That's Pretty Interesting: D'Angelo Russell, Aaron Gordon among most intriguing players NOT in trade rumors
Also: The Brook Lopez experience is only getting better, a Jahlil Okafor mixtape and more
The NBA trade deadline is a week away, and all anyone wants to talk about is Anthony Davis. (Here, some quick takes: He should never play another game for the New Orleans Pelicans; he should have talked to the media on Monday; I am a tiny bit surprised he didn't wait until the Golden State Warriors might be an option.)
There are all sorts of pretty interesting (!) players to think about, though, and not all of them have been in the "rumor mill." Let's start in Brooklyn, where a 22-year-old guard has been proving loads of people wrong lately.
Russell might be named an All-Star reserve on Thursday night, and he's been a major part of the Nets' turnaround. He scored 40 points in a come-from-behind win in Orlando a couple of weeks ago, and in 13 games this month he has averaged 23.2 points and 7.2 assists while shooting 49.2 percent and making 43.3 percent of his 3-pointers. As divisive as any young player over the past few seasons, Russell is suddenly contributing to a winning team, playing the best basketball of his life and setting himself up for a huge raise.
That last part is important, particularly because of the way Brooklyn has built its roster. Spencer Dinwiddie signed a team-friendly contract extension in December, and, in July, Russell will be a restricted free agent and Caris LeVert will be eligible for an extension. The Nets could keep all three playmakers around, but it's not necessarily the best use of their resources. If Russell makes the All-Star team, they might have to choose between maxing him out and watching him walk.
No one is saying that it's likely that Russell (or any of the players listed below him here) will be traded. Often, though, the rationale for a "surprising" trade appears obvious with the benefit of hindsight. If the Nets were to move him, a conversation about his style of play would immediately start: How sustainable is Russell's scoring binge when he's hitting so many tough shots? How concerning is it that he almost never gets to the free throw line, rarely gets to the rim and doesn't finish well? Isn't it notable that coach Kenny Atkinson pulled him from Monday's game in Boston after 24 minutes when he failed to go after rebounds when Brooklyn was playing zone? As well as he's played, and as much as he's improved on defense, Russell remains a tricky player to evaluate.
Gordon can guard almost anybody and do just about everything. Last weekend, he followed up a 22-point, six-assist, 11-rebound game with a 23-point, four-assist, 10-rebound game. He is in the middle of his most efficient season, and the nerdy details of his four-year, $80 million contract are significant: He is making $21.6 million this season, but that number decreases each year. If I was running a team and looking for an upgrade at the 4 -- like, say, Brooklyn, Portland, Dallas or Utah -- I would check in with the Orlando Magic about his availability on a regular basis.
Like Russell, though, Gordon inspires a wide range of opinions. I happen to think that his shooting percentages would have been higher for the last few years if he had some semblance of stability -- Gordon has already had five head coaches: Jacque Vaughan, James Borrego, Scott Skiles, Frank Vogel and Steve Clifford -- and had better playmakers on his team. He is a capable playmaker, but I'd really love him be a secondary playmaker next to a point guard capable of creating easy looks for him. We haven't seen that in Orlando.
Gordon has the tools to make a Victor Oladipo-like leap to stardom on his second contract, so there is a good argument that the Magic, back in action against the Pacers on Thursday (7 p.m. ET -- watch on fuboTV), should stick with him. They have taken Jonathan Isaac and Mo Bamba in the last two drafts, though, and they might end up re-signing Nikola Vucevic in July. This frontcourt logjam has to resolve itself eventually, especially if Orlando believes that Isaac and Bamba need more minutes to develop.
The Oklahoma City Thunder should absolutely, definitely, certainly not even think about trading Steven Adams, the beloved, bruising big man who anchors their second-ranked defense and has evolved into a crafty post player, whose utter apathy toward individual accomplishments, touches and attention pairs perfectly with their two stars … unless, of course, they could get Anthony Davis.
I know: This is ludicrous. Davis isn't even thinking about Oklahoma City. If general manager Sam Presti somehow pulled it off, though, wouldn't it be hard for Davis to leave Russell Westbrook and Paul George? All I'm saying is it's fun to think about.
I'm breaking my own rule here because there has been a little bit of speculation about Butler -- he came up on the Lowe Post podcast in the context of him potentially winding up with the Houston Rockets, the team that reportedly offered four first-round picks to the Minnesota Timberwolves for him a few months ago. Anyway, there has not been any definitive reporting that the Philadelphia 76ers want to trade him or that he does not want to re-sign with them this summer.
There is no question about Butler's talent. Concerns about his on-court fit with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons were overblown, as Philly's healthy starting five has outscored teams by 11.8 points per 100 possessions. I am not sure, however, about how the stars' personalities mesh, nor am I sure that Butler and the Sixers will have an easy negotiation when he is a free agent this coming summer. For these reasons, I am curious as to what the Sixers might be able to get if they made Butler available. Could they get in the Davis discussion? Could they bring back Jrue Holiday? What about Mike Conley? Would the Heat want to get back in the mix for him again? So many questions!
Why would the Bucks, in the middle of such a great season, trade their starting point guard, who has earned All-Star buzz and recently said Milwaukee "feels just like home," and risk messing up their chemistry? I mean, they probably won't, but there is some logic to it: franchise player Giannis Antetokounmpo is their only starter who won't be a free agent in July. They can't keep everybody.
This, of course, does not prohibit the front office from standing pat at the deadline and seeing how far this group can go. It does, however, make you wonder how seriously management has considered getting ahead of this problem with a trade. If the Bucks decide they have to pick between Bledsoe and Malcolm Brogdon, well, Brogdon is three years younger and a much better shooter.
