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Dunc’d On: Potential Goran Dragic Trade Thoughts

Nate Duncan looks at the key factors in the Goran Dragic trade market.

Nate Duncan

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The flurry of news surrounding Goran Dragic’s trade request led to rampant speculation on his next destination.  Where can he realistically end up?  A number of key factors need to be considered in making that assessment.

  • Dragic turns 29 in May.  For him, this is almost certainly going to be his last major contract.  Much like with Carmelo Anthony last summer, that means a fifth year on his deal (which would occur when he is 33 years old) and 7.5 percent annual raises is key.  By this summer, Dragic will have completed his seventh year in the league, meaning he will be eligible for “30 percent” max contract since he has 7-10 years experience.  Therefore, a maximum five-year deal starting at $19 million for Dragic would pay him a projected $109.5 million, with a $24.8 million salary in the fifth year. That is an enormous difference for Dragic over the four-year deal he can get if he does not re-sign with his prior team.  Even with the cap going way up, nobody is paying 33-year-old Goran Dragic $24.8 million if he becomes a free agent after that fourth year in the summer of 2019.
  • Dragic can only get that fifth year if he re-signs with his prior team as a Qualifying Veteran Free Agent, also known as a Full Bird free agent.  That means he has to be traded to the place he wants to re-sign this season before the trade deadline to get a five-year contract.  That is undoubtedly a big driver of his current trade request.
  • He is not happy in Phoenix, but more importantly Phoenix is probably not going to offer him anywhere near a five-year max deal with Eric Bledsoe and Isaiah Thomas as far cheaper and younger options.  What’s more, Phoenix is slated for major cap space in the summer of 2016 and is not going to want to cut into that by $20 million. As a warm weather destination with players like Markieff Morris, Bledsoe and Thomas on what will be below-market contracts by then, they can hope to do better with that $20 million in 2016 than by already having a 30-year-old Dragic on the books.  Dragic and his camp probably know this, which is why getting traded now is so important.
  • Being the lead ballhandler on a team seems very important to Dragic as well.  That means a good fit where he would want to re-sign requires a team that does not have a lead ballhandler and would be good enough that he could win there.  That is a tough order.
  • A team that does not necessarily fit what Dragic is looking for role-wise is going to be in a bit of a quandary to retain him.  They will be able to offer the full maximum contract with a fifth year, but Dragic very quickly is not going to be worth that much even with the rising cap.  You might argue Dragic was a $20 million player last year, at age 27, but that is generally an NBA player’s best age.   Nevertheless, a team that surrenders assets to trade for him and believes it is not much of a free agent destination in 2016 when the whole league will have cap space might decide, essentially, that their 2016 cap space isn’t going to use itself.  Overpaying for Dragic a year ahead of time could be preferable to overpaying someone else even more in 2016, when the league will witness the best player’s market in its history.
  • That said, a lot of teams that want Dragic can just sign him in free agency.  This would allow them to avoid giving up assets to get him to begin with, and also avoid having to fork over the terrible fifth year on his contract because they won’t be able to offer it.  If am, say, the Lakers, why would I give up assets to acquire Dragic now just so I have to give him a longer and/or more expensive contract this summer?  What’s more, a team out of the playoff race would be hurt by winning more games once they get Dragic, lowering their draft pick. The Lakers seem to realize this as well, as our own Alex Kennedy reported that the Lakers aren’t likely to trade for Dragic.
  • The best trade fit then, if you’re keeping score at home, is a team that doesn’t have another primary ballhandler, is good, wants Dragic to help a playoff push this year and would be willing to overpay Dragic enough in the summer in terms of money or the fifth year that he wouldn’t leave.
