If you’ve been a diehard NBA fan for years, you’ll probably remember the 2016-17 Los Angeles Lakers. No, their record wasn’t the greatest and, no, they didn’t make the playoffs in the competitive, crowded Western Conference.
Instead, this team had its fair share of inside jokes, including one that gradually grew into a viral sensation.
Recall a stretch of games between January and March where Ivica Zubac averaged 18 minutes per contest and showed plenty of potential for Luke Walton.
Then a rookie, the Croatian center hit double-figure scoring 13 times in 31 total games. The first time he received over 20 minutes of action, he recorded his first double-double against the Denver Nuggets. He did the same in back-to-back nights on the road about a week later.
As Zubac’s popularity as a player began to reach social media, Larry Nance Jr. started a movement to ensure his teammate’s ascent to infamy: ZuPac.
“So it originated with him saying people used to call him Zubacca – like Chewbacca Zubacca,” Nance Jr. told Basketball Insiders. “So I’m like, ‘Alright. Let’s take this a step further.’”
Spreading through the Lakers’ locker room Nance had shirts printed out of Zubac’s face photoshopped over rap legend 2Pac. Fans went wild for it, as did media and team reporters. And he wasn’t done there. Zu Alcindor, Kareem Abdul Zubar, Zuol Deng, Zulius Randle, Zu Williams and too many others to name caught on and stuck.
Even in 2019, Nance has more to add to the list.
“ZuPac, Zudacris, Zucci Mane, Lil Zuzi Vert,” Nance told Basketball Insiders. “Just kinda playing off different famous names. We had a lot of fun with it. He’s one of my favorite teammates I’ve ever had for sure.”
Unfortunately for those who appreciated the pair’s antics, neither Nance nor Zubac is donning the purple and gold colors any longer. The former has been back in Northeast Ohio enjoying a career year with his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers, while the latter is still playing in Southern California—just not with the same franchise.
In an attempt to surround LeBron James with perimeter-oriented talent, the Lakers acquired Mike Muscala from the Clippers and sent Zubac to Doc Rivers and company. It was a puzzling move for Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka to make considering the flashes the third-year big man had shown.
Regardless of the optics regarding his old team, Zubac’s new team had big plans for him right away as an everyday starter.
“I was happy for him just to get a bigger role,” Nance told Basketball Insiders. “That was the Lakers’ routine where he wasn’t getting too many minutes, and the Clippers are a team where he can start and expand his role and hopefully build some value going into his free agency summer.”
“That’s what they told me when they traded for me,” Zubac told Basketball Insiders. “They told me I’m gonna be starting, so I expected it.”
In 18 games with the Clippers, Zubac is averaging 16.3 points and 14.5 rebounds per 36 minutes. He’s getting the most playing time he’s ever gotten to this point in his career on a consistent basis with a defined role, and he’s producing at a high level because of it.
“With Zu, it’s all about opportunity,” Nance told Basketball Insiders. “He’s super talented and I think he’s showed the fact that, once he gets a chance, he can really be a game changer and make something happen. In LA [with the Lakers], that wasn’t the place for him to get his opportunity and I’m just excited to see him really catch some stride and some traction on a playoff team.”
When asked about swapping clubs in Hollywood, Zubac pointed to a simple factor that’s made him appreciate the Clipper culture more than his former team’s.
“It’s always enjoyable when you win,” Zubac told Basketball Insiders. “So that’s the only thing that makes it better. Winning makes everything better.”
As the hottest team in the NBA, the surging Clippers have been doing a lot of that as of late. They’ve been the victors of five straight, have come out on top in 10 of their last 11 games and are one win away from clinching a postseason berth.
Maybe the most remarkable part of this run is the roster turnover the team underwent at the trade deadline. Still in the playoff race at the time holding the eighth seed in the west, LA’s front office decided to part ways with Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanovic and Mike Scott—along with Avery Bradley, Marcin Gortat and Milos Teodosic—to go younger and set themselves up for the offseason.
