Sometime in July, the internet unanimously crowned the Atlanta Hawks as basketball’s newest darlings — everybody’s favorite upstart, League Pass-worthy, fun-as-heck roster that could shock the world and make a postseason bid through high-tempo and athletically electric hoops. Although such claims may, in truth, be premature — at heart, the sport does love a good underdog story and the Hawks have all the trappings of a cult classic, sort of like NFL Odds in NJ.
Basketball Insiders kicked off its annual season previews again this week — and, as always, they’re some of the most comprehensive, detailed looks around. If you missed the grand opening, you can check out the New York Knicks, Phoenix Suns, Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls already. Later on, our team will tackle the Dallas Mavericks, New Orleans Pelicans and everybody else by the time October rolls around.
But, for now, the focus is on Atlanta, Trae Young, John Collins and the pressures of making that next big leap.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
The Hawks — along with the Pelicans — are the most interesting team in the NBA – to me at least. They had a great second-half of 2018-19 and should see fairly substantial gains given their youth. Trae Young lived up to all of the hype he generated two years ago at Oklahoma and he will continue to dazzle this season. The rest of their starting lineup is incredibly well-rounded and – on paper – fits together almost perfectly. The additions of De’Andre Hunter, Cam Reddish and Bruno Fernando add significant young talent, while Evan Turner, Alex Len and Jabari Parker add more skilled veterans to the roster. And, of course, the return of Vince Carter guarantees a savvy veteran presence. The Hawks have almost too much depth.
They will continue to struggle as they grow into themselves and learn how to win at the highest of levels. But we should see considerable improvement on the 29 wins they posted in 2018-19. The main challenge for head coach Lloyd Pierce will be managing minutes and keeping his roster happy with playing time, along with the growing expectations.
3rd place – Southeast Division
– Drew Maresca
There’s a lot of expectations being put on the Hawks. Despite a record with only 29 wins, it was the perfect definition of what a developmental season should be. Trae Young started out with some struggles, but ultimately came into his own and worked his magic. When John Collins returned, he was a double-double machine. Aside from DeAndre’ Bembry, those are the only young ones left, as longtime Atlanta favorite Kent Bazemore and Taurean Prince were both moved this summer. General manager Travis Schlenk decided to bring in a few veterans to help, in addition to drafting three legitimate rookies in De’Andre Hunter, Cam Reddish and Bruno Fernando. Lloyd Pierce will continue to excel and mature his roster – and there won’t be a bottom tier finish – but playoffs aren’t quite a given for this writer.
3rd Place – Southeast Division
– Spencer Davies
The Hawks have one of the highest upside teams in the NBA right now. Trae Young is a budding star. John Collins might be one too. Point guard is probably the toughest position in the league to play and Young has all the tools to be an elite playmaker. Collins has looming potential as an elite defensive player, but he can score the ball as well — especially with Young feeding him the ball. They had a solid draft too, and both De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish should get meaningful minutes right away, but development is the key for them this season. They could fight for a low playoff seed in the Eastern Conference, but as long as they show some true growth, that’s all that matters.
3rd Place – Southeast Division
– David Yapkowitz
The Atlanta Hawks had a busy offseason, making too many moves to cover completely in this short blurb. To keep it short, the Hawks added De’Andre Hunter, Cam Reddish, Evan Turner, Allen Crabbe, Chandler Parsons, Jabari Parker, Damian Jones, while moving on from Dewayne Dedmon, Kent Bazemore, Taurean Prince, Omari Spellman, Miles Plumlee, Deyonta Davis, Jaylen Adams. I like Hunter as a prospect, but I don’t think I would have traded the 17th pick and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ protected 2020 pick to draft Hunter fourth overall.
However, I did like Atlanta taking Reddish with the 10th overall pick since I think his game is much better suited for the NBA than it is for the college game. I’m not a big fan of the terms of the Jabari Parker contract since the Hawks gave him a player option on the second season. If Parker has a big season and passes on his player options, the Hawks have limited ability to retain him. Having said that, the team continues to add more young talent to an exciting core of prospects and will have a ton of cap flexibility next season.
3rd Place – Southeast Division
– Jesse Blancarte
The Hawks have been following the Golden State Warriors’ blueprint for two offseasons now and the results have been pretty solid. The Hawks amassed a ton of assets in taking on bad cap money in order to allow themselves to cash in on draft prospects they strongly liked. This summer, not only did they get two that fit the current roster — but the additions could augment it in a way that gets them seriously in the playoff hunt this year. If Trae Young continues to figure out the NBA game, he could be a borderline All-Star, John Collins is already a borderline All-Star, but adding De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish to the squad makes the future looks incredibly bright — bright enough to think maybe the Hawks could win 30 or more games this season. The Hawks are still on the outside looking in, but that might not be the case for long if the young guys gel quickly.
3rd Place – Southeast Division
– Steve Kyler
FROM THE CAP GUY
The Hawks are the lone team in the NBA with any real cap room, at roughly $7 million (before signing Vince Carter as rumored). Look for Atlanta to shop that cap room in a trade before the season begins, possibly to take on more unwanted salary along with draft considerations as compensation. If not, Atlanta may take that space all the way to the trade deadline.
