This week we’ve been taking a look around the league, division by division, at players that may be on the move in our Deadline Watch series. So far we’ve covered the Southeast, Pacific and Northwest divisions. Today, we take a closer look at the Central Division.
The Central is headlined by two of the tougher teams in the East in the Chicago Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers. Both made big splashes this off-season with aspirations of a championship run. Elsewhere in the division, the Bucks look to remain in the playoff picture with the Pistons pushing to join them. Lastly the Pacers will have some big decisions to make and could see significant roster moves prior to the deadline.
With that said let’s take a closer look at each team and their current situation…
Expiring deals: Shawn Marion and James Jones
Potentially expiring deals: LeBron James (Player Option), Kevin Love (Player Option), J.R. Smith (Player Option), Timofey Mozgov (Team Option), Tristan Thompson (Restricted), Mike Miller (Player Option), Iman Shumpert (Restricted), Brendan Haywood (Non-Guaranteed) and Matt Dellavedova (Restricted).
Could be shopped: Brendan Haywood and Joe Harris.
After a slow start the Cavs decided they weren’t going to wait until the trade deadline to make some major changes. First, the team shipped out erratic scorer Dion Waiters, sending him to Oklahoma City in a three-team deal that netted Cleveland J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert. Just two days later the Cavs went out and got Timofey Mozgov, adding a much needed interior defender to their frontcourt.
Those moves have really started to pay dividends over the last couple weeks, as the Cavs have strung together nine-straight wins. Having Mozgov down low has added a different dimension and really helped them protect the paint.
Looking ahead the Cavs will have their sights set on a title. They have addressed many of the holes in their roster already, but even so may not be done yet. Adding depth at point guard is one area the Cavs make look to improve. Matt Dellavedova has been the primary option behind Kyrie Irving, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Cavs attempt to bring in a more experienced player to serve as their backup point guard. However, their roster is lacking in terms of tradable pieces. Brendan Haywood is expendable and has a uniquely-structured contract that could be valuable for a team looking to cut salary. Alone, though, he won’t net much. Rookie Joe Harris has fallen out of the Cavs’ rotation and is a prospect that may draw some interest. It’s unlikely the Cavs would move any of their veteran bench players, many who followed LeBron James to Cleveland to make a run at a title.
Expiring deals: Mike Dunleavy, Nazr Mohammed and Aaron Brooks
Potentially expiring deals: Kirk Hinrich (Player Option), Jimmy Butler (Restricted), E’Twaun Moore (Non-Guaranteed) and Cameron Bairstow (Non-Guaranteed)
Could be shopped: Tony Snell
The Bulls, like the Cavs, went into this season with the goal of a deep playoff run. They added Pau Gasol over the summer, pairing him alongside Joakim Noah, to form one of the top frontcourts in the East. Gasol has been everything the Bulls could have hoped for. He has the highest PER on the team at 22.1, is the leading rebounder (12.2) and third leading scorer (18.2). Derrick Rose has finally been able to stay healthy for the majority of the season and Jimmy Butler has exploded onto the scene, averaging career best numbers across the board.
Everything seemed to be going according to plan during the first 33 games season, the Bulls were 23-10 and looked again to be one of the top teams in the East. It was in the 33rd game of the season when Mike Dunleavy went down with an ankle injury and has been sidelined ever since. During Dunleavy’s 16 game absence the Bulls have a record of just 7-9, struggling without their starting small forward. The injury to Dunleavy has exposed the Bulls’ lack of depth on the wing and it’s one issue they may seek to correct prior to the trade deadline. Without Dunleavy their offense has bogged down due to their inability to spread the floor. Coach Thibodeau has experimented with a number of different lineup combinations, but has been unable to find a regular replacement for Dunleavy. Tony Snell has played inconsistent minutes throughout the season and been unable to prove that he is the answer behind Dunleavy. Adding another wing that can regularly knock down shots from the outside is something that could really help the Bulls going forward.
Expiring deals: Kendall Marshall
Potentially expiring deals: Jared Dudley (Early Termination), Brandon Knight (Restricted) and Khris Middleton (Restricted)
Could be shopped: Ersan Ilyasova
After finishing last year with just 15 wins, not much was expected of the Bucks this season. Sure, they have some nice young pieces, but most anticipated they would finish near the bottom of the Eastern Conference once again and be sellers at the trade deadline. However, at 24-22, the Bucks shockingly seem destined for a playoff berth.