“It’s not easy, and it is disruptive,” Rivers said of the move. “But you have to appeal to your players and get them to buy into what you’re trying to do now, and then buy into what we’re trying to do long-term as well.”
The decision didn’t exactly send the right message to the players in the locker room at the time, either.
“When we traded Tobias, that was a tough stretch for us, because that’s a lot of points going out of the window for us,” Rivers said. “And not only him, but Mike Scott and Bobi as well. They were also good guys. They fit what we call Clipper DNA.
“Man, I didn’t know how they were gonna react. They didn’t react well the first day, I can tell you that. It was a tough day for us, a tough couple days.”
Fighting for their position in the postseason, the Clippers had dropped four of six games going into February 9, when they made a trip to Boston. The new additions had only been with the team for two days. Joining them on the road, there was no practice—only an hour or two of shootaround on the morning of the game.
LA was outscored 43-20 in the opening quarter and trailed by as many as 28 points in the first half, but a show of heart from mainstay players such as Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell, Patrick Beverley, Danilo Gallinari—coupled with the fresh arrivals of Zubac, Landry Shamet, Garrett Temple and JaMychal Green—led to an improbable comeback win over the Celtics.
Rivers believes that moment became the tone setter for how they’ve played since.
“We went out and did that,” River said. “And Sham played terrific, Zu played terrific in that game. I thought that kinda bought everybody back in and allowed us to get our feet under us. So I thought that win, if you had to point at one that helped us turn it around, that was big for us.”
Zubac agrees with his coach that it was an eye-opener for the Clippers.
“When we got here and we showed we could play and we were gonna help the team to win, then everyone started playing better and started feeling better and it just kind of started rolling,” Zubac told Basketball Insiders.
In the midst of their last extended trip of the season, LA has won both games in Cleveland and New York. Before that, they had a season-long homestand where they went 5-1, a time in which Rivers saw the team connect on a closer level. He thinks it’s because the coaching staff has elected to take it slower and keep it simple.
Not many plays from training camp are left in the book. With little practice and shortened time, the Clippers have stuck with one set at a time per week and done things on the fly. To Rivers and his staff’s credit, it couldn’t have worked much better than it already has.
“We’ve decided, ‘run it well,’” Rivers said of the approach. “Whatever we do, run it well, and that’ll be it. And then run the next thing as opposed to putting in everything.
“This has been an extraordinary group of guys. Last year, we had similar guys. This group wants to win. They want to prove that they’re better than people think they are. I’ve said that from day one that they are, and they’re proving that.”
Zubac’s specialty comes through his presence in the paint on both ends. Since Feb. 7, he is seventh in the league in defended field goal percentage at 53.3 percent. Here’s a statistic that should garner praise—he allows the least amount of opponent second-chance points per game (3.8) among centers during that time as well.
According to Cleaning The Glass, the Clippers’ opponent free throw rate increases by 6.6 free throws per 100 field goals when Zubac is off the floor, putting him in the 98th percentile compared to his peers. Let’s not forget that LA’s defensive rating is 112.3 when he is absent, a figure that ranks in the 87th percentile.
“Defensively, he’s a beast down there,” Nance told Basketball Insiders. “His timing is great, he’s got a good feel for the game – whether it’s verticals or blocking the shot, he’s certainly altering way more than people even realize.”
Though he has made a mark already for his new team, by no means is Zubac satisfied. There’s going to be a sizeable focus on expanding his shooting range, improving his athleticism and becoming more explosive during games.
Nance has seen it in practice before when the two were together on the west coast, so he has the utmost belief that Zubac can do it.
“That’s not new for him,” Nance told Basketball Insiders. “He’s always been a really good rim protector, he just hasn’t…you gotta get confidence and opportunity. That’s what this league is all about. So once he got those things, he could really show what he can do.”
