Trade deadline week is finally here, with as many as half-dozen franchises contemplating moves that could shape the next half-decade of their existence and even alter this season’s championship picture.
This “change the landscape of the league” stuff is not hyperbole — not when names such as Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol are involved; not when the league’s glamor team, the Lakers, is in the thick of a transition era under the stewardship of an untested executive in Jim Buss; and not when the Rockets and Warriors, among others, are willing to go all-in to find third and fourth teams they could use in a monster Howard transaction.
As always, what we don’t know trumps what we know — and that statement applies not only to ongoing trade talks happening across multiple levels of all 30 franchises, but also to how the trades themselves will play out once they happen. So much in the NBA depends upon the unpredictable — luck, chemistry, roster fit, injuries, the lottery and so many other variables beyond the control of even the savviest general managers.
Which brings us to the ongoing undercurrent of chatter about the possibility that the Bulls, holders of the league’s best record, might alter the landscape of the NBA by dealing for Howard. The Magic “would like to seriously engage the Bulls in trade talks,” per the always plugged-in Ken Berger of CBSSports.com, but Chicago is reluctant to do so without Howard’s commitment to a long-term deal. Here’s more from Berger:
But the team that can make the strongest case for Orlando to depart from its risky strategy of holding onto Howard are the Bulls, who could offer 7-footer Omer Asik, Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer for Howard and Hedo Turkoglu, sources said. The Bulls also could offer a valuable first-round pick from Charlotte — top-14 protected in this year’s draft but unprotected by 2016.
Such a scenario has gained no traction since Chicago is “not on his list,” a person familiar with the situation said of Howard. Without assurances from Howard or his camp that he’d be willing to sign long-term with the Bulls, Chicago executives have exhibited no appetite for trade talks with the Magic.
The narrative throughout the league surrounding Chicago’s non-pursuit of Howard has been built on the assumption that it can offer the Magic the “best” deal. If only Howard would commit and accept second-fiddle status to Derrick Rose, or Adidas would sign off on two of its signature stars playing for the same team, then the poor Magic might be able to get something at least approximating fair value for Howard — something better than the Nets or Lakers or Mavericks or Gambling Team X could provide.
Here’s Adrian Wojarowski, Yahoo! Sports’ ace NBA reporter, giving voice to this sentiment — prevalent all over the league — back in late December:
The Bulls have the most attractive package of young players — and the possibility of draft picks — for the Magic, but the NBA that [Michael] Jordan created for superstar players is a significant part of the reason that Howard will take a pass on Chicago.
Is this really true? It depends, of course, on which Chicago players are in the theoretical offers, but the one Berger presents via his sources would be unpalatable to me if I were the Magic’s GM. The Deng/Boozer/Asik trio earns about $1.5 million less this season than the Howard/Turkoglu combination, and going forward, the Deng/Boozer combination alone will nearly match Howard/Turkoglu in salary next season and exceed them beginning in 2013-14, when Turkoglu is guaranteed “only” $6 million in the final year of his contract. Boozer, already 30, will earn a whopping $16.8 million in 2014-15 on a contract that already looks iffy enough for a segment of Chicago fans to hope the team eventually uses the amnesty provision on Boozer in order to open up cap space.
Those fans are undervaluing the scoring and spacing Boozer provides an offense that badly needs both, but his defense remains subpar, and Tom Thibodeau often sits Boozer down the stretch of close games.
Deng is a fine player and an elite defender, but he’s also working in an almost-perfect complementary role as a (very) secondary creator behind a superstar in Rose. Deng is shooting a career-worst 41.8 percent (though he gets massive props for his 42.5 percent mark from three) and putting up his lowest Player Efficiency Rating since his rookie year, and he’s going to turn 27 next month. Do you want to pay him $14 million per year over the next two seasons to work his sidekick game on a team that lacks a go-to off-the-dribble creator?
As for Asik, Chicago is happy to accept his all-defense, no-offense game because it prioritizes defense and has Rose to run things down the stretch. Asik will be a restricted free agent this summer, and as one of the game’s best big man defenders, he’ll get paid. And big man defenders with no range, unproven ability to score on the high pick-and-roll and sub-50 free throw percentages can be liabilities in the wrong context.
