The Milwaukee Bucks are a prime championship threat. The Indiana Pacers are solid as always. The Detroit Pistons are slowly crumbling and the Chicago Bulls are still fighting incompetence. The Cleveland Cavaliers, meanwhile, are a sad laughingstock.
Nothing about the NBA’s Central Division is surprising relative to preseason expectations. Its teams, broadly speaking, are exactly who we thought they were. But that hardly means there’s no intrigue in flyover country, especially as the most active days of trade season dawn.
These are the six players from the Central Division who competing teams should be looking at hardest.
Kevin Love – $28,942,830
Don’t read too much into Love’s heartfelt, honest apology for his behavior on either side of the New Year. It’s safe to say he would still rather play for almost any team in basketball than the Cleveland Cavaliers. Less clear is what type of deal it would take for him to find his way out of Cleveland by Feb. 7.
There’s no doubting Love’s bonafides from beyond the arc, ability to punish smaller defenders on the block or his supreme impact as a rebounder. He’s just not dynamic enough to be the hub of an elite offense, though, a reality that makes his utter lack of versatility on the other end even more debilitating than it would be otherwise. Collecting the money to match his exorbitant salary, plus the three full seasons remaining on his $120 million contract extension, are factors just as prohibitive as the on-court ramifications of any potential trade for Love, too.
The Cavaliers’ ongoing and worsening dysfunction shouldn’t make finding a deal easier. It’s no secret Love wants out, and any expectation general manager Koby Altman had of netting even one objectively attractive trade chip in exchange for the veteran big man is growing less realistic by the day. Regardless, the dual pitfalls of Love’s game in a more limited role, and the massive salary slot he’ll occupy through 2022-23 will scare off the majority of playoff teams who could use some tertiary scoring punch.
If his hometown Portland Trail Blazers stay patient during a lost season, Love seems bound to remain in Cleveland for the remainder of 2019-20. Even beyond that timeframe, it’s difficult to conjure a theoretical trade that would make sense for Love, the Cavaliers and any team bold enough to take on an injury-prone thirty-something who’s an imminent defensive liability and doubles as a salary albatross.
Andre Drummond – $27,093019
It would be in the Detroit Pistons’ overwhelming best interest if they found a way to move Drummond before the trade deadline. Blake Griffin’s increasingly fragile health status and ESPN’s recent reporting that the team has already engaged in “serious talks” with the Atlanta Hawks about a potential Drummond deal suggests his departure from the Motor City is a formality.
The Pistons are going nowhere as currently constructed, and Drummond will likely opt out of the final year of his contract this summer. Moving him is a no-brainer. The problem for Detroit is that Drummond is a borderline negative value on his existing contract and will surely command a similar starting salary in free agency to the one he’s earning this season.
Acquiring his Bird Rights would be a boon for a cash-strapped team that needs help in the middle if Drummond is a good stylistic fit. But he’s clearly miscast as anything close to a primary offensive option and lacks both the playmaking feel and shooting touch to thrive in a more defined offensive role. Drummond is a helpful defender when engaged, but hardly an interior panacea around which an entire defensive system can be built.
Where does that leave his trade prospects? If the Hawks – who should be extremely wary of pairing him with Trae Young for the long haul – don’t bite, odds are that Drummond plays out the season’s remainder with the Pistons before entering free agency, where his next destination could prove just as vexing to find.
Tristan Thompson – $18,539,130
Thompson is quietly enjoying another standout campaign after it seemed like he may fade forever into mediocrity during LeBron James’ final season in Northeast Ohio. The question isn’t whether he’d be useful for a playoff team that could use some quality depth up front, but what that suitor would be comfortable giving the Cleveland Cavaliers in a trade.
His salary makes those matters tougher in a straight-up deal where he’s the centerpiece. If there’s a blockbuster potentially involving three or more teams, though, Thompson’s steep expiring contract could come in handy as a facilitator.
Wherever he may end up, Thompson’s time as a rotation player certainly isn’t over. He’s perfectly suited as a third or fourth big depending on incumbent personnel, and, at 28, isn’t declining as quickly as it appeared two years ago. It’ll be fascinating to gauge his market in free agency come July.
Myles Turner – $18,000,000
The first few weeks of 2019-20 made it seem like Turner’s days with the Indiana Pacers were numbered. He missed eight games with a sprained right ankle in early November, during which the Pacers rebounded from a dreadful start to the season by going 6-2 behind strong play from Domantas Sabonis. Widespread concerns about the viability of Indiana’s new starting tandem up front, it appeared, had already been confirmed.
