This offseason was something else for Los Angeles, and that’s putting it lightly.
At long last, the Los Angeles Lakers landed the second superstar they wanted to pair with LeBron James – Anthony Davis. To acquire Davis, the Lakers traded Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, the rights to De’Andre Hunter (4th overall pick in 2019 draft), two future first-rounders and one first-round pick swap to the New Orleans Pelicans. The Lakers also traded Isaac Bonga, Moritz Wagner, Jemerrio Jones and a 2022 second-rounder to the Washington Wizards (with Washington sending cash to the Pelicans) in order to create more cap space to pursue Kawhi Leonard and create a devastating Big Three.
Leonard ended up signing with the in-arena rival Clippers, but the Lakers still have two of the top five players in the NBA and then added several other players to fill out the roster. A team featuring LeBron James and Anthony Davis has the foundation to instantly be a contender and arguably makes the Lakers the favorite to make it out of the Western Conference in the postseason. Notably, the Lakers also added Danny Green as a capable 3-and-D wing with championship experience.
Whether the Lakers have placed the right players around Davis, James and Green is the big question. Of the previous young core they’d been building around, Kyle Kuzma is the one the team refused to include in the Davis trade. Los Angeles also signed DeMarcus Cousins to a team-friendly contract to add more punch at the center position. Unfortunately, Cousins tore his ACL recently and will likely miss the upcoming season. In response, the Lakers signed Dwight Howard to a one-year contract, which has Lakers fans feeling conflicted.
But how far can the team go? Is it really championship or bust? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Lakers in this 2019-20 NBA Season Preview.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
LeBron James and Anthony Davis are officially happening. It took a lot to get The Brow to Hollywood, but this superstar pairing may very well go down as being one of the best of all-time. This time around, Rob Pelinka did a solid job of making sure the talent surrounding them will be able to contribute as well. New faces such as Danny Green, Troy Daniels and Avery Bradley will bring the 3-and-D thunder in supplementary roles. Quinn Cook is one of the most overlooked, up-and-coming point guards just waiting for an opportunity to prove himself. Everybody wants to talk about Dwight Howard, but let’s not forget how good JaVale McGee was last season either.
Veteran leader Frank Vogel will be the man in charge at head coach — but he’s also got Jason Kidd as his top assistant. That’s really the only thing we should be unsure about, but the talent and experience on paper could make the situation fit seamlessly. James has gotten the most rest he’s had since the summer of 2004. Brace yourselves, Lakers fans: The six-year playoff drought is coming to an end.
2nd Place – Pacific Division
– Spencer Davies
The Lakers began their offseason horribly with a public breakup between the team and Magic Johnson. But bad times don’t seem to last long in Los Angeles. Pairing Anthony Davis with LeBron James makes them a viable championship contender right away. Signing and then losing DeMarcus Cousins to a torn ACL was a blow to their depth chart and overall talent, but they have two of the very best players on the planet and most teams will struggle to match the James-Davis tandem — that is, assuming they can remain healthy.
As a bonus, we’ve heard a lot this summer out of Team USA camp about Kyle Kuzma’s improved shooting and defensive. It would help the Lakers incredibly if he’s really improved in those areas, as he was already a top-100 player without the elite three-point range and some sub-par defense. The additions of Avery Bradley, Danny Green and Jared Dudley were all excellent for the team. Of course, the Lakers will live and die by James and Davis.
2nd Place – Pacific Division
The Lakers pulled off one of the biggest moves of the offseason in trading for Anthony Davis. After missing the playoffs last season, the duo of Davis and LeBron James should be enough to catapult Los Angeles back into the postseason. But health is going to be a factor as they’ve likely lost DeMarcus Cousins for the season. James has been very durable throughout his career, but he missed a significant amount of time last year due to injury. Davis also missed games — and throughout his entire career, really — last season with an injury. One major hit to either of those two players and that could be it for the Lakers’ season, the Western Conference is that tough.
The biggest question mark, however, is Dwight Howard. If he’s motivated, he could end up being one of the biggest steals of the offseason. If not? Then the Lakers already shaky depth suffers a big blow. Even if they all stay healthy, the Lakers’ ceiling is probably a 4 or 5 seed out west.
