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Toronto Raptors 2018-19 NBA Season Preview

The Raptors tinkered with an already impressive roster this offseason. Will their changes payoff? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Raptors in this 2018-19 NBA Season Preview

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The Toronto Raptors enter 2018-19 with high expectations. The team has been a reliably strong squad, qualifying for the playoffs in each of the previous five seasons. That success reached a peak last season, when the Raptors won 59 games in route to the number one seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. But simply reaching the playoffs isn’t enough for the Raptors and GM Masai Ujiri. Ujiri parted ways with 2017-18 coach of the year Dwane Casey in favor of former assistant coach Nick Nurse. And he capitalized on Kawhi Leonard’s fractured relationship with the San Antonio Spurs, swapping DeMar DeRozan and others for the 2014 NBA Finals MVP along with Danny Green.

The Raptors enter this season with as much boom-or-bust potential as any roster in the league. The team could flourish with an upgraded roster. Or they could flounder due to injury and/or chemistry issues. Will Leonard return to form as the potent scorer and lock down defender that we last saw in 2017? Or will the trade backfire on the Raptors and set off a series of events that culminates in a complete rebuild?

FIVE GUYS THINK…

Masai Ujiri took a huge gamble this offseason and the payoff could be huge. Trading for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green gives the Toronto Raptors some impressive defensive versatility. I can’t wait to see what Nick Nurse is able to do with a roster full of impact defenders and Kyle Lowry and Leonard leading the offensive attack. Having said that, there are some concerns. We still aren’t sure whether Leonard has fully recovered from his lingering leg injury. Green was limited last season by a groin injury. This team has thrived off of talent and chemistry, which may be compromised with DeMar DeRozan now in San Antonio and Dwane Casey in Detroit. This team has a high ceiling and a surprisingly low floor. The other big concern is Leonard’s long term future. He will hit unrestricted free agency next summer and several reports have him favoring a move to Los Angeles. A lot can happen between now and then, but this situation will hang over Toronto all season.

2nd Place – Atlantic Division

– Jesse Blancarte

For the NBA fans and analysts out there who subscribe to the “worst or first” philosophy that says you should be either competing for titles or picking at the top of the lottery for blue chip talent, this Raptors offseason was nirvana. By pushing all their chips in on Kawhi Leonard, who has just one year left on his deal and seems a real threat to bolt after a single season, they’ve positioned themselves for Leonard’s decision to dictate the franchise’s direction. If he leaves, you rebuild around a young core that’s solid but lacks a star. If he stays…well, you’re laughing. It’s hard to get a read on Leonard’s true thinking at this point, but competing for an Eastern Conference crown and perhaps even giving the Warriors a run for their money in the Finals likely couldn’t hurt their efforts toward keeping him. The Raps have a ridiculous amount of lineup versatility assuming full health from Leonard; Danny Green is an underrated part of that same trade, even if he had a down year last season. They’ll have the best player on the floor in any series against Boston if Leonard returns to his prior form, and the East’s playoffs could be extremely entertaining.

2nd Place – Atlantic Division

– Ben Dowsett

Props to Toronto for going all in. They didn’t have a second’s hesitation to trade their franchise’s best player of all time for Kawhi Leonard. If you’re a contender with a realistic chance to acquire an MVP candidate in his prime, you take it no matter what. Leonard by himself potentially gives Toronto that extra gear that they’ve been craving for the past half-decade. The Raptors were one of the best teams in the league on both sides of the floor last season, so now that they have Leonard, they can’t afford to screw this up. Leonard’s expiring contract and supposed desire to go to Los Angeles makes this a do-or-die situation for the Raps. This is the magnum opus for Toronto because Leonard will either be the beginning of a glorious era or the end of a disappointing one.

2nd Place – Atlantic Division

– Matt John

It’s a new era in The North. Kawhi Leonard is coming to re-define Raptors basketball under head coach Nick Nurse. The organization kept the majority of its core intact outside of moving DeMar DeRozan, meaning Kyle Lowry is still going to be the man in charge of the offense. Danny Green is an underrated acquisition who came along with his former San Antonio Spurs teammate. Though Jakob Poeltl is gone, Toronto’s bench is looking to be just as effective as it was last year behind Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam and veteran C.J. Miles. Coming off an impressive first season, O.G. Anunoby is the perfect understudy to Leonard as well. With all of this said, the Atlantic’s top is stacked. They’ll most likely finish in the top four of the Eastern Conference, but their division foes are just better at this point. That doesn’t mean they won’t surprise come mid-April.

