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Deadline Watch: Northwest Division

Ben Dowsett predicts how each Northwest Division team will approach the NBA’s trade deadline.

Ben Dowsett

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The deadline is upon us! It’s that time of year, and as of this writing, there is one week (give or take a few hours) to go before all in-season trades need to be wrapped up and submitted to the league. Like last season, some executives expect things to come down to the wire as teams hold out their very best offers until the last minute.

The Northwest Division will be of particular interest, with teams stationed at every spot on the spectrum as far as their trade deadline goals. The Thunder are clear contenders who will look to do anything they can to make a push for the rest of the year. The Jazz are toeing the line between competing now and building for the future, and the Blazers have to decide which side of this same fence they’re on. Meanwhile, teams like the Wolves and Nuggets (despite some positive moments this year) are primarily focused on developing their young groups for the future and determining which assets stay in town and which belong elsewhere.

Let’s take a detailed look at each team’s situation leading up to the deadline. What’s their cap situation like? Who are their targets, or guys they might be looking to move? Most importantly, what are their goals? We’ll go in order of record.

Oklahoma City Thunder

Cap situation: $97 million payroll – well over the cap, cannot absorb uneven incoming salary

Needs: Two-way wing, potential backup point guard upgrade (temporary)

Outlook: Well over the cap and with limited draft resources to use in a trade, it’s unlikely the Thunder are players for any big names at the deadline. That doesn’t mean they can’t make a move, though, and they could very well be on the market, particularly if a strong 3-and-D wing were to be available. Everyone beyond Kevin Durant in OKC’s wing stable has a glaring flaw – Andre Roberson can’t hit water from a boat, Anthony Morrow can’t defend, Dion Waiters is Dion Waiters and Kyle Singler hasn’t really proven he’s worthy of rotation minutes.

The Thunder have Steve Novak’s expiring contract to trade as salary filler, and would likely be willing to part with Singler’s $4.5 million if the right thing came along, but it’s uncertain whether they’d have the salary in house to make a trade for a more established player with a higher cap hit. They’re also stuck for the moment as far as trading first-round picks – because they owe their 2016 and 2018 selections to other teams with various protections on each pick, the Stepien rule prevents them from trading their first-rounder for 2017 or 2019. They have four extra second-round picks coming in over the next few years, which could be bargaining chips, but it’s tough to get real impact players without similarly valuable on-court assets or a first-round pick.

A target like Allen Crabbe in Portland makes bits of sense, though it’s tough to say whether OKC has the assets to even get a guy like this. They could see about trying to rent Kent Bazemore from Atlanta, but the same restrictions might apply. Maybe Washington would enjoy the summer cap benefits of Novak’s expiring deal enough to send Jared Dudley if the Thunder attached something else of value for their trouble? These are limited options, all of which could be struck down in a moment if the partner weren’t willing. The Thunder will definitely keep their ears to the ground, but don’t be surprised if the best they manage is a deal for a fringe rotation player to slightly bolster their depth.

Utah Jazz

Cap situation: $62 million payroll – under the cap, can absorb uneven incoming salary

Needs: Better point guard play, potential third big upgrade

Outlook: As the Jazz make a strong push before the All-Star break for the second straight season, they’re working to maintain what’s been an excellent developmental culture while also looking to potentially make improvements to this year’s team. Dante Exum’s season-long injury left a void at the point, which remains to a large degree, and filling it requires balancing Exum’s future development with the need to convince stars like Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors that this is a winning team on the way up before those guys hit the open market in a couple years.

The Jazz have an open cap situation, meaning they have lots of flexibility for any deal they do look to make. They can retain extra incoming salary, potentially enough to be a dumping spot for a smaller contract if a team was in need and could send the right sweeteners. They also have several picks in the arsenal – all their own, plus two future late firsts (GSW in 2017 unprotected, OKC in 2018 or 2019 lottery protected) and a boatload of accumulated seconds – with which to sweeten the pot if a player who could help now becomes available.

The tricky part is finding targets who both help now and could be out of the way when Exum grows into his own. A guy like Jeff Teague has been a rumored target for several teams, the Jazz included, and would be a good fit on both ends of this spectrum – he definitely helps the team now, and with his contract coming off the books in summer 2017, would be out the door quickly enough for Exum to assume full control if he becomes the player Utah expects. The Jazz might have interest for the right package, whether it be Teague or another of his ilk (guys like Jrue Holiday or George Hill also mostly fit the bill), but they won’t be sending core assets like Exum, Rudy Gobert, Rodney Hood or Gordon Hayward for temporary fixes. They have plenty of assets and the space to get a deal done, so now the question will be can they find one that checks all the right internal boxes? Stay tuned here.

