaukees and Phoenixes of the world need to be given a fair shake. I’m just not conceding that LeBron in LA is cool in any way.

I suppose this move to California doesn’t matter given that LeBron’s legacy is already set. Even if he plays out the entirety of this next contract with the Lakers, no one will ever think of him as a Laker first. He’s always going to be a Cavalier, then a Heat, then a Laker. It’s weird that moving to Los Angeles, given all of its benefits, won’t have an impact on LeBron’s legacy. If he wins a championship, then we can talk.

Las Vegas Summer League

Summer League is ridiculous. It’s full of bad basketball and air balls, all by top picks you hoped would be much better in their first NBA action. Meanwhile, Vegas itself is a nightmare. It’s a hundred degrees outside by 8:45 AM and any time spent heading to the UNLV facilities is largely dominated by wanting to not soak through your button down shirt.

Here are the stories you can write every year coming out of Summer League. There’s no need to even have this thing.

  • Player A has gained 20 pounds of muscle.
  • Player B was a shooter in college but apparently can’t shoot now.
  • Player C was a second rounder who looks ready to start.
  • Player D scared an entire fanbase when he tweaked a knee. He’s fine, but now you assume he’s going to get hurt if he plays more than eight minutes at a time.
  • Player E went in the Top 5 and is scoring 25 points per game against dudes who will get cut by Israeli league teams. He’s going to fall on his face maybe 10 out of the first 20 games of the actual season.

LVSL exists for one explicit purpose and that’s for all us blog boys to meet each other in person to find out how weird looking we all are. Call me when Summer League is somewhere cool, like Portland. Or the moon.

The Draft was boring

We didn’t have any current NBA players traded during the first round of the actual draft itself. The salary cap crunch has hit everybody particularly hard, and save for the teams going after the likes of the LeBron Jameses and the Paul Georges of the world, many teams had to simply do what the draft was intended for: take the best guy available to develop them.

It’s not like those players can’t get traded later, but it does seem as though many teams will be taking a chance on long-term development of players they might not have wanted in first place.

Meanwhile, all I can think about is how dumb the NBPA was for not agreeing to cap smoothing. Those guys are usually pretty smart, and they have a lot of help on their side, including Michelle Roberts. Maybe they were just scared off by literally every CBA negotiation they’ve ever had with the NBA, where they usually get their own butts handed to them in some unforeseen way. But the NBPA’s flat-out refusal to smooth the cap — as the league suggested for their own good — was a huge blunder. Sure, they gave giant chunks of money all at once to guys like Chandler Parsons and Evan Turner. And good for them! But no doubt more players this season will have to play somewhere they don’t want and take smaller deals in anticipation for next summer because guys like Turner and Parsons got massive deals.

I also wonder if the talk about the summer of 2019 is a bit trumped-up. Sure, a lot of big guys will come on the market and they will get their contracts. But they were always going to get their contracts, whether it was this year or next. The real goal of the NBPA is to have a rising tide that lifts all boats. It’s possible that teams will remember the sting of 2016 and be more reticent to spend big money on role players the way they did that season when next summer comes around.

The Blazers are drowning

I wrote about how the Blazers refusing to re-sign Ed Davis was perhaps an indicator that GM Neil Olshey was going to make a few drastic moves. They have already taken to a couple of the options I suggested, including signing Jusuf Nurkic to a $12 million per-season contract. They have also used up a bit of their mid-level exception, so all that is left from my proposed offseason plan is to utilize their trade exception from Allen Crabbe.

That trade exception expires at the end of July, and it’s unclear whether Portland will be able to find someone good enough to use that exception on. There has been lots of talk in Portland about Damian Lillard perhaps wanting to force his way out of Rip City, which I think is nonsense. However, it wouldn’t be a stretch to think that Lillard is getting a bit frustrated. He has already had a talk with owner Paul Allen, and moving forward it seems like Olshey needs to find some kind of solution, and quick.

I don’t think that Lillard sees losing to the Warriors as that much of an issue. More realistically, it’s the idea of not having a good enough team to take on the Warriors and at least have a chance. That’s why joining the Lakers or playing for the New York Knicks, both terrible teams, doesn’t make sense for Lillard. Olshey needs to show he’s at least trying, and not playing it smooth and safe in the face of free agent failure. Even if it’s another Evan Turner-like gamble, that exception needs to get used by Olshey. If he doesn’t, he might be on his way out of Portland either way.

