Anthony Davis should play more at center for DeMarcus Cousins-less Lakers

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USA Today Sports

Anthony Davis should play more at center for DeMarcus Cousins-less Lakers

LeBron James’ team could not score. Worse yet, his star big man was injured.

The Miami Heat managed just 75 points against the vaunted Indiana Pacers defense led by Frank Vogel in Game 2 of the 2012 Eastern Conference semifinals. Chris Bosh pulled an abdominal muscle in Game 1 and wouldn’t be back for the foreseeable future. The Heat were in crisis mode.

The next day, the Heat held practice to figure out who was going to replace Bosh in the starting lineup. Ronny Turiaf and Udonis Haslem started Game 2, but matching the Pacers’ massive size up front wasn’t working. David West and Roy Hibbert weren’t budging.

After practice, the Heat’s brain trust gathered for an intense meeting. Some believed staying big was the only logical choice. Others thought going small would force the Pacers to adjust. Pat Riley voiced his thoughts and so did New York Knicks head coach David Fizdale, who was a Heat assistant coach at the time. 

The late-night meeting never resulted in consensus. Spoelstra and the Heat brass walked to their cars in the parking garage along Biscayne Bay.

Spoelstra turned to his colleagues.

“I know what I’m gonna do,” Spoelstra said with a look.

They knew what it meant. 

The next night, Spoelstra signed his starting lineup sheet with Shane Battier starting as a big, allowing LeBron James to effectively operate as the power forward on offense. The Heat lost Game 3, but Spoelstra kept at it. In Game 4, the Heat exploded for 101 points as James erupted for 40 points, 18 rebounds and nine assists with Ronny Turiaf as the Heat’s lone true big man on the court.

James was unlocked as a do-it-all big man. He set screens. He crashed the boards for putback dunks. He sliced through the defense as West shadowed Battier at the perimeter. After two 75-point games, the Heat would go on to average 100.7 points for the rest of the playoffs and eventually win the 2012 NBA Finals with the smaller, unconventional formation with a fully recovered Bosh at center.

Now, in 2019, the Los Angeles Lakers are facing a similar dilemma -- but with a twist. Now, Vogel is the head coach with the chance to go small. With James’ star big man DeMarcus Cousins out with a torn ACL suffered last week, does his coach effectively make James a big again?

That doesn’t happen without Anthony Davis’ blessing. And therein lies the rub. 

At 6-foot-10 with a 7-foot-6 wingspan and listed at 253 pounds, Davis is one of the largest human beings on the planet. But even while the league is moving away from lumbering 7-footers, Davis still prefers not to play the position of players his size. In fact, he told the Lakers up front that he wanted the roster stocked with centers.

Sitting between Lakers GM Rob Pelinka and Vogel at the Lakers’ introductory press conference last month, Davis was asked about his ideal position.

“I’m not going to sugarcoat it,” Davis said. “I like playing the 4. I don’t really like playing the 5.”

Then Davis smiled and put his hand on Vogel’s shoulder.

“But if it comes down to it, if coach needs me to play the 5, then I’ll play the 5.”

Pelinka jumped in, emphasizing the fact that the Lakers granted the upcoming free agent’s wishes by getting commitments from JaVale McGee and Cousins.

“When Anthony and I first started talking about the roster, he did say, ‘Hey, I’d love to have some 5s that can bang with some length.’ He’s 26. We want a decade of dominance out of him here so we’ve got to do what’s best for his body,” Pelinka said. “And having him bang against the biggest centers in the West every night is not what’s best for his body, or for our team or for our franchise.

“We wanted to make sure to honor what Anthony asked for: to get some 5s that he can play with.”

The Lakers aren’t exactly turning tides. Looking at the New Orleans Pelicans’ free agent signings over the years, it’s clear that Davis’ preferences were granted there, too.

In 2015, the team signed center Omer Asik to a five-year, $58 million contract and center Alexis Ajinca to a four-year, $20 million deal. In 2016-17, the Pelicans traded Buddy Hield, Tyreke Evans, Langston Galloway and a future first-round and second-round pick for yet another center, this time, the All-Star Cousins. In 2017-18, the team swung a deal for sweet-shooting center Nikola Mirotic, who starred as Davis’ counterpart in the 2018 playoffs after Cousins went down with a torn Achilles in January of that season. With Mirotic spacing the floor next to Davis, the team swept the Portland Trail Blazers.

