2019 NBA trade deadline preview: Four moves to make, chaos in New Orleans and Unicorns in Dallas

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USA Today Sports

2019 NBA trade deadline preview: Four moves to make, chaos in New Orleans and Unicorns in Dallas

The trade deadline is upon us. 

Anthony Davis already turned the NBA upside-down with his trade request over the weekend. Mike Conley and Marc Gasol are available. Kevin Love is stuck in Cleveland. The Sacramento Kings are somehow still .500 and hungry to make a playoff appearance for the first time since Marvin Bagley was seven years old. And can we do something about Jrue Holiday?

Let’s fix all those situations. Here are four trades I’d like to see made at the deadline and one that got away:

New Orleans Pelicans get: Kristaps Porzingis, Kevin Knox, Tim Hardaway Jr., and 2019 first-round pick (top-one protected)
New York Knicks get: Anthony Davis

Yeah, so, this didn’t happen.
 
This was the trade deadline offer for the Pelicans to make, if they were going to make one. As I wrote on Monday, the Lakers’ group of youngsters shouldn’t be appealing for New Orleans. Not with the Boston Celtics knocking on the door with Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and a host of first-rounders in their trade chest. The Pelicans are better off waiting for July 1.
 
Meanwhile, this has a chance of getting really ugly in New Orleans. The Pelicans are not about to just give into the Lakers and hand over Anthony freakin’ Davis. The Pelicans’ owner, Gayle Benson, the widow of the late Tom Benson, also owns the New Orleans Saints, a team that just got bounced in the NFC Championship Games rather dramatically by a team from... yep, Los Angeles. They also put out a statement urging the league to closely monitor evidence of tampering (cough, cough, Lakers, cough, cough).
 
Not only that, but Pelicans general manager Dell Demps comes from a San Antonio Spurs franchise that just rebuked Kawhi Leonard’s LA.. trade demands over the summer and sent him to Toronto instead.
 
This has all the makings of the juiciest soap opera in America, and that’s before we get into the Pelicans’ hype video controversy. On Wednesday night, the Pelicans' pregame hype video was deliberately scrubbed of any images of their star player. Keep in mind that Davis is about to be announced as an All-Star. As a Pelican. Oh, and did I mention that LeBron James is going to be leading an All-Star draft four hours after the trade deadline on Thursday?

The best thing for New Orleans now is to send Davis away from the team until the summer, a move that would boost the Pelicans’ trade options AND potentially help them land their next franchise cornerstone in Zion Williamson.
 
That’s right: the Pelicans getting Zion. A sneaky underrated downside of keeping Davis until this summer is that, by being really good at basketball, playing him would hurt New Orleans’ ability to move up in the draft lottery. The NBA flattened the lottery odds at the top three teams at 14.0 percent, which indirectly incentivized teams in the New Orleans current spot (11th) to try to get into the 6-to-9 range.
 
Warning, math ahead. When the Zion watch began in November, ESPN’s Kevin Pelton ran the numbers and found that the worst teams really don’t help their lottery odds by losing every game; duh, it’s capped at 14.0 percent, down from 24.9 last year. However, things get really interesting at the back end of the lottery. Pelton estimated that in a top-heavy draft like 2019, the 11th slot -- where New Orleans is now -- is worth $15.2 million in net value (adjusting for rookie-scale contract). The top spot is worth $22.8 million in net value, which means being 11th is 67 percent the way there.
 
Pelicans fans, pay close attention here: the 6th spot, though, is worth $20.4 million in net value, or about 90 percent of the value of being the worst team in the NBA heading into the draft lottery. Flattening out the odds has warped the lottery value system and made it so that jumping from Slot 11 to Slot 6 is a gain of $5.2 million in value, but jumping the same distance of five slots, from Slot 6 to Slot 1, is a gain of “only” $2.4 million. If you slept through Economics 101, this is what your professor called a marginal benefit.
 
What this means is that the tank won’t be happening at the top; the dive will likely be found for that No. 6 spot, a very gettable destination for the Pelicans. There are five really bad teams this season and then a glob of seven “meh” teams that are under .500 and not in the playoffs at the moment -- Orlando, Memphis, Washington, Detroit, Dallas, New Orleans and Minnesota. The Pelicans are just three games back of the sixth-worst record, which is not out of reach.
 
But it might be if Davis is suiting up. The Pelicans are 3-8 in Brow-less games this season, with two of those victories coming against the aforementioned pseudo-tankers Minnesota and Memphis. The Pelicans are 20-21 this season with Davis in uniform. Being in the middle is not where they want to be.

There’s another reason you can’t play Davis now. You don’t want Boogie 2.0 occuring in New Orleans. By moving Davis now, you also eliminate the risk that he plays and suffers a major injury, a scenario that -- putting aside his personal well-being for the moment  -- would severely deplete his trade value and derail the franchise. This very thing happened to DeMarcus Cousins last season in a Pelicans uniform. Look at Victor Oladipo. These aren’t fun things to think about, but as cold as it is, it’s something the Pelicans and Davis’ representatives have to weigh.
 
