Kemba Walker going to Celtics works out for everyone involved

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USA Today Sports

Kemba Walker going to Celtics works out for everyone involved

Kemba Walker returns to New England. Just 85 miles up the road from Walker’s alma mater at UConn, Boston snags yet another All-NBA point guard in his prime, replacing Kyrie Irving … who replaced Isaiah Thomas in 2017.

Irving and Thomas weren’t able to add another championship banner in Boston. Can Kemba?

It won’t be easy, but it’s worth trying. A whopping 60 percent of the Eastern Conference semifinalists’ starting lineups were up for free agency this summer. If some combination of Malcolm Brogdon, Brook Lopez and Khris Middleton don’t return to Milwaukee, it’ll be tough for reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo to reach the Finals. The same goes for Toronto if Leonard bolts West. Though I think the 76ers will run it back, they certainly have questions about their depth to figure out.

Even if he doesn’t bring another title to the Celtics, I bet Boston falls in love with Walker, especially after a sour breakup with Irving. When Celtics president Danny Ainge spoke to reporters earlier this week, it was hard not to interpret it as a shot at Irving and a message backing Walker.

“I think it just makes life more enjoyable when everybody is humble, hard-working and will play any role they have to, to help the team succeed,” Ainge said. “You do have to have a certain amount of talent to win in our league, as well all know, but good people makes coming to work more fun.”

Walker was beloved in Charlotte, for his work on and off the court. In 2017-18, he won his second NBA Sportsmanship Award in as many years. In 2018, he became Charlotte’s all-time leading scorer, in a game against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Walker was brought to tears after the game and James went over to him and hugged him. 

“I just went over there and told him how incredible it was,” James said, “even with the season they’re having.”

That pretty much sums up Walker’s tenure with the Hornets. That record-setting night came in the midst of a trying 36-46 season that cost Steve Clifford his job. Last season, playing host for All-Star weekend, the Hornets finished 39-43 in James Borrego’s debut season as head coach. That and a low-ball offer were enough for Walker to pick up his ball and take his game elsewhere.

It’s a shame that the Hornets couldn’t put together a roster worthy of Walker’s talent. It’s never easy in a small market, but the Hornets have struggled for years in the talent department. There was the ill-fated 7-59 season that resulted in Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, not Anthony Davis. To open their purple-and-teal rebrand, the franchise made Lance Stephenson the co-pilot for Walker. 

But nothing quite hammers it home quite like this: Over Walker’s eight-year career, there were 314 instances of a player in the NBA averaging over 17 points per game in a full season (not including Walker himself), and only one of those 314 instances occurred in a Hornets (or Bobcats) uniform. 

That was Al Jefferson, who did it once, five years ago. (If you want to count Mo Williams averaging 17.2 points in 27 games after he was traded from Minnesota in 2014-15, be my guest. But mostly this: wait, Mo WIlliams played for Charlotte and Minnesota?)

The Hornets’ offer to Walker must have been so unappealing that he took a four-year, $141 million deal from Boston even before the players and teams are even allowed to negotiate. For a guy who said he’d take less than the max to stay, that is a tough pill for Charlotte fans to swallow.

But for Walker, Boston and Charlotte, this is probably for the best for all three parties involved. To illustrate how rotten the situation has become, the Hornets still won’t have cap space even after Walker’s departure. There’s also the Nic Batum contract that will pay him $27.1 million in 2020-21, if (when) he picks up his player option for that season. 

For Charlotte, the most prudent plan going forward will be to bottom out in 2019-20 and try to earn the No. 1 overall pick, which they presumably will take a prospect from an SEC or Big Ten school. Seriously, the last seven lottery picks have been from those two conferences: Kentucky, Michigan State, Kentucky, Wisconsin, Indiana, Indiana and Kentucky. This feels like an overcorrection after years of stocking their rosters with UNC and Duke alums to get local fans fired up.