Portland Trail Blazers

Cap situation: $49 million payroll – miles under the cap, can absorb huge amounts of salary

Needs: Wide open

Outlook: The Blazers are in perhaps the most flexible situation of any team in the league at the deadline. With nearly $20 million in space below the cap available, they could mathematically figure in virtually any trade they felt like being part of, including facilitating a massive salary dump or two if they were so inclined. They also have virtually no untouchable pieces outside stars Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum (and perhaps sophomore Noah Vonleh), meaning they could get involved and look to swap some of their young pieces for others that might fit better.

It all depends what Portland wants to do, and they’ll get plenty of phone calls. Teams looking to dump money only have a couple true outlets available, and the Blazers are at the top of the list. Maybe they could get a pick or a young asset from Boston to carry David Lee’s salary if the Celtics need the space for another deal? They could be the third team in a bigger deal in a heartbeat due to their financial flexibility, and GM Neil Olshey is savvy enough to make sure he extracts assets from teams if this becomes the case. Shoot, they could even go all-out for the eight seed this season and make a smaller win-now move without affecting their long-term outlook much at all. But the Blazers are in no rush with their young group, and they can afford to pick off low-hanging fruit at this deadline and head into the summer with options.

Denver Nuggets

Cap situation: $68 million payroll – virtually right at the cap

Needs: Concrete direction

The Nuggets don’t have the financial flexibility Portland does, but they’re similarly open in terms of their asset picture. With several good, young players on the books for cheap and a plethora of draft assets (Denver could have as many as four first-round picks in 2016, and owns all of their own firsts in the future), Nuggets GM Tim Connelly has numerous options at his disposal.

The most obvious items might be auctioning older players who don’t fit their rebuilding timeline off for some assets, and Connelly will look in this direction. Guys like Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler and especially Kenneth Faried are uncertain pieces in the team’s future, and each still has bits of value around the league with time remaining on generally fair market deals. Contenders could have interest in one or more of these pieces, and Connelly would be a fool not to entertain these sorts of offers if he can improve the young core.

Some in the league have suggested a quicker path, and the Nuggets could roll the dice here as well if they wanted. It might not be the perfect avenue for rookie Emmanuel Mudiay, but it’s never a terrible thing to let a young guy develop around a winning culture, and the Nuggets have the assets that they could look to make a more immediate move. This feels far less likely, but some combination of their treasure trove of assets and all their fun young guys could certainly be the type of thing that interested a team trying to move a more established player.

Denver likely looks for good value for its veterans and doesn’t shed many tears if they remain roughly the same after the deadline – they’ve got plenty of time to figure things out here, and all signs are pointing in a great direction for their future. They can afford to be patient.

Minnesota Timberwolves

Cap situation: $71 million payroll – just over the cap

Needs: Ridding themselves of an unwanted deal or two

Outlook: The Wolves have the most promising young core in the game, and their moves will all reflect their desire to move this group along together and in the most positive way possible. Their most immediate concern should be a couple useless pieces on the roster – veterans who add nothing to the developmental table like Kevin Martin, and overpaid backups like Nikola Pekovic who have been rendered nearly useless by the team’s recent draftees. These guys are taking up space and salary without adding anything to the team’s current process, and the Wolves should be aggressively pursuing any future assets they might be able to scrounge out of either one if any partners are interested.

Beyond that, there aren’t a whole lot of pressing needs on the table for a team that expected to be bad this year and won’t have any pressure from a wins and losses standpoint for at least another year or two. If a deal came along where they could grab another young asset or pick they’d have to take a look, but given their own asset chest it’s hard to imagine such a deal in practice. For now, this franchise is firmly in developmental territory, and the name of the game will be jettisoning redundant present assets for the sake of a couple years down the line when Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins are ready to contend.

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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NBA Sunday: Kristaps Porzingis Sure Looks Ready To Be The Franchise

The Knicks hope Kristaps Porzingis can become their franchise. Thus far, he seems up to the challenge.

Moke Hamilton

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He stood in front of his mentor, isolated, just like they used to do in practice.

He’d seen the jab steps before and the head fakes—they were nothing new. And when Carmelo Anthony mustered the acceleration he still has in his 33-year-old legs to drive around Kristaps Porzingis, Anthony knew he had the 7-foot-3 Latvian big man beat.

Anthony triumphantly rose to the basket and delicately attempted his right-handed layup. Before he knew what hit him, though, Anthony’s shot had been sent to the free throw line.

The message was clear—Kristaps had taken the torch.

“It was fun,” Porzingis said about his confrontation with Anthony. “We went at it in practices a lot and one-on-one after practices.

“It was a lot of fun knowing what he was going to do and try to stop him.”

