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Miami HEAT 2019-20 NBA Season Preview

The Miami HEAT landed a star in the off-season and were able to right-size their roster in the process, but the question is will that be enough for the HEAT to be more than a middle-tier playoff team? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Miami HEAT in this 2019-20 NBA Season Preview.

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The post-Lebron era of the Miami HEAT has seen the team stuck in a cycle of being competent enough to compete for the playoffs, but not talented enough to take the next step. The team has only made it out the first round once in the past five seasons when they lost in the Eastern Conference semi-finals to the Toronto Raptors in the 2016 NBA Playoffs.

Head coach Erik Spoelstra has been a mainstay, and the team staying somewhat competitive can be largely attributed to his stewardship. After a shaky transition season following James’ departure, Spoelstra helped mold a defensive identity for the HEAT, as the team has finished in the top ten in defensive rating in each of the last four seasons.

After a brief detour to Chicago and later Cleveland that started in the summer of 2016, the prodigal son Dwyane Wade returned to Miami during the 2017-18 season and rode off into the sunset with his farewell tour last season. Wade’s retirement signaled the end of an era, and the HEAT wasted no time in transitioning to their next chapter.

In a blockbuster move, the HEAT agreed to a sign-and-trade with the 76ers, receiving Jimmy Butler and Meyers Leonard in a four-team deal. Hassan Whiteside and Josh Richardson were sent out of Miami as a result, going to Portland and Philadelphia, respectively.

The HEAT will now revolve around the enigmatic Butler and begin their journey towards the Eastern Conference playoffs. Their advancement through those playoffs may come down to the rest of their roster, and what names it is comprised of as the season goes on.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

Jimmy Butler and Pat Riley finally had their wishes granted. The former wanted to be the number one option on a team, while the latter desired to have a superstar name leading his. Butler should have no problem playing next to Goran Dragic, a longtime heady veteran point guard who should bring a reliable secondary presence as a distributor and scorer. With Hassan Whiteside gone, Bam Adebayo is poised to have a breakout season with more minutes and an improved playmaking skill set. The same goes for Justise Winslow, who was tremendous with the ball in his hands last year. Tyler Herro’s rookie season could be a fun one to watch if the summer league was any indication of his true abilities. Don’t forget that Dion Waiters is on his way back as well. Erik Spoelstra’s bunch has grinded through the post-Big 3 days, but this offseason has the potential of taking the HEAT out of basketball purgatory and into a postseason run in the Eastern Conference.

1st Place – Southeast Division

– Spencer Davies

The HEAT have more talent than they get credit for. Jimmy Butler, Goran Dragic, Tyler Herro and Justise Winslow are all very nice pieces. They also have among the best Coach-GM/President combination in the league in Erik Spoelstra and Pat Riley. But let’s not get too excited – while their division is theirs for the taking, there will be more than enough competition for them in the Eastern Conference. The HEAT are going to have to either add more talent, or a number of their players will have to have career years to secure a top-four playoff seed (and maybe to secure one at all). Fortunately for the HEAT, at least Bam Adebayo intends on doing just that with the starting center position his for the taking. If Adebayo has a breakout year, the HEAT could be more dangerous than most people expect.

1st Place – Southeast Division

– Drew Maresca

The HEAT made one of the biggest moves of the offseason by bringing in Jimmy Butler. Butler gives Miami a true superstar and go-to player. With the pieces already in place, Butler’s presence should be enough for a return to the postseason for the HEAT. One of the bigger storylines for the HEAT this season is going to be the development of Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro. Adebayo seems like one of the best kept secrets in the NBA. He’s emerging a potential double-double threat and an elite defensive player. Herro had a great summer league and figures to be in the rotation right away as a rookie due to his sharpshooting from three. The next big question is Dion Waiters. He’s missed significant time since arriving in Miami due to injuries, having played in a total of 120 games over three seasons. If he’s healthy and ready to go, there should be playoff basketball in South Beach.

1st Place – Southeast Division

– David Yapkowitz

Miami made one major move this offseason – a four-team deal involving the Philadelphia 76ers, Los Angeles Clippers and Portland Trail Blazers. Among other things, the deal resulted in the HEAT trading Josh Richardson to the 76ers and Hassan Whiteside to the Portland Trail Blazers, while Miami received Jimmy Butler on a four-year, $140,790,600 contract (player option in the final season via sign-and-trade from the 76ers) and Meyers Leonard. Miami is taking a gamble that Butler can be the number one guy at age 30 and that Richardson won’t be a major loss. Butler will need to help Miami draw more talent in the future since this team as constructed doesn’t have enough top-tier talent to realistically make a run to the NBA Finals in the Eastern Conference this season. Miami is often a free agent destination, so it may end up working out for the HEAT. Overall, I think Miami had a pretty decent offseason, but I’m not convinced acquiring Butler is going to benefit the HEAT in the long-term, especially with Richardson now playing in Philadelphia.

