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NBA PM: Gambling on “Small-School” Prospects

Can Cameron Payne be this year’s Damian Lillard – a small-school prospect who climbs into the top 10?

Joel Brigham

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2015 NBA lottery prospect Kristaps Porzingis worked out at his pro day in Las Vegas today and our friends at DraftExpress caught up with him for an interview.

Who Will Take the “Small School” Gamble This Year?

In so many ways, the draft is an absolute crap shoot. Even the top players from the top schools and top international teams don’t always see widespread success in the NBA, but at least with those players, teams can feel fairly confident that they’re making a safe selection. Jahlil Okafor, for example, was the top prospect coming out of high school a year ago and just won a national championship for one of the most storied universities in the history of college basketball.

There’s not a lot of risk involved in a pick like that, regardless of where he’s actually selected, because if he ends up failing, at least his future NBA employers can say, “Look, we made what we thought was the smartest pick at the time. It’s not our fault it didn’t work out.”

Portland, for example, can defend themselves for taking Greg Oden over Kevin Durant in 2007. It’s easy to look back on that now and berate the poor Blazers for choosing the wrong guy, but at the time that decision was considered to be one of the toughest in recent draft history. They picked a talented kid from a respected college program who had been on top of scouting sheets for years. It didn’t work out, but it wasn’t like they took some big risk. He was, at the very least, a known commodity and certainly universally deserving of the No. 1 overall selection that year.

So where does risk come from if not the big names from the big schools? Well, the lesser-known names from the smaller schools, probably, particularly because almost every year there’s at least one kid from a mid-major program that just barely made the NCAA tournament (or didn’t make it at all) who finds himself in the conversation for a lottery selection. There’s no way of knowing how these players’ skills will translate to the NBA when they’re facing much tougher competition, or whether a team would be justified in taking someone who only recently popped onto the scene as a potential star, but general managers and team presidents look for star potential (and also like to receive credit for discovering a hidden gem), so they look for players like these.

They are undoubtedly risky selections, but guys like Damian Lillard and Stephen Curry show why teams keep on looking for those diamonds in the rough. This year, that player appears to be Murray State point guard Cameron Payne, who has generated a lot of buzz in the last few weeks and, as reported by Basketball Insiders’ Alex Kennedy, has earned a promise from a first-round team (and likely one in the lottery).

Most recently, there were rumblings that he could even be a top-10 selection, but it would be extremely surprising to see him selected among the top six picks in the draft because there are six of those big-program, little-risk players ripe for the taking at the head of this draft class: Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow (Duke), Karl-Anthony Towns and Willie Cauley-Stein (Kentucky), D’Angelo Russell (Ohio State) and Emmanuel Mudiay (played in China last year, but is a former top-three, five-star high school recruit and McDonald’s All-American).

Typically, these small-school kids don’t go until “sure things” like the aforementioned six players are off the board.

In 2012, Lillard was one of the most hyped up prospects in the draft, but the ballast between risk and reward didn’t break until after Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (Kentucky), Bradley Beal (Flordia), Dion Waiters (Syracuse) and Thomas Robinson (Kansas) were off the board. It turns out Lillard is the second-best player from that draft class, but it was just too hard for NBA executives to justify taking him ahead of what they considered to be surer things and safer bets.

In 2009, then-Minnesota GM David Kahn passed up on Curry even though he had two consecutive picks at No. 5 and No. 6, both of which were used to select other point guards (Ricky Rubio and Jonny Flynn). Curry was the nation’s leading scorer that year and that Flynn wasn’t even 6’0 tall, and it seemed it was a matter of trusting a Syracuse product over a Davidson one.

Of course, not all small-school kids taken that high turn out to be stars. Pacific’s Michael Olowokandi is one of the biggest busts in NBA Draft history, and Jimmer Fredette (BYU, No. 10, 2011) is a recent example of a pick that didn’t work out. The jury is still out on C.J. McCollum (Lehigh, No. 10, 2013) and Doug McDermott (Creighton, No. 11, 2014), but injuries have forced both of these players to get off to slow starts. However, things haven’t looked great for either so far.

The point is that there are gems to be found from lesser-known programs, and sometimes when a player rises up the ranks quickly in the weeks leading up to the draft, it’s entirely justified. Elfrid Payton (Louisiana-Lafayette, No. 10, 2014) looks like he’ll be a very good NBA point guard, for example, while Klay Thompson (Washington State, No. 11, 2011) is one of the best scorers in the league and playing in the NBA Finals only a few short years after being drafted. Gordon Hayward (Butler, No. 9, 2010) received a max contract a year ago, and everybody loves Paul George (Fresno State, No. 10, 2010).

Any pick can break bad, regardless of school size, but taking a player from a college program that doesn’t have a long history of producing credible NBA employees absolutely is a risk. This year, it looks like Payne will be the guy that gets some lottery team gambling first. Hopefully he’s a pot worth winning.

Sixers Seriously Considering Porzingis at #3?

Mock drafts need to be taken with a grain of salt, but DraftExpress, easily the most respected source on the internet for all things NBA Draft, made some waves on Thursday by releasing a new mock draft that had the Philadelphia 76ers taking Latvian forward Kristaps Porzingis with the third overall selection, ahead of guys like D’Angelo Russell, Emmanuel Mudiay and Justise Winslow, any of whom would appear to be a steadier building block for a team desperately in need a superstar to jump start their rebuilding process.

This isn’t a completely unfounded thing to do at this point, however, as Philadelphia GM Sam Hinkie is genuinely interested in Porzingis and has been for some time. Jonathan Givony, the man who assembles those Draft Express mock drafts, reported earlier this year that the Sixers were instrumental in getting Porzingis to stay in this year’s draft pool, and he has been to Spain several times this year to see the forward play, according to SB Nation’s Derek Bodner. Russell deciding to cancel his visit and workout with Philadelphia has also turned some heads. Today, Hinkie went to Las Vegas to watch Porzingis work out at his pro day (for those interested, video of his pro day is above this post).

Despite all of this, there is plenty of reason to doubt that Porzingis would actually be the pick there, though there is plenty of interest in him from teams drafting high in the lottery. He is 7’0, can shoot the three and is pretty versatile on both ends of the floor, making him an exciting prospect for teams who think he has as much upside as any player in the draft. However, he’s rail thin and quite a bit riskier than some of the more well-known American prospects in the pool, with Russell and Mudiay both looking like surer bets.

