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NBA Rookie Extensions: Kawhi Leonard

The Spurs are certain to extend Kawhi Leonard, right? Here’s why that might not be the best idea.

Nate Duncan

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The 2014 rookie-extension class is one of the most interesting in several years due to the high number of quality players entering their fourth seasons. As most readers likely know by now, teams have until October 31 to reach extensions with first-rounders entering their fourth seasons or the players become restricted free agents next summer. This year, many of these players fall into the fascinating middle ground between total busts and obvious max outs, and their negotiations are further complicated by the unknown effect of the league’s recently-announced new TV deal.*

*Teams and agents may also be waiting for additional clarity as the league and union discuss how to avoid too much shock to the system from the new money.

Over the next couple weeks, we will take a look at some of the more interesting cases, beginning with a player whose negotiations are a lot more interesting than they would appear at first blush.

Kawhi Leonard
Age: 23 (June 29, 1991)
Drafted: No. 15
2013-14 PER: 19.43
2013-14 ORPM: 0.89
2013-14 DRPM: 2.13
2015-16 Cap Hold: $7,235,148

Potential storylines abound in the extension talks with the third-youngest Finals MVP in NBA history. Kawhi Leonard has been called the San Antonio Spurs’ future by Gregg Popovich, and he is the only potential young star on the roster. Considering the fact that Gordon Hayward and Chandler Parsons, both inferior players to Leonard, received maximum deals as restricted free agents last offseason, a max extension may seem fait accompli to many.

On the other hand, the Spurs are widely perceived as consistently corralling their stars at below-market “unselfish” deals. Perhaps, some will think, that will result in Leonard doing the same. But those who don’t believe Leonard will seek to get his are ignoring quite a few factors. First, this is Leonard’s first big contract. By the end of his fourth season, he will have only pocketed about $8 million, about half of which was lost to taxes.

Second, Leonard is agent Brian Elfus and Impact Basketball’s biggest basketball client, per DraftExpress. Anything less than the max for Leonard (when it is widely perceived a foregone conclusion) might be seen as a failure, which is certainly a consideration for any agent.*

*This is not meant as a jab, it just acknowledges the reality of the situation for nearly any agent, whose job after all is to get the most money for their clients. For example, Enes Kanter’s agent Max Ergul is in a similar boat. Edit: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Mitch Frankel rather than Brian Elfus was Leonard’s primary agent.

Third, the Spurs’ “tradition” of getting players to take less money amounts to essentially only one contract, this latest three-year, $30 million pact with Tim Duncan. If you really look at the market and their performance at the time, previous contracts for Duncan (before 2012), Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili were market rate—they just turned into great deals as those players aged much better than expected. Expecting the Spurs to get Leonard to take less based on this “history” has little basis, especially considering those players had already made plenty of money and this is Leonard’s first big deal.

Thus, I think we can count on Leonard and his agent negotiating as hard as possible, as they should. But the Spurs did not get where they are by overpaying for players. Indeed, the fact that the two sides have yet to agree on an extension would indicate that they too are taking the negotiations seriously. In past years, we have seen five-year Designated Player maximum extensions for John Wall, Paul George and Kyrie Irving agreed to well before this point. If the Spurs had offered that, the deal would have been done already.

Despite the fact that Leonard is widely presumed to be worth the max on the open market, the Spurs have a number of reasons not to offer it at this point. Leonard is so good other teams may be loathe to offer him the max in the summer of 2015, tying up their cap space for three critical days knowing the Spurs will undoubtedly match. A matched contract would have lower 4.5 percent annual raises, a potential advantage to San Antonio in the later years of the deal as the cap rises. And if Leonard is not extended an offer sheet by another team, a la Eric Bledsoe this year, that could provide additional leverage for the Spurs to obtain a deal below the max next summer.

Waiting until next summer also allows the Spurs to offer a five-year contract without using up their Designated Player extension (although there are no potential candidates for it right now), or by offering a five-year contract for below the maximum.* A five-year contract locking up Leonard through age 29 at pre-TV increase rates could prove a big value for the Spurs by the end, and could also make Leonard’s deal more tradeable if needed.

