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NBA PM: Utah Makes Shrewd Move in Trading for Rubio

In trading for Ricky Rubio, the Utah Jazz add a talented guard who adds plenty of value, writes Jesse Blancarte.

Jesse Blancarte

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The Utah Jazz are coming off an impressive 2016-17 season and are now in the midst of a crucial offseason. Free agency officially starts in a just a few hours, which for Utah will be centered around small forward Gordon Hayward. With point guard George Hill hitting unrestricted free agency, the Jazz made the decision to pass on trying to re-sign Hill and instead traded a 2018 first-round draft pick (top-14 protected), previously acquired from the Oklahoma City Thunder in a trade involving Enes Kanter, to the Minnesota Timberwolves in exchange for point guard Ricky Rubio.

It seems as though Rubio has been in the NBA for a very long time, but the truth is he made his NBA debut in December of 2011. Originally drafted fifth overall in 2009 by Minnesota, Rubio was believed to have superstar potential based on his court vision, passing abilities, size and ability to manage a game and run an offense. Unfortunately, injuries and an ineffective jump shot have kept Rubio from making good on the superstar potential so many saw in him.

Though Rubio has fallen short of expectations, he is still only 26 years old and has been very effective when healthy and surrounded by decently talented teammates. With that in mind, Rubio should be a nice addition for Utah. He is in the same age range as Utah’s other core players, including Rudy Gobert, Derrick Favors, Dante Exum and Rodney Hood. His playmaking and ability to run an offense will be a nice addition to a Utah team that relies on precise execution of Quin Snyder’s offensive system, rather than a simple run and gun, pace and space approach. Additionally, Rubio should serve as a good mentor for Exum, who is still extremely young and lacks the natural feel for the lead guard position that Rubio has.

Last season, Rubio averaged 11.1 points, 9.1 assists, 4.1 rebounds and 1.7 steals per game. These are pretty solid numbers – the problem is he shot just 40.2 percent from the field and 30.6 percent from beyond the arc. In addition to his poor perimeter shooting, Rubio has also struggled finishing at the rim. Though those limitations are significant, they aren’t fatal to Rubio’s ability to be a positive contributor on offense. Rubio is one of the most gifted passers in the league, and his vision allows him to generate at least a few easy points per game that other point guards can’t.

What is most important about this move, however, is how it impacts Hayward in free agency. It’s no secret that Hayward wanted Hill back in a Jazz uniform if he were to re-sign with Utah. With Rubio coming in, it’s clear that Hill will be playing in a different uniform next season. Hayward surely understands that Rubio is a talented guard, though it’s not immediately clear that this addition will be enough to keep him from taking his talents to other suitors, such as the Boston Celtics. However, even if Hayward ultimately decides to move on and play for another team, the addition of Rubio was still worthwhile for several reasons.

In adding Rubio, the Jazz obtain a talented guard on a very reasonable contract. The Jazz had just a few hours to utilize the $16 million in cap space left over from their failed attempt to get George Gill to renegotiate and extend his contract during the season  — a decision Hill may regret depending on how a few dominoes fall over the next few days. By absorbing Rubio into that cap space, the Jazz will likely have an easier time re-signing Joe Ingles than they would have had if both Hill and Hayward opted to return to Utah. While that may not seem like a big deal, anyone who watched Ingles during the postseason understands how valuable his contributions are on both sides of the ball.

Additionally, Rubio’s size, defensive skills and overall impact make him an ideal fit in Utah. The Jazz benefit from having long, athletic defenders who can switch effectively and protect the rim better than just about any other team in the league. Rubio, similarly, can guard well in space, switch onto bigger guards when necessary and has a knack for generating steals. While he arguably gambles a little too much, it shouldn’t cause too much harm considering he should have Favors and Gobert behind him to protect the rim.

