In a season where there will be plenty of wild cards, Dallas just might be the wildest of them all.
With the long-awaited return of Kristaps Porzingis, no one knows exactly how this season is going to turn out for the Mavericks. If Porzingis is — or will be — back to normal, there may not be words to quantify how high their ceiling could be. If he’s not back to normal, then not only could Dallas be one of the worst teams in the Western Conference, but this experiment could turn out to be one of the worst backfires ever. Particularly so after the hefty contract they gave the presumed franchise cornerstone this summer.
That’s a bridge we’ll cross when we come to it, however. And even though Porzingis is the key do-or-die piece for the Mavericks, they still have Luka Doncic and his superstar career ahead of him. With all the uncertainty surrounding the franchise leading up to Dirk Nowitzki’s retirement, Doncic should help the Mavericks rest easy knowing that the future is indeed promising.
But how promising? Porzingis at full strength definitely makes the future brighter, but the Mavericks need more than only him and Doncic if they want another shot at the title. Outside of them, Dallas’ roster isn’t exactly the prettiest. Because of the duo’s youth, they’ve got time to figure out what the best course is for them. For now, they just have to see where their two main cogs are at, plus who are the best players to put around them.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
The Mavericks should look dramatically different in 2019-20 than they did last year – mostly due to the presence of a 7-foot-3 unicorn. Kristaps Porzingis will change the entire makeup of the Mavericks as Luka Doncic should complement him beautifully. Head coach Rick Carlisle is known for getting the most out of his players and will undoubtedly continue to develop new additions like Seth Curry and Boban Marjanovic. The Mavericks don’t have elite talent beyond their two superstars, but they feature enough versatility — Delon Wright and Courtney Lee, for example — to make noise. The Western Conference is brutally tough; but when the dust settles, expect the Mavericks to finish in the top-eight – albeit toward the bottom of the playoff ladder.
3rd place – Southwest Division
– Drew Maresca
The Mavericks have one of the more interesting duos in the league in Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis. Doncic is a budding star, but the major question mark is what Porzingis will look like as he returns from a major injury. Before he got hurt, Porzingis looked like a potential franchise difference-maker. If he can regain close to that form, Dallas may have hit the jackpot. Provided that Dallas maintains a healthy roster, it isn’t inconceivable that they make a playoff push. There’s a lot of good teams in the conference, however, so it’s still unlikely. What it all really boils down to is what condition Porzingis is in and what kind of on-court production will he bring. The Mavericks season hinges on that.
4th Place – Southwest Division
– David Yapkowitz
To say people are fawning over the future of the Mavericks would be an understatement. Who wouldn’t be? Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis may be one of the most dynamic international one-two punches we’ll see sharing the court in quite some time. However, it depends on the health and production we see out of the latter in his first season playing since 2017-18. Yet outside of those two, nothing about this team jumps out. Delon Wright could very well be the player that does — and the bench looks like it could be just as energetic as it was before — but who else can step up as that tertiary option? Tim Hardaway Jr. will probably be the one. Maybe it’ll be Seth Curry.
Here’s the question to ask yourself: Is this a playoff team in the Western Conference? They’ll be battling with a ton of teams for that eighth seed. Whether they can snag it or not, we’ll have to wait and see. This writer isn’t counting on it.
4th Place – Southwest Division
– Spencer Davies
The Dallas Mavericks’ offseason is one of the hardest ones for me to fully digest and put a final grade on. Dallas made a lot of significant moves, but I just am not sure that collectively they were overall positive moves. I like the sign and trade to bring in Delon Wright on a three-year contract; while signing Seth Curry to a four-year deal worth $32 million seems fair, despite some injury concerns. But giving Dwight Powell a three-year extension at $33 million seems heavy when, seemingly, there wasn’t going to be a similar offer from other teams.
And when you take all of Dallas’ moves together, this offseason seems very similar to the Miami HEAT’s 2017 offseason, in which they signed several mid-tier free agents (e.g., James Johnson, Dion Waiters, Kelly Olynyk) to long-term deals without any path forward to continue significantly upgrading the roster.
Unlike Miami, however, the Mavericks have two franchise cornerstones in Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis, the second of whom Dallas signed to a five-year, $158 million extension. Dallas has reason to be optimistic moving forward, but it seems like the franchise overpaid on a few of its offseason deals and surrendered future flexibility without having to do so.
4th Place – Southwest Division
– Jesse Blancarte
This could finally be the year the Mavericks break out of the lottery cycle and actually win some games. If the talk surrounding Kristaps Porzingis is real, he could be poised for a monster MVP-type season. Given how much work Luka Doncic put in this summer himself, the Mavs have their future franchise players set. Add in some solid veterans and a great head coach in Rick Carlise, everything is set up for the Mavericks to be significantly better. The problem is the conference is absolutely loaded and while Dallas could be significantly improved, it’s hard to see them cracking the 40-win mark unless Doncic takes a big jump and Porzingis is everything he can be after a full year recovering from an ACL tear, all of which is very possible.
If anything the Mavericks are going to be fun to watch, and that is a far cry from the last two seasons where things were just awful.
