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Who Are the Keepers: Toronto Raptors

Nate Duncan breaks down the Toronto Raptors’ roster and figures out who their keepers are in the wake of their unexpected success this year.

Nate Duncan

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The 2013-14 season has been notable for the number of teams in a clear rebuilding mode. The first step in a rebuilding process, and one that must continue as long as the rebuild does, is to take stock of what talent the team has. There is one major question that should dominate the inquiry: Which of these players will be a part of our next good team? The player’s skill, age, contract and fit all enter into this discussion, as well as a realistic understanding of when the team can hope to be competitive again. This can generally be defined as the date a team’s young core is collectively projected to provide the greatest production. Finally, teams also need to consider the need to maintain flexibility rather than locking up a mediocre core.

The players are split into three different categories: “Buy His Jersey,” “Maybe, It Depends” and “Don’t Get Too Attached.” Players in the “Buy His Jersey” category are those who almost certainly should be in the team’s long-term plans, unless they are absolutely blown away by a trade offer for a superstar. Such players must either be under team control for quite a while longer on a cheap contract, or project to be a championship-level starter or better once their contract ends. The “Maybe, It Depends” category is reserved for players who have shown some promise, but are not necessarily locks to still be in town when the team is next ready to compete. It all depends on how these players develop and their contract situation. Many players in this category are on rookie contracts; once those end, they can become relative albatrosses if re-signed for more than their production would warrant. “Don’t Get Too Attached” is for players who are very unlikely to be a part of franchise’s next good team. In some cases it is because these players have demonstrated that they aren’t very good and don’t really have the potential to improve. But even solid players can appear on this list due to their age, contract status or fit.

Today we look at perhaps the most intriguing team in the league approaching the trade deadline, the Toronto Raptors. The Raptors appeared to have few long-term pieces coming into the season. Deposed general manager Bryan Colangelo had bequeathed little long-term flexibility on replacement Masai Ujiri. After the Raptors started the year looking like an also-ran even in the terrible Eastern Conference, Ujiri traded small forward Rudy Gay, center Aaron Gray and power forward Quincy Acy to Sacramento for point guard Greivis Vasquez, power forward Patrick Patterson, small forward John Salmons and center Chuck Hayes. The plan appeared to be to let Toronto’s younger players grow into larger roles while shopping Toronto’s remaining veterans and gleaning a top 2014 draft pick.

But a funny thing happened after the trade: the Raptors started playing really well. Since the Gay trade on December 8, the Raptors have a plus 5.1 point differential and a 23-12 record. In that time frame, Toronto ranks ninth in offense, fifth in defense and fourth in overall scoring margin per 100 possessions. Sporting a 28-24 overall record, they are the clear favorite for the third seed in the East. One would think a first-year general manager would be ecstatic at turning a lottery team into the third seed in the conference while simultaneously dumping long-term salary. Clearly, Ujiri is to be lauded for doing so. But on the other hand, the team’s success may well have made his long-term mission far more complicated. Fans of Toronto’s perpetually downtrodden franchise would likely bristle at any moves that hurt a team on track for a long-awaited playoff berth—and they might be right to bristle, given the way the team has played the last two months. There is some possibility that this performance could be real, and the Raptors should be looking to add to this core.

Yet despite their statistical success, it is hard to see this core competing for a championship sans superstar.* What’s worse, the Raptors’ success this year hurt their chances of acquiring such a player in the draft. In this context, identifying the keepers on the Raptors is especially difficult. Despite their success this year, they are in some ways closer to a lottery team in terms of the timeline for the keepers on their roster. Indeed, there are few three seeds in history that one would even write this analysis for.

*Toronto may be more likely than some teams to underperform their regular season results in the playoffs due to the fact that their bench has been a key to their post-Gay success, an advantage that is mitigated in the playoff crucible as starters play more minutes for opposing teams.