1st Place – Southeast Division

– Jesse Blancarte

For some time the Miami HEAT have been a scrappy team just good enough to be in the playoff hunt, but lacking the star power to close the deal. That changed with the arrival of Jimmy Butler this summer. Not only did the HEAT get the star they long coveted, but they also dumped off a ton of salary that wasn’t productive and did so without giving up incoming rookie Tyler Herro or veteran guard Goran Dragic. It is easy to overlook Miami with the sheer volume of star movement, but the HEAT were almost good before they got Butler, and they got Butler. While there are still lots of questions surrounding how this all fits together, Miami looks like a sleeper team to sneak into the top four in the East, and that would be impressive considering they did not have to bottom out to get there.

1st Place – Southeast Division

– Steve Kyler

FROM THE CAP GUY

The HEAT pulled multiple strings to acquire Jimmy Butler via sign-and-trade from the Philadelphia 76ers. The move locked in a hard cap at $138.9 million, which required Miami to shed contracts just to make the Butler deal legal. The team is still very close to that limit with 17 players, five on non-guaranteed contracts, although Duncan Robinson appears to be a lock to make the roster with $1 million of his $1.4 million minimum contract guaranteed. Kendrick Nunn also has $150,000 guaranteed.

The HEAT have their full Mid-Level ($9.3 million) and Bi-Annual ($3.6 million) Exceptions, but the hard cap restriction may force them to go unused, unless the team finds a significant cost-cutting trade. Players on the last year of their contracts like Goran Dragic ($19.2 million) and Meyers Leonard ($11.3 million) could be moved if Miami can find a suitor.

Miami also needs to pick up the team option on Bam Adebayo before November.

– Eric Pincus

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Jimmy Butler

The HEAT finished 26th in offense last season and have struggled to reach league average over the last five seasons. They put their chips on the table this summer to acquire a player who could help reverse that trend in Jimmy Butler.

Butler, a maestro in the pick-and-roll and a solid pull-up shooter, will have the ball in his hands quite often and will be asked to conjure up quality looks for the HEAT offense whenever he is on the court. He is an elite isolation scorer, scoring 1.01 points per possession out of those plays last season, per NBA.com.

The HEAT roster will be conducive to the pick-and-roll and isolation heavy offense that Butler prefers. They have constructed the roster with multiple players who will be content to expend their energy on defense while spacing the floor on the other end.

This will be Jimmy’s team, and the offense will be his to control. If you need any further proof of his credentials, just remember his nickname, Jimmy Buckets.

Top Defensive Player: Bam Adebayo

There are a few options on the HEAT roster to choose from here. Butler has been a consistently strong defender throughout his career, but his large offensive burden and age may lead to a slip on that end. Considering the center position is usually the most impactful defensive position, Adebayo figures to be the HEAT’s lynchpin.

With Whiteside now in Portland, the third-year player will be asked to control the middle. The third-year player has the tools to patrol the paint; he is bouncy and possesses a seven-foot-one wingspan, and the HEAT will hope his instincts continue to improve as he gains more experience.

The HEAT allowed 2.4 fewer points per 100 possessions with Adebayo on the court compared to him off last season, per Cleaning The Glass. This gap could be even larger this season, without the alternation of minutes with Hassan Whiteside.

Top Playmaker: Jimmy Butler

Butler will be not only the HEAT’s best scorer, but their best playmaker as well. Perhaps it is overshadowed by his isolation effectiveness, or perhaps it is a product of his tendency to be embroiled in locker room drama, but Butler seems to be underrated in regards to his creation for teammates.

His assist percentage has been consistently in the top 10 percent of the league for his position over the last four seasons, per Cleaning The Glass. His passing out of the pick-and-roll is a particular strong point, and he possesses the vision to find teammates on the weak side of the court when controlling the ball in these sets.

In each of the last two seasons, both Minnesota and Philadelphia have shot significantly better as a team with Jimmy Butler on the court. Both saw the biggest improvement in their shooting percentage with shots at the rim, per Cleaning The Glass. Butler should have the same effect in Miami, where his driving and passing ability can lead to open lobs and three-point attempts.

