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NBA AM: Who Is Still On The Trade Fence?

With the 2014 NBA Trade Deadline roughly 15 days away, who is looking to make a deal and who is still straddling the proverbial fence?… Will Kansas big man Joel Embiid really stay at Kansas?

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Who Is In And Who Is Out?:  The 2014 NBA Trade Deadline is in just 15 days and while the chatter about trades is going to come up several notches as teams kick the tires on what’s possible, there are a few teams that are posturing for a move and likely will make one, while there are few others that still remain on the fence about change.

There is one thing to keep in mind about this deadline, which unlike most has more draft day ties than usual. A large number of teams are looking at their tradable assets as not only bait to make moves now, but possibly the leverage they’ll need to move around on draft day in June.

Here are some of the teams posturing for a move and some of the teams still on the fence:

On The Move

Phoenix:  The Suns made headlines with their play for Lakers forward Gasol, but like most trades that get to the press before the deadline this thing was really sort of dead before it started. The Suns are shopping the ending, insurance-paid contract of Emeka Okafor and one of their late first round draft picks. They are not looking for anything silly, but they do have eyes for an ending contract player that could add something to their playoff push. Gasol was a swing for the fences idea for the Suns hoping the Lakers would relent. Like all deals they are never completely dead until the clock strikes midnight, but the Suns have moved on to other ideas and have been aggressive in trying to find a taker for what amounts to an almost free ending contract. The challenge for the Suns is the kind of players teams would be willing to move for Okafor’s contract have years left on them and that does not seem to be what Phoenix is looking for today. Again, the asking price on a deal 15 days before the deadline can often be very different as the clock ticks away on the trade window. Look for Phoenix to trigger a deal. They have a very tradable asset and with a draft pick in the mix someone is going to bite, it just may not be as big of a name as Gasol.

»In Related: The latest NBA news and rumors

Philadelphia:  Maybe Sixers General manager Sam Hinkie learned this while he was in Houston, but the Sixers have had a toe (or half a foot) in the trade waters all season long. The names are pretty clear – guard Evan Turner, forward Thaddeus Young and big man Spencer Hawes. The problem is much like Houston has done historically, the asking price for the 76ers’ pieces is really high. Unprotected draft picks and rookie scale players are hard to extract when the league knows you need to sell. The 76ers are one of the teams that is looking to trigger something around the deadline and they could move all three of the players they have been fielding offers on. Turner seems to be drawing considerable interest from the Charlotte Bobcats, and Young has been a target of the Rockets’ all year. As the clock becomes Philly’s enemy they may relent on their asking price so you can expect that they’re going to do something. They simply have too many reasons to make a deal, especially if they can swap out talent and contracts that are in tune with their long-term plan.

Charlotte:  The Charlotte Bobcats are somewhat aggressive in kicking the tires. They like Philadelphia’s Evan Turner and they have been kicking around the Detroit Pistons on Greg Monroe. Charlotte is owed a couple of draft picks – one from the Portland Trail Blazers that they look poised to get this year and a Detroit Pistons’ pick that is top eight protected this year. Their own draft pick looks to be headed to Chicago if the ‘Cats make the playoffs and they are angling for a trade to do just that. The Bobcats are also shopping the ending contract of Ben Gordon and there has been talk that they would toss in Bismack Biyombo for the right kind of upgrade, although that might not be much of an inducement. The Bobcats also have the ending contract of Ramon Sessions, who has really struggled to shoot the ball this season. The ‘Cats are in the market. They do have trade chips they are willing to move. The Bobcats as a team are wanting to make a deal, the question is what will they get back for what they appear to be offering in trade?

Cleveland:  The Cavaliers are open for business. The two names mentioned most around the league are second year guard Dion Waiters and veteran forward Alonzo Gee. Waiters and lead guard Kyrie Irving has not meshed well together and the Cavs seem to be accepting that moving Waiters has to happen. The Cavs could hold the line if the offers don’t improve and try to move Waiters around the draft or in free agency, but if they can make a move that returns a good asset they seem open to it. Gee has fallen out of the rotation since the arrival of Luol Deng and with his contract in essence being an ending deal as the final year is not guaranteed. He seems like he’ll be tossed in to clear out the log jam and to try and up the overall value of a deal to return a better veteran. There is of course is the annual Anderson Varejao watch. The Cavs have been reluctant to include him in trade talks, but sources around the situation say the massive dysfunction in Cleveland has them listening to a lot of things they normally wouldn’t. The Cavs look like they are sellers, the question is do they get a deal in at the deadline or does business get pushed off to the draft. Current management may not survive a non-playoff berth, so there is at least some perceived urgency to get something done in Cleveland.

