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NBA Daily: Areas of Concern: Southeast Division

Ben Nadeau continues Basketball Insiders’ “Areas Of Concern” series with a look at the Southeast Division.

Ben Nadeau

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It’s early November, which means it’s time to make some rash overreactions — right? Well, maybe it’s a bit early to hit those panic buttons, but there are certainly some areas of concern for every NBA franchise. This week at Basketball Insiders, the team has tackled those big (and small) in-the-room elephants to get a better understanding of each squad. If you’re behind — listen, it was a busy week, we get it — then here’s your rapid-fire recap.

Spencer Davies tackled the Central Division on Monday; David Yapkowitz hit up the Northeast on Wednesday; Drew Maresca handled the pesky Atlantic; while Shane Rhodes grabbed the Southwest to finish up the work week. Which brings our coast-to-coast tour bus to the Southeast Division for the next entry in the series. Analyzing the division is no easy task as all of them seem headed in different directions at this time — but whether they’re tanking, experimenting or combusting, every franchise could do with a tweak here and there. With that in mind, let’s check out the current statuses of the Atlanta Hawks, Charlotte Hornets, Miami HEAT, Orlando Magic and Washington Wizards.

Atlanta Hawks: Smooth Sailing To A Top Draft Pick

This feels like slightly cheating, to kick off these mini-capsules by saying there are no true areas of concern for Atlanta because they’re exactly where they should be: losing. In reality, the Hawks are in the midst of an important rebuild and even an unlikely postseason berth is not worth missing out on another top draft pick. Adding Zion Williamson or Cam Reddish to a core that already includes the talented Trae Young, plus John Collins, Kevin Huerter, Taurean Prince and Omari Spellman, should be a salivating prospect for the Hawks’ front office.

However, since it’s just the early stages of a long, long campaign, let’s assume that Atlanta wants to win a couple more games along the way. In that case, what should they do? On one hand, they could do worse than playing veteran Jeremy Lin more than 17 minutes per game, that’s for sure. Lin’s signing in Brooklyn was unfortunately marred by two gnarly injuries, but he’s proven to be adaptable and reliable at every other stop along the way. Even better, Lin’s minutes don’t need to come at the expense of Young either, as the former has experience playing alongside Kemba Walker in years past.

Still, the Hawks benefit most from racking up those losses while developing the younger portion of their roster — so don’t look for a major tune-up in strategy anytime soon.

Charlotte Hornets: Where Are The Kids?

On the opposite end of the spectrum are the Charlotte Hornets, an in-between team with a new coach and a mostly re-run roster that’s done well to get off on their 6-6 start. As of today, the Hornets have the fourth-best offensive rating (114.3) in the NBA and a nearly top-ten defensive unit (107.4) to make the early returns even more impressive. The aforementioned Walker is still red-hot, but Nicolas Batum is playing the second-most minutes per game on the roster right now and 32-year-old Marvin Williams comes in at fourth — but at what long-term cost? The Hornets are shooting like an elite franchise currently — 12.8 three-pointers on 36.8 percent — but in 2017-18, this roster converted just 10 of them per game, a mark on the basement end of proceedings. That high tally also heavily relies on Walker staying at his scorching 4.1 three-pointers per game average as well. If they want to compete with the likes of the Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors down the line, they’ll need everybody to continue contributing at this rate, if not even more.

That, naturally, is where Malik Monk comes in.

It’s a well-trodden subject at this point, but it was a frustrating rookie campaign for Monk last season. This year, the 6-foot-3 guard looks like a different animal altogether. Monk is averaging 13.3 points on 41.7 percent shooting in just 23.3 minutes per game — so it stands to reason that once the Hornets truly let Monk loose, they should benefit immensely. To the Hornets’ credit, they’re at not trying to fix something that isn’t broken, for now, which is the second-best scoring bench unit league-wide. Presumably, Monk will move into Jeremy Lamb’s starting spot and newcomer Miles Bridges will receive a deserved boost in minutes before too long. Ultimately, the conference’s top dogs run deep rotations and the quicker Charlotte gets their interesting collection of prospects — Dwayne Bacon and Willy Hernangomez included — going, the better they’ll be by springtime.