The Bucks surprising start has changed their outlook from the start of the season. Going into to this season priority number one was the development of the team’s young talent, most importantly the growth of Jabari Parker and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Although Parker has been lost for the season, new head coach Jason Kidd has done a good job giving significant minutes to the younger players on the roster while still building a winning culture. With the playoffs on the horizon, don’t expect the Bucks to be as eager to move some of their veteran contributors. O.J Mayo, Jared Dudley and Jerryd Bayless have combined to form one of the best benches in the league and have been a major reason behind the Bucks’ turnaround.
One player that had been the subject of trade rumors during the offseason was Ersan Ilyasova. His ability to stretch the floor from the four spot makes him a desirable commodity throughout the league. However, again, while the Bucks may have made Ilyasova available in the past, following their strong start and likely playoff berth they may want to keep their current group together and see how things play out.
Expiring deals: Greg Monroe, Jonas Jerebko and Joel Anthony
Potentially expiring deals: Caron Butler (Non-Guaranteed), Anthony Tolliver (Non-Guaranteed), Luigi Datome (Restricted), Cartier Martin (Player Option) and Kyle Singler (Restricted)
Could be shopped: Luigi Datome, Jonas Jerebko and Greg Monroe.
The start of the season couldn’t have gone much worse for Stan Van Gundy and the Pistons. They were 3-14 at the end of November with little hope of salvaging their season. Less than a month later the Pistons made a move that seemingly gave them new life, releasing Josh Smith just over a year after signing him to a lucrative four-year, $54 million dollar deal.
Following the release of Smith the Pistons went on a tear, vaulting themselves back into playoff contention. Unfortunately their resurgence took a major hit last Sunday when Brandon Jennings suffered a torn Achilles tendon. Jennings had been playing some of the best basketball of his career during the Pistons recent run. In January Jennings averaged 20.9 points and 7.2 assists with a true shooting percentage of 55.9.
The loss of Jennings leaves the Pistons shorthanded at point guard. D.J. Augustin has been moved into the starting lineup and been forced to play heavy minutes in Jennings’ absence. Outside of Augustin the Pistons don’t have any other options with experience playing point guard. If they want to continue their pursuit for one final playoff spots in the East adding another point guard will be crucial.
With Caron Butler, Jodie Meeks, Jonas Jerebko, Luigi Datome, Spencer Diwiddie and Cartier Martin, their bench is flush at the with wings. Two names that have been rumored to be on the block are Jerebko and Datome. It’s unlikely that either Jerebko or Datome would bring much back in return alone, but if the Pistons do make a trade one of the two, if not both, will almost certainly be part of the package. The Pistons will surely receive calls on Greg Monroe. While it seemed very possible he would be moved earlier in the year it now appears likely that the Monroe will finish the season with the Pistons. Even if the Pistons were to agree to deal Monroe, he has the ability to veto any trade. Not only that, but the risk of losing Monroe in free agency would play a major factor for any team considering acquiring the Piston big man.
Expiring deals: Luis Scola, C.J. Watson, Donald Sloan, Lavoy Allen and Rodney Stuckey
Potentially expiring deals: Roy Hibbert (Player Option), David West (Player Option), Chris Copeland (Restricted) and Shayne Whittington (Restricted)
Could be shopped: David West, Chris Copeland, Roy Hibbert, Luis Scola, Rodney Stuckey and C.J. Watson.
Of all the teams in the Central the Pacers may be the most active at the deadline. Despite being just three games out of the eight seed in the East, their chances of making the playoffs are slim. They have a number of experienced players who could be immediate contributors on a playoff team.
The biggest name that could be on the move is center Roy Hibbert. Hibbert has been a vital part of the Pacers’ success of the last couple years, but his time in Indianapolis may soon come to an end. His contract includes a player option to remain with the team through 2015-16 worth $15.51 million, however there is a chance Hibbert will forgo that money in search of a long-term deal this offseason. The Pacers certainly must weigh the possibility of Hibbert opting out as the deadline inches closer. The issue for any team considering making a trade offer for Hibbert will be whether they can sign him to a long-term deal. Even with the possibility of losing Hibbert after this season the Pacers are not just going to sell him for pennies on the dollar.
As you can see, Hibbert isn’t the only Pacer that could be moved. Both David West and Luis Scola could provide immediate help to a team with an undermanned frontcourt. Similarly, C.J. Watson and Rodney Stuckey are both very experienced guards who could help team lacking backcourt depth. Larry Bird will certainly be a busy man over the next weeks and has some big decisions to make in the near future.