Like he professes to do for Vogel, Davis has manned the 5 in high-profile situations. In 60 possessions while Davis guarded Jusuf Nurkic in that playoff series, the Blazers’ offense managed just 50 points, spitting out just 83.3 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com/stats. On the other end, Davis manhandled Nurk to the tune of 64 points on 59.5 percent shooting in 134 possessions with the Portland center guarding him. Davis’ soaring putback dunk on Nurkic in Game 3 was the signature moment of the series, symbolizing Davis’ power as a towering big man.

Putting Davis-at-center on the backburner until the postseason may be the Lakers’ plan. McGee could be the regular-season stopgap until the postseason arrives and then they could more regularly unleash a pseudo-Death Lineup with James at the 4 and Davis at the 5. 

Though McGee was the Lakers’ full-time starter last season, he wasn’t nearly as entrusted to be the finisher. Simply put, he started 76 percent of the Lakers’ games, but played just 31 percent of the team’s clutch minutes. Presumably, Cousins was supposed to fill that role, but his season is in doubt recovering from an ACL tear.

Protecting Davis’ body should be a top priority for the Lakers. After all, Davis in street clothes can’t play any position. On that point, Davis has suffered no shortage of nagging injuries over his seven-year career, holding his career high in games played to just 75 games. On his left side of his body, public book-keeping data shows that he has missed games due to an injured toe, ankle, knee, hip, groin and shoulder. On the right side, he has sat out with a damaged toe, quad, hip, elbow and shoulder. More generally, he has been sidelined games with concussions, a sore back and bruised chest. You can understand his reluctance to “bang” with centers every night.

As of now, McGee doesn’t have a true backup center on the depth chart, if we’re not counting Davis. James, Jared Dudley and Kyle Kuzma could moonlight as small-ball centers in a pinch. With Cousins out, the Lakers reportedly are bringing in free agent centers Dwight Howard, Joakim Noah and Mo Speights for workouts this week, with Marcin Gortat on the radar. 

But if the choice is between veteran free agent centers to eat up minutes, the call is an easy one for me: it should be Noah. 

Though Noah is not the dynamic scorer that Cousins is, the 33-year-old brings the same playmaking and rebounding abilities as Cousins, but with more defensive fire (see: Devin Booker). Noah can fill the void left by Cousins as a distributor. Last season, only six centers tallied more than six assists per 100 possessions, per Basketball Reference tracking. Cousins was one of them. Another was Noah. 

In the end, the best Lakers’ replacement for Cousins is Davis himself. If we earmarked Cousins for 30 minutes a night at center, most of those minutes should now go to Davis. That allocation might not happen until playoff time in the name of preserving Davis’ body. But it should still happen.

While the focus is on the short term, what the Lakers do with their lineups in April, May and June is most important. The Heat didn’t go to Bosh at center until late in the 2012 playoffs and it resulted in their first title together. The next year, they won again with Bosh at center, culminating in his iconic rebound in Game 6 to save the season. It’s not hard to see Davis being the new Bosh and Dudley filling Battier’s role as the veteran dirty-work spacer. Imagine Davis and James working in a spread-out system. That could be the silver lining of Cousins’ injury.

Just like that Heat team, the Lakers can use this adversity and turn it into an opportunity. James likes to say that the greatest teacher you can have in life is experience. It’s a saying that he picked up in Miami, only after losing the Finals in 2011. Hopefully for the Lakers, they won’t have to experience a similar defeat for Davis to see it.

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh) and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories, videos and podcasts.

It's unfair to task LeBron James, Lakers with winning title for Kobe Bryant

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NBC Sports

It's unfair to task LeBron James, Lakers with winning title for Kobe Bryant

Two summers ago, LeBron James made his choice. By agreeing to sign with the middling Los Angeles Lakers, James was going to try to climb another mountain. 

LeBron knew he would be stepping into the shadow of the beloved Kobe Bryant and trying to rescue the franchise from something it had not known in some time, mediocrity. 