3rd Place – Pacific Division
– David Yapkowitz
There is a lot to say about the Los Angeles Lakers’ offseason — but the main takeaway is that they’ve acquired Anthony Davis just one year after signing LeBron James in free agency. That’s categorically a win, especially for a franchise that has failed to live up to its prestige in recent seasons. Having said that, the Lakers did give up Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, the rights to De’Andre Hunter, two future first-rounders and one first-round pick swap to the New Orleans Pelicans for Davis. While that is a lot to give up in a trade, pairing Davis with LeBron this season is worth it.
Beyond Davis, the Lakers also brought in Avery Bradley, Quinn Cook, DeMarcus Cousins, Troy Daniels, Jared Dudley, Danny Green, Dwight Howard and Talen Horton-Tucker, while re-signing several of their veterans. Green should be a major contributor and will help spread the floor for LeBron and Davis to operate closer to the basket. Unfortunately, Cousins went down with an ACL tear and will likely miss the upcoming season. Overall, the Lakers put together a talented, though imperfect, roster around James and Davis.
The Lakers have the talent to make it to the NBA Finals this year, but that will be determined in large part on how well Frank Vogel can sort out and optimize this team in his first season as its head coach.
2nd Place – Pacific Division
– Jesse Blancarte
There are times in life where you have to go all-in and when you have LeBron James on the roster, you don’t waste those opportunities. Yes, the Lakers paid a hefty price to acquire Anthony Davis from the New Orleans Pelicans but, let’s be honest, none of the guys they gave up are future All-Stars, let alone All-Stars while James can still influence a game. The Lakers are better today than they were at the end of the season and, while they will lack assets to add to the team, they have two of the top five or so players in the NBA — that is usually enough to be respectable.
The other part is this: Every time James has been counted out, he’s won the MVP that following season. He may not have another MVP in him, but when you look at how much he changed his body for Space Jam 2 and how motivated all the involved parties are, then the Lakers should be among the top four in the conference and that’s worth the price paid for Anthony Davis by itself. Coaching and three-point shooting is a question, but in the NBA, stars win you games and the Lakers have two of the game’s brightest.
2nd Place – Pacific Division
– Steve Kyler
FROM THE CAP GUY
In addition to their blockbuster acquisition of Anthony Davis, the Lakers managed enough cap room to sign Kawhi Leonard, but the NBA Finals MVP chose to go the Los Angeles Clippers instead. The Lakers pivoted to fleshing out the team with role players like Danny Green, DeMarcus Cousins and Avery Bradley.
Unfortunately, Cousins suffered a season-ending knee injury. The team will likely end up with a $1.8 million Disabled Player Exception for Cousins, but that may not be enough to use for a significant replacement. Instead, the Lakers added Dwight Howard on a non-guaranteed minimum contract as the team’s 15th standard NBA contract (the team has 14 fully guaranteed).
Looking ahead, the Lakers need to pick up the team option on Kyle Kuzma before November. Outside of LeBron James, the rest of the team’s players are on one- or two-year contracts (many with player options). The most notably is Davis, who can leave as a free agent next summer. Obviously, his happiness is the team’s top priority as to make sure he chooses to stay long term.
– Eric Pincus
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Anthony Davis
Anthony Davis is top-10 — arguably even higher — player in the NBA and, when healthy, he is an MVP-caliber level player. But Davis has been out of the spotlight for some time and has never played with a player of James’ stature either. James and Davis both spend significant time playing at power forward while being the focal point of the team’s offense. With the potential for significant overlap, it will be interesting to see how this dynamic will be managed. Last week, Davis shared his thoughts on the matter:
“I’ve kind of been a focal-point player my whole career, especially in New Orleans. But, first off, to have a guy like LeBron, someone of his caliber, go tell management and ownership and the coaches that he wants me to be the focal point is an honor,” Davis told Yahoo Sports.
