Tuesday, May 30 2023

Trades will be all the chatter in the NBA from now until Feb. 9. 

This week, our panel of NBA reporters — Melissa Rohlin, Ric Bucher and Yaron Weitzman — takes a look at which teams need to make a move in order to move into title contention, as well as where the Warriors go from here with an injured superstar.

1. Which player do you think is most likely to be dealt between now and the trade deadline?

Rohlin: Jae Crowder. That situation will finally be resolved soon. Crowder and the Phoenix Suns mutually agreed that he would not be with the team this season. Mutual teams have expressed interest in acquiring the 3-and-D specialist who riles up opposing crowds to the point that he regularly draws “F— Jae Crowder” chants whenever he plays on the road. His name has been attached to multiple contenders, reportedly including Milwaukee, Miami and Cleveland, to name a few. Last season, Crowder averaged 9.4 points and 5.3 rebounds and multiple teams could benefit from his toughness and skill at the four. It’s a matter of time before he’s on a new roster.

Bucher: Jordan Clarkson. He can opt out of his final year with the Jazz and become a free agent this summer and the Jazz don’t want to run the risk of letting such a valuable asset simply walk. As one Eastern Conference GM told me last week, Clarkson is sure to be a hot commodity among playoff teams looking for one more key piece. He’s one of those rare scorers off the bench who is just as lethal in the playoffs as he is in the regular season. He’s actually upped his value this season. With Mike Conley missing considerable time and Donovan Mitchell in Cleveland, he has shown that he can make plays for others as well as score, nearly doubling his assist average (4.7) from the previous seven seasons. 

Weitzman: Crowder is the obvious answer, just because he’s currently not playing and has asked for a trade. And the easy answer would be John Collins, who’s been on the trade block for, I believe, 12 years now. But allow me to toss another name in here: Jakob Poeltl. Now, if you haven’t watched much of the San Antonio Spurs recently (and, honestly, why would you) then you might not realize that Poeltl, 27, is actually, well, good. He’s big (7-foot-1, 245 pounds) and skilled (averaging 12.9 points, 9.9 rebounds and 3.5 assists in just 27.3 minutes per game). He’s also going to be a free agent this summer, meaning there’s no reason for the tanking Spurs to hold onto him. There are tons of teams out there that could use a talented big (the Nets and Raptors, for example). Poeltl’s not a game-changer, but he’s the sort of player who can help a playoff team down the stretch.

2. Which teams should be most active in the trade market? Which teams are potentially “one piece away” and how can they fill that hole?

Rohlin: The Lakers could potentially be one piece away from being title contenders. Anthony Davis has proven that he can be the top player in the league on any given night. And LeBron James, in his 20th season, continues to defy Father Time. They need to add a guy to their roster, or a few guys, who are reliable from beyond the arc and are grind-it-out defenders. The Lakers went from having the top defense in the league this season to being No. 13 in defensive rating. And the Lakers are dead last in 3-point percentage, shooting a dreadful 32% from beyond the line. If they could improve in those areas, and spread out the court for Davis and James, as well as adding some toughness and grit on the defensive end, this team could be really, really good.

Bucher: The Brooklyn Nets. Nic Claxton is their lone legit big man unless we count Ben Simmons and we’re not going to do that until Ben declares himself one. Claxton has improved overall since last season, but he’s also been more of a foul magnet than ever. There were rumors about the Nets having interest in the Atlanta Hawks’ John Collins, and he would be an ideal fit to protect their phalanx of vertically challenged guards. It’s impressive they’re sitting fourth in the East right now, but a playoff series against the Cavs, Bucks, Sixers or Celtics (if they have Robert Williams) is going to find them at a serious disadvantage on the front line.

Weitzman: I feel like the ‘Rules of the Internet’ require me to say the Lakers. But I’m going to go a different direction and say the Toronto Raptors. This is a team that came into the season expecting to compete for one of the East’s top four seeds. Instead, they currently sit at 10th with a disappointing 13-15 record. Injuries have, well, hurt, especially to Pascal Siakam, who was playing at an All-NBA level (24.6 points, 8.5 rebounds, 7.0 assists per game) before a knee sprain sidelined him for 10 games in November. Scottie Barnes is great, but hasn’t quite made the secondyear leap many were expecting. I love Fred VanVleet, but he’s been tossing up bricks all season (37.2 FG%, 32.2 3P%). The Raptors have a choice to make: They can use one of their picks to bolster the roster, or they can reset and shop guys like VanVleet and OG Anunoby and center their team around the timeline of the 21-year-old Barnes. My guess is they do the former, but you never know.  

3. Steph Curry suffered a shoulder injury against the Pacers on Wednesday and will be sidelined for a few weeks. What does this mean for the Warriors moving forward? If he misses time, are their playoff hopes dashed?

Rohlin: A few weeks isn’t going to change anything for the Warriors. They’ll fall in the standings without Curry, but as long as this team reaches the playoffs, NO ONE is going to want to face them. The Warriors have reached the NBA Finals six of the last eight seasons, winning four championships. It’s still very early in the season and Curry will be back soon. If anything, the rest could help him after he has been carrying the team on his shoulders all season. The Warriors have undoubtedly struggled this season trying to merge the old guard with their promising young core, sitting in 10th place in the Western Conference with a record of 14-15. But it would be a giant mistake to count the defending champs out.

