Utah Jazz Future as Bright as Its Depth Chart Is Murky

The Utah Jazz have stockpiled a lot of young talent over the past couple of years. They’ve taken full advantage of the benefits attached to losing by building with first-round picks. 

Trey Burke, Alex Burks, Gordon Hayward, Enes Kanter, Dante Exum, Rudy Gobert, Rodney Hood—all of these guys were personally hand-picked by Utah management in the draft.

And there’s a lot to like about each individually. The Jazz missed on Paul George in 2010 and Kawhi Leonard in 2011, but for the most part, they’ve done pretty well for themselves based on the hand the lottery dealt them.

But now they’re looking at a core with Hayward, 24, the oldest guy of the bunch. The Jazz won just 25 games last year, and though we’ll likely see some encouraging improvements in 2014-15, it’s probably going to be another long, losing season.

Utah will have some personnel decisions to make soon with regard to their rebuilding plan. And here’s the fear—that the Jazz end up committing to a roster that’s ceiling is capped by logjams and limited individual upside. 

And it starts at point guard, despite the Jazz having two promising options at the position. 

Utah went with a worry-about-it-later approach by taking Exum, a point guard, one year after Burke. And the fit isn’t overly convincing. 

You’d imagine the ultimate goal here long term is for the two to play together, which means that Exum must play off the ball, given Burke stands just 6’1″ and probably wouldn’t fare to well at the 2. 

But by playing Exum off the ball, it forces him to play to his weaknesses as a shooter and away from his strengths as a playmaker.

And it takes away from what drove his massive appeal in the first place—Exum has the potential to be a monster mismatch at the point. Not at shooting guard, where he’ll have the ball less and likely draw bigger defensive wings.

As long as Burke is on the floor, Exum‘s playmaking opportunities will be limited. 

“I think I’m still comfortable at the point,” Exum told Jody Genessy of the Deseret News following one of his summer league games. “I still want to get the ball in my hands as much as possible. I didn’t get it a lot in my hands these last couple of games.”

Based on the look of things, it seems as if the Jazz plan on grooming Burke, who’s clearly more ready to run the team right now, as their floor general moving forward. 

A skeptic with regard to Utah’s strategy might argue that Exum is losing valuable early reps to a guy whose ceiling is a few stories lower. Burke might help the Jazz win more games in 2014-15, but is that worth jeopardizing the development and possible future of a potentially more rewarding player in Exum down the road?

You worry that Burke’s presence will prevent Exum from ever taking off and that Burke himself will eventually hit the wall. One of the reasons why eight teams passed on him in a weak draft was because of his lack of perceived upside.  

The frontcourt situation in Utah is also somewhat murky. Management recently made the decision not to extend Kanter, a likely result of his questionable fit alongside Derrick Favors, whom the team is heavily invested in.

Favors and Kanter have had some issues gelling together. It’s not surprising—both of them live in the paint and essentially crowd each other’s space. That’s why coach Quin Snyder has had Kanter working on his three-ball—to stretch the floor and give each big man a little more room to score.

But anyone who’s watched Kanter over the years knows that’s not his game. 

Regardless, he should draw plenty of interest next summer on the restricted free-agent market, but with Favors at the 5 and promising center Rudy Gobert waiting to blow up, the Jazz might want to pocket that money and save it on a different need. 

If Utah decides it doesn’t feel it’s right to lose a starter for nothing, it will likely be forced to overpay and commit to a frontcourt that lacks natural cohesion.

Moving back to the backcourt, the Jazz will also have a decision to make on Alec Burks, who has until midnight October 31 to agree to an extension or he too will become a restricted free agent next summer.

Grantland’s Zach Lowe shared what he believed will take to lock him up: 

A four-year, $28 million extension might seem an overpay given Burks’s record, but it could turn into the new TV-deal version of those $4 million–level extensions teams gave Thabo Sefolosha, Quincy Pondexter, and Jared Dudley. Those deals weren’t home runs, but they provided good value at most times, and can return actual assets in trades.

The Jazz must decide whether to pay around $7 million a year today or risk him erupting in 2014-15 and drawing much greater interest as a free agent. 

If Utah does bring back Burks, and it eventually ends up moving forward with Burke as the long-term answer at point guard to pair with Hayward, who’s making around $15 million a year, and Favors, who’s making $12 million, then chances are this is the same core Jazz fans will be looking at in a few years.

It looks promising now, but relative to the brutal western conference, is this a group we should expect to make significant noise even in two or three seasons?

They could have room to sign a quality restricted free agent, but the Jazz haven’t exactly been known for luring them in recently. 

This is a fun team to watch and one that’s only going to improve. Burke looks poised for a more efficient season, as does Hayward, who spent time with U.S.A. basketball this summer. Favors took a step last year. So did Burks. 

But now the big question—how much upside do each of these guys have left in the tank, and will their fit together in Utah make it possible for them to reach it?

Hopefully, the Jazz don’t find themselves stuck in nowhere land—not good enough to compete for the playoffs, not bad enough to land a top draft pick and not attractive enough to bring in any impact names. 

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Tested by the Past, Erik Spoelstra Takes on Challenge of LeBron-Less Future

MIAMI — Erik Spoelstra always appreciated the unique nature of the opportunity, not just for someone with his unconventional beginnings, but for anyone. That was apparent from the official opening of the Big Three era, and even several weeks later, just before Christmas 2010, when he was chatting casually on the court of the U.S. Airways Center, after a comfortable victory against the Phoenix Suns

By then, the Heat had recovered from a surprisingly rocky beginning and had begun to roll, with 13 victories in 14 outings, on their way to 21 in 22. By then, Spoelstra had already survived two flashpoints when, if he’d been in some other organization, he might have been relieved of his responsibilities for some perceived greater good: the first coming as the Heat were recruiting LeBron James and Chris Bosh over the summer, and the second after “Bumpgate” and reports of a player insurrection accompanied a 9-8 start.     

