Sports

Five Lingering Questions About Nets-Lakers, the Knicks, and NBA Free Agency

With a few exceptions, the NBA mostly took the long holiday weekend off to regroup after the 2022 free agency period opened with dramatic shifts in Brooklyn, Minneapolis, and Atlanta. As the flash from the fireworks fades, the deal-making scene shifts to Las Vegas for summer league, and we wait with bated breath for the latest crumbs of information in the Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving sagas. Here are a handful of questions to mull over from the first few days of free agency.

We begin with those sweet, sweet crumbs:

Who blinks first: the Nets or the Lakers?

It’s a little trickier for a 33-year-old with four fully guaranteed years remaining on his contract to force his way to a new team than it was for Durant to make his grand move to Golden State six Independence Days ago, back when he was a 27-year-old unrestricted free agent with the entire NBA world at his fingertips. The Nets spent the holiday weekend slow-playing the process, letting the market for Durant’s services take shape and indicating that they’re in no hurry to move him despite his demand. Brooklyn’s brake-pumping suggests that Sean Marks and Co. are calling on interested suitors to bowl them over with an offer even richer than the packages of players, picks, and pick swaps that sent Dejounte Murray to Atlanta and Rudy Gobert to the Twin Cities.

“The Nets aren’t going to be rushed into selling low,” Nets beat reporter Kristian Winfield wrote in the New York Daily News on Tuesday. “And if Phoenix’s best offer—without Devin Booker, that is—is Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson and six or seven years worth of combined picks and pick swaps and isn’t enough, it’s unclear what within reason another team can offer that would make the Nets’ front office comfortable agreeing to a trade.”

And while Marks focuses on finding the best possible deal for Durant, his other All-NBA scoring star sits and waits for his own exit.

Opting into his contract for next season secured a $36.5 million payday for Kyrie Irving, but it doesn’t necessarily guarantee him anything beyond that. If Durant is no longer a Net, it would stand to reason that Marks and owner Joseph Tsai might not have very much interest in keeping Irving around either. The problem: While plenty of teams have reportedly made offers for Durant, the phone doesn’t exactly seem to be ringing off the hook with Kyrie pitches.

Brian Lewis of the New York Post described interest around the league in Irving as “tepid.” Jake Fischer of Bleacher Report noted that the Mavericks and 76ers could be “theoretical destinations for Irving,” but reported that league sources have “strongly discounted Dallas and Philadelphia’s interest.” Barring a change of heart in Dallas, as Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated wrote, “There’s no market for Irving, not unless … the Nets are willing to absorb Russell Westbrook from the Lakers.”

(One wonders how Durant would look on the prospect of playing with Westbrook again, six years after their split. Russ is coming off the worst season of his career, and as a point guard who can’t shoot, would make for an awkward fit alongside Ben Simmons, a point guard who won’t. One suspects KD wouldn’t celebrate the reunion by running out to buy his old running mate a cupcake.)

The Lakers have reportedly been Irving’s preferred destination from the jump. They are also reportedly the only team to show real interest in Irving, with former teammate LeBron James “rooting hard for Irving’s addition to the roster,” according to Marc Stein. L.A. and Brooklyn were “actively engaged in discussions on a trade package” built around an Irving-for-Westbrook framework over the weekend, according to Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports, though ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski countered on Monday that the Lakers “have yet … to be aggressive” in pursuing the deal. Brooklyn’s likely not leaping at the chance to take on the final $47.1 million of Westbrook’s expiring deal.

The battlegrounds, it seems, are draft picks and salary relief. According to Haynes, the two teams were negotiating over what kind of draft compensation the Lakers would send the Nets to pay Russ’s freight—he’s owed about $10.6 million more for this season than Irving, which would cost Tsai an estimated $60 million in luxury tax payments—and which player Brooklyn would send back in matching salary. Haynes reports that the Nets would like to move off of the remaining $38.6 million owed to Joe Harris over the next two seasons; the Lakers, on the other hand, would prefer to take on the $8.5 million expiring contract of Seth Curry, to avoid adding to their own luxury tax bill.

