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NBA Sunday: Three Big Trade Deadline Buyers

Three NBA teams that are hoping to make huge trade deadline moves … Which team in the West can hope to upset OKC and San Antonio to get to the Finals?

Bill Ingram

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NBA Trade Deadline Buyers

This week will be a big one for Basketball Insiders and our readers. We’ve been working overtime putting together what will be a comprehensive 2014 NBA Trade Deadline Guide, which you can download from the iPhone App Store, Android App Store as well as online. Our team takes an in-depth look at all 30 NBA teams, detailing which ones are buyers, which ones are sellers and which ones are likely to stand pat. We also offer trade deadline insight from the player, agent and executive perspectives. As we anxiously await the publication of the magazine, let’s take a quick look at three teams that will absolutely be buyers as the last days before the deadline melt away.

First and foremost, we have the Phoenix Suns. They are, without a doubt, the most surprising team in the NBA this season, and they have let it be known that a playoff berth is not enough. They want to make some noise once they get there. Last week the Suns were pursuing Los Angeles Lakers forward Pau Gasol, though talks broke down because the Lakers reportedly wanted more than the Suns were willing to part with. The Suns have Emeka Okafor’s expiring, insured contract burning a hole in their pocket, and they were hopeful that the cap relief it represents would be a primary motivating factor for the foundering Lakers. Of course, Gasol’s contract is expiring, as well, so the Lakers wanted the Suns to send them one of their four coveted first round picks in this summer’s very deep draft. The Suns declined. It will be interesting to see if those talks resume before the deadline, or if the Suns decide to open a dialogue with one of the many teams now willing to move quality big men. Josh Smith, Greg Monroe, Larry Sanders, Omer Asik, Anderson Varejao, Carlos Boozer, Spencer Hawes and maybe even Brook Lopez are a few of the bigger names that are believed to be available. If the Suns could add a star-level big man to their front line they might just have enough talent to get to the second round.

Second, we have the New York Knicks working the phones in an attempt to add another star-caliber player alongside Carmelo Anthony. As much as the media loves to talk about the Knicks dealing Anthony himself, that just isn’t very likely to happen. Anthony wanted to be in New York, which is why the Nuggets worked to send him there in the first place, and his feelings about that haven’t changed. We recently saw a story where his comment that the most important thing was competing for a championship were taken somewhat out of context, and used to presume that Anthony would look for greener pastures as a free agent. What Anthony meant, of course, was that the most important thing is to win a championship with the Knicks. Where the Knicks would really like to make a radical upgrade is at point guard, which is why they have been connected to talks about Kyle Lowry and now Rajon Rodo. Toronto’s asking price was too high, as they hope to convince Lowry to be their long-term floor general, so the Knicks are hoping to convince Celtics GM Danny Ainge that Amar’e Stoudemire’s expiring contract will help them make a huge splash in the next big free agent class: 2015. One way or the other, the Knicks need to make a significant move at the deadline to show Anthony why he should re-commit to New York. If they can do that, it won’t be a hard sell at all.

Finally, the Charlotte Bobcats have been surprisingly good this season, and they too would like to make a big move to solidify their spot in the postseason. The team is hoping to re-engage their fan base with a return to the Hornets nickname, and a few postseason wins would certainly further that cause. Charlotte would love to move Ben Gordon, and might even be willing to send out Michael Kidd-Gilchrist to make a deal happen. The Bobcats are looking to improve their small forward position, and so have been connected to talks surrounding the Philadelphia 76ers’ Evan Turner. Turner would be a fabulous addition for the Bobcats, who, according to the Charlotte Observer‘s Rick Bonnell, do not believe they need to tank for another high draft pick as much as they need a taste of the postseason. If the Bobcats can land an upgrade on the wing they could be a tough out in the first round.

Once again, keep an eye on the site so you’ll know when our Basketball Insiders 2014 NBA Trade Deadline Guide drops and make sure you have the inside scoop on one of the most exciting days in sports.

Is There A Dark Horse in the West?

