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Mary Altaffer/Associated Press
Jrue Holiday is headed to the Milwaukee Bucks. Robert Covington is about to join the Portland Trail Blazers. Dennis Schroder is on his way to the Los Angeles Lakers. Chris Paul is a member of the Phoenix Suns. Bruce Brown is headed to the Brooklyn Nets.
And the NBA rumor mill is still churning.
It isn’t about to stop, either. Not only is it that time of year, but the league has essentially been at a transactional deadlock since the beginning of February, the last time teams could make trades. There are nine-month-old babies who didn’t know what it was like to see a genuine Woj bomb notification come across the alert banner on their LeapFrog Chat and Count smart phone until just a few days ago.
But don’t worry: The Association is making up for lost time. Aside from the trades already struck, we’ve got a full-tilt implosion in Houston and some other rumors to munch on in advance of Wednesday’s draft and Friday’s (official) start to free agency.
Like always, we’ll measure the sensibility of this chatter with our trusty ol’ B.S. Meter.
As a friendly reminder, this exercise is not an attempt to discredit reporting. The rumors in this space are highlighted specifically because they come from reputable breakers of news. The B.S. meter is more so meant to comment on the level of urgency with which each report should be treated for all involved parties.
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Mary Altaffer/Associated Press
The “plausible eventual possibility” is now a reality.
After the rumor mill danced around it for a few days, James Harden now officially wants out of Houston, according to The Athletic’s Shams Charania. Though Charania adds the Rockets are “fully comfortable” keeping their MVP into the season, he turned down a two-year extension that would’ve made him the first $50 million-per-year player in league history with a clear-as-day mandate, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski: “Get to Brooklyn.”
For those keeping count at home, this is the second star to try ousting himself from Houston in the past week. Charania reported Wednesday that Russell Westbrook wanted to be elsewhere.
This would be a lot to digest if it didn’t feel so inevitable. Unrest in Houston began mushrooming long before Harden and Westbrook started searching for the exit. Head coach Mike D’Antoni left the organization following the Rockets’ second-round exit, and general manager Daryl Morey resigned to spend more time with his family, only to accept a gig running the Philadelphia 76ers less than two weeks later.
Harden’s trade demand is merely an extension of Houston’s undoing. This is no longer a salvageable situation. There is no coming back from certain dramatics. This is one of them. The Rockets have already laid the groundwork for a dismantling by flipping Robert Covington for Trevor Ariza and draft equity, as reported by Wojnarowski. Harden’s departure is a matter of if rather than when.
So…when? That’s tougher to say.
Moving a top-five player is a nightmare scenario in a vacuum. Houston’s plight is complicated by a truncated offseason. Opening night is barely a month away. That isn’t enough time to thoroughly canvas the league and effectively drum up a bidding war, not while every team has to go through the draft, free agency, training camp and acclimation to life amid the coronavirus pandemic and outside the confines of the Disney World bubble.
Houston’s isn’t without leverage to slow-play this, either. Harden has two guaranteed years left on his contract—the third is a player option for 2022-23—and without the threat of imminent free agency, he can dictate the terms of engagement only so much.
Still, disgruntled megastars are never without cards to play. It matters that Harden is unhappy and that the world knows about it. The Rockets risk elevating their combustibility by keeping him and Westbrook. Something has to be done.
B.S. Meter: No B.S. here. Harden’s days in Houston are numbered.
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Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press
James Harden’s message to the Rockets, delivered through ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, makes it pretty clear the Brooklyn Nets should be considered favorites to pry him from Houston. But the debate over his future isn’t that simple.
Rebuilding would be the default mode for most teams in the Rockets’ position. This is different. Bottoming out has finite appeal when they’ve flitted away so many of their draft selections. The Oklahoma City Thunder control Houston’s first-rounders in 2021 (swap with top-four protection), 2024 (top-four protection), 2025 (swap with top-four protection) and 2026 (top-four protection).
Maybe that brief window in 2022 and 2023, when the Rockets own their picks, makes it easier to embrace a reset. Next year could sting, but the Thunder are starting over themselves. Houston might have a three-season span in which it can rebuild while subject to only the usual amount of pain.
Westbrook’s own future looms over how the Rockets approach any Harden trade. It bodes well for the Nets if they keep him. Doing so consigns Houston to win-now mode, and Brooklyn’s best package includes Spencer Dinwiddie, Caris Levert and Jarrett Allen—two of whom will require new deals for 2021-22—plus future firsts.
Other suitors will have more attractive proposals if the Rockets are more focused on the bigger picture. Getting Ben Simmons from the Philadelphia 76ers would help them straddle the immediate and long term. The New Orleans Pelicans have all their own picks, two additional first-rounders from the Los Angeles Lakers, three additional firsts from the Milwaukee Bucks, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, Jaxson Hayes, Eric Bledsoe, George Hill and Nickeil Alexander-Walker, plus Brandon Ingram sign-and-trade scenarios.
