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Orlando Magic 2018-19 NBA Season Preview

The Orlando Magic’s rebuild has been slow and painful, but after two solid years in the draft lottery the Magic might have a bright future in front of them. Basketball Insiders takes a deep dive into the Orlando Magic in this 2018-19 NBA Season Preview.

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The Orlando Magic have been in a slump ever since the departure of Dwight Howard. Since his exodus, they’ve only eclipsed 30 wins in one season and haven’t finished in the top 10 of the Eastern Conference.

They’ve seen multiple lottery picks leave the team in the that span, either by trade or by free agency. One of those players, Victor Oladipo, has already turned into a legitimate superstar.

With three young lottery picks remaining on their roster in Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac, and newcomer Mohamed Bamba, and a new head coach to boot, do the Magic have what it takes to make a splash in the LeBron-less East? Let’s find out.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

It feels like the last several summers have kind of bled together when it comes to the Orlando Magic, and 2018 was no real exception. The Magic made another coaching change, this time replacing Frank Vogel with Steve Clifford, who will become the franchise’s fifth head coach since the 2014-15 season. They locked up Aaron Gordon to a new four-year deal that seems mostly fair, plus swapped out one albatross center in Bismack Biyombo for another in Timofey Mozgov in a deal with Charlotte that also netted them Jerian Grant. And of course, they continued the franchise’s apparent obsession with drafting length, taking Texas center Mo Bamba sixth overall. It’ll be another developmental year in Orlando, one where the Magic will quickly want to get an idea of how Gordon and 2017 first-rounder Jonathan Isaac play together after Isaac barely cracked 500 minutes last season. They’ll also want to get a quick idea of how Bamba fits into the plans, plus whether or not that means they have to try and extract some value for the expiring contract of Nic Vucevic. Don’t expect a whole lot on the floor unless someone like Gordon takes a big leap, however.

4th Place – Southeast Division

-Ben Dowsett

In most cases, it would be very frustrating to watch a team like Orlando start rebuilding again since, you know, that’s what they’ve been doing since 2012. However, things just might be different this time. While the next couple of years are going to be drag for Orlando, Mo Bamba, Jonathan Isaac and Aaron Gordon could build a glorious future in the Magic Kingdom. As for the present, not much should be expected of Orlando. The roster is promising but, even with Evan Fournier and Nikola Vucevic, it has no stars right now. Still, the future is bright! Just don’t screw this up like last time, okay guys?

4th Place – Southeast Division

– Matt John

There is no question about what kind of team the Magic are building right now. With the exception of four players, nobody on the roster is under 6-foot-6. They are long, athletic and most importantly, defensive-minded. Steve Clifford is going to have plenty of options to tinker with as far as rotations go. Scoring will be at a premium with this bunch, but opponents are going to need a ton of luck to put the ball in the basket against the likes of rookie Mohamed Bamba and second-year forward Jonathan Isaac. It probably won’t field the best results in their first season, but pay close attention to this experiment in Orlando.

4th Place – Southeast Division

– Spencer Davies

The Orlando Magic haven’t been crazy in their moves, but they have taken chances, and on the surface those chances look pretty promising. The issue for the Magic is they are trapped between two teams – the team the current front office inherited, and the young team they have built and drafted. If Steve Clifford is the coach the Magic believe him to be, maybe all of this comes together into something unexpectedly special, but if Clifford is the coach he was in Charlotte, the Magic could be doomed before they get out of the gate. Its not fair to lay it all on the feet of a new head coach, but if the Magic have had a bad culture for a while, maybe Clifford is the guy that changes it enough to help the young guys flourish. If he’s not, then all of this is simply smoke and mirrors for another run through the draft lottery.

3rd Place – Southeast Division

– Steve Kyler

The Orlando Magic have a decent group of veteran talent but the team’s priority should be on developing and building around its young talent. Aaron Gordon is locked up on a four-year deal and continues to round out into a very capable player. My main focus this season, however, is the pairing of Jonathan Isaac and Mohamed Bamba. Both players are incredibly long, talented and mobile. I am not sure how well these two players will fit together on the floor against NBA teams but I am excited to see what head coach Steve Clifford is able to do with them. If Isaac and Bamba come even close to their respective ceilings, the Magic could have a dynamic frontcourt duo unlike any other in the league. But it’s also possible that they aren’t a great fit or they don’t allow Gordon to play enough minutes at power forward, which is where he is arguably most effective.