Moreover, while it’s almost never advisable to draft to fill a need over selecting the best player available, Russell and Mudiay are both better fits and arguably stronger prospects. Philadelphia traded away Michael Carter-Williams because they didn’t think he was a franchise point guard. Now, Hinkie has two from which to choose at pick No. 3 (or one if the Lakers end up going with Russell at No. 2), and if there’s one area where that team is okay moving forward, it’s the frontcourt. Noel had a solid rookie season and Joel Embiid should be healthy entering this upcoming season. Philadelphia doesn’t need any more big man projects. They need someone who can start getting that city interested in basketball again.

Of course, all of this could be for nothing as it’s not strange for journalists to start making some changes in mock drafts that have been relatively static for weeks. Russell, for example, has long been DX’s guy to Philadelphia at No. 3. Perhaps Givony just wanted to experiment with how the first round would shake out if Hinkie selected a different player that he also appears to like.

Philly taking Porzingis would be an extremely surprising move in actuality, though if Twitter response to that mock draft is any indication, Sixers fans believe Hinkie is just crazy enough to pull the trigger. And why not? What’s one more year of bad basketball to bring aboard yet another high lottery pick in 2016?

Joel Brigham is a senior writer for Basketball Insiders, covering the Central Division and fantasy basketball.

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Detroit Pistons 2019-20 NBA Season Preview

The Detroit Pistons made the post-season last year, but getting back isn’t a guarantee. The Pistons have the talent to be a solid team in the East, the question is can they stay healthy enough to make noise? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Detroit Pistons in this 2019-20 NBA Season Preview.

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For all intents and purposes, the first season of the Dwane Casey era in Detroit went according to plan. The Pistons went 41-41, made the playoffs and were trounced by Milwaukee in a sweep in the first round.

This is the space Detroit finds themselves in: A middling team with slim, top-heavy talent that could as easily sneak into the postseason as they could find themselves out of it. But in a league that’s shown competitiveness where overall competence can be a vehicle for drawing free agents, maybe that isn’t such a bad thing.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

If there is a time to strike when the league least expects it, it’s now. Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond’s first year-and-a-half together has revived this Detroit group back into a playoff team. Dwane Casey’s done this with the Raptors before, and we could be seeing a quicker transformation in the Motor City. Reggie Jackson finally seems to be getting back to himself after multiple seasons of hampering injuries. Luke Kennard should be a popular candidate to make a significant jump as one of the better tertiary scorers in the game. The team brought in Derrick Rose, Markieff Morris and Tony Snell to bolster its depth as well. This writer would be surprised if Detroit doesn’t finish somewhere in the top eight in the East for a second straight season.

3rd Place – Central Division

– Spencer Davies

The Pistons underwhelmed in 2018-19. But at least Reggie Jackson and Blake Griffin made it through an entire season without an injury. Entering 2019-20, they definitely added some nice pieces like Derrick Rose, Tim Frazier, Markieff Morris and rookie Sekou Doumbouya. But their roster didn’t have enough star power in the 2018-19 season to get them beyond the first-round of the playoffs – and they’ve added no new star power since. There is far too much depth and parity in the East for the Pistons to expect too much success. Their best bet might be a self-initiated rebuild. Andre Drummond has a player option for 2020-21. I’m sure most people in the Pistons’ front-office are already praying he opts out to try his hand in free agency.

3rd Place – Central Division

– Drew Maresca

The Detroit Pistons had a pretty solid offseason, in my opinion. I think drafting Sekou Doumbouya at 15th overall in this year’s draft was a nice move. Signing Derrick Rose to a two-year $15 million contract and Markieff Morris to two-year $6,560,000 contract (player option on final season) is a good value overall. I also like that the team claimed Christian Wood off waivers. And while Michael Beasley hasn’t turned out to be the player he was projected to be coming out of college, he could add some scoring off the bench and was signed to just a one-year, $2.2 million deal. The Pistons don’t have the overall talent or depth of the Milwaukee Bucks or Indiana Pacers, but they are a solid Central Division team and could be a tough matchup on any given night.

3rd Place – Central Division

– Jesse Blancarte

The Pistons seem to be stuck in “no man’s land.” That is, a team that’s good enough to make the playoffs, but not good enough to actually win anything significant once they’re there. They do have Blake Griffin, a player 29 other teams would love to have. Griffin has expanded his game to the point where he’s one of the best all-around big men in the league. Another bright spot for Detroit is the fact that Reggie Jackson played in all 82 games last season and shot a career-high 36.9 percent from three. Andre Drummond also had a resurgent season this past year. The three of them from the Pistons core group. They also have some intriguing young players. Bruce Brown became a starter as a rookie, and Sekou Doumbouya is an interesting prospect. In the East, the Pistons are pretty much a lock for the postseason, but unfortunately for them, their prospects of advancing past the first round seem rather slim.

3rd Place – Central Division

– David Yapkowitz

The Pistons are one of those teams that has everything they need to be a playoff contender. They have two All-Star level guys in Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond, they have solid guards, some depth on the bench, quality coaching. There is no reason the Piston’s shouldn’t be a playoff team… except for injury concerns. Durability is the Pistons big unknown. Blake Griffin, who is basically everything to this team has missed 10-15 games (or more) a year since 2013. Last year was maybe his best year, where he logged 75 games but was hobbled going into the playoffs, ultimately requiring another surgery. The Pistons are good enough when healthy, but that’s not the same variable for the Pistons as it is for virtually everyone else, mainly because of the core players have missed serious time over the last few years making them hard to believe in.

3rd Place – Central Division

– Steve Kyler

FROM THE CAP GUY

The Pistons are flirting with the NBA’s $132.6 million luxury tax line with $130.8 million in guaranteed salary towards 14 players under standard contracts. The team will reportedly sign Michael Beasley to a make-good deal. If he or Christian Wood lands the final roster spot, the franchise will be right up against the tax.

By using most of their Mid-Level and Bi-Annual Exceptions on Derrick Rose and Markieff Morris, Detroit has a hard cap of $138.9 million. Before November, the franchise needs to decide on the team option for Luke Kennard. Thon Maker is extension eligible before the start of the season.

