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New Orleans Pelicans 2018-19 NBA Season Preview

The New Orleans Pelicans have all the parts to be a very, very good NBA team. The problem for New Orleans is they have struggled to get and stay healthy, which has derailed them in previous seasons. Basketball Insiders takes a look at the New Orleans Pelicans in this 2018-19 NBA Season Preview.

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Last year’s regular season ended in a flurry. A large number of teams spent the last few weeks of the season jockeying for positioning in an extremely competitive Western Conference playoff race. In the end, the New Orleans Pelicans were able to secure the sixth seed and a first-round matchup with the Portland Trail Blazers. As it turned out, the first-round matchup was a smashing success as the Pelicans were able to smother the Blazers’ star backcourt on their way to a four-game sweep. Unfortunately, the Pelicans then ran into the unstoppable buzz saw that was last year’s Golden State Warriors team.

Notably, last year’s team withstood the midseason loss of DeMarcus Cousins. That loss was mitigated by the acquisition of Nikola Mirotic, who was effectively rescued and revived in New Orleans. In the offseason, the franchise watched Cousins leave to join the Warriors and Rajon Rondo leave to join the Los Angeles Lakers. In the meantime, the Pelicans have undergone some roster tinkering as they look to solidify their standing as a playoff team and pick up where they left off.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

Despite losing DeMarcus Cousins to a terrible injury, the New Orleans Pelicans finished the season as one of the hottest teams in the league behind Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday. Boogie is gone for good now, though, and The Brow has a new partner in Julius Randle and a returning Nikola Mirotic in the frontcourt. The overshadowed loss for Alvin Gentry will be Rajon Rondo’s playmaking ability, but they’re counting on Elfrid Payton to fill the void as one of the top under-the-radar signings in the league. Considering the way they played in the postseason and that Davis is a top three superstar in the league, it’d be hard to see too much of a regression. The bad news, however, is that NOLA plays in a Western Conference with plenty of competition.

3rd Place – Southwest Division

– Spencer Davies

At least among playoff hopefuls, the Pelicans might have the largest range of projections and expectations across the NBA landscape. There are some who believe that losing DeMarcus Cousins in free agency, even despite Cousins’ Achilles tear that looks to keep him out for much of the upcoming season, is too big a blow and the Pelicans will be in a dogfight just to make the playoffs. Then there are those who look at their post-Cousins injury splits and wonder whether the team wasn’t slightly better without him anyway. Julius Randle is an excellent acquisition who can fill at least some of Boogie’s previous roles, and the Pels will be banking on more seamless lineups around Anthony Davis at the five to help offset the ostensible talent loss they took in the offseason. They’ll be one of the league’s most interesting windows into how fit and talent coexist – or don’t.

2nd Place – Southwest Division

– Ben Dowsett

The Pelicans actually started to look like the team they were supposed to be. The issue for them has never been about talent. The roster has been loaded with the talent. The question was durability and consistency. The Pelicans broke through last season and with some solid additions this offseason it’s hard not to believe the Pels will get right back after it. The problem for New Orleans is the West is tough and as we saw last season the difference between home court in the playoffs can come down to two or three games. The Pelicans are easy to like, mainly because Anthony Davis is such a special player. But it’s also easy to see that if the Pelicans don’t get aggressive right out of the gate, the specter of him being unhappy and wanting out starts to become real.

2nd Place – Southwest Division

– Steve Kyler

While DeMarcus Cousins is an elite center, I think moving Anthony Davis to the center position and plugging Julius Randle into the rotation will mostly address Cousins’ departure. Randle is a nice addition to the Pelicans’ roster and should fit in nicely alongside Davis and Nikola Mirotic in the frontcourt. While I like a lot of the talent on the Pelicans’ roster and the reclamation projects of Elfrid Payton and Jahlil Okafor, I am concerned that even a few injuries could quickly derail the Pelicans. They are already limited on the wing, especially at small forward, and are relying on a few guys who are playing out of position and/or have past injury concerns. I am hoping the Pelicans will continue to surprise us as they did at the end of last season, but there are a few red flags heading into the season.

