The NBA season is flying by and there is no shortage of excitement. LeBron and the Lakers are meeting expectations. The Celtics are struggling to find consistency. The annual Anthony Davis rumors are back. More Fultz drama. The Warriors actually look, dare I say, beatable? Yup, 2019 will be a helluva year.
Still, there are some players that may not be too caught up in the excitement. By this point in the season, some players have stuck out as guys who may benefit from a change of scenery. These players may need to find a better fit for their playing style or land on another squad that can give them more minutes for their development. Or perhaps their team wants to go down a path that does not include them in the future.
Regardless, these players are all well known guys around the league. In fact, each of them was a lottery pick and have had lofty expectations placed on them. Get ready to meet the players who could use a new team in 2019.
Guard – Dennis Smith Jr.
The second year guard out of North Carolina State just so happens to be playing with the next big thing in the NBA. What’s more, Luka Doncic and DSJ both need a healthy share of the ball in order to play their best brand of basketball.
According to Tim MacMahon and Marc Stein, some people around the league believe the Mavericks will look to move on from Smith and see if they can get a good haul in return. After all, he had a rookie season that surpassed expectations and qualmed concerns about his health.
This makes sense for Mark Cuban and company. Doncic is the de facto point guard. Smith is an average off-ball player (35.7 percent on catch and shoot 3s, for example) but, he excels when the ball is in his hands more often. For instance, he improved his field goal percentage on drives by 8 percentage points this year, yet he is actually taking less drives per game this season.
Smith’s hypothetical departure would happen for fit reasons, not talent. Check out how his shooting efficiency has made a significant leap from his rookie to sophomore year.
DSJ has improved these numbers despite his usage percentage dropping from 28.9 percent to 23.7 percent. The talent is there, for sure. The Mavericks know this, but also know that to maximize the talent of Doncic, their pick and roll maestro, they must surround him with spacers and guys with roll gravity. DSJ does not fit either of those molds.
Which teams may be interested? Expect Phoenix to give a call. Although point Booker is a legitimate option for them now, they may still want a nominal point guard. They also have the assets to land Smith. Orlando could use a guard, as well as the Knicks. A dark horse option would be the New Orleans Pelicans. Jrue Holiday played wonderfully next to another point guard in Rajon Rondo. Trading for DSJ ups the Pelicans talent level and therefore increases the odds at resigning AD when the time comes.
Guard – Markelle Fultz
You had to expect this one, right?
Philadelphia has become a true contender after adding Jimmy Butler to the team. They will have to monitor chemistry issues, sure. They also need to continue to gel. But, the Sixers can make a run at the NBA Finals.
They even expect their number one overall pick to come back this season, according to Woj:
“So far, Brothers said that Fultz has been regaining strength and mobility in his right shoulder, which the agent believes will improve a jump shot form that has failed the 2017 NBA draft’s No. 1 overall pick thus far in the league.”
This seems like positive news for Sixers fans. I would not buy into this completely, however. Through one and half seasons the Fultz project has been a nightmare, offering one of the worst returns on investment the league has seen from a top pick.
There is always a chance that this news was dropped so the Fultz’s camp can make the guard more tradeable before the deadline. He would benefit from a team that is not in win-now mode. A rebuilding, or less competitive team, could be patient with Fultz and allow him to work through the growing pains.
Which teams could place a call to GM Elton Brand? I’ve written before about Fultz being a fit in San Antonio. Miami is another squad known for player development. Keep an eye on small-market teams that have trouble acquiring top-end talent and therefore could roll the dice on someone like Fultz.
Wing – Jaylen Brown
*This is as good a time as any to note my Celtics bias.
The Boston Celtics have underperformed this year, obviously. I can discuss how we should be patient with Gordon Hayward and how they have too much talent to fail, but that is for another blog. Today’s focus: Jaylen Brown.
Brown benefitted mightily from opportunity last season. He was a focal point of the offense and had the freedom to screw up. This year, the dynamic has changed drastically, and we are seeing the impact it is having on players like Brown and Terry Rozier.
Do not be fooled by the dip in this year’s stats, Brown has loads of potential. In case you have forgotten, watch him drop 34 points against the Bucks during last year’s playoffs by going 5/8 from deep and 13/24 from the floor overall. In that game he routinely scored on Giannis, confidently nailed catch and shoot triples, and played stellar defense.
For that postseason, Brown averaged 18 points per game, 1.4 assists and 4.8 boards on 46 percent shooting from the floor and 39 percent shooting from beyond the arc. Those are star numbers, especially for a second year player, folks.
Will the Celtics move Jaylen? No. And they shouldn’t. He is still incredibly young, has a high ceiling, is on a cheap contract, and is too damn smart to not get back on track. Still, Brown would blossom more quickly if he had an environment that saw him run with the starters more frequently.
