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No discount, but Knicks finally buyout, waive Joakim Noah today anyway

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We knew how this was going to end. It was going to be as big a surprise as the ending of “First Man.” (Hint: The Americans make it to the moon, it wasn’t faked.)

Saturday it finally happened: The New York Knicks have waived and stretched the contract of Joakim Noah, the team announced Saturday. It’s the end of the disastrous four-year, $72.6 million contract that Phil Jackson signed Noah to, which ended up being an anchor on the Knicks rebuilding efforts. In the pantheon of horrible Summer of 2016 contracts — Timofey Mozgov, Luol Deng, so many others — Noah stood out as the worst, the biggest train wreck of them all.

The Knicks were hoping for a discount from Noah to get out of his contract (as Deng did, for example). However, with no NBA prospects out there (as reported by Adrian Wojnarowski among many others), Noah had no incentive to offer a break to the Knicks. So he didn’t.

Because of the timing of this waive and stretch (as the Knicks planned), Noah will get his full $18.5 million for this season, it is his final season of $19.3 million that will be stretched out over the next three years. Bobby Marks of ESPN broke it down:

New York will incur an $18.5M cap hit in 2018-19 that will be reduced by $522,252 if the center signs a 1 year $2.4M (minimum exception) guaranteed contract with a new team. For the next 3 seasons (2019-20 to 2021-22), New York will be charged $6.4M on the $19.3M amount owed to Noah. If the Knicks do not give Kristaps Porzingis a max rookie extension by Oct.15, New York projects to have $31M in room next summer. The room will increase to $38M if Lance Thomas is waived.

That’s enough cap room to chase a max salary player such as Kevin Durant or Kyrie Irving (not that they are coming to NYC, relax people, they are merely free agent max players next summer used as an example). There was some thought the Knicks would hold off and use him as salary ballast in a trade (or maybe another team would want him, so he would take a buyout discount), but the contract was unmovable, so they just decided to bite the bullet now.

Noah is now an unrestricted free agent.

However, there is little to no traction for him with other NBA teams. Noah has battled injuries and played in just 53 games over two seasons with the Knicks, and when he has gotten on the court he has looked like a shell of the former Defensive Player of the Year. Father time has won the race. Maybe midseason a team takes a flier on Noah, but I wouldn’t bet on it (teams taking a flier on a big usually prefer a younger player they might develop into a long-term player for them).

Orlando has become team worth watching for first time in long time

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This is the latest of NBC’s NBA season preview stories, and we will post at least one a day on these pages until Oct. 16, when the NBA season kicks off. We will look at teams and topics around the NBA throughout the series, and today the young Orlando Magic are the focus.

A strange sensation came over me during Summer League in Las Vegas this year:

I wanted to watch Orlando Magic games.

It felt weird. It has been years since the Magic were must-watch, but I was intrigued by them and their potential. Part of it was they have zigged when the league has zagged — in a small-ball league the Magic (in Vegas and in general) went big with Mo Bamba and Jonathan Isaac. And those two, for stretches, could dominate the paint.

“The potential between me and (Isaac) is unreal, I think in Summer League we’re starting to bridge that potential into production with the small things we do,” Bamba said to NBC Sports in Las Vegas.

That carries over to this season and expands to other players — which makes the Orlando Magic interesting and worth watching.

It’s been a long time since we could say that, but the Magic have the potential for a dynamic defense this season, especially up front: Bamba, Isaac, just-resigned Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Simmons. Put all of them under the guidance of new, defensive-minded coach Steve Clifford, and the Magic can be big and defense-first in an NBA leaning more toward the Warriors’ model of small and offense first.

“To tell you the truth, I don’t even think (the team’s defensive play in Summer League) scratches the surface in terms of where Mo is going to be in a year or two years, or where I am going to be in a year or two years,” Isaac said of the team’s potential. “Physically, mentally, game wise, you throw in AG and all those guys we have on our team now, and I think we will be a defensive nightmare for a lot of teams.”

Isaac was one of the real head turners at Summer League. He missed much of his rookie season with an ankle injury, playing in just 27 games. In Las Vegas he looked healthy and like he spent time in the weight room getting stronger. He was a defensive force but was able to turn some of that into offense.

