Buy and sell: 2019 NBA season preview

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NBC Sports

Buy and sell: 2019 NBA season preview

Media day has come and gone. The Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets have returned safely back to the United States. Coaches are valiantly holding onto their offseason beards. JaVale McGee is making 3s. 

The season must be around the corner.

It’s great to have the NBA back. With plenty to look forward to this season, let’s run through the top storylines and play a little buy or sell backed by some statistical insights.

SELL: James Harden and Russell Westbrook will be “scary” for opponents

Stat to know: Westbrook averaging 7.5 turnovers per 36 minutes this preseason.

Westbrook didn’t hold back at media day when he was asked about his reunion with James Harden in Houston, claiming, “It’s going to be scary, that’s all I can tell you. It’s going to be scary -- not for us.”

I’m scared for the Rockets. I was worried about the Houston offense when the trade broke, and nothing in the preseason qualmed my concerns. Westbrook has always played like the runaway bus in “Speed” that can’t go under 50 miles per hour without exploding. Expecting him to settle down and play a surgical halfcourt game is unrealistic. He is not Chris Paul, for better or for worse.

Watch the 2019 NBA Season Tipoff Show with Tom Haberstroh on MyTeams (Oct. 22 at 4 p.m. ET)

More concerning is the fact that Westbrook has turned the ball over a whopping 21 times in 100 minutes of action in the preseason, where defense is often optional. That’s not a good sign. The bulk of those miscues have come in transition, which has quietly been a problem spot for Westbrook, too. Last season, Westbrook ranked last in transition efficiency among 27 players with at least 250 transition plays, according to Synergy Sports tracking. Preseason or not, the “Why not?” mentality steers him wrong too often on the court.

I was expecting Westbrook to dial it down a bit now that he joined Harden and the Rockets’ offense that ranked second overall last season in efficiency (OKC ranked 17th). But opponents aren’t terrified of this version Westbrook. Case in point: Even with Paul George, one of the most efficient scorers on the planet, the Westbrook-led Thunder ranked 21st in halfcourt points per possession last season, per Synergy Sports tracking. 

With Westbrook turning 31 years old following another knee cleanup (that also caused him to take some precautionary games off this preseason), it’s fair to wonder how effective he can be in his change-of-pace role. If Westbrook doesn’t polish up his game in the open court, it’s going to be a long season in Houston. And not in a good way.

BUY: Zion Williamson should make the All-Star team

Stat to know: 24 of Williamson’s 35 baskets have come off the dribble.

*Admittedly, this prediction doesn’t seem smart after Williamson suffered a knee injury in his last preseason game. But even if Williamson misses a month, I think his talent alone makes him a top-25 player, which lines up with All-Star status. Williamson’s rise has been incredible. A year ago, he wasn’t even the consensus No. 1 overall pick, and now he’s making Rudy Gobert, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, look like the one who just turned 19 years old. Just look at this clip. 

We can talk all day about Williamson’s leaping abilities, but his NBA-ready handle has been the biggest revelation of the preseason. He’s not just a bull on supercharged pogo sticks. The guy can put the ball on the deck and slice through a defense like few bigs can. This crossover and-one shouldn’t be possible for a guy who might be the biggest alley-oop threat in the league.

I charted his preseason performance and found that of his 35 baskets, 24 have come off the dribble, nearly 70 percent of his field goals. Some of them were power dribbles just before throwing down a thunderous dunk, but often times, he purposefully uses his handle to dart around unsuspecting defenders and finish off the glass with seasoned touch. Multiple times I let out an audible gasp after what he did to Jacob Poeltl on the perimeter. It’s clear Zion is more Giannis than he is Shaq. 

If Williamson can keep his health in check, he promises to have one of the best rookie seasons ever. I liked the New Orleans Pelicans’ chances to crash the postseason party heading into the preseason, and Williamson’s confident display of guard-like handle has only bolstered their chances. He’d probably be a lock for All-Star in the Eastern Conference and the buzziest player there. How can we make this happen?

SELL: Ben Simmons has officially added a 3-point shot
    
Stat to know: Fourteen of Simmons’ 17 career 3-point attempts have come with fewer than two seconds left on the game clock.

