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Jazz, Hawks, Pacers Trade is First Shoe to Drop

Ben Dowsett looks at what today’s three-team trade means for the Hawks, Pacers and Jazz.

Ben Dowsett

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The first major trade bombshell of the 2016 draft season dropped Wednesday, with reports that a three-way trade will send George Hill to Utah, Jeff Teague to Indiana and the 12th pick in Thursday’s draft (formerly belonging to Utah) to Atlanta. Further, reports have indicated that Indiana will pursue an extension for Teague. Let’s break down the deal as reported for each of the three teams involved.

Atlanta Hawks

Many will view swapping a starter for a lottery pick as a clear sign of a rebuild, but this could be entirely the opposite from the Hawks. It’s long been rumored that many in the front office considered Dennis Schroder the superior option at the point as he came of age, and moving Teague for a return that includes no incoming salary doubles down on that bet while also creating additional cap space. The Hawks’ chief priority this summer is retaining unrestricted free agent Al Horford, and the extra cap space opened up by Teague’s departure now leaves them right in the neighborhood of max space available for a potential free agent – one who could convince Horford they were still on a winning track. The room could also serve as a way to retain restricted free agent Kent Bazemore, whom the Hawks will have to dip into cap space for on a new deal.

Of course, should the dominoes not fall their way on the market over the summer, the move actually does allow the Hawks the flexibility to pivot into something of a temporary rebuild. Paul Millsap would be the largest tipping point in determining if they went all the way with this, but the other outlines are there: Atlanta owns all its own picks and now adds another in the lottery, plus has a ton of financial flexibility from the summer of 2017 on forward. Their ideal outcome with this move clearly appears to be to persuade Horford to stay while bringing on another high-talent veteran, and their second preference should Horford leave might just be to attempt to add multiple high-dollar guys (or re-sign Bazemore). Even if neither of these pan out, they’ve left themselves some outs, albeit not fantastic ones. The team is also reportedly shopping the No. 12 and No. 21 picks in tomorrow’s draft, so they may not be done dealing. For more on the Hawks’ angle, check out Lang Greene’s recent piece.

Indiana Pacers

In swapping players at the same position who many consider to be on a similar talent tier, the Pacers are mostly betting on age and their ability to extend Teague, who is two years younger than Hill as both enter the final season on their current deals. If Larry Bird and Pacers brass do indeed believe they can lock Teague up for another few years at a fair deal, and do indeed have him at least even with Hill as a player currently, they’ve made a nice little deal for themselves.

The latter part there could be up for debate in some circles, though. Hill is the better distance shooter and defender of the two, by an amount that just might override the two-year gap in age (expressed another way, Hill has logged just over 3,000 more minutes than Teague in their respective careers). Teague is more capable creating offense, though the degree here might be overstated – he’s a very good passer, but many of the looks he was able to create for both himself and others in Atlanta were at least partially a result of a team system and fantastic gravity from guys like Kyle Korver and Paul Millsap. Hill was consistently good to great playing a slightly deferential role next to Paul George; will Teague fit in the same way?

From a raw value standpoint, though, the Pacers have done well if they can get extra years out of Teague in exchange for an older guy who might be over the hill a year or two earlier.

Utah Jazz

Purely from the perspective of immediate team goals, it’s hard to view the Jazz as anything but clear winners in this deal. A team already loaded with youngsters and without a major draft need, Utah was able to flip a 12th pick that held less value for them than most other teams into a starting-caliber player in their largest clear area of need.

Hill will fit like a glove in Utah, where he can play either with or without returning 20-year-old Dante Exum without forcing the Jazz to sacrifice an inch of size on the perimeter (the Hill-Exum duo would likely have the longest wingspan of any backcourt in the league, actually). He offers 37 percent and change from deep in his career to a team with major shooting and spacing needs last year, and is yet another above average defender to put in front of the menacing Rudy Gobert-Derrick Favors combo at the rim.

Best of all, Hill has proven successful in a situation where wings share in the primary ball-handling duties – exactly the scenario he’ll be entering in Utah. His own skill in the pick-and-roll will lighten the burden on guys like Gordon Hayward and Rodney Hood to generate all the offense, and vice versa. He’ll be the perfect soft landing spot for Exum, coming off a torn ACL, allowing the young Aussie to find his legs and his rhythm without an overdose of pressure from a fan base hungry for the playoffs.