3rd Place – Southwest Division

– Jesse Blancarte

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Anthony Davis

No surprise here. Davis has everything you can want in a superstar. He is talented, has unbelievable length, is athletic and has the basketball intelligence to dominate consistently. Even better for New Orleans, Davis is the homegrown superstar that has nearly maximized his potential and should be an MVP candidate every year should he play up to his abilities. These past two years Davis has been averaging over 28 points per game and has been astounding on the offensive end. Last season, Davis took and made career-high numbers in three-pointers, which made his offensive game even more dynamic. Simply put, this offense revolves around Davis, a trend which should continue this season.

Top Defensive Player: Jrue Holiday

Jrue Holiday is the lead defender for the Pelicans. According to ESPN’s real plus-minus ranking, among point guards Holiday is fourth in the league and, according to NBA.com, is top-15 in the league in defensive win shares. Holiday’s role on the team is of course not as a defensive specialist only. Last year saw Holiday make the transition from point guard to more of a combo/shooting guard role. Whether guarding opposing shooting or point guards, Holiday has the physical tools and awareness to execute the Pelicans’ defensive schemes effectively. So long as the team is able to find an adequate replacement for Rondo at the lead guard position, Holiday should be able to continue in this role, which he thrived in last season on both ends of the court.

Top Playmaker: Elfrid Payton

My prediction is that Holiday will initially work on the ball and serve as the placeholder as the Pelican’s top playmaker. Holiday averaged six assists a game last year on his way to a career season. But part of his success came due to a purposeful transition to the shooting guard position. Now Rondo is gone and Holiday will hold this place until Elfrid Payton can show that he is ready to take over as the team’s lead guard.

Payton goes into his fifth season needing to prove he can become the player the Orlando Magic had originally envisioned years ago and take over Rondo’s role. Payton remains a below average offensive scoring threat, unable to hit outside shots with great consistency, but Rondo was able to succeed with similar shortcomings. In fact, Rando really thrived when Cousins went down, allowing Rondo to have the space and freedom to use his creativity to penetrate and operate in the lane. Now Cousins and Rondo are gone and the table is set for Payton to take over.

Top Clutch Player: Anthony Davis

The nod again goes to Davis. It’s not typical for a frontcourt player to take the mantle of top clutch player but Davis is not a typical player. According to NBA.com’s clutch time data, Davis has a very high net rating in clutch time, indicating a strong impact on both offensive and defensive net rating (much higher than Cousins), as well as strong shooting percentages. Davis’ strong clutch play is aided by his outside shooting, strong court vision and adept ball handling for a big man. When the game goes into crunch time, Davis should have the ball in his hands.

Unheralded Player: Frank Jackson

Die-hard Pelicans fans are excited for and rooting for Frank Jackson to make some inroads at the point guard position. Jackson was acquired in a draft-day trade with the Charlotte Hornets in exchange for Dwayne Bacon. Jackson doesn’t get a lot of attention outside of New Orleans and for good reason. He has yet to play a single minute of regular season NBA basketball after inking a multiyear contract with the Pelicans last year. However, that doesn’t stop fans from rooting for Jackson, who has tremendous athletic abilities and high upside potential. Whether Jackson can handle point guard responsibilities is an unanswered question. Additionally, Jackson now has veteran Jarrett Jack slotted ahead of him in the rotation. Jack agreed to terms on a deal with the Pelicans earlier this week.

Best New Addition: Julius Randle

Rondo’s departure, unlike that of Cousins, was more of a surprise for the franchise. However, it did allow the team to sign Julius Randle. Although technically a free agent signing, Randle and Rondo swapped places almost as if the teams had actually executed a trade. The Pelicans are thrilled to have Randle and he is poised to play a very significant role with the team.

