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NBA PM: Can Pierce Turn Wizards Into a Contender?

Can Paul Pierce provide the leadership, toughness and production necessary to turn the Wizards into an East contender?

Alex Kennedy

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Can Pierce Turn Wizards Into a Contender?

Washington Wizards shooting guard Garrett Temple was just trying to give his veteran teammate Paul Pierce a compliment. After Pierce hit consecutive fade-away jumpers late in the Wizards’ game against the Orlando Magic to seal the victory (Washington’s first of the year), Temple was impressed, but may have used the wrong words to express that.

“It brought back memories,” Temple said of Pierce’s daggers. “I was just thinking about what he used to do with the Celtics, and that’s why we brought him in. Like he said when he hit that shot in Toronto [during last year’s playoff series], ‘That’s why they brought me here!’ That’s why he’s here. To settle us down and get us in a good spot in those situations. I’m glad he’s on our team.”

Minutes later, Pierce heard about Temple’s comments and was asked if he turned back the clock to hit those key shots.

“Turned back the clock to when?” Pierce asked, half joking and half annoyed. “I never went nowhere. I never went nowhere; I’ve still been here. I was doing that last year, the year before and the year before that.”

This 30-minute stretch shows exactly what the Wizards are getting with Pierce: poise in all situations, veteran leadership, clutch shots and unwavering confidence. The 37-year-old inked a two-year, $11 million deal with Washington over the summer because he felt they could be a contender in the Eastern Conference. Now, he’s doing everything in his power to help the Wizards take the next step and become an elite team.

Washington is a young squad that is extremely hungry after experiencing a little bit of success in last year’s postseason. Last year’s group managed to win 44 games, which was good for fifth place in the East. Washington defeated the Chicago Bulls in the first round of the playoffs, before being eliminated by the Indiana Pacers in six games.

Pierce has experienced just about everything a player can in the NBA, so he’s an amazing resource for these young Wizards. Pierce said that he’ll do his best to offer his help throughout the course of the season.

“I just try to keep everyone focused,” Pierce said. “I want them to understand what it’s going to take when you’re coming off of a loss and in a back-to-back situation. That’s what I’m going to give them all year long. If we’re going to try to take that next step from what the Wizards did a year ago, then it’s got to be mental. It’s got to be every night, consistency in practices and in games.”

Every player in the locker room has a ton of respect for Pierce and listens intently when he dispenses wisdom.

“[He brings] a lot of great leadership,” Wizards point guard John Wall said of Pierce. “He’s a veteran presence, someone who knows what it takes to win championships. He has a tough mentality. He’s someone who knows what you need to do in order to win in this league. The level he’s been on is what us [other] guys are trying to get to. It’s just that veteran leadership and presence and the humbleness to want to win and compete.”

“He’s a great leader off the court,” Temple said of Pierce. “I didn’t know what his leadership skills were like, but he’s a great leader off the court. He understands [the importance of] having a routine, being a professional, being positive, sticking together as a team and understanding it’s a long road in an 82-game season. He knows if you stick together, good things can happen.”

Wall has been picking Pierce’s brain, just as he does with his coaches, because he knows that the veteran has a lot of knowledge to offer. But Pierce isn’t just a strong locker room presence, as he remains a significant contributor on the court. Through three games, Pierce is averaging 11.7 points, 4.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.7 steals in 26.7 minutes. He has been productive (and come up big when Washington needed him most), but he admits he is still trying to get acclimated with his new team and develop chemistry alongside his new running mates.

“As each game and each practice goes along, and as we continue to build our chemistry, I’m definitely [getting more comfortable],” Pierce said. “We have to find ways to win when we have chemistry issues at times, because we’re still getting to know each other, but [those] are the type of games we just have to grind out.”

The 10-time All-Star seems to know his role in Washington. He’s the first one to point over to Wall and describe him as “our All-Star and our best player.” He identifies the trio of Wall, Bradley Beal and Marcin Gortat as “our leading guys.” He says that he’s there to improve the Wizards’ supporting cast, and be one of several options that the team has in late-game situations.

“It’s never scripted, but that’s what I’m capable of giving this team, another guy that they can go to in crucial situations,” Pierce said. “I think we have a number of guys that they could go to, with me being one them. That’s what I can give us.”

