Alex Kennedy of Basketball Insiders and Brian Clark of CineSport discuss how the surging Hawks resemble the Spurs, and why Atlanta may continue to improve as the season continues.
Don’t Sleep On Magic’s Elfrid Payton
Dwight Howard may not know Elfrid Payton’s name, but he knows he’s damn good.
After the Houston Rockets’ Wednesday loss to the Magic – in which Payton had 15 points, six rebounds, four assists and two steals while pushing the ball at a breakneck pace that led to Orlando scoring 120 points – Howard acknowledged that Payton was the Magic’s motor and played a huge role in the victory on both ends of the court.
“I just think it started with their point guard – the guy with the crazy hair,” Howard said. “He’s the one that started everything. He was all over us on the defensive end. On the offensive end, he pushed the pace and just made things happen. We couldn’t stop them from pushing the ball down the floor, and every time they did that they got easy buckets.”
Howard and the Rockets aren’t the first team to struggle against “the guy with the crazy hair.” Last Saturday, the Portland Trail Blazers were beating up on the Magic late in the first quarter, and Payton had seen enough. The Magic couldn’t score (finishing with just 13 points in the opening quarter) or slow down the Blazers at all. Payton was upset, and he decided to take out his frustration on Blazers star point guard Damian Lillard.
The 20-year-old rookie started to fullcourt-press Lillard, disrupting the flow of Portland’s possessions. Then, on offense, he decided to push the pace and get Orlando some easy buckets in transition that gradually cut into the deficit. Before long, the Magic were back in the game and had a shot to win it near the end, only to lose by single digits.
Since that close loss to Portland, Orlando has continued to follow Payton’s lead – pressing and playing at a much faster pace. They have won consecutive games against the Chicago Bulls and Houston Rockets, scoring 121 points and 120 points, respectively. This would be an impressive feat for any team considering those are two very good defenses, but it’s an even bigger deal for the Magic since they ranked second-to-last in points per 100 possessions prior to the two wins and had struggled offensively for much of the year. Just four games ago, they scored only 84 points in a loss to the struggling Los Angeles Lakers.
But now, things seem like they’re improving and the Magic players point to Payton for the turnaround and change in approach.
“Without a doubt, [Elfrid] is the key,” Magic power forward Channing Frye said. “You see him picking up guys fullcourt for 48 minutes. It’s unbelievable. I hope he stays consistent with that, because we need it. I think his defense is infectious. … In Portland, when he was picking up Lillard fullcourt, that got everyone hyped. I told him, ‘Hey, as fast as you want to run, I’m cool with that. I can run as fast as you want to run; I can do this all day.’ We started getting the ball out faster, getting down the court faster and you started to see guys getting easy lay-ups and easy shots.”
“I was just trying to change something,” Payton said of his adjustment. “We had been losing and you obviously can’t go into games doing the same thing and expecting different results. Picking up the ball and picking up the pace were some things that I thought could help us. All of the guys on the team thought it would be a good idea, and we’ve had some success. We have a lot of guys on this team with talent, who can put the ball in the hole. They just have to be put in the right position and if that’s by pushing the pace, that’s what we need to do.”
On offense, Payton is a traditional, pass-first point guard who sets up his teammates for easy opportunities. Until recently, Orlando was primarily running a halfcourt offense (ranking 22nd in the NBA in pace). But lately, Payton and his teammates decided to run more in order to play to the strength of their personnel. In transition, Payton throws some beautiful passes that are insanely accurate and lead to easy points. Some teammates have even said that Payton will realize they’re open before they do themselves. A big area of improvement for Payton recently has been limiting his turnovers, which has made the up-tempo approach more successful.
Running an up-tempo offense is tiring. Running an up-tempo offense and then fullcourt pressing is exhausting. But Payton seems to have a never-ending supply of energy, flying around the floor and making plays everywhere. It’s no surprise that opposing point guards hate playing against him.
Payton loves that reputation, as he takes pride in being one of the most annoying pests in the NBA. On defense, Payton will make the opposition work for everything by swarming the ball, denying the inbounds pass after makes and being extremely physical.
Playing intimidating defense is in his genes as his father Elfrid Payton, Sr. was a star defensive end in the Canadian Football League, playing from 1991 to 2004 and making seven All-Star appearances throughout his career. He was a two-time Grey Cup champion and was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 2010. Payton, like his father, relies on his toughness and physicality to wear opponents down throughout a game.
“I love it,” Payton said of harassing point guards. “It helps me get into my rhythm and I think it helps my teammates get into a defensive mindset. When I’m getting my hand on the ball, it makes things easier for them so that’s definitely something that I focus on. It’s one of those things that I can do that helps the whole team.”
Fellow guard Victor Oladipo, who also likes to pester on defense and push the ball, loves playing alongside Payton. Without any prompting, he singled out Payton as the main reason for the Magic’s recent success.
“I credit the young fella; I don’t know about anybody else, but I credit Elfrid,” Oladipo said. “He sets the tone. He’s pushing the ball and getting us going. It’s all him. He’s pressuring the ball and pushing the ball, and he makes me want to do it even more because you know I can’t let him get more steals than me (smiles). So then I go out and pressure too. He just makes everybody else play the same way, so credit him for setting the tone.”
Upon hearing Oladipo’s praise, an embarrassed Payton looked away and downplayed his individual involvement. While that’s just Payton being Payton, it’s clear that the team believes his leadership and play have been the source of this turnaround. It’s rare for a 20-year-old rookie to step into that kind of role and win over a locker room (especially one with experienced veterans), but that’s exactly what Payton has done.