Lately, Brown has been coming off the bench for the Celtics. His usage rate this season is the same as last year’s but, the players he is on the court with has changed. Like virtually all players in the NBA, he benefits from playing with more talented hoopers. Perhaps JB is struggling because his shots are a little less open, lanes aren’t as wide, and backdoor passes don’t come as frequently.
Starting Brown makes sense for the Cs, and if they won’t do so then perhaps another team should. Who are those teams? Indiana needs a wing upgrade, especially since Tyreke Evans is not the guy they thought he would be. Yet, the Cs won’t move Brown, especially not to a playoff team in the same conference. Chicago needs a wing and so does Brooklyn, for what it’s worth.
Forward – Aaron Gordon
Air Gordon is becoming the type of combo forward that NBA GMs covet nowadays. He is an improved and now reliable 3-point shooter (38 percent on 4.3 attempts per game.) He has lob gravity because of the bunnies in his sneakers. The guy has all the tools on paper to defend every frontcourt position. Gordon can help a lot of teams in this league.
Yet, the Orlando Magic have something of a positional log jam. Jonathan Isaac, a player still teeming with potential, is playing the type of defense that demands a minutes increase. Mo Bamba is a project, sure, but looks the part of a rim-protecting stretch five. And then there’s Gordon…
Three frontcourt players for two spots, and that isn’t including Nikola Vucevic. Something has to give, eventually, and my guess is that Gordon once again pops up in trade rumors. The Magic can get a great haul for him, too. Why? Check out his team friendly contract.
Gordon is trending the right way in terms of both skill and contract obligation. He grows more efficient every year while also costing his team less money. An athletically gifted 23-year-old who hits 43 percent of his corner triples and has a regressing contract? Sign me up.
Some teams to watch for are the Dallas Mavericks and the Phoenix Suns. Is there a trade that ships DSJ and cap-filler to the Magic for Gordon? I sure hope so. He is a wonderful compliment to Luka Doncic, plus the Magic need a point man. Phoenix can offer Ryan Anderson, Josh Jackson and a first rounder. While many think the Suns need a point guard, Devin Booker’s recent numbers indicate that he can be a Harden-esque facilitator for the team. Gordon compliments both Booker and Ayton nicely.
Big – Zach Collins
Another player I have written about before, Zach Collins is starting to show why he zoomed up draft boards a couple of seasons ago. So what’s the deal with Portland’s backup big man?
Firstly, Collins plays behind Jusuf Nurkic, and understandably so. Nurkic is a startable center and helping Portland win. He is on the books until 2021-2022 when the Blazers can waive him for only $4 million. Until then, he is taking home around $12 million a year. Collins is in Portland’s future, but perhaps not as a starter for a long time.
What makes Collins a desirable prospect? The 7-footer is mobile and has promising defensive instincts. Furthermore, he has a blossoming skill set and projects to be a reliable stretch center who can also beat you from the paint. For example, he hits 77.8 percent of his paint touches per game and has better post-up percentages than Karl-Anthony Towns, Domantas Sabonis, Jonas Valanciunas, and Enes Kanter.
His per-36 minutes for this season are very intriguing and trending the right way when compared to last year. There is a reason players don’t always play 36 minutes, but it is a decent indication of his theoretical production.
As a stretch five who can protect the rim and become a decent switch defender, Collins should interest just about every GM in the Association. Which teams should specifically be intrigued? Cleveland is rebuilding and can spare to start Collins while they tank. Portland has a limited window, and bringing Kevin Love home to Oregon for a package involving Collins, picks and prospects could be the all-in move we have been waiting for in Portland.
Atlanta is a better fit, however. Collins would form the cool nickname of Collin’s Squared with John Collins but they also complement each other well. Zach Collins is the better rim-protector and 3-point shooter, the other Collins bangs down low and has more trouble defensively.
Bradley Beal: The Washington Wizards experiment is officially over. Despite having John Wall, some stretchy shooters capable of guarding multiple positions, and a coach who has had some success in the past, for some inexplicable reason this team just does not work.
Players are often defined by team success. Beal has all the tools to be a top-20 player in this league and possibly an All-NBA guy. Ship this man to L.A already; he was born to play alongside LeBron James.
Kemba Walker: It kills me to see the former UConn alum rotting away on a team like the Hornets. Walker should be dropping 40 points and clutch treys on TNT for a contending team. Alas, he is not. You know what? Pair him and former Husky Jeremy Lamb (who is having a career year, quietly) together and send them to a team that is only a piece or two away.
Kevin Love: Get healthy, K-Love. Then once your trade restriction lifts on January 23rd, advocate for a trade, please.