In recent campaigns, the importance of a good, reliable bench unit has soared out the window as the rise in superteams grew larger.
This is not to say that the Golden State Warriors regret not having a consistent Sixth Man of the Year contender in their second unit because, well, their back-to-back championships speak for themselves. But since every franchise can’t be blessed with four future Hall of Famers there have to be alternative routes to the top, even if it doesn’t culminate in a ring. The recipe for success is simple: Get a superstar, whether via the draft or by trade, and then build around them — more or less, that’s how it works in the modern NBA.
Naturally, the six lowest scoring benches this season also happen to boast a large amount of the league’s very best players – Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Paul George, Anthony Davis, Joel Embiid and, of course, the Warriors. Rocket science, this is not. In a superstar driven-landscape, this is the tried and true method to reach the postseason.
LeBron James is almost certainly not extending his eight-year streak of reaching the NBA Finals summit by executing this exact strategy – Kevin Love, Chris Bosh, et al — but this Lakers roster, youth-driven headache and all, is the exception.
In 2017-18, just four the of NBA’s top 10 scoring bench units reached the playoffs: the aforementioned James-led Cavaliers (6th), the Kawhi Leonard-less San Antonio Spurs (4th), the notoriously superstar-absent Miami HEAT (8th) and the Toronto Raptors (5th). Of that group, only Cleveland went past the second round after defeating Toronto in the Eastern Conference semi-finals. From there, the postseason teams ranked in order by bench points went as follows: Washington Wizards (16th), Utah Jazz (17th), Boston Celtics (18th), Indiana Pacers (T-22nd), Golden State Warriors (T-22), Philadelphia 76ers (24th), Houston Rockets (25th), New Orleans Pelicans (26th), Milwaukee Bucks (27th), Portland Trail Blazers (28th), Oklahoma City Thunder (29th) and Minnesota Timberwolves (30th).
Beyond all that, you’d have to go back to 2014-15 to find the last time a top two-ranked bench scoring unit even made the playoffs. That season, both the Celtics (41.4) and the Spurs (41) did so, only to be wiped out in the first round. During the three seasons since then, those first- and second-highest scoring units – one time for the Lakers, Kings, Pelicans and Nuggets, two times for the Nets — finished with a combined record of 164-328 and an average conference standing of 13th place.
Again, this isn’t any grand breakthrough or novel theory. No, not at all. The NBA demands star power and, generally speaking, you can often sort franchises into one of two categories: the Haves or the Have Nots. This year, however, there are three high-scoring bench groups poised to make some serious noise in the postseason, all without a go-to superstar to boot. Only time will tell if they can buck the everlasting trend of their historical prisons but, as it stands, nobody wants to face the Los Angeles Clippers, Sacramento Kings or Brooklyn Nets in a seven-game series — and for good reason.
Los Angeles Clippers
Once the calendar flipped to December, the Clippers were basketball’s surprise darlings at 15-7, led by the perennially underrated Tobias Harris and his motley crew of veteran contributors. From Danilo Gallinari to Avery Bradley, Los Angeles had taken their presumed rebuild season by the scruff and effectively ignored all the outside noise. A few months later, the Clippers aren’t nearly as red-hot and no longer feature Harris — who was traded to Philadelphia close to the deadline — but they’re hanging in there. As of now, the Clippers are 34-28, good enough for the NBA’s seventh seed in the Western Conference — but just 4.5 games separate the Jazz in sixth and the Lakers in 11th.
To the Clippers’ credit, they’re 4-3 since dealing away Harris and the always-bold Steve Ballmer still wants to make a playoff push, even if it costs them their first-round pick, according to Sam Amick of The Athletic. Los Angeles’ bench is the best scoring bunch in the NBA by a considerable margin, dropping a ridiculous 53.2 points per game — six full points more than second place. At the top of the totem pole is Lou Williams, the reigning Sixth Man of the Year winner and microwavable sharpshooter. Any roster that boasts Williams’ 19.9 points per game average gets a massive headstart in this bench category and his tally is 33rd-best in the entire league.
