Almost Trade Season: As the NBA enters the quarter mark of the season, several NBA teams are starting to ponder the direction they are headed and some teams have already started sniffing around the trade market. The problem with trades at this point in the season is that a large chunk of NBA rosters are still under trade restrictions involving the players signed as free agents this summer. However, on December 15 – roughly two weeks from now – those restrictions will be lifted and the unofficial trade season in the NBA will begin.
Here are some of the situations to watch over the next couple weeks:
The Rockets pulled the trigger on firing head coach Kevin McHale, but after firing their coach things really have not changed in a meaningful way. The Rockets have lost seven of their last 10 games and rank 24th in point differential, losing by an average of 6.1 points per game and have yet to find the defensive presence the coaching change was supposed to help restore.
During the offseason, the Rockets pulled the trigger on a deal bringing in point guard Ty Lawson, who at the time was believed to be the missing piece for a Rockets championship run. However, Lawson has been a shell of himself on the court and is now coming off the bench in favor of 38-year-old Jason Terry.
The Rockets have been sniffing around the league for deals and there is a belief among other teams that Lawson could be had in trade, and had cheaply. Lawson is owed $12.4 million this season with the final $13.21 million of his deal being fully non-guaranteed.
As the Rockets search for ways to change, there is a belief that Lawson could be the first Rocket player moved. But given how poorly Lawson has played in Houston and his troublesome off-the-court history, it’s hard to imagine that Lawson alone is going to yield much in return. But as teams start to get desperate, Lawson does have a career assist average of more than 6.5 assists per game and averaged 9.6 per game last season for the Nuggets. Lawson’s salary could return an asset or two and given the rut the Rockets find themselves in, they seem to be a bit more motivated to deal than normal.
The Milwaukee Bucks were the darling of the NBA this time last year with a swarming and effective defense that has all but evaporated this year. The Bucks added forward Greg Monroe and traded for guard Greivis Vasquez this summer to complement their deadline trade for Michael Carter-Williams last year. The addition of those three players has yet to yield a lot of positive results, and one of the NBA’s best defensive units has devolved into one of the worst. Add in the fact that the Bucks’ offense has been sputtering, to say the least, and the Bucks find themselves sitting outside the Eastern Conference playoff picture, with very little light at the end of the tunnel.
Surprisingly, league sources say the Bucks are not being overly aggressive in looking for trades. However, it seems like a matter of time before the Bucks have to decide who they’d part with to the get the ship turned around.
The Bucks are sitting on a couple of compelling contracts, namely the $8 million ending contract on reserve guard O.J. Mayo and the $3 million ending deal for guard Jerryd Bayless. Both are proven NBA veterans and are prime rental-type pieces for teams looking to bolster their roster.
While both players are key leaders for a very young Bucks team, the clock on the season isn’t slowing down.
The Bucks have lost seven of their last 10 games, and have the Pistons, Knicks and Raptors on their schedule before Christmas. Falling further behind in the East may change how the Bucks approach the trade market, especially if their defense continues to struggle.
The Clippers are not ready to blow things up, but there is a growing sense that the Clippers are willing to make a deal and that move may involve the ending contract of swingman Jamal Crawford.
The Clippers have been up and down all season and have lost five of their last 10 games. Amid reports of infighting in the locker room, it seems the Clippers may be open to a splashy move if one surfaces.
Sources close to the situation continue to say the Clippers are being opportunistic – saying if a solid player becomes available they’d do a deal – however, league sources say the Clippers may be more desperate than they’ll admit, sensing that a major change is needed.
The Clippers have won their last three games and are still above the line in differential, but with losses to the Jazz, Blazers and Warriors still lingering, the next group of games could go a long way toward quieting the rumbling or fast tracking the process. The Clippers have the Pacers and Magic at home this week before heading out on five-game east coast trip next week.
The Clippers should know a lot more about themselves after the trip, which happens to line up with the December 15 trade restriction deadline being lifted for most of the players signed this past summer.