Top Clutch Player: Dion Waiters

Dion Waiters will reprise his role as the sixth man this season, armed with irrational confidence and a deadly step-back jumper. His fearlessness in big moments makes him a go-to option for the HEAT in the waning moments of a tight game.

Yes, Jimmy Butler hit multiple huge shots and a couple of buzzer-beaters last season. Waiters, however, shot 51.4 percent in the clutch two seasons ago, his last fully healthy season. For comparison, Waiters’ field goal percentage overall was a mere 39.8 percent. To say the Syracuse product raised his game in the clutch would be an understatement.

After an injury-plagued 2018-19 campaign, Waiters will be hungry to once again take the stage in the final minutes. If the ball ends up in his hands down the stretch, he may just break a few hearts.

The Unheralded Player: Goran Dragic

Goran Dragic is often overlooked as the offensive engine for this team. Two seasons ago, Dragic was the team’s lead ball-handler and helped power the offense just enough to make the playoffs, as the HEAT finished sixth in the East. Last season, Dragic missed extended time with injury, and the offense slipped as a result.

Now, the Slovenian is expected to be healthy for the upcoming season. Albeit with a reduced role, Dragic will still be a very important player for this HEAT team.

In the few games he played last season, Dragic had a profound effect on the team’s transition offense. The HEAT scored 124.2 points off of 100 transition plays coming from a live ball rebound with Dragic on the court, compared to just 99.3 points per 100 plays with off, per Cleaning The Glass.

Dragic will push the pace and help the HEAT generate easier looks, something they may sorely miss when Butler is resting.

Best New Addition: Jimmy Butler

With apologies to Meyers Leonard, this designation can only be given to one person. Butler is the best offseason acquisition that the HEAT has made since the summer of The Decision when LeBron James took his talents to South Beach.

As mentioned above, Butler will immediately be the fulcrum of the HEAT offense, and the team will run through him on that end. Butler is no slouch on the defensive end, and he should guard the opposing team’s best wing player when the games matter most.

All in all, Butler is a four-time All-Star, a four-time All-Defensive Team selection, and two-time member of the All-NBA Third Team. He will command attention on and off the court, and the team’s postseason hopes will rest on his shoulders.

– Quinn Davis

WHO WE LIKE

1. Erik Spoelstra

Erik Spoelstra is the second-longest tenured coach in the NBA, behind only the legendary Gregg Popovich. He was hired by the HEAT at the end of the 2007-08 season and has been manning the sidelines ever since. He helped lead the team to two NBA championships with the Big Three and has firmly cemented himself as of the league’s premier head coaches.

A sign of a great coach is the ability to mold a team’s identity to fit the personnel, and Spoelstra has done just that. During the Big Three era, he propelled the team to new heights and ushered in the small-ball era by moving LeBron James to the four, with Chris Bosh playing as a stretch five. He also employed a frenetic, trapping defense that played to the strengths of both James and Dwyane Wade.

In recent years, Spoelstra has changed his defensive scheme to fit the more conventional center in Hassan Whiteside and has kept his team near the top of the league in that department. He also has moved to a more free-flowing offense featuring a heavy dose of dribble-handoffs, due to a roster lacking elite isolation scorers and pick-and-roll players.

With the new additions for this season, Spoelstra will likely have some new wrinkles planned. History tells us that he will be able to push the right buttons.

2. Meyers Leonard

After spending the first seven years of his career with the Portland Trailblazers, Leonard will now suit up win Miami after being included in the four-team Jimmy Butler trade. While all of the focus has rightfully been on the Butler acquisition, Leonard will also be a solid contributor to the HEAT this season.

Leonard was a beacon of efficiency last season in Portland. He shot 46 percent from three last season on 107 attempts, and 76 percent from the rim on 83 attempts. While the volume is a bit low, the accuracy is elite. If Leonard can continue to be an elite floor spacer off the bench for Miami, he will be a valuable bench piece going forward.

3. Justise Winslow

Winslow, a member of the HEAT since the 2015-16 season, has improved each year he has been in the league. Last season, he reached his highest usage and was at his most efficient since entering the league.

Most encouraging has been his three-point percentage jump. After laying bricks in his first two seasons, Winslow has shot 40 and 38 percent from deep in his two most recent campaigns. His usage will likely decrease as Jimmy Butler will have the ball often, so his efficiency may rise even further.