Randle is under contract at roughly nine million a year for the next two years, although the second year is a player option, which is significant. With multiple expected suitors next offseason, this season may ultimately serve as an extended tryout for the next free agent market. Randle showed steady progress year-to-year in Los Angeles and many Lakers fans were sad to see him leave. He proved himself to be an effective scorer and playmaker in transition and is a handful down low because of his quickness, agility and strength. That same strength serves him well as he can be a tenacious one-on-one defender when locked in and has demonstrated this against the Pelicans when matched up with Davis in the past.

– James Blancarte

WHO WE LIKE

1. Jahlil Okafor

The Jahlil Okafor experience continues. It’s easy to forget that in his rookie year, Okafor started nearly every game he played in, averaging 17.5 points, seven rebounds, 1.2 assists and 1.2 blocks in 30 minutes per game. Of course, that play came in the middle of “The Process” and didn’t translate to winning basketball. Now, after some tough seasons, Okafor is fighting to prove that he still belongs in the league. Okafor comes to the Pelicans as an afterthought after failing to find his footing in Brooklyn. New Orleans has a loaded frontcourt that doesn’t have a lot of extra minutes. With lower expectations, Okafor can contribute in spot minutes and step up should anyone ahead of him go down with injuries. Indications are that Okafor is eager to play with and learn from Davis and likes the city of New Orleans, as well as the franchise. Look for the Pelicans to give Okafor a chance to prove his worth when the opportunity presents itself.

2. E’Twaun Moore

Among the weaknesses the Pelicans have to overcome is the lack of viable options at the small forward position. E’Twuan Moore solidified his hold on the small forward position last year in part due to the unavailability of Solomon Hill. Despite being undersized and a more natural fit at shooting guard, Moore stepped up to meet his team’s needs. With Holiday thriving at the two, Moore’s projected place on this team is at small forward. Moore helps spread the floor with his three-point shooting and is a capable scoring threat overall. At 6-foot-4, Moore will most often be at a size disadvantage on defense but handles it reasonably well. Hill is slated to return but is likely to back up the Moore due to his poor outside shooting. Unless the Pelicans make a move, expect Moore to continue to play heavy minutes at small forward.

3. The Randle and Mirotic Frontcourt Combo

Randle and Mirotic are a tremendous pair of frontcourt players to pair with Davis. However, with Randle’s player option, both players are essentially free agents after this upcoming season. The franchise will work to feature both prominently while giving Davis as much support as possible. Davis and Mirotic already showed great synergy on the court together last season and at times scorched opposing defenses. Davis is a good shooter and should provide the spacing Randle needs to be aggressive on the move and in the post. Randle might also be able to handle the ball at the high post the way Cousins would at times, which can be difficult for opponents to stop. The biggest question left is how well the team will manage when Randle and Mirotic share the court without Davis anchoring the defense?

4. The Front Office

The Cousins situation was not a simple one. Once Cousins went down with the Achilles tear, it made re-signing him very difficult as he had been expecting a max offer. New Orleans’ front office deserves credit for not overpaying an injured Cousins on a long-term deal that could soon become an albatross.

The front office had been quite vocal and much more confident about keeping Rondo, however. To replace these two, the front office acquired Randle and Payton. Couple that with last season’s trade for Mirotic and it’s clear the team has done some quality retooling going back to last season. Should these new acquisitions work out, the franchise may succeed with their number one priority: keeping Davis happy as he heads toward free agency. Unfortunately, Randle, Payton and Mirotic can leave after this season as free agents, so the pressure will be back on the front office to make the appropriate moves to prove to Davis that he is in good hands with New Orleans.

– James Blancarte

STRENGTHS

The talent and leadership of Davis and Holiday.

Last year’s playoff run demonstrated that Davis and Holiday are more than able to run this team together. Rondo was a guiding presence as well, but this team knows that Davis and Holiday set the tempo and are the leaders of this squad.

Also, the frontcourt could be dynamic if Randle, Mirotic and Davis generate some chemistry together. Defense will be an issue but their collective offensive talent could be trouble for opponents.