3rd Place – Atlantic Division

– Spencer Davies

I get the logic. The Raptors were stagnating, especially in the playoffs. They needed to do something, and trading for Kawhi Leonard was maybe the right move. Too often we get caught up in next year and the future. The reality is you have to have an eye on the future. But you also have to play in the present and if the young core that was good last year takes another step and Kyle Lowry and Leonard click, then Toronto could be pretty special. But as they say, that’s an awful lot of “ifs” to bank on. If it all doesn’t work out, then the Raptors strip things down and rebuild. But at least they tried right? With Dwane Casey out, and so much change, it’s hard to peg the Raptors above Boston and Philly. They could be really good, but change at this scale is a huge unknown.

3rd Place – Atlantic Division

– Steve Kyler

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Kawhi Leonard

When healthy, Leonard is a top-three player in the league – his most recent healthy season (2016-17) was capped off by him single-handedly pushing the Warriors to the absolute brink in the opening game of the 2017 Western Conference Finals. The Spurs were up 62-42 at halftime behind Leonard’s offensive and defensive heroics. But Leonard sprained his ankle in the third quarter and missed the remainder of the series, and the rest is history.

That anecdote demonstrates Leonard’s influence as much as any can. He affects his team’s ability to succeed unlike almost any other active player, LeBron James included. He is that good. In his last complete season (2016-17), Leonard averaged 25.5 points, 3.5 assists, 5.8 rebounds and 1.8 steals per game. He finished third behind Russell Westbrook and James Harden in the MVP race in a season when the Westbrook averaged a tripled-double and Harden averaged 29.1 points and 11.2 assists per game. But can he recover from the quad injury that sidelined him last season and the subsequent rust that goes along with the time off? If so, the Raptors could post their best year in franchise history, again.

Top Defensive Player: Kawhi Leonard

In case you don’t already know, let me reiterate: Kawhi Leonard is also an exquisite defensive player. Much in the same way Michael Jordan dominated games on both sides of the ball in the late 80s and early 90s, Leonard can take over an entire game almost single-handedly – hence the two defensive player of the year awards.

Leonard’s dimensions are tailor made for defensive success. He stands 6-foot-7 tall with a 7-foot-3 wingspan. He has exceptionally large hands at 9.8 inches long and 11.3 inches wide; comparatively, fellow defensive specialist Klay Thompson’s hands are 8.8 inches long and 9.3 inches wide. Leonard weighs a sturdy 230 pounds: enough to bang with many power forwards, while maintaining the quickness and agility necessary to keep wings in front of him and elevate to block shots with ease. In 2016-17, Leonard averaged 1.8 steals and .8 blocks per game. Leonard is the rare athlete who can play passing lanes, but rarely gets beat back door. He can just as easily jump a passing land and turn a steal into an easy buck as he can chase down a fast break and surprise opponents from behind. The Raptors have a number of other qualified defenders. But when healthy, Leonard is arguably the league’s best defender.

Top Playmaker: Kyle Lowry

Kyle Lowry is an incredibly effective scorer and distributor. He is widely considered a top-10 point guard. Lowry creates space for himself and can also bully opposing point guards on his way to the rim. Despite his scoring prowess, Lowry doesn’t impose his will on games terribly often.  He understands the need to get his team involved. And he did so successfully last season, posting 6.9 assists per game. In fact, Lowry’s assist production has remained within a half an assist per game of his 2017-18 average every season since 2010-11.

But as referenced above, the 6-foot, 205 pound guard can also score the ball. He averaged 16.2 points per game last season, which was a relatively big step back predicated on the need to get others more involved. He is a rare talent who can create for himself as well as for others. With the addition of Leonard and Green, look out for Lowry to continue to build his reputation as an elite playmaker.

