The New York Knicks are playing better basketball of late. They’re 3-3 under interim head coach Mike Miller and they’ve won three of their last four games. They also recently added former EuroLeague and Cleveland Cavaliers coach David Blatt as a basketball operations consultant. That, naturally, is an improvement on the usual state of affairs, albeit marginally.
But on the whole, the Knicks have been pretty awful this season. They’re 7-21, good for a .250 winning percentage and last season wasn’t much better. In 2018-19, New York won just 17 games and they haven’t fared much better in most of the previous 17 seasons either. Over that span, they’ve made the playoffs only five times, won a grand total of six playoff games and advanced beyond the first round once.
Clearly the organization must embrace wholesale changes before any real progress is made. Despite public support to clean house, the odds are much higher that any front office changes will wait until the offseason. There, the franchise would theoretically conduct a comprehensive search (and go through a complete courtship of Raptors’ Masai Ujiri).
So it looks like there will be at least one more trade deadline for which Knicks fans must make do with team president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry. If not more, knowing the typical chain of command in Manhattan. Still, the pair could easily operate out of desperation, which should scare fans a little more than usual. But the pressure is fair: After all, they are responsible for many of the current players and they hired (and fired) David Fizdale.
On the bright side: The Knicks signed six veterans this past offseason, many of whom should garner some level of interest from contenders around the league. Simply put, New York should seriously explore moving all of them. As is, the current roster is unable to leverage their skill sets and are nowhere near competing for a playoff berth – let alone a championship. And with the trade deadline and February coming quickly down the road, the Knicks should be proactively reaching out to teams around the league.
But it’s not just Marcus Morris who should interest contenders. There’s also Bobby Portis, Taj Gibson, Wayne Ellington, Elfrid Payton and Reggie Bullock — all of whom are essentially on expiring deals thanks to 2020-21 team options attached to all of their contracts. Bullock might be the most challenging to move of the bunch since he has yet to suit up in 2019-20 due to a back injury. However, even Bullock is nearly set to return and features a very team-friendly contract at $4 million guaranteed in 2019-20 and a team option for next year.
Julius Randle is an even tougher sell since his contract is also guaranteed for 2020-21, with a team option for the following year — but more on that later.
The Knicks mustn’t worry about hanging on to their veterans and winning a few extra games this year — and hopefully the front office operates with the team’s best interest in mind instead of their own. Assuming they do, what might they get in return? Let’s explore four plausible trades that would help the Knicks in the near future.
Marcus Morris to the Los Angeles Clippers for Maurice Harkless, Jerome Robinson and LAC 2020 1st rounder
This is an easy one since the framework of it was named as a jumping-off point by Zach Lowe earlier this week, essentially. Lowe suggested Morris in exchange for the Clippers’ 2020 first-round pick, Harkless and Patrick Patterson. Possibly, the Knicks could do even better.
Knicks fans are torn on the idea of parting with their leading scorer. Here’s why that’s flawed logic: While he’s publicly embraced the idea of playing in New York, who wouldn’t put on a happy face when auditioning for a longer-term deal? Remember, Morris is an unrestricted free agent following this season. He can play nice, build up his credibility around the league and sign with whichever contender has the biggest need and fits best in 2020.
Further, even if Morris were to re-resign, how much would it cost and for how long? Morris is already 30 years old and likely that the Knicks won’t be competitive until at least 2021-22 – when Morris will be 32.
But he fills a need now for the Clippers. Morris is a hard-nosed defender that is averaging 18.8 points per game and is shooting 47.7 percent on 5.9 three-point attempts per game.
However, Harkless – who is only 26 and expires after this season – and Robinson – 22 and the No, 13 overall pick in 2018 — combine for only 9.2 points over 36 minutes per game. They possess at least enough upside for the Knicks to make this deal, but Morris would help the Clippers far more than Robinson and Harkless currently do.
And to the Clippers supporters that would they’re giving up too much: Remember that Morris’ services will be highly sought after and Los Angeles’s 2020 first-round pick will be a late first-rounder.
Wayne Ellington to Philadelphia for Zhaire Smith and salary filler
Philadelphia 76ers fans probably won’t be thrilled with this idea, but it’s practical for both teams.
