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Oklahoma City Thunder 2018-19 NBA Season Preview

The Oklahoma City Thunder have all the pieces to be an elite team, even in the West, but can they survive missing Russell Westbrook and does their style of play translate to winning NBA basketball? Basketball Insiders take a look at the Oklahoma City Thunder in this 2018-19 NBA Season Preview.

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The Oklahoma City Thunder entered last season with championship aspirations. They surprisingly pulled off a trade to bring Paul George to the team, and then followed that up by trading for Carmelo Anthony. On paper, they appeared to have all the makings of a team that could make a deep postseason run.

Their season didn’t end that way, however, as they were bounced in the first round by the Utah Jazz despite having home-court advantage. Anthony never seemed to fit, and the team traded to him to the Atlanta Hawks, who eventually bought out his contract. They did manage to secure a huge win in free agency, though by convincing George, who supposedly was all-in on finding a way to Los Angeles, to re-sign. They also made a couple of nice pickups in Dennis Schroder and Nerlens Noel to strengthen their roster and stay afloat in the ever tough Western Conference.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

Give Sam Presti credit for the work he did this offseason. He managed to re-sign Paul George to a four-year, $136,911,936 contract, moved Carmelo Anthony’s contract while acquiring Dennis Schroder, traded for the rights to Hamidou Diallo, signed Nerlens Noel to a two-year, $3,745,548 contract (player option on final season) and rounded our the roster with some other cost-effective deals. This offseason could have been a disaster, but re-signing George sets the stage for the Thunder to remain competitive in the Western Conference. The team has the potential to make some real noise in the postseason if Russell Westbrook and George develop some meaningful chemistry — something that didn’t happen last season. Westbrook underwent an operation recently, so that will be a factor as well. If Westbrook, Andre Roberson and the Thunder’s other key players avoid the injury bug this season, they could be a surprisingly competitive team. However, even in the best case scenario, the Thunder will likely be a tier below the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets.

1st Place – Northwest Division

– Jesse Blancarte

The Thunder did about as well as anyone could have hoped over the summer, winning Sam Presti’s 2017 gamble outright when they re-signed Paul George to a long-term deal. That they also managed to shed Carmelo Anthony’s albatross deal in the process was just icing on the cake. The big question now becomes this: Will keeping George and Russell Westbrook together motivate the pairing to address some of their on-court shortcomings last year and come back even stronger, or will they rest on their laurels? A recent Westbrook surgery is only supposed to keep him out through training camp, but it’s worth monitoring – if he has to miss any time, new acquisition Dennis Schroder will be put to the test early. But the Thunder were a very strong regular season team last year before Andre Roberson went down with an injury, and it’ll be interesting if they can parlay his renewed health into a charge at a top-three seed in the West.

2nd Place – Northwest Division

– Ben Dowsett

If there was ever a time to use the phrase “addition by subtraction,” now would be the appropriate time with the Thunder. After a year together, Russell Westbrook and Paul George know each other’s tendencies. One’s more aggressive than the other, but they’ll both have a better feel for things. Oklahoma City adding Dennis Schroder to the equation gives its bench bunch a potential sixth man candidate that could potentially play alongside the starters in certain rotations. Steven Adams broke out as best offensive rebounder in the NBA, and that won’t change. There’s real potential for Jerami Grant to take on a more significant role, as well as a chance for Nerlens Noel to re-establish himself in the league. Billy Donovan has plenty of options to go with for different types of styles.

1st Place – Northwest Division

– Spencer Davies

The Thunder were one of the league’s biggest letdowns last season. Although, it was not entirely their fault. They were playing their best basketball before Andre Roberson’s season-ending knee injury. Since their elimination, OKC not only kept the best of their team together, but they also renovated the roster. Replacing the incompatible Carmelo Anthony with Dennis Schroder and Nerlens Noel gives the team well-needed depth. Lack of shooting might be a cause for concern if they plan to make an extended playoff run, but the Thunder have a better supporting cast around Russell Westbrook and Paul George. That should mean a better final result than last season.

1st Place – Northwest Division

– Matt John

The injury/surgery of Russell Westbrook is going to impact the team more than most think; it not just that he’ll miss some time, it’s he’s going to miss time and need to reintegrate. In any other division that might be okay, but in the Northwest virtually every team should make the postseason, so every game is going to matter in the final standings. Think about last season: one game decided third place from fourth place and one game determined whether you got in the playoffs or not. The balance of the Thunder is scientifically better. The addition of Dennis Schroeder is solid. Andre Roberson is supposed to be healthy, so the Thunder should be better, but missing Westbrook for any games is going to be tough to overcome, even with Paul George back in the fold.