Top Clutch Player: Danny Green

Danny Green is an excellent shooter despite what his 2017-18 averages imply. He shot 36.3 percent from three-point range, which is right in line with the league average. But most of Green’s career has been spent stretching the floor for greats like Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Kawhi Leonard. Duncan retired prior to last season, Parker and Leonard both missed stretches with quad injuries and Ginobili was far from his old self in 2017-18. The Spurs operated with more of an egalitarian philosophy last season – a necessity, but one that hindered Green’s production given the increased attention defenses were paying to all Spurs players.

But history is on Green’s side when it comes to being clutch. Let’s not forget, Green broke Ray Allen’s NBA Finals three-point record in 2013, which included going a perfect five for five in Game 2 and seven of nine in in Game 3. 2013 was not an anomaly. He is a career 39.3 percent shooter from deep. Green can still sink shots, and he has proved he can do so in the biggest of moments. If the Raptors find themselves in tight games late in the season or in the playoffs, look for plays to be drawn up for Danny Green.

The Unheralded Player: Jonas Valanciunas

Jonas Valanciunas is a bit of a throwback to bigger centers of decades past. He doesn’t have the traditional pre-2000s, back-to-the-basket game that would be expected of centers from that era, but he is a powerful big, standing 7-feet, and weighing in at 255 pounds. His  7-foot-6 wingspan aids him in collecting rebounds. Valanciunas pulled in 8.6 per game in 2017-18 in 22.4 minutes. Put differently, that’s 13.8 per 36 minutes, which would have ranked third in the entire league.

But Valanciunas is more than just a big body that can rebound. Valanciunas is a skilled scorer who boasts an effective mid-range game. He shot 40.5 percent from three-point range on 74 attempts. While plenty of centers shot more attempts last season, that’s still a better percentage on more attempts than the career high of either David Robinson or Patrick Ewing, two of the best shooting centers of the 1990s.

Further, Valanciunas is primed for a bigger role with the Raptors, and deservedly so. He posted 12.7 points last season in only 22.4 minutes per game. That’s 20.4 points per 36 minutes. And yet Valanciunas has only cracked the Raptors’ top three in usage rate once. Fortunately for him, Coach Nurse appears to be a Valanciunas fan, as is evidenced by his work with and comments about Valanciunas dating back to 2013. Valanciunas is Toronto’s only real low-post scorer – a necessary facet to the Raptors’ success.

Best New Addition: Kawhi Leonard

By arriving in Toronto and instantly registering as the team’s best offensive and defensive player, Leonard is also clearly its best new addition. But the caveat is that he must be healthy. He hasn’t played competitively on a regular basis since the season before last. That’s a lot of rust to shake off. If healthy, Leonard registers as probably the best new addition of anyone across the league this offseason.

– Drew Maresca

WHO WE LIKE

1. OG Annunoby
Annunoby is the quintessential, modern-day NBA player. He is long, athletic and skilled. Annunoby runs the floor effectively and possesses an excellent motor. He is 6-foot-8 with a better-than-7-foot wingspan. He has a good build for a 21 year old at 232 pounds. His offensive game still needs work, but he did sink 37.1 percent of his three-pointers last season.

Annunoby’s potential is well supported by his per-36 numbers: 10.6 points, 4.5 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 1.3 steals and .3 blocks per game. His defensive versatility is enticing. While his defensive contributions are noteworthy, his salary is probably equally alluring to a team as cash-strapped as the Raptors. If Leonard re-signs, the Raptors will be over the salary cap for at least the next three seasons. Meanwhile, Annunoby is entering only his second year in the league and is locked into a team-friendly rookie deal for as long as the next four seasons. Annunoby is no doubt an asset, but is he a foundational piece or a role player?

2. Serge Ibaka
Ibaka is a known commodity, but that doesn’t make him any less effective. He is a 6-foot-10, 235-pound center/forward who shoots 36 percent from three-point range while averaging 2.2 blocks per game. His blocks per game were down dramatically last season (1.3) from his career high in 2011-12 (3.7), but his long-range shooting, rebounds and points per game remain mostly on par with his career averages.

Ibaka is no longer the player the Thunder chose to hang onto over James Harden, but the Raptors will rely on him as its main backup center since Jakob Poeltl was included in the Leonard trade. But as long as he blocks shots and shoots an above-average percentage from downtown, he will have a place in Tornoto’s rotation.

