Four-Point Play

1. Tanks For Nothing

Tanks have been spotted rolling through in New York, Cleveland and Chicago and even as far west as Phoenix.

At the moment, we have only four tanks in our sight, but surely more will mobilize in due time (Atlanta next?).

The incentive to lose games to obtain a top draft pick is not as great as it once was in past NBA Drafts, but that is not stopping cellar dwellers from setting themselves up for a crash in the final 90 days of this 2018-19 regular season.

If the season ended today, the bottom four teams would all have their first-round picks to throw in the NBA lottery.

Using the revised lotto system that begins this draft, these are the odds the following losers would have of landing top picks in the 2019 NBA Draft. As you can see, there is not much different from any of the top four teams in regards to the top four picks, which is a good thing since that should discourage losing somewhat.

2019 Lottery Odds (as of January 11, 2019)

 Team  #1  #2  #3  #4  #5  #6  #7  #8
 Cavs  14.0%  13.4%  12.7%  12.0%  47.9%
 Suns  14.0%  13.4%  12.7%  12.0%  27.8%  20.0%
 Bulls  13.3%  12.9%  12.4%  11.7%  15.3%  27.1%  7.4%
 Knicks  13.2%  12.8%  12.3%  11.7%  6.8%  24.6%  16.4%  2.2%

Source: Tankathon

With these odds in mind, we thought we’d look at the rest of the season from these teams’ perspective.

Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Cleveland Cavaliers (8-34): The Cavaliers organization nearly has as many players injured as they do healthy this season, starting with five-time All-Star power forward Kevin Love, who has yet to play a game due to a toe injury. Love is expected to return later this month, while most others are expected back in the next week or two (guard Matthew Dellavedova, this week; forward Rodney Hood, this week; center Ante Zizic, this week; guard David Nwaba, next week; center John Henson, unknown. Only 22-year-old center prospect Zizic and 20-year-old point guard prospect Collin Sexton give Cleveland any kind of hope for the future, so look for GM Koby Altman and head coach Larry Drew to keep Love away for as long as possible—in hopes of adding an even better prospect—while their team loses as best it can from now through April 10. Nobody else on this roster registers deeply on the Richter scale so they should be the League favorite for worst record.

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Phoenix Suns (10-33): GM Ryan McDonough got himself fired by not signing a point guard this preseason, but he set the Suns up nicely to garner the worst regular season record in the West, if that is any consolation. In the meantime, his replacement, new GM James Jones did his old boss LeBron James a favor by inexplicably buying out Tyson Chandler months before the normal February buyout period. Why? Because his former teammate LeBron needed a rebounding and rim-protecting center in Los Angeles. So who better than Tyson, especially if that facilitates the Suns’ tank job even sooner, right? In the meantime, Devin Booker, who has developed as a premier prospect, is still missing occasional games from time to time with back injuries (10 games and counting, thus far), which should assure the Suns the worst record in the West. Surefire All-Rookie selection Deandre Ayton is proving to be a top one-way prospect, but his lack of D keeps him playable on this tanking ship. In case anybody was unsure of the tank job here, Suns management sent summer free agent signing and $15 million man Trevor Ariza away for Kelly Oubre, a lesser version of the position. Other prospects are getting exposure in Phoenix—Mikal Bridges, Josh Jackson, De’Anthony Melton, Elie Okobo, Dragan Bender and Jawun Evans—but none has been able to show they are a quality rotation player yet. So until then, tanks for the playing time, Coach Igor Kokoskov.

Jeff Haynes/NBAE via Getty Images

Chicago Bulls (10-31): As far as tank jobs go, the Bulls have to be relatively pleased with the development of 19-year-old center prospect Wendell Carter, the injury-recovery return of 21-year-old stretch forward Lauri Markkanen, along with role-play fits of 22-year-old wings Chandler Hutchison and Antonio Blakeney. In due time, with Carter able to handle the center load with backup Cristiano Felicio, look for reserve big Robin Lopez to be dealt before the trading deadline, helping spur another downward trend in the Bulls’ tanksgiving season.

