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NBA Trade Watch: The Northwest

Dennis Chambers breaks down the Northwest division and how each team fairs heading into the trade deadline.

Dennis Chambers

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Continuing down the road towards the trade deadline, here at Basketball Insiders we’ll continue to give you a division-by-division breakdown of how teams are equipped to head into the NBA’s last month of trades.

After already covering the Atlantic and Southwest divisions, we now turn our attention to one of the most competitive divisions in basketball, the Northwest.

With four teams boasting a record above .500 at the midway point of the season, it will be curious to see how if these teams decide to add to their current arsenal or stay put for the playoff push.

Minnesota Timberwolves (27-16)

After making their big moves this past offseason to bring in Jimmy Butler, Jeff Teague, and Taj Gibson — three of their five starters — to pair with Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, the Timberwolves are reaping the benefits of those big money decisions.

Currently leading their division, and hitting their stride as the second half of the season approaches, the Wolves are in a position to flex their star power muscles for a deep playoff run. Considering their moves in the offseason, along with inking Wiggins to a max contract and preparing to do the same for Towns, the books in Minnesota are a bit tight at the moment.

With that being said, at this point for the Timberwolves, staying put with the core that’s led them to a record 11 games over .500 so far is their most likely scenario heading into the trade deadline.

Notable Ending Contracts:

None.

Names Worth Talking About:

Like most high-level contending teams in the NBA, the Timberwolves are a bit stuck with their current core. With no real cap room to play with and no notable expiring contracts that can be used as trade chips, Minnesota doesn’t expect to be one of the more active players at the deadline. Barring an incredibly surprising move where the Wolves ship off one of their star players, don’t expect this lineup to look much, if any, different after the first week of February.

Biggest Area of Need at the Deadline:

Despite having a roster loaded with star-caliber names, there are still some serious areas of weakness for the Timberwolves. Namely three-point shooting, where Minnesota ranks 27th in the league in attempts, and 24th in percentage. As noted, it’s not like the Wolves have much wiggle room to address that need at this point; they are who they are, but if there was a situation where they could add a piece for cheap it would behoove them to take a look at some deep ball shooters.

Portland Trail Blazers (22-19)

With one of the most prolific backcourts in the entire league, the Trail Blazers are once again pushing their way to a playoff berth. Having a ton of money tied up in both Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum doesn’t help Portland all that much in terms of being able to bring any new bodies on board, but with a few expiring deals that are attached to recognizable names, the Blazers could potentially find themselves in a position to make a move should they choose to do so.

Notable Ending Contracts:

Ed Davis — $6,352,531

Noah Vonleh — $3,505,233

Jusuf Nurkic — $2,947,305

Pat Connaughton — $1,471,382

Names Worth Talking About:

The Trail Blazers’ biggest cause for concern should be preparing to sign Jusuf Nurkic to an extension. Nurkic is the perfect thunder to the team’s backcourt lightening. Leading the Blazers in rebounding and blocked shots while also chipping in 14.6 points per game, Nurkic gives Portland an inside presence that can become a matchup problem for some of the finesse teams in the Western Conference.

Alongside Lillard and McCollum, Nurkic is the perfect low-post complement to even out the team’s identity. Portland should be focusing on making sure they can lock up their Bosnian big man before adding new names to the fold.

Biggest Area of Need at the Deadline:

Even though money is tight out in Portland, the team could absolutely benefit from picking up a bench distributor. With two ball-dominant guards in their starting lineup, the Trail Blazers rank last in the NBA in assists per game. Up until this point, facilitation problems have still allowed the team to win more games than they’re losing, but as the season continues on into the playoffs, ball movement is crucial to sustained success.

Their current financial position is the biggest question mark over the next month. But finding an option to come in and kick up ball movement for the team’s various lineups could go a long way in terms of success.

Oklahoma City Thunder (22-20)

Halfway through the Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony experiment, results are mixed at best.