With the formal announcement that Lakers guard Kobe Bryant will call it a career after this season, there continues to be talk that the Lakers will ultimately look at selling off some of their veteran players as the NBA trade deadline gets closer. The two players to watch are forward Brandon Bass and center Roy Hibbert.
Bass signed a two-year, $6.135 million deal in July and could return a reasonable asset for the Lakers. Hibbert, on the other hand, waived part of the trade kicker in his contract to get out of Indiana and there is a sense the Lakers might want to re-sign him in the offseason if he is agreeable to a lower-dollar deal. If the Laker decide Hibbert isn’t an answer in the long-term, they are not restricted from moving Hibbert – they simply need to find a taker for his $15.592 million deal. At the trade deadline, the Lakers will have paid roughly 70 percent of that cash value.
The Lakers have no shortage of value priced veterans to peddle if they so desire. Guard Lou Williams is set to earn $7 million over the next three years, while Nick Young is scheduled to earn $5.219 million this season and roughly $11 million more over the following two seasons.
None of the Lakers’ veterans are likely to return unprotected draft picks, but there is a sense the Lakers could turn one or two of the veterans they have into rookie-scale contract players, especially from some of the teams looking to cash out a little youth in exchange for a playoff push.
The Washington Wizards have struggled as of late, with some questioning if the team has started to tune out head coach Randy Wittman, who is in the first year of a three-year contract extension, while others wonder if it’s simply a case of the team not having enough bench punch to compete in what’s becoming a much tougher Eastern Conference.
The Wizards are planning to waive injured forward Martell Webster, which will open up a roster spot that could be used to add an additional player or open up room for a two-for-one trade at some point in the near future.
Wizards sources labeled replacing Wittman as a last resort – one that’s not being actively considered. However, making a roster move is deemed more likely, even if it’s grabbing a free agent or one of the promising veterans from the D-League.
The Wizards have no shortage of tradable players on ending contracts including Nene, Jared Dudley, Kris Humphries, Alan Anderson, Ramon Sessions and Gary Neal.
The Wizards are not open to absorbing any long-term contract money since they have eyes for a max-level free agent offer this July, but there is a sense that to be the attractive free agency destination they want to be viewed as they have to turn things around.
Its seems the Wizards are looking at changes, the question becomes will it be a cosmetic change with their open roster spot or will they try to shake up the bench?
New Orleans Pelicans
It’s easy to blame the Pelicans’ lackluster start on early injuries. That’s a fair and valid excuse. However, with 13 losses and not a lot going their way, there is an increasing sense that the Pelicans may have no choice but to look at a significant trade sooner than later.
The Pelican player whose name surfaces the most among league sources is sharp shooting forward Ryan Anderson, but sources close to the team say that Anderson is incredibly valued inside the organization and it would take a monster offer for the Pelicans to consider moving him. Anderson is in the final year of his deal and will be an unrestricted free agent in July, so the Pelicans may have to explore his value despite how the organization feels about him as a player and leader in the locker room.
The Pelicans don’t have a lot of attractive contracts to shop. Shooting guard Eric Gordon is at the end of his deal, but is owed $15.5 million, which may be tough to trade given his injury history.
Center Omer Asik is owed roughly $60 million and might be the least attractive contract on the roster.
With few avenues to influence change, the Pelicans may have to explore moving pieces they’d like to keep if they want to salvage this season. And considering this year was billed as the season they make a leap up the standings and compete in the playoffs, waiting for the roster to get healthy might be too little too late, especially with the losses already on the ledger.
NBA teams are not restricted from making trades at this point in the season, the only limitations in making a deal are the willingness of teams to pull the trigger at this point and those players who signed contracts this summer.
In two weeks, most of those players become trade eligible and that’s when most of the teams searching for immediate change will start getting serious about trade talk.
The 2015-16 NBA trade deadline is 3 p.m. EST on February 18, which is roughly 79 days from today.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards
Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.
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.
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old
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