3rd Place – Northwest Division

– Steve Kyler

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Russell Westbrook

The 2016-17 Most Valuable Player, Russell Westbrook is one of the most explosive offensive players in the league. He’s near impossible to stop when attacking the rim and his strength allows him to finish the play while absorbing contact. He’s also worked on his jumper tremendously since coming into the NBA, to the point where he’s a threat to score from anywhere on the court.

He’s been among the league leaders in points per game the past few seasons, and during his MVP year, he led the league with 31.6 points per game. There have been questions about Westbrook’s shot selection and whether or not he dominates the ball too much, but the fact remains that he’s an amazing offensive talent and a walking triple-double. He is without a doubt the type of player you can build a franchise around. There are 29 other teams that would love to have a player of that caliber. He’s a top-five player in the league and a perennial MVP candidate.

Top Defensive Player: Andre Roberson

Despite being a limited threat offensively, the Thunder missed Anthony Roberson tremendously in the playoffs. He suffered a season ending injury back in January. He’s emerged as one of the premier wing defenders in the league. His presence would have gone a long way to corralling Donovan Mitchell, whom the Thunder seemed to have no answer for in the postseason.

Prior to his injury, Oklahoma City had the best defense in the league. Without him in the lineup, their defense took a huge hit and they slipped to only middle of the pack. He’s able to guard multiple wing positions and his one-on-one defense is almost second to none. When he’s back on the court, he’s a potential All-Defensive First Team member and could be a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year.

Top Playmaker: Russell Westbrook

In many ways, as Westbrook goes, so go the Thunder. Much of their success relies on the superhuman efforts of Westbrook, part of which is his ability to create opportunities for his teammates. There has been plenty of garbage floating around suggesting that Westbrook “hunts for stats,” as if it were that easy to average double figures in assists. He’s become one of the elite playmakers in the league. The Thunder are that much better with him on the floor.

The past three seasons he’s averaged double figures in assists, including his final season with Kevin Durant, in which he dished out a career-high 10.4 assists. This past season, his 10.3 per game led the league. Not only does he generate offense himself, but he does so for his teammates as well. They all become a threat to score when Westbrook is on the court. He’s a floor general and leader who quarterbacks the team.

Top Clutch Player: Russell Westbrook/Paul George

Of course Westbrook deserves to be mentioned here. He’s hit numerous big shots and come through in plenty of clutch situations for the Thunder. However, Paul George has garnered more of a reputation of his own for making big plays in crunch time. There are plenty of stats floating around that suggest George isn’t a clutch player or that he’s abysmal with the game on the line. As always, stats don’t tell the complete story.

The Thunder struggled during close games last season, mostly due to the trio of Westbrook, George and Anthony never really finding a groove together. It was pretty much each guy taking turns with the ball in his hands. With Anthony now out of the picture, things should run a little more smoothly. The casual fan forgets George going toe to toe with LeBron James and the Miami Heat a few years back. He made numerous big plays during those battles with Miami. The fact is you can rest comfortably knowing that the ball is in either Westbrook or George’s hands when the fourth quarter comes around. You can’t go wrong with either.

The Most Unheralded Player: Steven Adams

Steven Adams has rightfully begun to garner more attention for what he brings to the Thunder, but there are times when it still can go unnoticed. His rebounding and interior defense are a huge part of what the Thunder do. Last season, he averaged more offensive rebounds (5.1) than defensive rebounds (4.0), helping Oklahoma City to extra possessions.

He’s become one of the best defensive anchors in the paint as well as a good man to man defender. He’s also emerged as a valuable contributor on the offensive end as well. He’s great in the pick and roll as both a screener and a finisher. His offensive rebounding prowess enables him to get multiple put-backs. And he’s begun to develop a jump shot and a little floater. The Thunder certainly have star power, but Adams is a vital piece of the team and an absolute necessity if they want to make a deep playoff run.

Best New Addition: Dennis Schroder

As part of the three-team trade that sent Anthony out of Oklahoma City, the Thunder received Dennis Schroder from the Hawks. Schroder gives the Thunder a much-needed scorer off the bench. Last season, the Thunder had a few capable bench guys, but none that could really stabilize the second unit. Schroder can do just that. He can generate his own offense as well as create opportunities for his teammates.