Bucher: I’m not going to count them out, but let’s not pretend that Steph hasn’t been otherworldly this season and yet the Warriors have a losing record thanks to everyone else being subpar. I don’t see how they make up for his absence, which means sliding down into Lakers/Thunder territory in the standings. It’s not that they can’t make up ground when he gets back, but what price will he pay having to drag them back up the standings? This is starting to feel a lot like two years ago, when Steph went bonkers to get the Warriors into the play-in tournament and then ran out of gas as the Lakers and Grizzlies sent him and the Warriors home.

Weitzman: Consider the following: With Curry on the floor this season, the Warriors have outscored opponents by seven points per 100 possessions. When he sits, they’ve been outscored by 11.1. That does not bode well for this upcoming stretch. Thing is, the Warriors don’t need one of the West’s top seeds to succeed, and I’d be stunned if they don’t find a way to sneak in, especially with the play-in as an option.

4. The Nets have won eight of their last nine games and are now fourth in the East. What’s the biggest reason for their turnaround?

Rohlin: The Nets have shown focus on the defensive end. They went from being last in the league in defensive rating to eighth over their last nine games. They obviously have offensive firepower for days with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving (and are sixth in the league in offensive rating on the season). But them buckling down on the less glamorous end of the court has transformed them into a team that can win. 

Bucher: Out of those nine games, they played three teams with winning records, and that includes the 15-14 Pacers and the Blazers who were without Damian Lillard. They lost to the third team, the Boston Celtics. Seven of the nine games were at home. They are playing better than they did in their 6-9 start and as I mentioned up top, I do think they’re one key piece away from being a contender, but this surge has more to do with being fairly healthy and facing a favorable schedule than some massive uptick in how they’re playing.

Weitzman: The easy answer is that replacing Steve Nash with Jacque Vaughn has given the team a boost, but I’m not sure if that’s the answer. One obvious difference: Kyrie Irving returning to the court. Another: Nic Claxton has been great in the middle. Most important, though, is how Kevin Durant is once again playing like the best player in the world (30 points on 55.9% shooting, to go along with 6.7 rebounds and 5.5 assists). I think this is probably who the Nets are. But they’re also not close to as good as the Boston Celtics or Milwaukee Bucks.

5. Kawhi Leonard has played in five of the Clippers’ last seven games, and played nearly 30 minutes a night in those five games. What have you seen from Leonard? Can he still help catapult LA into title contention?

Rohlin: Kawhi is still very much working his way back to being Kawhi. Sure, he has shown glimmers of his brilliance, highlighted by a 25-point, nine-rebound and six-assist performance in 29 minutes against Boston on Monday. But he’s still regaining his rhythm and has a way to go before he returns to being the best two-way player in the NBA. The Clippers have taken a cautious approach with him after he was sidelined all of last season because of a torn right ACL. He has missed 20 games of the young season. If he can regain his speed and strength and finesse as the season progresses, the Clippers could be very competitive. Even without him for much of the season, they’re still sitting in eighth place in the Western Conference with a record of 17-14. If Kawhi continues to improve and doesn’t experience any setbacks, the Clippers could be very competitive.

Bucher: He looks to me as if he is morphing into a power forward, doing his best work below the free-throw line offensively and no longer agile enough to be ‘The Klaw’ as a defender on the perimeter. That’s enough to help the Clippers contend because they just have so much talent, depth and versatility, but I see him being a piece to a title run, not the piece based on what I’ve seen so far. His versatility as a defender and as a scorer is what made him so valuable before, but he looks like he’s moving a gear slower than just about every other Clipper. His midrange game remains as tough to stop as ever, but the majority of his three-pointers are short, and he’s shooting a career-worst 21.1%. Another significant drop-off is in free-throw attempts — he’s just not getting to the line with the frequency he did in his previous two seasons. It’s possible all of that is due to the fact that he’s still not in game shape, but the question remains: Can he play the necessary minutes and endure the necessary grind to get into supreme game shape and not break down?   

Weitzman: That he’s very clearly still working his way back because all his numbers are down. He’s struggling to finish at the rim. He has no lift on his shot and is struggling from deep. But all that’s to be expected. The only thing that matters for the Clippers during the regular season is building up some on-court chemistry between Kawhi, Paul George and the rest of the team. Kawhi returning to the court is the first step to achieving that. 

Ric Bucher is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He previously wrote for Bleacher Report, ESPN The Magazine and The Washington Post and has written two books, “Rebound,” on NBA forward Brian Grant’s battle with young onset Parkinson’s, and “Yao: A Life In Two Worlds.” He also has a daily podcast, “On The Ball with Ric Bucher.” Follow him on Twitter @RicBucher.

Melissa Rohlin is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the league for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, the Bay Area News Group and the San Antonio Express-News. Follow her on Twitter @melissarohlin.

Yaron Weitzman is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He is the author of “Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports.” Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman.

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