Three of the Most Interesting RFAs: Niko, Favors, Randle

Players get paid based off past performance and the leverage they have to negotiate. Average starters in the cap spike era (2015, 2016) like Evan Turner, Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov made more than their wildest dreams thanks to just solid production and teams having more money then they knew what to do with. Fast forward to last summer, better players hitting free agency, Kentavious Cardwell-Pope and JaMychal Green are left dangling until the end of the free agent frenzy, due to a competitive teams not having enough cap space to sign either player. Eventually it was the Lakers tossing KCP a bone worth $17,745,894, for one season, and Grizzlies forward JaMychal Green returned to Memphis for $16,400,000 for two seasons; signed on September 27. Turner, Deng and Mozgov combine for $206,000,000 for twelve-years; all sighing on four-years contracts.

Teams aren’t smarter. The pocketbook’s just been somewhat taken away them. To observe the free agent class of 2018 is very murky, probably so unclear not many teams will allow their restricted free agents to hit the auction block. Of course there’s the top tier, LeBron, Durant, Chris Paul, Paul George and DeMarcus Cousins will definitely get a big payday come July 1st. But the second, and third tiers aren’t sexy to the casual fans. A bunch of underachievers, some enjoying a renaissance.

Forward Nikola Mirotic of the Chicago Bulls isn’t getting consideration for the Most Improved Player award, already Victor Oladipo’s name is being engraved on to it. But for a player like Mirotic, one who rose to prominence in the professional ranks, for a short time in his first year rivaled Andrew Wiggins for the Rookie of the Year trophy (which Wiggins won), fell hard soon after. Injuries and inconsistency on the court plagued his career, falling apart on defense and starting only fifteen games in 2016-17. While Mirotic is on the books for 2018-19, for $12,500,000, the Bulls were rumored not to pick up his team-option once it came up this upcoming summer. Instability rocked the franchise from top to bottom. Niko got popped by forward Bobby Portis during a practice and the Bulls sank even lower, becoming the laughingstock of the NBA.

Somehow, even if it was for a short time, the Bulls leadership righted the ship stringing along ten wins in their last fifteen contests. Portis and Niko are having bounce back seasons, the aforementioned Portis just had his team-option for next season picked up. The two have so far put their differences behind them, at least for the moment. A career-best in field goal (49.5) and three-point (46.3) percentages, points (18.4) and rebounds (7.1), assists (1.5) Niko raises the Bulls’ plus/minus rating to 7.7 versus -9.1 when he’s off the floor. Though he hasn’t backed off his willingness to waive his no-trade clause. He’s on a very manageable deal, for the hypothetical team that does trade for Niko they’d inherit his Bird Rights’. You cannot say Niko will continue to produce at this level for the rest of the season. Regardless, this is a nice story and a possible Godsend to the Chicago Bulls organization. Possibly this gives them the opportunity to sell incredibly high on him.

If Portis and Niko have a run-in again, or if some other acts of shenanigans then maybe the Bulls do him a solid and let him out of his deal early. You think I’m crazy for not ruling this out? I think it’s more like Portis decks Mirotic again, than it is that Niko plays at this rate.

Playoff bound teams such as Detroit and Milwaukee could use a stretch power forward next to their rim protecting center or otherworldly franchise star. I’m picturing a Jabari Parker for Nikola Mirotic swap in my head right now.

 

In the great state of Utah, the leadership of the Jazz franchise has been impeccable since the heartbreaking loss of Gordon Hayward. Donovan Mitchell has emerged as a possible Rookie of the Year candidate, and Gilbert Arenas 2.0. Big man Derrick Favors is at his healthiest since 2014. Though starting in all thirty-six contests, Favors mostly goes against opposing teams bench units, with great success. A career-high 55.4%, he’s upped his free throw percentage considerably (73.1), his splits are an admirable 12.5 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 1.5 APG and 0.9 BPG. Favors doesn’t do one particular thing outstanding, he’s solid on the glass, around the basket and doesn’t kill you on defense. He isn’t DeAndre Jordan or even Greg Monroe on the defensive glass, but Favors can roll to the rim, take advantage of smaller defenders. His 37.1% off of shots taken more than five feet from the basket is piss poor. It makes it even more difficult to see his role in the modern NBA. Favors isn’t a floor spacer, but he isn’t a lane-clogger… if that makes any sense at all.