Despite All-Star names and All-Star paychecks, the Thunder’s trio has shown serious problems in terms of meshing their talents together for a more efficient collective result. With George and Anthony set to be free agents, the Thunder are an increasingly interesting team to watch as the deadline approaches. On record, Westbrook has said that the best free agent pitch to keep George in OKC would be winning a championship. That alone suggests Paul isn’t going anywhere this month. But again, the NBA is a wild ride, and Westbrook isn’t the general manager.

Should everyone stay put, the Thunder have the second half of the season to figure out how they can mesh three ball-dominant players well enough together to make noise during the playoffs. Regardless of what happens, all eyes will most certainly be on Oklahoma City.

Notable Ending Contracts:

Carmelo Anthony — $26,243,760

Paul George — $19,508,958

Jerami Grant — $1,524,305

Nick Collison — $1,471,382

Josh Huestis — $1,471,382

Raymond Felton — $1,471,382

Names Worth Talking About:

The most intriguing names related to the Thunder at this point in time are two players already on their roster: Anthony and George.

With the Los Angeles Lakers scenario looming over George as an evergreen possibility, the Thunder could be in a position to lose another star player for nothing if he decides to walk away from the team this summer. Considering his pairing with Westbrook hasn’t been the wild success the team was hoping for, seeing what Sam Presti could get for George on the trade market is at least a scenario worth exploring.

As for Anthony, his early termination option makes him a flight risk as well. If George bounces for Hollywood this summer, there isn’t much to suggest that Anthony would stick around in Oklahoma City as well.

It’s impossible to tell the future for the Thunder in terms of how many games they’ll win or if they can make a deep run in the playoffs, so making a move at the deadline at this point would be abandoning their experiment without giving it a full season to run its course. That was always the risk in dealing for George and Anthony, though.

Biggest Area of Need at the Deadline:

The biggest need the Thunder have to focus on as the deadline approaches is something that can’t be bought or traded for on the open market, and that’s chemistry.

With the third-highest payroll in the league, the Thunder are as strapped for cash as they come. Pulling off a blockbuster trade would require breaking up the current three-man band. Bringing on complementary pieces at this point may just not be feasible financially. Oklahoma City is married to its team at this point in time, and the best case scenario to start seeing more wins is an uptick in chemistry between the star players. Unfortunately, there’s no “chemistry exception” in the current CBA. So I guess we’ll just have to wait and see how this one pans out.

Denver Nuggets (21-20)

After swinging for the fences this summer and signing Paul Millsap to a three-year $90 million deal, the Denver Nuggets got a hard dose of reality when Millsap tore a ligament in his left wrist after just 16 games.

Managing to stay afloat with a record one game above .500 and keeping themselves in the playoff race, the Nuggets are in a position to add a piece or two at the deadline to pair with the return of Millsap for a playoff push.

What makes that tricky for Denver is the reality that they’re over the cap and pretty tight on cash. With a contract extension for Nikola Jokic right around the corner, it isn’t likely that the team will be in a position to make any long-term acquires. But a cheap option to fill out the second unit for a team looking to find the postseason isn’t totally out of the question.

Notable Ending Contracts:

Will Barton — $3,533,333

Richard Jefferson — $1,454,756

Names Worth Talking About:

Currently, there aren’t any names that are directly being connected to the Nuggets. With limited mobility in terms of cap space and tradable assets, there’s a good reason why things are quiet at the moment.

There are some sellers in this market, like the Lakers and their desire to move Jordan Clarkson to free up cap space. Clarkson would be a wonderful fit in Denver, where former lottery pick point guard Emmanuel Mudiay has fallen out of the rotation, as a perfect secondary option like his role in Los Angeles. The only problem is, the Nuggets don’t have the cap room to make a move like that work without shedding some money of their own.

Any particular move made by Denver will have to be the result of them finding a partner to take on contracts of their own. Otherwise, their hands are tied moving forward towards the deadline.

Biggest Area of Need at the Deadline:

As mentioned above, the Nuggets could really benefit from having a second-unit point guard to truly solidify their rotation. Since Mudiay fell out of favor, Will Barton has been responsible for that role. While Barton has his moments from time to time, his ability to facilitate an offense effectively comes into question more often than it should with a backup point guard.