4th Place – Southeast Division

– Jesse Blancarte

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Aaron Gordon

Entering his fifth year in the league, Aaron Gordon has seen a substantial improvement to his offensive game. He is coming off a season in which he averaged career highs across the board, posting 17.6 points, 7.9 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.0 steals, and 0.8 blocks.

Something that really sticks out is Gordon’s work to become a modern-day stretch four. As a rookie, he shot a measly 27.1 percent from the three-point line. He’s seen a steady improvement in his ability to shoot from beyond the arc throughout his time in the league and posted a respectable 33.6 percent this last season. He started out the season red hot, shooting a blistering 42.5 percent from the three through December. He obviously cooled off the latter half of the season, thanks in part to a lackluster 20.5 three-point percentage in January.

If he can find that fire again this season, and stay healthy (a large part of his poor January shooting could be the fact that he missed seven games in December), his ability to shoot the three will give the Magic some much-needed offensive firepower. A key thing to note, in wins last season, Gordon shot 42.1 percent from the three-point line. In losses, that number was down to 30.2 percent.

Top Defensive Player: Jonathan Isaac

While the Magic added someone to their roster this offseason whose wingspan makes Rudy Gobert’s look average, we wanted to go with someone who has already had a season to prove their defensive value. The second-year product out of Florida State University, Jonathan Isaac posted a considerably lower defensive rating than anyone else on the Magic’s roster at 101.1.

Isaac still has a thin frame, which can allow stronger opponents to muscle him down low, but he more than makes up for it with his length and athleticism. It’s no surprise that he led the Magic in block percentage at 44.1, but he also led the team in steal percentage at 35.9.

Jonathan is still incredibly raw on offense. But his high defensive IQ, matched with his lanky frame, will allow him to dominate on D for many years to come. He is long enough to protect the rim, but quick enough to guard the wing, making him highly valuable in today’s game of “position-less” basketball. Give him a few more years to put on muscle and assimilate in the league, and he’ll become a force to be reckoned with.

Top Playmaker: D.J. Augustin

If there is one thing that Magic are definitely lacking right now, it is a solid playmaker. Before the trade deadline, Elfrid Payton was putting together a solid season offensively, averaging a career-high 6.4 assists per game. Once he was dealt to the Suns, the starting one position essentially fell into Augustin’s lap.

A positive thing to note regarding Augustin’s tenure post-All-Star break was his increase in assist percentage. Before the break as a backup, his assist percentage was 23.7. After taking over as lead ball handler, it shot up to 27.1 percent. Thanks in part to D.J.’s many years in the league, he also boasted a positive assist to turnover ratio of 2.36 during the post-All-Star stretch. It doesn’t hurt that he shot 41.9 percent from beyond the arc, either.

He clearly shouldn’t be their answer as a long-term playmaker. Augustin has been in the league long enough to know what you’re going to get out of him, but going into this season he is the best playmaker on the floor. It will be interesting to see if the Magic try to add a younger point guard at the deadline to help with their rebuild, or if they plan to go with Augustin for the year and begin the search next summer.

Top Clutch Player: Evan Fournier

Evan Fournier has been a solid player during his tenure with the Magic. He is an efficient scorer, and barring the emergence of Aaron Gordon, could have been considered the best offensive player on this roster. One thing that sticks out with Fournier, however, is how much the Magic go through him in the clutch. He has a 31.8 usage percentage in the clutch, almost double any other player on roster. Only 11 players who played at least as many clutch minutes and exceeded Fournier in usage percentage made a higher percentage of their team’s field goals.

He also boasts the most points per game in the clutch, the highest percentage of fields goals attempted and made, and the most minutes played. One thing that Fournier lacks in this category is efficiency. While he does score the most points in the clutch, by a considerable amount, he does so with poor field goal percentage at 38.9. Chalk this up to teams putting their best wing defender on him in the closing minutes of all close games. Teams realize how much he is relied upon in the clutch and definitely game plan around that.

