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NBA Daily: Trade Watch – Southeast Division

Ben Nadeau continues Basketball Insiders’ “NBA Trade Watch” series by looking at the Southeast Division.

Ben Nadeau

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The NBA provides the masses great drama during nearly every month of the year — February, for many reasons, is no different. Aside from the All-Star Game-related festivities, the trade deadline is always a popular period of time for the frenzied onlooker. On the surface level, the notion of asking whether the buyers will buy and if sellers will sell seems inherently boring, but it often goes beyond that. Are teams looking to shed an albatross contract? Is a franchise moving on from a once-successful era and officially pulling the plug? What about the dark horse surprises moved to make semi-risky deals and enter the conference contender conversation?

With franchise operating under their own long- and short-term plans, the deadline is always a fascinating study, even if a number of blockbuster swaps don’t go down. But with that critical point of the campaign circled on Feb. 7, the rumors will only heat up from here on out. On Monday, Spencer Davies tackled the Central Division, then David Yapkowitz tackled the Northwest. More recently, Drew Maresca snagged the Atlantic and Shane Rhodes handled the Southwest. Today, then, is the Southeast — so let’s wait no longer!

Atlanta Hawks

The Hawks, of course, are sellers.

According to reports, they’d like to move on from veterans Kent Bazemore, who is owed roughly $19.3 million in 2019-20, and Dewayne Dedmon. The latter is averaging 10.2 points and 7.5 rebounds on an expiring deal worth $7.2 million, thus making him a strong candidate for a trade in the coming weeks.

Also available, potentially, is Taurean Prince, a price-controlled 24-year-old that’s tallied 14 points and 4.1 rebounds on 36 percent from three-point range so far this season. For franchises looking at point guard help, the clearly healthy Jeremy Lin — expiring to the tune of $13.8 million this summer — should eventually be on the move as well, a reliable on-court presence that can shoot from deep and operate fluidly in the pick-and-roll.

Since they began leaning harder on their collections of prospects — Trae Young, Kevin Huerter, Omari Spellman, DeAndre’ Bembry and John Collins — the Hawks have actually flourished. Since Dec. 18, Atlanta has won more games (nine) than they did in the sixty before that (six), so if the youth movement wasn’t in full effect before, it certainly is now. Outside of those two groups — expendable and expiring versus the assets — there’s still Vince Carter ($1.5 million), but his veteran leadership is well-regarded within the Hawks’ locker room, so he seems like a good bet to stick around.

Atlanta has risen to 12th place in the Eastern Conference — so they’ll need to just keep doing what they’re doing: Play the kids, trade veterans for future assets and collect their next batch of impressive rookies in June. So far, so good.

Charlotte Hornets

As of today, the Hornets reside in the top eight — good enough, barely, for a postseason berth. Whether or not the hot-and-cold Hornets stand a chance against Milwaukee, Boston or Toronto seems irrelevant they must demonstrate to impending free agent Kemba Walker that the franchise is still in a position to build a winner. Earlier this week, the Mavericks approached the Hornets about a potential deal for Walker but were shut down quickly, according to Shams Charania of The Athletic. In any case, it proves that Charlotte is in for the long haul with Walker, thus illuminating their trade deadline strategy immensely.

Recent reports noted that the Hornets would be willing to add Frank Kaminsky to any deals that included Nicolas Batum — $27.1 million player option in 2020-21 — but that’s unlikely to move the needle. Many other members of this roster have established roles (Marvin Williams, Jeremy Lamb), hold future potential (Miles Bridges, Malik Monk), own little value (Dwayne Bacon, Devonte’ Graham) or boast contracts likely too big to move (Cody Zeller, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Bismack Biyombo). So if the Hornets are sticking with Walker, they may ultimately end up on the quiet side this deadline.

Miami HEAT

In many ways, the HEAT exist on the same plane as the Hornets, except they’re missing a true bonafide star.

Miami was sure they could compete without putting together a grand offer for the since-traded Jimmy Butler and the results have been mixed. Surely, on the cusp of February, the HEAT would’ve liked to be above .500 but, again, the Eastern Conference gives them life. Goran Dragic is expected to return around the All-Star break, which would be a huge boon but Miami will need to strengthen themselves elsewhere as well. The HEAT could be sellers, but history — led by President Pat Riley — says that is the less likely of the two fates. The only issue in improving at this deadline, naturally, remains the large deals the franchise handed out in recent offseasons, almost all of which have player options tacked onto the end.

