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Hawks’ Collins Sets His Sights High

Atlanta’s rookie big man John Collins sits down with Basketball Insiders for an exclusive one-on-one chat.

Spencer Davies

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It’s 11 a.m. on a Wednesday at Quicken Loans Arena. The Atlanta Hawks are in town getting set to take on the Cleveland Cavaliers in their second preseason game of the year.

As his teammates mess around on the court and finish up their morning session, John Collins exits a little earlier than the others. One by one, the recently turned 20-year-old big man starts assembling a pile of sneakers.

After he’s done, he picks up the large collection of footwear and walks out towards the backstage area as the others cackle and joke.

Make no mistake about it—this is an initiation into the NBA for the 6-foot-10, 235-pound youngster.

“Rookie duties man,” Collins told Basketball Insiders, laughing it off. “After practices or shootarounds or whatever, gotta take all the shoes to the locker room man. It hasn’t started really yet. Once the season starts, it’ll probably get a little worse.”

Once he returned to the floor, Collins took the time to chat with Basketball Insiders about his first season as a pro. Fellow rookie Tyler Dorsey was nearby as Kent Bazemore handed him his high tops with a grin.

Going through the escapades alongside one another, Collins and Dorsey have been close from the jump as they transition from college to the highest level in basketball.

“Half the duty is his, half is mine,” Collins told Basketball Insiders with a smile. “Definitely me and Tyler have had a great bond and probably[are] going to continue to have a greater bond.

“You can’t really separate those rookie experiences, especially when you have them together.”

At the time, the Hawks were preparing for a matchup with the reigning Eastern Conference champions, something exciting for him as he looked forward to sharing the hardwood with guys he had gazed his eyes upon when he was a kid.

“It’s been good so far,” Collins told Basketball Insiders of his experience to this point. “Obviously today is a big day for me. To be playing a championship team like Cleveland, a lot of legendary guys on this team.

“Definitely excited to go up against everybody I’ve been watching as I’ve been growing up, so that’s kind of been a surreal experience for me.”

Collins was well on his way to an impressive night with four points, three rebounds and two blocks in 14 minutes of action before getting tangled up with Richard Jefferson in the paint. He left the game with a right shoulder strain and didn’t return.

Though unfinished, the performance was similar to his debut at American Airlines Arena last Sunday, when he scored nine points and pulled down 15 boards against the Miami Heat. On that day, Collins had a full supporting cast in his home state, including his mother.

As his biggest fan and mentor, Lyria Rissing-Collins showed her support with an absolutely perfect custom made t-shirt with a picture of the two printed on it. The apparel went viral during the game throughout all of social media.

“She always comes up and has a shirt of her own, something like that,” Collins said jokingly. “But she’s never put a picture of me on the back of a shirt before, so that was a first one for her.”

All fun aside, Collins has always gone to his mother for advice and she’ll be by his side every step of the way.

The hype surrounding the Wake Forest product began in July. In the NBA Summer League, he made waves with his uncanny ability to fight for the ball underneath and displayed excellent athleticism as well.

“It was perfect,” Collins told Basketball Insiders of his experience in Las Vegas. “It was something I was trying to transfer, that confidence and to get those jitters out in the summer league so I could come out here and just play my game, do what I do. It was good for me. I think it helped out a lot.”

Perhaps the most memorable moments for Collins were the ones that involved putting his opponents on posters. Multiple times, he soared above the rim and threw down some nasty slams. So one has to ponder, is the league’s most infamous contest during All-Star weekend in the rookie’s future?

“It would be nice,” Collins told Basketball Insiders. “Something I’d definitely be wanting to do if I had the opportunity. But in general if I do or if I don’t, I’m still going to try to put on a show, get up some highlight dunks whenever I can. That’s part of my game.”

Emphatic jams aren’t the only goals Collins has for his first year. He told Basketball Insiders that he wants to be involved in the rookie-sophomore game for one, but there’s another prestigious honor he’s looking to go after.

