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Who’s In Trouble? Eastern Conference Edition: Week 1

Basketball Insiders kicks off its “Who’s In Trouble?” series by examining the Eastern Conference’s biggest Week 1’s disappointments.



The 2020-21 NBA season is about one week old. Despite teams playing a maximum of only three games thus far, we’ve already seen lots of surprising happenings and results. Granted, we didn’t have to go long without basketball, as there was only a 2-month break between the decisive game 6 of the NBA Finals and opening night, but the return of NBA action is always a cause for celebration.

With the return of NBA basketball comes all kinds of lists and rankings, so Basketball Insiders isn’t above making our own. Let’s kick things off by identifying teams, players and/or coaches that look to be in trouble. Since we’re dealing with people’s livelihoods, we hope to be as explicit as possible to build a case for each. So without further adieu, let’s identify who is in trouble in the Eastern Conference.

The New York Knicks’ Fourth-Year Point Guards

The Knicks were never going to be successful this season, at least not by traditional modes of measurement. They had too much ground to make up and the No. 8 overall pick in the 2020 draft was never going to result in the type of talent needed to replace their failing to add a foundational piece (e.g., Fred VanVleet) in free agency. So while pundits are mostly looking for incremental improvements this season, there is still some disappointment in the Knicks’ locker room.

First, there’s Dennis Smith Jr., who is averaging 4.0 points in 18.0 minutes per game through two games. Smith Jr. missed the team’s game on Sunday after a quad injury on Friday night, but he was simply average in both contests in which he’s played, shooting only 20 percent from the field.

Then there’s Frank Ntilikina. Ntilikina scored one point in a total of 7 minutes through the Knicks’ first two games. But then Sunday happened: With Smith Jr. out, Ntilikina knew he’d receive more playing time entering the contest – and he looked good. Ntilikina scored 12 points in nearly 18 minutes of action. He was a +5 and made all four of his three-point attempts – but which player is he?

It was widely believed that head coach Tom Thibodeau would take to Ntilikina given his proclivity for defense and his pass-first philosophy, but – even after last night – it’s hard to imagine him securing a major role given the excitement garnered by rookie Immanuel Quickley and the fact that the team also possesses a steadier, defensive-minded veteran point guard in Elfrid Payton. And sadly, Smith Jr. was the presumptive starter before getting to the preseason, so after last season’s struggles, another tough year would cast doubt on his ability to compete in the NBA.

Both of the fourth-year guards should be worried. Neither was given an extension prior to this season, which means both will enter restricted free agency. They both possess unique skillsets, so it’s unlikely that either is out of the league next season, but both are adding to the narrative that they’re long-term projects – and that’s just not where either wanted to be at this point in their respective careers.

The Toronto Raptors’ Entire Roster

Let’s get this out of the way early, Nick Nurse is in no danger of losing his jobs – none whatsoever. But that doesn’t mean that Masai Ujiri and the rest of the management team is happy with how they’ve played. Granted, there may not be any 2020-21 repercussions, but the Raptors have to turn things around quickly – or they could be on the outside of the playoff picture looking in.

The Raptors are 0-2 with losses against the San Antonio Spurs and New Orleans Pelicans, neither of whom was expected to be world-beaters. So what’s went wrong? Generally speaking, they’ve struggled to score points as the Raptors are No. 27 in point per game entering Sunday. And as much as it’s unfair to blame one or two players for the team’s early struggles, we’re talking about two winnable games in a slightly shortened season.

But more specifically, Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet – the team’s two cornerstones – have not played up to their potential. Siakam is averaging just 18.0 points per game (compared to 22.9 ppg in 2019-20) with an eFG of 47 percent, down from 51.2 last season. Additionally, VanVleet hasn’t stepped up like many wanted him to, considering that he’s fresh off of signing an $85 million extension.

Granted, VanVleet is playing mostly the same as he did last season, but that doesn’t cut it anymore. VanVleet has obviously been prioritized as a cornerstone, so, naturally, he must provide more than 18.0 points and 6.0 assists per game. Again, it’s only been two games; but VanVleet is shooting poorly from the charity stripe, connecting on just 60 percent of his free throw attempts. Both, and the entire team, will likely figure things out – but with the shortened season, it’d be best to do so as soon as possible.