Being able to shore up the backcourt of the second-unit would help create a deeper, more cohesive unit for the Nuggets as they look to force themselves into the playoff picture throughout the second half of the season.

Utah Jazz (17-24)

In their first season without Gordon Hayward, the Utah Jazz have regressed as expected. Although Donovan Mitchell has been an incredible surprise for the club, missing the seasoned scorer from the wing has been detrimental to the Jazz’s success.

Along with losing Hayward, the fact that Rudy Gobert has dealt with injury issues this season as well is adding to Utah’s tough campaign. Continuing throughout the rest of this season under their current trajectory, the Jazz will likely be on the outside looking in for the playoff picture. But according to certain reports, Utah will look to add players at the deadline in hopes to add more talent to their roster moving forward.

Notable Ending Contracts:

Derrick Favors — $12,000,000

Joe Johnson — $10,505,000

Dante Exum — $4,992,385

Rodney Hood — $2,386,864

Names Worth Talking About:

As Marc Stein of The New York Times reported, the Jazz are serious suitors for Bulls forward Nikola Mirotic.

With Utah showing interest in bringing aboard the likes of Mirotic, a frontcourt set to potentially lose Favors this offseason could find a bit more stability. An offensive-minded four, Mirotic could do well under Jazz head coach Quin Snyder, who has a knack for capitalizing on players’ offensive potential. As the trade deadline approaches for both the Bulls and Jazz, it appears that Mirotic will be the hot name.

Biggest Area of Need at the Deadline:

Piggybacking off of the Mirotic noise, the Jazz’s most obvious need at the deadline would be depth. Particularly in the frontcourt. With Gobert sidelined, and Favors a free agent, bringing in Mirotic to an offensive friendly system could be beneficial for both parties.

Whether the Jazz actually make the move or not remains to be seen, but over the course of the next month, with Gobert’s knee a question mark right now, Utah could only benefit from bringing in some back up on the front lines.

Dennis Chambers is an NBA writer in his first season with Basketball Insiders. Based out of Philadelphia he has previously covered NCAA basketball and high school recruiting.

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NBA Daily: Trail Blazers Come Up Short and Now Search For Answers

The Portland Trail Blazers were swept in the first round of the Playoffs and now face tough questions, writes James Blancarte.

James Blancarte

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The playoffs have been a wild ride so far. On Sunday, all three Eastern Conference playoff games were exciting matches that featured star players stepping up in the clutch. As a result, each series is tied up, two games each. The other game of the day featured the San Antonio Spurs, who stayed in control and never once allowed the Golden State Warriors to take the lead. The Spurs managed to get a win against the defending champs despite missing their best player and now their head coach indefinitely.

For the Portland Trail Blazers, there was no such Game 4 turnaround. In fact, with the Spurs win, the Trail Blazers have the lamentable distinction of being the only team to be swept in the first round of the playoffs. This is just one way to describe how disappointing and surprising this playoff series loss to the New Orleans Pelicans was for Portland. Many NBA observers and Pelicans fans were quick to point out that every ESPN NBA personality chose the Trail Blazers to win the series, as did select writers of the Basketball Insiders team.

The Trail Blazers’ players and front office also made it clear how surprised they were at the result. Forward Evan Turner shared his surprise.

“Obviously finishing so quickly wasn’t definitely the plan and to a certain extent it was shocking,” Turner said.

General Manager Neil Olshey chimed in as well.

“Nobody expected [the playoff sweep] to happen. It did. We had our chances in Game 1, we had our chances in Game 2. Clearly Game 3 was a setback,” Olshey stated when describing his surprise at how the series ended. “Stunned, I think disappointed.”

Credit should be given to the Pelicans and their ability to fully harness their talent and impose their will in the series. Turner was effusive in praising the talent and ability of the Pelicans.

“Unlocked Jrue is pretty dangerous and we all see how Rondo plays. He’s a homerun hitter but he is always solid. He can mess around. He’ll get two or three triple doubles. Anthony Davis is a problem,” Turner said.

When asked how he felt about the playoff exit, starting center Jusuf Nurkic stated that he is beyond disappointed.