Carmelo Anthony is leaving the Thunder

Carmelo Anthony was a prolific scorer during his time in Denver. And, for two seasons in New York, he was an efficient power forward. That was his true position. But last year in Oklahoma City, it was apparent that Carmelo was unwilling to play his correct position. He also wasn’t going to come off the bench, and the results were predictable.

Anthony held the ball, killing valuable Thunder possessions while ending up with a negative VORP for the season. Him finding a way off the Oklahoma City roster is good news for both parties, since Anthony will likely get most of his money and the Thunder will be able to avoid some luxury tax considerations.

Now the question is where Anthony will land, with two obvious solutions being the Los Angeles Lakers and Houston Rockets. Adding Anthony to the Lakers would be in line with their offseason plans of adding every bad, weird, former star player that still is active in the NBA. If he joins Rockets, it’s a rejoining of Anthony with former coach Mike D’Antoni, who will butt heads with him once again as they tried to get him to run within the Rockets system.

No doubt many Houston fans are convincing themselves this very instant that Anthony would be perfect when the Rockets turn to isolation.

“He can be a great pick-and-roll man with either Paul or Harden!”

“He’s an iso player! He’s perfect!”

Houston’s isolation system doesn’t rely on one player to simply score in isolation. Their iso sets are more about getting switches, finding mismatches, then putting players in a position to score off the ball from that isolation as a backup plan. Anthony is the other kind of isolation player, one who does not pass out of those possessions and who will create a dip in efficiency while doing so.

Who knows where Anthony ends up, but just about every rumored landing spot is pure comedy.

Do you have a question about the NBA you need answered? Our PBT Mailbag publishes on Wednesdays, so send your question to have it answered by our team of NBA experts. E-mail us at: pbtmailbag@gmail.com.

Report: Trail Blazers re-sign Jusuf Nurkic to four-year, $48 million contract

Associated Press
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Think of Portland and the two players that first come to mind are Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Rightfully. The Blazers didn’t really click as a team until Jusuf Nurkick joined them to provide some steady play inside. Last season he averaged 14.3 points and 9 rebounds a game with a very efficient 19.2 PER. More importantly, the defense was 4.3 points per 100 possessions better when he was on the court.

Which meant the Blazers were going to keep the restricted free agent this summer. The only question was cost.

The answer is about $12 million a year. Nurkic and Portland have reached terms on a deal, a story broken by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Restricted free agent center Jusuf Nurkic has agreed to a four-year, $48 million deal to stay with the Portland Trail Blazers, a league source told ESPN.

Nurkic, 23, turned down a more lucrative four-year deal several months ago, but the marketplace has tightened and he chose to take this deal on Friday, sources said. The deal includes a partial guarantee in the fourth year.

That has played well in the locker room.

Nurkic would be far from the only player to misread how tight this market was and think there was more money for him out there than there really was.

This move keeps the core of a good Portland team together for a few more seasons. Now the challenge for GM Neil Olshey is now to build on that to move up the ladder in the deep and improving West.

Top 20 free agents still on the market

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There wasn’t much money available in the free agent market this season, and that message got through to players — they were grabbing the cash in a Piranha-like feeding frenzy starting on July 1. More than 50 players agreed to contracts in the first five days of free agency, and more than half of those were one-year contracts.

That’s bad news for anyone without a chair as the music stops — there is not much money out there for the guys still on the free agent market. Restricted free agents, in particular, have found the market dry and now have almost no leverage (every player can’t use the Kings as leverage, although they may try).

Those restricted free agents dominate the top of our list of the 20 best players still available as of Friday morning. If your team is looking to round out their roster, these are they guys they are considering, and most are going to sign for a lot less than they expected.

1. Clint Capela (Houston Rockets). He’s a max or near max player but there have been no offers for the restricted free agent because Rockets GM Daryl Morey made it clear he will match any offer and bring Capela back. That has left Capela with no leverage. Capela averaged 13.9 points, and 10.8 rebounds a game last season (with a 24.5 PER), plus was a crucial part of the Rockets starting lineup and switching defense (because he can handle himself on the perimeter fairly well, plus protect the rim). The Rockets were 4 points per 100 better with him on the floor, and he was a big part of their playoff run. Houston needs to make a fair offer, low-ball him and he can play for the qualifying offer then walk as a free agent in a year.