There’s no question adding Deng/Boozer/Asik and a first-round pick to a nucleus of Ryan Anderson, Jameer Nelson, J.J. Redick, Glen Davis and Jason Richardson creates a playoff team. But the Magic have to pay Anderson this summer, too, and approaching the luxury tax to field a decent playoff team lacking a foundational perimeter player is a dicey proposition. The Magic would be justified in preferring a New Jersey offer built upon Brook Lopez, MarShon Brooks and a pile of future first-round picks, at least one of which (this season’s) will likely land in the lottery. They’d be justified in preferring Andrew Bynum and the low first-rounders the Lakers could offer. They’d be more than justified in prodding the Rockets about Kyle Lowry.
The Nets offer is obviously flawed, regardless of whether it includes a veteran player from a third team — such as Gerald Wallace, a player the Nets reportedly roped into a three-team Howard trade earlier this season. And it may not even be available to Orlando, since New Jersey may low-ball the Magic and choose to pursue Howard in free agency.
(A side note on that: The Nets will have to go through some cap gymnastics if they want to hit the home run of signing Howard, getting Deron Williams to opt-in and re-signing Lopez. If you include cap holds for Williams and Lopez, charges for a first-round pick and empty salary spots, and the player options held by Jordan Farmar and Shawne Williams — and remove other players on whom the Nets hold options — New Jersey’s payroll creeps to more than $46 million.
Howard is eligible to earn about $19 million next season, and that payroll figure puts New Jersey only about $11.5 million under the projected cap. They could renounce Lopez, but doing so would make him an unrestricted free agent, and the Nets would thus lose matching rights. They could also work a double sign-and-trade with Lopez and Howard, but that scenario also costs them Lopez. And even if New Jersey renounces its right to Lopez, they can still only offer Howard around $18.1 million — about $800,000 less than the most he could get as a free agent. As always, remember Howard can earn about $10 million more in NBA salary over the course of six years by signing a new deal with Orlando.)
Lopez is sort of an anti-Asik — a guy who can work as the post anchor of a good offense, but struggles on defense and on the glass. His rebounding numbers should jump given good health — he played last season recovering from mono, remember — but his ceiling on defense is probably as a neutral presence. If the Magic can re-sign him for, say, $11 million per season, he’d provide more value per dollar than Boozer and perhaps even the cheaper Asik. Brooks has issues with defense and shot selection, but he looks to be a player — a guy capable of making tough shots, and a better distributor than anyone expected at this point.
Chicago fans will counter by flipping Noah into the deal for Boozer, adding Euro-stash treasure Nikola Mirotic and possibly Taj Gibson for Asik, and they have a point. Noah’s defense probably makes him a better player than Boozer now, and the gap in value will only grow as Boozer ages and gets more expensive. And a Noah/Howard duo would create spacing issues for Chicago.
But Noah isn’t young — he’s actually older than Deng — and he’s locked up at All-Star-level money through 2015-16, when he’ll earn $13.4 million. Partly because to injuries that derailed his 2010-11 season, Noah hasn’t really made a jump as a consistent offensive threat who requires constant attention beyond 15 feet and can hurt defenses as a release valve. He’s a fantastic passer, elite rebounder, very good defender and wonderful teammate, but that $13.4 million salary is worth thinking about as the league transitions to a harsher luxury-tax system.
Orlando is never going to get fair value for Howard. I ranked him as the league’s second-best player during my summer Top 100 Rankings, and though Kevin Durant is making a push for that spot (as Dwyane Wade always is), I’m still comfortable with an engaged Howard there. But as we get into the days when the rumors and offers will come fast, it’s far from clear that Chicago is the place from which Orlando can really get the “best” value.
EIGHT THINGS I LIKE AND DON’T LIKE
1. The pink and orange Miami jerseys
They are hideous, cheesy and perfect for Miami.
2. Whatever is happening in Dallas
I’ve given up trying to figure out the Mavs, and I can only hope a playoff berth — far from a lock after nine losses in 12 games — provides some clarity. Dallas still can’t score consistently, and its defense has fallen off badly in the last two weeks, in part because of Brendan Haywood’s absence. Dallas hasn’t been able to go to its super-big lineups as often without Haywood, Ian Mahinmi can be caught out of position off the ball, and the team’s perimeter players have allowed themselves to get beaten badly on the glass and in transition.