And there would be plenty of controversies and supposed calamities to come, with failures in two NBA Finals sandwiching two championships. Still, through it all, Spoelstra rarely appeared shaken, let alone stirred. That self-security seemed to stem from a simple, soothing realization that the former video coordinator shared that night in Phoenix: “The way I look at it, I’ll be able to look back in 25 years and know that I coached this team.”

When no one, anywhere, ever expected him to.   

On the whole, over the course of four seasons and postseasons, he would coach that team quite well. 

Of course, now he now longer coaches that team, not the one that polarized this country and countries beyond like few others in modern sports history. Yes, he still coaches the Heat, now entering a seventh season, longer than all but one of his peers, Gregg Popovich, has been in a current coaching spot. But this is merely a basketball squad now, not a societal statement. It won’t be leading SportsCenter anymore; the question is whether, at the end of this season, it can lead an improved Southeast Division, one that includes the playoff-tested Washington Wizards who visit Miami on Wednesday night.     

The stakes for Spoelstra are still high, even if the spotlight has dimmed, the outsized expectations have shrunk and the rows of reporters have receded, after more than half the roster departed. Eight members of the 2014 Eastern Conference champions aren’t around anymore. Two, LeBron James as well as James Jones, are in Cleveland. The other six aren’t in the NBA anywhere, with two in China (Toney Douglas, Michael Beasley), one in legal trouble (Greg Oden), one working for ESPN (Shane Battier), one hoping to pass a future physical somewhere (Rashard Lewis) and one (Ray Allen) expected to leave his Miami house to return to the NBA somewhere at some point—maybe to the Cavaliers, but not to the Heat, at least not according to what he’s long been telling his teammates of the past two seasons.  

Spoelstra’s still in South Florida, seemingly on even more solid ground, with his two closest confidantes (David Fizdale and Dan Craig) elevated to stronger positions on the coaching staff, and Pat Riley involving him even more in the team’s personnel process. Yet some of the skeptics also remain, those who missed his first two seasons, when he took underwhelming rosters to the playoffs, or dismissed his role in the past four NBA Finals trips, when he evolved as a strategist and psychologist in order to better accommodate his top-tier talent. Those who will always believe, contrary to all common sense, that coaches of talented teams need to do little but roll out the balls. 

No one, anywhere, is saying he can do just that now.   

And even his admirers, such as former NBA coach Doug Collins, are wondering how he will confront his current circumstances. 

“The big thing for Erik now is he’s got to find the best way for this particular team without LeBron to win basketball games,” Collins said Monday, on an ESPN conference call. “It’s going to be a different offense. It’s going to be a different defense, and you’ve got a lot of different dynamics.” 

Spoelstra still doesn’t like to make much about himself, which is why his begrudging participation in a recent front-page Sports Illustrated profile—penned by the same writer to whom James dictated the “Coming Home” essaywas such a surprise. Instead, he habitually characterizes himself as just a cog in Miami’s machine, an embodiment of the Heat’s greater organizational philosophy. The tenets of continuity and stability are not only prized above all, but now vigorously promoted as the franchise tries not to slip into the same sort of abyss as Cleveland, and other sports franchises, after losing a megastar. The leftovers are calling themselves “Heat Lifers” now, as the standard-bearers for the “Heat Nation,” with Riley stepping out of character to tout the current roster on website videos and Alonzo Mourning providing voiceovers for television commercials, telling fans of a franchise that “hangs banners” that it’s “time to plant our flag.” 

“Well, the thing about it is you know with Miami, the blueprint is in place,” Collins said. “You know, Pat Riley has been there, Erik Spoelstra has been there 20 years. They call it the Miami way. This is the way we do things.”

It’s a way meant to stand out even more in light what Spoelstra has come to call the “microwave society.” The coach has used that “Spo-ism” since the start of camp, to explain how the NBA is beginning to resemble other enterprises, from the NFL or major corporations, with the constant turnover making it more difficult to create and sustain a culture.

“You put something together,” Spoelstra lamented, “and you’re not sure how long it will last.”

By contrast, his own career was on a slow cooker, at least until Riley anointed the understudy as the replacement in 2008. Spoelstra has worked for Heat since the summer of 1995 and Pat Riley for all but a month of that, and he has seen many remain in the organization for a similar length of time. He has acknowledged that, in NBA team-building, such stability “doesn’t guarantee you anything, but at least it gives you a head start.”

With eight new players, including three rookies, two reclamation projects (Shawne Williams, Danny Granger) and a key piece who missed the entire preseason (Josh McRoberts), he’ll now try to turn the league on its tail. 

Is he excited by the prospect of surprising so many? 

“It’s really reinvigorated a lot of us, but it’s not like going for three straight (championships) wasn’t invigorating,” Spoelstra said. “Come on. Let’s not take it too far. It sounds good as a storyline and everything, but let’s face it, that was electric. But yeah, you see potential with this team. I just don’t know how long it’s going to take to come together.” 

Even with Riley trying to preserve cap space for the blockbuster summer of 2016, when the market will be flush with free agents as well television-related cash, it appears that he’s given Spoelstra a few more tools than in his two seasons prior to the formation of the Big Three. 

Then, the newbie head coach managed a 90-74 record.

In 2008-09, the Heat went 43-39 while trading their second-best player, Shawn Marion, at midseason for Jermaine O’Neal; relying heavily on rookies Mario Chalmers and Michael Beasley; and granting 21 starts apiece to Yakhouba Diawara and Jamario Moon. Even so, Spoelstra said it didn’t take long to determine what that team could do, because Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem, both in their primes, provided a steady pulse.  