*As the Denver Nuggets and Kenneth Faried found out, a five-year rookie extension must be for the max.

Moreover, as with any rookie extension, the Spurs will obtain more information on Leonard’s performance if they wait until the summer. There is little risk that his price tag will go up significantly given he is already projected as a max player. And there is some performance risk, either through injury or a lack of development offensively. It must be noted that, while Leonard has been one of the best complementary pieces in basketball the last two years, he has not shown much indication he can be a primary creator yet. We should not foreclose such a possibility, but it is by no means a foregone conclusion. The Spurs of course will not wish for anything to happen that would negatively impact Leonard’s value, but if they wait they are protected in case something does.

On the other hand, Leonard has little leverage if he waits. He would be footing the risk of injury or performance decline by doing so. And even if he gets to restricted free agency, the payoff may be marginal because he could have trouble getting an offer sheet—which would give him smaller raises anyway.

He only has two options at his disposal to create some leverage. One is potentially taking the qualifying offer, as Greg Monroe did this year. But Monroe seems very unhappy in Detroit; it seems unlikely Leonard would take such a risk to get out of San Antonio. The scarier option for the Spurs would be the specter of a Chandler Parsons-style offer sheet, three years for the maximum with a player option for the third year. The Spurs are no doubt hoping to lock up Leonard for the maximum number of years to get value on the back end as the cap rises—being forced to match the Parsons three-year offer (which they almost certainly would) allows Leonard to either leave or force a re-signing at cap-inflated market rate after two years in 2017. Unfortunately for Leonard though, getting another team to make such an inevitably-matched offer could be easier said than done. The Spurs also may be hesitant to upset him through perceived low-balling, but that is probably less a concern than on other teams with worse cultures.

Now consider the Spurs’ greatest reason to wait: Leonard’s free agent cap hold will be only $7.2 million this summer, less than half the $16 million or so he would occupy if he receives a max extension now. That extra cash could be critical if Duncan and Ginobili retire after the season. The Spurs may have a better internal idea of their plans than we do, but their age, health and the Spurs’ performance this year all render those future plans at least somewhat uncertain.

If Duncan and Ginobili play another year, the Spurs will not have a realistic path to cap space even if they do not extend Leonard. Even if those stars are immediately re-signed to an amount similar to their previous salaries, that would not create much cap room for the Spurs. And even that would likely be extinguished if Danny Green is re-signed.

AllCapHoldsSpurs
Let’s assume several things: The cap will be $69 million next summer, and $80 million in the summer of 2016. Those are obviously very rough and conservative estimates, but they track with some of the reporting by Larry Coon in this article, which indicates that the increase in the cap due to the TV deal may be smoothed into effect over a four-year period, resulting in approximately a $4 million per year increase on top of the “normal” cap increases. That will probably end up around $9 million per season starting in 2016-17. I included only the Spurs’ main players for this scenario in which the Spurs may try to lure free agents. Guys like Aron Baynes or Cory Joseph were left out because those players probably are not important enough to be retained at the expense of bigger fish. The 4-7 year maximum is computed based on a “cap” based on 42.14 percent of BRI rather than 44.74 percent. That’s why Leonard’s “25 percent max” is actually 24 percent of the actual cap to start.

Now, suppose Leonard is extended for the max, but Duncan and Ginobili announce their retirement. The Spurs still have little in the way of cap space. If Green and Marco Belinelli were renounced they might be able to squirm their way into fitting one maximum slot, but those are two valuable players the Spurs would be loath to renounce.

NoDuncanManuLeonardMax

But let’s say the Spurs wait to sign Leonard, allowing him to become a restricted free agent. Now they have an additional $9 million or so in cap space, almost enough for a maximum salary to a player with 4-7 years of experience.  Under this scenario, the Spurs would sign free agents up to the cap, then re-sign Leonard using his Bird rights, which would enable them to exceed it.