Would the Golden State Warriors offer Andrew Wiggins, No. 2, next year’s Minnesota Timberwolves pick (top-three protection), two more unprotected firsts and two swaps? Can the Timberwolves themselves build something around No. 1, D’Angelo Russell and other stuff? Should they? Might the Chicago Bulls consider going scorched earth and attaching No. 4, Coby White and Wendell Carter Jr. to a few more firsts, swaps and salary filler?
Some inside the New York Knicks franchise thought they were well positioned to land the next disgruntled superstar, per SNY’s Ian Begley. How many additional firsts must they pair with RJ Barrett, Mitchell Robinson, No. 8 and the Dallas Mavericks’ selections in 2021 and 2023 (top-10 protection) to enter the fold?
Would the Denver Nuggets dare consider offering Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr.? Might the Los Angeles Clippers consider fleshing out a Paul George package if Kawhi Leonard approves? Can the Miami Heat join the fray without giving up Bam Adebayo?
Which of these scenarios interest Houston? Would any of them? And most importantly, how much does Harden’s exclusive desire to join the Nets impact his trade value outside of Brooklyn? Two years away from free agency, his preference certainly matters, but the NBA is nothing if not a league of curveballs.
Unexpected suitors will come out of the shadows, some of them prepared to mortgage everything. Harden’s future is far from decided. All we know for (fairly) sure is it doesn’t include Houston.
B.S. Meter: No B.S. on Harden’s interest in the Nets. There’s B.S. to spare for anyone who thinks Brooklyn is Houston’s only realistic trade partner.
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Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press
Here’s hoping you’re not tired of Rockets chatter.
Nearly one week after throwing his name into the rumor mill, Russell Westbrook hasn’t generated a ton of interest around the league, according to ESPN’s Zach Lowe. Expect this to continue, at least for now.
Westbrook’s contract is part of the problem. He’s owed $132.6 million over the next three years, and while he’s a splashy enough addition to float immediate playoff hopes on his own, his ultra-ball-dominant usage doesn’t lend itself to seamless fits alongside others. He needs to play next to a very specific type of co-star—think: Paul George—or the entire roster must be tailored around his possession monopoly and shaky jumper.
Identifying the perfect situation is ridiculously hard. It might not exist. And at 32, Westbrook isn’t necessarily worth a team creating the right situation for him. His pay scale is difficult to build around now and doesn’t figure to age well. He’s slated to make $46.7 million in his age-34 season.
It doesn’t help that Westbrook is one of a few backcourt trade possibilities. Contenders are far more likely to go after James Harden. Many will prefer to hold serve and see whether Bradley Beal or Kyle Lowry finds his way onto the auction block.
Westbrook’s future will have to wait its turn. At the very least, the Rockets have to figure out what they’re doing with Harden first. And no matter the order of events, they need to decide how far they’ll go to move him. Do they need actual assets in return? Are they open to dealing him for more team-friendly contracts? Or sending most of his money into a team’s cap space (Charlotte, Detroit, New York)? Will it take attaching an asset to get off his deal? Are they just going to keep him in that case?
Whether the Rockets retain Westbrook depends largely on the market for his services—or lack thereof. It also hinges on their post-Harden blueprint. If they can’t find a suitable package stuffed with all the promising-rebuild fixings—at least one young standout, picks and cap relief—they might opt to retool the roster around Westbrook using whatever they glean from a Harden blockbuster.
B.S. Meter: No B.S. to report. Moving Westbrook will be hard. Don’t be surprised if the Rockets can’t or won’t.
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Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press
The New York Times‘ Marc Stein has some good news for Milwaukee Bucks fans: “The last two weeks have been filled with chatter that Giannis Antetokounmpo indeed plans to sign his five-year supermax with the Bucks before the Dec. 21 deadline to do so.”
Nothing is written in ink just yet, but Milwaukee is sure acting like it’s a done deal.
It gave up Eric Bledsoe, George Hill, three first-rounders and two pick swaps for Jrue Holiday, as reported by The Athletic’s Shams Charania. And then it agreed to acquire Bogdan Bogdanovic from the Sacramento Kings in a sign-and-trade for Donte DiVincenzo, Ersan Ilyasova and D.J. Wilson (before free agency, because sure), per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.
Neither is a deal you complete if Giannis isn’t in the bag.
For that matter, neither is an investment you make unless Holiday plans to stay put, too. He has a $27.5 million player option for 2021-22, and the Bucks paid a premium that implies he’ll be around for much longer.
Kudos to them for finally going all-in. Standing pat was never an option after flaming out in the second round of the playoffs and with Giannis entering a contract year. The Bucks needed to do something substantial, and that something substantial couldn’t be Dennis Schroder or Chris Paul.