The team can sign DeAndre’ Bembry and Damian Jones to contract extensions before the start of the season. The team will undoubtedly take the team options on Trae Young, John Collins and Kevin Huerter before November. Looking forward to next summer, the Hawks could have up to $80 million in spending power to add to their emerging core.
– Eric Pincus
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Trae Young
According to many unfair onlookers, Trae Young was considered called a bust before he ever stepped on the court, mostly due to the hype around Luka Doncic — last year’s eventual, inevitable Rookie of the Year and the phenom that Young was dealt for on draft night. And although Young began slow, he gradually adjusted to the speed of pro-level competition, found his groove and then lit the league on fire. Following the February break, Young looked the part of a future superstar, pulling up from all over behind the arc — his money-maker during that sole stint at Oklahoma the year prior — and even made a late, legitimate push for that aforementioned award.
From Feb. 22 on, Young tallied 20 or more points in 17 of the Hawks’ final 22 contests. All in all, the soon-to-be 21-year-old finished with a promising average of 19.1 points, 8.1 assists and 3.7 rebounds per game.
Even better, the unwieldy, turnover-prone efforts should happen far less after his first full offseason — but never fear: Young, without question, is an offensive show-stopper with an All-Star-level ceiling.
Top Defensive Player: De’Andre Hunter
Shockingly, the Hawks’ best defensive player already may just be De’Andre Hunter, a 21-year-old, 6-foot-7 do-it-all protector. Unsurprisingly, Atlanta didn’t have a single player in 2018-19 with a standout defensive rating and most of the names high on the list either played very little or are no longer with the team. Jeremy Lin, over 19.7 minutes per game, tallied a defensive rating of 107.7 and now he’s back in China, leaving Vince Carter and DeAndre’ Bembry as the best remaining assets.
So, right, Hunter: He’s an NCAA champion, a former second-team All-American, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year in both the ACC and NABC — even better, he should be ready to contribute from day one. Although his counting statistics in both steals and blocks don’t appear noteworthy, Hunter can defend in the paint and on the perimeter, able and willing to switch on screens and stick to his opposition too. For a team that bled points every night and finished with a defensive rating of 113.1 (28th-worst), Hunter is an immediate rotation piece and hopeful game-changer.
If anything, Atlanta can only go upwards from last season — that alone will give Hunter the room to shine once again.
Top Playmaker: Trae Young
Of course, calling Young one of the league’s most-impressive, young playmakers would somehow be a disservice to his penchant for bucket-scoring euphoria. Despite questions surrounding his size and efficiency — and still needing to make major strides in the latter — Young was must-watch television when he got hot. And there may be no better example than one jaw-dropping performance in which Young dropped 49 points and 16 assists on 17-for-33 from the floor and 46.2 percent from deep. A few weeks later, Young tossed 16 assists to just a single turnover; which was also his fifth and final effort with 13 or more dimes during a rookie season that only seemed to rise.
Watching Young can be an infectious activity — with speed to burn and a lightning-fast trigger finger, the ceiling is already tantalizingly grand. Between keeping opposing defenders on skates and finding the open teammate, Young is set to befuddle head coaches for years and years to come. Among all rookies, Young finished second in points and first in assists per game — furthermore, the only players in the entire league that tallied more of the latter last season were an All-Star-worthy trio of Chris Paul, Kyle Lowry and Russell Westbrook.
Top Clutch Player: John Collins
For now, both John Collins and Young will share the throne in this all-important category until somebody can manage to separate themselves this season. Young, although never afraid of the big moment, had bouts of inefficiency and the Hawks trailed so often that his collegiate-level madness couldn’t peak at a consistent rate until the end of the year. But, as mentioned, that springtime star left many with a taste of just how special Young could be someday. Again, when he got hot, there were few players more unguardable than Young.
On 24 different occasions, Young hit three or more three-pointers in a contest. He scored more than 30 points nine times and was the owner of magical moments like this and this. Expand those highlights to those that made him a nation-wide hero as a Sooner and, of course, his clutch gene is undeniable. With gained wisdom, strength and an evolving supporting cast, it’s fair to expect Young to reach (and beat) even more of those high-pressure situations in 2019-20.
But Collins, too, deserves mention as one of the Hawks’ key-building blocks. Thanks to a late surge in popularity, Collins generated some deserved All-Star bid buzz and, thankfully, he should only continue to soar from here. At 21 years old, Collins is an athletic, stretchy forward with all the offensive tools of a future unicorn. The 6-foot-10 high-flyer scored 19.5 points and 9.8 rebounds per game, even expanding his three-point range to a reasonably exciting 0.9 makes at a 34.8 percent rate as well. Young’s flashier, deep-range appeal is hard to look past, but Collins’ ability to get a much-needed bucket or contest-clinching exclamation point is not something to sleep on either. Collins may be an All-Star for the next decade or so — and if he provides more moments like this, it’ll be nearly impossible to disagree.
The Unheralded Player: Kevin Huerter
It’s hard to believe that Kevin Huerter might be considered unheralded, but with Young and Collins, deservingly, in the main stage spotlights, here we are. To wit, Huerter owns the much-needed consistency trait that Young must strive to find in year two, plus a fantastic 38.5 percent mark from three-point range. Out of college, the 6-foot-7 first-rounder was pegged as the best three-point shooting threat in the entire class — so far, Huerter has begun to live up to that hype and more already.
