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Time’s Up: Five NBA Players Who Must Be Traded

Moke Hamilton identifies five players who must be traded ahead of the NBA’s February 20 trade deadline, otherwise their teams will miss a nice opportunity.

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Only the strong survive, and as life continues on under the new economic era that the NBA’s 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement has brought forth, it is not the general manager who has the most money that will ultimately prevail.

No, it is the GM who has spent the most time with the barbell. But we, obviously, are not talking brute force strength here, we are talking mental muscle.

So you, Mr. GM, do you know how to survive in this new era? Do you know what you can do to get your team over the hump?

We do! Follow two simple rules.

First, do not allow useful players to flee your farm for free. Odds are, Gregg Popovich is not losing sleep in San Antonio over Gary Neal’s departure this past summer. But Mitch Kupchak and the Los Angeles Lakers? You can rest assured that the departure of Dwight Howard still disturbs.

That is exactly why Pau Gasol immediately emerges as one of our noteworthy names here.

But before delving into the details, observe the second rule: Do not put off for tomorrow what can be accomplished today, especially if your potential trade partners do not like the idea of being hard-capped or otherwise facing economic sanctions, and that is exactly what a sign-and-trade agreement does in this new economic era of the Adam Silver’s NBA.

In short, a team that receives a player in a sign-and-trade arrangement must be no more than $4 million above the luxury tax threshold after the trade is completed. The receiving team is also hard-capped at the apron amount for the duration of the season in which they receive the player. Even worse, the receiving team may not spend more than a taxpayer mid-level exception on summer acquisitions, so in other words, receiving a player in a sign-and-trade arrangement certainly is not all it is cracked up to be and it easily is no longer as viable an option as it was under the previous economic era.

So yes, Evan Turner and Greg Monroe, though possibly restricted free agents this summer, should be moved now.

The restrictions placed on receiving teams in sign-and-trade arrangements simply means that potential trade partners diminish significantly once February 20 passes.

So between now and then, Sam Hinkie, Joe Dumars, Mitch Kupchak, Masai Ujiri and even Daryl Morey would be wise to learn from the past mistakes of others. Each of those five should do their best to find a team that their respective players would like to go to, but does not want to be subjected to the restrictions born from a sign-and-trade arrangement.

Call them up and make the best effort to execute a trade involving the below players and do it before the February trade deadline. At the end of the day, everyone wins. The team trading the player gets something in return, the player leaving ends up in a situation where he is happy and the receiving team would not have to face any of the restrictions brought forth by executing the sign-and-trade.

It’s a no-brainer, is it not?

Of course it is. With that said, keep an eye on the following players as we draw nearer to the February 20 trade deadline.

Evan Turner (SG, Philadelphia 76ers)

Earlier this season, Evan Turner famously proclaimed that newly installed Sam Hinkie “is not my general manager” after Turner and the Sixers failed to come to an agreement on an extension. Turner has responded by turning in a good all-around season, despite the obvious struggles of the Philadelphia 76ers.

As it stands, the Sixers may make Turner a restricted free agent by extending him the required $8.7 million qualifying offer once they are eligible to, but that is no guarantee. In the summer of 2012, the Memphis Grizzlies opted to not extend O.J. Mayo a qualifying offer and saw him bolt to the Dallas Mavericks. Mayo was not as highly regarded as Turner, but their falling out of favor after being selected with lottery picks is somewhat familiar. The Grizzlies received nothing in return for a player who, despite his struggles, had perceived value around the league. Though they remain a power in the Western Conference, the Grizzlies obviously failed to maximize the value on their asset.

Turner, unlike Mayo, is just 25 years old and has shown, at least in spurts, that he can be a highly productive wing. Although the Sixers have some semblance of a nucleus upon which they can build, allowing Turner to leave on a four-year extension in the $40 million range—the amount he is likely to see on the open market—would be a tragic mistake.

There is no question that the Sixers should do their best to move him, right now, to a team that would not be in a position to meet his salary desires this summer.

