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NBA AM: Roberson On Entering NBA’s Defensive Elite

Andre Roberson speaks to Ben Dowsett about becoming one of the best perimeter defenders in the NBA.

Ben Dowsett

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When most people think of the best wing defenders in the game today, a few typical names deservedly pop up. Kawhi Leonard. Tony Allen. Paul George. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, if you’re just the right hint of NBA hipster.

Andre Roberson thinks he belongs on the list.

“Not to be cocky or anything, but I feel like I’m definitely one of the top defenders in the league right now,” Roberson told Basketball Insiders. “I do it a high level.”

Roberson feels the need to put a cockiness disclaimer in there, but he could be easily excused if he didn’t. Defensive numbers are a murky and imprecise science, but the ones we have available have consistently ranked Roberson right among those starrier defensive names.

The relevant figures here aren’t blocks or steals as much as they’re team metrics which reflect Roberson’s impact on the Thunder. Oklahoma City is nearly seven points per-100-possessions worse defensively when Roberson hits the bench compared to when he plays, per NBA.com, the same gap found between one of the league’s five best defenses and one of its five worst. Opponents draw fewer fouls and shoot fewer free throws while he plays, and his length on the perimeter is a big reason the Thunder’s three-point defense suffers when he sits.

These numbers can get noisy, especially with coach Billy Donovan’s substitution patterns, but ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus metric helps us contextualize by factoring for teammate and opponent context. Roberson is in the league’s top 40 by DRPM, one of just a handful of non-bigs with that distinction, and sixth among small forwards. RPM estimates he’s saved the Thunder over two points per-100-possessions, second on the team only to anchor Steven Adams. When factoring in the reality that big men are viewed more favorably by this metric, there’s a real case that Roberson has been the team’s most impactful defender.

Roberson is used to making this kind of impact. He’s been doing it since well before his NBA days.

“I always liked doing it growing up,” Roberson said. “My dad always taught me to play both sides of the game. I kind of gravitated towards the defensive end when I was getting overlooked in high school.”

That last bit might be the crux of his motivation. Plenty of pro athletes draw their fire from being passed over, and for Roberson, this started well before he hit the professional ranks. He was just a three-star high school recruit according to ESPN, listed as the 62nd ranked power forward in the country coming out of Karen Wagner High School outside of San Antonio. He watched guys around him draw rave reviews, and this was the best way he could think of to even the scales.

“I just wanted to show everybody I could still compete with those guys, and play on the same level as them,” Roberson told Basketball Insiders. “That was me going out there and having a chip on my shoulder, going out there trying to guard those guys. I guess that’s where I got it from, [and] I still hold it even to this day.”

That star-killer mindset never left, it turns out.

Roberson has become Donovan’s defensive trump card, a shutdown artist who spends long stretches making life difficult for top opposing ball-handlers. “He can guard point guards, he can guard two-guards, he can guard small forwards,” Donovan said. “He’s guarded just about everybody in the league.”

Roberson’s impressive wingspan (measured 6-foot-11 on his 6-foot-7 frame before he was drafted) helps him challenge quicker guards, and his strength honed from mostly playing the forward spots before the NBA helps him with the LeBron/George types. Quietly, he’s become one of the guys none of these stars wants to see.

“I don’t know why it don’t get noticed or people don’t pay attention to it,” said star Russell Westbrook. “But every night, he guards the other team’s best player and they don’t seem to do very well when he guards them (chuckles). He’s been doing it all season long.”

In two matchups, Roberson has held newly minted All-Star Gordon Hayward to 13-for-31 shooting. In a game against the Knicks, Roberson held Carmelo Anthony to 4-for-19. George went 7-for-20 against him recently during a really strong run of play, including just 2-for-9 from deep.

If the only Rockets games you’d seen this year were against the Thunder, you’d wonder how the hell James Harden got all this MVP buzz: Roberson has stifled him to the tune of an alarming 16-for-45 shooting in three matchups (barely 33 percent).

In a weird way, constantly being tasked with such a tough assignment makes things simpler for Roberson.