The Western Conference is by far the dominant conference in the NBA these days, with many of the Eastern Conference teams looking like they might really belong in the NBA Development League. Even in the West, however, there is a shortage of legitimate contenders, a list that might be just two teams long. Kevin Durant’s MVP season has helped the Oklahoma City Thunder to the league’s best record despite the absence of All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook. Meanwhile, the San Antonio Spurs have been decimated by injuries, yet continue to find ways to win. They have the second-best record in the West and expect to be back in the NBA Finals come June if they can get everyone healthy.

As good as the West is, does that sum up the entire list of legit contenders in the conference?

It would be a mistake to overlook the Portland Trail Blazers, though many were writing them off even when they had the best record in the West. They have the second-toughest schedule over the second half of the season, and that is starting to take its toll on the team. They came into the weekend as winners of just four of their last six games and need to right the ship quickly to avoid falling below the third seed. The Blazers are the most-improved team in the conference behind the strong improvement of Damian Lillard and a number of key offseason additions. There are still concerns that they are not deep enough, and that may prove to be their downfall if they don’t address that issue at the trade deadline.

As things stand today there may only be one team in the Western Conference that can hope to upset either the Thunder or the Spurs and escape the wild, wild West. We’re talking about a team that made a radical upgrade in the coaching department, has added great veterans to the bench and looks like the deepest team in the NBA. They have struggled with significant injuries, but they’re about to get healthy, and once healthy they should be ready to make a run towards the top.

We’re talking, of course, about the Los Angeles Clippers.

Of all the teams that changed head coaches over the offseason, none did as well the Clippers. Doc Rivers is to Vinny Del Negro what Scary Movie Part 10 is to Dances With Wolves. There really is no comparison. Darren Collison was a fabulous addition behind Chris Paul, JJ Redick is one of the best shooters in the game, and the more recent additions of Hedo Turkoglu and Sasha Vujacic make the Clippers one of the most lethal three-point shooting teams in the league. Then you add one of the best frontlines with DeAndre Jordan intimidating opposing players and controlling the glass and Blake Griffin putting up great numbers, as well as the shoe-in sixth man of the year in Jamal Crawford and the Clippers appear to have all of the pieces required to win a championship.

Nothing has been determined, of course, and if a team like the Houston Rockets or maybe even the Phoenix Suns can make a splashy move before the trade deadline they might make things more interesting. As things stand today, however, the LA Clippers appear to be the most intriguing Western Conference team outside of San Antonio and Oklahoma City, and with Chris Paul due back tonight it’s time for what looks great on paper to start dominating on the court.

NBA Chat with Bill Ingram

In case you missed my last NBA chat, find it by linking here! You can also go ahead and submit a question for this week’s chat, which you can find here! I make an effort to answer every non-repeat question, and early questions are virtually guaranteed to be answered, so drop yours in now!

Twitter Follows:  Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @AlexKennedyNBA, @TheRocketGuy, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @SusanBible @TommyBeer, @JabariDavisNBA , @NateDuncanNBA , @MokeHamilton and @YannisNBA.

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NBA Daily: Examining Michael Porter Jr.’s Ascension

Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. is averaging over 25 points per game and looks like a future All-NBA player. Bobby Krivitsky examines Porter’s ascent and the questions that come with it.

Bobby Krivitsky

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Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. has taken his game to new heights.

In the wake of Murray’s ACL tear in mid-April, Porter’s playing time has gone from 30.6 minutes per contest to 35.7, while his shots per game have risen from 12.6 per game to 16.5. The increased responsibility has fueled his ascent. He’s knocking down 56.3 percent of those attempts. He’s taking 8.2 threes per game and making a blistering 50 percent of them. As a result, Porter’s gone from averaging 17.5 points per game to 25.1. He’s also grabbing 6.1 rebounds and blocking almost one shot per contest.

At the time of Murray’s injury, the Denver Nuggets were in fourth place in the Western Conference. They remain there now, 9-4 in his absence, and they boast the eighth-highest net rating in the NBA.

The only way for the Nuggets to fall from fourth would be if they lost their four remaining games and the Dallas Mavericks won their final five contests because the Mavericks have the tiebreaker since they won the season series. On the more realistic end of the spectrum, Denver sits just 1.5 games back of the Los Angeles Clippers, who occupy the third seed in the West. The Nuggets won their season series against the Clippers, meaning they’d finish in third if the two teams ended the regular season with the same record.