The Washington Wizards’ Scott Brooks

Granted, no one expected the Wizards to be elite. Still, it was widely assumed that they would be competitive and, maybe, qualify for the playoffs. After all, Bradley Beal was the NBA’s leading scorer in 2019-20, Rui Hachimura showed promise last season, Davis Bertans is a top-notch sharp-shooter and they added Russell Westbrook and rookie Deni Avidija. And yet, here the Wizards sit, 0-3 allowing the seventh-most points per game (121.0).

But the Wizards roster just added Westbrook within the past month, a seriously-big change that requires time and patience. Additionally, Hachimura hasn’t played yet and will miss a few more games after being diagnosed with eye infections. So, for now, the roster is probably off the hook.

But that’s not the case for coach Scott Brooks.

At 0-3, the Wizards are off to a slow start. And with a shortened, 72-game season, three games hurts – especially when we’re talking about at least two winnable games against Orlando. Brooks’ seat is getting hot. If he doesn’t turn things around, and quickly, he could be on his way out.

Disclaimer, better late than never: It’s obviously way too early to conclude anything. Blowout losses happen and players have off-nights. Still, most teams have played 4 percent of their schedules – and while it might be an over-reaction, all of the above assumptions will play out poorly if all involved don’t flip the script, and soon.

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Mavericks are expected to pick up Willie Cauley-Stein’s $4.1 million option



Per ESPN’s Tim MacMahon, the Dallas Mavericks are planning to pick up center Willie Cauley-Stein’s $4.1 million option for the 2021-22 NBA season. The deadline is tomorrow. Last season, in 53 games played, the seven-foot big man averaged 5.3 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. The sixth-year player also shot 63.2 percent from the field last season.

On July 8, 2019, Cauley-Stein signed a two-year, $4.46 million contract with the Golden State Warriors. Then, on January 25, 2020, Cauley-Stein was traded to the Mavericks for a 2020 second-round pick. If everything goes smoothly, the 27-year-old center is set to earn $4.1 million next season. The 2015 sixth overall pick’s contract consumes less than three percent of the team’s total salary cap.

This news comes right after Dallas received center Moses Brown from the Boston Celtics. Brown is a seven-foot-two, 2019 undrafted player out of UCLA. In 2021, Brown was named to the All-NBA G League First Team and All-Defensive Team. On March 28, 2021, the 21-year-old center signed a four-year, $6.8 million contract with the Thunder.

However, on June 18, 2021, the Oklahoma City Thunder traded Brown, Al Horford, and a 2023 second-round pick to the Celtics for Kemba Walker, a 2021 first-round pick, and a 2025 second-round pick. With Boston, Brown was set to earn $1,701,593 next season. Of course, the Mavs’ organization is finalizing a trade to send Josh Richardson to the Celtics as well. In other news, today is Mavs’ owner Mark Cuban’s 63rd birthday.

Referencing Spotrac’s 2021-22 luxury tax totals, the Mavs’ current luxury tax space is $52,326,531. The 2021 NBA salary cap maximum is $112,414,000. Their current cap space is $27,595,632. Cauley-Stein’s contract is recognized as a club option, not a player option or guaranteed money. Richardson’s deadline is also tomorrow, so because he is getting traded to Boston, the team will not collect his $11,615,328 player option.

Plus, Jalen Brunson’s deadline is also August 1st. His guaranteed value is $1,802,057. Leading into the 2021-22 season, Kristaps Porzingis has the highest cap figure on the team, which is an amount worth $31,650,600, consuming 22.73 percent of the team’s total salary cap. At the moment, Porzingis is a popular name in trade rumor articles. Bettors and NBA analysts are predicting a possible trade to the Brooklyn Nets, Sacramento Kings, or Philadelphia 76ers.

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Lakers Need More Than Big Three

The Lakers have their “big three” after trading for Russell Westbrook but is he the right fit in Los Angeles? The former MVP has had an incredible career but he may not be the point guard the Lakers desperately need.