3rd place – Southwest Division
– Steve Kyler
FROM THE CAP GUY
The Mavericks had the option of going under the NBA’s $109.1 million salary cap or staying over the cap entirely. They chose the latter, using almost all of their Mid-Level Exception on Seth Curry and rookie Isaiah Roby, plus their Bi-Annual Exception on Boban Marjanovic. The team is also carrying an $11.8 million trade exception until Feb. 7, the remainder from the Harrison Barnes trade after using a portion to acquire Delon Wright via sign and trade from the Memphis Grizzlies.
The Mavericks have a hard cap this season at $138.9 million, triggered multiple ways (the Wright acquisition, use of the Mid-Level and Bi-Annual Exceptions). With a team salary at roughly $121 million, they’re not close to that figure.
Before November, Dallas needs to pick up team options on Justin Jackson and Luka Doncic.
– Eric Pincus
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Luka Doncic
Prepare yourself, because Luka Doncic is going to show up a lot on this list. That shouldn’t shock anyone because Doncic isn’t just the new face of the Dallas Mavericks — he could potentially be the new face of the entire NBA. The young Slovenian sensation exceeded all of the hype that he had coming into his rookie season. With all of the accolades coming from his already advanced IQ on the offensive end, he is undoubtedly the best offensive player on this Mavericks’ squad.
Doncic probably won’t be participating in any Slam Dunk Contests any time soon. As of now, it doesn’t look like he’ll be in any three-point contest either. But if you watched this kid at any point last season, you knew just how spectacular he was. Usually, rookies that have the look of a generational talent is because of their athleticism or their efficiency. In this case, his label as a future superstar has come from both his poise and his IQ. The way Doncic handles himself on the court makes him look like his life’s purpose was meant for playing basketball.
All of that came from the bag of tricks he has on the offensive end. His 42/33/71 splits are phenomenally average, but his average of 21.3 points, 7.8 rebounds and six assists as a 19-year-old for most of the season is jaw-dropping. It should only get better from here on out. If Doncic continues to blow our minds this season, it may not be long before he enters the MVP discussion.
Top Defensive Player: Kristaps Porzingis
Fun fact: Last year, this writer wrote Dallas’ season preview and elected not to put Doncic in any of the top categories for some reason. As stupid as that was in hindsight, joining as an incoming international rookie, no one knew what to expect from him. Porzingis, in a way, is in the same boat as we haven’t seen him play since Feb. 2018. The difference, of course, is that we’ve seen what Porzingis can do when he’s at the top of his game. When he is, Porzingis changes the pace of the game so much — most of that comes from his defense.
Standing at 7-foot-3, Porzingis has established himself as an excellent rim protector and, since he entered the league, his block average has gone from 1.9 to 2.4. In his final year with the Knicks before his ACL tear, Porzingis’ defense around the rim was elite as opponents only shot 48.7 percent in the post. At the time, such a feat was better than the likes of Joel Embiid, Marc Gasol and Rudy Gobert.
In that time, New York had the league’s 16th-best defensive rating, allowing 107.5 points per 100 possessions. After he went down for the season, that dropped all the way down to 114 points per 100 possessions, an abysmally-ranked 29th.
The Zinger was making a fair case for an All-Defense selection leading up to his injury. If that Porzingis comes back, then Dallas’ defense — which tied for 17th-best in the league, allowing 110 points per 100 possessions — could make a major jump next season.
Top Playmaker: Luka Doncic
This one should be pretty obvious. Doncic led the team in assists per game (6) and now that Dallas has effectively put him in charge of the offense, that number should climb even higher. At such a young age, the Slovanian has incredible vision. He’s an expert at the pick and roll, pick and pop, alley-oop, behind the back — name it and Doncic’s got it in the arsenal already. He could definitely improve in the turnover department (3.4 per game last season) but the youngsters got some serious handles.
Here’s where Mavericks fans should get more excited about Doncic in the passing department. Over the first month and a half of the season, he only averaged 4.3 assists a game. After Dennis Smith Jr’s injury/trade and JJ Barea’s longterm ailment, Doncic upped that average to 6.6. With those two out of the picture, Doncic’s usage rate went from 25 percent to 31.5.
Now, he runs the whole operation. With that, expect a lot more flare from the up-and-comer.
Top Clutch Player: Luka Doncic
This one is not as obvious as some of the other top categories that Doncic fits under, but it’s still all the same. Doncic’s clutch stats aren’t great, but one can’t help but wonder if that’s really his fault. In the 46 games in which circumstances were considered “clutch,” Dallas went 20-26 with a net rating of minus-6.5 — slotting them in at 24th and just plus-0.1 better than the Bulls, who won 11 fewer games.
In that frame, Doncic played in 38 of those games and posted a net rating of minus-4.5. Maybe that had more to do with who was surrounding him than inadequacy himself. During those contests, he had a respectable effective field goal percentage of 51.1 and an impressive assist percentage of 40.4. The only players who topped him in that department were Kyrie Irving, LeBron James, Trae Young, Russell Westbrook and Mike Conley Jr. That’s not bad company by any stretch.