That said, being fourth in the league in net rating with a team that is young enough to provide internal growth in the coming years is no joke. While retaining free agent point guard Kyle Lowry is a risk because he may bolt after the season, it is also a risk to trade him and not find out what this team may become. This is especially so since Lowry is unlikely to return much in trade due to his free agent status. After much thought, I believe the best course of action is to keep this team together through the playoffs and find out how good it actually is. While the answer to that question is likely “a distant third in the East,” there are enough indicators to make it worthwhile to explore the possibility that the upside may be higher. It will be much easier to determine how to approach the offseason armed with more information than the 35 games since the Gay trade.

Buy His Jersey:

DeMar DeRozan
Age: 24
Contract: 4 years, $38,000,000, includes player option for 2016-17

DeRozan’s rookie extension, which kicked in this year, was initially panned by most analysts. But he has lived up to that contract so far this year. While he still has a slightly below average .522 True Shooting Percentage, he is still a valuable player because he soaks up 28 percent of Toronto’s possessions with a low 9.1 percent turnover rate. The Raptors have outscored opponents by 7.2 points per 100 possessions in DeRozan’s minutes since the Gay trade, and he has amassed an 18.2 PER on the year that ranks fifth among shooting guards. With that position in particular experiencing a dearth of star players, DeRozan is even more valuable. While he was lumped in with Toronto’s albatross contracts when Ujiri took office, DeRozan has proved worth his salary so far in 2013-14. He is just beginning his prime and has proved very durable so far in his career. He should be around for the long haul.

Jonas Valanciunas
Age: 21
Contract: Rookie Contract, expires 2016.

Much was expected of the Lithuanian after a dominant Summer League, but he has been a mild disappointment in nearly all areas. His 14.7 PER is a little below average, and his league-average True Shooting percentage is also below expectations. He has not been particularly effective defending the rim either, a disappointment considering his enormous size and reasonable quickness for his position. Overall, the Raptors have been 6.4 points/100 worse defensively in Valanciunas’ minutes since the Gay trade, although the offense has ticked up by 3.1 points/100 when he plays.

That said, Valanciunas is clearly a keeper. He has two more years on his rookie deal and is only 21. Given his physical profile and tools, he should develop into an upper-echelon center. If he does not appear on that path in two years, the Raptors will have an interesting decision to make on how much to pay him. But all indications right now is that he is part of the plan for the future, and rightly so despite the somewhat disappointing results this year.

Maybe, It Depends

Amir Johnson
Age: 26
Contract: 2 years, $13,500,000, last year $5 million guaranteed.
Projected New Contract: 3-4 years, $7-11 million AAV

Despite a slight decline in his box score statistics (mostly his rebounding rate), Johnson may be having his best season. He has been a key to the Raptors’ excellent post-Gay defense, allowing opponents to shoot only 46.1 percent on the 7.4 field goals per game he contests around the basket. He has also started to flash three-point range this season; although he shoots only 26 percent from out there on 1.2 attempts per game his 43.7 percent midrange shooting makes one believe he could eventually be a threat out there. His shooting has also allowed him to play with Valanciunas as a power forward, and he is mobile enough to stay with most fours defensively. The only question regarding Johnson’s long-term future in Toronto is the fact that his contract expires at the end of next season.

Kyle Lowry
Age: 27
Contract: $6,210,000.
New Contract: 2-4 years, $7-11 Million AAV

Lowry really is the fulcrum of the Raptors’ team-building conundrum. He is a free agent this summer, and his ultimate fate in Toronto will be the bellwether for the direction of the franchise. The bulldog point guard out of Villanova is having a career year and absolutely should have made the All-Star team, but there are major questions about whether he can sustain this performance going forward and how much he will cost to retain.

A long-term deal in Toronto at over $10 million per year could kill any cap flexibility the Raptors may have in the future after Ujiri did such great work to remove the millstones on the roster. Plus, he could be just good enough to prevent them from obtaining a superstar in the draft, but exiting his prime and well overpaid once players like DeRozan, Valanciunas and Ross enter theirs (and the latter two require extensions).