Last season in Atlanta, he averaged a career-high 19.4 points per game and 6.2 assists. He will need to improve his outside shooting, but there’s no doubt that he’ll be a welcome addition to the Thunder offense. He should also get an opportunity to share the backcourt with Westbrook at times while Westbrook slides to shooting guard. It will give the Thunder a scoring punch in the backcourt that they haven’t had since they traded Reggie Jackson.

– David Yapkowitz

WHO WE LIKE

1. Patrick Patterson

Still recovering from offseason surgery, Patterson had quite an underwhelming year for the Thunder. Also, with Anthony playing power forward and the emergence of Jerami Grant, Patterson was the odd man out, although he did manage to play in all 82 games. It wasn’t too long ago that he was one of the most valuable contributors off the Toronto Raptors’ bench. He’s a stretch four with good defense and rebounding and with Anthony gone, look for him to play more of an important role in the rotation.

2. Jerami Grant

Jerami Grant was perhaps the best player off the Thunder bench last season. He’s mobile big man who can guard multiple positions. He also has an improving offensive game. He’s great in the pick and roll, and has ability to finish around the rim. He drew plenty of interest as a free agent this summer, but the Thunder were able to retain him. He should continue to improve as a player and be a reliable contributor in the second unit.

3. Nerlens Noel

Nerlens Noel was once thought of as one of the top up and coming defensive big men in the league. A former lottery pick, he found himself out of the rotation with the Dallas Mavericks. This is essentially a fresh start for him, a chance to remind everyone why he was once a coveted draft pick. He’s a Steven Adams-lite, essentially. He’ll be counted on to provide the Thunder with defense and rebounding off the bench. He could end up being an X-factor in Oklahoma City.

4. Terrance Ferguson

As a rookie, Terrance Ferguson saw himself thrust into the rotation with the injury to Andre Roberson. He had a pretty good showing despite being a player who wasn’t expected to do much. He still has a long way to go in his development, but he showed flashes of the player he could become. He can create his own shot and he’s a good shooter. He’s got the tools to be an effective perimeter defender. Overall, he’s a nice young player for the Thunder to continue to develop.

– David Yapkowitz

STRENGTHS

Defense, defense and defense. When Roberson was in the lineup, the Thunder were on top of the league defensively. His return to the lineup is much needed. Prior to the addition of Anthony last summer, the lineup of Westbrook, Roberson, George, Patterson and Adams looked like the team best equipped to match up with the Golden State Warriors juggernaut defensively. With Anthony now out of the picture, Oklahoma City should regain their spot as one of the NBA’s best defensive teams. Whether it’s Patterson or Grant that ultimately wins the starting power forward spot, all five of the Thunder’s starters are above average to elite defenders. They should wreak havoc on the league defensively.

– David Yapkowitz

WEAKNESSES

The Achilles Heel for Oklahoma City last season was their performance in the clutch. They struggled mightily in close games. Most of that, however, was the result of Westbrook, George and Anthony never meshing well as a trio. Each of them would take turns doing their own thing with the ball. Now with only Westbrook and George there, they should be more efficient down the stretch.

– David Yapkowitz

THE BURNING QUESTION

Are the Oklahoma City Thunder good enough to beat the Warriors and get to the Finals?

There’s no question that after the Thunder brought in George and Anthony, getting through the Western Conference and to the Finals to compete for a title was the goal. They fell woefully short of that. The Warriors have run roughshod on the West the past several years. Their stars are all in the prime and they show no signs of slowing down. There are still a lot of questions that need to be answered about the Thunder. Will their offense run smoother with Anthony gone? Can Roberson make a full recovery and bolster Oklahoma City’s defense? Will they get the necessary production out of their bench? They’ve got the talent, and they should be able to make a stronger postseason run, but ultimately it’s tough to envision them knocking off Golden State. Stranger things have happened, but it doesn’t appear likely.

– David Yapkowitz

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NBA Daily: Buyers or Sellers – Northwest Division

Which teams are buyers or sellers in the Northwest Division? David Yapkowitz breaks down each team’s respective situation.

David Yapkowitz

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This coming weekend, Dec. 15 to be exact, is a big marker in the NBA. It is the day that players who signed free-agent contracts over the summer are eligible to be included in trades.