“Dwyane was phenomenal, coming off of the Olympics,” Spoelstra recalled. “Our main focus was to try to build a top-5 defense, and offensively we would just figure it out, and if it was close enough in the fourth quarter, Dwyane would just take over and will us to a win. It was that simplified a process. And we really did have a defense that got stronger and stronger and stronger as the season went on. But he was sensational. Particularly in the fourth quarter, in those big moments.”

Then came 2009-10, the bridge season to Riley’s courtship of James and Bosh. Virtually everyone on the team, including Wade and Haslem, was on an expiring contract, which raised reasonable concerns about whether so many potential short-timers would commit to each other. 

“In transition,” Spoelstra recalled. “[We had] a lot of free agents, but a lot of competitive Type-A personalities that didn’t want to just mail in the season. So they also understood that we would have to do it together and not just play for your contract. It helped the type of guys that we had.”

It is fairly remarkable in retrospect, especially considering that the immature Michael Beasley, benched in the final game of the first round, had been Miami’s second-most reliable scorer throughout the season.

Wade, however, tired of carrying so much. That summer, he sacrificed so the Heat could welcome two new stars. You know the rest. And, certainly, Spoelstra knows more about coaching than he did then. Few coaches in history have ever been fed to hotter flames. 

How much better prepared is he now, to put pieces together?

“Just being six years in that seat,” Spoelstra said. “Because of the nature of our team the last four years, you’re playing over 100 games, so many more experiences. You know, it’s a long season, you have two months extra each year. That experience is invaluable.” 

To some, that would seem to put in him in an enviable position: greater experience, less pressure. He has appeared a bit more relaxed, along with the organization as a whole, and not just when he was taking smiling selfies with Riley and Fizdale on Corcovado Mountain during the preseason trip to Brazil. The burden of perfection has been lifted, at least from the outside. 

“Nah, there’s always pressure,” Spoelstra said. “Every single one of us in this business. It’s self-induced for everybody. It really is. Regardless of whether it’s perceived that we’re under the radar or not, no coach ever feels like you’re getting a free pass. Not when you’re in this seat.” 

Never fun?

“No,” he said, smiling. 

With a career record of 314-189, he still sees room for growth. You will get a concurring opinion from some of those who have played for him, even those who like him personally; when there’s been grumbling about him professionally, it’s generally been about communication breakdowns, and come from those with unsettled roles in the rotation. Spoelstra says he still wants to learn how to better manage teams and personalities, how to better build a culture, how to better get everyone to buy into the same goal.

As the season starts, he appears to have some allies, starting with Wade, who may not be what he was, but looks like he can be more, at least in terms of availability, than he was last season. They have had their spats, some private, some—such as in Indianapolis during the 2012 playoffsquite public. Now, Spoelstra says they are “probably” closer than they’ve ever been, dating back to their initial collaboration in 2003, when Spoelstra was Wade’s dedicated skills trainer. 

“It literally is like a family,” Spoelstra said. “We’ve been around each other for 12 years. I mean, you’re gonna have everything. Exhilarating times, times where you are not on the same page, times where it’s tough. But also, there’s no textbook on it, because 99 percent of the coaches and players have never been together that long. That cycle usually changes every two or three years. It’s different for us.”

Even though they’re in the same place. Still standing, while trying to move forward. 

“Right, right,” Spoelstra said. “We’re the Heat Lifers. When you say that, it’s like, ‘Yeah, you are, too.’” 

Wade is not only still at his side, but pulling more teammates aside. The 10-time All-Star hasn’t typically embraced a vocal leadership role over the course of his previous 11 seasons, largely balking at babysitting the “goof troupe” of Michael Beasley, Daequan Cook and a less mature Mario Chalmers during Spoelstra’s first two seasons as head coach, and stepping even further back to allow the louder James to lead as the latter became increasingly comfortable in the Heat culture. But several times this preseason, Wade’s been spotted instructing between plays, and on the bench, often with an arm around a player’s shoulders. 

“He’s known that this team really needs it,” Spoelstra said. “He’s embraced it. And I think he’s at a point in his career where he sees the impact of it, more than he ever has. It’s really been powerful, how he’s been leading so far.”

Where they’re going? 

Nobody, from reporter to player to coach, really knows. 

Which means, in 25 years, this too might be quite the tale to tell. 

 

Ethan Skolnick covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @EthanJSkolnick.

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Duke’s 5-Star PF Chase Jeter on Future NBA Career: ‘All-Star by Second Year’

5-star power forward Chase Jeter is one of the top players in the 2015 class and has committed to play his college ball at Duke University.

Bleacher Report went one-on-one with Jeter, who discussed everything from winning the Naismith Award at Duke to being compared to the legendary Tim Duncan.

Find out what Jeter had to say as well as what Sny.com’s basketball guru Adam Zagoria thinks about Jeter’s potential.

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What Nikola Vucevic’s Extension Means for the Future of Tobias Harris

As much as anything, Nikola Vucevic’s four-year, $53 million extension from the Orlando Magic is being viewed as a bellwether for how the NBA’s new multibillion dollar TV deal will affect future player salaries.

More pressing for Magic fans, however, is what bearing the Vucevic deal might have on the prospects of fellow 2011 draftee Tobias Harris, who is likewise eligible for a four-year extension (prior to the October 31 deadline).

Just 24 hours before, Basketball Insiders’ Steve Kyler reported it was unlikely that Orlando would move to lock down its young frontcourt duo for the long term.

Now, with Vucevic officially in the fold, Harris’ future with the Magic only feels more tenuous.

At the very least, Orlando’s considerable frontcourt depth—highlighted by Harris, third-year scorer Maurice Harkless and rookie Aaron Gordon—means the team will likely take its time in weighing the myriad options at its disposal.

Essentially, if the Magic opt not to extend Harris, the combo forward’s $3.6 million qualifying offer would automatically kick in. Per the league’s collective bargaining agreement, Orlando would be able to match any offer above and beyond that number once the free-agent market officially opens next July.

