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NBA Daily: Buyers Or Sellers – Central Division

Spencer Davies kicks off Basketball Insiders’ “Buyers or Sellers” series with a detailed breakdown of the Central Division.

Spencer Davies

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Trade season is fast approaching and rumors are running rampant across in the NBA. Just in the past month, we’ve had three trades executed, including two blockbuster moves that will surely make an impact on the association, regarding this year and in the future.

The chatter is about to heat up, even more, this weekend. As soon as the clock strikes 12:01 a.m. EST on Dec. 15, players that signed new contracts in the summer (prior to Sept. 15) are eligible to be traded. The date is basically the opening of the floodgates when it comes to trade season.

Basketball Insiders is starting a “Buyers or Sellers” series to take a look at teams by division to determine what side of the spectrum they should be on. Is it wise to add talent, or is it smarter to look towards the future and acquire future assets?

Let’s go case-by-case, beginning with the Central Division.

Milwaukee Bucks

As detailed in a reaction piece last Friday, the Bucks are all-in on winning now. When they went after veteran guard George Hill in a trade where parting with a potential future lottery draft pick was necessary to do it, it proved that claim.

Looking to offload two contracts that weren’t doing the organization any good, Milwaukee acted and added two guys—Hill and Jason Smith—that have been around this league for over a decade. With the way the season is going so far, it may not even be necessary to look for more help, but there’s no doubt that the team is in buyer mode.

There’s time to talk about Khris Middleton’s expiring contract later. Right now, it’s all clicking with the Bucks.

Players whose trade restrictions are lifted on Dec. 15: Pat Connaughton, Ersan Ilyasova, Brook Lopez

Indiana Pacers

Similar to their in-division rivals, the Pacers are absolutely in contention for the Central and the Eastern Conference. Despite the injury bug rearing its ugly head, their record stands at 16-10, which is only four games back from the top-seeded Toronto Raptors.

There’s no shortage of talent on this Indiana squad. There’s Victor Oladipo, who, when healthy, is an All-Star playmaker. Bojan Bogdanovic has been an underrated player for the majority of his career. They’ve got a dual Sixth Man of The Year-Most Improved Player candidate in Domantas Sabonis. The team’s defense is as physical and gritty as NBA defenses can be.

In no way, shape or form are the Pacers a “seller” by any means, but they could explore trading Darren Collison. Doing so would allow Tyreke Evans to play more minutes with the second unit, as well as open up some more floor time for Aaron Holiday, the team’s rookie point guard that showed his capabilities in extended run in mid-November.

A lot has been made of the dynamic between Myles Turner and Sabonis and what that future looks like, however, it’s not something to worry about at the moment considering both look extremely comfortable in their roles.

Players whose trade restrictions are lifted on Dec. 15: Tyreke Evans, Doug McDermott, Kyle O’Quinn

Detroit Pistons

We approach the middling team of the bunch in the Central. While Andre Drummond and Blake Griffin are enjoying career seasons and Dwane Casey is doing a fine job in year one as head coach, the Pistons just can’t seem to get it going on the offensive end as a team.

Detroit’s perimeter defense, and defense, in general, has been solid to this point. Its own three-point shooting has been quite the opposite. We’ve highlighted this before multiple times. It needs to change if this group wants to have a chance to make noise in the division and in the East.

According to a report from the New York Post, the Pistons have shown interest in Knicks guard Damyean Dotson. In his sophomore season, the 24-year-old is taking over four threes per game and knocking down 38.5 percent of them. To put this in perspective, Dotson would already be Detroit’s best three-point shooter the day he walked into the building.

Detroit Free Press writer Vince Ellis confirmed that Dotson is a real option for the Pistons because of his current cheap contract and the fact that his $1.6 million salary for 2019-20 is non-guaranteed until July 15. The only snags in making this happen are Detroit’s reluctance to make a deal to go over the luxury tax and the Knicks trying to avoid added salary.

If Dotson isn’t the player the Pistons go after, they should look elsewhere for help beyond the arc because they need it. Otherwise, the season could get away really fast.

Players whose trade restrictions are lifted on Dec. 15: Jose Calderon, Zaza Pachulia, Glenn Robinson III

Cleveland Cavaliers

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, it’s pretty obvious that the Cavaliers are in asset accumulation mode. They just made a trade to absorb two rather heavy contracts in John Henson and Matthew Dellavedova in order to add draft picks.

