With the holiday upon us, I wanted to take a moment to wish you and your family a safe and Merry Christmas. While what we do is often taken way more seriously than it really is, I do at times like to take stock in where we are and what we do. It’s because of you that we have a place to talk basketball and share thoughts and ideas. We would not be here without you, and sometimes your place in our equation may not get the appreciation it deserves. So thank you for caring about what we do. Enjoy the holiday and know that all of us from the Basketball Insiders family wish you and yours the very best this holiday season.
Let’s get on with the show.
One Man’s Ugly Sweater: In the spirit of gift giving, everyone at some point has been given a gift they are ready to re-gift to someone else. With the NBA trade season in full swing, there are a few players who fit right into that category. Here is what we know.
Is Chicago Ready To Deal?
The Bulls were supposed to get better after their team meeting and public airing of issues. So far that has not been the case and it seems the Bulls are open for business and have a lot of things on the table.
Sources close to the process say that both forward Taj Gibson and center Joakim Noah could be had in trade, especially if an impact player on the perimeter is returned.
Noah is dealing with a tear in his shoulder and could miss two to four weeks and is a pending free agent in July, so that could significantly impact his value in a trade. Gibson is posting reasonable numbers given the dysfunction within the Bulls’ structure and he is under contract for one more season after this one.
There is a sense that packaged together, the combination of Noah and Gibson could return a real player and one to watch might be Brooklyn’s Joe Johnson.
There is also a sense that Chicago would entertain moving Pau Gasol as well, namely because there is an increasing sense he’s going to explore his options in free agency in July and could leave the Bulls with nothing; there is value in trade for him, even as a rental.
The Bulls’ stance is that these talks are exploratory, according to a few teams that have spoken to the Bulls, and they do not appear to have a clear plan yet. But what is clear is that Chicago is listening to offers and shopping situations – they could be significant seller as the February 18 trade deadline nears.
Handing Him A Towel?
With 9:47 to play and a -13 plus/minus, Phoenix Suns head coach Jeff Horneck opted to take Markieff Morris out of the game against the Denver Nuggts. In exchange, Morris handed his coach a towel. Okay, maybe he didn’t hand it to him; maybe it was more of an aggressive toss. Some might say it was a full on throw.
After the game Morris was asked about the towel tossing exchange and refused to talk about it, saying the situation was between him and Hornacek. The Suns coach was more direct saying it was about “not playing.”
The truth of the situation is both the Suns and Morris are eager for a change. While there are teams that are interested, there isn’t currently an offer out there the Suns would pull the trigger on, which means trying to make the best of the situation until a deal surfaces.
Throwing a towel at the coach is not going to help the situation at all.
As we have covered in this space, there are three core problems with Morris:
The Player is averaging career-lows everywhere and posting bad numbers. He has a history that suggests he could be serviceable in a new situation, but based on play right now, he is absolutely underperforming.
The Person has a pending felony assault case, vented his personal frustrations to the press and on social media and just threw a towel at his head coach.
The Contract on the surface is not bad, at $8 million this season, but he is owed three more seasons beyond this one. If in a new situation he produces at the same level he is now, or becomes a cancer to his new team, that new team would be stuck with him for the foreseeable future.
Morris has the trifecta of issues. Any one of those issues is enough to kill a player’s trade value, but when you start compounding all of them, he’s almost a bad deal unless it’s for the end of a team’s bench or worse yet a contract dump kind of transaction.
While the Suns’ clearly need to do something, making a bad deal to salvage a bad situation is far from ideal. But if things have devolved to towel throwing, maybe it’s time to cut your losses?
Why Terrence Jones?
To characterize the Houston Rockets as wanting to trade forward Terrence Jones is a little misplaced. Also, assigning a tremendous amount of value to Jones is also a bit misplaced. The Rockets have been sniffing around for a trade and Jones’ name is often attached and for good reason: Jones will likely be a restricted free agent in July and given the prices expected for talent, the Rockets have to decide if they want to give $30-35 million to Jones or if that money is ultimately better used on a different player.
