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NBA Daily: Teams That Could Take a Step Back

With all that’s happened this summer, there could be a few teams due to regress thanks to a not-so-happy off-season, writes Matt John.

Matt John

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Disclaimer: There’s a difference between the words could and will.

The team that most likely will take a step back this upcoming season will be the Cleveland Cavaliers, for obvious reasons. LeBron James’ departure leaves such a ginormous void that it would be surprising if Cleveland makes it back to the playoffs. Fortunately, LeBron has not left the Cavs in anywhere near the pathetic state they were when he deserted them the first time. Still, expectations for Cleveland this season are nowhere near what they’ve been the last four years.

The teams that could take a step back, on the other hand, are in a different state. They didn’t lose a basketball legend like LeBron James, but after what’s transpired this off-season, their roster now begs a question or two.

For all we know, some player(s) from their current roster may play better than anyone expects, or they may get a player(s) who change everything for the better, in which case, they would have nothing to worry about. As their roster currently stands, the following teams currently have specific red flags that they cannot ignore if their aim is to take another step forward this season.

Houston Rockets

It’s been a tough summer for Houston. They didn’t get LeBron. They had to overpay Chris Paul to keep their status as the Warriors’ chief competitor in the west. They added Carmelo Anthony, whose age and decline has made many doubt his fit on the team. The team luckily re-signed Clint Capela for a fair price after his monster season, but their potential regression stems from the wing depth that they lost.

Rockets fans have probably heard it all about losing Trevor Ariza and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, and for good reason. They were agile, versatile, and best of all, they could shoot the rock. Ariza shot almost 37 percent from three-point land last season while Mbah a Moute shot 36 percent. They are not the easiest players to replace.

The Rockets added James Ennis III in hopes to filling in for their departed wings. Ennis, who shot 33 percent from distance, could turn out to be one of the most underrated additions this off-season, but there’s only so much he can do. Counting on him is risky given that he’s not the most proven player in the league, and Michael Carter-Williams is not making anyone sleep easy in H-Town.

Of all the teams on this list, Houston is the most likely to have the best season. It’s just that losing the little guys that keep the wheels turning may wind up being one of their biggest regrets.

Philadelphia 76ers

Philly also had their sky-high hopes derailed this summer. They hoped to win the LeBron James sweepstakes only to come up empty-handed. Nemanja Bjelica backed out of his formal agreement with them and opted to go to the Kings. And now, rookie Zhaire Smith is out indefinitely with a foot injury.

Not all went wrong for them this summer. They acquired another potentially golden asset on draft day when they traded for Miami’s unprotected first-rounder in 2021. Better yet, they kept most of the roster intact while maintaining their cap flexibility. Wilson Chandler brings a tough-minded scorer that the Sixers desperately needed in the playoffs, and Mike Muscala is a capable stretch big.

So why is Philly in danger of taking a step back? Primarily, it’s from their perimeter. Keeping J.J. Redick was the right move, but he is 34 and his defense is slipping. Chandler and Muscala should fill in well for Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova, but the latter two brought playoff experience to the team compared to Muscala and Chandler, who don’t have nearly as much.

Philly’s franchise cornerstones also raise concerns. As impressive as Ben Simmons was his rookie year, teams should be aware of both his strengths and his flaws. Now that the NBA has seen what he brings to the floor, teams will continue to take advantage of the absolute zero spacing Simmons provides for the Sixers. While Joel Embiid’s flaws do not stick out as much as Simmons, he still will be an injury risk that Philly has to monitor carefully.

Markelle Fultz could undo all of these concerns, but he remains an enigma. Question, though: Why haven’t they hired a general manager yet?

Minnesota Timberwolves

Remember when the T-Wolves were the team everybody believed had a great future ahead of them? It’s amusing to see how much the script has flipped in Minnesota in just one year’s time.

It’s not what they lost this summer that brings cause for concern. The real story for them this summer has been the reports of contention. First, there was a report that Tyus Jones considered asking a trade. Then it came out that Jimmy Butler had issues playing with Andrew Wiggins. Most recently, it’s come out that Butler may not be fond of playing with Karl-Anthony Towns either. Somehow, Minny’s future may not be as promising as it once appeared.