The move has larger ramifications outside the specific players impacted on the court, too. With rumors flying about Gordon Hayward’s status as he nears a summer 2017 opt-out he’ll certainly exercise, the trade signifies in part the franchise’s commitment to pushing this core into contention immediately. They’ve added a veteran to fill a specific need. Talk that they’d send core assets to move up in the draft and trigger another minor rebuild was always contrary to this simple line of thinking. This has been the preference of the Jazz front office for some time now.

There could be some fairly immediate roster fallout at the point guard position, however. The Jazz now hold each of Hill (when the deal is consummated, which likely won’t be until July for salary reasons), Exum, Shelvin Mack, Trey Burke and Raul Neto under contract, and there will not be room for at least one of these guys (likely more than one) moving forward. How Dennis Lindsey and his team proceed here will be interesting to see. Burke has felt like an unlikely bet to remain on the team since he was relegated to third string upon Mack’s arrival last year, and that feeling was reinforced Wednesday. Exum isn’t going anywhere, period.

The most interesting debate would appear to come down to Mack and Neto, both of whom did well in the roles asked of them last season – but both of whom are clear backups. Expect Utah to give significant run to both Hill and Exum rather than relegating one of them to the more traditional “backup” point guard role, an easy task as they can play together whenever necessary. This probably leaves room for only one of the other two.

Mack has a non-guaranteed deal that the Jazz have to make a decision on by July 7 – should they choose to let him go, they can do so without costing themselves another dime before that date. Neto is guaranteed, but his deal is so cheap that releasing him (or trading him for whatever thin value they could get back, if such value exists) would be easy enough if they chose to. Both guys can be removed from the roster without much trouble, and which one leaves town probably just depends on who team brass thinks will do a better job in a limited role. Given the extra time on Neto’s contract and the team control it feels like he has a small edge at this point, though Mack’s rapport with coach Quin Snyder and connection to Hayward from their Butler days could play a role.

There’s no question Utah’s move involves a certain degree of risk. Hill is a big upgrade to Utah’s point guard situation, but he’s no superstar and he’s 30 years old. He could walk as an unrestricted free agent after this season, and retaining him might cost a pretty penny in the largest cap summer the league has ever seen. A lottery pick in return is far from nothing.

It’s exactly the sort of gamble the Jazz simply had to take, though. They believe in Exum on a high level, and holding firm in that belief would make a hypothetical Hill departure after just one year much more bearable. The 12th pick could yield a good player, sure, but it comes in a class with a ton of questions and warts after the top two guys – there’s no better than 50-50 odds that the player selected 12th in this draft ever becomes better than George Hill is right now. There’s also the very real chance that a guy labeled a solid teammate and an unselfish player his whole career would see an overwhelmingly positive youth movement taking place in Utah, and decide to return on a bargain deal to play veteran leader on a team chasing glory.

Most of all, though, it’s a signal to guys like Hayward, Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert that this team is serious right now. Who cares if Hill doesn’t make them a title contender overnight? The time is over for hedging assets and getting younger; the time is now for figuring out what it will take for this core to compete for a title. The Jazz will enter 2016-17 having filled their largest hole, and with perhaps the most menacing defensive starting lineup we’ve seen (on paper) in the league in a few years. This is a great move for Utah, even in realistic worst-case scenarios.

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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NBA Daily: Examining Michael Porter Jr.’s Ascension

Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. is averaging over 25 points per game and looks like a future All-NBA player. Bobby Krivitsky examines Porter’s ascent and the questions that come with it.

Bobby Krivitsky

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Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. has taken his game to new heights.

In the wake of Murray’s ACL tear in mid-April, Porter’s playing time has gone from 30.6 minutes per contest to 35.7, while his shots per game have risen from 12.6 per game to 16.5. The increased responsibility has fueled his ascent. He’s knocking down 56.3 percent of those attempts. He’s taking 8.2 threes per game and making a blistering 50 percent of them. As a result, Porter’s gone from averaging 17.5 points per game to 25.1. He’s also grabbing 6.1 rebounds and blocking almost one shot per contest.

At the time of Murray’s injury, the Denver Nuggets were in fourth place in the Western Conference. They remain there now, 9-4 in his absence, and they boast the eighth-highest net rating in the NBA.