3. Pascal Siakam
With Ibaka slated to spend a good chunk of his time at back-up center, an opportunity exists for Pascal Siakam to back up the power forwards. The 24-year-old has decent upside and should see increased playing time given how he performed last season. In only his second season in the league, Siakam’s playing time doubled – his points, rebounds and assists per game all saw precipitous increases, as well. The 6-foot-9 Siakam boasts an impressive 7-foot-3 wingspan, which further cements his place in the rotation as a defensive-minded player. And like many other big men, rumor has it that Siakam has added the three-ball to his arsenal.

4. Fred VanVleet
Fred VanVleet enters the 2018-19 season with high expectations. He had a breakout year last season, posting 8.6 points per game on 41.4 percent shooting from three-point range in 20 minutes per contest. VanVleet is a crafty 6-foot point guard who can finish in traffic. Despite having only two seasons of experience, he plays with the confidence of a veteran. VanVleet led the Raptors in minutes played in the fourth quarter in 2017-18 and began to find a nice rhythm prior to injuring his shoulder in April. VanVleet’s win share was an impressive 4.7. He has been looked over for much of his basketball career, dating back to his recruitment Wichita State, or lack thereof. But VanVleet proved last season that he can play a pivotal role for a competing team. Expectations  are high for the diminutive guard, but he seems to thrive under pressure.

– Drew Maresca

STRENGTHS

The Raptors bench was a driving force for its success in the past, including last season. The team’s next-man-up mentality is especially evident when examining point differentials. The team’s lineup was a +14.9 per 100 possessions when it had at least one bench player on the court, whereas the five starters were a +9.1. This juxtaposition is not uncommon for the Raptors, which had an even bigger contrast in its starters point differential compared to the differential of its lineup with at least one substitute in the lineup in each of the previous three seasons. In fact, last season is the first in the last four years in which the starters had better than a +3 differential. That should only continue to improve next season with the infusion of Leonard and Green.

But the bench’s point differential speaks to the team’s versatility and talent beyond its starting five. The bench boasts well-rounded players like Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, Delon Wright, Pascal Siakam, C.J. Miles, Greg Monroe and Serge Ibaka – many of whom smartly shoot a majority of their shots from three-point range or within two feet of the rim.

The versatility and confidence that each of the team’s bench players brings to the game is incredibly valuable and varies player to player. Each complements the next very nicely, from VanVleet’s creativity, to Wright’s play making, to Monroe’s post game, to Ibaka’s three-point shooting and (decreasing) shot-blocking ability.

The team’s bench is as strong as it has been in years. The Raptors featured a 10-man rotation in 2017-18 and yet only two of its starters averaged more than 26 minutes per game – the only team in the league to do so. Relying more heavily on the starting lineup is rarely a problem for a team, but it alleviates pressure on an already talented group of mostly young players; but, if the starters falter, the bench will almost certainly be ready. That is an almost can’t miss recipe for success.

– Drew Maresca

WEAKNESSES

The Toronto Raptors have experienced four-straight seasons that ended in disappointment, all due to a lack of top-tier talent. That’s not to say the team wasn’t talented – they were. Just not talented enough to get past the LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers. While James has fled the Eastern Conference for the sunny skies of L.A., there is still elite talent back East that will prove difficult to overcome for any team – and there will most definitely be elite talent awaiting whoever the Eastern Conference champion is come June of 2019.

I am inclined to believe that the Leonard-DeRozan deal was a net-positive for the Raptors because it adds an elite player to an already capable roster. But modern-day championship contenders feature multiple top-tier contributors: the Rockets have two of the top five players in the league in James Harden and Chris Paul; the Warriors feature an embarrassment of talent with Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green; and the Celtics feature Irving, Al Horford, Gordon Hayward, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum – all of whom are stars in their own right. The Raptors have one transcendent talent and another very good player, which is not quite equivalent to the other contenders. So then, where does Leonard’s help come from deep into the playoffs?