Here at Basketball Insiders, we started a new series this week taking a look at each NBA team, division by division, and identifying which teams should be looking to move or add salary as this day approaches.

The Northwest Division is home to some of the better teams in the Western Conference. The Denver Nuggets have surprised many and have battled their way to the top of the conference. The Oklahoma City Thunder got off to a slow start, but have also fought their way to the top. The Portland Trail Blazers and Memphis Grizzlies are among the middle of the pack playoff teams. Only the Utah Jazz are struggling more than anticipated.

Here’s a look at what each of these teams should do as trade season approaches.

Denver Nuggets

The Denver Nuggets suffered a couple setbacks recently with the injuries to Gary Harris and Paul Millsap. Fortunately for them, they are a deep and talented team that looks able to withstand those temporary losses.

As it stands, they aren’t locked into any terrible contracts and most of their young bench guys who have been crucial this season still have a couple years left on their current contracts. They are also awaiting the debut of Isaiah Thomas and prized rookie Michael Porter Jr. The Nuggets are a team that would do well to just stand pat and stay the course. Wait to get healthy and see what this team is capable of.

If they were to make a move, it could be something very low key. They were recently granted an injury exception to add a player over the roster limit which they used on Nick Young. Young is an instant offense guy off the bench who played a key role in last season’s championship Warriors team. Should he impress, the Nuggets could offload a seldom-used player like Tyler Lydon in a salary dump to make room for Young once the injured guys return.

Players whose trade restrictions are lifted on Dec. 15: Torrey Craig, Monte Morris, Isaiah Thomas

Minnesota Timberwolves

The Timberwolves already made their big splash when they traded Jimmy Butler to the Philadelphia 76ers for Robert Covington and Dario Saric. After starting the season off poorly following the Butler distraction, they’ve since played .500 basketball.

This is a team that is looking to get back to the playoffs after ending their playoff drought last season. They do have one particularly big contract in Gorgui Dieng that they probably wouldn’t mind shedding. The only thing is they’d most likely need to add someone to a potential deal to make to more enticing. That’s where Tyus Jones comes in.

The Wolves were buyers with the additions of Covington and Saric, and now it’s probably time for them to become sellers. The resurgence of Derrick Rose and the presence of Jeff Teague has made Jones expendable. While he is a very solid point guard, it’s clear that he’s probably best suited for a new home. There are teams looking for a point guard, the Phoenix Suns being one. The Wolves could probably rid themselves of Dieng’s contract in potential Jones deal.

Players whose trade restrictions are lifted on Dec. 15: Luol Deng, James Nunnally, Anthony Toliver

Oklahoma City Thunder

At one point, the Thunder were the only team in the NBA without a win. Now, they’re sitting atop the Western Conference, ahead of the Golden State Warriors. They are looking like the changed team that many thought they’d be after trading Carmelo Anthony.

If the question on whether or not the Thunder should be buyers or sellers were posed about a month ago, they almost certainly would have been buyers. Their outside shooting was pretty poor. Since then, its’ improved dramatically. Paul George has been shooting better from the three-point line. Jerami Grant has emerged as a legit outside threat. Dennis Schroder has gotten his percentage up as well.

If they can add another shooter though without having to give up much, then they should go ahead and look into it. What they should really do, however, is stand pat and await the return of Andre Roberson.

Roberson has yet to play while recovering from an injury sustained last season. While the Thunder defense suffered without him last year, they’re actually one of the best defensive teams in the league this season.

Players whose trade restrictions are lifted on Dec. 15: Raymond Felton, Nerlens Noel

Portland Trail Blazers

The Blazers have hit a bit of a rough patch lately, bouncing back down to the middle of the pack when they were near the top of the conference. Even so, they’re still one of the better teams in the West but haven’t yet reached that level where they can make some noise in the playoffs.

Portland is a team that should almost assuredly be buyers this trade season. They should be looking to add talent where they can to really be able to compete with the upper echelon of the conference. They’ve got a pair of contracts in Myers Leonard and Mo Harkless that they’d probably be open to moving if the opportunity presented itself.

What the Blazers should be looking for is someone who can probably fill the spot that they’d hoped Harkless could. That’s a wing who shift between both forward spots, knock down the three and play tough defense. There is a player supposedly on the market who fits that bill, Trevor Ariza. He’s been linked to the Los Angeles Lakers, but it wouldn’t hurt for Portland to make inquiries.