As things stand, the Magic have $14.9 million committed for the 2015-16 season. Throw in the surefire team option on second-year guard Victor Oladipo ($5.2 million), and the team’s commitments rise to just north of $20 million.

At that point, Orlando would have seven additional player options at its disposal: Ben Gordon ($4.5 million), Luke Ridnour ($2.8 million), Harkless ($2.9 million), Evan Fournier ($2.3 million), Andrew Nicholson ($2.4 million), Devyn Marble ($850,000) and Dewayne Dedmon ($950,000).

Here’s what we know: Given their cap situation and variable rookie-scale contract obligations, Orlando has about as much flexibility as any one team can have.

With so many financial balls up in the air, the Magic’s decision to extend Vucevic was as much about locking in the former USC standout’s double-double potential as it was securing a stopgap at the team’s shallowest position—center.

Meanwhile, for Harris, Gordon, Harkless and Nicholson, the 2014-15 season is about who can find the best, most sustainable niche on a team that could be just a year or two away from legitimate conference upstart status.

The good news for those who wish to see Harris remain an Amway Center fixture: He’s been a revelation in the preseason, tallying 16.2 points and 7.2 rebounds on a stellar 57 percent shooting, including 45 percent from three-point range—the one area (aside from defense) where Harris could stand to author the biggest improvement.

In a recent interview with NBA.com’s John Denton, Harris spoke at length about how working with the sharpshooting Ben Gordon—often in workouts that last late into the night—has helped him rediscover his confidence as a shooter.

“Being able to make that shot sets up my game real well,’’ Harris said. “It keeps the defense on their heels. But at the same time that doesn’t mean that I’m going to settle for those jumpers. I still want to attack.’’

For a player looking to recapture his career trajectory following a somewhat disappointing 2013-14 campaign, Harris’ preseason play is nothing if not encouraging.

Ditto the fourth-year forward’s conditioning:

At the same time, there are some who see Harris as little more than a solid rotation player padding his stats for a perennial loser. Take ESPN’s Amin Elhassan, who included Orlando’s burly big man in his recent list of terrible-team stars (Insider subscription required):

…Harris is on a team that is trying to do better and develop winning habits, and he represents the best scoring option on the roster. Sure, Channing Frye and Ben Gordon have more experience, Victor Oladipo will have the ball in his hands a ton and Nikola Vucevic is going to get more than his fair share of touches out of pick-and-roll action and on offensive rebounds, but in terms of being the go-to offensive option, no one else on the Magic brings Harris’ skill set or efficiency when it comes to scoring.

He’s a big wing with a nice touch around the basket and the versatility to play up a position at power forward. While his 3-point range is still a work in progress, he does a good job of drawing fouls and getting to the free throw line, where he converted at an 81 percent clip last season.

But while Elhassan’s analysis might come off as one big backhanded compliment, the fact that Harris is even mentioned in the same breath (or on the same page) as Kobe Bryant and DeMarcus Cousins speaks to the onetime Tennessee standout’s latent—but very real—potential.

The question now becomes whether Harris’ fourth-year leap will be enough to convince Orlando to make him a key piece in its talent-rich youth movement, or if his NBA future will unfurl somewhere else entirely.

It’ll likely take another year of swaps and signings before the ramifications of the NBA’s TV megadeal can be fully sussed out. But if Vucevic’s extension is any harbinger, Harris can rest assured that a productive year four will net him quite the payday. Even if it’s not from his first NBA employer.

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NBA Rights Deal Gives Rockets More Fuel, Competition in Future Free-Agency Talks

Not long after Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey’s long fly ball sailed foul this summer, he pledged to keep swinging. Opposite-field singles are not his style. 

Soon, nearly the entire NBA will swing for the fences too. A free-agent frenzy like no other looms on the horizon thanks to the NBA’s new media rights deal and corresponding salary-cap increases. 

Recently, the Rockets haven’t needed salary-cap spikes to seek the best free agents or biggest deals available. Morey scored the free agent of 2013 in franchise center Dwight Howard, before whiffing on a home run swing for Chris Bosh this past offseason.

That led to the stunning decision to let Chandler Parsons flee to Dallas. Morey claims the Rockets’ championship chances are better with Trevor Ariza at just over half the price, giving Houston salary-cap flexibility in lieu of a strong roster virtually locked in place.

While making his case for flexibility, Morey has pledged Houston won’t shy away from the next long-shot superstar acquisition.

“Sometimes you have 11 and you double down and you get two,” he said after the smoke cleared following Bosh’s decision and Parsons’ departure. “It doesn’t mean it was wrong to double down.”

But when the new rights fee deals with Disney (ABC/ESPN) and Turner (TNT, Bleacher Report, NBATV) drop crisp dollar bills into league coffers, the Rockets could face an unprecedented number of competitors ready to spend like, well, the Rockets.

Morey has in past seasons carefully built his roster to have the cap room or flexibility to trade for James Harden in 2012, to sign Howard in 2013 and to chase Bosh and Carmelo Anthony in 2014. When he regrouped from this summer’s near miss—after Bosh took the extra $30 million the Heat added to their offer at the last minute—Morey offered only short-term deals to make sure the Rockets would remain free-agent players in 2015, and especially in 2016.

Now, with the salary cap likely to jump between $25 million and $30 million for the 2016-17 season and maybe sooner if the NBA can convince the Players Association to accept a more gradual phase-in of the increased cap, all kinds of teams that would not have otherwise had the cap room to gain admittance to the free-agent dance will be able to make their moves too.

(In a league memorandum issued last week, NBA executives were barred from commenting on the next round of collective bargaining agreement negotiations or the impact of the new rights fees.)

Of course, the Rockets’ flexibility could still come in handy, offering a chance for players to team up in a Heat-like axis of power. The Rockets have just four players—Harden, Ariza, Howard and Nick Johnson—with guaranteed money for the 2016-17 season, and Howard could opt out of his deal in the summer of 2016 to take advantage of all that new cap room.

