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The 2018-19 NBA season has nudged past the quarter mark, a time when sample sizes are large enough for us to start making real assessments.
These early reflections can identify strengths and weaknesses, and show how clubs might approach the swapping season. And we’re wondering how trades might affect this year’s title contenders. But how do we define a contender?
Are the star-less Los Angeles Clippers suddenly contenders thanks to a dominant 10-game stretch? Nah. Are the loaded Houston Rockets still Western Conference threats despite a pair of four-game losing streaks? Of course.
Our list of contenders runs eight teams deep and mostly aligns with our preseason projections. For each of those eight, we’re here to match them with a trade deadline target who should already be on their radar.
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Sorry, Anthony Davis dreamers, but the Brow isn’t coming to the Boston Celtics anytime soon, if at all. As Bleacher Report’s Eric Pincus noted, the Shamrocks couldn’t roster both Davis and Kyrie Irving until July as both have the “designated player tag.”
The good news is Nikola Vucevic would be quite the consolation prize. The 28-year-old has never played better, posting personal bests in points (21.0), field-goal percentage (55.2), assists (3.8) and player efficiency rating (27.0). He’s clearing 20 points, 11 boards and three dimes a night, a line only reached by six other players (all past or present All-Stars) in the 2010s.
So, why would Orlando let him go? Because he’s headed for unrestricted free agency next summer and isn’t a likely keeper given the frontcourt minutes needed to develop recent top-10 selections Mohamed Bamba and Jonathan Isaac. Not to mention, if Vucevic could fetch fellow free-agent-to-be Terry Rozier, the Magic might finally have their floor general of the future.
Vooch has been a Boston target before. Back in January 2017, NBC Sports Boston‘s A. Sherrod Blakely reported the Celtics had discussed the 7-footer with the Magic in hopes of strengthening their scoring and rebounding.
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The Nuggets could get a lot better simply by getting healthy. They haven’t received a minute from free-agency addition Isaiah Thomas or rookies Michael Porter Jr. and Jarred Vanderbilt. They’ve had starting swingman Will Barton only twice so far.
This is all our way of saying Denver should avoid rocking the boat in a big way, at least until it gets a glimpse of what it already has.
That said, the Nuggets aren’t without their concerns. They don’t have much size on the wings or experience off the bench. Their dramatic defensive improvement (23rd to fifth in efficiency) also warrants skepticism, particularly with them leading the often-fluky category of opponents’ three-point percentage (31.3).
Jonathon Simmons could help a few of those areas. He’s a solid 6’6″ and 195 pounds, and he can play bigger than his size as a suffocating defender. He also has 18 playoff games under his belt, so he’d have an easier time handling postseason pressure than the Nuggets’ novice reserves. Oh, and as a bonus, Simmons might be available at a clearance price, since his role is diminishing and his contract is only partially guaranteed for next season.
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The Golden State Warriors have already lost as many games as they did during their entire record-setting 2015-16 season. But despite what that statistical tidbit suggests, the sky isn’t actually falling in Oakland. Turns out, having three All-Stars simultaneously sidelined by injury is kind of a big deal—even for a superteam.
It’s tempting to say this team needs nothing, because history says it probably doesn’t. The Warriors were champions before getting Kevin Durant and three-time victors before DeMarcus Cousins landed in their laps. Their necessities have been taken care of for a while now, so they can afford to splurge on luxuries.
But if you want to say the Dubs’ issues go beyond medical maladies, there are a couple potentially problematic areas worth pointing out. Center seems the obvious choice with Damian Jones likely lost for the year, but Cousins, Jordan Bell and Kevon Looney should be enough to cover the minutes.
But they also need shooting support. Golden State might have three elite bombers in Durant, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, but it runs light behind them. Quinn Cook, Jacob Evans III, Damion Lee and Alfonzo McKinnie are all unproven, and Jonas Jerebko has been almost perfectly average for his career (36.3 percent).
Wayne Ellington, though, is an established and electric flamethrower. He splashed the sixth-most triples just last season (227) and averaged as many catch-and-shoot triples as Curry (2.3). Ellington’s career 38.1 long-range conversion rate could make this offense even more potent. And he might not cost what you’d think, given the Miami Heat’s glut of wings and need to trim salary.
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The Houston Rockets had Trevor Ariza last season when they reeled off an Association-best 65 wins and may have been an ill-timed Chris Paul injury away from the NBA Finals. They don’t have Ariza now when they’ve stumbled out to an 11-12 start and plummeted from seventh to 26th in defensive efficiency.
This is more nuanced than a direct cause and effect, but clearly Houston misses its three-and-D prototype wing. The Ariza-less Rockets are “primarily focused on acquiring wing talent,” sources told The Athletic’s Kelly Iko, and Ariza just so happens to be “seen by rival teams at the top of the list of players who will be made available via trade after Dec. 15,” sources told Marc Stein of the New York Times.
This makes too much sense not to happen, even if the transaction would be complicated. As Stein explained, Houston couldn’t use Brandon Knight or Marquese Chriss in an Ariza deal unless they were routed to a third team.
But that’s for Rockets general manager Daryl Morey to figure out.
Our job is simply to identify Houston’s needs for defensive versatility and perimeter shooting (24th in three-point percentage) and find the best possible solution. The Rockets have been seeking an Ariza-type all season; why not just go back to the original?