NoDuncanManu

Renouncing Belinelli gets them there, and Patty Mills could be traded to get up to about $20 million, close to max territory for more experienced players. With Parker, Green, Leonard, Boris Diaw, Tiago Splitter and possibly Mills, the Spurs might be a very attractive destination for members of the 2015 free agent class, which could include LaMarcus Aldridge, Al Jefferson, Brook Lopez, Roy Hibbert, Paul Millsap, Luol Deng, any other 2011 draftees who do not sign extensions and others. The Spurs could also add a few lesser free agents to build their depth and remain competitive while trying for a bigger splash when the cap goes up much further in 2016. Replacing Duncan and Ginobili with players of that caliber could enable the Spurs to remain right in the championship mix.

The Spurs have a lot of leverage and some very good reasons for waiting on a deal. On the other hand, Leonard is, in the marketplace, a max player. Is there a middle ground? If the Spurs know Duncan and Ginobili plan to play next year, then that could be the impetus to get a deal done. But if not, Leonard would have to give up a lot of money in an extension to equal the potential lost opportunity in the summer of 2015 if the legends retire. Maybe the Spurs could offer a deal starting at the max but remaining flat or declining in salary rather than featuring the maximum 7.5 percent annual raises. But that would only save a few million per season at most on the back end of the deal, not the front, so it would not help in 2015. It seems unlikely Leonard would be willing to start much lower than the max, so there may not be a deal to be had here.

Perhaps the solution will be a wink-wink agreement on the structure of a deal once he becomes a free agent in 2015. Whether there is a preexisting arrangement or not, I think the best outcome here is Leonard re-signing in the summer of 2015, shortly after the Spurs have conducted their other free agent business, to a deal very close to – if not right at – the max. But unless he is willing to take a more significant discount than anticipated, it may not behoove the Spurs to extend him now.

Nate Duncan is an NBA analyst and attorney. He writes regular features for Basketball Insiders and chats weekly at 11 Eastern on Tuesdays.

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Buy Or Sell: Central Division

Drew Mays continues Basketball Insiders’ “Buy Or Sell” series by taking a look at the Central Division.

Drew Mays

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It’s Dec. 12, and we’re over a quarter of the way through the 2019-20 NBA season. More importantly, we’re three days away from the 15th – the day much of the league because trade-eligible.

By now, teams have a good idea of who they are and where they want to be in four months when the playoffs roll around. This means they also know something else: Whether what they have in the locker room is enough, if they’re missing a piece, or if their season is toast and they should wheel and deal before the February trade deadline.

These thoughts inspired the Basketball Insiders’ “Buy Or Sell” series. Matt John led us off a few days ago by breaking down the Northwest Division. Yesterday, Jordan Hicks batted second with the Southwest Division. Today we’ll be checking on the division with the hottest team in the NBA: The Central.

Milwaukee Bucks (22-3) – Buyers (?)

Can anyone stop Milwaukee? They’ve won 16 straight, 20 of 21, and haven’t lost since Nov. 8. While part of this stretch has involved beating up lesser teams — and winning games you’re supposed to isn’t a bad thing — undoubtedly the most impressive performance came last Friday at home against the Los Angeles Clippers. They won 119-91 and it was even uglier than that. Los Angeles was down nine at halftime and 25 after three quarters. The Bucks held the Clippers’ three offensive stars – Paul George, Kawhi Leonard and Lou Williams – to 15-for-39 shooting and forced them into 15 turnovers (LA shot 35 percent and committed 21 turnovers as a team).

What Milwaukee did to the Clippers isn’t an outlier, either. They’ve blitzed the entire league on both ends of the floor. They’re first in defensive rating, third in offensive rating and first in average margin of victory at 13.4 points. They aren’t just winning – they’re winning big. They have the best effective field goal percentage in the NBA and the second-best allowed on defense.

The Bucks are deep and have 12 guys that get significant minutes. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the only player above 30 minutes per game, with the rest of the roster falling in succession down to Robin Lopez’s 14.5 per. They’re shooting extremely well while still making the third-most threes per game in the league at 14.4. Nine different players make at least one every game.

