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Half-dozen players with especially intriguing contract-year seasons ahead

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After increasing 7%, 11%, 34% and 5% the previous four years, the NBA’s salary cap increased just 3% this year. Plus, teams were already overstocked with highly paid players signed during the 2016 – and, to an extent, 2015 – cap booms.

That meant many players signed one-year deals this offseason, allowing them to hit the market again next summer, when the cap is projected to rise 7% and many players signed in 2015 and 2016 come off the books.

The result is a deep 2019 free-agent class.

Some potential 2019 free agents, like Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, are assured max-contract offers. Even Kawhi Leonard, who missed nearly all of last season due to injury, is practically guaranteed of max offers.

But there are many more players with their future compensation in flux. Here are six players with a ton on the line next season:

DeMarcus Cousins

Cousins shocked the league by taking the Warriors’ taxpayer mid-level exception. It’s probably a one-year rental. The highest starting salary Golden State can offer him next summer through Non-Bird Rights is $6,404,400. This year will give him a chance to get healthy, show he can contribute positively to winning and expand his versatility. Cousins isn’t the perfect fit with the Warriors, and some teams are still scared off by his attitude. But, if all goes well this season, Cousins won’t be able to claim no offers next summer.

Isaiah Thomas

Thomas learned the hard way Brinks trucks typically carry an amount near his $2,029,463 minimum salary – not the nine-digit max contract he hoped for. That dream has probably passed, but Thomas can still land a lucrative contract next summer if he thrives with the Nuggets this season. First, that means getting healthy, as his hip injury still lingers. Then, the 5-foot-9 point guard must show he can still get separation and lift to get buckets. And it’d help if he meshes better with his teammates and coaches. It’s amazing how big of a hit Thomas’ value has taken in the last year, but he has proven his determination before. Will he do it again?

D'Angelo Russell

Russell entered last season as a potential franchise player for the Nets. Then, he got outplayed by Spencer Dinwiddie. Russell missed 34 games due to injury and stagnated in his growth while on the court. The shine is off the former No. 2 pick. But Russell is still just 22 and talented, and point guards tend to develop later. He could earn a huge payday, though it’ll require a major breakthrough. He and Brooklyn can technically sign an extension by Oct. 15, but that seems unlikely – especially with Dinwiddie, another pending 2019 free agent, also in the mix. Most likely, Russell becomes a restricted free agent next summer.

Tobias Harris

Harris reportedly rejected a four-year, $80 million extension from the Clippers this summer. That’s a lot of money to turn down, but the upside is there. Harris could be the Clippers’ focal point this season, especially in the starting lineup (which probably won’t include Lou Williams). Harris is just 26 and has the all-around skills and work ethic to cash in. The Clippers are aiming higher, so Harris might have to leave L.A. to get paid.

Trey Burke

The No. 9 pick in 2013, Burke gradually fell out of favor with the Jazz. He got a change of scenery with the Wizards and struggled even more in Washington than he had in Utah. Burke seemingly blamed everyone but himself. He fell out of the league until the Knicks called him up in the middle of last season. Burke flourished in New York, showing the offensive command everyone expected when he declared for the draft out of Michigan. Burke must fend off Frank Ntilikina and Emmanuel Mudiay – more recent and higher picks – at point guard, and the Knicks’ reported top target in 2019 free agency is point Kyrie Irving. But if Burke maintains his play with New York over a full season, he’ll have lucrative options somewhere.

Marcus Morris

Morris signed a four-year, $20 million extension with the Suns in 2014, taking a discount to play with his twin brother, Markieff Morris. Then, Phoenix traded Marcus to the Pistons. Marcus vowed never to let personal relationships get in the away of business again. Now with the Celtics, he’ll have his chance to maximize his earnings next summer. Marcus is a hard-nosed and skilled combo forward in a league where his versatility is increasingly valued. He’ll try to prove his worth on a stacked Boston team that has too many strong pieces to allow any individual to fully fly.

Courtney Lee notices Knicks omit him from Instagram post

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Shortly after taking over the front office last year, Knicks president Steve Mills named the team’s key players without including Carmelo Anthony. Later last summer, Mills wrote about his vision for the team while again excluding Anthony.

Of course, New York traded Anthony to the Thunder just before the season.

If that set an example for how Mills’ Knicks will operate, Courtney Lee might not be long for New York. And Lee seemingly realizes it.

The Knicks touted their schedule release on Instagram:

That graphic includes seven of the eight Knicks who played most last season and remain under contract plus New York’s two draft picks:

But Lee – who led the Knicks in playing time last year by a wide margin – doesn’t appear. His response:;

Lee, 32, no longer fits on the rebuilding Knicks. He’s a Phil Jackson signing.

