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NBA Daily: Rockets and Warriors Appear To Be On Collision Course

Can the Warriors be stopped? We might get an idea during the first week of January.

Moke Hamilton

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Well, it certainly didn’t take Stephen Curry too long to come back to form, did it?

The two-time Most Valuable Player missed 10 games after suffering a severely sprained ankle in the team’s 125-115 win over the New Orleans Pelicans back on December 4.

Behind Kevin Durant’s 28.8 points per game, the Warriors went 8-2 without Curry.

Truth be told, the Warriors have been so dominant that a great many are wondering whether the team would be able to win the championship even without either Durant or Curry. Combined, the duo is nearly unstoppable, just as they were on Saturday night when Curry returned from his absence.

In just 26 minutes of action, Curry led all scorers with 38 points and shot 10-for-13 from three-point territory.

Sometimes, it’s fair to wonder whether the rest of the league has any chance at all against the mighty Dubs.

* * * * * *

Entering play on December 31, despite the early-season heroics of the Boston Celtics and Houston Rockets, it is the Warriors who, at 29-8, have the league’s best record. They lead the league in points per game, rank second in points per 100 possessions and fifth in points allowed per 100 possessions. With the emergence of rookie Jordan Bell and the seamless integration of newcomers Omri Casspi and Nick Young, the Warriors have had 12 different players average at least 13 minutes per game for them this season.

In short, they’re deeper than they’ve been and they’re more talented than we remember.

If there’s one team that doesn’t care, though, it’s probably the Houston Rockets, despite the season-long five-game losing streak on which the team currently finds itself.

General manager Daryl Morey went on record as saying that the Rockets’ primary concern and objective is toppling the Warriors. The San Antonio Spurs will certainly turn those comments into bulletin board material, but it’s safe to say that the Rockets are certainly a team that the Warriors should be thinking about.

To this point in the season, James Harden is the hands-down MVP, and he’s become that by continuing to be the basketball equivalent of a defensive wrecking ball. Harden shares something in common with Allen Iverson and Kobe Bryant in that he routinely attempts to and successfully beats four to five defenders on a single play. With Chris Paul at his side, though, the Rockets possess the necessary ball handling and smart instincts to beat players off the dribble and make good decisions with the basketball.

The Rockets are one of the few teams to beat the Warriors this season, and with the two teams set to renew their acquaintance on January 4, it becomes a game that’s as close to “must see” television at this stage of the season as there is.

Entering play on December 31, the Rockets are the only team in the league that outranks the Warriors in points per 100 possessions and ranks second to the Warriors in points per game. They’re a distant 10th in points allowed per 100 possessions, meaning that a contest featuring the two teams may very well come down to the Rockets’ ability to simply outscore the Warriors over the course of a 48-minute contest.

With respect to the Rockets’ current losing streak, the question that must be answered is whether the team is closer to the one that went 25-4 through its first 29 games of the season, or the one that folded like a cheap suit in Boston on Thursday night and squandered a 26-point lead en route to snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

We’ll probably find out a little more about the Rockets and whether or not they are truly the peers of the Warriors during the first week of January.

* * * * * *

As the Warriors and Rockets appear by many to be on a collision course in the Western Conference, the irony is hard to ignore. For as long as we can remember, and partially because of Mike D’Antoni, we were sold on the idea that “finesse” teams and “jump shooting” teams wouldn’t be able to win at the highest levels.

When teams across the league began employing offenses that shared characteristics with offenses run by D’Antoni, the old theory has been turned on its head to the point where we are now seeing teams go out of their way to abandon more traditional inside-out offenses and plodding post-up centers.

Winning basketball always has been and always will be about the intersection of talented players, a system that maximizes them and a coach that can make it all work.

What makes the Rockets and Warriors unique is that each of them seem to have found the formula. Each of the teams feature legendary players on the perimeter and have made NBA history in one way or another.

They appear to be on a collision course, yes, and in short order, the NBA’s viewing public will be privy to a preview.

When Curry made his return from his 10-game absence, he nailed one three-pointer for each game that he missed. In the back of his mind, he probably thought he needed to be sharp for the Rockets.

He was probably correct.

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NBA Daily: Buyers Or Sellers – Southeast Division

Shane Rhodes continues Basketball Insiders’ “Buyers or Sellers” series with a break down of the Southeast Division.

Shane Rhodes

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The trade market has been an active one this season and, on December 15, trade chatter should only increase; players that signed contracts prior to September 15 will become eligible to be traded.

