Welcome to the Morning Shootaround, where every weekday you’ll get a fresh, topical column from one of SI.com’s NBA writers: Howard Beck on Mondays, Chris Mannix on Tuesdays, Michael Pina on Wednesdays, Chris Herring on Thursdays and Rohan Nadkarni on Fridays.
The postseason is where reputations are built, defined, crushed and over analyzed. It’s also—in a higher stakes environment that helps rationalize the existence of a multi-billion dollar basketball league—where the real money is made.
For every soon-to-be-free agent sometimes all it takes is one great playoff game for strengths to define who a player is, as any and all debilitating flaws get overlooked at the negotiating table. Impress under the brightest lights and bags of cash will follow. Here are several candidates who’ve positioned themselves to receive a raise this offseason, in some form or another.
Kevin Huerter (made $2.76 million this season, Hawks)
Even after his 27-point Game 7 heroics, it feels unlikely the Hawks extend Huerter with John Collins’ contract situation still unresolved and hefty-to-humongous paydays on the horizon for Trae Young, Cam Reddish and De’Andre Hunter. But, at only 22 years old, this dude is ideal in the role Atlanta needs him to fill and grow into. He can shoot (44.2% on spot-up threes and 59.3% on pull-up twos during his first postseason), run a reliable second-side pick-and-roll and compete well enough on defense to dissuade opponents from seeking him out as a target.
Heading into the conference finals his playoff True Shooting percentage is 59.6%, with handles that are tight enough to create shots for himself (that deep, between-the-legs step-back three over Tobias Harris in Game 7 was ravishing) and others.
The Sixers tried to hide Seth Curry on Huerter in Game 7 and the abuse was so bad Doc Rivers decided to start the fourth quarter with Shake Milton, after Milton hadn’t played a second in the game’s opening three quarters. Late in the fourth, with their season on the line after Rivers subbed Curry back in the game, Atlanta gave Huerter the ball and told him to feast.
Players who are 6’ 7”, with a high release, who can run off screens and/or slither around with a live dribble are coveted for a reason. Huerter isn’t quite as good a shooter as Davis Bertans or Joe Harris, but given his own off-the-bounce creativity and versatile defense, the contracts those two signed last offseason ($80 million over five years and $72 million over four years, respectively) are right around what he should ask for.
Quickly, look at how Huerter fights to deny Harris on this post-up. Guarding up a position (without fouling) when forced to do so is increasingly valuable for any guard/wing who wants big minutes in a playoff series.
Pending what the Hawks do with Collins (more on him later), Bertans/Harris money might sound steep for a third or fourth option who, if Hunter and Reddish get healthy and make the leaps they should, may not even start next year. Maybe the Hawks can leverage their inability to offer a larger role in extension talks and lock him into something that’s more like the three-year, $35 million deal Memphis gave Dillon Brooks last February. If no agreement is reached, they could also run into a situation where Huerter signs an even more lucrative offer sheet as a restricted free agent. Losing him for nothing would not be good.
Deandre Ayton ($10.02 million, Suns)
Even before he capped off the most impressive, important game of his entire career with a buzzer-beating dunk on Tuesday night, Deandre Ayton was the most meaningful revelation in these entire playoffs. The Suns would be wise to lock him up with a maximum extension as soon as they can. After a run that includes Ayton’s neutralization of the league MVP in a decisive second round sweep, there’s no avoiding the inevitable. Pay the man. In a couple years it may even look like a bargain.
According to Synergy Sports, 27.5% of Ayton’s possessions were post-ups during the regular season. In the playoffs, that number has dropped to 9.2%. Related: His possessions finished as a cutter and roll man are both up 10%. The shift has made Ayton one of the postseason’s most efficient players, with a 71.9 True Shooting percentage that only ranks behind Rudy Gobert and Curry. There’s nothing hazy about who he is and what he can do with the ball, be it cramming a lob or cradling an entry pass after a rim run.
Ayton has been as fierce as anyone snatching rebounds in traffic, but will be tested by a Clippers team that eventually needs to go small and force him to step out of the paint on defense. (In Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals, he looked more nimble in drop coverage than in Game 1.) But that’s life for any center in today’s NBA. As a complementary, essential force who hasn’t looked the least bit overwhelmed by playoff intensity, Ayton needs that max ASAP. Even in a draft that featured Luka Dončić and Trae Young, the Suns should have zero regrets about taking him number one.