Davis and the Pelicans have zero incentive to have Davis suit up in a uniform. The Pelicans need to hit the rebuild button in earnest. The sooner they do that, the better.
 
As for the stunning reported trade of Porzingis to the Dallas Mavericks, I view this risk in the same lens as Raptors president Masai Ujiri swinging for the fences with Leonard. You can’t win a title without superstars. The Mavericks should be taking a chance on Porzingis. He’s a 7-foot-3 unicorn who can, when healthy, be an MVP one day. The 23-year-old will need time to re-establish that status and that’s fine; Luka Doncic is still a teenager.
 
I also wouldn’t buy too much stock in Porzingis taking the $4.5 million qualifying offer from Dallas this summer. Although it would make Porzingis an unrestricted free agent in 2020, he’d likely be turning down a max offer from Dallas. For any player, that’s an enormous risk. As Bobby Marks of ESPN noted, only 15 players have ever signed the qualifying offer and Ben Gordon is the highest pick to do it (No. 3).
 
If Porzingis does go that route, he has a good chance of falling on the “When Betting On Yourself Goes Wrong” list. Remember when Nerlens Noel did that with the Mavericks? In 2017, Noel signed a $4.1 million qualifying offer, reportedly turning down a four-year, $70 million deal from Dallas. After a down season in which he needed surgery to repair a torn ligament in his left thumb and then later was suspended five games for violating the NBA/NBPA Anti-Drug Program, Noel signed a two-year veteran minimum contract with the Oklahoma City Thunder this past summer.
 
One success story, of course, is Greg Monroe, who took the qualifying offer from Detroit in 2014 and ended up landing a three-year, $51 million contract with the Milwaukee Bucks the following summer. But Monroe was not recovering from a devastating ACL injury, like Porzingis currently is.

It makes far more sense for Porzingis to re-sign on a long-term deal with the Mavs, who have one of the more progressive medical staffs in the league. In 2014, I reported with ESPN’s Pablo Torre for ESPN the Magazine that the Mavericks administered blood tests on their players to assess their biomarkers and customize their health and rehabilitation programs to the player’s specific needs. That’s powerful stuff. (This month, New York Times’ Marc Stein did a deep dive on the Mavs’, uh, blood work.)
 
This isn’t just for cosmetic appeal. The Mavericks rank 10th overall in limiting games lost due to injury over the past five seasons, per InStreetClothes.com tracking. Dirk Nowitzki is still somehow playing basketball at age 40. Of all the mentors and co-pilots to have in the NBA, it’s hard to imagine a better wagon to hitch yourself to than the team featuring Nowitzki and Doncic.
 
The Mavericks are definitely rolling the dice here, but it’s a worthy gamble considering Porzingis’ ceiling and his fit next to Doncic. Porzingis isn’t a magnetic rim-runner like DeAndre Jordan but he can be a deadly pick-and-pop partner. At his height, Doncic will be able to leverage his ridiculous passing skill in a variety of ways — duck-ins, alley-pops and weakside three-pointers. It remains to be seen whether Porzingis can guard fives regularly, but the two-man game will be like a refresh of LeBron and Chris Bosh in Miami.

Meanwhile, in New York, the Knicks add 2017 first-round pick Dennis Smith, DeAndre Jordan and Wesley Matthews to the Knicks in exchange for Porzingis, Courtney Lee and Tim Hardaway Jr. Don’t expect Jordan and Matthews to stay long. As seasoned vets on expiring deals, they immediately become strong buyout candidates for a Knicks team going nowhere this season.
 
If they are indeed bought out, I’d expect the Philadelphia 76ers to make a strong push for Matthews, who is shooting 38 percent and has the kind of positional versatility on the wing that the Sixers need. The market for centers isn’t as robust, but I’d keep an eye on Jordan returning to Los Angeles ... in LakerLand. Jordan would be an upgrade for JaVale McGee in the starting lineup.
 
The fascinating thing for the Knicks is that they have no starpower right now. They must have a good feeling about reeling in Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving this summer, two players who have been linked to New York. The trade opens up two max slots for the Knicks. Durant’s agent Rich Kleiman hasn’t been shy about his Madison Square Garden dreams and Irving is from New York. But we’ve been down this road before. For all the starry-eyed visions and “Mecca of Basketball” hopeful proclamations, the Knicks have won one playoff series since 2000. And their highest scorer is now Emannuel Mudiay. 
 
The tank is on. They better get Zion.

New Orleans Pelicans get: Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac, Timofey Mozgov and 2019 first-round pick (top-five protected)
Orlando Magic get: Jrue Holiday, Nikola Mirotic, Ian Clark, Tim Frazier and Kenrich Williams

The Magic make this move because they’re bloody sick of bottoming out. Utah and Indiana seem like logical destinations for Holiday, but Orlando has the right mix of need and prospects that could entice a rebuilding team like New Orleans.