Hassan Whiteside will make $27 million next season, while Dragic ($19.2 million) and Tyler Johnson ($19.2) aren’t exactly cheap either. Justise Winslow remains an intriguing piece, but he’s also one of Miami’s few young assets alongside Bam Adebayo, both of whom will presumably stay put down south. If there’s any consolation, it comes in the form of Josh Richardson, a 25-year-old standout that has been able to shoulder a heavy scoring load every night. Given his blossoming presence, the HEAT may be beholden to hop into the trade season craze — but Miami’s options also appear to be limited.

After a strong career resurgence last year, Wayne Ellington has contributed at a lesser extent across the board, albeit at five minutes less, but he’s got a manageable expiring contract of about $6.3 million. Still, Ellington is hitting 2.2 three-pointers per game, so a contender could certainly scoop him off the guard-laden roster for a future pick.

Elsewhere, Kelly Olynyk (9.1 points, 4.2 rebounds) would be far more intriguing if not for his 2020-21 player option worth $13.6 million. Dion Waiters, now fully healed, is in a similar situation and remains a talented piece, but a promised $12.6 million in two season’s time might be a tough pill to swallow for interested partners. Unless the HEAT take a shot at trading the farm — something like Richardson, minimally protected draft picks and cap space — for Bradley Beal or any other available stars, they, too, might be restricted to small-sided deals this season.

For this reason, there’s not a ton of actual trade scuttle surrounding the Miami HEAT at this point in time.

Orlando Magic

Even at 20-29, the Magic are well within the postseason race, but their destiny this year is up for grabs, reportedly.

Orlando is still hoping to reach the postseason, again according to Charania, but are preparing for the deadline in case they — losers of 3 of their last 12 games — continue to plummet down the ladder. If the Magic become sellers prior to the Feb. 7 date, they could be one of the most sought-after rosters in the NBA. Nikola Vucevic, likely headed to his first-ever All-Star Game next month, is on an expiring contract worth $12.7 million, while Terrence Ross ($10.5) and Jonathon Simmons ($5.7, non-guaranteed in 2019-20) could provide some much-needed cap relief in exchange for a draft pick.

D.J. Augustin  — 11.8 points, 4.8 assists and 43.5 percent from three-pointer range over 47 starts — is a reasonably cheap gamble at just $7.2 million next season. Working with a baseline core of Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Issac and Mohamed Bamba is a solid start, plus there’s the fate of the ever-solid Evan Fournier ($17 million through 2020-21) depending on how hard the Magic want to retool moving forward. If Fournier does reach the trade block, there will be suitors, almost definitely.

As for actual chatter, the Magic inquired about the availability of Dennis Smith Jr., but with the point guard’s return to practice, that move may not be on the horizon any longer. Should the Magic continue their postseason push, they’ll search for a younger ballhandler like Terry Rozier — who has been pursued by Orlando, according to ESPN’s Zach Lowe last week. Furthermore, the Magic appear interested in Knicks’ rotation castaway Frank Ntilikina, per Stefan Bondy of NYDN — so the franchise could go either way before the deadline. Even if they’re competing, a lower-stakes deal for Ntilikina makes sense both for the present and future iterations in Orlando.

If an all-in push is more of Orlando’s style, a certain franchise-level point guard was just potentially made available. Mike Conley, 31, holds the ninth-richest contract in the entire league — at a staggering $34.5 million in 2020-21 — but he’s the type of elite centerpiece that can make a big-time difference. For now, any move for the perennially-great court general is just conjecture.

Between now and Feb. 7,  all five of Orlando’s games are against playoff teams– so keep an eye on this space moving forward.

Washington Wizards

To finish up, there’s the Wizards — and, oh, boy, Washington, indeed.