From a scoring perspective, Walker will be able to step in right away and get buckets in Brad Stevens’ offense. But he will have to share the ball. Walker had the ball in his hands for 7.5 minutes per game last season, per NBA.com/stats tracking, which ranked fifth-highest in the NBA, behind James Harden, John Wall, Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook. Few players are as ball-dominant as Walker. (Irving, for what it’s worth, ranked 22nd at 5.5 minutes per game of ball possession and posted fewer dribbles per touch than Walker as well.)

Walker figures to play more like Thomas in 2016-17 than Irving the last couple seasons. Thomas held the ball for a Walker-like 6.9 minutes per game that season and the Celtics churned out the seventh-ranked offense in the NBA. With Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward sharing ball-handling duties, Walker won’t have to create fire from wet blankets like he did in Charlotte.

How Walker ages is a slight concern, but mitigating that worry is that it’s a four-year deal at an annual $35 million, not the five-year, $221 million one he was eligible for in Charlotte. Undersized point guards don’t typically have long careers or extended primes. Allen Iverson, Kevin Johnson and Isiah Thomas were done even before hitting their mid-30s. This contract takes Walker through his age-32 season. Then again, Chris Paul is 34 and Mike Conley will be 32 in October. They’re doing just fine.

Big picture, I’m a firm believer that the Celtics will be hurt more by Al Horford’s departure than Irving’s. The fall from Irving to Terry Rozier is much shorter than Horford to Robert Williams (Aron Baynes was traded to Phoenix last week.) 

With Hayward and Walker each making $32.7 million next season, the Celtics have about $105 million allocated to 11 players, which gives them about $1.4 million in cap space to fill out the roster. They should have the room exception available to them, which they can use to sign a player for two years, starting at $4.6 million. 

Who might they target? Nikola Mirotic leaving for Barcelona was a shocker, which doesn’t bode well for Boston’s chances at landing an impact big to fill Horford and Baynes’ spot. DeMarcus Cousins might jump at a starting role for a contender, but he could do that in Golden State for more money than the Celtics can offer. Milwaukee wouldn’t dare let Brook Lopez walk to a competitor for that kind of money. 

If I’m Boston, I might see what it’d take to bring in Kevon Looney, or secondarily Frank Kaminsky. If they prefer to go for a veteran with all the youngsters in the frontcourt already, Robin Lopez and Dewayne Dedmon make a lot of sense. The center aisle is not a robust market this year. As a hard screener and team rebounder, Lopez would fit well next to a pick-and-roll maestro like Walker.

One intriguing name to watch: Derrick Favors. The Utah Jazz have a $16.9 million option for Favors next season, which is fully guaranteed beginning July 6. If they decline that option, expect the Celtics to jump all over the opportunity to bring him in. At 27 years old, he represents one of the best defending bigs in the league, but isn’t an ideal fit with Rudy Gobert. If Utah picks up the option, the Celtics could theoretically put together a package centered on Marcus Smart and trade for Favors, but obviously they’d rather not part with Smart. Keep an eye on Favors.

The Celtics did well to pivot and ink Walker to a deal. He’s an incredible player, who can score on and off the ball, and was beloved by fans, teammates and coaches in Charlotte. Maybe the locker-room refresh after the Irving era will pay more dividends than expected. They’ll need all the help they can get to return to Eastern Conference prominence. Now, they try to find a starting power forward and starting center.

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

Joel Embiid's absence can be a blessing in disguise for Sixers

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NBC Sports

Joel Embiid's absence can be a blessing in disguise for Sixers

No team wants to see its star player get hurt. But the best teams turn adversity into opportunity. That’s the hope for the Philadelphia 76ers right now.

Star center Joel Embiid has been sidelined for the past 10 days recovering from hand surgery to repair his torn ligament in his left hand and will be reevaluated at a further date. It’s the latest blow to a reloaded Sixers team seeking redemption after losing in heartbreaking fashion to the eventual champion Toronto Raptors at the last second in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Just about every NBA champion dealt with what the 26-16 Sixers are facing right now. When the Raptors outlined an aggressive load management program for Kawhi Leonard last season that planted him on the bench on back-to-backs, they used that absence as an opening to launch Pascal Siakam, who had been, at that point, merely a role player.