Still, Leonard of all players understands the by-committee approach having played his entire career for Coach Gregg Popovich. And Leonard might be the only player in the league other than (and maybe not even) LeBron James who single-handedly strikes fear into the hearts of  the Warriors– see the above anecdote about Leonard’s Game 1 heroics against Golden State in 2017.

And the Raptors do have an abundance of not-quite elite players, but ones who have a role and execute it to perfection. Will the Raptors team-centric approach payoff? They could be the exception to the super team-rule, which took off following the formation of the Miami HEAT’s big three in 2010.

– Drew Maresca

THE BURNING QUESTION

Will the Leonard/DeRozan Trade Pay Off?

The Raptors swung for the fences this past offseason. They dismantled a team that set a franchise record for wins to chase championships. While the timing was ironic given how the team that had sent them home from the playoffs in each of the three previous postseasons just lost its megastar, you can’t help but respect the big-risk, big-reward move.

DeRozan was under contract for the next three seasons at $27,739,975 per year. DeRozan is an incredibly productive player, but is one of the two best players on a championship contender? We know that when healthy Kawhi Leonard is. And the trade also netted the Raptors shooting guard Danny Green, who brings defense and shooting at a time when 3-and-D players are valued highly by front offices and coaches alike.

If Leonard is healthy, there is clearly more talent on the Raptors roster entering this season’s training camp than there was this time last year. But that’s a big gamble. The team agreed to the trade without any indication from Leonard that he was willing to re-sign, and without any definitive assurances he was healthy. And Danny Green experienced a considerable dip in production last year, albeit without his superstar teammate on the court to serve as the Spurs’ focal point. Still, both are legitimate questions that need to be addressed.

Even still, were the Raptors going to advance to the NBA Finals with the roster with which it ended the 2017-18 season– past the Celtics and Sixers – let alone win a championship? Unlikely. But if this roster gels, they have the requisite talent and star power to do just that. Yes, it’s a long shot. But it’s a shot, none-the-less. And if Leonard decides to walk, the team can embrace a rebuild instead of hanging onto mediocrity for the foreseeable future. The move indicates that the team’s front office is more serious about winning championships than filling the arena, which should be welcome news to Raptors’ fans and players alike.

– Drew Maresca

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NBA Daily: Almost Trade Time In The NBA

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

Steve Kyler

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Almost Trade Time In The NBA

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

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

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

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

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

Kent Bazemore – Atlanta Hawks

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

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

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

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

Robin Lopez – Chicago Bulls

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

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

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

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

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

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

Courtney Lee – New York Knicks

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

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

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

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

Zach Randolph – Sacramento Kings

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

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

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

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

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

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

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @TommyBeer, @jblancartenba, @SpinDavies, @JamesB_NBA, @MattJohnNBA, @DrewMaresca, @JordanHicksNBA, and @Ben__Nadeau .

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NBA Daily: Buyers Or Sellers – Central Division

Spencer Davies kicks off Basketball Insiders’ “Buyers or Sellers” series with a detailed breakdown of the Central Division.

Spencer Davies

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Trade season is fast approaching and rumors are running rampant across in the NBA. Just in the past month, we’ve had three trades executed, including two blockbuster moves that will surely make an impact on the association, regarding this year and in the future.

The chatter is about to heat up, even more, this weekend. As soon as the clock strikes 12:01 a.m. EST on Dec. 15, players that signed new contracts in the summer (prior to Sept. 15) are eligible to be traded. The date is basically the opening of the floodgates when it comes to trade season.

Basketball Insiders is starting a “Buyers or Sellers” series to take a look at teams by division to determine what side of the spectrum they should be on. Is it wise to add talent, or is it smarter to look towards the future and acquire future assets?

Let’s go case-by-case, beginning with the Central Division.

Milwaukee Bucks

As detailed in a reaction piece last Friday, the Bucks are all-in on winning now. When they went after veteran guard George Hill in a trade where parting with a potential future lottery draft pick was necessary to do it, it proved that claim.

Looking to offload two contracts that weren’t doing the organization any good, Milwaukee acted and added two guys—Hill and Jason Smith—that have been around this league for over a decade. With the way the season is going so far, it may not even be necessary to look for more help, but there’s no doubt that the team is in buyer mode.

There’s time to talk about Khris Middleton’s expiring contract later. Right now, it’s all clicking with the Bucks.