Even scarier, Giannis keeps evolving. His three-point shooting volume has been a revelation – he’s taking five each night. He’s never taken more than three. And even shooting only 31.9 percent, the attempts in themselves (and Giannis’ willingness to shoot them) has opened up the offense more than ever before. It’s led to Antetokounmpo somehow topping his numbers from last season – he’s up from 27.7/12.5/5.9 to 30.9/13.2/5.5. Sheesh.

There’s a huge scoring drop off after Giannis, though. Only Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe and Brook Lopez join him in double figures. They could use another scorer or playmaker. People have long half-jokingly floated the idea of Chris Paul, but that seems unlikely. There may not be a player on the market worth chasing based on their needs.

Still, the lack of extra scoring punch behind the MVP might not even be an issue until the postseason. Until then, Milwaukee fans can enjoy the ride – the Bucks shouldn’t have worries for a while.

Indiana Pacers (16-9) – Buyers

After a slow start, Indiana has rejoined the upper cluster of the Eastern Conference. They’ve won nine of their last 12 and sit in the top half of the league in both offensive (15th) and defensive (10th) rating.

Like Milwaukee, Indiana boasts a ton of depth – they have nine regulars that play over 17 minutes per game. Malcolm Brogdon continues to be the Pacers’ engine, averaging 19.5/4.5/7.5. TJ Warren seems to have found his footing and Domantas Sabonis has been a beast, scoring 18.2 and grabbing 13.5 rebounds every night.

That said, the Pacers suffer a similar problem as the Bucks – they lack high-end talent. Their better part of the rotation is similar to Milwaukee’s non-Giannis top players; they’re useful, productive role players, but not guys you expect to beat teams with more star power.

This lends itself to Indiana being buyers over the next few months. They could add another on-ball threat to pair with Brogdon, thus making things easier for Sabonis and the assist-allergic Warren. TJ McConnell and the pair of Holiday brothers have performed admirably to this point, but no one in the conference is batting an eye at those three.

Of course, the Pacers already have a top-flight scorer and shot creator coming – Victor Oladipo. Oladipo has been out since January and is expected to return in the next few months.

Assuming he’s able to at all, it’ll take him time to get back to form. The likeliest scenario isn’t that the Pacers buy prior to the deadline, but that they continue rolling out their massive lineup and stay the course until their star returns.

Detroit Pistons (10-14) – Buyers

The Pistons are right where they want to be.

Well, maybe not. But after years of mediocre teams and 8th-seed finishes, seeing Detroit a handful of games under .500 and in the 9th spot in the Eastern Conference feels like home.

Detroit is 10th in offensive rating and 16th in defensive rating. Those numbers usually mean postseason appearances, especially in the weaker conference. A five-game losing streak in mid-November slowed their progress, but the 6-4 mark since Nov. 22 in about what you’d expect them to be.

But Blake Griffin has not looked like Blake Griffin. Maybe it’s injury-related, maybe it’s age-related. But a player of his caliber – especially coming off his sneaky-great 2018-19 – should regain form.

Andre Drummond is still doing Andre Drummond things. And as we detailed in October, Derrick Rose looks better than he has in years – he’s averaging 16.1 and 5.8 in just under 24 minutes per game.

The Pistons are buyers because the track record shows they don’t embrace the tank — Exhibit A: the Blake Griffin trade —  and their age. Some middling teams prefer to bottom-out and rebuild. Detroit has proven their propensity to just hang around, winning 38-42 games each year before getting trounced in the postseason. That’s admirable; it’s hard to win games in the NBA. Trying to do so, even with moderate success, isn’t a bad thing.

Detroit’s top scorers are Griffin (30), Rose (31), Drummond (26), Luke Kennard (23), Markieff Morris (30) and Langston Galloway (24). Kennard has been pretty good, but Galloway isn’t inspiring fear in anybody. Drummond, still relatively young, cannot be a A or B option as a scorer. Detroit went after the now 30-year-old Griffin a few years ago and Rose this past summer. Those are win-now, stay-relevant moves and there isn’t a lot of flexibility there.