“I mean, the way I finish the season, I feel shame. The way we have a season, like a team and group, and being in position to be third in the West, and finish like this, is not good,” Nurkic stated. “It’s not something you should be proud of, because all you do through the year, fight for playoff and to be in position to have a good postseason.”

Despite the early exit, many within the organization were quick to highlight that they continue to see the regular season in a positive light, including Head Coach Terry Stotts.

“I thought we had a very good regular season, I thought we had a very disappointing end of the season,” Stotts stated.

Damian Lillard shared a similar sentiment when reflecting on the season as a whole.

“I think I’ll always remember the way [the season] ended. But I won’t forget the kind of season we had. You can’t ignore the fact we won a division title in a division where there was some great teams,” Lillard stated. “We came out on top.”

Still, the success of the regular season makes the playoff result that much harder to grasp and deal with for some. Nurkic again didn’t hold back when comparing the success of the regular season with the team’s playoff failure.

“Very surprised,” Nurkic stated. “You definitely didn’t see the team who we are in the playoffs.”

Explaining why the Trail Blazers came up short against the Pelicans is no easy task. Clearly Portland’s attempt to feature its two premiere guards failed as the Pelicans were able to clamp down on Lillard and McCollum effectively in each game. Complicating matters further was the inability of the Trail Blazers to effectively utilize Nurkic on both ends of the court. However, there was at least some praise to be heaped on the backup bigs, Zach Collins and Ed Davis.

“I think Zach played really well for us,” Olshey stated. “He had an impact defensively.”

Also, Al-Farouq Aminu was able to do his part as an acceptable defensive option against Davis while spreading the floor with his outside shooting

Regardless, Turner shared his assessment that the team failed to have an adequate game plan for a scenario where their two best players are neutralized.

“One thing that may help, it’s no jabs or anything, but building the identity outside of our two strong scorers,” Turned stated. “[W]e sometimes go downhill when a team fully focuses on a lot of attention on our stars […] But I think we might need certain plays, certain structures that kind of prepare just in case that occurs.”

With their postseason concluded, the Trail Blazers are suddenly left trying to answer questions with no easy answers. Who, if anyone, is to blame for what happened? So far, many head coaches have been let go and unsurprisingly some speculation has turned toward Coach Stotts. Stotts, when asked, focused on the team and deflected any analysis of his performance.

“I’m not going to evaluate the job I did,” Stotts said.

Lillard, on the other hand, was effusive in his praise of his coach.

“Coach Stotts has done a great job from day one. We’ve been in the playoffs five years straight,” Lillard said.

For now, there does not appear to be strong rumblings about Stotts. With the offseason just beginning for the team there is still time to reflect and assess what went wrong. Additionally, the team has to resolve what to do regarding its own free agents. No name looms larger than Nurkic, who despite his poor showing, represents one of the team’s top talents and expressed his guarded optimism regarding a return.

“I want to be here, it’s no secret,” Nurkic stated when asked if he wants an extension in Portland. “Yes, definitely.”

Nurkic ended the thought by stating, a bit ominously, that he did his part and a deal may or may not get worked out.

“My agent and people here are going to figure out the rest, or not,” Nurkic said.

Complicating the desire to retain Nurkic is the team’s financial situation as the team is currently over the cap and under obligation to center Meyers Leonard, who has struggled to stay in the rotation and is earning roughly $21.8 million over the next two years.

“It’s our job to be measured and not to overreact. [Because] when you overreact is when you make mistakes,” Olshey stated.

Lillard was quick to emphatically shut down the notion of splitting up him and McCollum when asked if that would be a good idea.

“I mean, I don’t agree with it. I think it’s that simple,” Lillard declared.

When asked what the team plans to do going forward, Olshey expressed optimism but tried again to pay credit to the season’s effort overall.

“We’re going to do everything we can to upgrade the roster as we always do but we also aren’t going to lose sight of the success throughout the course of the season,” Olshey said.

“I don’t have all the answers for you today,” Olshey surmised. “A lot of times you don’t know where your help is coming from.”

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The Problem With ‘Championship Or Bust’

Should an NBA Title be the only measuring stick when we’re talking about a team’s success?