Perhaps we should have seen the warning signs sooner. Shabazz Muhammad requested to be waived while the team was solidly in the playoff hunt. Later on, reports said Wiggins believed the Timberwolves were holding him back. To top it off, Jamal Crawford declined his $4.5 million option to test free agency, or in other words, he preferred to test a notoriously dry free agency over putting on a Timberwolves uniform again.

Minnesota’s talent and coaching should still be enough to fuel another playoff berth, but contentious locker rooms could accelerate a catastrophe is nothing gets resolved. If things don’t get in order, this could be more than just a setback.

This could be a meltdown.

Portland Trail Blazers

Hey, speaking of flipped scripts, there may not be a team whose script has flipped in as short a span as the Blazers. Back in April, Portland was believed to be a team ready to fight with the best of the west. As we all know, that’d didn’t last long.

Portland’s problems don’t stem from any locker room issues or who they have lost or who they failed to get. They lost Ed Davis and Shabazz Napier, which hurts them somewhat but not immensely. Seth Curry was a good find and Zach Collins should improve next season. Portland’s problem is that, as a team, this might be as good as it gets for them. They certainly have a playoff-caliber roster, but the rest of the conference isn’t slowing down for them.

Portland’s competitors around the conference have either stayed the same or gotten better. Teams like the Lakers and the Spurs have added top-notch players to their teams. Other teams like the Grizzlies and the Mavericks have anteed up to make a run at the post-season. Factoring in the other competitors they already had to deal with and Portland will have their hands tied just trying to make the playoffs.

The Blazers’ problem is not that they aren’t good enough to make the playoffs. It’s that they are good enough to just make the playoffs and that’s about it. Unfortunately, they’re not in a position where they can find any easy improvements. They are teetering at the luxury cap line, and it seems their best players, as good as they are, are about as good as they can get.

Unless they can make a substantial trade, Portland will probably stay where they are, which could hurt them with the improved conference.

Every one of these teams mentioned wants to be better than they were this past season. If they do what needs to be done to fix their problems, that could take them a long way.

If they don’t, then there could be trouble.

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NBA Daily: Buyers or Sellers – Northwest Division

Which teams are buyers or sellers in the Northwest Division? David Yapkowitz breaks down each team’s respective situation.

David Yapkowitz

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This coming weekend, Dec. 15 to be exact, is a big marker in the NBA. It is the day that players who signed free-agent contracts over the summer are eligible to be included in trades.

Here at Basketball Insiders, we started a new series this week taking a look at each NBA team, division by division, and identifying which teams should be looking to move or add salary as this day approaches.

The Northwest Division is home to some of the better teams in the Western Conference. The Denver Nuggets have surprised many and have battled their way to the top of the conference. The Oklahoma City Thunder got off to a slow start, but have also fought their way to the top. The Portland Trail Blazers and Memphis Grizzlies are among the middle of the pack playoff teams. Only the Utah Jazz are struggling more than anticipated.

Here’s a look at what each of these teams should do as trade season approaches.

Denver Nuggets

The Denver Nuggets suffered a couple setbacks recently with the injuries to Gary Harris and Paul Millsap. Fortunately for them, they are a deep and talented team that looks able to withstand those temporary losses.

As it stands, they aren’t locked into any terrible contracts and most of their young bench guys who have been crucial this season still have a couple years left on their current contracts. They are also awaiting the debut of Isaiah Thomas and prized rookie Michael Porter Jr. The Nuggets are a team that would do well to just stand pat and stay the course. Wait to get healthy and see what this team is capable of.

If they were to make a move, it could be something very low key. They were recently granted an injury exception to add a player over the roster limit which they used on Nick Young. Young is an instant offense guy off the bench who played a key role in last season’s championship Warriors team. Should he impress, the Nuggets could offload a seldom-used player like Tyler Lydon in a salary dump to make room for Young once the injured guys return.