The Unheralded Player: Nikola Vucevic

This seems to be a popular place for Vucevic to land, as we had him as the unheralded player last year, too. He is a talented big that somehow gets hidden on a lackluster roster. He averaged a quiet 16.7 points, 9.2 rebounds, 3.4 assists, and 1.1 blocks last year, all while averaging a career high percentage at the free throw line of 81.9 percent.

One thing that doesn’t get mentioned nearly often enough is that he has the highest usage percentage out of all the starters. This can be tied to his highly efficient post-up play and ability to finish around the rim. He’s been trying to stretch his game to the three-point line, and while his mark of 31.4 percent isn’t entirely flashy, it puts him at seventeenth in the league out of centers who attempt more than three a game.

A few more interesting numbers to prove his value are the fact that his plus-minus of -0.6 is considerably better than any other starter on the roster. He also boasts 29 double-doubles, 12 more than Aaron Gordon, and light years more than any other player on the roster.

Best New Addition: Mohamed Bamba

This pick should come as no surprise. Bamba has brought a new dimension to this league. With the sixth overall pick, the Magic introduced the largest wingspan in the NBA at 7-foot-10. ‘Mo’ Bamba has elite length, which will allow him to make an immediate impact on defense. He finished second in the NCAA in blocks per game, at a staggering 3.7. He was in the top 20 for defensive rebounds at 7.33. His stature is no joke, and the league will take notice upon the start of the season.

A dimension that he will surely try to improve is his ability to shoot. Many videos have appeared showing Bamba shooting with solid, consistent technique. This will not directly translate in game situations off the bat, as he did shoot only 27.5 percent from three in college, but the fact that he finds importance to develop this part of his game early can only be a huge benefit to the Magic.

– Jordan Hicks

Who We Like:

1. Jonathon Simmons:

After coming off arguably his best year, albeit in a new system and getting used to a larger role, Simmons is poised to make an even larger impact in his second year of the Magic. He is locked up for at least one more year with next season being non-guaranteed. This fact alone will incentivize him to string together a strong season so he can potentially make a large splash in next summer’s free agency.

He developed superbly with the Spurs during his first two years of the league, then saw career highs across the board in his first year with the Magic. Not only did he improve basic stats like scoring, rebounding, and assists, but he was also able to improve his efficiency.

He’s spent the summer recovering from a wrist injury, so it will be interesting to see how healthy he is come the start of the season. With him slated as the starting shooting guard, the Magic will definitely need him to continue his improvements if they want to add more wins.

2. Steve Clifford:

By hiring Clifford as new head coach, the Orlando Magic hope that he’ll be able to develop this young roster into a winning team. Steve has carved out a comfortable spot in the league as a defensive savant, developing his skills under both Van Gundy brothers before taking over as the coach of the then-Charlotte Bobcats in 2013.

While he wasn’t able to make any deep runs in the playoffs, he did get there two out of five seasons. He never really had a championship caliber roster, but he was definitely able to coach his teams to be solid defensively.

The Magic were very strategic in hiring Clifford. As you look at their roster, three names stick out right away as defensive building blocks: Mohamed Bamba, Aaron Gordon, and Jonathan Isaac. Throw in Jonathon Simmons, and you’ve got yourself quite the group. These players, as mentioned previously, boast length, athleticism, and technique. Clifford should be able to utilize these players’ unique skillsets right away to help the Magic get off to a strong start.

3. D.J. Augustin:

If there is one thing we’ve learned while watching the NBA the past few years, it is that teams can live or die by the three. D.J. Augustin was one of the best three point shooters in the league last year at 41.9 percent. The Magic weren’t flawed in starting Elfrid Payton over Augustin, as he is much younger and definitely had room to develop, but allowing Augustin more minutes per page gives the team a much better opportunity at stretching the floor on offense. D.J. is an elite three-point shooter and will keep defenses on their heels whenever he has the ball.

4. The New Frontcourt

We cannot wait to see the three-man monster lineup on defense of Jonathan Isaac, Aaron Gordon, and Mohamed Bamba. Those three players will terrorize opposing teams at the rim. Two of the three can absolutely hold their own when switching onto smaller players, as well.

As the season goes on and this group gets more and more minutes together, they are going to help the Orlando Magic morph into a defensive-minded team that this league hasn’t seen. Clifford will help put these players in the right positions. Don’t be surprised if the Magic finish as a top-five team defensively.