“It makes me feel good to hear that, but I’m just a piece,” Payton said, deflecting the attention. “I’m just a piece and I’m just trying to go out there and do my job. I’m trying to do whatever I can to help the team, so if that means getting a steal and kicking it ahead to my teammates, that’s what I’m going to do.
“[Hearing them say that] does a lot for my confidence, though, because it shows that my teammates trust me and like to play with me. And that’s all I want, to make my teammates better and help them.”
In Payton and Oladipo, the Magic have one of the more intriguing up-and-coming backcourts in the league. The Golden State Warriors have the NBA’s best shooting backcourt in Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. The Chicago Bulls arguably have the league’s most athletic guard duo with Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler. This Magic backcourt may develop into the league’s best defensive backcourt and certainly one of the most annoying for opposing guards. Payton seems confident that he and Oladipo will be an elite tandem once they realize their full potential in several years.
“We most definitely [want to be the NBA’s best defensive backcourt],” Payton said. “It starts with defense, but we feel like we can get there offensively too. We want to be the best backcourt, period. That’s the goal and that’s what we’re working for. Obviously that’s something for down the line, but that’s what we’re working for… I think this could be the start of something. Rome wasn’t built in a day so we’ve had our struggles – and I think we’ll have even more struggles – but I think if we continue to make progress each and every day, we will be in a good position when all is said and done.”
“I’m looking forward to growing with him,” Oladipo added. “There’s going to be ups and there’s going to be downs, but we just have to keep lifting each other up, keep believing in each other and keep having each other’s back – on and off the court.”
Payton and Oladipo combined to put the dagger in the Rockets in the final minute of Wednesday’s win, when Payton got a steal and immediately flipped the ball down the court to Oladipo, who threw down a 360 dunk to seal the win.
They are often on the same page, and they believe part of the reason for this is because they spend a significant amount of time together off the court as well. They have developed a friendship, helped by the fact that they’re a little over a year apart in age and are going through many of the same things in life. They believe this bond has helped their chemistry and on-court production.
“We hang out a lot, talk a lot of basketball and watch a little bit of film [together],” Payton said of he and Oladipo. “We’re always talking and building that chemistry. When you like somebody, it’s easy to play with them. I think that’s important. Being friends off the court makes things so much easier on the court.”
It’s clear that Payton is getting more comfortable and confident with each game. He has appeared in all 42 of Orlando’s contests this season and has started in 23. Playing big minutes and being able to work through his mistakes has been excellent on-the-job training for him. On some teams, particularly a contender, Payton might have been buried on the depth chart. But that’s not the case in Orlando, where the team is currently 15-27 and seemingly focused on developing its young core.
“My confidence is coming from experience, just being out there, making mistakes and growing from them,” Payton said. “My confidence is definitely growing. I’m just staying humble though and trying to continue to do what I do for this team, which is trying to get guys easy shots and helping defensively.”
Despite being a top-10 pick in the loaded 2014 NBA Draft, Payton is far from a household name at this point. In fact, there are probably many people who have never seen him play since he gets little national exposure on the Magic, and he played collegiately at Louisiana-Lafayette in the Sun Belt Conference. He’s also not a self-promoter, which is another reason he tends to fly under the radar. He’s a quiet guy who rarely shows emotion on the floor. He doesn’t score many points or fill the highlight reel, so many casual fans likely have no idea what he does well. But take an evening to watch him play and witness the enormous impact he has on the game with his defense, playmaking, leadership, intensity and drives. Pay attention to all of the plays he affects (and try not to get distracted by his hair).
He runs the Magic like a veteran floor general at times, which isn’t a surprise since he has always been mature beyond his years. Growing up in Louisiana, he played football, basketball, baseball, soccer and ran track, and his father says he typically competed against children two years older than him for the challenge. Initially, Payton wanted to be a professional football player like his father (hence the physicality). He would watch a video of his father’s sack highlights and pick up pointers from his dad. However, he shifted his focus to basketball full time in seventh grade when Hurricane Katrina hit, disbanded his football team and forced the Payton family to relocate Dallas for several months.
A three-year run at Louisiana-Lafayette culminated in him averaging 19.2 points, 6.0 rebounds, 5.9 assists and 2.3 steals while leading the program to the NCAA Tournament. He decided to enter the draft following that successful campaign, but immediately there were questions about whether he could fare as well against tougher competition.
He entered the NBA pre-draft process projected as an early second-round pick for this reason, but quickly erased any doubt that he’d struggle against NBA-caliber athletes. He dominated individual workouts, sometimes flat out embarrassing the other top point guard prospects he faced off against by locking them down and not letting them score. At 6’4 (with a 6’8 wingspan), a large frame and his impressive toughness, he was a nightmare match-up for many point guards.
He climbed draft boards and ultimately was selected with the No. 10 overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft by the Philadelphia 76ers (because they knew how badly the Magic wanted him at No. 12). To land Payton, Orlando gave up the draft rights to Dario Saric, a 2015 second-round pick and allowed Philadelphia to take back the future first-round pick the 76ers had dealt to the Magic from the Dwight Howard blockbuster trade in August of 2012.
The Magic – who have been collecting high-energy, defensive-oriented prospects in recent years – fell in love with Payton during the pre-draft process and believed he could be their point guard of the future. They also liked the idea of pairing Payton with Aaron Gordon, their No. 4 overall selection, since the two had played together for Team USA in the FIBA U19 World Championship and reportedly dominated when put on the same team in a number of pre-draft workouts.