– James Blancarte

WEAKNESSES

Point guard and small forward.

As mentioned above, the Pelicans need Payton to fill the role Rondo occupied and take the next step in his career, especially since Holiday is the team’s best option at shooting guard. Jackson looms as a high upside player that might one day threaten Payton for the starting role but it’s unlikely he is ready to take on a major role. Jack should provide some stability but it’s not clear how much he has left in the tank. Simply put, Payton needs to step up in a big way this season.

While Moore has filled in admirably at the three, small forward is still not a position of strength for the team. There is talk of Mirotic possibly playing at the three as well. While this might work in limited situations, Mirotic lacks the footwork and mobility to effectively defend opposing small forwards consistently. Any future roster moves should revolve around these two positions.

– James Blancarte

THE BURNING QUESTION

Is the agent swap for Anthony Davis an ominous warning sign?

Davis recently parted ways with his prior longtime agent and speculation is that he will be signing with Klutch Sports. Yes, the same Klutch Sports associated with LeBron James. That’s more than enough information to make any Pelicans fan somewhat nervous. So far, officially, the franchise is not fretting about Davis wanting to move on and have put out the message they are not concerned. Looking at Davis’s contract status, it’s easy to see why. Davis remains under contract for at least two years with a third-year player option at nearly $29 million. In addition, the Pelicans can also offer a significantly larger contract than any other team. The franchise, as mentioned above, has made moves to stay competitive while bringing in younger talent that can grow on the same timeline as Davis and Holiday. Assuming those moves work out reasonably well, the Pelicans shouldn’t worry too much about Davis. But the Pelicans’ front office is on the clock and needs to show Davis that he’ll be able to compete at the highest levels if he stays in New Orleans long-term.

– James Blancarte

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NBA Daily: Buyers or Sellers – Northwest Division

Which teams are buyers or sellers in the Northwest Division? David Yapkowitz breaks down each team’s respective situation.

David Yapkowitz

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This coming weekend, Dec. 15 to be exact, is a big marker in the NBA. It is the day that players who signed free-agent contracts over the summer are eligible to be included in trades.

Here at Basketball Insiders, we started a new series this week taking a look at each NBA team, division by division, and identifying which teams should be looking to move or add salary as this day approaches.

The Northwest Division is home to some of the better teams in the Western Conference. The Denver Nuggets have surprised many and have battled their way to the top of the conference. The Oklahoma City Thunder got off to a slow start, but have also fought their way to the top. The Portland Trail Blazers and Memphis Grizzlies are among the middle of the pack playoff teams. Only the Utah Jazz are struggling more than anticipated.

Here’s a look at what each of these teams should do as trade season approaches.

Denver Nuggets

The Denver Nuggets suffered a couple setbacks recently with the injuries to Gary Harris and Paul Millsap. Fortunately for them, they are a deep and talented team that looks able to withstand those temporary losses.

As it stands, they aren’t locked into any terrible contracts and most of their young bench guys who have been crucial this season still have a couple years left on their current contracts. They are also awaiting the debut of Isaiah Thomas and prized rookie Michael Porter Jr. The Nuggets are a team that would do well to just stand pat and stay the course. Wait to get healthy and see what this team is capable of.

If they were to make a move, it could be something very low key. They were recently granted an injury exception to add a player over the roster limit which they used on Nick Young. Young is an instant offense guy off the bench who played a key role in last season’s championship Warriors team. Should he impress, the Nuggets could offload a seldom-used player like Tyler Lydon in a salary dump to make room for Young once the injured guys return.

Players whose trade restrictions are lifted on Dec. 15: Torrey Craig, Monte Morris, Isaiah Thomas

Minnesota Timberwolves

The Timberwolves already made their big splash when they traded Jimmy Butler to the Philadelphia 76ers for Robert Covington and Dario Saric. After starting the season off poorly following the Butler distraction, they’ve since played .500 basketball.

