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.
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.
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.
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.
Rookie Of The Year Watch – 01/17/18
Shane Rhodes checks in on a tightening Rookie of the Year race.
As the old adage goes, time flies when you’re having fun. And this NBA season sure has flown.
Not only has there been some great storylines this regular season, there has been even better basketball and, in recent days, plenty of petty fights or squabbles to satisfy the rowdiest of fans.
Still, nothing is more satisfying than winning. And while most rookies aren’t in a position to win the Larry O’Brien Trophy, they are in a position to take home another award; Rookie of The Year. The 2017 rookie class has been one of the more fun and exciting classes in a long time. But, at the season’s midpoint, who is leading the pack?
6. Lonzo Ball, Los Angeles Lakers
While the shot still isn’t there, Lonzo Ball pretty much does everything else well for the Los Angeles Lakers. Averaging a solid 10.2 points to go along with 7.1 rebounds and assists per game, Ball has been an all-around contributor for this young Laker squad and has done it all while playing under the crushing pressure of his father LaVar and the city of Los Angeles. He often tries to get everyone involved in the offense and is constantly pushing the tempo. While it hasn’t resulted in many Laker wins yet, it surely will in time.
However, when I say his shot isn’t there yet, it really isn’t there. Ball’s current shooting splits of 35.6/30.3/40.8 from the floor, three and the line, while improved on his early season numbers, are pretty much a disaster; certainly not what the Lakers expected when they took him second overall. While there have been flashes of the player that shot over 40 percent from beyond the arc at UCLA, Ball’s shooting has been streaky at best but those numbers, alongside his form, should continue to improve over time. The Lakers will need it to if they want to have any chance of climbing the Western Conference ladder in the near future.
5. Lauri Markkanen, Chicago Bulls
Lauri Markkanen has played a major role in the recent surge by the Chicago Bulls. While it may seem strange to say that a 17-27 team is surging, not many people thought the Bulls would win this many games over the course of the whole season after trading star Jimmy Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves in the offseason.
Markkanen has averaged 15.5 points to go along with 7.6 rebounds per game this season while shooting 43 percent from the field and 37.5 percent from three. While those numbers have dipped since the beginning of the season, Markkanen still ranks fifth among rookies in three-point percentage. The return of guard Zach LaVine alongside the emergence of Kris Dunn — both acquired in the trade with Minnesota — should go along way in alleviating the offensive burden on the Finnish forward as well.
Markkanen’s defense is really the only thing holding back his game; 0.6 blocks per game seems a little too low for someone who stands at seven-feet tall, while his 108.4 defensive rating leaves a little something to be desired.
4. Kyle Kuzma, Los Angeles Lakers
At this point in the season, Kyle Kuzma is still, by far, the steal of the draft for the Lakers.
Averaging 16.8 points and 6.4 rebounds per game, Kuzma ranks third among rookies in scoring while he sits fifth and sixth in rebounding and three-point percentage, respectively. He has certainly forced his way into the Lakers’ future as a building block, but Kuzma needs to do more on the offensive end outside of scoring the ball. His assist percentage of 9.6 is among the lowest of the team’s regular rotation and could certainly stand to improve as the Lakers continue to push to become a more ball movement oriented team.
Kuzma’s defense, while not terrible, could use some improvement as well. Kuzma isn’t overly athletic, so he has trouble keeping up with smaller forwards and guards when switched onto them. Improving his agility and or quickness could go a long way here.
3. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
Most rookies in Jayson Tatum’s position — playing on a Conference contender — don’t have much of a shot at taking home Rookie of the Year. That fact alone makes what Tatum has done this season for the Boston Celtics that much more impressive.
Averaging 13.8 points and 5.4 rebounds per game, Tatum has played an integral role for the Celtics, who currently sit comfortably atop the Eastern Conference. He remains one of the most efficient rookies on offense, shooting 49.9 percent from the floor and 46 percent from three while maintaining in the poise of a veteran in late game situations. Tatum plays a large part in Boston’s elite, league-leading defense as well, and his defensive rating of 99.1 paces all rookies.
There hasn’t been much to complain about when it comes to Tatum outside his aggressiveness on the offensive end. As the Celtics’ fourth option, Tatum doesn’t really need to shoulder much of a load on offense, but it would still be nice to see him to at least attempt create his own shot on a consistent basis when he is running with the second unit.
2. Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz
There is no doubt about it, Donovan Mitchell has been the most explosive, if not most exciting, rookie in this class. His 18.9 points per game leads all rookies while his scoring and high-flying athletic ability have created more than a few highlights for the Utah Jazz in recent weeks. Mitchell is also second among rookies in total steals, registering 61 pickpockets on the season.
In the absence of Rudy Gobert, Mitchell has managed to keep the Jazz somewhat afloat in the tough Western Conference. The two should certainly form an interesting pick-and-roll tandem when Gobert returns and, sitting at 10th in the West with a 17-26 record, they are capable of making a late-season push into the bottom of the playoff picture.
The only problem with Mitchell, as it has been all season, is his efficiency. Mitchell is shooting just 44 percent from the field and 34.9 percent from three, but a lot of that has to do with his 28.4 percent usage rate. As the Jazz return Gobert and others, Mitchell’s usage rate should drop, which should coincide with a drop in field goal attempts and an uptick in his shooting percentages.
1. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
For better or worse, this award is still Ben Simmons’ to lose. He hasn’t been the dominant player he was in the early season for the Philadelphia 76ers, but Simmons still has a leg up on most rookies thanks to his athletic ability, court vision and ball-handling skills. Simmons and his 16.8 points, eight rebounds and 7.1 assists per game are still a matchup nightmare against most teams due to his sheer size when compared to the average point guard as well.
Simmons is not without his faults, however. Whether it’s because he is shooting with the wrong hand or something else, Simmons’ jump shot needs plenty of work. While he’s shooting 51.3 percent from the field, most of his attempts are dunks or hooks close to the basket. He still has yet to make a three-point attempt, taking just 10 on the season. Simmons’ lack of shooting means defenses can almost completely ignore him outside the paint while the offense goes into a pit when fellow star Joel Embiid is on the bench; that will need to change if the 76ers want to be the powerhouse The Process has led them to believe they will become.
Again, Rookie of The Year is Simmons’ award to lose. However, if he is unable to adjust his offensive game — especially when Joel Embiid sits — he will begin to feel plenty of pressure from his fellow rookies who are on the rise.
NBA Daily: Jayson Tatum: Boston’s X-Factor
Celtics rookie Jayson Tatum speaks to Michael Scotto about his early adjustments and success.
When All-Star Gordon Hayward dislocated his ankle and fractured his tibia five minutes into the season, the outlook changed drastically for the Boston Celtics this season.
“I think our group, going into the season, there were a lot of expectations with Gordon [Hayward] and then the injury happens, and a lot of our younger guys had to grow up a lot quicker,” Celtics center Al Horford told Basketball Insiders on January 6 before facing the Brooklyn Nets. “It has given our team an opportunity to develop, to embrace the challenge that we have in front of us, and it’s opened up a lot of playing time for guys.
“I feel like we’re taking advantage of it. We’re growing as a group and, really, I feel like there’s no ceiling for our group. As long as we keep defending and keep doing the things that we need to do on the defensive end, I think it’s going to put us in a position to be successful.”
Those expectations included challenging the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Eastern Conference crown and potentially a championship.
In Hayward’s absence, the youngest player had to grow up the quickest: third overall pick Jayson Tatum.
“It just gave me more of an opportunity that I wouldn’t have had,” Tatum told Basketball Insiders in a video interview. “It’s definitely unfortunate that it had to come the way it did with one of our best players getting hurt, but we’ve all just had to contribute more, step up more losing him on the first night. We had 81 more games left, so we couldn’t make excuses for that.”
The 19-year-old forward has made the most of his opportunity as a full-time starter in his rookie campaign. Tatum is averaging 13.9 points while shooting 50 percent from the field, a league-leading 46 percent from beyond the arc, and 82 percent from the foul line as of January 16.
The 6-foot-8 forward has shown a penchant for coming through in the clutch halfway through the season. According to Basketball-Reference, Tatum has shot 60 percent from the field and 54 percent from beyond the arc in the fourth quarter.
The Eastern Conference December Rookie of the Month has taken some notes in the clutch from four-time All-Star Kyrie Irving.
“I grew up in high school and college seeing him on TV and now seeing it live on your own team,” Tatum told Basketball Insiders. “He’s one of the best players in the world, and he puts on a show each and every night.”
Tatum and Irving, both Duke alumni, played for coach Mike Krzyzewski and are in their first season under Celtics coach Brad Stevens.
Tatum notices differences between the two coaches who have molded the talented teenager.
“They’re both great terrific coaches,” Tatum told Basketball Insiders. “Coach K has been coaching for a long time, but they definitely both know a lot. Brad is a lot more chill, Coach (K) is a lot more fired up, slapping the floor and yelling at guys. I definitely respect them both, and it’s an honor to play for both of them.”