– Eric Pincus

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Blake Griffin

Blake Griffin is far and away the best offensive player on this Pistons team. In 75 games last season, Griffin averaged a career-high in points at 24.5 per game while adding in 7.5 rebounds and 5.4 assists. As some of his athleticism has faded due to age and nagging injuries, Griffin has accordingly reinvented his game over the past three-and-a-half seasons. This culminated last year when Griffin shot 36.2 percent from three on seven attempts per game (also a career-high), on his way to his highest effective field goal percentage since 2013-14. This new wrinkle in his game has allowed Griffin to remain a top player and elite on the offensive end. Assuming his left knee holds up, he will continue to produce at the level he always has this season.

Top Defensive Player: Andre Drummond

Death, taxes and Andre Drummond controlling the Little Caesars Arena paint. Drummond enters his eighth year having played at least 78 games in all but one season. He’s led the NBA in rebounds per game in three seasons, including the last two. He’s led the NBA in total rebounds four straight seasons, and in offensive rebounds for six straight. His career average in blocks per game is 1.8, steals per game is 1.6 and he’s been number one in defensive win shares for two years in a row. Enough said.

Top Playmaker: Blake Griffin

One of the more underrated things in the NBA over the last 10 years is Blake Griffin’s playmaking ability. While most dedicated basketball fans have been aware of it for years, it feels like the general public doesn’t recognize how much Griffin holistically brings to an offense. Despite not being a primary ball-handler, Griffin has averaged right around five assists per game for the last five seasons. And while that number may not jump out at you, in 2018-19, per Cleaning the Glass, Griffin had an assist rate of 26.9 percent, putting him in the 99th percentile compared to the rest of the league. In fact, he hasn’t had an assist rate outside of the 95th percentile for his entire career.

Griffin’s proficiency from anywhere on the floor has been extremely obvious since he became a competent three-point shooter. That playmaking ability is even more pronounced in Detroit where the Pistons desperately need him to do so.

Top Clutch Player: Blake Griffin

There’s no reason to look anywhere else. Griffin is Detroit’s best offensive player and playmaker. His ability to shoot from three makes him the go-to player in any late-game situation the Pistons could find themselves in. The only other potential answers are Reggie Jackson or newly-acquired Derrick Rose, and you’d be hard-pressed to convince many people they’re better options than Griffin at this point in their careers.

The Unheralded Player: Luke Kennard

Kennard gets the nod here primarily because he’s the only capable shooter on the roster outside of Griffin and Reggie Jackson. No one else outside of Tony Snell really takes threes, and Snell will never shoot at a high enough volume to move the needle. Kennard is a 40 percent guy you expect to stay that way even when his attempts go up. He was also very good in Detroit’s first-round playoff series loss last season, where he averaged 15.0 points per game and was 9-15 from three in four games.

Best New Addition: Derrick Rose

Derrick Rose! After some light talks of a Chicago reunion, Rose ultimately chose to sign a two-year deal with Detroit. Rose has been somewhat of a repetitive story over the last five seasons; seasons full of injuries and uneven play. However, Rose’s memorable 50-point effort in this past season gives Detroit hope that he still has something left in the tank. Production similar to last season would be a welcome addition to the Pistons.

– Drew Mays

WHO WE LIKE

1. Reggie Jackson

While oft-maligned, Reggie Jackson is still an assertive guard teams have to account for. Last season, Jackson played all 82 games and posted career-highs in three-point percentage and three-point attempts. He finished third on the team in scoring behind Griffin and Drummond and is capable of making something happen at any moment. With Griffin operating as a point-forward and Rose now in the fold, Jackson will hopefully be able to direct his energy towards playing away from the ball and attacking accordingly. That’s what’s best for him individually and the Pistons as a team.

2. Markieff Morris

When you think of the Detroit Pistons, you think of hard-nosed, grind-it-out basketball. This began with the Bad Boys and rolled into their championship season in 2004, but the essence still exists in 2019, and Markieff Morris fits that vibe. Morris is a tough veteran who will look to provide frontcourt depth behind Griffin and Drummond.

3. Tony Snell

Throughout a six-year career, Tony Snell has become a Central Division staple. Snell spent three years in Chicago followed by three years in Milwaukee and now enters his first year in Detroit. Snell is the ultimate role player, a long-armed wing who is a career 38.2 percent three-point shooter. He will fit in just fine, likely playing 20 minutes per game as he did for Detroit’s division foes.

4. Sekou Doumbouya

Detroit’s first-round pick may have been the youngest prospect in the draft, but he has the most professional basketball experience of anyone selected this past June. Doumbouya began playing pro basketball when he was 15 and spent 2018-19 playing in a league in France. Though it will take Doumbouya time to develop, he’s a skilled 6-foot-9, 229-pound forward who gets to learn from Blake Griffin every day. There’s plenty of reason to expect exciting things from him this year.

– Drew Mays

STRENGTHS

Last season, Detroit was a relatively weak offensive team. Without much in the way of offseason additions, that will likely be true again this season. Accordingly, the offensive strengths for the Pistons are Blake Griffin and their offensive rebounding. Barring injury, Griffin can carry this team offensively. He’s still that good.

Regarding the offensive glass, the Pistons were sixth in the NBA in offensive rebounding rate. What is a great way to boost an otherwise struggling offense? Get more chances. Any team with Andre Drummond will be good with that.

Defensively the Pistons were solid. They finished 12th in the league in both points allowed per 100 possessions and turnover rate and will need to at least repeat those numbers to vie for the playoffs.

– Drew Mays

WEAKNESSES

The offensive talent around Griffin. Detroit has been in the bottom third in points per 100 possessions and effective field goal percentage the previous three seasons. Reggie Jackson will need to be more good Reggie than bad Reggie, Kennard will need to build upon last year’s playoff performance, Rose will need to be effective and healthy and Doumbouya will need to add something. Of course, if Griffin’s knee flares up for an extended amount of time, it may not matter how everyone else plays.

– Drew Mays

THE BURNING QUESTION

Will the Pistons return to the playoffs in an improved East?

Even if Blake Griffin misses time, it still feels like the Pistons will slog their way to 38-40 wins. That’s just what they do. The question is, will that be enough to once again make the playoffs in a revamped East?

This writer’s guess is no. Every team above Detroit in the Eastern Conference last year will be relevant again this year, and several teams have legitimate reasons to believe they can be playoff teams. Detroit’s roster is thin. Coupled with the injury history of their core, it seems wise to take the field for that final playoff spot.