Players whose trade restrictions are lifted Dec. 15: Seth Curry, Nik Stauskas

Utah Jazz

The Utah Jazz are perhaps the most disappointing team in the NBA this season. They were not supposed to be a sub .500 team. There is definitely still time to turn things around, but it’s going to have to happen much sooner than later as the West is shaping up to be extremely tough.

The Jazz have also made their trade move already when they brought back Kyle Korver. Three-point shooting was a major concern for them and Korver is one of the best in the business in that regard. This is a roster that on paper is talented and shouldn’t be as bad as they have been. It’s not clear if there’s a move out there that would suddenly vault them up in the standings.

The Jazz are going to have to make decisions on both Ricky Rubio and Derrick Favors though. Rubio is an expiring contract and Favors is non-guaranteed for next season.

Players whose trade restrictions are lifted on Dec. 15: Georges Niang

It’s going to be interesting to see what these teams, and the rest of the NBA as a whole, does once Dec. 15 rolls around. Even with the Jazz’ poor start, each of these teams had major playoff aspirations when the season began.

Make sure you follow along here at Basketball Insiders with the rest of the divisions as well as any trade news and reactions if they happen.

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NBA Daily: The Team No One Talks About

Even if their situation isn’t pretty, the Miami HEAT are a much more interesting team than people are giving them credit for. Matt John explains why.

Matt John

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The final matchup between LeBron James and Dwyane Wade created a ton of national buzz on Monday night, and for good reason.

The two of them are both future first-ballot Hall of Famers, they were two of the absolute best players of their generation, and of course, they experienced plenty of success together. When the two legends embraced one another at the end of what was a tight contest, it was moving to see two buddies savoring the moment in their last game together.

We as the audience live for spectacles like those because they come ever so rarely in a lifetime, but you know what else was a rarity that night? Miami was in the headlines again.

It sounds odd, doesn’t it? The HEAT used to be all the rage dating back to the LeBron days, but since then, not so much. Miami hasn’t done a terrible job since LeBron departed in 2014. In 2016, they came within inches of returning to the Eastern Conference Finals. The following year, they went on a tear following an abysmal start only to come up short on the playoffs.

Now it’s a different story. The HEAT are coming off a gentleman’s sweep at the hands of the Philadelphia 76ers last season, have an unimpressive 11-15 record, and, before the Wade-LeBron matchup, the last big storyline centered around them was when they tried to acquire Jimmy Butler.

At the moment, Miami has the highest payroll in the league and lots of money tied up to players who aren’t making the All-Star team anytime soon, which limits their ceiling. Because of that, it’s tough to find reasons to talk about them.

However, after taking the Lakers to the wire, Miami is starting to show signs that its outlook isn’t as bleak as it looks and that they deserve more attention than people are giving them.

The Kids Are Alright

Well, well, well. Perhaps youth isn’t wasted on the young after all. At least, not in South Beach.

Miami’s young talent has shown some promise over the last few years, but the production has been a little slower than they would have hoped. Luckily for them, their patience appears to be paying off.

Let’s start with who would have been the main piece in the HEAT’s bid for Jimmy Butler: Josh Richardson. If they don’t already, Minnesota is probably going to regret not trading for Richardson, because the 25-year-old wing started off the season as a man possessed. Through the first month-and-a-half of the season, Richardson averaged 20.5 points on 43 percent shooting, including 41.4 percent from three while also averaging four rebounds and 3.1 assists.

Since the start of December, his numbers have gone down probably because of a shoulder injury, but once he fully recovers from that, there’s no telling what Richardson may be capable of. Since coming into the league, Josh has established himself as one of the premier young jack-of-all-trades wings. At only 25 years old, he may just be elevating his game from Swiss army knife to blossoming star.

Next, there’s Justise Winslow. Since being heralded as one of the bigger steals in the 2015 draft, Winslow’s start in the NBA hasn’t been the most graceful. Going down with a torn labrum in 2016 probably had something to do with that. Among the glimpses of talent he’s shown, Winslow has never found consistency, but he may have turned a corner.

Justise has had pretty much the exact opposite season that Richardson has had. His first month-and-a-half numbers were okay, but he’s had a fantastic December so far. He’s put up 18.4 points a game on 53 percent shooting including 52 percent from distance, while also averaging 6.2 rebounds and four assists. Putting up those kinds of numbers against the Lakers and the Clippers is no easy task, so this might be a sign of things to come.