Lowry could also leave in free agency, although it seems unlikely any of the teams with cap space would pay him eight figures over a four-year deal. Perhaps the ultimate outcome will be a Paul Millsap-type two-year, $20 million or so deal that would enable the Raptors to lock two more years at a fair price without killing their future. Much of course depends on how the Raptors do in the playoffs and whether it appears this team could potentially contend with internal improvement alone. If, as is likely, that is not the case, then Ujiri may have to swallow hard and let Lowry go.

Patrick Patterson
Age: 24
Contract: Rookie Contract, expires 2014.
Projected New Contract: 3-4 years, $3-7 Million AAV.

Patterson has been excellent with Toronto in advance of restricted free agency, sporting a 58 TS% and hitting 43.9 percent of his threes on the way to an 18.5 PER. He too has been a key for Toronto’s bench success, with a 9.5 net rating. His floor spacing clearly opens up the offense, as the Raptors score at a rate that would rank fourth best in the league with him on the floor. Meanwhile, they have also defended at a top three rate in his minutes.

Patterson has clearly been a big part of the team’s success since his arrival, but as a restricted free agent could easily be overpaid. Some team may really value his shooting and passable defense and rebounding at the four as he enters his prime and decide to overpay, in which case the Raptors will have a very difficult decision to make. One thought for keeping Patterson is that he can play big minutes as a third big man alongside either Johnson or Valanciunas, both of whom can play center while he stretches the floor at power forward. His free agency will certainly be an interesting litmus test of how much the new breed of NBA general managers really values shooting.

Terrence Ross
Age: 22
Contract: Rookie Contract, expires 2016.

As a former dunk champion and owner of a 51-point game, Ross might have one of the louder 11.5 PERs in league history. That said, not much has changed for Ross in his second year. He shoots a few more threes and is up to almost 40 percent on those, but he still never gets to the basket or the line in the halfcourt. He has by far the worst net rating (+2.8 points/100) of any of the Raptors’ main players since the Gay trade, and the worst defensive rating as well.

That said, Ross can shoot and can jump, and is only 22. The question is whether his ceiling is Gerald Green, or something more. He is under his rookie contract through 2016, so the Raptors have plenty of time to find out. But thus far is appears that stardom may not be in the cards, and he could certainly be traded if a deal for a better-defending veteran on the wing opens up in the next couple years.

Coach Dwane Casey

Casey is in the last year of his contract, but the way he has coached a team with average defensive talent to a number four league ranking in defense since the Gay trade is very impressive. If the Raptors had won all year at their post-Gay pace, he would be a leading candidate for Coach of the Year. He got a raw deal in Minnesota once upon a time, coaching one of the last Kevin Garnett teams to a .500 record and solid defensive showing before being fired. The team promptly went 12-30 under Randy Wittman after he was axed.

Casey has shown enough this season to prove he is an asset to the organization. One would think he would be retained, but Lionel Hollins can tell you that success in the last year of a contract is no guarantee of a return when new management is in place.

Don’t Get Too Attached

John Salmons
Age: 34
Contract: 2 years, $14,583,000, last year $1 million non-guaranteed.

Salmons is finally reaching the end of his horrendous contract signed with Milwaukee in the summer of 2010 after the much-loved Fear the Deer campaign. Considering his 9 PER this year, Toronto will surely cut him this summer to save approximately $6 million.

Landry Fields

Age: 25
Contract: 2 years, $12,500,000.

Fields’ three-year, $21 million contract signed in the summer of 2012 might be the absolute worst in the NBA right now. He has played only 274 minutes on the year with a 7.6 PER. His solid rookie year is looking like one of the great fluke seasons in NBA history.

Chuck Hayes

Age: 30
Contract: 2 years, $11,681,250.

Hayes is wildly overpaid under the full mid-level deal he was given by Sacramento immediately post-lockout in 2011, but he remains a player who is more than the sum of his box score parts. At the very least, he will forever star in every video tutorial graduate assistants compile for undersized post defenders.

Steve Novak
Age: 30
Contract: 3 years, $10,945,948.

