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NBA PM: Six Teams to Watch at NBA Trade Deadline

Basketball Insiders looks at six teams that may be active in the weeks leading up to the NBA trade deadline.

Jesse Blancarte

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The NBA trade deadline is less than a month away, which means it’s a good time to see which teams may be active in trade discussions over the next few weeks.

Orlando Magic 

The Orlando Magic entered this season with hopes of returning to the playoffs for the first time since the Dwight Howard trade. The front office hired Frank Vogel to take over for the departed Scott Skiles, who unexpectedly resigned in May of 2016. The front office then traded Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova and the rights to Donatas Sabonis (11th pick in 2016) to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Serge Ibaka, who will be an unrestricted free agent after this season, signed Jeff Green to a one-year, $15 million contract and signed Bismack Biyombo to a four-year, $72 million contract (player option on the final season).

Despite all of these transactions, this season hasn’t gone as expected. Orlando is currently 18-28, good for the 12th seed in the Eastern Conference. Fortunately, Orlando is still only four and a half games back of the eighth and final Eastern Conference playoff seed.

Magic general manager Rob Hennigan, in a Q&A with the Orlando Sentinel’s Josh Robbins, stated that the team is going to be active in the weeks leading up to the trade deadline.

“We need to explore every and all options to improve the team,” Hennigan said. “We’re going to be aggressive. We’re going to be active in our discussions and in the opportunities we seek out. So, we’re going to look to be active. I’m not sure it’s a ‘necessity,’ but it’s certainly something that’s in our best interests to explore.”

Orlando is committed to roughly $106,248,869 in salary this season, which is a hefty amount considering their current standing. Green, Ibaka, Jodie Meeks and C.J. Wilcox are on expiring deals, while C.J. Watson’s $5 million salary next season is non-guaranteed. The Magic front office could look to unload these role players before potentially losing them in free agency, especially if it becomes clear that this team isn’t going to have a realistic shot at the postseason.

Each of these players, to varying degrees, could be helpful to a fringe or even true contender that is looking to bolster its roster in preparation for the playoffs in exchange for some future second-round picks perhaps. The Magic could also move Ibaka if a solid deal presents itself, though Ibaka has the ability walk away for nothing as an unrestricted free agent this upcoming offseason. Additionally, Nikola Vucevic could be moved considering the fact that the Magic invested so heavily in Biyombo last offseason. Vucevic has some notable limitations defensively, but he is a very skilled offensive center and has two years left on his contract after this season at a very reasonable average annual salary of $12.5 million.

Orlando’s front office has made some very questionable moves over the last few seasons and may feel pressure to make significant changes if this team is out of playoff contention near the trade deadline.

Denver Nuggets 

The Denver Nuggets started off the season trying to play big men Jusuf Nurkic and Nikola Jokic together. That experiment quickly proved to be a disaster, so head coach Mike Malone made Jokic the starting center and surrounded him with plenty of shooting. The Nuggets still struggle to defend effectively, but they can keep pace with the best offenses in the NBA and are now featuring Jokic in a primary role. Jokic has proven himself more than worthy of the position and is blowing away the expectations of even those who were early believers in his game.

Jokic’s rise means that Nurkic is now expendable and, according to Marc Stein of ESPN, the Nuggets are actively looking to move him in a deal. Nurkic, age 22, is a talented center who could be a nice addition for any team that needs a true center who can play both ends of the court.

The Nuggets also have some other players that they could move if a team offered a nice return of players or assets in exchange. Veterans like Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Kenneth Faried and Darrell Arthur could be the type of players that a fringe or true contender could think of as a missing piece for a title run. However, the Nuggets are currently holding the eighth seed in the Western Conference and may not be looking to do anything beyond adding some more depth by unloading Nurkic. There’s no major rush to unload a player since their core players are locked into deals that go beyond next season, with the exception of Gallinari, who has a player option for next season.

Boston Celtics 

The Boston Celtics have significant cap space flexibility, the best trade assets in the league, a major need for help on the defensive glass and a desire to add a marquee star player. Those factors combined mean that the Celtics have to be a team to keep an eye on at the deadline.

Celtics general manager Danny Ainge has held off on cashing in his significant assets up to this point, so he may be waiting for a lopsided deal to present itself. The Celtics have been linked to Nerlens Noel, whom the Philadelphia 76ers are looking to deal. Noel is an athletic big man who could play alongside Al Horford and help the Celtics address their rebounding issues. However, Noel is on the last year of his rookie deal, so Boston would have to be prepared to pay him a significant raise as a restricted free agent this upcoming offseason

The Celtics are currently 26-17 and are only four games back of the Cleveland Cavaliers, who hold the first seed in the Eastern Conference. With Isaiah Thomas playing at superstar levels and the rest of the team playing within their respective roles, Ainge may opt to make marginal upgrades while holding onto his major assets for after the season.