Greg Monroe (C, Detroit Pistons)

Partially due to the acquisition of Josh Smith and the emergence of Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe has seen his production slip as a member of the Detroit Pistons. Like Turner, Monroe is completing his fourth year and could be made a restricted free agent by the Pistons this summer. Monroe’s qualifying offer is only about $5.5 million, but whether or not the Pistons would be willing to commit the kind of dollars it would take to secure Monroe for another four or five years is doubtful, especially after the club committed almost $80 million combined to Smith and Brandon Jennings last summer.

As far as big men go, Monroe will be among the most coveted this summer. It would not be surprising for him to receive a maximum offer from a team looking for an effective big man who can pass and make plays out of the post—during the 2012-13 season, with a higher utilization, Monroe averaged a mind-boggling 3.5 assists per game.

That, in and of itself, has immense value in the NBA. The presence of Drummond and the struggles of the Pistons, though, make it such that committing the dollars necessary to make Drummond happy may not be the wisest thing to do for the Pistons. All of that is true even before considering that Drummond and Monroe may actually be stunting one another’s development.

Waiting by idly until this summer and allowing Monroe the freedom to sign a maximum extension with another team? That would be ill-advised. He is highly coveted across the league and could probably fetch decent assets in return if the Pistons opted to move him rather than risking losing him for nothing this summer, if the Pistons aren’t prepared to open their wallet.

Clearly, the time to move Monroe is now.

Pau Gasol (PF, Los Angeles Lakers)

Like Amar’e Stoudemire during his tenure with the Phoenix Suns, Pau Gasol has been the subject of trade rumors for what seems like an eternity. His head-butting with Mike D’Antoni has been well-documented and whether or not Gasol would prefer to remain in Los Angeles once he becomes an unrestricted free agent this summer is doubtful.

Gasol went on the record as saying he would be interested in returning to the Memphis Grizzlies, where his younger brother has emerged as one of the best all-around centers in the league. A frontline featuring the two would be difficult to contend with, despite the health issues that have plagued the aging Pau over the past few years. If Zach Randolph sticks around, the Grizzlies would have a fearsome triad up front.

Fortunately for the Lakers, as long as Randolph opts into the $17 million he has due to him next season, the Grizzlies would not be able to offer Gasol more than a mid-level exception of $5.3 million in July.

The Lakers, with an eye toward luring free agents in the future, are hesitant to add long-term money to their payroll, but if Gasol is truly amenable to returning to Memphis, a deadline deal with the Grizzlies would both allow him to return to the team that drafted him while maintaining his full Bird rights heading into July.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the Suns have registered interest in Gasol, but are reluctant to meet the asking price of the Lakers—a high draft pick in this year’s draft.

Though he may be over the hill and almost 34 years old, Gasol is still a versatile interior force and for the rebuilding Lakers, accepting 50 cents on the dollar for him would be more advisable than losing him for nothing.

For what it’s worth, the Grizzlies make for a more attractive trade partner for the Lakers than the Suns. The Suns, first, will be under the cap this summer and could maintain the flexibility necessary to simply sign Gasol outright. Additionally, the Suns may be reluctant to trade a pick to the Lakers without an assurance that Gasol would re-sign in Phoenix come July. The Grizzlies, on the other hand, have already been cited by Gasol as a desired destination and are unlikely to have the ability to sign Gasol to a lucrative offer this summer.

Whether it be to Phoenix or Memphis, though, the Lakers must move the Spaniard.

Kyle Lowry (PG, Toronto Raptors)

After being mentioned as a trade target for the New York Knicks earlier this season, Kyle Lowry has emerged as one of the conference’s hottest topics.

The Raptors and their improbable rise to the top of the Atlantic Division is due in large part to the impressive play of Lowry, whom many believe should have been named as an Eastern Conference All-Star.

Lowry’s 16.6 points and 7.5 assists per game this season both represent career-highs, and at just 27 years old, he still has perceived upside that may be realized if he finds himself in the right situation.

General manager Masai Ujiri was brought to Toronto to help build the team into a contender in his own image, and thus far, he has not done or said anything to quiet the speculation that there is no interest in retaining Lowry past this season. It is a situation that is eerily reminiscent of what Evan Turner is going through in Philadelphia.