This is a team that is looking to get back to the playoffs after ending their playoff drought last season. They do have one particularly big contract in Gorgui Dieng that they probably wouldn’t mind shedding. The only thing is they’d most likely need to add someone to a potential deal to make to more enticing. That’s where Tyus Jones comes in.

The Wolves were buyers with the additions of Covington and Saric, and now it’s probably time for them to become sellers. The resurgence of Derrick Rose and the presence of Jeff Teague has made Jones expendable. While he is a very solid point guard, it’s clear that he’s probably best suited for a new home. There are teams looking for a point guard, the Phoenix Suns being one. The Wolves could probably rid themselves of Dieng’s contract in potential Jones deal.

Players whose trade restrictions are lifted on Dec. 15: Luol Deng, James Nunnally, Anthony Toliver

Oklahoma City Thunder

At one point, the Thunder were the only team in the NBA without a win. Now, they’re sitting atop the Western Conference, ahead of the Golden State Warriors. They are looking like the changed team that many thought they’d be after trading Carmelo Anthony.

If the question on whether or not the Thunder should be buyers or sellers were posed about a month ago, they almost certainly would have been buyers. Their outside shooting was pretty poor. Since then, its’ improved dramatically. Paul George has been shooting better from the three-point line. Jerami Grant has emerged as a legit outside threat. Dennis Schroder has gotten his percentage up as well.

If they can add another shooter though without having to give up much, then they should go ahead and look into it. What they should really do, however, is stand pat and await the return of Andre Roberson.

Roberson has yet to play while recovering from an injury sustained last season. While the Thunder defense suffered without him last year, they’re actually one of the best defensive teams in the league this season.

Players whose trade restrictions are lifted on Dec. 15: Raymond Felton, Nerlens Noel

Portland Trail Blazers

The Blazers have hit a bit of a rough patch lately, bouncing back down to the middle of the pack when they were near the top of the conference. Even so, they’re still one of the better teams in the West but haven’t yet reached that level where they can make some noise in the playoffs.

Portland is a team that should almost assuredly be buyers this trade season. They should be looking to add talent where they can to really be able to compete with the upper echelon of the conference. They’ve got a pair of contracts in Myers Leonard and Mo Harkless that they’d probably be open to moving if the opportunity presented itself.

What the Blazers should be looking for is someone who can probably fill the spot that they’d hoped Harkless could. That’s a wing who shift between both forward spots, knock down the three and play tough defense. There is a player supposedly on the market who fits that bill, Trevor Ariza. He’s been linked to the Los Angeles Lakers, but it wouldn’t hurt for Portland to make inquiries.

Players whose trade restrictions are lifted Dec. 15: Seth Curry, Nik Stauskas

Utah Jazz

The Utah Jazz are perhaps the most disappointing team in the NBA this season. They were not supposed to be a sub .500 team. There is definitely still time to turn things around, but it’s going to have to happen much sooner than later as the West is shaping up to be extremely tough.

The Jazz have also made their trade move already when they brought back Kyle Korver. Three-point shooting was a major concern for them and Korver is one of the best in the business in that regard. This is a roster that on paper is talented and shouldn’t be as bad as they have been. It’s not clear if there’s a move out there that would suddenly vault them up in the standings.

The Jazz are going to have to make decisions on both Ricky Rubio and Derrick Favors though. Rubio is an expiring contract and Favors is non-guaranteed for next season.

Players whose trade restrictions are lifted on Dec. 15: Georges Niang

It’s going to be interesting to see what these teams, and the rest of the NBA as a whole, does once Dec. 15 rolls around. Even with the Jazz’ poor start, each of these teams had major playoff aspirations when the season began.

Make sure you follow along here at Basketball Insiders with the rest of the divisions as well as any trade news and reactions if they happen.

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NBA Daily: The Team No One Talks About

Even if their situation isn’t pretty, the Miami HEAT are a much more interesting team than people are giving them credit for. Matt John explains why.