But it’s not just him either, as Williams has formed a terrifying one-two punch with breakout sensation Montrezl Harrell. The 6-foot-8 big man has seen his basic statistics jump to 16.3 points and 6.5 rebounds per game, thus demanding opposing defenses to stay sharp and focused versus the Clippers’ renowned second unit. Elsewhere, Ivica Zubac and JaMychal Green have done well to replace Marcin Gortat and Boban Marjanovic’s season-long efforts. And don’t forget, they’ll get Luc Mbah a Moute and Wilson Chandler back for the playoff push eventually too. As good as this bench squad has been all campaign, it got even scarier at the trade deadline.
Next up are the Kings, who are currently tied in the loss column with eighth-seeded San Antonio. Overnight, Sacramento morphed into a fast-paced, high-scoring monster, much in part thanks to the massive growth both De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield have found alongside one another. But the Kings’ grind for their first playoff berth since 2005-06 doesn’t fall on their budding stars, because for the second-straight season, the Kings are in the top five for bench scoring. This year, the Kings have nearly replicated their 44.4 points per game average. It’s a drop from first to fifth in the category, but they’ve also surpassed last season’s win total by four already in late February.
Some of this has to do with Sacramento’s skyrocketing focus in pace – outlined here – but there are some absolutely potent members of the Kings’ core bench rotation. Bogdan Bogdanovic has averaged the squad’s third-highest total from the second unit (14.7 PPG) and the Serbian continues to be a nuisance for any defense. Still, Bogdanovic mostly succeeded in this same role during his rookie campaign in 2017-18, ditto for second-year forward Justin Jackson – the latter of which was moved to Dallas at the trade deadline. Newcomer Yogi Ferrell, who signed with the Kings last summer for $6.2 million over two years, has had his fair share of bright moments too, including a scorching-hot 19-point performance on 4-for-4 from three-point range during a season-defining victory over the Spurs earlier this month.
But the grandest addition to the Kings’ lethal bench rotation is rookie Marvin Bagley III, hands down. In just 25 minutes, Bagley has torched defenses to the tune of 14 points and 7.2 rebounds per game, outworking and out-leaping most other backups. When Bagley missed 11 games with a bone bruise in his left knee, the Kings went just 4-7. That alone speaks volumes about the talents of the former Duke standout.
In the wildcard department, there’s the also the quickly improving Harry Giles, now playing the best professional basketball of his young career. After missing the entirety of last season as he rehabbed and strengthened a previously torn ACL, Giles has recently earned a spot in head coach Dave Joerger’s crowded unit. Since officially entering the mix in January, Giles has scored seven or more points in 13 of his 23 appearances.
As the Kings prepare for the important stretch of games for the franchise in over a decade, they’d do well to lean on their impressive and young second unit. It’s worked wonders so far.
Perhaps the surprise to end all other surprises, the Nets — owners of a whoppingly poor 69-177 record from 2015-18 — are your sole holders of the Eastern Conference’s sixth seed. The cherry on top is that it comes in the campaign that Brooklyn finally regains control of their first-round pick after what feels like an eon. Nevertheless, the Nets have been banged up since the year began, but somehow they continue to chug along while head coach Kenny Atkinson tinkers with his deep roster. D’Angelo Russell, Jarrett Allen and Joe Harris have been the only totally healthy starters as the Nets have needed to bounce back from longterm injuries to Caris LeVert, Allen Crabbe and Spencer Dinwiddie throughout the season already.
Heading into March, the Nets will only be missing Dinwiddie, who inches closer to returning after thumb surgery last month, but their bench unit remains fearsome all the same. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Shabazz Napier, Ed Davis and DeMarre Carroll have proven to be useful pieces once more, combining for about 36 points per game as a foursome. Of course, Napier and Davis came from Portland as highly-recommended free agent signings during the offseason and became reliable role players for the well-oiled Nets. Even better, Carroll underwent a career resurgence during his first year in Brooklyn (73 starts, 13.5 points) and has seamlessly embraced his new second unit catalyst role for the scrappy Nets this time around.