It seems audacious that the Lakers—coming off a 33-49 debacle, without any leverage or any other evident outs in getting off of the single worst contract in the NBA—would haggle over picks or preferred players in a Westbrook deal. Then again, audacity’s never in short supply in L.A.; it doesn’t necessarily cost Rob Pelinka anything to see if he can catch a whiff of desperation and manage to come away with both the better player and some savings. That gambit’s chances of success, though, likely depend on just how badly Brooklyn wants Kyrie gone.

After everything that’s happened in the past three years, is simply getting out of the Kyrie business worth enough to the Nets that they take only one of the Lakers’ 2027 and 2029 first-rounders instead of demanding both? Or that they agree to put Curry into the deal rather than Harris? Or is Marks—who has continued to build out Brooklyn’s supporting cast, agreeing to new deals with TJ Warren, Edmond Sumner, and Kessler Edwards after trading for Royce O’Neale and bringing back Patty Mills and Nic Claxton—intent on showing he’s got the diamond hands necessary to hold onto his disgruntled stars as long as it takes to get everything he can out of Irving’s one and only suitor, and not a penny, prospect, or pick swap less?

Is the Warriors’ youth movement ready for prime time?

I tipped off our 2022 NBA free agency primer with one of the league’s biggest questions heading into the offseason—whether Golden State, basking in the good vibes of a fourth championship run, would look to run it back by re-signing the free agents who helped get the Dubs back atop the mountain. Outside of center Kevon Looney, who re-upped on a three-year, $25.5 million deal, the answer was no: Otto Porter Jr. is headed to Toronto, Gary Payton II signed with the Blazers, Juan Toscano-Anderson joined the Lakers, Damion Lee linked up with the Suns, and Nemanja Bjelica returned to Turkey.

Toscano-Anderson, Lee, and Bjelica played a combined 323 minutes in the playoffs; you could argue that their defections don’t detract from the Warriors’ repeat chances too much. It’s tougher to argue that about Porter, whose combination of 3-point shooting and defensive versatility was a factor in Golden State withstanding difficult tests in the playoffs. And it’s a lot tougher to make the same claim about Payton, whose game-changing defensive work and unique positioning as a small-ball big man helped tilt the Finals; Golden State outscored Boston by 35 points in GPII’s 93 minutes and got outscored by 11 points in 195 minutes without him.

Payton, 28, was a perfect fit in Steve Kerr’s system alongside the Warriors’ foundational stars and ranked second in the NBA in both steals and deflections per 36 minutes. He caused all that havoc while routinely handling opponents’ toughest ball handlers and perimeter creators, too; out of 272 players who logged at least 1,000 minutes, he ranked 16th in average matchup difficulty, according to BBall Index. It will be a tall order for new addition Donte DiVincenzo—a useful contributor and quality defender in his own right, when healthy—to approximate that level of impact. He’ll make only about half of Payton’s new salary, though, which gets at one big reason why Payton is now in Portland. As Anthony Slater of The Athletic notes, the difference in the luxury tax ramifications of DiVincenzo’s $4.5 million salary and Payton’s new $8.9 million figure amounts to “somewhere around $15 million extra in the immediate, [plus] a whole lot more throughout a longer-term deal.”

That clearly played a role in Warriors owner Joe Lacob—his coffers full from all those postseason gate receipts, but staring down the barrel of a $69 million tax bill—deciding to let Payton walk. There’s another big factor, though, one beyond general manager Bob Myers trying to shave the tax bill on one of the league’s most expensive rosters. With the seventh, eighth, and ninth men from the Warriors’ playoff rotation all finding new homes, there’s a clear path to more playing time for the three recent draftees—2020 no. 2 pick James Wiseman and 2021 lottery picks Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody—who Myers and Lacob have touted as the bridge from the franchise’s golden era into an equally bright future.

It’s a big bet. Moody, a 6-foot-6 swingman with a 7-foot wingspan, shot 36.4 percent from 3-point range as a rookie and looked at home when given more tick during the playoffs. Kuminga is a dramatically different type of forward from Porter, but he averaged 12.9 points and 4.4 rebounds in 23.1 minutes per game through the final two and a half months of the season; the flashes he showed as a rim-running aerial threat and physical presence could add another dimension to the Warriors offense. Wiseman, as ever, remains the organization’s biggest question mark. He’s a massive athlete with tantalizing physical tools, but he struggled mightily to make an impact as a rookie and missed the entire 2021-22 season recovering from multiple knee surgeries.