Accordingly, it wouldn’t surprise to see Detroit try and get a few players leading up to February. The only player they might try to unload is the currently-injured Reggie Jackson – although it’s hard to imagine who would want him.

Chicago Bulls (9-17) – Sellers

It’s been repeated for months now: The Bulls, 9-17 and 11th in the Eastern Conference, are a disappointment. They talked up the playoffs preseason only to fall victim to the same prey as they did last year. The injuries have been less (although Otto Porter Jr. has been out since Nov. 8 and Lauri Markkanen has dealt with an oblique injury), but it hasn’t translated to wins.

Chicago’s defense has improved – they’re up to 12th in defensive rating – but their offense continues to be bottom-barrel, currently 26th in the NBA. The two though-to-be stars in Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen have struggled; LaVine has been up (49 points and 13 threes in Charlotte on Nov. 23) and down (5 points on 2-for-11 against Detroit on Nov. 20) offensively and rough on defense. Elsewhere, Markkanen has been outright disappointing by managing just 14.5 points per on 39.3 from the field and 32.7 from three-point range.

There have been reported internal riffs, plus tons of questions about head coach Jim Boylen, his fit for the job and whether the players respond to him.

Even if it gets better for the Bulls, it’s unlikely it does so in a way meaningful enough to meet preseason expectations. Chicago should be looking to sell, whether it’s Kris Dunn or players higher on the totem pole. The front office may not want to hear it, but there’d be a market for both LaVine and Markkanen.

Whether they explore that market or not remains to be seen.

Cleveland Cavaliers (5-19) – Sellers

The Cavaliers aren’t good, but we all expected that. They’re 29th in offense and 28th in defense, and they’ve won just one of their last 15 games – including their current eight-game losing streak.

Collin Sexton looks similar to his rookie year, except now his three-point shooting is down. Cedi Osman and Jordan Clarkson are both shooting 41 percent. Darius Garland is shooting 37.9 from the field, and leads the team with a putrid 2.8 assists per game.

That clip also shows us the reason the Cavaliers are maybe the biggest sellers of the trade period: Kevin Love.

Love’s numbers are down across the board. He’s averaging 15.7 and 10.5 rebounds per game on 43.8 percent from the field and 35.4 from three. Much of that can be explained by playing on a wholly uncompetitive team – other franchises want Love, a proven championship commodity who rebounds and stretches the floor.

Jason Lloyd of The Athletic reported today that Cleveland was seeking a first-round pick in exchange for Love. Lloyd also mentioned the problem with Love: He’s more expensive than Oklahoma City’s Danilo Galinari, but the latter is on an expiring deal.

Still, Love is a valuable player, and somebody that contenders will jump at once the deadline nears and executives are pressed to make a move. Portland has long been tied to the forward, but their standing in the Western Conference will factor into their willingness to take him on.

Regardless, it would be shocking (and almost implausible) to see Kevin Love in Cleveland past Feb. 6.

December is a big month for basketball – the Christmas day games are the most-watched regular season event on the NBA’s calendar. But something even more important than those matchups is only three days away, when much of the league becomes trade eligible.

Dec. 15 starts the race to Feb. 6. By then, we’ll know exactly who teams are as we look ahead to another NBA postseason.

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NBA Daily: Are The Sixers Building Around The Wrong Franchise Player?

Joel Embiid is the Philadelphia 76ers’ “crown jewel.” But as he and Ben Simmons struggle to coalesce in year three of their partnership, it bears wondering if Philadelphia is building around the wrong franchise player.

Jack Winter

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The latter half of the Philadelphia 76ers’ longest winning streak during the Joel Embiid era came while he watched from the bench.

It began in mid-March 2018 with a win at Madison Square Garden, and ended nearly a month later with a home beatdown of the Milwaukee Bucks that sent the Sixers streaking into the playoffs having won 16 straight games. Embiid fractured his face two weeks into that binge, making it easy to believe his team would tumble to the bottom of the postseason standings.

