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Six Best Deals In The Southwest Division

Buddy Grizzard looks at the six best moves from the offseason for the NBA’s Southwest Division.

Buddy Grizzard

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While the Cleveland Cavaliers organization has fallen into disarray, the San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets have been full participants in the NBA’s ongoing arms race. Both teams have sought to bolster their depth in hopes of challenging Golden State’s ongoing dynasty in the upcoming season. As a result, the Southwest Division’s entry in our series analyzing the best moves of the offseason is dominated by those two teams, with a nod to the New Orleans Pelicans, who hope to crash the party and get into the conversation as contenders.

Houston Rockets acquire Chris Paul from L.A. Clippers

The Houston Rockets’ trade for Chris Paul — in exchange for a package that included presumptive Clippers starting point guard Patrick Beverley, along with Lou Williams, Sam Dekker, Montrezl Harrell, DeAndre Liggins, Darrun Hilliard, Kyle Wiltjer, a top-three-protected 2018 first-round pick and cash — precipitated the largest shift in the NBA’s balance of power this summer. The Rockets now have a starting backcourt that arguably eclipses Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson of the Golden State Warriors. In the era of superteams, Houston has positioned itself to compete with the juggernaut in Oakland.

The Rockets shocked the world last season as Mike D’Antoni moved James Harden to point guard, which resulted in Houston claiming the league’s third-best record. D’Antoni was rightly recognized with Coach of the Year honors for his outside-the-box approach. But Paul’s arrival does not assure that the Rockets will be better than last season. Beverley, Williams, Dekker and Harrell were all important depth pieces for a team that had its depth exposed in the conference semifinals against the Spurs. Nonetheless, the Paul trade gives Houston cache among other potential free agent signings and trade targets that should allow for further improvement.

Houston Rockets sign James Harden to record $228 million extension

Along those same lines, by getting Harden under contract through the 2022-23 season, Houston has announced itself as an organization absent the instability that could cripple the Cleveland Cavaliers’ chances to compete for a championship this year. The signing is yet another shrewd business move for owner Leslie Alexander, who reportedly will sell the franchise after owning the Rockets for 24 years. Harden will be just 33 in the final season of his newly-extended deal, so Houston has ensured that a potential purchaser will have the team’s centerpiece under contract for the entirety of his prime.

By relieving some of the pressure to carry the team, Paul’s signing could make Harden even more effective this season. Additional help could come in the form of a trade for New York Knick Carmelo Anthony, but moving Ryan Anderson’s contract to open cap space has proven difficult. Nonetheless, with Paul newly-arrived, Harden locked up for half a decade and no state tax in Texas, Houston has established itself as a destination franchise and a contender for years to come.

San Antonio Spurs sign Patty Mills

It’s difficult to overstate what a bargain Patty Mills is at four years and $50 million after he led the Spurs in net rating last season. Not appearing on this list are Pau Gasol’s new three-year, $48 million deal and the reported return of Manu Ginobili for his age-40 season. The Spurs have an age problem. While Ginobili was shockingly-effective at 39 last season, it’s impossible to think he will be as effective in what will likely be his final season. Starting point guard Tony Parker has been in precipitous decline, which makes retaining Mills, who could have taken over as the starter for a number of NBA teams, a huge coup for the Spurs.

San Antonio Spurs sign Rudy Gay

Unlike the Mills signing, the addition of Rudy Gay on a two-year, $17 million contract represents a significant gamble for the Spurs. If he can recover from the Achilles injury that ended his season to produce anything close to the 18.7 points per game he scored for the Kings last season, the signing could significantly affect the balance of power in the NBA’s Western Conference. Gay isn’t known for his defense, but he has the size to match up against Kevin Durant and the scoring acumen to make him work on the defensive end. However, if Gay’s injury results in diminished output for the long term, the Spurs may come to regret making this gamble rather than allocating that money to important depth pieces such as the departed Jonathon Simmons and Dewayne Dedmon.

Houston Rockets sign P.J. Tucker

The Cavaliers lost the NBA Finals because big men Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love were ineffective from a net rating perspective and Cleveland lacked the wing depth to compete with the Warriors. Adding P.J. Tucker on a four-year, $32 million deal gives the Rockets a player who can guard wings and switch onto some power forwards. Houston also added Luc Mbah a Moute on a one-year veteran’s minimum deal, which gives the Rockets yet another player who can switch defensively against Golden State’s incredibly-deep corps of wings and forwards. These moves were very obviously made to give Houston a better chance of competing against the Spurs and Warriors in next season’s playoffs.

New Orleans Pelicans sign Rajon Rondo

The nod here goes to Rajon Rondo, who had the Boston Celtics on the brink of a first round disaster before he fractured his thumb in Game 2, allowing Boston to recover and advance. The Pelicans signed Jrue Holiday to a five-year, $126 million deal that could reach $150 million with incentives. This is an overpay for a player who rated as an average NBA starter according to Real Plus-Minus and will prevent the Pelicans from addressing its glaring depth issues. By contrast, getting Rondo on a one-year deal was a coup for New Orleans.

The Pelicans have yet to prove that the team can win with a pair of centers in DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis as the team’s centerpieces. Adding Rondo gives New Orleans some inexpensive depth and an opportunity to sell Cousins — a fellow Kentucky Wildcat — on staying with the franchise beyond his current expiring contract.