There’s a bevy of questions surrounding Porter’s recent play that need to be asked but cannot get answered at the moment. That starts with whether this is anything more than a hot streak. While it’s impossible to say definitively, it’s reasonable to believe Porter can consistently and efficiently produce about 25 points per game. He was the second-ranked high school prospect in 2017 and entered his freshman year at Missouri firmly in the mix for the top pick in the 2018 NBA draft. That was thanks in large part to his offensive prowess as a 6-10 wing with a smooth shot that’s nearly impossible to block because of the elevation he gets when he shoots. 

A back injury cost him all but 53 minutes of his collegiate career and caused him to fall to the 14th pick in the draft. He ended up in an ideal landing spot, going to a well-run organization that’s also well aware of its barren track record luring star players looking to change teams, making it vital for the Nuggets to hit on their draft picks. 

Porter’s first year in the NBA was exclusively dedicated to the rehab process and doing everything possible to ensure he can have a long, healthy and productive career. Last season, finally getting a chance to play, he showed off the tantalizing talent that made him a top prospect but only took seven shots per game while trying to fit in alongside Nikola Jokic, Murray, Paul Millsap and Jerami Grant.

More experience, including battling against the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, an offseason, albeit a truncated one, to prepare for a more substantial role with Grant joining the Detroit Pistons and Millsap turning 36 this year, helped propel Porter. 

But for the Nuggets, before Murray’s injury, the perception was that even though they weren’t the favorites to come out of the Western Conference, they were a legitimate title contender. How far can they go if Porter’s consistently contributing about 25 points and over six rebounds per game while effectively playing the role of a second star alongside Jokic? 

It seems fair to cross Denver off the list of title contenders. But, if Porter continues to capably play the role of a second star alongside Jokic when doing so becomes more challenging in the postseason, the Nuggets can advance past a team like the Mavericks or Portland Trail Blazers. And at a minimum, they’d have the ability to make life difficult for whoever they had to face in the second round of the playoffs.

Unfortunately, the timing of Murray’s ACL tear, which happened in mid-April, means there’s a legitimate possibility he misses all of next season. Denver’s increased reliance on Porter is already allowing a young player with All-NBA potential to take on a role that’s closer to the one he’s assumed his whole life before making it to the sport’s highest level. If the Nuggets are counting on him to be the second-best player on a highly competitive team in the Western Conference next season, it’ll be fascinating to see what heights he reaches and how far they’re able to go as a team.

Theoretically, Porter’s growth could make it difficult for Denver to reacclimate Murray. But given Jokic’s unselfish style of play, there’s room for both of them to be satisfied by the volume of shots they’re getting. Unfortunately, the Nuggets have to wait, potentially another season, but Jokic is 26-years-old, Murray 24, Porter 22. When Denver has their Big Three back together, they could be far more potent while still being able to enjoy a lengthy run as legitimate title contenders.

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NBA Daily: D’Angelo Russell Back on Track

D’Angelo Russell lost much of the 2020-21 season to injury. Drew Maresca explains why his return will surprise people around the league.

Drew Maresca

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D’Angelo Russell was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves last February, just before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the entire season. But we’ve yet to see what Russell can really do in Minnesota.

The Timberwolves acquired Russell in late February in exchange for a future first-round pick – which transitions this season if they pick later than third – a 2021 second-round pick and Andrew Wiggins.

Sidenote: For those keeping score at home, the Timberwolves currently have the third-worst record in the league with five games remaining. It would behoove Minnesota to lose as many of their remaining games as possible to keep their 2021 pick. If the pick does not transition this season, it becomes unrestricted in 2020.

Trying to turn an owed pick into an unprotected future first is usually the wrong move; but in this instance, it’s better to keep the high first-rounder this year with an understanding that your 2022 pick will probably fall in or around the middle of the lottery.

The thinking around the deal was that Minnesota could qualify for the playoffs as soon as this season by swapping Wiggins’ contract for a young, talented lead guard in Russell. It has not played out as planned.

