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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 Daily: DPOY Watch — 2/25/20

Robert Covington’s off-ball disruption, the Philadelphia 76ers’ revamped rotation and Giannis Antetokounmpo’s unsurpassed individual dominance highlight this edition of Defensive Player of the Year watch. Jack Winter dives in.

Jack Winter

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The regular season is over two-thirds finished, and the playoffs start in 53 days.

Unsurprisingly, the front of the Defensive Player of the Year race has remained largely stagnant as 2019-20 enters its final stretch. But there’s ample time for movement among the obvious top-four candidates, with factors like injuries, lineup changes and even overall team performance poised to play a large part in the inevitable shuffle.

Here’s where Defensive Player of the Year watch stands as spring quickly dawns.

Notable Defenders

Robert Covington – Houston Rockets

The league’s stingiest small-ball lineups have never played all that small.

The bygone Golden State Warriors, at least before adding Kevin Durant, routinely doled out crunch-time lineups absent a defender taller than 6-foot-8. The length and physicality of Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala, Harrison Barnes and Klay Thompson allowed the Warriors to switch across positions with near impunity.

But a quartet of like-sized defenders didn’t give the Death Lineup its name or defensive effectiveness. Golden State’s ability to compensate for limitations provided by the presence of Stephen Curry and a collective lack of height is what made the team’s closing five special, a reality best explained by the off-ball genius of all-time defenders like Green and Iguodala.

The Houston Rockets, embracing small-ball like no team ever before, don’t possess a single defender at that exalted level of historical greatness. Just two of Mike D’Antoni’s top-eight players, in fact, are considered an objective plus on that side of the ball irrespective of surrounding circumstances. But the Rockets’ downsized defense has held up well thus far regardless, and Robert Covington’s rare, all-court impact as a help defender is arguably the biggest reason why.

Covington, 11th in deflections per game this season, was credited with three blocks in his new team’s convincing road win over the Utah Jazz on Saturday. The film reveals just how large those blocks loomed to the game’s outcome — and how unlikely they would have been for most any other 6-foot-8 wing challenging Rudy Gobert at the rim.

Covington is often mislabeled as a traditional stopper. He’s certainly a better option checking superstar alpha dogs than an average wing and boasts the versatility to guard pretty much anyone without being consistently exploited.

The real scope of Covington’s influence extends to All-Defense levels, though, because of his imminent penchant for disrupting action away from the offense’s initial point of attack. That’s a trait especially valuable for a team like Houston, whose switch-heavy scheme inevitably lends itself to double-teams and a losing numbers game on the backside of the play.

Through six games, the Rockets’ defensive rating with Covington on the floor is a team-best 102.5, a hair worse than the Milwaukee Bucks’ league-leading mark. They’re allowing nearly 20 points per 100 possessions more when he sits, easily the highest discrepancy on the roster.

Those numbers portray Covington as a more valuable defender than is realistic. Not even basketball’s best rim-protectors make that big a singular difference all by themselves. Still, they’re telling of Covington’s unique defensive worth to Houston and indicative of the game-changing off-ball plays – whether highlight-reel or barely-noticed – he makes on a nightly basis for basketball’s smallest defense.

The Philadelphia 76ers’ New Rotation

Good on Brett Brown for making the necessary change that confirms Philadelphia’s odd-ball offseason was a mistake.

There might be a world in which Joel Embiid and Al Horford thrive playing together, owning the paint on both ends, exploiting mismatches from the inside out and affording ball handlers ample space to operate with canny screens and dribble hand-offs. But this one definitely isn’t it, not with Ben Simmons cramping the floor by refusing to shoot outside the paint and Horford’s three-ball falling at a rate well below career norms.

The theoretical silver lining, even if it’s one you have to squint to see, is that the Sixers aren’t taking anything off the table by moving one of their best players to the bench. Embiid is almost a top-five defense unto himself. The hope is that negative fallout defensively from replacing Horford with a wing like Furkan Korkmaz or Glenn Robinson III proves minimal, while additional spacing and off-dribble dynamism on the other end juices an offense that’s lagged far behind its talent level all season long.

Fortunately for Philadelphia, there’s ample evidence supporting the viability of those assumptions. The Sixers have defended at a league-best level with Embiid on the court whether Horford plays next to him or not, surrendering equal effective field goal percentages of 50.2. Their offensive rating spikes from a putrid 98.9 to an average 108.8 when Embiid mans the middle sans Horford, with the former’s true shooting percentage bumping nearly four points to just below the hallowed 60 percent threshold. Philadelphia remains elite defensively with Horford at center, too, surrendering 104.8 points per 100 possessions, a number that would rank third in the league overall.

Obviously, the real test for the Sixers’ revamped rotation – which is still very much in flux even before accounting for Simmons’ back injury, by the way – will come in the playoffs. But this team was always built more for the postseason than 82-game grind, and Philadelphia proved last spring that it’s more than comfortable knocking jaws in a half-court series.

Should that prove the case again, don’t be surprised if Brown reverts to relying on units featuring both Embiid and Horford. Either way, what a luxury that the Sixers’ in-season about-face prompts little to no concern about their ability to hold up defensively.

