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Cleveland Had To Deal, But It Will Cost Dan Gilbert

Cavs GM David Griffin had to land Timofey Mozgov, but keeping this team together will cost owner Dan Gilbert dearly.

Nate Duncan

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Shortly after the Cleveland Cavaliers extended Anderson Varejao in October, I looked at how the Cavaliers got to this point and concluded that it would be difficult to add to the team without swallowing a large tax bill. With the recent acquisitions of Timofey Mozgov, Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith for far less outgoing salary, the Cavs have doubled down.

ESPN’s Brian Windhorst did a nice job detailing the cap machinations that enabled these acquisitions. The Cavaliers used the trade exception they got from trading Keith Bogans to the Boston Celtics to acquire Mozgov. Per Windhorst, the Cavs’ justification for exchanging the non-guaranteed Bogans for a trade exception rather than keeping him was that they didn’t want to pay him for this year and that they were worried they would potentially have to guarantee his salary by the January guarantee date if they could not move him. For reasons I explained back in November, giving up Bogans cost the Cavs’ flexibility, and also came at the cost of two second-round picks.

So what does the Cavs’ financial future look like now that they have Mozgov, Smith and Shumpert in the fold? If Cleveland is going to truly maximize its competitive potential and keep LeBron James happy over the next few years (perhaps not one and the same), Dan Gilbert better start practicing his check-writing skills.

Here is the Cavaliers’ current salary structure:

Cavs Current

We can make a few assumptions about Cleveland’s future. First, we will assume Kevin Love remains, as the Cavs’ planning is focused entirely around that. Love and James will both likely opt out of their contracts this summer for the reasons noted back in November.

Given the amount the cap is projected to rise in 2016, Love and James may each sign similar contracts to LeBron’s most recent deal – two years with a second-year player option. This will allow them to become free agents again in 2016, when their individual maximums should be about $30 million and $25 million respectively if the cap rises to $90 million with no smoothing.

The four key variables are Smith, Shumpert, Tristan Thompson and the non-guaranteed $10.5 million contract of Brendan Haywood. Smith will probably opt into his $6.4 million player option for next season, as it seems unlikely he will get that much per season on the open market. That is by no means assured at this point though, since he will be nearly 30 and may determine that a longer-term deal for less annual value would maximize his total earnings. Cleveland may also bribe him with a longer contract for less money per season if he is willing to opt out in an effort to shift more of his cost onto later years when its tax concerns will be lessened. In another scenario, Smith could shoot the lights out this year and merit a higher annual value, which would also be a reason to opt out. Nevertheless, the assumption for now will be that he opts in – it is certainly the one the New York Knicks made when trading him to free up cap space for this summer.

Shumpert can be a restricted free agent in the summer. In theory he fits the archetype of the 3-and-D player who has become so valuable league-wide, having shown some modicum of capability at both those skills at various times in his career. Overall though, it must be remembered that he has never exceeded this year’s 12.1 PER, and only once exceeded the league average from downtown. The Oak Park River-Forest High School product* has only periodically impressed defensive metrics. He fared well in advanced plus-minus metrics in 2013-14, but less so this year. He is a fringe starter, though young enough at 24 to improve. But it should also be noted that the capped-out Cavs will have no way to replace him this offseason. Assuming he plays reasonably well, a three-year deal starting at $6 million per season seems about right.

*Sorry, that’s my alma mater. It’s getting mentioned.

Thompson has played about as well as could be expected this year, and units with he and Love had done well until Varejao’s injury. Nevertheless, he is and probably always will be a center in a power forward’s body. That means Thompson is probably best as a third big man, which he presumably will be with Mozgov on board. What’s more, he is a restricted free agent, which will allow the Cavaliers to match any offer. It is hard to imagine any other team breaking the bank for Thompson when he probably is not a starting-caliber big all things considered.*

*This is not to disparage Thompson too much. He actually can be one of my favorite players in the league to watch because of how he competes on the offensive glass.