Players whose trade restrictions are lifted on Dec. 15: Torrey Craig, Monte Morris, Isaiah Thomas

Minnesota Timberwolves

The Timberwolves already made their big splash when they traded Jimmy Butler to the Philadelphia 76ers for Robert Covington and Dario Saric. After starting the season off poorly following the Butler distraction, they’ve since played .500 basketball.

This is a team that is looking to get back to the playoffs after ending their playoff drought last season. They do have one particularly big contract in Gorgui Dieng that they probably wouldn’t mind shedding. The only thing is they’d most likely need to add someone to a potential deal to make to more enticing. That’s where Tyus Jones comes in.

The Wolves were buyers with the additions of Covington and Saric, and now it’s probably time for them to become sellers. The resurgence of Derrick Rose and the presence of Jeff Teague has made Jones expendable. While he is a very solid point guard, it’s clear that he’s probably best suited for a new home. There are teams looking for a point guard, the Phoenix Suns being one. The Wolves could probably rid themselves of Dieng’s contract in potential Jones deal.

Players whose trade restrictions are lifted on Dec. 15: Luol Deng, James Nunnally, Anthony Toliver

Oklahoma City Thunder

At one point, the Thunder were the only team in the NBA without a win. Now, they’re sitting atop the Western Conference, ahead of the Golden State Warriors. They are looking like the changed team that many thought they’d be after trading Carmelo Anthony.

If the question on whether or not the Thunder should be buyers or sellers were posed about a month ago, they almost certainly would have been buyers. Their outside shooting was pretty poor. Since then, its’ improved dramatically. Paul George has been shooting better from the three-point line. Jerami Grant has emerged as a legit outside threat. Dennis Schroder has gotten his percentage up as well.

If they can add another shooter though without having to give up much, then they should go ahead and look into it. What they should really do, however, is stand pat and await the return of Andre Roberson.

Roberson has yet to play while recovering from an injury sustained last season. While the Thunder defense suffered without him last year, they’re actually one of the best defensive teams in the league this season.

Players whose trade restrictions are lifted on Dec. 15: Raymond Felton, Nerlens Noel

Portland Trail Blazers

The Blazers have hit a bit of a rough patch lately, bouncing back down to the middle of the pack when they were near the top of the conference. Even so, they’re still one of the better teams in the West but haven’t yet reached that level where they can make some noise in the playoffs.

Portland is a team that should almost assuredly be buyers this trade season. They should be looking to add talent where they can to really be able to compete with the upper echelon of the conference. They’ve got a pair of contracts in Myers Leonard and Mo Harkless that they’d probably be open to moving if the opportunity presented itself.

What the Blazers should be looking for is someone who can probably fill the spot that they’d hoped Harkless could. That’s a wing who shift between both forward spots, knock down the three and play tough defense. There is a player supposedly on the market who fits that bill, Trevor Ariza. He’s been linked to the Los Angeles Lakers, but it wouldn’t hurt for Portland to make inquiries.

Players whose trade restrictions are lifted Dec. 15: Seth Curry, Nik Stauskas

Utah Jazz

The Utah Jazz are perhaps the most disappointing team in the NBA this season. They were not supposed to be a sub .500 team. There is definitely still time to turn things around, but it’s going to have to happen much sooner than later as the West is shaping up to be extremely tough.

The Jazz have also made their trade move already when they brought back Kyle Korver. Three-point shooting was a major concern for them and Korver is one of the best in the business in that regard. This is a roster that on paper is talented and shouldn’t be as bad as they have been. It’s not clear if there’s a move out there that would suddenly vault them up in the standings.

The Jazz are going to have to make decisions on both Ricky Rubio and Derrick Favors though. Rubio is an expiring contract and Favors is non-guaranteed for next season.

Players whose trade restrictions are lifted on Dec. 15: Georges Niang

It’s going to be interesting to see what these teams, and the rest of the NBA as a whole, does once Dec. 15 rolls around. Even with the Jazz’ poor start, each of these teams had major playoff aspirations when the season began.