– Jordan Hicks

Strengths

While this team has struggled immensely since the departure of Dwight Howard, this young, raw core that they’ve pieced together over the last few years has to totally look like a bright spot. They’ve been able to draft some really intriguing pieces that all harbor elite length, athleticism, and playmaking ability.

It will be interesting to see if the new head coach can help instill a winning culture to a team that is used to losing games. Looking at the roster as a whole, Jonathon Simmons is one of the few players that has recently been a part of a winning culture. Getting a new coach in there that is used to winning a lot more games than most of the players should be viewed as a positive.

– Jordan Hicks

Weaknesses

A clear weakness is their lack of a true distributor. By waiving Shelvin Mack, the Magic no longer have anyone on their roster that can successfully distribute the ball. D.J. Augustin has always been a solid backup point guard, but he’s never been more than just that. By trading Payton and waiving Mack, they’ve handicapped themselves to a serious lack of depth at the point guard position.

Jerian Grant is coming off his best season yet with the Chicago Bulls, so it will be interesting to see what he brings to the table with Orlando. He will likely start the season as backup point guard, but thanks in part to his youth, Orlando may throw him into the starting spot if he proves he is worth the development.

While they have plenty of pieces to work with defensively, they are coming off a season in which they finished twentieth in the league in defensive rating. This has certainly been a weak point the last couple of seasons, so their recent draft acquisitions and new coaching hire have been made for a reason.

– Jordan Hicks

The Burning Question:

Can Steve Clifford Change the Losing Culture of this Young Team?

History matters with a question like this. In looking at Clifford’s track record as an NBA head coach, there is reason to believe that he can. During his first season with the Charlotte Bobcats, he led them to a 43-39 record as well as the playoffs. Their two previous years the Bobcats had a combined win total of only 28.

This shows that Clifford has the ability to make an immediate impact by employing his defense-first mentality. One could also argue that this young Magic roster has a lot more upside than the roster he took over in Charlotte. It will be interesting to see as the season progresses, but one thing is for certain: This Magic team will be exciting.

– Jordan Hicks

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NBA Daily: Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons Still Working Out Kinks

The Philadelphia 76ers are still looking for the best ways to combine Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons offensively. Quinn Davis looks at what the team has done so far and what it could do going to forward to maximize their talents.

Quinn Davis

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Late in the third quarter of the Philadelphia 76ers’ win over the Toronto Raptors, Ben Simmons brought the ball up the court and called a play.

After directing some traffic, Joel Embiid came up to the three-point line and ran a simple pick-and-roll with Simmons. Simmons slashed past Marc Gasol to the rim and threw down a left-handed dunk.

For most teams, this simple high pick-and-roll would go unnoticed, a faint memory from a normal December win. For these Sixers, though, that play is symbolic of the team’s championship aspirations.

There has been much hand-wringing and alarm-sounding over the fit of Embiid and Simmons offensively. The concerns are justified, as Simmons and Embiid both do their best work around the basket. They are yin and bigger yin at times.

As of their win over the Raptors, the Sixers’ best offensive units have been the ones featuring Simmons, but not Embiid. The lineup of Simmons, Matisse Thybulle, James Ennis, Tobias Harris,and Al Horford has scored 114.9 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. That same lineup with exception of Furkan Korkmaz in for Thybulle has scored 117.7 points per 100 possessions. For comparison, the Sixers score 107.8 points per 100 possessions when the two young stars share the court.

The key to those Simmons-led lineups has been their pace. At their fastest, they have zoomed up and down the hardwood at a pace of 111.6 possessions per game, per NBA.com. That lineup, which is the Simmons-Thybulle-Ennis-Harris-Horford grouping, would rank first in the NBA by a mile in that category.

With Embiid on the court, playing at that pace is impossible. Lineups with Embiid have hovered around a pace of 98 or 99 possessions per game so far this season.

That is not knock on the star center; any player at his size would be a better fit for a slower game. This is just one example of the tricky fit between the two leaders of the franchise.

This wide gap was not present last season. The starting lineup used at the end of the 2018-19 run, which featured both Embiid and Simmons, ran at a pace of about 106 possessions per game, a number that would rank first in the NBA this season. Also, the offense stagnated when Embiid left the court last season. With Simmons on and Embiid off, the Sixers only could muster 108 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass.