  • Oh, and have I mentioned that team needs enough assets (and the willingness to use them) to entice Phoenix to deal as well?
  • Given all of that, what is a reasonable price for Dragic?  With all the complications listed above, I am guessing Phoenix will find the trade market for him softer than many anticipate.  Dragic will presumably have little interest in re-signing in Boston or Houston given the presence of Marcus Smart and James Harden.  They may hope to persuade him, but the uncertainty reduces what they’d be willing to give up.  Sacramento can’t offer much because they already owe a future top-10 protected pick to the Bulls, and there is certainly the possibility he would want to leave given the dysfunction that organization has shown in the past.  Indiana is not a great free agent destination, doesn’t have a star ballhandler and has guys like Roy Hibbert and (next year) Paul George in their primes to try to win now. It might decide to roll the dice with Dragic instead.  But is a first-rounder from them enough for Phoenix? Which first-rounder, and how heavily would it be protected? One would imagine Indiana would be unwilling to include this year’s pick unless it were lottery-protected.  What if they throw in Solomon Hill? The Lakers’ future picks are encumbered, and they could just sign Dragic as a free agent anyway.  The Knicks are in the same boat.  A first-round pick and a good prospect may end up being too much to ask for Phoenix.
  • Miami is probably the best fit of all of the above, but what can they trade?  They owe a top-10 protected pick to Philadelphia, so the earliest pick they can trade is two years after that is conveyed.  Could that plus, say, Josh McRoberts (injured for the year, but on a good contract as a useful third big who can space, pass and defend reasonably well) be enough to top other offers?  Luol Deng going back to Phoenix does not make a ton of sense since Miami wants to push for the playoffs and Deng can opt out after this season and probably should.  But if he is retained, the HEAT might decide a lineup of Dragic/Wade/Deng/Bosh/Whiteside for the next two years has enough potential that they would be willing to send out as much as they can.  If the HEAT get Dragic without giving up Deng and can stay healthy (dubious), they certainly help their chances of finishing outside the top-10 and conveying the pick to Philadelphia this year, meaning a pick they would send to Phoenix would be conveyed in 2017. The question is whether Phoenix gets a better offer than Miami can provide.  Given the myriad uncertainties we have detailed here, it may be that they cannot.
  • Whichever team gets Dragic, if he is traded, one would imagine they will not want to just drop the five-year max offer right away on July 1 since that would be such a massive overpay.  That means Dragic likely will at least get to the point of talking to other teams besides his prior team as he tries to assess his market, and that increases the risk he leaves.
  • Finally, some articles have mentioned the possibility of Dragic signing an extension.  It is important to differentiate between signing an extension to an existing contract (preventing the player from ever reaching free agency) and re-signing with a prior team once the player reaches free agency.  Dragic will not sign an extension.  In fact, he is not even eligible to sign one until the third anniversary of signing his current contract in July 2012.  And any extension could only offer him at most a 7.5 percent raise over the piddling $7.5 million he’s making this year.  And, Dragic would have to opt into his $7.5 million player option for 2015-16 to even stay on this current contract long enough for it to be extended.
  • If he’s traded at the deadline, he would be limited for six months after the trade to signing an extension for two years after the 2015-16 season, starting at only 4.5 percent higher than his previous salary because such an extension would be subject to the Carmelo Anthony rule limiting extend-and-trades.  Even after six months has passed, he could only extend for three more years onto his original contract, which ends in the summer of 2016.  It’s not happening, and these limitations are why premium players almost never extend under this CBA.