The Nets’ bench mob has scored about more points per game in 2018-19 – good for a 47.2 average and the 2nd-best mark league-wide – and it’s been a fascinating reshuffling to watch. Shockingly, replacing Quincy Acy, Dante Cunningham, Tyler Zeller and Timofey Mozgov with Carroll, Davis, Napier and, at times, Jared Dudley, Crabbe and Hollis-Jefferson has given Brooklyn so many clear and obvious upgrades. In any case, the final piece to this gasoline-infused backup battalion still remains the return of Dinwiddie, last year’s third-place finisher in the Most Improved Player race and clutch bucket-getter extraordinaire. Before his ill-timed injury, Dinwiddie was even putting together a compelling case for a late All-Star Game bid, averaging 17.2 points and 5.1 assists in 28.6 minutes per game.
The Nets play fast, work hard and jack up three-pointers at an efficient rate, all while starters and key figures have bobbed in-and-out from the injury report the entire year. There’s a reason why many have pegged Brooklyn as a top-seeded team’s worst first-round nightmare, but their reliable bench contributions might top the whole list. Once they get healthy once and for all, the Nets may just be a force to be reckoned with.
Ultimately, it’s hard to project how these revelation seasons will pan out for the Clippers, Kings and Nets, especially as two of them battle it out for the same spot in a crowded, competitive conference. Even more spectacularly, these three crews have done it without a bonafide superstar on their roster – a true sign of their roster’s balanced attack from top to bottom.
Although Russell, Harris and Fox have all shown signs of getting there, it’s certainly not the same as having a rested MVP candidate to put away any late and lingering affairs. Now, Los Angeles will need to keep surging without Harris, while Brooklyn looks forward to getting healthy and Sacramento attempts to give the reins to the youngsters.
April is right around the corner, folks, and if things fall into place, these three franchises could be a tough out in the postseason.
A reality that’s fully in play due to their incredibly strong bench units.
NBA Daily: Brandon Ingram’s Growth A Perfect Fit Next To Zion Williamson
Zion Williamson has yet to play in the NBA. But as Brandon Ingram continues turning heads, it’s easy to envision he and Williamson leading the Pelicans to perennial title contention – and their snug positional and stylistic fit is the biggest reason why. Jack Winter writes.
Zion Williamson screamed when Brandon Ingram connected on the tough pull-up jumper that gave the New Orleans Pelicans a last-second lead over the Utah Jazz.
The rookie was watching from the bench as his team’s breakout star inbounded the ball, then used an Allen Iverson-esque cut to catch the ball high up the right wing on the other side of the floor. Ingram immediately took one dribble with his right hand. As Royce O’Neale trailed on his hip, Ingram put the ball down once more with his left, using his ridiculous strides to create enough separation to get to his spot and launch.
It was Ingram’s final make of the night, one among a bevy of highlight-reel plays he made during the best performance of his career to date. His score also put the Pelicans up one with just 0.2 seconds remaining, an advantage they needed to secure a win in overtime after Rudy Gobert was fouled as time expired on the ensuing possession, tying the game by making one of two at the line.
Williamson’s roar no doubt came in the context of those circumstances more than any other. Ingram capped another eye-popping outing with a would-be game-winning shot reserved for superstars, and New Orleans continued its strong recent play by beating the league’s hottest team in front of a raucous home crowd.
Obviously, that’s more than enough justification for Williamson’s enthusiasm. But as the most hyped draft prospect since LeBron James readies to make his long-awaited NBA debut next week, Ingram’s ongoing evolution into his ideal co-star gives Williamson and the Pelicans ample reason to be excited – and the reason for rest of the league to be scared.
A sizable portion of Williamson’s theoretical value stems from his unique two-way versatility. It’s universally agreed upon that New Orleans, especially going forward, will be best served slotting him at center in lineups that maximize his athletic gifts. But Williamson surely won’t be up to the task of being his team’s last line of defense as a rookie, and even prime Draymond Green didn’t start at the five until the Golden State Warriors were threatened in the playoffs. It simply asks too much of undersized bigs to play without a traditional center for 48 minutes.
The thing about Ingram’s rapid development, though, is that it further weaponizes Williamson and the Pelicans no matter what position the latter is playing.