The change this year can largely be attributed to the addition of Al Horford. Horford, who is now the starting power forward and backup center, has had a profound effect on the team’s offense and pace.

Firstly, he has proven to be an ideal partner for Simmons. Horford is a master at trailing the fastbreak for top the arc threes and also can be weaponized as a pick-and-pop partner against defenses who collapse on Simmons, like in this play against the Raptors.

Secondly, Horford as a power forward contributes to the snail’s pace that the team plays with their starters. The sheer size of that five-man unit makes running up and down the court counter to the advantages that they pose.

With Horford in tow, the differences between Simmons and Embiid are now amplified on the offensive end.

With Embiid and Simmons on the court together, the spacing predictably tightens. The cramped paint leads to turnover problems, as the Sixers’ turnover percentage jumps to nearly 18 percent when those two share the court, per Cleaning the Glass.

Minimizing those turnovers and piecing together a strong half-court offense will be key in the Sixers’ title hopes as the year goes on. They may need to get creative in order to do that considering the unique skillset.

Philadelphia head coach Brett Brown is aware of this. He is sure to use the regular season as a laboratory to experiment with the best possible sets when the two share the court.

One of those ways is to have Simmons space to the corner in half-court offensive sets. Brown didn’t mince words over the weekend when asked about Simmons’ second made three of the season, saying he wanted to see “one three-point shot a game,” from his star point guard.

Brown noted that the attempt itself is not only important, but it is the way it would open things up for the rest of Simmons’ game. Brown continued that the ability to attack the paint from that position would lead to dunks and free throws.

As of now, there are a lot of possessions like the one below. The ball gets entered to Embiid while Simmons lurks in the dunker spot on the opposite side of the basket. Most defenses simply collapse into the paint and force the kick out with ease, as the Indiana Pacers do here. The Sixers’ three shooters are located around the top of the arc, so defenders have a short distance to close out.

Simmons spacing to the corner on plays like this would make the Sixers much more difficult to defend. A few passes around the perimeter could lead to an open three or a drive to the rim when a defender closes out wildly.

There is also the step of involving Embiid and Simmons in more two-man actions. The most common two-man action in the NBA is, of course, the pick-and-roll.

Going back to the pick-and-roll at the beginning of this piece, the one thing that stands out immediately is the way Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is guarding Simmons. He is tight on Simmons all the way out five feet above the three-point line. That defense allows Simmons to get free with a head of steam to the basket.

Simmons will rarely see a player guard him that way all season. Most will sag to the foul line or deeper and be content drifting under ever pick. Basketball Insiders asked Brown about this specific play and what they could do going forward to get more actions like this, his response was detailed.

“It’s always been a wish to grow those two in pick-and-rolls,” Brown said. “It sounds good, in this room. But when you watch how the league is defending him, there’s nobody to screen. You have to go to different angles, like deep pick-and-rolls and I think they have had success out of that.”

The Sixers have dabbled in those deep pick-and-rolls this season. The play usually involves Simmons getting the ball on the mid-block, where Embiid sets the screen and Simmons moves toward the basket. The play usually results in a decent look for Simmons, as it does on the play here.

Unfortunately for the Sixers, Simmons has had a bit more trouble with those short hooks this season. His percentage in that area is down from 38 percent last season to 34 percent in this campaign, per Cleaning the Glass. This could be variance, as the season is still young.

Still, there are other ways to maximize their combined skills. Perhaps the Sixers try more actions with Simmons as a screener while Embiid plays the role of the dunker. There is also the possibility of more high-low action, weaponizing Simmons’ ability as a passer from the high post.

It is also important to mention the benefit of having two distinct styles. Having a team that can play multiple ways depending on personnel is an inherently good thing.

While the two make for an odd couple offensively, the situation is not as dire as it may seem. The pair operates at a plus-11.4 net rating when sharing the court, per Cleaning the Glass. When Embiid plays without Simmons, the net rating sits at plus-9.7, while that number is a plus-5.7 in the reverse scenario. When you further specify to view lineups with Simmons and Horford sans Embiid, that number jumps to plus-12.7.

These numbers can be attributed to the defensive side of the ball, where the two make for a destructive duo. Embiid has provided his usual rim-protection while Simmons has taken a leap on that end, locking down guards and wings alike while leading the league in steals.

