It’s hard to believe that the new NBA season is nearly a quarter of the way finished already — yet the calendar has just slipped into December. With some wild storylines and exciting narratives to follow, it’s been difficult to get a handle on many franchises through the first two months of the campaign. This week, Basketball Insiders started assessing each division and handing out first quarter grades for each team — so if you’re itching to head back to school, they’re all available below.
On Monday, Spencer Davies doled out grades for the Central Division — but don’t look, Cavaliers fans. Then Jesse Blancarte nailed down the Pacific, David Yapkowitz handled the Northwest, Drew Maresca tackled the tricky Atlantic and Shane Rhodes broke down the Southwest yesterday. Which, again, leaves the Southeast Division to wrap things up in this series. How should the Hawks, HEAT, Hornets, Magic and Wizards feel after a little more than 20 games played?
Atlanta Hawks — A
The Hawks, in no uncertain terms, were destined to lose this year. Fated, almost. With an incredibly young roster and a great opportunity to add another highly-touted prospect, they never had a reason to effectively compete in 2018-19. And, through 20-plus games: so far, so good. The Hawks’ 5-18 record trails just Cleveland and Phoenix for the league’s worst record and, honestly, they’re right where they want to be.
Over the last week, the Hawks moved Kevin Huerter into the starting lineup along with Trae Young, John Collins, Taurean Prince and Dewayne Dedmon. Once you toss in DeAndre Bembry and Omari Spellman off the bench, Atlanta has collected a promising core to build their next era around. However, drafting one of the Duke Blue Devils’ cavalcade of rim-rattling, bucket-getting prospects — Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett or Cam Reddish — would be a game-changer for Atlanta.
Grading teams like the Hawks can be difficult as their letter could easily be in the D or F range if the narrative was just simply re-written. The Hawks rank in dead last in both turnovers and offensive rating, while their shooting percentages remain well-below par for competitive franchises. They’re barely playing veterans like Jeremy Lin and Vince Carter, but also look unlikely to move Kent Bazemore’s contract that will cost the Hawks $19.2 million in 2019-20.
And yet, none of that really matters. The Hawks get to develop their promising talent while also preparing for greener pastures next year and beyond — that alone is worth an A in the modern win-or-tank landscape.
Charlotte Hornets — B
Thanks to the ever-smoldering Kemba Walker, the Hornets have exceeded expectations early on. Still, they’re just 11-11 and deeply entwined within the Eastern Conference’s messy second-tier — a couple wins and they could have homecourt advantage, while a small losing streak might bump them outside the playoff race altogether. Despite some frustrating, uneven performances, there are plenty of reasons to stay excited about this new incarnation of a mostly similar roster.
Firstly, head coach James Borrego has done well to create an instantly-cohesive unit, bring the once-troubled Malik Monk along and carve out his own succinct rotation. While that’s left players like Frank Kaminsky and Bismack Biyombo out in the cold, others have begun to bloom. The addition of veteran Tony Parker has proven shrewd and Jeremy Lamb continues his breakout from 2017-18. Miles Bridges is good for a highlight or two (or three) almost every night and longtime members like Nicolas Batum, Cody Zeller and Marvin Williams continue to contribute efficiently.
As of now, the Hornets rank sixth in offensive rating (112.0) and 10th in three-point percentage (35.9), while their defensive rating has been as high as 10th in recent days. Altogether, those numbers point toward an overall fearsome unit in this current NBA landscape, that should go without saying. Should any rumors about Bradley Beal come to fruition, then the Hornets would be really cooking with hot grease. If the Hornets can iron out their inconsistencies — three of their losses have come against the Bulls, Hawks and Cavaliers — then we’ll really see just how good this team can be.
Orlando Magic — C+
At 11-11 and the current holders of the Eastern Conference’s No. 8 seed, it’s been an optimistically strong start for the Orlando Magic. Coming into the season, the Magic boasted talented prospects, but little cohesiveness — so far, they’ve done well to survive the early slog. Nikola Vucevic, a man reborn, is averaging a career-high in points (20.8), assists (3.9) and field goal percentage (55.5), shepherding the way for a mostly inexperienced Magic roster. Aaron Gordon has slightly trended downward statistically, but he’s making good on his new mega-deal worth about $76 million thus far, while Jonathan Isaac and Mohamed Bamba are still looking to find consistent footing.