Players whose trade restrictions are lifted on Dec. 15: Pat Connaughton, Ersan Ilyasova, Brook Lopez

Indiana Pacers

Similar to their in-division rivals, the Pacers are absolutely in contention for the Central and the Eastern Conference. Despite the injury bug rearing its ugly head, their record stands at 16-10, which is only four games back from the top-seeded Toronto Raptors.

There’s no shortage of talent on this Indiana squad. There’s Victor Oladipo, who, when healthy, is an All-Star playmaker. Bojan Bogdanovic has been an underrated player for the majority of his career. They’ve got a dual Sixth Man of The Year-Most Improved Player candidate in Domantas Sabonis. The team’s defense is as physical and gritty as NBA defenses can be.

In no way, shape or form are the Pacers a “seller” by any means, but they could explore trading Darren Collison. Doing so would allow Tyreke Evans to play more minutes with the second unit, as well as open up some more floor time for Aaron Holiday, the team’s rookie point guard that showed his capabilities in extended run in mid-November.

A lot has been made of the dynamic between Myles Turner and Sabonis and what that future looks like, however, it’s not something to worry about at the moment considering both look extremely comfortable in their roles.

Players whose trade restrictions are lifted on Dec. 15: Tyreke Evans, Doug McDermott, Kyle O’Quinn

Detroit Pistons

We approach the middling team of the bunch in the Central. While Andre Drummond and Blake Griffin are enjoying career seasons and Dwane Casey is doing a fine job in year one as head coach, the Pistons just can’t seem to get it going on the offensive end as a team.

Detroit’s perimeter defense, and defense, in general, has been solid to this point. Its own three-point shooting has been quite the opposite. We’ve highlighted this before multiple times. It needs to change if this group wants to have a chance to make noise in the division and in the East.

According to a report from the New York Post, the Pistons have shown interest in Knicks guard Damyean Dotson. In his sophomore season, the 24-year-old is taking over four threes per game and knocking down 38.5 percent of them. To put this in perspective, Dotson would already be Detroit’s best three-point shooter the day he walked into the building.

Detroit Free Press writer Vince Ellis confirmed that Dotson is a real option for the Pistons because of his current cheap contract and the fact that his $1.6 million salary for 2019-20 is non-guaranteed until July 15. The only snags in making this happen are Detroit’s reluctance to make a deal to go over the luxury tax and the Knicks trying to avoid added salary.

If Dotson isn’t the player the Pistons go after, they should look elsewhere for help beyond the arc because they need it. Otherwise, the season could get away really fast.

Players whose trade restrictions are lifted on Dec. 15: Jose Calderon, Zaza Pachulia, Glenn Robinson III

Cleveland Cavaliers

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, it’s pretty obvious that the Cavaliers are in asset accumulation mode. They just made a trade to absorb two rather heavy contracts in John Henson and Matthew Dellavedova in order to add draft picks.

Henson has a torn ligament in his left wrist and Dellavedova—though highly appreciated in Cleveland for his NBA Finals heroics—has seemingly been injured for the majority of the last two seasons with no real rotation spot since the 2016-17 campaign.

Just one week beforehand, the Cavaliers traded Kyle Korver to the Utah Jazz for Alec Burks and future second-round draft picks. The biggest question mark coming into the season was what would happen with these veteran players leftover from the championship years, and we’re getting the answer to it right now.

Cleveland likely won’t be done there, either. J.R. Smith is away from the organization as both parties agreed to part ways until a deal is found. That could be this year, or it could be in the summertime when Smith’s contract is a desirable asset, as his 2019-20 salary is only partially guaranteed ($3.78 million) if waived before June 30. Everything depends on the offers the team receives.

What to do with Kevin Love is another good question considering the All-Star forward’s injury history and age, but the value in return likely wouldn’t be up to par with what the Cavaliers’ front office would find plausible. Plus, with the emergence of Collin Sexton, the wine and gold would like to see what that pairing looks like together after a year of experience for the rookie.

If you’re a franchise with an undesirable contract on the books, it’d be wise to call Cleveland right away. Just be prepared to give up some draft picks and/or young talent in return.