– Drew Mays

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Sacramento Kings 2019-20 NBA Season Preview

The Sacramento Kings are loaded with young talent ready to break out, but will any of them power the franchise to the postseason or will this be another almost-good season? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Sacramento Kings in this 2019-20 NBA Season Preview.

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Last season was a big step forward for the Sacramento Kings. And for Kings fans, it was a long time coming. For years, the forgotten sons of California have been the poster child for mediocrity in the NBA. They’ve had lottery finish after lottery finish with nothing to show for it — but that all changed last season.

Through the first couple of months of the season, the Kings even held a winning record. They ultimately finished the season at 39-43, but it was their best finish in over a decade and good enough for ninth in the Western Conference, just outside the playoff picture.

Still, no matter how you slice it, there were plenty of reasons for optimism in Sacramento — mainly, that De’Aaron Fox emerged as a budding superstar. In his second season, Fox firmly established himself as the Kings’ point guard and franchise cornerstone of the future. Marvin Bagley III also emerged as a core piece of the foundation, thus giving Sacramento two draft lotteries in a row that they seemingly got right.

The midseason acquisition of Harrison Barnes also showed that the front office is firmly committed to winning and changing the losing culture that has been prevalent in Sacramento. It should be another season of growth for the Kings and we should know a little bit more about them once this season gets underway.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

Shockingly, the Kings are one of the sweethearts of the NBA. They’ve got a great deal of young talent including Buddy Hield, Marvin Bagley and Harry Giles III, that latter of which is still somehow only 21. There is also strong support around them with Bogdan Bogdanovic and Trevor Ariza. But no one is more important to the Kings’ success than De’Aaron Fox – and if he continues to improve, they very well may qualify for the playoffs for the first time since 2006. But the Pacific Division will be super unforgiving and coming away with a division crown is next-to-impossible for 2019-20.

4th Place – Pacific Division

– Drew Maresca

The Kings finally showed signs of growth this past season, finishing just one spot short of the playoffs. They actually had a winning record at one point during the season. After years of being in the lottery and having nothing to show for it, it appears that they finally struck gold the past two drafts with De’Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley III. Their recent free-agent signings and trades have also made a lot of sense, something that couldn’t be said about the Kings for over a decade.

The real question is going be can they build off the success from last season and continue their upward trajectory. Even though their roster should be improved, there’s no guarantee that they make the playoffs or finish above .500. On paper, they should be able to build upon last season’s win total, but it’s possible that they might still be on the outside looking in. As long as they don’t take a step back though, that’s all that matters. But the Kings should be able to finish at least at .500 — that alone would be a huge victory for a growing franchise.

4th Place – Pacific Division

– David Yapkowitz

The excitement in Northern California is palpable when it comes to their Kings, as it should be. De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield make up one of the most dynamic backcourt duos in all of the NBA. Their pace is fast and calculated, scoring in bunches while also involving teammates. Bogdan Bogdanovic and Marvin Bagley III will bring the energy that’ll give everybody fits. Though the make-up of their rostered core has essentially stayed the same, they’ve added veteran presences to bolster the experience level. Trevor Ariza, Dewayne Dedmon, and Cory Joseph will help not only with development but also in the win column. Head coach Luke Walton’s stint with the Lakers didn’t go as planned like it once did with the Warriors — but we’ll see if Sacramento is the right fit with this promising group of players.

4th Place – Pacific Division

– Spencer Davies

The Sacramento Kings signed Harrison Barnes to a new four-year, $85 million contract. This is the biggest move the Kings made this summer in what was a relatively quiet offseason. That is admittedly a lot of money for Barnes, but I will give Sacramento credit for frontloading the deal so that Barnes will be making just $18,352,273 in the 2022-23 season, the final year of his contract. Sacramento has a surprising amount of depth and has balanced out the roster with an interesting mix of young and upcoming talent, along with some notable veteran players.

Adding Trevor Ariza is a nice move if he has some gas still left in the tank, especially considering only $1.8 million of his salary is guaranteed for next season. I also like the additions of Dewayne Dedmon and Cory Joseph. Between these three, the Kings have added some defensive punch, which the team was in serious need of. However, the team still lacks the top-end talent to contend for anything more than a bottom-end playoff berth in the loaded Western Conference.

4th Place – Pacific Division

– Jesse Blancarte

It has been 13 seasons since the Kings last made the postseason, think about that for a minute. Top draft picks like Brandon Roy, Andrew Morrison and Andrea Bargnani were the names being talked about in the draft when the Kings last saw a playoff game. It is time. The Kings have so much young talent ready to burst on to the NBA stage as stars, so it is time. Sacramento has a head coach now that should make it work. It is time. De’Aaron Fox should be an All-Star level guy this season. Buddy Hield and Harrison Barnes are exactly the right counter punches to Fox — plus they have size and athleticism, and added some solid veterans to anchor the team. It is time. With the Warriors hobbled with injury, there is a window for the Kings. It’s time.

3rd place – Pacific Division

– Steve Kyler

FROM THE CAP GUY

The Kings used cap room to add veterans like Trevor Ariza, Cory Joseph and Dewayne Dedmon to a young team that wasn’t far from making the playoffs in the Western Conference last season. The team still has $4.8 million to spend via the Room Exception. Sacramento has 14 guaranteed players, suggesting the final standard roster spot will be fought for by Tyler Lydon, Isaiah Pineiro and Eric Mika.

Looking ahead, the Kings need to pick up team options on Marin Bagley, De’Aaron Fox, Caleb Swanigan and Harry Giles before November. Buddy Hield is eligible for a contract extension before the season, which is reportedly under discussion. If Hield does get a sizable deal, the Kings may not have significant cap room next summer.

– Eric Pincus

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Buddy Hield

Buddy Hield struggled a bit when he was first traded to Sacramento, but now he’s developed into one of their major building blocks. Last season, his third in the NBA, Hield had his best year yet. He started all 82 games while putting up 20.7 points per game on 45.8 percent shooting from the field, 42.7 percent from the three-point line, plus 5.1 rebounds and 2.5 assists.