Jones is a very versatile and solid producer for Houston. He has solid tools and size, and he gives the Rockets a ton from the bench or when he has started. He is a good player. The problem is that it’s time to pay Jones and Houston has eyes for bigger fish, which means they ultimately have to trade Jones or risk losing him to a lucrative offer sheet from a competing team.
As a restricted player, the Rockets do have the right to match an offer if they issue the required $3.53 million qualifier, so they have some control, but there is a sense that Jones has suitors outside of Houston and he’s going to get expensive.
The Rockets, like a number of teams, have eyes on a major free agent signing this summer and are reluctant to tie up too much of their future until that plays out.
To characterize the Rockets as wanting to trade Jones is a little misplaced. There is an understanding that Jones could return value and help make a deal happen, and there is a sense that Jones could also get priced out of Houston’s range for him in July.
Sometimes in the NBA you don’t always want to make a deal, but as in the case of Jones, you might have to make a deal before you lose an asset for nothing.
How ‘Bout Them Lakers?
With five wins so far on the season, the Los Angeles Lakers are approaching the crossroads moment in their season. Sources close to the situation say the front office has been looking at the current roster trying to understand what parts are worth keeping long-term and may be ready to start listening to deals in the new year.
It’s easy to say the Lakers need to keep the young guys because those players are still on rookie-scale deals; however, sources have said when the Lakers open the trade flood gates, they are not necessarily going to turn away trade scenarios that could involve their rookie-scale guys.
Now let’s be clear: the Lakers are not even really shopping at this point, but when they do, they are expected to look at everything that comes their way and they understand that a rookie-scale guy might be required to make a splashy franchise-positioning deal.
There are a couple of Lakers who are expected to be available, most notably forward Brandon Bass. His $2 million salary won’t return very much, but there is a sense that while the Lakers liked Bass a lot in the free agent process, he’s not viewed as a viable long-term piece now.
The same is being said of center Roy Hibbert, who waived a chunk of his trade bonus to get out of Indiana and to the Lakers. Sources close to the process say that moving Hibbert won’t be easy (due to his upcoming free agency), but given his $15.59 million ending contract he could return a combination of ending contracts and a player of value to the Lakers’ rebuild.
Laker fans often talk about moving Nick Young, but league sources label Young as almost untradeable, which is where the concept of moving a rookie-scale guy comes into play. There is a sense that the Lakers would have to package a desirable asset along with Young to get teams to consider it and given how little value Young seems to have around the league, the Lakers may be better off staying the course with the swingman.
Sources close to the process say the Lakers really are not overly engaged in trade talks now, just doing the normal due diligence teams do in December, and that if they are doing anything on the trade front it would a lot closer to the trade deadline.
The Lakers are not necessarily a seller yet, but it seems after the holidays they may start to listen a bit more.
The 2015-16 NBA trade deadline is February 18 at 3 p.m. EST.
Most of the active players in the NBA are trade eligible now. There are roughly 28 players that signed new deals this past summer worth more than 20 percent of their previous deals, which makes them trade restricted until January 14.
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Reviewing the Nurkic Trade: Denver’s Perspective
The Denver Nuggets have been on a miraculous run this postseason, but that doesn’t mean that they’re infallible. Drew Maresca reviews the 2017 trade that sent Jusuf Nurkic from Denver to Portland.
The Denver Nuggets are fresh off of a 114-106 win over the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, pulling within three wins of the franchise’s first trip to the NBA Finals. But what if I told you that the Nuggets’ roster could be even more talented by acting more deliberately in a trade from three years ago?
While Denver won on Tuesday night, they lost a nail bitter on Sunday – for which most of the blame has been pointed at a defensive breakdown by Nuggets’ center Mason Plumlee, who was procured in the aforementioned 2017 trade. What did it cost Denver, you ask? Just Jusuf Nurkic and a first-round pick.