The Los Angeles Lakers have formed their three-headed monster as they pursue the franchise’s 18th championship next season. Just as the NBA Draft was getting started, the Lakers completed a deal with the Washington Wizards that landed them the 2016-17 league MVP, Russell Westbrook.

The deal sent Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell and the 21st overall pick in this year’s draft to Washington, paving the way for Westbrook to join fellow superstars LeBron James and Anthony Davis. While the Lakers added a dynamic point guard, not everyone is sold on the idea that the Lakers are the team to beat in the loaded Western Conference.

Over the past several weeks, the Lakers were rumored to be seeking perimeter shooting. Some reports had Los Angeles linked to guys like Chris Paul, Buddy Hield and DeMar DeRozan. When the dust settled, it was Washington that made the deal as Westbrook informed the front office that he preferred the Lakers as a destination.

The move is a homecoming of sorts, as Westbrook grew up in the area and spent two seasons playing at UCLA, leading the Bruins to the 2008 Final Four. He had a solid 2020-21 season, averaging 22.2 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 11.7 assists per game for the Wizards, who earned the No. 8 seed in the playoffs.

Oddly enough, this is the third straight offseason in which the 9-time All-Star has been traded. After leaving Oklahoma City, Westbrook was not able to find postseason success in Houston or Washington. Will that now change in Los Angeles?

For all of his accomplishments, Westbrook’s legacy has been defined by his play during the regular season. This past season, the point guard passed Oscar Robertson for the most triple-doubles in the history of the game. Out of his 184 triple-doubles, only 12 have come in the playoffs. By comparison, Magic Johnson has the most playoff career triple-doubles with 30, and James is next with 28. Now all three will have played for the Lakers during their careers.

The thing about triple-doubles (and this is especially the case with Westbrook) is that they don’t always translate to wins. They clearly help the team overall but some would argue that a more balanced attack is tougher to stop. History has shown that having a “big three” is almost a requirement to be considered a legitimate championship contender, but this trio in Los Angeles doesn’t exactly fit together like many of those others.

As talented and valuable as Westbrook has been over the course of his career, he needs to have the ball to be effective. His poor perimeter shooting has been the big hiccup in his game, and that is something that this Lakers team desperately needs. The problem isn’t that any of these three won’t share the ball. In fact, they had already discussed checking their egos even before this trade went down.

Westbrook has never had a problem sharing the ball. He was able to co-exist with Durant in Oklahoma City, Harden in Houston and Beal in Washington. The difference in this scenario is that he will be occupying the same space as James and Davis. The concern is efficiency. Out of 34 players to average at least 20 points per game over the last four seasons, Westbrook ranked 33rd in true shooting percentage.

When James drives to the rim or when Davis is facing a double-team inside, how confident will they be in passing out to Westbrook for a three-pointer? Better yet, how patient will they be if the shot isn’t falling? We have already seen what happened with Danny Green and Caldwell-Pope.

Now that the Lakers have assembled their trio of stars, many fans are hopeful to witness an NBA Finals matchup where James and the Lakers meet Kevin Durant, James Harden, Kyrie Irving and the Brooklyn Nets. As juicy as that series would be, the Western Conference is a gauntlet. There is no guarantee that the Lakers will make it there.

What helps their path is that the crosstown rival Clippers will likely be without Kawhi Leonard next season. The Denver Nuggets will be without Jamal Murray and the Golden State Warriors might not be the Warriors from four years ago. There is also uncertainty surrounding Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers and some potential roster changeup with the Utah Jazz.

Considering all of the top-tier point guard talent available in free agency this summer, the Lakers may have been better off trying to do a sign-and-trade. Such a scenario would have hard-capped them but after this deal, they are just $12.6 million below the hard cap with just five players on the roster. Putting together a deal for Hield is still possible, but the Lakers will have to get creative. Adding a third team to this trade, in particular, is one way to accomplish that. Again, it is possible but it will be complicated.