Turner hasn’t done all that much individually in the interim to put those worries to rest. He’s been an abject disappointment defensively, failing to live up to the immense promise he showed last season as a rim-protector while remaining an abject weakness on the defensive glass. But his net rating next to Sabonis is up to a solid plus-6.4, which should give Kevin Pritchard enough hope that Indiana’s two-big alignment could work long-term – especially given a Victor Oladipo return from injury is officially set.
Teams will inquire about Turner regardless. Young seven-footers with shot-blocking instincts and still-burgeoning proficiency from long range don’t grow on trees, and there’s enough doubt about the ceiling of Turner and Sabonis’ partnership that the Pacers should pick up the phone. The same two-way traits, confined as they are, that attract other teams to Turner are why he’s a valuable member of Indiana’s core, though.
Unless a competing team makes Pritchard a Godfather offer, Turner will almost surely remain with the Pacers past the trade deadline. His future beyond that could still be subject to change.
Thaddeus Young – $12,900,000
Young made it clear last month that he’s unhappy with his role, and it’s fair to assume that the Chicago Bulls are almost equally unhappy with his play.
At least some justification for optimism about the Bulls leading up to the season can be chalked up to Young’s expected impact as a de facto sixth starter. Instead, he’s getting the fewest minutes since his rookie season and shooting a hideous 51.2 percent in the restricted area – dead last among bigs who take at least two shots from there. As disruptive as he remains at times defensively, the on/off data suggests Chicago wouldn’t take a major step back on that end without him.
But just because it hasn’t worked out for Young with the Bulls doesn’t mean it wouldn’t with a contender. Any team with aspirations of playing deep into spring could use the additional lineup flexibility and defensive versatility provided by his presence, and his salary – right in the sweet spot of easily-movable contracts that the league at large is currently lacking – makes him a helpful salary-matching fit in a potential blockbuster trade.
What would it take for an interested team to acquire Young? In addition to draft fodder, Chicago would probably want someone to replace him in the rotation, decreasing the odds he’s dealt. Players who can check most bigs and wings almost seamlessly are at a premium – which is also the biggest reason why Young should be chased by teams with dreams of May and June.
Derrick Rose – $7,317,074
Rose’s value to Detroit almost certainly wouldn’t be matched elsewhere. The Pistons’ offensive rating spikes by more than 10 points with him on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass, an easy team-high. With Griffin ailing, he’s their only reliable source of independent offense in the clutch.
Rose is a far cry from his MVP heyday. But with a renewed air of athletic oomph and improved shot-making from the perimeter, he’s been one of the most explosive reserves in the NBA this season – a role most any contender would be lucky for him to fill.
The contractual complications that inhibit Detroit in trade talks for Drummond don’t apply to Rose. He makes just below the league-average salary this season and is under contract at a slightly higher number through 2020-21. There will definitely be many teams interested in acquiring him. What the Pistons must decide is what they’re willing to accept from those that come calling.
As good as Rose has been in 2019-20, he’s still too big an injury risk for suitors to part with ultra-valuable assets. But if Detroit is comfortable moving him for a heavily-protected first-round pick that’s likeliest to convey to second-round compensation, don’t be surprised to see Rose donning a different jersey soon.
Not all of these players will be moved, and there’s even a chance that all stay put.
Love and Drummond are arguably the two biggest-name players most likely to be dealt by the deadline. It would be a minor shock if the Pacers traded Turner, and Thompson might even be a buy-out candidate. The Bulls and Pistons could decide losing Young and Rose would be pills too tough to swallow.
Nevertheless, their names will continue swirling in trade winds as Feb. 7 fast approaches.
NBA Daily: Wiggins The X-Factor for Warriors
Stephen Curry will always be the face of the Golden State Warriors, and for good reason. Draymond Green spearheads their defensive attack but the key to their postseason fate lies in the hands of a guy that many people had already given up on.
The 2020-21 regular season was a strange one for many reasons, but especially for the Golden State Warriors. Shortly before the NBA Draft, the team’s championship aspirations took a major hit with the injury to Klay Thompson. The best backcourt in the league would not be on full display this season, but they still had two-time MVP, Stephen Curry, to put on a show.
Curry did just that, dazzling basketball fans on a near-nightly basis. The sensational shots, ridiculous plays and high-drama situations were must-see TV that kept the Warriors in the national spotlight. To that end, Curry captured the scoring title for the second time in his career, averaging 32.0 points per game this season.