When open, Ellington is a guaranteed bucket. Yes, he’s shooting a career-low 30.4 percent on 3.8 attempts in 14.3 minutes per game — but much of that has to do with the fact that the Knicks rotations have been problematic and unpredictable. He’s shot better than 36.8 percent on at least six three-point attempts per game in each of the last five seasons — plus he’s a career 37 percent three-point shooter. Do you know what the 76ers need more of? You nailed it: Three-point shooting.
Giving up on the lottery-selected Zaire Smith so early in his career is definitely a gamble, but he hasn’t even appeared in an NBA game yet this season. He has appeared in eight of the Delaware Bluecoat’s 14 games (the 76ers’ G-League affiliate) in 2019-20, where he is averaging 12.4 points on an eFG% of 54.9. He’s also grabbing 4.1 rebounds and dishing 2.0 assists over 27.6 minutes per game — not bad stats, but not what you hope for from a lottery pick, and certainly not in the G League.
This one is made additionally complicated due to the fact that the 76ers are incredibly cash strapped but that works in the Knicks’ favor. Since Philadelphia will struggle with the idea of reworking their cap to offer a rookie extension to someone that hasn’t been able to crack the rotation, the Knicks can help. The 76ers are projected over the cap and the luxury tax line through at least 2022 and they must pick-up Smith’s $4.9 million team option by October 2020 for 2021-2022.
What’s more, rookie Matisse Thybulle has succeeded in the minutes that were previously thought to be Smith’s — so, everybody wins.
The 76ers’ championship window is currently open, and they should look to add players who will help them secure a championship. And unless they think they can re-add JJ Redick, Ellington fills a void for Philadelphia.
The Knicks would have to take on additional salary, but the framework of this trade is more important than a few extra bucks here or there.
Elfrid Payton and the Knicks’ 2023 second-round pick to Miami for Dion Waiters and the HEAT’s 2023 first-round pick
This one is mostly about the HEAT’s desire to get out from under Dion Waiters’ withering contract. Waiters has been suspended this season for ingesting marijuana-infused gummies and then calling out sick before posting a photo on Instagram depicting him on a boat — plus some detrimental conduct for good measure. Rumors have buzzed about Miami wanting him gone before he does any damage to a roster that has gelled more than anyone anticipated.
Yes, an unprotected first-rounder is a hefty price to pay – especially so far in the future, by which time anything could happen to the HEAT’s roster — but that’s the price they’ll probably have to pay. Teams know the HEAT are desperate. And waiving him would carry a big cost since he’s fully guaranteed this season ($12.1 million) and next season ($12.65 million). Instead, the HEAT and Knicks should swap Waiters for Miami’s 2020 first-rounder and Elfird Payton.
Somehow, Payton could actually help the HEAT. The Knicks backcourt is jam-packed with Frank Ntilikina, Dennis Smith Jr. and Payton, which has prohibited the latter from getting more minutes. But don’t be fooled, Payton still has some upside. He’s still only 25 and — despite suffering a hamstring injury earlier this season — has posted a 16.6 PER, 8.4 points, 5.2 assists and 1.5 steals over 22.3 minutes per game. Further, he’s secured 20 assists and zero turnovers in his last two games combined. He might not be a full-time starter, but he’s more than capable of contributing to a championship-caliber team.
And the Knicks can afford to waive Waiters – or maybe give him another chance at rehabilitating his image – because they aren’t going to contend before his contract expires anyway.
Julius Randle to Indiana for Myles Turner
While this could be a tough sell for Indiana, Turner has not blossomed the way many had hoped he would. He’s averaged 12.8 points per game for his career — but only 11.3 in 30 minutes per game this season. Turner, too, has also underwhelmed on the glass (5.8 rebounds per game) and in the mid-range (shooting only 46.2 percent from three to ten feet and only 14.3 from 16 feet to the three-point line) this year.
And while Randle has disappointed this season, he’s given fans hope of late. Last season, Randle set career highs in points (21.4) and three-point shooting (34.4 percent). Over the last four games, he’s recaptured his 2018-19 mojo, posting 21.7 points, 10.5 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game on shooting 36.8 percent from three-point range.
Indiana benefits because they could finally unleash Domantas Sabonis at center while adding a versatile low-post scoring threat to help buoy the Pacers as Victor Oladipo continues rehabbing his quad. Ridding themselves of an extra two years of salary — Randle’s deal has a team option following 2020-21, whereas Turner’s doesn’t expire until 2023 — is a plus too.