If a few things are tightened up offensively, the Sixers could go from contender to favorite in the championship race.

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Buy Or Sell: Northwest Division

Matt John starts off Basketball Insiders’ latest series “Buy Or Sell” by taking a look at which teams in the Northwest Division will be buyers and sellers when the trading season commences.

Matt John

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The holidays are a joyous time — but particularly so for NBA junkies.

Christmas Day is one of the most highly-anticipated events for basketball fans everywhere. Not only do we get to see the best teams in the league face-off — but the best players in the league show themselves off on national television. Needless to say, there’s a lot to look forward to on Dec. 25.

Did you know, however, that there is one day that the NBA’s most devoted fans look forward to arguably even more than Christmas? If you didn’t, that day in mind is Dec. 15.

Sounds a little random at first, doesn’t it? Well, there’s a good reason for this. On that day, almost all of the players who agreed to new contracts over the summer become eligible to be traded. That means, almost everyone in the entire league is free game to acquire once that date rolls around.

With that moment mere days away, Basketball Insiders will take a look at which teams should consider upgrades and what franchises might be in sellers mode.

Today, we start with the Northwest Division.

Denver Nuggets (14-7) – Buyers

Does a team flip a script if they are still in the same place as they were last year? Ask the Nuggets.

Last year, the Nuggets attained the second seed because of their elite offense first and foremost. That hasn’t been the case this year. Denver is still one of the better teams in their conference, but their offense has fallen down the tubes, going from scoring 113 points per 100 possessions to 107.1. Their defense has made up the difference, as they’ve gone from allowing 108.9 points per 100 possessions to 102.5.

Their offensive woes should change, but their bench needs some offensive help. Denver’s starters are doing just fine as they are plus-11.6 when they’re on the floor together. But their second unit is a different story.

The Nuggets’ highest scorer off their bench is Jerami Grant, who scores 9.5 points a game. That’s adequate for a player like him, except Denver is minus-19.5 when he’s on the floor. Grant also does not have a reputation as a scorer, so the fact that he’s the bench’s highest bucket-getter is troubling.

Denver is tied for 18th in the league in three-point percentage although they are 22nd in three-point attempts a game – 30.6. What could give their bench a boost on that end is adding a pure three-point shooter on that end. Doing so could open up the floor a bit for them.

For now, the Nuggets’ needs aren’t all too pressing for them, but if these offensive woes as a team continue, something has to be done.

Minnesota Timberwolves (10-13) – Buyers (?)

Give credit to the Timberwolves. They’ve managed to be slightly better than everyone thought they would be. Karl-Anthony Towns continues his ascension into the league’s most offensively talented big. Andrew Wiggins has recouped a fair amount of the hype he’s lost over the last two years. As for the rest of their roster, well…

Minnesota has a team full of solid players outside of Towns and Wiggins. The best one among them obviously being Robert Covington, who, at his peak, is an elite role player. After him, it’s a roster full of solid rotation players that — sans Jarrett Culver and Josh Okogie — have reached their ceilings.

More likely than not, they’re not going to sell anyone — both because they don’t want to pull the plug on their best young players and their role players outside of Covington wouldn’t fetch much value. At the same time, they don’t really have the assets to get anyone that good. They’ll probably try like mad to get their hands on D’Angelo Russell, but they likely don’t have anything that Golden State would want.

Minnesota’s not particularly great on either side of the floor — 18th-rated offense/20th-rated defense — so of course, they could use personnel for both sides. Because they lack the assets right now, don’t expect them to make any head-turning moves.

Odds are, they’ll probably do nothing barring any unexpected jumps from anyone else not named Towns or Wiggins. So, technically, they’re more likely to be buyers but that’s because they don’t really have much to sell.

Oklahoma City Thunder (11-12) – TBD

See, the obvious choice here for Oklahoma City is to be sellers and for good reason, too. For starters, the Thunder have already sold off their superstars for lesser players and a hefty dose of youth. Overall, they’re strictly a middle-of-the-road team in a loaded Western Conference. The sooner they get rid of Chris Paul and his expensive contract, the better.

Better, in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, they already have the next face of the franchise. Beyond that, Oklahoma City has talented players who could fetch them more young value — so no one would blame them if they blew it up.

