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Teams that fancy themselves NBA title contenders better get a move on. Buyout season is quickly coming to a close.
Players must negotiate departures from their current squads by March 1 to be eligible for another team’s postseason roster. That isn’t a problem for many championship hopefuls. Most of the biggest buyout dominoes have already fallen, and only a handful of contenders are facing semi-glaring holes.
For those still in need of talent infusions, though, the lead-up to Sunday will not pass without concern. Midseason signings tend to be overhyped in the moment, but the chance to expand the rotation and boost playoff optionality isn’t nothing. Eleventh-hour additions can matter—so long as potentially impactful players have a path to becoming available.
Some still do. Not all of them will reach the open market. Many have, in fact, ruled out the prospect. But circumstances can turn on a whim, particularly for veterans who don’t hold much value to their current employers beyond this season.
Identifying those options this late in the game isn’t especially difficult. It’s a matter of finding those who look most out of place or have the most to gain by syncing up with a postseason team.
Suggested destinations will weigh immediate fit and prospective playing time above all else. Ahead of a cap-starved free-agent market, players need the promise of exposure if they’re going to punt on Bird rights and non-guaranteed 2020-21 salaries. The best landing spots will be listed in decreasing order of sensibility.
Amin Elhassan, NBA Analyst for ESPN, joins “The Full 48” with Howard Beck to discuss the overrated Los Angeles Clippers, the Lakers unexpected dominance, LeBron’s stamina, Houston Rockets’ small ball style, and the origins of The Pitino Game.
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Kent Bazemore joined the Sacramento Kings in late January without the intention of seeking a buyout, per Yahoo Sports’ Chris Haynes. His stance may not have changed. He has a rapport with head coach Luke Walton and is shooting 38.9 percent from three since arriving from the Portland Trail Blazers.
The Kings are still technically in the playoff hunt themselves, a mere four games back of the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies in the loss column. They might see value in retaining Bazemore through the end of the season, even if only to keep his Bird rights entering free agency.
Then again, this marriage doesn’t feel like a long-term fit. Sacramento has already paid Harrison Barnes and Buddy Hield (extension) and needs to foot the bill for Bogdan Bogdanovic’s next contract (restricted) this summer when De’Aaron Fox is also extension-eligible.
Re-signing Bazemore for more than the mid-level-exception won’t be much of a priority, which renders his Bird rights somewhat useless. And if the money is going to be comparable elsewhere over the summer, he’ll have no trouble finding a situation with more minutes available at the 2 and 3 spots. He should be able to find that destination now.
No shortage of squads would be interested in Bazemore if he reaches the open market. His offensive efficiency has cratered over the past two seasons, but he offers a dose of shooting and secondary ball-handling and can adequately match up on defense with most guards and some wings.
Latching on to the Oklahoma City Thunder could guarantee Bazemore a spot in the starting five. They’re rolling out Luguentz Dort alongside Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams, but he’s on a two-way contract that caps his time in the big leagues at 45 days unless he signs a full-time deal.
Even if he sticks, signing Bazemore wouldn’t be superfluous. He is slightly taller and longer than Dort, and in the event he’s coming off the bench, Dennis Schroder is the only player who projects to be in front of him.
Oklahoma City is already making its case as a viable postseason irritant. This is a team that could throw the entire bracket for a loop by winning its first-round series. Adding Bazemore to the wing rotation would only increase the chances of the Thunder upending the Western Conference’s playoff picture.
Best Landing Spots: Oklahoma City, Philadelphia, Boston
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Wayne Ellington’s buyout is starting to seem like a fait accompli. He admitted that it was on the table following the trade deadline, per the New York Post‘s Marc Berman, and he’s more recently received consecutive DNPs in the New York Knicks’ losses to the Indiana Pacers (Feb. 21) and Houston Rockets (Feb. 24).
Toughing out the rest of the season in the Big Apple makes sense if Ellington knows next year’s salary will be guaranteed. He is on the books for $8 million but can be waived for $1 million by June 28. And while a 32-year-old doesn’t fit the Knicks’ timeline, they desperately need competent shooters, and this year’s free-agency class isn’t worth prioritizing cap space.