If it is, then he’s beginning to show why Danny Ainge was willing to trade six first-round picks to get him.

Finally, there’s Bam Adebayo. His stats won’t “wow” you, but his net rating probably would. The second-year player currently ranks third in net rating behind only Richardson and Kelly Olynyk, as the HEAT are a plus-8.4 with Bam on the court. When you compare that to Hassan Whiteside, with whom the HEAT are minus-6.7 on the court, you can see that Adebayo brings a much more positive impact.

That stems mostly from his defense, as the HEAT’s defensive rating is plus-9 with Adebayo on the court according to NBA.com, which is highest on the team. Miami is currently tied for the ninth-best defensively rated team at 107.9, so they’d be sure to play him more to keep that up.

The ages of Richardson, Winslow and Adebayo all range from 21 to 25, so the best of them is yet to come. On a team that’s filled with bloated contracts, the HEAT can sleep better at night knowing that their young starlets will all be paid less than $30 million per combined over the next three years.

The End of an Era

Like any other all-time great, Dwyane Wade’s retirement tour should be something every hoop junkie should tune into, but everyone knew that already.

What makes Wade’s final season stand out among others is that he’s making legitimately worthwhile contributions for a team that’s trying to win. Compare that to say, Kobe Bryant, who didn’t put up awful stats in his last season, but played for a team that was intentionally terrible. Or Paul Pierce, who played for a team that was trying to win in his last season, but was cooked by the time he got there.

With Flash, it’s different. Wade is still putting up above average numbers with almost 15 points a game on 41.8 percent shooting on 13 attempts per contest. Not bad for someone who will be turning 37 in a month.

Wade’s scoring numbers are to be expected, but it’s how he’s getting them that should impress even his die-hard fans.

Throughout his entire career, Wade was always a feared scorer with his Achilles’ heel being his inability to stretch the floor. So far this season, the man has changed that. The Chicago native has shot 35 percent from three on four attempts per game. Both are career-highs and a huge boost from Wade’s past numbers centered around the three-ball.

Wade’s numbers are also proving to be effective, as the HEAT are plus-4.2 with D-Wade on the floor, with all of it stemming from his impact on their offensive rating.

Regardless of where Miami finishes, Wade is going out with a bang. Let’s be honest – that is exactly what we all want to see from the soon-to-be retiree.

A Turnaround Is In The Cards

An 11-15 record isn’t going to impress anybody, but Miami has won four of its last six games, and some of those wins weren’t a stroll in the park for them. Beating the Clippers in Los Angeles is quite an impressive feat when you think about how many guys were out for the HEAT. Richardson, Whiteside, Goran Dragic, James Johnson, Wayne Ellington and Dion Waiters were all out, and Tyler Johnson left early with an injury.

Miami still prevailed by 23 points against one of the West’s top teams while basically having eight guys to play. That’s only one game, but in the next game, the HEAT, who had more of their players back, gave the Lakers all they could handle, as it came down to the final buzzer.

Okay, that’s only two games of good play against good teams, but think about this. Miami’s point differential is currently minus-0.3, which is better than the sixth-seeded Detroit Pistons, whose differential is minus-1.2. It’s also better the eighth-seeded Orlando Magic, whose differential is minus-3.4. If Miami improves on that, then they should be able to catch and potentially surpass both.

Remember, Miami has turned the tides before not too long ago. Erik Spoelstra is still an excellent coach in this league who is capable of making the proper adjustments for his team to succeed. Expecting Miami to instantly to be a contender would be stretching it a tad, but they are currently a half-game behind the Magic for the last playoff spot with their core guys starting to come back.

So, if the HEAT turn it around, you heard it here first.

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NBA Daily: Almost Trade Time In The NBA

While the NBA has seen some major deals early in the season, the real trade chatter is just getting started. Steve Kyler takes a look at some of the names to watch.

Steve Kyler

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Almost Trade Time In The NBA

While the NBA has already seen a few major deals drop, including the Jimmy Butler deal to Philadelphia and George Hill being moved off to Milwaukee, typically the NBA doesn’t see nearly this much activity this early in the season. Normally, deals start to take shape after December 15, when those players who signed free-agent deals with new teams become trade-eligible, which is this Saturday.

All week long, Basketball Insiders will be looking at who should be “buyers” and who should be “seller” in advance of the Saturday milestone.