More importantly, the phenom definitely is not afraid of the moment. Case and point: Remember that insane buzzer-beater he had against Portland back in December? In all honesty, that may just be the tip of the iceberg.
The Unheralded Player: Tim Hardaway Jr.
Finally, one that doesn’t have the name “Luka Doncic” in it. Anyway, Hardaway Jr. gets overlooked because of the ridiculous contract that Dallas agreed to swallow as a sweetener for prying Porzingis away from New York. Nobody is arguing against how overpaid Hardaway is — but it’s just unfortunate that his contract has overshadowed how productive he can be.
After Doncic and Porzingis, Hardaway is slated to be both Dallas’ third scorer and, arguably, their third-best player. He’s not the ideal third banana, but his scoring abilities could come in handy for Dallas. Since his ship came in, Hardaway’s scoring numbers have gone up from 14.5 to 18.1. He’s being paid to score — so it’s not like he’s taken the money and run. He tries. Unfortunately, his field goal percentage in that span went from 45.4 to 39.3, which is not ideal for someone being paid $20 million.
He could see a more efficient season now that he’s third in the pecking order. Hardaway probably won’t have the same scoring average and, in so doing, won’t justify the money he’s getting paid — still, he could play a crucial role in Dallas’ hopeful successes.
Best New Addition: Kristaps Porzingis
Look, technically, Porzingis was added in February, but since Dallas understandably preserved him to be 100 percent by the start of this season, he should still fit under this umbrella rather easily.
It’s not difficult to understand the magnitude of adding Porzingis to a team that already carries one of the league’s most promising young players in Doncic. Porzingis gives the point-everything a running mate that can run a rich, deep variety of plays together. KP can post up, he can roll out for three and he can finish alley-oops — imagine all that with Doncic on the other end of the string. He’s even shown flashes of being a fluid passer, so there’s really not much he can’t do. With Doncic coming off of a phenomenal rookie season, there’s always the chance of a sophomore slump. Hence, Kristaps’ presence alone could negate a fair amount of that.
Ultimately, there may not have been a more perfect second-in-command to put next to Doncic than Porzingis. Because of both of their youth and ceiling, they could usher in an era more golden than the days of Dirk. As long as Porzingis is every bit as good as he was before he tore his ACL, this should be the start of something beautiful.
– Matt John
WHO WE LIKE
1. Delon Wright
If Porzingis didn’t count as Dallas’ best new addition, then Delon Wright could certainly make a case for himself. Wright’s coming off of the most productive play of his career — at least after he arrived in Memphis. His three-point shot left a lot to be desired — 25.6 percent on three attempts a game — but he’s slated to be in the secondary playmaker role which could be just right for him.
When given extended minutes, Wright proved himself to be a Swiss Army knife-type and put up career-highs in points (12.2), assists (5.3), rebounds (5.4) and steals (1.6). The Grizzlies didn’t exactly have many other players to turn to — and it’s not like they won a ton of games in that time period — but Wright did his job. Now that he’s paired next to Doncic, we could see even more efficient play from him.
What’s most encouraging is that the guard’s assist-to-turnover ratio has gradually increased as his career has progressed. His rookie year, the ratio was 1.9. During his 26-game stint with Memphis, that number rose to 3.5. For what Dallas is paying him, Wright is a solid pickup.
2. The Other Youngster
If it weren’t for the fact that Doncic proved himself to be really, really good almost immediately last season, more attention would have been given to Jalen Brunson, the Mavericks’ recent second-round steal. Having just turned 23 years old, it was hard to imagine Brunson with that high of a ceiling. But for where he was selected, he gave the Mavericks some pretty outstanding value.
Over 73 games, Brunson averaged 9.3 points on 47/35/72 splits while averaging 3.2 assists and 2.3 rebounds in a tick under 22 minutes. In March, he put up the best numbers in his young career, averaging 15.1 points on 53/34/80 splits. From those statistics alone, Brunson established himself as a capable off-guard to put next to Doncic in the backcourt. The problem is: With Wright, Hardaway, Seth Curry, JJ Barea, Devin Harris and, potentially, Courtney Lee, who knows how many minutes Brunson will see?
Rick Carlisle knows to put his best men out there — so, if Brunson takes his game to another level, it’ll be difficult to keep him on the sideline.
3. Courtney Lee’s Contract
With Doncic’s sophomore year approaching and Porzingis itching to prove he’s still the same unicorn we adored in New York, Dallas will use any asset it can to improve its chances. The trade with the Knicks depleted the Mavericks a fair amount in that department, but Lee’s expiring deal could fetch something on the open market. Not star-level good, but a sizable upgrade-level good.
Lee has done what he can since signing that luxurious deal with the Knicks three years ago, but he’ll be 34 when the season starts and the Mavericks have plenty of guards to go through. Dallas could definitely use some wing depth that specializes on the defensive end and there could be a few on the market that Lee’s contract matches with — Andre Iguodala, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Andre Roberson come to mind.
