FOX Sports NBA Analyst
The NBA trade wind rumors are decidedly low as the 2022-23 season hits the turn in the first quarter and storm forces are not forecast even with the December 15 arrival when free agents signed during the off-season can be rescheduled.
But there are Teams scouts, GMs and executives say need to make a difference, with the Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knicks, Dallas Mavericks, Washington Wizards, Atlanta Hawks, Miami Heat and Chicago Bulls topping the list.
However, not all for the same reason.
The Lakers are about getting something for Russell Westbrook before he becomes a free agent next summer and keeping the team relevant and thereby keeping LeBron James happy. The problem: For all of Westbrook’s improved game coming off the bench, his salary is a whopping $47 million, and a source familiar with the front office’s mindset said any deal that includes one of the team’s future first-round picks, “ain” didn’t happen.”
Backup point guard Patrick Beverley is also available, a league source said, but the return for a 34-year-old point guard shooting 27% and making $13 million is unlikely to be significant. Obviously, thinking about issuing draft picks could change, but GM Rob Pelinka has been steadfast in preserving assets for the inevitable post-LeBron rebuild.
With the Knicks, the impetus for closing a deal is self-preservation — through the front office. It’s well known in the league that winning home games is crucial, as Knicks owner Jim Dolan is particularly sensitive to being hassled by fans at Madison Square Garden because the team is underperforming (the Knicks have six lost their last seven home games). . According to league sources, Dolan was also led to believe that team president Leon Rose would deliver one of CAA’s star clients such as Donovan Mitchell or Karl-Anthony Towns thanks to his previous stint as a high-profile agent for the Creative Artists Agency. That didn’t happen.
Another well-known fact: Dolan is not a patient man.
The Knicks’ problem isn’t a lack of assets — they have four first-round picks (three protected) in the upcoming draft and veteran point guard Derrick Rose, whose role has been greatly reduced by the acquisition of Jalen Brunson — but a lack of star level -Track inventory in the market. The players already reported as available — the Nets’ Joe Harris, the Hawks’ John Collins, and the Suns’ Jae Crowder — don’t have the marquee power that would satisfy Dolan.
The Heat and Bulls are in a similar predicament, laden with expensive rosters and high expectations, and currently on course to miss the postseason. But with stars that league sources say are considered untouchable — Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo for the Heat, Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan for the Bulls — and role players with outsized contracts — Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro for the Heat, Lonzo Ball and Nikola Vucevic for the Bulls – their flexibility to make a meaningful addition seems limited. A league source said the Heat are ready to move Kyle Lowry, but at 37 and with a year remaining on a three-year, $85 million contract, it’s difficult to find a team that would take him and Upgrade the Heat.
The Mavericks naturally lost Brunson to the Knicks last summer and desperately need a second playmaker to relieve All-Star points forward Luka Dončić. They’ve brought in a former Knick, Kemba Walker, for a test run, but a league source said they’re also interested in a current one, the aforementioned Rose.
The Wizards’ motivation for making a move is to pair a second real star with shooting guard Bradley Beal before telling them he wants to pursue his postseason dreams elsewhere. Considering they’ve made the playoffs twice in the last five years (both in the first round), it’s reasonable to think the Wizards need to show they’re at least moving in the right direction.
If there’s one team that needs change for change’s sake, it’s the Hawks. Again.
After reaching the Conference Finals two years ago with a crowd of young talent led by a 22-year-old point guard in Trae Young, it wasn’t a question of if they would reach the Finals, just when. That prediction flew when they finished 10th overall last season, needed two play-in wins to qualify for the playoffs and promptly rebounded from the Heat. They shook up their roster last summer, taking DeJounte Murray from the Spurs and sending Kevin Huerter to the Kings, but they’re still struggling to stay above .500 and league sources say Collins, whose relationship with Young has shown signs of strain has, wouldn’t mind going elsewhere now that Murray-Young’s backcourt has made him a distant third option.
“They have to do something,” said an Eastern Conference scout. “I don’t know if her owner is willing to pay the luxury tax for a team that’s about to make the playoffs.”
The team that everyone has their eyes on is the Utah Jazz. After they started 10-3, team president Danny Ainge said it was never his intention to fish for the No. 1 in hopes of landing French sensation Victor Wembanyana, despite his two All-Stars Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert traded, for young talent and draft picks, the quintessence of the rebuild package. Now that they’ve lost eight of their last 11, there’s speculation Ainge could be ready to transfer one of his key veterans, specifically future free agent guard Jordan Clarkson.
Though Clarkson is a notch below All-Star caliber, the consensus is that he would attract plenty of interest, especially since he’s proven he’s more than just a goalscorer off the bench and his assist average this season almost doubled (4.9).
“His value is much higher than before,” said the scout. “He has a much higher IQ than people gave him credit for. He hasn’t made the passes he makes before.”
The team that rival executives silently envy? The New Orleans Pelicans and Vice President of Basketball Operations David Griffin. They’re arguably one of the big surprises of the season with the third-best record in the Western Conference. They have a young, exciting team, they’re below the luxury tax threshold, they have young players with tradable contracts, and they have seven first-round picks over the next three years.
“Griff is in a great position because he doesn’t have to move,” said one manager. “He’s got time. But he’s got the most ammo if he wants to make one.”
LESS IS MORE FOR THE TIMBERWOLVES?: Contradictory as it may sound, now that Minnesota Timberwolves all-star forward Karl-Anthony Towns is expected to miss six weeks with a strained calf, at least one rival scout and assistant coach believe that’s exactly it which could be what the Timberwolves needed to find a winning combination after an unexpectedly slow start. The offseason acquisition of all-star center Rudy Gobert should solidify the T-Wolves as a postseason team and improve their defense. They are currently 10th in the Western Conference and 14th in defensive standings, one spot under where they finished last season.
The problem is that with Gobert centered, Towns predominantly plays power forward, and in today’s small ball era, that means the latter is often tasked with guarding a smaller, faster perimeter forward, or “stretch 4.” Considering how much the team gave up to get Gobert — four players, four first-round picks — and Towns’ cornerstone franchise status, head coach Chris Finch is almost forced to play them together.
“It’s hard playing two Bigs in this era,” said an Eastern Conference assistant coach. “I think they will actually improve when Towns is out.”
This is what it looked like in the first game without him. The Timberwolves held the Memphis Grizzlies 14 points below their average and forced 24 turnovers in a 109-101 win. Kyle Anderson, a much more mobile and defensively oriented forward, started in Towns’ place and finished with an even contribution of 10 points, six rebounds and five assists for a plus-minus plus-8. Naz Reid came off the bench to add five blocked shots.
“I think they’re about to take off from the lineup with KAT,” said an Eastern Conference scout. “Not because he’s the main problem, but it takes so much pressure off Finch to have to play these two guys together. It’ll give (Anthony) Edwards more space and he’s the guy who needs the ball in his hands . They played well in small moves when Naz Reid was on the bench and Naz Reid was on the bench. KAT guarded fours and was torched many nights. I think Cam Johnson (of Phoenix) did six or seven 3s against him. It’s a less bad defender. You still have D’Angelo Russell, who is a cone.
That’s why they got the shot-blocking Gobert.
Ric Bucher is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He previously wrote for Bleacher Report, ESPN The Magazine and The Washington Post and has authored two books, Rebound, about NBA forward Brian Grant’s battle with early-onset Parkinson’s disease, and Yao: A Life In Two Worlds. He also has a daily podcast, On The Ball with Ric Bucher. Follow him on Twitter @Ric Bucher.
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