Wiseman must prove he can be a dependable backup for Looney. Kuminga has to develop his shooting and playmaking enough to fit into the fabric of the Warriors’ perpetual motion machine. Moody needs to show he’s ready to slide smoothly into some of those JTA-Lee-Payton minutes on the wing. And can a Warriors team that made its bones on defense—second in points allowed per possession during the regular season, stingier than no. 1-ranked Boston in the Finals—continue to thrive on that end while integrating three 21-and-under players into its rotation? Golden State’s chances of defending its title may well rest on the answer.

Are the rebalanced Nuggets poised for a title push?

No free agency addition would impact the Nuggets’ championship hopes as much as clean bills of health for Jamal Murray, who missed the entire 2021-22 campaign after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, and Michael Porter Jr., who was limited to just nine games last season due to back surgery. But in a conference led by the champion Warriors (who eliminated Denver in gentlemanly fashion in Round 1) that also features a Clippers team intent on its own return to full health, potentially reloaded versions of the Lakers and Suns, and a host of other dangerous opponents, you’ve got to keep working the margins around your max stars … and Denver opened the offseason doing just that.

Trading stalwart guards Monte Morris and Will Barton to Washington for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Ish Smith is not, by itself, a world-shaking move. Neither, for that matter, is signing Brooklyn tweener Bruce Brown Jr. to a two-year, $13 million contract with the taxpayer midlevel exception. Both could move the needle, though, for a Nuggets team that ranked 15th in points allowed per possession last season and got absolutely torched by Golden State in the opening round.

In that series, Nuggets head coach Michael Malone had to rely on the reedy Barton to check bigger Golden State wings like Klay Thompson and Andrew Wiggins. Now, those assignments will go to Caldwell-Pope—a sturdier defender who’s capable of shadowing top scorers to ease the burden on the returning Murray. Slot him in as a dribble-handoff-taking, back door–cutting, movement-shooting 2 alongside two-time MVP Nikola Jokic, a returning Murray and MPJ, and do-everything combo forward Aaron Gordon, and the Nuggets starting five could be just as lethal as it looked before Murray’s injury in the spring of 2021.

Without a bona fide stopper to throw at high-octane ball-handlers, Denver tasked Morris and Austin Rivers with guarding the likes of Stephen Curry and other elite guards. Enter Brown, a 6-foot-4 bulldog and ball hawk with a 6-foot-9 wingspan, who defended the opponent’s toughest scorer every night as a starter in Brooklyn. Bumped to the bench by that loaded first five, Brown’s strength and facility with sliding across a wide variety of perimeter assignments could help unlock some more stylistic diversity for Denver’s defense; Brown, Gordon, veteran Jeff Green, and youngster Zeke Nnaji seems like pretty good candidates for switch-everything units that could throw curveballs at opposing offenses when Jokic is resting.

Put the additions of KCP and Brown in the context of Denver drafting 6-foot-6 Kansas wing Christian Braun (whom my colleague Kevin O’Connor compared to Alex Caruso and Wesley Matthews in the 2022 Ringer NBA Draft Guide) and 6-foot-8 UCLA wing Peyton Watson (who drew the vaunted Herb Jones comp) in the first round last month, and it seems clear that Job No. 1 for GM Calvin Booth this offseason was to add size, athleticism, versatility, and defensive acumen on the perimeter. Losing the sure-handed Morris and explosive Barton hurts, but if Murray and MPJ are healthy—and if Bones Hyland is ready to step into a larger role as the backup point guard in his second season—then Denver shouldn’t lack for shot creation or playmaking. If Caldwell-Pope and Brown can provide a boost in postseason defensive matchups commensurate with what Jokic, Murray, and Porter Jr. offer on the other end, the Nuggets could be awfully scary—and right back in the thick of the championship chase.