Houston:  The Houston Rockets haven’t stopped shopping for change. The problem is the chips they would move – Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin – won’t return what Houston is looking for: better talent. There continues to be talk that a number of teams like the talent of Asik, but just can’t get their ownership on board with paying his massive balloon payment next season and give up a quality asset as part of the deal. It seems the combination of cost in salary and cost in talent is more than some teams will consider. When you start pulling teams off the board and the field gets smaller, it’s much harder to make a deal that improves the roster. One league source said the Rockets could move Asik tomorrow, but they wouldn’t get much for him. There has been some talk that Francisco Garcia and Donatas Motiejunas could be had at the deadline but combined those two players represent $2.687 million in outgoing salary, that’s hardly enough salary cash to pry lose an impact point guard or an impact power forward. The Rockets seem like they want to make a deal and historically they have been traders at the deadline, so we’ll see if the league’s stance on Asik or Lin changes as the clock ticks to the deadline.

»In Related: This week’s NBA power rankings

Milwaukee:  The Bucks are definitely open for business. Almost anything outside of Giannis Antetokounmpo or John Henson is going to get consideration. The Bucks have been as active as almost anyone in gauging what’s out there. They haven’t really gotten to the offering point on anything, but it does seem like they are going to do something at the deadline. Point guard has been mentioned as a need the Bucks are trying to fill for the long-term and the Bucks could be one of the teams on the move for Dion Waiters; although there continues to be talk that the Milwaukee is steering clear of “bad attitude” players, which might red-flag Waiters. There has been talk all season that Houston has eyes for forward Ersan Ilyasova. His numbers on the season have been less than stellar and he is owed a ton of money. It’s unclear if the Bucks would take on one of Houston’s ugly “cash” contracts in order to get out from under Ilyasova but that’s the one to really watch. Milwaukee seems open for business, it remains to be seen how much of the current roster they’d sell.

Sacramento:  The Kings continue to be active in trade talks. The two most mentioned names are guards Marcus Thornton and Jimmer Fredette. Combined they become an interesting salary cap value that could return a major salary player. The problem is there does not seem to be a whole lot of interest in either player. The Kings have been linked to Denver in an Andre Miller-Jimmer Fredette swap and that may still go down as Denver gets closer to the deadline. The Kings already triggered a major move to get forward Rudy Gay from Toronto and it seems that they are continuing to try and add meaningful players to the roster. The Kings have no shortage of interesting trade chips, the question is what can they truly get done at the deadline.

New Orleans:  The Pelicans continue to get hammered with injuries and as much as the team tries to recover they just keep taking steps backwards. The Pelicans are what’s best described as value shoppers. They are open to trades involving core players like Eric Gordon or even Tyreke Evans – if they returned upgrades. That is a tough sell given what both players are making. The Pelicans look like they are going to trade guard Austin Rivers at the deadline, sources close to the situation believe there has been agreement in place all season to move him if playing time and opportunity did not become available. Rivers has seen his minutes increase over the last 14 games, which might be showcasing him for a deal. The Pelicans usually play trades close to the vest, but their posture is one of a team willing to listen to trades and the fact that they have so many duplicated pieces they might be a dark horse to make a splashy move.

On The Fence

Toronto:  The Raptors have not stopped listening to offers. In fact, some say they are fielding more calls than normal for a team sitting in the third spot in the East. There continues to be a sense that Toronto would move guard Kyle Lowry, simply because of the risk of losing him to free agency in July. However, sources close to the Raptors say they are simply doing their due diligence and that moving anyone at this point would be all about getting swept away with an offer. The Raptors have all kind of attractive trade chips, but it does seem with the team pointed in the right direction that Toronto may sit out the deadline and let this roster play itself out. Unlike most playoff teams, Toronto is not out of the trade game, they just don’t seem like they are ready to commit to a trade just yet.