“For me, it’s kind of easier just knowing that the guy I’m guarding, most of the time the ball is gonna try to go to him,” Roberson told Basketall Insiders. “I just try to go out there and try to make it harder for him to kind of jump coverages a little bit, kind of take him out that sweet spot.”

Those star performances listed above might be isolated incidents on small samples, but season-long numbers paint a similar picture.

Roberson lands in the league’s top 10 for “field goal percentage difference allowed” among volume defenders, per SportVU – that is, the difference between a player’s normal field goal percentage on a given range of shots and his actual percentage when guarded by a particular defender, Roberson in this case. He shaves nearly five percentage points off the average shot taken when he’s the nearest defender.

In a lot of cases, these numbers are noisy and perhaps even unusable. The player who was the closest defender to a shot wasn’t necessarily the player “defending” the shooter through a possession, and the very idea that singular blame or praise can be given to one defender on a given shot doesn’t always hold for a theme as complex as NBA defense. With a bit of context, though, these conform with everything else we already know about Roberson.

For starters, his percentage isn’t heavily influenced by a big drop in opponent three-point percentage. Threes are the most variable shots in the game, and SportVU doesn’t care if you’re a foot away or six feet away – if you’re the closest defender, that shot goes on your dossier. Many of the inflated and unrealistic defensive figures we see from this data are heavily influenced by guys who just happened to be the closest defender for a lot of missed threes.

Roberson is the opposite. He’s affected opponent three-point percentage negatively (he’s affected shots from every distance range negatively), but a much lower percentage of his defended shots have been threes than many other volume wing defenders. Meanwhile, his percentages get even stingier as shooters move closer to the basket – or in other words, as we get closer to a range where these figures are reliable.

Guys see their percentages on shots within 10 feet of the hoop drop a full 7.5 percentage points when Roberson is checking them, one of the best rates in the league for wing defenders. Only a handful of non-bigs defend more shots at the rim every night, per SportVU, and of this handful, only three relative athletic freaks – Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant and Al-Farouq Aminu – have posted a stingier percentage allowed. And remember, he’s doing it all while pretty much constantly checking the opponent’s top option, often a superstar.

Ask those close to him, and they’ll tell you Roberson has already had these skills in the bag for years. He’s had this role with Donovan since Billy came to town to replace Scott Brooks, and even held it for long periods with Brooks in town. Donovan has an interesting theoretical take on what his next step has been this year.

“Everybody offensively in the league is pretty much doing the same thing,” Donovan said. “But how you get there, and the movement, and how the floor starts to get moved, and how stuff gets disguised – [that’s] really the challenge.

“I think because of [Andre’s] experience playing in the league, his awareness in being able to read what’s getting ready to happen, what’s getting ready to take place when he may be in a vulnerable situation – he’s really, really good at that.”

The skills have always been there, but the outlines of one of the league’s smartest perimeter defenders have been forming for a while now. Roberson’s court sense has really improved, and it’s a perfect tandem with his slithery defensive nature; he gets the Thunder an extra possession or two a night by swooping in on unsuspecting big men from weird angles.

The difference between a great defender and merely a good one is often a split-second decision. Roberson’s feel for the little in-between moments that end up hopeless for most guys is part of what makes him so valuable defensively – watch him ride the middle and make a spot-on read in a spot where most guys lazily commit one way or the other and give up a wide open three.

A similar defender stylistically in Danny Green gets all the credit as the league’s preeminent transition stopper, but Roberson is nipping at his heels.

The effect on the team scheme has been the most noticeable result. Roberson has worked diligently with assistant coach Darko Rajakovic on the mental side of his game – watching film, learning opposing play calls and honing his three years of experience into a weapon.

“He’s already an amazing one-on-one [defender] – he was when he first came into the league,” Adams said of Roberson. “His steps are now really just helping everyone else on defense. He’s able to understand and read the plays, and understand, like, some plays that are just smoke screen. It helps me out a lot on pick-and-rolls.”

