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.

Should the surprising Heat go star hunting?

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NBC Sports

Should the surprising Heat go star hunting?

The Miami Heat have never gotten off to a better start. Not the Heatles, not the Shaq-led teams, no team in the 32-year history of the franchise. At 18-6 through 24 games, none have won more games than a ragtag team led by the 30th pick of the 2011 draft, Jimmy Butler.

This Heat team fully embodies the underdog mentality of Butler, whose ESPN recruiting page still reads NR -- for Not Rated. Two of the team’s starters, Kendrick Nunn and Duncan Robinson, spent last season in the G League. Meyers Leonard, who’s starting at power forward, was iced on Portland’s bench last season until Jusuf Nurkic broke his leg in late March. 

Then there’s Miami’s affinity for late-game heroics. Led by the best closer in the NBA, Butler and the Heat are 6-1 in clutch situations this season, trailing only James’ Lakers for the best record in the league in those moments.

But the biggest revelation has been Bam Adebayo, who, similar to what Butler did in Chicago, patiently bided his time on Miami’s bench behind the Heat’s $100 million man, Hassan Whiteside. Few would blame Adebayo if he checked out while watching Whiteside’s listless play be rewarded with a starting gig. Instead, the former No. 14 overall pick is dazzling alongside Butler.

Following the surprising start and with Butler and Adebayo already racking up triple-doubles, is it time for the Heat to go big-game hunting in the trade market? Miami has all the markings of a classic “one player away” team and several league executives have pegged the Heat as the East’s most interesting team as the December 15 landmark approaches, unlocking 2019 free-agent signees to be eligible for trade. 

Is Chris Paul in their sights? Is Kevin Love or Blake Griffin? Let’s take a look at the NBA’s most surprising contender and whether they need to trade for another big-name player.

Adebayo is already Butler’s co-star

I mean, where to begin with this guy? Adebayo might be the best quarterback in South Florida, which, granted, isn’t saying much these days. But no team in the NBA has scored more points off of handoffs than the Heat, with Adebayo at the forefront of most of them, per Synergy Sports tracking. In a departure from Whiteside, Adebayo actually seeks bodily contact with opposing defenders on these handoffs, flicking the ball to shooters in the pocket as they curl around Adebayo’s Mack-truck-like hip-checks.

But Adebayo isn’t just a hand-off quarterback. Like Nikola Jokic does for the Denver Nuggets to much greater fanfare, Adebayo also runs Miami’s offense often. Five of his 11 assists against Atlanta on Tuesday night came after he started his dribble beyond halfcourt. Point guards almost never make an outlet pass to their center, but this happens all the time with Nunn and Adebayo. With Adebayo regularly playing the “point center” role, it’s downright dizzying for defenses to figure out who’s running the fastbreak. In fact, Adebayo has assisted more of Nunn’s baskets than the other way around.

No one’s prouder of this development and the changes in Miami this year than Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. The man who popularized the term “positionless basketball” is seeing his versatile dream come to life. His power forward, Leonard, is shooting 50 percent from downtown. His center, Adebayo, is second on the team in assists. If Adebayo added a 3-point shot, he’d be the basketball antithesis of Whiteside, whose tunnel vision and me-first mentality weighed heavily on the locker room, league sources told NBC Sports. 

Heading into this season, Heat officials privately raved about how different the locker room felt compared to years past. Players were genuinely playing for each other. They were having fun again. And while that’s a common preseason refrain across the league, Miami’s 5-1 start and wins over the Milwaukee Bucks and Houston Rockets showed that there was something different happening in Miami this season.

While Butler has gotten the headlines, Adebayo might just be Miami’s difference-marker. As of Wednesday, Adebayo ranks 10th league-wide in win shares, making him and Butler one of two team pairings among the league’s top 10 (the other duo was featured in Wednesday’s Haberstat). The Heat are also 7.5 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor, per NBA.com. And those 11 assists from Wednesday night? More than Whiteside tallied in all of his 17 starts last season combined.