This season, Payton has rewarded Orlando’s faith in him by becoming one of the most productive rookies in this class. Injuries have really limited this year’s NBA freshman (with Milwaukee’s Jabari Parker, Los Angeles’ Julius Randle and Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid among others sidelined), but Payton still deserves credit for shining among his peers. Despite the hype for Boston’s Marcus Smart, Utah’s Dante Exum and Miami’s Shabazz Napier entering the season, Payton has been the best first-year floor general of the group. He leads all rookies in assists per game (5.3), assist-to-turnover ratio (2.35), assist ratio (33.7 percent) and steals (59), while ranking fourth in double-doubles and eighth in scoring.
Minnesota’s Andrew Wiggins seems like the favorite to win Rookie of the Year, with Chicago’s Nikola Mirotic deserving consideration as well, but Payton’s contributions shouldn’t be overlooked. He likely won’t get the credit he deserves from voters since he’s not scoring the ball (and defense is often overlooked with these awards), but it’s possible that Payton could emerge as one of the better players from this class down the road.
His chances of doing so will greatly improve if he can fix his shot, which is by far his biggest weakness. He’s not a capable shooter right now, so his scoring opportunities are limited to plays at the basket and teams can back off of him without worrying that he’ll knock down a jumper. He’s also a poor free throw shooter, hitting just 53.1 percent from the charity stripe.
However, he’s such a good defender and facilitator that he’s playing nearly 30 minutes a night despite these weaknesses. These strengths and weaknesses have earned him comparisons to Dallas Mavericks point guard Rajon Rondo, whom he studies often. Keep in mind, Payton is still just 20 years old, so he’s nowhere near reaching his ceiling and he still has plenty of time to fix the holes in his game. He’s someone who has displayed an above-average work ethic, so it won’t be a surprise to see him report to Impact Basketball in Las Vegas (where he does his training) shortly after the season ends to continue his development.
Payton has all of the tools to be a very special player who could stick around the NBA for many years. It’s only a matter of time until the NBA’s elite are looking past his unique hair and describing him as “the guy with the crazy talent.”
Cleveland Cavaliers 2018-19 NBA Season Preview
The Cleveland Cavaliers may not be as different as you think, especially with most of their Finals core returning from last season. They may not be contenders, but the question is can they stay in the playoff hunt while their big contracts age off the books? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Cavaliers in this 2018-19 NBA Season Preview.
The Cleveland Cavaliers are no longer the talk of the town in the Eastern Conference. The King has left his post for a venture westward and the organization he was the face of is now on its own.
With a mixture of veterans and inexperience, it’s going to be a roller coaster season for the wine and gold, but they’ll be better prepared this time around for the departure of LeBron James.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
Losing LeBron James is a tough blow (obviously) but there are still enough solid players on Cleveland’s roster to compete for a playoff seed this season. The main question is whether Kevin Love can recapture his superstar form from years ago when he was playing in Minnesota. It has been a while since Love was the go-to player on a team, so only time will tell if he is able to lead this team to the playoffs. The Cavaliers will also try to get more production out of players like Rodney Hood, Larry Nance Jr., Jordan Clarkson and George Hill. These guys can produce but were inconsistent last season. My focus will be on the play of Collin Sexton, whom the Cavaliers drafted eighth overall in this year’s draft. Sexton has the attitude and talent to be a quality point guard and could be a nice sparkplug for the Cavaliers this season.
4th Place – Central Division
– Jesse Blancarte
It’s hard to pinpoint which direction Cleveland is going. They actually did a pretty solid job this summer outside of losing the best basketball player of this generation. Drafting Collin Sexton, extending Kevin Love and adding under-the-radar players such as Sam Dekker and David Nwaba were sensible decisions. Sad to say, their current roster is now only good enough to be conversation for one of the lower seeds in the east. That may not be the best idea since they owe Atlanta a top-10 protected first-rounder this year. Still, there should be plenty of interesting storylines for them this year, which include how well they perform post-LeBron (again), how good of a coach Tyronn Lue really is, and what they have in Sexton.
4th Place – Central Division
– Matt John
Much more prepared for the second time LeBron James left the franchise, the wine and gold are poised to create a team-first environment with a healthy culture in the building. Kevin Love will have to take the reigns and Rodney Hood will be heavily depended on to put the ball in the basket. Larry Nance Jr. is going to be tasked with protecting the paint. Player development is going to be the sole focus, but winning is an absolute priority for the Cavaliers. Eighth overall pick Collin Sexton will have the chance to showcase his skills right away with plenty of young talent surrounding him. They’re not looking to tank as some speculated they would post-LeBron, so we’ll see if it pays off. Considering the Eastern Conference is wide open, there’s still a chance they could sneak into the playoffs.
3rd Place – Central Division
– Spencer Davies
In their second go-round after losing LeBron James in free agency, there’s definitely hope in Cleveland that things won’t go quite so poorly for the Cavs. Last time, as many will recall, they went from the league’s best record to its worst in just a single season when The King departed. This time? There’s even playoff hope still abound in Cleveland, though whether it’s realistic or not is up for debate. Much of those hopes rest on Kevin Love, who is now armed with a new extension that’ll keep him paid through 2023. Many forget that Love was once a perennial All-Star and considered a borderline top-five player in the NBA in his Minnesota days – does he still have that level of play left in him as the lead dog? The Cavs still have solid shooting in Love, George Hill, Kyle Korver, J.R. Smith and others, but there are real concerns about whether this roster will have enough playmaking or defense to make any noise. Still, the relative weakness of the East makes a playoff appearance possible.