Working in Thompson’s favor, of course, is the fact that he is repped by Klutch Sports, an agency with which James is heavily involved. Moreover, like with Shumpert, Cleveland will have no way to replace him if they let him go – presumably they will have learned by now that Varejao cannot be counted on to last an entire season. Much of Thompson’s eventual salary would seem to depend on James’ influence and how the Cavs will finish the season, which are difficult to project right now. A fair price for Thompson would probably be around $7 or $8 million a season as a quality third big. But James’ influence and the Cavs’ inability to replace him could push that much higher. At the outer bound, let’s call that a contract starting at $11 million per season.

Finally, the Haywood contract. Many have lauded the Cavaliers for acquiring him over the summer from the Charlotte Hornets because he provides a way for Cleveland to add salary this summer even if they are capped out. They trade him for a matching salaried player, and the other team gets cap relief by waiving him.

But there are two problems with that now that the Mozgov trade has been consummated. First, it would be almost impossible for the Cavs to add another $10 million or more in salary and remain below the Apron, a level $4 million above the tax. A team cannot acquire a player via sign-and-trade if it finishes the transaction above the Apron, so acquiring a free agent with the Haywood contract is almost certainly out.*

*Interestingly for us CBA dorks, the Cavaliers are not hard-capped at the Apron (which they have now exceeded) this season despite using their Room Exception on Mike Miller. Unlike the BAE or MLE (which are designed to be used at a higher salary level), use of the Room Exception does not create a hard cap at the Apron. This was likely an oversight, due to the fact that the CBA framers probably did not anticipate a situation like the Cavs’ in which a team could go below the cap, use the Room Exception, and then exceed the Apron in the same year. GM David Griffin deserves credit for finding creative ways to add salary in such a short amount of time as the Cavs’ mission changed.

Second, to acquire a player with positive value using the Haywood contract, Cleveland will need a sweetener. After trading away Dion Waiters and its protected draft pick from the Memphis Grizzlies for Mozgov, the Cavs are about fresh out. Even their first-rounder this year must be swapped with the Chicago Bulls from the Luol Deng trade, so they cannot count on it being any higher than number 25 or so. Because they owe a 2016 first-rounder to the Boston Celtics as the cost of their efforts to offload salary to sign LeBron James, they have restrictions on trading their own future first-rounders. That pick is top-10 protected through 2018, then becomes unprotected in 2019. The Ted Stepien rule prevents the trading of future picks in two consecutive years. Because the pick could be conveyed in any of 2016 to 2019, Cleveland would have to write the trade as being two years after whenever the Celtics pick is conveyed.  That may not be until 2021.

So the only real trade assets the Cavs have are Chicago’s 2015 pick (which could be conveyed after the selection is actually made) and their own pick that may well not be available until 2021. That package seems unlikely to convince a team to give up a truly valuable player making $10 million or so. If the Haywood contract is to be used, it will likely require the acquisition of an overpaid negative asset (albeit one who presumably can still play some). As a taxpayer, Cleveland will be limited to 125% of the salary it sends out in any such trade.*

*Salary-matching for non-taxpayers is more liberal.

Nevertheless, suppose Dan Gilbert green-lights the addition of more salary via a trade of the Haywood contract. Cleveland’s cap sheet might look something like this:

Cavs 2016 W Haywood

Hoo boy.* That’s about $89 million in luxury tax for 2015-16, without considering a possible re-signing of Matthew Dellavedova, signing a player via the $3.4 million taxpayer’s mid-level exception or filling out the roster over 13 players. At that tax level, each additional dollar will cost Gilbert another $4.75 in luxury taxes. Making matters worse, the Cavs almost certainly will not have anything approaching cap room in the summer of 2016 either, assuming James and Love maximize their earning power by signing new contracts again that offseason.

*Estimated future salaries, cap and tax levels are indicated by italics.