In Holiday, the Magic finally get their point guard to pair with Nikola Vucevic while Gordon, 23, and Isaac, 21, are youthful casualties of a playoff push. Does a starting five of Holiday, Fournier, Terrence Ross, Mirotic and Nikola Vucevic make the postseason for the first time in the post-Dwight era? 

It’ll be tough, but they face the sixth-easiest schedule from here on out and Steve Clifford is better suited to coach veterans like Holiday and Mirotic. 

By the way, have you seen the Nets’ final month of the season? If you thought this current Sixers stretch is tough, go look at the Nets final stretch. As of Wednesday, every single opponent in their final 13 games is currently .500 or better. The collective opponent win percentage over that stretch is .614 and nine of them are on the road. With Spencer Dinwiddie out for a month or so following thumb surgery, the Nets’ storybook season could go south quickly. That could be Orlando’s spot.

As for New Orleans, this deal gives them loads of upside and another valuable first-rounder to add to its coffers. Gordon is younger and better than Kyle Kuzma currently and holds a much-higher ceiling. Maybe the change of scenery finally unlocks Gordon’s full potential. At the very least, the 6-foot-10 Isaac gives the Pelicans another athletic youngster to develop in the rebuild.

Sacramento Kings get: Otto Porter Jr. and option to swap first-round picks in 2020 and 2021.
Washington Wizards get: Bogdan Bogdanovic and Zach Randolph.

It’s time for Porter to start anew. The 25-year-old has had a rough season in Washington, now regularly coming off the bench so that a 33-year-old Ariza on an expiring deal can start ahead of him. Scott Brooks recently told reporters that he likes Porter as a reserve because “he’s getting more opportunities, more shots.” 

My take? It’s time to move on. Washington owner Ted Leonsis announced on Thursday that he’s not trading Porter (or Bradley Beal or John Wall for that matter), but I think he should reconsider.

The chemistry next to Bradley Beal and John Wall has never been right. With those three on the floor this season, the Wizards were outscored by 47 points. If you’re collectively paying that trio $92 million next season, you better make sure they’re a championship core. They’re not. They couldn’t even tread water this season.

For the Wizards, they need to find a buyer who is unlikely to reel in blue-chip free agents, but also seeking a playoff-push injection. Enter: Sacramento. Porter has shown he can put up star numbers, but he struggles next to the Beal and Wall duo. With both of them on court, Porter is reduced to averaging 13.1 points and 6.5 rebounds per 36 minutes, according to the glorious pbpstats.com database. In 193 minutes playing without Beal on the court this season, Porter is averaging 21.1 points and 8.0 rebounds per 36 minutes. In 488 minutes without Wall on court, he’s averaging 19 points and 7.3 rebounds. He may be worth his contract for someone else, but it’s hard to see that future in Washington.

The Kings have $11 million in cap space to play around with at the deadline. The Wizards represent an ideal trade partner because they’re about $6 million over the luxury tax line. This deal shaves about $5 million off the Wizards’ books and puts them in play to get under the $123 million threshold. The Wizards could then work a buyout for Randolph to ring chase (Hello, Warriors?).

Bogdanovic is a cheaper option as the bench creator, and can hold down the fort until 19-year-old Troy Brown is ready to take over. Sacramento general manager Vlade Divac might not want to part with the Serbian wing, but the Wizards would throw in a pair of pick swaps to make that more palatable. Remember, Leonsis said the Wizards would never tank. What could go wrong? 

Indiana Pacers get: Mike Conley, Eric Gordon and Shelvin Mack
Memphis Grizzlies get: Darren Collison, Brandon Knight and Marquese Chriss and Houston’s 2019 first-round pick and 2021 first-round pick (top-four protected).
Houston Rockets get: Thaddeus Young, Tyreke Evans, Cory Joseph and Kyle O’Quinn

Operation: Indiana basketball! I suggested a smaller version of this deal on Friday, and I still think Indiana should be buyers. In their first game without Victor Oladipo, the Pacers suffered a tough road loss to, yup, Memphis and then got walloped by Golden State. The Pacers are in danger of going into freefall.

In the wake of Oladipo’s injury, there was a league-wide sense that the Pacers would pack it in and leave their East finals quest in the dust.

“I think their priorities massively changed,” said one rival executive.

To me, that’s a mistake. Despite being one of the best teams in the East, the Pacers still rank 18th in home attendance (by percentage of capacity). Bringing in a star like Conley would not only help on the court, but Conley won three state championships for Lawrence North in Indianapolis and was the runner-up in the Indiana Mr. Basketball Award (his Ohio State teammate Greg Oden won it that year). Eric Gordon is an Indiana lifer. For the hometown play in a city that needs reasons to show up, this is a no-brainer. Oh, and did I mention Shelvin Mack went to Butler?

Of course, Conley and Gordon are owed $46 million between them next season. That’s a lot. But the Pacers have six players in contract years and could have about $50 million in cap space this summer. And therein lies the rub: What is Indiana going to do with that cap space, especially now that its biggest star recruiter, Oladipo, is hurt? That’s not an easy answer. 