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

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NBA Daily: The Team No One Talks About

Even if their situation isn’t pretty, the Miami HEAT are a much more interesting team than people are giving them credit for. Matt John explains why.

Matt John

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The final matchup between LeBron James and Dwyane Wade created a ton of national buzz on Monday night, and for good reason.

The two of them are both future first-ballot Hall of Famers, they were two of the absolute best players of their generation, and of course, they experienced plenty of success together. When the two legends embraced one another at the end of what was a tight contest, it was moving to see two buddies savoring the moment in their last game together.

We as the audience live for spectacles like those because they come ever so rarely in a lifetime, but you know what else was a rarity that night? Miami was in the headlines again.

It sounds odd, doesn’t it? The HEAT used to be all the rage dating back to the LeBron days, but since then, not so much. Miami hasn’t done a terrible job since LeBron departed in 2014. In 2016, they came within inches of returning to the Eastern Conference Finals. The following year, they went on a tear following an abysmal start only to come up short on the playoffs.

Now it’s a different story. The HEAT are coming off a gentleman’s sweep at the hands of the Philadelphia 76ers last season, have an unimpressive 11-15 record, and, before the Wade-LeBron matchup, the last big storyline centered around them was when they tried to acquire Jimmy Butler.

At the moment, Miami has the highest payroll in the league and lots of money tied up to players who aren’t making the All-Star team anytime soon, which limits their ceiling. Because of that, it’s tough to find reasons to talk about them.

However, after taking the Lakers to the wire, Miami is starting to show signs that its outlook isn’t as bleak as it looks and that they deserve more attention than people are giving them.

The Kids Are Alright

Well, well, well. Perhaps youth isn’t wasted on the young after all. At least, not in South Beach.

Miami’s young talent has shown some promise over the last few years, but the production has been a little slower than they would have hoped. Luckily for them, their patience appears to be paying off.

Let’s start with who would have been the main piece in the HEAT’s bid for Jimmy Butler: Josh Richardson. If they don’t already, Minnesota is probably going to regret not trading for Richardson, because the 25-year-old wing started off the season as a man possessed. Through the first month-and-a-half of the season, Richardson averaged 20.5 points on 43 percent shooting, including 41.4 percent from three while also averaging four rebounds and 3.1 assists.

Since the start of December, his numbers have gone down probably because of a shoulder injury, but once he fully recovers from that, there’s no telling what Richardson may be capable of. Since coming into the league, Josh has established himself as one of the premier young jack-of-all-trades wings. At only 25 years old, he may just be elevating his game from Swiss army knife to blossoming star.

Next, there’s Justise Winslow. Since being heralded as one of the bigger steals in the 2015 draft, Winslow’s start in the NBA hasn’t been the most graceful. Going down with a torn labrum in 2016 probably had something to do with that. Among the glimpses of talent he’s shown, Winslow has never found consistency, but he may have turned a corner.

Justise has had pretty much the exact opposite season that Richardson has had. His first month-and-a-half numbers were okay, but he’s had a fantastic December so far. He’s put up 18.4 points a game on 53 percent shooting including 52 percent from distance, while also averaging 6.2 rebounds and four assists. Putting up those kinds of numbers against the Lakers and the Clippers is no easy task, so this might be a sign of things to come.

If it is, then he’s beginning to show why Danny Ainge was willing to trade six first-round picks to get him.

Finally, there’s Bam Adebayo. His stats won’t “wow” you, but his net rating probably would. The second-year player currently ranks third in net rating behind only Richardson and Kelly Olynyk, as the HEAT are a plus-8.4 with Bam on the court. When you compare that to Hassan Whiteside, with whom the HEAT are minus-6.7 on the court, you can see that Adebayo brings a much more positive impact.

That stems mostly from his defense, as the HEAT’s defensive rating is plus-9 with Adebayo on the court according to NBA.com, which is highest on the team. Miami is currently tied for the ninth-best defensively rated team at 107.9, so they’d be sure to play him more to keep that up.