Ingram’s growth is layered and multi-dimensional. He’s clearly sturdier than he was a year ago, continuing to fill out his body at 22 years old. His handle is tighter, providing additional comfort with the ball he’s using to create passing lanes that otherwise wouldn’t exist. But the main source of Ingram’s sweeping improvement is even more obvious than thicker shoulders and a defter handle: shooting.
That’s no secret. Ingram is shooting 40.6 percent on 6.2 three-point attempts per game this season, easily surpassing career norms. He’s making 46.8 percent of his shots from mid-range, another career-high and borderline elite mark league-wide.
Still, skepticism about the longevity of Ingram’s newfound shooting prowess abounds. Understandably so, too. Last season, he joined DeMar DeRozan and Tony Parker as the only non-bigs in the NBA to use more than 23 percent of their team’s possessions while posting a three-point rate below .13. A half-season sample size doesn’t erase that recent history, nor Ingram’s similar struggles to make an impact from deep during his first two years in the league.
What does? His 86 percent shooting from the free throw line, nearly 20 points higher than his combined career number before the season tipped off. The influence of lauded New Orleans shooting coach Fred Vinson can’t be discounted, either.
Bottom line: All indications suggest Ingram’s rise as a shooter is real.
Even if the scope of his growth was limited to that development alone, Ingram would still project as a snug fit next to Williamson. His 42.8 percent accuracy on catch-and-shoot triples ensures the floor will be properly spaced when Alvin Gentry slots Williamson at power forward, and it will leave the paint wide open when the Pelicans go small with Ingram and Williamson up front.
Williamson, like all high-usage attackers with a shaky jumper, will always be best served surrounded by four legitimate threats from deep. Still, it goes without saying he’ll get more comfortable navigating the tight offensive confines of playing in a traditional lineup as he gains experience. What’s far less certain is whether Williamson will ever become the type of player equipped to close games with the ball in his hands.
Ingram, as he so forcefully affirmed against the Jazz, already is. The high release point on his shot allows him to get a makable look off no matter how the defense is playing him. Ingram still has room to grow as a playmaker, but this season he’s passing out of drives more often than Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo, and he has a better understanding of mapping the floor in pick-and-roll play.
Ingram may top out as a great team’s second-best player. New Orleans would obviously prefer that he ultimately becomes capable of shepherding a championship-level offense all by himself. But that’s what’s so enviable about the Pelicans’ long-term prospects. If Williamson comes close to reaching his potential, they’ll be good enough to compete for titles even if Ingram’s development stalls – and the former proves unable to play alpha dog in crunch time.
What that means for this season remains to be seen. But as New Orleans, buoyed by the addition of Williamson, claws for a playoff berth over its remainder, pay special attention to the team’s identity at the end of close games. Those high-pressure situations won’t just be a showcase for the incredible gifts of the Pelicans’ young stars, but could serve as a harbinger of how Ingram and Williamson will co-exist in crunch time once they’re leading New Orleans to annual title contention.
NBA Daily: Trade Targets – Southeast Division
Like all divisions, teams of the Southeast Division have their specific preferences pertaining to players they’d like to move from their rosters. Drew Maresca identifies six players he feels teams might move before the Feb. 6 trade deadline.
With the trade deadline only a few weeks away, teams are zeroing in on potential deals. Some teams hope to improve for a playoff push, while others are looking to capitalize on the urgency of contenders. Whichever side of that equation your favorite team finds itself on, they are surely weighing all of their options.
Basketball Insiders’ Trade Targets series has already examined the Northwest, Southwest and Central divisions. Now, we turn our attention to the Southeast Division, where we identify six players who should be moved before the Feb. 6 deadline. To be considered a trade target, a player must either add value to a contender, represent a salary dump or have been featured in rumors, now or in the past. Rumors and/or speculation factored into our trade targets, but we identified players who we feel should be moved regardless if they’ve been named in rumors or not.
