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NBA teams should take weeks, months even, to make judgments on the rosters they built over the offseason. They should allow for adjustments, give chemistry time to form and avoid freaking out about small samples.
That’s never how it works, though.
Even now, just a couple of weeks into the year, several clubs are off to disappointing starts. Many are probably already thinking about quick fixes…or even broader overhauls. It took the Cleveland Cavaliers a whopping six games before they decided to fire head coach Tyronn Lue, as first reported by The Athletic’s Joe Vardon, and that team didn’t even have high expectations for the season.
For teams that did have lofty goals, slow starts may inspire an even greater sense of urgency.
Here, we’ll highlight squads struggling more than anticipated and suggest a trade that’ll hopefully address the reason behind that underperformance—inasmuch as we can be sure of the reason this early in the year.
While the wisest approach would probably be staying the course for another few weeks, we know patience isn’t a luxury most teams allow themselves. If shake-ups are what it takes to get these teams back on track, fine. We have some ideas.
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The Deal: Rockets send four first-round picks, Brandon Knight and Marquese Chriss* to the Timberwolves for Jimmy Butler.
This one was easy to come up with, as it’s apparently on the table (in some similar form, at least) already. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported on Houston’s renewed efforts to land Butler this past Friday. Malika Andrews of ESPN noted the Wolves were hesitant to agree on anything that didn’t include Eric Gordon, but let’s focus more on what Butler would do for the Rockets. If it comes down to the wire and Gordon is a must, Houston should still consider making the deal.
The Rockets defense, a strength last year that ranked seventh in the league and had as much to do with the team’s run to the conference finals as James Harden‘s MVP-caliber offense, has stunk through five games. Houston is 1-4 and ranks 27th in points allowed per possession.
Luc Mbah a Moute and Trevor Ariza are gone, and human isolation target Carmelo Anthony has been predictably unhelpful in filling the void. Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell cooked Eric Gordon and Michael Carter-Williams, roasted James Harden and broiled Carmelo Anthony en route to 38 points (on a whole mess of layups) during the Jazz’s 100-89 win over Houston on Wednesday.
The next night out, the Rockets gave up 133 points to the star-less Clippers.
Jimmy Butler’s behavior in Minnesota makes him a walking chemistry risk. Plus, he’s a free agent after this season. Surrendering assets for someone who can walk away for nothing is always scary.
Butler is also a fantastic wing defender who’d rejuvenate Houston’s switching scheme. You know, the one that’s worked so poorly with current personnel that head coach Mike D’Antoni is considering scrapping much of it?
There’s still a chance Houston will just reacquire Ariza if the Phoenix Suns buy him out later in the year. And there’s enough offensive firepower on the roster to keep the Rockets in the hunt for a top-three spot in the West regardless. Considering the massive tax implications that’d arise if Houston re-signed Butler for the max, this move seems reckless.
But what if this season represents Houston’s last shot to contend with Chris Paul in his prime? What if the window for a title closes after that? Better yet, what if adding Butler keeps the window open beyond Paul’s decline?
There’s a lot to lose in chasing Butler at this price, but there’s also plenty to gain. For a Houston organization committed to winning a championship, this is the move to make.
*Knight and Chriss cannot be traded in combination with another player until Wednesday, Oct. 31.
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The Deal: The Thunder send Alex Abrines, Patrick Patterson and Terrance Ferguson to the Knicks for Courtney Lee.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but the Oklahoma City Thunder (1-4) could use a two-way option at shooting guard.
Since time immemorial, this has been the plight of the Thunder, an organization devoted to length and athleticism but one consistently unable to find a shooter who can hang defensively.
Hamidou Diallo’s athleticism and defensive potential are undeniable, but nobody guards him on the perimeter. OKC should still do everything possible to nurture his jumper and hope he’s the long-term answer, but Diallo is a long way off from being a knockdown weapon. Alex Abrines has always been able to shoot, but Billy Donovan has been in charge for four years, and Abrines hasn’t earned his trust yet.
Terrance Ferguson is 1-of-13 from deep this year.
Even if any analysis of the Thunder should include the consideration that Russell Westbrook isn’t the easiest point guard to play with (on account of all the bad shots he takes with the ball and the standing around he does without it), we can’t pin OKC’s rotten start on Russ. He wasn’t even on the floor for the Thunder’s first two losses.
This is a lot to give up for Courtney Lee, who hasn’t even played this year because of neck spasms. But the Knicks shooting guard is exactly what OKC needs. Or, at least, the idea of a healthy Lee—a reliable shooter who can attack closeouts, make a pass and defend his position—is exactly what OKC needs.
Abrines and Ferguson have had their chances (especially Abrines), and Patterson has looked washed since the Thunder signed him as a free agent in 2017. Even if all three are rotation players, the Thunder should pull the trigger.
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The Deal: The Wizards send Otto Porter Jr. to the Pacers for Cory Joseph, Domantas Sabonis, Bojan Bogdanovic and a protected first-round pick.