Detroit:  If you can figure the Detroit Pistons out, bravo. If there is a team in the East that needs to make a roster-changing trade it’s Detroit, but more and more teams are saying Detroit is holding the line. The Pistons have several ending contracts that have value – most notably Rodney Stuckey. They have a pending restricted free agent in Greg Monroe that could return real value and the Pistons seem to be sitting this one out. Several teams have called only to find Detroit reluctant to engage. That could clearly change over the next 15 days, especially as the finality of the deadline approaches, but as much as the Pistons need to make a deal they seem the most unwilling to entertain one.

Dallas:  The Mavericks are historically active at the deadline, however this year there’s just not a lot linked to Dallas. There is a clear need for some frontcourt help. They could also use another impact scorer from the bench, but even with needs and ending contracts that could be swapped to fill them, the Mavs don’t seem to be players. The Mavericks have a reputation for shaking every tree in the league so maybe that happens after the All-Star break, but Dallas does not seem as interested in change as they have been in years past.

Orlando:  The Magic are like the pretty girl at the dance. Everyone is calling, but not much is happening. The Magic played the J.J. Redick situation almost exactly like this a year ago, rebuffing calls on their players that clearly do not fit in the long-term. The Magic could and likely will change course as the deadline and the offers get real, but don’t be surprised if Orlando sits out the trade deadline and makes their moves around the draft to jockey for better position or to swap veterans for better fitting rookie scale players. Magic guard Arron Afflalo is the top incoming request; however, it seems unless moving Afflalo yields another lottery pick or a means to thin out the roster, the Magic may pass. Admittedly that was Orlando’s move with Redick, and they ultimately made a trade so don’t count Orlando out. They are just squarely on the fence about making a trade.

Washington:  The Washington Wizards would like to make a trade. In fact sources close to the situation peg Washington as the top suitor for Detroit’s Greg Monroe. The problem is they can’t get any traction. The Wizards have trade chips. They have the ending contract of Trevor Ariza and Marcin Gortat. Rookie Otto Porter has been mentioned more than once as has second year guard Brad Beal. Not necessarily because Washington wants to move them, but because they are trying to shake loose a real trade. They just are not getting there. As the deadline approaches they might find a dance partner, but the sense is that Washington is only going to do a deal that cements them in the playoffs as a contender and they are unwilling to shake up a team sitting in the fifth spot in the East just for change’s sake, a trade has to make them better today and going forward and it seems they are open to moving ending contracts and maybe a young player to lock themselves in.

LA Lakers:  Ahh, The Lakers. Are we ready to stop jumping at every Pau Gasol rumor yet? The Lakers have arrived at the point we knew they’d get to. They have to trade Gasol for something; the problem is they simply want too much in return for a player making $19 million. If the Lakers would take back contract money they’d get a lot more value out of Gasol than the rumored deal for Emeka Okafor and a late first round pick they were offered by Phoenix. The fact that Gasol is going to miss even more time to nagging injuries only impacts the return the Lakers can extract for him. Internally the message has been pretty consistent – Gasol gets moved if it returns future value and no long term contract money. That deal is going to be really hard to pull off for the Lakers. Don’t rule the Lakers out of the trade market. The writing on the wall says they are going to do something with Gasol, the question becomes what do they ultimately settle for and when you settle in trades those usually happen at the last minute. That could always change, but with Gasol hobbled, the Lakers are holding firm on flexibly this summer and wanting solid draft picks in a deal, they may not find that in the next 15 days.

»In Related: Could Dante Exum force his way to the Lakers like Kobe?

There will obviously be a lot of trade chatter as we march to the trade deadline, make sure you are checking The Latest NBA News section of the site, we’ll keep you posted on everything going on, especially around rumors and roster moves.

» Are You Ready For The 2014 NBA Trade Deadline? Basketball Insiders has you covered. Later this week our first Digital Magazine issue will drop, featuring the most comprehensive look at the NBA Trade Deadline you will find anywhere. The magazine will be available on your smartphone, tablet or desktop. If you are an Apple user, you can grab the Digital Magazine app here. For our Android users you can grab the Digital Magazine app here. When the issue is ready it will automatically appear in your App for purchase. If you do not want to download the App, we will have a web-based solution for you that works great on smartphones and tablets as well as other computing devices. The links for that will drop when the issue is available. We have made the pledge to keep our content free from annoying auto-play ads and content lockers, so buying the magazine is how we’ll keep up our end of the deal. Download the app today and get ready for 110 pages of trade deadline knowledge, exclusively from Basketball Inisders.