Steph Curry edges out Bradley Beal to win the 2020-21 scoring title. 🔥 pic.twitter.com/GmiTD26aJK
— theScore (@theScore) May 17, 2021
With limited options available to fill Thompson’s void, the team managed to add Kelly Oubre Jr to the roster, although it came at a steep cost. His salary is $14.4 million this season but because of Golden State’s luxury tax bill, ESPN’s Bobby Marks noted that adding Oubre would cost an additional $82.4 million, bringing their total to $134 million.
After a career year in Phoenix, Oubre struggled mightily trying to fit in with this group. Sometimes players in new situations can try to do too much at first, or sometimes pass on open shots in order to not seem selfish. Neither of these was the case for Oubre, who simply could not put the ball in the basket. His early-season shooting struggles had the Warriors pegged for the Draft Lottery.
Oubre eventually turned it around and began playing like himself. Another new face in the Bay area was rookie James Wiseman. He too struggled at the beginning of the season, which is to be expected for someone in his situation. The seven-footer from Memphis only played a handful of games in college and was trying to learn the NBA game on the fly. A season-ending injury cut short his rookie season, but he showed promise for the future.
The future is not something that Curry has on his mind. He and Draymond Green are playing to win now. That starts on Wednesday with their highly-anticipated showdown with LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the defending NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers. The league has quite the matchup to cap the new Play-In-Tournament.
Amid all of the highlight plays from Curry and all of the noise surrounding Green, one player sits in the shadows and is rarely mentioned. Andrew Wiggins was all the rage when he was selected number one overall in the 2014 NBA Draft. The former Kansas Jayhawk earned Rookie of the Year honors but ultimately struggled to find his place in Minneapolis.
After more than five seasons with the Minnesota Timberwolves, Wiggins was traded to the Warriors in February of last season. Now having played a full season in a Warriors uniform, Wiggins could be their x-factor in the postseason.
One of the knocks on Wiggins has always been his drive, and his passion to reach his full potential. He has all of the physical tools and attributes to be one of the most prolific two-way players in the league. Sometimes the effort just isn’t there, but that narrative seems to have gone out the window. Wiggins has been playing excellent on both ends of the floor, which has translated to wins for the depleted Warriors.
While many people point to his scoring slightly declining, he still scored 19 points per game despite playing the fewest minutes of his career. He finished inside the top 40 in scoring this season. The real story for Wiggins is his efficiency, which has been incredible. He shot a career-high 48 percent from the floor this season and a career-best 38 percent from three-point range. His 54 percent effective field goal percentage is also the highest of his career.
Andrew Wiggins is gonna end the regular season averaging ~19 & 5 on 48/38/72 shooting.
Missed only 1 game, and that was for rest. Was tremendous defensively, night in and night out.
He’s had a great year.
— Brian Witt (@Wittnessed) May 16, 2021
As they prepare to battle the Lakers for the 7th seed in the Western Conference, Golden State must find ways to get stops on the defensive end. Stopping the likes of James, Davis and Dennis Schroder on the perimeter will be paramount to their success. It is easier said than done, but this is where Wiggins’ value can be felt. The Toronto native will be called upon to match up against James often, with Green defending their big men.
Wiggins finished fourth in Defensive RPM (2.72) this season at his position, 21st among all players in the league. That is by far the best of his career, as he ranked 85th last season among small forwards. He also finished inside the top five in the league in terms of contested three-point shots. That is important for the Warriors going forward, should they face the Phoenix Suns or Utah Jazz in the first round. Utah was the top three-point shooting team in the league and Phoenix was seventh-best in terms of percentage.
As if facing James and Davis weren’t difficult enough, the Warriors will have their hands full no matter which opponent they face next. Both have dynamic backcourts with Mike Conley/Donovan Mitchell in Utah and Chris Paul/Devin Booker in Phoenix. Wiggins will be tasked with trying to slow them down as well. There is elite talent everywhere you look out West.
Golden State finished the regular season with a 110.1 defensive rating, which was top five in the league. They managed to do that despite having a depleted roster and having the third-highest pace (102.2) in the league. Much of the credit will go to Green and Oubre but Wiggins has been a major factor in their defensive schemes.
Curry and Green have combined to play in 235 playoff games during their careers. Wiggins has only appeared in five playoff games, so this will be a new experience for him. The pressure always goes up in the postseason, and the Play-In Tournament is no exception.
Shortly after acquiring Wiggins, Steve Kerr put All-Defense expectations on him. “Defensively, we will ask him to take on the challenge of what that position entails. Guarding some of the best players in the league and adapting to our schemes and terminology.” To his credit, Wiggins has done just that.
Wiggins will not win the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award this season. He isn’t going to win the Defensive Player of the Year either. While those accolades matter to a lot of players, Wiggins is just focused on improving and winning games. The Warriors hope to do the same as they return to postseason play.