Players whose trade restrictions are lifted on Dec. 15: Channing Frye, David Nwaba, Rodney Hood (can veto trade due to re-signing qualifying offer)

Players whose trade restrictions are lifted on Jan. 24: Kevin Love

Chicago Bulls

With the reported friction between Bulls players and interim head coach Jim Boylen, trades are not the talk of the town in the Windy City at the moment. Things have gone south in a hurry as the team has submerged to the bottom of the standings once more. With a 6-21 record, it looks as if another year is lost.

It’s especially disappointing since Lauri Markkanen just returned from injury and already made a game-winning shot against the Oklahoma City Thunder. The good vibes from that night have faded away since, as a 56-point home drubbing to the Boston Celtics occurred this past weekend and sparked debate all over social media regarding who to point the finger at.

Monday, Yahoo Sports published an article stating that Bulls players went to the National Basketball Players Association to express their frustrations with Boylen’s tactics—specifically holding a Sunday practice after a back-to-back.

So that’s where we’re at in Chicago at the moment. As far as trade talk goes, you’d have to think anything could be on the table at this point. One or two moves aren’t going to fix this situation. If anything, it’d be a temporary fix.

The organization could do some favors for its veterans, though.

Robin Lopez’s role has diminished significantly and is in his 10th year as a professional. He has an expiring $14.3 million left on his contract before becoming an unrestricted free agent this coming summer. Justin Holiday is another candidate to be moved when you look at his salary. He’s making $4.38 million and that deal also expires at this season’s end.

The Jabari Parker homecoming has been fine, but nothing spectacular, so there might be some value in trading for him. It’s especially valuable when Parker’s contract includes a team option for $20 million next season, meaning it could basically be treated as an expiring deal—for Chicago or the team he’d hypothetically be moved to.

Whatever this franchise decides to do, some kind of change has to be made if it wants to get better and consistent.

Players whose trade restrictions are lifted on Dec. 15: Ryan Arcidiacono, Antonio Blakeney, Jabari Parker

Players whose trade restrictions are lifted on Jan. 15: Zach LaVine (can veto trade due to re-signing with Bulls after matching offer sheet. Can’t be traded to Sacramento Kings even with consent until after the 2018-19 league year)

Players whose trade restrictions are lifted on Jan. 21: Shaquille Harrison

This is only the Central Division. There’s still plenty of time for a makeover for all five of those teams, but just imagine elsewhere around the NBA. Be on the lookout for the rest of our “Buyers or Sellers” division-by-division breakdown series this coming week.

Starting Saturday, it’ll be off to the races. We’d better pay attention.

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NBA

NBA Daily: The Trevor Ariza Sweepstakes: Part Deux

With the Trevor Ariza trade rumors heating up, Matt John speculates which teams could finish the three-way deal reportedly being discussed by the Lakers and the Suns.

Matt John

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Previously on Basketball Insiders…

After it was revealed last week that Trevor Ariza would soon be on the trade market following the expiration of his trade restriction on Dec. 15, much was discussed on who his next team could be. Almost one week following Marc Stein’s report, the jury is still out, but we finally got our first trade rumor centered on the veteran swingman.

Last night, Adrian Wojnarowski reported that the Lakers are trying to orchestrate a three-way trade where they would acquire Ariza by shipping Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to a team who could then provide Phoenix with both a young playmaker and a draft asset.

If both sides are able to find that third team to complete the deal, then holy nostalgia! First, we get Kyle Korver going back to the Jazz after eight years, and now we might potentially get Trevor Ariza’s return to the Lakers nearly a decade after he won a championship with them. All we need is for Kendrick Perkins to return to the Celtics, then we’ll party like it’s 2009!

But where will they find that third team? With what they’ve asked in return for Ariza, the Suns should not be optimistic that someone out there will meet their demands. Jimmy Butler didn’t fetch back any first-round picks, and neither did Korver, who are both in similar contract situations as Ariza. Getting a young playmaker and a draft asset for a guy who has disappointed enough to be put on the market the second he’s eligible is going to be difficult.

With what other teams have to offer on paper, it’s not undoable. The Suns may just have to lower their standards on what they hope to get back. The following teams could be the last piece the Lakers and Suns look towards to complete a Trevor Ariza deal.