At this point, the New York Knicks still make for a sensible destination for Lowry. Across the league, he has developed a reputation for being a player who wears out his welcome, and odds are, if opposing teams were tearing down Ujiri’s door for a chance to acquire the 27-year-old point guard, he probably would have been dealt already.

A three-team trade in which the Knicks send out a coveted piece in return for Lowry could make sense if the Raptors and Knicks could not agree to a one-on-one trade. Such a deal makes sense for both teams, but only if the Knicks decided that they would re-sign Lowry this summer and make him a part of the team’s future.

The team’s interest in both Rajon Rondo and Kyrie Irving is a poorly kept secret around New York, but with neither player a guarantee to hit the free agent market anytime soon—much less land with the Knicks—Ujiri could take advantage of the Knicks and their desperate attempt to sneak into the playoffs.

It is hard to imagine Lowry remaining a member of the Raptors past this season, and letting a productive point guard whose best days may be ahead of him go for nothing—that’s something only a team like the Knicks would do.

Omer Asik (C, Houston Rockets)

Although Omer Asik is under contract through the end of next season, his soap opera with the Houston Rockets has gone on long enough and moving him now is the right decision for the franchise.

Asik is a good insurance policy for Dwight Howard, but negative vibrations emanating from players who are not content with their playing situations are things that have the potential to poison an otherwise harmonious locker room. Asik is nearing a return from an extended absence due to a troublesome knee and there is no doubt that the Rockets are a better defensive team with him, but through 31 games without him, they are 20-11.

Without him, they have fared just fine, but the catalyst behind trading him now is simple: tomorrow is not promised. Both the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs know that well.

After being beat up by the Miami HEAT in the 2012 NBA Finals, injuries to Russell Westbrook have diminished the Thunder’s status as a contender. Obviously, in Westbrook’s absence this season, Kevin Durant has become the league’s consensus Most Valuable Player through its first half, but the assumption was that the Thunder would be the conference’s top team for years to come. Westbrook’s injuries have changed that.

That can happen at anytime, to any player—including both James Harden and Dwight Howard.

As for the Spurs, thus far this season, their health has been anything but optimal. Their return to the NBA Finals this year, at this point, seems like a long shot, especially if their troublesome health is a sign of what lies ahead.

With a brilliant half court scorer in Harden and a interior presence like Howard, the Rockets are a team that has the first two pieces toward enjoying sustained playoff success. They are one more piece away from potentially rising to the top of the conference, and they have Asik—a valuable player who is not happy with his role.

Why not deal him now? The fact remains that Asik’s presence on the Rockets’ roster and the continued questions about his status and demeanor will continue to be an unwelcome distraction for a young team still toiling and attempting to find itself amongst the conference’s elite.

There is simply little reason to continue to drag this out.

Knowing when to hold them and when to fold them is the responsibility of a good general manager. Bluffing and stalling has value, but with the trade deadline rapidly approaching, Turner and Monroe soon to hit restricted free agency, Gasol already thinking about another life in Memphis, Lowry playing himself into the highest trade value he will ever have and the Rockets’ existence as an emerging contender, Sam Hinkie, Joe Dumars, Mitch Kupchak, Masai Ujiri and Daryl Morey would all be wise to keep their cellphones charged.

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Aamir Simms Readying Himself for His Opportunity

Clemson’s Aamir Simms is a versatile big man built for the modern NBA. Drew Maresca spoke with Simms about the draft process, Clemson’s success last season and how he thinks he fits in the league.

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Clemson has produced some very good NBA players – including Elden Campbell, Dale Davis and Horace Grant – but not too many of late. The most recent Clemson Tiger who was selected in the NBA Draft was Jason Blossomgame in 2017. Before that, K.J McDaniels in 2014, Trevor Booker in 2010 and Will Soloman in 2001. Aamir Simms hopes to be the first in a while – and he hopes to stick in the league.