Miami HEAT: Just A Star Addition Away?

Originally, this blurb was about Miami’s need to specifically trade for Jimmy Butler. As of Saturday morning, that ship has officially sailed with the Butler move to Philadelphia. Superstars win championships in this modern day landscape and the HEAT happen to be one of the only strong postseason candidates without a bonafide juggernaut. Hassan Whiteside is a still a double-double machine, but he’s not a top-drawer, go-to guarantee at the end of games either. Surprisingly, Miami has imparted most of their scoring burden upon Josh Richardson, a 25-year-old that offers great two-way promise, but he can’t measure up against the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kyrie Irving or Kawhi Leonard just yet.

That’s no slight against Richardson — 20.7 points, 4.5 rebounds, 3.1 assists per game — of course, but it’s hard to believe Miami can keep pace without the acquisition of a star. It’s no shock that the HEAT were interested in Butler as his hard-nosed, defensive-minded prowess would have been the perfect linchpin for a roster that’s chock-full of second options. It’s safe to assume that the HEAT are as close as to a postseason lock as possible, but it’s tough to pit them against the upper echelon without further reinforcements. Through 11 games, Miami has shot and defended admirably — but they also haven’t beaten any game-changing competition either.

So much will happen between now and February’s deadline, but the HEAT could become serious conference contenders if the right deal eventually comes their way.

Orlando Magic: A Slow Start For Isaac, Bamba

Over the offseason, the hype for the towering Jonathan Isaac and Mohamed Bamba duo took on a life of its own — and who could blame those onlookers? The talented Isaac spent most his rookie year injured, but the 6-foot-10 forward showed flashes of absolute brilliance at times. Joined by Bamba (and the recently retained Aaron Gordon), it was difficult not to get excited about that trio’s innate potential, particularly so if these two promising prospects pulled through in fast succession. In retrospect, Bamba was never going to immediately take over for veteran and franchise stalwart Nikola Vucevic at center, especially under new head coach Steve Clifford, but it’s been a slower start than anticipated for sure.

In his limited minutes, Bamba has certainly impressed though: Every time the rookie has logged 20-plus minutes, he’s also grabbed six or more rebounds. Then Bamba notched his first-ever double-double (12 points, 11 rebounds) in just under 16 minutes against the San Antonio Spurs last week — hell, he’s already had a five-block game to boot.

As for Isaac, things have become a bit trickier once more. We’re yet to see the dominant Isaac that was on full display during the Las Vegas Summer League, with the second-year professional really only showing out in two contests in 2018-19 thus far. In October’s win on the road at Boston, Isaac put up 18 points and 12 rebounds on 66.7 percent from the field; three days later he went for 10 points, seven rebounds and four blocks in a loss against Portland. But other than that, his game log has been sprinkled with 3-for-8 or 0-for-6 shooting performances — and the worst of it? Isaac is now dealing with another ankle sprain, the same ailment that shelved him for much of his first foray into professional basketball.

With the Magic involved in the convoluted Eastern Conference playoff picture for the time being, the overall outlook here may not change until closer to the trade deadline — and that’s OK too. Issac and Bamba are just 21 and 20 years old, respectively, so there are plenty of opportunities left here to peak together. Still, it’s hard to ignore how much better the Magic will be once this fearsome pair is healthy and fully unleashed.

Washington Wizards: Burn It All Down

Man, what a bummer this has been for the Wizards, huh?

After Friday’s disappointing loss to Orlando, Washington finds themselves in 14th place, ahead of just the 1-10 Cleveland Cavaliers, and tied for the second-worst record in the entire league. For a team with John Wall, Bradley Beal, Dwight Howard and plenty of other valuable contributors, that’s simply inexcusable. Even owner Ted Leonsis couldn’t resist piling on when NBA commissioner Adam Silver was asked about the rise in scoring this season, adding bluntly: “They just have to play us.”