Keeping The Noise Out:  Kansas big man Joel Embiid could be the top overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft. His draft stock has soared all season and with that has come an unbelievable amount of pressure for a decision on his future.

Embiid is still very new to basketball, the world of money and power brokers that surround it. Kansas head coach Bill Self has tried to shield his big man and has tried to keep him as insulated as possible. However, it’s become almost a daily question in Embiid’s life – will he be one-and-done and head to the NBA?

Embiid was asked again last night about his mindset on the NBA, and again he played the same cards he’s been playing regarding this topic.

“I’m not even thinking about it right now,” Embiid said to ESPN’s Jeff Goodman. “I’ll make a decision after the season, but I’m definitely considering coming back to school.”

»In Related: The latest full 2014 NBA Mock Draft

The prevailing thought from Embiid is that he’s not sure he’s ready for the NBA and the pressures of being a top overall pick candidate.

Embiid is from Cameroon and has been playing organized basketball for just three years. While he’s displayed a lot of athleticism and progress at Kansas, there is still a lot of learning that Embiid needs and it seems he understands that.

Given how brutal things have gone for Anthony Bennett, this year’s top overall pick, its not hard to understand why Embiid, who may be more of a project in his rookie year than most, might be fearful of the big stage of the NBA.

Embiid has said a few times that it will be hard for him to pass on the guaranteed money being a high level draft pick will mean for him and his family, but that staying in school of another year is very possible in his mind.

We have seen this before. Chicago’s Joakim Noah opted for another year at Florida and a chance at a second national championship despite rumors he could have gone number one overall in 2006. Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart passed on a possible top three selection this past year in the 2013 NBA Draft.

The problem with buying into the “I’m going to stay” quotes that surface around all of the top college players is that for the most part they are designed to end the questions every day. Embiid can’t declare for the draft today even if he wanted to and he really is not supposed to have contact with NBA teams or agents that could really inform him of his options.

There is no doubting that Embiid is a little overwhelmed by how big his world has gotten in just a few months of stellar play. It’s easy to understand why he’d want to consider staying in a safe and secure environment like Kansas, especially for a kid that has craved coaching and hard work. When you factor in how new all of this is to him, the doubts about being ready should be natural responses.

The truth however is that going number overall is a rare. The financial windfall Embiid can provide to his family is going to be more than the contract money he earns from his future NBA teams; it’s going to be the endorsement possibility and additional money that comes from being the top pick.

Will the kid from Cameroon that wasn’t on the NBA radar as a top prospect four month ago really turn down what could be $30-$40 million in guaranteed money for another year at Kansas?

He might, but it’s extremely unlikely.

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, @TheRocketGuy, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @SusanBible @TommyBeer, @JabariDavisNBA , @NateDuncanNBA , @MokeHamilton , @JCameratoNBA and @YannisNBA.

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NBA Daily: Wiggins The X-Factor for Warriors

Stephen Curry will always be the face of the Golden State Warriors, and for good reason. Draymond Green spearheads their defensive attack but the key to their postseason fate lies in the hands of a guy that many people had already given up on.

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The 2020-21 regular season was a strange one for many reasons, but especially for the Golden State Warriors. Shortly before the NBA Draft, the team’s championship aspirations took a major hit with the injury to Klay Thompson. The best backcourt in the league would not be on full display this season, but they still had two-time MVP, Stephen Curry, to put on a show.

Curry did just that, dazzling basketball fans on a near-nightly basis. The sensational shots, ridiculous plays and high-drama situations were must-see TV that kept the Warriors in the national spotlight. To that end, Curry captured the scoring title for the second time in his career, averaging 32.0 points per game this season.

With limited options available to fill Thompson’s void, the team managed to add Kelly Oubre Jr to the roster, although it came at a steep cost. His salary is $14.4 million this season but because of Golden State’s luxury tax bill, ESPN’s Bobby Marks noted that adding Oubre would cost an additional $82.4 million, bringing their total to $134 million.

