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NBA AM: A Lot Of Talk, Not Much Substance

There’s still some trade chatter involving big-name players, but most of it is not based on substance.

Steve Kyler

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A Lot Of Talk, Not Much Substance

With the free agency being the talk of the town in the world of sports, it is only natural that online bookmakers and betting sites take an interest in potential roster changes by NBA teams. Betting websites offer all kind of odds on potential summer moves for big players as well as a plethora of tips for your basketball bets.

In the NBA, they say you never say never because even the most ardent “no” can turn into a “yes” if the situation is right. That’s true in almost every facet of the game, from drafting and signing a player to hiring and firing a coach and, of course, deciding when to trade a player.

There are a few names that keep popping up in offseason rumors and while it’s always fun to speculate, there are some players who simply are not going anywhere (at least not yet).

DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento

Fresh off his Olympic gold medal campaign, the Kings and Cousins have agreed to take a fresh-start approach to the relationship. Cousins says he likes the hiring of Dave Joerger and that everything he’s heard from the team this offseason is good with him. There are still some roster moves to work out, but Cousins says he is all the way on-board with the plan Joerger and Vlade Divac have for the team.

There’s no question that of everyone on this list Cousins is the situation to watch, but that’s only because it’s been so bad in Sacramento.

The Kings believe Cousins is the cornerstone of the franchise and that any success this season starts and stops with him. They will open their new arena – the Golden 1 Center – in just a few weeks and the plan is for Cousins to be the anchor and focal point of the team.

Incoming calls from other teams have been dismissed. There seems to be zero desire to even talk about a Cousins trade from the Kings’ side.

Unless things are just brutally bad out of the gate, the Kings likely play out the first season under Coach Joerger and make decisions from there once they know more.

There is no doubt that Cousins’ looming free agency in 2018 will become a factor; it’s just not one right now.

Kevin Love, Cleveland

No name gets mentioned more frequently in trade rumors than Cavaliers forward Kevin Love. The problem with that is neither the Cavs nor Love are looking for a change.

People like to point to the sometimes awkward fit for Love on the Cavs roster, but the truth of the matter is Cleveland won a lot of games last season because of Love. While Love wasn’t extremely productive in the Finals against the Warriors, he was very effective in the march up to the Finals and the Cavs know they won’t get anything better than Love in a trade. It’s something they have known for some time.

While there are no shortage of suitors who would take on Love’s contract, sources close to the Cavs say moving him is not even remotely a consideration.

The Cavaliers do have some roster business to take care of, namely getting J.R. Smith re-signed, which is viewed internally as simply a process that resolves itself in time.

As for trading Love, there is no sense that the Cavs are even listening to offers. Like Cousins, he is a name you can simply remove from the discussion.

Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City

By virtue of signing his re-negotiated contract with the Thunder, Westbrook became untradeable for six months, putting him as trade restricted until February 4.

Sources close to the situation say the Thunder’s view on Westbrook is to see what he can do as the single focal point of the team and plan to keep the noise out of the equation until next summer.

That’s not to say if the Thunder simply crumble under their own weight that things won’t be re-visited on this front. It’s simply that the Thunder and Westbrook have pledged to give this season a real chance before addressing the future beyond his new contract.

There is little doubt that after losing Kevin Durant to free agency for nothing in return that the Thunder won’t be more mindful in how they handle Westbrook, but as sources close to the situation have said, there is almost no scenario in which the Thunder look at trades with Westbrook this year. The hope is that he can be the triple-double MVP candidate he looked like two years ago and that would take care of everything.

Trading Westbrook in the future remains a possibility; what’s not a possibility is it happening this year, at least not without a catastrophic collapse on the Thunder’s part.

Blake Griffin, LA Clippers

The clock is ticking pretty loudly for the Clippers. Not only are the Clippers still arguably the third-best team in the Western Conference, they are facing the looming free agency of both guard Chris Paul and forward Blake Griffin.

Sources close to Griffin have been adamant that he is planning to re-sign in L.A. and that he’s not open to going anywhere. Clippers president and head coach Doc Rivers has mirrored that, saying he believes Griffin retires as a Clipper.

Both sides are saying all the right things. But are the Clippers good enough to really contend for a championship and what happens if they fall short again?

Sources close to the situation say win or lose, Rivers is not open to trade talks on Griffin or Paul and that he’s not worried about either walking away in July.

If that is genuinely true, then there is no point in speculating about Griffin. The Clippers can and likely will offer more money in free agency and with Griffin’s business interests in the L.A. market, the odds of him picking up and walking away are pretty slim.

The only scenario in which that becomes remotely plausible is if the Clippers just fall apart and even the harshest critics would struggle to make a case of that being likely.

While moving Griffin might be the best course of action if the Clippers want to re-load the team for the future, the truth is Rivers and owner Steve Ballmer do not seem at all interested, so it’s safe to say Griffin stays exactly where he’s at.

Paul Millsap, Atlanta Hawks

The only reason Millsap’s name gets talked about in trade rumors is because the Hawks explored moving him to try and retain Al Horford in free agency. But with Horford gone, the Hawks continue to say Millsap is their guy. While he does have a $21 million player option for next season, the belief around the Hawks is that they are hanging on to him as the counter balance to newly acquired Dwight Howard.

Now, much like many of the teams mentioned above, if the floor falls out from under the Hawks then moving Millsap might become a possibility. However, according to sources near the situation, Millsap has been assured he’s not going anywhere.

The problem with hanging onto a guy who could be an unrestricted free agent is that you could lose him for nothing in return. And if the Hawks’ season goes sideways or they are among the bottom six to eight teams, changes might be the only way to jump start things.

How the Hawks play likely has more to do with the future of Millsap than anything.

If they play well, he may want to stay in his deal – even with the cap ballooning again in July.

Like Cousins, Millsap may be one of the few guys mentioned in this piece you may want to keep an eye on this season. But any trade talks involving the forward likely don’t become real until December or January when the Hawks really know what they are.

Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls

Cross Jimmy Butler off your wish list. Barring some kind of critical melt down in Chicago, the Bulls made their choice this summer and opted to stick with Butler as the face of the franchise.

Butler played an instrumental role in recruiting Dwyane Wade to Chicago and the Bulls’ view is that Butler and Wade complement each other really well.

There is no question that if Butler is difficult to coach or if the Bulls’ season collapses that all bets are off, mainly because ownership is not going to sit idle if Chicago is outside the playoff picture again this year. But from all accounts, the Bulls are sticking with Butler for the foreseeable future, which makes him all but unobtainable.

It’s always possible that the right series of events changes the discussion on these guys, but the stance from all of their teams is that they are staying where they are and are the foundation to what their respective franchise is trying to do this season.

If injury strikes or the losses start to pile up in an unexpected way, maybe that changes. However, it’s pretty safe to say that these guys are staying where they are for the foreseeable future and are not the trade candidates some fans want them to be.

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @AlexKennedyNBA, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @SusanBible @TommyBeer, @MokeHamilton , @jblancartenba and @CodyTaylorNBA .

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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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