Nance hates the question of a ceiling for players—as does this writer—however, his candid prediction for Zubac lies within what happens at the center position in the future.
“To me, a lot of it depends on where basketball goes,” Nance told Basketball Insiders. “There was a while there where seven-footers were growing extinct.
“Now – especially starting in the East – they’re starting to come back and make a resurgence, and controlling the paint is really becoming a major deal. He’s someone that could certainly play a huge role in the resurgence of the seven-footer for sure.”
As far as where Zubac will be in five years, we’ll have to wait and see where this chance takes him. He’s got a shot to either grow with the Clippers or potentially another team (pending on whether or not he receives a $1.93 million qualifying offer in June to make him a restricted free agent).
Three years into his career, Zubac feels he’s come pretty far since he first came into the association. He’s not a rookie anymore, but he’ll still ask questions when he needs to, and his new teammates are more than willing to help.
“I think I’m adjusting to the NBA level,” Zubac told Basketball Insiders. “I think I can play any style of basketball that’s required. There’s a long way to go still, but I think I’m at a pretty good place.”
It’s hard to disagree.
Buy Or Sell: Central Division
Drew Mays continues Basketball Insiders’ “Buy Or Sell” series by taking a look at the Central Division.
It’s Dec. 12, and we’re over a quarter of the way through the 2019-20 NBA season. More importantly, we’re three days away from the 15th – the day much of the league because trade-eligible.
By now, teams have a good idea of who they are and where they want to be in four months when the playoffs roll around. This means they also know something else: Whether what they have in the locker room is enough, if they’re missing a piece, or if their season is toast and they should wheel and deal before the February trade deadline.
These thoughts inspired the Basketball Insiders’ “Buy Or Sell” series. Matt John led us off a few days ago by breaking down the Northwest Division. Yesterday, Jordan Hicks batted second with the Southwest Division. Today we’ll be checking on the division with the hottest team in the NBA: The Central.
Milwaukee Bucks (22-3) – Buyers (?)
Can anyone stop Milwaukee? They’ve won 16 straight, 20 of 21, and haven’t lost since Nov. 8. While part of this stretch has involved beating up lesser teams — and winning games you’re supposed to isn’t a bad thing — undoubtedly the most impressive performance came last Friday at home against the Los Angeles Clippers. They won 119-91 and it was even uglier than that. Los Angeles was down nine at halftime and 25 after three quarters. The Bucks held the Clippers’ three offensive stars – Paul George, Kawhi Leonard and Lou Williams – to 15-for-39 shooting and forced them into 15 turnovers (LA shot 35 percent and committed 21 turnovers as a team).
What Milwaukee did to the Clippers isn’t an outlier, either. They’ve blitzed the entire league on both ends of the floor. They’re first in defensive rating, third in offensive rating and first in average margin of victory at 13.4 points. They aren’t just winning – they’re winning big. They have the best effective field goal percentage in the NBA and the second-best allowed on defense.
The Bucks are deep and have 12 guys that get significant minutes. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the only player above 30 minutes per game, with the rest of the roster falling in succession down to Robin Lopez’s 14.5 per. They’re shooting extremely well while still making the third-most threes per game in the league at 14.4. Nine different players make at least one every game.
Even scarier, Giannis keeps evolving. His three-point shooting volume has been a revelation – he’s taking five each night. He’s never taken more than three. And even shooting only 31.9 percent, the attempts in themselves (and Giannis’ willingness to shoot them) has opened up the offense more than ever before. It’s led to Antetokounmpo somehow topping his numbers from last season – he’s up from 27.7/12.5/5.9 to 30.9/13.2/5.5. Sheesh.
There’s a huge scoring drop off after Giannis, though. Only Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe and Brook Lopez join him in double figures. They could use another scorer or playmaker. People have long half-jokingly floated the idea of Chris Paul, but that seems unlikely. There may not be a player on the market worth chasing based on their needs.