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

New York Knicks (10-31): On one hand, the Knicks could be celebrating the union of a healthy Kristaps Porzingis, the No. 1 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft and an All-Rookie Kevin Knox selection. On the other hand, the Knicks could see Knox struggle his way off the All-Rook teams by missing shot after shot, then not land a top 5 pick in 2019 and finally lose Porzingis to free agency if they are unwilling to spend top dollar on the injured prospect. Are you beginning to see how much this one draft means to New York? Of the five Knicks prospects on roster, starting point guard Emmanuel Mudiay and rookie center Mitchell Robinson have played best this season, while Knox, point guard Frank Ntilikina and undrafted wing Allonzo Trier are still trying to prove their value to New York. Look for Enes Kanter to be dealt before the February 7 trading deadline if anyone is willing to take on his $18.6 million expiring contract.


2. Secret Agents

They wear their team’s colors now, but will these top free agents remain loyal to their 2018-19 teams come summer when they are free to be wooed by teams?

Mark Blinch/NBAE via Getty Images

Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors (player option): The San Francisco Warriors will do whatever it takes to retain their two-time Finals MVP. Long-term super-max deal? Done. Overpay Klay to keep KD? Done. Trade Draymond if that floats his boat? Done. The tall forward will be a Warrior. Again. Nothing to see here, folks.

Kawhi Leonard, Toronto Raptors (player option): Toronto is trying their darnedest to welcome Kawhi with welcome arms, but if Uncle Dennis taught us anything in 2017-18, it was that Kawhi is going to Lob City when he becomes a free agent this summer (the Clippers are willing to put up his statue at Staples Center before he plays a single minute there).

Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics (player option): Boston has stashed point guards for the occasion, but you know and I know and Kyrie knows he is priority No. 1 for the C’s this summer. Sorry, New York. Kyrie stays in Boston, especially if GM Danny Ainge is able to work an Anthony Davis trade.

Kent Smith/NBAE via Getty Images

Kemba Walker, Charlotte Hornets: Charlotte has realized Walker is the Hornets’ heart and soul so look for owner Michael Jordan to compensate Kemba like the mid-max hero he is.

Jimmy Butler, Philadelphia 76ers (player option): Butler has seen his share of road bumps in both Minnesota and Philadelphia, but expect the Sixers to not make the same mistakes the T-Wolves made. Butler gets his mid-max and whatever else he wants.

Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks (restricted): The Knicks will likely offer Porzingis an incentive-laden “max”contract—similar to Joel Embiid’s—to protect themselves from Porzingis’ past injuries. If another suitor takes those restrictions off—say, the Spurs—then that team very well may land the 7-3 stretch big man.

Nikola Vucevic, Orlando Magic (unrestricted): Orlando management was all prepared to move forward with a future frontline of Mo Bamba, Jonathan Isaac and Aaron Gordon. However, Vooch is having himself such an All-NBA season, all previous plans are off. They gotta re-sign Vooch now! Look for the Magic now to offer their own developed star a $25 million-ish annual deal because if they don’t, others will.

Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors (unrestricted): Even if the Dubs deep down do not want to pay it, Thompson is going to get a middle-max offer from Warriors management, who would have rather signed their shooting guard to a four-year, $100 million extension a year ago. In the end, Klay said no to hold out for his mid-max. And he may get it—starting at $32.7 million in 2019-20—because KD may insist on it upon re-signing. Plus, other teams will be reluctant to sign Klay to a four-year, $140 million contract to pry him away. He is a Warrior.

Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks (player option): As the Robin to Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Batman, Middleton is a lock to be retained by Milwaukee—at a premium price tag, of course.

Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies (player option): It is tough to offer a 33-year-old center a long-term deal, but do not be surprised if Memphis offers Gasol a two-year, $50 million deal to keep Gasol in the Grint-‘n-Grind.

David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

Ricky Rubio, Utah Jazz (unrestricted): Minnesota learned the hard way about the value of Rubio’s set-the-table, point-guard skills, just as Utah learned when Rubio went down in the second round of the 2018 playoffs.

Derrick Rose, Minnesota Timberwolves (unrestricted): Freshly departed Tom Thibodeau believed in Rose and that belief resurrected his career and made Rose an eight-figure player once again. I could see Rose landing with the Bulls if Minnesota does not re-sign him. As Rose himself said last month in Chicago: “The support is still here.”

DeMarcus Cousins, Golden State Warriors (unrestricted): The world will have a better idea how DMC now plays after last year’s season-ending Achilles injury when he suits up January 18 or 21 in Los Angeles.

Tobias Harris, L.A. Clippers (unrestricted): Nobody fits in better with Philly than Harris at power forward. And, yes, they can re-sign Butler and J.J. Redick and still have room to sign Harris to play alongside Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.

J.J. Redick, Philadelphia 76ers (unrestricted): As the glue guy and the gravity guy in Philly’s orbit, there is no way the Sixers let Redick slip away, lest they make the same mistake the Clippers made when Redick’s free-agent contracts became too pricey. However, if Philadelphia does not bring $15-$20 million annual offers to the table, J.J. may sign with the Nets (his wife loves the city of Brooklyn).

Brook Lopez, Milwaukee Bucks (unrestricted): The old game Lopez played was good enough to net him $100-plus million in his career, but his new school, stretch center game is keeping him relevant and will get the 30-year-old paid big once again. I’ll say, $60 million, three years and the Bucks retain the perfect complement for Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Paul Millsap, Denver Nuggets (team option): Denver certainly will be willing to pick up the $30-million option next season. But if the Nuggets can sign the 33-year-old power forward to a three-year, $60 million-ish deal, both sides may restructure the deal.

Al Horford, Boston Celtics (unrestricted): Horford’s age (32) and 2018-19 struggles may scare off most, but someone will take a chance on a selfless center who was an All-Star only one year ago. Atlanta, with plenty of cap room and the need for leadership, would be the perfect suitor for the former Hawk.

Julius Randle, New Orleans Pelicans (player option): The free-agent market may have dried up on Randle last summer—he had to settle for a one-year, $10 million deal—so he will not play the waiting game this time. Expect NOLA to sign him to a four-year, $80 million deal on Day 1.

Willie Cauley-Stein, Sacramento Kings (restricted): The Kings have run a Bachelor-like competition when it comes to bigs—Cauley-Stein, Skal Labissiere, Harry Giles and returned-Euro Georgios Papagiannis—and I think it has become quite clear that WCS won the competition. We speculate he may have earned himself a $15 million annual deal with the Kings, or perhaps more with someone else.


3. The World’s Best-Kept Secret

Back when the Spurs were en route to the 2013 Finals and a 2014 NBA championship, San Antonio guard Patty Mills was proud to be the man who tagged his international-born mates as Foreign Legion.

After all, we may never see an NBA title team again with as many international players as the 2014 Spurs (nine foreign-born vets), who featured Tim Duncan (Virgin Islands), Manu Ginobili (Argentina), Tony Parker (France), Boris Diaw (France), Tiago Splitter (Brazil), Marco Belinelli (Italy), Aron Baynes (New Zealand), Cory Joseph (Canada) and Mills (Australia).

Mark Sobhani/NBAE via Getty Images

Five years later, Mills and Belinelli are the only Spurs who remain from that roster. But as fate has it, a new chapter of globetrotters are making their impression felt.

We shall call this new bunch, Foreign Legion II.