It’s easy to see what he means. See if you can catch the smart ways Roberson (#21 in white, top of the screen) influences this Utah Jazz possession:

First, he comes across to show Rudy Gobert a body as Gobert rolls away from the Thunder’s trap on ball-handler George Hill:

Just as quickly, though, Roberson spots the real action: Gobert is setting up to screen Roberson himself, allowing Roberson’s man, Hayward, to pop up and catch the ball on the curl:

Roberson reads the Gobert pick, and beats Hayward around the corner. Hayward smartly looks to reverse the screen with Gobert, but here’s Roberson’s slithery quality again – he stays attached to Hayward’s hip through the smallest of gaps.

By the time Hayward has jumped for Hill’s pass and landed, Roberson is right back in his grill:

Adams can rotate back to Gobert to prevent the lob, the Thunder’s help defenders can stay home on three-point shooters, and Hayward is stuck looking for a bailout.

“If he didn’t do that, the dude would be going downhill against me and that’d be tragic,” Adams said in his unique style. “Exactly what we don’t want.”

All over the court, Roberson just makes stuff easier for guys. A huge percentage of his steals seem to come in areas that lead to fast breaks – part of the Thunder’s life blood offensively. Oklahoma City picks up over two extra points off turnovers for every 36 minutes he spends on the court compared to off, and they add nearly four fast break points in the same time span.

His teammates rave about his team-first attitude, and his coach goes out of his way to note the finer details of his game which have improved. Roberson just keeps doing what he’s always been doing.

“I go out there, just try to give it all my energy and effort to the defensive end,” Roberson told Basketball Insiders. “The guys follow suit, they feed off the energy and it helps them.

“The same way it works with the crowd, you feed off the crowd. I try to be the crowd for my team.”

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

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NBA Daily: Brandon Ingram’s Growth A Perfect Fit Next To Zion Williamson

Zion Williamson has yet to play in the NBA. But as Brandon Ingram continues turning heads, it’s easy to envision he and Williamson leading the Pelicans to perennial title contention – and their snug positional and stylistic fit is the biggest reason why. Jack Winter writes.

Jack Winter

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Zion Williamson screamed when Brandon Ingram connected on the tough pull-up jumper that gave the New Orleans Pelicans a last-second lead over the Utah Jazz.

The rookie was watching from the bench as his team’s breakout star inbounded the ball, then used an Allen Iverson-esque cut to catch the ball high up the right wing on the other side of the floor. Ingram immediately took one dribble with his right hand. As Royce O’Neale trailed on his hip, Ingram put the ball down once more with his left, using his ridiculous strides to create enough separation to get to his spot and launch.

Buckets.

It was Ingram’s final make of the night, one among a bevy of highlight-reel plays he made during the best performance of his career to date. His score also put the Pelicans up one with just 0.2 seconds remaining, an advantage they needed to secure a win in overtime after Rudy Gobert was fouled as time expired on the ensuing possession, tying the game by making one of two at the line.

Williamson’s roar no doubt came in the context of those circumstances more than any other. Ingram capped another eye-popping outing with a would-be game-winning shot reserved for superstars, and New Orleans continued its strong recent play by beating the league’s hottest team in front of a raucous home crowd.

Obviously, that’s more than enough justification for Williamson’s enthusiasm. But as the most hyped draft prospect since LeBron James readies to make his long-awaited NBA debut next week, Ingram’s ongoing evolution into his ideal co-star gives Williamson and the Pelicans ample reason to be excited – and the reason for rest of the league to be scared.

A sizable portion of Williamson’s theoretical value stems from his unique two-way versatility. It’s universally agreed upon that New Orleans, especially going forward, will be best served slotting him at center in lineups that maximize his athletic gifts. But Williamson surely won’t be up to the task of being his team’s last line of defense as a rookie, and even prime Draymond Green didn’t start at the five until the Golden State Warriors were threatened in the playoffs. It simply asks too much of undersized bigs to play without a traditional center for 48 minutes.

The thing about Ingram’s rapid development, though, is that it further weaponizes Williamson and the Pelicans no matter what position the latter is playing.

Ingram’s growth is layered and multi-dimensional. He’s clearly sturdier than he was a year ago, continuing to fill out his body at 22 years old. His handle is tighter, providing additional comfort with the ball he’s using to create passing lanes that otherwise wouldn’t exist. But the main source of Ingram’s sweeping improvement is even more obvious than thicker shoulders and a defter handle: shooting.