While some big names have already been moved — Jimmy Bulter, Kyle Korver, George Hill, etc. — anything could happen between now and the February Trade Deadline. One team could go on a hot streak and look to add talent, while another could watch their season nose dive and look to acquire assets to either retool or rebuild. But which teams should look to buy and which should look to sell?

Basketball Insiders has started a “Buyers and Sellers” series to find out just that. We’ve already looked at the Atlantic, Central and Northwest divisions, and today we will focus in on the Southeast.

So, which teams are poised to make a postseason run and which should look to strip down the roster?

Charlotte Hornets

The Charlotte Hornets are in a tough spot.

Kemba Walker has played at an MVP level this season and any team with that kind of talent should be able to grab a top-eight seed with ease in the weaker Eastern Conference. However, the Hornets aren’t exactly a powerhouse; while they sit atop the Southeast Divison and sixth in the conference, they do so with just a 14-13 record. Their roster is middling at best, and most in their position would look to retool for next season, if not start a complete teardown.

But they can’t exactly do that now.

The Hornets made a win now move this offseason when they brought Tony Parker aboard. If they decided to tear it down now, not only would it be a slap in the face to Parker, but to the fans and, most importantly, Walker as well. Walker is on the last year of his deal and will look to cash in next offseason. If Charlotte can’t win some games, they could hurt their chances of retaining that All-Star point guard.

So, what should the Hornets prioritize as trade season looms? Rebounding.

Charlotte is eighth in the NBA in points per game and, while their defense could use some work, they are good enough that it shouldn’t be their top priority. However, they have some serious rebounding issues; Cody Zeller is the Hornets leading rebounder with just 5.6 per game. As a team, they are 21st in the NBA with just 43.8 per game.

The Hornets have plenty of bigs on the roster — Zeller, Marvin Williams, Willy Hernangomez, Bismack Biyombo — but none of them are having a big impact on the glass. If the team has an opportunity to swap out one of the duds for an interior threat, they should take it while they can.

Players whose trade restrictions are lifted on Dec. 15: Tony Parker

Orlando Magic

Like the Hornets, the Orlando Magic are at best a middling roster that, as of now, is vying for a playoff spot. But, unlike the Hornets, they aren’t in a position where the need to win now.

The future in Orlando resides with Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac and Mohamed Bamba, but they aren’t already to make an impact at the highest level. So, at 13-15, the Magic should go into asset collection mode and sell off some pieces while they still have value. Draft compensation should be the primary goal, but it wouldn’t be the worst if Orlando took a chance on some young could-be contributors.

Nikola Vucevic, an unrestricted free agent next season, has increased his value with a dominant season thus far and could return some premium assets. His departure would open up heavy minutes to be split amongst Isaac and Bamba, which could be a major boon to their development, and it would provide the Magic with some sort of return rather than losing him for nothing next offseason.

Evan Fournier is another piece that could be a major boost for a contender — the 26-year-old has averaged 14.9 points, 2.9 rebounds and 3.9 assists this season — and could probably be had for a reasonable return. With the Magic expected to find their home in the lottery in a forward-heavy draft, the absence of Fournier could open up immediate playing time for whomever they select.

D.J. Augustin, Terrance Ross and Jonathon Simmons are just a few of the other role players that could be had from the Magic roster.

Players whose trade restrictions are lifted on Dec. 15: Isaiah Briscoe

Miami HEAT

The Dwyane Wade farewell tour, thus far, has been a success. The same can’t be said for the Miami HEAT season.

After they made the postseason a year ago, the HEAT find themselves at just 11-16 on the year. And, with no major reinforcements on the way, things probably won’t get much better from here. That being said, they have some quality pieces they could move for future assets.

Goran Dragic could be a major addition for any team looking for point guard help. While the contract may be tough to stomach, Hassan Whiteside could be a major force inside if active and engaged on both ends. James Johnson, Dion Waiters and Kelly Olynyk could provide major depth for any team looking to make a playoff push.

Josh Richardson, Justise Winslow and Bam Adebayo are a solid core to build around and, while it may be sad to see the last season of Wade squandered, it would be best for the HEAT to focus on those three and build around them for the future. If they can add another young, impact guard to the mix — either via trade or the draft — that future could be a bright one.

Players whose trade restrictions are lifted on Dec. 15: Wayne Ellington, Udonis Haslem and Derrick Jones

Washington Wizards

The sky was falling for the Washington Wizards at the start of the season. Things haven’t improved much since, but they have perked up a bit.

The Wizards are in a No Man’s Land of sorts; the postseason is within reach — and they have the NBA talent to get there — but how far could they really go? John Wall hasn’t looked himself at times, but he and Bradley Beal are still one of the better one-two punches in the NBA. But, while the rest of the roster may do enough to get them to the postseason, it may not do enough to push much further.