One intriguing option is to go full Hoosier in this deal. Open up playing time for Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis to thrive, put people in the seats and gun for the East title.

As for Houston, this is how they load up for the title run. Young and Joseph are the defensive-minded stalwarts they need to raise their 24th-place ranking on that end. Evans can replace Gordon as their supersub and O’Quinn is too good to be buried on the Pacers’ bench.

Memphis, meanwhile, finds someone to take on that mammoth Conley contract and it hits the reload button with two expiring deals and the 21-year-old Chriss. The real value, of course, is in the two first-rounders from Houston. As for Marc Gasol, trading him away from Memphis feels so wrong. I’d love to see him on a contender, but it’s hard to find the right contracts to make it work. My feeling is the team has him mentor Jaren Jackson Jr., just a little longer before revisiting this summer. Gasol holds a player option for next season that makes a deadline deal tricky for outside suitors.

Cleveland Cavaliers get: C.J. McCollum and Zach Collins
Portland Trailblazers get: Kevin Love, Channing Frye and Rodney Hood

A Love-and-McCollum swap almost makes too much sense, beyond the homecoming thing. I can totally understand the Blazers standing pat and sticking with the team that currently sits No. 3 in the loaded Western Conference. There’s something admirable about how consistently good the Blazers have been over the last several seasons. That reliability is almost comical at this point. The Blazers’ quartet of Lillard, McCollum, Aminu and Nurkic has played 1,156 minutes this season. No other team has more than 1,000 minutes together for any four-man lineup. 

But we have a pretty good idea about where the ceiling lies on the Lillard-McCollum backcourt. Three playoff runs, two sweeps. Maybe you get lucky and reach the Western Conference finals. Nurkic is an unsung most improved player candidate, but there’s only one All-Star on this roster and that’s not going to cut it in the playoffs.

So, you spring for Love -- a waste on this Cavs roster, but a boon for the Blazers. A Love-Nurkic pairing makes for one of the best passing frontcourts in all of basketball. Throw Evan Turner in the mix and you have four live playmakers, three of which can shoot at a high percentage (Nurk is easy money from the left elbow). Frye makes his triumphant return to Portland, where he can help fill in for Love until he returns from his foot injury. Hood gets redemption after last postseason.

The Cavs would probably request a stud prospect for Love’s services. Collins may not be quite good enough to qualify and McCollum, at 27, isn’t quite young enough to qualify either. But together, they’re a really nice building block. McCollum isn’t an All-Star in the Western Conference, but stick him in the East? Yes, the Canton native has a great shot. It’s easy to see why McCollum blossoming on his own team might be appealing to him, especially when it’s 60 miles north of his hometown. 

Love’s toe injury might table this trade until the offseason, but after back-to-back sweeps in the postseason, I like the gamble for Portland.

How did T.J. Warren become NBA's bubble superstar?

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NBC Sports

How did T.J. Warren become NBA's bubble superstar?

With no fans in the building and extraordinary measures in place to keep a global pandemic out, wonky stuff was bound to happen inside the Orlando bubble. 

But T.J. Warren turning into peak Kevin Durant? This is an entirely different idea.

The 26-year-old North Carolina State product set the Orlando bubble ablaze. In his first three games, the 6-foot-8 small forward scored 53, 34 and 32 points, respectively, while shooting a cumulative 65.3 percent. A popular pick to slide in the standings due to injuries, Warren’s Indiana Pacers have flipped the script and are 3-0 in the bubble.

Welcome to Warren-sanity. First, he shredded Philadelphia’s sixth-ranked defense, exploding for a career-high 20 field goals. For an encore, Warren compiled 34 points, 11 rebounds, four assists, three steals and four blocks against the Washington Wizards, the first player to reach that stat line this season, per Basketball Reference tracking. On Tuesday, he delivered yet again, pouring in another 32 points on 13-for-17 shooting.

Warren has scored 119 points in three games. This is a hot streak that normally only belongs to Hall of Famers. And yet, Warren has never sniffed an All-Star Game. So how good is he? Is Warren a flash in the pan or is this the beginning of a Kawhi Leonard-type breakout? Let’s dive in and try to figure out what’s fluke and what’s for real.

While Warren is a known bucket-getter, a scoring spree of this magnitude has come out of nowhere. On Tuesday night, after being the story of the bubble, the Orlando Magic -- fighting for a non-Milwaukee matchup in the first round -- simply had no idea what to do with Warren. With Orlando’s defensive ace Jonathan Isaac lost to a torn ACL, the Magic assigned athletic marvel Aaron Gordon to Warren duties. It didn’t thaw Warren one bit.. Warren unleashed deep threes, seering basket cuts and soft floaters in the lane. By the time Warren went to the bench with 1:27 left in the first quarter, he’d scored 17 points in about 10 minutes of action, not missing a single shot from the floor or at the line. Indiana was up 40-18 and never looked back.

