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NBA Saturday: The Declining Eastern Conference

Buddy Grizzard looks at the talent drain on the Eastern Conference this offseason.

Buddy Grizzard



Lost amidst the Woj bombs and flashy moves during what is already an offseason packed with surprises — a mere 19 days after the Golden State Warriors won a second NBA championship in three seasons — is an ominous subtext for the East. With the Chicago Bulls trading franchise centerpiece Jimmy Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves prior to the draft and the Indiana Pacers shockingly sending Paul George to the Oklahoma City Thunder mere hours before today’s start of free agency, the Eastern Conference is experiencing a major talent drain.

That exodus of talent from the East to the West may not be over. Frank Isola of the New York Daily News reported before the start of free agency that a source close to Paul Millsap says the Denver Nuggets and Minnesota Timberwolves have emerged as frontrunners for the free agent power forward who made four All-Star appearances with the Atlanta Hawks. Sacramento and Phoenix are also in the mix, according to Isola’s tweet, so a move to the West could be in the works for another of the Eastern Conference’s best players.

If Millsap truly is Minnesota-bound, his former Hawks teammate Jeff Teague already beat him to the spot by agreeing to a three-year, $57 million contract with the Timberwolves, as first reported by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. Teague adds to the pile of former All-Stars moving West. Wojnarowski also broke the news this morning that Jrue Holiday has agreed to a five-year, $126 million deal to remain in New Orleans with the Pelicans. Holiday represented an opportunity for the Eastern Conference to get a former All-Star back from the West, but that door is now closed.

ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne, who broke the George trade, subsequently went on SportCenter to present a possible explanation for why the East is getting beat up during the current offseason. The George trade, which sent former Indiana Hoosier Victor Oladipo back to Indianapolis along with Domantas Sabonis, left many scratching their heads. The Boston Celtics were rumored to have made a massive offer for George, including multiple first round picks and one or more starting players. However, Shelburne said she heard the Pacers didn’t want to trade George to an Eastern Conference rival.

Boston and Chicago’s loss has been Timberwolves coach and GM Tom Thibodeau’s gain as he seeks to surround young centerpieces Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins with veteran stars. Thibodeau has already made a case as the early frontrunner for executive of the year, and he may not be done. Minnesota currently lacks the cap space to offer Millsap a max contract. Thibodeau got the Wolves closer to achieving that space by trading Ricky Rubio to the Utah Jazz yesterday for a top-14 protected first round pick in 2018, as reported by ESPN’s Marc Stein and Tim MacMahon. Longtime Timberwolves beat writer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune Jerry Zgoda tweeted a suggestion for how Minnesota could finish the job:

If Minnesota is truly that desperate to open space for Millsap — and Atlanta is ready to move on from him — the Hawks would be wise to make sure those outgoing assets are headed to Atlanta. Aldrich has two years remaining on his contract but only about $2 million of that is guaranteed for 2018-19. Hawks GM Travis Schlenk could likewise attempt to pry promising Serbian power forward Nemanja Bjelica away from the Timberwolves. Bjelica has struggled with injuries in his two seasons in Minnesota but won EuroLeague MVP in 2015. Such a scenario could be Atlanta’s last chance to avoid losing Millsap for nothing as it did with Al Horford in free agency last summer.

With Chicago, Indiana and possibly Atlanta on the decline, there could be a 50-win team that misses the playoffs in the West and a fifth or sixth seed in the East with a sub-.500 record next season. One beneficiary of the drop off for those Eastern teams could be the Charlotte Hornets, which missed the playoffs last season. Two of the biggest issues for the Hornets were the lack of athleticism and rim protection at the center position and the lack of reliable production from backup point guard Ramon Sessions. The Hornets justifiably declined Sessions’ team option, as reported by Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer. The team might see a major upgrade at the position from former Kentucky gunner Malik Monk, who could be one of the steals of the draft.

Be sure to bookmark Basketball Insiders’ Free Agency Diary and Free Agency Tracker to see if the trend continues of top talent heading to the Western Conference. This imbalance between the conferences is a frequent topic of debate regarding the state of the NBA, and 2017 free agency has only made the divide greater.

Buddy Grizzard has written for and BBallBreakdown and served as an editor for ESPN TrueHoop Network.