After a career year in Phoenix, Oubre struggled mightily trying to fit in with this group. Sometimes players in new situations can try to do too much at first, or sometimes pass on open shots in order to not seem selfish. Neither of these was the case for Oubre, who simply could not put the ball in the basket. His early-season shooting struggles had the Warriors pegged for the Draft Lottery.

Oubre eventually turned it around and began playing like himself. Another new face in the Bay area was rookie James Wiseman. He too struggled at the beginning of the season, which is to be expected for someone in his situation. The seven-footer from Memphis only played a handful of games in college and was trying to learn the NBA game on the fly. A season-ending injury cut short his rookie season, but he showed promise for the future.

The future is not something that Curry has on his mind. He and Draymond Green are playing to win now. That starts on Wednesday with their highly-anticipated showdown with LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the defending NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers. The league has quite the matchup to cap the new Play-In-Tournament.

Amid all of the highlight plays from Curry and all of the noise surrounding Green, one player sits in the shadows and is rarely mentioned. Andrew Wiggins was all the rage when he was selected number one overall in the 2014 NBA Draft. The former Kansas Jayhawk earned Rookie of the Year honors but ultimately struggled to find his place in Minneapolis.

After more than five seasons with the Minnesota Timberwolves, Wiggins was traded to the Warriors in February of last season. Now having played a full season in a Warriors uniform, Wiggins could be their x-factor in the postseason.

One of the knocks on Wiggins has always been his drive, and his passion to reach his full potential. He has all of the physical tools and attributes to be one of the most prolific two-way players in the league. Sometimes the effort just isn’t there, but that narrative seems to have gone out the window. Wiggins has been playing excellent on both ends of the floor, which has translated to wins for the depleted Warriors.

While many people point to his scoring slightly declining, he still scored 19 points per game despite playing the fewest minutes of his career. He finished inside the top 40 in scoring this season. The real story for Wiggins is his efficiency, which has been incredible. He shot a career-high 48 percent from the floor this season and a career-best 38 percent from three-point range. His 54 percent effective field goal percentage is also the highest of his career.

As they prepare to battle the Lakers for the 7th seed in the Western Conference, Golden State must find ways to get stops on the defensive end. Stopping the likes of James, Davis and Dennis Schroder on the perimeter will be paramount to their success. It is easier said than done, but this is where Wiggins’ value can be felt. The Toronto native will be called upon to match up against James often, with Green defending their big men.

Wiggins finished fourth in Defensive RPM (2.72) this season at his position, 21st among all players in the league. That is by far the best of his career, as he ranked 85th last season among small forwards. He also finished inside the top five in the league in terms of contested three-point shots. That is important for the Warriors going forward, should they face the Phoenix Suns or Utah Jazz in the first round. Utah was the top three-point shooting team in the league and Phoenix was seventh-best in terms of percentage.

As if facing James and Davis weren’t difficult enough, the Warriors will have their hands full no matter which opponent they face next. Both have dynamic backcourts with Mike Conley/Donovan Mitchell in Utah and Chris Paul/Devin Booker in Phoenix. Wiggins will be tasked with trying to slow them down as well. There is elite talent everywhere you look out West.

Golden State finished the regular season with a 110.1 defensive rating, which was top five in the league. They managed to do that despite having a depleted roster and having the third-highest pace (102.2) in the league. Much of the credit will go to Green and Oubre but Wiggins has been a major factor in their defensive schemes.

Curry and Green have combined to play in 235 playoff games during their careers. Wiggins has only appeared in five playoff games, so this will be a new experience for him. The pressure always goes up in the postseason, and the Play-In Tournament is no exception.

Shortly after acquiring Wiggins, Steve Kerr put All-Defense expectations on him. “Defensively, we will ask him to take on the challenge of what that position entails. Guarding some of the best players in the league and adapting to our schemes and terminology.” To his credit, Wiggins has done just that.

Wiggins will not win the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award this season. He isn’t going to win the Defensive Player of the Year either. While those accolades matter to a lot of players, Wiggins is just focused on improving and winning games. The Warriors hope to do the same as they return to postseason play.

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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.

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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.

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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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