Following an auspicious 2-9 opening to the campaign, Dwight Howard underwent lumbar surgery, the locker room got petty again and the Wizards tumbled to the conference basement. The news of John Wall’s season-ending operation made matters worse, well, at least initially. Since Wall last played — Dec. 26 versus Detroit — Washington has gone 7-5. It’s not a full-season turnaround just yet, perhaps unexpected given the absence of their five-time All-Star, but it’s a necessary start.

Like Orlando, Charania reports that the Wizards are waiting to see how things shake out over the next week or so before committing one way or the other. Washington made it “adamantly clear” to The Athletic that Bradley Beal, the source of many trade machine fantasies, is staying put. To back that up, owner Ted Leonsis, in London for the Knicks’ contest earlier this month, told media: “We will never, ever tank.”

Instead, it’s Otto Porter Jr — max contract and all — that Washington would like to deal, with the Utah Jazz and Dallas Mavericks (Scotto) both interested. At 13 points and 5.7 rebounds per game, the 25-year-old may just need a change of scenery — but his stretch four services would come at a hefty long-term price of a player option worth $28.5 million in 2020-21.

Jeff Green ($1.5 million) and Markieff Morris ($8.6) are on expiring deals and could help teams in a need of a veteran presence; while Howard (player option at a measly $5.6 in 2019-20) could be useful addition once he finishes rehabbing, ideally, sometime in February or March.

In any case, there’s a lot of business to handle between now and the deadline, with the Southeast Division poised to become some of the most active contributors. Without a truly elite franchise, the seventh- and eighth-placed Hornets and HEAT, unlikely to tank, must figure out what potential moves both exist and improve the roster. Whereas the Magic and Wizards, slightly further down the hierarchy, have to decide on pulling the plug entirely. Since it’s the Eastern Conference, despite their struggles, the 20-29 Magic are still just 4.5 games out of the postseason, so a crucial week is ahead for nearly all these teams.

Ben Nadeau is a Seattle-based writer in his second year with Basketball Insiders. For five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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NBA Daily: Examining the Eastern Conference Contenders

Matt John takes a look at the four titans who will be fighting for the Eastern Conference crown this May.

Matt John

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The day after the trade deadline passed, LeBron James had some interesting things to say about the arms race that was going down between the Eastern Conference titans.

“They know they ain’t gotta go through Cleveland anymore,” James said. “Everybody in the East thinks they can get to the Finals because they ain’t gotta go through me.”

It’s notable that the Lakers are currently toeing the line between making the playoffs and playing the lottery odds. That does, however, beg the question: What if LeBron stayed in Cleveland?

Now if that had happened, then a lot of things would probably be different for the Cavaliers right now. There’s no telling if they would have kept the pick the Nets owed them, or if they would be playing Kyle Korver, George Hill, and J.R. Smith right now.

It would have added another intriguing wrinkle to what has been the tightest formerly-five-currently-four-man race going on at the top of the Eastern Conference in quite some time. Whether you agree that Cleveland would still be the frontrunner in the East with James, there doesn’t really appear to be a clear-cut favorite to represent the East anymore. Plenty of fans and analysts would give their takes on who stands out among the pack, but there’s no consensus pick.

In a sense, LeBron’s kind of right. He was a tyrant – or a “King” if you will – that set the bar year-in and year-out for the past decade. It gave his rivals motivation to play at one hundred percent, though it made the East a little predictable. With LeBron gone, the suspense as to who will take his throne makes it all the more fun.

The season is now coming down the home stretch. With less than 25 games left, Milwaukee, Toronto, Philadelphia, and Boston will fight tooth and nail to get home court advantage over each other. Who has the edge? Well, let’s take a look.

Milwaukee Bucks
Record: 44-14
Strength of Remaining Schedule: .465 (27th overall)
Record against competitors: 5-2

They finally did it. After years of looking as incredible as they were inconsistent, the Bucks have hit a breakthrough. It turns out all they needed was to put the right personnel around the Greek Freak (i.e. floor spacers and impact defenders). Oh, and a coach who could bring all of the notable talent together. The pieces are now fitting into place for the Bucks. Giannis is now going full-throttle with a supporting cast who only make Milwaukee all the harder to stop. Their league-leading point differential (9.6) tops the league by a fair margin, which indicates that this may not only be a fluke but the first sign of the glorious future we all believed the Bucks had.