Before the bubble, Warren averaged 18.7 points per game, but he was a metronome in the purest sense. He had never scored at least 30 points in consecutive games in five-plus seasons in the NBA. His FiveThirtyEight list of statistical comps is a roll call of players who were borderline All-Stars at their peak -- names like Tim Thomas, Tobias Harris and Evan Fournier  -- but never got invited to the ball.

But there’s reason to believe the Pacers have something more than that in Warren. 

For starters, Warren’s scoring abilities aren’t new. The Durham native averaged 24.9 points per game at NC State, earning 2013-14 ACC Player of the Year honors and showing enough talent to be the No. 14 overall pick in the 2014 draft. But even then, Warren’s largest point total in any three games at the collegiate level was 107. He’s at 119 in the bubble entering Thursday night. 

So what unlocked this version of Warren -- that scores with the confidence and tools of Leonard and Durant? Is this another version of Linsanity?

Like Jeremy Lin, Warren has taken team adversity and flipped it into an opportunity. Linsanity only started when Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire were sidelined and the other three point guards couldn't run Mike D’Antoni’s offense. Necessity, it turns out, is the mother of invention. When Lin was inserted into the starting lineup as a last resort, the Knicks went on a seven-game winning streak, all without Anthony and Stoudemire. 

With Domantas Sabonis, Jeremy Lamb and Malcolm Brogdon sidelined by injuries, and Victor Oladipo basically playing on one leg, the situation was ripe for an ambitious Pacer to fill the void. Enter Warren. Like Lin’s 12-game run before the All-Star break in which he averaged 22.6 points and 8.7 rebounds in the Big Apple, Warren capitalized on the situation and he did it at a time when many players might have said, “eh, let’s pack it in for next season.”

Warren is one of 12 players to score at least 50 points in a game this season, but only the third to do it with a scoring average below 20 points per game, joining Houston’s Eric Gordon (14.5 points) and Brooklyn’s Caris LeVert (18.1). Warren’s sustainability is worth noting, especially when compared to those comparable players. Once a player drops 50, he instantly becomes the headline on the opponent’s scouting report, making encore performances harder to come by. In the game immediately following his 50-plus eruption, Gordon scored eight points on 2-of-10 shooting. LeVert scored 14 on 6-of-19 shooting. But Warren? He put up 34. And then another 32 just for good measure.

While the opportunities have helped, Warren’s also adding new elements to his game, particularly by expanding his range. A master of the mid-range area, the Warren has attempted 23 3-pointers in three games, matching his total for the entire month of February, in which he played nine games. 

Warren is a bit late to the 3-point party, but it’s better to be late than never. This is where Warren can realize his upside. Look at the careers of Brandon Ingram, Pascal Siakam and Chris Bosh. These are all mid-range mavens that literally took a step back, set up behind the arc and embraced the 3-point shot. 

Warren can unlock the same bag of tricks. The former Suns wing is shooting a toasty 48.7 percent on 2-point jumpers beyond 10 feet this season. Only C.J. McCollum, Chris Paul and Khris Middleton have been more efficient in that mid-range area, per Basketball-Reference. Those three marksmen have spent years terrorizing opponents from deep, with McCollum and Middleton competing in the 3-Point Contest at All-Star Weekend. 

Warren, on the other hand, used the 3-point shot only sparingly, entering the bubble averaging only three 3-point attempts per game, even though he was making a healthy 37.5 percent of them. The percentages were there, but the appetite wasn’t. 

If you’re looking for the next great 3-point shooter, this is the starting point. Find the guy who rules the mid-range game and convince him to move back a bit and get the extra point. Not only does it add more points to the team’s total, but it creates space for others. Now, when Warren parks himself beyond the arc, that’s one less help defender to collapse into the paint. Threes aren’t just good because they’re worth three points; they make 2s easier for others.

This is why Warren’s bubble performance doesn’t feel like a fluke. He was always a great shooter and a pure scorer. The question was whether he’d ever feel comfortable shooting from deep, and sometimes, a player just needs to be pushed to go there. Bosh wasn’t known as a stretch five until injuries and playoff urgency made it a necessity. In the same way, injuries to Sabonis, Brogdon, Lamb and Oladipo propelled Warren’s evolution.

Pacers president of basketball operations Kevin Pritchard and general manager Chad Buchannan deserve credit for taking a chance on Warren when the Suns dumped him for essentially nothing (cash considerations) in a three-team deal involving the Miami Heat. At the time, Warren was only an insurance plan on unrestricted free agents Bojan Bogdanovich and Thaddeus Young, both of whom ended up getting richer deals elsewhere. 

Warren’s scoring has gotten the headlines, but it’s the rest of his game in Orlando that offers the most intriguing long-term potential. Warren’s been much more active defensively in the bubble, tallying seven blocks and six steals in three games. Here’s the last time he’s tallied 13 combined steals and blocks over a three-game span: Never.