Spencer Davies

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In this day and age, there’s a constant need for instant gratification. It goes for everything, really, but especially for sports.

Before the 2017-18 NBA season kicked off, the general outlook on the league was that the regular season would be a waste of time. People dubbed the Golden State Warriors as clear-cut repeat champions. Other then that franchise, there were maybe one or two others that could put up a fight with such a juggernaut.

While that story has yet to play out, others are developing quickly.

The all-of-a-sudden dangerous New Orleans Pelicans are the only ball club to have advanced to the second round of the playoffs as the sixth seed in the Western Conference. LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers are deadlocked in a tied series with an Indiana Pacers team that everybody seemed to believe was lottery-bound before the year began.

After falling nine games under .500 in late January, the Utah Jazz have caught fire and are up two games to one against the league’s reigning league MVP and a re-constructed Oklahoma City Thunder roster. We’d be remiss to leave out the sensational play of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid as the Philadelphia 76ers continue to show how dominant they’ve been in a hard-hitting affair with a gritty Miami Heat bunch.

The start to this postseason trumps last season’s already. There is a competitive fire within the majority of these encounters. It’s all on the line to prove who will be the best of the best.

And having said that, there can only be one that takes home the Larry O’Brien trophy.

One. That’s it. In the last 18 years, there have been a total of eight different organizations that have earned the right to call themselves champions. All things considered, it’s not that many.

But there’s a giant misconception about parity in the NBA that needs to be thwarted.

This league is filled with talent, top to bottom. Just like in any sport, you have the basement dwellers still trying to right the ship. Whether it be coaching, injuries, or inexperience—they’re attempting to find their way. That’s why those players are sitting at home in late April.

Then there are those who are not merely spectators, but are involved in the remaining field of 15 teams (sorry, Portland Trail Blazers). Of course, in their minds, there is a common goal of winning a title, as it should be.

However, is it fair to quantify the success of every one of these franchises simply based on whether they accomplish that goal or not? Heck no.

Are we supposed to just forget about the progress made from end-to-end? What if — hear this out — both teams have talent and one just beat the other?

Building championship basketball takes patience. There has to be some semblance of playoff experience involved. Continuity is a must have. You might not want to hear it, but the postseason is where the seeds are planted, where the understanding of the stage really starts.

There can be a collection of young players who have been teammates for years, but have never taken part in the playoffs before. Sometimes there can be a team that’s full of veterans that have been there, but they may not have played together as a collective unit. Each one of them has a different background in a different setting.

It’s a whole different beast at this point. Some are so naive to see how elevated and intense the environment really is, so they assume a team that loses a few games isn’t championship material. Newsflash: Not one team in the history of the NBA has gone 16-0 in the playoffs.

And then, the ones who fall—whether it be in The Finals, conference finals, or in first two rounds—those organizations didn’t accomplish anything. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

So in this basketball world we live in where everything has to be a 20-point victory with zero losses and it’s “championship or bust” as the measuring stick, take a step back and appreciate the work it took to even get to the postseason.

Win or lose, many of these teams are building towards bigger things in the future. These experiences will make that clear in the years to come.

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NBA DAILY: Who’s the Next Donovan Mitchell?

Donovan Mitchell provided elite value at the back end of the lottery. Who might that player be this summer?

Joel Brigham

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The entire reason that so many non-playoff teams worked so diligently to blow their seasons was to get the best odds possible for the first overall selection in the 2018 NBA Draft. Watching LeBron James (a former first overall draft pick) do what he’s done to the league for the last 15 years, the desire to land a top pick is understandable. Ben Simmons, the heir apparent and likely Rookie of the Year, also was a first overall draft pick a couple of seasons ago.

In fact, of the 38 former first overall picks dating back to 1980, 28 of them would evolve into All-Stars, and it seems like only a matter of time before Simmons is added to that list, too. A higher percentage of top picks have been named All-Stars than any other slot in the draft. Numbers don’t lie. There is no pick more valuable than the very first one.

But…

Donovan Mitchell is good, too. Like, really good. He’s so good that there’s just as strong an argument for him as this season’s Rookie of the Year as there is for Simmons. Mitchell, though, was not a first overall pick. He was picked 13th, at the back end of the lottery.