Among rookies, Huerter’s 1.8 three-pointers per game were fourth-best, only trailing Landry Shamet, Doncic and Young. On the percentage side of proceedings, it was just Collin Sexton, Alonzo Trier and Shamet to beat him there too. Furthermore, Huerter played in 75 games and notched 12 or more points in 26 of them, topping out with a magnificent, red-hot January performance of 29 points on 5-for-8 from three-point range. Even as a 21-year-old, Huerter has proven early that he’s a shoulder worth leaning on. Comparing him to Klay Thompson is perhaps a bit too easy — since, duh, Thompson is a three-time champion, one of the greatest three-point shooters of all-time and a member of the All-Defensive Second Team currently — but Huerter has shown promise as a perimeter defender as well. As Kyler pointed out above, the Hawks have adopted the Warriors’ team-building blueprints and Huerter looks like a strong fit in that sense.
For a team that desperately needs playmakers on the defensive end, Huerter’s 6-foot-8 wingspan will make him a steady, reliable cog — if not much, much more — for years to come. If Young and Collins are the compelling forces of potential stardom, Huerter may just be the secret sauce that’ll keep it all together.
Best New Addition: De’Andre Hunter
Quickly, the focus returns to the aforementioned De’Andre Hunter, who has a special opportunity to be a ready-to-go, NBA-made contributor from day one. Over his four seasons at Virginia — capped off with a net-cutting championship last spring — Hunter became collegiate basketball’s best man-to-man defender. If that talent transfers over to the infinitely faster NBA — and it should, the 6-foot-5, 200-pound force is already 21 — then Hunter is a dose of medicine the Hawks badly need.
Last season, Atlanta owned a nearly passable offensive unit — although the league-wide rank says differently — but with Young, Huerter, Collins and others involved, that should come as no surprise. Unfortunately, the defense was beyond cataclysmic. With that downright bad rating of 113.1, the 28th-ranked squad just leaked points in every possible way at nearly every possible opportunity. Hunter can’t solve all those questions immediately, but he’ll surely help push Atlanta up toward the middle of the pack, a reasonable goal that will go far in their efforts to make the playoffs in a weaker conference. Scroll back up if you’ve already forgotten his laundry-list of collegiate honors and Hunter can flat-out defend, a trait that forced the Hawks’ hands early on in the draft.
With the other-Cavaliers, Hunter averaged 15.2 points, 5.1 rebounds on 43.8 percent from three-point range, while his size and strength should allow him to guard three positions at the professional level. During the National Championship, Hunter exploded for 27 points on 8-for-16 and thrived on the sport’s biggest stage and brightest moment. Given their imminent offensive firepower, Hunter will be concentrated mainly on shutting down the opposition’s best player — but if his collegiate resume is any indication, it won’t be long before he’s an impact player in the NBA either.
– Ben Nadeau
Who We Like
1. Allen Crabbe + Evan Turner
Clearly, the Hawks are a roster fully run by their up-and-coming youngsters — but the veterans are no slouches either. Allen Crabbe — acquired in a pre-draft move for Taurean Prince — was hurt for much of last season, but he’s the owner of multiple three-point seasons with a percentage over 37 or better — three to be exact. If he’s healthy, Crabbe will have plenty of room to let fly in Atlanta’s fast-trigger, high-scoring offense. Additionally, Evan Turner, a former teammate of Crabbe’s in Portland, has been maligned in recent years for his bloated contract, but he’ll be fine fit — 6.8 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.9 assists in 2018-19 — as the Hawks’ second-unit leader and floor general.
3. Chandler Parsons
Chandler Parsons is around and kicking too following his midsummer move from Memphis. Parsons, now 30, hasn’t played more than 35 games since 2015-16, but the massive deal that’ll pay him $25 million this season is set to expire next summer — so the once-uber-promising shooter will have something to prove. Giving Parsons the classic if-healthy caveat is a dangerous game — if not completely naive at this point — but we’re willing to take a final spin on the Parsons Express.
4. Vince Carter
Vince Carter, perhaps surprisingly, is returning to Atlanta for another ride this season, ready to play consistent minutes and mentor the cornerstones rather than receive spot minutes for a contender. Many playoff-ready rosters were interested in Carters’ services in July, but the will-be 22-year veteran remains in his stewardship role — a position that many, many young Hawks appreciated all year long. He’s no longer Half-Man, Half-Amazing but Carter is an important part of Atlanta’s culture and fabric, so he belongs here as much as anybody else.
5. Bruno Fernando
Cam Reddish will likely struggle as a raw, slender 20-year-old — but another rookie, former Terrapin Bruno Fernando, offers an intriguing look at the Hawks’ long-term plans at center. Albeit inconsistent, Fernando frequently put up lottery-worthy efforts over two years at Maryland — instead, the Hawks snagged him at No. 34 overall. At 6-foot-10, Fernando is another rim-protecting diamond in the rough that averaged 13.8 points, 10.6 rebounds and 1.9 blocks over 34 contests last season. After losing Dewayne Dedmon to the Kings this summer, Fernando is a beyond interesting watch off the bench.