And yet, there’s so much to like about this team. They come to fight every night. They have enough manpower to compete with just about anyone. They’ve had their good stretches, though it’s pretty evened out by their bad stretches. Above all else, these guys look like they’re having fun playing together.

All reports indicate that Chris Paul is fully embracing his new role as the mentor of this young team. He probably would prefer playing for a contender, but he’s teaching this team how to win and they’re soaking it all in. The Thunder would be better off without him clogging up their cap, but he is bringing a positive influence in the locker room — that counts for something.

Whether they decide to really start from scratch depends on how desperate the interested parties would be in their players. They also have to ask how much would they honestly get for Danilo Gallinari, who’s been excellent, but is on an expiring contract.

The Thunder also have the rare opportunity to have their cake and eat it. They can put on a fun, winning team on the court while acquiring young players through the draft. Teams have formed winning cultures by going this route and it’s worked for them. Just ask Boston.

The more sensible direction for Oklahoma City is to blow it up and start fresh, but seeing how their current group does this season isn’t the worst idea, either.

Portland Trail Blazers (9-15) – Buyers

We already knew Portland would look into improving their roster when the season started. We just didn’t know how many wrenches were going to be thrown into their plans. It was bad enough for them to deal with Jusuf Nurkic’s unclear return date. Zach Collins hurting his shoulder early on hindered an already thin frontcourt — and now, Rodney Hood is done for the year at the very least.

Carmelo Anthony and Hassan Whiteside have done what they can — although the latter is guilty of falling into the same frustrating habits he had in Miami — but that’s not enough. The Trail Blazers currently have the 21st-rated defense, allowing 112.2 points per 100 possessions and their offense hasn’t been as efficient as it was last year. They went from scoring 114.7 points per 100 possessions to 109.6. Now that they’ve lost Hood, it’s going to be even harder to keep that up.

Their needs are clear as day: They need depth in the frontcourt or, more specifically, they need interchangeable wings. Portland losing Moe Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu has been very reminiscent of Houston losing Trevor Ariza and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute last year. Those lock-down assets gave so much cushion with their shooting, defense and versatility that replacing them hasn’t been easy.

That’s why the perfect candidate would be Marcus Morris. He’s a tweener three-four who should fit snugly in Hood’s role as the third off-ball scorer. Admittedly, Morris is a ball-stopper but still a reliable shooter that provides better defense than any of Portland’s other wings.

Further, Morris wold also gives Portland a headstrong personality that would benefit them both on and off the court.

But they will need more than just him. Whiteside’s mammoth expiring deal can be awfully useful in a trade, but if Nurkic isn’t the same guy when he comes back, it may not be the wisest decision to trade Hassan.

For Portland, we’ll get a better picture of things when February arrives.

Utah Jazz (13-11) – Buyers

Something is wrong in Utah. What’s been happening to them over the past week or so is not indicative of a bad stretch. It’s indicative of what they are as a team — broken.

While early-season struggles are a yearly tradition for Utah, this go-round feels different. Their offense isn’t as fluid as it’s been in the past and the defense has somehow taken a step back. The worst part is that the Jazz have seemingly lost their identity in that they don’t play as one unit anymore.

When they added Mike Conley Jr. and Bojan Bogdanovic — the talent may have come in, but the grit went out. Their mediocre start in spite of their new toys is garnering them comparisons to the 2018-19 Boston Celtics.

In order to avoid the same fate as that team, the Jazz must address their issues head-on. Plainly, the Jazz have one of the worst benches in the league. The disappearance of Joe Ingles’ three-pointer has hurt a lot, Utah has lacked scoring from the likes of Jeff Green, Emmanuel Mudiay, Dante Exum and Ed Davis — so the starters aren’t getting the support they need.

If they are serious about contending this year, they need a reliable scoring option in their second unit. Quin Snyder can stagger Donovan Mitchell and Bogdanovic’s minutes to help their bench, but they can only do so much on their own.

They also have to start asking themselves if they acquired Conley one year too late and — if they believe they have — decide what their next move is. Conley has fallen well short of expectations and his shot isn’t falling nearly as often as it once did. There’s still time for him to get his form back, but if it’s still the same story as it’s been these first two months, the Jazz may have to look for someone else.