Statistically, Simms has everything you’d want in a prospect. He’s a 6’8” big who can defend multiple positions and shoot it from deep. He averaged 13.4 points, 6.4 rebounds and 2.7 assists in 2020-21, shooting 40 percent on three-point attempts and 82.5 percent from the free throw line.

Simms was also named to the second-team All-ACC this season, after being named to the third-team All-ACC last season.

But the NBA Draft is a crapshoot with hundreds of players competing for just 60 spots. Complicating matters is the fact that Simms was a four-year player – and age is not an asset in the NBA Draft.

But Simms proved a lot in his time at Clemson, and he feels that his ability and willingness to do whatever a team needs is an asset.

“My original position was the four,” Simms recently told Basketball Insiders. “But I’m comfortable playing small ball five (too). And later in my career, I want to work toward playing some three, too, like Jeff Green.”

Green, who played a major role in the Brooklyn Nets’ success this season, is among the players who inspire Simms. He obviously values what LeBron James and Kevin Durant do, but he sees the utility of players like Green, and he understands that mimicking players like this will be key in his success.

“Being a versatile four like Jae Crowder (would be ideal), Simms said. “Being able to defend guys his size. Having the mid-range and the face-up like Al Horford or Paul Milsap. The craftiness and versatility of Tobias Harris. And especially Jeff Green. He does a good job of shooting the ball, playing the post, guarding one through five.”

“And that’s something I’m excited to showcase in this combine, in workouts and even through summer league.”

Achieving that success requires serious skill and versatility, but Simms believes he’s already on his way. If you’re thinking “but there isn’t evidence that he can do that,” you’re not wrong. But it’s not uncommon for players to sacrifice their own success for the greater good of a college program – and that’s exactly what Simms did.

“My perimeter defense is something I am really ready to showcase,” Simms said. “At school, I was an undersized five, so I didn’t switch much for the sake of the team,’ Simms said.

But he can – and he knows it.

Clemson’s entire roster had only three players taller than Simms. Two of the three were Freshmen and the other – Jonathan Baehre – started just 10 games. Clearly, Clemson coach Brad Brownell had a vision for his team, which included Simms as an undersized center. And considering their entry into the NCAA tournament after the media predicted they finish 10th in the ACC in a pre-season poll, it’s fair to say it worked.

“I think there’s a lot of things that teams look at (in the draft process): winners, individual growth, changes in your stats, and consistency,” Simms said. “I think I’ve shown all those areas throughout this season.”

“Just the way I led my team, (along) with other guys on the team, I got us back to the tournament – because people didn’t really expect us to. We got ranked pretty highly. My shooting and numbers improved, especially my field goal percentage. I was a little streaky with rebounds, but I think I showed improvements in areas that would progress me in the prospect rankings.”

With Simms, shooting will initiate interest.  As mentioned above, Simms shot better than 40 percent on three-point over the past two seasons – but he wasn’t a knock-down shooter early in his Clemson career.

As a Freshmen, Simms shot a pedestrian 32.6 percent on three-point attempts. But credit Simms for identifying the problem and working to fix it

“The reason why I shot so low as a freshman was that my form was coming across the left side of my face, so when I released the ball I couldn’t see as much,” Simms explained. “From the middle of my freshmen year to Senior year, I worked with (assistant) coach Smith before he went to Florida State, as well as (assistant) coach Dean and (director of player development) Terrell Mcintyre.”

“And those guys helped me improve my form and stick with it. And then, it was just spending my summers getting up hundreds of shots – 500 every morning and 500 every night to get that muscle memory down.”

But there’s more to Simms game than just shooting, and that’s what he hopes to prove throughout the draft process – beginning on Sunday, June 20 at the G-League Elite camp.

The G League Elite camp is an opportunity for 40 players to showcase their abilities in front of NBA and G League scouts, as well as coaches and front-office executives. The camp will consist of five-on-five scrimmages, as well as strength and agility drills. Top performers will earn an invite to the 2021 NBA Draft combine, meaning the camp can catapult players into very real consideration by NBA clubs. And Simms understands the opportunity at hand.