So what should the Wizards do? It starts with Otto Porter Jr.

The Wizards signed Porter to a max-deal in 2017, and their return on investment hasn’t been great; Porter averaged 14.7 points, 6.4 rebounds and shot 44.1 percent from three in the first year of his new deal, but has seen the majority of his numbers — most importantly, his scoring numbers and shooting percentages — dip this season.

Porter has to prove to the Wizards that he is worth the money, and the Wizards have to push Porter to be the best player he can be. If one or the other can’t do their job, then a split may be best for both parties.

Beyond that, the Wizards have plenty of other problems to deal with. They rank just 27th in the NBA in three-point percentage and 28th in rebounding — that has to change if they want to compete. The sheer amount of money already tied into Wall, Beal and Porter will make any significant upgrades difficult, but the Wizards will have to try something; if they don’t, a roster reboot will be waiting for them.

Players whose trade restrictions are lifted on Dec. 15: Dwight Howard and Jeff Green

Atlanta Hawks

The Atlanta Hawks are bad. They know it, the league knows it. If anyone on their roster, outside the trio Trae Young, Taurean Prince and John Collins, isn’t able to be had for a future asset, they are doing this rebuilding thing wrong.

The Hawks should be hunting for draft picks, but looking for some depth on the wing wouldn’t be a bad idea, either. Vince Carter is 41 going on 1 million, Kent Bazemore should be on the move and Justin Anderson and DeAndre Bembry are lower-level rotation players at best. There are some solid pieces in place, but the Hawks have a long way to go before they are buyers again.

Players whose trade restrictions are lifted on Dec. 15: Vince Carter, Alex Len and Daniel Hamilton

Trade season is long, and there is plenty of time for things to go the other way for some of these teams. And this is only the Southeast; teams all over the NBA could see their fortunes reversed between now and February. Either way, an interesting few months lie ahead, and they could have a major impact on the NBA landscape come seasons end.

Be on the lookout for the rest of our “Buyers or Sellers” breakdowns as well.

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NBA Daily: Buyers Or Sellers – Atlantic Division

Drew Maresca continues Basketball Insiders’ “Buyers or Sellers” series with a break down of the Atlantic Division.

Drew Maresca

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While teams are technically allowed to trade prior to December 15, NBA trade season really heats up on that day. And with trade season comes lots of goodies like rumors to sort through, player activity on Twitter and other social media sites and – most importantly – the changes to rosters across the league.

December 15 is the line of demarcation because as of then, free agent signees from last offseason are eligible to be traded. This means teams that may have buyer’s remorse can move on from deals they regret and other teams that may have missed on a free agent target get a second chance to land their player.

The Atlantic Division features three teams in a full-on arms race – Boston, Philadelphia and Toronto – and two others preparing their rosters to make a run at free agents this coming offseason.

The Sixers already drew first blood with their trade of Robert Covington and Dario Saric for Jimmy Butler. Meanwhile, the Raptors are sitting pretty with the league’s best record through 30 games and the Celtics, at 7-3 in their last 10 games, seem to have figured out the rotational issues that have plagued them thus far.

We at Basketball Insiders began a new series examining each NBA team by division and identifying which teams should be looking to move or add salary as we quickly approach December 15. Let’s take a closer look at the teams in the Atlantic Division. 

Boston Celtics

The Celtics roster is still in a delicate state. They just recently began playing consistently good basketball. They have a gluttony of talent, but there is probably limited interest in moving any of their core pieces for anyone not named Anthony Davis – as evidenced by their apprehension to involve themselves in dealings with the Pacers for Paul George prior to last year or with the Timberwolves for Jimmy Butler prior to his trade to Philadelphia.

The one player that they should seriously consider moving, however, is Terry Rozier. Rozier is due for a raise. They could issue him the qualifying offer after the season and match the offer sheet he chooses to sign, but it is virtually an inevitability that someone will make him a lucrative offer – and one the Celtics would probably prefer to avoid paying due to luxury tax implications.

If the Celtics truly feel that Kyrie Irving is the long-term solution at point guard and that he will re-sign as he said he will, then they need to cash in Rozier. While his stock isn’t quite as high now as it was coming off of his play in the 2018 NBA Playoffs, he did nothing to hurt the perception of him. The Celtics could still probably pry some assets away from a team desperate for a point guard of the future. And considering the four first-round draft picks they control in 2019 and how onerous onboarding four rookies would be for a veteran team, the prudent move may be to package Rozier and picks for someone that fits better with the roster its timeline.