Whether Hayward comes back to Utah or moves on, the Jazz will benefit from having Rubio on the roster. He can’t space the floor like Hill can, but his vision and playmaking abilities are notable. The Jazz had a few hours before losing their available cap space to replace Hill with someone who could take over at point guard and help convince Hayward to re-sign. Utah did well for itself in acquiring a player as young and talented as Rubio.

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: Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons Still Working Out Kinks

The Philadelphia 76ers are still looking for the best ways to combine Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons offensively. Quinn Davis looks at what the team has done so far and what it could do going to forward to maximize their talents.

Quinn Davis

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Late in the third quarter of the Philadelphia 76ers’ win over the Toronto Raptors, Ben Simmons brought the ball up the court and called a play.

After directing some traffic, Joel Embiid came up to the three-point line and ran a simple pick-and-roll with Simmons. Simmons slashed past Marc Gasol to the rim and threw down a left-handed dunk.

For most teams, this simple high pick-and-roll would go unnoticed, a faint memory from a normal December win. For these Sixers, though, that play is symbolic of the team’s championship aspirations.

There has been much hand-wringing and alarm-sounding over the fit of Embiid and Simmons offensively. The concerns are justified, as Simmons and Embiid both do their best work around the basket. They are yin and bigger yin at times.

As of their win over the Raptors, the Sixers’ best offensive units have been the ones featuring Simmons, but not Embiid. The lineup of Simmons, Matisse Thybulle, James Ennis, Tobias Harris,and Al Horford has scored 114.9 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. That same lineup with exception of Furkan Korkmaz in for Thybulle has scored 117.7 points per 100 possessions. For comparison, the Sixers score 107.8 points per 100 possessions when the two young stars share the court.

The key to those Simmons-led lineups has been their pace. At their fastest, they have zoomed up and down the hardwood at a pace of 111.6 possessions per game, per NBA.com. That lineup, which is the Simmons-Thybulle-Ennis-Harris-Horford grouping, would rank first in the NBA by a mile in that category.

With Embiid on the court, playing at that pace is impossible. Lineups with Embiid have hovered around a pace of 98 or 99 possessions per game so far this season.

That is not knock on the star center; any player at his size would be a better fit for a slower game. This is just one example of the tricky fit between the two leaders of the franchise.

This wide gap was not present last season. The starting lineup used at the end of the 2018-19 run, which featured both Embiid and Simmons, ran at a pace of about 106 possessions per game, a number that would rank first in the NBA this season. Also, the offense stagnated when Embiid left the court last season. With Simmons on and Embiid off, the Sixers only could muster 108 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass.

The change this year can largely be attributed to the addition of Al Horford. Horford, who is now the starting power forward and backup center, has had a profound effect on the team’s offense and pace.

Firstly, he has proven to be an ideal partner for Simmons. Horford is a master at trailing the fastbreak for top the arc threes and also can be weaponized as a pick-and-pop partner against defenses who collapse on Simmons, like in this play against the Raptors.

Secondly, Horford as a power forward contributes to the snail’s pace that the team plays with their starters. The sheer size of that five-man unit makes running up and down the court counter to the advantages that they pose.

With Horford in tow, the differences between Simmons and Embiid are now amplified on the offensive end.

With Embiid and Simmons on the court together, the spacing predictably tightens. The cramped paint leads to turnover problems, as the Sixers’ turnover percentage jumps to nearly 18 percent when those two share the court, per Cleaning the Glass.

Minimizing those turnovers and piecing together a strong half-court offense will be key in the Sixers’ title hopes as the year goes on. They may need to get creative in order to do that considering the unique skillset.

Philadelphia head coach Brett Brown is aware of this. He is sure to use the regular season as a laboratory to experiment with the best possible sets when the two share the court.

One of those ways is to have Simmons space to the corner in half-court offensive sets. Brown didn’t mince words over the weekend when asked about Simmons’ second made three of the season, saying he wanted to see “one three-point shot a game,” from his star point guard.

