B/R NBA Digest: Scouring NBA Trade Gossip for Truth

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistDecember 20, 2019

B/R NBA Digest: Scouring NBA Trade Gossip for Truth

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    Following this week in the NBA, trade season is officially upon us. Moving past Dec. 15 means most free agents signed this summer are now trade-eligible.

    Front offices, fans and reporters have reacted accordingly, and we already have plenty of rumors and potential moves to sort through.

    Will Jrue Holiday be dealt? What about veterans Kevin Love and Andre Iguodala? Are the Detroit Pistons finally ready to blow it up and start fresh? How aggressively will the New York Knicks shop their vets?

    These questions and more will be answered over the next couple of months between now and the Feb. 6 deadline. The NBA Digest has you covered on the big reports already coming in.

    Elsewhere in this week's edition, we look at the Luka Doncic-less Dallas Mavericks, a rejuvenated Nikola Jokic, some fun with numbers, weekly awards, lineups of the week and matchups to watch.


    Former GM of Atlanta Hawks turned analyst for NBA TV, Wes Wilcox, joins “The Full 48 with Howard Beck” to discuss the trade season and predict what that might mean for Toronto, Denver, the Spurs, Portland, DeMar DeRozan, D’Angelo Russell, Andre Iguodala, and Kevin Love.

Holiday Trade Wishlist

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    Dec. 15 came and went this past week, which means well over 100 previously ineligible players can now be traded. Rumor mills started churning a little faster, trade machines were fired up all over the internet, and teams likely started to think a little harder about whether they're buyers or sellers.

    The biggest news (or non-news, if you ask New Orleans Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin) surrounding the lifting of trade restrictions was that Jrue Holiday may be available.

    After the New York Times' Marc Stein reported that the guard "is indeed available via trade," Griffin refuted the idea. Fox Sports' Jen Hale asked Griffin about the rumor and whether New Orleans was trying to trade Holiday, and Griffin responded, "Clearly not," per SB Nation's Oleh Kosel.

    Given the Pelicans' struggles this season (they're 26th in net rating), at least exploring the possibility of a deal makes sense. 

    New Orleans already has a solid stockpile of picks and young players due to the Anthony Davis trade, but during the asset-accumulation phase of a rebuild, organizations need to be open to all possibilities. If another team comes along in desperation and offers a pick, a young player or both, the Pelicans should be tempted.

    Elsewhere, the Detroit Pistons may be on the verge of their own reset. The Athletic's James L. Edwards III wrote, "The Pistons could pivot, begin a rebuild and try to move one or two of their higher-paid players between Sunday and the Feb. 6 deadline."

    A "top team" in the East may have its sights set on Detroit's Langston Galloway, who's shooting 41.3 percent from three this season. But the bigger prizes from the Pistons would be, well, the bigs. According to Edwards, both Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond could be traded if Detroit remains outside the playoff picture and the right deals come along.

    The Boston Celtics, meanwhile, despite seemingly having a permanent spot in the rumor mill, are "not willing to give up any of their core wing players," according to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski (h/t NESN's Chris Grenham).

    Others who've been attached to fresh rumors since Dec. 15:

    • The Minnesota Timberwolves are interested in Dennis Smith Jr., per SNY's Ian Begley.
    • The New York Knicks are "open to moving [Julius] Randle," according to Newsday's Steve Popper.
    • According to Bleacher Report's Eric Pincus, the Indiana Pacers' Myles Turner, the Golden State Warriors' D'Angelo Russell and the Minnesota Timberwolves' Jeff Teague and Robert Covington could all hit the trade market.
    • Elsewhere in the Pincus report, we read that the Dallas Mavericks could crash the Andre Iguodala sweepstakes. He also listed the Portland Trail Blazers, Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns as potential suitors for Kevin Love.
    • "While I appreciate the support he's shown throughout my career, his comments don't reflect how I feel, and we've addressed that," Philadelphia 76ers guard Trey Burke said (h/t Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer) after his father posted a now-deleted plea to have his son traded on Instagram. "My focus is doing whatever I can to help this team win a championship. I appreciate the support this organization, the fans and city of Philadelphia have shown me.”
    • Washington Wizards general manager Tommy Shepard insisted Davis Bertans isn't available, per a team podcast

    After the wildest summer of player movement in NBA history, it looks like more may be on the horizon.