One of the biggest things that Pierce has stressed since joining Washington is the importance of a balanced attack. Pierce has won a championship and has seen that it takes contributions – as well as sacrifices – from everyone on the team to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy. The Boston Celtics’ 2008 title team didn’t feature a single 20-points-per-game scorer. Instead, they had Pierce, Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo each averaging double-digits (ranging from 10.6 points to 19.6 points) and spreading the wealth around.

“It’s got to come from a number of guys,” Pierce said. “That’s what we have to pride ourselves on this year. We have to have a great balance. Some nights it’s going to be one guy who goes off for 20 or 30 points, but on most nights we’ll try to get a balanced scoring [attack] by moving the ball around and sharing opportunities.”

Washington is 2-1 and while Pierce is happy with the wins, he has said several times that the Wizards still need to find their identity in order to realize their full potential as a team.

“We want to be a team that holds teams to like 42 percent or 41 percent on field goals, keep them under 100 points, out-rebound them by a large margin,” Pierce said. “It’s good to win, but we’re still trying to find that.”

Pierce’s toughness, leadership and production should only help the Wizards find that desired identity. Once they do that, don’t be surprised if Washington emerges as one of the East’s top teams. That’s exactly what Pierce was banking on when he inked his deal with the Wizards this summer, and he’s confident that the franchise has what it takes to go on a deep postseason run as early as this year.

Bounce Brothers Ready for Lift Off

The Minnesota Timberwolves have one of the NBA’s most athletic young tandems in rookies Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine. Both players are high flyers and have what it takes to compete in the NBA’s dunk contest. The 19-year-olds, who have dubbed themselves the Bounce Brothers, have a ton of potential and could be franchise cornerstones for Minnesota going forward.

Wiggins was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft and LaVine was the No. 13 selection. Both players are having a lot of fun as they make the transition from college to the NBA.

“It’s fun; we’re all young and we played against each other growing up, so it’s good that we get to go out now and go on this journey together,” Wiggins said. “I’m comfortable here. The teammates show nothing but love. They’re great, great to be around, and the coaches are great to be around too. They push me every day. … It’s just crazy, from my first time stepping off the plane, people were greeting me at the airport, walking [me] home, walking [me] back to the hotel that I stayed in for the first couple days. It’s all just a big excitement coming here.”

“It’s going by so fast, it’s really felt surreal,” LaVine said. “I had my dream come true within the last six months. I was just in high school, I just graduated high school, so things went fast but I’m ready to just put on for this city and do great things. I feel like I’m a hard worker, and I’m ready to get in the gym and work.”

Wiggins has been starting for the Wolves, providing solid production on both ends of the floor but his stats don’t jump off of the page. LaVine has only appeared in one game, and it was in limited minutes. It’s clear that Wiggins is more NBA-ready than LaVine, who is extremely raw and was viewed as more of a project since he needs to develop and settle into a position. However, both players have worked extremely hard and earned the respect of their teammates.

“They’re students of the game,” Kevin Martin said of Wiggins and LaVine. “They understand where this organization views them four or five years from now and they’re making the steps in that direction to get confidence of Flip and his staff to get to that point.”

LaVine watches a ton of film, even of bad games, which impressed his veteran teammates. Head coach Flip Saunders jokes that LaVine is the only player upset when practice is canceled, because he wants to be in the gym all day, every day. LaVine has also made an effort to bulk up after seeing NBA bodies and realizing how strong pro players are.

Wiggins has also been putting in work. Right after he was traded to Minnesota in the offseason, he started training at the team’s facility to learn the system and develop chemistry with his teammates. Wiggins enters the NBA with superstar expectations and his teammates are buying into the hype.

“He’s a great player and the most important thing is he wants to learn and he’s willing to learn,” Ricky Rubio said of Wiggins. “He’s going to be great in this league.”

“I put a lot of responsibility on myself,” Wiggins added. “You have to believe that you can be the best and do what you can do before anyone else can believe it for you.”