Still, the lack of extra scoring punch behind the MVP might not even be an issue until the postseason. Until then, Milwaukee fans can enjoy the ride – the Bucks shouldn’t have worries for a while.
Indiana Pacers (16-9) – Buyers
After a slow start, Indiana has rejoined the upper cluster of the Eastern Conference. They’ve won nine of their last 12 and sit in the top half of the league in both offensive (15th) and defensive (10th) rating.
Like Milwaukee, Indiana boasts a ton of depth – they have nine regulars that play over 17 minutes per game. Malcolm Brogdon continues to be the Pacers’ engine, averaging 19.5/4.5/7.5. TJ Warren seems to have found his footing and Domantas Sabonis has been a beast, scoring 18.2 and grabbing 13.5 rebounds every night.
That said, the Pacers suffer a similar problem as the Bucks – they lack high-end talent. Their better part of the rotation is similar to Milwaukee’s non-Giannis top players; they’re useful, productive role players, but not guys you expect to beat teams with more star power.
This lends itself to Indiana being buyers over the next few months. They could add another on-ball threat to pair with Brogdon, thus making things easier for Sabonis and the assist-allergic Warren. TJ McConnell and the pair of Holiday brothers have performed admirably to this point, but no one in the conference is batting an eye at those three.
Of course, the Pacers already have a top-flight scorer and shot creator coming – Victor Oladipo. Oladipo has been out since January and is expected to return in the next few months.
Assuming he’s able to at all, it’ll take him time to get back to form. The likeliest scenario isn’t that the Pacers buy prior to the deadline, but that they continue rolling out their massive lineup and stay the course until their star returns.
Detroit Pistons (10-14) – Buyers
The Pistons are right where they want to be.
Well, maybe not. But after years of mediocre teams and 8th-seed finishes, seeing Detroit a handful of games under .500 and in the 9th spot in the Eastern Conference feels like home.
Detroit is 10th in offensive rating and 16th in defensive rating. Those numbers usually mean postseason appearances, especially in the weaker conference. A five-game losing streak in mid-November slowed their progress, but the 6-4 mark since Nov. 22 in about what you’d expect them to be.
But Blake Griffin has not looked like Blake Griffin. Maybe it’s injury-related, maybe it’s age-related. But a player of his caliber – especially coming off his sneaky-great 2018-19 – should regain form.
Andre Drummond is still doing Andre Drummond things. And as we detailed in October, Derrick Rose looks better than he has in years – he’s averaging 16.1 and 5.8 in just under 24 minutes per game.
The Pistons are buyers because the track record shows they don’t embrace the tank — Exhibit A: the Blake Griffin trade — and their age. Some middling teams prefer to bottom-out and rebuild. Detroit has proven their propensity to just hang around, winning 38-42 games each year before getting trounced in the postseason. That’s admirable; it’s hard to win games in the NBA. Trying to do so, even with moderate success, isn’t a bad thing.
Detroit’s top scorers are Griffin (30), Rose (31), Drummond (26), Luke Kennard (23), Markieff Morris (30) and Langston Galloway (24). Kennard has been pretty good, but Galloway isn’t inspiring fear in anybody. Drummond, still relatively young, cannot be a A or B option as a scorer. Detroit went after the now 30-year-old Griffin a few years ago and Rose this past summer. Those are win-now, stay-relevant moves and there isn’t a lot of flexibility there.
Accordingly, it wouldn’t surprise to see Detroit try and get a few players leading up to February. The only player they might try to unload is the currently-injured Reggie Jackson – although it’s hard to imagine who would want him.
Chicago Bulls (9-17) – Sellers
It’s been repeated for months now: The Bulls, 9-17 and 11th in the Eastern Conference, are a disappointment. They talked up the playoffs preseason only to fall victim to the same prey as they did last year. The injuries have been less (although Otto Porter Jr. has been out since Nov. 8 and Lauri Markkanen has dealt with an oblique injury), but it hasn’t translated to wins.