4th Place – Central Division
– Ben Dowsett
The Cavaliers are going to take a huge step backward, that’s not news or shocking, but to think the Cavs will fall off the map might be misplaced. Kevin Love is an All-Star, and he still has a lot of proven guys around him. The Cavs draft pick, Collin Sexton, should get all the opportunity to be the next guy and has star potential and Ty Lue is a good player-centric coach. The 8th seed isn’t out of the question for the Cavs, and that’s not bad for a team that lost its franchise player for nothing in return.
4th Place – Central Division
– Steve Kyler
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Kevin Love
The five-time All-Star forward is going to have his hands full. There is no LeBron anymore. There is no Kyrie Irving anymore. Ironically, he is the last man standing out of the former big three and just signed a long-term deal this summer to be “the man” in Cleveland.
For years, basketball fans have been begging to see Love return to the same player as he was with the Minnesota Timberwolves. This season, he has the opportunity to become that dominant force once again. We all know he’s a double-double machine who can stretch the floor and crash the glass, but it’ll be interesting to see whether the Cavaliers establish him on the block more often.
According to NBA.com, on a minimum of three possessions per game, Love had the sixth-lowest frequency, yet scored 0.98 points per possession in post-up situations. Only Karl-Anthony Towns and LaMarcus Aldridge were ranked above him in PPP. Last year’s offense was full of isolation and drive-and-kicks, leaving little opportunity for the 30-year-old big man to work down low.
He’s coming off his best perimeter-shooting season since 2010-11, too. It might take a few games to get re-acquainted to being the go-to guy without LeBron there, but Love will now have the chance to remind everyone that he is one of the most forceful inside-outside threats in the league.
Top Defensive Player: Larry Nance Jr.
The 2017-18 Cavaliers were an abysmal defensive team. Whether it was a veteran-heavy roster failing to get their legs under them, poor effort, flawed schemes or too much miscommunication on switches—it was not pretty.
With that said, there was a small silver lining in that ugliness, and it was Nance Jr. From challenging bigs at the rim to moving his feet and making it tough on guards, he immediately made an impact as a versatile defender when healthy. Per Cleaning The Glass, with Nance Jr. off the court, Cleveland allowed 9.9 points per 100 possessions more. Opponents’ effective field goal percentage also increased by 4.5 percent as well.
Entering his second season with the wine and gold, Nance Jr. is going to play a huge role in forcing turnovers and making it hard on his assignments. The more floor time he receives, the better he will get.
Top Playmaker: Collin Sexton
A label held by LeBron for the past four years will be taken over by a rookie. There is no replacing the best player in the world in any way, shape or form. It’s all about creating a new star, and that’s what the Cavaliers are planning on doing with Sexton.
You will find no shortage of confidence or explosiveness watching the Alabama alum play the game. Not to use NBA Summer League as the best of examples, but just go back and look at his body language during that tournament, especially against Josh Hart and the Los Angeles Lakers. He is a surefire competitor, which is exactly why Cleveland selected him with the eighth overall draft pick.
He’s able to make things happen for both his teammates and himself. Sexton can change speeds quickly and get to the rim with conviction, pass on the drive and kick and get out in transition. Getting used to the speed of the NBA level will take some adjusting, as will playing with new teammates and learning their tendencies, but the man dubbed “Young Bull” is poised to have a breakout debut year.
Top Clutch Player: Kyle Korver
Who takes the big shot at the end? Who gets the big stop? Who makes the game-altering pass? All of these questions were answered with “LeBron” in the snap of a finger before. The question now is who will assume that responsibility.
At the moment, it’s a collective team effort. One night it could be Love, another it could be Sexton. Maybe Rodney Hood even gets the ball from time-to-time in a late-game situation. The point is, we don’t know the answer quite yet.
Purely based on who had the second-highest net rating in clutch situations to LeBron in a minimum of 30 games played in crunch time, Korver gets the nod here. The veteran sharpshooter’s offensive rating and true shooting percentage were both the highest on Cleveland as well. If you get the 37-year-old the ball on the outside, he’ll likely knock down a big bucket.
The Unheralded Player: Cedi Osman
When you look at the Turkish swingman’s statistics from last year, you’ll probably question what the fuss is all about and why he is getting invited to private workouts with the likes of LeBron, Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard. Here’s why: He has the desire to play the game the right way.
Osman is only 23 years old. He already has the potential to be the perfect glue guy in his second season at the NBA level. Something about his game just provides a spark. It might be the energy he brings to the floor, or maybe it has to do with how aggressive he is on both sides of the boards.
Playing for his country in FIBA, there’s already been an improvement with his jump shot. He’s been drilling threes, specifically on off-the-dribble and pull-up attempts. Remember, he did work with Korver last season often. Maybe the veteran’s pointers will pay off for Osman.
Best New Addition: Collin Sexton
Cleveland desperately needed to add a playmaker to the roster. They severely missed that last year without Kyrie Irving. The 19-year-old rookie is going to have his ups and downs, but more importantly, he’ll be fun to watch develop. Learning under a veteran like George Hill could do him some good, regardless of whether or not the seasoned guard finishes the year out there.
– Spencer Davies
WHO WE LIKE
1. Rodney Hood
It was a difficult second half for Hood last year. Being traded to the Cavaliers at the deadline, some thought he could just fit right in and score 17 points per game as he did with the Utah Jazz. But unfortunately, the league isn’t a 2K simulation where teams can just plug and play with no issues. It took time for him to learn to play off LeBron. His usage was down nearly 10 percent as well. Year two in The Land should allow him to get back to his usual confident self. Tyronn Lue thinks the world of him, so we’ll likely be seeing a lot of trust put into Hood.