No matter what the Mavericks decide to do, they’re one of the few teams in the NBA who are aiming to reach the playoffs with expendable expiring contracts to shed.
4. Dallas’ Favorite Castoffs
It seems that Hollywood’s obsession with nostalgia has rubbed off on the Mavericks. It all started with the Jason Kidd trade 11 years ago. After being the face of the franchise back in the 90’s, the Mavericks brought back Kidd from the Nets to aid the franchise’s quest to win its first title. The main piece that was given away in that deal, Devin Harris, was then brought back five years after that.
It didn’t stop there. Three years after being the defensive anchor for the team’s first championship, Tyson Chandler was brought back yet again as a one-year rental. It was that same year that they brought back another valuable player from that team, JJ Barea. Five years after being brought back to the team, Dallas then traded Devin Harris to the Nuggets, from which, he then came back for a third go-round.
And now, Seth Curry, after being off the team for just one year, is back for his second tenure. It certainly seems like the Mavericks just can’t let go of the players who left after buying into their system.
It’d be unfair to say that the Mavericks don’t have much to boast besides Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis. Are we forgetting that Rick Carlisle still coaches this team? And that the 2011 Mavericks won the title because they had one mega-star and a ton of contributors who knew exactly what their roles were and thrived in them? Right now, the Mavericks aren’t contenders — as far as we know — but with the big-time talent, amount of depth on their roster and Carlisle’s reputation of getting the most out of his players, the Mavericks just might sneak up on everyone this season.
Outside of the aforementioned duo, the roster really isn’t all that special. That could be a problem if one of them goes down. In fact, it could be a problem even if those two stay on the floor. Now that there’s more footage of Doncic, defenses will be more prepared for him when the season starts. If teams figure out how to limit his play on the court, who steps up? Besides the presumably-healthy Porzingis, who can’t play all 48 minutes, who can take that next step? Never doubt Carlisle, but working around his two young stars will be a tough assignment even for someone like him.
THE BURNING QUESTION
Other than the budding cornerstones, who else from this roster is a keeper?
With both Doncic and Porzingis both on the team for the foreseeable future, Dallas has time to figure out who they want beside them. This season should serve as a test run to see what works and what doesn’t. In that time, the Mavericks can better surround them as they plot for bigger and better things over the next couple of years. As of now, it appears the only ones who are slated to be on the team long-term are Maxi Kleber, Dwight Powell, Wright, Curry and Brunson.
Those are all fine complementary players — but they’re not making any All-Star teams though. If Dallas is serious about this new chapter in the franchise, they’ll need to bring in more upscale talent. Still, doing so means sacrificing assets that have proven they work in Carlisle’s system. But, in order to be great, you have to sacrifice something valuable. Brooklyn did this when the franchise essentially exchanged D’Angelo Russell for Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. To a lesser extent, Utah did this when it traded Derrick Favors to make room for Bojan Bogdanovic.
It may not be long before Dallas has to make a similar sacrifice.
Whether or not the Mavericks make a serious postseason run just yet, however, should not change their longterm plans. Play Doncic, Porzingis and go from there — it really is that simple.
Buy Or Sell: Central Division
Drew Mays continues Basketball Insiders’ “Buy Or Sell” series by taking a look at the Central Division.
It’s Dec. 12, and we’re over a quarter of the way through the 2019-20 NBA season. More importantly, we’re three days away from the 15th – the day much of the league because trade-eligible.
By now, teams have a good idea of who they are and where they want to be in four months when the playoffs roll around. This means they also know something else: Whether what they have in the locker room is enough, if they’re missing a piece, or if their season is toast and they should wheel and deal before the February trade deadline.
These thoughts inspired the Basketball Insiders’ “Buy Or Sell” series. Matt John led us off a few days ago by breaking down the Northwest Division. Yesterday, Jordan Hicks batted second with the Southwest Division. Today we’ll be checking on the division with the hottest team in the NBA: The Central.
Milwaukee Bucks (22-3) – Buyers (?)
Can anyone stop Milwaukee? They’ve won 16 straight, 20 of 21, and haven’t lost since Nov. 8. While part of this stretch has involved beating up lesser teams — and winning games you’re supposed to isn’t a bad thing — undoubtedly the most impressive performance came last Friday at home against the Los Angeles Clippers. They won 119-91 and it was even uglier than that. Los Angeles was down nine at halftime and 25 after three quarters. The Bucks held the Clippers’ three offensive stars – Paul George, Kawhi Leonard and Lou Williams – to 15-for-39 shooting and forced them into 15 turnovers (LA shot 35 percent and committed 21 turnovers as a team).
What Milwaukee did to the Clippers isn’t an outlier, either. They’ve blitzed the entire league on both ends of the floor. They’re first in defensive rating, third in offensive rating and first in average margin of victory at 13.4 points. They aren’t just winning – they’re winning big. They have the best effective field goal percentage in the NBA and the second-best allowed on defense.
The Bucks are deep and have 12 guys that get significant minutes. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the only player above 30 minutes per game, with the rest of the roster falling in succession down to Robin Lopez’s 14.5 per. They’re shooting extremely well while still making the third-most threes per game in the league at 14.4. Nine different players make at least one every game.