Chicago’s defense has improved – they’re up to 12th in defensive rating – but their offense continues to be bottom-barrel, currently 26th in the NBA. The two though-to-be stars in Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen have struggled; LaVine has been up (49 points and 13 threes in Charlotte on Nov. 23) and down (5 points on 2-for-11 against Detroit on Nov. 20) offensively and rough on defense. Elsewhere, Markkanen has been outright disappointing by managing just 14.5 points per on 39.3 from the field and 32.7 from three-point range.
There have been reported internal riffs, plus tons of questions about head coach Jim Boylen, his fit for the job and whether the players respond to him.
Even if it gets better for the Bulls, it’s unlikely it does so in a way meaningful enough to meet preseason expectations. Chicago should be looking to sell, whether it’s Kris Dunn or players higher on the totem pole. The front office may not want to hear it, but there’d be a market for both LaVine and Markkanen.
Whether they explore that market or not remains to be seen.
Cleveland Cavaliers (5-19) – Sellers
The Cavaliers aren’t good, but we all expected that. They’re 29th in offense and 28th in defense, and they’ve won just one of their last 15 games – including their current eight-game losing streak.
Collin Sexton looks similar to his rookie year, except now his three-point shooting is down. Cedi Osman and Jordan Clarkson are both shooting 41 percent. Darius Garland is shooting 37.9 from the field, and leads the team with a putrid 2.8 assists per game.
— Bootum (@DaRealBootum) December 12, 2019
That clip also shows us the reason the Cavaliers are maybe the biggest sellers of the trade period: Kevin Love.
Love’s numbers are down across the board. He’s averaging 15.7 and 10.5 rebounds per game on 43.8 percent from the field and 35.4 from three. Much of that can be explained by playing on a wholly uncompetitive team – other franchises want Love, a proven championship commodity who rebounds and stretches the floor.
Jason Lloyd of The Athletic reported today that Cleveland was seeking a first-round pick in exchange for Love. Lloyd also mentioned the problem with Love: He’s more expensive than Oklahoma City’s Danilo Galinari, but the latter is on an expiring deal.
Still, Love is a valuable player, and somebody that contenders will jump at once the deadline nears and executives are pressed to make a move. Portland has long been tied to the forward, but their standing in the Western Conference will factor into their willingness to take him on.
Regardless, it would be shocking (and almost implausible) to see Kevin Love in Cleveland past Feb. 6.
December is a big month for basketball – the Christmas day games are the most-watched regular season event on the NBA’s calendar. But something even more important than those matchups is only three days away, when much of the league becomes trade eligible.
Dec. 15 starts the race to Feb. 6. By then, we’ll know exactly who teams are as we look ahead to another NBA postseason.
NBA Daily: Are The Sixers Building Around The Wrong Franchise Player?
Joel Embiid is the Philadelphia 76ers’ “crown jewel.” But as he and Ben Simmons struggle to coalesce in year three of their partnership, it bears wondering if Philadelphia is building around the wrong franchise player.
The latter half of the Philadelphia 76ers’ longest winning streak during the Joel Embiid era came while he watched from the bench.
It began in mid-March 2018 with a win at Madison Square Garden, and ended nearly a month later with a home beatdown of the Milwaukee Bucks that sent the Sixers streaking into the playoffs having won 16 straight games. Embiid fractured his face two weeks into that binge, making it easy to believe his team would tumble to the bottom of the postseason standings.
Philadelphia was tied in the win the column with the eighth-place Miami Heat at the time of Embiid’s injury. Nothing it had previously done suggested the team could keep from falling to the last playoff seed in the East without him. The Sixers were 16.1 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor in 2017-18, a team-high and one of the league’s biggest individual marks.
A soft schedule over the season’s last two weeks definitely helped Philadelphia thrive in spite of Embiid’s absence, and that’s how the streak was portrayed in the media by the time the playoffs started. It lasted one more game before the Miami HEAT beat the Sixers in Game 2 of the first round, after which Embiid returned.