“Obviously I want to be Rookie of the Year,” Collins said. “I think I’m a sleeper pick for that. Hopefully, I can prove everybody wrong.”

He has plenty of motivation, but playing at the professional level of any sport is not an easy task by any means. Collins is well aware of the ups and downs that will come with being a young man trying to find his way among the best, and he truly believes he’s prepared for both the success and adversity that come with it.

“I think I’ve done it my whole life,” Colllins told Basketball Insiders. “Being under-the-radar and then coming out and then really, truly playing my game. I think that’s been something I’ve done my whole life. Obviously, it’s at the highest level now, but I believe in myself and I know I’m capable of doing that, so no problems.”

However, in order to prosper as a frontcourt player in the style of the game this day and age, Collins understands he’ll need to expand his skills outside of what he’s used to doing.

“I know at my height and size and with my athleticism to stay in the league the way I want to, I have to sort of change my game a little bit from what I’ve been doing in college,” he told Basketball Insiders. “I think that’s something I’m on my way [to] doing. I think the coaching staff knows that, and they’re working with me every day to continue to transform my game, so that’ll definitely be a focal point.”

Luckily for Collins, he has a well-respected head coach with a proven track record in Mike Budenholzer to develop him as the year progresses. Already through training camp, he’s taken notice of it.

“It’s meant a lot,” Collins told Basketball Insiders of Budenzholzer’s guidance. “You know, coach Bud throws a lot at his young guys and he expects us to a lot at an early stage, so something I’m definitely take on.

“He’s taught me a lot of valuable things from the get go. The season hasn’t really even started yet.”

These Hawks are not the same team that went to the conference finals a couple of years ago. They’re a different squad with a couple of fresh faces and, frankly, are inexperienced.

Dennis Schroder is going to have a lot on his plate, as will Bazemore, so it’s going to be up to the youth to pick it up if those two don’t have it going. Because of those reasons—and the loss of their core over the past couple of years—many don’t believe that Atlanta can return to the postseason.

It’s a perception that serves as extra incentive for Collins and his teammates to make those people think twice.

“We just handle that by doing what we’re supposed to do,” Collins told Basketball Insiders. “We’re professionals. We’re going to go out there and play our game. Honestly, our mindset hasn’t changed. Our goal is to get to the playoffs and to play as hard as we can every night.

“Coach Bud puts that emphasis into us every night that it’s not our job to worry about other people say, it’s our job to go out there and play. So I think that’s what we’re going to do and that’s what we’ve been doing so far.”

While Collins braces himself to embark on his journey, he couldn’t be more feverish to get to the regular season. His ambitions to impact the game as it progresses will depend on what happens during the year. Getting better on both sides of the floor will be important, but soaking in the process may be just as vital.

“Really I think for me, just learning the NBA game,” Collins told Basketball Insiders regarding what he wants to improve on. “Not necessarily trying to do one thing in particular, but just learning how to play at an NBA level just to see myself grow from that perspective so I can start working on certain things, individualizing them and going forward.”

If his attitude and drive are any indication of what’s to come, the Hawks will have something special on their hands with Collins, and for Budenholzer and the organization, that’s something to be thrilled about.

Spencer Davies is an NBA writer based in Cleveland in his first year with Basketball Insiders. Covering the league and the Cavaliers for the past two seasons, his bylines have appeared on Bleacher Report, FOX Sports and HoopsHype.

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NBA Daily: Will Jabari Parker Figure It Out?

After disappointing his second consecutive team, Jabari Parker has found himself on the block. Matt John explores what has gone wrong in Chicago and how he can turn it around.

Matt John

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Once upon a time, Jabari Parker was supposed to be the NBA’s next big thing.

Now, he’s potentially the NBA’s next salary dump.

The man who was once deemed a “can’t miss prospect” merely four years ago is now the latest installment in what’s been a rare pattern this season of teams cutting ties very early with their most recent offseason additions.

First, it was Houston when they decided to oust Carmelo Anthony after ten games. Then, Phoenix did the same with Trevor Ariza after 26 games. And now, it appears that Jabari is now done-zo in the Windy City after 29 games.