Our list is of course dominated by the moves of Houston and San Antonio, the two teams most likely to challenge the Warriors for Western Conference supremacy this season. While those teams have loaded up in hopes of closing the gap, the Pelicans did what they had to do in re-signing Holiday since the team wasn’t in a position to replace him with comparable talent. It will be fascinating to see if Rondo — oft-maligned throughout his career — can become the much-needed glue guy in New Orleans that helps the Pelicans emerge as a contender and keeps the assembled core together long-term.

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Philadelphia 76ers 2018-19 NBA Season Preview

No NBA team has arguably the potential to be exceptional quite like the Philadelphia 76ers. But while the team has the potential of three young stars, there are real issues that could hold this team back. Basketball Insiders takes a look at the 76ers in this 2018-19 NBA Season Preview.

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Last year, the Philadelphia 76ers won more games than they lost for the first time since 2012, putting the league on notice of the franchise’s official reemergence. Through season after season of the often-maligned Process, the 76ers collected marquee prospects and crossed their fingers for better days down the road. But now that Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid and the rest of their young roster have won a playoff series, both the franchise and fans alike are looking much higher in 2018-19 and beyond.

This summer, the 76ers retained J.J. Redick, acquired Mike Muscala, added Zhaire Smith and traded for Wilson Chandler. There are big-time expectations for Markelle Fultz once again, but they also lost Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova in free agency. Additionally, Amir Johnson decided to stay put and the mysterious Jonah Bolden has finally joined the roster as well. While those re-signings and additions will majorly factor into this upcoming campaign, the pressure will fall squarely on Simmons and Embiid to push the team into conference royalty and potentially even further.

Here’s the Basketball Insiders team’s thoughts on the 76ers their upcoming season.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

The Philadelphia 76ers have just about everything you need to be considered a legitimate title contender. They have two budding superstars in Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, talented role players, experienced veterans, a quality head coach and several young players who have plenty of room to keep improving. The wildcard here could be the play of Markelle Fultz. If his jump shot has truly been rebuilt in an effective manner this offseason, he could add an element to the 76ers’ roster that was missing last season. With LeBron James heading to the Los Angeles Lakers, the door is more open in the Eastern Conference than it has been in some time. The 76ers have what they need to make it out of the Eastern Conference and to the NBA Finals this season. But they face some stiff competition in Boston and Toronto.

3rd Place – Atlantic Division

– Jesse Blancarte

For the first time in what feels like forever, there are real, true expectations on the Philadelphia 76ers. The Process has finally reached some of its later stages, with stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons ascending to their place among the league’s best young cores. The 76ers had a busy summer despite only recently hiring Elton Brand as their full-time GM – they re-signed J.J. Redick, brought in Wilson Chandler from Denver and made a few other moves around the margins. They’ll be hoping their biggest offseason development, though, has been a re-acquiring of confidence and trajectory from first overall pick Markelle Fultz; recent videos have appeared to show Fultz with a re-worked jumper and some positive signs, but we have to see it on the court first. With LeBron gone from the East and two legitimate All-NBA talents on the roster, the window is officially open for Philly.

3rd Place – Atlantic Division

-Ben Dowsett

Last season was an eye-opener in the City of Brotherly Love. Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid have formed an elite on-court partnership that can lead this Sixers ball club to new heights in this coming year. They picked up Wilson Chandler in the summer, who is going to try and earn a payday in a contract year. Markelle Fultz’s jumper is progressing as he continues to tweak his form. Veteran J.J. Redick is back for another stab at a championship ring as well. Brett Brown’s leadership along with this talent has incredible potential to build on what happened in 2017-18. They’re in one of the most top-heavy divisions in basketball, but look out for Philadelphia.

2nd Place – Atlantic Division

– Spencer Davies

Bad news: Philly struck out on every high-profile player they targeted this summer, resulting in minimal roster improvement. Good news: They are still one of the most promising teams with some of the league’s best talent. Now we enter Year Two of the Joel Embiid/Ben Simmons era. Those two may very well take another step forward, but the X Factor is Markelle Fultz. Hopefully now that Fultz has gotten over whatever it was that was keeping him off the floor last season, the Sixers can find another dimension on their team that they can use to their full advantage. If he doesn’t, then Philly’s improvement might be stunted. They should be a good team, but they need that extra push from someone not named Embiid or Simmons to be great.

3rd Place – Atlantic Division

– Matt John

On the surface, you can’t help but like everything you see about the 76ers. They have a promising young core filled with ready to break out stars and a solid coach in Brett Brown. It’s all right there. The problem is it’s tough for young teams to stay focused in the moment, especially when there are expectations. Not many outside of Philadelphia believed in the 76ers as a serious contender, and now that they have something of a target on their back. How will the young guys respond? Keep in mind the 76ers surged late in the season behind some veterans that are no longer there. That’s the big unknown for the 76ers, how do the young guys carry the load? It’s going to take something pretty dramatic for the 76ers not to be a post-season team, they showed they have that part covered. But they are going to need for their young guys to become consistent under pressure, and that hasn’t been the case yet.

2nd Place – Atlantic Division

– Steve Kyler

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Joel Embiid

We’ll get right to the point here: Joel Embiid is an other-worldly player.

Whether he’s stepping out behind the arc or toasting the opposition in the post, Embiid has become the complete offensive package. The 7-foot center’s unique blend of skills make him nearly impossible to stop and the numbers prove it. Perhaps fully unleashed for the first time in his career, Embiid tallied 22.9 points, 11 rebounds, 3.2 assists and one three-pointer over 30.3 minutes per game. If you’re searching for a boxscore with long-term implications, look no further than Embiid’s 46 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists, seven blocks and 2-for-3 mark from three-point range he put up against the Lakers in November. In two words, that type of line should be downright terrifying.