(Howard passed on a Los Angeles Lakers‘ offer $30 million richer than the Rockets could offer him in 2013. He could make up for that by starting his new deal in the rich, new landscape one season earlier.)

By then, the Rockets will have also likely committed years and dollars to point guard Patrick Beverley, a free agent after this season. They could keep forward Terrence Jones or forward Donatas Motiejunas around. For now, they have just $25.5 million, not including Howard’s $23.3 million on the books for 2016-17, when the cap could jump to the pricey neighborhood of $90 million.

But even if they choose to have only enough players under contract for a decent poker game, they would have roster spots and cap room like never before. 

They won’t be alone. Less certain will be whether teams choose to spend their money carefully in 2015 in anticipation of a free-agent class likely to be headlined by LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Howard in 2016. Even then, players might have to weigh taking the windfall that will come with the new TV deal versus waiting another year for the new collective bargaining agreement and whatever forms of riches it could bring the league’s upper crust.

For example, would Rajon Rondo seek only a one-year deal in 2015 so he can be a free agent again in 2016? Would teams offer him maximum money for just one season if they could lose him so quickly? A player like Paul Milsap, who would be a coveted free agent but not necessarily a max-contract player, could have to choose between waiting a year for the salary cap to jump or taking the offers that might be richer because teams may attempt to lock up stars with the current salary-cap structure.

Eric Bledsoe and Kenneth Faried chose long-term contracts now, contracts that might not seem quite as much of a gamble for their teams when the new world order kicks in.

Many of these questions could be answered as the NBA begins working through the new uncertainty, beginning with a board of governors meeting this month.

Morey will continue to gamble on landing big names because that is the strategy he and Rockets owner Leslie Alexander value. That would not change if the new money to spend brings more teams into the market, though the Rockets could use their flexibility and again chase multiple free agents, as they did with Bosh and Carmelo Anthony.

In the era of the short contracts, decisions in 2014, including the Rockets’ willingness to let Parsons bolt for Dallas, are not likely to bring regrets because of changes to come in 2016. More than ever, however, teams will look for guidance about how and when the rights fees will change their lives.

This could give NBA front offices, especially teams that have saved their allowance, two years of waiting to go shopping in a buyer’s market with new money burning holes in general managers’ pockets. Morey has been there before. Now, more than ever, he is certain to be back to try again.

 

Jonathan Feigen covers the Rockets for the Houston Chronicle, and can be followed on Twitter at @Jonathan_Feigen.

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Photo from 2007 LeBron James Skills Academy Is Flooded with Future NBA Stars

Former Memphis Tigers guard/forward Wesley Witherspoon shared this photo from the 2007 LeBron James Skills Academy as a Throwback Thursday, and it’s flooded with future NBA stars. 

A quick glance at the photo reveals a number of familiar faces. On the far left, we see Charlotte’s Kemba Walker standing next to former North Carolina guard Dexter Strickland. Of course, James is in the center, standing next to…Charlotte’s Lance Stephenson (funny how the two would go on to develop a strange rivalry of sorts).

Behind Stephenson stands Detroit’s Greg Monroe. Sitting on the floor are Sacramento’s DeMarcus Cousins and Toronto’s DeMar DeRozan.

In case you’re interested, here’s a short write-up of the event from Bob Gibbons of All Star Sports, via ESPN Deportes. One line stands out in particular as rather prophetic.

“Stephenson has outstanding potential, but throughout this event, he wanted to dominate the ball and constantly tried to slash to the hoop,” Gibbons wrote. “He made some spectacular plays—and some that were less than spectacular.”

[Instagram]

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NBA Rumors: Assessing Future of Ray Allen, Bradley Beal and More

Aside from a few small changes, NBA teams are usually set at this point of the year as they get ready for the start of the season. However, front offices remain busy as they attempt to constantly improve the franchise.

Between looking out for potential trades, adding available free agents or simply locking up the talent on the current roster, there is a lot for general managers to do at all times of the calendar.

As a result, fans should always look out for ways in which their team is set to tweak the roster. Here is a look at the latest potential moves from around the league.

 

Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards

The Washington Wizards were expecting to be a top team in the NBA this season behind an elite young backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal. Unfortunately, the squad will have to compete with only half of this duo to start the year.

Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated provided the latest:

Despite this injury, the Wizards want to do whatever it takes to keep Beal in Washington for as long as possible, according to J. Michael of CSNWashington.com:

That the Wizards will pick up the fourth-year option for the 2015-16 season on Bradley Beal‘s rookie contract before this one tips is a foregone conclusion. His latest injury, a left wrist fracture that required surgery, will have no negative impact on his future here or the team’s plans to work out an extension this summer, multiple persons on both sides have confirmed to CSNwashington.com.

This appears to be a smart move after the No. 3 pick in the 2013 draft showed last season that he can be a big-time scorer on a good team. He averaged 17.1 points per game while hitting 40.2 percent of his shots from three-point range. As he continues to improve, these numbers can even pick up in his third year.

Beal even improved in the postseason, averaging 19.1 points with five rebounds and 4.5 assists in 11 games.

On the other hand, the team does have to be cautious about the player’s injury history, which is once again becoming an issue. The guard dealt with leg injuries in each of his first two seasons, missing a total of 35 games. With the latest wrist problem, the Wizards have to hope this does not become a trend.

Still, his talent is reason for Washington to find a way to keep him aboard for as long as he will stay.

 

Timofey Mozgov, Denver Nuggets

While he might not get the respect he deserves, Timofey Mozgov continues to show he can be a dominant force in the low post for some team.

The center is coming off the best year of his career, averaging 9.4 points and 6.4 rebounds in 21.6 minutes per game. Unfortunately, he consistently finds himself behind JaVale McGee on the depth chart.