The difference between Carmelo/Ariza and Jabari is that the former two’s stints in their new homes coming to a quick end wasn’t all that unexpected. Carmelo’s move to Houston drew a lot of skepticism given what had happened in his previous year at OKC, while Ariza joined a team who had very little expectation to begin with.

Jabari is another story. It’s true that he didn’t come into Chicago with any major expectations. Signing a two-year, $40 million contract with a team option for next year meant virtually no downside for the Bulls. If Parker panned out, then they’d keep him, and if not, they could get him off the books easily.

While things haven’t worked out, the Bulls surprisingly have elected to pull the plug now rather than just wait it out until the end of the season. Coupling this along with the Bulls’ most recent turmoil makes you wonder how much Parker has to do with it. Maybe it’s just a coincidence, or maybe he’s the direct source.

Either way, Jabari’s going to have a new home sometime in the near future. The question asked here isn’t going to be where that is. Instead, the question is, when he is traded to his next team, will he ever be the player we all thought he would be?

Remember that this is the same guy who back in 2012 was deemed “the best high school basketball player since LeBron James.” The same guy that prompted several teams to throw away their season just for the chance to get their hands on him in the 2014 draft. The same guy who many thought was the perfect partner-in-crime to pair up with Giannis Antetokounmpo.

We’ve seen stretches of that player since Parker came into the NBA. They’ve just come so rarely and, even when they have, they haven’t always led to a positive impact. Unfortunately, the warning signs that came with Jabari coming out of college have definitely manifested themselves.

First, remember that whole, “they don’t pay players to play defense” schtick that Jabari said non-sarcastically at his introductory press conference? Well, the man deserves credit for keeping it real.

That little snippet is one of many examples of Parker’s ineptitude on the defensive end. Again, he wasn’t expected to be Kawhi Leonard out there, but no player who wants to make it in this league should have instances where they look completely helpless on that end of the floor.

Statistics don’t exactly help his case either. Outside of his tragically cut-short rookie season, Parker’s never had a defensive rating lower than 110 according to Basketball Reference, and the Bulls are minus-4.2 in defensive rating with Parker on the floor this season, per NBA.com.

Secondly, it’s Parker’s inability to help the offense despite his reputation as an offensively-savvy player.

It sounds odd because basic statistics will tell you that Jabari’s doing just fine. He’s putting 15.2 points on 45 percent shooting as well as corralling 6.9 rebounds a night. In fact, the Bulls are plus-3 in offensive rating when he’s on the floor. A closer look, though, will say otherwise.

Even if the Bulls are technically better offensively with Jabari on the floor, he only raises their offensive rating from 95 to 98 when he’s on the floor. The Bulls currently have the lowest rated offense at 100.7 according to Basketball Reference, so it’s not as if his contributions make things that much better.

Other metrics prove that Parker’s a negative offensively to the Bulls. His offensive win shares are currently at -0.9, and his offensive box plus/minus is -3.3. Perhaps the worst indicator of his negative impact on offense is his mid-range shooting.

Parker currently shoots 18.3 percent of his shots from 16 feet to less than the 3-point arc. That wouldn’t be so bad if he could regularly hit those shots, but he only hits 35.2 percent of them. Compare to that to say, Kevin Durant, who shoots a higher percentage of his shots from 16 feet to less than the 3-point arc at 19.2 percent, and hits 49.1 percent of them.

Here’s the worst one of them all – of the 451 players listed on ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus, Parker currently ranks 439 with a Real Plus-Minus of -4.17.

It really doesn’t look good for him, and his disappointing start so far both this year and his career so far is eerily similar to another player who went down as one of the bigger busts in recent memory: Michael Beasley.

Beasley came into the NBA with major expectations. His scoring prowess seemed so advanced that he drew comparisons to Kevin Durant. Of course, Beasley didn’t pan out and even found himself out of the league for a bit because of two reasons.