The only way for the Nuggets to fall from fourth would be if they lost their four remaining games and the Dallas Mavericks won their final five contests because the Mavericks have the tiebreaker since they won the season series. On the more realistic end of the spectrum, Denver sits just 1.5 games back of the Los Angeles Clippers, who occupy the third seed in the West. The Nuggets won their season series against the Clippers, meaning they’d finish in third if the two teams ended the regular season with the same record.

There’s a bevy of questions surrounding Porter’s recent play that need to be asked but cannot get answered at the moment. That starts with whether this is anything more than a hot streak. While it’s impossible to say definitively, it’s reasonable to believe Porter can consistently and efficiently produce about 25 points per game. He was the second-ranked high school prospect in 2017 and entered his freshman year at Missouri firmly in the mix for the top pick in the 2018 NBA draft. That was thanks in large part to his offensive prowess as a 6-10 wing with a smooth shot that’s nearly impossible to block because of the elevation he gets when he shoots. 

A back injury cost him all but 53 minutes of his collegiate career and caused him to fall to the 14th pick in the draft. He ended up in an ideal landing spot, going to a well-run organization that’s also well aware of its barren track record luring star players looking to change teams, making it vital for the Nuggets to hit on their draft picks. 

Porter’s first year in the NBA was exclusively dedicated to the rehab process and doing everything possible to ensure he can have a long, healthy and productive career. Last season, finally getting a chance to play, he showed off the tantalizing talent that made him a top prospect but only took seven shots per game while trying to fit in alongside Nikola Jokic, Murray, Paul Millsap and Jerami Grant.

More experience, including battling against the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, an offseason, albeit a truncated one, to prepare for a more substantial role with Grant joining the Detroit Pistons and Millsap turning 36 this year, helped propel Porter. 

But for the Nuggets, before Murray’s injury, the perception was that even though they weren’t the favorites to come out of the Western Conference, they were a legitimate title contender. How far can they go if Porter’s consistently contributing about 25 points and over six rebounds per game while effectively playing the role of a second star alongside Jokic? 

It seems fair to cross Denver off the list of title contenders. But, if Porter continues to capably play the role of a second star alongside Jokic when doing so becomes more challenging in the postseason, the Nuggets can advance past a team like the Mavericks or Portland Trail Blazers. And at a minimum, they’d have the ability to make life difficult for whoever they had to face in the second round of the playoffs.

Unfortunately, the timing of Murray’s ACL tear, which happened in mid-April, means there’s a legitimate possibility he misses all of next season. Denver’s increased reliance on Porter is already allowing a young player with All-NBA potential to take on a role that’s closer to the one he’s assumed his whole life before making it to the sport’s highest level. If the Nuggets are counting on him to be the second-best player on a highly competitive team in the Western Conference next season, it’ll be fascinating to see what heights he reaches and how far they’re able to go as a team.

Theoretically, Porter’s growth could make it difficult for Denver to reacclimate Murray. But given Jokic’s unselfish style of play, there’s room for both of them to be satisfied by the volume of shots they’re getting. Unfortunately, the Nuggets have to wait, potentially another season, but Jokic is 26-years-old, Murray 24, Porter 22. When Denver has their Big Three back together, they could be far more potent while still being able to enjoy a lengthy run as legitimate title contenders.

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NBA Daily: D’Angelo Russell Back on Track

D’Angelo Russell lost much of the 2020-21 season to injury. Drew Maresca explains why his return will surprise people around the league.

Drew Maresca

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D’Angelo Russell was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves last February, just before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the entire season. But we’ve yet to see what Russell can really do in Minnesota.

The Timberwolves acquired Russell in late February in exchange for a future first-round pick – which transitions this season if they pick later than third – a 2021 second-round pick and Andrew Wiggins.

Sidenote: For those keeping score at home, the Timberwolves currently have the third-worst record in the league with five games remaining. It would behoove Minnesota to lose as many of their remaining games as possible to keep their 2021 pick. If the pick does not transition this season, it becomes unrestricted in 2020.

Trying to turn an owed pick into an unprotected future first is usually the wrong move; but in this instance, it’s better to keep the high first-rounder this year with an understanding that your 2022 pick will probably fall in or around the middle of the lottery.

