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On the NBA Trade Deadline as a Market Indicator

The mostly stagnant trade deadline displayed how next season’s massive cap spike is causing uncertainty around the NBA.

Ben Dowsett

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On the surface, the 2016 NBA trade deadline approached with a few similar smoke signals as the 2015 iteration – a manic, borderline ridiculous final day that flipped a previously slow trade period on its face. With an uncertain market, executives around the league once again pegged this year as a late bloomer, one where a flurry of activity to close the window could define the deadline as teams finally put their best offers (or their lowest demands) on the table. With a few big names reportedly on the block, including at least one or two rumors surrounding max or near-max salary players, it would only take one or two matches to once again shake up power balances in various locales.

If you dug a little deeper, though, it became clear by about 72 hours in advance of the final bell that this time around would not be a repeat of last year’s insanity. And while some of the reasons for this tie back to the Occam’s Razor of trade deadline life – big deals are very hard to get done between teams who all want maximum value – others speak to larger uncertainty about the changing market, along with an affirmation of a league-wide talent imbalance that only further complicates things for all but a few teams.

For starters, what amounted to a tame deadline period reflected the enormity of the collective league’s caution heading into an unprecedented cap spike this summer. Few in the game claim any certainty whatsoever regarding how a rapid cash influx will affect nearly every financial aspect of the NBA, even behind closed doors. Rather than throwing money around indiscriminately and expecting the new financial cushion to brace their fall, executives mostly went in the other direction.

Perhaps the clearest indicators here were a few supposedly high-interest commodities who, well, didn’t draw much interest.

Whether it was Al Horford in Atlanta (some executives speculated that he was never truly available in the first place), Dwight Howard in Houston or even a guy like Ryan Anderson or Eric Gordon in New Orleans, these incumbent franchises found tough sledding when looking for homes for expiring guys who could demand gigantic figures in the summer free-agency bonanza.

Again, it’s impossible to discern precisely how much of the inertia in these cases tied back to market dynamics. Teams still have to make the assets work in a desired trade, and bigger names can be among the most difficult to build around in a hypothetical deal. Parsing around the margins, though, reveals just how little interest teams had in bringing in a guy who a) could leave for nothing in a few months and b) would cost a king’s ransom to retain, even in new cap terms, on deals that could ruin a team’s cap sheet in a few uncertain years.

No one is sure whether the cap will remain so high a few years down the line. Howard, for instance, turns 31 next season – the nine-figure mega-contract he’ll certainly demand is legitimately frightening for a guy with both physical and behavioral asterisks next to his name in many circles, regardless of any cash influx on its way. The same can be said to some degree for any of the other rental players who might have drawn more interest in a year where teams could more accurately project the back end of a potential new deal.

Financial uncertainty might not have had quite the dulling effect, however, were it not for what’s simultaneously becoming a glaring on-court reality: NBA parity isn’t very high this year, even for a league where only a handful of teams are realistic title contenders annually. The Warriors were the class of the league at this time last year, but weren’t lapping the field to nearly this degree. Behind them, the pool of true challengers has shrunk drastically with the realization that only historical levels of greatness are slowing things down in the Bay.

So while Cleveland and Oklahoma City, teams ostensibly in this “challenger” group, made mostly minor tweaks to trim fat, many franchises in the next tier down saw little reason to use up any of their potential window. The Grizzlies, down Marc Gasol for an unspecified period, re-tooled with an influx of new draft picks and left their cap sheet intact to re-sign Mike Conley in the summer. The Raptors, perhaps the team best suited to make a splash with several usable assets and a window in the East that might not be open long pending DeMar DeRozan’s future, sat the trade period out altogether; a Celtics team in a similar position did the same.

There are exceptions, of course, but even these seem minor compared to what some had expected. The Clippers pulled a last second swap of Lance Stephenson for Jeff Green, but are likely deluding themselves if they see this as a move that truly places them among the league’s elite. The Wizards, with ample motivation to climb back into the East’s top eight as Kevin Durant approaches free agency, took likely the season’s highest-variance gamble by sending a protected first-rounder and salary fodder for the aggrieved Markieff Morris from Phoenix.

Most successful at straddling the fence were the Detroit Pistons, who preempted any last-second madness with likely the largest objective “win” near deadline time. Their acquisition of Tobias Harris from Orlando was successful on the surface because it was quite possibly a fleece job – Brandon Jennings and Ersan Ilaysova, the Magic’s return, represent an expiring contract and a non-guaranteed 2016-17 year, respectively, for two guys who it could easily be argued don’t really approach Harris’ value in a vacuum.

But Detroit’s approach, which included the acquisition of Donatas Motiejunas, who is set to be a restricted free agent, was also notable for the way it signaled Stan Van Gundy’s attitude toward the upcoming summer craziness. By bringing in two names and likely punting his own 2016 first round pick (to Houston in the D-Mo deal, with limited protections that make it likely the pick will convey this year), Van Gundy is functionally taking care of his free-agency period in advance – he now holds matching rights on Motiejunas, meaning he’ll deal with little uncertainty in retaining him as he also re-signs Andre Drummond to what most assume is a wink-wink max. Detroit isn’t challenging for a title this year anyway, and Van Gundy has expertly positioned them to avoid much of the summer uncertainty with the outlines of a group he clearly feels can form a strong core moving forward.