1. His porous defense.
2. His insistence on taking long two’s instead of threes
3. His poor mental state

Since coming back into the league, he has since found his niche, which is good to see for him. That still doesn’t rid him of the bust label. Parker does not have the same mental struggles that Beasley had, but their two other struggles are very much alike.

Cut Jabari some slack though. A fair amount of his problems are not his fault. Tearing the same ACL twice in a 2.5-year span is a huge hurdle to get over. That had to play a role in his lack of progression, which is a given. There might, however, be two other specific reasons as to what’s stopped him from putting it together.

First is that Jabari has never exactly played under a well-regarded coach. So far, Parker has played for four head coaches: Jason Kidd, Joe Prunty, Fred Hoiberg and Jim Boylen. None of these four coaches have made any serious noise in the NBA, with the closest one to doing so being Kidd. Kidd’s best run as coach didn’t happen in Milwaukee, and he was rumored to be at odds with Parker.

Parker was part of arguably the most underachieving team in the league under Kidd/Prunty, and then went to play for a team whose coaching situation isn’t very stable at the moment in Chicago. One could argue that because he’s never played under a good coach in the NBA, Jabari’s never been given a real chance to prove himself.

Playing under the right coach could help with the second reason he hasn’t figured it out, which is him playing in the right role. Parker came into the league with an undefined position. Teams weren’t sure which position he would thrive in since he had the height to play both small and power forward. According to Basketball Reference, Parker has played the majority of his minutes – 81 percent – at power forward, which made him an awkward fit on the Bucks and the Bulls.

Both Milwaukee and Chicago have excellent young talent at power forwards with the Greek Freak and Lauri Markkanen, which probably limited Parker’s effectiveness. If he’s on a team that doesn’t have a power forward that could get in his way, that could lead to a breakthrough for the guy. That is also banking on the idea that he would be playing under the right coach.

This is all speculative though. Even if he hasn’t played under the most competent head coaches, or for the most stable organizations, a guy with as much talent as Jabari Parker shouldn’t have his production be delayed for as long as it has.

If Parker doesn’t turn it around on his next team, then his excuses may run out, as well as his time in the NBA.

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NBA Daily: Suns Change Course With Trade

The Phoenix Suns have changed course with their trade for Kelly Oubre, Jr. and Austin Rivers, writes James Blancarte

James Blancarte

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The beginning to this season has been a whirlwind and the Western Conference is as competitive as ever. At 13-16, even the 14th place Minnesota Timberwolves are still not that far outside of the playoff picture. Every Western Conference team is competitive, except for the Phoenix Suns. Now, the Suns have won their last two games, including a win over the Timberwolves. Regardless, they are still well outside the playoff picture and should be primarily focused on the big picture beyond this season.

Adrian Wojnarowksi of ESPN took league and its fans on a rollercoaster this past Friday when he broke the news that the Washington Wizards, Memphis Grizzlies and Suns were on the cusp of completing a three-way trade. For the Suns, this three-way trade centered around moving forward Trevor Ariza. As quickly as the news had erupted, it appeared to go sideways with revelations of miscommunications between the teams and which players were going to be involved. Soon after the miscommunication came to light, news leaked that the deal was off.

The Suns and Wizards didn’t take long to re-engage in trade talks. On Saturday, the Suns and Wizards were able to complete a trade. The Suns received guard Austin Rivers and forward Kelly Oubre, Jr. In exchange, the Suns sent Ariza (again) to the Wizards. The Wizards are hoping that Ariza’s return helps to solve the chemistry issues that have thrown a wrench into this season so far.

“One of the best veteran teammates I’ve had,” John Wall said regarding Ariza.

In addition, the trade helps the Wizards avoid having to re-sign Oubre, Jr. at a time when their salary cap remains bloated for the foreseeable future.

For the Suns, they get a young, talented player in Oubre, Jr., who may be a huge part of the team’s plan going forward if he can take a significant step forward in his development. However, getting another wing isn’t the exact elixir that this team needs. Quality point guard play has been elusive for the Suns. A few weeks ago the team gave Elie Okobo a chance to step into the role. Okobo spoke to Basketball Insiders around this time about his effort and what he could work on going forward.