Players whose trade restrictions are lifted on December 15: Aron Baynes, Jabari Bird and Brad Wanamaker

Brooklyn Nets

The Nets are in prime position to be sellers as they try to scrape together as much cap space for the free agency gold rush of 2019 as possible. Gone are the days of taking on overpaid role players in exchange for draft picks and other assets – even though they look to be a fringe playoff team and would love to get their young stars some playoff experience.

They must fight that urge. And for now, the Nets will probably stand pat. I’m sure they would like to get out from the Allen Crabbe contract considering is effect on their cap space moving forward, but that’s a tough pill for any team to swallow without sending out additional assets.

Like the Celtics, the Nets have two quality point guards and should considering moving one. The Celtics situation is far more cut and dry, though. The Nets need to first identify who they hope to build around – D’Angelo Russell or Spencer Dinwiddie. Russell will cost more, but Dinwiddie is a bit more of a scoring point guard than a facilitator. Dinwiddie just signed an three-year, $34 million extension Thursday. While they could re-sign Russell and retain both guys, it would be prohibitive to their plans in free agency. And losing Russell for nothing would be a real missed opportunity to return future assets.

Players whose trade restrictions are lifted on December 15: Ed Davis, Treveon Graham and Shabazz Napier

New York Knicks

The Knicks plan to try their hand at shopping soon, too, but not yet. Now is actually prime time for the Knicks to be sellers. The team would obviously like to sign at least one superstar – if not more – this offseason. While they will likely have enough cap space to do so, part of their pitch will likely be the ability to sign a few contributors.

To make that a reality, the Knicks must trade either Courtney Lee or Tim Hardaway Jr. Hardaway has been more productive this season than ever before, but he is owed more money on a longer deal, so it’s more likely that Lee is the easier of the two to trade.

When healthy, Lee is still a productive and efficient wing who can still defend and who has shot at least .400 from three-point range in each of the last three seasons. He would be a welcome addition to virtually any contender.

Furthermore, the Knicks have at least one too many point guards. Moving on from or including either Trey Burke or Emmanuel Mudiay in a Courtney Lee trade would be ideal. While moving on from Burke or Mudiay doesn’t clear future cap space, they could make taking a gamble on Lee more appealing to a team like the Spurs or 76ers.

Players whose trade restrictions are lifted on December 15: Mario Hezonja, Luke Kornet and Noah Vonleh

Philadelphia 76ers

The 76ers just added Jimmy Butler to their roster in a blockbuster deal on November 11. They are 19-10 overall and 10-4 since adding Butler. They should be happy with their roster and should fight the urge to infuse it with more, new players.

I seriously doubt that the 76ers will make any other major deals. But don’t be surprised if Markelle Fultz’s name remains in trade rumors right up to the trade deadline. As recently as Thursday, Fultz was mentioned as a target of the Detroit Pistons by the Detroit Free Press. Both Fultz and the 76ers seem ready to move on. A Fultz trade seems likelier now than ever before.

Players whose trade restrictions are lifted on December 15: Amir Johnson and J.J. Redick

Toronto Raptors

The Raptors’ major move came over the summer when they dealt DeMar DeRozan and netted Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. The team has played even better this season than they did last year when they were the number one seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. What more do they need? They boast the best record in the league (23-7), they swept the defending champion Golden State Warriors in their season series (including a win Wednesday night sans Leonard) and they own the second-best margin of victory in basketball.

While crazier things have happened, don’t expect Toronto to make any trades. They do need more time together, though. They will continue to improve as they learn each other’s preferences and tendencies. How scary of a thought is that?

Players whose trade restrictions are lifted on December 15: Lorenzo Brown and Greg Monroe

The Atlantic Division is among the most interesting given the depth of top-tier talent. One move can swing the balance of power in the division – and the conference – considerably. It will be interesting to see if any of the division’s juggernauts make any major moves, or if either of the New York-area teams can either nab a star or clear more space.

Make sure to follow along here at Basketball Insiders with the rest of the divisions as well as any trade news and reactions as they happen.

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Noah Vonleh is Making His Mark on New York

Noah Vonleh is having a breakout season for the New York Knicks. Will he be a part of the team’s future or will he land elsewhere?

Drew Maresca

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New York Knicks’ Coach David Fizdale has described Noah Vonleh as the team’s most versatile player numerous times in recent conversations with the media. In fact, Fizdale believes that Vonleh is the key to the Knicks’ success.

“It kills us (when he doesn’t play well). It hurts us big time,” he said following the team’s recent loss to the Charlotte Hornets. “We rely on him for a lot of different aspects of the game. For the most part, he’s been playing well for us this year. And he’s a huge part of our success when we win. And when we struggle, he’s usually not having his best games.”