The loss of Leonard was Siakam’s gain. In the 21 games that Siakam played without Leonard last season, he flourished with the extra oxygen on offense, averaging 19.1 points on 55 percent shooting, 8.0 rebounds and 3.4 assists. Siakam’s stat line in the Finals against Golden State? An eerily similar 19.8 points on 51 percent shooting, 7.5 rebounds and 3.7 assists.

Leonard missing 22 games in the regular season may have derailed other teams, but the Raptors used it as a growth opportunity for the surrounding talent. Would they have known they could count on Siakam on the biggest stage if it weren’t for Leonard’s time on the bench? Perhaps, but the regular season certainly accelerated Siakam’s basketball glow-up.

The Raptors aren’t the only champion that turned an injury into a positive. The Miami Heat didn’t embrace their title-winning pace-and-space and small-ball style until they lost Chris Bosh for weeks in the 2011-12 playoffs. The Golden State Warriors weren’t the juggernaut Golden State Warriors until David Lee’s hamstring injury opened the gates for Draymond Green. For years, Gregg Popovich deliberately sidelined his stars to facilitate the growth of the supporting cast. Kawhi Leonard himself is a shining example of what strategic resting and moving a future Hall of Famer (Manu Ginobili) to the bench can yield.

The Sixers have the same chance for growth with Embiid sidelined. There are plenty of silver linings with Embiid’s injury. For one, as nauseating as it looked, the injury is not considered a long-term issue. To quote Embiid himself in a heartfelt letter on The Players’ Tribune, “It’s just a finger. It’s nothing. Compared to what I’ve been through. It’s nothing, man.” It’s also not another leg-related injury, which is good news on its own, but it also allows him in the meantime to work on his conditioning.

But the real silver lining is about the seeds the team can plant now. Here are three ways the Sixers can grow from Embiid’s absence and keep their championship hopes alive:

1. Make Ben Simmons a crunch-time scorer

Fresh off of an Eastern Conference Player of the Week award, Josh Richardson was a supernova down the stretch against the Indiana Pacers on Monday, scoring 17 points of Philly’s 26 points in the fourth quarter. In the end, the Sixers came up short while Simmons and Al Horford were held scoreless in the final frame.

In Wednesday’s win over the Brooklyn Nets, it was Tobias Harris’ turn to cook, outscoring the Nets 9-2 over the final three minutes of the game. But Simmons was held scoreless yet again in the fourth quarter, missing both of his free throws early in the quarter and setting up teammates the rest of the way. 

These fourth quarters, even without Embiid, are emblematic of a lingering related issue: Simmons’ tendency to fade in the final frame. In his last three fourth quarters, Simmons has zero points on 0-for-4 shooting and 10 assists in 29 minutes of action. This season, here is Simmons’ usage rate (percentage of team possessions used by a player via shot attempt, free throw attempt or turnover) by quarter:

Simmons’ Usage Rate by Quarter in 2019-20
 
First quarter:
21.4 percent
Second quarter: 20.5 percent
Third quarter: 20.5 percent
Fourth quarter: 15.4 percent

That’s not ideal for an All-Star who functions as the team’s primary ball-handler. Simmons’ usage rate in clutch situations -- where the score is within five in the final five minutes -- shrinks to 14.4 percent compared to Embiid’s 38.6 percent, Tobias Harris’ 20.8 percent and Richardson’s 17.6 percent, per NBA tracking.

Simmons’ performance down the stretch was a big talking point in the playoffs last year and rightfully so. In 18 minutes of clutch situations in the playoffs, Simmons was 0-for-2 from the floor with three assists and no points. He also didn’t have any turnovers and helped lock up opponents on the defensive end. The Sixers as a team actually outscored the Brooklyn Nets and Toronto Raptors by a score of 43-33 in clutch situations in the playoffs, all with Simmons on the floor.