– Ben Nadeau
As mentioned, the Hawks haven’t struggled to score in a hot minute — that’s never been in doubt. Although the offensive rating, likely affected by the porous defense, was unspectacular, it was head coach Lloyd Pierce’s first year on the job, flanked by impressive, but raw, talents. The Hawks’ 113.3 points per game were the 13th-highest mark in the league and their warp-speed pace of 104.56 was the fastest of any in 2018-19. Led by Young and Huerter’s combined total of 11.7 three-pointers per game, the Hawks finished in the top five in both attempts (37, third-highest) and total conversations (16.1 made, fourth-best).
In points off turnovers, the Atlanta did well too, notching a serviceable 17 points per game, 11th-highest last season — they, too, finished in the same spot for steals league-wide at 8.2 during every contest. Adding Hunter to the mix should only improve the roster in that regard and, for a team headed by four sub-22-year-olds, it’s an impressive feat no matter how you slice it.
Given the assumed progression by cornerstones like Young, Collins and Huerter — and no major offensive departures this offseason — the Hawks should continue to do just fine there again.
– Ben Nadeau
Before diving into the defensive-related worries, the turnovers were a result-plaguing issue for the Hawks too. At 17 turnovers per game, the Atlanta Hawks led the league in giveaways in 2018-19, handily beating out second-placed Los Angeles too.
Given Young’s high-usage for a rookie point guard, it’s not fair to tag him with all of the sloppy blame — but it was a concern for him out of Oklahoma as well. Naturally, those tasked with both scoring and playmaking for others will often have higher-than-usual totals — see: Russell Westbrook. However, Young tossed away four or more turnovers 42 times as a first-year professional. Worse, he reached the six-turnover plateau — with a season-high of nine — in 18 of those contests.
Only James Harden, Devin Booker and Westbrook averaged more turnovers than Young last season — two of whom are recent MVPs and certain Hall of Famers — and he struggled frequently with it in Division-I two years ago. There are great odds that his tallies, as he matures and bulks up, will subside, but it’s a clear weak spot in an otherwise promising offense.
Defensively, they’ve got plenty of room to improve, especially with Hunter now in tow. The Hawks allowed the third-most three-pointers per game at 12.4 during 2018-19 and opponents put up 49.3 points in the paint as well, meaning that they were getting scored on from just about everywhere. Atlanta’s defensive rating — as a reminder: 113.8, 28th-worst — couldn’t stop a chair from scoring on most nights and were only beat out in futility by the Suns and Cavaliers.
If they truly aspire to be a postseason-bound squad, that’ll have to improve on defense in a hurry.
– Ben Nadeau
THE BURNING QUESTION
Can the Atlanta Hawks make the playoffs in 2019-20?
Well, probably not.
Still, even being in the hypothetical conversation is worth some points on merit alone. Thanks to some savvy front office transactions, promising up-and-comers and a modern, practical NBA offense, the Hawks are closer to that goal than ever. Even if they don’t end up in a final Eastern Conference playoff spot, reaching the ninth or tenth slot on the ladder would be a welcomed improvement. Bye-bye to the cellar, most certainly, if that’s an adequate consolation prize too.
They’ll remain exciting. Young will continue to get terrifyingly-hot and unrelentingly cold. Collins will keep reaching for rim-rattling stardom and Huerter will be the glue that makes the whole train rolling on — regardless, as of now, it’s a major ask for extra springtime games. Give Reddish, Fernando and Hunter a year to fully find their footing, let Young chop those turnover numbers in half and give Collins the freedom to do whatever he wants — then the race for the postseason will truly be on.
Ultimately, the defense will doom far too many of the Hawks’ strong offensive performances to make this question any more than wishful thinking in September. But there’s nothing that we all love more than a good story and Atlanta owns the makings of one. Come the All-Star break, or maybe even earlier, it’ll be easy to tell if the Hawks are on the cusp of breaking through or if some patience needs to be afforded.
Either way, transforming a cellar-dweller doesn’t happen overnight — however, it’s never been more obvious that the Hawks are on the right path back.
– Ben Nadeau
Buy Or Sell: Central Division
Drew Mays continues Basketball Insiders’ “Buy Or Sell” series by taking a look at the Central Division.
It’s Dec. 12, and we’re over a quarter of the way through the 2019-20 NBA season. More importantly, we’re three days away from the 15th – the day much of the league because trade-eligible.
By now, teams have a good idea of who they are and where they want to be in four months when the playoffs roll around. This means they also know something else: Whether what they have in the locker room is enough, if they’re missing a piece, or if their season is toast and they should wheel and deal before the February trade deadline.
These thoughts inspired the Basketball Insiders’ “Buy Or Sell” series. Matt John led us off a few days ago by breaking down the Northwest Division. Yesterday, Jordan Hicks batted second with the Southwest Division. Today we’ll be checking on the division with the hottest team in the NBA: The Central.
Milwaukee Bucks (22-3) – Buyers (?)
Can anyone stop Milwaukee? They’ve won 16 straight, 20 of 21, and haven’t lost since Nov. 8. While part of this stretch has involved beating up lesser teams — and winning games you’re supposed to isn’t a bad thing — undoubtedly the most impressive performance came last Friday at home against the Los Angeles Clippers. They won 119-91 and it was even uglier than that. Los Angeles was down nine at halftime and 25 after three quarters. The Bucks held the Clippers’ three offensive stars – Paul George, Kawhi Leonard and Lou Williams – to 15-for-39 shooting and forced them into 15 turnovers (LA shot 35 percent and committed 21 turnovers as a team).
