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NBA Sunday: Keep An Eye on July

Will Dwight Howard, Derrick Rose, Carmelo Anthony, Blake Griffin and Kevin Love be on the move this summer?

Moke Hamilton

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Is it time for the Chicago Bulls to trade Derrick Rose? Can the Cleveland Cavaliers win with Kevin Love? Should Doc Rivers consider trading Blake Griffin? Will the Houston Rockets re-sign Dwight Howard?

Typically, during the season, we pay very close attention to the February trade deadline, as it is the final chance for a fringe contender to make a move that puts themselves over the top. However, with all that we are seeing unfold before our very eyes, this summer may be one of unprecedented movement. There are a number of teams that have a lot at stake and may opt to make a move or two, depending on how things shake out.

And in the end, that is one of the greatest things about the National Basketball Association: you simply have to watch. The same can be said for all professional sports, of course, but before the 2015-16 season began, if someone were willing to bet you that not one of the Houston Rockets, New Orleans Pelicans, Washington Wizards and Chicago Bulls would make the playoffs, how quickly would you have taken the bet?

If one were to tell you that the Los Angeles Clippers would have proven to be a pretty good team even without Blake Griffin or that LeBron James would have told the public that he would rather be playing with Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade as opposed to Love and Kyrie Irving, would you have believed that?

How did we even get here?

And more importantly, where do we go now?

Dwight Howard

When Dwight Howard decided to take his talents to Houston during the summer of 2013, he did so with the expectation that Kevin McHale, James Harden and Hakeem Olajuwon would help him get to the next level in his career. Howard’s decision to sign a four-year, $88 million contract with the Rockets saw him leave about $30 million in guaranteed money on the table. At the time, the thought was that Howard would sign his four-year contract with an opt-out clause after the third year. With his Bird rights fully vested, the hope was that Howard would re-sign a new five-year, maximum contract with the Rockets when he was eligible.

Today, that seems like a long shot. Earlier this season, rumors and reports surfaced that Howard and the Rockets were not exactly seeing eye-to-eye, and it was well documented and chronicled that he was being shopped at the deadline.

With free agency approaching for Howard and a rising salary cap, it is possible that he is nearing the end of his Rockets career. At this point, what the Rockets need to determine is what exactly they feel Howard is worth and whether or not he can still be a key contributor to a championship team. Objectively speaking, it certainly appears as though his better days are behind him, but who knows what a fresh start may bring. Remember: we once said the same thing about Pau Gasol and Rajon Rondo.

Blake Griffin

The Los Angeles Clippers have been deemed a legitimate contender for the past few years and seemed to have gotten an infusion of talent and leadership this season. Unfortunately, Blake Griffin hasn’t exactly shown that he has grown to the point where he can be fully depended on.

Heading into this season, there were some around the Clippers organization that felt that if the existing core wasn’t able to get over the hump this season, that Doc Rivers would look to make drastic changes. Chris Paul has proven to be more durable than many thought he would be at this point in his career, but as he closes in on his 31st birthday, Rivers needs to—and probably does—understand that Paul isn’t getting any younger.

As it relates to Griffin, there are some that feel that he is still one of the top power forwards in the game, while there are others that feel that his lack of a post-up game may be fatal to the Clippers’ odds of overthrowing the Golden State Warriors atop the Western Conference.

There probably isn’t a team more eager to begin the postseason than the Clippers, and there isn’t anyone more eager to see what Rivers opts to do with his franchise if they don’t end up walking away with some evidence of progression.

The Chicago Bulls

There’s a thin line between dynasty and dud, and the Bulls have slowly but surely learned that. After sending Tom Thibodeau on his way, and years after the cast of Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer and Omer Asik had the team in the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals and doing battle with the Miami HEAT, fans of the Bulls can only ask themselves what went wrong since then.

Now, as the 2016 NBA Playoffs are set to begin and the Bulls have, surprisingly, not secured a spot, the only question that matters now is where the franchise goes from here.

We have heard of some passing rumors surrounding both Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler. The bottom line for this team is that they are not closer to winning than they were five years ago, and although Rose has shown some signs of improvement over the past few years, he is still nowhere near the player he was when he became the youngest MVP in league history.

If the Bulls fail to make the playoffs this season, it will be obvious that some drastic changes are needed in Chicago. I would expect the front office to reassess their commitment to Fred Hoiberg and then follow suit with Rose.

LeBron James

Truth be told, LeBron James probably enjoys being the center of attention. A simple maneuver such as unfollowing the Cavaliers franchise on social media caused an unnecessary stir, but James did little to help quiet the speculation. Because James has traditionally kept his moves and his thoughts to himself, it has caused those of us in the media to have to read tea leaves to try to figure out his mindset.