No biggie. Holiday was the best fit among all available prospects. He is an upgrade over Schroder in pretty much every area, and though he doesn’t boast CP3’s shooting, he won’t shrink the floor like Bledsoe does during the postseason. Bogdanovic lands Milwaukee another shot creator with the off-ball touch to space the floor around Giannis.
To be sure, the Bucks still have work to do. Losing Hill is a blow to their outside shooting, and they have a bunch of secondary wings entering free agency. They can’t be done. They have just six players under contract for next season now, and not a lot of money to fill out the rest of the roster. (They’ll be hard-capped with the Bogdanovic deal.)
Right now, though, they can feel pretty good about themselves. Their short- and long-term livelihood always hinged upon Giannis staying beyond next season, which it seems he’s prepared to do—without the threat of hitting free agency in 2021 looming over the franchise’s head.
B.S. Meter: Everything smells peachy keen here. Giannis isn’t going anywhere. Heat and Raptors fans can commiserate together.
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David Zalubowski/Associated Press
Add the Portland Trail Blazers to the list of Paul Millsap’s free-agency suitors, according to The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor.
“Millsap turns 36 this season and is well past his prime, but he still offers leadership, tough defense, and shooting,” he wrote. “Portland’s bigs got wrecked by AD [and] a reliable vet like Millsap could help.”
This logic tracks, and the Blazers will have the money to enter the Millsap sweepstakes. They’re in line to have the non-taxpayer’s mid-level exception even after acquiring Robert Covington. Millsap should fall right within that $9.3 million range or come cheaper.
Portland only makes sense as a landing spot if it’s the latter. Millsap can play beside Jusuf Nurkic—he canned 43.5 percent of his threes last year—and soak up minutes at the 5, but burning much of the mid-level on a big rings hollow if Covington and Zach Collins are still on the roster. Both would factor into the power forward rotation. Ditto for Carmelo Anthony if he re-signs.
Perhaps the Blazers’ interest in Millsap says more about their lack of faith in Collins. It could suggest they plan to let Anthony walk. They might just really want a capable combo big to bolster the interior defense—they were 23rd in percentage of attempts opponents took at the rim, though they ranked third in shooting percentage surrendered—after finishing 27th in points allowed per 100 possessions.
Regardless, Millsap shouldn’t be the priority. Secondary bigs can be picked up cheaper, and as of now, they stand to have two to three players who can split up reps at the 4.
Unless their roster makeup materially changes—or they’re convinced Nurkic cannot hold up for 30-plus minutes per game over the entire season—the Blazers are best served using their MLE to scour the three-and-D wing market.
B.S. Meter: Millsap isn’t currently a great fit in Portland.
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John Hefti/Associated Press
Retaining Avery Bradley is borderline paramount for the Los Angeles Lakers. Their wing rotation is thinner after shipping Danny Green to the Oklahoma City Thunder, and more than that, plenty of contenders can talk themselves into someone who plays asphyxiating on-ball defense and canned 36.4 percent of his threes last season, including a 44.3 percent clip on 5.5 attempts per game from Feb. 1 onward. (Note: Bradley did not join L.A. in the bubble.)
Speaking of which: The Lakers’ attempts to keep him will not go uncontested. Bradley, who has not declined his player option as of this writing, is expected to be “courted by Golden State, Milwaukee and several contenders,” according to Yahoo Sports’ Chris Haynes.
The Bucks are an obvious suitor. Sterling Brown (restricted), Pat Connaughton, Kyle Korver and Wesley Matthews are all free agents, and they consolidated Eric Bledsoe and George Hill into Jrue Holiday. Their perimeter rotation warrants surfing the market for contingency punches. Bradley becomes that much more of a necessary fit if Matthews decides to sign elsewhere.
The Warriors just need depth, period. Andrew Wiggins is alarmingly important to their perimeter defense right now. That says it all.
Any extra competition for Bradley’s services will be unwelcome by the Lakers. They can only offer him $5.7 million in the first year of his next contract—right around the mini MLE—before tapping into their own mid-level to re-sign him.
Suitors like the Warriors, who can offer about equal money, shouldn’t pose much of a threat. But others, like the Bucks, will have the bigger MLE and could force the Lakers into a tough decision.
Standing 6’3″, Bradley is an undersized wing defender, and they just got smaller by flipping Green for Dennis Schroder. Knifing into their own MLE to bring him back when they have Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (player option) and Alex Caruso would be a questionable use of their best spending tool.
B.S. Meter: Only the truth here. Bradley should be in modest demand, and the Lakers are not locks to keep him.
Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference, Stathead or Cleaning the Glass.
Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale), and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by B/R’s Adam Fromal.
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