Granted, acquiring more salary with the Haywood contract may not happen. If so, that would cut Cleveland’s luxury tax by more than half.

Cavs 2016 WOut Haywood
The nature of roster building must make taxpaying extremely difficult to swallow for owners. To acquire a player with the Haywood contract under this scenario, Gilbert would essentially be paying almost $59 million for a player with a $12 million salary. Although perhaps the more accurate way of looking at it is to take the whole cost of the roster and distribute the tax bill pro-rata among their salaries, that view is extremely difficult to stomach when one transaction juices the tax bill by so much.

It would be perfectly understandable if Gilbert does not want to up payroll even further, although whether LeBron James tries to force his hand is another story. Here, however, is where we return to the needless Varejao extension. Cleveland had absolutely no need to act when it did, and as we predicted in November, his contract will indeed be a bitter pill for Gilbert to swallow. After his injury (which was not entirely unpredictable given his history), Cleveland could likely have re-signed Varejao for a few million per season at most this summer. Instead, the Cavs will have to either forego using the Haywood contract to acquire more salary or pay up to $50 million for the privilege.

Now that the die has been cast, what could be the best option for Cleveland going forward? Assuming James doesn’t interfere, moving on from Thompson could be the best option if he is going to cost anywhere near the eight figures he reportedly demanded in extension talks this fall. Shumpert fills a massive need for defense on the wing – one that likely cannot be upgraded since the Cavaliers will have little chance to replace him. It would probably behoove Cleveland to re-sign him as long as the price is not astronomical. Here’s what the cap sheet would look like at that point:

Cavs 2016 No Haywood Thompson

The tax bill is much lower under this scenario, at only $9.2 million over the tax and a $14.9 million tax payment. Unfortunately, the Cavs would then need another competent big, another rotation wing and possibly a backup point guard if restricted free agent Dellavedova either leaves, becomes too expensive or proves this season he’ll be unworthy of the job.

To fill those positions, Cleveland will have:

  • The taxpayer’s mid-level exception (MMLE), with which they could offer a three-year deal starting at $3.4 million.
  • Their draftee from Chicago’s first-round pick, around number 25.
  • The $10.5 million Haywood non-guaranteed contract to trade.
  • Minimum salary slots.

At that point, every additional dollar spent would cost $3.25 in tax for dollars $15-20 million, which rises by 50 cents per dollar for each additional $5 million increment (e.g., $3.75 per dollar from $20-25 million).

Is that enough to fill Cleveland’s needs for next year? History has shown the number 25 pick won’t help right away, and a good rotation wing or big would be hit or miss with the MMLE. They could package their draftee with the Haywood contract to fill one or both of those holes, but that again would cost as much as $50 million.

Can the Trade Save Cleveland This Year?

Perhaps more important than the future tax concerns is whether this makes the Cavs better this year. Many have criticized the Cavs for giving up Dion Waiters and perhaps the crown jewel in their arsenal (the Memphis first-round pick) for Mozgov, Shumpert and Smith. Given the circumstances though, it was necessary. The Cavaliers’ entire long-term plan will be torpedoed if Love leaves, and a first-round playoff exit could punt him right out the door as a free agent. Competing this year to make sure he stays is imperative. This deal was by far the best available to do that, especially since Cleveland could not wait until the trade deadline with the season slipping away.

The Cavs were in a spot of desperation, and Denver took advantage of that to get two first-rounders for Mozgov. And one of the tenets of trading is that you never want to get into a position where you have to make a move. But what should the Cavs have done differently, at least as it relates to this season? The Varejao extension was foolish, but it does not kick in until next year. And keeping Bogans instead of trading him for an exception wouldn’t have changed much for this year either.