James knew it was a tall task. Those in his inner circle warned him that this would be the biggest challenge of his illustrious NBA career -- even more ambitious than bringing a title to the city of Cleveland, more difficult than winning back-to-back titles in Miami after the 2011 Finals debacle, a longer longshot than passing his idol Michael Jordan on the all-time scoring list. 

Before James came to the rescue, the shine had worn off the Lakers. Free agent after free agent passed. The rebuild wasn’t working. No team in the NBA had lost more games in its previous five seasons than the Los Angeles Lakers. In some eyes, rescuing the Lakers would go down as perhaps LeBron’s greatest basketball achievement.

But this? James did not sign up for this. No human being should be expected to shoulder the death of Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna and the other seven who perished in the tragic helicopter crash last month. No one can bottle up all that grief, soak up all those tears and absorb the anger for a world in mourning. 


 

But here we are. The “Win It For Kobe” movement seems to be taking hold both locally and nationally and it makes me extremely uneasy.

A tragedy like the one in Calabasas shouldn’t be minimized by the bounces of an orange ball. Beyond that very obvious thing, it’s clear we’re putting LeBron James in an unfair, no-win situation. If the Lakers win the title, it will, for many, be remembered as Kobe willing it from the heavens. If the Lakers lose, it will likely be seen as LeBron, once again, proving he could never be Kobe. It all feels like a trap.

I hope I’m wrong. I hope fans will understand that an early postseason exit from James, Anthony Davis and Frank Vogel in his first year as the Lakers’ head coach shouldn’t be construed as some sort of failure to honor Bryant’s death. Basketball can’t be that serious, right? But I also saw what James’ hometown fans wrote on poster boards when he returned to Cleveland from the Miami Heat.

Sports so often give adults a reason to believe in fairy tales, that perhaps Kobe is up there pushing the Lakers along this championship quest. LeBron himself has leaned into it, for sure. When LeBron leaped into a double-pump reverse dunk in Staples Center last week, it was one of the sensational plays of the season, captured in this iconic image by the great NBA photographer Andrew D. Bernstein.

But hours later, the Lakers took it to another level and posted a jaw-dropping video of Kobe Bryant doing the same dunk on the same hoop 19 years ago, a clip that generated over 25 million views.

LeBron would later admit he didn’t do it as a tribute. It was just a remarkable coincidence. LeBron could have left it there, but instead:

“Ever see the movie ‘The 6th Man’?” LeBron told ESPN. “Kobe came down, put himself in my body and gave me that dunk on that break.”

Believing in this sort of thing can be comforting on some level. Everyone grieves and heals differently. In the aftermath of the unthinkable in Calabasas, LeBron has mostly been a figure of strength. Just before the Lakers’ first game at Staples Center since Bryant’s death, James went off script and delivered a moving speech in front of a grieving crowd all adorned in Bryant’s jersey. Much of the millions watching at home wept (I know I did, thinking about my own daughters).

Speaking to executives and coaches around the league before that game, the overriding feeling was there was no way that the Lakers wouldn’t win that game. The stars would align and the Lakers would triumph in an emotional tribute to Bryant.

Reality had other plans. The Lakers lost by eight. Damian Lillard dazzled his way to 48 points and turned that fairy tale inside out. It was a sobering reminder that James and Davis aren’t superheroes. The Lakers are still a basketball team with weaknesses that can be exploited.

We should be ready for more nights like that. The cold, hard truth is that the Lakers aren’t likely to win the championship in June.

At least that’s what the sharp money says. As of Thursday, FiveThirtyEight.com projections has the Lakers and Milwaukee Bucks tied at 19 percent chance of winning the championship, with the LA Clippers trailing just behind at 18 percent odds to take home the Larry O’Brien trophy.

Even if the Lakers go on a run and nudge themselves into the lead by the end of the regular season, being the favorite doesn’t mean it’s likely. The flipside of 19 percent means that there’s an 81 percent chance that a team other than the one dressed in purple and gold will win it all. The Lakers’ championship probability is roughly the same as Laker sharpshooter Danny Green missing a free throw (Green is a career 81 percent shooter at the charity stripe). Again, not great odds.

