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NBA Daily: Fixing The New Orleans Pelicans

Ben Nadeau continues Basketball Insiders’ “Fixing” series by taking an in-depth look at the New Orleans Pelicans.

Ben Nadeau

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As franchises have been eliminated from postseason contention, Basketball Insiders started to diagnose their ailments and offer future plans of attack.

Unfortunately, it may take a whole lot more than that to fix the New Orleans Pelicans.

The Pelicans, who now find themselves in a unique circle of basketball misfortune, had a frustratingly inconsistent campaign further nosedived by a mid-season trade request from their superstar. After two weeks of will-they, won’t-they rumors with the Los Angeles Lakers, Anthony Davis was not moved at the deadline, ensuring that he’d awkwardly stay put until the summertime at the very least.

On top of Davis jumping in and out of the lineup post-All-Star break, Jrue Holiday recently underwent season-ending surgery, while Elfrid Payton and E’Twaun Moore have struggled to stay healthy all year as well.

Oh, and the Pelicans’ third-best asset is expected to hit unrestricted free agency to boot. So, without sounding too hyperbolic, this may just be the most important offseason in franchise history.

What Is Working?

All things considered, employing Anthony Davis was working out pretty well.

In 2017-18, the Pelicans won 48 games, Davis and Holiday were praised as defensive forces — and awarded as such — and then they went and swept the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round. Since then, anything that could go wrong has.

Davis, despite the media circus surrounding him since January, has tallied 25.9 points, 12 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game. Before his abdominal strain, Holiday was averaging 21.2 points, 5.1 rebounds, 7.7 assists and 1.6 steals on 47.2 percent from the floor. Even in the tough Western Conference, that’s a stellar way to kick off any competitive rotation. Plus their shrewd addition of Julius Randle — a career-best 21.2 points and 8.6 rebounds this season — gave the Pelicans plenty of worthy offensive pieces.

In fact, even today, New Orleans’ scoring acumen is not in question.

The Pelicans rank first in points in the paint (58.4), third in points per game (115.5), pace (103.9) and 11th in offensive rating (110.8). Simply put, those numbers are far too good for a team currently 13 games under .500.

And although the Pelicans aren’t often hailed for their development, they’ve succeeded with a small number of young assets. Christian Wood, picked up off the scrap heap this month, has averaged 18.3 points and 6.3 rebounds in his first three games with New Orleans — a keeper, in all likelihood. Jahlil Okafor — yes, that Okafor — has played well when given the opportunity and Frank Jackson remains promising at the age of 20. Still, Kenrich Williams, an undrafted free agent, has been the pièce de résistance.

Williams, 24, has been a much-welcomed boost to the rotation, even grabbing some extremely positive praise from Holiday in the process:

“A star, really. [Williams is] someone who can come out and fill up the stat sheet. Offensive rebounds, defensive rebounds . . . he can lock up your best player.”

Even if the Pelicans have to go full rebuild this offseason, they’ll be starting with at least Holiday and Williams — there are far worse fates to hold.

What Needs To Change?

Before hopping into the Davis-related debacle ahead, there are four other quick-hitter topics that the Pelicans must tackle this offseason:

1. Defense

Since Davis was drafted No. 1 overall, the Pelicans, surprisingly, have been a pretty poor overall team defensively — but, as of late, they had begun to turn the corner.

In chronological order from 2012, Davis’ rookie year, here’s New Orleans’ defensive rating by season: 28th, 27th, 23rd, 26th, 9th and 14th. Unfortunately, this season, that rating is back in the dumpster at 111.7 — good for 23rd-worst. Whether or not Davis sticks around, the Pelicans must focus on adding defensive-minded players in both the draft and free agency. In the Western Conference, they’ll continue to toil in mediocrity without an average unit to combat that great previously-mentioned offense of theirs.

2. Health

Of course, at the end of the day, this is hardly New Orleans’ fault.

But, to date, ahem, here’s how things shook out for the Pelicans on the missed games front:

Davis has been withheld from 21 games, followed on the superstar front by Holiday at 10. Trailing that dynamic duo, Elfrid Payton, freshly signed, has lost 40 games to injury, while E’Twaun Moore lost 24. Even the blossoming Randle sat for seven games himself. Before he was traded to Milwaukee at the trade deadline, the chronically-injured Nikola Mirotic — and the team’s most reliable stretch four option — had missed 23 games.

