The NBA landscape is oddly unfamiliar at this point in the season.
The Milwaukee Bucks are ruthlessly destroying everything in sight, the Golden State Warriors are headed toward a top-five draft pick in June and the New York Knicks are struggling to keep their heads afloat after a mid-season coaching change. OK, fine, that last one might ground us in reality, honestly — but things are looking up, at long last!
And yet, that one constant looms large: Feb. 6 and the annual trade deadline. Buyers, sellers — or wherever your favorite franchise might be — now is the time to push all-in, press the eject button or purchase a super-rare opal from a sketchy diamond salesman that may or may not give a player improved basketballing prowesses.
But if such an uncut gem is unavailable to front offices across the league, then they could do worse than to move for these Southwest Division-based players ahead of next month’s all-important deadline.
The Soft Resetters
Courtney Lee — $12,759,670
Solomon Hill — $12,758,781
E’Twaun Moore — $8,664,928
Marco Belinelli — $5,846,154
All four veterans total nearly 40 combined NBA seasons, offering experience, shot-making abilities and locker room leadership. Further, to some, they could represent cap relief. If a team is a deadline seller — the aforementioned Knicks, Cleveland Cavaliers or Detroit Pistons, for example — then these contract-ready players could help them tread water, shed longer deals or gain draft pick collateral. So for the Marcus Morris, Kevin Love and Andre Drummond-type contributors on the market, they won’t come without some deal-matching gymnastics — that’s where players like Lee, Hill and Moore can come in handy, too.
Hell, it’s also why the Houston Rockets got in trouble earlier this year for giving Nene a two-year deal worth $20 million in bonuses, thus making the long-time man the ideal trade fodder. Instead, the NBA voided the deal, ruling that any trade with the Brazilian would only be worth $2.6 in outgoing salary. The Rockets, in salary cap hell, would’ve loved to use Nene in a mid-season deal — perhaps for a name further down on this list, Andre Iguodala — but their creative deal-making was ultimately stymied.
Elsewhere, Moore, 30, has started 29 games for the New Orleans Pelicans in 2019-20 — at a steady 10.2 points per contest, nonetheless — but with Zion Williamson set to return next week and a full youth movement underway, he’s expendable. Better, he’s affordable for those looking for a perimeter punch (39.1 percent from three-point range) or a more cap space in the summertime.
Lee, on the other hand, has struggled to find time in a backcourt led by Luke Doncic. With he has a massively-expiring deal and a fantastic reputation behind-the-scenes, it’s not hard to imagine Lee moving elsewhere in the next 20 days as the Mavericks try to bolster their postseason chances.
Belinelli, 33, has been less effective in his older age, but boasts 65 career postseason games and a low-risk contract. Should the San Antonio Spurs pull the plug — head coach Gregg Popovich likely feels strongly otherwise — then Belinelli and others could be intriguing trade targets.
As for Hill, who has labored to stay healthy in recent seasons, he has another bloated expiring deal — although he’ll likely be most valuable to Memphis as freed up cap space come June.
The Calculated Risks
Andre Iguodala — $17,185,185
Jae Crowder — $7,815,533
The time has finally come: Free Andre Iguodala, you cowards!
Since the former NBA Finals MVP was dealt to the Grizzlies last summer, he’s been stuck in the mud. In an old fashioned standoff, Iguodala hasn’t appeared yet for the rebuilding franchise, while Memphis hasn’t budged from their first-round-pick-or-no-deal mindset from the offseason. Will they budge? Which teams will blink first?
The Los Angeles Lakers, always in need of more playoff-poised athletes to put next to LeBron James, might be willing. Houston, still in luxury cap hell, probably can’t finagle adding $17 million in cap space without obliterating its already-teetering-off-the-edge-of-the-abyss built roster.
Last time Iguodala was featured for the Warriors, the 35-year-old averaged just 5.7 points and 3.7 rebounds, but his defensive abilities and postseason record speaks for itself. The expectation is that Iguodala will be moved — but to whom and for how much? Well, that’s the six-month-old question on everybody’s mind, even today.
Iguodala, of note, will be an unrestricted free agent come June.
Crowder, 29, is on his fifth team since 2012 but, by and large, he’s impressed at every stop thus far. In 2019-20, the veteran standout has started all 38 games for Memphis, tallying 10.4 points and 6.1 rebounds per contest on a paltry (and expiring) $7.8 million dollar deal. Should the Grizzlies clear the deck, Iguodala included, Crowder has 50 games of postseason experience and won’t come with an outrageous price tag — both in regards to outgoing cost or future commitments.
The Leap Of Faiths
DeMar DeRozan — $27,739,975
Jrue Holiday — $26,131,111
This would be the all-in push. The all-or-nothing swing. The so-called leap of faith. Two stars in two different places in their careers — both equally excellent trade candidates for different reasons.
DeRozan, 30, is still chugging along as the leader of San Antonio, and he’ll likely finish with an average over 20 points per game for the seventh consecutive season. Healthy as they come, the high-flyer has played in 72-plus games during every campaign since 2014-15 — and he still knows how to enact a healthy dose of revenge, too. DeRozan won’t be a cheap option for many franchises, but might he be the final missing piece somewhere?
Such a move, naturally, would have to come with Popovich’s blessing and acceptance that the Spurs aren’t postseason-bound for the first time since 1997. At 17-22, San Antonio currently ranks 9th in a stingy Western Conference with five teams within three games of them as of Jan. 16. Betting against Popovich is a sin, but those odds, for the first time in a long time, aren’t looking fantastic for the perennial stalwarts.
Should the Spurs look to jumpstart a mini-rebuild — Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Lonnie Walker and Keldon Johnson in tow — then there will certainly be suitors for DeRozan.
As for Holiday, he’s the division’s big-ticket item — if he’s still available, of course. Last the world had heard, the Pelicans had retreated from the offseason position of an unmovable Holiday, the new leader and cornerstone post-Anthony Davis. And yet, the Pelicans are one of those teams within breathing distance of the Spurs and a postseason trip for their budding core, so moving Holiday may not behoove them anymore.
Given Williamson’s assumed presence in the season’s second half, Brandon Ingram’s rise to stardom and Lonzo Ball’s newfound settledness, Holiday might be best served to stay put. Still, David Griffin, New Orleans’ executive vice president of basketball operations, is no stranger to the wheelin’ and dealin’ nature of February, and everybody has a price.
Holiday — 19.6 points, 6.5 assists and 1.7 steals per game, plus a back-to-back member on an All-Defensive Team — would elevate any roster in the league. If the 10-year veteran is, in fact, on the table, Griffin has likely been fielding offers for quite some time already. Should Williamson’s introduction to the rotation go seamlessly and the Pelicans firmly cement themselves as postseason contenders, however, then Holiday will be the perfect player to get them there.
With less than a month to go before the NBA’s trade deadline, the proceedings will only get wilder from here. While the entirety of the Southwest Division is still involved in a hectic playoff chase, far too much could change over the remaining weeks. Who will push all-in? Who will pull back? Are the Spurs going to concede their historic streak of postseason appearances? And how will the Pelicans look with Williamson in the fold?
These are questions without answers at this point.
In another month, we’ll have seen the future and then some — but which way it falls now is still anybody’s best guess.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards
Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.
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.
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old
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