Guaranteeing Ellington’s salary still feels unlikely. The Knicks are flush with projects in the backcourt—RJ Barrett, Frank Ntilikina, Dennis Smith Jr.—and could wind up selecting another guard in this year’s draft. Ellington won’t have a clearer path to more minutes next season, and paying him $8 million verges on pointless when they don’t have the personnel to optimize his performance and groom him into a trade asset.
Postseason-bound squads have more use for a shooting specialist. Ellington is canning just 34.6 percent of his threes this year, but he’s a career 37.8 percent marksman from beyond the arc, and that efficiency comes while he bangs in more than standstill treys.
Functional shooting is different than plain floor-spacing. Firing off movement and from ultra-long distances has far more value than putting down traditional spot-up opportunities.
The Miami Heat first tapped into Ellington’s ability to knock down outside looks on a higher degree of difficulty. His 61.5 effective field-goal percentage on attempts coming off screens during the 2017-18 season ranked fourth among all players to launch at least 100 shots in those situations.
Two(ish) years is an eternity in the NBA. Ellington’s efficiency on those shots tapered off last year while he split time with the Heat and Detroit Pistons. But his capacity to jack quick-fire threes off movement remains. The threat of those attempts bends defenses on its own.
More than a few teams could talk themselves into rebooting Ellington’s outside touch and milking his volume—none more so than the Philadelphia 76ers.
They are 22nd in three-point-attempt rate on the season and 25th in long-range accuracy since Christmas. Their offensive rating has likewise plunged to the 5th percentile whenever Joel Embiid and Al Horford share the floor, and they could use an off-ball shot-maker to both complement Ben Simmons and help navigate his absence due to a lower-back injury.
Best Landing Spots: Philadelphia, Indiana, Oklahoma City
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League sources told Yahoo Sports’ Chris Haynes that Maurice Harkless plans to remain with the New York Knicks, a sentiment later echoed by the 26-year-old himself.
“I’ll be here the rest of the year,” he said, per the New York Daily News‘ Stefan Bondy.
But, like, why?
Maybe the Knicks have designs on signing Harkless to a fat one-plus-one deal this summer using his Bird rights. Waiting on that is quite the gamble. The front office is in transition, and New York doesn’t need his Bird rights to bring him back. Few teams have the flexibility to carve out more cap space than the Knicks if they ditch some combination—or all—of their non-guaranteed salaries for next season.
Failing the promise of a balloon payment, Harkless doesn’t have much reason to stay. He isn’t due for a raise from his $11.5 million salary in a vacuum. Not enough win-now suitors have cap space. He doesn’t even profile as someone who will net the full non-taxpayer’s mid-level exception ($9.8 million).
Harkless stands to do more for his offseason price tag by contributing to a contender even if the Knicks continue to start him or play him starter(ish) minutes. His low-volume three-point clip has plunged below 29 percent through his first three appearances. He isn’t doing himself any favors playing within a bottom-two offense that wants for primary playmakers and doesn’t traffic in the highest-quality shot attempts.
Los Angeles Lakers Twitter was clamoring for Harkless before the Markieff Morris signing. Playing next to LeBron James is still a good fit. Harkless has shown he can knock down wide-open threes—37.7 percent this season—and the Lakers could use another defensive option to throw at wings.
Morris helps there, and Los Angeles has Danny Green to use on smaller options. Harkless would be a bridge between the two and a safeguard against the possibility that more minutes for Kyle Kuzma at the 3 will backfire. Only 13 players have defended a wider range of positions, according to Nylon Calculus’ Krishna Narsu.
Playing time would admittedly be an issue if Harkless joined the Lakers. He is best suited as a small-ball 4, and the trio of Kuzma, Morris and Anthony Davis would invariably limit his run even if he’s soaking up reps at the 3.
Linking up with the Toronto Raptors would do more for Harkless’ exposure. Smaller lineups featuring him, OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam up front would be a defensive terror, and he might play himself ahead of Rondae Hollis-Jefferson in the postseason rotation, if only because he can actually shoot threes.