2. David Nwaba
On a one-year deal, Nwaba is looking to prove he’s worth a bigger deal in the long term. He’s only going into his third season, but since making waves a couple of years ago in the Lakers’ G-League system and on the big club, he’s been scratching and clawing his way up. He started over 20 of the 70 games he played in for the Chicago Bulls in 2017-18. He’ll likely play a key role in the second unit., but the more playing time he’s gotten, the better the production has been. Nwaba has athleticism through the roof and is already one of the top defenders on the Cavaliers.
3. Channing Frye
Frye is a fan-favorite and an important part of the team culture Cleveland is aiming to instill in the locker room. He’s the perfect person to loosen things up if they get tense, almost like a player-coach type. On the floor, he’s still going to provide valuable production offensively as a knockdown shooter. Off of it, he’ll be a mentor to his younger teammates and a calming presence to the others. That’ll be necessary for an up-and-down season.
4. Tyronn Lue
With no LeBron around, we’re going to really see what Lue is made of. There were plenty of detractors last season due to the rotations he played and the way he managed minutes. Here’s his shot at proving the doubters wrong. Losing the four-time NBA MVP is going to make life harder on everybody in the franchise, but there’s a free range of what to do with this team now. Versatility and youth are available to him now like they never have been before. The pressure has been lifted a bit with the expectations tampered down a bit. It’s time to see if Lue can walk the walk.
– Spencer Davies
The Cavaliers finally have a chance to focus on the long-term, while addressing the now. General manager Koby Altman said it himself: This organization is getting back in the player development business. With the moves they made over the offseason, that couldn’t be clearer. Players who haven’t gotten too many opportunities—Sam Dekker, Isaiah Taylor, Kobi Simmons, Nwaba—are going to have a chance to show the coaching staff what they’re made of in training camp. The youth movement started early at the deadline last season with the acquisitions of Jordan Clarkson, Hood and Nance Jr. It’s full speed ahead now.
– Spencer Davies
This team lost its best scorer, its best playmaker, its best clutch option—pretty much all of the above. Filling the void of LeBron is impossible. In one year without him, it’s not going to be pretty at times. Depending on who is starting these games, you’re going to see errors and mistakes you haven’t seen in a while with the Cavaliers. They’ll show flashes of what they can become in due time, but for the most part, there will be plenty of teaching moments. It’s not going to happen overnight. Everybody involved probably knows, but we’ll see what the reaction is once things are set in motion.
– Spencer Davies
THE BURNING QUESTION
What is the plan with these veterans and their contracts?
Cleveland has a tall task ahead of them when it comes to shedding salary. We can start off with the $19 million contract of George Hill, followed by the $14.72 million that J.R. Smith is making this season. Both of these veteran guards do not have guaranteed big money next season, though, if waived in the summer of 2019. Only $1 million of Hill’s deal is guaranteed until July 1 and $3.7 million of Smith’s deal is guaranteed until June 30, respectively. If these two are waived before said dates, a team would not be on the hook for the last season of their contracts (Hill at $18 million, Smith at $15.68 million). Because of that, those two players would likely be easier to move for the Cavaliers than Tristan Thompson, who has two fully guaranteed years left on the deal he signed before the 2015 season.
Considering the shift in direction that the franchise has made, it wouldn’t be all that surprising if at least two of these three were moved in the future. Whether that’s mid-season, at the trade deadline or next offseason, we’ll have to wait and see.
– Spencer Davies
NBA Daily: Four Trades For Jimmy Butler
Jimmy Butler has told the Minnesota Timberwolves he would like to be traded. If the team decides to deal, what might they get back in return?
The Jimmy Butler and Minnesota Timberwolves saga feels as though it’s dragged on forever. In reality, it was only 15 months ago that he was traded to the Timberwolves from the Chicago Bulls for what now seems like a king’s random: Zach Lavine, Kris Dunn and the seventh overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, with the only other asset going back to Minnesota being the sixteenth overall pick.
Regardless of what was given up for him or how long the relationship lasted, it seems as though the two will part ways sooner than later. After a drawn out and fairly public back-and-forth on social media about when and where the two parties would ultimately meet, Coach and President Tom Thibodeau and Butler finally sat down on Wednesday. It was then that Butler informed the Timberwolves he would like to be traded. So much for a happy ending to the Thibodeau-Butler reunion.
But Butler doesn’t simply want out of Minnesota. He wants to be traded to one of three teams: the Brooklyn Nets, Los Angeles Clippers or the New York Knicks. Reports have read that Butler will only sign an extension with one of his preferred destinations. The subtext of the leak – regardless of who leaked it – indicates that teams beyond those three need not apply. And in fairness to Butler, he recognizes that he is in the prime of his career and prefers to begin establishing himself in a hand-selected location.
Butler is scheduled to make $19,841,627 this season. Below, Basketball Insiders explores the likely trade packages each of the three teams Butler would like to play for might put together, as well as one additional team that may be able to convince Butler to re-sign. Lots of other scenarios exist, including three-team deals and packages in which Minnesota ships out additional players. But we only focused on two-team deals in which Butler is the only player departing the Wolves roster.
Los Angeles Clippers
According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the Clippers are the preferred destination for Butler. The Clippers have numerous players with the requisite salary to get the deal done, but little in the way of desirable young players to entice the Wolves.
