The Decision 3.0
Everyone knows that the Cavaliers star forward is going to opt out of his contract this offseason to become an unrestricted free agent, but is there any possibility that James stays put in Cleveland come next season? The Laker storyline is surely being oversold. If Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love weren’t enough to topple the Warriors last season, I have a hard time believing that the trio of Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, and Kyle Kuzma is the answer. Add PG13 and Boogie? Maybe. But I still think that Houston are the frontrunners to land the King this summer, although the on-going injury problems facing the Rockets are not a good look for James’ who would ideally hope to defer the regular season workload to save his legs for the playoffs. Whether it’s Cleveland or elsewhere, James’ decision will be one of the biggest stories of this year.
The Brooklyn 2018-19 first-round draft pick
Speaking of the Cavs, what can Koby Altman and the Cleveland front office do to make James stay put? Many believed (and the Cavs even went on record to say) that the Brooklyn 2018-19 first round pick (acquired by Cleveland from Boston in last summer’s Kyrie Irving blockbuster) would be used by the Cavs to rebuild through the draft. And given the projected young talent set to be available in this summer’s lottery, it surely seemed like the right call at the time.
However, the Nets aren’t nearly as awful as many had initially predicted. In fact, they are currently sitting ahead of eight other teams in terms of draft position, so any plans that Cleveland had of turning that pick into a name like Deandre Ayton, Marvin Bagley III, Luka Doncic, Michael Porter Jr., or Mohamed Bamba are likely all but foiled. The second tier of draft talent is stronger than usual, with names like Collin Sexton, Kevin Knox, Miles Bridges, Jaren Jackson Jr., and Trevon Duval likely rounding out the lottery, but I can’t imagine that this is the draft position Altman envisioned when he dealt for the pick last year. So while I can’t speak to how Cleveland’s valuation of the pick has changed over the last month, they can’t be any further from trading the pick away than they were at the start of the season.
PG13, Boogie, and other soon-to-be free agents
James won’t be the only big name available this summer, but will we see any 2018-19 marquee free agents on the block at the deadline? Oklahoma City Thunder star guard Paul George is expected to opt out of his contract after the season and Pelicans big man Demarcus Cousins will surely be a coveted unrestricted free agent. But with both the Thunder and Pelicans fighting for playoff spots in the West, it’s hard to imagine that either franchise would be willing to pull the trigger on a deal that would likely net only pennies on the dollar, right? It has also been heavily reported that both George and Cousins wouldn’t object to wearing a Lakers’ uniform next season, so any team willing to trade for either this year would do so with the knowledge that their services would most likely be a rental.
The Lakers will be able to sign two maximum free agents next offseason by trading Luol Deng, Jordan Clarkson or Julius Randle before the trade deadline. There will be a lot of pressure on Lakers president Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka to add star talent to their intriguing young squad. So it’s hard to imagine the Lakers striking out on George and Cousins.
Other notable free agents include Chris Paul, Isaiah Thomas, and DeAndre Jordan (player option), with Jordan being the only one from that group I can see being dealt after the unceremonious start to the season for the Clippers. Brooklyn’s 2018-19 first to the Clippers to send DJ to Cleveland, anyone?
Can Philly get back on track?
Philly began 2017-18 as the talk of town, going 13-9 out of the gates to much celebration across the league. But the Sixers are in the middle of a 5-10 stretch that has fans wondering whether the franchise has the quality to turn things around and fight for a playoff position this season. Robert Covington has experienced a stark drop-off since inking a new deal, defenses are backing off Ben Simmons and begging him to shoot, and Joel Embiid looks like he’s more interested in spotting up from the top of the key than dominating in the low-to-high post. Markelle Fultz also returned to practice recently where For The Win reported that his shot looked just as broken as it did before the shoulder injury. If the Sixers don’t manage to sneak into the seven or eight seed this year, it would be a very disappointing result for a team this talented.
The All-Star Game
Ten starters. Four reserve guards. Six reserve big men. Four wild cards. Two team captains picking players a-la 5th grade gym class volleyball. Get ready: The new-and-improved NBA All-Star Game comes to Los Angeles on February 18th and will probably treat us to a halftime show featuring: the incredibly overplayed Thirty Seconds to Mars song from every college football commercial ever made OR Imagine Dragons (because it’s always a popular middle-aged white guy band christening the epicenter of what is, otherwise, a celebration of black culture and achievement). At least it won’t be -10 degrees in L.A. this year.
Isaiah Thomas, The Return
Looking back on the start of the season, it was hard to predict what the Cavs would look like come playoff time because it was equally difficult to determine when, if ever, Isaiah Thomas was going to be healthy. Last year’s third-leading scorer finally made his season debut with the Cavaliers on Tuesday against the Portland Trail Blazers, scoring 17 points in just under 19 minutes. Only time will tell if Thomas can shoulder the scoring load similar to Kyrie Irving. But if he can’t, it won’t be for lack of trying. Thomas will obviously want to show that he has fully recovered from a hip injury as the 2017 NBA All-Star will be an unrestricted free agent this summer.