The Mavericks Are More Than Luka

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    Luka Doncic is having a historic sophomore season. On top of the 29.3 points, 9.6 rebounds and 8.9 assists per game, he's on pace to post the second-highest single-season box plus/minus of all time.

    He hit a road bump at the start of this week, though, spraining his ankle just two minutes into a matchup against the Miami Heat. According to ESPN's Tim MacMahon, the initial timeline on the injury was around "a couple of weeks."

    The bad news was that those two weeks included a stretch of games against the top teams in the East: the Milwaukee Bucks, Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers and Toronto Raptors. Conventional wisdom suggested an 0-4 run against the opposite conference's powerhouses.

    But the rest of the Dallas Mavericks had different ideas.

    The first game without Doncic came against the juggernaut Bucks. And despite 48 points and 14 rebounds from Giannis Antetokounmpo, Dallas' balanced attack prevailed.

    "They know we are a pretty good shooting team," Kristaps Porzingis told reporters after the game. "But we have so many weapons and anybody on any given night can score 20-plus points. That's the dangerous thing about us. Tonight, Seth [Curry] played great. It's kind of hard to play against a team that has so many options."

    Porzingis is right.

    Doncic is a superstar, but the biggest strength of this team might be its depth. Eight of the Mavs' 10 players with 250-plus minutes have an above-average offensive box plus/minus. And along with Justin Jackson, Porzingis is one of the below-average players. It's reasonable to hope his production catches up to his talent on that end. Perhaps the absence of Doncic will necessitate that leap.

    Even if it takes the 7-footer a little longer to find his pre-injury form, Dallas and its bevy of solid role players are poised to survive Luka's absence. And if the Mavs are going to make a real run this season, that group will have to continue bolstering the stars.

Is Nikola Jokic Back?

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    Plenty of people were rightfully concerned with Nikola Jokic's start to this season. After securing a first-team All-NBA nod and averaging 25.1 points, 13.0 rebounds and 8.4 assists during the 2019 postseason, he averaged a below-his-standard 15.4 points, 10.1 rebounds and 6.1 assists through the Denver Nuggets' first 18 games.

    The biggest issue might have been tougher to capture with numbers. For long stretches of games, Jokic looked disinterested with this whole basketball thing. He sort of moseyed up and down the floor and wasn't playing with anything resembling the fire he displayed in the playoffs.

    After that 18th game, he and the team finally admitted, for the first time, that he was in a slump.

    "Probably the longest slump of his career," DNVR's Adam Mares tweeted. "Now that it's out in the open, the question is how will he respond?"

    Turns out, the answer was "pretty good."

    In eight games since his come-to-the-basketball-gods moment, Jokic has averaged 20.8 points, 10.3 rebounds and 8.0 assists while shooting 54.0 percent from the field and 36.1 percent from three. And again, the bigger thing is just how he looks. He's engaged. The touch seems to be back (a product of focus?). He's battling harder on defense.

    And, brace yourself for this one, he looks fast (relatively speaking).

    "I think he's getting in great shape, and he looked fast out there," Denver head coach Mike Malone told reporters before pausing for dramatic effect. "Don't cut me off. I'm talking about how fast Nikola looked. Five years now, I've never said 'Nikola' and 'fast' in the same sentence."

    Good-natured coach/media interactions aside, there truly is a noticeable difference in the way Jokic is playing right now. Malone also noted the big man has been working out before and after practice. Maybe there was something to all those preseason takes about his weight after all.

    The nimbler, more engaged version is one of the best players in the league. Nuggets fans are surely hoping he's here to stay. 

Fun with Numbers

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    90

    LeBron James has assisted Anthony Davis on 90 buckets this season, per PBPStats.com. That isn't just the most common assist combination in the league; it's an overwhelming first place.

    The distance between their 90 and second place (63 from Ben Simmons to Tobias Harris) is the same as the distance between second place and 34th.

    With LeBron's previous superstar team-ups in Miami and Cleveland, adjustment periods were necessary. He and Dwyane Wade were both ball-dominant, slashing superstars. Chris Bosh had to get used to playing more outside. There were similar dynamics with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love.

    The instant chemistry between the two Lakers stars should be frightening for the rest of the league. They've only been playing together for a couple of months. What if they, like LeBron's previous super-combos, have another level to reach together?

    38.1

    The league-average three-point-attempt rate this season is a whopping 38.1, which means 38.1 percent of all shot attempts this season have been threes.

    That's an all-time record, as well as an indication that this trend isn't slowing down any time soon. Last season, it was 35.9. The season before that? 33.7. And, well, you get the point.