Yes, Ben Simmons looked comfortable when he hit that 3-pointer against the Guangzhou Long-Lions. Yes, he drilled it from deep, 27-feet deep to be exact. That shot, no matter how much space he was afforded, is no layup.

And it was fun! Who wouldn’t want to see Simmons with a reliable jump shot? (Besides the rest of the NBA, of course.) He’d be nearly unstoppable with another devastating tool at his disposal, like Superman adding the ability to control time. 

But I think we need to pump the brakes a bit. Putting aside that it came against a Chinese team that wouldn’t hold a candle to G-League teams, the shot came with 1.2 seconds left in the second quarter of a 38-point game. It had almost zero cost.

That’s notable because Simmons has shown almost no interest in taking 3’s in the flow of the offense when there’s real weight in the shot. He has taken 17 3-pointers in his career. Amazingly, fourteen of those 3-pointers have been quarter-end heaves. The other three 3-point attempts? Two came within the first 70 seconds of a half just as each team is warming up. The third came in a 16-point game late in the fourth quarter back in late March of his rookie season.

Until Simmons steps into 3-pointers in the flow of the offense, I’m not expecting him to pull a Brook Lopez and become a prolific shooter. Worth noting: When Lopez unveiled his 3-point shot for good in the 2016-17 season, he fired up 12 of them in that preseason; Simmons has taken one. And none since that game against the Long-Lions.

Maybe Simmons just needed to see the ball go in once to have the confidence to unleash it full-time. I hope that happens. While it’d make the NBA a whole lot more compelling, I’m not holding my breath that it’s here to stay. 

BUY: Stephen Curry will reclaim the scoring title

Stat to know: Curry is averaging 48.1 points per 36 minutes this preseason.

Surprise, surprise: Curry has been on fire this preseason. You should have seen this coming. For the last few years, Steph has been MVP-level Steph -- but only when Kevin Durant left the floor. I wrote about this phenomenon in 2017-18 when Curry was blistering opponents to the tune of 53.9 points per 36 minutes when Durant was off the floor. Yeah, 53.9 points. 

Now that Durant has left for Brooklyn, we’re going to see a whole lot more “vintage” Curry this season. He erupted for 40 points in 25 minutes against a real NBA defense last week even though most of those minutes came while sharing the ball with D’Angelo Russell. While Draymond Green led the charge, six different Warriors teammates assisted Curry’s buckets in that game, underscoring how much they’re going to rely on and seek out No. 30 this season.

One trend to watch is Curry attacking the paint. Twelve of his 37 buckets in the preseason have come in the painted area. The thinking was that the paint would be more clogged with Durant and Thompson not out there to spread the floor, but the Warriors have still found pockets for Curry to exploit. 

SELL: Kawhi Leonard won’t have “aggressive” load management program this season

Stat to know: Kawhi Leonard has rested for 207 of the Clippers’ 240 minutes this preseason.

If this preseason is any indication, NBA bettors and fantasy players will be in for quite the headache this season getting a grip on Leonard’s status. The talk out of training camp was that Leonard was finally healthy and wouldn’t rack up DNP-Rests like he did last season. This wasn’t like last season, when he was coming off an injury-riddled 2017-18 campaign in which he played just nine games.

But Leonard has rested more than any healthy player this preseason. He sat out the first two games of the preseason and then the team ruled him out for Thursday’s game against the Denver Nuggets before Leonard surprised everyone and decided to play. All of 11 minutes.

Leonard has played just 33 minutes in two preseason games, resting in the other three. Last preseason, Leonard played three of the Raptors’ five preseason exhibitions, logging 22.7 minutes per game. This is something different.

If anything, the Clippers are holding him out more, not less. It doesn’t seem like Leonard is ready to play everyday, or close to it. Here’s what Leonard told ESPN after his 11-minute game: "I mean, I haven't played no type of contact basketball, no pickup at all. Normally don't do that. Really wasn't able to work out like I wanted to this summer, but it's always rest if you are not playing. It's a long season.”

With Paul George expected to miss the first month of the season, the sense here is that the Clippers take a cautious approach this season with its two stars. After a media day brimming with optimism, reality has begun to set in. I’d be surprised if Leonard plays more than 60 games this season. 