The blocks are especially uncharacteristic. In a 14-game stretch before the New Year, Warren registered one block total. Because of the way he defends, some of these might register as steals. Rather than meet shooters at the mountaintop, Warren uses his nifty hands to strip a player’s shot on the way up ala Andre Iguodala. These are basically stocks -- a steal and block hybrid. Whatever you want to call it, it often gets the desired result, a turnover.

While Warren is unlikely to continue to score at this level, a more well-rounded game with consistent 3-point ability would make him one of the best bargains in the NBA. The Pacers are on the hook for just $11.7 million next season and $12.7 million in 2020-21 for Warren  -- less than what the Chicago Bulls are paying Young over the same timespan. Three games doesn’t make a star player in this league, but considering Warren was already an elite jump-shooter inside the arc, it’s not unrealistic to think he can become a Middleton clone, albeit with less playmaking ability.

I’ll admit that I didn’t see this coming, but perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised when a big wing finds himself at the age of 26. Middleton wasn’t an All-Star until he was in his age-27 season. Danny Granger, another former Pacers wing, made his first All-Star appearance at the age of 25. Siakam turned 26 in April. Warren could simply be a late bloomer.

So where does this development leave the Pacers? Ultimately, they need superstars to break into championship contender status. Sabonis and Oladipo have the potential to get there, if they can keep their leg injuries at bay. Warren’s sudden change in status could change their ceiling whenever the 2020-21 season happens, including as a potential trade asset when the next disgruntled superstar comes on the trade market. And if Oladipo struggles to regain his form after tearing his quad tendon, Pacers could hand the keys to Warren and save the cash elsewhere. 

The good news is Indiana has time. The Pacers’ loaded lineup -- with Brogdon and Oladipo in the backcourt and Warren alongside Sabonis and Myles Turner -- has only played in six games this season, but the returns are promising, outscoring opponents by 10.3 points every 100 possessions. If I’m the Pacers, I sit tight this fall and see what they can do together next season and then evaluate the trade market at the deadline. 

Meanwhile, Warren continues to have his own Linsanity moment inside the bubble. The only thing that could make this Disney run more magical would be a dream matchup against the team that dumped him, the Phoenix Suns. 

And wouldn’t you know on Thursday, the Pacers are playing the Suns. In January, Warren scored 25 points in a revenge game win against his former team, but a closer look at the box score shows that Warren took zero 3-pointers in that game. Something tells me Warren won’t ignore the long ball again this time. The Suns better be ready. 

Follow Tom Haberstroh on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.

Jimmy Butler, Ben Simmons look to spoil Bucks' reign over the East

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NBC Sports

Jimmy Butler, Ben Simmons look to spoil Bucks' reign over the East

You can exhale now. After a nearly five-month layoff, the NBA is back.

The bubble is holding tight so far. The daily testing regiment and strict quarantine protocols appear to be working. Unlike Major League Baseball, the NBA hasn’t faced an outbreak within its locker room. Knock on wood.

We still have a long way to go before the NBA crowns a champion in October, but it’s safe to actually focus on basketball again. So, it’s time to get reacquainted with every roster and identify the storylines to keep an eye on. 

Here’s one thing to watch for every Eastern Conference bubble team. To add a little spice to this endeavor, I’ve sorted the teams by my likelihood of them winning the 2019-20 NBA championship. See the West preview here.

Buckle in, folks. This is gonna be a ride.

Milwaukee Bucks: How will Eric Bledsoe look?

As long as Giannis Antetokounmpo was on the floor, the Bucks looked like their unbeatable selves in the preseason. The Bucks are plus-21 in the 61 minutes with Antetokonmpo on the floor this preseason and minus-13 in the minutes he’s riding pine. 

But the Bucks will need starting point guard Eric Bledsoe to be in top form if they want to take the Larry O’Brien Trophy back to Milwaukee. Right now, we don’t know what kind of shape he’s in after testing positive for coronavirus and missing the team’s scrimmages, though Bledsoe says he was asymptomatic and feeling fine. 

For a team with championship aspirations, that’s an undeniable question mark. Bledsoe has some question marks about playoff performance heading into this restart anyway. After lighting up Detroit in the first round last postseason, Bledsoe’s production cratered. Over series against Boston and then Toronto, Bledsoe averaged just 11.6 points on 35.7 percent shooting from the floor and 20.8 percent from deep. By the end of the Eastern Conference finals, Bledsoe just couldn’t get past anybody. It’s been a concern for two postseasons now.

Dante Divincenzo has been a solid stopgap with Bledsoe sidelined, but they need Bledsoe to rediscover some of that magic he displayed in the Detroit series last season. Against top defenses, the scoring can’t solely fall on Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton’s shoulders. Bledsoe has an enormous postseason ahead of him, and that was before the coronavirus infection.

Philadelphia 76ers: Ben Simmons, stretch 4?