Nurkic was a 2014-15 All-Rookie second team member. He played 139 games over 2.5 seasons in Denver, averaging 7.5 points and 5.9 rebounds in approximately 18 minutes per game. He showed serious promise, but Denver had numerous reasons to pursue a trade: he’d suffered a few relatively serious injuries early in his career (and he’s continued to be injury-prone in Portland), butted heads with head coach Michael Malone and – most importantly – the Nuggets stumbled on to Nikola Jokic.
The Nuggets eventually attempted a twin-tower strategy with both in the starting line-up, but that experiment was short-lived — with Jokic ultimately asking to move to the team’s second unit.
The Nuggets traded Nurkic to the Portland Trail Blazers in February 2017 (along with a first-round pick) in exchange for Plumlee, a second-round pick and cash considerations. Ironically, the first-round pick included in the deal became Justin Jackson, who was used to procure another center, Zach Collins – but more on that in a bit.
As of February 2017, Plumlee was considered the better player of the two. He was averaging a career-high 11 points, 8.1 rebounds and 4.0 assists through 54 games – but it was clear that at 27, he’d already maximized his talent.
Conversely, Nurkic was only 23 at the time of the trade with significant, untapped upside. In his first few seasons with Portland, Nurkic averaged 15 points and 9.8 rebounds per game, while establishing himself as a rising star. As noted above, injuries have continued to be a problem. Nurkic suffered a compound fracture in his tibia and fibula in March 2019, forcing him to miss a majority of this current campaign. The COVID-19-related play stoppage in March gave Nurkic extra time to get his body right, and he returned to action in July inside the bubble.
And he did so with a vengeance. Nurkic demonstrated superior strength and footwork, and he flashed the dominance that Portland hoped he would develop, posting eight double-doubles in 18 contests. He averaged 17.6 points and 10.3 rebounds per game and while his play dipped a bit in the playoffs – partially due to a matchup with first-team All-NBA star Anthony Davis – he still managed 14.2 points and 10.4 rebounds in the five-game series. So it’s fair to say that Nurkic is still on his way toward stardom.
But the Nuggets are in the conference finals – so all’s well that ends well, right? Not so fast. To his credit, Plumlee is exactly who Denver expected him to be. He’s averaged 7.5 points and 5.5 rebounds per game in three seasons with Denver since 2017 – but to be fair, Plumlee is asked to do less in Denver than he had in Portland. Still, it’s fairly obvious that they’re just not that comparable.
Plumlee is a good passer and an above-average defender that’ll compete hard and isn’t afraid to get dirty – but he has limitations. He doesn’t stretch the floor and he is a sub-par free throw shooter (53.5 percent in 2019-20). More importantly, he’s simply not a major offensive threat and his repertoire of moves is limited.
High-level takeaway: Defenses tend to game plan for opponents they view as major threats – Nurkic falls into this category. Other guys pack the stat sheet through putback attempts, open looks and single coverage alongside the guys for whom opposing defenses game plan – that’s a more appropriate description of Plumlee.
On to the wrench thrown in by Zach Collins’ involvement. Statistically, Collins is about as effective as Plumlee – he averaged 7 points and 6.3 rebounds through only 11 games in 2019-20 due to various injuries – and he possesses more upside. The 22-year-old is not as reliable as Plumlee but given his age and skill set, he’s a far better option as a support player playing off the bench. He stretches the floor (36.8 percent on three-point attempts in 2019-20), is an above-average free throw shooter (75 percent this season) and is a good defender. Looking past Nurkic for a moment, would the Nuggets prefer a 22-year-old center that stretches the floor and defends or a 30-year-old energy guy?
Regardless of your answer to that question, it’s hard to argue that Nurkic should have returned more than Plumlee, definitely so when you factor in the first-round pick Denver included. There is obviously more at play: Denver was probably considering trading Nurkic for some time before they acted – did they feel that they could increase his trade value prior to the trade deadline in 2016-17? Maybe. Further, Nurkic and his agent could have influenced the Nuggets’ decision at the 2017 deadline, threatening to stonewall Denver in negotiations.