Henson has a torn ligament in his left wrist and Dellavedova—though highly appreciated in Cleveland for his NBA Finals heroics—has seemingly been injured for the majority of the last two seasons with no real rotation spot since the 2016-17 campaign.

Just one week beforehand, the Cavaliers traded Kyle Korver to the Utah Jazz for Alec Burks and future second-round draft picks. The biggest question mark coming into the season was what would happen with these veteran players leftover from the championship years, and we’re getting the answer to it right now.

Cleveland likely won’t be done there, either. J.R. Smith is away from the organization as both parties agreed to part ways until a deal is found. That could be this year, or it could be in the summertime when Smith’s contract is a desirable asset, as his 2019-20 salary is only partially guaranteed ($3.78 million) if waived before June 30. Everything depends on the offers the team receives.

What to do with Kevin Love is another good question considering the All-Star forward’s injury history and age, but the value in return likely wouldn’t be up to par with what the Cavaliers’ front office would find plausible. Plus, with the emergence of Collin Sexton, the wine and gold would like to see what that pairing looks like together after a year of experience for the rookie.

If you’re a franchise with an undesirable contract on the books, it’d be wise to call Cleveland right away. Just be prepared to give up some draft picks and/or young talent in return.

Players whose trade restrictions are lifted on Dec. 15: Channing Frye, David Nwaba, Rodney Hood (can veto trade due to re-signing qualifying offer)

Players whose trade restrictions are lifted on Jan. 24: Kevin Love

Chicago Bulls

With the reported friction between Bulls players and interim head coach Jim Boylen, trades are not the talk of the town in the Windy City at the moment. Things have gone south in a hurry as the team has submerged to the bottom of the standings once more. With a 6-21 record, it looks as if another year is lost.

It’s especially disappointing since Lauri Markkanen just returned from injury and already made a game-winning shot against the Oklahoma City Thunder. The good vibes from that night have faded away since, as a 56-point home drubbing to the Boston Celtics occurred this past weekend and sparked debate all over social media regarding who to point the finger at.

Monday, Yahoo Sports published an article stating that Bulls players went to the National Basketball Players Association to express their frustrations with Boylen’s tactics—specifically holding a Sunday practice after a back-to-back.

So that’s where we’re at in Chicago at the moment. As far as trade talk goes, you’d have to think anything could be on the table at this point. One or two moves aren’t going to fix this situation. If anything, it’d be a temporary fix.

The organization could do some favors for its veterans, though.

Robin Lopez’s role has diminished significantly and is in his 10th year as a professional. He has an expiring $14.3 million left on his contract before becoming an unrestricted free agent this coming summer. Justin Holiday is another candidate to be moved when you look at his salary. He’s making $4.38 million and that deal also expires at this season’s end.

The Jabari Parker homecoming has been fine, but nothing spectacular, so there might be some value in trading for him. It’s especially valuable when Parker’s contract includes a team option for $20 million next season, meaning it could basically be treated as an expiring deal—for Chicago or the team he’d hypothetically be moved to.

Whatever this franchise decides to do, some kind of change has to be made if it wants to get better and consistent.

Players whose trade restrictions are lifted on Dec. 15: Ryan Arcidiacono, Antonio Blakeney, Jabari Parker

Players whose trade restrictions are lifted on Jan. 15: Zach LaVine (can veto trade due to re-signing with Bulls after matching offer sheet. Can’t be traded to Sacramento Kings even with consent until after the 2018-19 league year)

Players whose trade restrictions are lifted on Jan. 21: Shaquille Harrison

This is only the Central Division. There’s still plenty of time for a makeover for all five of those teams, but just imagine elsewhere around the NBA. Be on the lookout for the rest of our “Buyers or Sellers” division-by-division breakdown series this coming week.

Starting Saturday, it’ll be off to the races. We’d better pay attention.

Spencer Davies is a Deputy Editor and a Senior NBA Writer based in Cleveland in his third year with Basketball Insiders. Covering the league and the Cavaliers for the past five seasons, his bylines have appeared on Bleacher Report, FOX Sports and HoopsHype.