“Getting invited to the combine (is the goal),” Simms said. “That’s where the best of the best goes. I belong, but I’m fortunate to get the invite because there are other good guys who didn’t get an invite.”

This season, Simms faced off against at least two lottery prospects in Scottie Barnes (Florida State) and Jalen Johnson (Duke). Both will probably be used as measuring sticks of Simms’ potential; but considering defensive schemes, all matchups aren’t equal.

Simms underperformed against Florida State, scoring just 5 points on one-for-three shooting. But Florida State eliminates post opportunities and is known for its swarming defense.

“Florida State gets up in you, (they) switch one through five. They sit on you and take you out from catching the ball deep in the post,” Simms said. “I understood I wasn’t going to be as involved as I wanted entering it.”

But regardless of how you view Simms’ performance against Florida State, he demonstrated a big heart in coming back and playing well against Duke just one week later. While Clemson lost by 26 points, Simms performed well in a head-to-head matchup with another high-profile forward, scoring 19 points on seven-for-thirteen shooting.

“I have shown since my junior year that your ranking doesn’t matter,” Simms explained. “You play lottery picks a few times every year. That one was more of a bounce back after Florida State. That’s another one where we weren’t together, but the individual performance was what it was. It was in a losing effort so I didn’t focus on it, but it shows that I can play with anyone. I don’t care if you’re top 10 in the draft or wherever. I always feel I perform at a high level against highly projected players, and that was an opportunity to remind people who I am.”

Having to prove oneself self after four seasons at a big-time program would probably bother a lot of prospects, but it doesn’t bother Simms. On the contrary, Simms uses it as motivation.

“I am just thankful to be in the position I am because a lot of guys work for it and don’t get the opportunity,” Simms said. “It can be frustrating to be asked to prove yourself over and over, but the majority of great guys in the game have to do that at some point, too, so that’s fine.”

“I (already) have a chip on my shoulder,” Simms continued. “I come from the worst situations you can imagine, so being asked to keep showing my game and my progression is easy. Being able to put the ball in the basket and play hard isn’t something I stress over.”

“I’ve been through way darker times,” Simms continued. “Playing basketball is fun. I’ll have to show it over and over, but at least I’m doing what I love. Passion takes care of all of that. My faith pushes me through, God pushes me through. So if they ask me to do it 100 times, I’ll do it 101. I belong in the league. I believe I’m NBA-ready. If they want me to do it this week and another week after that, I’m ready.”

Simms is focused on getting the right opportunity with the right team. He’s spoken to his friends in the NBA including Mamadi Diakite (Milwaukee Bucks) and Nic Claxton (Brooklyn Nets), both of whom speak about the mental toll of going from being “the guy” to getting DNPs. But they’re not bitter. They emphasize the importance of getting into a good situation with a patient team and how it enables players to build confidence away from the pressure of the NBA game.

Still, you never know when your number will be called and rookies have to be perpetually ready. They also have to understand a team’s needs and the system that’s run. But Simms isn’t worried about that aspect. As the 2021 “Skip” Prosser Award winner, emblematic of the top scholar-athlete in men’s college basketball, he’s always been one to hit the books – and he intends on approaching an NBA opportunity the same way.

“If I am lucky enough to get drafted, I am going to spend that time starting the first night to get a feel for the team,” Simms said. “Learn the roster, who’s the primary and secondary guys and seeing where I fit.”

“No matter what, one thing you can do is rebound and defend. So that’s something I am going to do from the jump, (as well as) doing what coach asks of me. I’ve always been very coachable.”

Getting drafted is obviously the goal. But Simms understands that there is an opportunity beyond the draft. And conversely, he knows that getting drafted doesn’t guarantee success.

“Too many guys get caught up with their name being called, and that can land them in a bad situation,” Simms said. “It takes a lot of maturity to understand that it’s OK if you’re not drafted. A lot of guys who aren’t drafted or are taken late second-round are standing out (currently). Look around the league, guys come from the G League or overseas… if you can get over the idea of getting drafted and just focus on getting your foot in the door, that’s most important. That’s what I’m focused on.”