    Will this three-point revolution ever slow down? Is 50 percent where it will top out?

    The math is tough to overcome for mid-range proponents.

    Right now, NBA players are getting 0.77 points per shot three-to-10 feet from the rim, 0.81 points per shot in the 10-16-foot range and 0.80 points per shot in the long-two range. The average three-pointer is yielding 1.07 points per attempt. It's not even close.

    But a number of former and casual fans have expressed reluctance to embrace this new game. Some have outright disdain for it.

    And while it wouldn't be wise of the league to attribute all the blame for the ratings drop to this one issue, it might want to at least consider some ideas that might restore a little balance to the game.

    Last season, ESPN's Kirk Goldsberry suggested a couple of changes that might help. Among others:

    • Narrow the lane.
    • Add a three-second violation to the corners.

    If big men could set up shop a little closer to the basket due to more spaced-out defenses, perhaps post moves could make a bit of a comeback. This would also force perimeter defenders to travel a bit further to double-team top-tier post players. That extra split second could be just enough to get a clean look at the hoop.

    As for the corner three-second violation, a number of players in certain systems just run down the floor, find the corner and camp there. With the current rules, it makes sense. Forcing defenders down to the corners opens up some space inside. But if those shooters were forced to move, perhaps offenses would have to get more creative in creating those corner threes. More baseline cuts. Maybe some pop-outs.

    Of course, such drastic changes would probably need some workshopping in the G League. And maybe the NBA doesn't think there's anything wrong with the way the game is being played now. Personally, with the exception of video reviews, I love the current state of gameplay.

    But if viewership continues on a concerning trend, creative solutions might need exploring.

Weekly Awards

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    Welcome to the NBA Award: James Wiseman

    The NCAA is proving less important to NBA prospects every year. Sure, the Duke shine may have helped Zion Williamson a bit. It made him a lock to go No. 1, though individual workouts may have done that anyway.

    This season, following the announcement of Memphis' James Wiseman that he's leaving the program, two of the top three (and four of the top nine) picks in Jonathan Wasserman's latest mock draft for Bleacher Report are currently playing outside the NCAA. Three of those four players are Americans.

    "Today I formally withdrew from the University of Memphis and I will be preparing for the next chapter of my life," Wiseman wrote on Instagram. "Ever since I was a little kid, it's been a dream of mine to play in the NBA."

    He doesn't need the NBA to fulfill that dream. Nor do LaMelo Ball and RJ Hampton.

    In today's world, the top prospects are all over House of Highlights and Ball is Life videos well before they get to college. If they play overseas, the internet is (believe it or not) global. There's plenty of attention on Ball right now, and he's playing professionally in Australia.

    For players who are guaranteed lottery picks—and plenty are established every year before they set foot on a college campus—going straight to draft preparation makes a ton of sense. The functional purpose of college is career training. A year strictly devoted to draft prep is better for that than one that includes 8:00 a.m. English 1010.

    The pursuit of knowledge can happen at any point in life. A chance at the NBA may not last nearly as long.

            

    Welcome to the Hall of Fame Award: Kobe, TD, KG, Bosh, Catchings, Cash (and Maybe Matrix)

    The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame announced its first-time candidates for entry in the 2020 class, and this class should be a doozy.

    The new nominees include Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Chris Bosh, Shawn Marion, Michael Finley, Tamika Catchings and Swin Cash. Talk about some no-brainers.

    Just 27 players in NBA history are considered 100 percent locks by Basketball Reference's Hall of Fame probability model. Bryant, Duncan and Garnett are all part of that group. At 99.5 percent, Bosh isn't far behind. Even Shawn Marion, at 75.6 percent, is well above 50/50. Finley is the long shot at 1.5 percent.

    For Bryant, Duncan, Garnett and Bosh, the nomination is really just a formality. They're getting in. Catchings and Cash feel like solid bets, as well. But does a decent-sized class hurt Marion's chances?

    The one-time champion and four-time All-Star put up massive numbers over an eight-year stretch from 2000-01 through 2007-08: 18.9 points, 10.3 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 2.0 steals and 1.4 blocks per game. He was an indispensable member of the "seven seconds or less" Phoenix Suns, one of the defining teams of the 2000s.

    In a later phase of his career, his defensive versatility helped bring a championship to the 2010-11 Dallas Mavericks, an era-defying squad that took out a superteam.