The Southeast Division has its share of mediocrity. In fact, the Miami HEAT are the division’s only winning team as of Thursday. But don’t be fooled — all five Southeast teams are likely to be relatively active come the trade deadline. While the HEAT may be the division’s lone buyers, the other four have players they’d like to move for salary purposes and/or prefer to swap for assets. And many of those players can still play a real role elsewhere. So let’s jump in with the most interesting of the bunch:
Aaron Gordon – $19,863,636
This one won’t sit too well with Orlando Magic fans, but it’s practical. The Magic have a relatively young team. And they have too many big men for all to get a good amount of playing time.
Big man or not, Gordon is among the Magic’s best trade piece – he’s only 24 years old and has probably yet to reach his prime. Further, he’s on a relatively affordable deal through 2022 and can profoundly impact the game on both ends of the floor.
This isn’t the first time Gordon finds himself in trade rumors, but it might be the year they come to fruition. Gordon is in his sixth season with the team. While he’s actually regressed this season in terms of points per game (13.5 points per game), he’s still a dynamic offensive weapon and one of the team’s best defenders. His trade value won’t get too much higher; but losing Gordon doesn’t hurt as much this season considering the arrival of Jonathan Isaac as a defensive stopper — and the fact that the team signed Nikola Vucevic to a 4-year/$100 million deal last Summer.
And it’s not as if the Magic don’t have other areas to address. They still lack an elite point guard and need help offensively – they’re 25th in offensive rating and 24th in assists. They should check in with any teams looking to offload high-end guards. While Markelle Fultz has shown flashes this season and Evan Fournier has played at an All-Star level, they don’t have a difference-maker in the backcourt. Swapping Gordon for a floor general or elite scoring guard might be their best bet at securing one.
Justise Winslow – $13,000,000
The Miami HEAT need help. Provided, they’re playing better than anyone thought they would in the 2019-20 season. But they need more to do more and become real contenders this year.
I know what you’re thinking – Justise Winslow has been hurt for much of this season. And when healthy, he’s an above-average defender, playmaker and shooter. And that’s right. But the HEAT need help, and they need it now.
The HEAT badly want to add star power, and they need to improve defensively to compete with the best in the East in a seven-game series. Winslow cannot be shipped out for a one-year rental. He’s far too talented for that, but the alternative is even less likely. The HEAT will not part with Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro, Kendrick Nunn or Jimmy Butler. Duncan Robinson, who is also unlikely to be dealt, wouldn’t return nearly as much, anyway. And what’s more, the HEAT are limited in their ability to add talent; their 2021 and 2023 first-round picks are owed thank to past trades. So if the HEAT are serious about upgrading their roster soon, Winslow is the obvious sacrificial lamb.
Besides, the team is 21-8 without Winslow and 7-4 with him. So while he’s clearly productive, he’s also expendable.
But the HEAT can’t move too quickly. Winslow is only 23 years old, adds borderline elite two-way backcourt skills and is signed for a relative bargain through 2022 (3 years/$39 million).
While the HEAT would obviously benefit from a healthy Winslow, they may prefer to swap him for a player who’s more likely to contribute this season, as well as in the future. And if Miami really believes it can win this season, trading Winslow likely returns a major asset without shipping out players who have developed chemistry with one another and who have been contributors for the current iteration of the team.
Davis Bertans – $7,000,000
Let’s be clear – the Wizards have not made Davis Bertans available. But they should listen to offers for anyone on their roster not named Bradley Beal – and they should be open to moving him, too, for the right – albeit ridiculously high – price.
Bertans is in the middle of a breakout season, which includes scoring 15.3 points per game on 43.4% three-point shooting (after scoring 8 points per game in 2018-19), and we know that shooters become increasingly popular around the trade deadline. Bertans is even more attractive considering he is in the final year of his $14 million deal – so he’s affordable and carries no long-term salary implications.
Despite recently returning from an injury, Bertans has played well enough to attract serious interest. According to Chase Hughes of NBC Sports Washington, as many as five teams are interested in Bertans: the Atlanta Hawks, Boston Celtics, Denver Nuggets Los Angeles Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers.
And while the Wizards have appeared against the idea of moving Bertans, they should start entertaining it. Sure, he’s in only his fourth season in the league, but he’s already 27 years old and eligible for a new contract this offseason. Meanwhile, the Wizards have a long way to go before they should consider dedicating serious cap room to veteran role players with whom they won’t seriously compete.