And, truthfully, it’s a whole lot worse than that. Their defensive rating is second-worst (114.6), while their offensive rating is not much better (104.5, 26th) and their assist ratio (16.2, 21st) remains toward the cellar as well. Words are getting passive-aggressive already and, when you zoom out the camera, this melodrama has been driving headlong into oncoming traffic for years now. Washington even added Austin Rivers and Howard to this ill-fitting puzzle with no corner pieces and genuinely thought it would work out — this very writer bought in, to be fair — but it’s not even a month into the season and here they stand: fraught and frayed as ever.

So, the Wizards’ areas of concern are, frankly, everywhere. Questions that must be asked, again: Can they overcome these chemistry issues? Are Wall and Beal still the backcourt pairing of the future? And where does the maxed out Otto Porter Jr. fit in at this point? (As of now, the answer is not well.) Once more, these are not new things to address — these are outstanding, important issues that the Wizards have pushed aside time and time repeated.

There’s obviously an insane amount of talent on this roster and November is far too soon to pull the plug — that should go without saying. In the East alone, the Wizards could play .500-or-so basketball for months and remain right in the postseason hunt, so there should be no immediate rush. But after multiple seasons of this head-scratching frustration, the mind can’t help but wonder when the front office will finally push that self-destruct button and start anew.

In the end, it’s still early, but for most of these teams — you’re excused, Atlanta — they’re still trying to figure out where they stand in the conference hierarchy. Three of the franchises boast new head coaches and those rotations won’t just magically reveal themselves, those fleshed-out nuances take time. In any case, seeing more Monk and Bamba, for example, would be an inarguable boon for their playoff-hopeful clubs. Miami has played up to their deep roster, but an injection of star power could make them a darkhorse contender overnight; while the Wizards need an injection — or an ejection, based on your viewpoint — of just about everything.

Either way, it’ll be intriguing to check back on these capsules closer to the trade deadline: potential overreactions, young stud breakouts and blockbuster transactions — it’s all bubbling there, right under the surface, for better or for worse.

Ben Nadeau is a Seattle-based writer in his second year with Basketball Insiders. For five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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NBA Daily: Trade Watch: Southwest Division

Drew Maresca identifies and breaks down the potential trade candidates in the Southwest Division.

Drew Maresca

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As of Thursday, 60 percent of the Southwest division was at or above .500. The Western Conference’s brutal competition will likely fix that as the season grinds on, but the number of surprises in the division thus far is shocking – be they pleasant or otherwise.

Basketball Insiders continues its Trade Watch series with an eye on the Southwest Division, examining players that might be on the move and teams that should be looking to wheel and deal.

  1. Houston needs Ariza (and vice versa)

The Houston Rockets need help on the defensive end of the floor; they will almost certainly look to add some wing defenders before the trade deadline in February. The Minnesota Timberwolves passed on their offer of four future first round picks, Brandon Knight and Marquese Chriss for Jimmy Butler. But fortunately for the Rockets, there’s a player that should fit right in who may be available via trade – Trevor Ariza.

Yes, he would come at a price; but the Rockets see what life is like without Ariza patrolling the perimeter, and something or someone must stop the bleeding. The Rockers are 6-7 through 13 games. They need to recapture some of the magic they tapped into last season, and Ariza is part of what’s missing. They won’t be able to execute a deal until December 15 per NBA rules, which can’t come soon enough for the defenseless Rockets.

  1. New Orleans should be buyers at the deadline

This is the season in which the Pelicans must prove to Anthony Davis they’re serious about building a winner around him. They made nice additions this offseason in Nikola Mirotic and Julius Randle, and they have a nice combo guard in Jrue Holiday.

But still, they’re only 7-7 despite Davis’ extraordinary play. They need a second star (and then some).mFortunately for New Orleans, such a player should be available – assuming he returns fully recovered from injury this season: Kevin Love. The Cavs are not interested in remaining competitive – in fact, they’re nearly openly welcoming losses at this point (Hello, Zion).  The Pelicans can include Mirotic, E’Twaun Moore and others in a deal, which should be a net positive for the Pelicans depending on Love’s health.

