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NBA Daily: Trade Deadline Winners

Drew Maresca parses through the NBA Trade Deadline and pronounces some bonafide, undeniable winners.

Drew Maresca

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The 2020 NBA Trade Deadline made us wait.

As always, the NBA universe held its collective breath until 3 p.m EST on Feb. 6th. Deadline day ultimately had at least its share of blockbusters and franchise-altering deals, headlined by a massive four-team, 12-player trade between Atlanta, Denver, Houston and Minnesota.

Basketball Insiders will provide an in-depth analysis of every aspect of the 2020 trade deadline, including a rundown of the losers of the deadline, as well as an overview of the buyout market. But first, let’s kick off trade deadline coverage with a list of deadline winners.

Winners

Atlanta Hawks

The Hawks added Clint Capela and only gave up Evan Turner and the Golden State Warriors’ 2024 second-round pick. The Hawks aren’t your traditional deadline buyers – they’re currently 14-38 – but they identified a need and filled it. They did so by adding a top-tier, 25-year-old shot blocker and lob catcher to their already young core that is averaging 13.9 points and 13.8 rebounds per game. The center is signed through 2023 to an incredibly affordable deal with an average salary of $18.55 million. Capela will make Trae Young even more dangerous in the pick-and-roll, fitting perfectly alongside Young, Kevin Huerter, Cam Reddish, De’Andre Hunter and John Collins. He brings a positive attitude and familiarity with winning, and he’ll also bring his 7-foot-5 wingspan and all of his high-powered finishes — third overall in dunks in 2018-19).

For all intents and purposes, the Hawks’ 2019-20 season is over. But their future looks even brighter now than it already did.

Memphis Grizzlies

While the HEAT are the higher-profile winners of this deal, the Grizzlies got a pretty big victory, too. The Grizzlies added Justise Winslow, a 23-year-old guard/forward who averaged career highs in points and assists last season before struggling with injuries this year. His defensive prowess and newly-discovered offensive versatility will blend beautifully with the existing young and dynamic core. He can handle most positions and he’ll complement Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. perfectly with his selfless, team-first attitude. Further, Winslow is class personified and he’ll work his butt off in Memphis – just like he’s done in Miami.

Remember, Winslow shot 27.6 percent over 1.5 three-point attempts per game in his rookie season — and he already bumped that up to 37.5 percent on 3.9 attempts last year alone.

All they had to give up was a player that had no interest in joining the team (Andre Iguodala), along with Jae Crowder and Solomon Hill. Although the veteran pair were major influences in the Grizzlies’ locker room, the long-term benefits far outweigh any short-term drawbacks.  If Winslow can overcome his lower back injury quickly, Memphis will be light years ahead of where we expected them to be.

Better, they already have the makings of a dangerous eighth seed in the Western Conference this season too.

Miami HEAT

The HEAT added a significant weapon to their roster on the eve of the deadline — but will it be enough? They filled a need for a versatile wing in Andre Iguodala, an incredibly skilled defender and someone that can also initiate the offense. Beyond that, the HEAT added Jae Crowder and Solomon Hill into the deal as the night got longer. Creatively, Pat Riley and his front office prevented the Los Angeles Lakers or Clippers from swooping in on Iguodala, even signing him to a team-friendly extension with a team option for 2020-21. So not only did the HEAT improve, but they kept a pivotal piece away from a team they’d likely have to face in the NBA Finals – if they make it that far.

If that’s not enough, Miami also created additional salary cap flexibility by moving Dion Waiters (signed for $12.65 million in 2020-21), James Johnson (player option for $16 million in 2020-21) and Justise Winslow ($13 million in 2020-21 with a team option for $13 million in 2021-22), while bringing in three guys on expiring contracts or for whom they hold a team option. They’ve just catapulted themselves into the Anthony Davis sweepstakes this summer if they’d like, or they could wait to add one of the numerous franchise-altering free agents in 2021 to a core of Jimmy Butler, Tyler Herro, Kendrick Nunn and Bam Adebayo. Either way, yikes.

Minnesota Timberwolves

Things looked bleak for Minnesota very recently.

Just 24 hours ago, actually. Karl-Anthony Towns spoke about all the losing he’s done in his career. Honestly, if you squinted hard enough, it might have even looked like a preface to a trade request.

But situations change quickly in the NBA, especially around the trade deadline. The Timberwolves unburdened themselves of Andrew Wiggins’ very pricey contract, swapping it along with a top-three protected 2021 first-round pick and a future second-round pick for D’Angelo Russell. And just like that, the Timberwolves’ future is looking up.

It’s not all about Russell. Wiggins has underwhelmed in his five-and-a-half years in Minnesota. Despite all of his talent, he’s been incredibly inefficient. He’s never posted a PER of more than 16.5  — of note, 15 is the league average for every NBA every season and Giannis Antetokounmpo posted the highest PER ever in 2018-19 of 32.5 — and he’s never had a positive Value Over Replacement Player in any season, while also failing to rise above the ranks of a subpar three-point shooter either (33.2%).

Although the pairing might not result in immediate victories, trading Wiggins (and his bloated contract) for a budding star that’ll keep the current star happy is an undeniable step in the right direction.

Honorable Mention

New York Knicks

The Knicks don’t quite qualify as winners.

They didn’t trade for any franchise-altering players, nor did they add any highly-promising draft picks. However, what the Knicks did accomplish was taking a long, hard look in the mirror and reaching the conclusion that change has to start from within — well, nearly all the way. They parted ways with Steve Mills, the former president of basketball operations. In short, Mills had been the team president from 2003-08 before reconnecting with James Dolan and the Knicks from 2013 onward. Even shorter, the overall record for his most recent tenure in New York is a league-worst 178-365. Mills was involved in the hiring of Phil Jackson, the re-signing of Tim Hardaway Jr. and the trade that sent Kristaps Porzingis to Dallas (as well as the events leading up to it).

Beyond that, Mills recommended the Knicks hire Isiah Thomas in 2003 and he oversaw an organization found guilty of a hostile work environment in 2007. Needless to say, it was long overdue.

In replacing Mills, Dolan followed the relatively new trend of handing the keys to the kingdom over to a super-agent. In this case, it’s Leon Rose and William “World Wide Wes” Wesley of CAA. Rose has lots of incredible connections, presumably understands the game from a player perspective and, most importantly, is a fresh face from outside of MSG.

But that’s not all, folks!

In one of the least surprising deals of the day, New York traded Marcus Morris to Los Angeles in a three-team deal that netted them Maurice Harkless, the Clippers’ 2020 first round pick, the rights to swap 2021 first round picks and a future second-rounder. This wasn’t quite the deal that was rumored just minutes before the deal became official, but the important part is that the Knicks collected another pick for an expiring player that probably wasn’t re-signing next year. Overall, that’ll give New York as many as eight first-rounders in the next five years and four in the next two.

A new front office and more picks for them to make, not bad. For the Knicks, who have had very little to celebrate of late, it’s a(nother) new beginning.

And for everybody else mentioned above, they’ll hope it’s the start of something great, too. Whether they’re chasing rings or stuck in the rebuilding mud, they left their mark on a hectic NBA Trade Deadline. Not all that enter the fray come out on top; but the Hawks, Grizzlies, HEAT, Timberwolves and Knicks all head into the All-Star break feeling better about both their immediate and long-term futures.

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Reviewing the Nurkic Trade: Denver’s Perspective

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

Drew Maresca

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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NBA Daily: They Guessed Wrong

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

Matt John

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards

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

David Yapkowitz

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

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

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

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

Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old

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

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

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

Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old

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

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

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

Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old

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

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

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

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

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