Perhaps next year, the basketball gods won’t frown upon the Pelicans so harshly — fingers crossed.

3. Three-Point Shooting

Speaking of long-range efforts, New Orleans finds themselves cemented firmly in the basement here as well.

This campaign, the Pelicans have connected on just 10.2 three-pointers per game at a 34.4 percent clip, numbers that rank them 22nd and 25th in the NBA. New Orleans’ lone player to average over two three-pointers per game, Mirotic at 2.7, was traded last month. Darius Miller has posted back-to-back strong seasons from deep, but that’s practically all he offers on the offensive end.

Holiday has hit a career-best 1.8 three-pointers per game on a career-low 32.5 percent, which basically sums this all up. Moore is an above average shooter — 43.2 percent in 2018-19 — but his injuries have kept him from contributing to that nightly total. Of the eight teams that have made fewer three-pointers per game than New Orleans, only three of them will reach the postseason — the Spurs, Clippers and Pacers.

On the flip side, that trio of teams also convert at the first-, second- and fifth-highest percentages from deep this season, respectively — so, basically, a monumental trade-off that the Pelicans just cannot match in either direction. The modern landscape dictates a need for multiple high-volume or high-percentage three-point shooters and New Orleans barely claims one at this point in time.

4. Depth

Then there’s the lingering depth issue that has plagued New Orleans time and time again. Remember the Pelicans’ second-best points per game number? The starters have accounted for 82.3 of their 115.5 points, or, in other words, a whopping 71.2 percent of their per game total. Presently, New Orleans’ bench notches the seventh-lowest average in 2018-19 so far, which isn’t inherently a problem as Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Golden State, Oklahoma City, etc, all thrive without one.

But those bottom-ranking bench squads typically boast multiple future Hall of Famers or elite defensive units to help counterbalance that effect — something, again, that New Orleans certainly lacks. When Davis is dealt, the Pelicans must round out the rotation and find the depth they’ve been missing.

The Anthony Davis Part

At long last, here’s the most simple, crucial and difficult portion of New Orleans’ entire offseason: Moving on from Davis.

It’s hard to believe that the Pelicans’ franchise leader in points, rebounds and blocks is the major piece that needs to change this summer — but the last few months have been anything but normal in the Big Easy.

Davis’ late January request to be traded — to his credit, he’s been willing to continue playing — fractured a unique, unhealable bond. Rehashing the numerous public negotiations made with Los Angeles now seems fruitless — now his departure is not a matter of if, but when.

Disastrously, since the trade deadline, the situation has somehow become even trickier. Brandon Ingram, the Lakers’ best and leading asset in their offers, was diagnosed with deep venous thrombosis and underwent season-ending surgery. Lonzo Ball, talented as he may be, has been shut down due to lingering injuries in both of his professional campaigns so far.

If the Pelicans held out in hopes of Jayson Tatum’s eventual availability, that itself is far from guaranteed with so much hanging on Kyrie Irving’s upcoming trip to free agency. Should the Lakers’ offer look less intriguing than it once did, that leaves immense pressure to broker a deal with Boston. But given general manager Danny Ainge’s usual stinginess, the Celtics will definitely flinch at moving a trove of assets for a potential one-year rental  — especially one that has all but confirmed he wants to team up with LeBron James.

The threat of Davis leaving in 2020 for Los Angeles will dampen every single trade offer that New Orleans receives this summer — a real Sophie’s Choice of bland blockbuster returns. As always, the Pelicans could force Davis to sit out the remainder of his contract but losing their once-in-a-generation star for nothing would be a massive blow to one of the already lowest-attended franchises in the league.

When Davis is inevitably traded this summer, they’ll hope to recoup even half of his value — a goal that seems lofty as of now — but even snagging a few quality pieces like Kyle Kuzma or Jaylen Brown and a future draft pick remain an absolute must.

Focus Area: Free Agency

Outside of the Davis hubbub, the currently general manager-less Pelicans will have loads of decisions to make in July.

Of note, Holiday is locked into a deal valued at about $26 million until at least 2020-21 and Solomon Hill has one more season left at a hefty $13.2 million. But other than that, the Pelicans will have some money to spend if they’d like to.