Atlanta Hawks 

The Atlanta Hawks have one of the strangest situations heading into the trade deadline. The Hawks put Paul Millsap on the trade market, subsequently pulled him off the market and then traded Kyle Korver to the best team in the Eastern Conference, the Cleveland Cavaliers, for Mike Dunleavy, Mo Williams, a protected 2019 first-rounder and $750,000.

In trading Korver, it seemed as though the Hawks were in the early stages of a rebuild, with Millsap and other veterans likely to be moved in exchange for assets. However, the Hawks have won seven of their last 10 games and are just a game back of the Celtics in the Eastern Conference standings. The Hawks may be tempted to push forward with this roster and take another shot at a deep playoff run.

However, the Hawks are seemingly outclassed by their main Eastern Conference rivals and by several Western Conference teams. Additionally, Millsap can walk away for nothing this upcoming offseason, as Al Horford did last season. Considering these factors, it makes sense for the Hawks to probe the market and see what they can get for guys like Millsap, Tiago Splitter, Thabo Sefolosha, Tim Hardaway Jr., Mike Muscala and Kris Humphries.

Minnesota Timberwolves 

According to Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical, the Minnesota Timberwolves are actively shopping point guard Ricky Rubio and swingman Shabazz Muhammad. Rubio, age 26, was once pegged as Minnesota’s long-term answer at point guard, but his shooting been a major weakness and he never seemed to meet the expectations that surrounded him earlier in his career. Rubio’s contract is guaranteed through 2018-19 at an average annual salary of $14,250,000, which is pretty reasonable for a starting quality point guard.

Several teams have shown interest in Rubio, though it’s not clear what kind of package of players and assets it would take to get Minnesota to pull the trigger. Minnesota has pegged Kris Dunn as the point guard of the future, so they aren’t necessarily looking for a top-tier guard in exchange for Rubio.

The Timberwolves also have some veterans that could be moved, such as Brandon Rush and Jordan Hill. However, these players would likely be included in a deal based around Rubio for salary matching purposes. Rubio is the real target for other teams, especially ones that are in playoff contention and could use some serious help at point guard, such as the Chicago Bulls.

Philadelphia 76ers 

The Philadelphia 76ers have won seven of their last 10 games and are slowly but surely climbing their way up the Eastern Conference standings. However, the 76ers feature three quality big men in Joel Embiid, Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel. Since the team’s media day, Noel has made it clear that this logjam needed to be addressed through a trade. The team has been working on finding a deal for Noel, who will begin being eligible for a restricted free agent offer after this season.

It’s not clear what the 76ers are looking for in exchange for Noel. The 76ers have the ability to package significant draft assets and other fillers around Noel in exchange for a star player, but there aren’t any obvious candidates for that scenario to play out. The team is in need of help at the point guard position, but, depending on how the season plays out and the lottery, the 76ers may be in line to draft either Markelle Fultz or Lonzo Ball. Additionally, once Ben Simmons is healthy, he may prove capable of facilitating the team’s offense as a point forward, which could minimize the team’s need for a lead guard.

The 76ers, like the Celtics, have plenty of flexibility in terms of salary cap space and trade assets to be very active at the deadline. With significant holes to fill on the roster (excluding the frontcourt), it’s possible they could be one of the more active teams at the trade deadline.

******

These are just a few teams to keep an eye on before next month’s trade deadline. Other teams like the Chicago Bulls and Miami HEAT could also look to make some significant moves involving players like Nikola Mirotic and Goran Dragic.

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA Sunday: Kristaps Porzingis Sure Looks Ready To Be The Franchise

The Knicks hope Kristaps Porzingis can become their franchise. Thus far, he seems up to the challenge.

Moke Hamilton

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He stood in front of his mentor, isolated, just like they used to do in practice.

He’d seen the jab steps before and the head fakes—they were nothing new. And when Carmelo Anthony mustered the acceleration he still has in his 33-year-old legs to drive around Kristaps Porzingis, Anthony knew he had the 7-foot-3 Latvian big man beat.

Anthony triumphantly rose to the basket and delicately attempted his right-handed layup. Before he knew what hit him, though, Anthony’s shot had been sent to the free throw line.

The message was clear—Kristaps had taken the torch.

“It was fun,” Porzingis said about his confrontation with Anthony. “We went at it in practices a lot and one-on-one after practices.

“It was a lot of fun knowing what he was going to do and try to stop him.”

