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

Basketball Insiders continues its “Who’s In Trouble?” series as Shane Rhodes looks at the Western Conference teams that might struggle going forward.

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The NBA only just got back, but some people are already on the ropes.

Whether it be a player, head coach or even an entire team, there are plenty that have seen their fair share of bad luck in the new season. And, for some of them, the 2020-21 regular season is going to get a whole lot worse before it gets better.

But who’s had it the worst to start the season? Drew Maresca already took a look at those in the Eastern Conference who’ve seen an inauspicious start to their season and, today, we’ll look at the West.

Minnesota Timberwolves

The Timberwolves haven’t seen much in the way of success since Jimmy Butler blew his way out of town. In the two years since he was shipped to the Philadelphia 76ers, Minnesota saw back-to-back seasons at the bottom of the Western Conference, winning 36 and 19 games, respectively.

The 2020-21 season, however, looked like a light in the darkness. Their two cornerstones, Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell, were set to take the court together for just the second time as teammates. In fact, with Anthony Edwards, the top selection in the 2020 NBA Draft, also in tow, the Timberwolves’ immediate future looked surprisingly bright. 

So then, of course, they hit the season’s first bump in the road. And it was a big one.

Towns, who went down with an injury in their win over the Utah Jazz, is set to miss an undetermined amount of time with a dislocated left wrist. Their 2-0 record, which had them atop the Western Conference, has dropped to 2-2, with ugly, 20-plus point losses to the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers. The immediate schedule doesn’t get easier, either, with the Denver Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers up next on the docket.

Where does that leave Minnesota? Unsurprisingly, not in the best spot. The Timberwolves have gone a terrible 12-36 without Towns over the last three seasons. Last year, in Russell’s 11 games without Towns (who missed time due to a different wrist injury), the team went 3-8.

Of course, Minnesota’s roster is completely different from the one that took the court over that end-of-season stretch. And the Timberwolves made Edwards the top pick for a reason — their hope, the best case scenario, is that Edwards, with Russell, can do enough to keep the offense afloat while Towns is on the shelf.

But rarely, if ever, does the best case scenario play out. If Towns is out for an extended period, or even longer than expected, Minnesota’s postseason dreams may already be dead in the water.

Memphis Grizzlies

After they disappointed in the NBA Bubble, the Grizzlies faced an uphill battle to start the 2020-21 season.

And the hill just got a lot steeper.

With Jaren Jackson Jr. already on the mend (and expected to miss most of the season), the Grizzlies are now expected to lose sophomore star Ja Morant for up to five weeks with a Grade 2 ankle sprain he suffered in their win over the Nets.

So, where do they go from here? The conference’s basement would seem to be the most logical destination.

Now without their two best players, it wouldn’t be a shock to see Memphis dig themselves a hole that neither Morant’s nor Jackson’s return could dig them out of. Of course, they could surprise — the Grizzlies have some serious depth and could see multiple players step up and into the offense void created by the aforementioned duo’s absence.

But is that realistic? In the East, maybe. Out West? Not a chance.

The Grizzlies went 0-4 without Morant last season — no, even without him and Jackson, they won’t go winless between now and February. But, in a highly competitive Western Conference, Memphis will struggle to stay afloat and, if they can’t keep their heads above water, may have to throw in the towel on the 2020-21 season a bit earlier than they would have liked.

Houston Rockets

Now to address the elephant in the room.

With Daryl Morey and Russell Westbrook already out of town and James Harden pining for a new home, it was never going to be a “good” season for the Rockets. Now, as the Harden situation remains unresolved, an 0-2 start should only get worse. And then, of course, once it is resolved, it’s hard to imagine their situation improving.

COVID-19 hasn’t taken it easy on Houston, either; multiple players, including new Rockets DeMarcus Cousins and John Wall, have yet to take the court due to the NBA’s contact tracing policies. As they continue to miss time, Houston’s record should only tumble further, furthering Harden’s discontent and pushing management to find a trade partner sooner rather than later to avoid a toxic locker room.

There have been some bright spots, namely Christian Wood. Short of Harden, Wood has been the Rockets’ best player, averaging 27 points, eight rebounds, two assists, a steal and 1.5 blocks through two games, and should vastly outperform the three-year, $41 million deal he signed with the team back in November.

Likewise, rookie Jae’Sean Tate has flashed and, at 6-foot-4, 230 pounds, is an intriguing prospect that should be able to carve out a role in Houston in the post-Harden era.

Beyond those two, however, the Rockets positives are few and far between. And they’ll seemingly stay that way until the cloud that is Hardens impending trade is lifted and, after that, is there really any hope for Houston this season, anyway?

Yes, its early in the season, very early. But theres plenty we can gather from these first few games — and these teams, specifically, have already had a tough go of it. Of course, even in a shortened season, theres time left to turn it around, but can they with the odds seemingly stacked against them?

If they cant turn it around soon, dont bet on it.