The ever-blossoming Randle can opt out and become an unrestricted free agent — so when Davis goes, throwing near-max money at the power forward would be a suitable option. If losing the franchise cornerstone seems unavoidable, New Orleans might already have their everyday usage replacement on the roster.

Elsewhere, the perpetually confounding Stanley Johnson, has labored since his arrival in February — but can the Pelicans really afford to let a cheap lottery selection leave in RFA? Okafor has an intriguing team option at just $1.7 million but he hasn’t played 25-plus minutes in a game since early last month.

Presumably, Christian Wood, Kenrich Williams and Frank Jackson will all return for another season on reasonable, cost-effective deals.

Nevertheless, the case of Elfrid Payton is sure to give the new general manager some restless nights as an added bonus. On a one-year deal at $3 million, he’s spent most of the season dealing with various ailments… but when Payton takes the floor, he’s been mostly excellent. The point guard’s 5.4 rebounds and 7.4 assists per game are career-highs and he recently posted five-straight triple-doubles — yup, that’s not a typo. In doing so, Payton joined Russell Westbrook, Oscar Robertson, Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain as the only players in NBA history to log such a feat.

That’s not bad company to keep heading into free agency.

Frankly, Davis’ exodus will likely cause a full rebuild around Holiday so the Pelicans should avoid any messy, quick-fix deals this offseason. But here’s the rub, a foundation of Holiday, Williams, Wood, Jackson (plus potentially Randle and/or Payton), their rising 2019 first-rounder and whatever they pry away in a presumed Davis deal would be far from a nightmare start to this multi-year operation.

Focus Area: The Draft

Considering that aforementioned leaping off point, New Orleans should just select the best player available in June. At 32-45, the Pelicans hold basketball’s ninth-worst record and a 20.3 percent chance of jumping into the top four during the NBA Draft Lottery. With five games remaining, they also have decent odds of skipping past Washington and Memphis for slightly more ping pong balls — but, all that said, the Pelicans will add a quality asset no matter where they pick.

Bruno Fernando, who averaged 13.6 points, 10.6 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game for Maryland this year, could be a solid rim-protecting asset to pair in the frontcourt with a re-signed Randle. Inversely, versatile prospects like Rui Hachimura or De’Andre Hunter would shore up New Orleans’ perimeter defense if that’s the path they choose to head down.

Or, if they wanted to pair Holiday with Jarrett Culver — the outstanding sophomore that currently has No. 3-seeded Texas Tech in the Elite Eight — that’d be a selection worth celebrating. Assuming that New Orleans is above to dive headlong into their next era, their decision remains looming. Sure, any incoming Davis package would influence these proceedings — e.g., drafting a power forward if the Celtics finally pony up Tatum would be silly — but it’s far too early to tell on that front.

However, the Pelicans could kill two birds with one stone by adding a defensive-oriented three-point shooter. Today, the aforementioned Hunter fits that bill to a tee.

Given their current state of affairs, predicting anything Pelicans-related may amount to a fool’s errand — as of now, we’re all just waiting for the first domino to fall. The future direction of this franchise — from their role in free agency to their draft day targets — will depend on how the Davis situation unfolds. But since any Celtics-centered deal theoretically hinges on Irving’s return to Boston, this saga could very well bleed into July.

Big money moves aside, New Orleans’ front office has been tasked with some weighty decisions this summertime — ultimately, choosing the right ones will shape this organization for years to come.

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: Sixth Man of the Year Watch — 12/6/2019

A Washington sharpshooter joins the ranks of the league’s best reserves, but the Sixth Man conversation still focuses on Los Angeles in Douglas Farmer’s opinion.

Douglas Farmer

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In this update on Sixth Man of the Year candidates, one name must be bid farewell. Unexpected to begin the year but increasingly expected in recent weeks, Charlotte Hornets guard Devonte’ Graham has played too well to keep coming off the bench, most recently shining with 33 points on 10-of-16 shooting from deep Wednesday. In a lost season for the Hornets, Graham’s emergence may be the brightest silver lining, hence his starting their last 13 games.

A similar fate is set to befall another name below in the absence of an injured superstar, but technically speaking, that Brooklyn Nets guard has not started half his team’s games yet, so he remains in this listing one more time …

5. Dāvis Bertāns — Washington Wizards

Bertāns’ recent shooting spurt has not brought the Wizards many wins, but it has led to him reaching double digits in eight of their last nine games, including four instances of 20 or more points. During that stretch, Bertāns has hit 47.5 percent of his looks from beyond the arc, the type of shooting that earns notice.