There’s no way Otto Porter Jr. is the only reason the Washington Wizards are off to a 1-5 start, but that’s who John Wall was talking about when he provided this assessment of Friday’s loss to the Sacramento Kings, via Fred Katz of The Athletic:
“We’ve got guys that’s worried about who’s getting shots. … You should never worry about that. No matter if you’re missing or making shots, you gotta be able to compete on the other end. You can’t do it on both ends of the floor, you don’t need to be playing.”
Washington, laden with difficult personnel, almost seems built to explode. Wall and Bradley Beal have had their issues in the past, Markieff Morris is no wallflower, and Dwight Howard‘s name has been synonymous with teammate eye rolls for years. That he’s not somehow directly contributing to the Wizards’ tension is a miracle—but then, he hasn’t played yet because of a sore lower back. Give him time; he’ll be in midseason locker room-poisoning form as soon as he’s healthy.
Washington may never be able to deal Wall, who won’t even start the first year of his mega-extension until next season. Beal is a better value, but he’s too young and too good to cut loose. If Porter goes, Kelly Oubre Jr. might be ready to soak up his minutes at both forward spots. That means the Wizards don’t necessarily need a small forward in return for Porter and his max salary. With this Indiana deal, they can snag depth, shooting and youth instead—while clearing up their books a bit.
Porter is a fine player, but he’s struggled this season. He’s getting fewer shots per game than he has in any year since 2014-15, and his assist rate has fallen off a cliff. He’s just not involved enough, and it’s hard to justify his cost if this is all the Wizards are going to get out of him—especially if the lack of production is coming with unrest.
Indiana will surely want protections on its first-rounder, and Washington should be amenable to that. Let’s just call it a lottery-protected pick in 2019, top-10 protected the year after and then top-eight protected the following season. After that, let it convert to a pair of seconds, and everyone should be cool.
Good enough? Great. Washington gets bodies and a pick while hopefully doing some addition-by-subtraction work on its chemistry. Problem* solved.
*The Wizards have more than one problem.
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The Deal: Sixers send Jerryd Bayless and a 2019 second-round pick to the Cavs for Kyle Korver.
It’s hard to be sure what percentage of the motivation for this trade idea comes from wanting JJ Redick and Kyle Korver on the same team. Conservative estimates put it in the 75-80 range. Pindown screens leading to catch-and-shoot threes are just fun to watch, and the Redick-Korver combo (which probably couldn’t ever see the floor together for defensive reasons) would be a joy.
You might say “trading” Markelle Fultz to the bench would cure what ails the Sixers, who’ve started just 4-3 with a pair of those wins coming by a margin of two points or fewer, but why not add more shooting and spacing to a team that hit its stride late last year behind the bench contributions of Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova?
Korver is a player without a use in Cleveland, a veteran specialist whose all-time perimeter accuracy doesn’t serve a purpose on a Cavs team that just fired its coach and has a slim chance to crack 30 wins. If the Cavs can get a draft asset and cap relief (Bayless’ contract is expiring) for someone they’re not even using, they’d have to at least consider it.
Korver’s defense would be exploitable in a playoff series, but throw him out there with the second unit (Redick is a starter again in this scenario), and Philadelphia could assure itself of having at least one deadly spacer flying around screens for all 48 minutes of every game. Landry Shamet looks capable of playing this role eventually, but Korver has experienced postseason pressure before; the rookie from Wichita State might not be ready for what’s ahead this spring.
If Philly can juice its offense with better shooting and more spacing, it’ll get back on track to finish as one of the three best teams in the East.
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The Deal: Timberwolves trade Jimmy Butler to the Heat for Josh Richardson, Dion Waiters and a protected 2019 first-round pick.
The New York Times‘ Marc Stein reported the Heat made an offer for Butler “headlined by” Richardson and a protected first-rounder. I tossed in Waiters to make the salaries work.
Maybe this is controversial, but Richardson on his current deal (four years, $42 million) might be a more valuable asset than Butler on what we should assume will be a max salary, starting next season. Richardson is four years younger, lacks Butler’s injury history and, notably, hasn’t berated his team and front office during practice as part of a calculated effort to force his way out of town.
Butler sets the bar low from a team harmony standpoint, but Richardson clears it.
The Wolves should be glad to swing a deal without also offloading bad money (looking at you, Gorgui Dieng): Richardson is a seamless fit, a blossoming talent on a good deal and a legitimate two-way starter. In the early going, Richardson is averaging personal bests in scoring and assists while significantly increasing his three-point-attempt rate. He’d give the Timberwolves a wing with shooting chops, elite defense and much lower usage than Butler demanded. If the plan is to get Karl-Anthony Towns into an unquestioned alpha role, Richardson is the kind of player who can contribute without compromising that effort.
From head coach/president Tom Thibodeau’s perspective, a Butler-for-Richardson swap makes all the sense in the world. It gives Minnesota another cornerstone alongside Towns while also improving the state of the team right now. Butler may be the superior player in a vacuum, but it’s vital for the Wolves to move on from this Butler mess. You’d have to think trading him for a low-maintenance talent would improve the on-court product by ridding the locker room of a star pulling in his own direction.
Minnesota was supposed to be in the mix for a top-four playoff spot before the Butler situation came to a head. This deal could make a controversy-riddled 3-4 start a thing of the past.