That’s no secret. Ingram is shooting 40.6 percent on 6.2 three-point attempts per game this season, easily surpassing career norms. He’s making 46.8 percent of his shots from mid-range, another career-high and borderline elite mark league-wide.

Still, skepticism about the longevity of Ingram’s newfound shooting prowess abounds. Understandably so, too. Last season, he joined DeMar DeRozan and Tony Parker as the only non-bigs in the NBA to use more than 23 percent of their team’s possessions while posting a three-point rate below .13. A half-season sample size doesn’t erase that recent history, nor Ingram’s similar struggles to make an impact from deep during his first two years in the league.

What does? His 86 percent shooting from the free throw line, nearly 20 points higher than his combined career number before the season tipped off. The influence of lauded New Orleans shooting coach Fred Vinson can’t be discounted, either.

Bottom line: All indications suggest Ingram’s rise as a shooter is real.

Even if the scope of his growth was limited to that development alone, Ingram would still project as a snug fit next to Williamson. His 42.8 percent accuracy on catch-and-shoot triples ensures the floor will be properly spaced when Alvin Gentry slots Williamson at power forward, and it will leave the paint wide open when the Pelicans go small with Ingram and Williamson up front.

Williamson, like all high-usage attackers with a shaky jumper, will always be best served surrounded by four legitimate threats from deep. Still, it goes without saying he’ll get more comfortable navigating the tight offensive confines of playing in a traditional lineup as he gains experience. What’s far less certain is whether Williamson will ever become the type of player equipped to close games with the ball in his hands.

Ingram, as he so forcefully affirmed against the Jazz, already is. The high release point on his shot allows him to get a makable look off no matter how the defense is playing him. Ingram still has room to grow as a playmaker, but this season he’s passing out of drives more often than Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo, and he has a better understanding of mapping the floor in pick-and-roll play.

Ingram may top out as a great team’s second-best player. New Orleans would obviously prefer that he ultimately becomes capable of shepherding a championship-level offense all by himself. But that’s what’s so enviable about the Pelicans’ long-term prospects. If Williamson comes close to reaching his potential, they’ll be good enough to compete for titles even if Ingram’s development stalls – and the former proves unable to play alpha dog in crunch time.

What that means for this season remains to be seen. But as New Orleans, buoyed by the addition of Williamson, claws for a playoff berth over its remainder, pay special attention to the team’s identity at the end of close games. Those high-pressure situations won’t just be a showcase for the incredible gifts of the Pelicans’ young stars, but could serve as a harbinger of how Ingram and Williamson will co-exist in crunch time once they’re leading New Orleans to annual title contention.

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NBA Daily: Trade Targets – Southeast Division

Like all divisions, teams of the Southeast Division have their specific preferences pertaining to players they’d like to move from their rosters. Drew Maresca identifies six players he feels teams might move before the Feb. 6 trade deadline.

Drew Maresca

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With the trade deadline only a few weeks away, teams are zeroing in on potential deals. Some teams hope to improve for a playoff push, while others are looking to capitalize on the urgency of contenders. Whichever side of that equation your favorite team finds itself on, they are surely weighing all of their options.

Basketball Insiders’ Trade Targets series has already examined the Northwest, Southwest and Central divisions. Now, we turn our attention to the Southeast Division, where we identify six players who should be moved before the Feb. 6 deadline. To be considered a trade target, a player must either add value to a contender, represent a salary dump or have been featured in rumors, now or in the past. Rumors and/or speculation factored into our trade targets, but we identified players who we feel should be moved regardless if they’ve been named in rumors or not.

The Southeast Division has its share of mediocrity. In fact, the Miami HEAT are the division’s only winning team as of Thursday. But don’t be fooled — all five Southeast teams are likely to be relatively active come the trade deadline. While the HEAT may be the division’s lone buyers, the other four have players they’d like to move for salary purposes and/or prefer to swap for assets. And many of those players can still play a real role elsewhere. So let’s jump in with the most interesting of the bunch:

Aaron Gordon – $19,863,636

This one won’t sit too well with Orlando Magic fans, but it’s practical. The Magic have a relatively young team. And they have too many big men for all to get a good amount of playing time.