Philadelphia was tied in the win the column with the eighth-place Miami Heat at the time of Embiid’s injury. Nothing it had previously done suggested the team could keep from falling to the last playoff seed in the East without him. The Sixers were 16.1 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor in 2017-18, a team-high and one of the league’s biggest individual marks.

A soft schedule over the season’s last two weeks definitely helped Philadelphia thrive in spite of Embiid’s absence, and that’s how the streak was portrayed in the media by the time the playoffs started. It lasted one more game before the Miami HEAT beat the Sixers in Game 2 of the first round, after which Embiid returned.

But the breakneck, wide-open style of play his absence prompted from Philadelphia was impossible to forget last week, when Ben Simmons was unleashed again. The Sixers, coming off a dispiriting loss to the Washington Wizards, dropped 141 points on the Cleveland Cavaliers as Embiid nursed a sore hip.

Simmons was dominant in a way he hadn’t been all season, dropping a career-high 34 points and 7 assists on 12-of-14 shooting in just 26 minutes of play. He drained his second three-pointer, again from the corner, leading Brett Brown to later tell reporters that he wants Simmons launching at least one triple per game. Why?

“His world will open up,” Brown said after the game, “And, in many ways, so will ours.”

It’s become increasingly impossible of late to separate Simmons the player from Simmons the shooter. Philadelphia traded space and playmaking this summer to double down on size and defense, making the need for Simmons to develop any workable shooting range more dire than ever. Going on four years after he was drafted and three seasons into his career, it’s not like an expectation of him doing just that was asking too much.

But it just hasn’t happened nearly two months into the season, calling the Sixers’ viability as top-tier championship contenders into question. Simmons is 2-of-4 from three-point range and 4-of-9 on two-point jumpers outside the paint. Philadelphia relies on Embiid post-ups and pick-and-rolls for Josh Richardson and Tobias Harris in crunch time, leaving Simmons playing bystander in the dunker spot or weak corner as his teammates try their damndest to navigate a cramped floor with games on the line.

The Sixers rank barely above average in overall offensive rating, and worse in the clutch. Embiid and Philadelphia architect Elton Brand have received a fair share of criticism for their team’s relative struggles — especially offensively — in the season’s early going, but it’s Simmons who’s drawn the most ire.

The numbers, though, suggest Embiid’s impact is the one waning most. His net offensive rating has been overwhelmingly positive each of the last two seasons, but that hasn’t been the case in 2019-20. The Sixers are scoring at a bottom-five rate with Embiid on the floor, and a top-10 mark when he’s on the bench. Both his on and off-court offensive ratings are easy worsts among starters.

But the critical narrative surrounding Philadelphia’s offensive labors has largely ignored Embiid for Simmons regardless, and it’s not the media’s fault. Brown has made abundantly clear over the years that Embiid is his team’s franchise player, frequently calling him “our crown jewel” while citing his Hall-of-Fame ability on both sides of the ball.

Embiid isn’t tasked with tailoring his game toward Simmons’ nearly as much as the other way around, and understandably so. The former’s sheer size inherently limits both the flexibility and scalability of his offensive influence.

If Embiid isn’t the Sixers’ go-to guy, demanding post-ups and drawing double teams, just how would he function in the team construct? He’s way too talented to serve as a glorified floor-spacer, and his stroke hasn’t developed to the point he’d be well-suited for that role anyway. A similar line of thinking applies to making Embiid a rim-runner and vertical floor-spacer. He’s just too good, and not quite versatile enough, to prosper in a more confined offensive role.

The opposite dynamic applies to Simmons, at least for now. His most enticing attribute dating back to high school has been his adaptability. There are exceedingly few players standing 6-foot-10 capable of making the passes Simmons does, and fewer still who double as a disruptive defender of every position on the floor. He’s a Unicorn without the jumper, and his generational blend of size, athleticism and ball-handling genius portended inevitable skill development to come.

It hasn’t, for the most part, but focusing on that failure might be deflecting from an all-encompassing issue that continues to plague the Sixers. What if they’re building around the wrong franchise player?