Simms has spent at least the last four years preparing himself for this moment – now it’s time to prove that he belongs. His mix of athleticism, size and skill will get him noticed, but his patience and cerebral approach are real differentiators. Even if Simms’ name isn’t called on July 29th at the draft, this writer believes he’ll find his way onto an NBA roster for the 2021-22 season, one way or another.

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Now What? – Portland Trail Blazers

From Neil Olshey’s top choice to replace Terry Stotts to whether they should trade CJ McCollum and who they might get for him, Bobby Krivitsky examines what’s next for the Portland Trail Blazers as they work to convince Damian Lillard to stay.

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The Portland Trail Blazers’ search for a new head coach has not gotten off to a smooth start. Less than 24 hours after Damian Lillard made it known Jason Kidd was his top preference to replace Terry Stotts, Kidd withdrew his name from the running.

According to Shams Charania of The Athletic, Los Angeles Clippers assistant coach Chauncey Billups, San Antonio Spurs assistant Becky Hammon, University of South Carolina and USA Women’s coach Dawn Staley, Brooklyn Nets assistant Mike D’Antoni, and Spurs executive Brent Barry are among Portland’s top candidates.

It’s vital that throughout this process, the Trail Blazers respect Lillard’s opinions. That doesn’t mean they have to hire one of their franchise player’s top choices, but if what he has to say isn’t holding the proper weight, it could fracture the relationship. According to NBA reporter Sean Highkin, Billups, who has a good relationship with Lillard, is Olshey’s preferred candidate.

Speaking of Olshey, in an attempt to deflect blame, he took an unnecessary parting shot at Stotts during his exit interview following the Trail Blazers getting eliminated by a depleted Denver Nuggets team in six games. 

He also said not to expect many changes to the Trail Blazers roster.

To put it mildly, it’s in poor taste for Olshey to show prospective head coaching candidates they shouldn’t expect him to have their back if the situation turns sour. On top of that and the uncertainty regarding whether Lillard will ask to get traded this summer, those interviewing for this position shouldn’t anticipate many roster changes despite Portland’s first-round exit, which marked the fourth time that’s happened in the last five years.

There’s also the possibility the amount of roster turnover is small but significant. To that effect, it may be time for Portland to break up its potent backcourt of Lillard and CJ McCollum. The latter can still play at a high level, as evidenced by him averaging 23.1 points, 4.7 assists, 3.9 rebounds, and only 1.4 turnovers per game during the regular season. He then produced 20.7 points, six rebounds and 4.3 dimes per contest in the six-game series against the Nuggets.

However, the Trail Blazers have struggled to overcome their lack of balance between their offensive proficiency and defensive shortcomings. McCollum turns 30-years-old in September, and while there may not be a dip in his performance, it’s hard to believe now is when Portland will start experiencing more postseason success, especially if Olshey’s telling the truth about minimal changes to the roster.

Trading McCollum for someone who can help make the team more dynamic while flanking Lillard as the team’s second-best player could lead to lengthier stays in the playoffs. Two names that come to mind are Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram. The former is again experiencing postseason struggles, which could prompt Philadelphia 76ers president of basketball operations, Daryl Morey, to reconstruct the team’s roster around Joel Embiid. The Sixers’ top-two players remain a clunky fit without a more reliable closer. However, Simmons is a three-time All-Star, he recently got named to the All-Defensive First Team for the second time in his career, and he’s an elite floor general when pushing the tempo. Simmons could also form a potent pick-and-roll partnership with Lillard, including when he turns to one of his most reliable scoring methods in the half-court, faking the handoff, then darting to the rim.

As for Ingram, an All-Star in 2020, this season, he averaged 23.8 points, 4.9 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game while converting 38.1 percent of the 6.1 shots he attempted from beyond the arc, which is reflective of his growth as a three-point shooter. He’s far from a lockdown defender, but at 6-foot-8 with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, he’s more versatile on that end than McCollum.