But the breakneck, wide-open style of play his absence prompted from Philadelphia was impossible to forget last week, when Ben Simmons was unleashed again. The Sixers, coming off a dispiriting loss to the Washington Wizards, dropped 141 points on the Cleveland Cavaliers as Embiid nursed a sore hip.
Simmons was dominant in a way he hadn’t been all season, dropping a career-high 34 points and 7 assists on 12-of-14 shooting in just 26 minutes of play. He drained his second three-pointer, again from the corner, leading Brett Brown to later tell reporters that he wants Simmons launching at least one triple per game. Why?
“His world will open up,” Brown said after the game, “And, in many ways, so will ours.”
It’s become increasingly impossible of late to separate Simmons the player from Simmons the shooter. Philadelphia traded space and playmaking this summer to double down on size and defense, making the need for Simmons to develop any workable shooting range more dire than ever. Going on four years after he was drafted and three seasons into his career, it’s not like an expectation of him doing just that was asking too much.
But it just hasn’t happened nearly two months into the season, calling the Sixers’ viability as top-tier championship contenders into question. Simmons is 2-of-4 from three-point range and 4-of-9 on two-point jumpers outside the paint. Philadelphia relies on Embiid post-ups and pick-and-rolls for Josh Richardson and Tobias Harris in crunch time, leaving Simmons playing bystander in the dunker spot or weak corner as his teammates try their damndest to navigate a cramped floor with games on the line.
The Sixers rank barely above average in overall offensive rating, and worse in the clutch. Embiid and Philadelphia architect Elton Brand have received a fair share of criticism for their team’s relative struggles — especially offensively — in the season’s early going, but it’s Simmons who’s drawn the most ire.
The numbers, though, suggest Embiid’s impact is the one waning most. His net offensive rating has been overwhelmingly positive each of the last two seasons, but that hasn’t been the case in 2019-20. The Sixers are scoring at a bottom-five rate with Embiid on the floor, and a top-10 mark when he’s on the bench. Both his on and off-court offensive ratings are easy worsts among starters.
But the critical narrative surrounding Philadelphia’s offensive labors has largely ignored Embiid for Simmons regardless, and it’s not the media’s fault. Brown has made abundantly clear over the years that Embiid is his team’s franchise player, frequently calling him “our crown jewel” while citing his Hall-of-Fame ability on both sides of the ball.
Embiid isn’t tasked with tailoring his game toward Simmons’ nearly as much as the other way around, and understandably so. The former’s sheer size inherently limits both the flexibility and scalability of his offensive influence.
If Embiid isn’t the Sixers’ go-to guy, demanding post-ups and drawing double teams, just how would he function in the team construct? He’s way too talented to serve as a glorified floor-spacer, and his stroke hasn’t developed to the point he’d be well-suited for that role anyway. A similar line of thinking applies to making Embiid a rim-runner and vertical floor-spacer. He’s just too good, and not quite versatile enough, to prosper in a more confined offensive role.
The opposite dynamic applies to Simmons, at least for now. His most enticing attribute dating back to high school has been his adaptability. There are exceedingly few players standing 6-foot-10 capable of making the passes Simmons does, and fewer still who double as a disruptive defender of every position on the floor. He’s a Unicorn without the jumper, and his generational blend of size, athleticism and ball-handling genius portended inevitable skill development to come.
It hasn’t, for the most part, but focusing on that failure might be deflecting from an all-encompassing issue that continues to plague the Sixers. What if they’re building around the wrong franchise player?
The ongoing trajectory of the league lends credence to that notion. Simmons isn’t LeBron James or Giannis Antetokounmpo, but it’s not difficult to imagine an offensive attack molded to his similar strengths reaching heights one conformed to Embiid’s never could.