When the Kings initially traded for him as part of the DeMarcus Cousins trade, owner Vivek Ranadive famously proclaimed that he had Stephen Curry potential. Now Hield is no Curry, of course, but he’s a talented offensive player in his own right. He’s expanded his game to the point where he’s more comfortable putting the ball on the floor and making plays off the dribble. Entering his fourth season, and with a potential contract extension looming, look for him to take another step forward and establish himself as one of the league’s top perimeter scorers.

Top Defensive Player: Dewayne Dedmon/Trevor Ariza

I’ve got to go with two players for this category. Both new additions, Dedmon and Ariza will bring plenty of value to the Kings, especially on the defensive end. Dedmon is likely going to be the starting center and a good fit next to Bagley in the frontcourt. He isn’t particularly quick, but he is mobile enough to be a deterrent at the rim when opposing guards attack the basket, plus a decent man defender in the paint.

Ariza may be getting up there in age, but he is a veteran guy who still can be a positive on the defensive end and cover multiple positions. It’s currently unclear how much Ariza will actually be deployed, but what the Kings really need from him is to be a defensive leader. Or, Ariza’s role should be someone who will help set the tone defensively and cause a ripple effect trickling down to the rest of the team. He spent last season shuffling between lottery teams in Washington and Phoenix and, now on a team looking to win, his defensive mindset should really stand out.

Top Clutch Player: De’Aaron Fox

Hield may be the Kings’ best offensive player at this moment — but with the game on the line, there’s nobody else on the team who you would want the ball in the hands of over Fox. Two years ago as a rookie, Fox hit several game-winners and stepped up in late-game moments. He proved he wasn’t afraid of the moment and he’ll continue to be the player the Kings will trust with the game on the line.

Part of what makes him so dangerous in crunch time situations is that he can make the right play. In the clutch, the correction option isn’t necessarily shooting the ball. Sometimes the best move is reading the defense and making a play for someone else on the team. Fox is a solid playmaker and, in late-game situations, he’s that much more difficult to defend in that he could create a shot for himself or find a teammate for a better look. Look for him to continue his growth and cement a reputation as one of the league’s best clutch players.

Top Playmaker: De’Aaron Fox

Just like the Kings will want the ball to be in Fox’s hands late in the fourth quarter, they’ll also want the ball in his hands throughout the majority of the game. As mentioned before, Fox has the ability to make the correct play whether that’s as a scorer or as a facilitator, and the young guard is always willing to get his talented teammates involved.

One area that Fox excels in is in transition. He’s incredibly quick on the break, and he’s constantly got his head up looking to see who’s running with him. If you get out on the break with Fox, there’s a high chance he’ll find and get you an easy look at the rim. He averaged 4.4 assists per game as a rookie, and he almost doubled that last season with 7.3. He’s got all the tools to solidify himself as one of the NBA’s elite playmakers.

The Unheralded Player: Marvin Bagley III

It’s hard to imagine a player who was a top-two pick in the draft being unheralded, but here we are. While Luka Doncic, and to a lesser extent, Trae Young, dominated the top rookie conversation last season, others, including Bagley, had great years. He may have been hit with injuries at key times last year, but he still averaged 14.9 points per game on 50.4 percent shooting and 7.6 rebounds. And that was with him coming off the bench.

Bagley should be the team’s starting power forward from day one. He is already a solid scorer in the paint, but where he stands to improve is his shooting. He’s a pretty good shooter from mid-range, but he can really add another dimension to the Kings offense by becoming a more consistent three-point shooter. He could also become a better player on the defensive end of the floor, where he has the tools to be a player who can guard multiple positions. With increased minutes this season, expect him to take a bigger leap in year two.

Best New Addition: Cory Joseph

The addition of Joseph was big in that he gives the Kings a legitimate backup point guard who can give Fox a breather. Throughout his career, Joseph has been solid. He’s a player who knows his role and doesn’t try to overstep that. He runs the offense with the second unit and he provides a defensive spark off the bench. Needless to say, that’s all the Kings will likely ask him to do.

Fox hasn’t really had a reliable backup and now he does. Although facilitating and defense will be the main things he will be asked to do, Joseph can score if necessary. He’s a decent shooter from both mid- and three-point range. The Kings have a couple of other options offensively with the second unit, so Joseph will do a solid job quarterbacking them when the starters need a rest.

-David Yapkowitz

WHO WE LIKE

1. Harrison Barnes

Barnes is just a solid player that plays hard on both ends of the floor. When the Kings acquired him at the trade deadline last season, he immediately made an impact. His scoring might have dropped slightly from Dallas, but he wasn’t asked to do as much on the offensive end as the Mavericks needed him to do. He shot pretty well with the Kings too, 45.5 percent from the field and 40.8 percent from three-point range. Along with Fox and Hield, Barnes helps form a very good perimeter trio. He’s also capable of playing power forward in some small-ball lineups.

2. Richaun Holmes

Holmes has quietly become one of the better backup centers in the league. All teams need solid second units and the Kings did a good job this summer of solidifying their bench. Holmes is very active around the rim both offensively and on the defensive end. He’ll crash the glass for second shot opportunities, always ready to catch a lob. Defensively, he can protect the paint and alter shots when opposing players attack the rim. On the cheap, that’s an absolute win for Sacramento.

3. Harry Giles

Giles is the real wild card here on the roster. His potential development could be the key for Sacramento to really take another step forward. Of course, Giles missed his entire rookie year with an injury and then he started off predictably slow as he adjusted to the NBA game last season. As the campaign went on, however, he started to show glimpses of the player who was once considered a highly-touted prospect. He has a very versatile skill set that is perfect for a big man to thrive in today’s NBA. Alongside Bagley as well, the Kings are in a great position for youthful big men.

4. The Kings’ Front Office

The Kings’ front office was once synonymous with incompetence. And even in the early days of Vlade Divac, both as the general manager and president of basketball operations, they still made some very questionable decisions. But in the past two years or so, they’ve actually put forth some great moves. Even better, their drafting has seemingly been spot-on. Their free-agent acquisitions have been wise and thrifty. The trades they’ve made have made sense. Hope springs eternal in Sacramento and this front office led by Divac is a big reason why. The Kings finally showed improvement on the court last season — let’s see if it will all continue in harmony.