2. Marcus Smart (Boston Celtics). He’s frustrated that no offers sheets have come in that would force the Celtics to match (he’s a restricted free agent), and “hurt and disgusted” by the fact the Celtics have not not made a big bid (the two sides, have talked, despite reports). Boston is letting the market set the price, and Smart isn’t seeing what he expected. Smart is one of the better defensive two guards in the league who can guard one through three. He can switch, he plays with a high motor and gets loose balls, he can get steals. But on the other end of the court, you can help off him and not guard him on the perimeter, daring him to shoot. He wanted more than the $12 million a year or so the Celtics had offered, now he’s likely going to take a lot less.

3. Zach LaVine (Chicago Bulls). UPDATE: He was the one restricted free agent able to use the Sacramento Kings as leverage — he signed a four-year, $80 million offer sheet with the Kings. The Bulls decided to match it, so he remains in Chicago. LaVine has a world of potential, but his game is based on athleticism and he is coming off an ACL surgery, then had to be shut down last season with knee tendonitis. It’s a concern, but if healthy he has the tools to be a quality two guard in the NBA.

4. Jabari Parker (Milwaukee Bucks). Coming off two ACL surgeries, interest in Parker has been lukewarm (the Kings reportedly have had talks, but nothing came of them yet). He’s a versatile scorer who was a 20-point-a-game guy before the second surgery. That scoring made up for his poor defense in the past. Expect the Bucks to keep him, the only question is at what price and for how many years (Parker may want a short contract to prove himself and get back out on the market).

5. Isaiah Thomas (Los Angeles Lakers). His fall from near max player to today has been hard to watch (or imagine from when he was with the Celtics). However, the combination of his hip injury that sidelined him for the first half of last season, and perceived attitude problems in Cleveland that helped lead to a trade, has teams hesitant. He likely will have to take a one-year deal for a few million — maybe the minimum — and prove he deserves more money.

6. Jusuf Nurkic (Portland Trail Blazers). UPDATE: Nurkic has reached terms on a four-year, $48 million contract to stay in Portland. He’s a solid big man who averaged 14.3 points, and 9 rebounds a game with a very efficient 19.2 PER. While teams have moved away from more traditional centers he provides the inside balance, scoring, defense, and rebounding to allow Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum work on the perimeter. They needed to keep him.

7. Wayne Ellington (Miami Heat). Every team could use more shooting, and Ellington shot 39.2 percent from three last season, so it’s a surprise he’s still on the board. Ellington doesn’t bring much defense, rebounding, or anything else, but if a team is looking for a sniper Ellington can be their guy.

8. Luc Mbah a Moute (Houston Rockets). The switchable wing defender was a key part of the Rockets’ regular season defensive success — the team was 4.2 points per 100 possessions better defensively when he was on the court last season. Plus he shot 36.4 percent from three. It’s a little surprising there have been no offers, the Rockets would like to bring him back.

9. Kyle Anderson (San Antonio Spurs). The Spurs want to bring him back, but they have a lot of other balls in the air right now, and no other team has stepped up with an offer for the restricted free agent. “Slo-mo” is a crafty pick-and-roll ball handler and a long, switchable defender, he’s got an unorthodox game that fits well with what the Spurs will do, but would it work as well with another team? He averaged 8 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 2.7 assists this past season.

10. Jamal Crawford (Minnesota Timberwolves). Even at age 38, he can still get buckets. Not as efficiently as he once did, but the three-time Sixth Man of the Year can still score the rock. He’s also good in the locker room. He opted out in Minnesota and some team is going to get him to bolster their bench (the Warriors have long been rumored with a minimum deal, Crawford is waiting to see if anyone else will offer more).

11. Rodney Hood (Cleveland Cavaliers). Another player (like Isaiah Thomas) who saw his stock fall — went into last season as the expected go-to scorer of the Utah Jazz, and by the end of the season couldn’t get off the bench in Cleveland.He’s 6’8” wing who can get buckets, more than a few teams could use that. Is Cleveland one of them?

12. Brook Lopez (Los Angeles Lakers). He has some versatility, he can shoot the three (34.5 percent) and took 41 percent of his shots from deep last season. Plus, he’s an efficient scorer around the basket, hits the boards hard, and uses his size and length to defend the paint. A lot of teams are not looking for his style of traditional center, but a lot of teams could use him for depth off the bench.

13. Montrezl Harrell (Los Angeles Clippers). This may be too low for him on this list. L.A. liked Harrell, a restricted free agent who found his scoring touch last season and averaged 11 a game for the team. He was very efficient with a PER of 24.7 for the Clippers. Other teams have not made an offer on the restricted free agent because it is assumed the Los Angeles would just match, but he may choose to play for the qualifying offer then hit the open market in a year.