Despite their lack of an absolute, undeniable star, Orlando has played unselfishly to the tune of 26.4 assists per game, a tally that’s sixth-best across the league. Even better, their turnovers also rank low at 13.7, as veterans D.J. Augustin and Evan Fournier have taken care of the ball quite well. If the Magic want to make the most of the 2018-19 campaign, they’ll likely need to trade for another point guard — but would that price of such an acquisition be worth it? Even if Orlando sneaks into the postseason, they don’t stand much of a chance against the conference elite up north. Moving forward, it’ll be key to find opportunities for Isaac and Bamba as they’re franchise cornerstones and their development, no matter what ultimately happens in the standings, is the top priority.
Still, the early returns on the Steve Clifford-led Magic are sunny, so achieving anything else this season would be the cherry on top.
Miami HEAT — C-
At a cursory glance, the Miami HEAT roster looks like one of the Southeast’s most competitive bunches. Instead, the on-court performances and overwhelming injuries have left the HEAT reeling in the lurch, and, most importantly, in conference limbo. The HEAT are better than their 8-13 record, most definitely, but they need to get healthy in a hurry. This roster full of strong second and third-best options was screaming out for a gritty Jimmy Butler addition last month, but the front office stayed put — now where do they go from here?
The ever-reliable Goran Dragic has missed Miami’s last six games, over which they’ve limped to a 2-4 record. Earlier in the season, Dragic missed three more contests and the HEAT promptly went 1-2. Yes, Dragic (16.3 points, 4.7 assists) is truly that important, both in his scoring abilities and offensive facilitation. And yet, the struggles go beyond that. Tyler Johnson hasn’t played since Nov. 20 and the enigmatic Dion Waiters isn’t close to making his season debut either. Dwyane Wade, in the midst of his well-deserved retirement tour, took off for seven games to be with his family following the birth of his daughter.
Josh Richardson has performed admirably in his newfound role of the go-to, well, everything, but the HEAT fall short in some major categories. Miami turns the ball over at an alarming rate, and although their defensive rating holds firm (106.9, tenth-best), the offense ranks among the NBA’s worst so far. It’s far too early to panic about HEAT, especially in the Eastern Conference but this team’s strength is clearly its depth. Even Rodney McGruder has gone from undrafted to essential in the span of three years — 12.2 points, five rebounds, 3.4 assists per game — and James Johnson continues to be a hulking pest defensively.
But if they’re not going to pull the trigger on a star-worthy acquisition, Miami needs to look inward, get healthy and rediscover some of their grittiness that made them such a pleasant surprise last season.
Washington Wizards — F
This should come as no surprise, unfortunately.
The Wizards, by all accounts, should be good. With a backcourt featuring John Wall and Bradley Beal, they should have ascended to the conference’s upper echelon by now. After adding offseason talents like Dwight Howard and Austin Rivers, the Wizards just had to keep it all together for eight months. Instead, the front office brass was reportedly considering a full and total breakup before Thanksgiving dinner could be served. Wall and Beal are apparently available for trade, although the former will be tough to deal given his supermax contract starts next season.
Beal has already had to deny trade demands on national television, Otto Porter Jr. continues to labor on his max deal and, as if things weren’t already bad, Dwight Howard will likely miss two-to-three months following surgery on his lower back. The talent on this roster is undeniable, but this has been the disappointing story in Washington season after season.
Today, the Wizards rank 20th in offensive rating, 17th in assist-to-turnover ratio, 27th in rebounding and a staggeringly poor 29th in defensive rating. While Howard is no longer quite the defensive anchor he once was, his absence won’t make things any easier for his teammates. Thomas Bryant has struggled since becoming the de facto center, but the Wizards’ other options — Ian Mahinmi and Jason Smith — don’t offer any upside at all.
At some point — perhaps sooner rather than later — the Wizards will finally accept that this formula isn’t working and attempt to start from scratch. However, since it’s still the Eastern Conference, the Wizards are 8-14 and remain just two games behind the final playoff spot. Of course, there’s time to salvage this cross-country trainwreck, but does anybody actually believe they’re headed down the road to recovery?
It’s now officially December, which means these five franchises must take serious stock of their conference-wide standing. While the Hawks are sitting pretty, developing their studs and coming closer to a higher draft pick every day, the other squads have room to improve. Between the HEAT, Hornets, Magic and Wizards, the Southeast Division figures to be plenty busy between now and the trade deadline. Blow it up or push all in, these early season grades could look completely different down the road — but, for now, these feel like a fair representation of each team’s respective status at this point in the season.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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 only $3.7 million of his 2019-20 salary is guaranteed until 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
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.