The trade deadline is always one of the most exciting times of the year in the NBA. It’s the last chance for potential playoff teams to strengthen their roster, while at the same time an opportunity for rebuilding teams to improve their future. The Central Division has teams that fall on both sides of the equation. Are the Cavs done dealing? Will the Bucks keep their current group together? Who’s staying and who’s going in Indianapolis? Do the Bulls have the pieces to acquire a wing? Can the Pistons find help at point guard? We’ll have an answer to all these questions and many more around the league come February 19.
Reviewing the Nurkic Trade: Denver’s Perspective
The Denver Nuggets have been on a miraculous run this postseason, but that doesn’t mean that they’re infallible. Drew Maresca reviews the 2017 trade that sent Jusuf Nurkic from Denver to Portland.
The Denver Nuggets are fresh off of a 114-106 win over the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, pulling within three wins of the franchise’s first trip to the NBA Finals. But what if I told you that the Nuggets’ roster could be even more talented by acting more deliberately in a trade from three years ago?
While Denver won on Tuesday night, they lost a nail bitter on Sunday – for which most of the blame has been pointed at a defensive breakdown by Nuggets’ center Mason Plumlee, who was procured in the aforementioned 2017 trade. What did it cost Denver, you ask? Just Jusuf Nurkic and a first-round pick.
Nurkic was a 2014-15 All-Rookie second team member. He played 139 games over 2.5 seasons in Denver, averaging 7.5 points and 5.9 rebounds in approximately 18 minutes per game. He showed serious promise, but Denver had numerous reasons to pursue a trade: he’d suffered a few relatively serious injuries early in his career (and he’s continued to be injury-prone in Portland), butted heads with head coach Michael Malone and – most importantly – the Nuggets stumbled on to Nikola Jokic.
The Nuggets eventually attempted a twin-tower strategy with both in the starting line-up, but that experiment was short-lived — with Jokic ultimately asking to move to the team’s second unit.
The Nuggets traded Nurkic to the Portland Trail Blazers in February 2017 (along with a first-round pick) in exchange for Plumlee, a second-round pick and cash considerations. Ironically, the first-round pick included in the deal became Justin Jackson, who was used to procure another center, Zach Collins – but more on that in a bit.
As of February 2017, Plumlee was considered the better player of the two. He was averaging a career-high 11 points, 8.1 rebounds and 4.0 assists through 54 games – but it was clear that at 27, he’d already maximized his talent.
Conversely, Nurkic was only 23 at the time of the trade with significant, untapped upside. In his first few seasons with Portland, Nurkic averaged 15 points and 9.8 rebounds per game, while establishing himself as a rising star. As noted above, injuries have continued to be a problem. Nurkic suffered a compound fracture in his tibia and fibula in March 2019, forcing him to miss a majority of this current campaign. The COVID-19-related play stoppage in March gave Nurkic extra time to get his body right, and he returned to action in July inside the bubble.
And he did so with a vengeance. Nurkic demonstrated superior strength and footwork, and he flashed the dominance that Portland hoped he would develop, posting eight double-doubles in 18 contests. He averaged 17.6 points and 10.3 rebounds per game and while his play dipped a bit in the playoffs – partially due to a matchup with first-team All-NBA star Anthony Davis – he still managed 14.2 points and 10.4 rebounds in the five-game series. So it’s fair to say that Nurkic is still on his way toward stardom.
But the Nuggets are in the conference finals – so all’s well that ends well, right? Not so fast. To his credit, Plumlee is exactly who Denver expected him to be. He’s averaged 7.5 points and 5.5 rebounds per game in three seasons with Denver since 2017 – but to be fair, Plumlee is asked to do less in Denver than he had in Portland. Still, it’s fairly obvious that they’re just not that comparable.
Plumlee is a good passer and an above-average defender that’ll compete hard and isn’t afraid to get dirty – but he has limitations. He doesn’t stretch the floor and he is a sub-par free throw shooter (53.5 percent in 2019-20). More importantly, he’s simply not a major offensive threat and his repertoire of moves is limited.
High-level takeaway: Defenses tend to game plan for opponents they view as major threats – Nurkic falls into this category. Other guys pack the stat sheet through putback attempts, open looks and single coverage alongside the guys for whom opposing defenses game plan – that’s a more appropriate description of Plumlee.