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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Reviewing the Nurkic Trade: Denver’s Perspective

The Denver Nuggets have been on a miraculous run this postseason, but that doesn’t mean that they’re infallible. Drew Maresca reviews the 2017 trade that sent Jusuf Nurkic from Denver to Portland.

Drew Maresca

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The Denver Nuggets are fresh off of a 114-106 win over the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, pulling within three wins of the franchise’s first trip to the NBA Finals. But what if I told you that the Nuggets’ roster could be even more talented by acting more deliberately in a trade from three years ago?

While Denver won on Tuesday night, they lost a nail bitter on Sunday – for which most of the blame has been pointed at a defensive breakdown by Nuggets’ center Mason Plumlee, who was procured in the aforementioned 2017 trade. What did it cost Denver, you ask? Just Jusuf Nurkic and a first-round pick.

Nurkic was a 2014-15 All-Rookie second team member. He played 139 games over 2.5 seasons in Denver, averaging 7.5 points and 5.9 rebounds in approximately 18 minutes per game. He showed serious promise, but Denver had numerous reasons to pursue a trade: he’d suffered a few relatively serious injuries early in his career (and he’s continued to be injury-prone in Portland), butted heads with head coach Michael Malone and – most importantly – the Nuggets stumbled on to Nikola Jokic.

The Nuggets eventually attempted a twin-tower strategy with both in the starting line-up, but that experiment was short-lived — with Jokic ultimately asking to move to the team’s second unit.

The Nuggets traded Nurkic to the Portland Trail Blazers in February 2017 (along with a first-round pick) in exchange for Plumlee, a second-round pick and cash considerations. Ironically, the first-round pick included in the deal became Justin Jackson, who was used to procure another center, Zach Collins – but more on that in a bit.

As of February 2017, Plumlee was considered the better player of the two. He was averaging a career-high 11 points, 8.1 rebounds and 4.0 assists through 54 games – but it was clear that at 27, he’d already maximized his talent.

Conversely, Nurkic was only 23 at the time of the trade with significant, untapped upside. In his first few seasons with Portland, Nurkic averaged 15 points and 9.8 rebounds per game, while establishing himself as a rising star. As noted above, injuries have continued to be a problem. Nurkic suffered a compound fracture in his tibia and fibula in March 2019, forcing him to miss a majority of this current campaign. The COVID-19-related play stoppage in March gave Nurkic extra time to get his body right, and he returned to action in July inside the bubble.

And he did so with a vengeance. Nurkic demonstrated superior strength and footwork, and he flashed the dominance that Portland hoped he would develop, posting eight double-doubles in 18 contests. He averaged 17.6 points and 10.3 rebounds per game and while his play dipped a bit in the playoffs – partially due to a matchup with first-team All-NBA star Anthony Davis – he still managed 14.2 points and 10.4 rebounds in the five-game series. So it’s fair to say that Nurkic is still on his way toward stardom.

But the Nuggets are in the conference finals – so all’s well that ends well, right? Not so fast. To his credit, Plumlee is exactly who Denver expected him to be. He’s averaged 7.5 points and 5.5 rebounds per game in three seasons with Denver since 2017 – but to be fair, Plumlee is asked to do less in Denver than he had in Portland. Still, it’s fairly obvious that they’re just not that comparable.

Plumlee is a good passer and an above-average defender that’ll compete hard and isn’t afraid to get dirty – but he has limitations. He doesn’t stretch the floor and he is a sub-par free throw shooter (53.5 percent in 2019-20). More importantly, he’s simply not a major offensive threat and his repertoire of moves is limited.

High-level takeaway: Defenses tend to game plan for opponents they view as major threats – Nurkic falls into this category. Other guys pack the stat sheet through putback attempts, open looks and single coverage alongside the guys for whom opposing defenses game plan – that’s a more appropriate description of Plumlee.

On to the wrench thrown in by Zach Collins’ involvement. Statistically, Collins is about as effective as Plumlee – he averaged 7 points and 6.3 rebounds through only 11 games in 2019-20 due to various injuries – and he possesses more upside. The 22-year-old is not as reliable as Plumlee but given his age and skill set, he’s a far better option as a support player playing off the bench. He stretches the floor (36.8 percent on three-point attempts in 2019-20), is an above-average free throw shooter (75 percent this season) and is a good defender. Looking past Nurkic for a moment, would the Nuggets prefer a 22-year-old center that stretches the floor and defends or a 30-year-old energy guy?

Regardless of your answer to that question, it’s hard to argue that Nurkic should have returned more than Plumlee, definitely so when you factor in the first-round pick Denver included. There is obviously more at play: Denver was probably considering trading Nurkic for some time before they acted – did they feel that they could increase his trade value prior to the trade deadline in 2016-17? Maybe. Further, Nurkic and his agent could have influenced the Nuggets’ decision at the 2017 deadline, threatening to stonewall Denver in negotiations.