NBA Daily: The Trevor Ariza Sweepstakes: Part Deux
With the Trevor Ariza trade rumors heating up, Matt John speculates which teams could finish the three-way deal reportedly being discussed by the Lakers and the Suns.
Previously on Basketball Insiders…
After it was revealed last week that Trevor Ariza would soon be on the trade market following the expiration of his trade restriction on Dec. 15, much was discussed on who his next team could be. Almost one week following Marc Stein’s report, the jury is still out, but we finally got our first trade rumor centered on the veteran swingman.
Last night, Adrian Wojnarowski reported that the Lakers are trying to orchestrate a three-way trade where they would acquire Ariza by shipping Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to a team who could then provide Phoenix with both a young playmaker and a draft asset.
If both sides are able to find that third team to complete the deal, then holy nostalgia! First, we get Kyle Korver going back to the Jazz after eight years, and now we might potentially get Trevor Ariza’s return to the Lakers nearly a decade after he won a championship with them. All we need is for Kendrick Perkins to return to the Celtics, then we’ll party like it’s 2009!
But where will they find that third team? With what they’ve asked in return for Ariza, the Suns should not be optimistic that someone out there will meet their demands. Jimmy Butler didn’t fetch back any first-round picks, and neither did Korver, who are both in similar contract situations as Ariza. Getting a young playmaker and a draft asset for a guy who has disappointed enough to be put on the market the second he’s eligible is going to be difficult.
With what other teams have to offer on paper, it’s not undoable. The Suns may just have to lower their standards on what they hope to get back. The following teams could be the last piece the Lakers and Suns look towards to complete a Trevor Ariza deal.
The Sixers were mentioned in this writer’s piece last week among the teams that could potentially compete for Ariza’s services because they need the wing depth. The Lakers seemingly have the upper-hand in the Ariza sweepstakes, so Philly may have to settle for the next best thing: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
Not to fret, though. Shortly after the Jimmy Butler trade was completed, Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer reported that the Sixers had interest in KCP to help fill the shooting void left by Robert Covington and Dario Saric. Caldwell-Pope’s shooting percentages have gone down a little this season, as he’s shot 38 percent from the field including 34 percent from three. Maybe that would change on a team like Philly, where his role would be more clearly defined.
The point of acquiring him would be to add much-needed depth to a struggling bench. According to hoopsstats.com, the Sixers rank no. 22 in bench scoring on average, as they put up 34.3 points a game. KCP’s not a pure scorer, but he’s better than what Philly has in its second unit.
It’s also a good match because Philly has Markelle Fultz to offer as the young playmaker the Suns would want. It’d be perfect because the Suns can be patient with Fultz – which Philly can’t afford at the moment – and trading Fultz $8 million plus for Caldwell-Pope’s expiring deal saves money for the Sixers that they would use to retain Butler and Ben Simmons.
Also, trading the two of them for each other works straight up, which benefits the Sixers because they’d have to add extra contract filler to match with Ariza’s contract. If the Lakers and Suns really wanted to make this trade, then Philly would be the most ideal third team to complete it.
New York Knicks
If the Suns are truly are searching for that young playmaker to put next to Devin Booker, then the one team that has plenty to offer in that department is the New York Knicks.
This past week, Drew Maresca wrote about the influx of young point guards that the Knicks have at their disposal and that changes need to be made because they can’t properly develop all of them. Getting involved in this rumored Trevor Ariza trade could solve the problem.
Between Trey Burke, Frank Ntilikina and Emmanuel Mudiay, someone has to be the odd man out. The Suns inquired about Ntilikina a short time ago, but New York rebuffed them. Since Frank is the youngest and has the most economical contract of the three, he’s the least likely of the three to be traded.
That leaves Burke and Mudiay. Both have done a half-decent job at running the point, as they have put up nearly identical averages in the same number of minutes this season.
Burke: 12 points, three assists, 2.1 rebounds on 42 percent shooting including 36 percent from three on 20.7 minutes a game.
Mudiay: 12.1 points, 2.9 assists, 2.8 rebounds on 45 percent shooting including 37 percent from three on 23.8 minutes a game.
Either one would probably satisfy Phoenix’s demands of a young playmaker since they are both in their twenties. They aren’t a long-term solution, but since either would hypothetically be traded for Trevor Ariza, that’s about as good as they can expect.
New York also has the contract filler to match for Caldwell-Pope. Lance Thomas’ deal is non-guaranteed next year, and Ron Baker is expiring. They could easily make this work.