Best Landing Spots: Toronto, L.A. Lakers, Utah
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Tristan Thompson is yet another buyout candidate who, so far, plans to resist the temptation to leave his current digs. The Athletic’s David Aldridge reported shortly after the trade deadline that he wouldn’t seek a divorce from the Cleveland Cavaliers, and his representation at Klutch Sports Group isn’t known for brokering midseason dissolutions that cost clients their Bird rights.
Convincing Thompson to stay put would hold merit if he were in line for a big payday. He’s not.
The Cavaliers have Kevin Love and Larry Nance Jr. under contract for next season, and most now expect Andre Drummond to pick up his $28.8 million player option. They’re not in a position to offer Thompson a sizable contract over the short or long term.
Sticking in Cleveland does open up sign-and-trade possibilities over the summer. Thompson could then suss out a capped-out team willing to pay him more than the mid-level exception. Good luck finding that suitor. The center market is oversaturated, and bigs who don’t chuck threes or handle the ball will be hard-pressed to solicit lucrative offers.
Thompson is, in all likelihood, looking at non-taxpayer-MLE money no matter what. And even that could be a stretch depending on how much bigs get squeezed in free agency. A long-term contract in the mini-MLE range ($6 million) might be where his market tops out.
Jumping ship now for a contender wouldn’t compromise Thompson’s next contract when viewed through that lens. He has a better chance of shoring up his value by contributing to such a squad. Buyout acquisitions don’t always play pivotal roles, but he’s the rare pure 5 who can hold his own when switching onto smaller players.
Both the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Clippers would become obvious destinations if Thompson brokers a buyout. The former would easily become the best fit should they promise to start him over Daniel Theis.
Sniffing around the Dallas Mavericks would also be a good move if they’re not committed to Willie Cauley-Stein (player option).
They need switchable heft after losing Dwight Powell to an Achilles injury, and they’re a squad that could be working with more than the MLE this summer should Tim Hardaway Jr. decline his player option, though the money they already have invested in Powell, Kristaps Porzingis, Maxi Kleber and Boban Marjanovic makes it unlikely they’d sling more than an inflated one-year deal.
Best Landing Spots: Boston, L.A. Clippers, Dallas
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Evan Turner is essentially a free agent already. He didn’t negotiate a buyout with the Minnesota Timberwolves, but he hasn’t joined the team and was granted permission to work out for the Los Angeles Clippers, per Yahoo Sports’ Chris Haynes.
The search for a new home is probably all that’s keeping Turner from officially joining the free-agency ranks. The Clippers have no use for him after landing Marcus Morris Sr. at the trade deadline and signing the recently bought-out Reggie Jackson, and teams in general won’t trip over themselves to add a non-shooting wing who has appeared in just 19 games this season.
Select playoff squads can sell themselves on Turner’s secondary ball-handling and defensive portability. The Portland Trail Blazers used him extensively at point guard last season, albeit not to much success, and he can switch across four positions.
Spacier bench units might unlock Turner’s in-between game. He finished inside the 75th percentile or higher in mid-range efficiency during his two seasons with the Boston Celtics and first two on the Blazers. That’s not enough to make him the cleanest fit, but his ball-handling has value if he’s surrounded by four three-point threats.
Boston is a natural landing spot if Turner finally brokers a buyout. He was a valuable weapon off the bench during his two seasons under head coach Brad Stevens, and the Celtics offense is struggling to create shots whenever Jayson Tatum or Kemba Walker isn’t on the floor.
To what extent Turner would actually help them is up for debate.
Brad Wanamaker has provided quality minutes off the bench and can drain some threes. But the Celtics have the defensive personnel to play smaller than most. Rolling the dice on Turner has utility if they’re not going to scoop up another big.
Finding another potential destination gets rough after Boston. The Brooklyn Nets could use a tertiary ball-handler after losing Kyrie Irving for the season and have the three-point-heavy shot profile to afford Turner the space he needs to create. The Houston Rockets also loom if they’re looking for a wing with size and willing to play him independent of Russell Westbrook.
Best Landing Spots: Boston, Brooklyn, Houston
Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference or Cleaning the Glass and current heading into games on Feb 25. Salary and cap-hold information via Basketball Insiders, Early Bird Rights and Spotrac.