Derrick Favors without a doubt is a starter quality player at the center position… just not with Rudy Gobert by his side. While it’s understandable, the situation in Utah is very murky. The players the team values the most are Gobert and Mitchell, Favors is a nice guy they wouldn’t mind keeping but hardly want to push stacks of unmarked bills in front of to keep him around. The duo of Favors-Gobert is -5.9 points worse off; -8.3 in +/-, per 100; while the Favors-Jerebko duo scores in at +6.1, their +/- came in at 4.4.

The reasonable thing to do is to have Favors come off the bench. But his status and ego block Utah from doing this, so they’ll have to make good with an awkward situation. A tumultuous December, losing seven of their last nine since Rudy Gobert left the lineup with a sprained PCL and bone bruise in his tibia sustained in Boston. In the six games without his frontcourt mate, Favors averages 14.4 points and shot 56.3%. Utah’s struggles to find a cohesive starting lineup without Gobert going back-and-forth between starting Jonas Jerebko and Duke guard Rodney Hood. The recent stretched out the chances of a surprise playoff run to rest, the Jazz remain 3.5 games behind New Orleans and Portland for the last two playoff spots.

Out of the possible destinations for Favors in free agency, I’d like to see him in Atlanta playing next to John Collins. It’ll be hard to pinpoint the worth of Favors this summer, depending on his statistical output and success of the Jazz he could find himself in a lukewarm market that isn’t interested in an old school center that cannot rebound or defend at an elite level.

 

The last player I want to talk about is Lakers forward Julius Randle, fourth year from Kentucky, the former seventh overall pick in the overrated 2014 Draft enjoyed some statistical success, though it’s done little to move the needle for those uncertain whether he’s someone you break the bank for. The positives for Randle is he’s shooting 58.3% on two-pointers. His 13.6 points, 6.6 rebounds and 1.8 assists per game off the bench is good for Sixth Man of the Year consideration if the Lakers as a team were better.

His per 36 numbers are even more impressive 20.9 PPG, 10.6 RPG, 2.9 APG, 0.7 SPG and 1.2 BPG projections him as a poor man’s Blake Griffin who can’t go to his right hand at all. Here’s Blake’s per 36 numbers from his 2013-14 season in Los Angeles: 24.3 PPG, 9.5 RPG, 3.9 APG, 1.2 SPG, 0.6 BPG. That same year Griffin hit 70.8% of his 651 attempts in the restricted area; Randle is currently hitting 70.5% of his 217 attempts.

On the last year of his rookie contract the Lakers are in a tough spot if their big plans don’t come into fruition. Scheduled to become a RFA in 2018, the Lakers can make a qualifying offer to Randle for $5,564,134, the cap hit would be worth $12,447,726 for the 2018-19 season. With younger, probably better players like Larry Nance Jr. and Kyle Kuzma under team-control for a longer period of time and are cheaper alternatives to retaining Randle, Los Angeles holds all the leverage in the negotiations. His net rating this season’s been unimpressive (-2.9), his best month of the season came in December, 14.2 points, 6.5 rebounds and 2.1 assists, though it didn’t lead to team success. Though the Lakers offensive rating goes up +3.3 with him on the floor versus with him off.

Randle has shown promise as a ball-handler in transition, 1.11 points per possession in that play type, and though he doesn’t run a lot of pick-and-roll as the ball-handler the small sample shows promise as Randle’s PPP is at 1.50; last season it came in at 0.86 on only a slightly larger sample size. While these are reasons for optimism, teams are prone to leaving Randle open as he converts on only 38.6% of his wide open attempts. In previous years Randle showed a reliance on “hero-ball”, frequently taking shots in isolation when his usual bread and butter was available. In 2015-16 Randle sported a ridiculous isolation frequency of 21.2 percent, almost doubling the unanimous MVP Curry’s. And registered in the 30.2 percentile. This year Randle’s cut down on the poor shot selection. Randle shoots 67.7% on attempts taken touching the ball for less than two seconds, suggesting he’s an uptempo kind of player. His 70.3% shooting on tight coverage (2-4 feet) suggest he can get to his spots whenever he wants. He also shoots an insane 76.6% on shots taken very early in the shot clock (22-18).