In a perfect world, the Lakers could have worked with Toronto on a sign-and-trade for Kyle Lowry. Even though Lowry is older than Westbrook, the current window for Los Angeles to win with this group is closing fast. Lowry would be cheaper and a much better fit overall. His durability, toughness, defense and high basketball IQ would pay dividends for the Lakers. Adding in the fact that he is a much better shooter, one has to wonder why the Lakers wouldn’t pursue this route instead.

Westbrook is still going to help this team. He is a tremendous asset for them in the regular season, especially when James is on the bench or unable to play. Having another floor general on the court to generate offense is something they have not had since James arrived. If Los Angeles can land some above-average shooting to the roster, Westbrook could flourish in this role.

With James sliding to the power forward position and Davis playing more at center, the key for Los Angeles will be to surround these guys with shooters. The Lakers ranked 21st in three-point percentage and 25th in makes last season. Expect the organization to be busy when free agency starts next week. Targets will include guys like Duncan Robinson, JJ Redick, Norman Powell, Evan Fournier, Doug McDermott, Bryn Forbes, Patrick Mills, Reggie Bullock, Kendrick Nunn and Alec Burks.

Obviously, the Lakers are counting on their individual talent and figuring out the rest later. It likely means the end for Dennis Schröder. Can Alex Caruso fit in and where does this leave Talen Horton-Tucker? The rest of the roster is in limbo, but the star players and the front office both feel confident that they will land the other pieces that they need to raise another banner next summer.

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Jazz offering Mike Conley $75 million over next three years



According to veteran NBA reporter Marc Stein, the Utah Jazz are preparing to offer point guard Mike Conley a three-year, $75 million contract to remain with the team. Of course, the exact amount is a ballpark figure. Stein stated, “Utah has made retaining Mike Conley its top priority, league sources say, and is preparing a three-year offer said to be in the $75 million range.” The 14-year NBA veteran is a significant piece to the Jazz’s championship window, playing alongside superstar teammates, such as center Rudy Gobert and guard Donovan Mitchell. He helped the Jazz finish their regular season with the league’s best record of 52-20 (.722).

Utah went on to defeat the Memphis Grizzlies in five games in the first round of the playoffs. Though, the team lost four games to two in the conference semifinals against the Los Angeles Clippers. In the 2020-21 NBA season, Conley averaged 16.2 points, 3.5 rebounds, and six assists per game in 51 games started. Then, in the postseason, he averaged 15.3 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 7.7 assists per game. The 33-year-old also shot 44.4 percent from the field in the regular season. Last season, the 2007 fourth overall pick earned his first NBA All-Star selection.

On July 6, 2019, the Grizzlies traded Conley to the Jazz for Grayson Allen, Darius Bazley, Jae Crowder, Kyle Korver, and a 2020 first-round pick. Furthermore, the Jazz can still trade Bojan Bogdanovic and Joe Ingles this offseason, if they wanted to improve their current salary cap situation. Referencing Spotrac’s 2021-22 cap holds, Mike Conley’s cap figure is $39,344,900. Cap holds are for pending free agents. Conley earned $34,504,132 last season.

The team’s current luxury tax space is $11,173,027. In addition to the aforementioned cap figures, Mitchell and Gobert have a combined cap figure worth 51.34 percent of the team’s total salary cap. These two players’ contracts alone are consuming a huge chunk of the team’s cap. Plus, on November 23, 2020, Mitchell signed a contract extension with Utah. He is set to earn $28,103,550 next season. On December 20, 2020, Gobert signed a five-year, $205 million extension with the organization. He will earn $35,344,828 next season and $38,172,414 in the 2022-23 season.

However, if the team were to still trade Bogdanovic and possibly Ingles as well, this would clear up an additional 25.68 percent of the team’s salary cap. Bogdanovic’s future guaranteed cash amount total is $19,343,000. They are contributing role players who play together well with the team’s big three, but re-signing the most valuable players is the team’s main objective this offseason. Jazz general manager Justin Zanik might contemplate trading role players who are not worth their asking price. Competitive teams in both conferences have to trim the fat at some point.

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