Will the Knicks’ (other) big bet pay off?

After executing their cap-clearing draft-night plan by bringing the long-rumored apple of their eye to the Big Apple with a four-year, $104 million contract, the Knicks turned their attention to the dudes who’ll be playing pick-and-roll with Jalen Brunson on one end and protecting the rim behind him on the other. First, New York added former Clippers big man Isaiah Hartenstein, signing the new backup to a two-year, $16 million deal; then, the Knicks re-signed starting center Mitchell Robinson to a four-year, $60 million contract.

Robinson played the best ball of his young career in his fourth season, averaging 8.5 points, 8.6 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks in 25.7 minutes per game in a career-high 72 appearances. But the Knicks still slipped to 12th in defensive efficiency last season, down from fourth during their surprise run to the playoffs in 2020-21—a slide owing partly to Robinson’s rim-protecting running mate, Nerlens Noel, being limited by injuries to just 25 games. Enter Hartenstein, who gives the Knicks a second under-25 7-foot interior deterrent who excels at limiting opponents’ effectiveness around the basket. There were 163 players who defended at least 150 shots at the rim last season, according to Second Spectrum; Hartenstein ranked first in defensive field goal percentage allowed (47.5 percent), and Robinson finished 12th (53.6 percent).

Both centers can be helpful offensive players, too. Robinson finishes damn near everything he gets his hands on, shooting 76.1 percent from the field last season. He’s a monster on the glass, trailing only Steven Adams in offensive rebounding rate and only Rudy Gobert in second chance points per game. He’s also a dynamic vertical spacer, producing 1.42 points per possession as the roll man in the screen game last season—seventh-best out of 98 players to run 50 such plays, according to Synergy—despite spending most of that time with an out-of-position Alec Burks as his point guard. Adding Brunson, a cagey pick-and-roll operator who averaged 7.4 assists per 36 minutes of floor time when Luka Doncic was on the bench last season, should help create more tasty looks in the two-man game for Robinson.

Hartenstein, too, is an ace roll man—he’s 26th on that Synergy list—who competes on the offensive glass and has shown some touch from floater range. What separates him from Robinson offensively, though, is his playmaking: the ability to serve as a dribble handoff hub at the elbows, make back door feeds from the high post, and spray passes out of the short roll. Among big men who played at least 1,000 minutes last season, only Jokic, Draymond Green, new teammate Julius Randle, Domantas Sabonis, Joel Embiid, and Pascal Siakam posted a higher assist rate than Hartenstein. That should add some more variety to New York’s attack, which finished just 23rd in points scored per possession last season.

Any concerns are more about the construction of the Knicks’ roster than Robinson or Hartenstein. The presence of two solid 7-footers (plus reserve bigs Taj Gibson and Jericho Sims) combined with Thibodeau’s eternal commitment to playing big means fewer opportunities for offense-juicing smaller lineups featuring Randle and Obi Toppin up front (and, perhaps, fewer minutes for the electric Toppin overall). And since none of New York’s centers—save for Gibson, who has developed a corner 3 in the autumn of his career—can shoot from distance, making five-out spacing difficult to come by, the Knicks’ half-court offense could get awfully cramped. If Randle and RJ Barrett don’t bounce back from beyond the arc in a big way after major plunges last season, and if Brunson struggles when tasked with creating 3s off the bounce (31.3 percent on pull-up triples last season) rather than shooting them off the catch (40.1 percent), the resultant congestion could make it tougher for any of New York’s ball handlers to get downhill, pressure the rim, and generate buckets.

Are the Trail Blazers a playoff team again?

After eight consecutive postseason appearances, Portland crashed and burned last season. With an abdominal injury limiting superstar point guard Damian Lillard to just 29 games and a changed-up defensive scheme under first-year head coach Chauncey Billups resulting in the same 29th-place finish that predecessor Terry Stotts managed the season before, the Blazers sputtered to a 27-55 record—the franchise’s worst mark in 16 years.