Big man or not, Gordon is among the Magic’s best trade piece – he’s only 24 years old and has probably yet to reach his prime. Further, he’s on a relatively affordable deal through 2022 and can profoundly impact the game on both ends of the floor.

This isn’t the first time Gordon finds himself in trade rumors, but it might be the year they come to fruition. Gordon is in his sixth season with the team. While he’s actually regressed this season in terms of points per game (13.5 points per game), he’s still a dynamic offensive weapon and one of the team’s best defenders. His trade value won’t get too much higher; but losing Gordon doesn’t hurt as much this season considering the arrival of Jonathan Isaac as a defensive stopper — and the fact that the team signed Nikola Vucevic to a 4-year/$100 million deal last Summer.

And it’s not as if the Magic don’t have other areas to address. They still lack an elite point guard and need help offensively – they’re 25th in offensive rating and 24th in assists. They should check in with any teams looking to offload high-end guards. While Markelle Fultz has shown flashes this season and Evan Fournier has played at an All-Star level, they don’t have a difference-maker in the backcourt. Swapping Gordon for a floor general or elite scoring guard might be their best bet at securing one.

Justise Winslow – $13,000,000

The Miami HEAT need help. Provided, they’re playing better than anyone thought they would in the 2019-20 season. But they need more to do more and become real contenders this year.

I know what you’re thinking – Justise Winslow has been hurt for much of this season. And when healthy, he’s an above-average defender, playmaker and shooter. And that’s right. But the HEAT need help, and they need it now.

The HEAT badly want to add star power, and they need to improve defensively to compete with the best in the East in a seven-game series. Winslow cannot be shipped out for a one-year rental. He’s far too talented for that, but the alternative is even less likely. The HEAT will not part with Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro, Kendrick Nunn or Jimmy Butler. Duncan Robinson, who is also unlikely to be dealt, wouldn’t return nearly as much, anyway. And what’s more, the HEAT are limited in their ability to add talent; their 2021 and 2023 first-round picks are owed thank to past trades. So if the HEAT are serious about upgrading their roster soon, Winslow is the obvious sacrificial lamb.

Besides, the team is 21-8 without Winslow and 7-4 with him. So while he’s clearly productive, he’s also expendable.

But the HEAT can’t move too quickly. Winslow is only 23 years old, adds borderline elite two-way backcourt skills and is signed for a relative bargain through 2022 (3 years/$39 million).

While the HEAT would obviously benefit from a healthy Winslow, they may prefer to swap him for a player who’s more likely to contribute this season, as well as in the future. And if Miami really believes it can win this season, trading Winslow likely returns a major asset without shipping out players who have developed chemistry with one another and who have been contributors for the current iteration of the team.

Davis Bertans – $7,000,000

Let’s be clear – the Wizards have not made Davis Bertans available. But they should listen to offers for anyone on their roster not named Bradley Beal – and they should be open to moving him, too, for the right – albeit ridiculously high – price.

Bertans is in the middle of a breakout season, which includes scoring 15.3 points per game on 43.4% three-point shooting (after scoring 8 points per game in 2018-19), and we know that shooters become increasingly popular around the trade deadline. Bertans is even more attractive considering he is in the final year of his $14 million deal – so he’s affordable and carries no long-term salary implications.

Despite recently returning from an injury, Bertans has played well enough to attract serious interest. According to Chase Hughes of NBC Sports Washington, as many as five teams are interested in Bertans: the Atlanta Hawks, Boston Celtics, Denver Nuggets Los Angeles Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers.

And while the Wizards have appeared against the idea of moving Bertans, they should start entertaining it. Sure, he’s in only his fourth season in the league, but he’s already 27 years old and eligible for a new contract this offseason. Meanwhile, the Wizards have a long way to go before they should consider dedicating serious cap room to veteran role players with whom they won’t seriously compete.