And for the Knicks, they return a still-highly regarded prospect who could fit nicely alongside their current center, Mitchell Robinson.
The bottom line is this: The Knicks shouldn’t worry about fit yet. As of now, New York should focus on amassing as much talent as possible. If there are overlaps at certain positions, so be it. That was the attitude toward the point guard position last February when they brought in Smith Jr — and it forces the best player to earn his spot.
The Knicks could also decide to appease ticket holders and build a makeshift “winner.” Naturally, they could mortgage their future for some combination of Chris Paul, Jrue Holiday and Kevin Love. They might even make a run at a playoff push — and they might be fairly competitive next year. But it’s not sustainable and it doesn’t answer any long-term problems.
Ultimately, with no front office moves on the horizon, the Knicks must be prudent and deliberate in every decision they make — even then, they need to make moves now before teams begin looking elsewhere.
Anfernee Simons Can Grow, But Disappointing Blazers Set Him Up To Fail
The Blazers had big expectations for Anfernee Simons this season. The sophomore guard hasn’t lived up to them, calling into question both his long-term potential and Portland’s ability for self-evaluation.
Wide-eyed optimism runs notoriously rampant at all NBA media days.
Before training camp opens and the real games tip off, players, coaches and executives alike inevitably fall victim to the unmitigated promise provided by another season to prove themselves at the game’s highest level. Even so, it’s not hard to suss through the league-wide landscape and pinpoint teams whose hopes and beliefs espoused on media day are rooted far more in reality than the afterglow of summer.
The Portland Trail Blazers’, though, existed somewhere in the middle of those extremes. Coming off a surprising trip to the Western Conference Finals, the Blazers exuded the sweeping confidence at media day that would be necessary for them to compensate for a major talent deficit compared to the Western Conference’s true elite.
Hassan Whiteside predicted multiple triple-doubles while playing in Portland’s dribble-handoff heavy attack. Mario Hezonja was féted by his new teammates and coaches as a game-changing point forward. Rodney Hood called his mindset “night and day” compared to last season, while Kent Bazemore admitted that he imagined himself being the Blazers’ “missing piece” while watching last season’s playoffs.
“This year,” Damian Lillard said on Sep. 30, “Our focus is to win the championship.”
Just over halfway through 2019-20, Portland’s focus has shifted dramatically. At 20-27 and tenth-place in the West, with the league’s 19th-best net rating, that much is clear. What’s less obvious and will prove instrumental in charting the path forward is how realistic their goal of winning a title this season was in the first place.
Imagine a world in which Portland’s offseason additions lived up to media-day hype and Jusuf Nurkic quickly regained the form that made him a two-way impact player upon returning from injury. Imagine Neil Olshey flipped Whiteside’s expiring contract for a proven playoff performer on the wing or up in front.
Where would that leave Anfernee Simons?
The same place he is right now – as the Blazers’ third guard. But instead of fading into the background of a lost season, Simons might be Portland’s biggest question mark with the playoffs fast approaching.
Olshey, like the Blazers’ players and coaches, forecasted much bigger things for his team this season than a fight for the last playoff spot in the conference. Among the rosier reasons why were his outlandish preseason expectations for Simons, a 20-year-old sophomore that notched just 141 minutes in the NBA last season after spending the previous year at prep powerhouse IMG Academy.
Gushing about Portland’s revamped roster at media day, Olshey said Simons is “the best young guard in the league.”
The Blazers had been hyping Simons for months, priming local and national media for a breakout campaign they made seem like a formality. Olshey is known for his unflinching and often outlandish optimism. No one realistic thought Simons would challenge for Sixth Man of the Year while backing up Damian Lillard or CJ McCollum, let alone match the prorated production of precocious guards from his draft class like Trae Young or Shae Gilgeous-Alexander.
Even outsiders less familiar with Simons’ game, though, anticipated more than what he’s given Portland over the season’s first four months.
Simons is averaging 9.2 points, 2.5 rebounds and 1.5 assists in 23.1 minutes per game. He’s connecting on an ugly 31.7 percent of his spot-up tries from deep, and shooting just 42.0 percent on drives, per NBA.com. Lineups featuring Simons as the Blazers’ lead guard, or situations without Lillard or McCollum next to him, possess a 90.3 offensive rating – over 13 points lower than the Golden State Warriors’ league-worst mark.