COVID resulted in a play stoppage shortly after the deal, robbing Russell of the opportunity to ramp up with his new team. When the NBA returned to finish the 2019-20 season, the Timberwolves failed to qualify for bubble play – and considering the US was still battling a global pandemic, Russell couldn’t easily practice with his new teammates and/or coaches.

The 2020-21 season began weirdly, too. The NBA proceeded with an abbreviated training camp and preseason. And while this impacted all teams, Russell was additionally hindered by the decision.

Ready or not, the season began. In 2020-21, Russell is averaging a near-career low in minutes per game (28.2) across just 36 games. He’s tallying 19.1 points per game on 43.6% shooting and a career-best 38.8% on three-point attempts. He’s also he’s posting a near career-best assist-to-turnover ratio (5.7 to 2.8).

Despite Russell’s contributions, the Timberwolves have failed to meet expectations. Far from the playoff squad they hoped to be, Minnesota is in contention for the top pick in this year’s draft. So what has gone wrong in Minneapolis?

Russell’s setbacks are fairly obvious. In addition to the lack of preparation with his teammates and coaches, Russell was diagnosed with a “loose body” in his knee, requiring arthroscopic knee surgery in February. As a result, he missed 27 consecutive games. Russell returned on April 5, but head coach Chris Finch revealed that he’d been on a minutes restriction until just recently.

Minnesota is clearly being cautious with Russell. Upon closer review, Russell has been restricted to under 30 minutes per game in all of his first 10 games back. Since then, Russell is averaging 31 minutes per game including an encouraging 37 minutes on May 5 in a four-point loss to Memphis.

Since returning from knee surgery, Russell is averaging 27 minutes per game across 16 games. Despite starting 19 of the team’s first 20 games, he hadn’t started in any game since returning – until Wednesday.

On the whole, Russell’s impact is about the same as it was prior to the injury, which should be encouraging to Timberwolves’ fans. He’s scoring slightly less (18.8 points since returning vs. 19.3 prior), shooting better from the field (44.9% since returning vs 42.6%% prior) and has been just slightly worse from three-point range (37.4% since vs. 39.9 prior). He’s dishing out more assists per game (6.5 since vs. 5.1 prior), too, and he posted three double-digit assist games in his last five contents – a feat achieved only once all season prior to his last five games.

Despite playing more and dropping more dimes, there’s still room to improve. Looking back to his career-bests, Russell averaged 23.1 points per game in 2019-20 in 33 games with Golden State (23.6) and 12 games with Minnesota (21.7).

But his most impactful season came in 2018-19 with the Brooklyn Nets. That season, Russell averaged 21.1 points and 7.0 assists per game, leading the Nets to the playoffs and earning his first trip to the All-Star game. He looked incredibly comfortable, playing with supreme confidence and flashing the ability to lead a playoff team.

At his best, Russell is a dynamic playmaker. The beauty of Russell is that he can also play off the ball. He has a quick release on his jumper and impressive range. His game is not predicated on athleticism, meaning he should stay at his peak for longer than guys like De’Aaron Fox and Ja Morant.

And while he’s been in the league for what feels like ever (six seasons), Russell just turned 25 approximately two months ago. Granted, comparing anyone to Steph Curry is unwise, but Curry wasn’t Steph Curry yet at 25. Former MVP Steve Nash hadn’t yet averaged double-digits (points) at 25. Twenty-five is also an inflection point for Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook. And the list goes on.

To be fair, Russell was drafted at 19 so he’s more acclimated to the league at this age than most, but his game will continue expanding nonetheless. He’ll develop trickier moves, become stronger and grow his shooting range. And a good deal of that growth should be evident as soon as next season since he’ll be fully healed from knee surgery and have a full offseason and training camp to finally work with teammates and coaches.

So while Minnesota’s 2020-21 season was incredibly bleak, their future is quite bright – and much of it has to do with the presence of Russell.

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NBA AM: Is This It for Indiana?

Following their major drop-off, Matt John explains why the Pacers trying to get back to where they were may not be the best decision.

Matt John

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Remember when, following the maligned trade of Paul George, the sky was the limit for the Indiana Pacers? The 2017-18 Pacers were one of the best stories in the NBA that season because they made their opponents work for their victories, and they put on a spectacle every night.