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It’s been true for so long that at this point it feels cliche to say the Milwaukee Bucks need big men. Offseason addition Brook Lopez has been mostly as advertised, but Milwaukee has an opportunity to either upgrade further or at least build up its depth behind him.
Dewayne Dedmon would make a ton of sense for this team.
Before Lopez and head coach Mike Budenholzer joined forces in Milwaukee, it was Dedmon and Budenholzer creating floor-spacing from the 5 spot with the Atlanta Hawks last year. That was the only campaign they spent together, but it was the best of Dedmon’s career (14.4 points, 11.4 rebounds, 1.2 triples and 1.2 blocks per 36 minutes)
And he left a big impression on Budenholzer, as the skipper told Michael Cunningham of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:
“It’s been great to have Dewayne. His play—you guys all see it. It is fairly obvious to everyone that watches the game. But I think the thing is his energy, his voice, his leadership. He brings something to the huddle, he brings something to the locker room that I think we all appreciate. He’s in people’s ear, he’s in people’s face saying the right thing. Love the play but love the voice. I love the leadership.”
The combination of Lopez and Dedmon would give the Bucks reliability in the middle for as long as they wanted a 7-footer on the floor. Lopez is a slightly better shooter, Dedmon is more athletic and active on the glass, but each is sturdy enough to support Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton. The Bucks are elite as it is (first in net rating and offensive efficiency), but they’d be even better with more consistency up front.
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The Oklahoma City Thunder are terrifying on defense. They have the league’s most efficient defense (by nearly two points per 100 possessions) and second-lowest field-goal percentage against (44.0). And to think, they haven’t even had former All-Defensive selection Andre Roberson available yet.
But here’s the catch: This might be the worst shooting team in basketball.
That’s not a label to throw around lightly, but OKC has earned the distinction. Only five teams average fewer threes than the Thunder’s 10.1 per game, and they’re second-to-last in percentage at 31.6. Of the club’s 10 players to log 200-plus minutes, only one (Dennis Schroder) is shooting above 36.2 percent, which was the league average last season.
The problem is dire enough to potentially prevent the Thunder from truly contending. But with decent potential for internal growth—Paul George and Russell Westbrook are among the players lagging well behind their career rates—the right external addition could prove hugely beneficial.
Joe Harris would be a godsend. He’s one of only a dozen snipers with at least 250 threes and a 40-percent conversion rate since the start of 2016-17. He’s cashing in a career-best 44.0 percent from distance this season.
The Brooklyn Nets clearly like him. They not only held onto him at last season’s trade deadline, they furthered their commitment by inking him to a two-year, $16 million pact this summer. But he’s 27 years old on a rebuilding team. Logic says the Nets have a price they’d take for him, and the Thunder must be willing to pay to give the George-Westbrook duo its best shot at success.
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The Philadelphia 76ers already made one massive move this season, swapping out starters Robert Covington and Dario Saric for four-time All-Star Jimmy Butler. Considering the club is 8-3 since Butler’s arrival, there are zero regrets on the Sixers’ side.
But there’s still a question as to whether they’ve done enough to separate themselves in what could be a crowded Eastern Conference. Assuming the Celtics find their expected form sooner than later, the Sixers are likely at least looking at a four-team fight with Boston, Milwaukee and the Toronto Raptors to make the Finals.
Philly might want one more major swap to improve its chances, provided the cost is right. If Bradley Beal is really available—ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that all Washington Wizards were in November—he’d be an incredible get for Philly, which could address multiple voids in one maneuver.
The Sixers need another distributor to relieve some of the burden carried by Ben Simmons; Beal set a career-high in assists last season and has nearly matched that per-minute production in this one. Their best lineups run light on shooting, especially if Butler (career 34.3 percent) falls back to Earth; Beal averages 2.1 splashes at a 38.9 percent clip for his career.
Outside of Butler, their perimeter defense is problematic, but Beal can defend either guard spot.
It’d be a dream pickup for Philly, assuming this can get done without disrupting the Sixers’ trio of Butler, Simmons and Joel Embiid. NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Paul Hudrick opined Markelle Fultz, Wilson Chandler, the Miami Heat’s 2021 unprotected first and possibly Zhaire Smith or Landry Shamet could make up the package. If the Sixers can stay in that price range, this becomes a no-brainer.
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LeBron James is out of the East, Kawhi Leonard is on the roster and it might be now-or-never for the Toronto Raptors.
The good news is their championship chances look as good as any outside Golden State. The Raptors have the NBA’s best record (21-5) and top-eight efficiency rankings on offense (third) and defense (seventh). They have an elite superstar in Leonard, an All-Star sidekick in Kyle Lowry and an egalitarian support system around them.
Blockbuster swaps are not needed, but Toronto could stand to strengthen itself at the margins, especially considering its awful playoff performances over the last few years.
Toronto could use more shooting. While the Raptors rank fifth in makes, they’re just 21st in percentage. Their bench unit only has two players topping 32 percent from distance—Delon Wright, who tries 1.7 per game, and Norman Powell, who’s been out since early November with a shoulder injury.
If team president Masai Ujiri could figure out the finances, Courtney Lee might be perfect. The 33-year-old sports a 38.9 three-point percentage for his career, and he’s topped 40 percent in three of the last four seasons. His complementary style gives him plug-and-play potential, and his 50 career postseason appearances have already prepared him for however high Toronto can climb.