  1. DeAndre Jordan

Early reports out of Dallas are that DeAndre Jordan isn’t overwhelmingly popular in the Mavericks’ locker room. And that’s fine because Jordan doesn’t align with the Mavericks’ young core of Luka Doncic and Dennis Smith Jr. Dallas should shop Jordan to a team that’s in need of an athletic center.

The Wizards have looked better at times with Dwight Howard on the floor than they did prior to his return. So why not upgrade? After all, it doesn’t seem like they’re ready to break-up the Wall-Beal core.

In return, the Wizards would probably be willing to build a deal around Otto Porter – who, at 25, arguably aligns much better with the Mavericks’ young core. While Porter’s deal extends as long as two years beyond Jordan’s one-year contract, the fact that the Mavericks traded the rights to their 2019 first-round pick to acquire Doncic makes nabbing a young, well-rounded player like Porter all the more appealing.

  1. Spurs need help at point guard

The Spurs’ 2018-point guard plan broke down before the season started with Dejounte Murray’s knee injury – and the team still needs help. While they don’t seem to have the assets to return high profile point guards like Terry Rozier or Goran Dragic, there are alternate options.

The Knicks have an abundance of point guards, none of whom stands out as a huge difference-maker for them this season, but any of whom could help as a short-term solution in San Antonio. And what’s more, the Knicks probably wouldn’t require much in return – with one caveat being that they prefer to move Courtney Lee or Tim Hardaway Jr., as well. Fortunately for the Spurs, Lee can contribute nicely in Coach Gregg Popovich’s system, assuming he gets healthy sometime soon.

The Spurs should look to flip some of the players who aren’t currently in the rotation for a capable point guard. While New York isn’t sending out capable players for free, the price tag on some of these guards shouldn’t be too high.

  1. Mike Conley Jr. and Marc Gasol

Both Conley and Gasol are still members of the Memphis Grizzlies, and there have been no rumors of either of them being shipped elsewhere. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be.

The Grizzlies hold first place in the Southwest Division at 8-5 with wins against the Jazz (twice), Nuggets, Pacers and Sixers. They’ve dropped some easy ones, too. Basically, they’re good, but the cold, hard reality of the situation is that advancing beyond the second-round out west will require more than what they currently have on their roster.

Meanwhile, Conley and Gasol are still assets, but aging ones who will return exponentially less every year they’re not moved. Conley is still playing well in his twelfth year, averaging 18.6 points, 5.6 assists and 1.2 steals per game. And Gasol is averaging 14.8 points, 8.8 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game in his eleventh season. It would behoove the Grizzlies to put feelers out there to any team that fancies themselves buyers in the lead up to the deadline. The time is now to embrace a rebuild around Jaren Jackson Jr. and get everything they can out of their star point guard and center.

In all likelihood, teams will only become more desperate as the season plays out. With the Philadelphia-Minnesota deal in the books, other teams are sure to follow suit. Considering the parity, every team in the Southwest Division should seriously consider making moves — after all, the division is still entirely up for grabs.

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NBA Daily: Role Players Vital to Pacers’ Success

In a star-heavy league, Jordan Hicks takes a look at why role players are so vital to the Pacers’ wins this season.

Jordan Hicks

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In today’s NBA, you have to have star players if you want to compete. Gone are the days of having one or two All-NBA caliber players take you deep into the playoffs. Nowadays, with as much talent as there is in the league, you need three or four. And for teams located in northern California, you might even need five.

But does this apply to everyone?

The Indiana Pacers have started the season off on a quiet note. They aren’t doing anything incredibly flashy, nor do they have any overt weaknesses. But they do have eight wins compared to only six losses. Three of those wins have come against teams with above .500 records, and all of their losses have come from the Bucks, 76ers, Timberwolves, Trail Blazers, and Rockets – all good teams if you don’t want to look it up.

Most would consider Victor Oladipo a star. Sure, he’s only had one All-Star nod in his young career, but he’s proven on more than one occasion that he can be elite on both ends of the floor.
But apart from him, the Pacers are nothing but a mix of role players. But the role players on the roster aren’t just “good” – they seem to know their roles and execute them to a high degree.