“I’m just trying to be aggressive and help my team to win games. I work hard and try to help them and get the confidence, trust from them and the coaching staff,” Okobo told Basketball Insiders. “I would say the playmaking, avoid the little turnovers, the little mistakes and make my open shots and just try to play really aggressive and defend.”

Amidst an extended losing streak, Okobo’s playing time decreased after starting three games in that period. Recently, the Suns allowed De’Anthony Melton to play and show that he could step up. Melton has started the last five games and has shown himself to be capable as well. The Suns have even won the last two games to break their losing streak.

A few good games don’t necessarily mean the point guard situation is settled long-term. In addition to Oubre, Jr, the Suns also received Rivers. With the Los Angeles Clippers, Rivers showed himself capable of stepping in as an off-guard who could handle the point in spot minutes, when needed. Over the years, Rivers has also proven himself to be a capable off-the-bench scorer who could exert above average effort, especially on defense.

With Washington, Rivers was expected to be a reliable bench scorer and someone who could fill in for one of the team’s lead guards, if necessary. However, the Wizards season didn’t start off as they had intended. Rivers never found a comfortable fit on offense and often sat on the bench for key stretches. To his credit, Rivers did prove himself to be a capable and focused defender.

Whether Rivers will get a chance to prove himself worthy of major minutes is up in the air. What the Suns need is a lead reliable point guard capable of relieving Devin Booker (when he returns from injury) from his responsibilities as the team’s lead playmaker. Suns Head Coach Igor Kokoškov expressed his interest in doing so to Basketball Insiders earlier this season.

“I think Devin Booker’s main thing, his job description is to score for us. He is a scoring guard and he is doing a lot of handling, a lot of playmaking, we never put him on a point guard to guard. So, whoever you guard, that is your position. He is not a point guard. He’s a playmaker, he’s going to handle a lot. James Harden is a playmaker, a scoring guard. Same type, same type of player,” Kokoškov said.

Now with Rivers in Phoenix, he might have a chance to play as an off-guard who can help bring the ball up the court, handle in spots, defer to Booker and play defense.

“If we have a traditional point guard or not, Booker’s going to have the ball in his hands,” Kokoškov said.

Kelly Oubre, Jr. is the major addition for the Suns in this trade, showing Phoenix is now mostly concerned with the future. However, a player like Rivers could prove valuable this season and could have an impact on roster decisions the team makes moving forward.

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NBA Daily: Buyers Or Sellers – Southwest Division

Ben Nadeau continues Basketball Insiders’ “Buyers or Sellers” series with a break down of the Southwest Division.

Ben Nadeau

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Today is the day! Dec. 15. is finally here.

There are still a few weeks until Christmas, but this particular date marks another major holiday in NBA circles. As of 12:01 EST, players that signed new contracts in the offseason are eligible to be traded at long last. Although we won’t see a flurry of moves by any means, the old rumor mill should be up and running in no time. To commemorate the yearly occasion, Basketball Insiders dusted off the timeless Buyers or Sellers series and this entry will bring the ride to the ever-reliable Southwest Division.

For more trade chatter: Steve Kyler on the league-wide landscape, Spencer Davis covered the Central Division, David Yapkowitz broke down the Northwest, Drew Maresca tallied the Atlantic and Shane Rhodes grabbed the Southeast. With plenty of basketball behind us already, it’s time to take stock within the NBA’s most exciting division.

Spoiler alert: They’re all in it to win it, as always.

Dallas Mavericks

Through nearly 30 games, the Mavericks are right where they hoped to be — right in the thick of things. Before the season began, many wrote off Dallas — not because of their overall roster skill, but simply because the stingy Western Conference is no easy beast to conquer. Of course, they’re far from safe and a losing streak can spell trouble for any franchise, but the Mavericks have the correct balance of young assets and veteran leadership to make these good times last. Dirk Nowitzki made his long-awaited season debut on Thursday night against Phoenix, veterans like DeAndre Jordan, Harrison Barnes and Wesley Matthews have kept the ship steady and then there’s Luka Dončić, the rookie that’s set the league on fire.