Just 22 years old, Adebayo has already developed into one of the most untouchable young players in the NBA. Unless someone like Giannis Antetokounmpo is put on the table, don’t expect the Heat to take trade talks involving Adebayo seriously -- not even for a future Hall of Fame point guard.

Should the Heat go after Chris Paul?

It’s not hard to talk yourself into Paul on the Heat. Who is more hell-bent to win a championship than Pat Riley? It could be Butler, who has never even reached the conference semifinals. It could be Paul, who, along with Steve Nash, might be the best player ever without a Finals appearance. Theoretically, those ultra-competitive spirits could fuse a bond between Riley, Paul and Butler.

Also, Paul is still playing at a high level and could really help the Heat with Goran Dragic battling nagging injuries. You need high-IQ grown-ups to win in the playoffs and Paul is definitely that (almost to a fault at times). Sharing the ball with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has hurt Paul’s box-score numbers, but the 35-year-old’s positive impact is undeniable. The Thunder are plus-59 with Paul on the floor and minus-44 with him on the bench. (Sidenote: Gilgeous-Alexander has seen the opposite scoreboard impact). 

There’s also the Banana Boat factor. The transitive property of NBA friendship suggests that Butler would get along with Paul. Butler is close with Wade. Wade is close with fellow Banana Boat member Paul. Therefore, a Butler and Paul pairing would work out, right?

Don’t hold your breath. Before trading Russell Westbrook to Oklahoma City, the Rockets tried to engage the Heat on a three-team deal to reroute Paul to Miami, but the Heat resisted, multiple sources told NBC Sports. The Heat’s desire for Westbrook was “a level above” their interest in Paul, according to one high-level source involved in those talks. 

As it stands now, the Heat aren’t expected to make a run at Paul, per multiple sources. They like their locker room chemistry and aren’t actively looking to shake it up. More importantly,  Paul’s contract complicates Miami’s potential future. Paul will be 35 years old in May and is due $41.4 million next season and will be 37 when he’s due $44.2 million. A glamour market like Miami doesn’t need to make trades to acquire a star. Smaller markets like Utah, Charlotte and Portland do.

The same goes for big-name players like Kevin Love and Blake Griffin, each of whom, like Paul, are due north of $30 million 2021-22. Reminder: Antetokounmpo could be a free agent in 2021.

After polling executives, the league-wide sense is that Paul will remain with the Thunder this season simply because of his enormous contract. While it’s theoretically possible that Paul could agree to turn down his $44 million player option for 2021-22 to grease the wheels on a potential trade, right now, that is the longest of long shots. Besides overcoming the idea of giving up 44 million buckaroos, Paul is also the president of the players’ union and it would be a bad look to set that precedent of turning down that amount of money to make it more palatable to a team. 

If Paul were younger and didn’t have that price tag hanging over his head, he might be Miami-bound. But at the moment, it doesn’t look like a Paul-Butler partnership is in the cards, leaving Miami to hunt for help on a different level.

What about smaller fish?

Butler may not be an ideal fit with Paul, but there’s one name to watch as Dec. 15 approaches: Kyle Lowry. By extending his contract to 2020-21 last summer, Toronto made him more palatable to teams like Miami that want to keep their options open for the summer of 2021. Lowry would be an title-tested upgrade over Dragic and has looked strong this season following offseason thumb surgery. 

As of this writing, it’s unlikely Toronto cuts bait on Lowry with the Raptors playing this well. Alongside MVP candidate Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet, Lowry might actually be closer to a title in Toronto right now than he would be in Miami. But if Toronto’s season began to sour or if president Masai Ujiri wanted to get ahead of an offseason remake of the Raptors, the Heat could be an enticing dance partner. Would a package of 23-year-old Justise Winslow and Dragic’s expiring contract be enough to open a dialogue? It’s worth keeping an eye on.

If not Lowry, then New Orleans Pelicans guard JJ Redick could be a target of the Heat. Despite going separate ways this summer, Redick and Butler grew close in Philadelphia as like-minded competitors and, per a source, to this day they maintain regular communication through a group chat forged in Philadelphia.