Nearly as disheartening as the numbers is the eye test. A potential dunk-contest participant at All-Star Weekend with rare burst and fluidity, Simons’ elite athletic profile has been manifested during games on fleeting occasions this season. Absent a head of steam in transition or ample space to rise for alley-oops in the halfcourt, you’d have no idea Simons has routinely been described by Portland as one of the best overall athletes in the NBA.
None of this is to suggest that Simons is doomed. This season is his first taste of real NBA basketball. His blend of raw, on-ball scoring ability and physical tools still tantalize.
It’s not Simons that deserves criticism for underperforming expectations, but Olshey for slotting him in a role he’s definitely not ready to play. Under head coach Terry Stotts, the Blazers have relied on consistent productivity from third guards as much as any team in the league save the Dallas Mavericks. If Olshey wasn’t absolutely certain that Simons could come close to replicating the play of Seth Curry and Shabazz Napier over the years, while sprinkling in dashes of future stardom, earmarking such a crucial place in the rotation for him was always setting Simons up to disappoint.
In that vein, Portland’s failure to live up to preseason title aspirations could be considered a blessing. Simons’ development wouldn’t be hastened by cutting his teeth as the Blazers’ third guard while they chased a championship. The relative lack of pressure playing for a team whose dreams of playing in June have already vanished should make Simons’ ongoing acclimation to NBA basketball a bit easier.
That’s the only silver lining for Portland to glean from wasting a year of Lillard’s prime. The belief in-house is that the Blazers will recover from a debilitating spate of injuries, re-tool on the edges of the rotation and enter next season with the same sense of championship promise as they did this one.
But as 2019-20 has made so abundantly clear, Olshey’s capacity to accurately evaluate the strength of his roster will again loom large – and maybe, without the loftiest of expectations on his shoulders, Simons can still become the player Portland insists he will be.
NBA Daily: Kobe’s 81 Is An Untouchable Feat
Of Kobe Bryant’s lengthy list of accomplishments and records, his 81-point game is the one that has no peer.
Of Kobe Bryant’s lengthy list of accolades, accomplishments and records, the most obvious of them may also be the most under-appreciated.
NBA fans can cite Kobe contemporaries that can match his five NBA championships. In addition to Tim Duncan and Steve Kerr, LeBron James is at No. 3 and still counting. And of course, James passed Kobe’s 33,643 career points just this weekend, moving into third all-time.
Continuing to move the game forward @KingJames. Much respect my brother 💪🏾 #33644
— Kobe Bryant (@kobebryant) January 26, 2020
Kobe’s career-high 35.4 points per game in 2005-06 falls short of James Harden’s current stretch, averaging 36.07 this season and 36.13 last year. In fact, Harden’s career average of 24.97 points slots just behind Kobe’s 24.99, both behind LeBron’s 27.10 and Kevin Durant’s 27.02.
But no modern player has come close to Kobe’s legendary 81-point game during that 2006 season. Sure, Devin Booker tallied 70 three years ago and David Robinson got to 71 back in 1994, but neither were actually that close to Kobe’s iconic torching of the Toronto Raptors.
When Booker poured in 70 against the Boston Celtics, he needed 40 field goal attempts to do it. At his shooting rates that March night, he would have needed to take another seven shots to reach Kobe’s 81. If he didn’t attempt more free throws, then that number ticks up to 10 more attempts.
Sticking to that math, Robinson’s 71 would have needed six more hoists to beat Kobe to 81, a total of 47 hypothetical attempts.
By no means was Kobe the epitome of efficiency when he outscored everyone but Wilt Chamberlain by going 28-of-46 and 7-of-13 from deep – supplemented by an 18-of-20 performance at the free throw line. Nonetheless, he was hardly detrimental to the Los Angeles Lakers’ offense.
In the last 40 years, only five players have come within 20 points of Kobe’s singular feat while shooting at rates such that they could have theoretically gotten to 81 points on fewer than his 46 field goal attempts. Two of those, naturally, came from Kobe himself.
|Player||Date||Points||FGA||Total FGA needed to reach 81|
For someone long-criticized for his shot volume, Kobe was the definition of an efficient mass scorer more often than anyone else, to such a degree he has essentially been without a peer for 30 years.