What’s more, the return has at least the potential to really help Cleveland. Mozgov might be a slightly below-average starting center, but he is a starting center under contract for less than $5 million this year and next. The fact he fit into the Bogans trade exception meant he was one of the few players in the league who the Cavs could acquire. That cheap contract, not just his ability, is part of why his price was so steep. Having him instead of a similar player for $10 million a year will save Gilbert millions in luxury tax payments. What’s more, he replaces essentially the worst third big in the league now that Varejao is out.

Shumpert and Smith have played solid roles on playoff teams in the past, but they are more valuable for who they are replacing than how great they are themselves. Cleveland was giving major minutes on the wing to Joe Harris (7.1 PER), Dellavedova (6.2), Waiters (12.1, awful on catch and shoots, played little D), Shawn Marion (10.8, couldn’t space the floor) and James Jones (14.1 PER, but sub-replacement defense for years). Simply reducing the minutes for those replacement-level players could have an enormous impact if Shumpert and Smith can stay healthy.

Even with a better rotation, the Cavs’ stars will need to play much better on both ends to truly contend. Love and James have each played below their established levels, and even Irving’s overall offensive production could improve. All three stars have also suffered from injuries this year that could be sapping their effectiveness.

Ultimately, Cleveland’s fortunes lie with their stars. But Griffin has at least plugged enough holes in the roster to give them a chance. It is just going to cost Gilbert an astronomical sum.

New York Knicks:

The Knicks have been criticized in some quarters for not getting more for Shumpert, having “merely” dumped Smith’s salary and acquired a 2019 second-rounder. Don’t count me among those critics. Shumpert’s value was never all that high – the best reported offer for him was Oklahoma City’s first-rounder (it is unclear which one) last year. He was more valuable then, when the Knicks had yet to implode and he was under a cheap rookie contract for a further season.

One way to look at the deal is the market price for taking on salary. In past years, the price for taking on salary has been a projected late first-rounder for $10 million in salary.* Smith was owed $6.5 million this year and $6.4 million next year. It can be argued that New York did in fact get about a first-rounder’s worth of value out of Shumpert as the price to offload that amount of salary.

*Examples: the Jared Dudley trade, the Richard Jefferson for Stephen Jackson trade (Jefferson had one more year on his contract), and the Jefferson, Biedrins and Rush trade in the last few years.

Oklahoma City Thunder:

If Oklahoma City’s goal is to improve the team this year, I am not sure acquiring Waiters helps much. He has been a horrible spotup shooter, and, what’s worse, has been reluctant to embrace that role. He is somewhat redundant with Reggie Jackson, as a slasher but somewhat inefficient scorer on the second unit. Waiters probably doesn’t really even defend shooting guards much better than Jackson, or fit better with Russell Westbrook either. He is under contract for another season on his rookie deal, and could be extended when the cap goes up in 2016 and the Thunder probably would not impact the luxury tax. So it makes more sense financially for 2015-16, and Waiters does have talent that may be realized in Oklahoma City.

The bigger problem with the deal though is the opportunity cost. The Thunder might have filled their biggest need for a true two-way wing with the pick they sent out, perhaps by bringing back Jeff Green, trading for Arron Afflalo, making a bid for Luol Deng or a host of other scenarios. They then could have brought such a player back for next year. While they have been loath to pay the tax, they could have done so for a year to appease Kevin Durant in the final season before his free agency. The Thunder just fired one of their biggest bullets and probably did not make their team much better on the floor this year.

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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NBA Daily: Reliable Burks Thriving In Long Sought-After Opportunity

Spencer Davies takes a look at Alec Burks’ outstanding start to the season with the Golden State Warriors.

Spencer Davies

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If you go back and look at the 2011 NBA Draft, you’ll see big names all around.

Champions such as Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson and Kyrie Irving. All-Stars like Jimmy Butler, Kemba Walker and Nikola Vucevic.

19th overall pick Tobias Harris turned out to be a maximum contract player. “Mr. Irrelevant” was Isaiah Thomas, a player that made an All-NBA team in a near-MVP season.

But there’s still time for another man to prove himself as one of the best talents in his class and, so far this year, he has given us a reason to believe he will.