The ages of Richardson, Winslow and Adebayo all range from 21 to 25, so the best of them is yet to come. On a team that’s filled with bloated contracts, the HEAT can sleep better at night knowing that their young starlets will all be paid less than $30 million per combined over the next three years.

The End of an Era

Like any other all-time great, Dwyane Wade’s retirement tour should be something every hoop junkie should tune into, but everyone knew that already.

What makes Wade’s final season stand out among others is that he’s making legitimately worthwhile contributions for a team that’s trying to win. Compare that to say, Kobe Bryant, who didn’t put up awful stats in his last season, but played for a team that was intentionally terrible. Or Paul Pierce, who played for a team that was trying to win in his last season, but was cooked by the time he got there.

With Flash, it’s different. Wade is still putting up above average numbers with almost 15 points a game on 41.8 percent shooting on 13 attempts per contest. Not bad for someone who will be turning 37 in a month.

Wade’s scoring numbers are to be expected, but it’s how he’s getting them that should impress even his die-hard fans.

Throughout his entire career, Wade was always a feared scorer with his Achilles’ heel being his inability to stretch the floor. So far this season, the man has changed that. The Chicago native has shot 35 percent from three on four attempts per game. Both are career-highs and a huge boost from Wade’s past numbers centered around the three-ball.

Wade’s numbers are also proving to be effective, as the HEAT are plus-4.2 with D-Wade on the floor, with all of it stemming from his impact on their offensive rating.

Regardless of where Miami finishes, Wade is going out with a bang. Let’s be honest – that is exactly what we all want to see from the soon-to-be retiree.

A Turnaround Is In The Cards

An 11-15 record isn’t going to impress anybody, but Miami has won four of its last six games, and some of those wins weren’t a stroll in the park for them. Beating the Clippers in Los Angeles is quite an impressive feat when you think about how many guys were out for the HEAT. Richardson, Whiteside, Goran Dragic, James Johnson, Wayne Ellington and Dion Waiters were all out, and Tyler Johnson left early with an injury.

Miami still prevailed by 23 points against one of the West’s top teams while basically having eight guys to play. That’s only one game, but in the next game, the HEAT, who had more of their players back, gave the Lakers all they could handle, as it came down to the final buzzer.

Okay, that’s only two games of good play against good teams, but think about this. Miami’s point differential is currently minus-0.3, which is better than the sixth-seeded Detroit Pistons, whose differential is minus-1.2. It’s also better the eighth-seeded Orlando Magic, whose differential is minus-3.4. If Miami improves on that, then they should be able to catch and potentially surpass both.

Remember, Miami has turned the tides before not too long ago. Erik Spoelstra is still an excellent coach in this league who is capable of making the proper adjustments for his team to succeed. Expecting Miami to instantly to be a contender would be stretching it a tad, but they are currently a half-game behind the Magic for the last playoff spot with their core guys starting to come back.

So, if the HEAT turn it around, you heard it here first.

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NBA Daily: Almost Trade Time In The NBA

While the NBA has seen some major deals early in the season, the real trade chatter is just getting started. Steve Kyler takes a look at some of the names to watch.

Steve Kyler

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Almost Trade Time In The NBA

While the NBA has already seen a few major deals drop, including the Jimmy Butler deal to Philadelphia and George Hill being moved off to Milwaukee, typically the NBA doesn’t see nearly this much activity this early in the season. Normally, deals start to take shape after December 15, when those players who signed free-agent deals with new teams become trade-eligible, which is this Saturday.

All week long, Basketball Insiders will be looking at who should be “buyers” and who should be “seller” in advance of the Saturday milestone.

While there will hardly be a floodgate opening on Saturday, it is the first milestone of the trade season, which means teams will start talking more intently, especially with the annual G-League Showcase getting underway in Las Vegas next week.

There have already been some notable names hitting the rumor mill such as Phoenix’s Trevor Ariza, who most expect to be moved, and J.R. Smith in Cleveland, who is also expected to be moved at some point before the February 7th NBA Trade Deadline.

While those are the most likely dominoes to drop next, there are a few more worth watching.