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PODCAST: Lonzo’s Shot, How To Cut Luol Deng and More

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Basketball Insiders publisher Steve Kyler and Senior NBA writer and salary cap guru Eric Pincus talk about Lonzo Ball and the unreasonable expectations some have had about his rookie campaign, what the Lakers could do with Luol Deng, teams that have cap exceptions and could likely use them, which teams are for real and more.

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Johnson Is Leading By Example In Philadelphia

Amir Johnson may not be a star player, but his impact on the locker room is a constant in Philadelphia.

Dennis Chambers



After every home win, the Philadelphia 76ers have a miniature liberty bell in their locker room that gets rung by a selected player, usually the who had the biggest impact on the game.

On Monday night, Amir Johnson got to the ring the bell after the Sixers beat the Utah Jazz 107-86 to secure their ninth win of the season. Johnson turned in his best performance since joining Philadelphia this offseason, with eight points, 13 rebounds and four blocks in 21 minutes of playing time as Joel Embiid’s substitute.

Up until about 45 minutes before the 7 p.m. tipoff, Embiid’s status was unclear due to knee soreness. Johnson would’ve been tasked with the starting role had his teammate been unable to perform. Instead, he fulfilled his backup role to perfection, which has been the status quo for Johnson so far this season.

When the Sixers signed Johnson to a one-year $11 million deal in July, it was for the purpose of shaping a young roster with some veteran leadership. Management wanted to ensure there would be a professional in the locker room to help navigate the likes of Embiid and Ben Simmons through a full NBA season, with hopes of making it to the playoffs.

“When we looked to build our roster and sort of identify people we started talking about Amir Johnson,” Brett Brown said. “And Bryan was way more familiar with Amir — this is to Bryan’s credit — than I was, because of his Toronto background. And I started digging in and calling his teammates. I’ve been in the league for a long time, so you follow him, and you speak to people like Evan Turner. You know, tell me about Amir when you were in Boston and so on.”

While Brown was doing his research on Johnson, he came across an impressive level of continuity when it came to how others viewed the center.

“It’s amazing to a man how consistent the reviews were,” Brown said of Johnson. “People skills, work his butt off, could handle swinging a towel or coming in and making a difference. He’s a good person and he’s a pro. To be able to bring him in the game and now worry about is he happy, is he fresh, is he in shape, does he need 10 shots? It isn’t ever on my mind with Amir.”

The Sixers’ head coach seems honest in his assessment, and Johnson’s fluctuating level of productivity and use reflects that. Prior to his big night against Utah, Johnson logged a combined 21 minutes over the team’s previous four games — including two DNP’s, both coming against the Golden State Warriors.

Still, just barely over a month into this new season, the Sixers are trying to iron out the kinks in their lineup. With injuries to Richaun Holmes, Markelle Fultz, Jerryd Bayless and Justin Anderson over the course of the season so far, finding a set group of guys and defining their roles has been a tricky situation to maneuver.

Last season, Johnson started 77 games for the Boston Celtics during their campaign that ran all the way to the Eastern Conference finals. His one start in 14 games this season, with a cut in minutes per game, is a far cry from the level of use Johnson experienced just one year ago. But coming into this season, that was known. Johnson’s role would be to help guide his junior counterparts and chip in where he could.

So far, the deal is paying dividends on both ends.

“It’s huge for us,” Simmons said. “Having a guy come off the bench and play a role like that. As a vet, he’s one of the leaders. He comes in, plays hard, doesn’t ask for more minutes or anything like that. He’s a great player.”

In a game that featured the absence of Jazz star center Rudy Gobert, Johnson was able to make his presence more prevalent during his reserve minutes. Along with his four blocks, Johnson had a game-high 15 contested two-point shots. As a team, Utah shot just 35.3 percent from the field.

Backing up a superstar in the making in Embiid, Johnson has limited time to let it be known that he’s still around. That situation is magnified on nights that Holmes is seeing extended run as well. But in his 13th season in the league, Johnson knows a thing or two about finding ways to be effective and efficient.

“Finding my way on the floor, knowing the amount of time I have, just finding ways I can help my teammates,” Johnson said. “I watch a lot of film. Just for me to find open spots, set screens, and the biggest part that I can help this team out, is just play defense and grabbing rebounds.”