At this point, he is averaging only 13.6 points and 4.5 rebounds per game, numbers that may not bring out the checkbook this summer, but if Bertāns keeps at his recent pace, his contract year should elicit a worthwhile payday. That would be true in any summer, but even more so in an offseason devoid of many pertinent free agents like 2020 should be.

4. Dwight Howard — Los Angeles Lakers

No. 39’s numbers have not taken off, and they will not, but this space will continue to trumpet Howard’s impact because it has been surprising and quietly important. Even beyond his counting stats — 7 points and 7 rebounds per game — playing fewer than 20 minutes per game will keep Howard from broader recognition for most of the season.

In the Lakers’ 12 wins by 10 or fewer points, Howard has totaled a plus-38. As long as Anthony Davis stays healthy and Los Angeles is the title favorite, Howard’s contributions should not be diminished, even if he is not the prototypical sixth man candidate.

3. Spencer Dinwiddie — Brooklyn Nets

When the Nets face the Hornets tonight, Dinwiddie’s nominal bench status will be in the rearview mirror for the foreseeable future. Through 21 games, he has started 10, fitting the sixth man qualification by one role night. With that distinction, his 20.8 points and 5.8 assists per game place him firmly in this conversation.

If he will have started half Brooklyn’s games by the end of the day, then why include him between Howard and a three-time Sixth Man of the Year winner? Because when Kyrie Irving returns from his extended absence (shoulder injury), Dinwiddie may return to the bench and skew his games off the bench back to the majority of his action.

That effect combined with Dinwiddie keeping the Nets steady and in the East’s top half without Irving is a unique combination of a contribution.

2. Lou Williams — Los Angeles Clippers

Death, taxes and Lou Williams. He has broken 20 points in 14 games this season with two more cracking 30, averaging 21.1 points per game. That was to be expected, even with his slow start to the year. The 14-year veteran is a metronome of a bucket-getter.

His 6.3 assists per game, however, are on pace to be a career-high. While that may not have been anticipated, this will be Williams’ fifth year in a row raising that average. Those dispersals have not shorted Williams’ scoring, as everyone knows. That is all to say, the league’s ultimate sixth man, maybe its best ever, has improved as a complete player in the latter half of his possibly interminable career.

1. Montrezl Harrell — Los Angeles Clippers

At some point this year, this biweekly Sixth Man listing may need to become a one-man testament. Harrell is rendering the preceding four nominations moot. His 19.1 points and 8.0 rebounds per game are impressive, but his pivotal role with the Clippers is even more deserving of lauds.

His 29.7 minutes per game are fourth for Los Angeles — a category Williams actually tops — and his plus-156 leads the Clippers handily, with only Kawhi Leonard’s plus-144 within 60 of Harrell. Yes, Harrell’s on-court impact in Los Angeles rivals Kawhi Leonard’s, despite one of them coming off the bench in 20 of 22 games and the other being the reigning Finals MVP.

The season is still in the early aughts — but some classic and new frontrunners are here to stay. For now, we’ll have to see how Paul George, Kyrie Irving and others ultimately impact the leaders on this list, but the Sixth Man of the Year race has only just started to heat up.

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NBA Daily: Equal Opportunity System With Butler Fueling HEAT

Seemingly always trapped in “good but not good enough” territory, the Miami HEAT have finally turned a corner. They might even be contenders, writes Drew Mays.

Drew Mays

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209 wins, 202 losses.

That’s what the Miami HEAT have to show in the record column since LeBron James left in the summer of 2014.

Their record tells us out loud what we’ve known over the last five years: Miami is a proud franchise. The team maximizes what it has and is a perennial postseason threat no matter who is on the roster.

Middling seasons aren’t necessarily a good thing by NBA standards, however. Competitiveness is a stepping stone to title contention. Without contention, it makes sense to bottom-out and rebuild through draft capital and assets. 40-win seasons are neither of these things.

But what the HEAT have in their favor is their location. NBA stars love South Beach. And this summer, Miami got what it needed: A star to push them over the hump in Jimmy Butler.

Butler wasn’t the shiniest addition, but he was one of the most important. A top-15 player, Butler’s antics in Minnesota frustrated his value over the past few seasons.