On to the wrench thrown in by Zach Collins’ involvement. Statistically, Collins is about as effective as Plumlee – he averaged 7 points and 6.3 rebounds through only 11 games in 2019-20 due to various injuries – and he possesses more upside. The 22-year-old is not as reliable as Plumlee but given his age and skill set, he’s a far better option as a support player playing off the bench. He stretches the floor (36.8 percent on three-point attempts in 2019-20), is an above-average free throw shooter (75 percent this season) and is a good defender. Looking past Nurkic for a moment, would the Nuggets prefer a 22-year-old center that stretches the floor and defends or a 30-year-old energy guy?
Regardless of your answer to that question, it’s hard to argue that Nurkic should have returned more than Plumlee, definitely so when you factor in the first-round pick Denver included. There is obviously more at play: Denver was probably considering trading Nurkic for some time before they acted – did they feel that they could increase his trade value prior to the trade deadline in 2016-17? Maybe. Further, Nurkic and his agent could have influenced the Nuggets’ decision at the 2017 deadline, threatening to stonewall Denver in negotiations.
Had Nurkic been more patient or the Nuggets acted sooner before it became abundantly clear that he was on the move, Denver’s roster could be even more stacked than it is now. Ultimately, the Nuggets have a plethora of talent and will be fine – while it appears that Nurkic found a long-term home in Portland, where he owns the paint offensively. Denver can’t be thrilled about assisting a division rival, but they’re still in an enviable position today and should be for years to come.
But despite that, this deal should go down as a cautionary tale – it’s not only the bottom feeders of the league who make missteps. Even the savviest of front offices overthink deals. Sometimes that works in their favor, and other times it does not.
NBA Daily: They Guessed Wrong
Matt John reflects on some of the key decisions that were made last summer, and how their disappointing results hurt both team outlooks and players’ legacies.
It doesn’t sound possible, but did you know that the crazy NBA summer of 2019 was, in fact, over a year ago? Wildly, in any normal, non-pandemic season, it all would have been over three months ago and, usually, media days would be right around the corner, but not this time. The 2019-20 NBA season is slated to end sometime in early to mid-October, so the fact that the last NBA off-season was over a year ago hasn’t really dawned on anyone yet. Craziest of all, even though there will still be an offseason, there technically won’t be any summer.
Coronavirus has really messed up the NBA’s order. Of course, there are much worse horrors that COVID-19 has inflicted upon the world – but because of what it’s done to the NBA, let’s focus on that and go back to the summer of 2019. It felt like an eternity, but the Golden State Warriors’ three-year reign had finally reached its end. The Toronto Raptors’ victory over the tyranny that was the Hamptons Five – as battered as they were – made it feel like order had been restored to the NBA. There was more to it than that though.
Klay Thompson’s and Kevin Durant’s season-ending injuries, along with the latter skipping town to join Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn meant two things.
1. Golden State was down for the count
2. Brooklyn’s time wasn’t coming until next year.
A one-year window was open. Even if neither Golden State nor Brooklyn posed the same threat that the former did when it had Kevin Durant, those were two contenders out of commission. If there was a time to go all in, it was in 2019.
Milwaukee certainly seemed to go all in. For the most part. Malcolm Brogdon’s departure seemed a little odd since he was arguably their best non-Giannis playmaker when they were in crunch time. Not to mention there was nothing really stopping the Bucks from keeping him except for money. Detractors will call out Milwaukee for electing to cheap out by not keeping Brogdon and hence, avoiding the luxury tax. However, there’s more to it than that.
Milwaukee thought it had enough with the core it had on its roster. Coming off the best season they had put up since the eighties, they believed the franchise built the right team to contend. There was an argument that keeping Brogdon may have been overkill with their guard depth – let’s not forget that Donte DiVincenzo did a solid job in Brogdon’s role as the backup facilitator. This would have been more defensible had it not been for Milwaukee picking the wrong guy to let go. That was the indefensible part- electing to keep Eric Bledsoe over Brogdon.
Bledsoe wasn’t necessarily a bad investment. No one’s complaining about an almost 15 point average on 47/34/79 splits or playing individual defense tight enough to get named on the All-Defensive second team. By all accounts, Bledsoe earns his keep. That is until the playoffs. Bledsoe’s postseason woes have been a weight ever since he first entered Milwaukee, and this postseason was more of the same.