Even scarier, Giannis keeps evolving. His three-point shooting volume has been a revelation – he’s taking five each night. He’s never taken more than three. And even shooting only 31.9 percent, the attempts in themselves (and Giannis’ willingness to shoot them) has opened up the offense more than ever before. It’s led to Antetokounmpo somehow topping his numbers from last season – he’s up from 27.7/12.5/5.9 to 30.9/13.2/5.5. Sheesh.
There’s a huge scoring drop off after Giannis, though. Only Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe and Brook Lopez join him in double figures. They could use another scorer or playmaker. People have long half-jokingly floated the idea of Chris Paul, but that seems unlikely. There may not be a player on the market worth chasing based on their needs.
Still, the lack of extra scoring punch behind the MVP might not even be an issue until the postseason. Until then, Milwaukee fans can enjoy the ride – the Bucks shouldn’t have worries for a while.
Indiana Pacers (16-9) – Buyers
After a slow start, Indiana has rejoined the upper cluster of the Eastern Conference. They’ve won nine of their last 12 and sit in the top half of the league in both offensive (15th) and defensive (10th) rating.
Like Milwaukee, Indiana boasts a ton of depth – they have nine regulars that play over 17 minutes per game. Malcolm Brogdon continues to be the Pacers’ engine, averaging 19.5/4.5/7.5. TJ Warren seems to have found his footing and Domantas Sabonis has been a beast, scoring 18.2 and grabbing 13.5 rebounds every night.
That said, the Pacers suffer a similar problem as the Bucks – they lack high-end talent. Their better part of the rotation is similar to Milwaukee’s non-Giannis top players; they’re useful, productive role players, but not guys you expect to beat teams with more star power.
This lends itself to Indiana being buyers over the next few months. They could add another on-ball threat to pair with Brogdon, thus making things easier for Sabonis and the assist-allergic Warren. TJ McConnell and the pair of Holiday brothers have performed admirably to this point, but no one in the conference is batting an eye at those three.
Of course, the Pacers already have a top-flight scorer and shot creator coming – Victor Oladipo. Oladipo has been out since January and is expected to return in the next few months.
Assuming he’s able to at all, it’ll take him time to get back to form. The likeliest scenario isn’t that the Pacers buy prior to the deadline, but that they continue rolling out their massive lineup and stay the course until their star returns.
Detroit Pistons (10-14) – Buyers
The Pistons are right where they want to be.
Well, maybe not. But after years of mediocre teams and 8th-seed finishes, seeing Detroit a handful of games under .500 and in the 9th spot in the Eastern Conference feels like home.
Detroit is 10th in offensive rating and 16th in defensive rating. Those numbers usually mean postseason appearances, especially in the weaker conference. A five-game losing streak in mid-November slowed their progress, but the 6-4 mark since Nov. 22 in about what you’d expect them to be.
But Blake Griffin has not looked like Blake Griffin. Maybe it’s injury-related, maybe it’s age-related. But a player of his caliber – especially coming off his sneaky-great 2018-19 – should regain form.
Andre Drummond is still doing Andre Drummond things. And as we detailed in October, Derrick Rose looks better than he has in years – he’s averaging 16.1 and 5.8 in just under 24 minutes per game.
The Pistons are buyers because the track record shows they don’t embrace the tank — Exhibit A: the Blake Griffin trade — and their age. Some middling teams prefer to bottom-out and rebuild. Detroit has proven their propensity to just hang around, winning 38-42 games each year before getting trounced in the postseason. That’s admirable; it’s hard to win games in the NBA. Trying to do so, even with moderate success, isn’t a bad thing.
Detroit’s top scorers are Griffin (30), Rose (31), Drummond (26), Luke Kennard (23), Markieff Morris (30) and Langston Galloway (24). Kennard has been pretty good, but Galloway isn’t inspiring fear in anybody. Drummond, still relatively young, cannot be a A or B option as a scorer. Detroit went after the now 30-year-old Griffin a few years ago and Rose this past summer. Those are win-now, stay-relevant moves and there isn’t a lot of flexibility there.
Accordingly, it wouldn’t surprise to see Detroit try and get a few players leading up to February. The only player they might try to unload is the currently-injured Reggie Jackson – although it’s hard to imagine who would want him.
Chicago Bulls (9-17) – Sellers
It’s been repeated for months now: The Bulls, 9-17 and 11th in the Eastern Conference, are a disappointment. They talked up the playoffs preseason only to fall victim to the same prey as they did last year. The injuries have been less (although Otto Porter Jr. has been out since Nov. 8 and Lauri Markkanen has dealt with an oblique injury), but it hasn’t translated to wins.
Chicago’s defense has improved – they’re up to 12th in defensive rating – but their offense continues to be bottom-barrel, currently 26th in the NBA. The two though-to-be stars in Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen have struggled; LaVine has been up (49 points and 13 threes in Charlotte on Nov. 23) and down (5 points on 2-for-11 against Detroit on Nov. 20) offensively and rough on defense. Elsewhere, Markkanen has been outright disappointing by managing just 14.5 points per on 39.3 from the field and 32.7 from three-point range.