If Embiid can improve on a 30.8 percent rate from deep — which was an offseason goal for him, apparently — then good luck on stopping an already immense talent. In 2017-18, Embiid’s 33.9 percent usage was only bested by James Harden’s 36.1, so he’s proven he can handle the workload over a complete season too. As long as Embiid stays healthy, a likely conclusion at this point, then he isn’t just the 76ers’ best offensive player — he’s one of the best scorers in the entire league.

Top Defensive Player: Robert Covington

The top nominee in this category could easily be Embiid again, but we’re going with the lockdown wing in the interest of spreading the love.

Strong and versatile, Covington has become one of Philadelphia’s most important assets, even though he doesn’t frequently earn the headlines. While his three-point shot is consistent, Covington’s tenacious ball-hawking instincts are understandably key for a franchise that boasts the makings of a defensive juggernaut. In conference play alone, Covington will likely find himself plastered on the likes of Gordon Hayward, Kawhi Leonard, John Wall and more, all in the name of flexibility and team success.

His 7-foot-2 wingspan makes him a disruptive pest on the perimeter and his 3.9 deflections per game were tied with Paul George for the league lead. And when Covington drummed up three or more steals in a game, the 76ers’ record was 14-8. For his year-long efforts, Covington was named to the NBA All-Defensive First Team this past spring — so he should no longer be an afterthought when discussing this super core. Trashing on Covington has been popular this offseason, but he’s clearly been worth every penny of that contract extension.

Top Playmaker: Ben Simmons

Standing at a towering 6-foot-10, Simmons quickly established himself as a lethal playmaker in year one. Although it was always assumed that Simmons could run a high-level offense at point guard, his immediate success has made him impossible to ignore. The 22-year-old averaged 15.8 points, 8.1 rebounds, 8.2 assists and 1.7 steals over 33.7 minutes per game — incredulously, the best is still to come. The concerns surrounding his non-existent three-point game are legitimate, but Simmons straight-up impacts the game in so many other ways that it may not even matter.

At times, the savvy court-vision and execution exhibited by the all-purpose point forward can be downright jaw-dropping. Whether he’s scoring off a one-man fastbreak or dropping a no-look, pinpoint dime to a floor-running teammate, Simmons is an architect with the rock. He’ll need to cut down on his 3.4 turnovers per game — but casual onlookers should be anxiously awaiting what Simmons has in store for the follow-up excursion.

Top Clutch Player: Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Dario Saric

For most star-driven franchises, the ball often rests in the hands of their go-to player during clutch-time — but for the 76ers, it wasn’t always that easy in 2017-18. Ben Simmons’ 73 points on 65.7 percent shooting were impressive but, of course, none of those buckets came from behind the arc. A bit further down the list, Saric tallied 62 points on 52.9 percent and an impressive 11-for-20 from three-point range by taking advantage of the less-focused attention from opposing defenses.

Lastly, Embiid’s point total (83) was the highest of the trio, but his percentage was the lowest (47.5). Of note, Embiid’s 11 clutch-time blocks trailed only Anthony Davis (13); while Simmons’ 14 steals were outpaced by just Jrue Holiday (16). More or less, this should be a fascinating category to watch moving forward. Will Embiid up his conversion rate? Should Saric get more late-game touches? With Simmons’ playmaking abilities, he’s the guy Philadelphia will ultimately want with the clock winding down — but that lack of a jumper right now makes him discernibly less dangerous in a handful of situations.

Best of all, this blurb could’ve mentioned Covington’s 11 clutch-time three-pointers, Redick’s extensive resume as a late-game scorer and how Fultz’s explosive scoring may impact things — but for simplicity’s sake, remember to keep an eye on this area as the season unfolds.

The Unheralded Player: Markelle Fultz

Speaking of Fultz, there’s a whole lot being written about the aforementioned trio, deservedly, and not all that much about the former No. 1 overall selection. After sitting out until late March with a broken jumper and confidence issues, Fultz’s return came with little fanfare. During the 76ers’ 16-game winning streak to close out the year, the 6-foot-4 guard was eased into the rotation and, all things considered, Fultz did just fine. In the regular season finale against Milwaukee, Fultz dropped 13 points, 10 assists and two steals on 6-for-13 shooting — a sorely welcomed sign for the rookie.

To put it lightly: It’s been a long, long year for Fultz but he was the top draftee for a reason. In his one campaign at Washington, Fultz averaged 23.2 points, 5.7 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.6 steals, 1.2 blocks and 2.1 three-pointers on 41.3 percent from deep — only now he’ll be surrounded by the likes of some All-NBA-worthy talents. Naturally, for Fultz to breakout in 2018-19, this assumes a few things: Firstly, that he’s good to go and everything that’s troubled him is in the past. Secondly, that he’s a lock to siphon away a large chunk of Simmons’ massive usage rate. While neither of those caveats seems like a shoo-in at this point, a simply healthy, self-assured Fultz could elevate an already potent squad.

Simmons will be in contention to lead the league in assists and Embiid might become an MVP candidate soon enough, but it’s Fultz’s progress and contributions that could push the 76ers up over the top.