It’s not pretty in Utah — and frankly, same for Portland and Minnesota as well — but there’s still time to salvage the season. As for Oklahoma City and Denver, they’ll need to evaluate just high their ceilings rise this season and act accordingly. Trade season only heats up from here — so stay tuned to Basketball Insiders for the other divisions this week.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Welcome To Trade Season

You may not be thinking about NBA trades until closer to February but trade season actually begins this Sunday, writes Douglas Farmer.

Douglas Farmer

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Trade season may conventionally be considered February’s territory in the NBA, but its start actually arrives Sunday. Of course, while trades could have come to life at any point in the last couple of months, as much as a third of the league has been off-limits to be moved.

Come Sunday, players who signed new contracts this past offseason can factor into negotiations.

So, unofficially, let D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle join Kevin Love in trade ponderings. The Cleveland Cavaliers forward has long been the cornerstone of the rumor mill — soon, he will have company.

While Love has become a mainstay in imagined trades, Russell and Randle will provide new ground to cover, though far from unexpected being each of their summer signings was met with immediate trade musings.

Love signing a four-year deal worth $120 million never fit with the Cavaliers’ innate youth movement. At the end of the deal, he will be 34. For these first few months, that has simply been a known reality, but now it becomes a distinct possibility. At some point, Cleveland will understandably want to find a frontcourt piece on a timeline more compatible with rookie guard Darius Garland and second-year guard Collin Sexton.

Russell’s arrival in the Bay Area always stood out as a redundancy once Klay Thompson gets healthy, while a market already existed for him in free agency — specifically via the Minnesota Timberwolves’ chase. That market was prevalent enough, the Golden State Warriors felt the need to quickly insist Russell was not a piece to flip no matter how worrisome having a fourth max contract player might be given the state of their bench.

And Randle’s three-year contract in New York was a bit of an anomaly during an offseason in which the Knicks otherwise signed a multitude of veterans to only one-year deals. In other words, he was the only new piece with long-term trade potential, while Bobby Portis, Marcus Morris and Taj Gibson would serve as nothing more than expiring contract rentals in a deal.

New York’s plan may have been to build around Randle, but this season’s first two months have made that less and less likely. Even after head coach David Fizdale’s firing, and maybe more so, the Knicks’ tailspin warrants a seller’s attitude. By no means are they alone in that regard — note the Cavaliers. The same can be said of the Chicago Bulls, where forward Thaddeus Young and guard Tomas Satoransky fit these same qualifications as Russell and Randle.

The layers of possibilities opened on Dec. 15 go further and further.

If the Orlando Magic do want to make a move for a backcourt scorer, perhaps the San Antonio Spurs’ DeMar DeRozan, then being able to include Terrence Ross and/or Al-Farouq Aminu could help along a deal. On the Spurs’ side of things, Rudy Gay, DeMarre Carroll and Trey Lyles will be trade eligible by the end of the weekend.

The majority of both the Sacramento Kings’ and the Dallas Mavericks’ rotations fit these parameters, one hoping to join the other in playoff contention. Teams trending the opposite way in the standings might try to pilfer those rotations for pieces and a draft pick in exchange for, as examples, the Atlanta Hawks’ Jabari Parker or the Charlotte Hornets’ Terry Rozier, both now tradeable.

Nearly any conversation comes back to Sunday’s opening limit. The Boston Celtics may be a strong frontcourt presence away from genuine contention. Their biggest name in the post, Enes Kanter, could not be moved until this weekend. Maybe flipping him with a pick could net the needed threat, — or maybe it would yield a defensive post piece, the opposite of Kanter.

To further this entire premise and pick a name not available just yet, Oklahoma City’s Nerlens Noel fits the thought. If the Celtics insisted the post piece have an offensive repertoire, they could do worse than the Memphis Grizzlies’ Jonas Valanciunas.

Four Houston Rockets’ wings were off the market until now, though Austin Rivers essentially remains untradeable given the nature of his contract. As Eric Pincus explained regarding the Los Angeles Lakers’ Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, some inherent no-trade clauses do exist.

Otherwise, every name mentioned thus far was exempt from honest discussion until now, aside from Love’s permanent role as trade talk fodder. If trade season both peaks and concludes in February, it logically needs a starting point. With or without Rivers and Caldwell-Pope, that starting point is Sunday when Kevin Love will not be alone in the conversation anymore.

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