There have been reported internal riffs, plus tons of questions about head coach Jim Boylen, his fit for the job and whether the players respond to him.
Even if it gets better for the Bulls, it’s unlikely it does so in a way meaningful enough to meet preseason expectations. Chicago should be looking to sell, whether it’s Kris Dunn or players higher on the totem pole. The front office may not want to hear it, but there’d be a market for both LaVine and Markkanen.
Whether they explore that market or not remains to be seen.
Cleveland Cavaliers (5-19) – Sellers
The Cavaliers aren’t good, but we all expected that. They’re 29th in offense and 28th in defense, and they’ve won just one of their last 15 games – including their current eight-game losing streak.
Collin Sexton looks similar to his rookie year, except now his three-point shooting is down. Cedi Osman and Jordan Clarkson are both shooting 41 percent. Darius Garland is shooting 37.9 from the field, and leads the team with a putrid 2.8 assists per game.
— Bootum (@DaRealBootum) December 12, 2019
That clip also shows us the reason the Cavaliers are maybe the biggest sellers of the trade period: Kevin Love.
Love’s numbers are down across the board. He’s averaging 15.7 and 10.5 rebounds per game on 43.8 percent from the field and 35.4 from three. Much of that can be explained by playing on a wholly uncompetitive team – other franchises want Love, a proven championship commodity who rebounds and stretches the floor.
Jason Lloyd of The Athletic reported today that Cleveland was seeking a first-round pick in exchange for Love. Lloyd also mentioned the problem with Love: He’s more expensive than Oklahoma City’s Danilo Galinari, but the latter is on an expiring deal.
Still, Love is a valuable player, and somebody that contenders will jump at once the deadline nears and executives are pressed to make a move. Portland has long been tied to the forward, but their standing in the Western Conference will factor into their willingness to take him on.
Regardless, it would be shocking (and almost implausible) to see Kevin Love in Cleveland past Feb. 6.
December is a big month for basketball – the Christmas day games are the most-watched regular season event on the NBA’s calendar. But something even more important than those matchups is only three days away, when much of the league becomes trade eligible.
Dec. 15 starts the race to Feb. 6. By then, we’ll know exactly who teams are as we look ahead to another NBA postseason.
NBA Daily: Are The Sixers Building Around The Wrong Franchise Player?
Joel Embiid is the Philadelphia 76ers’ “crown jewel.” But as he and Ben Simmons struggle to coalesce in year three of their partnership, it bears wondering if Philadelphia is building around the wrong franchise player.
The latter half of the Philadelphia 76ers’ longest winning streak during the Joel Embiid era came while he watched from the bench.
It began in mid-March 2018 with a win at Madison Square Garden, and ended nearly a month later with a home beatdown of the Milwaukee Bucks that sent the Sixers streaking into the playoffs having won 16 straight games. Embiid fractured his face two weeks into that binge, making it easy to believe his team would tumble to the bottom of the postseason standings.
Philadelphia was tied in the win the column with the eighth-place Miami Heat at the time of Embiid’s injury. Nothing it had previously done suggested the team could keep from falling to the last playoff seed in the East without him. The Sixers were 16.1 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor in 2017-18, a team-high and one of the league’s biggest individual marks.
A soft schedule over the season’s last two weeks definitely helped Philadelphia thrive in spite of Embiid’s absence, and that’s how the streak was portrayed in the media by the time the playoffs started. It lasted one more game before the Miami HEAT beat the Sixers in Game 2 of the first round, after which Embiid returned.
But the breakneck, wide-open style of play his absence prompted from Philadelphia was impossible to forget last week, when Ben Simmons was unleashed again. The Sixers, coming off a dispiriting loss to the Washington Wizards, dropped 141 points on the Cleveland Cavaliers as Embiid nursed a sore hip.
Simmons was dominant in a way he hadn’t been all season, dropping a career-high 34 points and 7 assists on 12-of-14 shooting in just 26 minutes of play. He drained his second three-pointer, again from the corner, leading Brett Brown to later tell reporters that he wants Simmons launching at least one triple per game. Why?
“His world will open up,” Brown said after the game, “And, in many ways, so will ours.”
It’s become increasingly impossible of late to separate Simmons the player from Simmons the shooter. Philadelphia traded space and playmaking this summer to double down on size and defense, making the need for Simmons to develop any workable shooting range more dire than ever. Going on four years after he was drafted and three seasons into his career, it’s not like an expectation of him doing just that was asking too much.
But it just hasn’t happened nearly two months into the season, calling the Sixers’ viability as top-tier championship contenders into question. Simmons is 2-of-4 from three-point range and 4-of-9 on two-point jumpers outside the paint. Philadelphia relies on Embiid post-ups and pick-and-rolls for Josh Richardson and Tobias Harris in crunch time, leaving Simmons playing bystander in the dunker spot or weak corner as his teammates try their damndest to navigate a cramped floor with games on the line.