In some ways, LeBron is a victim of his own success. Thanks to his play in his 17th season, the Lakers are way ahead of schedule. The preseason over/under on the Lakers stood at 50.5 wins. They’re on pace to win 63. So much of it is due to LeBron’s brilliance, as it was on full display in Wednesday’s overtime win against Denver (32 points, 14 assists and 12 rebounds was LeBron’s line). 

But if you look deeper, you’ll see the full extent of LeBron’s impact. The Lakers are a baffling minus-55 this season when Anthony Davis is playing but James is on the bench. The other side of that coin is just as telling: The Lakers are plus-166 when James is playing and Davis is on the bench, per PBPstats.com.

Without LeBron, where would the Lakers be right now? This gives you a hint: Over the last two seasons, the Lakers have been outscored by 201 points in the 2,765 minutes with James on the bench, or getting beat by 3.5 points every 48 minutes. That’s the same differential as the this season’s Minnesota Timberwolves, who are 16-27.

LeBron is doing what he set out to do: resurrect the Lakers into championship contenders. The on-off numbers illustrate the kind of impact he’s had on the organization; how much the 35-year-old means to their success. Three years after firing their front office two days ahead of the trade deadline and being the laughing stock of the NBA (hello, Knicks!), the Lakers are now 41-12 and blazing to the West’s No. 1 seed -- all because of LeBron. It’s hard to say otherwise.

But with the Lakers exceeding expectations, it feels like we’re building toward an inevitable letdown. The signs are there. The Lakers are 0-5 against the Clippers, Bucks, Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers this season despite LeBron averaging 21.2 points, 10.0 rebounds and 9.0 assists in those games. The Lakers’ struggles at the top have less to do with LeBron and more to do with the fact that Dwight Howard inked to a non-guaranteed contract is often the team’s third-best player.

So much can change between now and June. The Lakers, as it stands, are not likely to win it all. If they don’t, it almost certainly won’t be because of LeBron. They’re not there without him. 

If the Lakers do indeed fall short of the title, resist the urge to put Kobe’s death on LeBron or the Lakers. It’s not fair. How much can one man possibly do? LeBron is only human. If Kobe’s tragic death has taught us anything, it’s that humans can only control so much of their fate. This isn’t a mountain. This is a bottomless void. James shouldn’t be asked to fill it.

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Trade deadline winners and losers: Heat, Rockets bolster title hopes; Warriors, Cavs create questions

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NBC Sports

Trade deadline winners and losers: Heat, Rockets bolster title hopes; Warriors, Cavs create questions

That’s a wrap on the NBA trade deadline. With a shallow free agency class this summer and a flattened championship race, this trade deadline figured to be an arms race rather than a scavenger hunt for cap space.

And there was action -- just not at the very top. Both top seeds, Milwaukee and the Lakers, stood pat at the deadline. But there was plenty of movement below.

On Thursday morning, I thought this column would be a winners-only piece. I thought most teams had done an impressive job of managing their assets. But that changed by the day’s end. Let’s hash out the winners and losers.

Winners

Miami Heat

It’s still stunning to me that the Grizzlies didn’t command a pick for taking on Dion Waiters and James Johnson’s contract. Yes, Justise Winslow is only 23 years old, the same age as their rookie Brandon Clarke, but Winslow’s injury woes figured to warrant some sort of draft pick compensation. 

Alas, Heat prez Pat Riley and GM Andy Elisburg were able to land Andre Iguodala, Jae Crowder and Solomon Hill without giving up anything in the draft pick department. Yes, there’s risk here. Iguodala is 36 years old and hasn’t played competitive basketball in half a year. Giving him a two-year extension (second year is a team option) before he steps foot on the court may prove to be unwise.

But the upside of Iguodala, Crowder and Jimmy Butler wreaking havoc on opposing wings is well worth the price of Winslow and two contracts dumps. Scoring against the Heat is going to be a problem in the playoffs. 

Winslow has struggled to gain traction in the NBA as a tweener with an inconsistent jump shot. It was hard to see how he’d fit in the Heat’s playoff attack without the ball in his hands. The Heat have plenty of young players in Tyler Herro, Kendrick Nunn and Bam Adebayo -- seriously, Adebayo is twenty-freakin’-two -- to balance out the aging nucleus of Iguodala, Butler and Goran Dragic. 