Flanked by an experience-heavy bench, the Mavericks have exceeded expectations thus far and clearly won’t be sellers headed into trade season. Although, beyond that, it’s hard to envision Dallas finding a true way to considerably upgrade. Matthews’ expiring contract worth $18 million is intriguing, but his 39 percent mark from three-point range has been invaluable. Same, basically, with Jordan’s looming, consistent presence in the paint. And it’s hard to believe that many teams would bite on paying Barnes and his deal worth $25 million in 2019-20. Dončić and Nowitzki aren’t going anywhere either — duh — so that leaves Dennis Smith Jr. as perhaps the Mavericks’ most expendable piece right now.

Smith Jr. is averaging 13 points and 4 assists, a slight decline on his rookie season numbers, but the Mavericks would be wise to stick with the 21-year-old that went No. 9 overall so recently. If Dallas is serious about making a postseason push — and they should be — look for them to make a minor, bench-fortifying move between now and February.

Players whose trade restrictions are lifted on Dec. 15: Ryan Broekhoff, Devin Harris, DeAndre Jordan, Salah Mejri, Dirk Nowitzki

Houston Rockets

It’s begun to feel like beating a dead horse, but the Rockets are certainly in trouble.

In the crowded conference, Houston has done just enough not to be completely buried and forgotten about. Still, it’s also difficult to find an easy path back into this season as the legitimate contenders they once were. It’s well-documented by now, but the losses of Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute loom large and their replacements — including the already-departed Carmelo Anthony — have failed to replicate their contributions. The Rockets balked at making a panic splash for Jimmy Butler and now they’re just hoping to slowly figure things out. Salary cap complications may have caused the offseason exodus, but the Rockets have lost their bite and defensive identity from a massively successful 2017-18 campaign.

As expected, James Harden, Chris Paul and Clint Capela have been remarkably robust again, but their depth takes a hard nose-dive from there. With so much money already committed to the core, Houston has no choice but to be buyers moving forward. Recent rumors have linked the franchise to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, a useful defender and scorer who is, most importantly, obtainable. Badly in a need for a wing, Caldwell-Pope and his expiring contract worth $12 million would be a solid fit both rotationally and financially for the Rockets. Outside of that, Houston could shift around the likes of P.J. Tucker, Gerald Green, Marquese Chriss and Michael Carter-Williams, but would likely need to attach some picks in order to actually upgrade in a considerable way.

Players whose trade restrictions are lifted on Dec. 15: Michael Carter-Williams, James Ennis, Gerald Green; Jan. 15: Clint Capela, Chris Paul

Memphis Grizzlies

Sixth place! Memphis basketball is back, baby!

Just when we all thought the Grizzlies might be finally, officially dead, they go and rope us right back in. Helmed by head coach J.B. Bickerstaff, the 16-12 surprise squad is squarely involved in the postseason race. In fact, as of posting, the Grizzlies simultaneously lead the Southwest Division and only merely outpace the aforementioned disappointing, 13th-place Rockets by two games in the loss column. On the other hand, Memphis is just three behind Denver and Golden State for that elusive top spot, so, yes, the Grizzlies should be buyers in no uncertain terms.

(In fact, they nearly acquired Kelly Oubre Jr. earlier this morning…)

The early returns on recent additions like Kyle Anderson, Garrett Temple and Omri Casspi are promising, but there’s still a discernable gap between Memphis and the perennial powers that oppose them. Furthermore, they probably lack the type of big offer it’ll take to acquire somebody like Bradley Beal, but that doesn’t mean they’re totally limited here either.

J.R. Smith and Courtney Lee could be intriguing options for a roster that badly needs more shooting from deep. If Memphis wants to roll the dice, the Hawks’ Kent Bazemore — who is owed $19.2 million in 2019-20 — would be a culturally strong fit for the on-court brand as well. Ultimately, there are targets here for the taking if they’re willing to move on from JaMychel Green following the fast emergence of rookie phenom Jaren Jackson Jr. Green, 28, will be an unrestricted free agent in July and might be an enticing prospect for any franchise looking to clear up a chunk of cap space.