Matt John

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The final matchup between LeBron James and Dwyane Wade created a ton of national buzz on Monday night, and for good reason.

The two of them are both future first-ballot Hall of Famers, they were two of the absolute best players of their generation, and of course, they experienced plenty of success together. When the two legends embraced one another at the end of what was a tight contest, it was moving to see two buddies savoring the moment in their last game together.

We as the audience live for spectacles like those because they come ever so rarely in a lifetime, but you know what else was a rarity that night? Miami was in the headlines again.

It sounds odd, doesn’t it? The HEAT used to be all the rage dating back to the LeBron days, but since then, not so much. Miami hasn’t done a terrible job since LeBron departed in 2014. In 2016, they came within inches of returning to the Eastern Conference Finals. The following year, they went on a tear following an abysmal start only to come up short on the playoffs.

Now it’s a different story. The HEAT are coming off a gentleman’s sweep at the hands of the Philadelphia 76ers last season, have an unimpressive 11-15 record, and, before the Wade-LeBron matchup, the last big storyline centered around them was when they tried to acquire Jimmy Butler.

At the moment, Miami has the highest payroll in the league and lots of money tied up to players who aren’t making the All-Star team anytime soon, which limits their ceiling. Because of that, it’s tough to find reasons to talk about them.

However, after taking the Lakers to the wire, Miami is starting to show signs that its outlook isn’t as bleak as it looks and that they deserve more attention than people are giving them.

The Kids Are Alright

Well, well, well. Perhaps youth isn’t wasted on the young after all. At least, not in South Beach.

Miami’s young talent has shown some promise over the last few years, but the production has been a little slower than they would have hoped. Luckily for them, their patience appears to be paying off.

Let’s start with who would have been the main piece in the HEAT’s bid for Jimmy Butler: Josh Richardson. If they don’t already, Minnesota is probably going to regret not trading for Richardson, because the 25-year-old wing started off the season as a man possessed. Through the first month-and-a-half of the season, Richardson averaged 20.5 points on 43 percent shooting, including 41.4 percent from three while also averaging four rebounds and 3.1 assists.

Since the start of December, his numbers have gone down probably because of a shoulder injury, but once he fully recovers from that, there’s no telling what Richardson may be capable of. Since coming into the league, Josh has established himself as one of the premier young jack-of-all-trades wings. At only 25 years old, he may just be elevating his game from Swiss army knife to blossoming star.

Next, there’s Justise Winslow. Since being heralded as one of the bigger steals in the 2015 draft, Winslow’s start in the NBA hasn’t been the most graceful. Going down with a torn labrum in 2016 probably had something to do with that. Among the glimpses of talent he’s shown, Winslow has never found consistency, but he may have turned a corner.

Justise has had pretty much the exact opposite season that Richardson has had. His first month-and-a-half numbers were okay, but he’s had a fantastic December so far. He’s put up 18.4 points a game on 53 percent shooting including 52 percent from distance, while also averaging 6.2 rebounds and four assists. Putting up those kinds of numbers against the Lakers and the Clippers is no easy task, so this might be a sign of things to come.

If it is, then he’s beginning to show why Danny Ainge was willing to trade six first-round picks to get him.

Finally, there’s Bam Adebayo. His stats won’t “wow” you, but his net rating probably would. The second-year player currently ranks third in net rating behind only Richardson and Kelly Olynyk, as the HEAT are a plus-8.4 with Bam on the court. When you compare that to Hassan Whiteside, with whom the HEAT are minus-6.7 on the court, you can see that Adebayo brings a much more positive impact.

That stems mostly from his defense, as the HEAT’s defensive rating is plus-9 with Adebayo on the court according to NBA.com, which is highest on the team. Miami is currently tied for the ninth-best defensively rated team at 107.9, so they’d be sure to play him more to keep that up.