Caldwell-Pope wouldn’t be playing for a playoff contender in New York, and he can veto any trade he doesn’t like. However, playing for a storied franchise with that much exposure could give his career a boost, especially if he gets more touches as a Knick. If not, then he can just ask for a buyout and join a better team. New York can’t offer the same high potential that Philly can, but they can reasonably meet Phoenix’s demands.
Philadelphia and New York are the two prime candidates to be the last piece in this three-team deal. That being said, there could be others.
Sacramento, who was also brought up in last week’s article, could use more defensive personnel. They could offer Frank Mason III as well as expiring contracts for Caldwell-Pope.
Utah has some expiring contracts, as well as a mysterious young playmaker in Dante Exum, but they’re not likely to offer any of that for Caldwell-Pope.
There is also the outside possibility that Ariza goes somewhere besides Laker Land. We have seen scenarios play out like that before, which is why we as the audience always tune into stories like these.
The Trevor Ariza sweepstakes are getting juicier by the day, which brings nothing but joy to NBA junkies alike. This is probably going to be an impactful transaction in a season that already has a list of them, and we haven’t even hit the two-month mark yet!
Even if Ariza is getting past his prime, and regardless of where he goes, there’s one obvious winner from all of this: the spectators.
NBA Daily: To Tank Or Not To Tank, That’s The Question In Brooklyn
With their season quickly falling apart, the Brooklyn Nets must decide on the best path forward and commit to it, writes Ben Nadeau.
The Brooklyn Nets, fresh off three straight seasons of disappointing results, finally looked halfway competent to start the 2018-19 campaign. Fueled by the impending breakout of Caris LeVert, the Nets began the year a very manageable 6-7 — a record that had them in the mix for a postseason berth within a muddied Eastern Conference. With big-time homegrown assets like Spencer Dinwiddie and Joe Harris making strides and youngsters like D’Angelo Russell and Jarrett Allen on the up-and-up, it was officially time to be optimistic, if not downright positive, in Brooklyn once again.
Then disaster struck all at once.
Despite the minor miracle surrounding the brutal, gut-wrenching injury that LeVert suffered on Nov. 12 in Minnesota, his absence has buried the Nets from the inside out. Since then, the Nets have gone 3-10 and now sit only three games back from the ever-so-familiar territory of the conference basement. During this low streak, Brooklyn has blown multiple double-digit leads, gave the win away against Memphis (twice) and suffered a 14-point loss to the dysfunctional Washington Wizards. From playoff contenders to the bottom of the ladder at the snap of a finger, it’s gone from bad to worse very quickly for the Nets.
Well, unless you’ve got your eye on the 2019 NBA Draft, that is.
This is, of course, the first season that the Nets have held their own draft pick since 2013. And, perhaps rightfully so, there are compelling arguments to now release the safety brakes and tank out, especially with LeVert no longer leading the way. Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish represent the crown jewel trio of NBA-ready prospects and adding any of them — let alone the hulking Bol Bol or high-scoring Romeo Langford — would jumpstart the Nets’ rebuild in a way not yet seen. Still, the Nets have said from the start of training camp that they’d try to be competitive because their attempt to develop a winning culture needs, well, wins.
Tired of losing — 69-177 over the last three seasons will do that to a franchise — the Nets have constantly put themselves in a position to win, at least for the first 36 minutes or so. But with so many crucial, organization-altering decisions on the very near horizon, Brooklyn will need to reevaluate their direction if the losses continue to pile up. At what point does incubating culture come at the expense of missing out on an elite prospect? On the other hand, their error-prone defeatism would certainly put a toll on a growing roster, head coach and front office if it continued until April as well.
Aside from outright winning — LeVert’s injury was cruel timing in more ways than one — there appears to be no unanimously great path forward from here.
For example, there’s the internal struggle over Spencer Dinwiddie and D’Angelo Russell. As two of the Nets’ best players, a desire to retain them both is understandable — but unless one is willing to come off the bench for the foreseeable future, it may not be the road the franchise wants to head down. Dinwiddie is eligible for his extension worth $47.5 million on Dec. 8 and the Nets’ biggest success story in Brooklyn remains candid about his desire to either stay or test the free agent market come June. The flipside of this two-headed coin is Russell, a younger, higher-ceiling guard that has struggled to find consistency every night thus far. Russell is the only roster member capable of the 38-point, 8-rebound, 8-assist effort he dropped last month against the Philadelphia 76ers, but also he’s spent many late-game scenarios glued to the bench as well.
Russell, as luck would have it, is a restricted free agent come July and he’ll likely have a long list of suitors himself. If the Nets commit to Dinwiddie, they could end up letting Russell walk for nothing. If the Nets take a wait-and-see approach to Russell, they could obviously lose Dinwiddie and leave that situation empty-handed instead.