This could change early on with McGee dealing with a leg injury. Head coach Brian Shaw noted he might not be ready for the start of the season, according to Chris Dempsey of the Denver Post:

Still, the real question is what will happen when they are both healthy. McGee has the athleticism, and therefore the upside, to force the Nuggets to keep seeing what they have in him. Meanwhile, Mozgov is wanted by numerous teams around the league, according to Dempsey:

During the past calendar year, Mozgov arguably has been the Nuggets’ most-coveted trade asset. Teams called last winter and throughout the summer. That’s not likely to change, because with a $4.6 million salary, Mozgov is one of the best bangs for the buck in the NBA.

According to HoopsHype (h/t Pro Basketball Talk), ESPN’s Brian Windhorst stated that Cleveland appeared willing to trade for the center during the summer, but it seems apparent the Cavs were not alone in their quest to acquire Mozgov.

The question is whether the Nuggets want to keep both centers on the roster when they can instead bring in draft picks to help improve for the future. The squad went just 36-46 last season, so looking to rebuild might not be a terrible decisionespecially if things go poorly in the first few weeks.

On the plus side, it seems teams will be willing to make a deal for the player whenever he becomes available, meaning the Nuggets can take their time with a decision.

As long as he stays healthy, Mozgov should be able to help the organization in some way this season.

 

Ray Allen, Free Agent

While the saga surrounding LeBron James’ free agency was a bigger deal, the future of Ray Allen has been much more confusing.

The Boston Globe‘s Gary Washburn suggested in July that Allen was leaning toward following his former teammate to the Cleveland Cavaliers, and at one point, this seemed like a done deal. However, ESPN’s Marc Stein noted his agent thought otherwise:

The fact that he is not yet certain if he will play next year makes things a bit more complicated.

The good news for him is there are plenty of teams interested in bringing in the all-time leader in three-point shooting if he chooses to play.

J. Michael of CSN Washington.com reported the Wizards were interested in signing the guard to replace the injured Beal, but there is a lot of competition for the veteran:

The prospect of being a starter again with Beal‘s absence isn’t likely to make Washington any more enticing for Allen. He’ll soon be 40. Six teams have actually contacted his reps since he became an unrestricted free agent—the Wizards, Cleveland Cavaliers, San Antonio Spurs, Chicago Bulls, Oklahoma City Thunder and…the Milwaukee Bucks.

Meanwhile, Allen also does not have to make a decision immediately. Boston Celtics general manager Danny Ainge noted that while the guard wants to play for a contender, he can wait and see which ones really pan out over the course of the season, via A. Sherrod Blakely of CSNNE.com:

He may wait until All-Star break or January. And just see what teams are playing well, which teams are the healthiest and which team that he thinks that he might fit in, just in the style of play. With new coaches at some different places, he may just want to see how it unfolds before he makes a decision.

This seems to be a pretty nice situation for anyone to be in. You do not have to do any of the work over the start of the season and can join an elite squad already in full swing.

As long as teams are willing to wait for him, this might be the smartest and likeliest move for the veteran player.

 

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Will NBA’s New TV Deal Impact Boston Celtics’ Future Plans with Rajon Rondo?

Long-term team planning in the NBA has always been a challenge, but now you can use another adjective to describe it: ambiguous.

For the Boston Celtics, that uncertainty looms from the potential changes the NBA’s new TV rights deal will have on the salary cap. Any shifts in those numbers could have a major effect on how the team plans on handling Rajon Rondo‘s future, for this season and beyond.  

Richard Sandomir of The New York Times first reported last week about the new TV deal, noting that Turner Sports and ESPN will pay an average of $2.7 billion a year to the NBA for nine seasons (starting in 2016-17) in exchange for retaining exclusive broadcast rights for the league.

The new deal will send league revenues skyrocketing over the second half of the decade. The NBA salary cap rises and declines based on league revenues.

With the NBA expected to more than double its current average yearly intake for TV rights starting in 2016, the league’s salary-cap number could make a dramatic jump from the latest estimate of $66.5 million.

NBA salary-cap expert Larry Coon reported the NBA was projecting that cap figure for the 2015-16 season back in April. 

Zach Lowe of Grantland explored just how significant that increase could be in a column last week:

The league right now projects a jump to $66.5 million for 2015-16, a modest rise pegged to the final year of that modest $930 million TV deal. If the new TV deal kicks in for the 2016-17 season just shy of $2 billion, the cap could exceed that same $14 million leap, all the way to around $80-plus million, in a single year.

Lowe also reported that the league is considering the option of smoothing, a process which would tie the new TV deal revenue partially to the 2015-16 season as well.

That scenario would lead to higher revenues—and a higher salary cap from the league’s current $66.5 million projection—during the 2015-16 season, thus creating a more staggered rise to an $80-plus million salary-cap number in 2016.

The path the league elects to take in implementing any changes remains to be seen, but it is clear that many pending NBA free agents will be significantly impacted by this new TV deal when they hit the open market this summer.

Both teams and agents will be attempting to map out the value of each player in the midst of enormous shifts within the salary-cap landscape.

The most intriguing player to watch next summer, with these changes in mind, may very well be Rondo. In preparation for Rondo’s looming free agency, I took a closer look at just how much of an impact, if any, the pending salary-cap changes might alter the Celtics’ plans with their star point guard.

The value Rondo deserves in his next contract has always been a common topic of debate among league observers. The 28-year-old has amassed an impressive resume when healthy during his eight-year career, especially during the postseason when he helped carry the Celtics to deep playoff runs in 2010 to the NBA Finals and to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2012.

Those performances, combined with elite point guard numbers throughout his career, have made Rondo a four-time All-Star.