Brown noted that the attempt itself is not only important, but it is the way it would open things up for the rest of Simmons’ game. Brown continued that the ability to attack the paint from that position would lead to dunks and free throws.

As of now, there are a lot of possessions like the one below. The ball gets entered to Embiid while Simmons lurks in the dunker spot on the opposite side of the basket. Most defenses simply collapse into the paint and force the kick out with ease, as the Indiana Pacers do here. The Sixers’ three shooters are located around the top of the arc, so defenders have a short distance to close out.

Simmons spacing to the corner on plays like this would make the Sixers much more difficult to defend. A few passes around the perimeter could lead to an open three or a drive to the rim when a defender closes out wildly.

There is also the step of involving Embiid and Simmons in more two-man actions. The most common two-man action in the NBA is, of course, the pick-and-roll.

Going back to the pick-and-roll at the beginning of this piece, the one thing that stands out immediately is the way Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is guarding Simmons. He is tight on Simmons all the way out five feet above the three-point line. That defense allows Simmons to get free with a head of steam to the basket.

Simmons will rarely see a player guard him that way all season. Most will sag to the foul line or deeper and be content drifting under ever pick. Basketball Insiders asked Brown about this specific play and what they could do going forward to get more actions like this, his response was detailed.

“It’s always been a wish to grow those two in pick-and-rolls,” Brown said. “It sounds good, in this room. But when you watch how the league is defending him, there’s nobody to screen. You have to go to different angles, like deep pick-and-rolls and I think they have had success out of that.”

The Sixers have dabbled in those deep pick-and-rolls this season. The play usually involves Simmons getting the ball on the mid-block, where Embiid sets the screen and Simmons moves toward the basket. The play usually results in a decent look for Simmons, as it does on the play here.

Unfortunately for the Sixers, Simmons has had a bit more trouble with those short hooks this season. His percentage in that area is down from 38 percent last season to 34 percent in this campaign, per Cleaning the Glass. This could be variance, as the season is still young.

Still, there are other ways to maximize their combined skills. Perhaps the Sixers try more actions with Simmons as a screener while Embiid plays the role of the dunker. There is also the possibility of more high-low action, weaponizing Simmons’ ability as a passer from the high post.

It is also important to mention the benefit of having two distinct styles. Having a team that can play multiple ways depending on personnel is an inherently good thing.

While the two make for an odd couple offensively, the situation is not as dire as it may seem. The pair operates at a plus-11.4 net rating when sharing the court, per Cleaning the Glass. When Embiid plays without Simmons, the net rating sits at plus-9.7, while that number is a plus-5.7 in the reverse scenario. When you further specify to view lineups with Simmons and Horford sans Embiid, that number jumps to plus-12.7.

These numbers can be attributed to the defensive side of the ball, where the two make for a destructive duo. Embiid has provided his usual rim-protection while Simmons has taken a leap on that end, locking down guards and wings alike while leading the league in steals.

If a few things are tightened up offensively, the Sixers could go from contender to favorite in the championship race.

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NBA

Buy Or Sell: Northwest Division

Matt John starts off Basketball Insiders’ latest series “Buy Or Sell” by taking a look at which teams in the Northwest Division will be buyers and sellers when the trading season commences.

Matt John

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The holidays are a joyous time — but particularly so for NBA junkies.

Christmas Day is one of the most highly-anticipated events for basketball fans everywhere. Not only do we get to see the best teams in the league face-off — but the best players in the league show themselves off on national television. Needless to say, there’s a lot to look forward to on Dec. 25.

Did you know, however, that there is one day that the NBA’s most devoted fans look forward to arguably even more than Christmas? If you didn’t, that day in mind is Dec. 15.

Sounds a little random at first, doesn’t it? Well, there’s a good reason for this. On that day, almost all of the players who agreed to new contracts over the summer become eligible to be traded. That means, almost everyone in the entire league is free game to acquire once that date rolls around.

With that moment mere days away, Basketball Insiders will take a look at which teams should consider upgrades and what franchises might be in sellers mode.