The other decision the Trail Blazers have to make is much easier; whether to re-sign Norman Powell. The former Toronto Raptor quickly acclimated to his new team after Portland acquired him at the trade deadline in exchange for a package centered around Gary Trent. Powell averaged 17 points per game in 27 regular-season contests with the Trail Blazers and maintained that production during the playoffs. It’s a safe bet he won’t exercise his $11.6 million player option. At his exit interview, Olshey reiterated the franchise’s desire to work out a new contract with Powell, saying they “made the Norman Powell trade hoping that he’d be a part of the future.”

As the Trail Blazers work to make sure one of the most loyal athletes in sports doesn’t decide it’s time for him to take his talents elsewhere, it starts with hiring the right head coach. In regards to their roster, the challenge is figuring out how to add upgrades while handcuffed. Portland doesn’t have a first-round pick this year due to the trade to get Robert Covington. They also lack cap space and players who hold great value on the trade market. Parting with McCollum is a choice that could backfire; it’s also possible Lillard voices his opposition to such a move, in which case, the return would have to be better than expected to go through with that decision. Otherwise, the Trail Blazers’ path to improvement centers around making the difficult choice to trade a fan favorite in the hopes that becoming a better-balanced team translates to more success in the playoffs.

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Now What? – Golden State Warriors

The past two seasons have been incredibly difficult for the Golden State Warriors. While they are eager to return to their winning ways, their path back to championship contention could take some time – if it happens at all.

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For the better part of a decade, the Golden State Warriors were the darling of the league. After three championships and five consecutive trips to the NBA Finals, the Warriors fell off the horse. Injuries to their star players and the departure of Kevin Durant left the franchise in a state of despair. Now that they have picked up the pieces, they are ready to get back to being championship contenders.

Nothing in life is that easy though, especially when so many other teams have improved and accumulated their own star power. With another brutal injury to Klay Thompson, an aging Stephen Curry and a devastating injury to their prized rookie James Wiseman, the path back to greatness doesn’t look so golden after all.

The Curry show was in full effect this past season, as the two-time MVP dazzled fans with his play on the way to winning the scoring title. The 33-year old is ready to share the load with his teammates but it could be a rocky start for them as they try to shake the rust off as they battle in the loaded Western Conference.

Several key items must be examined before the Warriors can go back to being a championship-caliber team.

Strengths

Everything the Warriors do rests on the shoulders of Curry, who was spectacular once again this season. The seven-time All-Star earned his second scoring title this year in an epic duel with Bradley Beal. The first time he did so was the 2015-16 season when Golden State won a record 73 games in the regular season but fell short in Game 7 of the Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers. This year was quite different, as they finished 9th in the Western Conference with a 39-33 record.

A healthy Curry is incredibly important but a healthy Thompson is crucial to their success. After missing two full seasons due to two significant injuries, his return to the court is everything to this team. When at 100 percent, the Warriors have the best backcourt in the league but it will take Thompson some time to ease into things and to clear the mental and physical hurdles associated with his return to play.

Draymond Green reminded everyone of his value and his impact on the game. The former Defensive Player of the Year demonstrated that he is still arguably the best defender in the league, capable of guarding multiple positions. His passing and ability to get guys open have always been his greatest strengths. His impact might not be the same if he were playing for the Orlando Magic but he is the perfect fit alongside Curry and Thompson.

Outside of their core three players, one other person to keep in mind is head coach Steve Kerr. With Rick Carlisle’s resignation yesterday, Kerr now becomes the third-longest tenured head coach in the league behind Gregg Popovich and Erik Spoelstra.

Even with a constantly changing roster, Kerr was able to guide this team to the Play-In Tournament. They were able to finish the regular season with the fifth-best defensive rating in the league, and while much of the credit goes to Kerr and Green, Andrew Wiggins deserves some praise as well.

Known as a defensive liability for most of his career, Wiggins finally took pride in his defense this season. He has always had the tools with his length and quickness, but his energy and effort always seemed to be lacking. Whether or not Kerr and the staff challenged him before the season, the fact is he made a major stride in that area, which ultimately helped the team win many close games. If he continues that heading into next season, it will go a long way in getting them back into the mix.