SELL: The Lakers need a third star to step up

Stat to know: Zero teams have a healthy trio of reigning All-Stars.

By trading for Anthony Davis to pair with LeBron James, the Lakers have, in my book, the best duo on the planet. Now sure, after DeMarcus Cousins went down with a season-ending torn ACL, the dropoff from James and Davis to the Lakers’ next-best player is steep. But I don’t think that’ll be a problem this season.

Look around the league. There are no more superteams in the NBA. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George (when his shoulders heal) will be a dominant duo, but there isn’t a Warriors-like juggernaut right now. One could argue that the Warriors have four All-Stars in Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, D’Angelo Russell and Draymond Green. But Thompson can’t play, Russell was an All-Star fill-in in a weak conference and Green didn’t make the team last year. 

The pressure will be on Kyle Kuzma to become the Lakers’ third star, but I don’t think he’s ready. Physically, I’m worried about the stress fracture in his left foot that sidelined him all preseason and also kept him out of the Team USA trip. It’s the same problematic foot and ankle that prematurely ended each of his last two seasons, making this more of a chronic issue than an isolated one. Skill-wise, I think he’s better suited as a Lou Williams-type off the bench.

Even if Kuzma struggles to ascend to star status, the Lakers should still be able to tread water in the regular season and step on the gas come April, May and June. With the flattened landscape of contenders, every team is searching for that third bonafide star. The Lakers’ championship viability rests purely on James and Davis being healthy when April rolls around. If another contender springs for Kevin Love or Bradley Beal at the trade deadline, that calculus might change. But for now, the Lakers’ shouldn’t sweat their top-heavy roster.

BUY: Jayson Tatum is making the leap

Stat to know: Jayson Tatum has a 29.8 usage rate this preseason.

After a disappointing sophomore campaign, Tatum appears ready to take over as the No. 1 option for the Celtics. Coming off an injury-shortened stint with Team USA, Tatum looks nothing like the player that lurked in the shadows last postseason alongside Kyrie Irving.

The Celtics have been waiting for this version of Tatum since the 2018 playoffs ended. This preseason, Tatum leads the team with a 29.8 usage rate (percentage of team possessions used by player while on the floor), while Kemba Walker (22.2), Jaylen Brown (18.0) and Gordon Hayward (15.5) have taken an early back seat. Putting aside Hayward’s alarming deference, Tatum’s role has expanded significantly thus far, blowing past his 2018-19 usage rate of 21.8.

Most notably, Tatum is trading mid-range jumpers for 3-pointers. Last preseason, Tatum took nine 3-pointers in 79 minutes. This preseason, he has taken 16 in 63 minutes, about double his rate from the 2018-19 regular season (9.1 vs. 4.6). By contrast, he has settled for just three shots in the mid-range area (16 to 23 feet). Though he’s only connected on 31.3 percent of his 3-balls this preseason, I’m not worried about him losing his touch from deep. His assertiveness was what held him back from climbing into the All-Star discussion.

Tatum still needs to draw contact and get to the free throw line more, but his confidence level after the Team USA experience is promising. If Tatum keeps this up, the Celtics should be knocking on the Milwaukee Bucks’ and Philadelphia 76ers’ doors at the top of the East.

BUY: Utah Jazz are a title contender

Stat to know: Jazz were plus-303 last season with Rudy Gobert as the lone big on floor.

The Utah Jazz are a trendy pick to crash the Western Conference finals party, and I’m here for it. The additions of Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic will certainly help take some of the scoring burden from Donovan Mitchell. But the main reason I’m bullish on the Jazz is their shift to the modern NBA and putting four ball-handlers around Rudy Gobert.

Gone are the days that they would play Derrick Favors alongside Gobert in a forced twin-tower formation. It’s about time. Last season, the Jazz were plus-303 in the 1,838 minutes (plus-7.9 per 48 minutes) that Gobert played without another conventional big on the floor and plus-81 in 739 minutes (plus-5.3 per 48 minutes) in all other lineups, per pbpstats.com. Gobert and Favors worked fine, but not at the highest of levels. It’s worth noting that the Jazz’s lone win in the Houston Rockets series, Game 4, came in the only game that Gobert and Favors never shared the court together.