The Surging Thunder
Don’t look now, but the oft criticized Thunder are making moves. Granted it took a little time, but the Thunder seem to be figuring out how to balance the workloads of Westbrook, Melo, and PG13. Westbrook has gotten back to dominating at the rim and on the fast-break and OKC has gone 13-5 since the start of December. The biggest change over that timeframe has been the way Billy Donovan and the team are incorporating Carmelo Anthony into the offense. No longer an isolation ball-stopper, Melo is settling into the role of a 3-point shooting specialist while Westbrook and PG13 are shouldering the majority of the workload. I’d love to see what this team would look like with a 3-and-D two-guard like Courtney Lee because Andre Roberson hurts so much with their offensive spacing, but the Thunder simply lose too much defensively when Roberson isn’t out there with Melo and Westbrook.
Question: Once we anoint a coach in sports as a “defensive specialist,” or “quarterback whisperer” how many bad defensive seasons or years of underwhelming QB play does it take before we try to remove that title? The Minnesota Timberwolves are not a good defensive team. They rank in the bottom third in “points allowed per possession” with an all-around athletic lineup that also features Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler – two players known for their stellar defensive play. Factor in two young, extraordinary athletes in Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins plus a coach in Thibs who has been celebrated for his defensive approach throughout his career and it is perplexing as to how Minnesota can be so bad in this area, particularly in the fourth quarter. Through December, they were also dead last in the league in “point per 100 possessions.”
Thibodeau is known (fairly or not) for grinding his players — especially his stars — into dust. Most of the NBA has bought into modern research on the importance of rest to maintain player health and peak performance. Currently, Minnesota is one of three teams with two players in the top 10 in the league in minutes per game (the Bucks and Blazers being the other two). Minnesota is also one of just two teams with three players in the top 20 in minutes played. Butler is averaging 37 minutes per game, No. 4 in the league. Wiggins is at 36.9, No. 7 in the league. And Towns is at 34.9, No. 19 overall in the NBA and third among centers. So is Thibs wearing his stars down too early, and could it be to blame for Minny’s late-game defensive woes? Putting this kind of burn on your starters at this stage of the season can’t be a good thing, especially when they will be expected to play the same or even greater minutes come playoff time once team rotations are typically shortened. Bench depth and player rotation will be worth monitoring in Minnesota throughout 2018. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear some complaints coming from the locker room if this keeps up, either.
Shopping Ryan Anderson
Has there been a name involved in more make-believe trade scenarios over the last year than Stretch-4’s Patient Zero? Several weeks ago, I would have told you that any moves made by Houston before this year’s trade deadline would likely be to free up space for next summer’s highly anticipated free-agency period. Daryl Morey is often an active dealer at the trade deadline and I’m sure that he’d love nothing more than to jettison the 2-years and more than $40M remaining on Ryan Anderson’s contract. But in a year when the Rockets have significant playoff aspirations while simultaneously nursing injuries to its two biggest stars, perhaps the Rockets should be more concerned with dealing Anderson for the “now.”
What are the Bulls doing?
One of the best subplots of the NBA season right now. The Bulls were pegged as a 25-win, lottery-bound team before one of their players broke another player’s jaw. The Bulls began the season 3-20 and a top lottery pick was all but in the bag.
So how did Chicago manage to screw this up? First, they neglected to trade either Mirotic or Portis – the guys who got in a fistfight. They won 10 of their next 12 and beat several good teams along the way. Now, Chicago is headed toward a nine or ten seed in the conference – very much the worst place to finish for a team that is should clearly be in rebuilding mode. They have no true studs, no real hope of beating a top-of-the-east team like Boston or Cleveland (or Toronto) in a playoff series, and no reason to play for anything other than a draft pick. They are still paying Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade about $18 million this season. The Bulls need to part with Mirotic and Robin Lopez and they need to do it quickly. It’s a clown show in Chicago and it will only be worse next year unless someone not named “Gar Forman” steps in and gets involved.
Warriors in the Capitol
The 2017 NBA champion Warriors will be traveling to Washington, D.C. to play the Washington Wizards on Feb. 28, and thanks to Steph Curry, we already know that the team will not be partaking in the customary White House visit. President Trump rescinded a not-yet extended invite to Curry and his teammates after they expressed a lack of interest in visiting the White House on Twitter. So with all of this extra time to kill in the Capitol, the Dubs are surely going to turn this into a spectacle, yes?
Will the Celtics make a move?
Despite suffering what appeared to be a gruesome season-ending ankle injury in his first game with the Celtics on opening night 2017 NBA All-Star Gordon Hayward now says he is open-minded about the possibility of returning this season. Whether or not Hayward will return in time for the playoffs looms over every decision Boston makes, but there’s no doubt it could use some depth in the frontcourt. The Celtics lost six games in December and it is becoming clear that Hayward’s absence is a more palpable loss than they initially thought in Boston.
The Celtics have demonstrated young talent and more assets than most, including an $8.4 million trade exception. They own several picks like the Grizzlies’ 2019 first-rounder, and could facilitate deals for players like the improving Shane Larkin and Marcus Smart, both of whom will be free agents (unrestricted and restricted, respectively) this offseason. Hayward’s absence has changed the dynamic of what started out as a hopeful season for Boston, but it hasn’t changed the team’s goals. For now, there’s an opening in the East and some activity at the deadline might be worth it.