The Wizards should gauge the market for Bertans and pull the trigger on a deal that adds young, unproven talent and/or unprotected first-round picks. What ultimately happens pertaining to Bertans is anyone’s guess; but if the Wizards can add a younger, unestablished player with a higher upside, they have to do it.
Marvin Williams – $15,006,250
The Hornets need to establish an on-court identity. They added Terry Rozier this past offseason and boast young, high-upside players in Miles Bridges, rookie PJ Washington and breakout star Devonte’ Graham. But everyone else should be available for the right price.
The first Hornet who should be traded from Charlotte is Marvin Williams, a true three-and-D guy who is shooting a near career-best 52.6% on two-pointers and 37.7% from three-point range. Williams is someone who plugs into just about all contending rosters. And since his contract expires following this season, there would are no long-term salary implications.
The Hornets might be deceived into thinking they can make a run at the playoffs, but they shouldn’t be. They are currently in 11th place in the Eastern Conference and trail the Nets – current owners of the eighth seed – by five whole games. And while the Nets have their share of issues to solve, they just recently returned Caris LeVert and Kyrie Irving from injuries and should play better from here on out.
And even if the Hornets could sneak into the playoffs, what good would a quick exit do for a team that has only a select few building blocks on its roster? The Hornets should be proactively engaging other teams to determine what Williams could return. But a deal seems even more likely if the Hornets drop farther out of the eighth seed before Feb. 6.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist – $13,000,000
Speaking of the Hornets, they should look to move out from under the contracts of more than just Marvin Williams.
Until last season, head coach James Borrego’s first in charge of the Hornets, Kidd-Gilchrist was a key player in the Hornets rotation. He was a 25 minute per game guy through his first six seasons with the Hornets. Last season, he dipped to a career-low 18.4 minutes per game. This season has seen another substantial step back to 13.3.
Clearly, Borrego prefers playing younger players in hopes of organic growth. That means that representatives for guys like Kidd-Gilchrist must begin looking elsewhere to secure their players’ playing time and opportunities.
Kidd-Gilchrist is still an above-average defender. Rookie Cody Martin stole away some of his minutes as a defensive stopper, but his utility on the defensive end should result in spot minutes off the bench for a contender looking to throw bodies at guys like James Harden, Jimmy Butler, etc. And while he’s never been an effective shooter, Kidd-Gilchrist posted a career-high 34% on three-pointers last season.
A change of scenery is probably Kidd-Gilchrist’s best bet. And with unrestricted free agency ahead in 2020, Kidd-Gilchrist should hope to land on a team that allows him to demonstrate his ability to defend and, to a degree, shoot while not overburdening him offensively.
Chandler Parsons – $25,102,512
The Atlanta Hawks have five or so players around whom they hope to build their team in the coming years. They are all 22 years old or younger. Veterans are not on that list. And with Allen Crabbe being moved on Thursday for Jeff Teague, there’s one fewer vet who entered the season on the Hawks roster still around.
And that brings us to Chandler Parsons – someone who this writer hopes to see get an opportunity elsewhere. Despite it seeming as though he’s been around for decades, Parsons is only 31 years old. After fighting his way back from a number of knee injuries, he’s now healthy and able to contribute. Only no one outside of Atlanta seems to notice.
With the Hawks playing their younger players – and rightfully so – Parsons clearly lacks a role with the team. He’s appeared in only five games in 2019-20 so far despite being healthy for the majority of it, and he hasn’t logged 17 or more minutes in any game thus far.
But that does not mean he can’t contribute– especially to a team looking to add scoring punch off of the bench. According to Adrian Wojnarowski and Tim MacMahon of ESPN, Parsons impressed the Grizzlies coaching staff and team in five-on-five scrimmages last season, and he told Bryan Kalbrosky of HoopsHype: “Obviously, I want to play. I want to help. I’m healthy and I’m in a contract year, so I want to show the team that I’m healthy and I can play and I can definitely help this team win.”
