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NBA AM: Some Teams Are Searching For A Star

With the NBA trade deadline less than two weeks away, some teams are hoping to land an impact player… The Durant rumors might be premature.

Steve Kyler

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Looking For A Star

The biggest challenge for an NBA team is finding a transcendent star, someone who can change the game in an enormous way. Most teams hope to find one in the draft, some dream of landing one in free agency, while others try to collect enough viable assets to trade for one. With the 2016 NBA Trade Deadline just two weeks away, more and more teams are trying to pry away a difference maker, even though most of them may not be going anywhere.

Boston Celtics

The Boston Celtics have been linked to virtually every significant name in the trade field including Atlanta’s Al Horford, Houston’s Dwight Howard and Los Angeles’ Blake Griffin.

The Celtics are actively looking at deals, understanding that they have a ton of duplication and that while they have some good players, moving off a guy or two along with a draft pick could land them someone to build around – not only for a postseason run this year, but going forward as well.

The Celtics have assets and seem willing to deal; the problem is that what the Celtics are swinging for usually does not take shape at the deadline, but that’s not going to stop them from trying to make a deal.

Forward David Lee, big man Tyler Zeller and some of their underachieving rookie-scale players are said to be available. The Celtics are not open to trading the Brooklyn Nets pick they obtained in their Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce trade, but it is believed that Boston would listen to deals involving their other draft picks, especially if they can land the kind of notable player they desire.

Orlando Magic

The Orlando Magic continue to struggle, especially in tight games. Last night’s loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder marked their 14th loss in 16 games. While the Magic are among the youngest teams in the NBA, with an average age of 24.9 years old, there was an expectation from management that not only would this be the year that the Magic win more games (and technically they have), they would also be in the hunt for a playoff spot.

The Magic, for most of December, were turning away offers on their roster. But over the last three weeks sources close to the situation say that trade conversations have taken a turn and there is an increasing sense that this roster as constructed may require significant change.

The Magic are one of the teams listening to the big idea offers; however, they seem unwilling to part with their young core, especially the players who were high level draft picks.

It’s believed Orlando has several suitors for veteran big man Channing Frye, but it’s unclear if Orlando will pull the trigger on a cosmetic change or if they will hold the line for a significant upgrade.

The Magic seem like a team willing to pull the trigger on a trade. But can Orlando find a difference maker to salvage this season? And if they can, at what cost?

Sacramento Kings

The Sacramento Kings want to make a deal, but they are not looking to trade for the sake of making a trade. Word is the Kings have explored a number of options, including moving forward Rudy Gay and point guard Darren Collison.

The problem in obtaining either guy is that Sacramento wants a sizable return on either guy. League sources say it will take a combination of assets to pry Gay out of Sacramento including a rookie-scale player with upside and someone who can impact the team right away.

There are a couple of teams that continue to be linked to Sacramento, with the Los Angeles Clippers believed to be the biggest suitor for Rudy Gay. Meanwhile, the Kings may be the team that pulls the trigger on a Kevin Martin trade with Minnesota, if he will opt in to his contract.

The Kings are not swinging for the fences in a transaction, rather it seems they would like to exchange some of their duplication for more options.

Kings sources have been pretty adamant that a deal involving any of their guys would have to return substance, so it’s very possible that the Kings could be the center piece to the 2016 NBA Trade Deadline, as they have some of the most productive players said to be available.

Durant and The Rumors

By now you have likely seen the story from Adrian Wojnarowski and Bobby Marks, suggesting that the Golden State Warriors could be a serious threat to land Oklahoma City Thunder star Kevin Durant in free agency and how they could re-shape their roster to create the cap space to go after him.

The problem with this and some stories that are following it is that it’s all based on the same premise: Kevin Durant leaving the Thunder, and that is far from decided.

It’s important to note that Wojnarowski did write, “Make no mistake: Durant isn’t close to gone in Oklahoma City – no decision, no leaning, sources said.”

However, others have taken the Warriors narrative and run with it. Woj’s voice is among the loudest in basketball, so he creates conversations and other voices start talking about the situation too.

What gets missed in the narrative of free agency is that historically, many of the teams that get listed in February as the front-runner for a player very rarely end up landing that player. Think about all the players that were linked to the New York Knicks or Los Angeles Lakers this time last year. It’s pretty safe to say Roy Hibbert to the Lakers and Robin Lopez to the Knicks were not the names talked about last February.

If Durant decides to take meetings, and there is a sense that how this season ends in Oklahoma City will influence that greatly, he is going to have a big pool of teams that log interest and want to meet.

While the Warriors are certainly one of the teams that would trip over themselves to land Durant, they are not alone. The Miami HEAT, Houston Rockets, Washington Wizards, Dallas Mavericks, Brooklyn Nets, Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knicks, Orlando Magic, Boston Celtics, Memphis Grizzlies, San Antonio Spurs, Atlanta Hawks, Denver Nuggets, Portland Trail Blazers and Philadelphia 76ers will all be waiting with baited breath.

The other part of the Warriors narrative that gets easily ignored or dismissed is that it would take a lot of cap maneuvering and significant moves for them to create the space required to sign a player like Durant. It can be done; we’ve seen teams mortgage their future draft picks to create space before. The Warriors did it to land Andre Iguodala. The Miami HEAT leveraged virtually everything they had to get LeBron James and Chris Bosh in Miami in 2010. As they say, if there is a will, there is a way. But some things are easier to achieve than others. This Warriors team is already historically good, so other teams may be very hesitant to help them add Durant and form what could potentially become a dynasty.

As Wojnarowski said, there still is no sense that Durant is ready to leave Oklahoma City. He is extremely fond of the market. He has personal and deep connections to the team and he is incredibly loyal.

The sense from around the Thunder is that Durant really is not at all focused on free agency. He turns away conversations from teammates about it. He does not engage in the speculation even privately, and he’s told those in his life not to bring it up until this season is over.

The prevailing thought is that assuming the Thunder finish the season strong, Durant may very well sign a one-and-one deal, giving him one fully guaranteed year at the new NBA maximum and give him a player option on a second year allowing him to cash in again in 2017.

This would allow Durant to tie his own future to teammate Russell Westbrook, who has the ability to be an unrestricted free agent in 2017.

Going the one-and-one route affords Durant the same luxury LeBron James has in Cleveland. He can stay for as long as he is comfortable without a long-term deal. If Westbrook opts to leave in 2017, Durant could too.

While talking about Durant’s possible landing spots is not going to go away, the belief is still that his real future gets decided this post-season. If the Thunder are one of the last teams standing, reaching the Conference Finals or NBA Finals, the odds Durant remains where he is are pretty high. If the Thunder struggle, getting eliminated early or looking over-matched in the playoffs, things could change dramatically.

The Thunder have a strong understanding of where they stand with Durant. The know their future with Durant is tied to the ability to compete right now for an NBA title. They have the known quantity factor in their favor.

Speculation of where a free agent ultimately lands is part of the NBA news cycle. That’s never going to change, but to predict that any one team is a front-runner in the Durant race overlooks a lot of the process that still has to play out to get there.

If free agent history has taught any lessons, it’s that predicting in February who the front-runners for a free agent are is a crap shoot at best.

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, @eric_saar and @CodyTaylorNBA .

Steve Kyler is the Editor and Publisher of Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA and basketball for the last 17 seasons.

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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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