The Wizards should gauge the market for Bertans and pull the trigger on a deal that adds young, unproven talent and/or unprotected first-round picks. What ultimately happens pertaining to Bertans is anyone’s guess; but if the Wizards can add a younger, unestablished player with a higher upside, they have to do it.

Marvin Williams – $15,006,250

The Hornets need to establish an on-court identity. They added Terry Rozier this past offseason and boast young, high-upside players in Miles Bridges, rookie PJ Washington and breakout star Devonte’ Graham. But everyone else should be available for the right price.

The first Hornet who should be traded from Charlotte is Marvin Williams, a true three-and-D guy who is shooting a near career-best 52.6% on two-pointers and 37.7% from three-point range. Williams is someone who plugs into just about all contending rosters. And since his contract expires following this season, there would are no long-term salary implications.

The Hornets might be deceived into thinking they can make a run at the playoffs, but they shouldn’t be. They are currently in 11th place in the Eastern Conference and trail the Nets – current owners of the eighth seed – by five whole games. And while the Nets have their share of issues to solve, they just recently returned Caris LeVert and Kyrie Irving from injuries and should play better from here on out.

And even if the Hornets could sneak into the playoffs, what good would a quick exit do for a team that has only a select few building blocks on its roster? The Hornets should be proactively engaging other teams to determine what Williams could return. But a deal seems even more likely if the Hornets drop farther out of the eighth seed before Feb. 6.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist – $13,000,000

Speaking of the Hornets, they should look to move out from under the contracts of more than just Marvin Williams.

Until last season, head coach James Borrego’s first in charge of the Hornets, Kidd-Gilchrist was a key player in the Hornets rotation. He was a 25 minute per game guy through his first six seasons with the Hornets. Last season, he dipped to a career-low 18.4 minutes per game. This season has seen another substantial step back to 13.3.

Clearly, Borrego prefers playing younger players in hopes of organic growth. That means that representatives for guys like Kidd-Gilchrist must begin looking elsewhere to secure their players’ playing time and opportunities.

Kidd-Gilchrist is still an above-average defender. Rookie Cody Martin stole away some of his minutes as a defensive stopper, but his utility on the defensive end should result in spot minutes off the bench for a contender looking to throw bodies at guys like James Harden, Jimmy Butler, etc. And while he’s never been an effective shooter, Kidd-Gilchrist posted a career-high 34% on three-pointers last season.

A change of scenery is probably Kidd-Gilchrist’s best bet. And with unrestricted free agency ahead in 2020, Kidd-Gilchrist should hope to land on a team that allows him to demonstrate his ability to defend and, to a degree, shoot while not overburdening him offensively.

Chandler Parsons – $25,102,512

The Atlanta Hawks have five or so players around whom they hope to build their team in the coming years. They are all 22 years old or younger. Veterans are not on that list. And with Allen Crabbe being moved on Thursday for Jeff Teague, there’s one fewer vet who entered the season on the Hawks roster still around.

And that brings us to Chandler Parsons – someone who this writer hopes to see get an opportunity elsewhere. Despite it seeming as though he’s been around for decades, Parsons is only 31 years old. After fighting his way back from a number of knee injuries, he’s now healthy and able to contribute. Only no one outside of Atlanta seems to notice.

With the Hawks playing their younger players – and rightfully so – Parsons clearly lacks a role with the team. He’s appeared in only five games in 2019-20 so far despite being healthy for the majority of it, and he hasn’t logged 17 or more minutes in any game thus far.

But that does not mean he can’t contribute– especially to a team looking to add scoring punch off of the bench. According to Adrian Wojnarowski and Tim MacMahon of ESPN, Parsons impressed the Grizzlies coaching staff and team in five-on-five scrimmages last season, and he told Bryan Kalbrosky of HoopsHype: “Obviously, I want to play. I want to help. I’m healthy and I’m in a contract year, so I want to show the team that I’m healthy and I can play and I can definitely help this team win.”