To the casual fan, this would seem like it should be a given. But getting grown men with egos to consistently play their part isn’t as easy as it seems, and the Pacers organization might actually have something to work with. Sure, they are still a star (or two) away from actually competing for a title, but they were one game away from knocking off the former Eastern Conference Champions in last year’s playoffs, and, with any luck, could make it even further in the playoffs this year.

After the departure of Paul George, it was easy to read the writing on the wall. Most assumed that the Pacers would be headed to the lottery for a year or two while they worked their eventual rebuild. The franchise itself has consistently been considered one of the better small market organizations. With players like Reggie Miller, Danny Granger and George – it is easy to see why. They’ve only missed the playoffs five times in the last 20 years. But losing a mega-star like George usually contributes to a negative campaign the following season.

To the shock of the entire NBA, Oladipo led the Pacers to the five seed last year after posting a 48-34 record. Oladipo obviously played a huge part in this, but it was the help of the many role players, most of whom remained on the roster for this season, that likely made the biggest contribution to their positive season.

Through the beginning of the the 2018-19 campaign, the team statistic that sticks out the most for the Pacers is their opponent points per game. They are currently second in the league, allowing only 103 points a night behind only the Grizzlies. In comparison, both teams are also in the bottom two for pace. Controlling the flow of the game seems to be an important part of their game plan, and it is currently paying off as they sit fourth in the Eastern Conference.

The list of role players making a significant contribution for the Pacers is quite long. In fact, over nine players are averaging more than 15 minutes a game. Keep in mind that eight of the nine players have a positive plus-minus, with Tyreke Evans being the sole player to fall under zero at -0.8. Let’s take a look at a few individuals and see what they may be doing to make a significant splash.

Oladipo is leading the team in scoring at 23.8 points per night, but he also leads the team in assist percentage at 24.4 percent and steal percentage at 27.8 percent. His impact on both ends of the floor is tremendous, and he is one of the few players in the NBA that leads his team in usage percentage and still maintains All-NBA level defense on the other end.

Domantas Sabonis is currently leading the team in rebound percentage at 18.3 percent. He is also second on the team in scoring at 14.1 points per game on a 68.8 effective field goal percentage. He’s doing all that coming off the bench.

Cory Joseph is currently posting the highest net rating on that team at 8.4. The Pacers also enjoy their lowest defensive rating, 98.7, when Joseph is on the court.

Myles Turner is starting to come into his own on the defensive end of the court. Currently posting 2.4 blocks a game, good for fourth in the league, his presence is being felt more and more at the rim. While his offensive game still needs to be polished, Turner has done a great job at amplifying his defensive position on the court.

Bojan Bogdanovic is tied for second in scoring at 14.1 points a game. He’s doing so by shooting a blistering 51.7 percent from three on over four attempts a night. He’s second on the team in minutes and eighth in usage percentage, showing just how effective he can be off the ball. He boasts the third best plus-minus and fourth best net rating.

Plenty of other players could get nods here – guys like Thaddeus Young, Doug McDermott, Darren Collison and Evans. This just shows the talent night-in and night-out that the Pacers deploy.

The point of this article is not to say that the Pacers have a legitimate chance to win the East. They’ll likely finish outside the top four behind the Bucks, Raptors, 76ers and Celtics. But the Pacers definitely have one thing going for them – a roster full of talented role players that, in today’s NBA, can certainly be positive when deployed correctly.

We are still very early in the season. Another star could potentially emerge mid-season for the Pacers or they could make a bold move at the All-Star break. It is very unlikely that Indiana brings home a championship this year or even the next. However, they are still a team to watch throughout the season. They are a well-coached squad and play an incredibly selfless style of basketball.

Who knows? Maybe they can turn heads in the postseason. But in the meantime, they for sure prove one thing.

Role players are vitally important to a team’s success.

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NBA Daily: Trade Watch Northwest Division

David Yapkowitz identifies and breaks down the potential trade candidates in the Northwest Division.