He isn’t alone in landing elite value for teams picking outside of the lottery’s top half. Devin Booker was picked 13th in 2015. Giannis Antetokounmpo was the 15th selection in 2013. In 2011, Klay Thompson was picked 11th, while Kawhi Leonard was chosen with the 15th pick that same year. Paul George went 10th overall in 2010.

In other words, there are plenty of really good prospects every summer to give late-lottery teams hope. They might not generate the same hype as the guys vying for that top overall selection, but they’re also clearly a lot better than the tiers of players that start coming off the board in the 20s and 30s. All-Stars lurk in the 10-to-15 range of the draft, especially in a loaded class like the one we’re looking at this summer.

That begs the question: who is this year’s Donovan Mitchell?

Here are three possibilities:

Collin Sexton

Back in November, a series of unfortunate circumstances in a game against Minnesota led to a mass ejection of Alabama players that resulted in just three players being allowed to play the final ten minutes. Sexton was one of those three players and led a Crimson Tide rally despite the lopsided Minnesota power play. ‘Bama outscored the Gophers 30-22 in those final 10 minutes despite being down two players, and Sexton finished the game with 40 points. That’s how good he is.

Of course, he could slip in this draft if only because there are so many flashier names ahead of him. It appears as though seven players (DeAndre Ayton, Luka Doncic, Jaren Jackson, Marin Bagley, Michael Porter, Mo Bamba and Trae Young) likely will be drafted before him, which puts him in a category with guys like Mikal Bridges, Wendell Carter, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Miles Bridges, and Kevin Knox. Sexton probably will fall somewhere in that range, which means he would fall somewhere between the eighth and 13th pick.

He is competitive, charismatic and incredibly driven, so there’s a really good chance he does well in interviews and workouts and shows how elite he is. On the other hand, if he falls to the Sixers or Hornets or Clippers, some non-tanking team could end up with one of the biggest stars of the draft.

Miles Bridges

Coming into his sophomore season, Bridges was considered one of the top NBA prospects in college basketball, and while that is still true to a certain extent, his stock dropped a bit this past season while several players—including his teammate Jaren Jackson, Jr.—saw their own stocks rise.

Despite a minor loss in momentum, Bridges is one of the most NBA-ready players projected to be selected in the lottery. He’s still young enough to have a high ceiling, but he’s older and more physically mature than a lot of the other players vying to be drafted in his neck of the pecking order. He does nearly everything well, from ball handling to rebounding to shooting, and he can play both ends of the floor. His athleticism is his calling card, and that added to everything else he does well makes him a lock for some measure of NBA success.

He has his flaws, but he’s probably an All-Rookie First Teamer that will be selected after ten players that aren’t. That makes him a potential steal on the back-end of the lottery.

Jontay Porter

This time last year, Porter was a 17-year-old kid deciding whether or not to reclassify and play at the University of Missouri with his older brother Michael Porter, Jr. and under his father Michael Porter, Sr., who is a member of the coaching staff there. Obviously big bro is a high lottery pick, but the younger sibling was the 11th rated prospect in his high school class (the one with Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett) before reclassifying.

He has declared for this summer’s draft but hasn’t yet hired an agent. If he stays in, he’ll be the youngest player in the draft, and mid-first round is where teams start gambling on the uber-young players with mountains of potential rather than older, more proven college players.

In Porter’s case, that could mean a mid-to-late first-round team ends up with a tremendous bargain, even if it takes him a few years to grow into himself. He’s 6-foot-11 but is incredibly smart and well-rounded on offense. He shoots threes (he hit 110 of them as a freshman at Mizzou), but he’s know for his vision and passing more than anything. That’s a modern-day stretch-four or stretch-five if ever there was one, and getting him a year before his time could be a way for a team to steal a deal in the middle of the first round.

With the playoffs in full swing, most observers are focused in on the battles for conference supremacy. For many of the NBA’s other teams, though, the draft preparation process has begun.

In short order, we’ll see which teams end up snagging the next Donovan Mitchell.

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