Philadelphia 76ers

The Sixers were mentioned in this writer’s piece last week among the teams that could potentially compete for Ariza’s services because they need the wing depth. The Lakers seemingly have the upper-hand in the Ariza sweepstakes, so Philly may have to settle for the next best thing: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.

Not to fret, though. Shortly after the Jimmy Butler trade was completed, Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer reported that the Sixers had interest in KCP to help fill the shooting void left by Robert Covington and Dario Saric. Caldwell-Pope’s shooting percentages have gone down a little this season, as he’s shot 38 percent from the field including 34 percent from three. Maybe that would change on a team like Philly, where his role would be more clearly defined.

The point of acquiring him would be to add much-needed depth to a struggling bench. According to hoopsstats.com, the Sixers rank no. 22 in bench scoring on average, as they put up 34.3 points a game. KCP’s not a pure scorer, but he’s better than what Philly has in its second unit.

It’s also a good match because Philly has Markelle Fultz to offer as the young playmaker the Suns would want. It’d be perfect because the Suns can be patient with Fultz – which Philly can’t afford at the moment – and trading Fultz $8 million plus for Caldwell-Pope’s expiring deal saves money for the Sixers that they would use to retain Butler and Ben Simmons.

Also, trading the two of them for each other works straight up, which benefits the Sixers because they’d have to add extra contract filler to match with Ariza’s contract. If the Lakers and Suns really wanted to make this trade, then Philly would be the most ideal third team to complete it.

New York Knicks

If the Suns are truly are searching for that young playmaker to put next to Devin Booker, then the one team that has plenty to offer in that department is the New York Knicks.

This past week, Drew Maresca wrote about the influx of young point guards that the Knicks have at their disposal and that changes need to be made because they can’t properly develop all of them. Getting involved in this rumored Trevor Ariza trade could solve the problem.

Between Trey Burke, Frank Ntilikina and Emmanuel Mudiay, someone has to be the odd man out. The Suns inquired about Ntilikina a short time ago, but New York rebuffed them. Since Frank is the youngest and has the most economical contract of the three, he’s the least likely of the three to be traded.

That leaves Burke and Mudiay. Both have done a half-decent job at running the point, as they have put up nearly identical averages in the same number of minutes this season.

Burke: 12 points, three assists, 2.1 rebounds on 42 percent shooting including 36 percent from three on 20.7 minutes a game.

Mudiay: 12.1 points, 2.9 assists, 2.8 rebounds on 45 percent shooting including 37 percent from three on 23.8 minutes a game.

Either one would probably satisfy Phoenix’s demands of a young playmaker since they are both in their twenties. They aren’t a long-term solution, but since either would hypothetically be traded for Trevor Ariza, that’s about as good as they can expect.

New York also has the contract filler to match for Caldwell-Pope. Lance Thomas’ deal is non-guaranteed next year, and Ron Baker is expiring. They could easily make this work.

Caldwell-Pope wouldn’t be playing for a playoff contender in New York, and he can veto any trade he doesn’t like. However, playing for a storied franchise with that much exposure could give his career a boost, especially if he gets more touches as a Knick. If not, then he can just ask for a buyout and join a better team. New York can’t offer the same high potential that Philly can, but they can reasonably meet Phoenix’s demands.

Philadelphia and New York are the two prime candidates to be the last piece in this three-team deal. That being said, there could be others.

Sacramento, who was also brought up in last week’s article, could use more defensive personnel. They could offer Frank Mason III as well as expiring contracts for Caldwell-Pope.

Utah has some expiring contracts, as well as a mysterious young playmaker in Dante Exum, but they’re not likely to offer any of that for Caldwell-Pope.

There is also the outside possibility that Ariza goes somewhere besides Laker Land. We have seen scenarios play out like that before, which is why we as the audience always tune into stories like these.

The Trevor Ariza sweepstakes are getting juicier by the day, which brings nothing but joy to NBA junkies alike. This is probably going to be an impactful transaction in a season that already has a list of them, and we haven’t even hit the two-month mark yet!

Even if Ariza is getting past his prime, and regardless of where he goes, there’s one obvious winner from all of this: the spectators.

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