The Sixers rank barely above average in overall offensive rating, and worse in the clutch. Embiid and Philadelphia architect Elton Brand have received a fair share of criticism for their team’s relative struggles — especially offensively — in the season’s early going, but it’s Simmons who’s drawn the most ire.
The numbers, though, suggest Embiid’s impact is the one waning most. His net offensive rating has been overwhelmingly positive each of the last two seasons, but that hasn’t been the case in 2019-20. The Sixers are scoring at a bottom-five rate with Embiid on the floor, and a top-10 mark when he’s on the bench. Both his on and off-court offensive ratings are easy worsts among starters.
But the critical narrative surrounding Philadelphia’s offensive labors has largely ignored Embiid for Simmons regardless, and it’s not the media’s fault. Brown has made abundantly clear over the years that Embiid is his team’s franchise player, frequently calling him “our crown jewel” while citing his Hall-of-Fame ability on both sides of the ball.
Embiid isn’t tasked with tailoring his game toward Simmons’ nearly as much as the other way around, and understandably so. The former’s sheer size inherently limits both the flexibility and scalability of his offensive influence.
If Embiid isn’t the Sixers’ go-to guy, demanding post-ups and drawing double teams, just how would he function in the team construct? He’s way too talented to serve as a glorified floor-spacer, and his stroke hasn’t developed to the point he’d be well-suited for that role anyway. A similar line of thinking applies to making Embiid a rim-runner and vertical floor-spacer. He’s just too good, and not quite versatile enough, to prosper in a more confined offensive role.
The opposite dynamic applies to Simmons, at least for now. His most enticing attribute dating back to high school has been his adaptability. There are exceedingly few players standing 6-foot-10 capable of making the passes Simmons does, and fewer still who double as a disruptive defender of every position on the floor. He’s a Unicorn without the jumper, and his generational blend of size, athleticism and ball-handling genius portended inevitable skill development to come.
It hasn’t, for the most part, but focusing on that failure might be deflecting from an all-encompassing issue that continues to plague the Sixers. What if they’re building around the wrong franchise player?
The ongoing trajectory of the league lends credence to that notion. Simmons isn’t LeBron James or Giannis Antetokounmpo, but it’s not difficult to imagine an offensive attack molded to his similar strengths reaching heights one conformed to Embiid’s never could.
Philadelphia’s historic romp over Cleveland offered a glimpse into that alternate reality, just like its effectiveness this season with Embiid on the bench. Lineups featuring Simmons without Embiid boast an offensive rating of 114.4, comfortably above its overall mark, subsist on far higher diets of transition and three-point shooting, per Cleaning the Glass. The Sixers shoot better at the rim and from deep in that scenario, too, further evidence of Simmons’ sweeping effect without being forced to walk the ball up and Embiid clogging the paint.
Philadelphia, unsurprisingly, isn’t as stout defensively with those units on the floor. Embiid has been a defensive panacea during the regular season throughout his career. Improved conditioning is the only thing keeping him from winning Defensive Player of the Year, and he might win the award this season anyway.
Still, the same foibles that have long mitigated Rudy Gobert’s defensive influence in the playoffs apply to Embiid. A system built around a preeminent rim-protector with limited perimeter mobility can’t take away everything, and superior postseason competition generally means those low-value shots are more likely to drop. A switch-heavy scheme with a big like Al Horford playing center full-time, though? That’s a defense built for the playoffs, and one that would maximize Simmons’ gifts on that end — both on and off the ball.
This isn’t some cry for Philadelphia to blow it up – whether Simmons or Embiid would be the one on the way out. The Sixers’ ceiling is tallest with both on the roster, and it’s much too early to write them off as title contenders, this season or going forward. Neither Simmons nor Embiid are finished products; their pairing could still end up functioning at a championship level.
But if Philadelphia, quietly 6-1 in its last seven games, again starts underperforming, calls to trade Simmons will undoubtedly resurface.
And while that’s certainly a measure worth considering, it’s unfair to Simmons — and potentially destructive to the Sixers’ long-term title hopes — without at least broaching the same fate for Embiid.
Buy Or Sell: Southwest Division
Jordan Hicks continues the Buy or Sell series with a look at the Southwest Division.
It’s absolutely crazy to think about how deep basketball already is into the regular season. Over 25 percent of the games have already been played, and certain teams are starting to separate themselves from the pack. In an NBA campaign that was supposed to be riddled with parity, there’s definitely a select few teams that are starting to leave the rest behind.
What’s more, on Dec. 15th roughly 90 percent of the NBA becomes tradeable. Yes, it’s that time of the year in which trade talks will start to pick up. Something needs to spice up mundane December and January games, and nothing does a better job quite like rumors.
The Southwest Division has been chock-full of surprises. For one, the Dallas Mavericks seem to be a legitimately solid franchise. The San Antonio Spurs, on the other hand, seem to be struggling for the first time in what seems like 175 years. The Houston Rockets continue to stay playoff eligible despite Russell Westbrook’s shooting woes. The New Orleans Pelicans are just begging for Zion Williamson to return from injury and lead them out of the darkness. And the Memphis Grizzlies – well let’s just say they’re doing about as well as anyone expected.