Those annoyances were overshadowed by his play for Philadelphia in the playoffs last spring — even with Joel Embiid, Butler may have been the 76ers’ best player. Either way, he was definitely their most important. He took control of games as a ball-handler down the stretch, repeatedly working from 15-feet and in and running pick-and-roll when the games screeched to a halt and defenses were loaded up. With Butler in tow, the Sixers were a few bounces away from the Eastern Conference Finals — although, he’d tell you they would’ve won the whole thing.

Instead of running it back in Philadelphia, Butler flew south in free agency to where he’d always wanted to go: Miami. His signing, followed by the arrival of rookie Tyler Herro, the emergence of Kendrick Nunn, a jump by Bam Adebayo and the support of the rest of the roster has the HEAT at 15-6 and poised to make a deep playoff run.

Miami has seven players averaging double figures. Kelly Olynk, averaging 9.2 per game, is close to making it eight. The balance extends beyond scoring numbers – those eight players all play between 23 and 34 minutes, with fifth starter Meyers Leonard as the lowest-used regular at just under 19 minutes per game. No one shoots the ball more than Nunn and his 13.8 attempts per game, and four players average over 4 assists each night.

While most teams are built on top-down schemes with a few stars and role players filling in the blanks, Miami is thriving in an equal-opportunity system. Much of this has to do with their culture and ability to amplify each player’s talents.

This even attack wouldn’t exist if Herro wasn’t flourishing in his rookie season; if Nunn hadn’t become a revelation after going undrafted in 2018; if Adebayo hadn’t made a leap, detailed recently by Jack Winter; if Goran Dragic hadn’t accepted going to the bench after starting essentially the last seven years; if Duncan Robinson hadn’t developed into an NBA rotation player.

All of these things are hard to predict individually, let alone them coming together at once. But with Miami, and with what we know about Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra, it was almost a foregone conclusion.

Butler’s infusion into Miami’s culture has been the perfect marriage 20 games in. His toughness matches the HEAT’s, and he seems to respect the work ethic of his teammates – something that’s been a huge problem in the past. He’s been able to be “the guy” without forcing it, leading Miami in scoring, but trailing Nunn in attempts per game.

The HEAT’s diversity on offense has led to an effective field goal percentage of 55.2 percent, second-best in the league. They’re 3rd in three-point percentage, 6th in two-point percentage, and 7th in free throws made. They’re 10th in assists. Even with their league-worst turnover percentage, they are 11th in offensive rating and 6th in overall net.

Defensively, the team is doing what Miami has traditionally done. They’re eighth-best in opponent field goal percentage and 2nd in the entire league in three-point percentage at 31.6%. In today’s NBA, defending the three-point line that well will breed success.

After defeating the Toronto Raptors on Tuesday — and the defending champions’ subsequent loss to the Houston Rockets — the HEAT are tied with them for third place in the Eastern Conference standings. And we’re 20 games in, so what we’ve seen from them so far is real. They are contenders to represent the East in the Finals in June.

Toronto and the Boston Celtics are good. They’ve both had strong starts, bolstered by the ridiculousness of Pascal Siakam and the insertion of Kemba Walker, respectively. But they aren’t markedly better than Miami. Are their offenses good enough to overcome the HEAT in a playoff series?

The Milwaukee Bucks, the proverbial frontrunner, still have the glaring non-Giannis weaknesses. They lost Malcolm Brogdon and showed their vulnerability by losing four straight in the conference finals last year. Philadelphia struggled out of the gate, but have won 8 of their last 11. But sans Jimmy Butler, the Sixers face the same questions they faced before his arrival in 2018-19: Who is the guy down the stretch? Who can create offense late in a playoff game?

That hasn’t been answered for Philadelphia yet. There’s no assurance that it’ll be answered at all. That question is answered in Miami.

They have Butler now. They have their star.

Combine that with Herro, Nunn, Adebayo, Dragic, Justise Winslow — who they haven’t even had for half of their games thus far — and the rest of the package, and Erik Spoelstra has what he hasn’t had since LeBron James was still in Miami.

A contender.

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Simple Problems With Difficult Solutions

Matt John takes a look at three teams that need to address weaknesses in their rosters and the challenges each team faces in doing so.

Matt John

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Remember when Carmelo Anthony was out of the NBA? That seems so long ago now even though his stint in Portland started less than a month ago.