Best New Addition: Wilson Chandler

Over his 10-year career, Chandler has played in 590 regular season games and holds an average of 13.5 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.1 assists. These numbers won’t jump off the page in all likelihood, but he’s the type of gritty, defense-first veteran that this roster has badly needed. The 76ers’ 31.2 bench points per game ranked as the 7th-worst mark last year but Chandler should find himself right at home in Philadelphia. As a starter for the Denver Nuggets in 2017-18, Chandler scored 15-plus points on 20 occasions and only had three instances of three or more turnovers despite his hefty 31.7 minutes per game tally. Needless to say, finding a bench scorer that takes care of the ball like Chandler is an absolute victory any way you slice it.

Chandler rebounds well for a wing, can guard two positions and should work well alongside any combination of fellow 76ers. Considering that the front office picked up Chandler for just cash considerations, this was a low-risk, high-reward, no-brainer move. He’s not the shooter that Belinelli was but his two-way ability will likely make him a better, more productive fit in the Sixers’ rotation. Chandler’s solid perimeter defense and locker room presence should pay dividends at the cost of virtually nothing, which easily makes him the winner of our final superlative.

– Ben Nadeau

WHO WE LIKE

1. J.J. Redick

And exhale, 76ers fans — the sharpshooting veteran is sticking around for at least one more go in Philadelphia.

The re-signed Redick’s 17.1 points per game were second-most for the 76ers and his long-range shooting helped anchor an impressive offensive bunch all season. At 2.8 three-pointers per game on an even better 42 percent clip, Redick easily keeps his place as one of the NBA’s most elite shooters. Given Belinelli and Ilyasova’s departures — 2.0 and 1.3 per game, respectively — the onus will land on for Redick to provide another reliable season from deep. While Covington, Saric and Embiid will help to pick up the slack, Redick’s off-ball wizardry will undoubtedly remain a crucial cog for Philadelphia.

Redick’s 2.8 three-pointers per game tied him with Kyrie Irving for the 10th-best average in 2017-18, while only Stephen Curry (42.3) and Klay Thompson (44) made more at a higher percentage. If Redick’s importance to this 76ers wasn’t obvious before last season began, that sentiment certainly isn’t in question now.

2. Dario Saric

Saric is good at just about everything, but not the best at any — which is why he lands here instead of in a superlative category.

Still, that’s hardly an insult for the third-year player that’s steadily improved since he joined the 76ers in 2016. Saric’s 14.6 points per game are solid — particularly as the third or fourth option on the floor to boot — but he doesn’t regularly earn the plaudits over his star-ready teammates. His two three-pointers per game on 39.3 percent were noteworthy too, but not more so than the previously-mentioned Redick. In fact, you could write that sentence about Saric in terms of most measurables statistics from 2017-18 — he chips in admirably almost everywhere, which, for now, anoints him as the 76ers third-best player.

Either way, he’s the perfect fit for the 76ers as they look to ascend to Finals contenders. Need energy? Check. Need shooting? Easy. Need somebody to take care of the ball? Saric is your guy. Every burgeoning squad needs a do-it-all glue guy and that may just be Saric given his solid skills across the offensive board. But if there’s an extra gear to the 24-year-old’s already-efficient game, the rest of the league truly is in trouble.

3. Brett Brown

For years, observers wondered why Brown kept his job during a horrific 75-253 streak over the initial four efforts — but the 76ers’ faith has been rewarded in kind. Sure, the core outside of Fultz stayed healthy for the first time in his regime, but the 76ers exceeded most expectations last season, even reaching the second round of the playoffs as an added bonus. Brown’s leadership helped Philadelphia rack up 52 wins, their highest total since the Allen Iverson-led squad reached the Finals way back in 2000-01.

The 57-year-old took home the Eastern Conference Coach of the Month honors in March after captaining his blossoming roster to an excellent 13-3 record, an extended streak that included wins over the Cleveland Cavaliers, Minnesota Timberwolves and Denver Nuggets. With his playmakers another year older and more refined, Brown could find himself in the conversation for Coach of the Year come April alongside Brad Stevens, Steve Kerr and the rest of the usual suspects.

On top of all that, Brown has been pulling double duty as the franchise’s general manager since June, where he added the athletic Zhaire Smith (plus an unprotected Miami HEAT pick in 2021) and Landry Shamet on draft night, among other positively-reviewed moves.

4. Zhaire Smith

These days, it almost seems like a rite of passage for rookies in Philadelphia to spend a large chunk of their rookie season injured. Smith suffered a Jones fracture in his left foot following Summer League in August, but there’s a possibility he could return in the second half of the campaign if rehab goes well enough. Although the debut for the first-year professional will have to wait, he’s aiming to be a difference-maker down the road.

His showing in Las Vegas wasn’t earth-shattering, but Smith averaged 11.3 points, five rebounds, 1.1 steals and 1.1 blocks on 55.6 percent from the field and 45 percent from behind the arc during his single season at Texas Tech. Once he returns, Smith won’t be a top option on the floor, but he’s an athletic, hard-nosed prospect that can play within his role and contribute wherever needed, thus making him a fine supplementary selection to their budding stars.

– Ben Nadeau

STRENGTHS

Last year, it was relatively cut-and-dry: Add Ben Simmons and deploy Joel Embiid in more games. Almost overnight, the 76ers jumped from the 17th-ranked defense all the way up to No. 3 overall. Somehow, given the internal development and newest additions, the 76ers might build out an even tougher unit by the springtime. Philadelphia will miss the shooting prowess of Belinelli and Ilyasova, but Mike Muscala and Chandler are two-way upgrades there. Simmons is the type of ball-stealing, court-running athlete that could end up in Defensive Player of the Year discussions soon enough and Embiid is already there.