What Milwaukee did to the Clippers isn’t an outlier, either. They’ve blitzed the entire league on both ends of the floor. They’re first in defensive rating, third in offensive rating and first in average margin of victory at 13.4 points. They aren’t just winning – they’re winning big. They have the best effective field goal percentage in the NBA and the second-best allowed on defense.
The Bucks are deep and have 12 guys that get significant minutes. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the only player above 30 minutes per game, with the rest of the roster falling in succession down to Robin Lopez’s 14.5 per. They’re shooting extremely well while still making the third-most threes per game in the league at 14.4. Nine different players make at least one every game.
Even scarier, Giannis keeps evolving. His three-point shooting volume has been a revelation – he’s taking five each night. He’s never taken more than three. And even shooting only 31.9 percent, the attempts in themselves (and Giannis’ willingness to shoot them) has opened up the offense more than ever before. It’s led to Antetokounmpo somehow topping his numbers from last season – he’s up from 27.7/12.5/5.9 to 30.9/13.2/5.5. Sheesh.
There’s a huge scoring drop off after Giannis, though. Only Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe and Brook Lopez join him in double figures. They could use another scorer or playmaker. People have long half-jokingly floated the idea of Chris Paul, but that seems unlikely. There may not be a player on the market worth chasing based on their needs.
Still, the lack of extra scoring punch behind the MVP might not even be an issue until the postseason. Until then, Milwaukee fans can enjoy the ride – the Bucks shouldn’t have worries for a while.
Indiana Pacers (16-9) – Buyers
After a slow start, Indiana has rejoined the upper cluster of the Eastern Conference. They’ve won nine of their last 12 and sit in the top half of the league in both offensive (15th) and defensive (10th) rating.
Like Milwaukee, Indiana boasts a ton of depth – they have nine regulars that play over 17 minutes per game. Malcolm Brogdon continues to be the Pacers’ engine, averaging 19.5/4.5/7.5. TJ Warren seems to have found his footing and Domantas Sabonis has been a beast, scoring 18.2 and grabbing 13.5 rebounds every night.
That said, the Pacers suffer a similar problem as the Bucks – they lack high-end talent. Their better part of the rotation is similar to Milwaukee’s non-Giannis top players; they’re useful, productive role players, but not guys you expect to beat teams with more star power.
This lends itself to Indiana being buyers over the next few months. They could add another on-ball threat to pair with Brogdon, thus making things easier for Sabonis and the assist-allergic Warren. TJ McConnell and the pair of Holiday brothers have performed admirably to this point, but no one in the conference is batting an eye at those three.
Of course, the Pacers already have a top-flight scorer and shot creator coming – Victor Oladipo. Oladipo has been out since January and is expected to return in the next few months.
Assuming he’s able to at all, it’ll take him time to get back to form. The likeliest scenario isn’t that the Pacers buy prior to the deadline, but that they continue rolling out their massive lineup and stay the course until their star returns.
Detroit Pistons (10-14) – Buyers
The Pistons are right where they want to be.
Well, maybe not. But after years of mediocre teams and 8th-seed finishes, seeing Detroit a handful of games under .500 and in the 9th spot in the Eastern Conference feels like home.
Detroit is 10th in offensive rating and 16th in defensive rating. Those numbers usually mean postseason appearances, especially in the weaker conference. A five-game losing streak in mid-November slowed their progress, but the 6-4 mark since Nov. 22 in about what you’d expect them to be.
But Blake Griffin has not looked like Blake Griffin. Maybe it’s injury-related, maybe it’s age-related. But a player of his caliber – especially coming off his sneaky-great 2018-19 – should regain form.
Andre Drummond is still doing Andre Drummond things. And as we detailed in October, Derrick Rose looks better than he has in years – he’s averaging 16.1 and 5.8 in just under 24 minutes per game.
The Pistons are buyers because the track record shows they don’t embrace the tank — Exhibit A: the Blake Griffin trade — and their age. Some middling teams prefer to bottom-out and rebuild. Detroit has proven their propensity to just hang around, winning 38-42 games each year before getting trounced in the postseason. That’s admirable; it’s hard to win games in the NBA. Trying to do so, even with moderate success, isn’t a bad thing.
Detroit’s top scorers are Griffin (30), Rose (31), Drummond (26), Luke Kennard (23), Markieff Morris (30) and Langston Galloway (24). Kennard has been pretty good, but Galloway isn’t inspiring fear in anybody. Drummond, still relatively young, cannot be a A or B option as a scorer. Detroit went after the now 30-year-old Griffin a few years ago and Rose this past summer. Those are win-now, stay-relevant moves and there isn’t a lot of flexibility there.
Accordingly, it wouldn’t surprise to see Detroit try and get a few players leading up to February. The only player they might try to unload is the currently-injured Reggie Jackson – although it’s hard to imagine who would want him.