With the Cavaliers closing in on their second straight regular season Eastern Conference title and James attempting to reach the NBA Finals for a sixth consecutive year, he added a bit more flame to the fire by suggesting that he wanted to play with Carmelo Anthony.

Anthony is currently under contract with the New York Knicks, but with that team facing question about its future, it’s quite possible that Anthony could seek a trade this summer.

What makes this situation even more intriguing, though, is the fact that James will likely opt out of the final year of his contract and become a free agent this summer. In doing so, James has the ability to structure his next contract in a way that is beneficial to the Cavaliers, ask for a five-year, maximum contract, or go to a new team all together.

That’s the beauty of following LeBron James—you simply never know what he’s thinking. Everything is always seemingly in play.

* * * * * *

With the way this season has played out, it is difficult to imagine anyone other than the Golden State Warriors or San Antonio Spurs winning the championship. And with teams like the Rockets and Knicks seemingly regressing since adding Howard and Anthony, respectively, we may be on the precipice of a summer that is marked by blockbuster moves and high-profile acquisitions.

In the end, as we approach the 2016 NBA Playoffs with the Warriors proving that they are head and shoulders above the rest of the league, we may end up witnessing more drama unfold this summer than we will leading up to it.

Moke Hamilton is a Deputy Editor and Columnist for Basketball Insiders.

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NBA Daily: Surging HEAT Must Overcome Adversity

The Miami HEAT have been hit with a number of injuries at shooting guard. Can they stay hot?

Buddy Grizzard

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The Miami HEAT have surged to fourth in the Eastern Conference on the back of a 14-5 stretch since Dec. 9, including a seven-game win streak that ended with Monday’s 119-111 loss to the Bulls in Chicago. In the loss, shooting guard Tyler Johnson got his legs tangled with Robin Lopez and appeared to suffer a serious injury.

“I was scared,” said HEAT small forward Josh Richardson, who joined his teammates in racing down the court to check on Johnson. “You never want to see a guy, whether it’s on your team or the other team, down like that. I talked to him when he was in here [the locker room] and he said he didn’t know what was up.”

Coach Erik Spoelstra told pool reporters after the game that X-rays were negative. It was initially feared to be a knee injury, but Spoelstra said the knee is okay and the ankle is the area of concern. Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel tweeted that an MRI was not deemed necessary and Johnson will be listed as doubtful for Wednesday’s game in Milwaukee.

Meanwhile, the HEAT is facing a serious shortage at shooting guard, having lost Dion Waiters to season-ending knee surgery, Rodney McGruder to a left tibia stress fracture that will likely keep him out until February, and now Johnson. Miami has applied for a $5.5 million disabled player exception after losing Waiters, according to the Sun-Sentinel. HEAT power forward James Johnson said the team will be looking for other players to step up.

“I think it’s the next guy’s gonna step up like we always do,” said Johnson. “As we have guys going down we also have guys getting back and getting back in their groove [like] Justise Winslow. Hopefully, it’s going to give another guy a chance to emerge on this team or in this league.”

Johnson added that the loss to Chicago came against a hot team and the HEAT didn’t have the right mental approach or defensive communication to slow them down.

“Our communication was lacking tonight,” said Johnson. “I think our brains rested tonight and that’s not like us. Tilt your hat to Chicago. They’re shooting the hell out the ball. They didn’t let us come back.”

Richardson echoed the theme of communication and the inability to counter a hot-shooting team.

“We weren’t communicating very well and we were not giving them enough static on the three-point line,” said Richardson. “They’ve been the number one three-point shooting team in the league for like 20 games now. They ran some good actions that we were not reacting right to.”

Spoelstra referred to a turnover-riddled close to the first half as “disgusting” basketball and agreed that the defense let his team down.

“I don’t know what our record is in HEAT franchise history when we give up 120-plus,” said Spoelstra. “I would guess that it’s probably not pretty good.”

The good news for Miami is that it can try a combination of Richardson and Winslow at the wings, while Wayne Ellington has been shooting the leather off the ball from three this season (40.5 percent on over seven attempts per game). The HEAT is the latest team to attempt to defy history by making a serious run without a superstar player. To make that a reality and remain in the upper half of the East’s playoff bracket, Miami will have to personify the “next man up” credo.

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NBA Daily: Is It Time To Cash Out On Kemba Walker?

Should the Hornets get serious about trading Kemba Walker or risk losing him in 2019 for next to nothing?

Steve Kyler

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Is It Time To Sell?

Every professional sports team at some point has to decide when its time to cash out, especially if they have a star player heading towards free agency. The Charlotte Hornets are a team teetering on this decision with star guard Kemba Walker.

Now, let’s be honest for a moment. The Hornets are getting nothing of meaningful value in a trade for Walker if they decided to put him on the trade market—that’s something that will drive part of the decision. Check out these UK sports books with free bets!