Vonleh’s potential has been evident for some time. And while he was thought of highly enough to be selected ninth overall in the 2014 NBA Draft, his transition to the NBA has been anything but seamless. But Vonleh is clearly beginning to realize his potential and if he remains on his current trajectory, he could justify his draft status and then some.

Vonleh entered the NBA as an 18-year old after only one season at Indiana. While in college, Vonleh averaged nearly 12 points and nine rebounds per game, shooting a scorching .485 from deep. His hands measured biggest in his draft class and his wingspan was 7’ 4.25”. His potential was noted, as was how unpolished he was.

Entering the draft, Vonleh was cited for his length, rebounding ability, speed on the break and his potential to stretch the floor by NBADraft.net. The only real criticisms of his game were a lack of confidence and inexperience. Bleacher Report was even higher on Vonleh, projecting his ceiling to be between Chris Bosh and Harrison Barnes.

Fast forward to the present and Vonleh has played for four teams in his four and a half seasons in the league, but a good deal of the rationale behind that is simply a lack of opportunity. Vonleh hasn’t played more than 19 minutes per game until this season. Vonleh’s game may have been raw, but he has been on a carousel of border-line playoff teams hoping to add established talent, not projects.

He was drafted by Charlotte; however, he was included in a deal that returned Nic Batum after only one season with the team. He was then dealt from Portland to Chicago in a deal in which the Blazers were attempting to avoid the luxury tax. Unfortunately for Vonleh, he didn’t stick with the Bulls for more than the second-half of the 2017-18 season either. And while his time with those three clubs was mostly unspectacular, he has begun to turn heads in New York.

Vonleh has earned a spot in the Knicks’ starting lineup. He is averaging career highs in points (8.2) and rebounds (8.1) in 25.6 minutes per game. His is also posting a career-best PER (15.5).

But the key to Vonleh’s strong play very well may be his three-point shooting. He is shooting .440 from downtown through 28 games; his next best three-point percentage was .303 last season. And while he’s only attempting 1.8 per game, his shooting prowess presents a threat to opposing defenses, forcing them to extend out to him on the perimeter.

While he’s always been an above average shooter, three-point shooting was a point of emphasis for Vonleh this past offseason.

“I worked on the three-ball a lot this offseason. I work on it each offseason so as to not limit myself as a player and to keep expanding my game,” Vonleh said. “This summer, I put in a lot of work. I did some work in Atlanta and some more time back here in New York and the results are starting to show. In the summer time, I was doing some stuff like that (shooting 1,000 shots a day) after an on-court workout. Get in there, get up a bunch of threes. Now during the season, it’s just staying in rhythm. Playing shooting games with some of the guys on the team: Emmanuel Muddiay, Ron Baker sometimes Luke Kornet.” And while the process seems tedious – Vonleh said it was “Countless hours. Way too many to keep track of” – it appears to now be paying dividends.

And despite all of the progress and the praise from Coach Fizdale, Vonleh is only 23 years old. He could still make improvements to his game, or he could remain the productive player he’s been so far this season – either course of action is a good one for whichever team he ends up with long term. Vonleh signed a one-year deal with the Knicks this past offseason; the Knicks will likely explore re-signing him to a longer-term arrangement in the near future.

Vonleh has been embraced by the Garden faithful and coaching staff alike. And the feeling seems to be mutual.

“New York is a great city. It’s a great opportunity (for me) here,” Vonleh said. “Great coaching staff. Great teammates. Coach Fizz believes in some of the things I can do. He lets me go out there and just play, play through mistake and show what I can do as a player.”

Vonleh represents the future of the NBA: he is a long, athletic big who can stretch the floor, push the ball up the court and switch off on guards in the pick-and-roll –  as evidenced by Coach Fizdale’s initial takeaways of him

“(I told him) If you rebound the ball, you’ve got to push it. I don’t want you outletting the ball.’ And his eyes lit up and I think from there he saw that I was going to have a lot of confidence in him to try some stuff. Now he’s shooting the 3, he’s posting. He does everything. I think I’ve said it before, he’s our most complete player.”

He is far from an All-Star, but Vonleh compliments Kristaps Porzingis on the Knicks’ front line. He gives the Knicks a second big who can shoot and who boasts a wingspan greater than 7’4”. That makes for an excellent rebounding and shot blocking front court. And even if he ends up coming off the bench in favor of Kevin Knox or whomever they sign in free agency this season, versatility is a premium in the NBA, and Vonleh is nothing if not versatile. The only question remaining is if the Knicks gamble to sign him to a one-year deal will pay off beyond this season.

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