Aside from Thompson, the obvious nominee of who might match Kobe is a healthy Stephen Curry, even though he has never scored more than 54 points in a game. When Curry reached that mark at Madison Square Garden in 2013, he would have needed to take another 14 shots to have a genuine chance at 81, for a total of 42 attempts. His 53-point effort in 2015 would have also needed to get to 42 attempts to be on pace to match Kobe.
There is, however, another volume scorer to watch, one who came within 20 points of Kobe’s best just last week. Damian Lillard’s week warrants Kobe-esque notice.
Last Monday: 61 points on 17-of-37 shooting against the Warriors; would have need 50 shots to catch Kobe.
Thursday: 47 points on 16-of-28 shooting against the Mavericks; would have needed 49 shots to catch Kobe.
Sunday: 50 points on 14-of-23 shooting against the Pacers, would have needed 38 shots to catch Kobe.
To wit, take last night as an example: Lillard scored 50 points in an impeccably efficient matter, but if he had somehow not missed a single shot, he would have scored only 74 points.
Fittingly, a monomaniacal guard with a penchant for game-winning shots is the one scoring in bunches in ways that can be compared to only Kobe – yet the Portland Trail Blazers’ guard remains far short of the 81-point standard.
But that just goes to show how amazing Kobe’s night on Jan. 22, 2006 really was.
The five-time champion, first-ballot Hall of Famer achieved many things and left an imprint beyond our grasp this tragic week, but his one night of heaviest binge scoring may be the least likely piece of his career to ever be repeated.
It has no modern peer and even those the closest to matching it have tended to fall a dozen shots and 20 points short.
But that day? In today’s modern NBA landscape, that’s a great chance we’ll never, ever see something quite like it again.
Kobe Bryant, a legend and icon in so, so many ways.
NBA Daily: Deadline Dilemma In Toronto
After winning the 2019 NBA Championship and losing Kawhi Leonard, the Toronto Raptors have defied the odds, winning 30 of their first 44 games this season — but Drew Maresca argues that conceding this season in hopes of building an even stronger future roster is the smarter long-term move.
The Raptors have overachieved in a ridiculous way in 2019-20. They were +700 to repeat as NBA champions prior to the 2019 free agency period, according to the Draft Kings.
Immediately after Kawhi Leonard fled West, the Raptors’ odds grew to +2200 to repeat – tied with the Celtics, who just lost Kyrie Irving, and the Nets, whose best player was set to miss the entire year. And yet through 44 games, the Raptors are third in the Eastern Conference with a 31-14 record and only one-and-a-half games behind last year’s pace (32-12).
But what’s in a record? There’s more to unpack than just wins and losses, especially when success has almost certainly been redefined in a city that just experienced its first NBA championship ever. So a logical test is how well you’re playing against the crème de la crème. And in that regard, the Raptors haven’t fared too well. Including their home win against Philadelphia on Wednesday night, the Raptors are still only 7-12 against winning teams with a net rating of minus-37 in those 19 games.
Very few teams would be terribly upset to be in a similar situation as the Raptors. In fact, most teams would be thrilled to be third overall in their conference. But the Raptors are barreling toward an interesting decision: embrace the opportunity to continue to gain playoff experience (and additional playoff revenue) or expedite a miniature rebuild. This writer’s thoughts on the matter are well documented in our 2019-20 Toronto Raptors Season Preview and our recent Atlantic Division – buyers or sellers piece. But let’s officially build a case supporting the Raptors trading some of their veterans in an attempt to add assets prior to the Feb. 6 trade deadline.
The Raptors’ most valuable trade chip is also their longest-tenured player – starting point guard, Kyle Lowry. Lowry is 33 years old and experiencing a career resurgence after taking a back seat to Leonard last year. Lowry is averaging a near career-high 37.1 minutes per game, in which time he’s scoring 20 points per game – more than he’s scored since 2016-17 — and dishing out 7.5 assists.