Covington rightfully earned First Team honors and continues to be a menace around the perimeter, while there’s some potential for Fultz and Smith to step in as defensive contributors before long as well. As suffocating as Philadelphia was defensively at times last season, it could be even scarier come April — and that’s a nauseating concept for their Eastern Conference foes.

– Ben Nadeau

WEAKNESSES

Generally speaking, the 76ers are fairly strong headed into the 2018-19 campaign. They’re young, they’re healthy and they’re developing at an incredibly rapid rate — a killer trio in today’s modern NBA landscape. Philadelphia ranked in the top ten in rebounds (first), transition points (sixth), steals (seventh), blocks (ninth), three-point percentage (10th) and came in at No. 11 for offensive rating at 107.4. There are plenty of signs that this 76ers team eventually won’t just be good, but that they’ll be great — however, there are still two alarming red flags.

Their free throw percentage was abysmal at 75.2, a mark that was seventh-worst and left the Oklahoma City Thunder as the only playoff team ranked below them. Worst of them all, the 76ers led the league in turnovers per game at 16.5, which isn’t surprising giving their fast-breaking inexperience, but they must take care of the ball to go toe-to-toe with the well-disciplined Toronto Raptors or Boston Celtics in the postseason.

– Ben Nadeau

THE BURNING QUESTION

Are the NBA Finals on the table for the Philadelphia 76ers?

And that’s the million dollar question, isn’t it? Last year, the 76ers just wanted to stay healthy and make the postseason. They not only achieved that, but they reached 50 wins, won a playoff series and crafted the league’s third-best defense along the way. After a year like that, the bar for measurable successes gets much loftier and they certainly have the personnel to reach for it. With LeBron James out of the picture, their path gets clearer too and the remaining biggest obstacles are in that pesky Atlantic Division.

Embiid, Simmons and Saric will all be a year older and wiser, while Redick and Chandler should provide the veteran scoring punch — both with the scorers and off the bench. Covington is already an elite defender and adding Fultz into the mix full-time might turn Philadelphia into a walking nightmare for opposing teams. Since the Process began, these sections have shoehorned a cautious if-healthy forewarning into any and all predictions involving the 76ers — and, back then, they were all totally fair.

These days, it seems like those chronic injuries and lingering rehabs are in the rearview mirror, so perhaps it’s time to go even stronger in the other direction. Now that the 76ers are injury-free, hardened and, importantly, more experienced, there’s really no reason why this team can’t compete for the Eastern Conference crown in 2018-19 and beyond.

– Ben Nadeau

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Cleveland Cavaliers 2018-19 NBA Season Preview

The Cleveland Cavaliers may not be as different as you think, especially with most of their Finals core returning from last season. They may not be contenders, but the question is can they stay in the playoff hunt while their big contracts age off the books? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Cavaliers in this 2018-19 NBA Season Preview.

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The Cleveland Cavaliers are no longer the talk of the town in the Eastern Conference. The King has left his post for a venture westward and the organization he was the face of is now on its own.

With a mixture of veterans and inexperience, it’s going to be a roller coaster season for the wine and gold, but they’ll be better prepared this time around for the departure of LeBron James.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

Losing LeBron James is a tough blow (obviously) but there are still enough solid players on Cleveland’s roster to compete for a playoff seed this season. The main question is whether Kevin Love can recapture his superstar form from years ago when he was playing in Minnesota. It has been a while since Love was the go-to player on a team, so only time will tell if he is able to lead this team to the playoffs. The Cavaliers will also try to get more production out of players like Rodney Hood, Larry Nance Jr., Jordan Clarkson and George Hill. These guys can produce but were inconsistent last season. My focus will be on the play of Collin Sexton, whom the Cavaliers drafted eighth overall in this year’s draft. Sexton has the attitude and talent to be a quality point guard and could be a nice sparkplug for the Cavaliers this season.

4th Place – Central Division

– Jesse Blancarte

It’s hard to pinpoint which direction Cleveland is going. They actually did a pretty solid job this summer outside of losing the best basketball player of this generation. Drafting Collin Sexton, extending Kevin Love and adding under-the-radar players such as Sam Dekker and David Nwaba were sensible decisions. Sad to say, their current roster is now only good enough to be conversation for one of the lower seeds in the east. That may not be the best idea since they owe Atlanta a top-10 protected first-rounder this year. Still, there should be plenty of interesting storylines for them this year, which include how well they perform post-LeBron (again), how good of a coach Tyronn Lue really is, and what they have in Sexton.

4th Place – Central Division

– Matt John

Much more prepared for the second time LeBron James left the franchise, the wine and gold are poised to create a team-first environment with a healthy culture in the building. Kevin Love will have to take the reigns and Rodney Hood will be heavily depended on to put the ball in the basket. Larry Nance Jr. is going to be tasked with protecting the paint. Player development is going to be the sole focus, but winning is an absolute priority for the Cavaliers. Eighth overall pick Collin Sexton will have the chance to showcase his skills right away with plenty of young talent surrounding him. They’re not looking to tank as some speculated they would post-LeBron, so we’ll see if it pays off. Considering the Eastern Conference is wide open, there’s still a chance they could sneak into the playoffs.