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Grizzlies trade Jonas Valanciunas to Pelicans for Eric Bledsoe, Steven Adams

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According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Andrew Lopez, the New Orleans Pelicans are shipping guard Eric Bledsoe, center Steven Adams, the Nos. 10 and 40 picks of the 2021 NBA Draft, and two future first-round picks to the Memphis Grizzlies for center Jonas Valanciunas and the Nos. 17 and 51 picks of this week’s upcoming draft. So, the Pelicans are giving up the Lakers’ 2022 first-round pick. Valanciunas, the 29-year-old veteran center, averaged 17.1 points, 12.5 rebounds, and 1.8 assists per game in 62 games played throughout the 2020-21 season. He also shot 59 percent from the field. The seven-foot Lithuanian also ranks fourth overall in true shooting percentage (.616) among active players. On July 11, 2019, Valanciunas signed a three-year, $45 million contract with the Grizzlies. He is set to earn $4 million next season.

Additionally, in 71 games played last season, Bledsoe averaged 12.2 points, 3.4 rebounds, and 3.8 assists. The six-foot-one guard also shot 42.1 percent from the field in the 2020-21 season. On November 23, 2020, as part of a four-team trade, Bledsoe and Adams were traded to the Pelicans from the Oklahoma City Thunder, along with two future first-round picks and the right to swap two additional first-round picks. Last season, in 71 games played, Bledsoe averaged 12.2 points, 3.4 rebounds, and 3.8 assists. His field goal percentage was 42.1 percent as well. The 11-year veteran is set to earn $18,125,000 in the 2021-22 season. Before he was traded to New Orleans, on March 4, 2019, the guard signed a four-year, $70 million extension. He earned his first All-Defensive second-team selection in the 2019-20 season.

Moreover, in 58 games played last season, Adams averaged 7.6 points, 8.9 rebounds, and 1.9 assists per game. The six-foot-eleven center ranks fifth among active players for effective field goal shooting percentage (.591). The eight-year veteran also ranks third in offensive rebounding percentage, with an active statistic of 14 percent. On November 23, 2020, the same day Adams was traded to the Pelicans, he signed a two-year, $35 million extension. For next season, he is projected to earn $17,073,171. To add to this trade news, the Grizzlies and Pelicans are swapping second-round picks in this year’s draft, too. Referencing NBA.com’s “Consensus Mock Draft” article, with the No. 10 pick of the draft, the Pelicans were originally expected to draft either Josh Giddey or Davion Mitchell at this number. However, plans have now changed.

From ESPN’s Bobby Marks, the trade will not be finalized until August 6th, and this is because of the annual salaries of these said players. Free agency will begin on August 2, 6:00 p.m. (EST). Furthermore, per Spotrac’s 2021-22 NBA salary cap table, next season’s luxury tax threshold is $136,606,000. The team’s current available luxury tax space is $22,555,195. The Pelicans and Grizzlies have a salary cap maximum of $112,414,000. Brandon Ingram, Bledsoe, and Adams had a combined cap percentage of 39.2 percent. Considering that Bledsoe and Adams are traded away, this will clear up $35,198,171 of dead cap space.

Yesterday, CBS Sports reported the news pertaining to Lonzo Ball’s desire to remain in New Orleans. With extra cap space, the team is expected to re-sign the 23-year-old guard. Likewise, for the Grizzlies, the teams has a luxury tax space of $37,019,952. Their current cap space is $8,321,229. As stated before, the transactions have not yet been finalized. The Grizzlies’ outgoing cap is now $14 million, but from the contracts of Adams and Bledsoe, they are bringing in $35,198,171.

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NBA Trade Rumors: Jazz considering trade offers for Bojan Bogdanovic, Joe Ingles, Royce O’Neale, and No. 30 pick of the 2021 NBA Draft

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Per one interesting announcement from Bleacher Report’s Jake Fischer, the Utah Jazz are open to trading forward Bojan Bogdanovic, forward-guard Joe Ingles, small forward Royce O’Neale, and the No. 30 pick of the 2021 NBA Draft. Fischer stated, “The Utah Jazz are known to be one of the few teams actually searching to move playoff-tested talent. Retaining Mike Conley is an offseason priority, sources said, and the Jazz have held numerous discussions with teams around the league about offloading salary to create for Conley in free agency.” Point guard Mike Conley is set to become a free agent this offseason. Though, general manager Justin Zanik will aim to re-sign the 33-year-old guard in the coming weeks. Conley earned $34.5 million in the 2020-21 season.

“League personnel most often mention Joe Ingles as the Jazz wing to watch, and Bojan Bogdanovic and Royce O’Neale are also considered available for trade as Utah narrows its focus towards building a contender around Donovan Mitchel. The Jazz are also open to discuss trading their No. 30 pick, sources said.” In the 2020-21 season, in 72 games played, Bogdanovic averaged 17 points, 3.9 rebounds, and 1.9 assists per game. On May 1, 2021, in the team’s 106-102 victory over the Toronto Raptors, the six-foot-seven Croatian scored a season-high 34 points, shooting 12-for-22, and he finished his performance with four rebounds and four assists as well. On July 7, 2019, he signed a four-year, $73 million contract with the Jazz.