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Reviewing the Nurkic Trade: Denver’s Perspective

The Denver Nuggets have been on a miraculous run this postseason, but that doesn’t mean that they’re infallible. Drew Maresca reviews the 2017 trade that sent Jusuf Nurkic from Denver to Portland.

Drew Maresca

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The Denver Nuggets are fresh off of a 114-106 win over the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, pulling within three wins of the franchise’s first trip to the NBA Finals. But what if I told you that the Nuggets’ roster could be even more talented by acting more deliberately in a trade from three years ago?

While Denver won on Tuesday night, they lost a nail bitter on Sunday – for which most of the blame has been pointed at a defensive breakdown by Nuggets’ center Mason Plumlee, who was procured in the aforementioned 2017 trade. What did it cost Denver, you ask? Just Jusuf Nurkic and a first-round pick.

Nurkic was a 2014-15 All-Rookie second team member. He played 139 games over 2.5 seasons in Denver, averaging 7.5 points and 5.9 rebounds in approximately 18 minutes per game. He showed serious promise, but Denver had numerous reasons to pursue a trade: he’d suffered a few relatively serious injuries early in his career (and he’s continued to be injury-prone in Portland), butted heads with head coach Michael Malone and – most importantly – the Nuggets stumbled on to Nikola Jokic.

The Nuggets eventually attempted a twin-tower strategy with both in the starting line-up, but that experiment was short-lived — with Jokic ultimately asking to move to the team’s second unit.

The Nuggets traded Nurkic to the Portland Trail Blazers in February 2017 (along with a first-round pick) in exchange for Plumlee, a second-round pick and cash considerations. Ironically, the first-round pick included in the deal became Justin Jackson, who was used to procure another center, Zach Collins – but more on that in a bit.

As of February 2017, Plumlee was considered the better player of the two. He was averaging a career-high 11 points, 8.1 rebounds and 4.0 assists through 54 games – but it was clear that at 27, he’d already maximized his talent.

Conversely, Nurkic was only 23 at the time of the trade with significant, untapped upside. In his first few seasons with Portland, Nurkic averaged 15 points and 9.8 rebounds per game, while establishing himself as a rising star. As noted above, injuries have continued to be a problem. Nurkic suffered a compound fracture in his tibia and fibula in March 2019, forcing him to miss a majority of this current campaign. The COVID-19-related play stoppage in March gave Nurkic extra time to get his body right, and he returned to action in July inside the bubble.

And he did so with a vengeance. Nurkic demonstrated superior strength and footwork, and he flashed the dominance that Portland hoped he would develop, posting eight double-doubles in 18 contests. He averaged 17.6 points and 10.3 rebounds per game and while his play dipped a bit in the playoffs – partially due to a matchup with first-team All-NBA star Anthony Davis – he still managed 14.2 points and 10.4 rebounds in the five-game series. So it’s fair to say that Nurkic is still on his way toward stardom.

But the Nuggets are in the conference finals – so all’s well that ends well, right? Not so fast. To his credit, Plumlee is exactly who Denver expected him to be. He’s averaged 7.5 points and 5.5 rebounds per game in three seasons with Denver since 2017 – but to be fair, Plumlee is asked to do less in Denver than he had in Portland. Still, it’s fairly obvious that they’re just not that comparable.

Plumlee is a good passer and an above-average defender that’ll compete hard and isn’t afraid to get dirty – but he has limitations. He doesn’t stretch the floor and he is a sub-par free throw shooter (53.5 percent in 2019-20). More importantly, he’s simply not a major offensive threat and his repertoire of moves is limited.

High-level takeaway: Defenses tend to game plan for opponents they view as major threats – Nurkic falls into this category. Other guys pack the stat sheet through putback attempts, open looks and single coverage alongside the guys for whom opposing defenses game plan – that’s a more appropriate description of Plumlee.

On to the wrench thrown in by Zach Collins’ involvement. Statistically, Collins is about as effective as Plumlee – he averaged 7 points and 6.3 rebounds through only 11 games in 2019-20 due to various injuries – and he possesses more upside. The 22-year-old is not as reliable as Plumlee but given his age and skill set, he’s a far better option as a support player playing off the bench. He stretches the floor (36.8 percent on three-point attempts in 2019-20), is an above-average free throw shooter (75 percent this season) and is a good defender. Looking past Nurkic for a moment, would the Nuggets prefer a 22-year-old center that stretches the floor and defends or a 30-year-old energy guy?