3rd Place – Central Division

– Spencer Davies

In their second go-round after losing LeBron James in free agency, there’s definitely hope in Cleveland that things won’t go quite so poorly for the Cavs. Last time, as many will recall, they went from the league’s best record to its worst in just a single season when The King departed. This time? There’s even playoff hope still abound in Cleveland, though whether it’s realistic or not is up for debate. Much of those hopes rest on Kevin Love, who is now armed with a new extension that’ll keep him paid through 2023. Many forget that Love was once a perennial All-Star and considered a borderline top-five player in the NBA in his Minnesota days – does he still have that level of play left in him as the lead dog? The Cavs still have solid shooting in Love, George Hill, Kyle Korver, J.R. Smith and others, but there are real concerns about whether this roster will have enough playmaking or defense to make any noise. Still, the relative weakness of the East makes a playoff appearance possible.

4th Place – Central Division

– Ben Dowsett

The Cavaliers are going to take a huge step backward, that’s not news or shocking, but to think the Cavs will fall off the map might be misplaced. Kevin Love is an All-Star, and he still has a lot of proven guys around him. The Cavs draft pick, Collin Sexton, should get all the opportunity to be the next guy and has star potential and Ty Lue is a good player-centric coach. The 8th seed isn’t out of the question for the Cavs, and that’s not bad for a team that lost its franchise player for nothing in return.

4th Place – Central Division

– Steve Kyler

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Kevin Love

The five-time All-Star forward is going to have his hands full. There is no LeBron anymore. There is no Kyrie Irving anymore. Ironically, he is the last man standing out of the former big three and just signed a long-term deal this summer to be “the man” in Cleveland.

For years, basketball fans have been begging to see Love return to the same player as he was with the Minnesota Timberwolves. This season, he has the opportunity to become that dominant force once again. We all know he’s a double-double machine who can stretch the floor and crash the glass, but it’ll be interesting to see whether the Cavaliers establish him on the block more often.

According to NBA.com, on a minimum of three possessions per game, Love had the sixth-lowest frequency, yet scored 0.98 points per possession in post-up situations. Only Karl-Anthony Towns and LaMarcus Aldridge were ranked above him in PPP. Last year’s offense was full of isolation and drive-and-kicks, leaving little opportunity for the 30-year-old big man to work down low.

He’s coming off his best perimeter-shooting season since 2010-11, too. It might take a few games to get re-acquainted to being the go-to guy without LeBron there, but Love will now have the chance to remind everyone that he is one of the most forceful inside-outside threats in the league.

Top Defensive Player: Larry Nance Jr.

The 2017-18 Cavaliers were an abysmal defensive team. Whether it was a veteran-heavy roster failing to get their legs under them, poor effort, flawed schemes or too much miscommunication on switches—it was not pretty.

With that said, there was a small silver lining in that ugliness, and it was Nance Jr. From challenging bigs at the rim to moving his feet and making it tough on guards, he immediately made an impact as a versatile defender when healthy. Per Cleaning The Glass, with Nance Jr. off the court, Cleveland allowed 9.9 points per 100 possessions more. Opponents’ effective field goal percentage also increased by 4.5 percent as well.

Entering his second season with the wine and gold, Nance Jr. is going to play a huge role in forcing turnovers and making it hard on his assignments. The more floor time he receives, the better he will get.

Top Playmaker: Collin Sexton

A label held by LeBron for the past four years will be taken over by a rookie. There is no replacing the best player in the world in any way, shape or form. It’s all about creating a new star, and that’s what the Cavaliers are planning on doing with Sexton.

You will find no shortage of confidence or explosiveness watching the Alabama alum play the game. Not to use NBA Summer League as the best of examples, but just go back and look at his body language during that tournament, especially against Josh Hart and the Los Angeles Lakers. He is a surefire competitor, which is exactly why Cleveland selected him with the eighth overall draft pick.

He’s able to make things happen for both his teammates and himself. Sexton can change speeds quickly and get to the rim with conviction, pass on the drive and kick and get out in transition. Getting used to the speed of the NBA level will take some adjusting, as will playing with new teammates and learning their tendencies, but the man dubbed “Young Bull” is poised to have a breakout debut year.

Top Clutch Player: Kyle Korver

Who takes the big shot at the end? Who gets the big stop? Who makes the game-altering pass? All of these questions were answered with “LeBron” in the snap of a finger before. The question now is who will assume that responsibility.

At the moment, it’s a collective team effort. One night it could be Love, another it could be Sexton. Maybe Rodney Hood even gets the ball from time-to-time in a late-game situation. The point is, we don’t know the answer quite yet.

Purely based on who had the second-highest net rating in clutch situations to LeBron in a minimum of 30 games played in crunch time, Korver gets the nod here. The veteran sharpshooter’s offensive rating and true shooting percentage were both the highest on Cleveland as well. If you get the 37-year-old the ball on the outside, he’ll likely knock down a big bucket.

The Unheralded Player: Cedi Osman

When you look at the Turkish swingman’s statistics from last year, you’ll probably question what the fuss is all about and why he is getting invited to private workouts with the likes of LeBron, Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard. Here’s why: He has the desire to play the game the right way.

Osman is only 23 years old. He already has the potential to be the perfect glue guy in his second season at the NBA level. Something about his game just provides a spark. It might be the energy he brings to the floor, or maybe it has to do with how aggressive he is on both sides of the boards.

Playing for his country in FIBA, there’s already been an improvement with his jump shot. He’s been drilling threes, specifically on off-the-dribble and pull-up attempts. Remember, he did work with Korver last season often. Maybe the veteran’s pointers will pay off for Osman.