The thinking around the deal was that Minnesota could qualify for the playoffs as soon as this season by swapping Wiggins’ contract for a young, talented lead guard in Russell. It has not played out as planned.

COVID resulted in a play stoppage shortly after the deal, robbing Russell of the opportunity to ramp up with his new team. When the NBA returned to finish the 2019-20 season, the Timberwolves failed to qualify for bubble play – and considering the US was still battling a global pandemic, Russell couldn’t easily practice with his new teammates and/or coaches.

The 2020-21 season began weirdly, too. The NBA proceeded with an abbreviated training camp and preseason. And while this impacted all teams, Russell was additionally hindered by the decision.

Ready or not, the season began. In 2020-21, Russell is averaging a near-career low in minutes per game (28.2) across just 36 games. He’s tallying 19.1 points per game on 43.6% shooting and a career-best 38.8% on three-point attempts. He’s also he’s posting a near career-best assist-to-turnover ratio (5.7 to 2.8).

Despite Russell’s contributions, the Timberwolves have failed to meet expectations. Far from the playoff squad they hoped to be, Minnesota is in contention for the top pick in this year’s draft. So what has gone wrong in Minneapolis?

Russell’s setbacks are fairly obvious. In addition to the lack of preparation with his teammates and coaches, Russell was diagnosed with a “loose body” in his knee, requiring arthroscopic knee surgery in February. As a result, he missed 27 consecutive games. Russell returned on April 5, but head coach Chris Finch revealed that he’d been on a minutes restriction until just recently.

Minnesota is clearly being cautious with Russell. Upon closer review, Russell has been restricted to under 30 minutes per game in all of his first 10 games back. Since then, Russell is averaging 31 minutes per game including an encouraging 37 minutes on May 5 in a four-point loss to Memphis.

Since returning from knee surgery, Russell is averaging 27 minutes per game across 16 games. Despite starting 19 of the team’s first 20 games, he hadn’t started in any game since returning – until Wednesday.

On the whole, Russell’s impact is about the same as it was prior to the injury, which should be encouraging to Timberwolves’ fans. He’s scoring slightly less (18.8 points since returning vs. 19.3 prior), shooting better from the field (44.9% since returning vs 42.6%% prior) and has been just slightly worse from three-point range (37.4% since vs. 39.9 prior). He’s dishing out more assists per game (6.5 since vs. 5.1 prior), too, and he posted three double-digit assist games in his last five contents – a feat achieved only once all season prior to his last five games.

Despite playing more and dropping more dimes, there’s still room to improve. Looking back to his career-bests, Russell averaged 23.1 points per game in 2019-20 in 33 games with Golden State (23.6) and 12 games with Minnesota (21.7).

But his most impactful season came in 2018-19 with the Brooklyn Nets. That season, Russell averaged 21.1 points and 7.0 assists per game, leading the Nets to the playoffs and earning his first trip to the All-Star game. He looked incredibly comfortable, playing with supreme confidence and flashing the ability to lead a playoff team.

At his best, Russell is a dynamic playmaker. The beauty of Russell is that he can also play off the ball. He has a quick release on his jumper and impressive range. His game is not predicated on athleticism, meaning he should stay at his peak for longer than guys like De’Aaron Fox and Ja Morant.

And while he’s been in the league for what feels like ever (six seasons), Russell just turned 25 approximately two months ago. Granted, comparing anyone to Steph Curry is unwise, but Curry wasn’t Steph Curry yet at 25. Former MVP Steve Nash hadn’t yet averaged double-digits (points) at 25. Twenty-five is also an inflection point for Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook. And the list goes on.

To be fair, Russell was drafted at 19 so he’s more acclimated to the league at this age than most, but his game will continue expanding nonetheless. He’ll develop trickier moves, become stronger and grow his shooting range. And a good deal of that growth should be evident as soon as next season since he’ll be fully healed from knee surgery and have a full offseason and training camp to finally work with teammates and coaches.

So while Minnesota’s 2020-21 season was incredibly bleak, their future is quite bright – and much of it has to do with the presence of Russell.

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NBA AM: Is This It for Indiana?

Following their major drop-off, Matt John explains why the Pacers trying to get back to where they were may not be the best decision.

Matt John

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Remember when, following the maligned trade of Paul George, the sky was the limit for the Indiana Pacers? The 2017-18 Pacers were one of the best stories in the NBA that season because they made their opponents work for their victories, and they put on a spectacle every night.