NBA Daily: Examining Michael Porter Jr.’s Ascension
Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. is averaging over 25 points per game and looks like a future All-NBA player. Bobby Krivitsky examines Porter’s ascent and the questions that come with it.
Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. has taken his game to new heights.
In the wake of Murray’s ACL tear in mid-April, Porter’s playing time has gone from 30.6 minutes per contest to 35.7, while his shots per game have risen from 12.6 per game to 16.5. The increased responsibility has fueled his ascent. He’s knocking down 56.3 percent of those attempts. He’s taking 8.2 threes per game and making a blistering 50 percent of them. As a result, Porter’s gone from averaging 17.5 points per game to 25.1. He’s also grabbing 6.1 rebounds and blocking almost one shot per contest.
At the time of Murray’s injury, the Denver Nuggets were in fourth place in the Western Conference. They remain there now, 9-4 in his absence, and they boast the eighth-highest net rating in the NBA.
The only way for the Nuggets to fall from fourth would be if they lost their four remaining games and the Dallas Mavericks won their final five contests because the Mavericks have the tiebreaker since they won the season series. On the more realistic end of the spectrum, Denver sits just 1.5 games back of the Los Angeles Clippers, who occupy the third seed in the West. The Nuggets won their season series against the Clippers, meaning they’d finish in third if the two teams ended the regular season with the same record.
There’s a bevy of questions surrounding Porter’s recent play that need to be asked but cannot get answered at the moment. That starts with whether this is anything more than a hot streak. While it’s impossible to say definitively, it’s reasonable to believe Porter can consistently and efficiently produce about 25 points per game. He was the second-ranked high school prospect in 2017 and entered his freshman year at Missouri firmly in the mix for the top pick in the 2018 NBA draft. That was thanks in large part to his offensive prowess as a 6-10 wing with a smooth shot that’s nearly impossible to block because of the elevation he gets when he shoots.
A back injury cost him all but 53 minutes of his collegiate career and caused him to fall to the 14th pick in the draft. He ended up in an ideal landing spot, going to a well-run organization that’s also well aware of its barren track record luring star players looking to change teams, making it vital for the Nuggets to hit on their draft picks.
Porter’s first year in the NBA was exclusively dedicated to the rehab process and doing everything possible to ensure he can have a long, healthy and productive career. Last season, finally getting a chance to play, he showed off the tantalizing talent that made him a top prospect but only took seven shots per game while trying to fit in alongside Nikola Jokic, Murray, Paul Millsap and Jerami Grant.
More experience, including battling against the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, an offseason, albeit a truncated one, to prepare for a more substantial role with Grant joining the Detroit Pistons and Millsap turning 36 this year, helped propel Porter.
But for the Nuggets, before Murray’s injury, the perception was that even though they weren’t the favorites to come out of the Western Conference, they were a legitimate title contender. How far can they go if Porter’s consistently contributing about 25 points and over six rebounds per game while effectively playing the role of a second star alongside Jokic?
It seems fair to cross Denver off the list of title contenders. But, if Porter continues to capably play the role of a second star alongside Jokic when doing so becomes more challenging in the postseason, the Nuggets can advance past a team like the Mavericks or Portland Trail Blazers. And at a minimum, they’d have the ability to make life difficult for whoever they had to face in the second round of the playoffs.
Unfortunately, the timing of Murray’s ACL tear, which happened in mid-April, means there’s a legitimate possibility he misses all of next season. Denver’s increased reliance on Porter is already allowing a young player with All-NBA potential to take on a role that’s closer to the one he’s assumed his whole life before making it to the sport’s highest level. If the Nuggets are counting on him to be the second-best player on a highly competitive team in the Western Conference next season, it’ll be fascinating to see what heights he reaches and how far they’re able to go as a team.
Theoretically, Porter’s growth could make it difficult for Denver to reacclimate Murray. But given Jokic’s unselfish style of play, there’s room for both of them to be satisfied by the volume of shots they’re getting. Unfortunately, the Nuggets have to wait, potentially another season, but Jokic is 26-years-old, Murray 24, Porter 22. When Denver has their Big Three back together, they could be far more potent while still being able to enjoy a lengthy run as legitimate title contenders.
NBA Daily: D’Angelo Russell Back on Track
D’Angelo Russell lost much of the 2020-21 season to injury. Drew Maresca explains why his return will surprise people around the league.
D’Angelo Russell was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves last February, just before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the entire season. But we’ve yet to see what Russell can really do in Minnesota.