Best New Addition: Collin Sexton

Cleveland desperately needed to add a playmaker to the roster. They severely missed that last year without Kyrie Irving. The 19-year-old rookie is going to have his ups and downs, but more importantly, he’ll be fun to watch develop. Learning under a veteran like George Hill could do him some good, regardless of whether or not the seasoned guard finishes the year out there.

– Spencer Davies

WHO WE LIKE

1. Rodney Hood

It was a difficult second half for Hood last year. Being traded to the Cavaliers at the deadline, some thought he could just fit right in and score 17 points per game as he did with the Utah Jazz. But unfortunately, the league isn’t a 2K simulation where teams can just plug and play with no issues. It took time for him to learn to play off LeBron. His usage was down nearly 10 percent as well. Year two in The Land should allow him to get back to his usual confident self. Tyronn Lue thinks the world of him, so we’ll likely be seeing a lot of trust put into Hood.

2. David Nwaba

On a one-year deal, Nwaba is looking to prove he’s worth a bigger deal in the long term. He’s only going into his third season, but since making waves a couple of years ago in the Lakers’ G-League system and on the big club, he’s been scratching and clawing his way up. He started over 20 of the 70 games he played in for the Chicago Bulls in 2017-18. He’ll likely play a key role in the second unit., but the more playing time he’s gotten, the better the production has been. Nwaba has athleticism through the roof and is already one of the top defenders on the Cavaliers.

3. Channing Frye

Frye is a fan-favorite and an important part of the team culture Cleveland is aiming to instill in the locker room. He’s the perfect person to loosen things up if they get tense, almost like a player-coach type. On the floor, he’s still going to provide valuable production offensively as a knockdown shooter. Off of it, he’ll be a mentor to his younger teammates and a calming presence to the others. That’ll be necessary for an up-and-down season.

4. Tyronn Lue

With no LeBron around, we’re going to really see what Lue is made of. There were plenty of detractors last season due to the rotations he played and the way he managed minutes. Here’s his shot at proving the doubters wrong. Losing the four-time NBA MVP is going to make life harder on everybody in the franchise, but there’s a free range of what to do with this team now. Versatility and youth are available to him now like they never have been before. The pressure has been lifted a bit with the expectations tampered down a bit. It’s time to see if Lue can walk the walk.

– Spencer Davies

STRENGTHS

The Cavaliers finally have a chance to focus on the long-term, while addressing the now. General manager Koby Altman said it himself: This organization is getting back in the player development business. With the moves they made over the offseason, that couldn’t be clearer. Players who haven’t gotten too many opportunities—Sam Dekker, Isaiah Taylor, Kobi Simmons, Nwaba—are going to have a chance to show the coaching staff what they’re made of in training camp. The youth movement started early at the deadline last season with the acquisitions of Jordan Clarkson, Hood and Nance Jr. It’s full speed ahead now.

– Spencer Davies

WEAKNESSES

This team lost its best scorer, its best playmaker, its best clutch option—pretty much all of the above. Filling the void of LeBron is impossible. In one year without him, it’s not going to be pretty at times. Depending on who is starting these games, you’re going to see errors and mistakes you haven’t seen in a while with the Cavaliers. They’ll show flashes of what they can become in due time, but for the most part, there will be plenty of teaching moments. It’s not going to happen overnight. Everybody involved probably knows, but we’ll see what the reaction is once things are set in motion.

– Spencer Davies

THE BURNING QUESTION

What is the plan with these veterans and their contracts?

Cleveland has a tall task ahead of them when it comes to shedding salary. We can start off with the $19 million contract of George Hill, followed by the $14.72 million that J.R. Smith is making this season. Both of these veteran guards do not have guaranteed big money next season, though, if waived in the summer of 2019. Only $1 million of Hill’s deal is guaranteed until July 1 and $3.7 million of Smith’s deal is guaranteed until June 30, respectively. If these two are waived before said dates, a team would not be on the hook for the last season of their contracts (Hill at $18 million, Smith at $15.68 million). Because of that, those two players would likely be easier to move for the Cavaliers than Tristan Thompson, who has two fully guaranteed years left on the deal he signed before the 2015 season.

Considering the shift in direction that the franchise has made, it wouldn’t be all that surprising if at least two of these three were moved in the future. Whether that’s mid-season, at the trade deadline or next offseason, we’ll have to wait and see.

– Spencer Davies

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NBA

NBA Daily: Four Trades For Jimmy Butler

Jimmy Butler has told the Minnesota Timberwolves he would like to be traded. If the team decides to deal, what might they get back in return?

Drew Maresca

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The Jimmy Butler and Minnesota Timberwolves saga feels as though it’s dragged on forever. In reality, it was only 15 months ago that he was traded to the Timberwolves from the Chicago Bulls for what now seems like a king’s random: Zach Lavine, Kris Dunn and the seventh overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, with the only other asset going back to Minnesota being the sixteenth overall pick.

Regardless of what was given up for him or how long the relationship lasted, it seems as though the two will part ways sooner than later. After a drawn out and fairly public back-and-forth on social media about when and where the two parties would ultimately meet, Coach and President Tom Thibodeau and Butler finally sat down on Wednesday. It was then that Butler informed the Timberwolves he would like to be traded. So much for a happy ending to the Thibodeau-Butler reunion.

But Butler doesn’t simply want out of Minnesota. He wants to be traded to one of three teams: the Brooklyn Nets, Los Angeles Clippers or the New York Knicks. Reports have read that Butler will only sign an extension with one of his preferred destinations. The subtext of the leak – regardless of who leaked it – indicates that teams beyond those three need not apply. And in fairness to Butler, he recognizes that he is in the prime of his career and prefers to begin establishing himself in a hand-selected location.