Let’s go back to that time. In ‘Melo’s almost one-year exodus from the NBA, fans, media, and even players alike were begging for his return. To be fair, this was based more on his reputation as one of the best scorers of his time rather than his recent play with his previous two teams.

Looking back, it was a little odd that for almost an entire year, absolutely no one wanted to roll the dice on Carmelo. Not even on a non-guaranteed contract. But, what was even odder was that although he had plenty of advocates on his side, said advocates couldn’t collectively decide which team really needed him.

At this stage in his career, it was a little tricky to figure out what role he could play because it wasn’t clear how much he had left in the tank or how he’d adapt to his decline after his underwhelming performances with both Oklahoma City and Houston. There was a lot of demand for Carmelo to come back to the NBA. Where he should make his comeback was the question.

Of course, now, we’ve seen that Carmelo can still bring it – so far – if given the right opportunity. The simple problem, in this case, was that Carmelo needed another chance in the NBA. The difficult solution was that, at the time, there was no clear-cut team that would have been perfect for him to go.

That brings us to this season. We are approaching the 1/4th mark in the NBA regular season and now we’re starting to see the true colors of some of these teams. The following teams have simple problems that need to be fixed. At the same time, how they’re going to solve them will be tough to figure out.

San Antonio Spurs

With every minute that passes, the playoff odds are looking less and less in the Spurs’ favor. When was the last time anyone said that about San Antonio? 1996? The naysayers have been dreaming of this day for longer than Vince Carter’s entire career, but this might just be the moment they’ve been waiting for – the end of an era.

San Antonio is currently 8-14, they have a point differential of minus-4.0, and worst of all, they’ve played one of the easiest schedules in the NBA. Maybe it would be different if Davis Bertans or Marcus Morris were around, but that doesn’t change that it’s only going to get harder from here.

Twenty-two games into the season and it’s clear the Spurs’ established stars – DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge – do not mesh well with one other, sporting a net rating of minus-7.2 together. Any three-man lineup with DeRozan/Aldridge plus one of Dejounte Murray, Bryn Forbes, and Derrick White has a frighteningly negative net rating – all are minus-7.3 or lower.

It gets worse. Both DeRozan and Aldridge have very negative net ratings – Spurs are minus-10.5 with Aldridge on the court, minus-13.3 with DeRozan. All three of Murray, White, and Forbes have negative net ratings as well, but why it looks worse for the former All-Stars is because those two are supposed to be the main ingredients of a projected playoff team and they’re most certainly not that right now.

Trading them would be the advisable next step but to who is the million-dollar question. Both of them are really good players. They’re just not great players. They’re both lethal scorers. Both of them can put up 20-30 points on any given night. The real issue is that even if they put up their usual numbers, that doesn’t always equate to a win. If you don’t believe that, look at the Spurs’ record again.

Aldridge would be easier to trade on paper because his contract is more favorable since it’s guaranteed for next season, but potentially trading for DeRozan is a little more delicate of a situation. DeMar has a player option after this season, which can be a catch-22 for players like him. If he plays well, he’ll opt out of the contract and go for his next payday. If he doesn’t, he’ll opt-in and drag the cap down another season.

That makes it harder for teams to invest assets for a guy like him. He would usually be worth more if his contract was longer, but the risk of him leaving after less than one season is too big to give up something good for him. There are teams that could definitely use the offensive boost that DeMar provides, but they may not have the matching contracts nor be willing to offer the young value that the Spurs would want in a deal.

Some retooling definitely looks in order for San Antonio, but this situation is a lot more complicated than it was last year.

Boston Celtics

At 15-5, the Celtics are both exceeding expectations and are fun to watch. In other words, they look like a Brad Stevens team again.

Boston’s offense has looked much-improved thanks to both better production from Brown, Hayward and Jayson Tatum as well as letting their most egregious ball stoppers walk. By having less pure scorers on the team, there are a lot more touches to go around, which has made the offense look more fluid than it did last year.

What’s more surprising than their more team-oriented offense is their stingy defense. The Celtics have the sixth-best defensive rating, allowing 104 points per 100 possessions, despite losing Al Horford and Aron Baynes.