Today, we start with the Northwest Division.

Denver Nuggets (14-7) – Buyers

Does a team flip a script if they are still in the same place as they were last year? Ask the Nuggets.

Last year, the Nuggets attained the second seed because of their elite offense first and foremost. That hasn’t been the case this year. Denver is still one of the better teams in their conference, but their offense has fallen down the tubes, going from scoring 113 points per 100 possessions to 107.1. Their defense has made up the difference, as they’ve gone from allowing 108.9 points per 100 possessions to 102.5.

Their offensive woes should change, but their bench needs some offensive help. Denver’s starters are doing just fine as they are plus-11.6 when they’re on the floor together. But their second unit is a different story.

The Nuggets’ highest scorer off their bench is Jerami Grant, who scores 9.5 points a game. That’s adequate for a player like him, except Denver is minus-19.5 when he’s on the floor. Grant also does not have a reputation as a scorer, so the fact that he’s the bench’s highest bucket-getter is troubling.

Denver is tied for 18th in the league in three-point percentage although they are 22nd in three-point attempts a game – 30.6. What could give their bench a boost on that end is adding a pure three-point shooter on that end. Doing so could open up the floor a bit for them.

For now, the Nuggets’ needs aren’t all too pressing for them, but if these offensive woes as a team continue, something has to be done.

Minnesota Timberwolves (10-13) – Buyers (?)

Give credit to the Timberwolves. They’ve managed to be slightly better than everyone thought they would be. Karl-Anthony Towns continues his ascension into the league’s most offensively talented big. Andrew Wiggins has recouped a fair amount of the hype he’s lost over the last two years. As for the rest of their roster, well…

Minnesota has a team full of solid players outside of Towns and Wiggins. The best one among them obviously being Robert Covington, who, at his peak, is an elite role player. After him, it’s a roster full of solid rotation players that — sans Jarrett Culver and Josh Okogie — have reached their ceilings.

More likely than not, they’re not going to sell anyone — both because they don’t want to pull the plug on their best young players and their role players outside of Covington wouldn’t fetch much value. At the same time, they don’t really have the assets to get anyone that good. They’ll probably try like mad to get their hands on D’Angelo Russell, but they likely don’t have anything that Golden State would want.

Minnesota’s not particularly great on either side of the floor — 18th-rated offense/20th-rated defense — so of course, they could use personnel for both sides. Because they lack the assets right now, don’t expect them to make any head-turning moves.

Odds are, they’ll probably do nothing barring any unexpected jumps from anyone else not named Towns or Wiggins. So, technically, they’re more likely to be buyers but that’s because they don’t really have much to sell.

Oklahoma City Thunder (11-12) – TBD

See, the obvious choice here for Oklahoma City is to be sellers and for good reason, too. For starters, the Thunder have already sold off their superstars for lesser players and a hefty dose of youth. Overall, they’re strictly a middle-of-the-road team in a loaded Western Conference. The sooner they get rid of Chris Paul and his expensive contract, the better.

Better, in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, they already have the next face of the franchise. Beyond that, Oklahoma City has talented players who could fetch them more young value — so no one would blame them if they blew it up.

And yet, there’s so much to like about this team. They come to fight every night. They have enough manpower to compete with just about anyone. They’ve had their good stretches, though it’s pretty evened out by their bad stretches. Above all else, these guys look like they’re having fun playing together.

All reports indicate that Chris Paul is fully embracing his new role as the mentor of this young team. He probably would prefer playing for a contender, but he’s teaching this team how to win and they’re soaking it all in. The Thunder would be better off without him clogging up their cap, but he is bringing a positive influence in the locker room — that counts for something.

Whether they decide to really start from scratch depends on how desperate the interested parties would be in their players. They also have to ask how much would they honestly get for Danilo Gallinari, who’s been excellent, but is on an expiring contract.