But the Sixers’ advantage in those minutes could certainly be wider if Simmons shows the same attack mentality as he does earlier in the game. Sure, Simmons needs to conserve energy for the defensive end where he becomes the Sixers’ uber-stopper, but there are plenty of opportunities for Simmons to attack the rim in pressure moments where he instead passes out or dribbles away from the paint.

Simmons has the physical tools and requisite skills to be a crunch-time weapon. At the same age as Simmons is now, a 23-year-old Giannis Antetokounmpo took eight clutch shots for the Bucks in their lone 2018 playoff series against the Boston Celtics. Seven of them were inside two feet, per NBA.com shot tracking. Simmons can do the same. For those that doubt his abilities to take over games down the stretch, now is the time -- without Embiid and Jimmy Butler soaking up late-game touches -- to prove them wrong. Simmons can use this opportunity to gain some confidence and establish a base with which to work off of in the playoffs.

2. Make Al Horford a focal point of the offense

You could make the argument that as long as Embiid is out there, the Philadelphia 76ers are a full-throttled title contender. The Sixers were plus-143 with Embiid on the court last postseason, third-highest of any player last postseason. That’s the good news. The bad news is that they were minus-107 with him off the floor.

A gap that wide is basically unheard of in NBA postseason history. 

Even the most top-heavy teams aren’t that dependent on one player. Remember the LeBron James-led 2015 Cleveland Cavaliers squad that suffered injuries to Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love but still made it to the Finals? Here was the scoreboard with LeBron on the bench that postseason: Cavs 260, Opponents 260. An even score. Again, the Sixers were outscored by 107 points with Embiid riding the pine last postseason.

You need stars to win championships. But they can’t play every minute. The Sixers learned that the hard way last year, crumbling into pieces with Embiid going to the bench.

The Horford acquisition was supposed to change all that. And so far, so good. Embiid yet again has the best plus-minus on the team, registering a plus-133 in his minutes this season. But instead of bleeding points to the other team in Embiid-less minutes, the Sixers have stayed afloat, even narrowly outscoring opponents by seven points on the whole this season.

That might not seem worth celebrating, but that’s a remarkable achievement for the Sixers considering how much they’ve struggled to keep up without Embiid on the floor over the years. 

Here’s how the Sixers fare depending on Embiid’s presence since 2016-17:

Sixers with Embiid on and off court (Data: NBA)

2019-20: plus-133 on, plus-7 off
2018-19: plus-373 on, minus-152 off
2017-18: plus-486 on, minus-117 off
2016-17: plus-67 on, minus-534 off

Horford has seen better seasons, but that data alone should be seen as a huge win for Sixers GM Elton Brand and coach Brett Brown. The Sixers have at least stayed competitive without Embiid, which isn’t something they could have said in years past. Embiid’s backups last season were virtually unplayable in the postseason. Greg Monroe, Jonah Bolden and Amir Johnson were fixtures of the Sixers’ playoff rotation; only Bolden has played in the NBA this season and he has logged five minutes total.

The Sixers should approach this section of the season as solidifying their Embiid-less system to the point that they can tread water in the postseason. Brown has opted to keep Simmons and Horford paired together almost exclusively this season, a decision that should pay dividends come playoff time. You often hear that a team will only go as far its superstar will take them. But in the Sixers’ case, the opposite is true: They will only go as far as the non-Embiid minutes will take them.

3. Give Matisse Thybulle all the minutes he can handle

My two sleepers in the NBA draft were 23-year-old Brandon Clarke and 22-year-old Matisse Thybulle. These were two prospects whose stats and skills jumped off the screen at the college level, but they fell in the draft because, well, they weren’t teenagers. By draft standards, they were ancient.