-David Yapkowitz

STRENGTHS

Wing scoring, that’s a major point of strength for the Kings. The trio of Fox, Hield and Barnes have the potential to be one of the most lethal scoring units in the league out on the perimeter. All three shoot at 45 percent or better from the field, as well as 37 percent or better from the three-point line. They all can create their own shot, and Hield is rapidly improving in that regard. Simply put, they’re players that you can give the ball to and be comfortable as they try to generate some offense. Best, all three are relatively young too with their best basketball ahead of them. Laugh now, but don’t be surprised if we’re talking about this group quite a bit this season when it comes to perimeter scoring.

-David Yapkowitz

WEAKNESSES

Defense was still a major issue for the Kings last season, and they’ll need to improve in that regard if they want to seriously enter into that upper echelon in the Western Conference. Thankfully for them, some of their new additions should help in that regard. Ariza, Dedmon, Joseph, and Holmes are all capable defenders. They’re also going to be coming off the bench, with the exception of Dedmon who will likely start. Barnes is a good defender in the starting lineup, but it’s going to take a collective effort from each starter to be a better defensive team.

-David Yapkowitz

THE BURNING QUESTION

Will the Kings finish with a winning record?

Sacramento actually had a winning record early in the season. They only finished two games under .500. With continued development from their core guys and the impact of their new free-agent additions, yes, the Sacramento Kings will finally finish the season with above .500 for the first time in over a decade. Will it be good enough, however, to make the playoffs? That remains to be seen as the Western Conference has plenty of good teams. But an injury here or there on another team and that winning record could come with a Sacramento appearance in the postseason.

-David Yapkowitz

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NBA

Miami HEAT 2019-20 NBA Season Preview

The Miami HEAT landed a star in the off-season and were able to right-size their roster in the process, but the question is will that be enough for the HEAT to be more than a middle-tier playoff team? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Miami HEAT in this 2019-20 NBA Season Preview.

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The post-Lebron era of the Miami HEAT has seen the team stuck in a cycle of being competent enough to compete for the playoffs, but not talented enough to take the next step. The team has only made it out the first round once in the past five seasons when they lost in the Eastern Conference semi-finals to the Toronto Raptors in the 2016 NBA Playoffs.

Head coach Erik Spoelstra has been a mainstay, and the team staying somewhat competitive can be largely attributed to his stewardship. After a shaky transition season following James’ departure, Spoelstra helped mold a defensive identity for the HEAT, as the team has finished in the top ten in defensive rating in each of the last four seasons.

After a brief detour to Chicago and later Cleveland that started in the summer of 2016, the prodigal son Dwyane Wade returned to Miami during the 2017-18 season and rode off into the sunset with his farewell tour last season. Wade’s retirement signaled the end of an era, and the HEAT wasted no time in transitioning to their next chapter.

In a blockbuster move, the HEAT agreed to a sign-and-trade with the 76ers, receiving Jimmy Butler and Meyers Leonard in a four-team deal. Hassan Whiteside and Josh Richardson were sent out of Miami as a result, going to Portland and Philadelphia, respectively.

The HEAT will now revolve around the enigmatic Butler and begin their journey towards the Eastern Conference playoffs. Their advancement through those playoffs may come down to the rest of their roster, and what names it is comprised of as the season goes on.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

Jimmy Butler and Pat Riley finally had their wishes granted. The former wanted to be the number one option on a team, while the latter desired to have a superstar name leading his. Butler should have no problem playing next to Goran Dragic, a longtime heady veteran point guard who should bring a reliable secondary presence as a distributor and scorer. With Hassan Whiteside gone, Bam Adebayo is poised to have a breakout season with more minutes and an improved playmaking skill set. The same goes for Justise Winslow, who was tremendous with the ball in his hands last year. Tyler Herro’s rookie season could be a fun one to watch if the summer league was any indication of his true abilities. Don’t forget that Dion Waiters is on his way back as well. Erik Spoelstra’s bunch has grinded through the post-Big 3 days, but this offseason has the potential of taking the HEAT out of basketball purgatory and into a postseason run in the Eastern Conference.

1st Place – Southeast Division

– Spencer Davies

The HEAT have more talent than they get credit for. Jimmy Butler, Goran Dragic, Tyler Herro and Justise Winslow are all very nice pieces. They also have among the best Coach-GM/President combination in the league in Erik Spoelstra and Pat Riley. But let’s not get too excited – while their division is theirs for the taking, there will be more than enough competition for them in the Eastern Conference. The HEAT are going to have to either add more talent, or a number of their players will have to have career years to secure a top-four playoff seed (and maybe to secure one at all). Fortunately for the HEAT, at least Bam Adebayo intends on doing just that with the starting center position his for the taking. If Adebayo has a breakout year, the HEAT could be more dangerous than most people expect.

1st Place – Southeast Division

– Drew Maresca

The HEAT made one of the biggest moves of the offseason by bringing in Jimmy Butler. Butler gives Miami a true superstar and go-to player. With the pieces already in place, Butler’s presence should be enough for a return to the postseason for the HEAT. One of the bigger storylines for the HEAT this season is going to be the development of Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro. Adebayo seems like one of the best kept secrets in the NBA. He’s emerging a potential double-double threat and an elite defensive player. Herro had a great summer league and figures to be in the rotation right away as a rookie due to his sharpshooting from three. The next big question is Dion Waiters. He’s missed significant time since arriving in Miami due to injuries, having played in a total of 120 games over three seasons. If he’s healthy and ready to go, there should be playoff basketball in South Beach.

1st Place – Southeast Division

– David Yapkowitz

Miami made one major move this offseason – a four-team deal involving the Philadelphia 76ers, Los Angeles Clippers and Portland Trail Blazers. Among other things, the deal resulted in the HEAT trading Josh Richardson to the 76ers and Hassan Whiteside to the Portland Trail Blazers, while Miami received Jimmy Butler on a four-year, $140,790,600 contract (player option in the final season via sign-and-trade from the 76ers) and Meyers Leonard. Miami is taking a gamble that Butler can be the number one guy at age 30 and that Richardson won’t be a major loss. Butler will need to help Miami draw more talent in the future since this team as constructed doesn’t have enough top-tier talent to realistically make a run to the NBA Finals in the Eastern Conference this season. Miami is often a free agent destination, so it may end up working out for the HEAT. Overall, I think Miami had a pretty decent offseason, but I’m not convinced acquiring Butler is going to benefit the HEAT in the long-term, especially with Richardson now playing in Philadelphia.