The Thunder also have the rare opportunity to have their cake and eat it. They can put on a fun, winning team on the court while acquiring young players through the draft. Teams have formed winning cultures by going this route and it’s worked for them. Just ask Boston.

The more sensible direction for Oklahoma City is to blow it up and start fresh, but seeing how their current group does this season isn’t the worst idea, either.

Portland Trail Blazers (9-15) – Buyers

We already knew Portland would look into improving their roster when the season started. We just didn’t know how many wrenches were going to be thrown into their plans. It was bad enough for them to deal with Jusuf Nurkic’s unclear return date. Zach Collins hurting his shoulder early on hindered an already thin frontcourt — and now, Rodney Hood is done for the year at the very least.

Carmelo Anthony and Hassan Whiteside have done what they can — although the latter is guilty of falling into the same frustrating habits he had in Miami — but that’s not enough. The Trail Blazers currently have the 21st-rated defense, allowing 112.2 points per 100 possessions and their offense hasn’t been as efficient as it was last year. They went from scoring 114.7 points per 100 possessions to 109.6. Now that they’ve lost Hood, it’s going to be even harder to keep that up.

Their needs are clear as day: They need depth in the frontcourt or, more specifically, they need interchangeable wings. Portland losing Moe Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu has been very reminiscent of Houston losing Trevor Ariza and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute last year. Those lock-down assets gave so much cushion with their shooting, defense and versatility that replacing them hasn’t been easy.

That’s why the perfect candidate would be Marcus Morris. He’s a tweener three-four who should fit snugly in Hood’s role as the third off-ball scorer. Admittedly, Morris is a ball-stopper but still a reliable shooter that provides better defense than any of Portland’s other wings.

Further, Morris wold also gives Portland a headstrong personality that would benefit them both on and off the court.

But they will need more than just him. Whiteside’s mammoth expiring deal can be awfully useful in a trade, but if Nurkic isn’t the same guy when he comes back, it may not be the wisest decision to trade Hassan.

For Portland, we’ll get a better picture of things when February arrives.

Utah Jazz (13-11) – Buyers

Something is wrong in Utah. What’s been happening to them over the past week or so is not indicative of a bad stretch. It’s indicative of what they are as a team — broken.

While early-season struggles are a yearly tradition for Utah, this go-round feels different. Their offense isn’t as fluid as it’s been in the past and the defense has somehow taken a step back. The worst part is that the Jazz have seemingly lost their identity in that they don’t play as one unit anymore.

When they added Mike Conley Jr. and Bojan Bogdanovic — the talent may have come in, but the grit went out. Their mediocre start in spite of their new toys is garnering them comparisons to the 2018-19 Boston Celtics.

In order to avoid the same fate as that team, the Jazz must address their issues head-on. Plainly, the Jazz have one of the worst benches in the league. The disappearance of Joe Ingles’ three-pointer has hurt a lot, Utah has lacked scoring from the likes of Jeff Green, Emmanuel Mudiay, Dante Exum and Ed Davis — so the starters aren’t getting the support they need.

If they are serious about contending this year, they need a reliable scoring option in their second unit. Quin Snyder can stagger Donovan Mitchell and Bogdanovic’s minutes to help their bench, but they can only do so much on their own.

They also have to start asking themselves if they acquired Conley one year too late and — if they believe they have — decide what their next move is. Conley has fallen well short of expectations and his shot isn’t falling nearly as often as it once did. There’s still time for him to get his form back, but if it’s still the same story as it’s been these first two months, the Jazz may have to look for someone else.

It’s not pretty in Utah — and frankly, same for Portland and Minnesota as well — but there’s still time to salvage the season. As for Oklahoma City and Denver, they’ll need to evaluate just high their ceilings rise this season and act accordingly. Trade season only heats up from here — so stay tuned to Basketball Insiders for the other divisions this week.

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NBA Daily: Welcome To Trade Season

You may not be thinking about NBA trades until closer to February but trade season actually begins this Sunday, writes Douglas Farmer.