Regardless of your answer to that question, it’s hard to argue that Nurkic should have returned more than Plumlee, definitely so when you factor in the first-round pick Denver included. There is obviously more at play: Denver was probably considering trading Nurkic for some time before they acted – did they feel that they could increase his trade value prior to the trade deadline in 2016-17? Maybe. Further, Nurkic and his agent could have influenced the Nuggets’ decision at the 2017 deadline, threatening to stonewall Denver in negotiations.

Had Nurkic been more patient or the Nuggets acted sooner before it became abundantly clear that he was on the move, Denver’s roster could be even more stacked than it is now. Ultimately, the Nuggets have a plethora of talent and will be fine – while it appears that Nurkic found a long-term home in Portland, where he owns the paint offensively. Denver can’t be thrilled about assisting a division rival, but they’re still in an enviable position today and should be for years to come.

But despite that, this deal should go down as a cautionary tale – it’s not only the bottom feeders of the league who make missteps. Even the savviest of front offices overthink deals. Sometimes that works in their favor, and other times it does not.

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NBA Daily: They Guessed Wrong

Matt John reflects on some of the key decisions that were made last summer, and how their disappointing results hurt both team outlooks and players’ legacies.

Matt John

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It doesn’t sound possible, but did you know that the crazy NBA summer of 2019 was, in fact, over a year ago? Wildly, in any normal, non-pandemic season, it all would have been over three months ago and, usually, media days would be right around the corner, but not this time. The 2019-20 NBA season is slated to end sometime in early to mid-October, so the fact that the last NBA off-season was over a year ago hasn’t really dawned on anyone yet. Craziest of all, even though there will still be an offseason, there technically won’t be any summer.

Coronavirus has really messed up the NBA’s order. Of course, there are much worse horrors that COVID-19 has inflicted upon the world – but because of what it’s done to the NBA, let’s focus on that and go back to the summer of 2019. It felt like an eternity, but the Golden State Warriors’ three-year reign had finally reached its end. The Toronto Raptors’ victory over the tyranny that was the Hamptons Five – as battered as they were – made it feel like order had been restored to the NBA. There was more to it than that though.

Klay Thompson’s and Kevin Durant’s season-ending injuries, along with the latter skipping town to join Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn meant two things.

1. Golden State was down for the count
2. Brooklyn’s time wasn’t coming until next year.

A one-year window was open. Even if neither Golden State nor Brooklyn posed the same threat that the former did when it had Kevin Durant, those were two contenders out of commission. If there was a time to go all in, it was in 2019.

Milwaukee certainly seemed to go all in. For the most part.  Malcolm Brogdon’s departure seemed a little odd since he was arguably their best non-Giannis playmaker when they were in crunch time. Not to mention there was nothing really stopping the Bucks from keeping him except for money. Detractors will call out Milwaukee for electing to cheap out by not keeping Brogdon and hence, avoiding the luxury tax. However, there’s more to it than that.

Milwaukee thought it had enough with the core it had on its roster. Coming off the best season they had put up since the eighties, they believed the franchise built the right team to contend. There was an argument that keeping Brogdon may have been overkill with their guard depth – let’s not forget that Donte DiVincenzo did a solid job in Brogdon’s role as the backup facilitator. This would have been more defensible had it not been for Milwaukee picking the wrong guy to let go. That was the indefensible part- electing to keep Eric Bledsoe over Brogdon.

Bledsoe wasn’t necessarily a bad investment. No one’s complaining about an almost 15 point average on 47/34/79 splits or playing individual defense tight enough to get named on the All-Defensive second team. By all accounts, Bledsoe earns his keep. That is until the playoffs. Bledsoe’s postseason woes have been a weight ever since he first entered Milwaukee, and this postseason was more of the same.

Bledsoe’s numbers dwindled to just 11.7 points on 39/25/81 splits, and Milwaukee getting ousted in five games at the hands of Miami made his struggles stand out even more than it had ever been. Bledsoe may be the better athlete and the better defender, but Brogdon’s all-around offensive savvy and his only slight dropoff defensively from Brogdon would have made him a bit more reliable.