Davis and James appear to be on the same page with an emphasis on building up Davis as the team’s workhouse. Going into his 17th season, James has had a super-human ability to stay healthy thus far. That luck seemed to run out a bit last season with a groin injury. While James did recover and return, the Lakers’ season was lost while he was away and James appeared somewhat slowed before being shut down toward the end of the season. Considering the age and mileage James has put on his body over his career, it makes sense for Davis to be the main focal point for this team.
“I know what comes with that and that’s a lot of heavy lifting. I want to be able to do that. I think I have the capabilities of doing that. And obviously, with the team’s support, it’s going to be a lot easier on me. We have a great team,” Davis said.
Top Defensive Player: Anthony Davis
Earlier in his career, James was a defensive menace and could guard every position consistently and effectively. James has scaled back his effort on defense in the last few seasons, which makes sense considering that aforementioned millage. That means Davis is the most consistent and dynamic defensive player on the Lakers’ roster, bar none.
“I want to be Defensive Player of the Year,” Davis told Yahoo Sports. “I think if I’m able to do that, I can help this team win. The offensive end will come around, but defensively, I want to hold myself, teammates, including LeBron, accountable in order for us to take on the challenge of being the best we can defensively.”
It’s interesting that Davis would not only speak about keeping himself and his teammates accountable but that he included James by name.
“[W]e’ll have a good chance of winning every night. I want to make sure me and LeBron are on the All-Defensive Team. And for me personally, I just want to be the Defensive Player of the Year. If we’re able to hold teams under 100, which is probably unrealistic but it should be our goal, I think we’ll have a shot at winning the title.”
Top Playmaker: LeBron James
James has been the lead ball-handler on every team he has played on and that doesn’t figure to change this season. With his size, athleticism, court vision and unselfish approach to the game, James is one of the most devastating playmakers in the game. With Davis running on the fast break, dropping to the basket out of pick-and-rolls and carving out space near the basket, James will have even more opportunities to tally up assists. With all due respect to Chris Bosh and Kevin Love, Davis is on another level as a big man and should draw significant defensive attention each time the Lakers are on offense. With extra space to operate, James may be in for one of his most efficient seasons as a playmaker.
Top Clutch Player: LeBron James
Davis could end up wrestling this title from James at some point — but, for now, James’ multifaceted arsenal and unlimited experience in tight games give him the edge. Davis has had big moments but he doesn’t have the proven track record that James has. Very few in NBA history do, to be fair. There was a time early in his career where many argued James was not clutch and didn’t have the mentality to be a go-to player in clutch situations. James has proven that theory wrong and is still one of the toughest covers in the most important situations.
So, until proven differently, the responsibility for top clutch player falls to James.
The Unheralded Player: JaVale McGee
Despite his reputation for being clumsy, JaVale McGee offered reliable contributions on the offensive and defensive side of the ball last season. Bringing McGee back gives the Lakers another solid option at center, which will allow Davis to play at his preferred position of power forward. So long as Davis is allowed to play many of his minutes at the four, the Lakers will have to competently man the center position — of course, Cousins’ injury complicated this plan.
McGee represents as good a player as the Lakers can reasonably expect and has already proved he can stay focused through the long NBA season without causing the team headaches. Dwight Howard might prove capable — but, between the two, Howard is the long shot and McGee is the safer bet. Go figure.
Best New Addition: Anthony Davis
There isn’t as much to say here except that Davis is a spectacular get for the Lakers. Multiple young players and numerous draft picks were required to wrestle Davis away from the Pelicans. But when you have a player like James and available assets, you make moves to solidify a championship-worthy team. If the Lakers win a championship as the result of this trade while keeping Davis as a long-term asset, this trade is easily worth the risk.
– James Blancarte
WHO WE LIKE
1. Kyle Kuzma
So much rests on the shoulders of Kuzma. He is talented, can score and is young, so we can reasonably expect him to improve this season. As the third option on a team that features two generational talents, the Lakers are optimistic that Kuzma is up to the challenge of being the team’s third option. However, Kuzma’s three-point shooting dropped significantly from his rookie season. While that is not the most positive sign, Kuzma should expect to have less attention paid to him now that the Lakers have James and Davis powering the offense. Kuzma isn’t known as any sort of defensive stalwart but has the tools to be an effective team asset.