OK, I’m kidding. But seriously, Simmons taking two corner 3-pointers in the scrimmages (and making one), is maybe the biggest development in the Eastern Conference. Simmons’ trifecta in the right corner during Friday’s game against the Memphis Grizzlies was particularly notable because his defender, Kyle Anderson, left him wide open in order to smother Al Horford in the post. Tobias Harris saw Anderson cheating and threw the skip pass to Simmons, who confidently stepped into the jumper. Anderson didn’t even raise a hand.

Simmons needs to shoot if for no other reason than to keep the defense honest. If he knocks down a couple in the seeding games, opposing defenses will at least have to pay attention to him when he trots out beyond the arc. And that will free up Joel Embiid and Horford to get cleaner looks in the paint.

But the best thing I saw from the Sixers this past week came in the third quarter of the Sixers’ scrimmage against Oklahoma City. Josh Richardson held the ball on the left wing and Simmons strolled into the right corner. As Richardson surveyed the defense, Simmons raised his hands in the air, looking for the catch-and-shoot jumper as his defender Danilo Gallinari sagged to double the post. Richardson didn’t make the pass, but the bigger story is that Simmons wanted it.

The Sixers are the second-best team in the East if Simmons is willing to space the floor. It doesn’t mean he has to make them all, or even at an average clip. Case in point: Giannis is about to win his second MVP while shooting just 28.5 percent on his 474 3-point attempts over the last two seasons. That can be Simmons if he wants it.

Toronto Raptors: Champs In The Zone

If you listened to the Habershow pod with Adam Schefter -- yes, that Adam Schefter -- you know how I feel about Raptors coach Nick Nurse. He’s the Coach of the Year, in my book. Despite losing Kawhi Leonard in the offseason, the defending champs have the No. 2 seed in the East all but locked up as well as the No. 2 defense in the NBA.

They do it unconventionally by mixing in zone defenses that you rarely see at the NBA level. After going zone for 6.8 possessions per game in the regular season, we didn’t see it much in the scrimmages. According to Synergy Sports tracking, the Raptors only went zone for six total possessions, with all of them coming in the third quarter against the Phoenix Suns. Notably, it came when the Raptors’ A-team was out there, suggesting it was a tune-up for the seeding games and beyond.

What’s so fascinating is how Phoenix beat it. The Raptors gave up two corner 3-pointers to Mikal Bridges in those six possessions (more on him in Thursday’s West preview). Analytically, that’s not a shot a team should want to give up given its high success rate. But the dominant Raptors defense has picked its poison, walling off the paint at all costs and living with snipers from the corner. In fact, no defense this season has given up more 3-pointers from the corner than the Raptors, per Basketball Reference.com tracking.

Luckily for the Raptors, the best corner 3 teams all hail from the Western Conference (I could see Harden and LeBron carving them up that way). The zone will certainly throw some teams off in the playoffs, but there are ways to beat it. Knowing Nurse, he will probably find a bulletproof counter by then.

Boston Celtics: Is Kemba Walker’s left knee a long-term concern?

There’s no two ways about it: Walker’s knee issues should make Boston queasy. Smaller point guards that depend on lightning-quick movements can’t afford any breakdowns in the kinetic chain. With Rajon Rondo, Kyrie Irving and Isaiah Thomas’ injury issues at point guard over the years, we don’t need to belabor the point about smaller guys having flat tires.

That said, I loved what I saw out of Walker in his re-season debut, finishing with six points on six field-goal attempts in nine minutes. He was aggressive running in transition and looked undeterred by his chronic knee issues. On his first scoring attack, he drove straight into Suns big men Deandre Ayton and Dario Saric and drew an and-one. He looked as zippy as ever. 

It was good to see him out there, even if for just one scrimmage. For any star player, there’s a fine line between durability and overuse. After missing just six games total in the 2015-16, ‘16-17 and ‘17-18 seasons, last season was an absolute marathon for Walker. He played all 82 games for the Charlotte Hornets, including playing host for the All-Star Game, and then played for Team USA in the summer. 

The hope is that his mileage isn’t catching up to him, but there is real concern here from my perspective. With so much of Walker’s value tied up to one end of the floor, he can’t afford to be a step slow or limited in any fashion.

Luckily for Boston, almost every team at the top is dealing with an ailing key member, so the Kemba situation isn’t uniquely worrisome in Orlando. But with $107 million due to Walker over the next three seasons and three surgeries on that knee since his UConn days, the medical staff will have to make sure that Walker’s knee doesn’t get too ragged on this playoff run.

Miami Heat: Are Bam and Jimmy ready to go?

Bam Adebayo has been one of the best stories of the 2019-20 season, vying for both Defensive Player of the Year and Most Improved. I don’t think he’ll win either award, but that doesn’t take away from how important he is to the Heat’s bubble chances.

After testing positive for COVID-19, you wouldn’t know Bam Adebayo missed any time if you watched his game on Tuesday. The very first play of the game, he and Jimmy Butler made music in the pick-and-roll for Adebayo’s first bucket of the bubble. From there, Adebayo looked strong, finishing with 16 points, four rebounds, three assists and a pair of blocks in just 25 minutes of action. 