Milwaukee guessed wrong when they opted to extend Bledsoe before the postseason last year when they could have waited until that very time to evaluate who to keep around. Now they face a hell of a lot more questions than they did at the end of last season – questions that may have been avoided had they made the right choice.

Now they could have kept both of them, yes, but it’s not totally unreasonable to think that maybe their approach with the luxury tax would have worked and maybe they would still be in the postseason right now had they gone with the homegrown talent. And just maybe, there wouldn’t be nearly as much of this Greek Freak uncertainty.

The Houston Rockets can relate. They got bruised up by a team that everyone thought Houston had the edge on going into the series and then crushed by the Lakers. Now, Mike D’Antoni is gone. The full-time small ball experiment likely did not work out. Since the Rockets emptied most of their assets to bring in Russell Westbrook and Robert Covington, there may not be a route in which they can become better than they presently are.

The mistake wasn’t trading for Russell Westbrook. The mistake was trading Chris Paul.

To be fair, most everybody severely overestimated Chris Paul’s decline. He’s not among the best of the best anymore, but he’s still pretty darn close. He deserved his All-NBA second team selection as well as finishing No. 7 overall in MVP voting. OKC had no business being as good as they were this season, and Paul was the driving force as to why.

For all we know, the previously-assumed tension between Chris Paul and James Harden would have made its way onto the court no matter what. Even so, Houston’s biggest obstacle in the Bay Area had crumbled. If they had just stayed the course, maybe they’re still in the postseason too.

To their credit, none of this may have happened had it not been for the Kawhi Leonard decision. Had he chosen differently, the Thunder never blow it up, and Houston might have very well been the favorite in the Western Conference. Instead, the Rockets took a step back from being in the title discussion to dark horse. But at least they can take pride knowing that they weren’t expected to win it all – the Clippers can’t.

Seeing the Clippers fall well short expectations begs the question if they too got it wrong. The answer is, naturally: of course not. They may have paid a hefty price for Paul George, but the only way they were getting Kawhi Leonard – one of the best players of his generation – was if PG-13 came in the package. As lofty as it was, anyone would have done the same thing if they were in their shoes. They didn’t get it wrong. Kawhi did.

On paper, the Clippers had the most talented roster in the entire league. It seemed like they had every hole filled imaginable. Surrounding Leonard and George was three-point shooting, versatility, a productive second unit, an experienced coach – you name it. There was nothing stopping them from breaking the franchise’s long-lasting curse. Except themselves.

Something felt off about them. They alienated opponents. They alienated each other. At times, they played rather lackadaisically, like the title had already been signed, sealed, and delivered to them. The media all assumed they’d cut the malarkey and get their act together – but that moment never really came. They had their chances to put Denver away, but even if they had, after seeing their struggles to beat them – and to be fair Dallas too – would their day of destiny with the Lakers have really lived up to the hype?

Even if it was never in the cards, one can’t help but wonder what could have happened had Kawhi chosen to stay with the team he won his second title with.

Toronto was the most impressive team in this league this season. They still managed to stay at the top of the east in spite of losing an all-timer like Leonard. That team had every component of a winner except a superstar. They had the right culture for a championship team. Just not the right talent. The Clippers were the exact opposite. They had the right talent for a championship team but not the right culture. That’s why the Raptors walked away from the postseason feeling proud of themselves for playing to their full potential while the Clippers writhed in disappointment and angst over their future.

In the end, everyone mentioned here may ultimately blame what happened to their season on the extenuating circumstances from the pandemic. The Bucks’ chemistry never fully returned when the Bubble started. Contracting COVID and dealing with quad problems prevented Westbrook from reviving the MVP-type player he was before the hiatus. As troubling as the Clippers had played, the extra time they would have had to work things out in a normal season was taken away from them.

For all we know, next year will be a completely different story. The Rockets, Bucks, and Kawhi may ultimately have their faith rewarded for what they did in the summer of 2019 – but that will only be mere speculation until the trio can change the story.

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Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards

Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.

David Yapkowitz

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We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.

The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.

With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.

The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.

Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old

Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.

He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.

Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.

Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old

Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.

He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.

Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.

Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old

Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.

He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.

One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.

Honorable Mentions:
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old

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