When the public learned both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George were joining the Los Angeles Clippers, NBA fans around the globe began anticipating what they hoped would be the most open and competitive season since before LeBron James first took his talents to South Beach and the Miami Heat. They couldn’t have foreseen both the Golden State Warriors and Brooklyn Nets losing All-Stars to injury setbacks. Neither of those clubs seems destined to compete for spots in conference finals this time around, and one may be better off without who is, on paper, its best player until next fall.
Every team, even those near or at the top of the standings, has flaws and was exposed during the opening half of the 2019-20 season. Each also possesses opportunities to improve ahead of the trade deadline as did the Toronto Raptors last winter. Speaking of the defending champions, the Raptors aren’t relinquishing the crown without a fight despite bouts with injury bugs.
Is Toronto one transaction away from returning to the NBA Finals?
With one slip of the tongue, Cleveland Cavaliers head coach John Beilein may have alienated a roster responsible for the worst record in the Eastern Conference. “We’re behind him 100 percent,” rookie Darius Garland told reporters after the Cavs posted a win in their first game following “Slug/Thug-gate,” per Chris Fedor of Cleveland.com. That’s all well and good for Jan. 10, but how will things change once Cleveland jettisons one or more veteran figures, as expected? This Cavs roster lingering in the basement of the standings for the entire campaign was acceptable for Beilein because, well, look at the (lack of) talent. What would happen if he loses the locker room by April 15?
Chicago Bulls head coach Jim Boylen has failed at every objective. The Bulls are not, in fact, a playoff team or anything resembling something capable of hanging in a postseason series. Zach LaVine shouldn’t be an All-Star despite all of his employer’s campaigning. Lauri Markkanen’s regression has critics believing his February 2019 performances were a fluke. Mark Karantzoulis of Blog a Bull and Alex Fusak of Chi City Sports are two individuals calling for Boylen’s head. The GarPax duo shouldn’t be trusted with making that call, but Bulls fans aren’t lucky enough to see the demise of that two-headed monster.
Was Cleveland Cavaliers forward Kevin Love looking for a lifeline out of Northeast Ohio when he told ESPN’s Dave McMenamin he believes the Los Angeles Lakers “could do something special” after the Lakers routed the Cavs? The one-time champion and The King are still on speaking terms, Love wants the opportunity to chase a second ring, and the 31-year-old means more to the Cavs as a trade piece than a player. Love should be on the move, but it could be to the other Los Angeles club.
Blake Griffin’s decline and subsequent knee surgery confirmed what those not emotionally attached to the Detroit Pistons already knew: Detroit has to deal center Andre Drummond to the highest bidder, assuming one exists before the deadline. Drummond is a double-double machine leading the Association in rebounds and averaging 17 PPG and 15 boards a night. A plethora of teams could use him but will any give up a first-round pick for a 26-year-old who is somewhat of a relic in the modern game?
The Toronto Raptors probably don’t have the horses to repeat as NBA champions without completing a deal (more on that later), but Toronto making the best trade of the predeadline period won’t matter if the team can’t exorcise the injury bug that infected the locker room over the first half of the campaign. As Mike Ganter of the Toronto Sun pointed out, Pascal Siakam, Norm Powell and Marc Gasol all missed time, as did Kyle Lowry and others. These may feel like isolated incidents, but this roster that has played a lot of basketball over the past 15 months and counting is noticeably fighting through wear and tear.
Indiana Pacers star Victor Oladipo is eyeing a Jan. 29 return from a ruptured quad. Oladipo hasn’t played a competitive basketball game in a year, and, as Tyler Conway of Bleacher Report wrote, the Pacers will manage his workload heading into the spring. Remember that Kristaps Porzingis wasn’t his Unicorn self immediately out of the gates during the first month of his Dallas Mavericks tenure. How will a non-All-Star version of Oladipo fit in with Malcolm Brogdon and Jeremy Lamb?
According to ESPN’s Zach Lowe, the Indiana Pacers “continue to turn away teams who inquire about (center Myles) Turner.” That’s not the first time such a report has surfaced since last summer, and the fact that other franchises continue to believe Turner can be had for the right price leads one to assume a fire is creating all this smoke. Turner has taken a back seat to Domantas Sabonis in importance, and the Pacers don’t possess a championship-level frontcourt. Just because Indiana isn’t shopping Turner doesn’t mean the club won’t pick up the phone if a team calls regarding his ability.
Thanks largely to uncrowned Rookie of the Year Ja Morant, the Memphis Grizzlies began the second half of the month sitting in a playoff position of the standings. As much as Memphis ownership may want to host a couple of playoff losses, keeping Andre Iguodala for those defeats just because the club can’t steal a first-round pick from a buyer is silly. Admit it: You want to see LeBron James or Kawhi Leonard dishing to Iggy during a Finals game.