Giannis Antetokounmpo – Milwaukee Bucks

The Bucks don’t play a single negative defender.

Eric Bledsoe and Brook Lopez deserve All-Defense consideration. No team in the East has a better collection of versatile, experienced wing defenders than Khris Middleton, Wesley Matthews and Marvin Williams. The defensive bona fides of George Hill, Robin Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova need no explanation. Donte DiVincenzo has quietly become one of the most disruptive perimeter defenders in the league. Pat Connaughton’s 2.5 percent block rate this season ranks sixth among all guards since 2010.

Mike Budenholzer and his staff deserve immense credit. No defense in the NBA is more connected than Milwaukee’s, moving in perfect sync on the flight of the ball and letting questionable shooters launch wide-open from deep while protecting the rim at all costs.

But the above personnel’s unrelenting symbiosis and commitment to scheme isn’t what takes the Bucks’ defense from the top of the league to historical greatness. Giannis Antetokounmpo, of course, owns that distinction all by himself.

It’s not always easy for the naked eye to deduce Antetokounmpo’s defensive value. He’s rarely tasked with shutting down his team’s top offensive threat, instead primarily used as an omnipresent deterrent away from the ball. But no matter who Antetokounmpo is guarding, they’re noticeably hesitant to attack him.

Gobert leads the NBA in contested shots per game with 20.5, while Pascal Siakam ranks 20th by averaging 14.4 contested field goal attempts. Jonathan Isaac, another multi-positional defensive monster, is 52nd in that category. Antetokounmpo, by contrast, finds himself outside the top-100 in contested shots per game.

Don’t be fooled by his lackluster standing there relative to other dominant defenders, though. As the New Orleans Pelicans’ young franchise players learned earlier this month, going at Antetokounmpo is such a losing proposition that it’s best avoided altogether.

Is any other player in basketball capable of meeting Zion Williamson at the mountaintop and coming down left standing, let alone completely swallowing Brandon Ingram one-on-one in the same game? No way.

Antetokounmpo is a shoo-in for his second consecutive MVP. The case for his first Defensive Player of the Year award is nearly as strong, even if it’s much less discussed.

Defensive Player of the Year Rankings

5. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers

4. Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers

3. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz

2. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

Honorable Mention: Kawhi Leonard, LA Clippers; Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics; Robert Covington, Houston Rockets; P.J. Tucker, Houston Rockets; Bam Adebayo, Miami HEAT; Toronto Raptors – Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry, O.G. Anunoby

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NBA Daily: The Young, Western Conference Bubble

The race for the West’s final playoff spot may seem crowded, but the last two months make it clear that two teams are already ahead of the pack.

Douglas Farmer

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We all jump to conclusions too quickly, this space and this scribe most certainly included. Three months ago, five weeks into the NBA season, the Western Conference playoff bubble looked like it would be a race between the Sacramento Kings, Phoenix Suns and Minnesota Timberwolves. That has assuredly not become the reality.

While the Kings and Suns can claim to still be in the playoff race, they would have to not only make up five-game deficits, but they would also each have to jump over four other teams to reach the postseason. The Timberwolves would delight at such challenges as they initiate a not-so-subtle tank with franchise cornerstone Karl-Anthony Towns sidelined for at least a few weeks with a fractured wrist.

Instead, the race to be swept by the Los Angeles Lakers has come down to a pair of up-and-comers, a perpetual deep threat and the NBA’s most consistent organization. Of all of them, it is the youngsters who are both currently playing the best and have the most control of their playoff hopes relative to their competition.

Between the current No. 8-seeded Memphis Grizzlies, the Portland Trail Blazers (3 games back), New Orleans Pelicans (3.5) and San Antonio Spurs (4), the next six weeks will feature eight key games. Five of those will include either the Grizzlies or the Pelicans or, in two instances, both.

That pair of matchups is still a month out, but they warrant circling already, nonetheless. Memphis and New Orleans have been playing at a high level for two-plus months now, and by the time they play two games within four nights in late March — when the basketball world is largely distracted by the NCAA Tournament — the two inexperienced teams may have completely separated from Portland and San Antonio.

After starting 1-5, 5-13 and then 10-19, the Grizzlies have gone 18-9 since Dec. 21. The Pelicans have matched that record exactly, down to the date, since starting even worse than Memphis did, bottoming out at 7-23 before finding an uptick long before Zion Williamson found the court. Winning two-thirds of your games for two months is a stretch with a sample size large enough to make it clear: Neither Memphis nor New Orleans should be dismissed in this playoff chase.

Their early-season profiles were examples of young teams sliding right back into the lottery — and there was absolutely no indication a surge was coming.

Grizzlies Pelicans
Offensive Rating 106.4 – No. 23 106.8 – No. 21
Defensive Rating 111.7 – No. 23 113.5 – No. 27

Through Dec. 20; via nba.com.

Then, for whatever reason, things changed. They changed in every way and in ways so drastically that one cannot help but wonder what could come next for the teams led by the top-two picks from last summer’s draft.