Kent Bazemore – Atlanta Hawks

The Atlanta Hawks have been looking for a new home for forward Kent Bazemore for some time. The problem for the Hawks in moving Bazemore is the $18.08 million he is owed this year and the Player Option he is most likely picking up for next season worth $19.26 million.

There has been some interest in Bazemore; he was linked to the Houston Rockets on several occasions, mainly as a money swap for Ryan Anderson, who was moved off to the Phoenix Suns this past summer.

Compounding the problem for the Hawks is that Bazemore hasn’t exactly been blowing the doors off with his play this season. League sources still peg him as an easy player to obtain, mainly because the Hawks don’t seem to want much in return except to get out of his contract.

The Cleveland Cavaliers are believed to be open to taking on longer-term salary if they can extract youth or draft picks in the process. With J.R. Smith’s deal being very favorable with only $3.78 million guaranteed, that could be an interesting situation to watch, especially if the Hawks are open to buying Smith out after a trade and setting him free to find a new team in advance of free agency.

Robin Lopez – Chicago Bulls

With the chaos surrounding the Chicago Bulls lately, it’s not surprising to hear that one of the lone grown-ups on the roster, Robin Lopez, was trying to quell what seemed like an insurrection against new Bulls head coach Jim Boylen.

You will be hard pressed to find anyone that doesn’t think highly of Lopez, and for that reason alone it wouldn’t be entirely shocking to see the Bulls hang on to Lopez, merely to make sure things don’t get off the rails.

That said, there is a reality headed the Bulls way, and that is that Lopez can be a free agent in July, and he will likely be in demand for many of the reasons the Bulls would want to keep him around.

That same demand likely means the Bulls could get a reasonable return for Lopez and his $14.35 million contract.

Few in NBA circles believe Lopez will be in Chicago past the deadline, which makes him an interesting name to watch especially for would-be playoff teams that are looking for veteran toughness for a playoff run.

It won’t be surprising to see the Bulls cash out Lopez in the coming weeks, however, given the current state of things around the team; they would be smart to hang on to him at least until the latest mess comes to pass.

Courtney Lee – New York Knicks

The Knicks desperately want to shed contract money before the trade deadline, and the odd man out seems to be swingman Courtney Lee.

Lee is just getting back from a pretty significant neck injury that cost him almost all the season so far. Lee is expected to get some run in the G-League tonight as part of his rehab. It’s also in part to allow other teams to get an extended look at Lee for trade purposes, according to sources close to the situation.

Amusingly, Lee chose the Knicks because they offered him a fourth contract year when he signed back in 2016. Coincidentally it’s that fourth year the Knicks are now trying to shed.

There is a sense in NBA circles that Lee wouldn’t be hard to move. The question is what else the Knicks will have to include to get that money off the books before the February trade deadline?

Zach Randolph – Sacramento Kings

Zach Randolph has been out of the Sacramento Kings rotation all year as they have been moving towards playing their younger guys. Randolph chose the Kings, mainly because they offered vastly more money than any other team, but did so knowing he might not play as much in his final year, something he has said repeatedly he was OK with.

All of that said, Randolph is someone the Kings would love to trade, and its possible teams looking to shed contract dollars would view Randolph’s $11.692 million deal as attractive if only to buy him out and get out of longer team money.

The prevailing thought from NBA insiders is that the Kings will hang on to Randolph until the trade deadline. If they cannot find a deal, then it is expected he will be bought out and given a chance to latch on to a veteran team that might have a role for him.

Sources near the situation say Randolph has been great with all of this and isn’t pushing the Kings one way or the other, which buys them time to let the market play out.

While these are not remotely close to all the names to watch, but some of the bigger contract guys in play and likely candidates to be moved sooner than later.

Basketball Insiders has already dropped the first part of the Buyers and Sellers series, with Spencer Davies taking a look at the Central Division. A new division will drop every day this week, so stay tuned.

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @TommyBeer, @jblancartenba, @SpinDavies, @JamesB_NBA, @MattJohnNBA, @DrewMaresca, @JordanHicksNBA, and @Ben__Nadeau .

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