It was not until November 3 that Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich started regularly playing these international players together as his main bench unit. But once Pop did, the quartet of Mills (Australia), Belinelli (Italy), Davis Bertans (Latvia) and Jakob Poeltl (Austria) slowly built up momentum to where they now have become the NBA’s best bench unit.

The quartet has a team-best +95 score in only 182 minutes of action together, translating into a +23.2 net rating per 100 possessions (124.4 offensive efficiency and 101.2 defensive efficiency) at a fast pace (107.75 possessions per game).

That ranks as the NBA’s best quartet, period.

Mark Sobhani/NBAE via Getty Images

No four-man unit has a better net rating—not Toronto (Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Pascal Siakam and Jonas Valanciunas), not Indiana (Cory Joseph, Doug McDermott, Thaddeus Young and Damontis Sabonis), not Golden State (Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Kevon Looney).

On top of that, no other League reserve unit registers anything close to a plus-100 total plus-minus score, with Denver’s reserve quartet (Monte Morris, Malik Beasley, Trey Lyles and Mason Plumlee) being the next best thing at +47 in 302 minutes together.

Though their dominance may seem surprising for four reserves, Pop does not necessarily view Foreign Legion II as castaways, judging by the team’s investment in each reserve Spur.

In Mills, San Antonio is paying $12.4 million to a cat-quick combo guard who is fourth on the team in points-per-minute and also can light up the three-point line at a 40-percent clip.

In Belinelli, the Spurs are paying $6.2 million to a wing who is sixth on the team in points-per-minute and has a career 38-percent three-point shooting standard.

In Bertans, the Spurs are paying $7.0 million to a stretch 4 who is nailing 47 percent of his 3s this season (69 for 148).

In Poeltl, the Spurs have a highly efficient, rim-rolling center who will likely sign an annual six-figure extension come October (the seven-footer’s 19.0 Player Efficiency Rating ranks only behind starters LaMarcus Aldridge, DeMar DeRozan and Pau Gasol this season).

These are four valued commodities. It is no accident this international house of Spurs has now won 14 of their last 18 games.

Foreign Legion II: It is no longer the world’s best kept secret.


4. Who Is The 5-Year Real MVP?

The new-school fan cannot stop trumpeting the exploits of MVP candidates Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis and Joel Embiid.

The old-school fan, however, knows the real MVP race won in April-May-June is going to led by a former MVP named Stephen Curry or Kevin Durant or LeBron James or James Harden.

These are the past MVPs who—night-in and night-out—consistently lead their teams to East and West Finals, and ultimately, in most cases, NBA Championships for their fan base.

Because of that, I thought we’d take a five-year look at these fantastic four.

Why five years? Because that is when Tim Duncan and the Spurs closed out their five-championship, 19-year dynastic run with a 2014 NBA title. And one year later, the 2014-15 season became the starting point for the Golden State Warriors’ dynastic run of three championships and counting.

With that in mind, here is the box of statistical comparisons from 2014-15 to present day.

Rocky Wider (2); Sam Forencich; Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

Who Is The 5-Year Real MVP?

 G (MPG)  PPG  RPG  APG  PER  +/-
Stephen Curry  318 (33.3)  26.6  4.8  6.7  27.9  +3665
Playoffs  71 (36.6)  26.8  5.6  5.9  24.1  +603
 
Kevin Durant  269 (34.7)  26.8  7.6  5.1  27.0  +2129
Playoffs  54 (38.3)  28.6  7.6  4.1  24.0  +484
 
James Harden  352 (36.8)  29.4  6.3  8.6  27.3  +1460
Playoffs  50 (37.1)  27.9  5.4  7.5  24.1  -13
 
LeBron James  335 (36.4)  26.3  7.8  7.9  27.2  +1834
Playoffs  81 (41.1)  30.8  9.8  8.2  29.4  +461
Source: Basketball-Reference.com
Key: G games; MPG minutes per game; PPG points per game; RPG rebounds per game; APG assists per game; PER Player Efficiency Rating; +/- plus-minus.