Had Nurkic been more patient or the Nuggets acted sooner before it became abundantly clear that he was on the move, Denver’s roster could be even more stacked than it is now. Ultimately, the Nuggets have a plethora of talent and will be fine – while it appears that Nurkic found a long-term home in Portland, where he owns the paint offensively. Denver can’t be thrilled about assisting a division rival, but they’re still in an enviable position today and should be for years to come.

But despite that, this deal should go down as a cautionary tale – it’s not only the bottom feeders of the league who make missteps. Even the savviest of front offices overthink deals. Sometimes that works in their favor, and other times it does not.

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NBA Daily: They Guessed Wrong

Matt John reflects on some of the key decisions that were made last summer, and how their disappointing results hurt both team outlooks and players’ legacies.

Matt John

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It doesn’t sound possible, but did you know that the crazy NBA summer of 2019 was, in fact, over a year ago? Wildly, in any normal, non-pandemic season, it all would have been over three months ago and, usually, media days would be right around the corner, but not this time. The 2019-20 NBA season is slated to end sometime in early to mid-October, so the fact that the last NBA off-season was over a year ago hasn’t really dawned on anyone yet. Craziest of all, even though there will still be an offseason, there technically won’t be any summer.

Coronavirus has really messed up the NBA’s order. Of course, there are much worse horrors that COVID-19 has inflicted upon the world – but because of what it’s done to the NBA, let’s focus on that and go back to the summer of 2019. It felt like an eternity, but the Golden State Warriors’ three-year reign had finally reached its end. The Toronto Raptors’ victory over the tyranny that was the Hamptons Five – as battered as they were – made it feel like order had been restored to the NBA. There was more to it than that though.

Klay Thompson’s and Kevin Durant’s season-ending injuries, along with the latter skipping town to join Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn meant two things.

1. Golden State was down for the count
2. Brooklyn’s time wasn’t coming until next year.

A one-year window was open. Even if neither Golden State nor Brooklyn posed the same threat that the former did when it had Kevin Durant, those were two contenders out of commission. If there was a time to go all in, it was in 2019.

Milwaukee certainly seemed to go all in. For the most part.  Malcolm Brogdon’s departure seemed a little odd since he was arguably their best non-Giannis playmaker when they were in crunch time. Not to mention there was nothing really stopping the Bucks from keeping him except for money. Detractors will call out Milwaukee for electing to cheap out by not keeping Brogdon and hence, avoiding the luxury tax. However, there’s more to it than that.

Milwaukee thought it had enough with the core it had on its roster. Coming off the best season they had put up since the eighties, they believed the franchise built the right team to contend. There was an argument that keeping Brogdon may have been overkill with their guard depth – let’s not forget that Donte DiVincenzo did a solid job in Brogdon’s role as the backup facilitator. This would have been more defensible had it not been for Milwaukee picking the wrong guy to let go. That was the indefensible part- electing to keep Eric Bledsoe over Brogdon.

Bledsoe wasn’t necessarily a bad investment. No one’s complaining about an almost 15 point average on 47/34/79 splits or playing individual defense tight enough to get named on the All-Defensive second team. By all accounts, Bledsoe earns his keep. That is until the playoffs. Bledsoe’s postseason woes have been a weight ever since he first entered Milwaukee, and this postseason was more of the same.

Bledsoe’s numbers dwindled to just 11.7 points on 39/25/81 splits, and Milwaukee getting ousted in five games at the hands of Miami made his struggles stand out even more than it had ever been. Bledsoe may be the better athlete and the better defender, but Brogdon’s all-around offensive savvy and his only slight dropoff defensively from Brogdon would have made him a bit more reliable.

Milwaukee guessed wrong when they opted to extend Bledsoe before the postseason last year when they could have waited until that very time to evaluate who to keep around. Now they face a hell of a lot more questions than they did at the end of last season – questions that may have been avoided had they made the right choice.