Chicago Bulls (9-17) – Sellers
It’s been repeated for months now: The Bulls, 9-17 and 11th in the Eastern Conference, are a disappointment. They talked up the playoffs preseason only to fall victim to the same prey as they did last year. The injuries have been less (although Otto Porter Jr. has been out since Nov. 8 and Lauri Markkanen has dealt with an oblique injury), but it hasn’t translated to wins.
Chicago’s defense has improved – they’re up to 12th in defensive rating – but their offense continues to be bottom-barrel, currently 26th in the NBA. The two though-to-be stars in Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen have struggled; LaVine has been up (49 points and 13 threes in Charlotte on Nov. 23) and down (5 points on 2-for-11 against Detroit on Nov. 20) offensively and rough on defense. Elsewhere, Markkanen has been outright disappointing by managing just 14.5 points per on 39.3 from the field and 32.7 from three-point range.
There have been reported internal riffs, plus tons of questions about head coach Jim Boylen, his fit for the job and whether the players respond to him.
Even if it gets better for the Bulls, it’s unlikely it does so in a way meaningful enough to meet preseason expectations. Chicago should be looking to sell, whether it’s Kris Dunn or players higher on the totem pole. The front office may not want to hear it, but there’d be a market for both LaVine and Markkanen.
Whether they explore that market or not remains to be seen.
Cleveland Cavaliers (5-19) – Sellers
The Cavaliers aren’t good, but we all expected that. They’re 29th in offense and 28th in defense, and they’ve won just one of their last 15 games – including their current eight-game losing streak.
Collin Sexton looks similar to his rookie year, except now his three-point shooting is down. Cedi Osman and Jordan Clarkson are both shooting 41 percent. Darius Garland is shooting 37.9 from the field, and leads the team with a putrid 2.8 assists per game.
— Bootum (@DaRealBootum) December 12, 2019
That clip also shows us the reason the Cavaliers are maybe the biggest sellers of the trade period: Kevin Love.
Love’s numbers are down across the board. He’s averaging 15.7 and 10.5 rebounds per game on 43.8 percent from the field and 35.4 from three. Much of that can be explained by playing on a wholly uncompetitive team – other franchises want Love, a proven championship commodity who rebounds and stretches the floor.
Jason Lloyd of The Athletic reported today that Cleveland was seeking a first-round pick in exchange for Love. Lloyd also mentioned the problem with Love: He’s more expensive than Oklahoma City’s Danilo Galinari, but the latter is on an expiring deal.
Still, Love is a valuable player, and somebody that contenders will jump at once the deadline nears and executives are pressed to make a move. Portland has long been tied to the forward, but their standing in the Western Conference will factor into their willingness to take him on.
Regardless, it would be shocking (and almost implausible) to see Kevin Love in Cleveland past Feb. 6.
December is a big month for basketball – the Christmas day games are the most-watched regular season event on the NBA’s calendar. But something even more important than those matchups is only three days away, when much of the league becomes trade eligible.
Dec. 15 starts the race to Feb. 6. By then, we’ll know exactly who teams are as we look ahead to another NBA postseason.
NBA Daily: Are The Sixers Building Around The Wrong Franchise Player?
Joel Embiid is the Philadelphia 76ers’ “crown jewel.” But as he and Ben Simmons struggle to coalesce in year three of their partnership, it bears wondering if Philadelphia is building around the wrong franchise player.
The latter half of the Philadelphia 76ers’ longest winning streak during the Joel Embiid era came while he watched from the bench.
It began in mid-March 2018 with a win at Madison Square Garden, and ended nearly a month later with a home beatdown of the Milwaukee Bucks that sent the Sixers streaking into the playoffs having won 16 straight games. Embiid fractured his face two weeks into that binge, making it easy to believe his team would tumble to the bottom of the postseason standings.
Philadelphia was tied in the win the column with the eighth-place Miami Heat at the time of Embiid’s injury. Nothing it had previously done suggested the team could keep from falling to the last playoff seed in the East without him. The Sixers were 16.1 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor in 2017-18, a team-high and one of the league’s biggest individual marks.
A soft schedule over the season’s last two weeks definitely helped Philadelphia thrive in spite of Embiid’s absence, and that’s how the streak was portrayed in the media by the time the playoffs started. It lasted one more game before the Miami HEAT beat the Sixers in Game 2 of the first round, after which Embiid returned.
But the breakneck, wide-open style of play his absence prompted from Philadelphia was impossible to forget last week, when Ben Simmons was unleashed again. The Sixers, coming off a dispiriting loss to the Washington Wizards, dropped 141 points on the Cleveland Cavaliers as Embiid nursed a sore hip.
Simmons was dominant in a way he hadn’t been all season, dropping a career-high 34 points and 7 assists on 12-of-14 shooting in just 26 minutes of play. He drained his second three-pointer, again from the corner, leading Brett Brown to later tell reporters that he wants Simmons launching at least one triple per game. Why?
“His world will open up,” Brown said after the game, “And, in many ways, so will ours.”
It’s become increasingly impossible of late to separate Simmons the player from Simmons the shooter. Philadelphia traded space and playmaking this summer to double down on size and defense, making the need for Simmons to develop any workable shooting range more dire than ever. Going on four years after he was drafted and three seasons into his career, it’s not like an expectation of him doing just that was asking too much.