The Oklahoma City Thunder were much closer to the NBA Finals than the Knicks were last season, and removing Anthony from the Knicks and pairing him with Russell Westbrook and Paul George gives the Thunder a triumvirate that can at least conceivably challenge the Golden State Warriors. They are perhaps the only team in the entire league with enough firepower and defensive pieces.

So no, the Knicks may not be hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy anytime soon, but at the very least, the franchise seems to be in good hands—the big, soft hands of Porzingis.

As young NBA players come into their own and attempt to fulfill the lofty expectations that everyone has of them, the third year is the charm, almost invariably. And in that that year, a young player can’t control the other pieces that are around him—that’s why they shouldn’t be judged by their team’s wins and losses.

In that third year, a young player also can’t really control the frequency of his injuries. The simple truth is that many 21 or 22-year-old players simply lack the hardened bones of a fully grown adult that most men become after the age of 25.

But what the young player can prove is that he is prepared to shoulder the burden and take the fight to anyone who stands before him. Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks epitomizes this ideal better than any other young player in the league. He is absolutely fearless and it’s a pleasure to watch.

So is Porzingis.

Since the influx of European-born players began about 20 years ago, we have seen our fair share of “soft” European players. His talent aside (which is considerable), Porzingis has proven to be anything but, and that by itself can help players go a very long way.

In what must have felt like the longest summer ever, Porzingis saw the franchise that drafted him undergo an overhaul that resulted in a light beaming so brightly on him, you would have thought the third-year forward was starring in a Broadway musical.

Say what you want about Porzingis, but he has already done all that he can to notify everyone that have anything to do with the Knicks that his bony shoulders aren’t indicative of the weight he’s capable of carrying.

And in Oklahoma City, against his mentor, Porzingis did the heavy lifting.

“I saw energy,” head coach Jeff Hornacek said after his team’s opening night loss.

“He was great moving. He played 38 minutes, and maybe last year that would be a struggle. He would maybe get tired, and get some silly fouls, but even toward the end on that 37th or 38th minute, he was still up hollering, moving, blocking shots and getting rebounds, so he had a great game and we expect a lot more of that from him.”

Being a Knicks fan is something that nobody should wish on their worst enemy. The franchise has made scores of maneuvers that lacked wisdom and seemingly gone out of its way to alienate people beloved by the franchise. On top of it all, Knicks tickets are among the highest in the entire league.

Fans as passionate and dedicated as Knicks fans deserve a team they can be proud of and a front office that dedicates itself to putting winning ahead of petty feuds and politics.

The hiring of Scott Perry may signify just that.

So when the Knicks traded Carmelo Anthony and ended up getting back 10 cents on the dollar for his value, everyone should have prepared for a long season in New York City.

Coming in, Knicks fans once again found themselves in the unenviable predicament of having to talk themselves into believing that Ramon Session, Michael Beasley and Tim Hardaway were capable of giving this team feel good moments. And while they certainly are, they will surely pale in comparison to the amount of losses that the club accrues along the way.

If there’s one thing the Philadelphia 76ers have taught everyone, however, it’s that the losses don’t necessarily need to be in vain.

So heading into this season, what Knicks fans should have been looking forward to and hoping for is nothing more than the installation of a culture that’s marked by effort, communication and selfless basketball—the hallmarks of the Golden State Warriors.

Aside from that, yes, they should have also come in with the hope that Kristaps Porzingis would take an appreciable step forward and prove himself to truly be a capable franchise cornerstone.

To this point, from the way he holds his head highly, despite a win or a loss, and the way he competes to the best of his abilities, despite his limitations. For now, it’s really all that could reasonably be asked of him.

When it was all said and done—when Porzingis looked the Knicks’ past in the eyes after the Thunder had soundly defeated his New York Knicks—Carmelo Anthony probably told him that he was proud of him and that he wished him all the luck in the world.

He probably told him to continue to work on his game and hone his craft and to block out the background noise.

And above all else, Carmelo probably told Kristaps that he believes he is capable of being his successor.

With his nodding head and serious demeanor, Porzingis, in all his glory, listened intently. Even more so, he believed every word. 

It doesn’t take all day to figure out whether the sun is shining—it’s an adage that remains as true in basketball as it does on a May Day in New York.

For Porzinigis, the bright sky and the beaming sunlight—he’s basking in it all. Not only has he becomes the Knicks’ franchise by default, he believes he’s capable of shouldering the burden.

In this town, that’s more than half the battle.

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Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal

The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.

Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.

There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.

Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.

Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.

That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.

Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.

At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.

It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.

One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.

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NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind

Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.

Dennis Chambers

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When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.

“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.

Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.

That didn’t last long.

“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”

With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.

As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.

After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.

In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.

“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”

Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.

“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”

Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.

“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”

After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.

Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.

“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”

All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.

“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”

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