Once plagued by injuries and often dealt with inconsistent roles, Alec Burks finally has the opportunity he’d been seeking — and this time around, he’s doing the stepping up instead of being the one on the sideline.

Last night against the Memphis Grizzlies, Burks exploded for 29 points, 8 rebounds and 2 assists, plus a block and a steal. It’s the most he’s scored in a single game since Dec. 2017 and the fourth game where he’s eclipsed the 20-point mark this season already.  And in the nights that he’s played over 30 minutes, he’s averaging 23.6 points, 6.6 rebounds and 2.2 assists.

While that is an impressive accomplishment in its own right, the way Burks is going about getting his points is the real encouraging story. Healthy and fearless, he’s attacking with purpose and being rewarded with results, one way or another.

Burks is drawing fouls at a high rate with his aggressiveness. He’s getting to the line at will and knocking down his free throws, an astounding 23-for-25 over the last three games. A knack for disrupting opposing offenses, he’s been able to capitalize on the other end with a team-leading 5.5 points off turnovers per 100 possessions. That would also explain his success in transition, where he’s made a living on the open floor.

Don’t mistake Burks as a one-tool guy, either. He’s one of Golden State’s top threats in the pick-and-roll, using his dual-threat ability to either penetrate or pull up from distance. Trailing just Paul George, Andrew Wiggins and James Harden, the veteran combo guard is deadly off handoffs with 1.67 points per possession in such situations.

In addition, Burks has had a noticeable impact on the defensive end. The Warriors suffer when he’s not on the floor, as the opposition’s effective field goal percentage is 8.4 percent better when he sits. According to Cleaning The Glass, that ranks in the 99th percentile in the league. Furthermore, those teams are scoring 120.3 points per 100 possessions if he’s on the bench.

The 28-year-old has been a top-10 defender when it comes to guarding his assignments coming off screens, too, holding those players to 33 percent from the field.

Watching Burks operate with a clean bill of health is a gift from the basketball gods who have been cruel to him over the last three years of his career. It’s a shame that this chance has been given to him with his teammates on the mend, but how many times has he been on the other side of that battle?

Selected by the Utah Jazz at No. 12 eight years ago, Burks started his NBA career on a high note. He was a part of a franchise built around Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson, playing a complementary bench role while developing with the likes of Gordon Hayward and Enes Kanter. Then, Trey Burke was added to the mix along with Rudy Gobert in Burks’ third season, one where he appeared in a career-high 78 games.

That following year when he signed an extension, things took a downturn. Already having to adjust to a new head coach in Quin Snyder, Burks began having shoulder issues and played through them until electing to have surgery in late December. The Jazz also brought in Rodney Hood and Dante Exum as rookies.

Burks came back from the setback and, again, had been on the floor consistently in the 2015-16 campaign — except the injury bug decided to rear its ugly head in another way. Almost one year to the date that his season ended with shoulder surgery, he suffered a fractured left fibula that once again cut his year short. Snakebitten by misfortune in way too many occasions, his role in Utah never really was the same. His minutes diminished, his rhythm was off and Snyder had his backcourt rotations set.

Utah ultimately parted ways with Burks via a trade to the Cleveland Cavaliers last year, and while he did show flashes of his abilities and even snuck in a game-winning dunk during that 34-game stint, it wasn’t long before the organization moved on. The Cavaliers flipped him to the Sacramento Kings, where he had 15 DNPs and played less than 10 minutes per game.

Burks admitted at Warriors media day that being traded twice after spending seven years with one organization took a toll on him and his family. By the same token, he also knows that things happen for a reason.

Originally signing with the Oklahoma City Thunder this past summer, Burks pivoted to Golden State because he wanted to reevaluate his following the trades of Paul George and Russell Westbrook. He was sold on the Warriors’ team culture and an opportunity to play for a winner. Unfortunately, Stephen Curry went down with a major injury early this season, D’Angelo Russell is out for a couple of weeks and Draymond Green has missed some time as well — so championship aspiration is aiming high.