MVP: Giannis Antetokounmpo – If it weren’t for James Harden putting up legendary numbers, Giannis would be the frontrunner for MVP. So much has been said about him that there’s not much to be added, so let’s leave it at this. Many have said if he starts hitting threes, he’ll be unstoppable. When you see his dominance in the paint – he’s shooting 77.3 percent in the paint – it makes you wonder if he really has to.
X-Factor: Eric Bledsoe – He’s had a nice bounce-back after a rocky half-season in Milwaukee. The record still stands that he was outplayed by Terry Rozier in his first playoff action as a starter. If the Bucks are to maintain their success in the postseason, Bledsoe must avoid a repeat performance from last postseason.
Unsung Hero: Malcolm Brogdon – People can scoff all they want at Brogdon’s Rookie of the Year Award. The fact is, the Bucks absolutely need him. They are +7.1 with him on the court, good for second behind, well, who do you think?
Pivotal Question: Will the supporting cast (including Coach Bud) keep it up in the playoffs?

Toronto Raptors
Record: 43-16
Strength of Remaining Schedule: .450 (30th overall)
Record against competitors: 6-5

Do you know what’s odd about the Raptors? Going by net rating, they’ve actually taken a step back this season. Last season, the Raptors had the second best offensive rating (113.8) and the fifth best defensive rating (105.9). This season, they have the seventh-best offensive rating (113) and the eighth best defensive rating (107.4). Yet somehow, the genuine belief is that this is the best team they’ve ever assembled. With Marc Gasol and Jeremy Lin added to the team, the Raptors have made it clear that they’re not messing around.

MVP: Kawhi Leonard – Remember when Kevin Durant implied that Kawhi was a system player for the Spurs? Maybe that’s why Kawhi wanted out because he’s proven that notion wrong. He hasn’t skipped a beat in Canada and has even averaged career-highs both in scoring and rebounding average. He’d be an MVP candidate if he hadn’t missed 16 games.
X-Factor: Kyle Lowry – If Leonard is going to be the alpha dog of this team, he needs a second-in-command. Lowry’s numbers have dipped, but he’s got the experience. He’s folded in the playoffs before. Perhaps with less pressure, he can step up his game.
Unsung Hero: Serge Ibaka – With everything else that’s gone right for Toronto, Ibaka’s full acclimation to the center position has given him new life offensively. He’s putting up some of the best scoring, rebounding, and assist averages he’s had either ever or in years.
Pivotal Question: Will Nick Nurse get the team finally past its long-lived playoff demons?

Philadelphia 76ers
Record: 38-21
Strength of Remaining Schedule: .486 (21st Overall)
Record against competitors: 1-7

We have seen three iterations of the Sixers this season. One with Dario Saric and Robert Covington, one that added Jimmy Butler, then one that added primarily Tobias Harris among others. That’s a lot of talent to integrate in such a short time. Lucky for them, by adding Butler and Harris, the Sixers have the most talented starting five in the East. The Process is now at 100 percent capacity. They may have holes, but their Warriors-esque talent level may make it so that it won’t be a problem.

MVP: Joel Embiid – At age 24, Embiid has now taken his first steps into superstardom. 27.3 points, 13.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists along with 1.9 blocks is sure to Joel among the ranks of the league’s top centers. Perhaps what’s most encouraging is that, before this recent knee ailment, Embiid has only missed five games.
X-Factor: The Bench – The Sixers also loaded up the second unit by adding Boban Marjanovic, Mike Scott, Jonathon Simmons and James Ennis III. By doing so, they really are committing to positionless basketball. It honestly could work if they use it to the best advantage they could.
Unsung Hero: Jimmy Butler – Butler’s fit with the Sixers hasn’t been smooth, but, even with the decreased scoring numbers, Butler is quietly putting up some of the most efficient percentages he’s ever had this season, both from three and the field itself.
Pivotal Question: Will they be able to stop any elite point guards?