(For more on this intriguing dilemma, check out Drew Maresca’s most recent piece here.)
Utilizing them both will have a negative impact on the Nets’ eventual lottery position — unless, naturally, the organization truly believes they can tread water until LeVert’s undetermined return. But the Nets will need to decide if hanging around eighth place is really worth missing out on a blue-chip prospect. Even if Brooklyn won’t commit to one or both (or neither) of their point guards just yet — Dinwiddie is extension-eligible until Jun. 30 — there’s another tweak that could help determine their best-foraged way to the future: The often-maligned youth movement.
There’s a clamor for another youth movement in Brooklyn that grows louder with each defeat, this time for Dzanan Musa, Rodions Kurucs, Theo Pinson and Alan Williams. Frankly, the foursome has been tearing up the G League for the Long Island Nets and the thought-process here is rather simple. Play the prospects and rookies and if they energize an at-times lethargic Nets squad — see Kurucs versus the Knicks — then great. If it doesn’t and the Nets keep falling down the conference ladder, then at least their future assets will have gained valuable experience at the NBA level.
Musa, the No. 29 overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, has appeared in just seven games so far, most often as the ceremonial white flag in a loss. On Long Island, Musa has averaged 20 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.3 steals per game — but as he’s stuck behind a veteran-laden backcourt rotation, there may not be a true opportunity here without a trade. For Kurucs, his previous exclusion has been harder to quantify. Kurucs was forced into the rotation after preseason injuries to Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and DeMarre Carroll and the 20-year-old Latvian not only held his own, he thrived.
He’s tallied 7.3 points and 3.3 rebounds over 12.3 minutes per game, an athletic forward finding his place through aggressive open court action and a willingness to get dirty. An injury of his own knocked Kurucs back out of the rotation briefly — wherein that time, Hollis-Jefferson and Carroll both returned — but head coach Kenny Atkinson recently admitted that they may need to find more time for him moving forward.
The pair of two-way signees, Wiliams and Pinson, are considerably less urgent since the Nets can shuttle them between teams for up to 45 days before a decision has to be made. In any case, it’s not hard to imagine that both could help the Nets right now if that’s what the team is still aiming for in 2018-19. For argument’s sake, Brooklyn’s front office could be auditioning the likes of Jared Dudley, Kenneth Faried and the aforementioned Carroll — all of whom are expiring contracts — ahead of the trade deadline. Last season, the Nets’ extracted a second-round pick out the Milwaukee Bucks for Tyler Zeller, so that route is sensical, especially for general manager Sean Marks.
However, Faried has barely seen the floor at all, notching only 5.6 minutes over just eight contests so far. As of Friday, the Nets ranked 25th in rebounds per game at 32.7 and Faried, an eight-year veteran, has gobbled up a career average of 8.1 of them along the way but this seemingly perfect union hasn’t come together. Faried would conceivably help the Nets with their rebounding issues and put him front and center for a potential move elsewhere, so its become an overall confusing footnote indeed. Williams, a former NBA center himself, has pulled down 13.9 rebounds in just 25.2 minutes per game for Long Island — he, in all likelihood, is too good for the G League.
Elsewhere, Carroll underwent a career resurgence in Brooklyn in 2017-18 and he’d be worth a valuable return on the trade market if he’s available — but if the Nets still want to reach the postseason, the gritty veteran would almost definitely remain in their plans. Lastly, there’s Hollis-Jefferson, who, like Russell, will venture into restricted free agency this summer too. While the stretchy forward has been solidly part of the Nets’ rebuild, he could be an eventual casualty depending on how the Dinwiddie-Russell conundrum unfolds. Basically, there are difficult puzzles to solve here without any discernable, clear-cut answers.
But when the overarching goal is to compete despite the loss of your best player, the water gets muddied quickly. It’s hard to find time for both the veteran on an expiring contract and the scrappy rookie when those late-game wins turn into shocking losses time and time again.
Stuck between two frames of mind, the franchise has been tossed into a difficult position — to tank or tread water, that is the debate. LeVert’s injury turned a promising season into turmoil, but sooner rather than later, the Nets will need to take stock and determine how to most effectively proceed. Whether that’s the calculating the value of their two electric guards or the puzzling use of those back-of-the-rotation assets, it’ll be a busy winter and spring for the Nets’ front office, full of challenging questions that absolutely require the right answers.
Until then, even if the agonizing defeats continue to rise, the Nets must simply decide what kind of team they want to be.