At the same time, the Warriors need a veteran to show young guys the ropes. Steve Kerr needs a guy to produce at a high-level to keep up with a fast-moving, deep Western Conference. Burks is proving each night that this group can rely on him.

That first-round pick all those years ago with so much promise, so many obstacles to overcome is now on the other side of the spectrum. The chance he’s been starving for is staring him right in the face.

Believe that Burks won’t take it for granted.

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Hungry HEAT Destined To Be Dark Horse In East

The Miami HEAT are off to a hot start at 9-3. Jordan Hicks details why this may actually be legitimate and why the HEAT have a chance to go deep in the playoffs.

Jordan Hicks

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After Jimmy Butler was acquired by the Miami HEAT this past offseason, everyone expected them to be a solid team in the Eastern Conference. They weren’t expected to go deep in the playoffs, and very few people had them pegged as one of the league’s elite teams. But 12 games into the season, the HEAT are 9-3…and they might be — dare we say — really, really good.

The crazy part about how their team is playing together is all the moving pieces that make it work. Butler is the leader of the team — both in general and in scoring — but he’s only averaging 18.4 points. They have six guys averaging double-digit points, another at 9.7 and three more all above 7 points per game.

As a team, they are number one in the league in field goal percentage, third in three-point shooting, fifth in assists per game and first in steals per game. They are tied with the Toronto Raptors for the fourth-best plus-minus.

Looking into more advanced statistics, they are fifth in the NBA in net rating, helped greatly by their current defensive rating of 101.2. They are second in the league in assist percentage and first in both effective and true field goal percentage.

Of their nine wins, two of them came on the road against the Milwaukee Bucks and the surprising Phoenix Suns, and another came at home in the complete demolition of the Houston Rockets. Their three losses were all the road against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Lakers — three games you’d almost expect them to lose.

This isn’t a take that’s expecting you to believe the HEAT are the real deal based solely on their wins and losses up to this point in the season, but the fact they are completely taking care of business shows that Erik Spoelstra may be well on his way to one of his best head coaching seasons since the departure of LeBron James.

Just what is making this team so good? Let’s start by highlighting their stingy defense, the main driver behind their early-season success.

Butler is leading the entire NBA in steals with 2.8 per game. He is their leader on that end and a large part as to why they’re so successful. They are currently leading the NBA in steals as a team. This is great for a very obvious reason. It takes possessions away from the opposing offense and, in many cases, leads to an easy look in transition on the other end. The most efficient way to score is a wide-open dunk or layup, and fast breaks usually turn into that. The HEAT are averaging a tick under 10 steals per game, so that is plenty of looks their opponents won’t get off.

A huge breakout player for the HEAT this year is Bam Adebayo. Ever since his rookie year, you got the feeling he’d turn out to be solid, but his third season in the league finally feels like Adebayo’s time to shine. He’s averaging 13.9 points, 10.5 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.5 blocks. Guess how many other players in the NBA are putting up a similar stat line? Just one. His name is Giannis Antetokounmpo, you may have heard of him before.

In a league that is being overrun with efficient scoring, the glue guy is a key piece to any championship team that often goes unnoticed. Take Draymond Green, for example. You remember Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, and Klay Thompson, but Green played as big of a role as any of those guys in bringing rings back to Oracle. Adebayo has a chance to take an incredibly large leap this season, and some are even calling him an early candidate for the Most Improved Player award. No big deal, just HEAT-royalty Dwayne Wade.

Most impressive is where Adebayo currently sits in box plus-minus. This leaderboard is usually nestled with all the top players in the league, and Adebayo currently sits at No. 8. It’d be crazy if he stayed there all season, but the fact he’s up there already 13 games into the season is pretty impressive.