Mikal Bridges ($4.36 million, Suns)
There hasn’t really been any single breakout moment for Bridges in his first postseason. In fact, his effective field goal percentage is actually down quite a bit compared to what it was during the regular season.
He is not vital in the same way Chris Paul, Ayton or Devin Booker are (Bridges has not recorded a single isolation play in the entire playoffs, per Synergy Sports), but there might not be a more ideal plug-and-play piece in the entire league right now. Every cut Bridges makes is done with conviction. He moves the ball and, critically, embraces a relatively limited ask inside Phoenix’s system without trying to do too much (some of which he could if he had to).
Defense is where Bridges shines, and why statistically evaluating his impact is a bit tricky. He can hound a range of player types, from zippy point guards to beefy forwards, and tracks ball-handlers around screens like he’s reading a road map. It’s uncanny. If he continues to improve at the same rate on offense that he did this year, by sprinkling more off-the-dribble punch on top of his reliable outside shot, $90-100 million won’t be out of the question, whether the Suns want to fork it over after this season or have their hand forced in restricted free agency. Every single team in the league would kill to have Bridges on their roster.
Michael Porter Jr. ($3.5 million, Nuggets)
Porter Jr. is eligible for a five-year, $168 million max extension, coming off a postseason in which he spent legitimate stretches as the best offensive/worst defensive player on the court. This particular situation is layered enough for its own column, but for now let’s just say the Nuggets would be wise to observe MPJ for one more season, then let him hit restricted free agency. There’s little downside in doing so. Given his back injury, a long-term commitment before they absolutely have to make one could be disastrous.
Trae Young and Luka Dončić (doesn’t matter)
Unrestricted Free Agents
Reggie Jackson ($2.3 million, Clippers)
“A lake of battery acid surrounded by a forest fire at the base of an active volcano” is a fairly accurate way to describe Reggie Jackson in the 2020-21 NBA playoffs, a setting where he’s yet to discover the bottom of his bag. After hitting countless big shots in the first round, Jackson saved the Clippers several times in Round 2 before finishing the Jazz off with a few unreachable floaters over Rudy Gobert in Game 6. We’ve reached a point where you expect every single shot to go in, regardless of where, when or how it leaves his fingertips. In Game 2, he tap danced in front of Bridges for a moment before launching an off-balance push shot along the baseline. It dropped, of course.
Compared to last year’s playoffs, Jackson’s minutes have doubled. Unsaddled from any playmaking responsibilities, his scoring average has shot up from 4.9 to 17.3 points per game, while drilling 46.9% of his spot-up threes (good for third-highest among all players who attempted at least four per game). There are 122 players in NBA playoff history who’ve ever launched at least 100 threes. Of them, Jackson ranks second in True Shooting percentage (at 65.6%) behind only what Steph Curry did in 2017.
The Clippers have Jackson’s Early Bird Rights, meaning they can only offer 175% of his current salary on a new deal. It’s hard to believe he’ll be satisfied with that amount, considering he’s only 31 years old and, with Kawhi Leonard out, arguably the second-best player on a title contender. Whoever’s looking for instance offense will want Mr. June (one of the better nicknames ever bestowed by the great Ian Eagle).
Nicolas Batum ($2.5 million, Clippers)
After somewhat of a renaissance season where he went from overpaid disappointment to a critical starter on a contender, Batum might be having the finest postseason of his entire career. His True Shooting percentage, PER, and Win Shares are all personal highs, while his small-ball center act have given the Clippers a rotational trump card. According to FiveThirtyEight, Batum ranks second in Wins Above Replacement. He’s also first in steals.
Thanks to his last contract (a massive five-year, $120 million deal) the 32-year-old is still owed almost $19 million over the next two seasons, so it’ll be interesting to see how Batum treats his upcoming free agency. His fit in Los Angeles has been mutually beneficial, but if he wants a decent raise he should be able to find it elsewhere. (The Clippers can only offer 120% of Batum’s current salary.)
Tim Hardaway Jr. ($18.9 million, Mavericks)
The Mavericks are in an obvious state of disarray, with no head coach or principal decision maker in the front office. To state the obvious, their timing could be better. With Luka Dončić now eligible for a five-year, $201 million supermax extension and Kristaps Porzingis’ max deal currently standing as one of the more burdensome in the league, this offseason offers a slight window for Dallas to upgrade its roster with cap space before likely losing it for the foreseeable future.