It’s hard to believe that all transpired three whole years ago. When Cleveland eliminated Indiana in a very tight first-round series, I asked if having the exciting season that they did – when many thought it would turn out the opposite – was going to benefit them in the long run. Three years later, this happens.

We were getting plenty of smoke about the Pacers’ drama behind-the-scenes beforehand, and now, we have seen the fire firsthand. More and more reports indicate that the crap has hit the fan. Indiana has seemingly already had enough of Nate Bjorkgren in only his first year as his coach. When you see the results they’ve had this season compared to the last three, it’s not hard to see why.

The Pacers have routinely found themselves in the 4-5 playoff matchup for the last three years. Sadly, despite their fight – and, to be fair, they had pretty awful injury luck the past two postseasons – they haven’t been able to get over the hump in the first round. They may not have been in the elite tier, but they weren’t slouches either. So, seeing them not only fail to take the next step but look more and more likely for the play-in is as discouraging as it gets. Especially after they started the season 6-2.

If these reports about the tensions between the players and Bjorkgren are real, then this has already become a lost season for the Pacers. It’s too late in the season to make any major personnel changes. At this point, their best route is just to cut their losses and wait until this summer to think over what the next move is.

In that case, let’s take a deep breath. This has been a weird season for everyone. Every aspect minus the playoffs has been shorter than usual since last October. Everything was shortened from the offseason to the regular season. Oh, and COVID-19 has played a role as the season has turned out, although COVID-19 has probably been the least of Indy’s problems. Let’s think about what next season would look like for Indiana.

TJ Warren comes back with a clean bill of health. Caris Levert gets more acquainted with the team and how they run. Who knows? Maybe they finally resolve the Myles Turner-Domantas Sabonis situation once and for all. A new coach can come aboard to steady the ship, and it already looks like they have an idea for who that’s going to be

Should they run it back, there’s a solid chance they can get back to where they were before. But that’s sort of the problem to begin with. Even if this recent Pacers’ season turns out to be just a negative outlier, their ceiling isn’t all too high anyway. A team that consists of Warren, Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon, and Caris Levert as their core four is a solid playoff team. Having Turner, Doug McDermott, TJ McConnell, Jeremy Lamb, and the Holiday brothers rounds out a solid playoff team. Anyone who takes a good look at this roster knows that this roster is a good one. It’s not great though.

Just to be clear, Indiana has plenty of ingredients for a championship team. They just don’t have the main one: The franchise player. Once upon a time, it looked like that may have been Oladipo, but a cruel twist of fate took that all away. This isn’t a shot at any of the quality players they have on their roster, but think of it this way.

For the next couple of years, they’re going to go up against Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving. All of whom are on the same team. For potentially even longer, they’ll be going up against the likes of Giannis Antetoukounmpo, Joel Embiid, and Jayson Tatum. With the roster they have, they could make a series interesting against any one of those teams. However, it’s a rule of thumb in the NBA that the team with the best player usually wins the series. Not to mention, they’d have to beat most of the teams those players play for to go on a substantial playoff run. That’s a pretty tall order.

There’s no joy in talking about the Pacers like this because they have built this overachieving underdog from nothing more than shrewd executive work. They turned a disgruntled and expiring Paul George into Oladipo and Sabonis. Both of whom have since become two-time all-stars (and counting). They then managed to turn an expiring and hobbled Oladipo – who had no plans to return to Indiana – into the electric Levert. They also pretty much stole Brogdon and Warren away while paying very little for either of them.

That is fantastic work. The only hangup is that, as of now, it just doesn’t seem like it will be enough. But, doubt and skepticism are things Indiana’s had thrown their way consistently since 2017. Many thought their approach to trading Paul George would blow up in their face, and since then, they’ve done everything in their power to make everyone eat their words.

Kevin Pritchard’s got his work cut out for him this summer. This season will hopefully turn out to be nothing more than performance ruined by both the wrong coaching hire and an unusual season that produced negatively skewed results. But at this point, Pritchard’s upcoming course of action this summer shouldn’t be about getting his team back to where they were, but deciding whether he can get them a step or two further than that by adding more to what they have or starting over completely.

Indiana’s had a rough go of it in this COVID-shortened season, but their disappointing play may have little to no bearing on where they go from here.

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