Honorary mentions: Almost all of the Denver Nuggets
The Brook Lopez experience keeps getting better
I want to give Brook Lopez an award. He has become one the most entertaining players in the whole league, by virtue of how thoroughly he has bought into his role in the Bucks' offense. Everybody knows "Splash Mountain" has been launching from deep with gusto, but what makes him unique is that he's not just a giant who can make spot-up 3-pointers. When Milwaukee has the ball, he is basically a 7-foot guard.
Earlier this season,. I am thrilled to report that these are still happening:
Bigs these days are regularly tasked with switching onto smaller players, but that doesn't mean they're used to legitimate centers doing stuff like this:
That's a contested stepback 3, which until recently was considered an awful shot for anyone. Do not let James Harden fool you into thinking this is easy. Do not expect many other 7-footers to try this. Do not ignore that the man guarding him, Steven Adams, is a Defensive Player of the Year candidate.
Lopez started taking 3s two years ago at the urging of Kenny Atkinson in Brooklyn. Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer might be the only coach crazy/smart enough to have him doing a Klay Thompson impression, though:
As USA Today's Jeff Zillgitt pointed out recently, Lopez is on pace to shoot and make more 3s this season than anyone his size ever has. His $3.4 million deal was the steal of the summer, and there's no way he signs for anything near that number in July. There is reason to be concerned about how Milwaukee uses him on defense come playoff time, but let's revisit that later. For now, here's a crazy, clutch 3 from that Thunder game:
Hahahaha. The fact Paul George, another Defensive Player of the Year candidate, closed out so hard on Lopez 30-plus feet away from the basket tells you how much respect he has earned. The fact he created a 3 anyway -- and made it! -- tells you how much his confidence has grown. What a ridiculous player.
The mixtape: Always look on the bright side of life
There were signs that Jahlil Okafor could flourish with more minutes earlier this season, but it wasn't until Anthony Davis' hand injury that the former No. 3 pick was thrust into a major role. As a starter in the first five games after Davis' injury, he was bonkers, averaging 21.2 points, 11.0 rebounds and 2.6 blocks while shooting a preposterous 74.6 percent. He had a career-high six blocks last week against the Pistons, and his 27 points in Houston on Tuesday were the most he'd scored since February 2017.
This, of course, is not the most notable thing happening with the New Orleans Pelicans right now. But hey, let's look on the bright side:
More good news: New Orleans has a team option on Okafor's $1.7 million salary next season. Everything is fine!
Checking in on … the lowly Knicks
It is a weird time in New York. On one hand, there are people around here who believe that Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis -- and, if the Knicks are really lucky, Zion Williamson -- will be playing their home games at Madison Square Garden next season. On the other, they have lost 11 games in a row, 19 out of 20 and, thanks to a couple of recent Cleveland Cavaliers victories, their 10-40 record is the worst in the league.
"You never want to be there," coach David Fizdale said. "But I'm also a realist as far as where we are and what we've had to go through as a team."
Fizdale said this Wednesday, before New York's 114-90 loss to the Dallas Mavericks. Twice during that game, there were big ovations when a player got up off the bench and walked to the scorer's table. The first time, it was for future Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki, who was making likely his last appearance at MSG. The second, it was for Enes Kanter, who had been out of the rotation and was receiving "We want Kanter!" chants. Kanter kissed the Knicks' logo at halfcourt when he checked in and promptly airballed a jumper. After the game, Fizdale said they felt sorry for themselves and "gave in to the losing."
New York is still without its best player, Kristaps Porzingis, and it is also without an identity. All these losses could pay off in the draft lottery, but it is not like the Knicks are losing with style. They are a real rough watch right now.
Hmmmm: Kyrie the 'provocateur'
"When Kyrie is telling us about basketball, or what he wants to do with his life, he comes across as very believable. Even when he's being a provocateur, like talking about the world being flat, he's not saying it just to get attention. There's thought behind it. When he's on the screen, you can see his mind at work. He's very charismatic, and you are drawn to his face, and his eyes. I can't wait to work with him."
I'm sorry, I could barely read that without screaming. Irving was being a "provocateur" when he said the Earth is flat? There was thought behind it? No! Please, no. It really isn't that difficult to talk about Irving's charisma without excusing the whole Flat Earth fiasco or trying to turn it into a positive. Look at that quote again without the bit that made me want to scream:
"When Kyrie is telling us about basketball, or what he wants to do with his life, he comes across as very believable. When he's on the screen, you can see his mind at work. He's very charismatic, and you are drawn to his face, and his eyes. I can't wait to work with him."
See? Much better. Nothing objectionable there. Let's remember that Irving's conspiracy-peddling was a mistake and will always be a mistake, and he himself has apologized for it.
10 more stray thoughts: You can't convince me any player is having a better time on the court than Davis Bertans ... The Rising Stars jerseys are better than the All-Star jerseys ... Check out how much playing time Bruno Caboclo is getting in Memphis ... Super curious about the Hornets' plans going into the trade deadline ... Jrue freaking Holiday had six blocks the other night ... Nothing about Lonzo Ball's reported desires, trade-wise, makes sense ... The funniest Davis scenario is one of Boston's rivals trading for him in the next week, then demanding the Celtics give up a ton of assets for him in the summer ... You don't watch the Cavs, and that's fine, but Cedi Osman is getting buckets ... The Hawks are my favorite bad team in years ... Free Marquese Chriss!
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