It’s hard to believe that all transpired three whole years ago. When Cleveland eliminated Indiana in a very tight first-round series, I asked if having the exciting season that they did – when many thought it would turn out the opposite – was going to benefit them in the long run. Three years later, this happens.

We were getting plenty of smoke about the Pacers’ drama behind-the-scenes beforehand, and now, we have seen the fire firsthand. More and more reports indicate that the crap has hit the fan. Indiana has seemingly already had enough of Nate Bjorkgren in only his first year as his coach. When you see the results they’ve had this season compared to the last three, it’s not hard to see why.

The Pacers have routinely found themselves in the 4-5 playoff matchup for the last three years. Sadly, despite their fight – and, to be fair, they had pretty awful injury luck the past two postseasons – they haven’t been able to get over the hump in the first round. They may not have been in the elite tier, but they weren’t slouches either. So, seeing them not only fail to take the next step but look more and more likely for the play-in is as discouraging as it gets. Especially after they started the season 6-2.

If these reports about the tensions between the players and Bjorkgren are real, then this has already become a lost season for the Pacers. It’s too late in the season to make any major personnel changes. At this point, their best route is just to cut their losses and wait until this summer to think over what the next move is.

In that case, let’s take a deep breath. This has been a weird season for everyone. Every aspect minus the playoffs has been shorter than usual since last October. Everything was shortened from the offseason to the regular season. Oh, and COVID-19 has played a role as the season has turned out, although COVID-19 has probably been the least of Indy’s problems. Let’s think about what next season would look like for Indiana.

TJ Warren comes back with a clean bill of health. Caris Levert gets more acquainted with the team and how they run. Who knows? Maybe they finally resolve the Myles Turner-Domantas Sabonis situation once and for all. A new coach can come aboard to steady the ship, and it already looks like they have an idea for who that’s going to be

Should they run it back, there’s a solid chance they can get back to where they were before. But that’s sort of the problem to begin with. Even if this recent Pacers’ season turns out to be just a negative outlier, their ceiling isn’t all too high anyway. A team that consists of Warren, Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon, and Caris Levert as their core four is a solid playoff team. Having Turner, Doug McDermott, TJ McConnell, Jeremy Lamb, and the Holiday brothers rounds out a solid playoff team. Anyone who takes a good look at this roster knows that this roster is a good one. It’s not great though.

Just to be clear, Indiana has plenty of ingredients for a championship team. They just don’t have the main one: The franchise player. Once upon a time, it looked like that may have been Oladipo, but a cruel twist of fate took that all away. This isn’t a shot at any of the quality players they have on their roster, but think of it this way.

For the next couple of years, they’re going to go up against Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving. All of whom are on the same team. For potentially even longer, they’ll be going up against the likes of Giannis Antetoukounmpo, Joel Embiid, and Jayson Tatum. With the roster they have, they could make a series interesting against any one of those teams. However, it’s a rule of thumb in the NBA that the team with the best player usually wins the series. Not to mention, they’d have to beat most of the teams those players play for to go on a substantial playoff run. That’s a pretty tall order.

There’s no joy in talking about the Pacers like this because they have built this overachieving underdog from nothing more than shrewd executive work. They turned a disgruntled and expiring Paul George into Oladipo and Sabonis. Both of whom have since become two-time all-stars (and counting). They then managed to turn an expiring and hobbled Oladipo – who had no plans to return to Indiana – into the electric Levert. They also pretty much stole Brogdon and Warren away while paying very little for either of them.

That is fantastic work. The only hangup is that, as of now, it just doesn’t seem like it will be enough. But, doubt and skepticism are things Indiana’s had thrown their way consistently since 2017. Many thought their approach to trading Paul George would blow up in their face, and since then, they’ve done everything in their power to make everyone eat their words.

Kevin Pritchard’s got his work cut out for him this summer. This season will hopefully turn out to be nothing more than performance ruined by both the wrong coaching hire and an unusual season that produced negatively skewed results. But at this point, Pritchard’s upcoming course of action this summer shouldn’t be about getting his team back to where they were, but deciding whether he can get them a step or two further than that by adding more to what they have or starting over completely.

Indiana’s had a rough go of it in this COVID-shortened season, but their disappointing play may have little to no bearing on where they go from here.

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