From a salary standpoint, the Timberwolves would likely have their choice of veterans to pry from the Clippers roster. Danilo Gallinari makes more than Butler and his deal stretches another year after 2018-19. Besides, Gallinari’s age and injury history make him an unlikely candidate. Marcin Gortat is on a $13.565 million expiring deal. But unfortunately for the Clippers, Gortat’s value is relatively low. While the Clippers probably prefer to hang onto Avery Bradley to form a tenacious one-two defensive punch, would be the likely starting point considering his value. But Bradley cannot be traded until December 15. If both teams are willing to wait, then Bradley will likely be the main piece for salary purposes. Otherwise, the Clippers may have to part with one or more of Tobias Harris, Wesley Johnson and Patrick Beverley.
But none of the aforementioned veterans would be the centerpiece of the trade. And the Clippers are unable to trade away another of their first round picks before 2022. So the deal is likely to be predicated on the inclusion of either Shai Gilgeous-Alexander or Jerome Robinson, both of whom were drafted by the Clippers with back-to-back picks in the 2018 NBA Draft. However, the team should think twice before trading both. Other recent trades involving superstars – Paul George –haven’t returned two lottery picks of late. If possible, the Clippers should be steadfast in insisting that only one be included.
The Wolves will likely prefer Gilgeous-Alexander given the buzz that he created in the summer league. If the Clippers are serious about acquiring Jimmy Butler, they should begin rebuilding around Butler before they miss out on him altogether (see the Lakers’ recent failed-before-it-even-started pursuit of Paul George).
Clippers Get Jimmy Butler
Timberwolves Get Tobias Harris, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jawun Evans
The Nets are one of Jimmy Butler’s (second tier) preferred destinations. On the one hand, the Nets have limited developed talent to pair with Butler in 2018-19. On the other, the Nets open up an enormous amount of cap space next season, allowing them to sign at least two max-level free agents, one of whom could be Butler. If Butler went ahead and included Brooklyn on his list of destinations, then so be it.
Spencer Dinwiddie is an up-and-coming young guard and among the most valuable assets on the Nets roster. Trade discussions would probably begin there. But Dinwiddie only makes $1.6 million this season, the last year on his deal. The recently acquired Kenneth Faried makes a fairly significant $13.7 million and his contract also expires after this season. Throw in a Jarrett Allen for good measure and you’ve got the framework of a deal. In this situation, a protected pick would be needed as well.
Nets Get Jimmy Butler
Timberwolves Get Kenneth Faried, Spencer Dinwiddie, Jarrett Allen, and the Nets 2019 First Round Pick (top 8 protected)
New York Knicks
The Knicks held their press day on Monday, at which time team President Steve Mills professed the team’s strategy of avoiding sending out assets for players that are free agents-to-be. If this is actually true, the team will have a hard time blowing the Timberwolves away with an offer.
But the team can still put forth a respectable package, which would begin with a young guard named Frank Ntilikina. Ntilikina is an incredible defender who can be the lead guard or play off the ball. He is a 6-foot-6 20 year old with a 7-foot-1 wingspan. Ntilikina is alluring to almost any front office in the league.
Beyond Ntilikina, the Knicks actually have a talented veteran who can fill most of the salary requirements – Courtney Lee. Lee is slightly older than Butler, but can bridge the gap until Ntilikina is ready to take on a bigger role along side Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns.
The Timberwolves would probably prefer to net more than just one solid prospect in a deal for Butler, but Butler put them in a precarious situation when he gave them a wish list of preferred destinations. The Knicks would be wise to offer this and no more.
Knicks get Jimmy Butler
Timberwolves get Courtney Lee, Frank Ntilikina, Trey Burke and Damyean Dotson
Lots of teams will throw their respective hats in the ring on Jimmy Butler. On paper, the Celtics make the most sense given their abundance of young talent and accrued draft picks. And let’s not forget that earlier this summer, rumors began to spread about Kyrie Irving’s desire to team up with Butler.
The Celtics have enough draft assets to swing a deal in which they give up limited players, instead leveraging their future draft picks. Remember, the Celtics not only own their own picks, the team also possesses the Sacramento Kings’ 2019 first-round pick (top-one protected) and the Memphis Grizzlies’ 2019 first-round pick (top-eight protected).
But is that the right answer? After all, the Celtics already have a mini-logjam at the wing between Gordon Hayward, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Marcus Smart. But maybe, instead of parting ways with future assets, the Celtics secure Butler and shorten up their rotation, which could potentially disrupt the team’s success into the playoffs with the entire roster entering the season seemingly healthy. Disclaimer — the Celtics would likely seek assurances from Butler that he would be open to re-signing before trading away a young star like Jaylen Brown.
Celtics get Jimmy Butler
Timberwolves get Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart
Portland Trail Blazers 2018-19 NBA Season Preview
The Portland Trail Blazers could end up almost anywhere in the West – their outlook is that unclear. If they can’t be elite, could this be the end of the road for this roster? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Trail Blazers in this 2018-19 NBA Season Preview.
The Portland Trail Blazers surprised many last season when they ended up with the third best record in the Western Conference behind only the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors. Unfortunately for them, they ran into a New Orleans Pelicans team that was probably a bit better than their record and sixth place finish indicated.