Novak was the cost of doing business for getting Andrea Bargnani off Toronto’s books (and inexplicably picking up a first-round pick in the process from New York). He can shoot like crazy, but with a 5.8 percent total rebound percentage and three blocked shots on the season really doesn’t do the “four” part of the stretch four position. He is barely in the rotation and it only figures to get worse from here.

Tyler Hansbrough
Age: 28
Contract: 2 years, $6,509,235, last year non-guaranteed.

The story for Psycho-T has been much different this year than last, when he was part of the Pacers’ bench unit that single- (or perhaps five-) handedly lost the Eastern Conference Finals. In contrast to his terrible on/off numbers last year, since the Gay trade he has a better net rating than all but one Toronto starter. His True Shooting percentage is a career high by four points, as he has lowered his usage rate and increased his efficiency. Hansbrough’s activity has been much better defensively to the tune of the best post-Gay defensive rating on the team at 90.6 points/100. The next (and last) year of Hansbrough’s contract is only guaranteed for $1 million. While he might be worth the extra $2.3 million it would take to keep him in a vacuum, the Raptors have three superior free agents in Lowry, Patterson and Vasquez. With Hayes also under contract, paying so much for a fourth or fifth big man likely is not the most efficient use of that money. Whether he stays next year or not, the one-time college player of the year is not part of the Raptors’ long-term plans.

Greivis Vasquez

Age: 27
Contract: Rookie Contract, expires 2014.
Projected New Contract: 1-3 years, $2-3 Million AAV

General Greivis has now started at point guard for two NBA teams, and both could not trade him out of that role fast enough. While he runs the offense and has excellent vision, he is so bad defensively that he cannot really be a full-time starter. But he is a reasonable option as a higher-end backup who can step in and start in a pinch, and has been valuable in Toronto after D.J. Augustin, Julyan Stone and Dwight Buycks proved unable to provide competent backup point guard play. Vasquez may not be in Toronto for long, however, as he is a restricted free agent this summer and the money for his potential new contract may be needed elsewhere.

Nate Duncan is an NBA analyst and attorney. He writes regular features for Basketball Insiders and chats weekly at 11 Eastern on Tuesdays.

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Young Glad To Reunite With McGee, Embracing Chance With Warriors

Spencer Davies chats with JaVale McGee and Nick Young about the sharpshooter’s first year with the Warriors.

Spencer Davies

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You never forget where you started.

As first-round draft picks with only a year apart between them, Nick Young and JaVale McGee began their respective careers in our nation’s capital with the Washington Wizards.

That’s where a bond began. Despite a tumultuous four-year stay with an organization that never sniffed the playoffs and finished dead last in the Central Division three times in the span, the two remained close friends.

Almost a decade later, “Swaggy P” and “Pierre” are reunited. Only this time, it’s with the NBA’s defending champion Golden State Warriors.

“Just shows,” Young told Basketball Insiders. “We’ve both been in this league for a long time and people didn’t think we was gonna make it this far and that’s a blessing. We’ll continue to do it and prove people wrong. From the bottom to the top, you know what I’m sayin’?”

McGee agrees wholeheartedly. Winning his first title with the Warriors last summer, he’s learned quite a few things about the healthy climate within the organization that Young, at first, was surprised by.

“It’s definitely a different environment,” McGee told Basketball Insiders. “Even when he came here, he asked certain questions of stuff he could and couldn’t do just because the environment that we used to be in was real restrictive of things that really didn’t have to do with basketball.

“Here it’s a player’s team, so they do a really good job of catering to us.”

As for his on-court fit with Golden State, McGee feels that Young has adjusted accordingly throughout the season.

“I feel like he’s fit in well,” McGee told Basketball Insiders. “Definitely got his conditioning right and he’s pretty good getting in the system, figuring out the screen system that we have here, so he’s doing a pretty good job.”

Though he hasn’t played as much as he’s used to, Young is truly enjoying his transition with the Warriors. He says it’s been the most fun he’s had in his career.