1st Place – Southeast Division

– Jesse Blancarte

For some time the Miami HEAT have been a scrappy team just good enough to be in the playoff hunt, but lacking the star power to close the deal. That changed with the arrival of Jimmy Butler this summer. Not only did the HEAT get the star they long coveted, but they also dumped off a ton of salary that wasn’t productive and did so without giving up incoming rookie Tyler Herro or veteran guard Goran Dragic. It is easy to overlook Miami with the sheer volume of star movement, but the HEAT were almost good before they got Butler, and they got Butler. While there are still lots of questions surrounding how this all fits together, Miami looks like a sleeper team to sneak into the top four in the East, and that would be impressive considering they did not have to bottom out to get there.

1st Place – Southeast Division

– Steve Kyler

FROM THE CAP GUY

The HEAT pulled multiple strings to acquire Jimmy Butler via sign-and-trade from the Philadelphia 76ers. The move locked in a hard cap at $138.9 million, which required Miami to shed contracts just to make the Butler deal legal. The team is still very close to that limit with 17 players, five on non-guaranteed contracts, although Duncan Robinson appears to be a lock to make the roster with $1 million of his $1.4 million minimum contract guaranteed. Kendrick Nunn also has $150,000 guaranteed.

The HEAT have their full Mid-Level ($9.3 million) and Bi-Annual ($3.6 million) Exceptions, but the hard cap restriction may force them to go unused, unless the team finds a significant cost-cutting trade. Players on the last year of their contracts like Goran Dragic ($19.2 million) and Meyers Leonard ($11.3 million) could be moved if Miami can find a suitor.

Miami also needs to pick up the team option on Bam Adebayo before November.

– Eric Pincus

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Jimmy Butler

The HEAT finished 26th in offense last season and have struggled to reach league average over the last five seasons. They put their chips on the table this summer to acquire a player who could help reverse that trend in Jimmy Butler.

Butler, a maestro in the pick-and-roll and a solid pull-up shooter, will have the ball in his hands quite often and will be asked to conjure up quality looks for the HEAT offense whenever he is on the court. He is an elite isolation scorer, scoring 1.01 points per possession out of those plays last season, per NBA.com.

The HEAT roster will be conducive to the pick-and-roll and isolation heavy offense that Butler prefers. They have constructed the roster with multiple players who will be content to expend their energy on defense while spacing the floor on the other end.

This will be Jimmy’s team, and the offense will be his to control. If you need any further proof of his credentials, just remember his nickname, Jimmy Buckets.

Top Defensive Player: Bam Adebayo

There are a few options on the HEAT roster to choose from here. Butler has been a consistently strong defender throughout his career, but his large offensive burden and age may lead to a slip on that end. Considering the center position is usually the most impactful defensive position, Adebayo figures to be the HEAT’s lynchpin.

With Whiteside now in Portland, the third-year player will be asked to control the middle. The third-year player has the tools to patrol the paint; he is bouncy and possesses a seven-foot-one wingspan, and the HEAT will hope his instincts continue to improve as he gains more experience.

The HEAT allowed 2.4 fewer points per 100 possessions with Adebayo on the court compared to him off last season, per Cleaning The Glass. This gap could be even larger this season, without the alternation of minutes with Hassan Whiteside.

Top Playmaker: Jimmy Butler

Butler will be not only the HEAT’s best scorer, but their best playmaker as well. Perhaps it is overshadowed by his isolation effectiveness, or perhaps it is a product of his tendency to be embroiled in locker room drama, but Butler seems to be underrated in regards to his creation for teammates.

His assist percentage has been consistently in the top 10 percent of the league for his position over the last four seasons, per Cleaning The Glass. His passing out of the pick-and-roll is a particular strong point, and he possesses the vision to find teammates on the weak side of the court when controlling the ball in these sets.

In each of the last two seasons, both Minnesota and Philadelphia have shot significantly better as a team with Jimmy Butler on the court. Both saw the biggest improvement in their shooting percentage with shots at the rim, per Cleaning The Glass. Butler should have the same effect in Miami, where his driving and passing ability can lead to open lobs and three-point attempts.

Top Clutch Player: Dion Waiters

Dion Waiters will reprise his role as the sixth man this season, armed with irrational confidence and a deadly step-back jumper. His fearlessness in big moments makes him a go-to option for the HEAT in the waning moments of a tight game.

Yes, Jimmy Butler hit multiple huge shots and a couple of buzzer-beaters last season. Waiters, however, shot 51.4 percent in the clutch two seasons ago, his last fully healthy season. For comparison, Waiters’ field goal percentage overall was a mere 39.8 percent. To say the Syracuse product raised his game in the clutch would be an understatement.

After an injury-plagued 2018-19 campaign, Waiters will be hungry to once again take the stage in the final minutes. If the ball ends up in his hands down the stretch, he may just break a few hearts.

The Unheralded Player: Goran Dragic

Goran Dragic is often overlooked as the offensive engine for this team. Two seasons ago, Dragic was the team’s lead ball-handler and helped power the offense just enough to make the playoffs, as the HEAT finished sixth in the East. Last season, Dragic missed extended time with injury, and the offense slipped as a result.

Now, the Slovenian is expected to be healthy for the upcoming season. Albeit with a reduced role, Dragic will still be a very important player for this HEAT team.

In the few games he played last season, Dragic had a profound effect on the team’s transition offense. The HEAT scored 124.2 points off of 100 transition plays coming from a live ball rebound with Dragic on the court, compared to just 99.3 points per 100 plays with off, per Cleaning The Glass.

Dragic will push the pace and help the HEAT generate easier looks, something they may sorely miss when Butler is resting.

Best New Addition: Jimmy Butler

With apologies to Meyers Leonard, this designation can only be given to one person. Butler is the best offseason acquisition that the HEAT has made since the summer of The Decision when LeBron James took his talents to South Beach.

As mentioned above, Butler will immediately be the fulcrum of the HEAT offense, and the team will run through him on that end. Butler is no slouch on the defensive end, and he should guard the opposing team’s best wing player when the games matter most.

All in all, Butler is a four-time All-Star, a four-time All-Defensive Team selection, and two-time member of the All-NBA Third Team. He will command attention on and off the court, and the team’s postseason hopes will rest on his shoulders.