The ongoing trajectory of the league lends credence to that notion. Simmons isn’t LeBron James or Giannis Antetokounmpo, but it’s not difficult to imagine an offensive attack molded to his similar strengths reaching heights one conformed to Embiid’s never could.

Philadelphia’s historic romp over Cleveland offered a glimpse into that alternate reality, just like its effectiveness this season with Embiid on the bench. Lineups featuring Simmons without Embiid boast an offensive rating of 114.4, comfortably above its overall mark, subsist on far higher diets of transition and three-point shooting, per Cleaning the Glass. The Sixers shoot better at the rim and from deep in that scenario, too, further evidence of Simmons’ sweeping effect without being forced to walk the ball up and Embiid clogging the paint.

Philadelphia, unsurprisingly, isn’t as stout defensively with those units on the floor. Embiid has been a defensive panacea during the regular season throughout his career. Improved conditioning is the only thing keeping him from winning Defensive Player of the Year, and he might win the award this season anyway.

Still, the same foibles that have long mitigated Rudy Gobert’s defensive influence in the playoffs apply to Embiid. A system built around a preeminent rim-protector with limited perimeter mobility can’t take away everything, and superior postseason competition generally means those low-value shots are more likely to drop. A switch-heavy scheme with a big like Al Horford playing center full-time, though? That’s a defense built for the playoffs, and one that would maximize Simmons’ gifts on that end — both on and off the ball.

This isn’t some cry for Philadelphia to blow it up – whether Simmons or Embiid would be the one on the way out. The Sixers’ ceiling is tallest with both on the roster, and it’s much too early to write them off as title contenders, this season or going forward. Neither Simmons nor Embiid are finished products; their pairing could still end up functioning at a championship level.

But if Philadelphia, quietly 6-1 in its last seven games, again starts underperforming, calls to trade Simmons will undoubtedly resurface.

And while that’s certainly a measure worth considering, it’s unfair to Simmons — and potentially destructive to the Sixers’ long-term title hopes — without at least broaching the same fate for Embiid.

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Buy Or Sell: Southwest Division

Jordan Hicks continues the Buy or Sell series with a look at the Southwest Division.

Jordan Hicks

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It’s absolutely crazy to think about how deep basketball already is into the regular season. Over 25 percent of the games have already been played, and certain teams are starting to separate themselves from the pack. In an NBA campaign that was supposed to be riddled with parity, there’s definitely a select few teams that are starting to leave the rest behind.

What’s more, on Dec. 15th roughly 90 percent of the NBA becomes tradeable. Yes, it’s that time of the year in which trade talks will start to pick up. Something needs to spice up mundane December and January games, and nothing does a better job quite like rumors.

The Southwest Division has been chock-full of surprises. For one, the Dallas Mavericks seem to be a legitimately solid franchise. The San Antonio Spurs, on the other hand, seem to be struggling for the first time in what seems like 175 years. The Houston Rockets continue to stay playoff eligible despite Russell Westbrook’s shooting woes. The New Orleans Pelicans are just begging for Zion Williamson to return from injury and lead them out of the darkness. And the Memphis Grizzlies – well let’s just say they’re doing about as well as anyone expected.

In continuing with Basketball Insiders’ Buy Or Sell series, let’s take a look at each franchise and discuss whether they are in the position to seek talent, or exchange talent for future assets.

Houston Rockets (15-8) — Buyers

Tilman Fertitta should hang a bright-red neon sign in Daryl Morey’s office with the phrase BUY-BUY-BUY lighting proceedings up. As is, the Rockets are not good enough to win a championship. They may be reputable — and their roster may contain two of the greatest offensive players we’ve ever seen — but this team is not the 2016-17 Houston team that was one Chris Paul hamstring away from an NBA Finals birth.

Russell Westbrook will be a Hall of Famer, but his inability to efficiently shoot the ball just kills this team. Everything he is bad at, Paul excelled in. And everything Russell is amazing at, Paul either had mastered or could at least perform at an above-average level. Currently, when Westbrook is on the court, the Rockets’ net rating is 1.9. When he’s off the court, their net rating is 12.8. That is a monumental swing and currently the largest gap out of any other player on the team.