The Celtics captain said on the team’s media day last Monday that this kind of production has made him worthy of receiving a max contract in his next deal, a suggestion that Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge didn’t exactly dispute:

“I think a four-time All-Star by the time he’s [28] years old would qualify for max based on what we’ve seen in the marketplace,” Ainge said. “If I were Rajon and I were Rajon’s agent, I would definitely say that. But since I’m negotiating against him, I’ll withhold.”

Knowing the effects the NBA’s new TV deal is likely to have on player salaries, Rondo’s camp should be in a better position to secure a max-level contract from the Celtics or another team in the league next summer.

That stance is contingent on the point guard performing at an elite level on the floor upon returning from a broken left hand which will sideline him until November.

Assuming Rondo is able to return to his peak form, the Celtics will likely be more compelled to bring their captain back for the long haul due to a variety of factors influenced by the TV deal.

The first of those is a financial component. As I mentioned earlier, all NBA teams will be dealing with more salary-cap room than anticipated in future seasons, perhaps as early as 2015.

That means a potential max-level contract offered by Boston to Rondo, which would be worth a bit over $107 million over five years (based on next year’s $66.5 million salary-cap projection), won’t put as much of a dent in the team’s salary-cap room for future seasons as had been anticipated.

In fact, that kind of a contract for Rondo may be viewed as somewhat of a bargain later in the decade, when the salary cap jumps to over $80 million per season and max salaries for stars also see considerable jumps.

Crucial from a team-building perspective for the Celtics front office, however, is that the franchise would still have plenty of cap room to spend in free agency, even after potentially handing Rondo a $20-plus million annual salary.

They would have enough cash to try to lure another prominent player or two and have them team up with Rondo and other parts of the team’s young core to take the Celtics to the next level.

That line of thinking leads us to the other main reason the TV deal could increase the chances Boston keeps Rondo. The Celtics won’t be the only team benefiting from additional salary-cap space in future seasons; other teams will also have plenty to spend, and this fact will lead to increased competition for free agents on the open market.

That factor may also limit Boston’s trade market for Rondo if it explores moving him this season. Why would most teams give up assets for a player they can conceivably sign as a free agent with their added cap size?

The extra cap space will create a more aggressive marketplace overall in free agency, increasing the importance of appealing to any prized free agent with the lure of winning and a formidable supporting cast.

As the Celtics enter the next stage of their rebuild, landing top-flight free agents is the team’s best hope of developing into a contender once again. If Rondo is not in the fold for future seasons, the challenge of landing these types of players becomes tougher for Ainge.

The painful truth is that the rest of the Celtics roster doesn‘t exactly inspire the kind of confidence in future success that someone like Rondo, with his strong postseason track record, would.

The other wild card in play here for Boston’s plan with Rondo is the possibility that he will want to explore a short-term contract as a result of the TV deal. LeBron James pursued this strategy last summer, signing a two-year contract with a player option that will guarantee he can become a free agent in 2016-17 when the biggest jump in salary is expected.

If Rondo wants to benefit from the raised max-salary levels (35 percent of the salary cap for players with 10-plus years of experience, according to the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement), he could seek a short-term contract that would give him the opportunity to become a free agent in the summer of 2016.

That strategy would maximize Rondo’s potential earnings but may be considered somewhat risky for a player with a significant injury history in recent years.

The bottom line is, beyond all of these variables, Rondo’s play on the floor this season still remains the biggest factor in his next contract and if the Celtics will be willing to pay a high price in future seasons.

The new TV deal will provide an opportunity for Rondo to earn a bigger deal, but the truth is, Rondo still has to prove he is worthy of it.

The Celtics still have not seen their longtime starting point guard play minutes while healthy under Brad Stevens. Even though Rondo suited up for 30 games last season, there were plenty of telltale signs that he was not in peak form in his return to the hardwood in January 2013.

Sure, there were glimpses of strong play from Rondo, but reduced minutes, an inability to play both games in a back-to-back and a career-low mark in field-goal percentage (.403 percent) demonstrated that Rondo had still not fully recovered from ACL surgery.

Ainge admitted these realities when discussing Rondo’s preparation for this season:

“[Rondo] was motivated [this summer] because he didn’t play very well last year, to his standards coming off the knee injury,” Ainge said. “He doesn’t like not to be good. He doesn’t like not being considered one of the best point guards in the game. That’s what drove him to hard work this summer.”

Rondo already had plenty to play for over the next six months, but if the point guard can return to his All-Star ways this season, the NBA’s new TV deal made the odds of the 28-year-old landing a lucrative deal with the Celtics just a bit better.

 

All quotes were obtained firsthand by the author at Celtics media sessions. 

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How Flip Saunders Can Reboot Anthony Bennett’s NBA Future

In a frenzy of NBA offseason excitement, Minnesota Timberwolves forward Anthony Bennett has become somewhat of a forgotten man.

It was just 16 short months ago when all eyes were on Bennett, the first overall selection of the 2013 NBA draft.

In that time, Bennett has moved from Las Vegas to Cleveland and then to Minneapolis. He’s had to rehab from shoulder surgery, switch positions, endure a trade and deal with critics who’ve called him the worst pick of the past 20 years.

Following a summer trade from the Cavaliers to the Timberwolves, Bennett wasn’t even the second- or third-best player in the deal. Kevin Love, Andrew Wiggins and Thaddeus Young headlined the blockbuster three-team swap, with Bennett’s name casually thrown in.

Clearly, a fresh start was needed.

With the Timberwolves and president of basketball operations/head coach Flip Saunders, that’s precisely what Bennett will get.

Here’s how Saunders can turn around the young forward’s future and get Bennett back on his very promising track.

 

Rookie Problems

A lot of Bennett’s struggles on the court as a rookie were physical.

Bennett was noticeably out of shape during training camp with the Cavaliers. During the team’s annual Wine and Gold Scrimmage, Bennett often grasped at his sides and remained bent over during breaks, even after just a few times up and down the court.