Redick signed a two-year, $27 million contract this past summer to act as NOLA’s floor-spacer and veteran mentor. Things haven’t gone to plan. Redick may have joked at media day about Zion Williamson messing with his postseason streak, but at 35 years old, Redick didn’t exactly expect to be 6-18 at this point in the season. No one in New Orleans did.

Redick would thrive in Miami. He’s shooting a blistering 44.9 percent on 3-pointers and would be a sniper in Miami’s hand-off offense. Redick and Joel Embiid cooked teams with that action last season, making Redick an ideal fit next to Adebayo (Philly ranked No. 1 in points off handoffs last season).

The problem with Redick is that New Orleans might not be ready to flip that switch just yet. There’s still time for Williamson to return and right the ship before the Pelicans are forced to make a drastic change. They didn’t acquire Redick for him to be a two-month rental. But the Heat have five players -- Justise Winslow, James Johnson, Dion Waiters, Kelly Olynyk and Meyers Leonard -- near Redick’s salary number to make salary-matching easier and a few young assets that could entice New Orleans to act. Would the Heat put Nunn on the table to acquire Redick? I’d do it if I’m the Heat.

Another floor-spacer to monitor is Davis Bertans, who is a leading candidate for Most Improved Player alongside Adebayo, Siakam and Charlotte’s Devonte’ Graham. Bertans makes the Wizards competitive, but he could make a borderline contender like Miami into a legitimate Finals threat. 

With a $7 million contract that expires in the summer of 2020, Bertans would be more affordable salary-wise than Redick. It also means the Heat would have to toss more sweeteners into the deal to make it palatable for Washington. The Heat only have two of their next seven second-rounders and can’t trade a first-round pick until 2025.

Teams like Miami will be making calls on Bertans, who figures to be the Nikola Mirotic of this year’s trade deadline. But the Latvian may be playing his way off the trade market. At 27 years old, he fits in line with Bradley Beal and John Wall’s long-term trajectory. Don’t be surprised if Wizards GM Tommy Sheppard signs him to an extension and keeps him for the long haul. He’s been that good. 

Whether Bertans remains available or the Heat chase someone like Redick or Lowry, it’s clear the Heat are better positioned to add a solid rotation player than a max-salaried All-Star like Paul, Griffin and Love. It’s tempting for Miami to go all-in and try to load up for the 2020 NBA Finals, but that route makes more sense for a small-market team.

The allure of a 2021 free agent class that could feature Antetokounmpo, Paul George, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Donovan Mitchell and Victor Oladipo is too good to pass up.

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

Is Rockets' James Harden really having the best scoring season ever?

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NBC Sports

Is Rockets' James Harden really having the best scoring season ever?

James Harden is doing some crazy stuff this season. The former Sixth Man of the Year is nearly averaging an unfathomable 40 points per game. He just scored 60 points in a little more than 30 minutes of game action and hasn’t scored fewer than 25 points in a game since opening night. Defenses are now trying to trap him before halfcourt.

Is he the best scorer of this generation? Probably. Three straight scoring titles would cement that status.

But is he the best scorer ever? Well, that gets a little more complicated. We could simply list the best scoring seasons by points per game and leave it at that. But as you’ll see below, that would be short-sighted.

Why? Let’s start at the basics.

Harden is currently averaging 39.5 points per game. If it holds, that would rank third all-time on the scoring leaderboard for a season. The only name above him? Wilt Chamberlain, who of course sees your 40 points per game and raises you 50.

Case closed. Chamberlain is the best scorer ever, with the best scoring season ever, right? 

Not so fast. Let’s zoom out and look at the top 20 scoring seasons in NBA history. 

Notice anything odd? Hint: Look at the season column. Yeah, that’s a lot of of the 1960s. Eleven of the top 20 scoring seasons of all time came within an eight-year span. What’s up with that? 

Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and Rick Barry were incredible scorers, to be sure. But it has to be mentioned that they played in an era where teams regularly took over 100 shots per game. In an eight-team league playing at a crazy-fast pace, and in which Chamberlain was one of three 7-footers playing in the league, the NBA was ripe for an outlier season. 

Though we didn’t have a complete picture in the box score (turnovers didn’t become an official stat until 1973-74), we can get a pretty good idea of how “fast” the league was in that season by using Basketball Reference’s best estimates. We find that Chamberlain’s team, the Philadelphia Warriors, played a whopping 131.1 possessions per game, the fastest of the eight teams. The slowest team, the Chicago Packers, played at 122.9 possessions per game. Even taken as a ballpark figure, that’s a Formula 1 race car compared to the speed of the modern era.

If you thought today’s pace-and-space era was fast, the back-and-forth NBA of the 1960’s leaves them in the dust. The fastest team this season, according to Basketball Reference tracking, is the Washington Wizards and they churn out 105.2 possessions per game. To put it in perspective, the slowest team in 1961-62 played almost 18 additional possessions per game than today’s fastest team.

That’s almost an entire quarter’s worth of extra hoops in which to rack up points. You might be asking yourself, “Well, what what happens when we take that same top 20 and adjust for pace?” 

Good question! I tweaked the per-game numbers by normalizing it to a 100-possession environment. Players that played on a slow team (below 100 possessions per game) will get a boost and players that played on a fast team (above 100 possessions) will have their numbers fall back down to Earth a bit. 

After making this adjustment, we get an entirely new leaderboard. Lakers fans, you might want to sit down for this one.

Holy, Kobe Bean Bryant! After adjusting for pace, Bryant’s 2005-06 campaign floats to the top of the list, up from his previous spot of 11th-best. It’s one thing to average 35.4 points per game, but it’s another to do it while playing at a snail’s pace. In Phil Jackson’s return to the Staples Center bench after a one-year hiatus, the Lakers barely cleared 90 possessions per game, over 40 fewer possessions per game than Chamberlain’s record-holding ‘61-62 campaign.

A comparison between Bryant’s 81-point game and Chamberlain’s 100-point game -- the two highest-scoring individual performances in NBA history -- further illustrates the difference in eras and playing styles. In Chamberlain’s infamous 100-point outing, the Warriors fired up 118 field goal attempts, which is 30 more scoring opportunities than the Lakers had when Bryant went for 81. (Chamberlain’s Warriors scored 169 points in that game, which was only the sixth-highest scoring game in NBA history at the time. Again: Pace.)

Bryant has always been considered one of the best scorers of all-time, but he happened to rule during the NBA’s Deadball Era, in which point totals slumped across the board. The 2004 Lakers scored 68 points in an entire Finals game for crying out loud. Under the terms of our exercise, Bryant would average an extra 4.4 points per game simply by adjusting to a pace of 100 possessions per game. 

And Harden? He’s still near the top of the list. His current season is docked 1.8 points per game because the Houston Rockets have stepped on the accelerator this season with Russell Westbrook on board. The Rockets’ pace, according to Basketball Reference tracking, sits at 104.9 this season, up from 97.9 last season with Chris Paul running the point. By this measure, Harden’s season is almost a mirror image of last season’s scoring campaign.

More importantly, even through this new lens, Harden’s ‘19-20 scoring binge is still not superior to Chamberlain’s monster '61-62 season, but the gap is smaller. Once we put the era’s pace into context, Harden and Chamberlain are less than one point per game apart. If Harden’s season average surges to 40.3 points per game, that would put him on par with Chamberlain in adjusted points per game. (He’d need to finish at 40.6 and 40.8 raw points per game to catch Jordan and Bryant, respectively).

Is Harden having one of the best scoring seasons ever? Most definitely. It’s right up there with the legendary scorers in NBA history. If he starts regularly putting up 42 points a night in this environment, he’d have the best scoring season ever in my book -- better than Wilt’s 50.4 season -- but it’s hard to see Harden pulling that off. Then again, no one saw a Sixth Man of the Year averaging nearly 40 points per game, either.

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