“Just being in the winning circle,” Young told Basketball Insiders. “Being around good teammates, good people and just competing for a championship man. We fightin’ for something big. It’s my first time being a part of something like this.”

As for what’s stood out to him about Steve Kerr’s system, it’s been the unselfishness from everybody on the roster, coaches and players alike.

“They embrace me good,” Young told Basketball Insiders. “That’s the one thing I like is a good team, good teammates. Pretty much just everybody knowing their roles. Nobody’s bringing negative energies to the locker room and it’s just a good vibe.”

Once asked about who the best shooter on the team is, Young went with Kerr as his answer. He told Basketball Insiders that he’s “still going with Steve,” but probably anybody else would have to give Stephen Curry the nod.

Curry’s been playing out of his mind this year. Kevin Durant’s done the same. There have been multiple times where one or the other has been out due to rest or, most recently, nagging injuries. It’s allowed for others to step in and get some extra minutes, and Young’s been the beneficiary of that multiple times.

So with Curry in and Durant out or vice versa, how would he compare and contrast the periods?

“It’s a different game,” Young told Basketball Insiders. “Of course, different styles. Both of ‘em draw so much attention that leaves guys like me open, but when one of ‘em’s out we’ve still got enough depth to keep up with anybody.”

Recently after Curry scored 45 points in three quarters against the Los Angeles Clippers and didn’t even play in the fourth, Young was baffled. His only explanation for the outburst was that he was from another planet.

And yes, Young believes Curry’s “got a shot,” as does Durant, when it comes to the MVP conversation because of where the Warriors are at this point of the season.

The belief goes both ways. Just as Young is ecstatic watching his teammates succeed, so are they for him. McGee recalls his friend’s debut for Golden State at Oracle Arena on opening night.

It was a night of celebration for the Bay Area, as the crowd cheered during the pre-game championship ceremony to commemorate the team. Young ended up dropping 23 points on 8-for-9 from the field in his first game for the Dubs. The Houston Rockets spoiled the party with a win, but the moment was special for the two.

“I was excited,” McGee told Basketball Insiders. “I always get excited when he’s out there scoring and doing his thing. I’m always happy for him. That’s my friend, long-time friend, and it was dope that he could be out here.”

Though you wouldn’t know it by his performance, Young had butterflies in his stomach before it all started.

“Ah man it was unbelievable,” Young told Basketball Insiders. “I was nervous. I didn’t know what was gonna happen. First time playing for the Warriors opening night. Had my family there. It was ring night, so I didn’t think I was gonna play that much, but I got an opportunity and I just took advantage.”

Since that game, Young hasn’t eclipsed the 20-point mark. But to his defense, that first game was his season-high in minutes thus far. Kerr understands the depth of his team makes it difficult for him to get consistent playing time, but he’s taken it in stride and been a good teammate.

But we all know how he shoots the rock when he finds a groove. So how many games like the opener does he have in store for us?

“I don’t know,” Young told Basketball Insiders with a laugh. “I just gotta get hot, so it could be any night.”

And whenever that night comes, expect to see him smiling as he drains those buckets.

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NBA Daily: Are The HEAT Getting Into The Fray?

Things in the NBA trade world are starting to heat up, and there are some new situations worth watching as the NBA trade market starts to take shape.

Steve Kyler

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The Latest On The Trade Front

With the 2018 NBA Trade Deadline ticking ever so closer, there are a few stories worth watching as teams start to zero in on the changes they may consider making.

Clippers Not Ready To Blow It Up

For most of the season, there has been talk in NBA circles and the media that the Clippers would likely move on from center DeAndre Jordan. While that still seems to be more likely than not at this point, the message from the Clippers’ side of things is they are not ready to blow up the team, and moving off Jordan is far from assured.

The narrative from around the Clippers is they are going to evaluate the team a little closer to the deadline and see what’s really available to them, but until then they seem more than happy to see if this team can actually compete, which they have been doing.

A league source close to the situation said recently that as much as Clipper fans might want to see the team blown up, ownership and senior leadership does not seem open to that concept at all. In fact, they believe that its better to be competitive and one player away than trying to go through the teardown route, knowing that no one is bailing out their $119 million roster commitment.