On paper, this doesn’t put them over the top in the East. But if the Bucks lose a top guy to injury, the Heat have positioned themselves to have the inside track to the Finals. And they still have long-term flexibility. If Iguodala doesn’t work out, they project to have about $50 million in cap space in 2021 when Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, Paul George and Kawhi Leonard could all be free agents. 

Houston Rockets

This Rockets team is going to be wild. Really, this trade comes down to this: Can you guard James Harden one-on-one? Can you guard Russell Westbrook one-on-one? By essentially swapping Clint Capela for Robert Covington, the Houston Rockets are betting that opponents’ answers to both are a hard no. Whether that’s true or not will seal the Rockets’ fate.

The Oklahoma City Thunder found out the hard way that Westbrook needs to be in a five-out system that frees up the paint. Steven Adams, a non-spacing big, jammed up Westbrook’s driving lanes as Portland made sure that Westbrook saw multiple defenders in front of him at every turn in the playoffs. 

In the regular season, when teams don’t have nearly as much time to scout and scheme as they do come playoff time, Westbrook can get by simply on his sheer athleticism. Westbrook and Adams lineups scored a healthy 112.9 points per 100 possessions last regular season, per NBA stats. In the postseason, that figure plummeted to 104.9 and the Thunder got waved off by Damian Lillard. The previous season, similar story: 122.2 offensive rating with that duo in the 2017-18 regular season, but down to 102.8 in the playoffs.

The Rockets didn’t want to risk that happening again. Like Adams, Capela is a paint-dwelling big who can get played off the floor in crunchtime. Covington, a long-time darling of the analytics community, can space the floor on the wings and make sure that Westbrook’s defender sits alone on an island with no one behind him. 

As a 6-foot-7 defensive-minded wing, Covington is a Trevor Ariza, James Posey type -- a guy who’s never going to blow you away with his box score stats but fits perfectly next to stars. The Rockets are well aware that Covington’s team’s point differential has been better when he’s on the floor compared to when he’s on the bench for each of the six seasons in the NBA. Covington isn’t a dribble-drive guy, but next to Westbrook and Harden, there may not be much air in the ball left anyway.

In some ways, this was a necessary move once the Rockets acquired Westbrook. I really didn’t like the Westbrook trade from the start; he’s probably the worst high-volume 3-point shooter of all-time and plays in a system predicated on efficient 3-point shooting. To me, Westbrook’s uptempo attack would be exposed in the playoffs when the game slows down. Spreading the floor with Covington, a career 36 percent shooter from deep, will help decongest the paint and raise the ceiling on Westbrook’s game.

I liked what all four teams did in this trade, but to me, the Rockets fared out best, with a little help from their executive farm system. You rarely see deals this size -- per ESPN, it’s the most players involved in a trade since a 2000 Patrick Ewing deal that was so long ago it involved Vernon Maxwell -- because it isn’t easy for executives to have intimate knowledge of rival teams’ wants, needs and negotiation styles.

But it helped grease the wheels that three of the architects involved -- Denver GM Arturas Karnisovas, Houston GM Daryl Morey and Minnesota president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas -- used to work together in the Rockets front office from 2008 to 2013. 

Houston will likely be on the lookout for a center on the buyout market. Asking the 6-foot-6 P.J. Tucker to do that full-time is a, um, tall order. Don’t be surprised if the Rockets land a veteran like Charlotte big man Marvin Williams on the buyout market. Or, if they’re lucky, Tristan Thompson.

Milwaukee Bucks

They’re 44-7. The Los Angeles Lakers didn’t do anything. Neither did Toronto or Boston. Philly added Alec Burks and Glenn Robinson III, but Thursday’s romp showed they need more than that. And the Bucks aren’t exactly shaking in their boots now that the Clippers added Marcus Morris. 

If the Heat were able to snag Danilo Gallinari, the Bucks may have been sweating right now. But Iguodala is too much of a question mark to strike fear into the Bucks, who have the seventh-highest net rating in NBA history this far into the season. Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks are firmly in the driver’s seat and the road ahead didn’t get any bumpier.

Atlanta Hawks

The 25-year-old Capela makes more sense on the youthful Hawks than the title-hunting Rockets. I worried about Capela’s health when it came to the Rockets’ championship window, but he can develop on a more patient timeline next to All-Star starter Trae Young. Capela is a non-shooting big who has missed seven games this season with foot problems and relies on his hops to make an impact on both ends. 