And what’s more, Parsons’ contract is an expiring one. So teams looking to add scoring, without affecting their future salary cap, should consider Parsons. Once upon a time, Parsons was a borderline All-Star who topped out at 16.6 points per game back in 2013-14. No one is under the impression that he’ll contribute anything near 16.6 points, but he’s an established scorer who’s been resting for much of the past few seasons. He’s a career 37.3% three-point shooter, and he adds good length as a true 6-foot-9 forward. Hopefully Parsons gets another chance to prove his worth.

With less than a month to go until the trade deadline, teams are almost certainly circling in on deals. And with so few trades being made so far this season, observers are waiting patiently for the first shoe to drop. But trade deadline deals hit us like a snow squall — quickly and with little warning. So everyone should hunker down and get ready for the mid-season main event.

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NBA Daily: Trade Targets – Southwest Division

The Southwest Division offers many intriguing options heading toward the annual trade deadline, Ben Nadeau writes, but how the chips fall is still anybody’s best guess.

Ben Nadeau

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The NBA landscape is oddly unfamiliar at this point in the season.

The Milwaukee Bucks are ruthlessly destroying everything in sight, the Golden State Warriors are headed toward a top-five draft pick in June and the New York Knicks are struggling to keep their heads afloat after a mid-season coaching change. OK, fine, that last one might ground us in reality, honestly — but things are looking up, at long last!

And yet, that one constant looms large: Feb. 6 and the annual trade deadline. Buyers, sellers — or wherever your favorite franchise might be — now is the time to push all-in, press the eject button or purchase a super-rare opal from a sketchy diamond salesman that may or may not give a player improved basketballing prowesses.

But if such an uncut gem is unavailable to front offices across the league, then they could do worse than to move for these Southwest Division-based players ahead of next month’s all-important deadline.

The Soft Resetters

Courtney Lee — $12,759,670
Solomon Hill — $12,758,781
E’Twaun Moore — $8,664,928
Marco Belinelli — $5,846,154

All four veterans total nearly 40 combined NBA seasons, offering experience, shot-making abilities and locker room leadership. Further, to some, they could represent cap relief. If a team is a deadline seller — the aforementioned Knicks, Cleveland Cavaliers or Detroit Pistons, for example — then these contract-ready players could help them tread water, shed longer deals or gain draft pick collateral. So for the Marcus Morris, Kevin Love and Andre Drummond-type contributors on the market, they won’t come without some deal-matching gymnastics — that’s where players like Lee, Hill and Moore can come in handy, too.

Hell, it’s also why the Houston Rockets got in trouble earlier this year for giving Nene a two-year deal worth $20 million in bonuses, thus making the long-time man the ideal trade fodder. Instead, the NBA voided the deal, ruling that any trade with the Brazilian would only be worth $2.6 in outgoing salary. The Rockets, in salary cap hell, would’ve loved to use Nene in a mid-season deal — perhaps for a name further down on this list, Andre Iguodala — but their creative deal-making was ultimately stymied.

Elsewhere, Moore, 30, has started 29 games for the New Orleans Pelicans in 2019-20 — at a steady 10.2 points per contest, nonetheless — but with Zion Williamson set to return next week and a full youth movement underway, he’s expendable. Better, he’s affordable for those looking for a perimeter punch (39.1 percent from three-point range) or a more cap space in the summertime.

Lee, on the other hand, has struggled to find time in a backcourt led by Luke Doncic. With he has a massively-expiring deal and a fantastic reputation behind-the-scenes, it’s not hard to imagine Lee moving elsewhere in the next 20 days as the Mavericks try to bolster their postseason chances.

Belinelli, 33, has been less effective in his older age, but boasts 65 career postseason games and a low-risk contract. Should the San Antonio Spurs pull the plug — head coach Gregg Popovich likely feels strongly otherwise — then Belinelli and others could be intriguing trade targets.

As for Hill, who has labored to stay healthy in recent seasons, he has another bloated expiring deal — although he’ll likely be most valuable to Memphis as freed up cap space come June.

The Calculated Risks

Andre Iguodala — $17,185,185
Jae Crowder — $7,815,533

The time has finally come: Free Andre Iguodala, you cowards!