And here we are. Clarke has been sensational for the surging Memphis Grizzlies and a perfect fit next to fellow rookie Ja Morant. And Thybulle? He’s ready. Yes, he’s a rookie and typically rookies don’t contribute at a high-level to championship contenders. But Thybulle is turning 23 years old in early March. The guy was born within four months of Jamal Murray, Lauri Markkanen and Bam Adebayo. He’s not your typical rook.

Thybulle is a special, special talent. He’s everywhere defensively. Right now, he’s averaging 3.7 steals per 100 possessions and 2.2 blocks per 100 possessions while playing 18.3 minutes per game. Here’s a list of players, via Basketball Reference, who have achieved those block and steal rates while averaging at least 15 minutes per game in a season: Michael Jordan, Kawhi Leonard, Gerald Wallace and Thybulle.

I loved seeing Brown insert him into the starting lineup on Wednesday night even though he had struggled with his shot since his knee injury. Thybulle has offensive limitations, but he’s a fast-break machine and a perfect co-pilot next to Simmons, who is at his best when he’s driving in the open court. Thybulle gives him the keys to ignition.

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

The three best Kevin Love trade destinations

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NBC Sports

The three best Kevin Love trade destinations

Kevin Love’s days in Cleveland appear to be numbered. The 31-year-old star forward has been the center of the rumor mill after reportedly being fined by the Cleveland Cavaliers for a Dec. 31 outburst on the bench and publicly challenging first-year head coach John Beilein with on-court, well, demonstrations. He has since apologized for what he characterized as “childish” behavior. Then, on Wednesday, things in Cleveland somehow got worse.

Love seems likely to move. The question is where?

Love’s contract seems to be the first roadblock. Suitors will have to absorb a deal that will pay Love an average of $30.5 million for another three seasons after this current one. For many, that’s a steep price to pay for a player on the wrong side of 30. Also, teams have to match Love’s current salary number of $28.9 million in any deal, either by bundling smaller deals together or swapping out an equally large salary. 

Love’s injury history could also give teams pause. He has missed 110 games over his last three-and-a-half seasons primarily due to issues with his left foot, left knee and back. These aren’t major injuries like a ruptured Achilles or a torn ACL, but they do add up.

Given these three conditions, the trade market for Love has cooled considerably. “There just aren’t many, if any, teams that see him as the piece that puts them over the top,” said one East executive. 

But Love has the skill level to be an effective player, even if he’s not as bouncy as he once was. After an up-and-down start, Love has re-established his status as one of the premier power forwards in the league. On the season, he is averaging 16.8 points, 10.2 rebounds and 2.9 assists while shooting 54.5 percent on 2s and 38.5 percent on 3s. And that’s without a veteran point guard to organize the offense.

Cleveland could still hold onto Love and revisit the trade market this summer, but that poses its own risks. Love could get hurt again and submarine his trade stock like it did last season when he missed 60 games. Things could fester in the locker room if the Cavs don’t turn things around; only the Knicks and Hawks have more 20-point losses than the Cavs. Love hasn’t publicly demanded a trade, but forcing an ugly exit can’t be out of the question amid Love’s very public frustrations.

At this point, it’s best for Cleveland and Love to part ways. So where will he go? Here are my best fits for Love ahead of the Feb. 6 trade deadline.

Portland Trail Blazers

To me, bringing the Portland native home is the most likely scenario. After inking Damian Lillard to a supermax extension this past summer, the injury-riddled Blazers are in danger of missing the playoffs for the first time since Lillard’s rookie season, a steep dropoff from last season’s Western Conference finals. As Yahoo! Sports’ Chris Haynes told me on last week’s Habershow podcast, this isn’t exactly what Lillard signed up for. 

At 16-22, the Blazers are desperate for bigs with Jusuf Nurkic (broken leg) still sidelined and Zach Collins facing potentially season-ending shoulder surgery. Carmelo Anthony, though he’s played admirably after a year away from the game, is not a long-term solution.