Now they could have kept both of them, yes, but it’s not totally unreasonable to think that maybe their approach with the luxury tax would have worked and maybe they would still be in the postseason right now had they gone with the homegrown talent. And just maybe, there wouldn’t be nearly as much of this Greek Freak uncertainty.

The Houston Rockets can relate. They got bruised up by a team that everyone thought Houston had the edge on going into the series and then crushed by the Lakers. Now, Mike D’Antoni is gone. The full-time small ball experiment likely did not work out. Since the Rockets emptied most of their assets to bring in Russell Westbrook and Robert Covington, there may not be a route in which they can become better than they presently are.

The mistake wasn’t trading for Russell Westbrook. The mistake was trading Chris Paul.

To be fair, most everybody severely overestimated Chris Paul’s decline. He’s not among the best of the best anymore, but he’s still pretty darn close. He deserved his All-NBA second team selection as well as finishing No. 7 overall in MVP voting. OKC had no business being as good as they were this season, and Paul was the driving force as to why.

For all we know, the previously-assumed tension between Chris Paul and James Harden would have made its way onto the court no matter what. Even so, Houston’s biggest obstacle in the Bay Area had crumbled. If they had just stayed the course, maybe they’re still in the postseason too.

To their credit, none of this may have happened had it not been for the Kawhi Leonard decision. Had he chosen differently, the Thunder never blow it up, and Houston might have very well been the favorite in the Western Conference. Instead, the Rockets took a step back from being in the title discussion to dark horse. But at least they can take pride knowing that they weren’t expected to win it all – the Clippers can’t.

Seeing the Clippers fall well short expectations begs the question if they too got it wrong. The answer is, naturally: of course not. They may have paid a hefty price for Paul George, but the only way they were getting Kawhi Leonard – one of the best players of his generation – was if PG-13 came in the package. As lofty as it was, anyone would have done the same thing if they were in their shoes. They didn’t get it wrong. Kawhi did.

On paper, the Clippers had the most talented roster in the entire league. It seemed like they had every hole filled imaginable. Surrounding Leonard and George was three-point shooting, versatility, a productive second unit, an experienced coach – you name it. There was nothing stopping them from breaking the franchise’s long-lasting curse. Except themselves.

Something felt off about them. They alienated opponents. They alienated each other. At times, they played rather lackadaisically, like the title had already been signed, sealed, and delivered to them. The media all assumed they’d cut the malarkey and get their act together – but that moment never really came. They had their chances to put Denver away, but even if they had, after seeing their struggles to beat them – and to be fair Dallas too – would their day of destiny with the Lakers have really lived up to the hype?

Even if it was never in the cards, one can’t help but wonder what could have happened had Kawhi chosen to stay with the team he won his second title with.

Toronto was the most impressive team in this league this season. They still managed to stay at the top of the east in spite of losing an all-timer like Leonard. That team had every component of a winner except a superstar. They had the right culture for a championship team. Just not the right talent. The Clippers were the exact opposite. They had the right talent for a championship team but not the right culture. That’s why the Raptors walked away from the postseason feeling proud of themselves for playing to their full potential while the Clippers writhed in disappointment and angst over their future.

In the end, everyone mentioned here may ultimately blame what happened to their season on the extenuating circumstances from the pandemic. The Bucks’ chemistry never fully returned when the Bubble started. Contracting COVID and dealing with quad problems prevented Westbrook from reviving the MVP-type player he was before the hiatus. As troubling as the Clippers had played, the extra time they would have had to work things out in a normal season was taken away from them.

For all we know, next year will be a completely different story. The Rockets, Bucks, and Kawhi may ultimately have their faith rewarded for what they did in the summer of 2019 – but that will only be mere speculation until the trio can change the story.

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Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards

Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.

David Yapkowitz

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We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.

The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.

With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.

The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.

Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old

Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.

He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.

Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.

Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old

Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.

He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.

Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.

Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old

Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.

He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.

One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.

Honorable Mentions:
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old

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