The other part of the decision is evaluating the marketplace. This is where Charlotte may have an advantage that’s easy to overlook, which is the ability to massively overpay.

Looking ahead to the cap situations for the NBA in the summer of 2019, there doesn’t appear to be a lot worth getting excited over. While it’s possible someone unexpected goes into cap clearing mode to get space, the teams that project to have space in 2019 also project to have space in 2018, meaning some of that 2019 money could get spent in July and change the landscape even more.

But for the sake of discussion, let’s assume most of the 2019 cap space teams swing and miss on anything meaningful this summer and have flexibility the following summer. Not only will Walker be a name to watch, but guys like Boston’s Kyrie Irving, Minnesota’s Jimmy Butler, Golden State’s Klay Thompson, Dallas’ Harrison Barnes, Detroit’s Tobias Harris, San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard and Cleveland’s Kevin Love can all hit unrestricted free agency.

That’s a pretty respectable free agent class.

While most of those names will likely stay where they are, especially if their teams shower them with full max contracts as most would expect, there are a few names that might make the market interesting.

The wrinkle in all of it is the teams projected to have space. Based on what’s guaranteed today, the top of the 2019 cap space board starts with the LA Clippers.

The Clippers currently have just Blake Griffin and Danilo Gallinari under contract going into 2019. They will have qualifying offers on Milos Teodosic and Sam Dekker, but that’s about it. If the Clippers play their cards right, they could be looking at what could be close to $48 million in usable cap space, making them the biggest threat to poach a player because of the LA marketplace. It should be noted, though, that DeAndre Jordan’s situation will have an impact here.

The Chicago Bulls come in second on the 2019 cap space list with just $35.77 million in cap commitments. The problem for the Bulls is they are going to have to start paying their young guys, most notably Zach LaVine. That’s won’t stop the Bulls from getting to cap space, it’s simply a variable the Bulls have to address this summer that could get expensive.

The Philadelphia 76ers could come in third on the 2019 cap space list, although it seems the 76ers may go all in this summer on re-signing guard J.J. Redick and a swing at a big fish or two. If the 76ers miss, they still have an extension for Ben Simmons to consider, but that shouldn’t impact the ability to get to meaningful space.

For the Hornets, those three situations have to be a little scary, as all of themff something Charlotte can’t offer – big markets and rosters (save maybe the Clippers) with potentially higher upside.

The next group of cap space markets might get to real salary cap room, but its more likely they spend this summer like say the Houston Rockets or are equal to less desirable situations like Sacramento (similar), Dallas (has Dennis Smith Jr), Atlanta (similar) or Phoenix (likely drafts a point guard).

That brings us back to the Hornets decision making process.

If the Hornets put Walker on the market, historically, teams get pennies on the dollar for high-level players headed to free agency. If traded, its more likely than not that Walker hits free agency and goes shopping. That’s the scary part of trading for an expiring contract unless you get the player early enough for him to grow attached to the situation, most players explore options. That tends to drive down the potential return.

The Hornets can also start extension discussions with Walker and his camp this summer and it seems more likely than not the Hornets will pay Walker the full max allowed under the collective bargaining agreement, which could be a deal north of $150 million and he could ink that in July.

It’s possible that someone offers the Hornets the moon for Walker. That has happened in the past. The Celtics gave the Cavaliers a pretty solid return for Irving, a player the Cavaliers had to trade. So it’s not out of the question real offers come in, especially with the NBA trade deadline approaching, but what’s far more likely is the Hornets wait out this season and try to extend Walker this summer.

League sources at the G-League Showcase last week, doubted that any traction could be had on Walker while admitting he’s a name to watch, despite however unlikely a trade seemed today.

The challenge for the Hornets isn’t as simple as cashing out of Walker, not just because the return will be low, but also because where would the franchise go from here?

It’s easy to say re-build through the draft, but glance around the NBA today – how many of those rebuild through the draft situations are yielding competitive teams? How many of them have been rebuilding for five years or more?

Rebuilding through the draft is a painfully slow and frustrating process that usually costs you a coach or two and typically a new front office. Rebuilding through the draft is time consuming and usually very expensive.

It’s easier to rebuild around a star already in place and the fact that Walker himself laughs off the notion of him being anywhere but Charlotte is at least a good sign and the Hornets have some time before they have to really make a decision.

At some point, Charlotte has to decide when to cash out. For the Hornets, the time to make that decision on Walker might be the February 8 trade deadline. It might also be July 1, when they’ll know whether Walker would sign a max contract extension.

If he won’t commit then, the Hornets have their answer and can use the summer to try an extract a package similar to what the Cavaliers got for Irving.

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Cavs Woes Reason For Concern, But Not Dismissal

Spencer Davies takes a look at the Cavs’ issues and why we shouldn’t count them out just yet.