Bamba showed potential in Vegas as well, although he was more up and down and showed how he needs to get stronger and develop a better feel for the game. For example, the Suns’ No. 1 pick Deandre Ayton pushed him around physically for much of the night. But even then, Bamba blocked an Ayton shot and altered others, plus he flashed offensive potential (and in another game, showed a smooth shooting stroke from three).

“I just have to establish myself as a roller, it really opens up a lot for our team, even if I don’t necessarily get the ball it opens up guys in the corner or in spots as teams adjust to how we are playing,” Bamba said.

The Magic still are not going to be good, and there are a lot of questions to be answered. How well can both Bamba and Isaac play with Gordon (it would be hard to play all three together, with Gordon at the three, he has struggled in that role before)? Coach Clifford has said he wants to switch more and that these bigs can do it, but how will that really work in practice? Clifford also wants to see how Bamba and Nikola Vucevic pair together for stretches.

Gordon is the best player on the team, the franchise cornerstone guy who signed a four-year, $76 million contract this summer (with incentives that could bring it to $84 million). He averaged 17.6 points and 7.9 rebounds a game last season, is a competent three-point shooter who can finish at the rim like a beast.

Can one of the other young Magic players step up and join Gordon as a cornerstone? Can this team go big and become a force? Those are the interesting questions for the Magic this season, what makes them worth watching.

The rest of the team… not as interesting.

The Magic still don’t have a point guard of the future — D.J. Augustin and Jerian Grant will split the bulk of the time there — and beyond that have solid to good NBA players who are not great fits or parts of the future, such as Evan Fournier and Timofey Mozgov. Vucevic and Terrence Ross are in the final years of their contracts and the Magic will look to move them (they have tried to trade Vucevic since last trade deadline, and he could help some teams, but no deal has been found).

Orlando will lose more games than it wins this season, Bamba and Isaac will learn hard lessons. It will not always be pretty.

But there is real reason for hope, and with it this is a team worth keeping an eye on. It’s been a long time since we could say that.

Nets come out ahead in busy summer

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NBCSports.com’s 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.

Timofey Mozgov, Dwight Howard, Jeremy Lin, Kenneth Faried, Darrell Arthur, Isaiah Whitehead and Jared Dudley are real people with real thoughts, real feelings and real basketball abilities. But to Brooklyn this summer, they were mostly just contracts to be shuffled. After all their wheeling and dealing with that group, here’s where the Nets stand:

  • Draft picks (give or take): +1 first rounder, -1 second-rounder
  • 2018-19 salary: +$13,697,024
  • 2019-20 salary: -$16,720,000

That’s right: Brooklyn cleared more 2019-20 salary than it added in 2018-19 salary while still coming out ahead in draft picks. That is incredible – especially because the Nets’ cap space should go further with desirable free agents next summer than it would’ve this year.

But just because stars aren’t ready to consider Brooklyn doesn’t mean Brooklyn is ready to punt the season. The Nets, possessing their own first-rounder for the first time in five years, refuse to tank. They’ve already come too far building a culture to intentionally plummet in the standings now.

To that end, Brooklyn re-signed Joe Harris to a two-year, $16 million contract. That might be a little steep for him, but he’s a glowing example of the Nets’ player-development program, and his salary descends. This was a deal worth doing.

Brooklyn also signed Ed Davis (one year, $4,449,000 room exception), Shabazz Napier ($1,942,422 guaranteed this season with the minimum unguaranteed next season) and Treveon Graham (minimum guaranteed this season with minimum unguaranteed next season). I doubt they lift the Nets significantly, but those three are all worthy pickups. Napier and Graham, with those unguaranteed seasons, look especially valuable. Napier is just finding himself as an NBA player, and Graham has potential as a 3-and-D wing in a league starving for players like that.

The Nets also drafted Dzanan Musa No. 29 and Rodions Kurucs No. 40. There are a lot of pieces here.

The next step is evaluating which are keepers.

Brooklyn projects to have more than $61 million in cap space next summer. Some could go toward keeping D'Angelo Russell, Spencer Dinwiddie and/or Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, but that still leaves plenty to add a star or two.

The Nets endured years of pain – losing without reaping the rewards of a high draft pick. The light at the end of the tunnel is finally in sight.

Thanks to this summer, it’s brighter.

Offseason grade: B+

Rookie contract extensions: Devin Booker got paid, who else is likely to sign?

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At this point in the summer, NBA rosters are settled, save for maybe a final spot at the end of the bench or a two-way contract. Front office personnel are taking vacations or just getting back from them, while players are in the gym getting ready for training camp to open.