14. Tony Parker (San Antonio Spurs). UPDATE: It’s hard to picture, but Parker will be wearing teal on the court next season after reaching a two-year, $10 million deal with Charlotte. Parker admitted it was hard to leave San Antonio, where he has played for 17 seasons, but with the franchise in a state of change he went to the East where he felt wanted and where he could play a bigger role on a team gunning for the playoffs. Parker will backup Kemba Walker (unless Walker gets traded, then…).

15. Michael Beasley (New York Knicks). The man can still get buckets — he averaged 13.2 points per game and shot better than 50 percent overall, plus 39.5 percent from three. He’s not the most focused guy, not much of a defender, but for a mid-level or near-minimum contract coming off the bench he could help a lot of teams.

16. Dwyane Wade (Miami Heat). The real question here is does he retire? If not, if Wade returns, it will be to the Miami Heat for one more season. He’s not chasing a ring with LeBron James (not that the Lakers are winning one next season anyway) or anyone else, he’ll play for the Heat until he hangs it up.

17. Greg Monroe (Boston Celtics). Monroe has game — a below-the-rim game where he can score in the post efficiently and get some boards. Problem is, that’s not what teams want in a center now. He had some value for Boston last season (after falling out of the rotation in Milwaukee) but his style of play has him limited. New Orleans has been rumored, another team could jump in.

18. Kyle O’Quinn (New York Knicks). UPDATE: Literally as this story was going live online, O’Quinn messed it up by accepting a one-year, $4.4 million deal with the Pacers (they are using their room exception, so he got more than the $4.2 million he opted out of with the Knicks. He averaged 7.1 points per game for the Knicks last season, plays within himself, can hit midrange jumpers and can pass.

19. Shabazz Napier (Portland Trail Blazers). The unrestricted free agent had a strong first half of last season and looked like he and his game had grown up, but he struggled after the All-Star break and slid out of the rotation. With Seth Curry in house a return to Portland is unlikely. He should land a deal as a bench point guard somewhere, but for the minimum.

20. Dante Cunningham (Brooklyn Nets). The veteran forward gave Brooklyn and before that New Orleans about minutes and some points (5.7 average) a night last season. He’s not a classic shooter but he can hit a three and will keep defenses honest. Can provide solid depth for a team and a fair price.

Five things we’ve learned through four days of free agency

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In the free agency of 2018 players were grabbing the bag. Fast.

Ordinarily free agency — especially for the big names — plays out over the first week of July as players meet with various teams, try to play teams off one another, and push for the best offer out there. Not in 2018. Not with most teams cash-strapped (only nine teams had more than $10 million in pure cap space to spend signing free agents before free agency). Knowing the market was tight, players grabbed the deal in front of them. Fast.

What did we learn from the first four days of free agency? Here are the five big takeaways.

1) Everyone — players and teams — are focused on 2019. As of this writing, there have been 52 contracts handed out to NBA players this free agency period — 29 of them (56 percent) have been one-year deals, or contacts with an opt-out after one year (stat courtesy Marc Stein). For comparison, the previous couple of years about 30 percent of contracts were one-year deals. This year’s the list of short deals includes big names such as DeMarcus Cousins to the Warriors, as well as the more expected ones, such as Raymond Felton staying with the Thunder.

Why? Money. As mentioned in the intro above, not a lot of teams had money to spend on free agents — the majority of teams were over the cap and/or into the luxury tax, many didn’t even have the full mid-level exception to offer. That changes next summer when many of the contracts signed during the drunken sailor spending spree of 2016 (when the cap spiked) come off the books.

The end result is players are reading the marketplace, then taking one-year deals to get back into free agency when there is more money out there. Cousins did it. Derrick Favors did it with Utah. Tyreke Evans did it. Rajon Rondo. The list goes on and on.

Teams also are biding their time, looking to make a splash in 2019 rather than in this market. Teams are trying to avoid long-term contracts that impact next year’s cap space.

One caveat now for 2019 — the market is going to be saturated. There always will be money to pay the top guys (Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, Kyrie Irving, etc.), and in 2019 that money will trickle down couple tiers below those guys, but there is not going to be enough big money for everyone. Some players who think they are going to get paid next summer will be disappointed.

2) The Lakers won free agency by getting LeBron James, but they are focused on 2019, too. LeBron wasted no time making his call — no formal meeting with the Cavaliers, his agent had a perfunctory one with the 76ers basically just to let them know he wasn’t coming, and that was it. Before free agency was 24 hours old LeBron had made his call and let the world know — he was going to the Lakers.