Had Nurkic been more patient or the Nuggets acted sooner before it became abundantly clear that he was on the move, Denver’s roster could be even more stacked than it is now. Ultimately, the Nuggets have a plethora of talent and will be fine – while it appears that Nurkic found a long-term home in Portland, where he owns the paint offensively. Denver can’t be thrilled about assisting a division rival, but they’re still in an enviable position today and should be for years to come.
But despite that, this deal should go down as a cautionary tale – it’s not only the bottom feeders of the league who make missteps. Even the savviest of front offices overthink deals. Sometimes that works in their favor, and other times it does not.
NBA Daily: They Guessed Wrong
Matt John reflects on some of the key decisions that were made last summer, and how their disappointing results hurt both team outlooks and players’ legacies.
It doesn’t sound possible, but did you know that the crazy NBA summer of 2019 was, in fact, over a year ago? Wildly, in any normal, non-pandemic season, it all would have been over three months ago and, usually, media days would be right around the corner, but not this time. The 2019-20 NBA season is slated to end sometime in early to mid-October, so the fact that the last NBA off-season was over a year ago hasn’t really dawned on anyone yet. Craziest of all, even though there will still be an offseason, there technically won’t be any summer.
Coronavirus has really messed up the NBA’s order. Of course, there are much worse horrors that COVID-19 has inflicted upon the world – but because of what it’s done to the NBA, let’s focus on that and go back to the summer of 2019. It felt like an eternity, but the Golden State Warriors’ three-year reign had finally reached its end. The Toronto Raptors’ victory over the tyranny that was the Hamptons Five – as battered as they were – made it feel like order had been restored to the NBA. There was more to it than that though.
Klay Thompson’s and Kevin Durant’s season-ending injuries, along with the latter skipping town to join Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn meant two things.
1. Golden State was down for the count
2. Brooklyn’s time wasn’t coming until next year.
A one-year window was open. Even if neither Golden State nor Brooklyn posed the same threat that the former did when it had Kevin Durant, those were two contenders out of commission. If there was a time to go all in, it was in 2019.
Milwaukee certainly seemed to go all in. For the most part. Malcolm Brogdon’s departure seemed a little odd since he was arguably their best non-Giannis playmaker when they were in crunch time. Not to mention there was nothing really stopping the Bucks from keeping him except for money. Detractors will call out Milwaukee for electing to cheap out by not keeping Brogdon and hence, avoiding the luxury tax. However, there’s more to it than that.
Milwaukee thought it had enough with the core it had on its roster. Coming off the best season they had put up since the eighties, they believed the franchise built the right team to contend. There was an argument that keeping Brogdon may have been overkill with their guard depth – let’s not forget that Donte DiVincenzo did a solid job in Brogdon’s role as the backup facilitator. This would have been more defensible had it not been for Milwaukee picking the wrong guy to let go. That was the indefensible part- electing to keep Eric Bledsoe over Brogdon.
Bledsoe wasn’t necessarily a bad investment. No one’s complaining about an almost 15 point average on 47/34/79 splits or playing individual defense tight enough to get named on the All-Defensive second team. By all accounts, Bledsoe earns his keep. That is until the playoffs. Bledsoe’s postseason woes have been a weight ever since he first entered Milwaukee, and this postseason was more of the same.
Bledsoe’s numbers dwindled to just 11.7 points on 39/25/81 splits, and Milwaukee getting ousted in five games at the hands of Miami made his struggles stand out even more than it had ever been. Bledsoe may be the better athlete and the better defender, but Brogdon’s all-around offensive savvy and his only slight dropoff defensively from Brogdon would have made him a bit more reliable.
Milwaukee guessed wrong when they opted to extend Bledsoe before the postseason last year when they could have waited until that very time to evaluate who to keep around. Now they face a hell of a lot more questions than they did at the end of last season – questions that may have been avoided had they made the right choice.