But Lowry is probably the last guy the team wants to move. He’s a fan favorite and has been with the team for eight consecutive seasons; Lowry is currently third overall for games played in franchise history. But if they chose to dangle Lowry on the trade market, they would certainly get a good amount of interest from teams like the Lakers, HEAT, 76ers and maybe even the Jazz and Nuggets. What interested parties would offer is an entirely different story, but it would have to be pretty aggressive to get the Raptors to part with their franchise player.
But there are other guys who make more sense in a trade.
There’s Marc Gasol, their soon-to-be 35-year-old center. Unlike Lowry, Gasol is not experiencing a career renaissance. He’s missed 12 of their 44 games, with down years in scoring (7.8 points per game compared to his 14.7 career average), two-point shooting (44% compared to his from 49.7% career average) and rebounds (6.4 rebounds compared to his 7.6. career average). But he still has a good amount of utility in him. After all, he leads the Raptors in defensive plus/minus, per Basketball Reference – something that he’s prided himself on throughout his career and an attribute that would be a welcomed addition to most contenders.
There’s also Serge Ibaka, their 30-year-old sometimes-starting, sometimes-backup big man. Ibaka is actually outpacing career averages in scoring (14.9), rebounds (8.4) and assists (1.3). Ibaka is still widely viewed as an above-average and versatile defender, and the fact that he’s shooting 37% on three-pointers makes him all the more valuable to teams like the Boston Celtics – who lack a true big man who can stretch the floor.
Gasol and Ibaka’s standing in Toronto is especially vulnerable since both will enter free agency this summer — whereas Lowry signed an extension last year that runs through 2020-21, when he’ll make $30.5 million. The Raptors could choose to keep Gasol and/or Ibaka, but either or both could walk without returning any assets as soon as this July. Further, the team is unlikely to break the bank for either considering they’ll have to make a generous offer to retain soon-to-be free agent guard Fred VanVleet – who is having a breakout season, averaging 18.7 points and 6.7 assists per game while shooting 38.8% on a career-high 6.9 three-point attempts per game. VanVleet is only 25 years old and fits alongside Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby and the team’s young role players like Norman Powell far better than Ibaka or Gasol.
As it stands, the Raptors have about $85 million in salary commitments for 2020-21 with $3.8 million in a player option (Stanley Johnson) and another $1.5 million in a team option (Terence Davis). The cap is projected at $116 million with the luxury tax kicking in at $141 million. They can (and should) invest between $20 and $25 million per year in VanVleet, which brings them up to about $110 million. If negotiations begin creeping north of $25 million per year, the Raptors will have to make concessions elsewhere if they hope to retain VanVleet – Ibaka would theoretically be among those concessions since he’ll probably be looking for at least one more generous payday. It’s unclear what Gasol would seek in a new contract.
All three of the aforementioned Raptors have at least one thing in common – they are the only three Raptors born before 1990. So whether they like it or not, the Raptors have turned their roster over quickly and effectively to the extent that they have a talented young core with the framework of a contender in the making.
All three veteran players can definitely continue contributing for at least the remainder of this season – and to varying degrees, well beyond it. But their impact will be more profound on a contender looking to add quality veterans. And despite what their record tells us, that’s just not the Raptors right now.
Instead, the Raptors are a team in the very fortunate position of being able to reload relatively quickly around a blossoming young core. Yes, they’re significantly better than average, but which would you prefer: a team that qualifies for the conference semifinals in 2019-20 or a team that loses in the first round of the 2019-20 playoffs, but adds additional assets — some of whom help the team remain competitive for years to come?
Granted, dislodging Lowry from Toronto requires a monster offer and would result in at least some backlash; but neglecting to trade Gasol and/or Ibaka is likely to result in one or both leaving to pursue more money and/or additional championships – neither of which can the Raptors offer. The Raptors and team president Masai Ujiri have made bold moves time and again. There is no reason to hold off on moving either Gasol and/or Ibaka before Feb. 6 – and if a sweetheart offer comes in for Lowry, then him, too.
Regardless, the Raptors are fairly well set up for the future, so it is unlikely that this move (or lack of it) is analyzed too aggressively in the future. And also, there is certainly a fine line between being opportunist and greedy. But trading one, both or all veterans allows the team to add additional assets to a cupboard that already looks pretty well stocked.
And it’s probably one of the final opportunities to add talent before their core takes its final form — and if that form results in future championships is partially dependent on how the Raptors proceed before the 2020 trade deadline.
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