Douglas Farmer

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Trade season may conventionally be considered February’s territory in the NBA, but its start actually arrives Sunday. Of course, while trades could have come to life at any point in the last couple of months, as much as a third of the league has been off-limits to be moved.

Come Sunday, players who signed new contracts this past offseason can factor into negotiations.

So, unofficially, let D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle join Kevin Love in trade ponderings. The Cleveland Cavaliers forward has long been the cornerstone of the rumor mill — soon, he will have company.

While Love has become a mainstay in imagined trades, Russell and Randle will provide new ground to cover, though far from unexpected being each of their summer signings was met with immediate trade musings.

Love signing a four-year deal worth $120 million never fit with the Cavaliers’ innate youth movement. At the end of the deal, he will be 34. For these first few months, that has simply been a known reality, but now it becomes a distinct possibility. At some point, Cleveland will understandably want to find a frontcourt piece on a timeline more compatible with rookie guard Darius Garland and second-year guard Collin Sexton.

Russell’s arrival in the Bay Area always stood out as a redundancy once Klay Thompson gets healthy, while a market already existed for him in free agency — specifically via the Minnesota Timberwolves’ chase. That market was prevalent enough, the Golden State Warriors felt the need to quickly insist Russell was not a piece to flip no matter how worrisome having a fourth max contract player might be given the state of their bench.

And Randle’s three-year contract in New York was a bit of an anomaly during an offseason in which the Knicks otherwise signed a multitude of veterans to only one-year deals. In other words, he was the only new piece with long-term trade potential, while Bobby Portis, Marcus Morris and Taj Gibson would serve as nothing more than expiring contract rentals in a deal.

New York’s plan may have been to build around Randle, but this season’s first two months have made that less and less likely. Even after head coach David Fizdale’s firing, and maybe more so, the Knicks’ tailspin warrants a seller’s attitude. By no means are they alone in that regard — note the Cavaliers. The same can be said of the Chicago Bulls, where forward Thaddeus Young and guard Tomas Satoransky fit these same qualifications as Russell and Randle.

The layers of possibilities opened on Dec. 15 go further and further.

If the Orlando Magic do want to make a move for a backcourt scorer, perhaps the San Antonio Spurs’ DeMar DeRozan, then being able to include Terrence Ross and/or Al-Farouq Aminu could help along a deal. On the Spurs’ side of things, Rudy Gay, DeMarre Carroll and Trey Lyles will be trade eligible by the end of the weekend.

The majority of both the Sacramento Kings’ and the Dallas Mavericks’ rotations fit these parameters, one hoping to join the other in playoff contention. Teams trending the opposite way in the standings might try to pilfer those rotations for pieces and a draft pick in exchange for, as examples, the Atlanta Hawks’ Jabari Parker or the Charlotte Hornets’ Terry Rozier, both now tradeable.

Nearly any conversation comes back to Sunday’s opening limit. The Boston Celtics may be a strong frontcourt presence away from genuine contention. Their biggest name in the post, Enes Kanter, could not be moved until this weekend. Maybe flipping him with a pick could net the needed threat, — or maybe it would yield a defensive post piece, the opposite of Kanter.

To further this entire premise and pick a name not available just yet, Oklahoma City’s Nerlens Noel fits the thought. If the Celtics insisted the post piece have an offensive repertoire, they could do worse than the Memphis Grizzlies’ Jonas Valanciunas.

Four Houston Rockets’ wings were off the market until now, though Austin Rivers essentially remains untradeable given the nature of his contract. As Eric Pincus explained regarding the Los Angeles Lakers’ Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, some inherent no-trade clauses do exist.

Otherwise, every name mentioned thus far was exempt from honest discussion until now, aside from Love’s permanent role as trade talk fodder. If trade season both peaks and concludes in February, it logically needs a starting point. With or without Rivers and Caldwell-Pope, that starting point is Sunday when Kevin Love will not be alone in the conversation anymore.

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