Though Lee is probably somewhat overpaid (guaranteed $12,253,780 this season and $12,759,670 the following year), he could still help plenty of teams. 3-and-D wings are in demand.

It always seemed likely the Knicks would would try to trade Lee.

Their Instagram post provides even more evidence he’s headed out.

Report: Anthony Bennett likely would’ve fallen out of lottery if Cavaliers didn’t draft him No. 1

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Sometimes, teams pilloried for drafting a bust were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

One of the Trail Blazers or SuperSonics were always going to wind up using a top-two pick on Greg Oden, no matter whether Portland picked him or Kevin Durant No. 1 in 2007. Darko Milicic was the consensus No. 2 pick in 2004 before the Pistons even landed that selection in the lottery. Derrick Williams surged to pre-draft ratings that nearly perfectly matched his No. 2 selection by the Timberwolves in 2011.

And then there are the Cavaliers in 2013.

Cleveland took Anthony Bennett No. 1 – a shocker to everyone, but apparently especially the teams drafting next.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN on The Woj Pod:

That draft night, it was funny, if you go back and look at – I guess if you went back and looked at Twitter, I’m pretty confident – I’m almost sure of this – there’s a tweet from me around, I want to say, 7 o’clock that night saying, hey, Anthony Bennett has a real chance to drop tonight.

And I was right except for, I was going through teams like two, three. I had gone as far as, I want to say, 14 or 15, who were saying to me, “He’s not really on our board. We’re not taking him. If he got to us, I still like guys better than him.” I spent the afternoon going through really every – I don’t know if I talked to all 15, but I had a very strong feeling from most of them, that if he got to them, they were passing on him.

And I was still not believing that Cleveland was going to take him one. They were talking about it, and I kept believing it was a smokescreen. I kept believing they really didn’t mean it.

And so I was right that he was going to drop, except for the fact he went one.

That’s the thing. If he didn’t go one that year, it wasn’t like he was going to go two or three or four. He probably – and I really believe this. This is not revisionist everyone later saying, “Oh, s— no. I wouldn’t have taken this guy.” It wasn’t that. It was that night leading into it that I really believe he would’ve dropped out of the lottery.

There are no Wojnarowski tweets up about Bennett’s stock before the draft, but he tweeted about Cleveland’s plan:

Obviously, that was wrong. Reading teams’ intentions before the draft is hard. Executives mislead, if not outright lie, frequently when given anonymity.

Maybe other lottery teams were as down on Bennett as they said before the draft. But if any teams were hiding their pro-Bennett stance behind a smokescreen of disliking him, they sure weren’t going to admit it after he turned into a bust. They’d just keep that part of the story private.

To some degree, the Cavs were just stuck in an unfortunate spot – holding the No. 1 pick in a draft thin on talent at the top. The rest of the lottery – in order: Victor Oladipo, Otto Porter, Cody Zeller, Alex Len, Nerlens Noel, Ben McLemore, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Trey Burke, C.J. McCollum, Michael Carter-Williams Steven Adams, Kelly Olynyk, Shabazz Muhammad – has combined for only one All-Star appearance. And Oladipo didn’t get it until his fifth season and third team. Oladipo could make more All-Star games, and maybe McCollum, Porter and/or Adams sneak in. But this wasn’t a great lottery.

The best players in the draft – No. 15 pick Giannis Antetokounmpo and No. 27 pick Rudy Gobert – just weren’t discussed for the top pick. Criticizing the Cavaliers for passing on those two requires extreme hindsight bias.

But there were far better realistic choices than Bennett, who – judging by league-wide consensus – was an even bigger reach than previously realized.

Report: Knicks are Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer’s top choice for job

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Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer withdrew from the Suns coaching search, but that he was even involved with another opening while under contract with Atlanta is telling. It probably wasn’t about the Phoenix job being special. He’s also talking with the Knicks – and maybe that goes somewhere.

Marc Berman of the New York Post:

Mike Budenholzer is genuinely interested in the Knicks’ job, according to an NBA source who has spoken to the Hawks coach.

“New York’s his top choice,’’ the NBA source said. “If they offered him the job, he’d say yes. He wants to live in New York.’’

“Phoenix and the Knicks are trying to win every game,’’ said the NBA source who has spoken to Budenholzer recently. “There’s a good chance Atlanta is not looking to win games the next two years. This wasn’t Mike’s decision. He didn’t expect it. He doesn’t want to lose games.’’

Going to the Knicks to win? What a time to be alive.

But the Hawks are only one year into what appears to be a multi-year rebuild. Relative to that, New York is ahead.