Stevens’ defensive system has helped Tatum realize the defensive potential that drew comparisons to Paul George from scouts and executives before the draft. According to Basketball-Reference, the rookie is tied for third in defensive win shares with George (2.5) and ranks eighth in defensive rating (101.5).
On offense, Tatum has put in time with trainer Drew Hanlen of Pure Sweat Basketball to work on his isolation moves and improve his 3-point shooting. Tatum shot a pedestrian 34 percent from 3-point range at Duke, but now leads the NBA shooting 46 percent from beyond the arc.
Thus far, Tatum has shown encouraging flashes of becoming the player he ultimately wants to be on both sides of the court.
“Just being in the All-Star game as many times as possible, win MVP, win a championship,” Tatum told Basketball Insiders. “Everyone wants to win a championship. Just play as long as possible. Hopefully, I can do that.”
If Tatum continues to be near the top of the Rookie of the Year conversation, rise to the occasion in the fourth quarter and remain a lockdown defender and 3-point shooter, maybe he and the Celtics can realize those heightened expectations after all.
Is that a lot to ask of a 19-year-old?
However, as the NBA has learned, Tatum is no average teenager and the x-factor towards how far Boston can go this season.
NBA Daily: Surging HEAT Must Overcome Adversity
The Miami HEAT have been hit with a number of injuries at shooting guard. Can they stay hot?
The Miami HEAT have surged to fourth in the Eastern Conference on the back of a 14-5 stretch since Dec. 9, including a seven-game win streak that ended with Monday’s 119-111 loss to the Bulls in Chicago. In the loss, shooting guard Tyler Johnson got his legs tangled with Robin Lopez and appeared to suffer a serious injury.
“I was scared,” said HEAT small forward Josh Richardson, who joined his teammates in racing down the court to check on Johnson. “You never want to see a guy, whether it’s on your team or the other team, down like that. I talked to him when he was in here [the locker room] and he said he didn’t know what was up.”
Coach Erik Spoelstra told pool reporters after the game that X-rays were negative. It was initially feared to be a knee injury, but Spoelstra said the knee is okay and the ankle is the area of concern. Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel tweeted that an MRI was not deemed necessary and Johnson will be listed as doubtful for Wednesday’s game in Milwaukee.
Tyler Johnson will be listed as doubtful for Wednesday's game against the Bucks, still with no plans for an MRI on his sprained left ankle sustained Monday in Chicago. He remains with the team, which did not practice Tuesday.
— Ira Winderman (@IraHeatBeat) January 16, 2018
Meanwhile, the HEAT is facing a serious shortage at shooting guard, having lost Dion Waiters to season-ending knee surgery, Rodney McGruder to a left tibia stress fracture that will likely keep him out until February, and now Johnson. Miami has applied for a $5.5 million disabled player exception after losing Waiters, according to the Sun-Sentinel. HEAT power forward James Johnson said the team will be looking for other players to step up.
“I think it’s the next guy’s gonna step up like we always do,” said Johnson. “As we have guys going down we also have guys getting back and getting back in their groove [like] Justise Winslow. Hopefully, it’s going to give another guy a chance to emerge on this team or in this league.”
Johnson added that the loss to Chicago came against a hot team and the HEAT didn’t have the right mental approach or defensive communication to slow them down.
“Our communication was lacking tonight,” said Johnson. “I think our brains rested tonight and that’s not like us. Tilt your hat to Chicago. They’re shooting the hell out the ball. They didn’t let us come back.”
Richardson echoed the theme of communication and the inability to counter a hot-shooting team.
“We weren’t communicating very well and we were not giving them enough static on the three-point line,” said Richardson. “They’ve been the number one three-point shooting team in the league for like 20 games now. They ran some good actions that we were not reacting right to.”
Spoelstra referred to a turnover-riddled close to the first half as “disgusting” basketball and agreed that the defense let his team down.
“I don’t know what our record is in HEAT franchise history when we give up 120-plus,” said Spoelstra. “I would guess that it’s probably not pretty good.”
The good news for Miami is that it can try a combination of Richardson and Winslow at the wings, while Wayne Ellington has been shooting the leather off the ball from three this season (40.5 percent on over seven attempts per game). The HEAT is the latest team to attempt to defy history by making a serious run without a superstar player. To make that a reality and remain in the upper half of the East’s playoff bracket, Miami will have to personify the “next man up” credo.