Boston Celtics
Record: 37-22
Strength of Remaining Schedule: .516 (10th Overall)
Record against competitors: 6-3

The Celtics are somehow a team that’s played badly enough that they’re a disappointment yet played well enough that people shouldn’t give up on them. After a mediocre start, most of the results that have come from the Celtics have been positive. That’s come with some frustrating losses, but the team has been resilient after every bad stretch they’ve had. A common characteristic of Brad Stevens teams is that they play at their best as the season approaches its end. With their guys finally getting past their injury issues, we may see more of the same in the best way yet.

MVP: Kyrie Irving – Kyrie’s chaotic free agency plans have gotten in the way of what’s been a great season for him. He’s put up his usual scoring numbers, but his passing, rebounding and defense have been the best they’ve ever been. The Celtics have proven their fine without him. They’re still better off having him on the court.
X-Factor: Gordon Hayward – It’s been reported to death by now that Hayward’s made some encouraging process in recent weeks. Let’s leave it at this – if he is 100 percent by the playoffs, that makes the Celtics so much scarier. People forget just how good Gordon Hayward was merely two years ago.
Unsung Hero: Al Horford – After the last Celtics-Sixers game, many believe Horford is going to be a matchup problem for Embiid. Correction: Horford’s skillset and IQ make him a matchup problem for everyone.
Pivotal Question: Will they find a consistent rhythm by the season’s end?

Some of you are probably going to be outraged that Indiana is not included on this list, and for good reason. They still are the third-seeded team in the East, they’ve just recently had a six-game winning streak snapped, and they have one of the league’s best defenses.

With all due respect, it’s pretty simple. No Victor Oladipo, no contest. The Pacers are still one of the most well-liked and well-rounded teams in the league. It doesn’t change the fact that in the playoffs, having star power gives a huge advantage. Without Oladipo, Indiana is completely deprived of it.

If it’s any comfort, with a fully healthy Oladipo next season, they are more than worthy of being put with this group.

Here’s to hoping that by next year, this group will stay the same when he does.

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NBA Daily: Are The Kings Destined For The Playoffs?

As the season starts up again after the All-Star Break, Jordan Hicks looks into the Sacramento Kings and what it will take for them to end their playoff drought.

Jordan Hicks

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Sacramento Kings fans should be incredibly happy regardless of how this season ends.

For the first time in what seems like forever they have a promising young team that is not only winning games, but maintaining a certain form of consistency doing so. With the foundation of youthful stars like De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Bogdan Bogdanovic, and Marvin Bagley III, how can Kings faithful not be hyper-optimistic?

The Kings are geared for success over the course of the next few years, but could their time come sooner than that? Do they actually have a shot at making the playoffs this season? The trade deadline acquisitions of Harrison Barnes and Alec Burks, two vets that can make an instant impact, make it seem like they believe their time is now.

Breaking things down, the question becomes – what actually needs to happen for the Kings to make the playoffs this season? The simple answer is to win games.

What have they been doing thus far to put more ticks in the W column? Shooting the three efficiently jumps out. They are currently fourth in the league in three-point percentage at 37.7 percent. While this number is oddly similar to last season’s percentage, they are shooting about seven more threes per game.

Sacramento is also playing incredibly quick basketball. They are second in the league in pace (the number of possessions per 48 minutes). Some could argue that this doesn’t always translate into a positive outcome, but for Sacramento it does. They are leading the NBA in fastbreak points at 21.7 points per game and are sixth in the league at points in the paint. Their defense is translating into offense as well, as they are second in the league at points off turnovers.

While their strengths are definitely elite, they clearly have weaknesses, too. They sit in 18th for both offensive and defensive rating, good for a -1.2 net rating. They are an abysmal 28th in free throw shooting.

Apart from Willie Cauley-Stein – who likely isn’t a major part of their future – they lack an elite rim protector. This leaves their defense prone to giving up more points in the paint. They are currently 26th in the league at opponent points in the paint. The lack of rim protection clearly correlates with their inability to grab defensive boards. They are tied for last in the league at opponent second-chance points.

One would assume that if the Kings simply tighten up their defensive focus that they would be able to close out strong and make the playoffs. They are currently ninth in the West, only one-and-a-half games behind the Clippers who just traded away their best player in Tobias Harris and two-and-a-half games behind the Spurs, who are somehow putting together a strong season despite losing Kawhi Leonard via trade and Dejounte Murray to injury.