When Kristaps Porzingis returns is the biggest variable. But Enes Kanter, Tim Hardaway Jr., Courtney Lee and Trey Burke are all in their primes. Atlanta is much thinner.

The Knicks would probably also offer Budenholzer a raise and the Hawks compensation. Though dealing with James Dolan carries downside, this could be a financial boon to everyone else involved. It’s no wonder Budenholzer and the Hawks are both into this.

The big question is whether New York, which is casting a wide net, tabs Budenholzer. He doesn’t have a clear connection to Knicks president Steve Mills or general manager Scott Perry. But Budenholzer is a demonstrably good coach, and that ought to matter plenty.

Tomas Satoransky patches Wizards’ annual hole

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DETROIT – Tomas Satoransky operates at his own pace.

The Wizards drafted Satoransky No. 32 in 2012, when he was playing for Sevilla. He didn’t feel ready for the NBA, so he stayed in Spain. His contract with Sevilla expired in 2014. He still didn’t feel ready and signed with Barcelona. He even signed an extension with Barcelona in 2016.

Later that year, Satoransky thought it was time. Still under contract with Barcelona, his buyout (reportedly about $2 million) was larger than what Washington could pay without it counting against the cap ($650,000). But Satoransky was so certain of his decision, he paid the remainder of the buyout himself. He knew that’d be a possibility and ensured his extension left the option open.

Yet – for all the years he spent timing his jump to the NBA juuust right – he realized his perception of the league was still based on his childhood in the Czech Republic.

“I just saw the stars, the shining moments and everything,” Satoransky said. “Obviously, when you come over, you have to also go through some tough times as a player, especially coming over from Europe, getting used to everything and like that. But once you have a good role in the NBA, you just feel like you’re blessed.”

By that standard, Satoransky is blessed.

And the Wizards might be, too.

Washington has struggled for years whenever John Wall sits. Eric Maynor, Garett Temple, Andre Miller, Ramon Sessions, Trey Burke, Brandon Jennings and Tim Frazier have cycled through as backup point guards. None did the job well enough. Wall called the Wizards’ bench their downfall last postseason, citing it as a reason he ran out of gas.

Satoransky might finally be the answer.

Since Wall’s first playoff season (2014), Washington has played like a 46-win to 54-win team with him on the court. In that same span, the Wizards’ win pace ranged from 16 to 29 whenever he sat. Teams obviously perform worse without their biggest star, but that gap was hard.

Washington has remained strong with Wall this year (52-win pace) – and is far better than usual without him (37-win pace).

Here’s the Wizards win paces the last five years, with Wall (red) and without him (blue):

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This chart probably sells Satoransky short. Washington has also used Frazier and Sessions at point guard when Wall sits. But Satoransky has proven most effective. The Wizards play at a 47-win pace with him.

The idea Washington was better without Wall was always silly. But Satoransky’s strong play in his absence helped sparked the discussion – and earned him a larger role in the playoff rotation.

“He’s played well, and he deserves some extra minutes,” Wizards coach Scott Brooks said.

How is Satoransky flourishing? By continuing to put himself in comfortable positions.

That starts with his role.

“I don’t feel like I need to be a starter or anything,” Satoransky said. “That’s the thing the NBA has. You have to be a starter or a second-unit guy. It doesn’t bother me. And I don’t understand too much. For me, coming from Europe, it makes much more sense that you have 12 players and they all play based on how they play in the game. That’s what I get used to. I understand you cannot have it here, for some reason.”

And it continues on the court, where Satoransky plays so cerebrally.

He ranks sixth in the NBA in assist-to-turnover ratio. The leaderboard with per-game numbers:

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Satoransky’s 3-point percentage (47.4) would lead the league – if he shot enough 3s to qualify. He’s just so selective (which obviously contributes to his high efficiency).

Satoransky is also deadly on floaters, but he also passes up too many of them. Even Brooks – who says he mostly likes Satoransky’s methodical style – wants the point guard to take more floaters.

“People around me, they’re always like I should be more aggressive,” Satoransky said. “But it’s just the way I was taught to play the game, right way, in Europe.

“Mentally for me it’s tough, but for sure I think in the NBA, you have to be a little bit – in some moments – a little selfish.”

Satoransky could probably handle it. He doesn’t restrain his game purely out of necessity. At 6-foot-7 with above-the-rim athleticism he only shows in flashes, he could do more.

“I never force anything,” Satoransky said.

Except his way into the Wizards’ playoff rotation.

Washington (42-38) will enter the postseason as the No. 6, No. 7 or No 8 seed. The team has plenty of internal problems. Advancing is more unlikely than likely.

But, for once, backup point guard probably won’t be the primary reason for elimination.