Given that depressing free fall, and given how loud the noise was this time last year about Lillard potentially considering his options outside the Pacific Northwest, it wouldn’t be surprising if the song of this summer was similarly downbeat. And yet, I came out of the first few days of free agency feeling some optimism about the revamped Blazers … and that was before franchise governor Jody Allen, sister of late former owner Paul Allen, checked in Tuesday just to make sure we all know she’s not looking to sell the Blazers—to Phil Knight, or to anybody else—anytime soon. (Which, for what it’s worth, raised plenty of questions about what the out-of-the-blue affirmative statement was probably intended to head off.)

“As we’ve stated before, neither [the Blazers nor the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks] is for sale and there are no sales discussions happening,” Allen wrote in her statement. “ … There is no preordained timeline by which the teams must be sold. Until then, my focus—and that of our teams—is on winning.”

Allen’s sentiment echoes one that Lillard shared with Blazers fans before Portland’s home finale in April:

And for what it’s worth, with one notable exception—using the no. 7 pick in the 2022 NBA draft on Shaedon Sharpe, a 19-year-old super-prospect who sat out his lone season at Kentucky—the Blazers have moved this summer like a team intent on winning now.

Interim-no-longer GM Joe Cronin opened draft week by flipping a protected 2025 first-round pick to the Pistons for forward Jerami Grant, who wasn’t quite up to snuff as a no. 1 option in Detroit, but profiles as a strong complementary threat alongside a true-blue superstar like Dame … and, crucially, the kind of rangy (6-foot-8, 210 pounds, with a 7-foot-3 wingspan), athletic, and versatile perimeter defender that Portland has lacked for years. After the home run swing for Sharpe in the draft, Cronin brought back three core pieces, guaranteeing the contract of swingman Josh Hart, re-signing restricted free agent guard Anfernee Simons to a four-year, $100 million deal, and re-upping unrestricted center Jusuf Nurkic for $70 million over the same span.

Adding to that quartet, Cronin plucked Payton out of the Bay with a three-year, $28 million deal in a move that feels like a hand-in–Young Glove fit. For years, we’ve lamented Portland’s lack of players who can guard multiple positions, provide a rim-running and short-roll playmaking outlet for Lillard, and give Dame a breather by handling the thorniest defensive assignments in the backcourt. Payton isn’t Draymond Green, but he checks off just about all those boxes pretty damn well, and if you’re looking for a bodyguard and running buddy for a bombs-away shooting point guard, you could do a lot worse than the dude who just played that role for Stephen Curry:

Payton, Grant, Hart, Nassir Little, and Justise Winslow (a holdover from the February trade that sent Norman Powell and Robert Covington to the Clippers) give Billups more versatility, toughness, and defensive chops on the wing than Portland has had in years; they’re the perfect protectors for Lillard and Simons, a pair of high-scoring but undersized and defensively challenged playmakers. If that perimeter core can combine with Nurkic to elevate the Blazers’ defense, plus the Blazers get full seasons from Lillard (who should be recharged after his longest rest in ages) and Simons (one of the breakout success stories of 2021-22), Portland could be back in contention for a playoff berth.

It won’t be a cakewalk. Pencil in the Warriors, the vengeance-minded Suns (pending a resolution on the Durant and Deandre Ayton scenarios), the full-strength Clippers and Nuggets, the Gobert-ified Timberwolves, the Zion-infused Pelicans, and the Mavericks and Grizzlies—each rebounding from losses of key pieces, but both still featuring megawatt superstars—and you’re already nearing the edge of play-in consideration. If a post-Gobert Utah can pivot to something stable surrounding Donovan Mitchell, and if the Lakers can combine healthy seasons from LeBron James and Anthony Davis with an answer to the Russell Westbrook dilemma, Portland might be on the outside looking in, even if Dame comes back better than ever. The West is that crowded; the path is that perilous.

Adding another piece—ideally a tall one on the wing—would likely boost Portland’s chances. I wonder if Dame has one in mind.

If Lillard can’t coax KD to Portland, though—an idea that might not be as crazy as it sounds—he might find some solace in taking the court each night with a team better equipped to at least stay in the fight than last year’s model. Well, that and a $107 million contract extension. I’m not sure what the going rate for solace is these days, but I imagine that’d buy a lot of it.



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