But it just hasn’t happened nearly two months into the season, calling the Sixers’ viability as top-tier championship contenders into question. Simmons is 2-of-4 from three-point range and 4-of-9 on two-point jumpers outside the paint. Philadelphia relies on Embiid post-ups and pick-and-rolls for Josh Richardson and Tobias Harris in crunch time, leaving Simmons playing bystander in the dunker spot or weak corner as his teammates try their damndest to navigate a cramped floor with games on the line.
The Sixers rank barely above average in overall offensive rating, and worse in the clutch. Embiid and Philadelphia architect Elton Brand have received a fair share of criticism for their team’s relative struggles — especially offensively — in the season’s early going, but it’s Simmons who’s drawn the most ire.
The numbers, though, suggest Embiid’s impact is the one waning most. His net offensive rating has been overwhelmingly positive each of the last two seasons, but that hasn’t been the case in 2019-20. The Sixers are scoring at a bottom-five rate with Embiid on the floor, and a top-10 mark when he’s on the bench. Both his on and off-court offensive ratings are easy worsts among starters.
But the critical narrative surrounding Philadelphia’s offensive labors has largely ignored Embiid for Simmons regardless, and it’s not the media’s fault. Brown has made abundantly clear over the years that Embiid is his team’s franchise player, frequently calling him “our crown jewel” while citing his Hall-of-Fame ability on both sides of the ball.
Embiid isn’t tasked with tailoring his game toward Simmons’ nearly as much as the other way around, and understandably so. The former’s sheer size inherently limits both the flexibility and scalability of his offensive influence.
If Embiid isn’t the Sixers’ go-to guy, demanding post-ups and drawing double teams, just how would he function in the team construct? He’s way too talented to serve as a glorified floor-spacer, and his stroke hasn’t developed to the point he’d be well-suited for that role anyway. A similar line of thinking applies to making Embiid a rim-runner and vertical floor-spacer. He’s just too good, and not quite versatile enough, to prosper in a more confined offensive role.
The opposite dynamic applies to Simmons, at least for now. His most enticing attribute dating back to high school has been his adaptability. There are exceedingly few players standing 6-foot-10 capable of making the passes Simmons does, and fewer still who double as a disruptive defender of every position on the floor. He’s a Unicorn without the jumper, and his generational blend of size, athleticism and ball-handling genius portended inevitable skill development to come.
It hasn’t, for the most part, but focusing on that failure might be deflecting from an all-encompassing issue that continues to plague the Sixers. What if they’re building around the wrong franchise player?
The ongoing trajectory of the league lends credence to that notion. Simmons isn’t LeBron James or Giannis Antetokounmpo, but it’s not difficult to imagine an offensive attack molded to his similar strengths reaching heights one conformed to Embiid’s never could.
Philadelphia’s historic romp over Cleveland offered a glimpse into that alternate reality, just like its effectiveness this season with Embiid on the bench. Lineups featuring Simmons without Embiid boast an offensive rating of 114.4, comfortably above its overall mark, subsist on far higher diets of transition and three-point shooting, per Cleaning the Glass. The Sixers shoot better at the rim and from deep in that scenario, too, further evidence of Simmons’ sweeping effect without being forced to walk the ball up and Embiid clogging the paint.
Philadelphia, unsurprisingly, isn’t as stout defensively with those units on the floor. Embiid has been a defensive panacea during the regular season throughout his career. Improved conditioning is the only thing keeping him from winning Defensive Player of the Year, and he might win the award this season anyway.
Still, the same foibles that have long mitigated Rudy Gobert’s defensive influence in the playoffs apply to Embiid. A system built around a preeminent rim-protector with limited perimeter mobility can’t take away everything, and superior postseason competition generally means those low-value shots are more likely to drop. A switch-heavy scheme with a big like Al Horford playing center full-time, though? That’s a defense built for the playoffs, and one that would maximize Simmons’ gifts on that end — both on and off the ball.
This isn’t some cry for Philadelphia to blow it up – whether Simmons or Embiid would be the one on the way out. The Sixers’ ceiling is tallest with both on the roster, and it’s much too early to write them off as title contenders, this season or going forward. Neither Simmons nor Embiid are finished products; their pairing could still end up functioning at a championship level.
But if Philadelphia, quietly 6-1 in its last seven games, again starts underperforming, calls to trade Simmons will undoubtedly resurface.
And while that’s certainly a measure worth considering, it’s unfair to Simmons — and potentially destructive to the Sixers’ long-term title hopes — without at least broaching the same fate for Embiid.
Buy Or Sell: Southwest Division
Jordan Hicks continues the Buy or Sell series with a look at the Southwest Division.
It’s absolutely crazy to think about how deep basketball already is into the regular season. Over 25 percent of the games have already been played, and certain teams are starting to separate themselves from the pack. In an NBA campaign that was supposed to be riddled with parity, there’s definitely a select few teams that are starting to leave the rest behind.
What’s more, on Dec. 15th roughly 90 percent of the NBA becomes tradeable. Yes, it’s that time of the year in which trade talks will start to pick up. Something needs to spice up mundane December and January games, and nothing does a better job quite like rumors.