    He's 65th in NBA history in career box plus/minus and 30th in wins over replacement player. Hall of Fame cases aren't built on analytics, but the Matrix should have a strong argument to get in with or without them.

Lines of the Week

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    We've already witnessed 42 games of 40 or more points from NBA players this season. The league is on pace for 124, which would be the third-most in a season. Only 2018-19 and 1961-62 (a year in which Wilt Chamberlain had 63 by himself) featured more.

    So, it may come as little surprise that this edition of "Lines of the Week" will feature a handful of 40-point outings. There were seven this week alone.

       

    James Harden, Dec. 13: 36 minutes, 54 points (19-of-31 from the field, 10-of-15 from three, 6-of-6 from the line), seven assists, five rebounds, three blocks, two steals, 46.2 game score.

    Two days after he dropped 55 points with only five free-throw attempts, Harden opened this week with a 54-point, six-free-throw performance. Maybe he doesn't need the charity stripe as much as some think.

    What's really wild here is that it's Harden's fourth game of the season with a 40-plus game score (tracked since 1983-84). He had 10 such performances in 2018-19, which is tied with 1988-89 Michael Jordan for the most in a single season. He's also on pace for 12 in 2019-20.

         

    Giannis Antetokounmpo, Dec. 16: 34 minutes, 48 points (18-of-31 from the field, 1-of-6 from three, 11-of-16 from the line), 14 rebounds, four assists, one steal, one block, 37.6 game score

    What may be most impressive about Giannis' numbers this season is how little time he needs to get them.

    This season, his average game score per 36 minutes is 29.7, which would be an all-time high. And oh, the 2019-20 versions of Harden and Luka Doncic are currently on track to round out the top three on that all-time list.

          

    Nikola Jokic, Dec. 14: 35 minutes, 28 points (11-of-14 from the field, 3-of-6 from three, 3-of-4 from the line), 14 rebounds, 12 assists, one steal, 32.4 game score

    As noted above, Jokic appears to be back. And with his 32nd career triple-double, he now trails Fat Lever by 11 for the franchise lead in that category.

    Those two are head and shoulders above the field. The rest of the list has combined for 29 total triple-doubles.

          

    The 40-Point Club

    In addition to the Harden and Giannis lines detailed above, Paul George, Jaren Jackson Jr., Trae Young, Luka Doncic and Kawhi Leonard all broke 40 this week. There were three more 39-point games.

    Many people point to pace as a possible reason for the uptick in individual stats, but that's really not it. The current average pace of 100.7 possessions per 48 minutes is still lower than it was in the '80s.

    The real culprit may just be a philosophical shift in how stars are deployed. The top 20 of the all-time leaderboard for single-season usage percentages is packed with recent seasons. There are three 2019-20 campaigns in the top nine.

    Superstars now control loads more possessions than they did in the past, even on teams that move the ball pretty well like the Dallas Mavericks and Milwaukee Bucks.

    Perhaps there will one day be some regression on this front, but you can't blame certain teams for leaning into it. As long as they score at rates comparable to the Mavericks, Bucks and Houston Rockets, there's little reason to deviate.

Matchups to Watch

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    This section is a piece of holiday cake this week.

    The league did a heck of a job picking a Christmas Day slate of games. Only two have serious dud potential, and that's because of injuries.

    The tanking and Stephen Curry-less, Klay Thompson-less Golden State Warriors should get walloped by the Houston Rockets. The Zion Williamson-less New Orleans Pelicans are going to have a tough time competing with the Nuggets in Denver.

    The other three games all have a chance to be great.

    • Boston Celtics at Toronto Raptors, 12 p.m. ET
    • Milwaukee Bucks at Philadelphia 76ers, 2:30 p.m. ET
    • Los Angeles Clippers at Los Angeles Lakers, 8 p.m. ET

    All six of those teams have legitimate shots to be in the Finals. Add the Rockets and Nuggets and we can up the number to eight total teams in action on Christmas Day who could eventually make that stage. 

    We have two teams with great depth facing off first. Giannis Antetokounmpo is always appointment viewing, especially if Joel Embiid is opposite him. And of course, the battle for Staples Center might be the biggest draw.

    So, start planning your exit-from-family-functions strategy now (or just convert the clan to basketball on Christmas Day). Find a good spot to settle in for several hours and enjoy a slate of NBA action as full as the turkey platter.

         

    All stats, unless otherwise indicated, courtesy of Basketball Reference and current heading into games on Thursday.