David Yapkowitz

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We kick off a new series this week at Basketball Insiders. With the Jimmy Butler saga finally over, we’re taking a look at other players in each division who are possible trade candidates.

Some teams have holes in their respective rosters that they need to patch up. Others have contracts that are expiring or just don’t make sense for the team anymore. Some players and teams just need to move on at this point for a variety of reasons. Here’s a look at some of those situations, starting with the Northwest Division.

1. Tyus Jones – Minnesota Timberwolves

There’s an argument to be made that when he actually receives regular playing time, Tyus Jones is the best overall point guard on the Timberwolves’ roster. He’s been the primary backup for Minnesota for the time being with Jeff Teague out with an injury.

However, with Derrick Rose’s reemergence this season, it remains to be seen what happens once Teague returns. It’s no secret that Tom Thibodeau has his preference for veteran guys and Jones has often found himself as the odd man out. The Phoenix Suns, desperate for a point guard, have been rumored to have interest in him.

Jones was apparently close with Butler, if that means anything, and it just seems like his future is elsewhere. If the Timberwolves aren’t going to use him properly, then maybe a split is necessary. Should Minnesota really look to deal him, they probably won’t have any shortage of suitors.

2. Gorgui Dieng – Minnesota Timberwolves

A few years ago, Gorgui Dieng looked like an up and coming prize for Minnesota. He ended up being rewarded with a big contract based off of that. But since then, he’s seen both his playing time and production decrease.

The Timberwolves reportedly tried to include Dieng in possible deals for Butler in order to offload his contract. Obviously that didn’t happen, and Minnesota is locked into his contract for two more seasons after this one.

Backup big man Anthony Tolliver has surpassed Dieng in the rotation at this point as he’s a better fit as a stretch big man in today’s NBA. It’s hard to imagine any team trading for Dieng straight up with that contract but the Timberwolves could try and include him any potential Jones deal.

3. Oklahoma City Thunder – In Need of Outside Shooting

The Oklahoma City Thunder don’t have any bad contracts per se, nor do they have any players that they’re aggressively looking to move on from. They do, however, have a glaring need and that is three-point shooting.

Currently, they’re shooting 30.1 percent from the three-point line as a team. That’s not going to get it done in today’s league if they truly want to be among the Western Conference’s elite. They do have Patrick Patterson reemerging as one of the better stretch fours in the league (38.6 percent), but after that everyone just kind of drops off a bit.

The Thunder could certainly use the addition of another outside shooter as the season goes on. Kyle Korver is rumored to be available although he’s been linked to Philadelphia recently. Perhaps they could put in an inquiry with the Miami HEAT about Wayne Ellington if the HEAT continues to struggle. Either way, unless the guys they already have step up, perimeter shooting will need to be addressed.

4. Meyers Leonard – Portland Trail Blazers

It’s not that Meyers Leonard has been bad for Portland, he’s actually been decent so far this season. But with the contract he has, Portland isn’t getting the value they expected when they entered that deal.

Instead, Zach Collins has supplanted him in the rotation, and Caleb Swanigan is close to doing so as well. Leonard has been mentioned in trade rumors for some time, so perhaps this season is the one where he and the Blazers part ways. His contract is expiring next season so that might be enticing to some teams.

He isn’t a bad player, and there might be a team out there willing to take a chance on an athletic big man who can run the floor and even stretch defenses out to the three-point line. At any rate, it might be time for both parties to go their separate ways.

5. Tyler Lydon – Denver Nuggets

The writing was on the wall when the Nuggets declined Tyler Lydon’s third-year option prior to the start of the season. He’ll be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.

He suffered an unfortunate injury early in his career and just hasn’t been given an opportunity to prove his worth as an NBA player. He played well in the G-League last season and has promise as a stretch big man. It’s just obvious that it won’t be realized in Denver.

He’s worth taking chance on for a team looking to add intriguing, youngish talent – especially since it shouldn’t cost too much to acquire him in a deal.

As the season progresses, there will be other situations around the division that might emerge on the trade front. But, as of now, these are arguably some of the most active situations to keep an eye on.

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