Starting on Nov. 9 , the San Antonio Spurs lost 11 of 13 games and were spiraling down the standings. Now here we are weeks after Christmas, and Gregg Popovich has the Spurs a couple of wins away from a postseason spot. The (nearly) 71-year-old coach is closer to retirement than to winning another title with San Antonio. Will he face this reality and look to trade DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge, or will Popovich attempt to extend San Antonio’s postseason streak to 23 years?
The Phoenix Suns were one of the league’s pleasant surprises of the opening month of the campaign when center Aron Baynes played so well in the suspended Deandre Ayton’s place that he made the second-year pro appear expendable. The Suns and Baynes since returned to Earth, and the big man is now a 33-year-old on an expiring contract competing for a non-playoff team. At the start of the year, Bleacher Report’s Eric Pincus linked Baynes with the Los Angeles Clippers, and the Suns don’t need the veteran's supposed locker room leadership past the end of this month.
Along with being the only reason to care about the woeful Atlanta Hawks during the first half of the NBA season, second-year guard Trae Young evolved into one of the better offensive players in the Association. How much will that matter, though, if the 21-year-old continues to be one of the worst defenders anybody has ever seen play at the pro level? One month into the campaign, SB Nation’s Michael Pina wondered if the Hawks, or any team for that matter, can build a team around somebody close to becoming the world’s best point guard but also a scorer who, as Pina brilliantly put it, could ultimately be “a novelty act on quicksand” if he keeps Atlanta a defensive sieve.
We are just going to come out and say it. The Portland Trail Blazers are never winning a title with a backcourt of CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard. It’s not happening this year or in 2021, and no superstar such as Giannis Antetokounmpo is joining Portland to create a big three with that duo. As Jamie Hudson of NBC Sports Northwest wrote, the Trail Blazers can’t deal McCollum until the end of the month. Assuming Portland still won’t be a playoff team by then, expect that McCollum trade rumors will spread.
Even Orlando Magic fans in denial about what they could see with their own eyes last spring have to admit forward Aaron Gordon has hit a wall and isn’t progressing as desired. Earlier this month, Sam Amick of The Athletic (h/t Real GM) confirmed from a league executive “there is chatter coming from Orlando” about a potential Gordon trade, and Steve Kyler of Basketball Insiders reported that the club’s front office acknowledges this winter could be the right time to blow things up. The Golden State Warriors should be ready to win in October, which is why we think a swap of D'Angelo Russell for Gordon makes sense even if knowledgeable individuals claim the Dubs want no part of that trade.
Trade deadlines are often similar to Christmas: lots of anticipation for big things and then the inevitable letdown that comes once it passes. Say, for the sake of argument, names such as McCollum, Gordon, Russell and others stay put. Twenty-seven-year-old Washington Wizards forward Davis Bertans could be top piece available to contenders. Over the past two seasons, Bertans has drained nearly 43 percent of his three-point attempts, and he’s going to put pen to paper on a new contract in the summer. The Philadelphia 76ers shouldn’t let Bertans go elsewhere, but they could face some stiff competition.
If Dr. David Chao is right, it’s possible Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid hasn’t been completely healthy once this season, and that was before he required a hand operation that could cost him a month of playing time. That ugly injury was a freak moment, of course, but, as Kyle Neubeck of the Philly Voice put it, the Sixers need more from the All-Star when he’s healthy. For starters, the club must do everything possible to ensure the 25-year-old remains in shape during his latest break from action.
The Philadelphia 76ers are probably only going as far as Joel Embiid takes them, but he isn’t the closer the club had last spring in Jimmy Butler. Neither is Tobias Harris, who has never shot as well with the Sixers as he did during his final 87 games with the Los Angeles Clippers. The previously mentioned Davis Bertans would be an ideal fit in the City of Brotherly Love, as would a pair of Detroit Pistons players . It’d also help if Ben Simmons could start averaging at least one three-pointer a month, but he can only learn to run once he starts to crawl.
Last February, the Toronto Raptors changed league history by trading for Marc Gasol, which directly resulted in Toronto defeating the Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference Playoffs. Toronto has remained afloat in a playoff position in the standings without Kawhi Leonard, and even the notion the team would sell veterans such as Gasol and Kyle Lowry without immediately upgrading the roster is no longer under consideration. Forbes’ Curtis Rush believes the Raptors could target Toronto native Tristan Thompson, Kevin Love or Andre Drummond. Vivek Jacob of Raptors Republic pointed out that, without Leonard, the Raptors have no answer for Giannis Antetokounmpo in a playoff series regardless of any potential trade the club completes before the deadline and also that Toronto hasn’t fared well vs. opponents it will see in the postseason over the past several months.