The Blazers are sitting on two lottery tickets that could go up in smoke if they aren’t used in the next month. Hassan Whiteside’s $27 million expiring contract and Kent Bazemore’s $19.3 million expiring contract can be traded for star players on teams that may be looking to clean up their cap sheet. 

Without max-level cap space this summer, a trade at or before the deadline is the Blazers’ only realistic option to acquire a third star-caliber player alongside Lillard and C.J. McCollum. It’s unclear if they want to make such a move, but executives around the league would be stunned if the Blazers don’t move at least one of those contracts to lock in a big-name player.

The Blazers could use Whiteside’s contract to go after former Blazers All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge, who has one year and $24 million left on his contract after his $26 million ticket in 2019-20. Or they could target Danilo Gallinari and his expiring $22.6 million contract as a rental, with the potential to keep Gallinari long term. 

But to me, Love is the most sensible choice for the Blazers. 

If the Blazers have title aspirations, they need to shore up their ball-movement issues and spacing. The Blazers currently rank dead-last in the NBA in assist percentage. Coincidentally, that’s also where the Blazers ranked in 2017-18 before an embarrassing first-round sweep at the hands of the New Orleans Pelicans. Love’s playmaking would be an ideal fit. The Cavs’ assist percentage has improved with Love on the floor in each of the last three seasons, per NBA.com.

Love can space the floor and free up the paint with his shooting, especially in the corners where he has converted over 40 percent of his attempts in three of the last four seasons. The UCLA product has a knack for fitting a crisp pass in tight spots in the high or low post. Though Nurkic isn’t as springy around the rim, Tristan Thompson has been Love’s top assist target this season, tied with Cedi Osman.

Lillard and McCollum could also benefit greatly from the attention that Love would garner in the offense, generating more open looks for sharpshooters and loosening up actions. This season, Darius Garland and Collin Sexton are shooting 44.4 percent on 3-pointers off of Love’s passes and just 32.5 percent on passes from all other teammates, according to pass tracking data on NBA.com

Love would provide a multi-dimensional lever for coach Terry Stott when things get bogged down in his pick-and-roll heavy offense. This season, Love has delivered 13 assists to Garland, a rookie point guard trying to find his way in the league. By contrast, Anthony has sent merely two assists to Lillard, one of the best superstars in the game. And we haven’t even talked about Love’s Wes Unseld-esque outlet passes that he’s been launching since he was a kid.

The Blazers could theoretically stand pat and stick with Collins as their starting power forward next season, a solid Plan B if the Blazers don’t go big-game hunting at the deadline or this summer. The Blazers may balk at adding Love’s contract considering they already owe about $300 million to Lillard and McCollum after this season; only the Golden State Warriors and Philadelphia 76ers have more money on the books after this season. But when you have star players in their prime, you have to break the bank.

Olshey has kept all of Portland’s future No. 1 picks in the treasure chest, something that on-the-cusp franchises like Dallas, Houston and Miami all lack. A package consisting of Whiteside, Portland’s 2019 first-round pick Nassir Little (still just 19 years old) and Portland’s 2020 lottery-protected first-rounder makes sense for both Portland and the rebuilding Cavs. In that situation, the Blazers would also hang onto top prospect Anfernee Simons and Collins, who just turned 22 years old and will be 25 when Love’s contract expires. 

Acquiring Love’s contract would hamstring the Blazers’ books. Lillard’s supermax salary balloons to $43.8 million in 2021-22 and Collins’ inevitable extension is looming as well, but small-market teams like Portland can’t be too picky about acquiring stars. 

Being on the playoff bubble should be a wake-up call for the Blazers. Nothing in this league is guaranteed. Adding Love would be costly, but the opportunity cost of not doing anything might be just as dangerous.

Toronto Raptors

Could Love be this year’s Marc Gasol? The Raptors went all-in last season and acquired the All-Star big man to load up for a title quest. Now, with Pascal Siakam establishing himself as a bonafide star next to Kyle Lowry, the Raptors could arm up again for a repeat run. 