The ages of Richardson, Winslow and Adebayo all range from 21 to 25, so the best of them is yet to come. On a team that’s filled with bloated contracts, the HEAT can sleep better at night knowing that their young starlets will all be paid less than $30 million per combined over the next three years.

The End of an Era

Like any other all-time great, Dwyane Wade’s retirement tour should be something every hoop junkie should tune into, but everyone knew that already.

What makes Wade’s final season stand out among others is that he’s making legitimately worthwhile contributions for a team that’s trying to win. Compare that to say, Kobe Bryant, who didn’t put up awful stats in his last season, but played for a team that was intentionally terrible. Or Paul Pierce, who played for a team that was trying to win in his last season, but was cooked by the time he got there.

With Flash, it’s different. Wade is still putting up above average numbers with almost 15 points a game on 41.8 percent shooting on 13 attempts per contest. Not bad for someone who will be turning 37 in a month.

Wade’s scoring numbers are to be expected, but it’s how he’s getting them that should impress even his die-hard fans.

Throughout his entire career, Wade was always a feared scorer with his Achilles’ heel being his inability to stretch the floor. So far this season, the man has changed that. The Chicago native has shot 35 percent from three on four attempts per game. Both are career-highs and a huge boost from Wade’s past numbers centered around the three-ball.

Wade’s numbers are also proving to be effective, as the HEAT are plus-4.2 with D-Wade on the floor, with all of it stemming from his impact on their offensive rating.

Regardless of where Miami finishes, Wade is going out with a bang. Let’s be honest – that is exactly what we all want to see from the soon-to-be retiree.

A Turnaround Is In The Cards

An 11-15 record isn’t going to impress anybody, but Miami has won four of its last six games, and some of those wins weren’t a stroll in the park for them. Beating the Clippers in Los Angeles is quite an impressive feat when you think about how many guys were out for the HEAT. Richardson, Whiteside, Goran Dragic, James Johnson, Wayne Ellington and Dion Waiters were all out, and Tyler Johnson left early with an injury.

Miami still prevailed by 23 points against one of the West’s top teams while basically having eight guys to play. That’s only one game, but in the next game, the HEAT, who had more of their players back, gave the Lakers all they could handle, as it came down to the final buzzer.

Okay, that’s only two games of good play against good teams, but think about this. Miami’s point differential is currently minus-0.3, which is better than the sixth-seeded Detroit Pistons, whose differential is minus-1.2. It’s also better the eighth-seeded Orlando Magic, whose differential is minus-3.4. If Miami improves on that, then they should be able to catch and potentially surpass both.

Remember, Miami has turned the tides before not too long ago. Erik Spoelstra is still an excellent coach in this league who is capable of making the proper adjustments for his team to succeed. Expecting Miami to instantly to be a contender would be stretching it a tad, but they are currently a half-game behind the Magic for the last playoff spot with their core guys starting to come back.

So, if the HEAT turn it around, you heard it here first.

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NBA Daily: Almost Trade Time In The NBA

While the NBA has seen some major deals early in the season, the real trade chatter is just getting started. Steve Kyler takes a look at some of the names to watch.

Steve Kyler

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Almost Trade Time In The NBA

While the NBA has already seen a few major deals drop, including the Jimmy Butler deal to Philadelphia and George Hill being moved off to Milwaukee, typically the NBA doesn’t see nearly this much activity this early in the season. Normally, deals start to take shape after December 15, when those players who signed free-agent deals with new teams become trade-eligible, which is this Saturday.

All week long, Basketball Insiders will be looking at who should be “buyers” and who should be “seller” in advance of the Saturday milestone.

While there will hardly be a floodgate opening on Saturday, it is the first milestone of the trade season, which means teams will start talking more intently, especially with the annual G-League Showcase getting underway in Las Vegas next week.

There have already been some notable names hitting the rumor mill such as Phoenix’s Trevor Ariza, who most expect to be moved, and J.R. Smith in Cleveland, who is also expected to be moved at some point before the February 7th NBA Trade Deadline.