Further complicating matters is Tim Hardaway Jr., their second-leading scorer during the first round. At 29, THJ’s strengths and weaknesses are well known. There are moments where he looks like a star (go rewatch the first two games against the Clippers) and times where he completely disappears (go rewatch Games 4 and 7). With that understood, the Mavs can’t afford to lose his shooting. They also should probably diversify their offense with wings who can create for others and defend multiple positions.
Josh Richardson was supposed to fill that role, and it’s always possible that he will after picking up his player option next season. But with Dončić’s patience fraying, that’s a gamble Mark Cuban may not be willing to make. Instead, do they take the money that would go to Hardaway Jr. and give it to (Luka’s friend) Goran Dragic and someone like, say, Otto Porter? What about Danny Green and Will Barton?
There are a lot of moving pieces around Dallas right now, so it’s unclear just how flexible they’ll be once free agency kicks off. But for Hardaway Jr., it’s entirely possible that another team (how about the Grizzlies?) will look at the market and believe his exact skill-set is what they need to take a meaningful step forward. If so, don’t be surprised if the starting price on that next contract is above $20 million.
Jeff Green ($2.56 million, Nets)
Green’s postseason was brief. He only appeared in seven games and took just 33 shots before the Nets were eliminated. But in that snippet he was pretty good! At 34, after a solid season on the best offense in NBA history, Green’s 27-point Game 5 (during which he took eight threes and only missed one) made Kevin Durant’s historic performance that night possible.
Green also held up fairly well (not great, far from atrocious) when switched onto any of the Bucks’ three best players. But age, the Nets’ early playoff exit and his own admitted desire to stay on a team that can only offer 175% of his current salary on the next contract decreases any likelihood of Green receiving a large financial raise—though his tune might change if another team is willing to throw some/all of their mid-level exception at him.
“I go out and just do the work,” Green recently told the New York Times. “And I let my agent handle the logistics of the contract terms, but it is confusing to the point of, ‘What else do I need to do to prove that I’m not a minimum guy?’”
Cam Payne ($1.97 million, Suns)
Even with Ayton’s lob etched forever in history books, Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals should be remembered as “The Cam Payne Game.” He was unstoppable, finishing with 29 points and nine assists, all of which the Suns needed to win. Even though his effectiveness has dropped a bit from the regular season (few pick-and-roll ball-handlers have been less efficient in these playoffs), Payne is the primary reason Phoenix is up 2-0 instead of tied 1-1. Anyone looking for a backup point guard will call his number come July.
Restricted Free Agents
John Collins ($2.76 million, Hawks)
Collins’ contract negotiations have played out in public since he reportedly turned down a four-year, $90 million extension in December. There were stretches of Atlanta’s first-round series against the Knicks where that decision looked regretful. Collins was tentative and borderline confused with the ball, driving into crowds, missing open shooters, forcing bad shots. There were bone-headed fouls committed in Round 2, too, where Collins played like someone in his own head, trying to do too much.
But Collins eventually settled down and began to thrive with bursts of energy and athleticism that were too much for Philadelphia’s frontline, especially on the glass. He yammed on Joel Embiid’s head several times (including in Game 6, inspiring the greatest t-shirt that has ever been designed), hit the biggest corner three of his life (down four with 2:15 left in a critical Game 4) and was massive on defense, stifling Ben Simmons in transition and taking a few important albeit painful charges to the chest.
Even with Onyeka Okongwu waiting in the wings, Clint Capela playing well on both ends and Hunter potentially thriving as a small-ball four someday soon, it’d still be a surprise if the Hawks don’t give Collins what he wants this summer. He has priceless on-court chemistry with Trae Young and might still be Atlanta’s second-best offensive player, despite the slow start. A max would probably be an overpay, but not to the point where it wouldn’t have value in a trade at some point down the line.
Bruce Brown ($1.6 million, Nets)
If the Nets won the title, Brown would have been a folk hero, and keeping him would have been more difficult than it should now be. He’ll make more money than he did this year, but not by the margin we would’ve seen had they gone a little further, with Brown starting, screening, rolling, floatering his way into the heart of a rival GM.