In 67 games played last season, Ingles averaged 12.1 points, 3.6 rebounds, and 4.7 assists per game. The six-foot-eight forward is set to earn $14 million in the 2021-22 season. Plus, among the mentioned players, Royce O’Neale has contributed the least. In 71 games played last season, he averaged seven points, 6.8 rebounds, and 2.5 assists. On January 19, 2020, the forward signed a four-year, $36 million extension with the team. He will earn $8.6 million next season. According to The Athletic, in the team’s seventh workout for draft prospects, they viewed Quentin Grimes, David Duke, Matt Mitchell, and a few other players. In the first round, if the team chooses not to draft any of the players they are holding workouts for, the organization will trade the No. 30 pick.

Just for a reminder, retrieved from Spotrac, the 2021-22 NBA luxury tax threshold is $136,606,000. Utah’s active roster cap is $133,284,695, the maximum cap is $112,414,000, and the current cap space is $72,990,215. Furthermore, center Rudy Gobert currently has the highest guaranteed contract on the team. On December 20, 2020, Gobert signed a five-year, $205 million extension with the organization. Gobert is set to earn $35.3 million in the coming season, whereas Donovan Mitchell will earn $28.1 million. Gobert and Mitchell combined consume 47.6 percent of the team’s salary cap. For the upcoming 2021-22 season, the Jazz have a guaranteed total of $129,719,453. Based on the team’s future outlook, the Jazz will have to make a trade or two in order to retain their star players. This should go without saying.

NBA Analysis Network reported a few days ago that a potential Jazz-Knicks trade target is Bojan Bogdanovic. Greg Patuto proposed the Knicks receiving Bogdanovic, while the Jazz would receive Kevin Knox II, and the Nos. 19 and No. 32 picks of the 2021 NBA Draft. Now, this could still happen at some point during this draft week, but then again, sports bettors and fans alike understand that these news reports could be just rumors. The most intelligent, unforthcoming general managers know not to leave bread crumb trails for the media, especially leading into the offseason. They will do everything necessary to protect their foolproof plans.

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Raptors, Pacers, Timberwolves, Kings, and Cavaliers among teams showing interest in Ben Simmons

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According to Jake Fischer of Bleacher Report, five teams have shown interest in pursuing Ben Simmons from the Philadelphia 76ers. Fischer reported, “Cleveland, Indiana, Minnesota, Sacramento, and Toronto all showed interest in acquiring the runner-up for Defensive Player of the Year.” Furthermore, the teams are wanting Simmons to change position from point guard to forward. “Multiple executives from those teams, when contacted by Bleacher Report, mentioned their excitement at incorporating Simmons as a play-making forward—not at the point guard position he’s played in Philadelphia.” The six-foot-eleven guard averaged 14.3 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 6.9 assists in the 2020-21 NBA season. This might sound fine for a young rookie, but as a five-year player, these aforementioned statistics were career lows.

However, the 25-year-old also earned his third NBA All-Star selection and second All-Defensive first-team selection last season. After a less than mediocre performance in his third postseason of his NBA career, the majority of 76ers’ fans would agree that it’s now time for Simmons to have a change in scenery. With a regular season record of 49-23 (.681), the No. 1 ranked 76ers in the Eastern Conference entered the conference semifinals as favorites over the Atlanta Hawks. Leading into this series, some NBA analysts were predicting Philadelphia to prevail four games to two. The 2016 first overall pick was expected to limit Trae Young in scoring and rally his team from point deficits, but none of this ever manifested.

Pertaining to postseason averages, Simmons had a playoff series-low of 9.9 points and 6.3 rebounds per game in the conference semifinals against the Hawks. This lackluster showing proved to be a more significant downfall for the superstar, considering Simmons had only five points, eight rebounds, and 13 assists in Game 7 versus the Hawks. In the 2019-20 season, he averaged 2.1 steals per game, leading all other players in the league. Moreover, Simmons currently ranks sixth in the NBA for active player triple-doubles (32). With a total of 32 career triple-doubles, he ranks 13th on the all-time list, tied with Clippers’ guard Rajon Rondo.

On July 16, 2019, Simmons signed a five-year, $169.65 million contract extension with the 76ers. He is set to earn $30.5 million in the 2021-22 season. Among these teams interested in Simmons, Cavs’ Kevin Love has the fourth largest contract guarantee of $91.4 million. Love is due to earn $31.3 million next season, and the 13-year veteran’s contract consumes 26 percent of the team’s salary cap. He could be traded this offseason. Timberwolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns has a contract guarantee of $130.8 million. The 25-year-old Wolves center will earn $31.6 million in the upcoming season.

Plus, Kings’ 2017 first-round pick De’Aaron Fox has a guaranteed contract of $171.1 million. Fox will earn $28.1 million next season. To add to that, Raptors’ Pascal Siakim has a contract guarantee of $131.4 million. Not to mention, reported by Yahoo Sports via trade rumors yesterday, the Golden State Warriors are a potential trade partner for Toronto. The Warriors could make a move on Siakim, clearing up space on the Raptors for Simmons. Per Spotrac, the 2021-22 season cap maximum is $112,414,000. In the coming weeks, one of these said five teams might make a substantial trade offer to the 76ers’ organization that they cannot refuse.

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