In continuing with Basketball Insiders’ Buy Or Sell series, let’s take a look at each franchise and discuss whether they are in the position to seek talent, or exchange talent for future assets.
Houston Rockets (15-8) — Buyers
Tilman Fertitta should hang a bright-red neon sign in Daryl Morey’s office with the phrase BUY-BUY-BUY lighting proceedings up. As is, the Rockets are not good enough to win a championship. They may be reputable — and their roster may contain two of the greatest offensive players we’ve ever seen — but this team is not the 2016-17 Houston team that was one Chris Paul hamstring away from an NBA Finals birth.
Russell Westbrook will be a Hall of Famer, but his inability to efficiently shoot the ball just kills this team. Everything he is bad at, Paul excelled in. And everything Russell is amazing at, Paul either had mastered or could at least perform at an above-average level. Currently, when Westbrook is on the court, the Rockets’ net rating is 1.9. When he’s off the court, their net rating is 12.8. That is a monumental swing and currently the largest gap out of any other player on the team.
It’s not hard to imagine Houston pushing their chips in even further come the wintertime — they’re far too committed not to.
Dallas Mavericks (16-7) — Buyers
Dallas has really overshot everyone’s expectations. Most people thought they’d have a decent season, but it’s safe to say very few had them penciled in as playoff hopefuls. The fact that they are more-or-less playoff locks a quarter into the season is mind-boggling. What makes them so good you ask? Some kid named Luka Doncic, maybe you’ve heard his name.
The Mavericks are way ahead of schedule development-wise, so they’d be fine to just stand pat this year, see where they end up and then make moves in the offseason. However, if Mark Cuban wanted to get crazy and try to do something this season, you’d have to consider Dallas as buyers.
They need at least one more scoring threat to make them dangerous to go deep in the playoffs. As is, only two players are averaging over 15 a game and only three average more than 10. To wit, Kristaps Porzingis isn’t shooting well and Tim Hardaway Jr. doesn’t necessarily strike fear into the opposition. Dallas has movable contracts but whether or not they are solid enough to give them a return they’d need is up in the air at this point.
San Antonio Spurs (9-14) — Sellers
The Spurs should be in full sell mode for the first time in a long time. The only problem is, they don’t seem to be operating that way. They guaranteed LaMarcus Aldridge’s contract for the 2020-21 season, which makes very little sense as he’ll be owed $24 million. Now with the extra year, it’s doubtful many buyers will be coming for him.
With Aldridge’s contract making him nearly unsellable, DeMar DeRozan should become San Antonio’s sole focus when it comes to transactions. The former All-Star has a player option worth $27 million next season, but the dude can still ball out. He’s leading the team in scoring shooting 50 percent from the field, averaging 4.8 assists and looking about as healthy as he has in a while.
Sure, it’s concerning he still hasn’t developed a three-ball, but there is no way there wouldn’t be at least five-or-so teams at the deadline willing to give up a first for DeRozan’s assistance — he’d provide instant offense.
New Orleans Pelicans (6-18) — Sellers
Just when it seemed like they started to figure winning out, they fell off a cliff. Back in November, they had won three straight and five of their last seven. Since then, they’ve dropped nine straight games. You could argue that five of those losses aren’t surprising, but that fact that they didn’t even muster a single win in that stretch is alarming.
Things will look up when Williamson comes back, there’s no doubting that, but New Orleans should seriously consider trading JJ Redick. There probably isn’t a postseason-bound team in the league that wouldn’t give up their first round pick next season for his services. He’s only owed $13 million next season and the veteran still very clearly has it. The Pelicans are not making the playoffs this season, so keeping Redick rostered makes little sense. If they can sell him before the break to a needy franchise, then they may just get more than only a single first-rounder.
Memphis Grizzlies (7-16) — Sellers
This writer is thinking it, you’re thinking it — heck the whole world is probably thinking it. Why haven’t the Memphis Grizzlies traded Andre Iguodala yet? Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer reported Tuesday that the Grizzlies are still set on trading Iguodala as opposed to a buyout. So what’s the hold-up?
The key is waiting for a team to become desperate. It will be surprising if Iguodala is still rostered with Memphis past mid-January, but, technically, crazier things have happened. The Grizzlies will be big-time sellers when it comes to Iguodala — and they may even look to move veteran Jae Crowder. But, like New Orleans, they are a young team looking to improve internally for the future.
This division has plenty of diversity. You have two playoff teams, two bottom feeders and one team that isn’t sure what their identity is anymore. Iguodala is almost a sure bet for being moved, but it also wouldn’t be surprising if there wasn’t another transaction in this entire division.
Still, as hopes begin to fade and dreams start to soar, the mid-season trade option remains a route for both buyers and sellers. Will Dallas or Houston fortify their squads? Should New Orleans look toward the horizon already? Needless to say, the Southwest Division has handed onlookers plenty of intriguing drama and storylines moving into the halfway point of the year.
Keep on the lookout for more divisions as we continue the Buy Or Sell series.