Weaknesses

One major weakness for Golden State this year was rebounding. They ranked 22nd in the league overall and dead last in the offensive variety of that category. This is not a product of playing small ball or just a lack of size in general. The Warriors were notorious for not boxing out and being out-hustled on the glass. The second-chance opportunities for their opponents to score often killed them in close games. This is something that must be addressed both in free agency and with the current players on the roster.

Another area of weakness that can be solved this offseason is the lack of veterans on the roster. Aside from their top four players, nearly everyone on the roster has three years or less of experience. The good news is that many of these guys seem to have some potential. Damion Lee, Juan Toscano-Anderson, Jordan Poole, Eric Paschall and Mychal Mulder all played a lot of minutes for the Warriors. Sharing the floor with Curry and Green will ultimately help them achieve their goal of becoming a key contributor for this team.

Turnovers were another trouble spot for this team, as they committed 15 per game during the regular season. Only four teams averaged more per game but the Warriors were often dealing with new young players that didn’t have the experience to negate many of those. They also committed 21.6 fouls per game, which was the second-most in the league trailing only the Washington Wizards. Those are two areas that will need to be cleaned up, regardless of who is or isn’t on the floor.

Opportunities

The Warriors will be back in the lottery for next month’s NBA Draft but they likely won’t have a top pick as they did a year ago. They should still be able to acquire some talent that can help them right now, either on the floor or in a future deal. With Thompson and Wiseman still easing their way back, and impending free agents of their own, it will be important for whomever Golden State selects to be ready to contribute immediately.

The Warriors only have two hitting free agency players this summer, in Kelly Oubre Jr and Kent Bazemore. Despite his roller-coaster season, Oubre is seeking around $20 million annually, which the Warriors simply cannot afford. He won’t be needed as much this season with Thompson eventually reclaiming his starting role. Golden State won’t have much to spend but they should be able to find what they are looking for in free agency.

Only six players are under contract after next season, which could open the door for some of the younger players should they carve out a role for themselves. Seven players are set to be on expiring contracts heading into next season. Curry is one of them, as his salary for next season is just under $46 million. The other six players have a combined salary of around $14 million. This will give Golden State some flexibility in terms of trades next season.

Threats

Obviously, the largest threat that looms over this franchise is another setback for Thompson or another injury to one of their other stars. The same can be said for every organization but the way things have transpired for this team over the last two years makes it even more critical. Curry is not getting any younger and while he has reaffirmed his desire to stay with the Warriors, he will be a free agent after next season. If the future looks cloudy at all, it could be in his best interest to explore other options.

Thompson will turn 32 next season and his comeback will be closely monitored around the league. While being a prolific shooter himself, he has much more to offer on the defensive side of the ball than Curry. Earning All-Defensive honors during the 2018-19 season, Thompson has always been an elite-level defender, especially on the perimeter. He uses his feet well to stay in front of his man while not getting his hands in the danger zone against crafty offensive players like James Harden and Trae Young.

While the focus from the outside will be on his offensive game, the key to Golden State’s return to the top-tier will depend on how well he plays on the other side of the ball. Coming off of two devastating injuries, will he still be able to lock down players on the perimeter at his age? Only time will tell, but everyone in this organization will be holding their breath every time he is on the floor.

One thing that Golden State has going for them is the culture they have created. The environment between the players, coaching staff and the front office is a good one. Everyone appears to be on the same page and there is never any panic. The continuity and chemistry they have with each other can be utilized to their advantage over less tenured teams.

The other thing that threatens their future is out of their hands. The Western Conference is oozing with talent. That is nothing new, but the way they are set up doesn’t bode well for Golden State. Playoff teams are loaded with young star players, who will only get better as time marches on.

Donovan Mitchell, Devin Booker, Nikola Jokic, Michael Porter Jr, Jamal Murray, Kawhi Leonard, Luka Doncic, Damian Lillard, Anthony Davis, Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr, Zion Williamson, De’Aaron Fox, Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. These are just a handful of names that reside in the Western Conference.

A return to glory would be a wonderful story for this organization, but it won’t be easy. Knowing how this group is wired, they wouldn’t have it any other way.

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