The Southwest Division has been chock-full of surprises. For one, the Dallas Mavericks seem to be a legitimately solid franchise. The San Antonio Spurs, on the other hand, seem to be struggling for the first time in what seems like 175 years. The Houston Rockets continue to stay playoff eligible despite Russell Westbrook’s shooting woes. The New Orleans Pelicans are just begging for Zion Williamson to return from injury and lead them out of the darkness. And the Memphis Grizzlies – well let’s just say they’re doing about as well as anyone expected.
In continuing with Basketball Insiders’ Buy Or Sell series, let’s take a look at each franchise and discuss whether they are in the position to seek talent, or exchange talent for future assets.
Houston Rockets (15-8) — Buyers
Tilman Fertitta should hang a bright-red neon sign in Daryl Morey’s office with the phrase BUY-BUY-BUY lighting proceedings up. As is, the Rockets are not good enough to win a championship. They may be reputable — and their roster may contain two of the greatest offensive players we’ve ever seen — but this team is not the 2016-17 Houston team that was one Chris Paul hamstring away from an NBA Finals birth.
Russell Westbrook will be a Hall of Famer, but his inability to efficiently shoot the ball just kills this team. Everything he is bad at, Paul excelled in. And everything Russell is amazing at, Paul either had mastered or could at least perform at an above-average level. Currently, when Westbrook is on the court, the Rockets’ net rating is 1.9. When he’s off the court, their net rating is 12.8. That is a monumental swing and currently the largest gap out of any other player on the team.
It’s not hard to imagine Houston pushing their chips in even further come the wintertime — they’re far too committed not to.
Dallas Mavericks (16-7) — Buyers
Dallas has really overshot everyone’s expectations. Most people thought they’d have a decent season, but it’s safe to say very few had them penciled in as playoff hopefuls. The fact that they are more-or-less playoff locks a quarter into the season is mind-boggling. What makes them so good you ask? Some kid named Luka Doncic, maybe you’ve heard his name.
The Mavericks are way ahead of schedule development-wise, so they’d be fine to just stand pat this year, see where they end up and then make moves in the offseason. However, if Mark Cuban wanted to get crazy and try to do something this season, you’d have to consider Dallas as buyers.
They need at least one more scoring threat to make them dangerous to go deep in the playoffs. As is, only two players are averaging over 15 a game and only three average more than 10. To wit, Kristaps Porzingis isn’t shooting well and Tim Hardaway Jr. doesn’t necessarily strike fear into the opposition. Dallas has movable contracts but whether or not they are solid enough to give them a return they’d need is up in the air at this point.
San Antonio Spurs (9-14) — Sellers
The Spurs should be in full sell mode for the first time in a long time. The only problem is, they don’t seem to be operating that way. They guaranteed LaMarcus Aldridge’s contract for the 2020-21 season, which makes very little sense as he’ll be owed $24 million. Now with the extra year, it’s doubtful many buyers will be coming for him.
With Aldridge’s contract making him nearly unsellable, DeMar DeRozan should become San Antonio’s sole focus when it comes to transactions. The former All-Star has a player option worth $27 million next season, but the dude can still ball out. He’s leading the team in scoring shooting 50 percent from the field, averaging 4.8 assists and looking about as healthy as he has in a while.
Sure, it’s concerning he still hasn’t developed a three-ball, but there is no way there wouldn’t be at least five-or-so teams at the deadline willing to give up a first for DeRozan’s assistance — he’d provide instant offense.
New Orleans Pelicans (6-18) — Sellers
Just when it seemed like they started to figure winning out, they fell off a cliff. Back in November, they had won three straight and five of their last seven. Since then, they’ve dropped nine straight games. You could argue that five of those losses aren’t surprising, but that fact that they didn’t even muster a single win in that stretch is alarming.
Things will look up when Williamson comes back, there’s no doubting that, but New Orleans should seriously consider trading JJ Redick. There probably isn’t a postseason-bound team in the league that wouldn’t give up their first round pick next season for his services. He’s only owed $13 million next season and the veteran still very clearly has it. The Pelicans are not making the playoffs this season, so keeping Redick rostered makes little sense. If they can sell him before the break to a needy franchise, then they may just get more than only a single first-rounder.
Memphis Grizzlies (7-16) — Sellers
This writer is thinking it, you’re thinking it — heck the whole world is probably thinking it. Why haven’t the Memphis Grizzlies traded Andre Iguodala yet? Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer reported Tuesday that the Grizzlies are still set on trading Iguodala as opposed to a buyout. So what’s the hold-up?
The key is waiting for a team to become desperate. It will be surprising if Iguodala is still rostered with Memphis past mid-January, but, technically, crazier things have happened. The Grizzlies will be big-time sellers when it comes to Iguodala — and they may even look to move veteran Jae Crowder. But, like New Orleans, they are a young team looking to improve internally for the future.
This division has plenty of diversity. You have two playoff teams, two bottom feeders and one team that isn’t sure what their identity is anymore. Iguodala is almost a sure bet for being moved, but it also wouldn’t be surprising if there wasn’t another transaction in this entire division.
Still, as hopes begin to fade and dreams start to soar, the mid-season trade option remains a route for both buyers and sellers. Will Dallas or Houston fortify their squads? Should New Orleans look toward the horizon already? Needless to say, the Southwest Division has handed onlookers plenty of intriguing drama and storylines moving into the halfway point of the year.
Keep on the lookout for more divisions as we continue the Buy Or Sell series.