The Timberwolves acquired Russell in late February in exchange for a future first-round pick – which transitions this season if they pick later than third – a 2021 second-round pick and Andrew Wiggins.
Sidenote: For those keeping score at home, the Timberwolves currently have the third-worst record in the league with five games remaining. It would behoove Minnesota to lose as many of their remaining games as possible to keep their 2021 pick. If the pick does not transition this season, it becomes unrestricted in 2020.
Trying to turn an owed pick into an unprotected future first is usually the wrong move; but in this instance, it’s better to keep the high first-rounder this year with an understanding that your 2022 pick will probably fall in or around the middle of the lottery.
The thinking around the deal was that Minnesota could qualify for the playoffs as soon as this season by swapping Wiggins’ contract for a young, talented lead guard in Russell. It has not played out as planned.
COVID resulted in a play stoppage shortly after the deal, robbing Russell of the opportunity to ramp up with his new team. When the NBA returned to finish the 2019-20 season, the Timberwolves failed to qualify for bubble play – and considering the US was still battling a global pandemic, Russell couldn’t easily practice with his new teammates and/or coaches.
The 2020-21 season began weirdly, too. The NBA proceeded with an abbreviated training camp and preseason. And while this impacted all teams, Russell was additionally hindered by the decision.
Ready or not, the season began. In 2020-21, Russell is averaging a near-career low in minutes per game (28.2) across just 36 games. He’s tallying 19.1 points per game on 43.6% shooting and a career-best 38.8% on three-point attempts. He’s also he’s posting a near career-best assist-to-turnover ratio (5.7 to 2.8).
Despite Russell’s contributions, the Timberwolves have failed to meet expectations. Far from the playoff squad they hoped to be, Minnesota is in contention for the top pick in this year’s draft. So what has gone wrong in Minneapolis?
Russell’s setbacks are fairly obvious. In addition to the lack of preparation with his teammates and coaches, Russell was diagnosed with a “loose body” in his knee, requiring arthroscopic knee surgery in February. As a result, he missed 27 consecutive games. Russell returned on April 5, but head coach Chris Finch revealed that he’d been on a minutes restriction until just recently.
Minnesota is clearly being cautious with Russell. Upon closer review, Russell has been restricted to under 30 minutes per game in all of his first 10 games back. Since then, Russell is averaging 31 minutes per game including an encouraging 37 minutes on May 5 in a four-point loss to Memphis.
Since returning from knee surgery, Russell is averaging 27 minutes per game across 16 games. Despite starting 19 of the team’s first 20 games, he hadn’t started in any game since returning – until Wednesday.
On the whole, Russell’s impact is about the same as it was prior to the injury, which should be encouraging to Timberwolves’ fans. He’s scoring slightly less (18.8 points since returning vs. 19.3 prior), shooting better from the field (44.9% since returning vs 42.6%% prior) and has been just slightly worse from three-point range (37.4% since vs. 39.9 prior). He’s dishing out more assists per game (6.5 since vs. 5.1 prior), too, and he posted three double-digit assist games in his last five contents – a feat achieved only once all season prior to his last five games.
Despite playing more and dropping more dimes, there’s still room to improve. Looking back to his career-bests, Russell averaged 23.1 points per game in 2019-20 in 33 games with Golden State (23.6) and 12 games with Minnesota (21.7).
But his most impactful season came in 2018-19 with the Brooklyn Nets. That season, Russell averaged 21.1 points and 7.0 assists per game, leading the Nets to the playoffs and earning his first trip to the All-Star game. He looked incredibly comfortable, playing with supreme confidence and flashing the ability to lead a playoff team.
At his best, Russell is a dynamic playmaker. The beauty of Russell is that he can also play off the ball. He has a quick release on his jumper and impressive range. His game is not predicated on athleticism, meaning he should stay at his peak for longer than guys like De’Aaron Fox and Ja Morant.
And while he’s been in the league for what feels like ever (six seasons), Russell just turned 25 approximately two months ago. Granted, comparing anyone to Steph Curry is unwise, but Curry wasn’t Steph Curry yet at 25. Former MVP Steve Nash hadn’t yet averaged double-digits (points) at 25. Twenty-five is also an inflection point for Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook. And the list goes on.
To be fair, Russell was drafted at 19 so he’s more acclimated to the league at this age than most, but his game will continue expanding nonetheless. He’ll develop trickier moves, become stronger and grow his shooting range. And a good deal of that growth should be evident as soon as next season since he’ll be fully healed from knee surgery and have a full offseason and training camp to finally work with teammates and coaches.
So while Minnesota’s 2020-21 season was incredibly bleak, their future is quite bright – and much of it has to do with the presence of Russell.