The Oklahoma City Thunder were much closer to the NBA Finals than the Knicks were last season, and removing Anthony from the Knicks and pairing him with Russell Westbrook and Paul George gives the Thunder a triumvirate that can at least conceivably challenge the Golden State Warriors. They are perhaps the only team in the entire league with enough firepower and defensive pieces.

So no, the Knicks may not be hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy anytime soon, but at the very least, the franchise seems to be in good hands—the big, soft hands of Porzingis.

As young NBA players come into their own and attempt to fulfill the lofty expectations that everyone has of them, the third year is the charm, almost invariably. And in that that year, a young player can’t control the other pieces that are around him—that’s why they shouldn’t be judged by their team’s wins and losses.

In that third year, a young player also can’t really control the frequency of his injuries. The simple truth is that many 21 or 22-year-old players simply lack the hardened bones of a fully grown adult that most men become after the age of 25.

But what the young player can prove is that he is prepared to shoulder the burden and take the fight to anyone who stands before him. Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks epitomizes this ideal better than any other young player in the league. He is absolutely fearless and it’s a pleasure to watch.

So is Porzingis.

Since the influx of European-born players began about 20 years ago, we have seen our fair share of “soft” European players. His talent aside (which is considerable), Porzingis has proven to be anything but, and that by itself can help players go a very long way.

In what must have felt like the longest summer ever, Porzingis saw the franchise that drafted him undergo an overhaul that resulted in a light beaming so brightly on him, you would have thought the third-year forward was starring in a Broadway musical.

Say what you want about Porzingis, but he has already done all that he can to notify everyone that have anything to do with the Knicks that his bony shoulders aren’t indicative of the weight he’s capable of carrying.

And in Oklahoma City, against his mentor, Porzingis did the heavy lifting.

“I saw energy,” head coach Jeff Hornacek said after his team’s opening night loss.

“He was great moving. He played 38 minutes, and maybe last year that would be a struggle. He would maybe get tired, and get some silly fouls, but even toward the end on that 37th or 38th minute, he was still up hollering, moving, blocking shots and getting rebounds, so he had a great game and we expect a lot more of that from him.”

Being a Knicks fan is something that nobody should wish on their worst enemy. The franchise has made scores of maneuvers that lacked wisdom and seemingly gone out of its way to alienate people beloved by the franchise. On top of it all, Knicks tickets are among the highest in the entire league.

Fans as passionate and dedicated as Knicks fans deserve a team they can be proud of and a front office that dedicates itself to putting winning ahead of petty feuds and politics.

The hiring of Scott Perry may signify just that.

So when the Knicks traded Carmelo Anthony and ended up getting back 10 cents on the dollar for his value, everyone should have prepared for a long season in New York City.

Coming in, Knicks fans once again found themselves in the unenviable predicament of having to talk themselves into believing that Ramon Session, Michael Beasley and Tim Hardaway were capable of giving this team feel good moments. And while they certainly are, they will surely pale in comparison to the amount of losses that the club accrues along the way.

If there’s one thing the Philadelphia 76ers have taught everyone, however, it’s that the losses don’t necessarily need to be in vain.

So heading into this season, what Knicks fans should have been looking forward to and hoping for is nothing more than the installation of a culture that’s marked by effort, communication and selfless basketball—the hallmarks of the Golden State Warriors.

Aside from that, yes, they should have also come in with the hope that Kristaps Porzingis would take an appreciable step forward and prove himself to truly be a capable franchise cornerstone.

To this point, from the way he holds his head highly, despite a win or a loss, and the way he competes to the best of his abilities, despite his limitations. For now, it’s really all that could reasonably be asked of him.

When it was all said and done—when Porzingis looked the Knicks’ past in the eyes after the Thunder had soundly defeated his New York Knicks—Carmelo Anthony probably told him that he was proud of him and that he wished him all the luck in the world.

He probably told him to continue to work on his game and hone his craft and to block out the background noise.

And above all else, Carmelo probably told Kristaps that he believes he is capable of being his successor.

With his nodding head and serious demeanor, Porzingis, in all his glory, listened intently. Even more so, he believed every word. 

It doesn’t take all day to figure out whether the sun is shining—it’s an adage that remains as true in basketball as it does on a May Day in New York.

For Porzinigis, the bright sky and the beaming sunlight—he’s basking in it all. Not only has he becomes the Knicks’ franchise by default, he believes he’s capable of shouldering the burden.

In this town, that’s more than half the battle.

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Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal

The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.

Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.

There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.

Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.

Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.

That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.

Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.

At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.

It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.

One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.

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NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind

Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.

Dennis Chambers

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When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.

“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.

Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.

That didn’t last long.

“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”

With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.

As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.

After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.

In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.

“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”

Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.

“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”

Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.

“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”

After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.

Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.

“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”

All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.

“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”

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