While there will hardly be a floodgate opening on Saturday, it is the first milestone of the trade season, which means teams will start talking more intently, especially with the annual G-League Showcase getting underway in Las Vegas next week.

There have already been some notable names hitting the rumor mill such as Phoenix’s Trevor Ariza, who most expect to be moved, and J.R. Smith in Cleveland, who is also expected to be moved at some point before the February 7th NBA Trade Deadline.

While those are the most likely dominoes to drop next, there are a few more worth watching.

Kent Bazemore – Atlanta Hawks

The Atlanta Hawks have been looking for a new home for forward Kent Bazemore for some time. The problem for the Hawks in moving Bazemore is the $18.08 million he is owed this year and the Player Option he is most likely picking up for next season worth $19.26 million.

There has been some interest in Bazemore; he was linked to the Houston Rockets on several occasions, mainly as a money swap for Ryan Anderson, who was moved off to the Phoenix Suns this past summer.

Compounding the problem for the Hawks is that Bazemore hasn’t exactly been blowing the doors off with his play this season. League sources still peg him as an easy player to obtain, mainly because the Hawks don’t seem to want much in return except to get out of his contract.

The Cleveland Cavaliers are believed to be open to taking on longer-term salary if they can extract youth or draft picks in the process. With J.R. Smith’s deal being very favorable with only $3.78 million guaranteed, that could be an interesting situation to watch, especially if the Hawks are open to buying Smith out after a trade and setting him free to find a new team in advance of free agency.

Robin Lopez – Chicago Bulls

With the chaos surrounding the Chicago Bulls lately, it’s not surprising to hear that one of the lone grown-ups on the roster, Robin Lopez, was trying to quell what seemed like an insurrection against new Bulls head coach Jim Boylen.

You will be hard pressed to find anyone that doesn’t think highly of Lopez, and for that reason alone it wouldn’t be entirely shocking to see the Bulls hang on to Lopez, merely to make sure things don’t get off the rails.

That said, there is a reality headed the Bulls way, and that is that Lopez can be a free agent in July, and he will likely be in demand for many of the reasons the Bulls would want to keep him around.

That same demand likely means the Bulls could get a reasonable return for Lopez and his $14.35 million contract.

Few in NBA circles believe Lopez will be in Chicago past the deadline, which makes him an interesting name to watch especially for would-be playoff teams that are looking for veteran toughness for a playoff run.

It won’t be surprising to see the Bulls cash out Lopez in the coming weeks, however, given the current state of things around the team; they would be smart to hang on to him at least until the latest mess comes to pass.

Courtney Lee – New York Knicks

The Knicks desperately want to shed contract money before the trade deadline, and the odd man out seems to be swingman Courtney Lee.

Lee is just getting back from a pretty significant neck injury that cost him almost all the season so far. Lee is expected to get some run in the G-League tonight as part of his rehab. It’s also in part to allow other teams to get an extended look at Lee for trade purposes, according to sources close to the situation.

Amusingly, Lee chose the Knicks because they offered him a fourth contract year when he signed back in 2016. Coincidentally it’s that fourth year the Knicks are now trying to shed.

There is a sense in NBA circles that Lee wouldn’t be hard to move. The question is what else the Knicks will have to include to get that money off the books before the February trade deadline?

Zach Randolph – Sacramento Kings

Zach Randolph has been out of the Sacramento Kings rotation all year as they have been moving towards playing their younger guys. Randolph chose the Kings, mainly because they offered vastly more money than any other team, but did so knowing he might not play as much in his final year, something he has said repeatedly he was OK with.

All of that said, Randolph is someone the Kings would love to trade, and its possible teams looking to shed contract dollars would view Randolph’s $11.692 million deal as attractive if only to buy him out and get out of longer team money.

The prevailing thought from NBA insiders is that the Kings will hang on to Randolph until the trade deadline. If they cannot find a deal, then it is expected he will be bought out and given a chance to latch on to a veteran team that might have a role for him.

Sources near the situation say Randolph has been great with all of this and isn’t pushing the Kings one way or the other, which buys them time to let the market play out.

While these are not remotely close to all the names to watch, but some of the bigger contract guys in play and likely candidates to be moved sooner than later.

Basketball Insiders has already dropped the first part of the Buyers and Sellers series, with Spencer Davies taking a look at the Central Division. A new division will drop every day this week, so stay tuned.

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