The Clippers invested heavily into forwards Blake Griffin and Danilo Gallinari this past summer, and the belief is that they will invest even more into guard Lou Williams.

Equally, the prevailing thought on Jordan is that while he does have a Player Option for free agency in July, there isn’t much beleif that he’ll land anything close to the $24.1 million he is owed next season, making it more likely he opts into his deal than walks away.

There are no shortage of teams hovering around the Clippers if they opt to change course. The Milwaukee Bucks and Houston Rockets both have eyes for Jordan if the Clippers opt to deal, while several teams seem keen on Williams, who is on an ending deal and would have Bird Rights for a team with limited cap flexibility. There has been talk that a couple of teams have had introductory talks on Griffin. However, it seems highly unlikely the Clippers seriously consider those situations.

If the Clippers wanted to blow up the team, it seems there are options for them, but the talk from the Clippers side is they don’t seem to be as open to the idea as some would like them to be.

Want A Veteran? Kings Have Some

The Sacramento Kings have told their veterans that they are going to start focusing more and more playing time on the younger players and that as many as three of the proven vets may not see action on a night to night basis.

There has been talk for weeks that guard George Hill is unhappy and seeking an exit from the Kings. However, his injury history and whopper of a salary seems to make it unlikely that he and the Kings will find a trade.

Veterans Vince Carter and Zach Randolph have handled the situation better, but league sources said it very possible both could be moved before the deadline, which apparently was suggested to both when they signed back in July.

The Kings have also been sniffing around for deals involving center Kosta Koufos and guard Garrett Temple; both have Player Options next season, which makes their value tough for the Kings, as most teams don’t value the uncertainty well.

Sources close to the situation said the Kings seem to be trying to help their veterans find better situations, especially as they are falling out of the rotation.

One long-time agent with a player on the roster commended the Kings for being smart about the situation, saying they seem to be going out of their way to try and help resolve the situation. Time will tell if there is a real market for any of those players and their somewhat hefty contracts.

Mirotic Has Veto Power, Sort Of

The Chicago Bulls have had the ability to trade forward Nikola Mirotic for a few days now, as he was one of the players who became trade-eligible on January 15. League sources said the Bulls had gotten pretty far down the road with both the Utah Jazz, on a deal centered on the expiring contract of Derrick Favors, and with the Detroit Pistons.

It’s unclear who the Pistons were really offering; there had been reports that the Pistons were dangling rookie Luke Kennard as the juice of a deal, with possibly Jon Leuer and his $10.4 million salary being the cap dollars included to make it work under the cap.

The Bulls seem to be holding out for a first-round draft pick in a Mirotic deal. However, league sources say the real hold up may be Mirotic himself.

The Bulls did a creative contract structure with Mirotic in that he has a team option in year two of the deal. Unless the Bulls exercise that option, Mirotic has veto rights. If the Bulls pick up that option, something league sources said Mirotic’s camp is pushing for, the veto power comes off the table, and the Bulls can completely control the process.

There has been considerable talk that Mirotic wants out of Chicago, but it seems some business may be holding up a potential deal.

It was never likely that the Bulls were going to immediately trigger a deal for Mirotic, so the timing of this may simply be the poker of deal-making in the NBA.

There is also something to be said about how teams would value Mirotic as a potential ending contract, versus a player with one more fully guaranteed year.

Equally, the Bulls haven’t closed the phones on offers either. While Utah and Detroit seem motivated, the Bulls may be smart to wait a few more weeks and see who is willing to meet their true asking price before they decide to pick up the Mirotic option to control the process.

Moving Whiteside?

Reading what the Miami HEAT will really do is always tough. The HEAT have a long track record of misdirection and clandestine processes. That said there is growing talk that the HEAT are more than open to a trade involving center Hassan Whiteside, especially if would help them clear out his cap dollars.

Whiteside is owed $23.7 million this year and has a fully guaranteed $25.4 million salary next season, plus a $27.09 million Player Option after that. That’s big money for almost everyone in the league.