2. Frank Vogel
The Lakers moved on from Luke Walton this offseason. A favorite of Jeanie Buss, Walton helped oversee the development of many of the team’s younger players and guide the franchise through their recent multi-season drought. Walton is now in Sacramento and, thusly, now begins the Frank Vogel era.
James has played against Vogel-coached teams for years and had some high-profile playoff matchups against the Indiana Pacers earlier in his career. Should Vogel be able to build a strong enough defensive unit centered around Davis while hiding players like Kuzma, the Lakers will likely be one of the most dangerous teams in the NBA.
Unfortunately, there was some drama surrounding Vogel’s hiring. Vogel was famously the second choice of the Lakers after negotiations with Tyronn Lue broke down. Further complicating Vogel’s hiring is the supposed mandate that any head coach would be required to have previous head coach Jason Kidd as a high-profile assistant coach. If Vogel struggles to meet expectations early in the season, we may hear calls for Kidd to take over the top job.
3. JaVale McGee
Last season, the Lakers took numerous swings on capable veterans with checkered pasts. Lance Stephenson and Michael Beasley are long gone. Rajon Rondo has had moments but is inconsistent and last season was often one of the sources of drama that hurt the team. Of this group, count JaVale McGee as the exception.
As a major silver lining, McGee put his head down and did whatever the team needed. McGee offered a lob threat on offense, as well as someone who could defend the rim, rebound and score on put backs. While the Lakers made bigger acquisitions, bringing back McGee at a low cost will be a key roster-building move, especially considering Cousins’ injury and the questions that always surround Howard.
4. Quinn Cook
Quinn Cook doesn’t put up monster numbers and probably shouldn’t be the starting point guard for a contending team. But Cook has developed into a steady hand at point guard, reliable converts and has a championship-level experience from his time with the Golden State Warriors. The Lakers signed Cook to a reasonable contract and should definitely benefit with him on the roster, especially considering Rondo’s injury history and the relative inexperience of Alex Caruso. Additionally, Cook can play effectively off the ball and has logged time playing alongside point forwards like James.
– James Blancarte
The frontcourt. Davis, James and Kuzma could make for a dangerous frontcourt, especially on offense. Danny Green can play in the backcourt but can easily slot into the frontcourt to defend an opposing elite small forward. Even Jared Dudley can offer some additional versatility on both ends of the court at either forward position. McGee and Howard will battle it out for the starting center position but both are poised to contribute regardless. At all times, there should be a capable combination of players manning the frontcourt and carrying this team.
– James Blancarte
Guard play and, obviously, relative heath. On the first note, the Lakers will be relying on some combination of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Quinn Cook, Alex Caruso, Avery Bradley and Rajon Rondo. Adding Green to that list doesn’t do enough to address all of the issues this group will likely face. Lakers fans need to brace for the likelihood that Rondo will again be the starting point guard for the team.
When he is focused and playing well, Rondo helps to set up teammates well as a distributor. Unfortunately, Rondo’s mercurial personality can lead to drama for the Lakers. Rondo’s antics could splinter a team that features so much talent and many strong personalities. Additionally, Rondo’s defense leaves a lot to be desired. He’s also on the back end of his career, so there isn’t much reason to believe that will change this upcoming season.
Whether anyone can surpass Rondo at the position is up in the air. Caruso played well at the end of last season, and is a bit of a folk hero for Lakers fans, but will have to show he can play well when it matters most. Regardless, the Lakers could use an infusion of talent in the backcourt.
– James Blancarte
THE BURNING QUESTION
Can this team win it all this upcoming season?
This team has the top-end talent necessary to be a dangerous team in the playoffs. While many have the Lakers as a top-five favorite to win the championship next season, it’s not clear they have what it takes to overcome other top teams like the Houston Rockets, Utah Jazz, Denver Nuggets, Los Angeles Clippers, Philadelphia 76ers or Milwaukee Bucks. The answer to this question will be heavily based on how quickly this team can build chemistry and identity under their new head coach, Frank Vogel. If they can do this, the Lakers have a respectable chance of competing for the championship this upcoming season.
– James Blancarte
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.