Most of the league took the cautious route, though, and what’s left sets up for every bit of the madness most have been forecasting at least a year in advance of summer 2016. Teams might feel more adventurous in the parity department with a full offseason to re-tool and gauge the Warriors, Cavs, Spurs and Thunder. Exact certainty on the new salary math in early July will make the picture clearer for teams on the edge of one cap threshold or another. A 2016 draft that multiple league sources have already labeled as the weakest in several years (in either direction) could see plenty of activity, with some teams devaluing their picks while others hoard them with knowledge of the sky-high value of rookie-scale contracts in the new environment.

However you look at it, the new money is all that’s on any forward-thinking mind. It clearly played a big role in a docile trade season, and thinkers everywhere are waiting for the first dominos to drop in a summer that could in part shape the league’s balance of power for the next half-decade.

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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Cavs Woes Reason For Concern, But Not Dismissal

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

Spencer Davies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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NBA Daily: Zach LaVine Has Solid Debut With Bulls

Zach LaVine put together a solid performance for the Bulls in his first game back from injury.

James Blancarte

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The Chicago Bulls are turning a corner this season. Zach LaVine is healthy after completing a year of rehabilitation from an ACL injury. LaVine’s return comes at a critical moment. The team is 13-7 over the last twenty games. Many of the wins in this stretch are over current competitors for a potential spot in the playoffs. This includes wins against the Charlotte Hornets (in overtime), the Philadelphia 76ers and three wins (one in overtime) against the New York Knicks. The stretch of winning ties into the return of forwards Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic. Having these key players back and winning this many games recently has changed the dynamics of what had been shaping up to be a losing season.

LaVine played in his first game of the season on Saturday and hit three of four three-point baskets while scoring 14 points in 19 minutes played. LaVine described how he felt physically and about the team’s recent run.

“I thought I did pretty good. I was tired as hell at first. But, we got the win,” LaVine said. “We’re going to keep this thing going.”

The team went into this season having parted ways with their franchise player, Jimmy Butler, in a trade that was derided by many for being lopsided. The trade netted the Bulls LaVine, point guard Kris Dunn and the sixth pick in the 2017 draft in exchange for Butler and the number 16 pick. The trade also allowed Butler to be reunited with coach Tom Thibodeau in Minnesota. For the Bulls, Dunn has greatly improved from the poor play of his rookie season in Minnesota. In addition, the Bulls selected Lauri Markkanen, whom has already displayed some serious talent and potential. Now with LaVine in the lineup, the Bulls can see the total value of the trade on the court.

So, where do the Bulls now stand? According to FiveThirtyEight, as of January 14, the Bulls are projected as having a three percent chance of making the playoffs with a projected record of 32-50. This is a jump from less than one percent (essentially zero percent) back on December 11, 2017. Still, three percent is not the most reassuring projection.

In addition, the recent shift to winning basketball also puts Chicago’s 2018 draft pick in a more precarious position. On December 6, 2017, the Bulls were 3-20 and were on pace to have one of the worst records in the league, if not the worst. Now every win moves the pick further away from a likely top three or even a potential number one pick and moves it closer to a top-10 selection or even middle of the first-round pick.

At the moment, the team is 16-27, good enough for 12th place in the Eastern Conference behind the Hornets, Knicks, 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks for the eighth and final spot in the playoffs. Being 6.5 games back and having seven more losses than the Bucks means the Bulls will need to continue winning at a high rate to make up the difference in the time left in the season.

LaVine didn’t hold back when it came to expressing his optimism regarding the team’s potential.

“I think we can make a push for this thing,” LaVine said. “That’s our job to do. That’s our job to do that,”

LaVine isn’t paying much attention to skeptics who still don’t believe the Bulls have much change to win anything meaningful this season.

“You know, we can’t control outside thoughts or anything,” LaVine said. “We’re ball players, we go out there and try to win every competition. You know, I think we’re good. I think we’re going to be good.”

In LaVine’s absence, Mirotic and Portis (despite their offseason scuffle) have emerged as two of the team’s best players. In addition, center Robin Lopez has done an admirable job keeping up his effort all season long while fulfilling his role as a veteran leader for the team. Lopez described the atmosphere on the team as positive recently in an interview with Joel Brigham of Basketball Insiders.

Despite the reason for optimism, it must be noted that the franchise might make another big trade that would diminish the team’s ability to be competitive this season. Despite his recent on-court success, reports are that Mirotic would like to be traded and that the Bulls asking price is a first-round pick.

Until such a move occurs, the Bulls appear poised to maintain their recent rate of success. Every win could cost the Bulls what could be a top overall pick in 2018. Regardless, the Bulls are surely feeling better about the results of the Butler trade, especially after LaVine’s impressive Chicago debut.

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NBA Daily: Lopez’s Enjoys “Old Guy” Role on Young Team

Robin Lopez is the old man on a very young Chicago Bulls team, but he says the camaraderie is a big reason why he’s happy there, and why the team is overachieving so much this year.

Joel Brigham

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When the Chicago Bulls started the season 3-20, nobody was surprised that they stunk. Everything was fine. They were supposed to stink. That was the entire reason they traded away Jimmy Butler for younger players in the first place. They wanted got their rebuild underway in earnest. (more…)

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