The Miami Heat in 2020 are where the Toronto Raptors were 12 months ago. Jimmy Butler isn’t Kawhi Leonard, or at least he isn’t today, but even if he was at an MVP level at both ends of the court, he needs more around him to bounce Giannis or Embiid from the playoffs. As Jonathan Sherman of Heat Nation explained, ESPN’s Brian Windhorst reported the franchise’s next major acquisition may not occur during this season. Perhaps giving center Bam Adebayo more time to develop past his breakout half-season is in the club’s best interests.
Kendrick Nunn was the better story of the first several months of the campaign, but second overall draft pick Ja Morant is the runaway leader in the clubhouse for Rookie of the Year. He sits atop the PPG and AST categories among candidates, and he’s enjoying a history-making debut year. Only one man stands between Morant and a trophy that would be his as of the typing of this sentence: Zion Williamson, the most-hyped NBA rookie since LeBron James began his Hall of Fame career. Williamson will make his first official appearance on Jan. 22. Can he accomplish enough in three months to steal Morant’s title?
Objects in the Los Angeles Lakers’ rearview mirrors are closer than they appear. On the morning of Jan. 16, the Jazz were winners of 10 straight and 15 of 16 contests with Donovan Mitchell at an All-Star level, Rudy Gobert back to his Defensive Player of the Year ways and Joe Ingles having his best month of his season. As much as Jordan Clarkson was the catalyst of the team’s hot streak, Utah could still use another piece for additional playoff depth. Ben Anderson of KSL Sports wants the Jazz to add a backup big who could provide an offensive boost when Gobert experiences a scoring slump vs. a playoff opponent.
The Boston Celtics have waited, and waited and waited for Gordon Hayward to reclaim his All-Star form following the horrific leg injury that cost him all but five minutes of the 2017-18 season. Even Boston fans and Hayward defenders are realizing the C’s need to trade Hayward to have a shot at winning the Finals in June. Because Hayward can enter free agency in July if he wishes , losing him to land a key man like Danilo Gallinari or Andre Drummond is a price worth paying. Boston can make a deep run this spring, especially if Joel Embiid isn’t what so many believed he’d be last fall.
Hear us out. No player on the Brooklyn Nets is more talented than Kyrie Irving, and Brooklyn needs him on the floor to do anything other than lose to the Milwaukee Bucks in the playoffs. As people who dealt with Kyrie in both Cleveland and Boston could tell you, the one-time champ can also be...complicated. Several days after Christmas, NBA insider Ric Bucher hinted during an appearance on New York’s WFAN (h/t New York Post ) Irving’s two-month-long absence from the Nets involved “more going on here than just physical issues.” Brooklyn may learn it was better off with Spencer Dinwiddie leading the charge until Kevin Durant is ready to join Irving in the lineup next season.
This topic is worth mentioning every week until it’s addressed by Los Angeles Lakers head coach Frank Vogel. LeBron James is 35 years old and has dealt with groin injuries in each of the last two seasons. He’s built up more than enough chemistry with Anthony Davis to get him to the start of the playoffs. He also appeared in 39 of his team’s first 41 games, which is madness to anybody who doesn’t profit from NBA television ratings. Jason Reed of Los Angeles Sports Hub believes James should sit at least 10 games before the postseason. We’d bump that number up by five, at least.
The defensive trio of Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Patrick Beverley can lock down any opponent. LeBron James knows all about this. The Los Angeles Clippers aren’t perfect. No team is. Los Angeles could use additional size, and there’s irony in the idea that the Clippers adding Kevin Love or Tristan Thompson, LeBron’s former Cleveland teammates, would potentially make them the favorites in the West. Marcus Morris is playing better than ever and should want to escape the New York Knicks, but he lacks the Finals experience owned by both Love and Thompson.
We’re worried about Milwaukee Bucks guard Eric Bledsoe after the last two postseasons. If the Bucks feel the same, Milwaukee should swoop in to steal Jrue Holiday from the Denver Nuggets or Miami Heat if those or any other teams covet the 29-year-old who wants to win while he can still deliver 20 PPG for a contender and make All-Defensive teams in back-to-back seasons. Milwaukee needs to operate under the assumption Giannis Antetokounmpo is leaving in free agency in 2021 and mirror how the Cleveland Cavaliers handled business during the team’s second LeBron James era. Surround the MVP with as much talent as possible, future be damned, and worry about the consequences once the superstar departs.
Zac Wassink is a football and futbol aficionado who is a PFWA member and is probably yelling about Tottenham Hotspur at the moment. Erik Lamela and Eli Manning apologist. Chanted for Matt Harvey to start the ninth inning of Game 5 of the 2015 World Series at Citi Field. Whoops. You can find him on Twitter at @ZacWassink.