The HEAT are not fire selling Whiteside, but there is a growing sense that if Whiteside could be moved for the right combination of ending contracts and upside youth, the HEAT would explore it.

This becomes interesting when you consider the Milwaukee Bucks have been after Clippers center DeAndre Jordan and that Cleveland Cavaliers have been linked to Jazz big man Derrick Favors.

Making a deal for a salary of Whiteside’s size would be massively tough for both the Bucks and the Cavs, but considering both ownership groups seem to be looking for a big splashy move, Whiteside could be the consolation prize if neither of the first options works out.

A Milwaukee deal for Jordan was said to be built around John Henson and Mirza Teletovic, who may be forced to medically retire due to a second recurrence of blood clots in his lungs. A Bucks deal would also likely include some combination of rookie scale players such as Thon Maker, Rashad Vaughn or D.J. Wilson, according to sources.

While on the surface none of that seems overly enticing, would clearing that kind of space be appealing to the HEAT? It does not seem to be for the Clippers.

The Cleveland Cavaliers have been sniffing around deals offering up both Tristan Thompson and guard Iman Shumpert. The inclusion of the Cavaliers’ own first-round draft pick was mentioned earlier in the season when the Cavs were linked to Jordan and the Clippers. Is that enough value for the HEAT? Equally, the challenge for the Cavs is they have set up the roster with a ton of expiring players, which makes sense with the uncertainty of LeBron James’ future in Cleveland. Do the Cavs want to be holding Whiteside for two years after a potential James exit?

Of all the things being talked about in NBA circles, this one is interesting to watch, not only because the HEAT seems to be willing to deal, but because Whiteside could be the answer to serious problems for good teams vying for a legitimate shot at the NBA Finals, especially this year.

Dallas Is Open For Business

The Dallas Mavericks are open for business. Mavericks owner Mark Cuban confirmed as much to reporters, saying the Mavericks would be open to leveraging their potential cap space next summer if it returned the right assets.

The Mavericks have several ending contracts they are dangling and seem to be looking for not only a promising rookie scale player, but future draft picks.

The Mavericks have held onto some salary cap holds to technically keep them above the salary cap line, but they could renounce those holds and get under the cap now. That cap flexibility makes them interesting to watch, as they could absorb up to roughly $13 million in salary before including ending deals like Josh McRoberts, Devin Harris, and Nerlens Noel, who has veto rights on a trade.

Historically the Mavericks have done a deal every year at the deadline. With some much flexibility, they could be the centerpiece to a big transaction because they can absorb cap dollars others teams simply can’t.

Keep in mind that trades and trade talks are a fluid thing; what can be a very hard “No” today can turn into a “Yes” quickly, so until something is done, keep in mind, it’s not done no matter how much it may make sense.

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Resurgent Clippers Climbing in the Standings

Blow up the Clippers? Not so fast, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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The NBA’s trade deadline is rapidly approaching, and one team that has appeared quite often in trade rumors is the Los Angeles Clippers. The Clippers started out the season strong, and Blake Griffin was playing like an MVP candidate. Then they hit a rough patch of injuries and slipped all the way down in the standings.

Since then, DeAndre Jordan’s name has come up in trade chatter. The Clippers were in a free-fall and their franchise center reportedly could be had for the right price. Sixth Man of the Year candidate Lou Williams has also been mentioned, as playoff contenders could certainly use his scoring prowess as they gear up for a playoff run. And our own Michael Scotto reported that the Clippers approached the Minnesota Timberwolves at one point about a deal revolving around Griffin and Karl-Anthony Towns.

However, the Clippers have done an about-face recently. They’ve won 11 of their last 15 games. They’re currently on a five-game win streak that includes wins over the Golden State Warriors (on the road) and the Houston Rockets. Those teams weren’t at full strength, but neither were the Clippers.

The point is, as the Clippers have begun to get some of their injured players back, they’re playing much better basketball. Maybe all the talk about blowing it up should be put on hold for a moment.