And what’s more, Parsons’ contract is an expiring one. So teams looking to add scoring, without affecting their future salary cap, should consider Parsons. Once upon a time, Parsons was a borderline All-Star who topped out at 16.6 points per game back in 2013-14. No one is under the impression that he’ll contribute anything near 16.6 points, but he’s an established scorer who’s been resting for much of the past few seasons. He’s a career 37.3% three-point shooter, and he adds good length as a true 6-foot-9 forward. Hopefully Parsons gets another chance to prove his worth.
With less than a month to go until the trade deadline, teams are almost certainly circling in on deals. And with so few trades being made so far this season, observers are waiting patiently for the first shoe to drop. But trade deadline deals hit us like a snow squall — quickly and with little warning. So everyone should hunker down and get ready for the mid-season main event.
NBA Daily: Trade Targets – Southwest Division
The Southwest Division offers many intriguing options heading toward the annual trade deadline, Ben Nadeau writes, but how the chips fall is still anybody’s best guess.
The NBA landscape is oddly unfamiliar at this point in the season.
The Milwaukee Bucks are ruthlessly destroying everything in sight, the Golden State Warriors are headed toward a top-five draft pick in June and the New York Knicks are struggling to keep their heads afloat after a mid-season coaching change. OK, fine, that last one might ground us in reality, honestly — but things are looking up, at long last!
And yet, that one constant looms large: Feb. 6 and the annual trade deadline. Buyers, sellers — or wherever your favorite franchise might be — now is the time to push all-in, press the eject button or purchase a super-rare opal from a sketchy diamond salesman that may or may not give a player improved basketballing prowesses.
But if such an uncut gem is unavailable to front offices across the league, then they could do worse than to move for these Southwest Division-based players ahead of next month’s all-important deadline.
The Soft Resetters
Courtney Lee — $12,759,670
Solomon Hill — $12,758,781
E’Twaun Moore — $8,664,928
Marco Belinelli — $5,846,154
All four veterans total nearly 40 combined NBA seasons, offering experience, shot-making abilities and locker room leadership. Further, to some, they could represent cap relief. If a team is a deadline seller — the aforementioned Knicks, Cleveland Cavaliers or Detroit Pistons, for example — then these contract-ready players could help them tread water, shed longer deals or gain draft pick collateral. So for the Marcus Morris, Kevin Love and Andre Drummond-type contributors on the market, they won’t come without some deal-matching gymnastics — that’s where players like Lee, Hill and Moore can come in handy, too.
Hell, it’s also why the Houston Rockets got in trouble earlier this year for giving Nene a two-year deal worth $20 million in bonuses, thus making the long-time man the ideal trade fodder. Instead, the NBA voided the deal, ruling that any trade with the Brazilian would only be worth $2.6 in outgoing salary. The Rockets, in salary cap hell, would’ve loved to use Nene in a mid-season deal — perhaps for a name further down on this list, Andre Iguodala — but their creative deal-making was ultimately stymied.
Elsewhere, Moore, 30, has started 29 games for the New Orleans Pelicans in 2019-20 — at a steady 10.2 points per contest, nonetheless — but with Zion Williamson set to return next week and a full youth movement underway, he’s expendable. Better, he’s affordable for those looking for a perimeter punch (39.1 percent from three-point range) or a more cap space in the summertime.
Lee, on the other hand, has struggled to find time in a backcourt led by Luke Doncic. With he has a massively-expiring deal and a fantastic reputation behind-the-scenes, it’s not hard to imagine Lee moving elsewhere in the next 20 days as the Mavericks try to bolster their postseason chances.
Belinelli, 33, has been less effective in his older age, but boasts 65 career postseason games and a low-risk contract. Should the San Antonio Spurs pull the plug — head coach Gregg Popovich likely feels strongly otherwise — then Belinelli and others could be intriguing trade targets.
As for Hill, who has labored to stay healthy in recent seasons, he has another bloated expiring deal — although he’ll likely be most valuable to Memphis as freed up cap space come June.
The Calculated Risks
Andre Iguodala — $17,185,185
Jae Crowder — $7,815,533
The time has finally come: Free Andre Iguodala, you cowards!