Assuming that Marc Gasol and Mike Conley Jr. are both invested for the long haul, the Grizzlies will remain firmly in the win-now column. Now, if only they could find a taker for that Chandler Parsons contract…

Players whose trade restrictions are lifted on Dec. 15: Kyle Anderson, Omri Casspi, Shelvin Mack

New Orleans Pelicans

The Pelicans have Anthony Davis, so their designation should be awfully clear: Buyers.

It’s all about Davis, obviously, and the future Hall of Famer is eligible for a supermax contract in the 2019 offseason. If the Pelicans want to keep their once-in-a-generation star, there’s no time like the present to prove your undying commitment. Naturally, that’s why the Pelicans are one of the trade market’s most active teams right now, according to Brian Windhorst of ESPN. Similarly to Memphis, New Orleans lacks the high-ceiling prospect or hefty expiring contract that a significant upgrade in this scenario would entail. However, given that Pelicans must do whatever it takes to appease Davis, their trove of untouched draft picks should be available this winter.

Julius Randle has proven to be a quality signing, while Elfrid Payton was contributing nicely prior to fracturing his finger in November. Nikola Mirotic, E’Twaun Moore and Davis have all missed a sampling of games as well, leading the Pelicans to some unpredictable performances. Attempting to tread water out west is a dangerous game, so New Orleans may feel compelled to jump in the deep end sooner rather than later. Whether it’s small trade or a blockbuster effort, keeping Davis happy is one of the NBA’s most intriguing narratives as the superstar quickly hurdles toward potential free agency in 2020.

Although they’ve been marred by lingering injuries, this Pelicans team is clearly talented — but can they afford to wait much longer without adding reinforcements?

Players whose trade restrictions are lifted on Dec. 15: Ian Clark, Jahlil Okafor, Elfrid Payton, Julius Randle, Kenrich Williams

San Antonio Spurs

This is a Gregg Popovich-led franchise still — so the Spurs, who haven’t missed the postseason since 1996-97, aren’t about to sell their assets and tank out anytime soon.

Sure, it’s been slow-going at times for an injury-riddled roster that’s now deep into their first full season with Kawhi Leonard at the helm. Granted, the breakup was indeed messy — but adjusting an entire scheme to a different superstar is not always an easy task. To his credit, DeMar DeRozan is soaring in San Antonio, averaging a career-high in both rebounds and assists through the first 29 games. Beyond that, Manu Ginobili retired, Tony Parker signed in Charlotte and Kyle Anderson left in free agency — all of sudden, everything had changed.

Toss in the brutal injuries to Lonnie Walker, Dejounte Murray and Pau Gasol, it’s easy to see why the Spurs have struggled out of the gate.

Since long-time wing Danny Green was part of the DeRozan-Leonard swap in July, the Spurs have sorely missed a defensive contributor at that spot. The just-moved Ariza would have been a flawless fit for Popovich and the Spurs, but there are plenty of veterans on the market for them snap to up if they’re willing. There’s a question of whether or not a healthy San Antonio team is a contender anyway — but as long as that legendary head coach is still in charge, they’ll be competing until the very end.

Players whose trade restrictions are lifted on Dec. 15: Marco Belinelli, Dante Cunningham, Rudy Gay, Quincy Pondexter; Jan. 15: Davis Bertans, Bryn Forbes

It’s business as usual in the Southwest Division and that won’t be changing in the near future. Between the hungry superstars and talented head coaches, selling at the trade deadline seems like a near impossibility. Although it’s still early, all five teams are entrenched in both the division and postseason battle, so get used to seeing them slug it out until April. The volatile Western Conference means that four of them could easily miss out — but the smart money says that it’ll be a close race until the very end.

Davis, Popovich, Dončić, Conley and the reigning conference runner-ups — how could you bet against any of them? For now, the best we can do is keep an eye on this space and watch the stars shine.

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