It was obvious he wasn’t in good playing condition.

Much of this was out of his control, however.

Bennett was still recovering from offseason shoulder surgery to fix a torn labrum. He suffered from sleep apnea and asthma. Despite playing around 240 pounds while at UNLV, Bennett tipped the scales around 260 pounds during training camp.

While Bennett had to fight to get back in shape, he faced a new battle on the court: playing in a Mike Brown offense.

Brown’s offense was incredibly stagnant last season. Even with players like Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters and Luol Deng, the Cavs finished 22nd in both scoring and offensive rating under Brown.

Brown rarely drew up a play for Bennett or worked to utilize his strengths as an athletic big. Instead, Bennett was often forced to hang out around the three-point line, where he struggled at a 24.5 percent clip.

Bennett’s weight effected his play. His poor play effected his confidence. His low confidence led to passiveness on the court and played a major role in his disappointing season.

“I’m just thinking too much,” Bennett told Mary Schmitt Boyer of The Plain Dealer in Nov. 2013. “That’s what it is right now. I try not to mess up. There’s a lot of plays, a lot of things thrown at me. It’s not the same as college. One mistake is kind of crucial.”

Asked why he’s overthinking, Bennett told Boyer, “I really don’t know. If I had an idea, I’d change it. I just have no idea.”

Nothing, as it seemed, could go right for Bennett.

Even after hitting a stretch of good play in early February, Brown mysteriously benched Bennett for long stretches, killing what progress he had made. A left-knee injury in early March would all but end his miserable rookie year.

 

Offseason Transformation

Since the end of April, Bennett has been on a mission to silence critics and regain his promise as a No. 1 pick.

He’s had his tonsils and adenoids removed, underwent LASIK eye surgery and dropped 10 pounds thanks to a grueling training regimen.

Bennett spent three weeks training with Frank Matrisciano, known for his work with NBA players as well as Navy SEALS. Phil Ervin of Fox Sports North tells us more:

Thanks to hours spent traversing the Santa Monica Stairs with medicine balls in tow, sprints on the beach with 50-pound weights on his back or pails full of sand in his hands, climbing hills of sand while Matrisciano tried to hold him back with a harness and performing other unconventional workouts, Bennett dropped about 10 pounds and weighs 243, he said.

The work clearly paid off for Bennett, as he showed during the team’s media day.

With many of the ailments he faced a season ago now healed, will Bennett finally find success in the NBA?

 

Saunders’ Plan for Bennett

While Wiggins may have headlined the trade for Love, it was certainly no accident that Minnesota ended up with Bennett as well.

Saunders specifically brought Bennett on board because of his belief in the 21-year-old’s abilities.

“He’s like a canvas that hasn’t been painted yet,” Saunders said, via Ervin. “I like his commitment. He’s a willing learner, and he’s one of those guys that is going to continue to get better and better with us every day. He does do a lot of things some other guys can’t do.”

Saunders is absolutely right.

For all the knocks on Bennett, there were quite a few positives as well.

Bennett may be a tad undersized for a power forward at 6’8″ but has an impressive 7’1″ wingspan. A good athlete when healthy, Bennett is capable of running the floor, spotting up or throwing down dunks like this:

If Saunders truly wants to maximize Bennett’s potential, he’ll have the Wolves get out and run as much as possible.

Ball movement is also key. Under Brown with the Cavs, the offense didn’t flow very well, causing Bennett to settle for a lot of three-pointers or isolation plays.

Playing for David Blatt during the summer league in a system that emphasized ball movement, Bennett thrived. In four games, Bennett put up 13.3 points and 7.8 rebounds while helping lead the Cavaliers to a 3-1 record, per NBA.com.

Saunders no doubt studied these games very carefully and has already come up with an offensive guideline for Bennett.

While Bennett has the smooth stroke of a three-point shooter, his range just simply isn’t there yet. Bennett will be at his best in the open court, in transition and off cuts to the basket.

Forcing him to shoot a large quantity of three-pointers right now would be a step back in Bennett’s development.

 

Role with Team

It was very clear that Bennett’s confidence was quite low all throughout last year.

The pressure was excruciating. Not only was he an unexpected first-overall pick, but Bennett was supposed to be a major piece of the Cavs‘ return to the postseason.

As Bennett’s stats plummeted, so too did his confidence and the Cavaliers’ record.

Now with the Timberwolves, expectations have been tapered.

Minnesota isn’t expected to make the playoffs. Bennett isn’t expected to become a savior in the Twin Cities. Actually, Saunders isn’t even projecting Bennett to earn a starting spot right away.

“He’s an NBA player. He’s a guy that’s going to be a rotation-type player,” Saunders told reporters.

Not only can Bennett have the luxury of coming off the bench, but he’ll have a great role model to study ahead of him in Young. All eyes will be on Wiggins, and plenty of easy baskets should come this season off Ricky Rubio’s pinpoint passes.

For Bennett, few situations could be better for him to build back his confidence.

While it may not have been the career path be originally envisioned, Bennett is in a good place now.

Thanks to a change of scenery, an improved physique and the tutelage of coach Saunders, Bennett can now successfully resume his journey toward become an NBA star.

 

Greg Swartz has covered the NBA for Bleacher Report since 2010. Connect with him on Twitter for more basketball news and conversation.

All stats provided by Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

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Could Klay Thompson’s Future with the Warriors Be in Jeopardy?

According to CSN Bay Area’s Monte Poole (h/t ProBasketballTalk), the Golden State Warriors and Klay Thompson are reportedly an annual $2-3 million apart in their negotiations over a new contract for the sharpshooter.

After ownership refused to include the “Splash Brother” in a Kevin Love deal this offseason, how concerned should Dubs fans be about their young guard leaving town?

Larry Krueger joins Adam Lefkoe to break it all down in the video above.

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