As the season gets deeper, however, the Kings won’t be the only team tightening things up for a final playoff push. Every other team will likely be doing the same thing. While the Kings are just a small shot from the playoffs, both the Lakers and Timberwolves are nipping at their heels as well.

The Warriors, Nuggets and Thunder have done enough to separate themselves from the pack, to a degree at least. So that essentially leaves eight teams fighting for the remaining five slots. You can likely write off the Clippers, as they traded away their star player for future assets, and quite possibly the Timberwolves, as they may not have enough depth on their roster. This leaves the Kings and Lakers. If history has taught us anything, it’s that LeBron James likes to play in the postseason.

Sacramento has 24 games left to play this season. Their next two are at Oklahoma City and Minnesota. If they can somehow manage to squeak out one win in that stretch that will keep them above .500 and still fighting for a spot. After that stretch, 11 of their final 22 games are against teams projected to make the playoffs. Apart from two games against the Knicks, one against the Suns, and one against the Cavaliers, none of the remaining 11 games not against playoff teams will be “gimmes.”

Their final three are away against Utah, home against New Orleans and away against Portland. For sure they will be battling with two (and potentially three) of those teams for playoff positioning.

As far as the Lakers – who after their head-to-head win Thursday are a game behind Sacramento and two games out of the playoffs – their schedule isn’t much easier. 15 of their final 24 games are against projected playoff teams. That victory over Sacramento at Staples could actually end up being incredibly important for who makes the playoffs and who loses out.

Whether or not the Kings make the playoffs is anyone’s guess. If Fox and Hield play elite ball to close out the season, that will definitely increase their chances. Strong play from deadline acquisitions Burks and Barnes will also play a huge role in the Kings’ final push.

Like previously mentioned, Kings’ fans should be happy either way. This is the brightest the team’s future has been in well over a decade.

But the Kings likely won’t settle for “promising” or “up-and-coming.” They want success now, and making the playoffs will give them the reward that they’ve been working so hard for.

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How The NBA Became The Most Betting-Friendly League In American Sports

Basketball Insiders

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The NBA has become synonymous with betting conversations during the Adam Silver era, with the league frequently being at the forefront of those discussions. Compared to the other professional sports leagues in the United States, the NBA has not only appeared to be the most progressive with regard to the topic, but it has also looked like the league that is the most likely to get further involved in the industry.

Of course, the league has placed a focus on sports betting, given that they have a vested interest in the continued legalization of that. They have mentioned that they would like a cut of NBA wagers placed, with the industry’s growth in the United States being something that the league could see improving the bottom-line.

Whether or not the NBA gets a piece of the action from a financial perspective, it is still surprising to see a major professional sports league in the United States willing to entertain the conversation at all. By comparison, the NFL has been largely afraid to discuss sports betting, while Major League Baseball has banned its all-time leading hitter for life for gambling-related offenses.

And it isn’t as if the NBA is only interested in gambling in the context of betting on NBA games. The league has relationships in the daily fantasy sports industry as well, with visibility for brands in that space seen in NBA arenas as well. And the NBA-subsidized WNBA is also a part of this betting-friendly basketball landscape, most notably in the form of a team named after a casino.

The Connecticut Sun is that team, as they play in the home of a popular casino in their area. Both the NBA’s Phoenix Suns and WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury play in a venue named after a casino as well. And it is the casino industry that the NBA may conceivably expand into as their relationships in the betting industry appear to be growing in both quality and quantity. With the growth of online casinos, it isn’t impossible to envision the NBA encouraging its fans to compare the best casino bonuses to increase its market share in this growing industry.

Of course, with the betting renaissance that is going on in the United States at this time, the league is making sure that everyone knows that its integrity is not to be questioned. The league has made clear that they are going to ramp up the enforcement of its betting policies, to make sure that players aren’t compromising the game’s integrity. That move by the league is a smart one, as it makes sure that fans know that there is no reason to question the sport even if the league embraces betting.

The NBA is seeing progress across the sport, from its on-court evolution that prioritizes ball movement and long-range shooting, to its off-court stances on betting. Unlike the other major American sports, that willingness to evolve is part of what has caused the popularity of the NBA to skyrocket in recent years.

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