Despite that, the Blazers should feel good about themselves. They’ve got an All-Star backcourt with Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Sure they may not be on the same level as the Rockets or Warriors, but after that, the West is seemingly wide open. And with a little luck, maybe an injury here or there, anything can happen once the postseason rolls around.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
The Portland Trail Blazers are a really good team. But being really good in the Western Conference just doesn’t get you very far, unfortunately. Like the Utah Jazz, Portland is a dangerous team that could beat just about anyone on any given night. But I don’t see this year’s team being able to push the elite Western Conference teams in a seven-game playoff series. Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum are explosive and continue to improve. The Blazers’ role players, like Al-Farouq Aminu and Jusuf Nurkic, are solid. The team even has some interesting prospects, such as Zach Collins and Anfernee Simons. Having said that, I think the front office needs to try and make an honest assessment about this team’s ceiling and decide whether it’s time to be aggressive and start making some serious changes to the roster. It’s odd saying that since this is a really good team. However, the goal for Portland is a championship, but I just don’t see this roster having a real shot at that.
4th Place – Northwest Division
– Jesse Blancarte
The Blazers won 49 games last year and return a very similar roster, yet many are picking them to finish outside the playoff picture in the West – and it’s not that crazy to imagine. The conference is just that tough. Last year’s team was pretty similar to the year before: They had one remarkable run in the mid-spring period (a 13-game winning streak from just before the All-Star break through the middle of March), then were roughly .500 the rest of the year. They’re always a threat to explode offensively with Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum in the backcourt, but it seems pretty clear this group has a limited ceiling that falls well below championship level. It’s also one Portland has a lot of money committed to even beyond this season. Is this the year the Blazers seriously consider making some big moves and resetting things if they aren’t in the hunt among legitimate contenders?
5th Place – Northwest Division
– Ben Dowsett
The Blazers have to do something. They may have a fine roster. They may have some excellent players. They may be well-coached. Unfortunately, they just don’t have enough. After suffering that embarrassing postseason defeat, the Blazers didn’t really do anything to improve their team. They are capable of making the playoffs and maybe could win a playoff round if everything goes their way. However, that’s as high at their ceiling gets and that’s if everything goes their way. Seriously, does anyone think they can actually compete with the Warriors or the Rockets? Are they even better than the new-look Lakers? If they don’t change things for the better, then the Blazers may approach the dreaded “treadmill team” label.
4th Place – Northwest Division
– Matt John
It was a quiet offseason for the Blazers, who are coming off a solid season that abruptly ended in the playoffs against Anthony Davis and the New Orleans Pelicans. The tandem of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum is still one of the best one-two punches in the league today. Jusuf Nurkic is continuing to grow and build chemistry with his teammates going into year three with Portland. The loss of Ed Davis will impact the bench unit, but Zach Collins will have an opportunity to expand his role. Guys like Wade Baldwin and Jake Layman could see more floor time as well. While there won’t be a regression, Terry Stotts and company will need to fight tooth and nail in a tough Northwest Division to secure a postseason berth in the Western Conference.
4th Place – Northwest Division
– Spencer Davies
This has to be the year, right? It has to be the year the Blazers break through and become an elite team or management and ownership has to break it up, right? The Blazers have two elite level guards and a gob of money tied up into the rest of the roster. They have a good but not great head coach, so it either has to click and start to happen or leadership has to make bold changes. Let’s be real, the Blazers have tried to be aggressive, not only in trades but in free agency, so this team isn’t a product of sitting on their hands. But as West has gotten tougher and more developed, the Blazers haven’t necessarily kept up, so it has to happen now and there is a sense the Blazers get that. On paper, this arguably should be the best team in the Northwest Division, it’s just not assured they will be.
1st Place – Northwest Division
– Steve Kyler
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Damian Lillard
To this point, Damian Lillard has blossomed into arguably a top-ten player in the league. He can score from anywhere on the floor. He’s got unlimited range and is very difficult to stop when he’s attacking the rim. Last season, he averaged 7.4 free throw attempts per game which he converted at a 91.6 percent clip, both career-highs.
The 26.9 points per game on 43.9 percent shooting were both the second-highest marks of his career. At 28 years old, Lillard is right in the prime of his career and a true star. He’s capable of exploding and having a huge scoring game on any given night. Many other teams in the NBA would love to have a player of that caliber. As long as Lillard is in Portland and producing at this level, the Blazers should remain competitive.
Top Defensive Player: Al-Farouq Aminu
Al-Farouq Aminu has quietly become the best defensive player on the Blazers roster. He’s a long and athletic wing who can slide between forward positions defensively as well as take on the challenge of staying with some guards. Aminu was a big part of Portland’s strong defense last season. He’s good at transition defense, and he’s good at recovering and helping out when the guards get beat off the dribble. As the season went on, Portland had one of the better defenses in the league and Aminu was a major part of that.
Top Playmaker: Damian Lillard
There isn’t much that Lillard can’t do on the court, and as it stands, he’s their best when it comes to running the offense. As explosive as he is at scoring the basketball, he can be just as deadly carving up a defense and creating opportunities for his teammates.
The 6.6 assists per game that Lillard dished out last season were the second-highest in his career. This was with not having too many offensive options to work with outside of McCollum. The Blazers were last in the NBA in assists per game, largely due to that fact, but Lillard made do with what he was given. He still managed to turn other guys into offensive threats. The Blazers are going to need much more of that this upcoming season.
Top Clutch Player: Damian Lillard
With the game on the line and a big shot needed, one could argue that you’d be comfortable with the ball in McCollum’s hands. He can create his own offense and is also a dead-eye shooter from anywhere on the floor. But overall, when a big play is needed for the Blazers, you’d still want the ball to be in the hands of Lillard.
Lillard’s ability to score is unparalleled on the team. He’s more adept than McCollum at getting to the rim in crunch time situations and thus, able to get a better look at the basket or draw contact and get a couple freebies. And when he inevitably draws the defense, his playmaking enables him to set someone else up for a big play.