On the offensive end, things seem to be clicking on many different cylinders. As previously mentioned they have six, basically seven guys in double figures. Two of them happen to be rookies, and one of those rookies happens to be undrafted. That undrafted guy, Kendrick Nunn, is making a whole lot of noise.

He’s second in per-game scoring behind Rookie of the Year favorite Ja Morant, and he leads all rookies in steals per game. He’s first in made field goals and first in total steals, too. He leads all rookies in overall plus-minus. He’s second on the HEAT in points per game behind Jimmy Butler and second in steals per game, as well. He’s shooting well from the field as well as from behind the three, where he’s tied with Coby White for most threes made out of all rookies. He’s shooting the three at 38.4 percent which is killer for a rookie considering he’s shooting over six of them per game.

The other rookie standout, Tyler Herro, is averaging 13.3 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. He’s a great spot-up shooter, but is capable of creating his own looks, too. Of the rookies on the roster, he’ll likely be the better shooter in the long run, and he’s shown every bit of why he deserved to be drafted in the lottery at No. 13.

The HEAT have many other players contributing in diverse ways, some big and some small. Meyers Leonard is shooting over 60 percent from three on two attempts per night. Justise Winslow was pacing the team in nightly plus-minus before his concussion. Goran Dragic — a savvy veteran who is somehow glossed over in this group — is scoring 16 per game on very efficient marks. One could go on and on about all the talent this Miami team has deep on its roster.

Listen, there is still an eternity left before the playoffs start, and Jimmy Butler has shown previous incapabilities of putting the team first. But the HEAT seem to be off to an incredibly productive start. Most wouldn’t pencil them in as a championship team, but with all the parity in the league today, they absolutely have an argument to be considered the top dark horse.

The Miami HEAT have plenty of pieces to make a deep run in the playoffs. Apart from Butler, they are definitely lacking a superstar or two, but they make up for it with early-season continuity, solid coaching and overall execution on both ends of the floor. With all the talent on their roster at almost every poisition, don’t be surprised if the HEAT end up coming out of the East.

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NBA Daily: Philadelphia Castoffs Finding Success Elsewhere

After failing to make it with the Philadelphia 76ers, three players have stood out by gaining traction with new franchises as solid contributors. Chad Smith sheds some light on how these individuals have changed the narrative of their careers.

Chad Smith

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Trust The Process.

That was the slogan that the Philadelphia 76ers plastered on billboards and etched into the minds of their fans. They stressed patience to their fan base and were transparent about the entire plan. The tanking of not just games — but seasons — delivered the Sixers’ front office what they so desired: draft picks.

More valuable than cash considerations and better than expiring contracts, the draft picks offered an unknown quantity. Hope and potential for greatness were the selling points for their dynamic plan. It was easy to convince anyone and everyone that would listen. At the time, it appeared to be a solid plan, so long as everyone could stomach the losing.

While the exciting element of a draft pick is the unknown, that has also proven to be a double-edged sword. If selecting the right talent was easy, Michael Jordan would have never worn a Chicago Bulls uniform. Kevin Durant would have never played in Seattle and the Detroit Pistons probably would have rather had one of Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony or Chris Bosh instead of Darko Milicic.

Maybe that wasn’t the plan, though. Perhaps the plan was just to get as many bites out of the apple as possible and hope to strike gold on a couple of the picks. If indeed that was the plan, it would be difficult to argue that it didn’t work. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are already All-Star players and the faces of the franchise.

Philadelphia finally molded into a playoff team during the 2017-2018 season. The organization quickly went to work on tweaking the roster, trying to find the right pieces to fit this puzzle together. But outside of its two cornerstones over the past five years, there were three notable players that were labeled as busts or clearly were not going to make it with the Sixers. And many wondered if these guys would even still be in the league in the coming months.

These guys needed a fresh start. They needed a reset button on their careers. Now, they appear to be in the right environment with the right people bringing out the best in them. They have thrived in their new roles and, ultimately, have changed the narrative of their careers.

