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The stretch run of the 2019-20 NBA season is here.
While teams jostling for playoff position are dialing in their focus on the present, a good portion of the league’s leftovers are just playing out the string. For that sad-sack collection, it’s already time to look toward the offseason.
What defines these hopeless teams?
For starters, they have to be at least five games back of a playoff spot. They also can’t have superstars on the roster. So no, despite awful records, you won’t see the Golden State Warriors or Minnesota Timberwolves here.
Beyond that, we’re mostly picking organizations that don’t have an established cornerstone or someone in the pipeline who projects to fill that role in the future. In a few others, the hopelessness we’re trying to address stems from a crummy record this year without great prospects for improvement in 2020-21. These are teams that are losing now and don’t have clear routes out of Struggletown any time soon.
Let’s fix up these broken things with some trade ideas to pursue this summer.
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If it were possible for Cleveland to deal Love for positive value, it would have pulled the trigger at the deadline. So something like this may be the best the Cavs can hope for: a Griffin contract that expires one year sooner than Love’s, plus exchanging Garland for another shot at the lottery in 2020.
Nobody’s ever going to confuse Garland and Collin Sexton for Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, but if we’ve spent the last half-decade wondering whether the Portland Trail Blazers should diversify their resources (read: not commit a ton to two smallish guards), maybe the Cavs should get out in front of a similar issue.
Sexton isn’t exactly a point guard, as evidenced by his career average of 2.9 helpers per game. Griffin, if healthy, can run an offense just fine. That makes him a better fit for this roster than Love, who’s a capable passer in his own right but hasn’t been a true offensive fulcrum since his days at the elbows in Minnesota.
Even if this year’s draft is supposed to be weak, maybe Cleveland could get ambitious and package its own first-rounder with the one from Detroit to get off Griffin’s money by flipping him in a subsequent move.
Andre Drummond’s player option mucks up the Cavaliers’ cap picture, as his decision to stay or go creates $28.8 million in 2020-21 uncertainty. If Drummond were to bounce, there’d be a case for Cleveland carving out even more space in order to take on somebody else’s bad money with more draft assets attached. Let’s assume Drummond either opts in or agrees to opt out and sign a new deal, which seems like the kind of thing the Cavs would have gotten wink-wink assurances on prior to acquiring the big man from Detroit.
It’s admittedly weird to imagine Griffin and Drummond paired up again, but maybe the Cavs and Pistons’ recent history of transacting makes this deal a little more realistic.
Bottom line: Love’s time in Cleveland just has to end. He’s seemed unhappy since almost the moment he joined up, and the post-LeBron years have been rough. Though occasional archnemesis John Beilein is gone, it’s still difficult to imagine Love wanting to continue a relationship with this franchise.
We’re focused on the Cavs, but Detroit’s justification for considering a deal like this would center on the belief that Garland could take over as a starter in front of Derrick Rose while representing better value than whatever its 2020 first-rounder would generate. Love’s contract running a year longer than Griffin’s isn’t ideal, but it’s starting to feel like Griffin’s health is irretrievably compromised.
The Pistons might want to cut bait, unless it’s already too late.
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The Deal: Julius Randle and Frank Ntilikina for Devonte’ Graham and Nicolas Batum
The New York Knicks have been respectable of late, but let’s not mistake their recent decency for anything approximating a long-term plan. This is still a directionless franchise short on top-end talent.
Kevin Knox’s second season has been even worse than his first by several statistical measures, which is saying something, and RJ Barrett might be next in line for the Ben Simmons “are we sure he’s shooting with the correct hand?” treatment.
Meanwhile, Mitchell Robinson, the young piece with the most obvious long-term upside, can’t get on the floor enough to develop because he has to play center, and Randle is in his way. Robinson also hacks his way off the court with an obscene foul rate of 5.6 per 36 minutes, highest in the league among players who’ve logged at least 200 minutes.
So! Let’s clear the Randle obstruction from Robinson’s path while adding the quality point guard New York has been fruitlessly searching for since…Raymond Felton?
Graham’s long-range shooting cooled after a grease-fire hot start to the season, but his 190 made treys this year are a whole lot more than the 119 Ntilikina has made in three seasons as a pro. Graham has gravity, and even if Ntilikina may still project as an elite defender, it’s hard to envision him ever scoring or distributing at Graham’s level.
To get their point guard of the future and liberate Robinson, New York has to eat the final year of Batum’s contract. That’s an unpalatable $27.1 million. This assumes Batum will opt in for 2020-21, which is about as certain as the sun rising tomorrow.