Now they could have kept both of them, yes, but it’s not totally unreasonable to think that maybe their approach with the luxury tax would have worked and maybe they would still be in the postseason right now had they gone with the homegrown talent. And just maybe, there wouldn’t be nearly as much of this Greek Freak uncertainty.
The Houston Rockets can relate. They got bruised up by a team that everyone thought Houston had the edge on going into the series and then crushed by the Lakers. Now, Mike D’Antoni is gone. The full-time small ball experiment likely did not work out. Since the Rockets emptied most of their assets to bring in Russell Westbrook and Robert Covington, there may not be a route in which they can become better than they presently are.
The mistake wasn’t trading for Russell Westbrook. The mistake was trading Chris Paul.
To be fair, most everybody severely overestimated Chris Paul’s decline. He’s not among the best of the best anymore, but he’s still pretty darn close. He deserved his All-NBA second team selection as well as finishing No. 7 overall in MVP voting. OKC had no business being as good as they were this season, and Paul was the driving force as to why.
For all we know, the previously-assumed tension between Chris Paul and James Harden would have made its way onto the court no matter what. Even so, Houston’s biggest obstacle in the Bay Area had crumbled. If they had just stayed the course, maybe they’re still in the postseason too.
To their credit, none of this may have happened had it not been for the Kawhi Leonard decision. Had he chosen differently, the Thunder never blow it up, and Houston might have very well been the favorite in the Western Conference. Instead, the Rockets took a step back from being in the title discussion to dark horse. But at least they can take pride knowing that they weren’t expected to win it all – the Clippers can’t.
Seeing the Clippers fall well short expectations begs the question if they too got it wrong. The answer is, naturally: of course not. They may have paid a hefty price for Paul George, but the only way they were getting Kawhi Leonard – one of the best players of his generation – was if PG-13 came in the package. As lofty as it was, anyone would have done the same thing if they were in their shoes. They didn’t get it wrong. Kawhi did.
On paper, the Clippers had the most talented roster in the entire league. It seemed like they had every hole filled imaginable. Surrounding Leonard and George was three-point shooting, versatility, a productive second unit, an experienced coach – you name it. There was nothing stopping them from breaking the franchise’s long-lasting curse. Except themselves.
Something felt off about them. They alienated opponents. They alienated each other. At times, they played rather lackadaisically, like the title had already been signed, sealed, and delivered to them. The media all assumed they’d cut the malarkey and get their act together – but that moment never really came. They had their chances to put Denver away, but even if they had, after seeing their struggles to beat them – and to be fair Dallas too – would their day of destiny with the Lakers have really lived up to the hype?
Even if it was never in the cards, one can’t help but wonder what could have happened had Kawhi chosen to stay with the team he won his second title with.
Toronto was the most impressive team in this league this season. They still managed to stay at the top of the east in spite of losing an all-timer like Leonard. That team had every component of a winner except a superstar. They had the right culture for a championship team. Just not the right talent. The Clippers were the exact opposite. They had the right talent for a championship team but not the right culture. That’s why the Raptors walked away from the postseason feeling proud of themselves for playing to their full potential while the Clippers writhed in disappointment and angst over their future.
In the end, everyone mentioned here may ultimately blame what happened to their season on the extenuating circumstances from the pandemic. The Bucks’ chemistry never fully returned when the Bubble started. Contracting COVID and dealing with quad problems prevented Westbrook from reviving the MVP-type player he was before the hiatus. As troubling as the Clippers had played, the extra time they would have had to work things out in a normal season was taken away from them.
For all we know, next year will be a completely different story. The Rockets, Bucks, and Kawhi may ultimately have their faith rewarded for what they did in the summer of 2019 – but that will only be mere speculation until the trio can change the story.
Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards
Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.
We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.
The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.
With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.
The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.
Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old
Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.
He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.
Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.
Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old
Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.
He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.
Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.
Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old
Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.
He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.
One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old