On the nights where Johnson doesn’t get his number called — a la games against the Warriors and other small-ball teams — the veteran just continues to do what he was brought in to do in the first place, lead by example.

“Just sticking to my routine,” Johnson said. “Being mentally prepared, getting my teammates ready, just being a professional, doing all kind of things to prepare for a game.”

After being around the come up in Boston, Johnson knows there are bigger things at stake for the Sixers than a few minutes here and there on the court. To him, winning is the only thing that matters.

“When you don’t play and you win, man it’s like and that’s all that matters,” Johnson said. “We’re here to try and do one goal, and that’s win games and make the playoffs, and go from there on.”

Whether he’s on the bench waving a towel, or on the court making a play, Johnson will continue to lead a young group of talented players by example, hopefully culminating in a trip to the playoffs.

“He is a legitimate pro, on and off the court,” Brown said. “He’s a wonderful teammate.”

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NBA PM: Marcus Morris’ Return Bolsters The Celtics

With the Boston Celtics riding high with a league-best 16-game win streak, the return of forward Marcus Morris has provided a lift.

Buddy Grizzard



Boston Celtics GM Danny Ainge made a huge personnel gamble this summer that changed four starters from a roster that reached the Eastern Conference Finals. One of the less-heralded among the new starters — forward Marcus Morris, who arrived from the Pistons in a surprise trade for starting shooting guard Avery Bradley — has proven to be a key component in Boston’s early success.

After missing the first eight games of the season due to lingering knee soreness, Morris has scored in double figures in six of nine appearances. Following Saturday’s win over the Hawks in Atlanta — the 15th of the current 16-game win streak — Celtics coach Brad Stevens said Morris’ contributions have been vital, even as Stevens continues to monitor his minutes.

“We need Marcus quite a bit,” said Stevens. “We’re still managing his minutes appropriately as he comes back. Hopefully, that continues to be more and more and more.”

Morris was plus-18 against the Hawks, 10 points better than any other starter, despite being the only starter with single-digit shot attempts. Stevens added that Morris’ offense has been a boost despite few plays being run for him.

“He brings us scoring, he brings us defense [and] he brings us toughness,” said Stevens. “I think we really need his scoring, like his ability to shoot the ball both off broken plays and off movement.”

Morris’ emergence as an offensive threat was noted in the offseason by an Eastern Conference forward in an anonymously-sourced piece on underrated players by HoopsHype’s Alex Kennedy.

“I think Marcus Morris is really underrated,” the forward told Kennedy. “He can play multiple positions and he went from being a role player to someone who scores the ball really well. When other players have made that leap, they got more attention. Take Chandler Parsons, for example. When Chandler made big strides, he got a ton of attention and a huge contract. Marcus hasn’t gotten the recognition or the payday that he deserves.”

While some questioned the wisdom of trading Bradley, a starter for a team that had a lot of success and remained on the rise, Celtics center Al Horford — the sole remaining starter from last season — said he was looking forward to playing with Morris once the trade was announced.

“He’s one of the guys that really excited me once we got him this offseason, just because of everything he’s going to be able to bring,” said Horford. “I don’t think he’s at his best yet. He’s doing okay. But he’s just going to keep getting better. So that’s a good thing for us.”

With the knee injury that lingered after the start of the season, Horford said the team is still getting accustomed to the diverse set of tools Morris brings to the court.

“Marcus is great,” said Horford. “Defensively, his presence is felt. On offense I think he’s finally starting to get into a rhythm. He’s getting more comfortable [and] we’re getting more comfortable with him. It’s a matter of time.”

While Stevens and Horford both feel that we haven’t seen Morris at his best, his return to action was timely as it bolstered the lineup during the current win streak. Horford, who was part of a 19-game win streak for the Hawks during the 2014-15 season, was asked how Boston is approaching its current prosperity. Horford said that, like his former Hawks team, the Celtics are avoiding the subject in the locker room.

“We’re not honestly really talking about it much,” said Horford. “That winning streak here was pretty special. We were playing at a high level. We didn’t talk about it here either and we’re taking that type of approach. We’re just playing and enjoying the game out there.”

With Boston carrying the current streak into a Wednesday visit to Miami, Ainge’s surprising trade for Marcus Morris is looking more and more prescient. If his best is yet to come, as his coach and teammates maintain, the recognition that has elluded Morris could be just around the corner.

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