Foot problems with non-shooting bigs will make Hawks fans queasy, but in Atlanta, he can rest his heel injury and properly rehab without putting pressure on himself to return too soon for a title quest. 

John Collins and Capela aren’t a lock-and-key fit, though it should help matters that Collins has flashed some impressive range this season, shooting 36 percent from deep, mostly at the top of the key. Collins has added a nice pick-and-pop game to complement his devastating alley-oop threat. He’ll find himself in the P.J. Tucker role in the corners more often, but the Hawks can play around a bit in the second half of the season before Collins’ extension talks this summer.

And we might not see much Collins and Capela this season. By trading Jabari Parker and Alex Len for former Hawks center Dewayne Dedmon (under contract through 2021-22) and two second-round picks, the Hawks acquired some insurance both now and in the future in case Capela’s foot problems prove to be more serious. Len’s presence was more redundant with Capela around, but Dedmon’s floor-spacing ability that he showed in his previous stint with Atlanta should be more useful next to the rim-running Collins.

There was some talk that the Hawks were interested in Andre Drummond at the deadline, but Capela provides much more value on his contract. After this season, Capela is due $55.6 million over the next three seasons, for an average $18.7 million. Given the fact that Drummond’s market only netted a second-round pick at the deadline, I’d assume Drummond would be picking up his $28.8 million player option this summer for next season. To me, Capela is a better fit defensively, even with the worries about his health.

Los Angeles Clippers

I like the addition of Marcus Morris, especially on the price that they got him -- Moe Harkless and a 2020 first-round pick. Not only does Morris add to the Clippers’ core of talented wings, but they kept him away from their Staples Center roommates in purple and gold. That’s not nothing.

In an ironic twist, I think there’s a tiny chance he could be this year’s Tobias Harris -- a former No. 1 option big wing who struggles to find his role on a contender midseason. Last year, it was the Clippers who dealt Harris (for a far tastier haul), and now, they’re adding Morris, who is shooting 43.9 percent from 3-point land -- way over his previous career rate of 36 percent. Even if he regresses a bit, Morris will be another body to throw at LeBron James and keep Kawhi Leonard and Paul George fresh for the long haul. All things considered, the Clippers have to feel good about their work on Thursday.

Losers

Cleveland Cavaliers

Something went wrong here. It had to have. A Tristan Thompson deal fell through at the last minute, right? The Cavs couldn’t possibly think that Kevin Love, Drummond and Thompson can play in the same frontcourt. Right???

I don’t know what the Cavs are doing with Thompson. According to Yahoo! Sports’ and friend of the program Chris Haynes, Thompson is not a buyout candidate. As of now. That may change. But this is one of the more befuddling transactions of the season. Perhaps the Cavs thought that a measly second-round pick was too good to pass up for Drummond. But in that case, why couldn’t they find a taker for Thompson?

Now, the Cavs have potentially two unhappy veterans in Thompson and Love. If there’s a plan in place, I don’t see it. But hey, championship banners fly forever.

2020 free agents

Of all the parties involved at the trade deadline, Brandon Ingram, Andre Drummond and DeMar DeRozan could be the most disappointed of all. Cap space evaporated on Thursday. Atlanta did have two max slots, but now it only has one after its deadline moves. Memphis decided to chew up all its cap space in the deal with Miami to get Justise Winslow. If Cleveland doesn’t re-sign Drummond, where does he get his big payday? DeMar DeRozan may just pick up his player option for $28.8 million next season rather than test the market.

As of now, only five teams project to have cap space this summer, per salary cap guru Jeff Siegel. Of those, only three will have max slots -- Atlanta, New York and Detroit. There will be some sign-and-trade options that can open up the market for some of these guys, but Draymond Green, Buddy Hield and Eric Gordon were wise to lock in extensions when they did.

Golden State Warriors

As I wrote in an expanded piece on Thursday, I’m not a huge fan of the Andrew Wiggins deal, but I get the allure of Wiggins. Many doubted keeping Klay Thompson over Kevin Love in 2014, and that turned out pretty good for the Warriors.

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