The Unheralded Player: Al Farouq-Aminu
Al-Farouq Aminu may have emerged as the Blazers best defensive player, but he also might have just become their third best player behind Lillard and McCollum. He doesn’t draw much media and national attention, but he contributes in many different ways that help the Blazers win games.
Since entering the league, he’s improved his offense tremendously. He was always a solid defender, but his offense, in particular his shooting, was a weakness of his. This past season, he knocked down a career-high 36.9 percent of his attempts from three-point range. He also took a career-high 4.9 attempts per game. He’s their perfect 3&D guy. He’s also one of the best rebounders on the team, especially on the defensive glass. He can guard multiple positions. For the Blazers to continue to take leaps in the West, they’ll most certainly need Aminu.
Best New Addition: Seth Curry
The Blazers had a couple of weaknesses last season, bench depth and outside shooting. They’re hoping that Seth Curry can address both of those issues. Sure he owns the distinction of being Steph Curry’s brother, but he’s become a solid NBA player in his own right. He missed all of last season due to injury, but if he’s healthy, he’ll provide Portland with exactly what they need.
During the 2016-17 season, the last in which Curry played, he averaged a career-high 12.8 points per game on 48.1 percent shooting from the field and 42.5 percent shooting from the three-point line. The Blazers guard off the bench role was filled by Shabazz Napier last season. Napier did an admirable job but he’s now off to Brooklyn. Curry can help fill that void with a capable ball-handler off the bench. He may even see time in the lineup with either one or both of Lillard and McCollum.
– David Yapkowitz
WHO WE LIKE
1. Zach Collins
Portland’s lottery pick from a year ago, Zach Collins was thrown into the lineup as the season went on, and he showed vast improvements. He and Ed Davis became an effective big man tandem off the bench. He’s got range out to the three-point line and he is an effective defensive player. It got to the point where he was sometimes finishing games over starting center Jusuf Nurkic. He allowed Portland to feel comfortable letting Davis walk and allowing Collins to be the primary big man off the bench.
2. Anfernee Simons
It’s tough to envision Anfernee Simons getting minutes right away this season, but there’s no denying the oozing potential he has. For a playoff contender like the Blazers, a draft pick like Simons is a huge gamble. Portland has major playoff aspirations and someone like Simons isn’t going to be ready to contribute now. But his long-term outlook is what intrigues Portland. He is very gifted athletically and he’s already a good shooter. In Summer League, he showed off an ability to create his own shot. If his development goes well, Portland could end up with one of the best players of the 2018 draft.
3. Gary Trent Jr.
His fellow rookie Anfernee Simons might not be able to contribute right away, but Gary Trent Jr is a little more NBA ready. For a team that often lacked bench production, Trent can definitely help in that regard, even as a rookie. Physically, Trent is better adapted to the NBA grind than the slight Simons. He also gives the Blazers some much-needed perimeter shooting. In a recent survey of NBA rookies, Trent was voted by his peers as one of this rookie classes best shooters and most likely to be a draft steal. If he can come in and contribute, the Blazers bench might be very much improved.
4. Caleb Swanigan
A year ago, Caleb Swanigan had a very impressive summer league. He played sparingly for the Blazers this past season, but due to some roster departures, he’s going to be counted on to provide production off the bench. He’s a decent passer for a big man and he can score in the paint. He’s more of a traditional big man, which seem to be a dying breed in today’s NBA, but perhaps with his passing, he can make an impact on the court. With Davis gone, the other bigs on the bench such as Collins, Jake Layman and Myers Leonard, are all better suited to the changing game. But this is going to be an important training camp for Swanigan to prove that he should get a chance to help the team.
– David Yapkowitz
Defense. The Blazers turned into one of the better defensive teams in the league last season. Sure neither Lillard nor McCollum would be confused for All-Defensive players, but even that didn’t matter too much. Jusuf Nurkic is a decent shot blocker, and Collins showed great defensive potential. Aminu is an incredibly underrated defender. And then there’s the enigma known as Moe Harkless. He can either be very good, or non-existent. He’s got the tools to be a superb wing defender. If they want to continue their ascent in the West, they’re going to need to continue to be a good defensive team.
– David Yapkowitz
Outside shooting and reliable bench production were two of the Blazers main weaknesses last season. Three of their main contributors from last season’s second unit, Shabazz Napier, Pat Connaughton and Ed Davis all signed elsewhere. They’re hoping that a few new roster additions, as well as some internal development, can help alleviate that. Based on the development he showed throughout the season, Collins appears ready to take another step forward. Trent and Curry will help with outside shooting. They’re going to need a couple of these guys to really step up and contribute if they hope to keep afloat in the West.
– David Yapkowitz
THE BURNING QUESTION
Can the Blazers continue to take a step forward and become an elite Western Conference team?
Sure the Blazers grabbed a top-four seed in the West last season, but they might be skirting around dangerous territory. Looking at their roster, they might be floating around the NBA’s dreaded no man’s land. That is, a team not bad enough to benefit from a lottery pick in the draft, but not good enough to make any serious noise in the playoffs. They’ve got an All-Star backcourt, and that definitely counts for something. But after that, it can get a bit murky. Their depth isn’t on par with some of the other elite West teams. They’ve got some guys capable of filling those roles, but it’s still a question mark. They’re probably good enough to keep their hold on a playoff spot, but it most likely will be a lower one than where they finished last season.
– David Yapkowitz