Wiggins and LaVine both find themselves in the same situation as rookies in Minnesota with a ton of potential, but their paths to the NBA were completely different. Wiggins has been hyped up for years, since a mixtape labeling him as the best 14-year-old in the world surfaced. He was one of the most famous high school players in recent memory, and was a household name before he had committed to a college.

LaVine, on the other hand, was ranked the 44th-best player in the class entering high school and very few people thought he could be a one-and-done player entering his lone collegiate season at UCLA. However, he played well for the Bruins and started to get some attention. Still, he had to perform well in workouts and interviews in order to climb into the lottery.

“[Going back to] high school, I haven’t been a highly touted player,” LaVine said. “I’ve gone through all the national camps and different things like that and I feel like I’ve proven myself, but it just seems like I always just had to get over that edge to change people’s mind. So if I got to keep changing people’s minds, I’m fine with that. I like making my doubters eat their words. From high school, I was known as a scorer; I averaged about 29 in high school my senior year. Then going to college, I had a different role – coming off the bench, being able to show a little bit more of my athleticism. Now, with Coach Saunders, I feel like I’m in the best situation out of everybody. I’m so thankful. I love that dude to death, man. I have all my trust in him, it’s just great.”

“It’s been a big learning curve,” Wiggins said. “Flip’s a great coach. Every day we practice, I’m getting better. Every day, I’m learning more stuff. He had all the rookies in before everyone else, because the vets already know the system and they know the plays. They’re very intelligent when it comes to the game of basketball, and for a rookie it’s more of a learning curve.”

Wiggins and LaVine will get more comfortable as the season progresses and we’ll get a glimpse of what the future may hold for these two. Veteran Thaddeus Young has seen them in practice every day, and was so confident in Minnesota’s talent that he told Basketball Insiders the team could compete for a playoff spot as early as this season. Whether that’s realistic remains to be seen, but the Wolves certainly seem headed in the right direction and have put their future in the hands of two exciting, high-flying teenagers who will be a lot of fun to watch develop.

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA Daily: The End Of The Coach/Executive?

With the end of the Jimmy Butler saga official, it seems like it’s only a matter of time before Tom Thibodeau is next, and that could mark the end of the coach as lead executive run in the NBA.

Steve Kyler

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The End Of The Coach/Executive?

With the Timberwolves trade of Jimmy Butler finally complete, the next shoe to drop in Minnesota will be the fate of Tom Thibodeau, not only as a head coach, but as a lead decision maker.

Thibodeau and Spurs head coach Greg Popovich are the last remaining coaches with contractual control over their roster. However, Popovich stays fairly hands off on the Spurs roster leaving the day of work and planning to longtime executive RC Buford.

The NBA for years has been a copy-cat league, and the run of giving high profile-named coaches the team president title seems to have run its course with rather brutal results.

There have already been reports that ownership in Minnesota gave strong consideration to firing Thibodeau and his front office this past summer, but opted to stay the course.

It is believed that unless something special happens this season, Thibodeau is likely out at season’s end and the Wolves will look to re-tool their entire front office.

The issue that continues to come up with coaches as lead decision maker is the short-term, game-to-game thinking coaches need to have versus the long-term vision front offices need to have to be prepared for the future.

In most of the situations where the coach was the lead decision maker, not only were massively silly contracts issues, but draft picks and future draft positioning was often sacrificed for win-now transactions.

Much of the Jimmy Butler saga was tied to Thibodeau’s belief that waiting out the market would drum up better offers, and that even with an unhappy Butler he could win enough games to stay in the playoff hunt, ignoring the toxic culture that was bubbling up around the situation.

It has become fairly clear in NBA circles that the skill sets needed to be an effective general manager do not typically align with the skills needed to be a good coach. There have been a few successes in the dual role, but most have ended pretty badly.

A Big Free Agent Class

Not only will a possible 14 NBA teams have significant salary cap space this upcoming summer, almost half of the NBA is eligible for some level of free agency. Here are all of them.

The latest projections from the NBA peg the 2019-2020 salary cap to be just around $109 million, with the luxury tax line being roughly $132 million.

The cap jump won’t be anything close to what the NBA experienced in 2016 when the NBA saw a $24 million year over year jump, but there will be a solid increase from the $101.8 million cap this season.