Since the former NBA Finals MVP was dealt to the Grizzlies last summer, he’s been stuck in the mud. In an old fashioned standoff, Iguodala hasn’t appeared yet for the rebuilding franchise, while Memphis hasn’t budged from their first-round-pick-or-no-deal mindset from the offseason. Will they budge? Which teams will blink first?
The Los Angeles Lakers, always in need of more playoff-poised athletes to put next to LeBron James, might be willing. Houston, still in luxury cap hell, probably can’t finagle adding $17 million in cap space without obliterating its already-teetering-off-the-edge-of-the-abyss built roster.
Last time Iguodala was featured for the Warriors, the 35-year-old averaged just 5.7 points and 3.7 rebounds, but his defensive abilities and postseason record speaks for itself. The expectation is that Iguodala will be moved — but to whom and for how much? Well, that’s the six-month-old question on everybody’s mind, even today.
Iguodala, of note, will be an unrestricted free agent come June.
Crowder, 29, is on his fifth team since 2012 but, by and large, he’s impressed at every stop thus far. In 2019-20, the veteran standout has started all 38 games for Memphis, tallying 10.4 points and 6.1 rebounds per contest on a paltry (and expiring) $7.8 million dollar deal. Should the Grizzlies clear the deck, Iguodala included, Crowder has 50 games of postseason experience and won’t come with an outrageous price tag — both in regards to outgoing cost or future commitments.
The Leap Of Faiths
DeMar DeRozan — $27,739,975
Jrue Holiday — $26,131,111
This would be the all-in push. The all-or-nothing swing. The so-called leap of faith. Two stars in two different places in their careers — both equally excellent trade candidates for different reasons.
DeRozan, 30, is still chugging along as the leader of San Antonio, and he’ll likely finish with an average over 20 points per game for the seventh consecutive season. Healthy as they come, the high-flyer has played in 72-plus games during every campaign since 2014-15 — and he still knows how to enact a healthy dose of revenge, too. DeRozan won’t be a cheap option for many franchises, but might he be the final missing piece somewhere?
Such a move, naturally, would have to come with Popovich’s blessing and acceptance that the Spurs aren’t postseason-bound for the first time since 1997. At 17-22, San Antonio currently ranks 9th in a stingy Western Conference with five teams within three games of them as of Jan. 16. Betting against Popovich is a sin, but those odds, for the first time in a long time, aren’t looking fantastic for the perennial stalwarts.
Should the Spurs look to jumpstart a mini-rebuild — Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Lonnie Walker and Keldon Johnson in tow — then there will certainly be suitors for DeRozan.
As for Holiday, he’s the division’s big-ticket item — if he’s still available, of course. Last the world had heard, the Pelicans had retreated from the offseason position of an unmovable Holiday, the new leader and cornerstone post-Anthony Davis. And yet, the Pelicans are one of those teams within breathing distance of the Spurs and a postseason trip for their budding core, so moving Holiday may not behoove them anymore.
Given Williamson’s assumed presence in the season’s second half, Brandon Ingram’s rise to stardom and Lonzo Ball’s newfound settledness, Holiday might be best served to stay put. Still, David Griffin, New Orleans’ executive vice president of basketball operations, is no stranger to the wheelin’ and dealin’ nature of February, and everybody has a price.
Holiday — 19.6 points, 6.5 assists and 1.7 steals per game, plus a back-to-back member on an All-Defensive Team — would elevate any roster in the league. If the 10-year veteran is, in fact, on the table, Griffin has likely been fielding offers for quite some time already. Should Williamson’s introduction to the rotation go seamlessly and the Pelicans firmly cement themselves as postseason contenders, however, then Holiday will be the perfect player to get them there.
With less than a month to go before the NBA’s trade deadline, the proceedings will only get wilder from here. While the entirety of the Southwest Division is still involved in a hectic playoff chase, far too much could change over the remaining weeks. Who will push all-in? Who will pull back? Are the Spurs going to concede their historic streak of postseason appearances? And how will the Pelicans look with Williamson in the fold?
These are questions without answers at this point.
In another month, we’ll have seen the future and then some — but which way it falls now is still anybody’s best guess.