As it stands, they sit in seventh place in the Western Conference and right back in the playoff mix. They’re 22-21; they haven’t been over .500 since back on Nov. 5 when they were 5-4. They’re only one and a half games back of the Oklahoma City Thunder for fifth.

A big reason for this resurgence has been the return of Griffin. Griffin sprained his MCL back on Nov. 28, and he didn’t return to the lineup until Dec. 29. The Clippers went 6-8 without him. He recently missed two games due to concussion protocol, but in the games he’s played since returning, the team has gone 6-2.

In those eight games, he’s put up 19.6 points per game on 44.8 percent shooting from the field, seven rebounds, and 6.1 assists. It’s not what he was doing early in the season, but his production has been a most welcome addition to the lineup. He had one of his better games of the season against the Rockets on Monday night, with 29 points on 50 percent shooting, 10 rebounds and six assists.

Another huge reason for the Clippers’ new success has been Williams. At age 31, Williams is having a career year. He’s averaging 23.3 points per game on 45.3 percent shooting, 41.6 percent from the three-point line, and 5.0 assists, all career-highs. He’s had games of 42 and 40 points this season, and he recently dropped a career-high 50 points last week in a win over the Warriors.

And yet another catalyst in the Clippers’ turnaround has been the overall play of their bench and their rookies. Both Montrezl Harrell and Sam Dekker were almost afterthoughts at the beginning of the season. They were key pieces at times for the Rockets last season, but seemingly couldn’t get off the bench with the Clippers.

The rash of injuries forced Doc Rivers to expand the rotation, and both players have responded accordingly. Harrell has seen an increase in minutes since Griffin initially got hurt at the end of November. In the Clippers first game without Griffin on Nov. 30, Harrell had 13 points on a perfect 5-5 shooting from the field. Since then, he’s put up 10.2 points on 55.4 percent shooting. He scored a season-high 25 points last week in a win over the Sacramento Kings, and he’s become the Clippers’ most dependable big man off the bench.

Dekker has also seen an increase in playing time since the beginning of December. His numbers may not jump off the charts, as he’s averaging six points per game during that time frame. But he’s given the Clippers another three-point threat on the floor, as well as the ability to play and guard multiple positions.

They’ve also uncovered a few gems this season. Jawun Evans, who was a second-round pick, as well as two-way players such as C.J. Williams, Jamil Wilson (who has since been released), and Tyrone Wallace have all made important contributions to the team.

Evans has started in four games recently, and in those games, he’s put up 9.0 points and 4.8 assists. Since Dec. 18, C.J. has been a permanent part of the starting lineup. As a starter, he’s averaging 9.0 points on 47.5 percent shooting. He had a career-high 18 in a win over the Memphis Grizzlies on Jan. 2. On Jan. 8 he had 15 points and the game-winner against the Atlanta Hawks.

Wallace is a relative newcomer after the Clippers cut Wilson, and he’s making a huge impression. He’s played in six games so far and scored in double-figures in all but one while shooting 52.8 percent. He had 22 points, six rebounds, and four assists in the Jan. 10 win over the Warriors.

On the injury front, the team welcomed back Milos Teodosic on Jan. 11, and since returning he’s averaging 11.0 points and 6.7 assists. DeAndre Jordan is expected to be out a couple more games after injuring his ankle on Jan. 11. Austin Rivers, who was having a career year prior to his ankle injury on Dec. 29, is supposed to be re-evaluated soon. There’s no new status on Danilo Gallinari who is out with a glute injury. Patrick Beverley is already done for the year.

These injuries have been a bit of a blessing in disguise, as they’ve allowed some of the Clippers’ young guys to get valuable experience — experience that will surely pay off if they do make a playoff run. It’s also allowed Rivers to utilize his bench more. When the others begin to make their return to the lineup, the Clippers will be that much more potent.

The Clippers still have a long road to go, and nothing is ever guaranteed in the NBA. But perhaps it’s best just to pump the breaks a little bit on all the tanking and blowing it up talk.

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