It’s not hard to imagine Houston pushing their chips in even further come the wintertime — they’re far too committed not to.

Dallas Mavericks (16-7) — Buyers

Dallas has really overshot everyone’s expectations. Most people thought they’d have a decent season, but it’s safe to say very few had them penciled in as playoff hopefuls. The fact that they are more-or-less playoff locks a quarter into the season is mind-boggling. What makes them so good you ask? Some kid named Luka Doncic, maybe you’ve heard his name.

The Mavericks are way ahead of schedule development-wise, so they’d be fine to just stand pat this year, see where they end up and then make moves in the offseason. However, if Mark Cuban wanted to get crazy and try to do something this season, you’d have to consider Dallas as buyers.

They need at least one more scoring threat to make them dangerous to go deep in the playoffs. As is, only two players are averaging over 15 a game and only three average more than 10. To wit, Kristaps Porzingis isn’t shooting well and Tim Hardaway Jr. doesn’t necessarily strike fear into the opposition. Dallas has movable contracts but whether or not they are solid enough to give them a return they’d need is up in the air at this point.

San Antonio Spurs (9-14) — Sellers

The Spurs should be in full sell mode for the first time in a long time. The only problem is, they don’t seem to be operating that way. They guaranteed LaMarcus Aldridge’s contract for the 2020-21 season, which makes very little sense as he’ll be owed $24 million. Now with the extra year, it’s doubtful many buyers will be coming for him.

With Aldridge’s contract making him nearly unsellable, DeMar DeRozan should become San Antonio’s sole focus when it comes to transactions. The former All-Star has a player option worth $27 million next season, but the dude can still ball out. He’s leading the team in scoring shooting 50 percent from the field, averaging 4.8 assists and looking about as healthy as he has in a while.

Sure, it’s concerning he still hasn’t developed a three-ball, but there is no way there wouldn’t be at least five-or-so teams at the deadline willing to give up a first for DeRozan’s assistance — he’d provide instant offense.

New Orleans Pelicans (6-18) — Sellers

Just when it seemed like they started to figure winning out, they fell off a cliff. Back in November, they had won three straight and five of their last seven. Since then, they’ve dropped nine straight games. You could argue that five of those losses aren’t surprising, but that fact that they didn’t even muster a single win in that stretch is alarming.

Things will look up when Williamson comes back, there’s no doubting that, but New Orleans should seriously consider trading JJ Redick. There probably isn’t a postseason-bound team in the league that wouldn’t give up their first round pick next season for his services. He’s only owed $13 million next season and the veteran still very clearly has it. The Pelicans are not making the playoffs this season, so keeping Redick rostered makes little sense. If they can sell him before the break to a needy franchise, then they may just get more than only a single first-rounder.

Memphis Grizzlies (7-16) — Sellers

This writer is thinking it, you’re thinking it — heck the whole world is probably thinking it. Why haven’t the Memphis Grizzlies traded Andre Iguodala yet? Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer reported Tuesday that the Grizzlies are still set on trading Iguodala as opposed to a buyout. So what’s the hold-up?

The key is waiting for a team to become desperate. It will be surprising if Iguodala is still rostered with Memphis past mid-January, but, technically, crazier things have happened. The Grizzlies will be big-time sellers when it comes to Iguodala — and they may even look to move veteran Jae Crowder. But, like New Orleans, they are a young team looking to improve internally for the future.

This division has plenty of diversity. You have two playoff teams, two bottom feeders and one team that isn’t sure what their identity is anymore. Iguodala is almost a sure bet for being moved, but it also wouldn’t be surprising if there wasn’t another transaction in this entire division.

Still, as hopes begin to fade and dreams start to soar, the mid-season trade option remains a route for both buyers and sellers. Will Dallas or Houston fortify their squads? Should New Orleans look toward the horizon already? Needless to say, the Southwest Division has handed onlookers plenty of intriguing drama and storylines moving into the halfway point of the year.

Keep on the lookout for more divisions as we continue the Buy Or Sell series.

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