However, one bit of unfinished business hangs out there: rookie contract extensions

The draft class of 2015 is eligible for an extension this summer — one player has his money, a couple of others are likely to, and then there are a lot of question marks. The deadline is Oct. 15, players need to sign an extension by then or become a restricted free agent next summer. Extensions can be for up to 25 percent of the salary cap (or 30 percent if the player meets the Rose Rule) but most are for less than that.

It’s going to be an interesting set of negotiations: For any player not locking down a max, looking ahead to all the cap space available next summer, will these rookies (and their agents) want to push teams for a big contract, and if they don’t get it bet they can on the open market next summer?

One player has already got his extension, here’s a list of who else will get one and who to watch as negotiations start.

SECURED THE BAG

Devin Booker (Phoenix Suns). The shooting guard out of Kentucky fell to 13th in the 2015 draft but ended up being the biggest steal in it. Knowing they have a franchise cornerstone, in early July the Suns locked him up with a five-year, $158 million max extension. As they should have. While we can debate if Booker is as good as he or the Suns think he is, the guy averaged 29.4 points per game last season, shot 38.3 percent from three, has been the best player on the team and a borderline All-Star (he would be but he plays in the ridiculously deep West). Booker deserved a big payday and the Suns are banking on him and Deandre Ayton to return them to the playoffs and more.

PAY THE MAN HIS MONEY
(Players going to get max extensions)

Karl-Anthony Towns (Minnesota Timberwolves). The No. 1 pick in the 2015 draft has become the cornerstone in Minnesota, and the two sides have already started talking extension (while those talks went quiet this summer it will get done). The only question is will it be a $158 million extension, or will Towns make another All-NBA team (as he did this past season) and thereby trigger the Rose Rule making him eligible for up to a $186 million deal. Either way, this signing will work out better than the massive extension Minnesota gave Andrew Wiggins (the Timberwolves tried to test the trade waters for him this summer, to no avail). What a Towns extension means for the future of Jimmy Butler and Tom Thibodeau with the Timberwolves is another question, there is tension in the ranks, shakeups are coming, and the Timberwolves are about to place their bet on Towns.

• Kristaps Porziņģis (New York Knicks). Selected fourth by the Knicks (don’t forget Phil Jackson tried to trade that pick away rather than take him), Porzingis has become more than just the best player on the Knicks, he is the beacon of hope for the future in the eyes of fans. There is some concern because he is coming off an ACL tear that will keep him out for at least part of this coming season — it’s fair to question if you want to give him $158 million off that injury. But the Knicks have a star and a cornerstone to their rebuild, they have to pay up here. And they will.

WE’RE WATCHING YOU
(Other players who could land extensions, we’re doing this in order of the draft).

D'Angelo Russell (Los Angeles Lakers, traded to Brooklyn Nets). Los Angeles didn’t love his fit, drafted Lonzo Ball, and shipped Russell to Brooklyn as the sweetener in the Timofey Mozgov salary dump. The Nets think they have something in Russell — just not something they are going to lock up yet, so don’t expect and extension. Two reasons for that: 1) The Nets want to be sure Russell has matured into the player they saw for part of last season who averaged 20.9 points and 5.7 assists a game, a high-quality point guard; 2) the Nets want to be big players in free agency next summer and a Russell extension would tie up some of that money.

Willie Cauley-Stein (Sacramento Kings). He was drafted to be a modern defensive force, a shot blocker/rim protector who could switch out on smalls on the perimeter and hold his own. It hasn’t really worked out that way. He has shown more offensive skill than expected (he passed the ball well last season) and his individual defense in the post and rim protection have been good. Some nights. He’s been inconsistent. The Kings are betting on Marvin Bagley III (and are excited about the progress and return of Harry Giles), meaning if Cauley-Stein gets an extension it will be at a discount, at a number the team likes.

Stanley Johnson (Detroit Pistons). Don’t expect to see an extension here unless Johnson does it at a very team friendly number. The past couple of seasons Johnson has been inconsistent, and with a new coach and front office in Detroit, they are more likely to watch him for a season then let the market set his price as a restricted free agent next summer. However, it’s not impossible a deal gets done.