Marcus Smart’s ability to cover just about anyone on the basketball court provides so much cushion for them on the defensive end. Brown, Hayward, and Jayson Tatum have all been stingy switchable wings that make life harder for opponents. Even guys like Semi Ojeleye and Grant Williams have proven to be passable options as undersized centers.

Even their pure bigs haven’t been that bad. Daniel Theis has been excellent as the team’s most reliable rim protector, allowing opponents to shoot just 52 percent at the rim, and Enes Kanter has the third-best net rating among rotation players, as Boston is plus-5.6 with him on the floor.

Despite that, no matter how good this Celtics crew may look, the knock on them will be the same until they change it: They need an upgrade in the frontcourt.

Theis has been about as good as the Celtics could have hoped for from him, but as of now he can only reasonably be counted on for 20-25 minutes at most. The Celtics have done a great job covering Kanter’s holes, but is that going to hold up in the postseason? Robert Williams III has made substantial progress, but the young mistakes he makes demonstrate that he’s still a year or two away.

Boston has been better than what many thought they would be, but they’d rest easy knowing they had another dependable option in their frontcourt.

Where do they get one though? They don’t have any expendable contracts to give up in a deal. They’ve made it clear that neither Hayward nor Smart are going anywhere, and for good reason. The only other big contract they have on the books is Kemba Walker, and they’re definitely not trading him.

Since Theis and Kanter get paid $5 million each, it’s hard to combine them for an upgrade because the hypothetical upgrade they would need would cost more than that. Since those two are Boston’s most proven bigs, it’d be hard to see them getting rid of both. Their only option might be the buyout market in February, which is a risky game to play.

As good as Boston has been, they haven’t squelched the fears surrounding their frontcourt issues. It only makes you wonder what this team would look like if they still had Al Horford.

Memphis Grizzlies

They may not be a good team right now, and probably won’t be a good team for a couple of years, but how can you not like this young Memphis Grizzlies team?

They’ve hit two consecutive bulls-eyes with Jaren Jackson Jr. and Ja Morant. They’ve got some good complementary veterans in Jonas Valanciunas and Jae Crowder as well as good complementary young guys like Brandon Clarke and Dillion Brooks.

It might be weird to say this, but even though they are one of the worst teams in the league, they’re ahead of schedule. The pieces are in place. They are forming a good culture. They probably will get another high lottery pick depending on what record they finish with. It’s a far cry from the Grit-n-Grind era, but the promise the young Grizzlies possess is undeniable.

There’s only one elephant in the room – Andre Iguodala. He’s been an issue that they’ve been avoiding ever since they acquired a first-round pick by adding his “services.” The word “issue” should be taken with a huge grain of salt because it’s not really causing any disruption. Iguodala wants to play for a winner, and Memphis wants to get something good for him.

It makes all the sense in the world. Neither side owes the other anything. Iguodala shouldn’t be spending what’s left of his career on a team that just pressed the reset button. Memphis shouldn’t let a guy with his skillset go if he can be had for something. Even at almost 36, Iggy is still a valuable player.

Besides the fact that no one is going to offer a first-round pick for a role player in his mid-30’s on an expiring deal, the biggest issue for the Grizzlies is that hardly any team vying for his services has an expendable matching contract to trade for Andre and his $17+ million contract.

Most teams who have expendable deals in the NBA are ones that don’t have any use for Andre because they’re not going anywhere. Atlanta, Cleveland, Charlotte, Detroit are all teams that have guys on overpaid deals that are worth giving up, but the likelihood that they go for a guy like him with the place they are at now isn’t likely.

Teams like the Clippers, Blazers or HEAT could certainly put themselves in the bidding, but that would require sacrificing guys who are thriving in their rotation, like Meyers Leonard, Moe Harkless, or Kent Bazemore.

The one option that makes sense is Dallas. They have a player currently out of their rotation that is being paid enough to be used to get Andre – Courtney Lee. They definitely need some help along the wing, and Iguodala would bring championship experience to a team that has exceeded all reasonable expectations.

What Dallas might do is try to see if they can get a better overall player since the team has both Lee’s and Tim Hardaway Jr’s contracts that can be used to acquire a star. They don’t have a lot of assets, but that may be worth looking into first before looking at Iguodala.

Releasing Iguodala would be Memphis’ last resort, which they don’t want to do, but finding an acceptable trade partner is going to be difficult especially if they want to get something back for him. The longer they wait, the lesser the value.

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