Now you add Bogdanovic as the stretch four and things get really interesting. They may trot out Jeff Green or Royce O’Neale as the nominal starting power forward to keep players fresh, but a closing lineup of Conley, Mitchell, Joe Ingles, Bogdanovic and Gobert will be a tough out for any team. 

The Jazz haven’t been sharp this preseason, but I’m expecting them to eat up some leftover “load management” wins and be right near the top of the West. If you’re not sold on the Jazz’s championship viability, the 2018-19 Toronto Raptors (plus-1850) had longer odds to start the season than this current Utah team (plus-1600). Get on the bandwagon.

SELL: The Milwaukee Bucks will retain the No. 1 seed.

Stat to know: Eight different teams have been the East’s No. 1 seed over the last eight seasons.

I’m down on the Bucks for a few reasons. One, I think the Philadelphia 76ers had the best offseason of any East power and will take their spot atop the East. Second, I see them missing Malcolm Brogdon’s ball-handling and shooting more than they expect. And lastly, I’m nervous about Giannis Antetokounmpo’s burnout factor this season.

Keep in mind, it’s hard to stay atop the East. Here are the last eight regular-season winners, starting with the most recent: Bucks, Raptors, Celtics, Cavs, Hawks, Pacers, Heat and Bulls. No East team has repeated at No. 1 since the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season. In that sense, the Bucks falling back a bit would be completely normal.

Also, while most NBA superstars took the summer off, Antetokounmpo crisscrossed the globe with a dizzying itinerary. In a three-week span, he accepted the NBA MVP award in Los Angeles, flew to Greece to launch his new signature Nike Zoom Freak 1 shoe, visited Vegas Summer League and accepted ESPY’s Man of the Year in Los Angeles in the same day and then jetted to Milwaukee to celebrate the NBA MVP award in front of 20,000 Bucks fans. After that, Antetokounmpo flew to Greece for warm-up tournaments in Athens for his national team, flew to Shanghai, China, for another exhibition series, jetted to Nanjing for a pair of games and then was off to Shenzhen for two more games. 

A few weeks later at media day, Antetokounmpo talked about his fatigue: “It was obviously a really short offseason. Obviously, I was tired physically and mentally. We had the long season and then we had a lot of things to do with Nike, with my family and national team also. But I’m excited (for the season).”

The Bucks have unsurprisingly rested their MVP in two of their four preseason games. (Antetokounmpo looked unstoppable this preseason, including a 34-point, 11-rebound performance in just 23 minutes against Dallas.) But with the potential supermax extension looming over the season combined with his non-stop summer, I’m worried about Antetokounmpo and the Bucks’ ability to shoulder all of the expectations. Antetokounmpo’s workload skyrocketed over the past 12 months as he became a global icon and it may be nothing compared to this upcoming season under the national spotlight. 

10. SELL: Markelle Fultz is back back.

Stat to know: Fultz is 0-for-15 on shots outside 15 feet this preseason.

I’m a sucker for a good redemption story, but put me in the wait-and-see category on the Fultz comeback in Orlando. He’s playing on a new team with playoff expectations. His last regular-season game was 11 months and one undergoing thoracic outlet surgery ago. Teams are still begging him to shoot. And the results still aren’t pretty.

Only Fultz knows how much of his issues last season were physical, psychological or situational, but the on-court problems are very real. While Fultz still has his bouncy, quick-twitch handle that can help him pierce opposing defenses, defenders are deliberately sagging five to ten feet off of him on the perimeter and daring him to launch from deep. He has missed all six of his 3-pointers and nine of his long 2s beyond 15 feet. Mechanically, he still has a ways to go before he resembles the University of Washington star that warranted being the No. 1 overall pick in 2017.

Then again, the Magic don’t seem to mind. Back in September, before seeing him play a game this preseason, Orlando picked up its 2020-21 team option that guarantees Fultz $12.3 million, making him its defacto point guard of the future. It’s genuinely good to see him out there playing basketball, but it’ll be interesting to see how much leeway he’ll get as Orlando tries to reach the postseason again. 

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.

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

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.

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