With that increase, combined with a lot of the bad decisions made in 2016 expiring, many teams will have the flexibility to be players.

Current cap projections peg Dallas, the Clippers, Brooklyn, Chicago, Sacramento, Utah, Atlanta, the Lakers and Knicks as having the ability to pursue max level players in 2019 NBA free agency, with more than half of that list having enough space for a max offer and another non-max high dollar player.

Combine the expected availability of so much free agency cash with what’s shaping up to be an impressive 2019 NBA draft class, and this upcoming summer could be one for the ages in terms of teams being able to instantly reinvent themselves.

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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NBA Daily: The Jimmy Butler Saga Is Over

Spencer Davies analyzes the effects of the blockbuster Jimmy Butler trade for both the Minnesota Timberwolves and Philadelphia 76ers.

Spencer Davies

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The trade call is complete and the deal has been made.

Jimmy Butler is officially headed to the Philadelphia 76ers. Former first-round pick Justin Patton is coming with him.

The Minnesota Timberwolves pieced together a package for Robert Covington, Dario Saric, Jerryd Bayless and a future second-round draft pick in return for the four-time All-Star forward.

The Sixers have assembled a brand new big three for the season early, while Minnesota nipped what could have been a potential yearlong distraction in the bud.

All in all, this could be a transaction that is doubly beneficial in the present and the future. Only time will tell who gets the better end, but we can take a look at the effects of the trade for both sides.

Timberwolves

At first glance, failing to acquire a first or second option in return for Butler isn’t the best exchange for a player of his caliber. Coming up short of prying a first-round pick out of Philadelphia is visibly even worse, especially when the Houston Rockets reportedly came calling with four of those on the table.

What we do have to remember, though, is that—for now—Butler’s contract expires after the season is over. Scott Layden and Tom Thibodeau weren’t able to ask for a king’s ransom back because of that, yet they still did a solid job with what they could do.

Covington brings a mixed bag as far as his skill set is concerned. As one of the most unheralded team players in the NBA, the 27-year-old is a hound on the defensive end that has grown more confident as he’s gained experience. His extremely bothersome length allows him to disrupt ball-handlers and play the passing lanes to get out into transition.

Offensively the usage is low, but he’s a more-than-capable tertiary option who can catch fire from deep on any night, backed by his career-best 39 percent three-point percentage on this young season. Covington will space the floor and add a versatility and toughness that is tailor-made for Thibodeau to coach up.

Off to a less than ideal start to the year, Saric should welcome a change of scenery with open arms. Some have speculated that playing with the Croatian national team may have led to heavy legs from the outset, as he was in a glaringly obvious cold spell. In the first 10 games, his true shooting percentage was 43.6.

The last three have been quite the opposite, however. Saric is averaging over 16 points and six rebounds per game during the stretch with a 67.1 true shooting percentage. Maybe the move to Minnesota will add even more fuel to the fire as extra motivation.

Considering Thibodeau leans toward veterans, it could be possible that the 24-year-old may not start. It’s not farfetched to think Anthony Tolliver could slide into the starting five at the small forward position knowing the coach’s tendencies. With that said, Saric might just be the perfect fit for the Wolves to start utilizing their bench.

Remember what Nemanja Bjelica did for Thibodeau the last few years as both a starter and second unit guy? Stretching out the half court game to allow others to penetrate is when Saric is at his most dangerous—especially when he’s a threat to knock down shots. There are certainly similarities between the two, so it wouldn’t be all that surprising to see the Croatian big man used in almost the same exact way.

Bayless has been around the block a few times, to say the least. The Wolves will be his eighth team in 10 seasons. It’s been difficult for him to stay healthy, as he’s only played 94 games since the 2014-15 campaign. He’s already dealing with a knee injury to start this current year off, too.

Once he does battle back from that, it’s possible Bayless could see some playing time. Again, going back to the veteran thing, Thibodeau loves to have experience out on the floor. And even if he doesn’t see too much action, he’ll be a great mentor and an influence in the locker room.

Looking at the contract details of these three players, Minnesota has a chance to control its own destiny. Covington is only in year two of the long-term deal he signed last fall. Saric’s team option exercised through 2020 means he’ll stick around for this season and next at the minimum. As for Bayless, he’ll be an unrestricted free agent at the year’s end.

With Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins signed for the next five years, the Wolves are working towards some stability. It is impossible to replace the talent Butler has, but, from where things began in October, this is automatically a healthier situation. Now it’s up to the organization to get the best out of their stars and rack up wins on a consistent basis.

76ers

We don’t need to go through the statistics to tell you how gifted of a basketball player Butler is. His reputation precedes itself—an in-your-face competitor on both ends, a specialist in the clutch, a master of mind games. Quite honestly, there’s no one else in the league like him.

That’s why new Sixers general manager Elton Brand went out and made the effort to get him. Up until this point, the team needed some kind of jolt. It wasn’t out of desperation, per se, but there’s been a clear regression from a season ago. In a division as competitive as the Atlantic, along with an Eastern Conference up for grabs, Butler could provide that extra boost to vault them to the top.

By landing a superstar and hanging onto his first-round draft picks, Brand successfully addressed the present and preserved the future—which also includes Patton, the 16th overall selection in 2017.

So how does Butler fit in Philadelphia? When an All-Star comes to town, somebody is going to have to sacrifice. It’s happened in Miami, Cleveland, Golden State, Oklahoma City and Houston, among some others. At one point or another, there are going to be bumps in the road. Whether it’s lack of touches, debates over who’s taking the last shot or something of the sort—it’s bound to happen.

It’s plainly obvious that Butler is a go-to guy. Joel Embiid is playing that role currently as it stands today.

We know Embiid hangs out on the perimeter at times, but Brett Brown positions him in the post early and often. Meanwhile, Butler thrives on getting to the rim on penetration and cuts as a slasher, predominantly.

Ben Simmons is the master of drive-and-kick, drive-and-finish in his own right. Does this mean Butler will be spotting up primarily as a three-baller in Covington’s space? They’ll definitely need somebody to take those shots and make them because the two guys they just traded put up the second and third-most threes on the team.

Wilson Chandler staying healthy is going to be a big factor moving forward. He’s still getting his legs under him, though the veteran seems to be getting back in the swing of things slowly, but surely. Mike Muscala’s role is going to quickly expand as well.

Veteran sharpshooter J.J. Redick is the obvious candidate to pick up the slack, as could rookie point guard Landry Shamet. At the end of the day, the responsibility of spotting up is for role players. Butler will do it multiple times throughout games. However, he needs to be touching the ball much more outside of that.

And you can bet he will. The Sixers are razor thin at the wing. They have Butler, Chandler, Furkan Korkmaz and maybe two-way rookie Shake Milton—provided he’s used at the three. Rest assured, Brand will leave no stone unturned in the search for depth and shooting in the coming weeks.

There have already been reports surfacing of Philadelphia targeting Kyle Korver from the Cleveland Cavaliers, which could ultimately be the best fit possible. According to Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated, a number of players on the Washington Wizards might be a fit.

That’s a separate conversation entirely. Speaking on this deal, the Sixers went for the big fish in the pond and reeled in an enormous catch.

How it will go from here—who knows? Evidently, Butler is open to inking a long-term contract with the franchise, but we don’t know the value of those words until pen hits paper. Regardless of what happens in the future, this is a great job by the front office and should pay dividends soon.

As you can see, both teams may end up winners in the case of this trade. The Jimmy Butler saga is over and everyone is moving on.

It’s about time.

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Is This Carmelo Anthony’s Swan Song?

Carmelo Anthony’s days of contributing for a winning team are done, but Matt John explains why he could make one last impactful stop before he calls it a career.

Matt John

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Well, that didn’t take long.

After only 10 games into the season, the Houston Rockets appear to have had enough of Carmelo Anthony. This is preceded by an abysmal performance in which the former 10-time All-Star made just one of 11 shots – and misfires on six attempts from distance – in a blow-out loss at the hands of his previous team, the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Shortly after the game, word had it that Carmelo’s days as a Rocket may have been numbered. Though the Rockets denied that they were waiving him, recent reports say that those within organization believe that this is the end for him.