Butler is scheduled to make $19,841,627 this season. Below, Basketball Insiders explores the likely trade packages each of the three teams Butler would like to play for might put together, as well as one additional team that may be able to convince Butler to re-sign. Lots of other scenarios exist, including three-team deals and packages in which Minnesota ships out additional players. But we only focused on two-team deals in which Butler is the only player departing the Wolves roster.

Los Angeles Clippers

According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the Clippers are the preferred destination for Butler. The Clippers have numerous players with the requisite salary to get the deal done, but little in the way of desirable young players to entice the Wolves.

From a salary standpoint, the Timberwolves would likely have their choice of veterans to pry from the Clippers roster. Danilo Gallinari makes more than Butler and his deal stretches another year after 2018-19. Besides, Gallinari’s age and injury history make him an unlikely candidate. Marcin Gortat is on a $13.565 million expiring deal. But unfortunately for the Clippers, Gortat’s value is relatively low. While the Clippers probably prefer to hang onto Avery Bradley to form a tenacious one-two defensive punch, would be the likely starting point considering his value. But Bradley cannot be traded until December 15. If both teams are willing to wait, then Bradley will likely be the main piece for salary purposes. Otherwise, the Clippers may have to part with one or more of Tobias Harris, Wesley Johnson and Patrick Beverley.

But none of the aforementioned veterans would be the centerpiece of the trade. And the Clippers are unable to trade away another of their first round picks before 2022. So the deal is likely to be predicated on the inclusion of either Shai Gilgeous-Alexander or Jerome Robinson, both of whom were drafted by the Clippers with back-to-back picks in the 2018 NBA Draft. However, the team should think twice before trading both. Other recent trades involving superstars – Paul George –haven’t returned two lottery picks of late. If possible, the Clippers should be steadfast in insisting that only one be included.

The Wolves will likely prefer Gilgeous-Alexander given the buzz that he created in the summer league. If the Clippers are serious about acquiring Jimmy Butler, they should begin rebuilding around Butler before they miss out on him altogether (see the Lakers’ recent failed-before-it-even-started pursuit of Paul George).

Clippers Get Jimmy Butler

Timberwolves Get Tobias Harris, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jawun Evans

Brooklyn Nets

The Nets are one of Jimmy Butler’s (second tier) preferred destinations. On the one hand, the Nets have limited developed talent to pair with Butler in 2018-19. On the other, the Nets open up an enormous amount of cap space next season, allowing them to sign at least two max-level free agents, one of whom could be Butler. If Butler went ahead and included Brooklyn on his list of destinations, then so be it.

Spencer Dinwiddie is an up-and-coming young guard and among the most valuable assets on the Nets roster. Trade discussions would probably begin there. But Dinwiddie only makes $1.6 million this season, the last year on his deal. The recently acquired Kenneth Faried makes a fairly significant $13.7 million and his contract also expires after this season. Throw in a Jarrett Allen for good measure and you’ve got the framework of a deal. In this situation, a protected pick would be needed as well.

Nets Get Jimmy Butler

Timberwolves Get Kenneth Faried, Spencer Dinwiddie, Jarrett Allen, and the Nets 2019 First Round Pick (top 8 protected)

New York Knicks

The Knicks held their press day on Monday, at which time team President Steve Mills professed the team’s strategy of avoiding sending out assets for players that are free agents-to-be. If this is actually true, the team will have a hard time blowing the Timberwolves away with an offer.

But the team can still put forth a respectable package, which would begin with a young guard named Frank Ntilikina. Ntilikina is an incredible defender who can be the lead guard or play off the ball. He is a 6-foot-6 20 year old with a 7-foot-1 wingspan. Ntilikina is alluring to almost any front office in the league.

Beyond Ntilikina, the Knicks actually have a talented veteran who can fill most of the salary requirements – Courtney Lee. Lee is slightly older than Butler, but can bridge the gap until Ntilikina is ready to take on a bigger role along side Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns.

The Timberwolves would probably prefer to net more than just one solid prospect in a deal for Butler, but Butler put them in a precarious situation when he gave them a wish list of preferred destinations. The Knicks would be wise to offer this and no more.

Knicks get Jimmy Butler

Timberwolves get Courtney Lee, Frank Ntilikina, Trey Burke and Damyean Dotson

Boston Celtics

Lots of teams will throw their respective hats in the ring on Jimmy Butler. On paper, the Celtics make the most sense given their abundance of young talent and accrued draft picks. And let’s not forget that earlier this summer, rumors began to spread about Kyrie Irving’s desire to team up with Butler.

The Celtics have enough draft assets to swing a deal in which they give up limited players, instead leveraging their future draft picks. Remember, the Celtics not only own their own picks, the team also possesses the Sacramento Kings’ 2019 first-round pick (top-one protected) and the Memphis Grizzlies’ 2019 first-round pick (top-eight protected).

But is that the right answer? After all, the Celtics already have a mini-logjam at the wing between Gordon Hayward, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Marcus Smart. But maybe, instead of parting ways with future assets, the Celtics secure Butler and shorten up their rotation, which could potentially disrupt the team’s success into the playoffs with the entire roster entering the season seemingly healthy. Disclaimer — the Celtics would likely seek assurances from Butler that he would be open to re-signing before trading away a young star like Jaylen Brown.

Celtics get Jimmy Butler

Timberwolves get Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart

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