Grizzlies Pelicans
Offensive Rating 111.9 – No. 15 115.1 – No. 4
Defensive Rating 109.3 – No. 11 110.3 – No. 13

Since Dec. 21, through Feb. 23; via nba.com.

In a further coincidence of records and timing, the Blazers and Spurs have both gone 13-16 since Dec. 21.

If all four teams in the thick of things out west continue at these two-month winning rates for another month, then Portland and San Antonio will have drifted out of the playoff conversation before Williamson and Ja Morant meet for a second time. Of course, those rates would keep New Orleans a few games back of Memphis; the latter has 14 games, compared to 12, before March 21, so the gap in the standings would actually expand to an even four games.

If the Pelicans can just pick up a game or two before then, though, they have already beaten the Grizzlies twice this season. Doing so twice more that week would just about send New Orleans into the playoffs – at which point, perhaps Williamson could steal a game from LeBron James to put a finishing coda on his rookie season.

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NBA Daily: The Stretch Run — Southwest Division

David Yapkowitz finishes Basketball Insiders’ Stretch Run series with an overview of the Southwest Division.

David Yapkowitz

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We’ve hit that point in the NBA season approaching the final stretch of games before the playoffs roll around in April. The trade deadline has come and gone, the buyout market is wearing thin and most teams have loaded up and made their final roster moves in anticipation of the postseason.

Here at Basketball Insiders, we’re taking a look at each team — division by division– at what they need to do to get ready for the playoffs, or lack thereof. Looking at the Southwest Division, this was a division that used to be one of the toughest in the league.

It still is for the most part. The Texas triangle of the Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs was no joke and hell for opposing teams on a road trip. Those are still a couple of formidable teams, but with the exception of the Rockets, it’s not quite near the level of yesteryear.

The Memphis Grizzlies and New Orleans Pelicans are a pair of young, up-and-coming teams that will give you 100 percent every night. While Memphis sits firmly in the eighth spot in the Western Conference, the Pelicans are on the outside looking in. Here’s a look at how each team might fare in the stretch run.

The Houston Rockets have been the best team in the Southwest all season long, and all that remains for them is playoff positioning. They currently sit in fourth place in the West, giving them home-court advantage in the first round, but they could just as easily slip a bit with the Utah Jazz essentially tied with them record-wise in the standings and the Oklahoma City Thunder a mere two games back.

The Dallas Mavericks have taken a huge leap this season behind Luka Doncic, who is rapidly becoming one of the best players in the league. They currently sit in seventh place in the West and a return to the postseason is in the cards for the Mavericks.

The rest of the teams in the Southwest is where things get a little interesting. The Grizzlies have been one of the surprises of the season, as they’ve defied expectations and are firmly entrenched in the playoff race out West. They have a three-game lead on the Portland Trail Blazers and a four-game lead on the San Antonio Spurs.

Out of the Grizzlies’ final 26 games, 15 of them come against teams over .500, more than either the Blazers or the Spurs. 14 of those final 26 are also on the road, again, more than the Blazers or the Spurs. They also play both the Spurs and Blazers one more time this season. If the Grizzlies end up making the playoffs, it will be very well earned.

The Spurs are knocking on the door, and they have one more game against the Grizzlies which could prove to be very meaningful. This is a team that has been one of the standard-bearers in the league for success over the past decade. Their streak of playoff appearances is in serious jeopardy.

They’ve won two of their last three games, however, and out of their final 26 games, 15 of those are at home, where they are 14-12. Based on how the Grizzlies are playing though, a close to .500 record at home probably isn’t going to cut it. They’re going to need to pick it up a bit over the next month if they want to keep their playoff streak intact. A lot can happen between now and then, and the Grizzlies do have a tough remaining schedule, but it looks as if San Antonio will miss the playoffs for the first time in 22 years.

The final team in the Southwest is the Pelicans, boosted by the return of prized rookie and No.1 draft pick Zion Williamson. Prior to the start of the season, the Pelicans were looked at as a team that could possibly contend for the eighth seed in the West. Then Williamson got hurt and things changed.

But the team managed to stay afloat in his absence, and as it stands, they’re only three-and-a-half games back of the Grizzlies with 26 games left to play. Out of the bottom three teams in the division, it’s the Pelicans who have the easiest schedule.

Out of those 25 games, only seven of them come against teams over .500. They are, however, just about split with home and away games. New Orleans is 8-2 over their past 10 games, better than the Grizzlies and Spurs. If Memphis falters down the stretch due to its tough schedule, and the Pelicans start gaining a little bit of steam, things could get interesting in the final few weeks.

In all likelihood, the Pelicans probably won’t make the playoffs as not only do they have to catch up to the Grizzlies, but the Spurs and Blazers as well. But it certainly will be fun to watch them try.

There are some big storylines in the Southwest Division worth following as we begin the final run to the postseason. Can the young Grizzlies defy expectations and make a surprise return to the playoffs? Will the Spurs get their playoff streak snapped and finally look to hit the reset button after nearly two decades of excellence? Can the Pelicans, buoyed by Williamson’s return, make a strong final push?

Tune in to what should be fun final stretch in the Southwest.

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