A few months back, this writer detailed how Houston was basically Carmelo’s last chance to prove he could be a contributor for a winning team. His impending release confirms a sad, but not all that shocking, reality: the 34-year-old is finished.

While his basic statistics in Houston were not dreadfully bad – 13.4 points and 5.4 rebounds are solid numbers – a closer look will reveal that Carmelo was not making things any better.

His scoring numbers come off of 40 percent shooting from the floor, including almost 33 percent from distance. That’s not great considering that he was added to improve the offense. It gets worse when you take a look at his on/off numbers. The Rockets were 11.1 points per 100 possessions worse with Carmelo on the floor, good for second-worst on the team behind Michael Carter-Williams.

Though it’s clear that Carmelo was not a good fit, he should not be made into the scapegoat because Houston’s problems as a team go well beyond just him. Their drop-off on both sides of the ball are a result of the resources they lack to surround James Harden and Chris Paul.

Getting back to Carmelo, with him going back on the market this early on in the season, many wonder where his next stop should be – if he has one at this point.

One possibility is going overseas, maybe to the Chinese Basketball Association, where Carmelo could become another Stephon Marbury-like icon. Another one is joining the Lakers, where he could join Banana Boat buddy LeBron James and be another one of the various boisterous personalities in that locker room. A third option would be to hang it up. Retire before he could potentially get ousted by another team.

This writer believes there is a fourth option for Carmelo, which would be the ideal one for him at this point.

While Carmelo can’t be a contributor anymore for a winner, there is still a place for him in the NBA. Primarily, what he would be brought in for at this point would be more for sentimental value than anything else. In this case, that would be returning to the New York Knicks.

Think of Carmelo’s situation to be similar to former teammate Allen Iverson’s back in 2009. After a briefly disastrous stint with the Memphis Grizzlies, Iverson shortly opted to return to his first team, the Philadelphia 76ers. Iverson was washed up, but Philadelphia wasn’t going anywhere – with or without him. Bringing him back gave the city some nostalgia for one of the franchise’s all-time greats, which made the season memorable,  even though “The Answer” only played in 25 games.

Carmelo didn’t start his career with the Knicks, nor did he spend nearly as much time or experience as much success with the Knicks as Iverson did with the Sixers. However, Carmelo spent a good chunk of his prime in the Big Apple and stuck through the thick and thin with the team. He may have had his problems with certain coaches and players over the years, but when he was at the top of his game, Carmelo loved being a New York Knickerbocker and wanted to do his best for the franchise.

With all the history he has in New York, Carmelo could end his career playing for the team he always felt an emotional attachment to. It would be a suitable send off for his career. Plus, he wouldn’t have to deal with Phil Jackson this time, he could play for a solid coach in David Fizdale and even be a mentor to some of the Knicks’ young talent. Carmelo wouldn’t be helping a winning team, but at least the veteran could do something worthwhile for the team he always wanted to leave his mark with.

For the Knicks, bringing in Carmelo wouldn’t do much to help the team win, but New York currently doesn’t have much to lose as it is. The team currently stands at 4-10, and no one knows exactly what the timetable is for Kristaps Porzingis’ return. Even with their bad record, the Knicks still have a feisty young team that is willing to compete with anyone despite the odds being against them. Bringing in Carmelo would bring back some good memories that would make them more appealing to watch. This season’s probably not going to be remembered for much anyway, so what’s the harm in bringing your last franchise player back for the nostalgia?

It’s true that Carmelo was on the Knicks as recently as a little over a year ago, and he requested a trade out of there. Remember, though, that Iverson similarly also requested a trade out of Philadelphia in 2006, and found himself back on the team just three years later after it was granted. In Carmelo’s case, perhaps both sides can let the past be the past so they can kiss and make up.

This, of course, is all just an idea. For all we know, Carmelo still believes that he can help someone who is legitimately trying to win. The man still has a reputation as a scorer in this league, warts and all. New York may also want to focus more on getting the kids more burn than bringing back a washed-up star who won them only one playoff series.

If New York’s not interested, then maybe his hometown Brooklyn could add him. If Carmelo wants both to win and go somewhere for nostalgia, then Denver would technically be an option. Considering that relationship didn’t end well and Denver appears comfortable with their team, that doesn’t appear likely.

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