Also, even when Dirk Nowitzki is hitting shots, they just look more difficult than they did before, as if Nowitzki can’t quite get the space he’s accustomed to on release. And he seems to be missing very badly more often, with a disturbing number of shots missing the rim entirely.
When they are right, the Mavs might be the league’s most unusual and interesting team. Will they ever be “right” this season?
3. Early screening action for Kobe Bryant
The Lakers begin more and more possessions with Bryant setting a quick screen for an L.A. point guard a couple of seconds after the Lakers cross mid-court. It has proven a smart, easy way for the Lakers to get into the teeth of a defense without using Bryant as the ball-handler or waiting until one of L.A.’s three elite post players — Bryant, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum — earns post position. Bryant’s defenders must stick close to him, meaning Derek Fisher and Steve Blake can turn the corner around a Kobe pick. And when Bryant slips the screen, cutting hard to the hoop, he draws so much attention from back-line defenders that L.A.’s point guard can often find a direct passing lane to Gasol or Bynum slipping into a crease near the rim.
4. The stasis of Brandon Jennings
Jennings has been better this season, but his shooting percentage has tumbled toward the 40 percent line he swore he’d break, and in the macro-sense, he still looks like the same player he has been for three years now – a fine ball-handler who avoids turnovers but struggles to create good looks for teammates or defend the pick-and-roll. You’ll catch Jennings taking wide routes around screens at the top of Milwaukee’s sinking defense, and though his assist rate has crept up this season, it’s still subpar for a lightning quick point guard who handles the ball so much.
He’s only 22, and his PER has jumped from 15.6 last season to 18.1 this season, but much of that is built on a low turnover rate the Bucks would probably be happy to see jump a bit if it meant Jennings were throwing more high-risk/high-reward passes in the lane.
5. Andre Iguodala’s transition drop-offs
Iguodala has developed into one of the league’s best passing small forwards, and he’s especially good at threading close-range passes to teammates near the rim in transition. Some are little more than drop-offs, where Iguodala sets up for a shot, draws the defense and simply releases the ball toward the floor and into the arms of a waiting teammate trailing the play. He has a great sense of timing on these passes. Watch for them the next time you watch Philly.
6. David Lee from the left block
Critics justifiably harp on Lee’s defense and his contract, both of which have placed limits on the ceiling of this Warriors roster. But Lee gets better offensively every season, and he has morphed this season into a deadly one-on-one player from the left block. He is both isolating off the dribble and posting up more often this season than last, per Synergy Sports, and he ranks among the league’s top 50 players in points per possession on both play types. Lee has long been a good jump-shooter, but he’s worked hard on his dribble attacks and developed a nifty right-handed hook shot.
His flaws are real, but Lee would look much better if Golden State could land a solid defense-first center. Can Ekpe Udoh do the job?
7. Ricky Rubio’s injury
I’m almost more upset about Spain losing Rubio for the Olympics than the Wolves losing him for the playoff chase. It will be interesting to see how much Minnesota actually feels that injury. The team still has two point guard types in J.J. Barea and Luke Ridnour, and they’ve been careful to avoid overloading Rubio in his rookie season. Minnesota runs a lot of the offense through Kevin Love at the elbow and in the post, and Rubio has split ball-handling duties with Barea and Ridnour. But he’s also the best passer among those three by a long shot, and that passing ability became even more valuable when Nikola Pekovic’s emergence provided Rubio with two big man targets capable of scoring on the move in a variety of ways.
And, boy, will we miss the no-look passes — the most functional no-look dishes in the league.
8. Al Jefferson, learning mid-career
You’re not going to mistake Big Al for Bill Walton, and he remains a liability on defense in space. But give Jefferson credit for slowly growing from a black hole into a passer capable enough for the Jazz to build entire sets around Jefferson working from the elbow. He has developed a nice high-low game with Paul Millsap, and Jefferson will even occasionally hit guards and wings cutting around him.
Jefferson is averaging a career-best 2.4 assists per 36 minutes and has assisted on 13 percent of Utah’s baskets while on the floor — also a career high. Those aren’t great numbers, but they are acceptable for a scoring big man and speak of some mid-career growth from Jefferson. Kudos.