More than just that, he signed a four-year deal with the Lakers, showing Magic Johnson and company the kind of trust he showed Pat Riley in Miami but never gave to Dan Gilbert or anyone in Cleveland.

With that trust, the Lakers are not overpaying to win now. They have ignored the line thinking that with LeBron at age 33 they can’t spend a year building and must win immediately. Talks to trade for Kawhi Leonard cooled, and the Lakers didn’t throw their remaining cap space at long-term deals for the best players available. Los Angeles didn’t even keep Julius Randle. The roster the Lakers have put together for the 2018-19 season coming up — the young core of Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, plus now veterans (and interesting personalities) Lance Stephenson, Rajon Rondo, and JaVale McGee — will be good, it’s a playoff team, but it’s no threat to Golden State or Houston. Even with the greatness of LeBron, this is a team that will hover around 50 wins in a brutally deep Western Conference, and at best make the second round of the playoffs.

The focus is on getting another superstar, another All-NBA level player. Maybe Leonard, via trade or as a free agent next summer. Maybe another star free agent they can sign into cap space (Jimmy Butler or Klay Thompson). Maybe another star unexpectedly becomes available via trade. Maybe a lot of things, but the Lakers have prized flexibility above all, the ability to sign guys or make deals. They want to contend for titles, but they — with LeBron’s blessing — are thinking a season or two down the line. As part of that plan, they want to get LeBron working off the ball more.

3) Yes, the Golden State Warriors got better, but it was more than DeMarcus Cousins that fell their way. The Golden State Warriors got better this summer. No doubt. Not in the “they formed the Death Star” kind of way that NBA Twitter freaked out about, but Cousins — despite his expected mid-season return and being less than 100 percent, lethargic defense, ball-stopping offense in the post — is an upgrade over JaVale McGee or Zaza Pachulia. Cousins will hit some threes, make some passes, and fit in as best he can in the Warriors’ system.

However, the list of things that have given the Warriors a better shot at a title now goes way beyond just Cousins. For one, the only team that was a real threat to them last playoffs, the Houston Rockets, got a little bit worse when Trevor Ariza took Phoenix’s cash. LeBron James came to the West on a team that is not yet a threat. The Spurs are dragging their feet on the Kawhi Leonard situation, keeping on the bench a player who (if healthy) could help form a contender somewhere. The list goes on. Things have gone right for the Warriors this offseason, but it is more than signing a guy coming off a torn Achilles.

4) Restricted free agents have been left hanging. Clint Capela should have some team offering him a max or near max contract to try to poach him from Houston. Marcus Smart has no offers yet. Nor does Jabari Parker. Or Zach LaVine. Or Jusuf Nurkic. Or Kyle Anderson. Or Rodney Hood.

In a tight financial market, teams have spent on the guys they could get rather than tie up their cap space for a few days trying to snag one of the NBA’s restricted free agents. Remember, these are the guys where the team they played for has the right to match any contract. In the case of Capela, Houston GM Daryl Morey has made it abundantly clear he would match any offer and that has scared off potential suitors. In the case of Parker or LaVine, injury concerns have teams hesitant to jump in with the level of commitment it would take to scare off the Bucks or Bulls. And so on and so on down the list.

The bad news for these restricted free agents is there are not a lot of teams with money left — Sacramento, Atlanta, a few others — and those teams are not looking to spend a lot and win more right away. Those teams are more likely to take on a bad contract for a future asset than overpay to try to steal a player away. The options for the restricted free agents are not getting any better. Expect a few to play for the qualifying offer then become free agents next summer (see item No. 1 on this list).

5) Oklahoma City got the band back together, but they are going to pay a lot to do it. The number is staggering — $300 million. The Thunder got their man — Paul George will be back on a new max contract. As expected, Carmelo Anthony opted in to his $28.7 million. Jerami Grant will return and sign a three-year, $27 million contract. Combine all that with Russell Westbrook‘s max contract that kicks in, plus the repeater tax, and the Thunder are lined up to pay the largest salary plus tax bill in NBA history. That $300 million bill would make the Lakers or Knicks blush.

Is it worth it to run back a 48-win team that was bounced in the first round of the playoffs?

In OKC, they know that in the past nine months two stars have chosen them, chosen to stay in their market over going to Los Angeles or New York or wherever. That’s a big win. This team believes it was better than it showed down the stretch and into the playoffs. Ownership says its worth whatever price and they will pay it for a year.

Around the league, other teams expect the Thunder to make a couple of cost-savings moves. Just something to keep an eye on.