– Quinn Davis

WHO WE LIKE

1. Erik Spoelstra

Erik Spoelstra is the second-longest tenured coach in the NBA, behind only the legendary Gregg Popovich. He was hired by the HEAT at the end of the 2007-08 season and has been manning the sidelines ever since. He helped lead the team to two NBA championships with the Big Three and has firmly cemented himself as of the league’s premier head coaches.

A sign of a great coach is the ability to mold a team’s identity to fit the personnel, and Spoelstra has done just that. During the Big Three era, he propelled the team to new heights and ushered in the small-ball era by moving LeBron James to the four, with Chris Bosh playing as a stretch five. He also employed a frenetic, trapping defense that played to the strengths of both James and Dwyane Wade.

In recent years, Spoelstra has changed his defensive scheme to fit the more conventional center in Hassan Whiteside and has kept his team near the top of the league in that department. He also has moved to a more free-flowing offense featuring a heavy dose of dribble-handoffs, due to a roster lacking elite isolation scorers and pick-and-roll players.

With the new additions for this season, Spoelstra will likely have some new wrinkles planned. History tells us that he will be able to push the right buttons.

2. Meyers Leonard

After spending the first seven years of his career with the Portland Trailblazers, Leonard will now suit up win Miami after being included in the four-team Jimmy Butler trade. While all of the focus has rightfully been on the Butler acquisition, Leonard will also be a solid contributor to the HEAT this season.

Leonard was a beacon of efficiency last season in Portland. He shot 46 percent from three last season on 107 attempts, and 76 percent from the rim on 83 attempts. While the volume is a bit low, the accuracy is elite. If Leonard can continue to be an elite floor spacer off the bench for Miami, he will be a valuable bench piece going forward.

3. Justise Winslow

Winslow, a member of the HEAT since the 2015-16 season, has improved each year he has been in the league. Last season, he reached his highest usage and was at his most efficient since entering the league.

Most encouraging has been his three-point percentage jump. After laying bricks in his first two seasons, Winslow has shot 40 and 38 percent from deep in his two most recent campaigns. His usage will likely decrease as Jimmy Butler will have the ball often, so his efficiency may rise even further.

The Duke product also brings value on the defensive end. He is a strong, physical defender that can guard 1-3 and even some small fours effectively. The HEAT were 3.7 points per 100 possessions stingier with Winslow on the court, per Cleaning The Glass. He will be a key piece this season and will likely be asked to do the heavy lifting on defense so Butler can reserve his energy for the other end.

4. Tyler Herro

The rookie from Kentucky was selected 13th by the HEAT in the 2019 draft and, after a standout Summer League performance, figures to be a factor in the rotation this season.

He averaged 19.8 points, 4.5 rebounds and 4.3 assists in the Las Vegas circuit. His efficiency was a bit low – he shot 33 percent from deep and 42 percent overall – but that can be attributed to his role as the focal point of the HEAT’s Summer League offense and attracting the most defensive attention.

As a bench piece this season, Herro will mostly be asked to knock down spot-up looks, which was a specialty of his in college. He also has a good handle, is a nifty passer and is able to attack closeouts and make plays off the dribble.

He will be a work in progress on the defensive end, but he projects to be a nice role player for this HEAT team and could take on a larger role as a secondary playmaker as he matures.

– Quinn Davis

STRENGTHS

There is no shortage of veteran leadership in Miami, where the team boasts several experienced players that should make for a strong locker room. Udonis Haslem will return for another season after mulling retirement, and he brings a respected presence. Jimmy Butler, while not without his past drama, is a respected veteran who will command attention. He took on a mentorship role in his stint in Philadelphia last season, and he should do the same with the likes of Justise Winslow, Tyler Herro and Kendrick Nunn next season. Former MMA fighter James Johnson will also bring a battle-scarred presence to the team.

Additionally, the team will be strong on the defensive end as long as Spoelstra is at the helm. They have the personnel to be in the top 10 for the fifth straight season and could shoot even higher if Butler brings consistent effort and Adebayo continues to improve.

– Quinn Davis

WEAKNESSES

Outside of Jimmy Butler, the team may have trouble creating quality looks on offense. Dion Waiters is a likely candidate to take on playmaking duties while Butler rests, but his passing leaves a little to be desired, and he tends to be rather streaky.

Goran Dragic is another that some may point to as a potential creator, but his explosiveness continues to wane as he ages. Dragic also missed about half of last season due to injury, and the HEAT will need him at full strength if he is to carry some of the offensive load.

Another issue could be the rim protection behind Bam Adebayo. The HEAT rounds out their big man rotation with Kelly Olynyk and Meyers Leonard, both of whom have not provided much resistance at the rim in their careers. While this weakness may be mitigated with some creativity from Spoelstra, it is certainly something to monitor as the season plays out.

– Quinn Davis

The Burning Question

Will the HEAT add a second star this season?

The NBA summer of 2019 was defined by superstar duos. Anthony Davis was traded to the Lakers to pair with Lebron James, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George moved mountains when it was announced they would both be suiting up for the Clippers, and Russell Westbrook was traded to the Rockets to form an electric backcourt with James Harden.

The HEAT, meanwhile, traded for Jimmy Butler, and have since been rumored to be in the running for any and all available superstars to form a duo of their own. They were rumored to be the leader for Westbrook before Houston was able to outbid them.

After Chris Paul was sent to Oklahoma City as part of that trade, many pegged the HEAT as a top suitor for the future Hall of Famer. Paul’s gargantuan salary makes trading him a tall task, as the HEAT do not currently have much cap flexibility. It is also unclear how much the HEAT value Paul as a second superstar considering his age and slip in production last season.

With Butler in the fold, the HEAT figure to be a competitive group, but without a significant acquisition, they will struggle to keep pace with the elites. At a glance, the options they could add in the short term are limited. Bradley Beal is typically mentioned as the star who needs a change of scenery, but the Wizards have made it clear that they are not interested in moving him at this time.

It seems unlikely that a second star will suit up for Miami this season, but the NBA is a fluid environment. One locker room incident or a sluggish start to the season could lead to a trade request from Beal or another major name before the deadline. The HEAT is also helmed by master negotiator Pat Riley, who orchestrated the formation of the Big Three in 2010. He will leave no stone unturned in the quest for a title.

– Quinn Davis

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