Justise Winslow (Miami Heat). It’s hard to see an extension getting done for two main reasons. One, what is Winslow’s value? He’s versatile — by the end of 2016 he was closing games as the team’s center, but last year he was playing backup point guard for them — and he is a strong defender. However, he’s not consistent and has not come near his potential, how much would the Heat want to bet he does? Second, Miami already in the tax this season and likely to be again next season unless they find a new home for Hassan Whiteside and/or Tyler Johnson. With that the Heat likely don’t want to be locked into more money for Winslow, they can let the market set his price as a restricted free agent.

Myles Turner (Indiana Pacers). This is Victor Oladipo’s team but the Pacers are betting on improvement from Turner to help them take the next step forward. Turner averaged 12.7 points and 6.4 rebounds a game, showed he can hit the three now (35.7 percent last season) and he has been a good big man. Can the two sides find a compromise number that works for them, something less than the max? Or, would Turner rather bet on himself and count on a good season heading into restricted free agency? Expect there to be talks, whether the sides can agree is another question.

Kelly Oubre Jr. (Washington Wizards). He can get lost in the shadow of Otto Porter, but Oubre has developed into a solid NBA rotation player on the wing. There is not going to be a max offer, but can the Wizards and Oubre find common ground on a figure that keeps him with the team for years to come? Or would Oubre rather test the market?

Terry Rozier (Boston Celtics). He boosted his value at the end of last season and through the playoffs when Kyrie Irving went down injured. With the future of Irving in Boston a little uncertain, GM Danny Ainge would like to keep Scary Terry around this season. However, an extension is unlikely. The Celtics just gave Marcus Smart a chunk of change (four years, $52 million) and they see the big deals for Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum looming on the horizon, so how much are they going to commit to Rozier? Most likely he’s a restricted free agent next summer, but this is at least worth watching.

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (Brooklyn Nets). Last season he averaged 14.7 points and 6.6 rebounds per game, and some nights was the best Nets player on the court. His name comes up in trade rumors all the time, but would the Nets rather keep him around if the sides can agree on a number? He has real value as a quality rotation player.

Larry Nance Jr. (Cleveland Cavaliers). This is an extension that could get done, sources say there is interest from both sides to keep the son of a Cavaliers’ legend as part of whatever is next for this team post-LeBron. Drafted by the Lakers 27th and sent to Cleveland in the Isaiah Thomas trade, Nance was a steal in the draft and can be a quality rotation player on both ends. It’s not a max deal, but don’t be surprised if this one gets done.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Danilo Gallinari, other NBA players skipping FIBA qualifying window

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When basketball international coordinating body FIBA came up with its ridiculous soccer-style qualifying system for the 2019 World Cup — putting qualifying windows in the middle of the seasons of the NBA and other major leagues around the world — they knew that they were essentially banning most country’s best players from competing. (The USA has used a team of G-League players, for example, but it’s harder on other nations who do not have as deep a talent pool.)

There was one exception: A September 2018 qualifying window. Games would primarily fall in mid-September before NBA training camps are open but when teams have opened their facilities to players for organized runs. (For example, the USA plays on Sept. 14 in Las Vegas against Uruguay, then in Panama on Sept. 17.)

NBA players are mostly taking a pass. In recent days the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Clippers’ Danilo Gallinari, and the Spurs Marco Belinelli have all said they would not play for their respective nations in this qualifying window. The USA didn’t even consider it and will have its G-Leaguers coached by Jeff Van Gundy.

This is not universal. Jusuf Nurkic has said he will play in the Bosnian and Herzegovinian qualifiers (although we will see if that happens, he did just sign a new four-year contract with the Blazers this summer). Jordan Clarkson is playing for the Philippines in the Asian Games and is on that squad’s roster for the qualifiers. The Serbian coach has put Nikola Jokic and four other NBA players on his potential roster submitted to FIBA, but that seems more to be him covering his bases just in case, not something likely to happen. Others might jump in.

But by and large, NBA players — and the biggest names — are taking a pass. Once again, well done FIBA on finding a way to water down the quality of the product for the second most popular sport on the planet to make more money.

Some NBA players — Evan Fournier, Timofey Mozgov, others — took part in the July qualifying window.

When the USA heads to China for the World Cup next summer (it still has to qualify, but that is highly likely) it will be a Gregg Popovich-coached team of NBA stars, 35 of whom just showed up for a USA Basketball mini-camp in Las Vegas. But that is a year away, until then enjoy most nation’s second string trying to get their country there.