Julius Randle is a fascinating player to watch from afar. I doubt we’ll see him in a Lakers uniform in the future, or if he can carve himself out a starting job on a decent team. Like Favors, Randle’s also missed his preferred era by two decades. Now he’s a 6’9 center because he can’t defend threes and doesn’t have a jump shot to succeed as a modern day four. Hence why he’s coming off the bench for a bottom-feeder like the Lakers.

 

Pre-Houston Comeback Ranking of Celtics Bench Players

Since the streak ended the night before Thanksgiving the Celtics have fallen back down to earth. Going 13-8 since November 22nd, their defense morphing into last year’s inconsistent, and sometimes horrendous, iteration. The wear and tear of a long, demanding season is beginning to manifest itself in players like Al Horford, his legs look tired, the lift to his jump shot is heavier than before. But Horford is still an All-Star caliber player, him and Kyrie have worked together like peanut butter and jelly. There isn’t a lot of reasons for optimism outside of Boston’s starters. The delusional lens fans have been wearing since the sixteen-game win streak gave us the impression the backups were better than they actually are. Marcus Smart offense is akin to eruption of Mount Vesuvius that destroyed Pompeii. Terry Rozier is an average three-point shooter, however has a very below-average field goal percentage that makes him a borderline liability on offense as well. Marcus Morris cannot stay on the floor, a nagging knee injury is likely to sideline him for the ninth time in ten games.

Until Lou Williams, Tyreke Evans or Greg Monroe are bought out, this is the core of the Celtics bench that’ll make or break games like Wednesday night in Charlotte. Terry Rozier kept the offense afloat, scoring 15 points off the bench, Shane Larkin chipped in 11.

Marcus Smart won’t rank high on this list due to his everlasting woes on offense. His shenanigans win us more games than loses, an injury to Smart drastically changes the outlook of the Celtics identity as a fight you tooth and nail team. His time in green could be up this summer, as he will demander starter quality money he is not worth.

The best player on the Celtics bench this season so far has been none other than German center Daniel Theis. Yeah, the skinny white guy. I can’t decide whether he was signed to be a Kelly Olynyk or Amir Johnson replacement. Theis played for the Brose Bamberg of the EuroLeague, averaging 9.6 points in thirty-games. The stopgap center carved a role for himself on the Celtics while he did not have the body to go against the strong builds of Dwight Howard or Steven Adams. Theis proves himself useful against thinner, second unit quality centers, the Bulls is his ideal matchup. Robin Lopez, Nikola Mirotic, Bobby Portis, tall, but not athletic enough to protect the rim, Theis put out his first professional double-double, fifteen rebounds, ten points, eight of them coming from the charity stripe.

Brad Stevens tries to stretch Theis’ range, averaging nearly a three-point attempt in every game since November 25; though he’s converted on only 11.8% of them. In that span he’s also averaged nearly a block and an assist a game, an above-average defensive rating of 101. A positive net rating of 0.7 (Amir Johnson’s dead tired legs still chugged a way better net rating, 8.0, than the younger Theis). Theis is high on this list because of one key factor: consistency. You know what you’re getting with Daniel. In November he scores 16 second change points, in December… yup, 16. When the Celtics were kicking ass all of November, Theis’ net rating when playing at home, 13.4; in the up and down month of December… 11.2. Good, ole’ dependable Daniel Theis. That all being said he’s not coming back to the Celtics next summer. Either he’ll play himself out of the rotation somehow, or he’ll exceed expectations and get a contract offer too rich for Ainge’s taste.