The Raptors have two large expiring contracts in Serge Ibaka ($23.3 million) and Gasol ($25.6 million) to grease the transactional wheels, but moving Ibaka makes more sense with Gasol’s defensive skills serving as a complement to Love’s shortcomings on that end of the floor. If everyone’s healthy, a starting five of Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Siakam, Love and Gasol would be a formidable matchup for any of the other East powers.

It’s also become obvious that Toronto is in need of some additional offensive firepower. Already of the fiercest defensive teams in the NBA, allowing the second-fewest points per 100 possessions in the NBA, the Raptors are just 16th in offensive efficiency behind the Detroit Pistons. Any team that puts up a 76-point clunker in the NBA’s bucket-friendly environment needs to look in the mirror and evaluate some stuff (only Chicago has scored fewer in a game this season).

Also, like Portland, Toronto has the expiring deals to plop down in a trade and won’t have the cap space to acquire a star in free agency this summer. They also have promising talent that could appeal to Cleveland in 22-year-old O.G. Anunoby, stretchy Chris Boucher and undrafted stud Terrence Davis. Anunoby should be off the table in a Love deal, but a deal centered on Ibaka, Boucher and a heavily-protected first-round pick might get Cleveland interested.

Of course, Gasol’s health could complicate matters. The soon-to-be-35-year-old has been out for weeks with a hamstring injury and doesn’t appear to be ready to play anytime soon. His iffy status at his age could make Toronto nervous about pushing their chips to the middle again. The Raptors might also believe Siakam is better suited to play the power forward slot full-time, which would allow Anunoby to continuing blossoming at the wing. The Raptors have every reason to believe that; the Lowry-VanVleet-Anunoby-Siakam-Gasol lineup has scored a healthy 117.2 points per 100 possessions in their 11 games in action together, per NBA tracking.

The question is whether the Raptors trust Anunoby in the playoffs over the allure of Love (and the contract that comes with him). The Raptors have faced so many injuries this season that they may just pack it in and keep developing their blossoming group of young players. If Siakam and Gasol’s injuries linger, it’s not out of the question that they become sellers, not buyers, at the deadline. Barring an injury at the top of the East that cracks open the door wide open for Toronto, I don’t see the Raptors banging down the door to commit to Love long term. 

Phoenix Suns

The Suns have come back to Earth after a hot start that, even at the time, appeared unsustainable. Still, the Suns, sitting at 14-23 as of Thursday, are only two games of the eighth-place San Antonio Spurs, and Love could make sense as a change-of-scenery acquisition that punches the Suns’ first playoff ticket since the Steve Nash-Amar’e Stoudemire teams of the late 2000s.

Offensively, Love would be a fun fit next to Devin Booker. He would offer an immediate improvement for Phoenix in both 3-point shooting and rebounding, where the Suns rank in the lower-third of the league. Of course, putting Love and Booker on the court together could be a defensive fiasco, but the bottom of the West playoff picture is an absolute mess and after four straight miserable seasons in the NBA’s basement, owner Robert Sarver could get antsy and make a win-now decree from up on high. Signing Ricky Rubio to a three-year, $51 million isn’t something that rebuilding teams do.

Putting together a deal isn’t easy, but the Suns should try to hold onto Aron Baynes for some muscle up front and instead use Tyler Johnson’s expiring $19.2 million contract to get in the salary-matching neighborhood. Here’s the framework of a possible deal: Johnson, Frank Kaminsky, Mikal Bridges and a protected first-round pick to Cleveland for Love. Playing backup to Kelly Oubre, Bridges is an elite defensive prospect on the wing that would fit nicely next to Collin Sexton and Darius Garland.

The Suns are in a tricky spot this summer, because they’ll be able to carve out just over $25 million in cap space -- not enough to go big-game hunting but just enough to overpay for a smaller fish. Of course, many around the league see Love as just that. If reuniting Love with his former Timberwolves running mate Rubio helps the Suns end a near-decade-long playoff drought, it would be worth it.

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