He toyed with Jonas Valanciunas throughout the scrimmage. First, he finished through the Memphis big man for an and-one, then later Euro-stepped around him for a finger-roll layup and then finally blew by him for a reverse dunk. Yeah, I think Bam’s feeling good. Defensively, he gave Jaren Jackson Jr. fits throughout the day.

Though Adebayo and Butler didn’t play much at all in the Heat’s scrimmages, I’m not too worried about their wind. The Heat’s conditioning program is famously top-notch and they’ll be champing at the bit to do their thing. The Heat’s first four games in the bubble? Denver, Toronto, Boston and Milwaukee. They better be ready.

Indiana Pacers: Worries about Victor Oladipo 

Victor Oladipo might be the most interesting player in the bubble format. The 28-year-old guard initially didn’t want to participate in the Orlando bubble out of caution for his rehabilitated quad tendon, but the two-time All-Star reversed course and decided he was going to make the trip. 

What I’ve seen is someone who’s still nowhere near 100 percent. Oladipo has no lift right now. He settled for long jumpers (half his 38 field--goal attempts in Indiana’s scrimmages are from beyond the arc), rarely ventured into the paint and earned only one trip to the free-throw line in 76 minutes of action. Looking at the film, not once did the two-time Slam Dunk contest participant even try to rise up for a dunk.

Domantas Sabonis being out indefinitely due to a significant foot injury puts more pressure on Oladipo as Indiana’s go-to scorer, but he’s just not himself right now. ESPN’s Brian Windhorst reported that the NBA and the players union are discussing what to do with the $3 million remaining on Oladipo’s contract if he opts not to play in Orlando. If Oladipo sits out the bubble action out of precaution, I wouldn’t blame him -- but he might be forfeiting his salary this season. He’s entering a contract year and has a long way to go before he re-establishes himself as one of the game’s top guards. Nonetheless, the Pacers’ immediate future suddenly looks much dimmer.

Orlando Magic: Jonathan Isaac back?

Some rehabbing players didn’t benefit from the long layoff (see: Oladipo). Some look completely re-energized. That would describe Orlando big man Jonathan Isaac, who was in the hunt for Defensive Player of the Year when he went down with a severe left knee sprain on New Year's Day. 

Isaac had been sidelined for over six months before his return in Monday’s scrimmage, finishing with 13 points, seven rebounds and two steals in just seven minutes. Isaac was a tour de force, splashing 3e-pointers (even completing a four-point play) and taking guys off the dribble.

The Magic may want to bring the 22-year-old along slowly, but his scrimmage performance was legitimately one of the biggest feel-good stories of the bubble so far. I’m bullish on Isaac long-term. His ceiling is Andrei Kirilenko.

Washington Wizards: Rounding out Rui

Let’s be honest, the Wizards should really treat the restart like Summer League. With Bradley Beal, John Wall and Davis Bertans sitting out the bubble, Washington should be in full-blown development mode in Orlando. In that sense, all eyes are on Rui Hachimura, the Wizards’ 2019 first-round pick and the No. 9 overall selection, who is now Washington’s only reliable go-to scorer.

If he wants to blossom into a player above the Marcus Morris/Markieff Morris mold, he needs to focus on becoming more of a team player in the halfcourt. With great size and a knack for scoring, he can get his shot off on just about anyone, especially in post where he seems to be most comfortable. In the bubble, I’d like to see how he gets his teammates involved. His backdoor bounce-pass to Isaac Bonga against the Lakers on Monday was beautiful. More of that, please.

The passing element of his game should only improve when he plays alongside All-NBA weapons like Wall and Beal. Hachimura can get buckets on the elbow, that much is clear. Hopefully, he’ll be able to work on rounding out the rest of his game in the seeding games. If he can develop his 3-point shooting, dishing or defense into a plus, he can get into the All-Star discussion one day. 

Brooklyn Nets: Can Caris LeVert average 30 points?

Things are going to get weird here. Nine Nets players have contracted COVID-19 (that we know of), including Michael Beasley, who was signed as a substitute for a COVID-19-infected player and then later contracted the novel coronavirus himself. The Nets’ Orlando roster is one giant “Who He Play For?” exercise.

Brooklyn scored 68 points in their first scrimmage. They put up 124 points a few days later. Who knows what to expect team-wise? What I do know is that Caris LeVert will be feasting like it’s Thanksgiving. The 25-year-old shooting guard posted the bubble’s third-highest usage rate in scrimmage play behind Giannis Antetokounmpo and Luka Doncic, per NBA.com tracking (minimum 20 minutes per game). LeVert might take all of the shots.

LeVert posted a 50-piece on the Celtics a week before the league shut down, so don’t be surprised if he averages 30 points per game in the seeding games. If you’re playing daily fantasy, make sure he’s in your lineup. Jamal Crawford, too. Yes, he’s on the Nets now. Let’s get weird.

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