The fact Theis is our best player on the bench, the only one not named Marcus Smart, that can consistently give a good effort on defense and score somewhat shows how flawed this team really is. The sixteen-game win streak wasn’t just a testament to the coaching brilliance of Brad Stevens, it potential gave Boston home court in at least two playoff rounds for what’s otherwise a 48-win team.

 

Coming in second is the Louisville Weirdo Terry “I Still Call Him ‘Tito’” Rozier. Possibly the next Avery Bradley, only a better ball-handler, and not the on-ball defender AB was in Boston. Rozier is a league average three-point shooter, as stated before. Bradley spent the summer of 2012 rehabbing a separated shoulder, converted on only 31.7% of his three-point attempts. But his game was right around the same place Rozier’s was in at the time. Bradley’s offensive rating in 2012-13 was 101.6; Rozier an even 101.

Sometimes you can trust Rozier to create on offense, unlike Smart, the spurts of promise that look genuine, an actual identity for what Rozier’s ceiling can be appears. For Smart he’ll stumble to he basket and side-rim a desperate finger-roll, and one every twenty-games he’ll zing the ball across court like a bulkier John Stockton. Rozier proves he can be competent… more often than Smart at least, and shoots 39.8% on catch and shoot threes. Over the years Rozier shown the ability to go coast-to-coast, immense ball-control whereas before his handling was similar to rookie year Jaylen Brown.

The ceiling for Rozier is higher than Marcus Smart, he’ll never be able to lockdown James Harden. It’s games like the one on Thursday night that make you forget just how maddeningly flawed Smart is. The poor shot selection, inability to finish at the rim, to jump higher, the incessant flopping that can cause the Celtics games. The relatively small cap hold makes Smart’s return for 2018-19 inevitable. Somehow the fourth-year guard managed to take steps backwards from last season. Field-goal percentage (33.8%) is worse than any other year in his short career, keep in mind he is two-years removed from season he shot 34.8 fg% and 25.3 3p%. Fewer free-throw attempts (2.4) since his rookie season. The only shot made consistently last season was from the corners, 41.9% in 2016-17. This year he’s shooting 26.3%. 30.3% on catch and shoot threes.

So why is Smart ranked number 3? Because his on-ball defense is better than Avery Bradley and his daily shenanigans inexplicably help Boston than hurt them. The same stuff I rally against, I have to admit has its uses. If you’re able to convince a referee a slender body one Harden is able to knock your tank sized frame down is a valuable trait. AND! Despite all of this, all of this noise, Smart’s net rating is +7.1.

But let’s not fool ourselves. Marcus Smart against playoff caliber teams almost always flounders because of better coaching, personal, and the magic of number 36 isn’t a factor. What’s Smart’s role for the playoffs? Is he going to take 5 three-point attempts like he nearly averages this season? Can he run an offense, or is he a better off-ball shooting guard than on-ball guard?

 

Coming in forth is Marcus Morris. He should be one on this list, but nagging health issues knocks him a couple spots.

During Boston’s game against the Warriors Stevens began the contest with Jayson Tatum guarding Kevin Durant, and the rook got cooked on simple zipper action. Stevens put Morris on KD and suddenly a game where he seemed destined to go for forty, instead scores only 24.

He’s a better reserve player that plays starter minutes than an actual starter. Morris’ net rating as a starter, -2.7, and off the bench, 4.4. Nights like when against the Rockets is what Boston want from their stretch forward on a daily basis, a ten point, four rebound and a block, in the second half he acted as the spark that ignited the powder keg to the comeback. Marcus Smart is the “King of the Lost Cause,” quipped cleverly by Ryan Bernardoni, but so is Morris. Except Morris can nail outside shots, can score in isolation and MAYBE guard LeBron (don’t hold me to that claim).

Move over Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle, there’s a new set of M&M Boys taking over the sports landscape.

 

The Rest: Shane Larkin, Abdul Nader, Guerschon Yabusele…

Larkin: a energy scorer

Abdul Nader: Ceiling is an empty scorer

Yabusele: built like a tank, that’s all I know about him.