While those are the most likely dominoes to drop next, there are a few more worth watching.

Kent Bazemore – Atlanta Hawks

The Atlanta Hawks have been looking for a new home for forward Kent Bazemore for some time. The problem for the Hawks in moving Bazemore is the $18.08 million he is owed this year and the Player Option he is most likely picking up for next season worth $19.26 million.

There has been some interest in Bazemore; he was linked to the Houston Rockets on several occasions, mainly as a money swap for Ryan Anderson, who was moved off to the Phoenix Suns this past summer.

Compounding the problem for the Hawks is that Bazemore hasn’t exactly been blowing the doors off with his play this season. League sources still peg him as an easy player to obtain, mainly because the Hawks don’t seem to want much in return except to get out of his contract.

The Cleveland Cavaliers are believed to be open to taking on longer-term salary if they can extract youth or draft picks in the process. With J.R. Smith’s deal being very favorable with only $3.78 million guaranteed, that could be an interesting situation to watch, especially if the Hawks are open to buying Smith out after a trade and setting him free to find a new team in advance of free agency.

Robin Lopez – Chicago Bulls

With the chaos surrounding the Chicago Bulls lately, it’s not surprising to hear that one of the lone grown-ups on the roster, Robin Lopez, was trying to quell what seemed like an insurrection against new Bulls head coach Jim Boylen.

You will be hard pressed to find anyone that doesn’t think highly of Lopez, and for that reason alone it wouldn’t be entirely shocking to see the Bulls hang on to Lopez, merely to make sure things don’t get off the rails.

That said, there is a reality headed the Bulls way, and that is that Lopez can be a free agent in July, and he will likely be in demand for many of the reasons the Bulls would want to keep him around.

That same demand likely means the Bulls could get a reasonable return for Lopez and his $14.35 million contract.

Few in NBA circles believe Lopez will be in Chicago past the deadline, which makes him an interesting name to watch especially for would-be playoff teams that are looking for veteran toughness for a playoff run.

It won’t be surprising to see the Bulls cash out Lopez in the coming weeks, however, given the current state of things around the team; they would be smart to hang on to him at least until the latest mess comes to pass.

Courtney Lee – New York Knicks

The Knicks desperately want to shed contract money before the trade deadline, and the odd man out seems to be swingman Courtney Lee.

Lee is just getting back from a pretty significant neck injury that cost him almost all the season so far. Lee is expected to get some run in the G-League tonight as part of his rehab. It’s also in part to allow other teams to get an extended look at Lee for trade purposes, according to sources close to the situation.

Amusingly, Lee chose the Knicks because they offered him a fourth contract year when he signed back in 2016. Coincidentally it’s that fourth year the Knicks are now trying to shed.

There is a sense in NBA circles that Lee wouldn’t be hard to move. The question is what else the Knicks will have to include to get that money off the books before the February trade deadline?

Zach Randolph – Sacramento Kings

Zach Randolph has been out of the Sacramento Kings rotation all year as they have been moving towards playing their younger guys. Randolph chose the Kings, mainly because they offered vastly more money than any other team, but did so knowing he might not play as much in his final year, something he has said repeatedly he was OK with.

All of that said, Randolph is someone the Kings would love to trade, and its possible teams looking to shed contract dollars would view Randolph’s $11.692 million deal as attractive if only to buy him out and get out of longer team money.

The prevailing thought from NBA insiders is that the Kings will hang on to Randolph until the trade deadline. If they cannot find a deal, then it is expected he will be bought out and given a chance to latch on to a veteran team that might have a role for him.

Sources near the situation say Randolph has been great with all of this and isn’t pushing the Kings one way or the other, which buys them time to let the market play out.

While these are not remotely close to all the names to watch, but some of the bigger contract guys in play and likely candidates to be moved sooner than later.

Basketball Insiders has already dropped the first part of the Buyers and Sellers series, with Spencer Davies taking a look at the Central Division. A new division will drop every day this week, so stay tuned.

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