Bledsoe’s numbers dwindled to just 11.7 points on 39/25/81 splits, and Milwaukee getting ousted in five games at the hands of Miami made his struggles stand out even more than it had ever been. Bledsoe may be the better athlete and the better defender, but Brogdon’s all-around offensive savvy and his only slight dropoff defensively from Brogdon would have made him a bit more reliable.
Milwaukee guessed wrong when they opted to extend Bledsoe before the postseason last year when they could have waited until that very time to evaluate who to keep around. Now they face a hell of a lot more questions than they did at the end of last season – questions that may have been avoided had they made the right choice.
Now they could have kept both of them, yes, but it’s not totally unreasonable to think that maybe their approach with the luxury tax would have worked and maybe they would still be in the postseason right now had they gone with the homegrown talent. And just maybe, there wouldn’t be nearly as much of this Greek Freak uncertainty.
The Houston Rockets can relate. They got bruised up by a team that everyone thought Houston had the edge on going into the series and then crushed by the Lakers. Now, Mike D’Antoni is gone. The full-time small ball experiment likely did not work out. Since the Rockets emptied most of their assets to bring in Russell Westbrook and Robert Covington, there may not be a route in which they can become better than they presently are.
The mistake wasn’t trading for Russell Westbrook. The mistake was trading Chris Paul.
To be fair, most everybody severely overestimated Chris Paul’s decline. He’s not among the best of the best anymore, but he’s still pretty darn close. He deserved his All-NBA second team selection as well as finishing No. 7 overall in MVP voting. OKC had no business being as good as they were this season, and Paul was the driving force as to why.
For all we know, the previously-assumed tension between Chris Paul and James Harden would have made its way onto the court no matter what. Even so, Houston’s biggest obstacle in the Bay Area had crumbled. If they had just stayed the course, maybe they’re still in the postseason too.
To their credit, none of this may have happened had it not been for the Kawhi Leonard decision. Had he chosen differently, the Thunder never blow it up, and Houston might have very well been the favorite in the Western Conference. Instead, the Rockets took a step back from being in the title discussion to dark horse. But at least they can take pride knowing that they weren’t expected to win it all – the Clippers can’t.
Seeing the Clippers fall well short expectations begs the question if they too got it wrong. The answer is, naturally: of course not. They may have paid a hefty price for Paul George, but the only way they were getting Kawhi Leonard – one of the best players of his generation – was if PG-13 came in the package. As lofty as it was, anyone would have done the same thing if they were in their shoes. They didn’t get it wrong. Kawhi did.
On paper, the Clippers had the most talented roster in the entire league. It seemed like they had every hole filled imaginable. Surrounding Leonard and George was three-point shooting, versatility, a productive second unit, an experienced coach – you name it. There was nothing stopping them from breaking the franchise’s long-lasting curse. Except themselves.
Something felt off about them. They alienated opponents. They alienated each other. At times, they played rather lackadaisically, like the title had already been signed, sealed, and delivered to them. The media all assumed they’d cut the malarkey and get their act together – but that moment never really came. They had their chances to put Denver away, but even if they had, after seeing their struggles to beat them – and to be fair Dallas too – would their day of destiny with the Lakers have really lived up to the hype?
Even if it was never in the cards, one can’t help but wonder what could have happened had Kawhi chosen to stay with the team he won his second title with.
Toronto was the most impressive team in this league this season. They still managed to stay at the top of the east in spite of losing an all-timer like Leonard. That team had every component of a winner except a superstar. They had the right culture for a championship team. Just not the right talent. The Clippers were the exact opposite. They had the right talent for a championship team but not the right culture. That’s why the Raptors walked away from the postseason feeling proud of themselves for playing to their full potential while the Clippers writhed in disappointment and angst over their future.
In the end, everyone mentioned here may ultimately blame what happened to their season on the extenuating circumstances from the pandemic. The Bucks’ chemistry never fully returned when the Bubble started. Contracting COVID and dealing with quad problems prevented Westbrook from reviving the MVP-type player he was before the hiatus. As troubling as the Clippers had played, the extra time they would have had to work things out in a normal season was taken away from them.
For all we know, next year will be a completely different story. The Rockets, Bucks, and Kawhi may ultimately have their faith rewarded for what they did in the summer of 2019 – but that will only be mere speculation until the trio can change the story.
Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards
Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.
We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.
The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.
With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.
The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.
Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old
Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.
He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.
Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.
Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old
Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.
He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.
Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.
Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old
Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.
He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.
One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old
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