Markelle Fultz, Orlando Magic

The most obvious success story seems to be playing out right before our eyes. The Sixers selected Fultz with the No. 1 overall pick in 2017, but it turned sideways very quickly. After captivating college basketball fans at Washington, expectations were extremely high as he prepared for his rookie season.

The Orlando Magic have been starving for a star point guard for quite some time. They took a gamble on the 21-year old, and it is paying off in a big way. Fultz being used as a combo guard alongside a strong and youthful roster seems to be an ideal fit. He is getting to the basket and finishing strong. He is also knocking down his free throws (82 percent) and collecting steals (1.3 per game) at a high rate.

Heading into tonight’s game in Toronto, Fultz is averaging just under 11 points and 3.1 assists per game. He had an effective field goal percentage of 42 percent in his 33 total games as a member of the 76ers. Through 13 games this season, he’s upped that to 51.4.

Both Embiid and Simmons missed their entire first season in Philly and turned into All-Stars. This small sample size is just that, but things are definitely trending in the right direction for Fultz to develop into the caliber of player everyone thought he would be when he was drafted. The mental hurdle has been cleared, and his confidence seems to have been been restored.

Jahlil Okafor, New Orleans Pelicans

The 2015 NBA Draft had some exceptional talent. Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell went just before Okafor, but many people thought that was a mistake. While the former third overall pick won’t ever reach the same pinnacle as those two in his career, he has been a tremendous success story nonetheless over the past two years.

After three seasons of below-average production in Philly, Okafor was traded to the Brooklyn Nets where he was seeking a fresh start. His 26-game stint there did not yield positive results, and it appeared as though the promising big man’s future was near the end. In the summer of 2018, Okafor signed a minimum salary contract with the New Orleans Pelicans. He remains on a partially-guaranteed deal, but is outperforming that so far this season.

With so many athletic wings and a bevy of guards in New Orleans, Okafor has found the perfect role as the man in the middle. No longer seeming rushed, the big man is patient with the ball and has the ability to finish himself or find the open guy on the perimeter. He is much more efficient shooting the ball and is averaging 1.1 blocks per game.

Despite suffering an ankle injury that has him temporarily sidelined, Okafor has been playing well. With the absence of rookie sensation Zion Williamson, New Orleans has needed his solid play to keep the train rolling. He won’t be what many had envisioned him becoming after leaving Duke, but Okafor has carved out a nice role for himself in the league.

Richaun Holmes, Sacramento Kings

Another member of Philly’s 2015 draft class has found his opportunity in a different zip code. Despite playing 156 games for the Sixers, Holmes was never really given the opportunity to become a vital role player for the team. He started just 20 of those games and played less than 17 minutes a night. With so many injuries in Sacramento, that opportunity has come for him, and he has stepped up and excelled in his new role.

The overall numbers for Holmes have risen quite a bit, but the blocks are what stand out the most. Through 13 games this season, the active big man is averaging nearly as many blocks per game (1.4) as the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Rudy Gobert. He is averaging career-high numbers in virtually every statistical category.

The former second-round pick has always been known as an energy guy, and he is thriving off of that on this young and hungry Kings squad. His rebounding has been tremendous, especially on offense. Sacramento ranks in the top half of the league in second-chance points, largely due to Holmes being so active on the glass.

Whereas many of the trades that the 76ers executed involved more talent coming back in return, this one was different. Philly traded Holmes to the Phoenix Suns in the summer of 2018 for $1 million. Nearly a year later, Holmes signed a two-year deal with the Kings for $9.77 million. Consider that money well-earned by Holmes, and well spent by Sacramento.

For every Embiid and Simmons that comes along, there are guys like Michael Carter-Williams, Nerlens Noel and Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot. What is important for these guys is to embrace a fresh start and a different role with a new team.

By doing so, they can assure themselves of a future in the league as opposed to watching from the sidelines.

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