Spencer Davies

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The Cleveland Cavaliers are the classic case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

When they’re on, they look like the defending three-time Eastern Conference Champions. When they’re off, they look like an old team that’s worn down and, at times, disinterested—and it gets ugly.

Take this past three weeks for example. After going on a tear of 18 wins in 19 games, the Cavs have dropped eight of 11 and are falling fast. Two of those three victories in that stretch were decided by four points or less against bottom-of-the-barrel teams in the East.

So what happened? For one, the schedule got significantly tougher. Beyond just the level of competition, Cleveland has been on the road for a long while. Nine of the games in this recent down period have been away games. The only time they’ve been home was for a quick second in mid-December and a short stay for New Years.

You’ve got to think about how that affects a psyche, not only from an on-court standpoint but also in regard to spending time with loved ones and family. LeBron James brought attention to his own homesickness on Christmas Day while he was in the Bay Area instead of in Northeast Ohio to celebrate the holidays. If it gets to him, you know it’s got to get to the other players as well. These guys are human beings with lives, and the rigors of travel can wear differently on people. Luckily for them, seven of their next nine games will be at Quicken Loans Arena.

With that being said, everybody in the NBA goes through it, so it’s no excuse for how flat the Cavs have been. Anybody on the team will tell you that, too. However, when you’re figuring out rotations and re-implementing players who had injuries, it’s not easy. This is exactly why nobody should envy Tyronn Lue.

He’s being asked to make room in his rotations and adjust on the fly as Cleveland gets guys back. When they went on that month-long run, the reason they had success was that the second unit really clicked. Dwyane Wade found his niche as the maestro of the bench bunch along with any mixture of Kyle Korver, Jeff Green, Cedi Osman, Channing Frye, and Jae Crowder. Lue had found the perfect group to spell LeBron James and company.

But then, Tristan Thompson came back and, with all due respect, it messed with their flow. The spacing is no longer there for Wade or Green to penetrate because the paint is clogged. It makes it easier on opposing defenses to just stick to Korver because there aren’t any other threatening shooters on the floor (besides Osman, maybe). Worst of all, the change basically kicked Frye—who has a plus-14 net rating, according to Cleaning The Glass—out of the rotation completely.

Deciding who plays and when is a tough job. Derrick Rose is set to come back soon. Iman Shumpert is coming along as well. Lue likes a 10-man rotation, but there are at least 12 players who deserve to be on that court. We already know Rose is expected to commandeer the second unit in Wade’s absence on back-to-backs. As for if Shumpert remains in Cleveland, who knows? It’ll be interesting to keep an eye on how this situation is managed moving forward.

Isaiah Thomas, on the other hand, is somebody the Cavs have been waiting on to return since the season started. Despite LeBron being LeBron and Kevin Love having as great of an offensive year as he’s ever had on the team, the starting unit lacks an extra punch. Thomas can be that shot in the arm, and he proved that in his debut at home against Portland and on the road in Orlando. There are two snags that both he and the team are going to hit before the 29-year-old returns to his All-Star form: 1) He’s got to get his legs under him to regain the consistency in his game and 2) His teammates are going to have to adjust to playing with him.

These are not easy things to do. Remember, aside from Jae Crowder, there is nobody on Cleveland’s roster that has played with Thomas before. Add in that he’s trying to re-discover his own game and that makes for a pretty bumpy road, at least out of the gate.

Start here—put Thompson in the starting lineup. As poor of a fit he’s been on the bench, he has shown promising signs of a developing chemistry with Thomas. It’s only been four games, but he loves having a partner in the pick-and-roll game. That’s clearly where you’ll get the most production out of him and how he can thrive. He’ll provide hustle, second chance opportunities, and a semi-decent big that can at least bother some of the competition’s drives to the basket. Sliding Love over to the four might change his game a little bit, but you can still get him going in the post before giving him chances as a shooter to work him outside-in.

The resulting effect helps the second unit as well. They’ll get one of either J.R. Smith or Crowder, depending on who would be relegated there. Both of those guys can use a spark to get them going. Because of Crowder’s familiarity with Thomas, let’s say Smith gets kicked out. Maybe that gets him out of the funk he’s in? It also allows for Frye, who hasn’t seen more than 20 minutes in a game since December 4, to get re-acclimated to a group he truly helped on both ends of the floor earlier in the year.

Outside of the need to make a move at the deadline, the Cavs can figure this out. It’s understood that they’re the fourth-worst defensive team in the NBA, but they’ve gone through these kinds of ruts at this time of year, specifically since LeBron came back. There might not be statistical evidence backing up the claim of any improvement, but the track record speaks for itself.

The panic button is being hit, but pump the brakes a bit. This isn’t anything new. The pieces are a little different and things look as bad as they ever have, but in the end, the result will likely be the same.

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