The Duke product also brings value on the defensive end. He is a strong, physical defender that can guard 1-3 and even some small fours effectively. The HEAT were 3.7 points per 100 possessions stingier with Winslow on the court, per Cleaning The Glass. He will be a key piece this season and will likely be asked to do the heavy lifting on defense so Butler can reserve his energy for the other end.

4. Tyler Herro

The rookie from Kentucky was selected 13th by the HEAT in the 2019 draft and, after a standout Summer League performance, figures to be a factor in the rotation this season.

He averaged 19.8 points, 4.5 rebounds and 4.3 assists in the Las Vegas circuit. His efficiency was a bit low – he shot 33 percent from deep and 42 percent overall – but that can be attributed to his role as the focal point of the HEAT’s Summer League offense and attracting the most defensive attention.

As a bench piece this season, Herro will mostly be asked to knock down spot-up looks, which was a specialty of his in college. He also has a good handle, is a nifty passer and is able to attack closeouts and make plays off the dribble.

He will be a work in progress on the defensive end, but he projects to be a nice role player for this HEAT team and could take on a larger role as a secondary playmaker as he matures.

– Quinn Davis

STRENGTHS

There is no shortage of veteran leadership in Miami, where the team boasts several experienced players that should make for a strong locker room. Udonis Haslem will return for another season after mulling retirement, and he brings a respected presence. Jimmy Butler, while not without his past drama, is a respected veteran who will command attention. He took on a mentorship role in his stint in Philadelphia last season, and he should do the same with the likes of Justise Winslow, Tyler Herro and Kendrick Nunn next season. Former MMA fighter James Johnson will also bring a battle-scarred presence to the team.

Additionally, the team will be strong on the defensive end as long as Spoelstra is at the helm. They have the personnel to be in the top 10 for the fifth straight season and could shoot even higher if Butler brings consistent effort and Adebayo continues to improve.

– Quinn Davis

WEAKNESSES

Outside of Jimmy Butler, the team may have trouble creating quality looks on offense. Dion Waiters is a likely candidate to take on playmaking duties while Butler rests, but his passing leaves a little to be desired, and he tends to be rather streaky.

Goran Dragic is another that some may point to as a potential creator, but his explosiveness continues to wane as he ages. Dragic also missed about half of last season due to injury, and the HEAT will need him at full strength if he is to carry some of the offensive load.

Another issue could be the rim protection behind Bam Adebayo. The HEAT rounds out their big man rotation with Kelly Olynyk and Meyers Leonard, both of whom have not provided much resistance at the rim in their careers. While this weakness may be mitigated with some creativity from Spoelstra, it is certainly something to monitor as the season plays out.

– Quinn Davis

The Burning Question

Will the HEAT add a second star this season?

The NBA summer of 2019 was defined by superstar duos. Anthony Davis was traded to the Lakers to pair with Lebron James, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George moved mountains when it was announced they would both be suiting up for the Clippers, and Russell Westbrook was traded to the Rockets to form an electric backcourt with James Harden.

The HEAT, meanwhile, traded for Jimmy Butler, and have since been rumored to be in the running for any and all available superstars to form a duo of their own. They were rumored to be the leader for Westbrook before Houston was able to outbid them.

After Chris Paul was sent to Oklahoma City as part of that trade, many pegged the HEAT as a top suitor for the future Hall of Famer. Paul’s gargantuan salary makes trading him a tall task, as the HEAT do not currently have much cap flexibility. It is also unclear how much the HEAT value Paul as a second superstar considering his age and slip in production last season.

With Butler in the fold, the HEAT figure to be a competitive group, but without a significant acquisition, they will struggle to keep pace with the elites. At a glance, the options they could add in the short term are limited. Bradley Beal is typically mentioned as the star who needs a change of scenery, but the Wizards have made it clear that they are not interested in moving him at this time.

It seems unlikely that a second star will suit up for Miami this season, but the NBA is a fluid environment. One locker room incident or a sluggish start to the season could lead to a trade request from Beal or another major name before the deadline. The HEAT is also helmed by master negotiator Pat Riley, who orchestrated the formation of the Big Three in 2010. He will leave no stone unturned in the quest for a title.

– Quinn Davis

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Buy Or Sell: Central Division

Drew Mays continues Basketball Insiders’ “Buy Or Sell” series by taking a look at the Central Division.

Drew Mays

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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.

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.

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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.

Jack Winter

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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.

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NBA

Buy Or Sell: Southwest Division

Jordan Hicks continues the Buy or Sell series with a look at the Southwest Division.

Jordan Hicks

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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.

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