Philadelphia’s historic romp over Cleveland offered a glimpse into that alternate reality, just like its effectiveness this season with Embiid on the bench. Lineups featuring Simmons without Embiid boast an offensive rating of 114.4, comfortably above its overall mark, subsist on far higher diets of transition and three-point shooting, per Cleaning the Glass. The Sixers shoot better at the rim and from deep in that scenario, too, further evidence of Simmons’ sweeping effect without being forced to walk the ball up and Embiid clogging the paint.
Philadelphia, unsurprisingly, isn’t as stout defensively with those units on the floor. Embiid has been a defensive panacea during the regular season throughout his career. Improved conditioning is the only thing keeping him from winning Defensive Player of the Year, and he might win the award this season anyway.
Still, the same foibles that have long mitigated Rudy Gobert’s defensive influence in the playoffs apply to Embiid. A system built around a preeminent rim-protector with limited perimeter mobility can’t take away everything, and superior postseason competition generally means those low-value shots are more likely to drop. A switch-heavy scheme with a big like Al Horford playing center full-time, though? That’s a defense built for the playoffs, and one that would maximize Simmons’ gifts on that end — both on and off the ball.
This isn’t some cry for Philadelphia to blow it up – whether Simmons or Embiid would be the one on the way out. The Sixers’ ceiling is tallest with both on the roster, and it’s much too early to write them off as title contenders, this season or going forward. Neither Simmons nor Embiid are finished products; their pairing could still end up functioning at a championship level.
But if Philadelphia, quietly 6-1 in its last seven games, again starts underperforming, calls to trade Simmons will undoubtedly resurface.
And while that’s certainly a measure worth considering, it’s unfair to Simmons — and potentially destructive to the Sixers’ long-term title hopes — without at least broaching the same fate for Embiid.
Buy Or Sell: Southwest Division
Jordan Hicks continues the Buy or Sell series with a look at the Southwest Division.
It’s absolutely crazy to think about how deep basketball already is into the regular season. Over 25 percent of the games have already been played, and certain teams are starting to separate themselves from the pack. In an NBA campaign that was supposed to be riddled with parity, there’s definitely a select few teams that are starting to leave the rest behind.
What’s more, on Dec. 15th roughly 90 percent of the NBA becomes tradeable. Yes, it’s that time of the year in which trade talks will start to pick up. Something needs to spice up mundane December and January games, and nothing does a better job quite like rumors.
The Southwest Division has been chock-full of surprises. For one, the Dallas Mavericks seem to be a legitimately solid franchise. The San Antonio Spurs, on the other hand, seem to be struggling for the first time in what seems like 175 years. The Houston Rockets continue to stay playoff eligible despite Russell Westbrook’s shooting woes. The New Orleans Pelicans are just begging for Zion Williamson to return from injury and lead them out of the darkness. And the Memphis Grizzlies – well let’s just say they’re doing about as well as anyone expected.
In continuing with Basketball Insiders’ Buy Or Sell series, let’s take a look at each franchise and discuss whether they are in the position to seek talent, or exchange talent for future assets.
Houston Rockets (15-8) — Buyers
Tilman Fertitta should hang a bright-red neon sign in Daryl Morey’s office with the phrase BUY-BUY-BUY lighting proceedings up. As is, the Rockets are not good enough to win a championship. They may be reputable — and their roster may contain two of the greatest offensive players we’ve ever seen — but this team is not the 2016-17 Houston team that was one Chris Paul hamstring away from an NBA Finals birth.
Russell Westbrook will be a Hall of Famer, but his inability to efficiently shoot the ball just kills this team. Everything he is bad at, Paul excelled in. And everything Russell is amazing at, Paul either had mastered or could at least perform at an above-average level. Currently, when Westbrook is on the court, the Rockets’ net rating is 1.9. When he’s off the court, their net rating is 12.8. That is a monumental swing and currently the largest gap out of any other player on the team.
It’s not hard to imagine Houston pushing their chips in even further come the wintertime — they’re far too committed not to.