What’s the Hornets’ angle? It’s a tough sell, but they deal Graham while his value is high, ditch Batum and add two rotation players in their age-22 (Ntilikina) and age-26 (Randle) seasons. Ntilikina could also improve Charlotte’s backcourt size, and there’s a chance he flourishes with a fresh start.
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The Deal: Derrick Rose, Svi Mykhailiuk and a lottery-protected 2021 first-round pick (converts to a future second if not conveyed) for Spencer Dinwiddie
We already bent over backward to concoct a trade involving Griffin for the Cavs section, and it may just be the case that Detroit is stuck with its injury-prone All-Star at least until the final year of his deal. Plus, there’s a decent likelihood the Pistons could be a playoff team in 2021 if Griffin gives them 50-plus games alongside Sekou Doumbouya, Luke Kennard and Christian Wood.
So let’s leave Griffin alone and instead address Detroit’s point guard problem.
Spencer Dinwiddie’s first tour with the Pistons didn’t go so well, but he’s a different player than the guy they gave away to the Bulls (who waived him) in 2016. With Brooklyn, he’s proved himself as a high-usage, starting-caliber point guard who still scares defenders from deep (despite a rough 2019-20 season shooting the ball) and gets to the line more frequently than all but five other guards in the league.
Lest there be any concern about Dinwiddie’s happiness about returning to a franchise that punted him, recall the he said he loved everybody in the Pistons organization in 2018, two years after his exit.
He and a healthy Kennard could share playmaking duties as Doumbouya blossoms on the wing. The Griffin-Wood frontcourt tandem would even give Detroit the option of five-out looks—as long as Wood doesn’t get away in unrestricted free agency.
Dinwiddie is a 20-point scorer who can play heavy minutes, as he’s proved whenever Kyrie Irving has gone down for the Nets.
For the Nets, they save a little money, clear room for Irving and Caris LeVert to man the guard spots next year with Rose the clear bench leader, and add a pick, plus a promising 22-year-old wing in Mykhailiuk.
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The Deal: Terry Rozier, a lottery-protected 2021 first-round pick and a 2020 second-round pick (via Cleveland) for Aaron Gordon
The Hornets aren’t totally out of the woods yet, but Cody Zeller and Nicolas Batum will be the only overcompensated players on next year’s payroll. That’s a source of hope in itself after this year’s roster featured those two plus Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (waived), Marvin Williams (waived) and Bismack Biyombo taking up a combined $43.2 million in 2019-20 dollars.
With Zeller the only true center under contract for next season, a Gordon deal would allow Charlotte to get interesting with its frontcourt rotations. Smaller looks with PJ Washington and Gordon as a 4-5 combo could juice an offense that currently ranks in the bottom three. Moving Rozier would also give Charlotte a chance to slot a bigger wing at the 2 alongside Graham.
Gordon and Miles Bridges are both iffy from deep, which might create spacing concerns. But the Hornets could fashion a drive-and-kick attack with their undersized group, basically becoming a very poor man’s Houston Rockets. Plus, think of the dunks we’d see with Bridges and Gordon on the floor together.
Rozier has outperformed most expectations since signing a lucrative deal in free agency, but that might be the best reason to move on from him. His value could be as high as it’s going to get, and we know the Magic need help at the point because they looked for some at the deadline.
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The Deal: Otto Porter Jr. and Denzel Valentine for Mike Conley
It may be over for Conley, whose play with the Utah Jazz this season has been beyond disappointing. But the Chicago Bulls need a point guard, and because they continually prioritize making the playoffs, it’s worth taking a risk on the veteran with a challenge trade like this.
Assuming Conley doesn’t exercise his early termination option, he’ll collect a whopping $34.5 million next season. But that’ll be the final year of his deal, which means the Bulls are only in for short-term pain if this experiment doesn’t work out. And with Porter’s injury concerns (56 games last year and just nine in 2019-20), they’ll be offloading their share of risk in the transaction.
There are signs Conley may not be completely washed. He’s shot it almost exactly as well from deep as he did a year ago on similar volume, and physical decline doesn’t erode mental savvy. The bar is set low for point guards in Chicago, and if Conley has one more quality year in him, he could absolutely guide the Bulls to a 2021 playoff berth.
Porter could bounce back as well, and his relative youth (six years Conley’s junior) makes him a more sensible fit on a younger Bulls squad. But Chicago tends to focus on the present, and the best 2020-21 version of Conley would make a much larger positive impact than the best 2020-21 version of Porter.
From Utah’s perspective, it may be time to wash hands and move on from the Conley experience. Donovan Mitchell and Joe Ingles have been the more effective backcourt pairing, and Porter would offer another wing with size (6’8″) for a playoff run in 2021. Valentine is salary filler, but he could help make use of Utah’s quality shooters and fit in Quin Snyder’s pass- and movement-heavy system.