Since the former NBA Finals MVP was dealt to the Grizzlies last summer, he’s been stuck in the mud. In an old fashioned standoff, Iguodala hasn’t appeared yet for the rebuilding franchise, while Memphis hasn’t budged from their first-round-pick-or-no-deal mindset from the offseason. Will they budge? Which teams will blink first?

The Los Angeles Lakers, always in need of more playoff-poised athletes to put next to LeBron James, might be willing. Houston, still in luxury cap hell, probably can’t finagle adding $17 million in cap space without obliterating its already-teetering-off-the-edge-of-the-abyss built roster.

Last time Iguodala was featured for the Warriors, the 35-year-old averaged just 5.7 points and 3.7 rebounds, but his defensive abilities and postseason record speaks for itself. The expectation is that Iguodala will be moved — but to whom and for how much? Well, that’s the six-month-old question on everybody’s mind, even today.

Iguodala, of note, will be an unrestricted free agent come June.

Crowder, 29, is on his fifth team since 2012 but, by and large, he’s impressed at every stop thus far. In 2019-20, the veteran standout has started all 38 games for Memphis, tallying 10.4 points and 6.1 rebounds per contest on a paltry (and expiring) $7.8 million dollar deal. Should the Grizzlies clear the deck, Iguodala included, Crowder has 50 games of postseason experience and won’t come with an outrageous price tag — both in regards to outgoing cost or future commitments.

The Leap Of Faiths

DeMar DeRozan — $27,739,975
Jrue Holiday — $26,131,111

This would be the all-in push. The all-or-nothing swing. The so-called leap of faith. Two stars in two different places in their careers — both equally excellent trade candidates for different reasons.

DeRozan, 30, is still chugging along as the leader of San Antonio, and he’ll likely finish with an average over 20 points per game for the seventh consecutive season. Healthy as they come, the high-flyer has played in 72-plus games during every campaign since 2014-15 — and he still knows how to enact a healthy dose of revenge, too. DeRozan won’t be a cheap option for many franchises, but might he be the final missing piece somewhere?

Such a move, naturally, would have to come with Popovich’s blessing and acceptance that the Spurs aren’t postseason-bound for the first time since 1997. At 17-22, San Antonio currently ranks 9th in a stingy Western Conference with five teams within three games of them as of Jan. 16. Betting against Popovich is a sin, but those odds, for the first time in a long time, aren’t looking fantastic for the perennial stalwarts.

Should the Spurs look to jumpstart a mini-rebuild — Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Lonnie Walker and Keldon Johnson in tow — then there will certainly be suitors for DeRozan.

As for Holiday, he’s the division’s big-ticket item — if he’s still available, of course. Last the world had heard, the Pelicans had retreated from the offseason position of an unmovable Holiday, the new leader and cornerstone post-Anthony Davis. And yet, the Pelicans are one of those teams within breathing distance of the Spurs and a postseason trip for their budding core, so moving Holiday may not behoove them anymore.

Given Williamson’s assumed presence in the season’s second half, Brandon Ingram’s rise to stardom and Lonzo Ball’s newfound settledness, Holiday might be best served to stay put. Still, David Griffin, New Orleans’ executive vice president of basketball operations, is no stranger to the wheelin’ and dealin’ nature of February, and everybody has a price.

Holiday — 19.6 points, 6.5 assists and 1.7 steals per game, plus a back-to-back member on an All-Defensive Team — would elevate any roster in the league. If the 10-year veteran is, in fact, on the table, Griffin has likely been fielding offers for quite some time already. Should Williamson’s introduction to the rotation go seamlessly and the Pelicans firmly cement themselves as postseason contenders, however, then Holiday will be the perfect player to get them there.

With less than a month to go before the NBA’s trade deadline, the proceedings will only get wilder from here. While the entirety of the Southwest Division is still involved in a hectic playoff chase, far too much could change over the remaining weeks. Who will push all-in? Who will pull back? Are the Spurs going to concede their historic streak of postseason appearances? And how will the Pelicans look with Williamson in the fold?

These are questions without answers at this point.

In another month, we’ll have seen the future and then some — but which way it falls now is still anybody’s best guess.

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