Dallas Mavericks (16-7) — Buyers
Dallas has really overshot everyone’s expectations. Most people thought they’d have a decent season, but it’s safe to say very few had them penciled in as playoff hopefuls. The fact that they are more-or-less playoff locks a quarter into the season is mind-boggling. What makes them so good you ask? Some kid named Luka Doncic, maybe you’ve heard his name.
The Mavericks are way ahead of schedule development-wise, so they’d be fine to just stand pat this year, see where they end up and then make moves in the offseason. However, if Mark Cuban wanted to get crazy and try to do something this season, you’d have to consider Dallas as buyers.
They need at least one more scoring threat to make them dangerous to go deep in the playoffs. As is, only two players are averaging over 15 a game and only three average more than 10. To wit, Kristaps Porzingis isn’t shooting well and Tim Hardaway Jr. doesn’t necessarily strike fear into the opposition. Dallas has movable contracts but whether or not they are solid enough to give them a return they’d need is up in the air at this point.
San Antonio Spurs (9-14) — Sellers
The Spurs should be in full sell mode for the first time in a long time. The only problem is, they don’t seem to be operating that way. They guaranteed LaMarcus Aldridge’s contract for the 2020-21 season, which makes very little sense as he’ll be owed $24 million. Now with the extra year, it’s doubtful many buyers will be coming for him.
With Aldridge’s contract making him nearly unsellable, DeMar DeRozan should become San Antonio’s sole focus when it comes to transactions. The former All-Star has a player option worth $27 million next season, but the dude can still ball out. He’s leading the team in scoring shooting 50 percent from the field, averaging 4.8 assists and looking about as healthy as he has in a while.
Sure, it’s concerning he still hasn’t developed a three-ball, but there is no way there wouldn’t be at least five-or-so teams at the deadline willing to give up a first for DeRozan’s assistance — he’d provide instant offense.
New Orleans Pelicans (6-18) — Sellers
Just when it seemed like they started to figure winning out, they fell off a cliff. Back in November, they had won three straight and five of their last seven. Since then, they’ve dropped nine straight games. You could argue that five of those losses aren’t surprising, but that fact that they didn’t even muster a single win in that stretch is alarming.
Things will look up when Williamson comes back, there’s no doubting that, but New Orleans should seriously consider trading JJ Redick. There probably isn’t a postseason-bound team in the league that wouldn’t give up their first round pick next season for his services. He’s only owed $13 million next season and the veteran still very clearly has it. The Pelicans are not making the playoffs this season, so keeping Redick rostered makes little sense. If they can sell him before the break to a needy franchise, then they may just get more than only a single first-rounder.
Memphis Grizzlies (7-16) — Sellers
This writer is thinking it, you’re thinking it — heck the whole world is probably thinking it. Why haven’t the Memphis Grizzlies traded Andre Iguodala yet? Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer reported Tuesday that the Grizzlies are still set on trading Iguodala as opposed to a buyout. So what’s the hold-up?
The key is waiting for a team to become desperate. It will be surprising if Iguodala is still rostered with Memphis past mid-January, but, technically, crazier things have happened. The Grizzlies will be big-time sellers when it comes to Iguodala — and they may even look to move veteran Jae Crowder. But, like New Orleans, they are a young team looking to improve internally for the future.
This division has plenty of diversity. You have two playoff teams, two bottom feeders and one team that isn’t sure what their identity is anymore. Iguodala is almost a sure bet for being moved, but it also wouldn’t be surprising if there wasn’t another transaction in this entire division.
Still, as hopes begin to fade and dreams start to soar, the mid-season trade option remains a route for both buyers and sellers. Will Dallas or Houston fortify their squads? Should New Orleans look toward the horizon already? Needless to say, the Southwest Division has handed onlookers plenty of intriguing drama and storylines moving into the halfway point of the year.
Keep on the lookout for more divisions as we continue the Buy Or Sell series.